Tears of Growing Up (by BluewindFarm)

Synopsis: An accident while breaking horses sets Joe and the family on a downward spiral as unfounded fears over rule common sense. And when tragedy again strikes upon the Ponderosa…will the family ever be whole?

Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western, prequel
Rating:  PG
Word Count:   40,200


 

 

On a ranch the size and complexity of the Ponderosa, the owner and his sons never took the attitude of sitting back and letting their hired hands do all the work. On any given day, Ben, Adam, and Hoss Cartwright could be found right in the thick of work, whether it was marking trees for felling, rounding up strays, moving the cattle or horse herds to different pastures, and even when it came to breaking the horses. Though Ben was long past the age where he should be in the saddle on a bucking horse, he left that work to those of age to take the beating. Hoss knew he was too big to do that kind of work, but there was still plenty of work to be done from the ground when it came breaking horses to be ridden. On weekends, the hands could be assured that by mid-morning, the youngest Cartwright son would be there to help, however best he could.

*****

Since the winter weather broke and spring finally announced its presence, Ben Cartwright had allowed his youngest son, Joseph, Little Joe to everyone who really knew him, to work alongside his brothers on the weekends, once his chores around the house and barn were completed. Ben had previously realized that the time had come for Joe to begin to learn what it took to work on the ranch they called home. During the previous month, Ben made sure that either Adam or Hoss were always close by to keep an eye on their little brother when they were out on the ranch and help guide him as he learned the skills that would eventually become second nature to him as he grew older.

The patriarch of the Cartwright family smiled during that morning’s breakfast as the whole family sat around the table, each member grinning as Joe eagerly discussed all that he expected to see happen while watching his older brothers working to break the horses that were scheduled for an anticipated delivery to the U.S. Cavalry during the summer months.

“Might be exciting for you, Shortshanks, but it’s a hard ride for older brother there,” Hoss Cartwright stated as he reached for two more pancakes that Hop Sing had just placed on the platter, hot from the griddle.

“I know, but still, to ride! To feel the power as the horse jumps and bucks!” Joe gleefully answered after he shoved a forkful of syrup-coated pancakes into his mouth.

“Joseph, don’t talk with your mouth full,” advised Ben as he sipped from his coffee cup. He couldn’t help smiling at the zest for life that Joe carried with each new day.

*****

Fourteen year old Little Joe and Ben stayed well away from the busy action within the corral as they watched Hoss and the wranglers prepare each horse for Adam or one of the others to break. Ben knew how dangerous it could be for one of the handlers to be distracted with questions asked by a youngster eager to learn. The horses strongly objected to the saddles being strapped onto their backs and it took at least three if not four hands to accomplish the feat. Encouraging the animal into the chute for the rider to climb aboard was always the most dangerous time for those on the ground, as well as the rider.

Joe sat upon the top rail assessing each ride or evaluating each horse and letting his Pa know what he thought. As the chute opened for the next horse to explode out from its confinement, he began rooting and shouting encouragement to his eldest brother to “Hang On!” or “You got ‘em Adam!” along with the others who were there working and watching until their help was needed again.

“Pa, look at ‘em! I’m gonna ride just like him!” an excited Little Joe exclaimed as Adam rode his fifth horse of the day to a standstill.

“When you’re old enough son,” Ben replied, smiling that his youngest wanted so much to be like his oldest.

“I know, Pa. I just can’t wait. Less than two more years, right? You said you’d let me try to break a horse when I was sixteen,” Joe answered; wanting to make sure his Pa remembered his promise.

“When you’re sixteen, and that you’ve matured enough to handle the physical demands that your body will be put through. Don’t forget ‘that’ part of the agreement,” Ben stated. Casting a glance towards his youngest and watching his shoulders slump and the wide grin fade from his face, he added, “Don’t worry, you’ll grow.”

“Will I Pa? Why do I have to be the youngest and so small?” Joe disheartedly asked as he slipped down from the rail to stand outside the corral.

Joe turned his back to the corral and pushed his hands into the front pockets of his pants, only stopping when this thumbs caught the edge of the seam.

Ben stepped closer to his son and compassionately slipped his arm around Joe’s shoulders, “Son, I’m thankful, you’ll always be my youngest… And, as I’ve explained before, your mother was a lot smaller than Adam’s and Hoss’ mothers. Each one of you takes so much after your own mothers…”

“But I’m your son too!” Joe interrupted; his voice broke up in pitch. “You’re big. Why can’t I be big like you?”

“Give it time son, you’re not through growing yet,” Ben smiled. He knew the break in his son’s voice had more to do with the onset of puberty than it did with his son being upset.

From the moment Joseph Francis Cartwright had made his presence known to his family, a month before his expected due date, he had always been small. The smallest baby Ben had ever held, the smallest child in not only his age group, but compared to children two years younger than he at school, and the smallest of the three that Ben Cartwright loved as his sons. Encouraging the boy to eat more didn’t do any good, his exuberance for life, constantly on the go, just burned it off.

Had anyone been watching the father and son instead of the action in the breaking corral, they would have immediately known the topic of the conversation and felt something pull at them had they truly known the youngest son of Benjamin Cartwright. The older, long established ranch hands did their best to protect the boy from the taunts they knew were cast his way from some of the newer hands, as he took care of his chores around the yard and barn. The hands who never were the youngest or the smallest… were the cruelest. Or if they had been taunted, they enjoyed giving back what they had received earlier in their lives, forgetting how much the taunts hurt when directed toward them.

“Come on… Back up on top. Looks like Rudy’s getting ready to ride the next horse,” Ben stated, hoping that watching the next few rides would brighten the boy’s spirit.

Little Joe forced a smile to his face, and Ben knew it was for his benefit; as a father, he regretted that the smile didn’t make it all the way to his son’s eyes. Standing on the bottom rail, with his arms folded across the top rail, Ben listened as his son cheered on Rudy’s ride, but without all the original gusto he had shouted earlier in the day.

“Give it time son, I promise, you’ll grow up. It’ll happen before you know it.” Ben thought to himself. “I can’t believe you’re already fourteen years old… That happened before I knew it.”

*****

The past year, Ben had had many conversations with his youngest trying to encourage him to enjoy his childhood, and not rush to grow up. But the conversations always ended with his youngest feeling more dejected. It particularly hurt Ben the previous fall, when it had been found that Joseph had again been attempting to do something that his father, as well as his older brothers considered far too dangerous for the young adolescent; Ben had been forced to punish him. It hurt him to know that this time words wouldn’t suffice, nor would restrictions, and he was left no other option but to take Joseph on a ‘necessary’ trip to the barn. Once punishment was administered, Ben tried to explain why and to say that regardless of what had happened, he did love him, but Joe cried as he ran away, “You just don’t want me to grow up! You just want me to stay a baby!” With tears falling down his own face, Ben sat in the barn and quietly asked, “How do I make him understand?” as he looked up, hoping someone would give him the answers.

“I take it he’s upset?” Adam asked as he casually rested against the door jam, left ankle crossed over the right, arms folded in front of his chest.

“Wouldn’t you be?” Ben retorted. Upset that his eldest son seemed too cynical towards his youngest brother’s attitude. “He just wants to be so much like you and Hoss.”

“But he needs to understand the only way he’s ever going to grow up to be ‘like us’ is if he follows your rules,” Adam stated as he stood straight, uncrossing his arms and legs. “He’s got to learn that for any action there are consequences.”

“I know that and he knows that,” gruffed Ben.

“Does he?” Adam stated as he walked across the barn floor and prepared to feed the horses for the evening. “Does he really know how much it petrified me to see him out there roping that bull? My God Pa!” Adam shook his head at the memory, his hand movements reinforced how finding his brother as he had, had upset him. “Thank God he didn’t have the dexterity to dally the rope around his saddle horn…”

“You have to admit that he got the bull on his first try,” Hoss stated as he too entered the barn; always there to defend his younger brother.

“Yeah, his first try, today. The fool kid didn’t even realize the danger he’d placed his horse in… What would you have done had his horse been injured or worse? Would you have gone ahead and given him the pinto you’ve been trying to convince Winnemucca to let you trade for? Give him the reward of the horse he’s always wanted? His horse Dusty was way too small to take on that bull!”

“It don’t matter, Adam. Winnemucca ain’t agreed to trade Pa for that pinto anyhow…” Hoss added.

“That’s beside the point!” Adam loudly announced, exasperated that his brother was trying to down play the severity of what had happened.

“Adam, that’s enough,” warned Ben.

“Pa, I don’t think so. He’s got to understand what it really means to work this ranch! He’s just turned fourteen and this is all a…. a game to him!”

That night, Ben had lain in bed unable to sleep. He knew Adam was right, but Joe… Adam’s growing up years had been so different, and so had Hoss’. Both his oldest sons had played a huge part in establishing and making the Ponderosa what it was today. Both had been far younger than Joe was as they worked beside their father, once they grew big enough. Joe’s life was so different. Ben was proud that his youngest child could enjoy his growing up years… That his childhood hadn’t been stolen from him… But… It was that night when Ben decided that come spring, on weekends, Joe would work with his brothers to learn the ranch. But… until that time, his chores around the ranch house and barn would be increased in difficulty and additional chores added to his duties.

*****

“Adam!” Ben called out to his eldest as his attention returned to the present. “It’s getting late!”

“Okay Pa!” Adam replied.

“This one’s gonna be the last one before lunch!” Hoss hollered back and gave a wave of his hand over his head in acknowledgement.

“Let ‘em rip!” Joe hollered, knowing that his Pa was still watching him. He’d thought that maybe, if he began behaving more like a grown-up, not just doing the stuff grown-ups did, but taking the time to think before he acted… Maybe his Pa would see him as grown up. So, with effort, he tried to display the excitement he had felt earlier as Adam braced against the first buck of the horse he was on. And as he tried to ‘act’ Joe found himself fully captured in the excitement of the moment, cheering and yelling with as much enthusiasm as he had earlier in the day.

A smile crossed Ben’s face when he heard the fevered pitch of his youngest, “Can’t keep you down, can we Joseph?”  Ben’s attention returned to the ride of his eldest, he had hoped by drawing attention to the time of day that Adam might decide put off his ride on this particular animal. Two previous riders, Rudy and Kincaid, had already been unceremoniously dumped hard to the ground and both had to desperately scramble away from the flailing hooves of the bucking animal as it displayed its displeasure at being in the pen and forced to endure humans upon its back.

Without warning, the horse changed its tactics during Adam’s ride. The ride began as before; the horse bucked close to the fence rail, weaving its way left and right as it tried to dislodge the burden from its back. But the last leap, when the horse launched itself into the air, it twisted and came down crashing through the boards, slamming Adam through the railings and to the ground. The horse scrambled to its hooves and continued bucking, infuriated to get the rest of the man made contraptions off its back.

“GET THAT HORSE OUT OF THERE!” Ben yelled as he climbed the railing and jumped down inside the corral, his eyes focused on his eldest lying prone on the ground, broken boards lying under and over him. Having no thought other than to get to his son, he ignored the frantic actions of the hands as one man opened the gate to the adjoining corral and the others maneuvered the still bucking animal away from the downed rider.

Hoss and Ben reached Adam at the same time, “Be careful Hoss!” warned Ben as Hoss began throwing aside broken boards.

“I am Pa, I am,” answered a nervous Hoss, but his words and his actions were meant to reassure his Pa.

From years of working with sick and injured animals, Hoss knew that keeping calm around them was the best way to keep them calm. Even though his pa wasn’t injured or exactly sick, he was sick with worry.

Gently examining his son who laid on his right side, his right arm above and behind his head, his left arm hung across his body, his left hand, bent at the wrist, lying palm up on the ground; Ben checked first for a pulse by putting his fingers where Paul Martin, the family’s physician, had shown him. Looking down at his son’s prone body, he didn’t notice any awkward angles of his son’s legs; his right leg was straight, slightly bent at the knee, while his left leg was bent just shy of a ninety degree angle at the knee as it rested over his right leg.

“He still has a pulse,” Ben stated.

“He’s got a head wound Pa, it ain’t bleedin’ too much,” Hoss answered. Then calling to one of the hands, “Cale, go get the buckboard! We need to get Adam to the house and the doc sent for!”

“I’ll get him Hoss!” Little Joe yelled, finally thinking and no longer frozen to his spot.

The adolescent swung his legs over the railing and jumped to the ground, racing to where their saddle horses stood tethered away from the corrals. Joe pulled the reins and while wheeling his horse around, he swung up into the saddle without his feet touching the stirrups.  Full of worry, he did not feel the saddle shift as his weight pulled the saddle off center. He spun his horse around, leaned forward, giving Dusty his head as he encouraged the animal to run for all he was worth, never bothering to put his feet into the stirrups.

“Cain’t feel no broken bones in his arms, Pa,” Hoss announced as his older brother continued to lie ominously still on the ground.

“His legs are fine,” commented Ben. “Let’s roll him onto his back so we can check his ribs. Gently!”

Once Adam was on his back, Ben regretted that his son was wearing a red shirt; it prevented them from readily seeing if there was any bleeding. With years of long practice, Ben unbuttoned his son’s shirt, letting out the breath he hadn’t realized he was holding in relief to see no open wound, but his son’s skin was already mottling and changing colors to indicate the severity of the blow he’d taken when slammed into and through the railing.

Ben patiently watched and waited while Hoss ran his fingers over Adam’s ribcage.

“I cain’t feel any broken, but I’m sure he’s gonna be sore and sportin’ a purdy bruise when he wakes up,” Hoss said with relief and a little bit of levity.

“Where’s that wagon?!” Ben worriedly asked as he looked up, anything to help distract the man from the severity of the situation in which they found themselves.

“They’ll be here, Pa. They gotta get to the barn, harness the team, and hitch ‘em to the wagon,” Hoss soothingly answered.

While looking for the wagon, Ben noticed that Joe was no longer on the top rail. Nervously, he looked to see where his youngest son might be, concerned how seeing his oldest sibling injured in such a manner was affecting the boy. They’d all witnessed riders thrown and nasty spills, but this one was particularly bad and Ben regretted his youngest had witnessed it and that as a father he was torn between the two sons he felt needed him the most.

“Joe! JOSEPH!” Ben yelled.

“He’s gone for the Doc,” Hoss answered as he positioned himself to keep the sun from shining in his brother’s face. “Charlie! Get me a canteen and a rag so’s I can wipe the blood from Adam.”

“Shore thing boss!” Charlie answered as he went to follow through with his boss’ instructions.

*****

Thirty minutes after the accident, the group of men gently lifted the still unconscious Adam from the ground and placed him in the back of the wagon for the slow ride back to the ranch house. Before leaving, Hoss instructed the men to leave off for the day, but tomorrow, he expected them to have the corral fencing rebuilt.

*****

At the house, Hop Sing anxiously awaited and prepared for the arrival of Number One son and his worried family. He knew from past experiences what the good doctor would need in order to tend to the injured man. Upon hearing horses and voices in the yard between the house and the barn, he hurried to open the door and made sure the pathway was clear as the men carried the still form of Adam Cartwright into the house and up the staircase.

Hop Sing waited until the others left the bedroom before he entered and gave a respectful bow to his employer.

“Water on to boil, towels prepared,” Hop Sing spoke in his stilted English. “He no wake?”

“No, he’s still unconscious,” Hoss answered as he elevated his brother’s upper body so their father could remove his shirt. Adam’s head rested forward on Hoss’ bicep before he gently lowered his brother’s upper body to lie flat on the bed.

Walking to the foot of the bed, and using great care, Ben removed his son’s boots and socks, while Hoss unbuckled his belt and slipped it from his waist.

A few moments later, Hop Sing re-entered the room, in his hands he carried a bowl and had several towels draped over his forearm.

“Warm water for bathing, make clean before honored doctor arrive,” instructed Hop Sing.

*****

No one counted the ticks of the clock as they tended to their family member and made him as comfortable as possible. No one had paid any attention to the passage of time as they waited for Paul Martin to make his presence known in the room; he knew his way around the house. Time drug interminably slow for those taking care of Adam Cartwright and hoping the doctor would soon arrive. As more time passed, all feared that the doctor had been out on a call and Joseph was waiting for his return before heading home.

“Uhhhh,” caused father and son to stop their ministrations.

“Adam?” Ben queried and hoped his son was gaining consciousness. He warned, “Keep still,” when Adam started moving his head from side to side.

“Arrrgh,” Adam groaned, his eyelids fluttering as he frowned, indicating the pain he was beginning to experience. He sighed heavily.

*****

Adam felt no warning from the horse, one moment the horse was bucking for all it was worth, the next moment Adam felt himself suspended in air and then falling. Briefly he felt pain, before… blackness.

He woke to the sounds of moaning close by and wished that someone would get the doctor to help whoever it was. As he lay there, he tried to remember why he was lying where ever he was and why his body wouldn’t respond to something that should have been so simple, like… opening his eyes. The longer he thought, the more he wanted to retreat back into the darkness of oblivion to escape the pain.

“Pain?!” thought Adam, “then… that must be me. Oohhh. I hope the doc’s on his way.”

As if from afar, he heard voices, but couldn’t make sense of anything they were saying, so he gave up trying and blissfully fell asleep.

*****

“SHERIFF!” Jenson Caruthers called as he spotted the man wearing a badge strolling along the boardwalk on his way back to his office in Virginia City. “SHERIFF!!”

The rider reined his horse to an urgent stop when the sheriff turned towards him.

“Well Jenson, been a long time since you visited our town. Your folks here?” Sheriff Coffee casually inquired after taking a few moments to recognize the young rider in front of him.

The Caruthers had moved to Placerville with Jensen, now barely into his teens, and his younger, eight year old sister. The family usually did all their shopping in that town, but occasionally, they came to visit old friends in Virginia City, especially during the spring time after months of not being able to travel any great distance.

“We got trouble, we need the doc!” Jenson breathlessly declared.

“What’s the trouble, son? Your folks or sister sick?”

“Uh… No, sir. We uh… found a b-body.”

“A body? Where?”

“About two… two and a half miles outside a town. Ma and Pa are staying with it,” Jensen stated. “He looks all busted up. Folks said I had to come fetch the doc.”

“Wait here and while you and your horse catch your breath, I’ll fetch the doc and you can show us where this body is.”

Within half an hour, Sheriff Roy Coffee, Doctor Paul Martin, and Jenson Caruthers arrived back at the location where his parent’s buckboard and team stood. Jenson’s sister sat on the bench seat playing with her doll.

“Mr. Caruthers?!” hollered Sheriff Coffee. “Mrs. Caruthers?!”

“Wilma is over there with the boy,” Carlton Caruthers called as he stepped to the road. “Looks like the boy got throw’d from his horse, horse probably stumbled… I got it tied over there, in the creek trying to reduce the swelling in its fetlock. I was just checking on it when you came up.”

Doc Martin extended his hand and greeted Carl Caruthers, who was in his late thirties, skinny, with hard weathered skin from years of working out in the elements.

“Jens, you tie your horse over there and go keep an eye on the boy’s horse.”

“Pa, is he dead?” Jenson asked, in typical youth fashion as he looked to where the ‘body’ had been found.

“No, he isn’t dead, but he’s hurt bad. Now do as I say.”

“Yes, Pa,” answered the boy as he jumped down from his horse and tied him to the back of the family buckboard.

The men walked over to where Wilma Caruthers sat beside the unconscious youth; bathing his face with a damp cloth.

“Dear Lord,” Roy breathed as he looked over the physician’s shoulder and recognized Doc’s patient.

“Wilma, has he regained consciousness since you found him?” Doc Martin asked the heavyset woman, with deep blue eyes and long black hair, braided down her back that stopped at her waist; as he knelt down next to the still form of the boy lying on the ground.

“Not really, but he keeps mumbling about needing you, gotta get you for someone named Adam,” the woman answered.

“That would be his oldest brother, this is Joe Cartwright,” replied Doc as he began to examine his patient. “Oh Joe, what did you go and do this time?” Doc casually asked in a rhetorical manner, not expecting any answer.

“Gotta get Doc… Adam hurt,” mumbled Joe.

“One Cartwright at a time boy, one of you at a time.”

Sheriff Coffee asked Carlton to step aside so they could talk.

“How’d you find him?” Roy asked.

“First, we spotted his horse limping along, saddle askew’d, hanging off the side. I got it in the back of the wagon. It were little Jenny who seen the boy, she pointed to the boot lying outta the tall grass. I got down and that’s when I found him, ain’t moved him. Not knowing what kinda injuries he mighta took.”

“I’m sure you did the right thing,” Sheriff Coffee stated, hoping to relieve any concern the man had about not doing anything more for the boy.

“Doc said that’s Joe Cartwright, related to Ben?” Carlton asked.

“His youngest.”

“I don’t remember much about the boy; it’s been what… ten years since Marie got killed?

“Almost. Doesn’t seem possible that that much time has passed since her horse stumbled and threw her. I’m praying right now I don’t have to give the same bad news to that boy’s father. Ben’s had enough grief in his life. He don’t need no more.”

“I agree with you there, Roy.”

Doc Martin called, “Roy?!”

“Yeah, Paul?”

“Could you help me a moment, I think it’s okay to move the boy to the wagon. Carlton, would you mind helping to transport him to the Ponderosa?”

“I don’t guess we’d mind. Ben was always good to us when we lived nearby,” Carlton answered.

“How is he?” Roy asked.

“More unconscious than anything; he’s still mumbling about Adam when he comes semi-conscious.”

“I take it that’s why you want to take him to the ranch instead of to town?”

“That’s exactly why. Even though my office is closer, if Adam’s been hurt, I can treat both of them at the same time.”

The two friends gently lifted the unconscious youth and placed him in the back of the wagon.

“Well, I’ll go see to Little Joe’s horse. Tell Ben I took the animal back to town and will have him at the livery. They can tend to the horse, ‘sides it would be easier if it didn’t have to go all the way back home, as lame as Carlton said it is.”

“Will do.”

*****

“Oh Joe, what did you go and do this time?” Joe heard.

“I didn’t do anything. I wanted to help, to help Adam. Someone needed to go fetch Doc!”

“But you done did more than that, didn’t ya,” he heard in his mind in Hoss’ voice.

“Hey boy, best watch out, there’s real work to do out here and someone your size is bound to get hurt,” called one of the ranch hands who rode by as he looped his lariat.

“Yeah, maybe we can practice roping calves by roping the runt there,” another cowboy taunted.

“Leave the hosses to us,” said a third.

“But I can help! I can ride!”

“Sorry, Little Joe, maybe when you grow up,” Joe heard said in Adam’s voice. “It’s too dangerous for you to be out here now. These horses are far too dangerous… far too dangerous.”

“But I gotta ride, gotta get help… get help for ya.”

“Far too dangerous. Horses are far too dangerous,” continued to echo in his mind.

*****

The front door to the massive ranch house opened to the sounds of horses and a wagon arriving.

“Thought you were honorable doctor arriving. Sorry, but Cartwrights no have time for visitors,” Hop Sing announced as he walked towards the wagon.

“Hop Sing, can you help me?” Doc Martin called from the back of the wagon.

“What Doctor do in back o…” Hop Sing started to ask, but stopped when he saw Number Three son picked up and carried towards the house.

“We think he got thrown from his horse. Is Adam here?”

“Mr. Adam upstairs, hurt, thrown from horse, no wake,” Hop Sins replied. “Number Three son go find you. How hurt boy?”

“Probably the same shape as his brother,” answered Paul Martin.

As they carried the semi-conscious youth into the main room, Ben urgently called for Doc Martin hoping to hurry him to tend to his eldest. Ben stopped at the top of the staircase when he saw his youngest being carried in.

“Joseph!” Ben gasped.

“He’s taken a fall, Ben. Let’s get him to his room. Then I want to look at Adam since it seems that he was the first one injured.”

“Adam tried to regain consciousness about a half hour ago. We can’t find anything broken, but he won’t wake up,” Ben announced as he preceded the doctor carrying his youngest into the boy’s bedroom.

“Hop Sing said Adam was thrown?”

“He was working an ornery horse, it bucked, twisted, and came down with Adam crashing through the fence rails,” Ben briefly describe what had happened.

After lying the youth on his bed, Doc Martin stated, “Hop Sing, if you wouldn’t mind, strip the boy so I can do a proper examination, and if he needs…”

“I’ll do that,” Ben sorrowfully stated as he sat on the edge of the bed beside his youngest.

“I bathe dirt from body of Number Three son. He be ready when you come,” Hop Sing stated as he bowed and left to begin preparations for more hot water and towels.

In Adam’s room, Doc was pleased to see Adam’s eyes opening.

“So… now that I’m here, you decide to wake up,” teased Doc Martin as he set his black bag on the table beside Adam’s bed.

“Wake up? I wish that… I had slept,” Adam grimaced.

“Other than that, how do you feel?”

“Hurts to breathe,” hitched Adam as he abruptly stopped inhaling the deep breath he had tried to take.

“What about your head?”

Adam raised his hand to feel the lump on his head, “Yeah… that too.”

“Do you remember what happened?” Paul asked.

“It’s fuzzy… Don’t think… I rode… that horse. I was… thrown.” The way Adam spoke, it wasn’t quite a statement nor was it an obvious question; as he had no choice but to allow the doctor to examine him.

“You weren’t thrown, older brother, might abeen better had ya, though. You rode that horse all the way to the ground,” teased Hoss, thankful his brother was awake, recognizing people, and could talk coherently, even if it was labored.

“Ow! Doc!” declared Adam as Doc prodded an especially tender location long his right ribcage.

“Sorry, but this is necessary.”

“I know,” Adam stated, regretting his pain-filled exclamation.

“Well, I think you’ll survive a little while longer without me tending to your ribs. I need to go do a proper examination of your little brother.”

“Joe!” Hoss exclaimed, followed only a moment later by Adam’s query about their brother.

“What’s wrong with Shortshanks?” a now worried Hoss asked.

“He was thrown from his horse; I believe he was on his way to town to get me. Thankfully he didn’t get thrown into any fence railing. He’ll probably wake up with a bad headache and be no worse for wear. Maybe a sprained ankle,” Paul Martin assured the brothers. “Hoss you stay here with Adam, I’ll send your father in so I can tend to my second patient.”

*****

Doc Martin stepped into the bedroom of the youngest Cartwright to see his father and the family’s housekeeper and guardian angel, bathing the stripped boy as he lie on his bed.

“How’s Adam?” Ben asked when he heard Paul say, “Let me see him, Ben.”

“Adam’s going to be quite sore for a few days, maybe a week or so, probably experience some headaches too. It’ll take longer for his ribs to mend, but nothing’s broken. Probably just like this youngster. I gave Joe a cursory exam earlier, but I’d like to do a more thorough exam. Why don’t you go sit with Adam and Hoss… I told them briefly about Little Joe.” Seeing the worried father giving no inclination to follow through with his suggestion, Doc stated, “Ben, please… don’t make me order you from this room. I’ll let you know the minute I’m through examining him.”

Looking his long-time friend in the face, Ben reluctantly rose from the bed, “I’ll be in Adam’s. room. I want to know the minute you find anything.”

“You will Ben, you will.” Paul shook his head as Ben left the room. “Hop Sing, if you wouldn’t mind, I could use your help.”

“Doctor need my help?” Hop Sing curiously asked.

“I didn’t want to say anything in front of Ben, until I was positive. I want a real good look at the boy’s lower left leg.”

“Gotta get Doc… Adam… hurt,” mumbled Joe as he regained some awareness.

“Lit’le Joe lie still. Doctor already help Adam, now Doctor help you,” Hop Sing soothingly spoke.

“No! I can ride! Gotta get Doc!” Joe began to thrash his arms and legs around and voiced louder. “I have to, please?!” he cried as if begging.

“Hop Sing!” Doc stated, but turned his attention back to his patient when he heard the obvious snap of what he earlier feared had been a severely sprained ankle, now became the a reality of a broken leg.

“My bag, Hop Sing! The ether!” ordered Doc as Joe cried out in pain, still thrashing around, while the doctor tried to restrain him, to prevent him from doing any additional damage to his leg.

“Boy get sick,” the faithful servant stated, but complied.

Paul Martin, hurriedly answered, knowing he had no alternative. “I don’t have a choice. Something has him upset and I need to calm him down so I can tend to him. I can’t have him thrashing around.”

It only took a few moments with a cotton ball soaked with ether held under his nose before Joseph Cartwright stopped struggling and fell into a drug-induced sleep.

Half an hour later, after administering four stitches into the boy’s scalp, and having set the broken leg, securing it with splints formed from rolled up newspaper, Doc Martin stepped from the room and closed the door behind him. Taking a deep breath, the physician walked down the hallway to the room of his first Cartwright patient.

“How is Joseph?” “How’s Joe?” “Doc?” were voiced at the same time as the doctor entered the room. It was easy to know who said what from having known the personalities of the three men for years.  All three had heard the yells from the youth and fought against racing into the boy’s room; and possibly taking the doctor’s attention away from where it was needed.

“Well, he’s not as well off as I had hoped,” seeing the immediate reaction to his poor choice of words he promptly continued, “But he will make a full recovery. Ben, both your boys have suffered concussions today, Joe’s is probably a little stronger than the one Adam suffered, and I suggest they spend the next forty-eight hours in bed, sleeping or sitting upright, as long as they can handle it. I don’t want them up and walking about… Well, at least I don’t want Adam up and walking about until any and all dizziness subsides.”

“What’s that supposed to mean,” demanded Ben.

“Joseph won’t be getting up and walking around on his own…UNTIL his leg mends. I thought the ankle was only sprained when I first examined him out on the road. Unfortunately, it was a fracture, and when he was regaining consciousness, he was still worried about Adam and thrashing about. While trying to restrain him, he fought us and in the process, the leg did break.”

“How bad?” asked Adam.

“It’s not a compound fracture, but both lower leg bones were broken. Once I bind your ribs Adam, I’m going to go back to town to get some proper splints in hopes of better stabilizing the leg.”

“You mean he’s over there without anythin’ keepin’ his leg together? What if he wakes,” asked Hoss.

“Hop Sing suggested it to me; I used rolled newspapers and secured three, one each on the outer and inner side and behind his calf. However, I don’t really want to return to town until I’m certain he comes out of the anesthesia okay.”

“You gave… him ether?” Adam asked, or dared to demand how the doctor could have done that. The whole family knew how Joe’s body reacted to the chemical.

“That’s why I’m staying here until he wakes. I want to make sure he doesn’t injure himself any further when he gets sick after coming around. And even without the use of ether, he’d probably be sick from the concussion and the stitches.”

“Stitches, what for?!” Ben interrupted.

“Only four stitches, Ben. Evidently, his hat didn’t stay on during his fall and when he hit the ground, his head must have struck a rock or a stone. His skull is NOT fractured, which leaves me to believe that it was a small rock.”

“But he’s gonna be alright? Ain’t he Doc?” Hoss asked.

“Give him a week and he’ll be causing you so much grief, begging and pleading to get out of bed. Don’t worry. Now, Ben, I know you’d probably like to go sit with your youngest, why don’t you go while I bandage Adam’s ribs. You too, Hoss.” As the two Cartwrights stood to leave the room, Doc warned, “If he starts coming around, call me. And for heaven sake, if he starts thrashing around, retrain him as best you can.”

“Will do, Doc,” Hoss was the only one who stopped to listen to heed the doctor’s advice.

“Doc… I’ll be fine,” Adam tried to insist. “Joe… needs you… more… than I do. I can… lie here… and keep still.”

“I’d feel a whole lot better with regards to your breathing if you allow me to do my job and bandage you.” Doc gave a warning glare to his patient.

Adam closed his eyes and tilted his head forward in acquiescence.

*****

Ben and Hoss entered Joe’s bedroom to find the boy still asleep.

“Doctor take good care of Lit’le Joe, he tell me what to do, when to do,” Hop Sing stated as he finished straightening out the blankets that covered his charge.

“Thank you, Hop Sing, for helping Paul with Little Joe,” Ben stated as he placed a hand on the Oriental’s shoulder, “we kept you pretty busy today.”

“Hop Sing busy all time, family need Hop Sing. Family need eat. I go fix coffee and sandwiches.”

“Eatin’ sure sounds good Hop Sing,” Hoss stated at the mention of food.

“Then, I fix meal…” Hop Sing stated.

“Na, just sandwiches is fine. Don’t think I could eat one of your meals right now anyway,” admitted Hoss.

“Be back, you sit,” Hop Sing ordered. “Keep eye on Number Three son, if wake, call for doctor.”

“We will, Hop Sing. Thank you,” Ben stated as he pulled a chair closer to Joe’s bed and sat down.

“He’s gonna be okay Pa. Nothin’ keeps Shortshanks down for long,” Hoss stated as he sat on the trunk at the foot of Joe’s bed.

*****

“Horses are dangerous,” Joe heard in his head.

“Hey boy! Get away from those horses, they’re dangerous!” another voice called.

“Sorry Shortshanks, but Dusty is too dangerous for ya to ride,” Joe heard stated in Hoss’ voice.

“But I’ve ridden him ever since I got too big for Star,” Joe pleaded.

“I’m sorry, but ya can’t ride ‘em no more. He’d throw’d ya and hurt ya. Ya wouldn’t want to make Pa unhappy by ya being hurt now, would ya?” again Hoss’ voice asked.

“But I can ride him! You said I was a natural, even Momma said I was a good rider. She was a good rider,” Joe pleaded.

“And see what it got her? She ‘was’ a good rider,” Adam’s voice entered the conversation.

“But I can ride!”

“They’re too dangerous!” multiple voices started calling out to Joe, taunting him saying the same phrase over and over, again.

“Pa, please?! I can ride,” Joe begged. “Let me ride. Dusty wouldn’t hurt me.”

“He already has. How many times have we warned you that horses are dangerous?” thundered Ben’s voice.

Joe looked up and saw his Pa standing there, tears falling down his face. His pa looked old…

*****

“Pa, please?! I can ride,” mumbled Joe as he started to regain consciousness. “Let me ride. Dusty wouldn’t hurt me.”

“Hoss, go get Paul,” Ben stated. He stood up from the chair and sat on the edge of the bed, close to his son.

“I gotta get Doc. Adam needs Doc. Please let me ride. Please, I gotta go…” pleaded Joe as he struggled between the dark abyss and waking.

Tears began falling from the corners of Joe’s eyes as he pleaded to ride, continuing to call out that he needed to get the doctor for his oldest brother.

“Joseph, Shhhhh. You’re home, you’re safe. Doc’s here treating Adam,” praying that Joe would calmly wake. Ben kept his hands on his son’s shoulders in a gentle, restraining manner. “Come on son, open your eyes.”

Little Joe didn’t respond to his father’s loving commands as he continued to fight the mental images and voices that wouldn’t leave him alone. His mental fight turned physical as near hysteria consumed him, he tried to get across his desire and ability to ride only to be drowned out by everyone else’s overbearing words that horses were dangerous.

As Doc Martin entered the room, he instructed Hoss to make sure he kept Joe’s legs restrained. “It’s not so bad if he thrashes around with his head and upper body, but I want to keep that leg still.”

“Nooooo,” cried Joe, shifting his head from side to side as Ben again tried to wake him, taking the boy’s wrists in his hands to prevent him from striking out.

“Come on son, you’re okay. Adam’s okay. You don’t need to worry about going for Doc Martin any more. He’s here.” Ben gently, but firmly started patting Joe’s cheeks, hoping to bring the boy to full wakefulness.

“Keep it up, Ben. He’s coming around. His eyelids are fluttering… That means he’s fighting the last effects of the ether,” Paul encouraged.

“Come on Shortshanks, ol’ Hoss here wants to see those green eyes of yours,” encouraged Hoss, who stood beside the foot of his brother’s bed, allowing the physician and their father to tend to the youth.

“Pa? Please…” Joe cried as his eyes fluttered open, appearing unfocused.

“I’m here son. I’m here. Just open your eyes. Pa’s here.”

“Pa?” Joe said as he eyes opened wider. “Pa? Where… What…” His agitation slowly settled down as he recognized the people who stood around him, and that he was at home in his own room.

“You’re home son. Doc Martin brought you home,” Ben sat back and breathed a sigh of relief.

“Adam!” Joe exclaimed and tried to sit up.

The dizziness that Doc Martin predicted hit Joe at the same time his body reacted to the ether. Hop Sing, having been through post-ether effects with the youngest Cartwright on several occasions was prepared and standing near with a basin when the boy lost the contents of his stomach.

Laying over the edge of the bed, Joe continued to retch and heave, his body broke out in a drenching sweat as he fought a losing battle to control the convulsions overwhelming his body. The boy knew his father was the one rubbing circles on his back and speaking gentle words of comfort.

Joe was just about to sit up, when a more violent batch of heaves struck, heaves that produced nothing because his stomach was already empty, empty of any food or bile.

When he finally could relax across his father’s knee, someone began wiping his face and around his mouth and nose with a wet cloth as his head still hung off the side of his bed.

“Gentle breaths son, you’re doing fine. You’ve been through this before,” Doc Martin spoke as he cleaned the young boy’s face. “I don’t think it’s a good thing for you to sit up on your own, so your Pa and I’ll help you lie back down on your back. Okay?”

“Uh huh,” Joe stated, not wanting to nod his head.

“Okay, just relax Joe. Keep your eyes closed. Let your Pa and I do all the work.”

As the two men positioned the boy upon his bed, Hop Sing quietly exited the room to dispose of the contents in the basin.

“That wasn’t so bad, was it?” Doc stated, hoping to give the boy encouragement that he was going to be fine.

When Joe didn’t answer, Ben grew concerned, “Joseph?”

“Pa,” Joe whispered as the tears continued to stream down the sides of his face.

“Are you in pain, son?”

Ben saw the barely perceptible nod.

“I’ll give you some laudanum, it’ll help with the pain and it’ll make you want to sleep,” stated Doc Martin.

“’kay,” whispered Joe as he opened his mouth to take in the medicine the doctor poured into the spoon; the taste caused him to grimace, “Blaagh.”

“That’s a good boy,” Ben stated as he pushed his son’s bangs from his forehead. “Sleep Joseph, I’ll be here when you wake.”

“I’ll leave the bottle here, Ben. Give him another teaspoon full each time he wakes for the next twelve hours. See how he’s doing before you give him any more in the morning, but no more than one teaspoon every four hours. Keep this one flat on his back until I return, I was right in my original assessment that his concussion is more severe than the one Adam sustained. I have a full schedule tomorrow, but should be able to make it out late afternoon to check on these two. And I’ll bring proper splints for his leg.”

“Thanks, Paul. Thank you.”

“You’re welcome old friend, you’re welcome. Don’t worry, I’ll see myself out.”

*****

Doc Martin wearily walked down the steps, pausing at the middle landing to stretch his back.

“How are they Doc?” Carlton Caruthers inquired.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t realize you folks were still here. Both boys will ultimately make a full recovery. They should expect a few rocky days ahead, but they’ll be fine.”

“That’s good to hear. Well, you’ll let Ben know we wish them well and we’ll be praying for a speedy recovery,” the man stated as he and his family followed the doctor out of the house.

“I’ll be back later tomorrow, and I’ll let Ben know. And again, I want to extend a heartfelt thanks to all of you for helping out as you did.”

“Weren’t nothing.”

“I didn’t get to see no dead body,” Jenson mumbled as he climbed onto the wagon, turned around and helped his sister into the back.

“Weren’t no dead body to see, so you just watch your mouth, young ‘en,” Carlton chastised his son as he helped his wife to her seat, before following her up. “Make sure Spats there is still tied on securely.” After picking up the reins and encouraging their team on, Carlton yelled back, “See ya Doc!”

Doc Martin walked over and untethered his horse from the hitching rail and wearily climbed into the saddle.

*****

The sun had set when Hoss slowly stood from the settee in front of the fireplace after hearing someone knock on the front door. Walking to the doorway he tried to erase the weariness from his body, not quite succeeding as he opened the door.

“Charlie, is everythin’ alright?” Hoss asked upon seeing their foreman standing outside the door, hat in hand. “Come on in.”

“The men were wondering how Adam is?” Charlie stated.

“He’ll be laid up a few days, Doc confirmed nothin’s broken.”

“That’s good.” Shuffling his feet he said, “Uh…”

“Yeah, Charlie?”

“Um… Thought you might like ta know there’s good reason he ain’t hurt worse than he was… I… Uh…”

“Never known you to be tongue tied,” teased Hoss.

“Well, I know you gave us the rest of the day off, but I… I stayed at the corral after the others left and looked it over… ya know, to get an idea of all we’d need in order to repair it… I… Uh… Shucks Hoss, I’ll just come out and say it. Them two hands we, meaning me, hired last fall to rework the breaking corrals, seems they didn’t do the job, least not as good as they shoulda. It’s my fault for not checking their work. I’m sorry Boss.”

“Whatcha talkin’ about?” Hoss inquired.

“Well, to tell you the truth, they only used a few nails to secure the railings to the posts, and painted over them… and the posts… they’s the same ones as before. They were still weakened at the base… No wonder everything gave like it did when that horse and Adam slammed into it.” It was obvious that Charlie was feeling guilty for hiring men to do a job that had not been properly completed, and that he had failed to verify the quality of their work. “Ya can dock my pay for it.”

“There won’t be any docking of any pay,” Ben voiced from the middle landing of the staircase.

Both Charlie and Hoss to turned to look towards Ben.

“Charlie, consider it providence. Think on this… Had the fence been properly reinforced and repaired, after all the years of standing in the weather… Adam could have been critically injured today. His ribs could have been broken and his lung punctured… No Charlie, this time your inattention to detail is most forgiven.” Ben changed his tone, “But don’t ever let it happen again. I might not be as forgiving next time.” There was no animosity, just a father’s smile that his son was going to be okay, knowing that it could have been a lot worse.

“Unless one of us is spared injury,” mumbled Hoss, only loud enough for Charlie to hear him.

“Th-thank you Mr. Cartwright. I’ll let the others know about Adam, and that no slacking off will be tolerated… from anybody.” Charlie turned to leave, but stopped, “Oh… One of the men said Dusty wasn’t in the barn… I presume Joe left Dusty in town and might a come back in Doc’s buggy?”

“Charlie, Joe never made it to town. Seems he got thrown from Dusty, somehow Doc found him on the road, and…” Hoss stopped, “Pa, how’d Doc find Joe and get him here anyways? I saw him ride his horse out of here.”

Ben had stepped to where the two men stood talking, “I don’t know… I honestly don’t remember, I thought I heard a wagon and horses arrive, so I left Adam’s room and from the top of the stairs I saw Joe being carried in…”

“We can ask Doc tomorrow when he comes to check on them brothers of mine.”

“Is he okay?” Charlie asked. “Do you know what happened? How he got thrown?”

Scratching at the back of his head, Ben stated, “Guess there’s a lot that we don’t know. But the good news is, Joe’s going to be fine, only not as quick to mend as Adam. His left leg is broken and a few stitches to his head. But he’ll be fine.”

“That’s good to hear,” Charlie offered, he knew it was time for him to leave the house and the family to their concerns. “I’ll let the men know.”

After seeing their foreman out, Hoss inquired if Ben wanted him to sit with Joe for the first half of the night.

“No son, you had a long day too. Why don’t you go on to bed and I’ll wake you later.”

“I’ll hold you to that, Pa. With both Adam and Joe down, I don’t need you making yourself sick trying to take care of both of them. Like Doc said, they’ll be fine. Good night, Pa.”

“Alright . Good night, son.”

*****

Before going to bed, Hoss managed to bring a more comfortable chair into Joe’s room for when he and his pa sat watch over the youngest. A gesture that Ben fully appreciated as he slightly dozed, not allowing himself to fully sleep for when Joe woke. The grandfather clock downstairs chimed one o’clock, waking Ben. With the faint light from the lantern lit on the far side of the room, Ben saw that his son was still asleep. He stood, stretched his back, and left the room to wake Hoss as promised.

Ben never had the chance to open the door to Hoss’ room when screams indicating a nightmare came from his youngest son’s room. Whirling around, Ben returned to comfort his scared son, as he entered his son’s room, he heard the unmistakable sounds of Hoss getting out of bed and scrambling across the hall, too.

“Joseph, it’s okay. Come on, wake up,” Ben crooned.

“No! No it’s not! Adaaam! Please!” Joe cried, arms flailing, hands balled into fists.

“Hoss, hold his leg,” ordered Ben, feeling his middle son’s weight on the bed.

“Got ‘em Pa. Easy there Shortshanks,” Hoss softened.

“Pa! Please! No, you can’t! Hosssssss!”

Raising his son into his arms, Ben continued to comfort his son in hopes of waking him from his nightmare.

“Pa?” Adam called from the doorway, leaning heavily against it.

“Adam, Doc said you weren’t to get out of bed yet,” cautioned Ben.

“But, Joe…”

“He’ll be alright as soon as he wakes,” Ben answered.

“P-Pa?” Joe whispered as he came awake.

“Yes, Joe. It’s Pa.”

“What?” Joe asked as he pushed himself back from his Pa and looked to see one brother holding his legs and the other leaning against the doorjam to his room.

“You had a nightmare, son.”

“A night…mare… I…” Joe said as he continued to look around his room. “Pa…”

“You okay little buddy?” Adam asked.

“I think so… Hey you look a little funny,” Joe said after Hoss turned up the wick of the lantern, allowing it to brighten the room.

“Come on, older brother. Let’s get you back to bed before you collapse and do some real damage to yourself,” teased Hoss.

“Pa, is Adam okay? I got the doc in time?” Joe queried after watching his two brothers leave.

“Adam is going to be fine in a few days. Though it will take his ribs a while longer to heal.”

“Did he break…”

“Thankfully, he didn’t break any ribs, just sorely bruised. But you…”

“What about me? Ow…” Joe groaned as he finally lay back in bed and attempted to get comfortable. “My leg.”

“I’m afraid you broke your leg son… Doc has it set using temporary splints, he didn’t have any proper splints; he’ll be back tomorrow afternoon to set it right.”

“I broke my leg? How’d I do that?” Joe asked as he tried to look under the covers to see his leg.

“None of that right now, lie still. Don’t you remember what happened…”

Joe sat in contemplation, his face contorted and softened as he remembered.

“Dusty tripped and…”

“And what,” encouraged Ben.

“My saddle slipped. I’m sorry Pa, I didn’t check my cinch before I…” Joe’s words rushed quickly out of his mouth. “I had to get Doc, Adam was hurt. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it. Dusty didn’t hurt me on purpose. Ya gotta believe me. Please?”

“I know he didn’t hurt you on purpose, son. And I’m not upset with you…”

“But…”

“Joseph, it was an honest oversight. You had to be scared after witnessing your brother’s fall, and you knew how important it was to get Doc Martin.”

“But, if I fell… How…”

“Those questions will have to wait until Paul returns tomorrow afternoon. Now, do you want to talk about your nightmare?”

“I… um… I don’t… It’s all gone. I don’t remember, Pa,” Joe answered, hoping that his pa wouldn’t see the truth.

“Adam’s settled,” Hoss stated as he came back into the room. “How’s his leg Pa, he didn’t injure himself again, did he?”

“Joseph, I want you to lie right there while I check your leg, okay?” Ben asked.

“Okay,” Joe quieted.

A few moments later Ben stated that he didn’t think any further damage had been done when Joe fought his nightmare.

“Hoss, bring the bottle of laudanum over here, Doc said to give you some when you woke.”

After watching his father administer the medication to his younger brother, and made the face that was so Joe; Hoss stated, “Now that that’s done, that means you go get some sleep. I’ll take next watch,” and he crossed his arms and waited for his pa to leave the room.

“You’re sure you’re okay, Joe?” Ben asked. And when his son nodded, he bid them both good night.

Once the door was closed, Joe asked his brother to turn down the lantern so he could sleep, again.

The room dimmed and Joe heard Hoss settling himself into the chair, within minutes he heard soft snores emanating from Hoss; a far cry from his snoring when lying flat on his back. But as more time passed, sleep eluded Joe and he remembered his dream vividly. The hands taunting him about his stature, and this brothers and father telling him horses were dangerous. After all, it was a horse that killed his mother, and here he was in bed with a broken leg because of Dusty. Tears slipped from his eyes as he muffled his sobs into his pillow. He kept trying to convince himself that it wasn’t true, that horses, the animals he knew to be so majestic… They wouldn’t, couldn’t possibly mean to deliberately hurt him. But over and over again he remembered hearing, “Horses are dangerous, you will get hurt.”

*****

The morning sun was just peeking over the horizon when Hop Sing opened the door and smiled at the middle Cartwright son slumped uncomfortably in the big chair. The faithful servant looked to the youngest son and saw the dried trails of tears on the boy’s face and the puffy eyelids, evidence the boy had been crying.

“Mister Hoss, you wake,” Hop Sing spoke as he gently shook the gentle giant.

“Huh? Hop Sing… Joe okay?” Hoss asked, pulling himself straight in the chair.

“Boy still sleep. Breakfast ready soon. Wake you, wake your father. You wash and shave for morning. I take care of Lit’le Joe.”

When Hoss was out of the room, Hop Sing poured water from the pitcher into the basin, carried the bowl to beside the bed, and began to wipe the sleeping boy’s face.

“Pa?” Joe mumbled as Hop Sing’s ministrations woke him.

“Father wake soon. I come see you, see you cry…”

“I’m not crying,” Joe snapped.

“Not now, but you did. What wrong with Lit’le Joe? Leg hurt? That why you cry? You tell Hop Sing.”

“I’m fine Hop Sing. It did hurt earlier, but Pa gave me the medicine.”

“How’s our patient this morning, Hop Sing?” Ben asked as he stepped into the room, tying a green bandana around his neck.

“I’m fine Pa,” Joe answered.

“Are you feeling pain from your leg?” Ben inquired.

“Some.”

“Do you want some laudanum?”

“Yes, please,” Joe replied.

This surprised both father and housekeeper, both had expected a definite ‘No’ to the question. After returning the bottle to the bureau, both men said they would be back shortly with breakfast for the two convalescents.

“If your brother is up to it, would you like him to come in here and share breakfast with you?” Ben asked before exiting.

“No, I don’t think I’d be that good a company. Might fall asleep on him,” answered Joe as he pulled the covers up to his chin.

“Okay, Joe,” Ben replied as he left the room and closed the door.

“Pa, how’s he doin’ this mornin’?” Hoss asked, coming up behind his father in the hallway, having changed from his checkered nightshirt into regular clothes, and shaved.

“I’m not sure… He’s not acting like himself,” Ben replied. “Let’s go check your other brother, and get their breakfasts to them. Maybe he’ll feel better once he’s eaten. He’s not had anything to eat since breakfast yesterday. That’s it, he’s just hungry.”

Hoss thought his father did a poor job of trying to convince him that Joe was really okay.

“Good morning, Pa, Hoss,” Adam greeted as he turned from opening the curtains, and slowly walked to bed.

“Really, Adam,” Ben chastised. “Doc said not to get out of bed, yet.”

“I feel a lot better than I did earlier… How’s Joe this morning. Did he tell you what his nightmare was about?”

“No he didn’t, said he couldn’t remember,” answered Ben.

“You don’t believe him, do you?” Adam asked.

“No, I don’t believe him, but knowing your brother… I won’t be able to get him to talk about it until he’s good and ready to talk. But… I have a feeling he was remembering your spill…”

“Pa, he’s seen me get dumped before…” Adam interrupted.

“But not to the point you were unconscious for as long as you were. I think it really shook him. Maybe pushing him to work on the ranch this soon…”

“Pa, what’d ya mean?” Hoss asked.

“Maybe he’s not ready to see everything that happens on a working ranch, is all I’m trying to say. Hoss, you yourself told me last month how green he became when he saw those two stallions fighting.”

“I done turned green too, Pa. It was a vicious fight. I’m sorry that young stallion got killed, but it happens all the time. A young stallion thinks he’s strong enough to challenge the leader…”

“I know, but…” Ben paused in concern.

“Pa, it’s a fact of life out here. You can’t sugar coat everything; and keeping the harshness of this land from him will only cripple him later in life. It’s best that he learns now how dangerous the jobs we do are, and now is the time for us to help him understand the right way to do things in order to minimize the dangers,” Adam stated matter-of-factly as he pulled the covers over his legs once he was back in bed.

“You’re right, I know you are… It’s just…”

“He’s your baby,” Adam completed Ben’s thought.

“Just don’t let Shortshanks hear you call him that, Older Brother,” Hoss warned. “Broken leg or not, he’s gotten to the point where he’d throttle ya for sayin’ that to his face.”

“I know,” Adam admitted. “It’s just hard seeing him growing up.”

“That it is, but just as the harshness of life is a fact out here, so is the fact that he’s gonna grow up more, and we have to accept that, whether we want to or not,” Ben stated.

*****

A short time later, father and son carried two trays up the staircase to their injured family members. Upon Hoss entering Adam’s room, Adam suggested, “Why don’t you carry the tray to Joe’s room and I’ll eat with him. If Pa’s right about his nightmare, maybe seeing me upright will do him some good.”

“Sorry, Adam… Pa already suggested that and he said he wasn’t good company. Probably would fall asleep,” Hoss replied as he set the tray on the night stand.

“That doesn’t sound like our brother,” Adam stated as he pulled the blankets over his legs and waited for Hoss to move the tray over to his lap.

“And Pa knows it. He’s tryin’ to convince himself it’s only because Joe’s not ate since yesterday mornin’.”

“He was here for lunch, wasn’t he?”

“Your accident happened when Pa was trying to get us to break for lunch. Don’t ya remember him saying it was getting late?”

“Yeah, I remember that. Did you bring your breakfast up here too?”

“Na, Pa and I’ll eat downstairs, he wants to discuss business.”

“Oh… Guess this is gonna put you a little short handed. Sorry.”

“Ain’t your fault, you didn’t know that horse was gonna slam you into the railin’,” admonished Hoss. “You eat up. You know Hop Sing will have your hide if that plate ain’t empty.”

“Go on, get out of here.”

“See you later.”

*****

“Come on Little Joe, let’s get you sitting up so you can eat your breakfast,” Ben stated as he set the tray on the desk in order to help his son sit up to eat his breakfast.

“I’m not hungry, Pa,” Joe answered.

“Not hungry? You’ve not had anything to eat since breakfast yesterday,” suggested Ben.

“My stomach is a little upset, maybe the medicine…”

“If that’s the case, then you best eat. Hop Sing made you some scrambled eggs which should be easy enough for your stomach, and some hot tea with honey.” Seeing his son not move to sit up. “Joseph, I want you to eat breakfast and if I have to, I will stay in here until you do.”

Joe looked to his father and saw the serious expression that conveyed he would carry through with his promise and more, if pushed. Joe pushed the blankets down and allowed his father to help him sit up against the headboard of his bed.

A few moments later, Ben placed the tray on his son’s lap, “Do I need to stand here to make sure you eat?”

“No sir,” mumbled Joe as he picked up his fork and began to slowly eat.

“Good boy. Hop Sing will be up later to take your tray.”

“Thanks Pa.”

*****

Half an hour later, Ben looked up from working the ledgers at his desk to see Hop Sing carrying the trays and empty dishes.

“Did he eat it all?”

“Most, yes sir, Mr. Cartwright… Mr. Cartwright, boy not well,” answered Hop Sing.

“Is he running a fever?” worried Ben.

“No, no fever, but he no act like Lit’le Joe.”

Standing from his chair, Ben walked around to look at the plate that still held some food.

“Well, at least he ate more than I thought he would.”

“I make him eat more before take tray,” admitted Hop Sing.

“Thank you. Go on with your duties, I’ll check on him in a little while.”

*****

Hoss was just walking in the door for lunch when he, and the rest of the household, heard the screaming from the second floor. Ben made it to the stairway first, followed close behind by Hoss. As both entered the boy’s room, they saw Adam struggling to wake his sleeping brother.

“NOOOOO! Adaaaam! Please!!!!! It’s not true!” cried Joe.

“Joe, Come on! Wake Up!” ordered Adam. “I’m fine little buddy. I’m okay.”

“A-adam?” Joe whispered as he woke.

“I’m right here,” Adam softly spoke as he pulled his brother to his chest and began to rub his back. “You want to talk about it?”

“No… I had a nightmare? But… It’s not…”

“Buddy, nightmares can happen anytime you’re asleep.”

“I woke you?”

“No, I was reading in my room when I heard you screaming.”

Knowing that Joe was awake, Ben and Hoss stepped closer in an effort to comfort Joe.

“I’m sorry, I don’t know what happened…” Joe stated and gulped.

“How’s your leg, Shortshanks?” asked Hoss.

“It…”

“Does it still hurt, son?”

“Yes, sir. It aches some.”

Hoss and Adam took a moment to look at each other, both knowing their little brother rarely, ever admitted to not feeling fine or wanting medicine to help manage the pain.

“Thanks, Pa,” Joe stated as he laid back to his pillow. “Sorry, I’m being so much trouble.”

Sitting on the edge of the bed, Ben stated, “Son, you’re no trouble. But I do think you’re troubled. Something you’re keeping inside is trying to get out.”

“I don’t wanna throw up again, Pa.”

“I’m not talking that. I’m talking that there has to be something upsetting you that’s causing these dreams. Maybe if you talked about it…”

“There’s nothing to talk about, like before… I don’t remember.”

The three elder Cartwrights did not believe the youngest but knew at this time it was not worth the fight or the anger that would come if they pursued the matter any further.

“Alright. Hop Sing almost has lunch ready, and I don’t want to hear a word from you about not being hungry.”

“I guess I could eat a little soup. I’m still feeling a little queasy,” admitted Joe.

“Okay, I’ll have Hop Sing bring you up a bowl of soup and some soft bread,” Ben stated as he stood and motioned for his other sons to leave the room.

*****

“He’s hiding something, Pa,” Adam said as he stopped in front of the doorway to his bedroom.

“I think we all know that,” Pa replied.

“What do you think it is? I mean… Aw shucks, I don’t know…” mumbled Hoss.

“We’ll just have to wait until he’s ready to talk. Adam, back to bed, I’m not sure Paul will appreciate that you’ve been up so much.”

“Pa, I’m fine, other than the ache in my ribs. No dizziness and the only time my head hurts is when I press on this goose egg.”

“Still…”

“I know, back to bed.” Adam grinned and complied.

*****

The grandfather clock has already chimed four o’clock in the afternoon when Ben heard a horse and buggy in the front yard. Rising from his desk, he walked across the wooden floor and opened the front door just as Doctor Paul Martin was about to knock on the door.

“Afternoon, Ben. How are our two patients this afternoon?” Paul inquired, removing his hat as he entered.

“Adam seems to be doing fine, other than his ribs aching,” answered Ben.

“Any dizziness?”

“Overnight, we…”

“What is it Ben?” the concerned Doc asked.

“Well… It’s Joseph. He’s had several nightmares already. Woke the whole house around one o’clock. Adam managed to get to the doorway of Joe’s room, but I could tell it was a struggle for him to stay upright. Hoss saw him back to bed. But later this morning, he was fine. Opening the curtains in his room, and then he made it to Joe’s room before the rest of us when he had his next nightmare, before lunch.”

“And Joe being Joe, he’s not said what the dreams are about?”

“You know my boy well.”

“I should, after all these years. So, other than the nightmares, how’s he doing? Is he still experiencing pain?”

“That’s part of what has all of us concerned. He’s admitting he’s feeling queasy, and that his leg is hurting and willingly accepting the laudanum.”

“That’s out of character for him.”

“Sure is a change from his ‘I’m fine’, but it’s what he calls out during his dreams that has me worried. He keeps crying ‘No’ or calls for Adam, or yells ‘It’s not true’. I’m worried about him.”

“Let’s go take a look at him, shall we?”

As the two men headed to the staircase, Doc said, “Oh, I forgot to mention yesterday, that Dusty was injured when Joe was found. He’s pretty lame in a front fetlock. Roy took him back to town, to the livery, thought it was better to take him to someplace close instead of all the way out here.”

“We were worried about him, didn’t realize until later last evening that he wasn’t in the barn. Charlie pointed it out to us. But… If Joe was thrown…”

“Ben, let’s wait till later, after I’ve examined both of them and then we can talk.”

Ben agreed and followed the doctor into Joe’s room.

“Joseph, Doc Martin is here to see you.”

The form under the blankets began moving at hearing his father’s voice, and soon, a dark curly-haired head poked out from under.

“Hi Pa, Doc Martin,” greeted Joe as he began rubbing sleep from his eyes.

“Well, how are you feeling?” the doctor asked.

“Queasy, and my leg hurts.”

“How about any dizziness, can you sit up for me?”

“Sure,” Joe answered and worked himself into a seated position.

“Any dizziness or fading of your vision?”

“Just a little bit, but it went away.”

Doc Martin raised his eyebrows, this definitely was not the cantankerous Joseph Cartwright he had always had to deal with.

“That’s good to hear,” Doc answered while pulling out his stethoscope from his black bag. “Let me listen to your chest.”

The doctor listened to Joe’s heart and his lungs, moving the stethoscope around the boy’s chest and back. Removing the instrument and hanging it around his neck, he informed patient and father that he wanted to look at the stitches.

“Stitches?! I got stitches?” Joe asked in surprise.

“Just four, on the side of your scalp.”

“You cut my hair?!” Joe felt panicked as he raised his hand to determine the damage done to his hair.

“That’s the Joe I remember,” smiled the doctor. “The wound is looking good, no more swelling than expected, and no signs of infection.” Moving to the foot of the bed, the Doctor asked Ben for his assistance. “Ben, I’m going to need your help to make sure Joe’s leg stays still while I remove the temporary splints so I can place the permanent splints.”

“Permanent, but they’ll come off, won’t they?” a worried Joe asked his voice quieting as he spoke, fearing he was going to be crippled for life.

“Joe, just lie back and let the doctor do what he needs to do,” suggested Ben, not seeing the look of hopelessness on his son’s face.

Joe lay back on his bed and stared at the ceiling, the voices returned to his head, “Horses are dangerous, they’re gonna hurt you. Horses are dangerous.” Tears slipped down the side of his face as he tried to block out the voices and the tingling sensation in his leg as the doctor changed the splints.

“Well, that’s done. Joe, are you okay? Are you in pain?” Doc Martin asked upon seeing his patient crying.

The boy nodded.

“I’ll give you some laudanum. Ben, keep administering the laudanum, about every five hours through tomorrow night and then, see if he can go six hours between dosages. I’d really like to have him weaned of the drug by the end of the week.”

“Sure, Paul.”

“Joseph, in six, maybe seven weeks time, you’ll be up and back to riding,” encouraged Doc Martin. “Now, let me go check on your other brother.”

Joe pulled the covers over his head only to keep hearing, ‘Horses are dangerous. Horses are dangerous.’

*****

“Pa, I’m back! Is Doc Martin here?!” Hoss called as he entered the main room.

“In Adam’s room Hoss,” Ben called down.

Hoss entered the room to hear Doc Martin release Adam to light duties, “Your ribs will let you know when you’ve done too much. But if the headaches return…”

“I know, back to bed,” Adam smiled. “Hey brother, get me my clothes from the closet.”

“Sure.”

“Doc, what about Joe. You said we’d talk,” Ben stated.

“I did. As you probably figured out, Joe didn’t make it to town yesterday after Adam’s accident. The Caruthers family found him out on the road.”

“The Caruthers, I thought they lived over in Placerville,” Said Hoss.

“They do, but every year or so they come to Virginia City to visit old friends. You can be thankful that they chose yesterday to visit,” Paul admitted.

“Not only yesterday, but at that time to find Joe,” Adam added.

“Anyway, Mr. and Mrs. Caruthers stayed with Joe while their boy Jenson rode his horse into town, found Roy who came for me. They agreed to bring Joe back here once I determined it was safe enough to move him.”

“What about Dusty. Charlie said he wasn’t in the barn last night.”

“Hoss, Paul told me Dusty was injured and that Roy took him to town, said it would be easier since it was a shorter distance for him to travel.”

“Where’d the accident happen? How far from town was Joe?” Adam asked.

“About two and a half miles,” Paul stated.

“That close? Pa, you figure that long of a trip on Dusty was too much for ‘em?” Hoss asked.

“Dusty isn’t a young horse, Hoss, and Joe’s been riding him a lot while out with you two… That’s one of the reasons why I’m so anxious to convince Winnemucca to trade with me. Joe’s had his heart set on a pinto ever since he first saw one.”

“That’s for sure,” Hoss acknowledged.

“How bad’s the horse hurt?” Adam asked.

“He should be better long before Joe is. I think Hank at the livery said two weeks tops. It’s a front fetlock and possibly a bowed tendon. He’d hoped the swelling in the joint would have gone down some overnight, but the tendon started swelling this morning and there’s a lot of heat along with it.”

“That ain’t good Pa,” Hoss stated.

“How’s Joe taking this?” Adam asked.

“Pa, he’s not asked one question… Not once has he asked about Dusty…” Hoss stated, surprised.

“Another uncharacteristic trait your brother is exhibiting since his accident,” admitted Ben.

“We all know you can never count on Joe to be Joe,” Adam teased sarcastically.

“Adam, you ain’t got no cause to be teasin’ about him. He done got himself hurt tryin’ to get Doc for ya. Maybe he’s scared… Pa, do you think that maybe he thinks Dusty broke a leg or somethin’ and that’s what’s scarin’ him to having those dreams?”

“I never thought of that, Hoss. It’s a possibility.”

“Gentlemen, if you don’t mind, I think I’ll head back into town. If you need me, just send someone for me. I’ll be back day after tomorrow to check on your youngest Ben.”

“Oh, yes. Thanks Paul.”

“I’ll see myself out.”

“Boys, I think Hoss may be on to something regarding Joe’s dreams. I’ll talk with him tonight, before he goes to sleep.”

“Don’t you think it might be better to talk to him now, Pa,” Adam asked.

“No, I want him to eat a good supper, and if I try to force the issue now, I’m sure he won’t want to eat.”

*****

The house had quieted for the night when Ben went to visit with his youngest son and to possibly address the issue behind his son’s nightmares. With his hand on the doorknob, Ben gently knocked on the door before opening it.

“Hi Pa,” Joe quietly called out upon seeing his Pa enter his room.

“How are you feeling?”

“Okay, my leg doesn’t hurt so much now that Doc has these splints on.”

“That’s good,” Ben said as he walked over to sit down on the edge of his son’s bed, careful not to jostle his son’s leg. “You know son, you haven’t asked me about Dusty.”

“Oh, I thought I did,” Joe quickly replied, lowering his eyes to avoid looking at his pa. “You said he was okay…”

“Did I Joe?”

“I thought you did…”

“Joseph, look at me.” Ben waited a moment for his son to look at him. “When Doc was here earlier, he told me that Dusty had been injured and that probably was what caused him to throw you.”

“He didn’t throw me!” Joe insisted. “He didn’t hurt me. I fell off. I… told you… I forgot to tighten my cinch.” Joe continued to hurriedly speak.

“I remember. But whether you were thrown or whether you fell off…”

“He didn’t do it on purpose!”

“Joseph, why would I think that he did it on purpose? Why do you feel you have to offer excuses for what happened. It was an accident. I know that.”

“I just don’t want you thinking bad of him. He’s my horse… He’s not dangerous.”

“If he was dangerous, do you think I’d have let you ride him for all these years?”

“No, but things happen and things change… Is he gonna be okay?”

“In time, he’s injured his fetlock and the tendon along the canon bone.”

“That’s not good, is it,” Joe stated, diverting his eyes from looking to Ben.

“Not right now, but with rest, and considering you won’t be riding, he’ll get plenty of rest.”

“I won’t be riding?” Joe asked in a small voice.

“No, you won’t be riding.”

“Okay. Thanks for telling me… about Dusty.”

“You’re welcome, son. Now that you know he’s going to be okay… Maybe you’ll be able to sleep through the night.”

“Sure, Pa. I mean, yes, I hope so.”

*****

The following morning, the three elder Cartwrights sat down for breakfast, their faces spoke volumes that they had enjoyed an uninterrupted night of sleep.

“Guess Hoss was right about what had Joe spooked into bad dreams… He slept through the night,” Adam stated as he reached for the bowl of fried potatoes. “He still asleep?”

“Appeared that way when I checked in on him earlier. Dead to the world,” Hoss stated, reaching for the platter of biscuits. “Pa, the butter please.”

The three men casually discussed the day’s planned activities over a breakfast of sausage gravy and biscuits with fried potatoes. They were close to finished when Hop Sing came down the stairs, carrying a tray bearing the evidence that Joe had only partially eaten his breakfast.

“I thought he’d eat more than that,” Ben stated as Hop Sing passed the table on his way to the kitchen.

“He’s not doing a lot of anything to maintain his appetite, I’m not surprised,” Adam said as he sipped from his coffee cup.

“Poor little fella, I feel sorry for him stuck up in bed all day,” Hoss stated. “Maybe I’ll spend time tonight with him playin’ checkers.”

“I’m sure your brother would appreciate the company.”

*****

On the third day after Adam’s accident, Paul Martin stopped by the ranch to examine Joe, and was happy to say that if he stayed quiet, in bed, that he felt Joe could get up in a week’s time, with the aid of crutches to get around the house.

Before he left, he advised Ben to expect a visit from Abigail Jones.

“What’s she want?” Adam asked while he tried to hide the rolling of his eyes.

“Spring break for the school is over, I believe she wants to discuss Joe’s studies while he’s restricted from traveling to school.”

“I didn’t even think about his lessons,” admitted Ben.

“You’ve had plenty of other concerns on your mind. Don’t worry,” Paul answered.

*****

Unfortunately, Adam was home when Miss Jones drove her buggy into the yard of the Ponderosa ranch house.

“Oh Adam! Adam!” Abigail called in her unusually shrill voice as she reined in her horse.

“Abigail, how nice to see you,” Adam replied, forcing himself to keep his voice neutral.

“Why thank you. I always enjoy my trips to the Ponderosa. I hope you’re fully recovered from your accident?’

“Yes, I am. Just bruised and contused.”

“Do you have time? I understand from Doctor Martin that it will be some weeks before Joseph is allowed to return to school. I had hoped that if I left my lesson plan with you, that when you have time, you or your father would be able to work with him to keep him up with his classmates.”

“Thank you for being so concerned about Joe,” Adam smiled, a forced smile.

“Oh, it’s my pleasure. It’s so lovely, may we sit out here while I go over his lessons?”

“Why yes,” Adam replied as he allowed Miss Abigail Jones to step in front of him and up the two steps to sit at the table on the deck.

Half an hour later, Adam was grinning and waving goodbye, and exhaled deeply as Miss Jones’ buggy disappeared around the corner of the barn.

“When’s the weddin’?” Hoss teased.

“If I EVER…”

“Easy there, if you’re that mad, there’s some wood that needs splittin’ that’ll take your anger a lot better than your family.”

“I’m sorry, but that woman is so…”

“Infuriatin’?” Hoss asked.

“And to a point, condescending. As if I didn’t spend five years at college… earning two Master’s degrees.”

“But you didn’t study education, did you son?” Ben said as he stepped from the house and overheard his sons.

“No Pa,” Adam admitted. “Still…  Her credentials from whatever young ladies’ finishing school she graduated from can’t begin to compare with a Harvard education.”

“I agree with you son, but sometimes you have to take the bitter with the sweet.”

“And just what’s so sweet about her?” Adam tossed back.

“She’s sweet on you older brother, she’s sweet on you!” Hoss declared and ran to the sanctuary of the house, chased by Adam.

“BOYS!” Ben hollered as he followed them inside, “No rough housing.”

*****

Later, Ben carried the evening meal upstairs to his son, Hoss and Adam followed behind.

“Who was here? I thought I heard a hor… a buggy leave?” Joe asked as he looked up from the book he was reading.

“Your teacher, Miss Jones,” Ben answered.

“What was she doing here?” Joe asked.

“She came by to go over your lessons with me. Since you won’t be able to travel to school,” stated Adam.

“Oh, yeah… Are you gonna be able to help me?”

Arching his eyebrows, Adam said, “Sure, I’d be glad to help you.”

“Maybe after supper?”

“Sure Joe.”

“Shortshanks, ain’t you forgot, you’re a couple games of checkers up on me, I want a chance to get even.”

“Maybe another night, Hoss? I really don’t want to get behind in school.”

“Sure…” a confused Hoss answered.

*****

For the remainder of the week, Adam helped Joe with his studies after finishing his work out on the ranch. Joe’s lessons began before supper and continued after he’d eaten his meal. Adam was truly pleased with the effort his brother exhibited and how well he learned and remembered his lessons.

“Miss Jones is going to be real pleased with your progress report,” Adam announced as he checked Joe’s work.

“She’ll probably think you did it for me,” sulked Joe.

“Why aren’t your grades this good when you’re at school?”

“I don’t know. Maybe it has to do with the teacher,” Joe shrugged his shoulders.

“What do you mean by that? You’ve had other teachers beside Miss Jones and you’ve never been this mindful or correct with your answers.”

“Maybe knowing you’d make me take a ‘necessary’ trip to the barn, keeps me in line.”

“Joe, seriously. This whole last week, you’ve not been yourself. No mischief…”

“Kinda hard to get into mischief which I can’t even get out of bed,” Joe’s expression soured.

“Joe, why don’t you try this hard at school?”

“Because she just drones on and on and on. You’ve heard her; she’s just so… uppity, snobbish, boorish… take your pick.”

“You can do better than that… Joe you’re smart. Some of the questions on this test, weren’t the ones from Miss Jones… I inserted them and you answered them. You hadn’t studied them, and you were able to answer the questions better than satisfactorily. A few grammatical errors on this test, and a transposition of numbers on another. Joe…”

“Adam, I’m kinda tired…”

“Sure, buddy.”

Adam looked at his brother settling himself under the covers. “What’s got you so down, little brother? Why won’t you talk to us?” Adam asked himself.

*****

When Paul Martin returned with the crutches, as promised, Joe quietly accepted his freedom from his bedroom, and with a brother in front and a brother behind him, he made his way down the stairs to the front room.

“You want to go outside, little buddy?” Adam asked.

“Not right now, I’m kinda bushed. Didn’t think I’d be this tired just coming down the stairs.”

“It’s to be expected Joe, you’ve been laid up in bed for ten days. But you’ll get stronger the more you move around. Don’t worry, you’ll be feeling like your old self in no time,” Doc Martin stated before he left to return home.

*****

Two weeks had passed since the accident and other than the last remnants of the fading bruise along his ribs and an occasional ache when he moved the wrong way, Adam had returned to full health and abilities.

Joe had yet to make a sound that he was awake for the morning while the others sat at the table for breakfast.

“Are you goin’ to town to get Dusty today?” Hoss asked.

“That and the mail,” Adam answered. “Think you can convince little brother to be out on the porch when I return?”

“Why, I’d be hard pressed to keep him off that horse the minute you come leading that horse home.”

“I hope so,” Ben stated as he listened to his two sons.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Hoss asked.

“You’ve both been out working and haven’t been here… The only time he’s out on the porch is when there’s no one around… I’ve noticed lately that the minute he hears someone coming, he makes a reason to come back inside.”

“You think there’s something going on with the hands? I know Charlie tries to keep the new hands in line…” Adam offered. “But Pa, he’s greeted us on the porch when we come home.”

“Only after you’ve put your horses away and you’re coming in from the barn,” Ben clarified.

“None o’ that sounds like Shortshanks, why’s he actin’ like that?” inquired Hoss.

“I don’t know. But maybe Dusty’s return will be the ticket to getting him out of the house,” Ben hoped.

“Maybe he don’t like bein’ reminded that he cain’t ride out with us…” Hoss offered as an explanation after thinking about it.

“That could be it,” agreed Adam. “It was fun riding out with him, teaching him about the ranch, even if he is a pain with all the questions he’s asking.”

“That’s just how he learns, Adam,” Ben spoke. “Maybe Hoss is right. He was right about Joe thinking something had happened to Dusty that was causing his nightmares. Ever since I told him Dusty was going to be okay…”

“See Adam, I was right. Joe ain’t had no nightmare since Pa told him what happened to Dusty,” boasted Hoss.

*****

Joe was sitting at the dining room table, working one of the lessons that Adam had given him the night before. The boy was totally engrossed in his studies that he didn’t hear the riders enter the yard, nor his name when they hollered for him.

“Joseph!” Ben called as he entered through the front door.

“Over here Pa, at the table. I’m studying,” Joe hoped his father would be pleased.

Raising his eyebrows, Ben walked around the corner, surprised to see several books laid open and Joe scribbling on a sheet of paper with his left hand, while his right hand marked his spot in one of the books.

“Joe, there’s someone out front who’d like to see you,” Ben stated as he came to stand behind his son.

After all the years of watching his son do his homework, it still amazed Ben how difficult it was to decipher the backwards slant of his son’s writing, but with enough attention and because of the years of practice, he could tell the boy was writing an essay about American History – The Revolutionary War.

“Sure Pa, tell them they can come on in, I’m almost at a stopping point,” Joe answered not looking up from his writing.

“I don’t think Hop Sing will appreciate that,” Ben stated as he leaned down and picked Joe’s crutches up from off the floor.

“Who’s here?” He couldn’t understand who would be visiting him that Hop Sing would have a problem with them coming inside the house.

“Why don’t you come and find out?”

Slowly, Joe hobbled from the table, around the corner, and out the door, Ben close behind him all the way.

“Where’d they go?” Joe asked when he didn’t see anyone in the yard.

“Surprise Little Buddy!” Adam called as he led Dusty out from the barn and towards Joe.

His father, brothers, and Charlie, who had already been in the barn, were concerned when Joe stepped away from his horse and a distressed look appeared upon his face. Had Ben not been behind his son, they all felt he would have fallen to the ground.

“Joe, are you alright? It’s Dusty. Adam brought him home for you,” Ben stated as he placed his hands upon his sons shoulders to steady him.

“Come on Shortshanks, you may not be able to ride, but Dusty here looks to be in need of a good groomin’,” Hoss hollered.

“I don’t think so. Doc said I wasn’t to do anything…” Joe excused. “Thanks for bringing him home. He’s… is he alright?”

Handing the lead rope to Charlie, Adam walked across the yard and stepped to the porch. “Harry said maybe one more week without work and he should be totally sound, only now he can be turned out in the corral beside the barn for a little while instead of stuck in a stall all day. Come on, we’ll make sure you’re okay.”

“No, I best not. I don’t want to… upset Doc… and have him have to come back out here because I didn’t do what he said. Pa, can I go back inside? I really need to finish my homework so Adam can grade my papers and still get to bed at a reasonable time. I… I mean, I appreciate all his help, but he’s got so much to do.” The look in Joe’s eyes matched the pleading in his voice.

Nodding, Ben stepped aside and let Joe return to the house.

When the door closed, Hoss walked to his father and older brother, and said, “Dagnabbit, that sure ain’t our Little Joe. In the past we’d a had to hogtie him to keep him away from that horse.”

“Maybe being thrown from Dusty has scared him,” Adam offered. “As much as he’s a natural on horses, I never thought he’d not want to rush right over and hug his horse.”

“That cain’t be it Adam. He’s come off before…” Hoss added.

“Sure, he’s come off Dusty, when he was doing something he shouldn’t have… But never when he’s been physically hurt, just his pride,” Ben added. “I think I want to talk to Paul.”

“He’s out of town for the next two days, there’s a sign on his office door,” Adam stated.

Ben returned to the house while Adam and Hoss returned Dusty to the barn.

*****

Joe had already retired to his room as his family sat in the main room, Ben sat reading the Territorial Enterprise, Hoss was ‘resting his eyes’, while Adam finished grading Joe’s homework in order to turn into Miss Jones when they planned to meet after church on Sunday to go over the following week’s lesson plan.

“Adam, how’s Joe doing with his lessons,” Ben asked as he finished with his paper.

Setting his work aside, Adam looked up and saw the concerned look on his father’s face. “I’ll tell you what Joe told me the other day; he told me that, Abigail was probably going to think that I did all his work for him.”

“He said, that?” Hoss asked as he came awake.

“He did,” acknowledged Adam.

“Pa, I don’t understand how Joe can be doing this good with the work I’ve given him and yet do so poorly when at school… I’m following Abigail’s lesson plan, only…”

“Only what son?” Ben asked as he sat forward in his leather chair.

“On the tests, I’ve increased the difficulty. I mean, some of the questions were so… simpleton is the best word I can use to describe.”

“Like she’s not challengin’ the students enough?” Hoss asked.

“Or at least she’s not challenging Joe enough.” Thinking on what else Joe had said… “He said something about her droning on and on, that she was…”

Adam didn’t continue he didn’t want to get Joe in trouble for repeating exactly how he had described his teacher.

“He’s right about that… she sure can drone on about you,” snickered Hoss.

“Hoss,” admonished Ben. “Adam… exactly what are you thinking…”

“Maybe we should speak with the school board about hiring another teacher.”

“And replace Miss Jones?” a startled Hoss asked.

“Not replace her outright… The school is enrolling many more children as new families move to town, maybe there are too many children for her to handle alone. What if the school board hired another teacher to take over the education of the older children, or those who show inclinations like Joe is… I mean if this,” Adam slowly waved his hands over the pages of Joe’s homework he had been grading, “is the quality of work he is truly capable of… I just never imagined Joe would… had it in him.”

Ben and Hoss took the time to look at some of the work Joe had done and were truly impressed with what they reviewed.

“Shortshanks is a genius?”

“Not a genius, but a lot smarter than we gave him credit…” Adam admitted.

“But why all the sudden turn around…”

“I think Joe is right…” Adam added.

“Right about what?” Ben asked.

“That maybe it had to do with the teacher.”

*****

Upstairs, Joe lie curled up on his side, his back to the door. He thought back to that afternoon when Adam and Hoss had led Dusty from the barn, he began to cry, his tears only subsiding when he fell asleep.

“Horses are dangerous!” he heard his Pa’s voice in the deepest part of the night. “If you’d done as I told you, you wouldn’t have been hurt.”

“See whatcha done Shortshanks? Ya upset Pa by not doin’ as he told ya. Horses are dangerous!” Joe heard in an angered Hoss’ voice.

“Your behavior was childish!” came Adam’s disparaging voice. “How could you do that?! Hoss is right, your actions upset Pa! Joe, horses are dangerous! You’re old enough to know that!”

“NOOOOO!” sobbed Joe as he woke.

*****

After spending a full day working on the ranch, the elder Cartwright sons were happy to join Joe at the table Saturday night, enjoying Hop Sing’s culinary skills having fixed an excellent pork roast with redbud potatoes and carrots. Adam and Hoss tried to encourage Joe into a conversation by telling him of things they’d seen or had to do, hoping he’d ask questions, but he only made casual comments, “That’s nice” or “Glad I wasn’t there”.

Trying to get more than a few words from his youngest, Ben asked, “Joe, do you think you’re up to going to church tomorrow? Since you can’t ride, we can hitch the buggy up,” as he pushed his empty plate forward on the table.

“Uh… I don’t know. You know Doc told me I should only use my crutches around the house… And the roads are still pretty rutted… aren’t they? I mean, bouncing around in the buggy wouldn’t be that good for my leg…” Joe answered, not looking up from the food on his plate that he couldn’t bring himself to eat any more.

“Alright, I understand,” a dejected Ben answered; he glanced to his two oldest sons and saw their eyes reflect the same disappointment he felt. “Would you like for me to stay home with you?”

“NO!” Joe answered with more emotion than he realized. “It’s not necessary… You’ve missed church the past few weeks because of me. Now that I’m mobile… ‘Sides… Besides, Hop Sing will be here if I need any help.”

“Okay, we’ll be a little late in returning. Adam and I need to meet with Miss Abigail and a few members of the school board after services.”

“Don’t forget you wanted to talk with Doc Martin about comin’ out later in the week to check on trouble, here,” teased Hoss.

“I’ll be okay. And…”

“And?” Hoss inquired. He’d been watching his younger brother closely, especially after seeing his brother’s face drop when he teased in calling him ‘trouble’.

“Just tell Doc I ain’t… haven’t been doing anything I shouldn’t. I… I been… I have been following his instructions.”

*****

Halfway to Virginia City, Hoss pulled his horse to a halt.

“What is it son? Something wrong with Chubs?”

“No, you know there ain’t nothin’ wrong with Chubs. It’s Joe, none o’ us is talkin’ about him. We’re tiptoeing and avoidin’ what’s troublin’ him.”

“Hoss, we’re not avoiding the situation, we just don’t know what’s wrong with him.”

“I know what’s wrong with him, he ain’t actin’ himself. Did you hear him correctin’ his talk at the table? Since when did Joe ever correct himself? And since when does he ever do as told?”

“Maybe this accident has finally made him grow up?” Adam stated without a hint of sarcasm.

Hoss shot his older brother a warning glare that indicated now was not the time.

“Hoss, that’s one of the reasons I plan to discuss the situation with Paul. We all know something’s wrong, but until your brother decides to open up about it… We’re just grasping at straws.”

“We’re all concerned about him, Hoss,” Adam added.

“Aw, I know that, it’s just… I don’t like seein’ him sufferin’ like this and not knowin’ why.”

*****

Hop Sing had cleared the table and cleaned the kitchen when he decided to check on Joe.

“Lit’le Joe?” he asked as he dutifully walked to stand at the end of the settee upon which Joe sat, reading a book.

“Hey Hop Sing.”

“Why you cry? Why Lit’le Joe sad?”

“I’m not crying, Hop Sing. I’m just reading a book.”

“You cry at night. I see stains on pillows when do laundry.”

Joe thoughtfully and nervously considered how to answer his friend. “You’re right, I do cry, but I’m not sad… I’m just upset.”

“Why you upset?”

“Because I’m stuck here.”

“Father offer you go to church,” Hop Sing stated, indicating his confusion.

“I’m stuck here because I fell off my blasted horse when Adam was counting on me to get the doctor!” anger colored Joe’s voice.

“But Mr. Adam okay. He not hurt bad. Doctor come,” Hop Sing calmly replied.

“Yeah, he came. Only I wasn’t the one who fetched him. Can’t even be counted on to do something as important as getting the doctor when my brother is injured. No wonder they won’t let me ride, won’t trust me to do anything else on the ranch after this.”

“Father and brothers trust you. You injured. No can do work. But will when better.”

“No… they won’t trust me not to get injured again. They’ve warned me over and over again how dangerous the work is if not done right. All I had to do was ride to town, and I couldn’t even do that.”

“You try. That all father ever ask of you,”

Mumbling under his breath Joe said, “He won’t ask me to do anything now…” Reaching for his crutches Joe stated, “I’m going upstairs.”

Hop Sing promised himself he would speak with his employer regarding Lit’le Joe, he was glad he had been able to talk with Joe to find out what was wrong.

Upstairs, Joe sat on the seat built into his windowsill and watched the world outside. A shiver ran down his body when he saw Dusty prancing around in the corral, nickering to the horses the ranch hands rode as they left the yard to head out to do their jobs. Tears welled in Joe’s eyes as he heard the men laughing; he knew they were laughing about him, how he was too small and how his family coddled him. In his mind he heard, “Dang fool kid don’t know how dangerous horses are. Shoulda left it to one of us to go for the doc.” “Guess being a runt addled his brain too. Too bad the family has to keep such a close eye on him.” “Gotta keep him away from the horses so he don’t get himself killed like his momma.” Resting his head back, he quietly cried, “Momma” as he fell asleep.

*****

Hop Sing patiently waited for his employer to return home while he prepared their evening meal. Each time he checked the clock he grew anxious of their return, he worried how they would take the news he had discovered. The faithful servant also worried how to keep Number Three Son from hearing him speak. By the time Ben, Adam, and Hoss made it home from church and the discussions held afterwards, the clock was chiming three, thirty.

“Hop Sing, supper smells delicious,” Ben stated as he placed his rolled up holster on the credenza and his hat on the rack on the wall.

“I’ll second that,” Hoss answered as he inhaled deeply for a second time.

“Mister Cartwright, Hop Sing find out why?”

“Why what?” Adam asked as he followed suit of his father in the placement of his holster and hat.

“Lit’le Joe worry,” Hop Sing answered. “He fear family no trust him no more. He feel he fail family by no returning with honorable doctor for Mr. Adam.”

“What?!” exclaimed Ben. “That’s preposterous.”

“Is it Pa?” Adam stated as he walked to the settee and sat down. “That kid brother of ours… We all know he tried to help… How was he to know that Dusty couldn’t make that kind of a trip?”

“How could any of us a known?” Hoss answered as he sat down on the low table between the settee and the fireplace.

“Did Joe tell you this?” Ben asked as he walked over to sit in his leather chair.

“I ask why he cry?”

“Joe was cryin’?” Hoss sympathetically asked. “When was he cryin’?”

“Boy cry all time at night.”

“But…” Ben began to speak.

“I see stains on pillow covers… I ask Lit’le Joe why sad? He hurt, in heart.”

“Well, don’t that beat all,” Hoss answered as he looked up the staircase. “Shortshanks thinks we don’t trust him no more because Dusty threw him?”

“According to Joe, Dusty didn’t throw him. He fell off,” Ben corrected.

“Fell or thrown. It was an accident,” Adam offered.

“I go kitchen, finish fixing supper,” Hop Sing stated before giving a gracious bow to his employer.

All three men looked to the doorway when they heard a knock.

“Guess I’ll get it since Joe’s upstairs,” Hoss stated as he stood and ambled over to the door. “Hey Charlie, what’s up?”

“I got bad news for ya about Dusty,” Charlie answered as he stepped inside to the main room.

“What’s wrong with the horse?” Ben asked as he stood to his feet.

“He looked alright out there in the corral earlier, but he’s limping real bad when me and some of the others rode in. Thought you’d like to know. I had Cale catch him and take him into his stall.”

“Thanks Charlie. I’ll go check on him Pa,” Hoss stated as he followed Charlie out the door.

“You want some help?” inquired Adam.

“Nah, you stay here with Pa.”

*****

Hoss returned to the house a half hour later with the bad news of a severely bowed tendon.

“I soaked the leg with cold water and wrapped it, but…”

“That’s going to be hard on the kid, he was really attached to that horse,” Adam offered as he and his brother and father sat around the table.

“I don’t reckon he’ll ever be sound enough to ride again, at least not the way Joe rides. I don’t know what that horse done while we was gone, the tendon looked fine this mornin’, but it’s all swelled up and has a lot of heat.”

“Guess you need to visit Winnemucca again, soon,” Adam suggested. “Joe’s got three more weeks until those splints come off…”

“And you’ll need time to break the horse and make sure he’s gentle enough for Joe to ride,” Ben acknowledged.

“If not me, at least Rudy…”

“Why wouldn’t you want to break Joe’s horse?” Ben inquired.

“He’s always telling me I’m too heavy handed, and that Rudy has the best hands out there, at least until he’s old enough to start breaking horses. If this pinto is going to be Joe’s horse, I want the best rider to work him.”

“And you don’t think you’re the best, Adam?” Hoss was incredulous.

“No, like Joe says, I can break them with the best of them, but for the detail training that I want for Joe’s horse, Rudy’s the best.”

“Boys,” Ben stated and pointed upwards as he heard the door to Joe’s room open. “Say nothing.”

“Sure Pa,” Hoss answered.

“Okay Pa,” was Adam’s answer.

“Joseph, I take it you had a good nap?” Ben called as his son made it to the middle landing.

“Sorry, I fell asleep.”

“No need to apologize. Come on to the table, Hop Sing will have supper ready in a few minutes.”

After Ben had pulled out the chair for Joe to sit upon, and helped him slide under the table, he turned to take his seat.

“We heard something interesting, and I’d like to set the record straight,” Ben stated as he looked squarely at his youngest. “Joseph, we know you tried your best to get the doctor for Adam. It wasn’t your fault that… what happened.” Ben corrected what he had been about to say, he didn’t want to start an argument as to whether Joe was thrown or fell. “As for us trusting you, there’s no question that we trust you now and will trust you again when your splints come off. I want you to put this accident behind you and look forward to those splints coming off.”

“Yes, sir,” answered Joe.

“Yeah, Shortshanks, we trust ya,” encouraged Hoss.

Adam watched his youngest brother and it bothered him when he saw only a fleeting reaction to the reassurances of his family.

*****

Adam sat at the desk in his bedroom to read one of the psychology books that Doctor Martin had given to him when he and his father had stopped by after speaking with the school board earlier in the day. The particular pages that the doctor had marked read just as if the writer had been there watching his youngest brother and had used him as his case example. Adam’s attention was drawn away from the book when he heard muffled noises.

Slipping from his bedroom he regretted that his handgun was downstairs, until he neared Joe’s closed door and heard the noises from inside. Opening the door, Adam was surprised when the moonlight shining through the open curtain showed Joe moving in the same manner as he had during his previous nightmares, head shaking from side to side, arms thrashing, fisted hands, only this time, Joe’s teeth were ground closed, the tension was evident through his jaw line.

“Joe,” Adam quietly called, not wanting to wake the others. “Joe, wake up.”

He sat down on the bed and grabbed his brother’s wrists to force them still. Taking both wrists in one of his hands allowed Adam the ability to gently slap his brother’s cheeks in and effort to wake him from his dreams.

“Joe, come on, wake up…”

“Ad-Adam?” Joe asked as he woke, terror emblazoned his face when he realized why Adam was there.

“You okay, little buddy?”

“Sure, why wouldn’t I be?” Joe tried to act casual and calm his erratically beating heart. He forced his face into a schooled impassivity.

“Oh, I don’t know… maybe something about you having another nightmare. How many have you had that you’ve kept quiet? And how are you keeping quiet and not screaming your head off?” Adam asked, keeping his voice low.

“I’m not a baby Adam,” Joe quietly retorted.

“I didn’t say you were. I want to know why?”

“I… I don’t know… They just come,” Joe answered guiltily.

“Do you want to talk about it? You used to…” Adam remembered the months after Marie had died and the countless nights Joe had awakened him and Hoss with his nightmares. It was one thing for Joe to know his Momma was dead and no longer there, but when Ben left the Ponderosa in grief… What was a child of five to understand except that his Pa was dead too. The images had terrified the young boy, and he cried his heart out to his oldest brother at the same held him in his arms, listened, and rocked him back to sleep. The nightmares calmed down once Ben returned home; only to one morning the whole family realized it had been some time since their sleep had been interrupted by the cries of a scared child.

“I know, but I’m not a little kid… Adam I’m trying real hard… I really am…” Joe admitted, hoping his brother would leave him be.

“I know you are…”

“Can I go back to sleep?”

“Sure…” Adam left his brother’s room and as he closed the door he silently wished, “Pleasant dreams, Little Joe.”

*****

Alone in his room, Joe cried. He was upset that he… “I…” he began to say. Reaching for his crutches, Joe slowly made his way to the windowsill and sat down. Thin clouds drifted across the nighttime sky, veiling the moon behind a hazy glow. He looked to find the one star that he so desperately wanted to see as the tears continued to fall down his cheeks.

“Momma, I wish you were here… You didn’t mean to die… If you’d a known… would you have ridden out that day?” Joe dashed away the tears from his face using the sleeve of his nightshirt. “Why didn’t Pa tell you? They shoulda told you that horses were dangerous. Please Momma, don’t be mad at me. I don’t want to die… All I ever wanted to do was to be like my brothers… But now… I… I can’t.”

With no one the wiser, Joe continued to cry as he looked upon the one star from where he sought solace.

*****

Ben and Adam stood outside the stall as Hoss tended to Dusty’s leg.

“So he’s still havin’ nightmares,” Hoss stated as he wrapped the leg, hoping the bandage would help support the tendon while it healed.

“Yeah, I don’t think they ever went away. He just got good at keeping them from us.”

“What’s causing them?” Ben stated, his shoulders slumped in dejection that four weeks had passed since Adam’s and Joe’s accidents and as for Joe, nothing had improved.

“You gonna go see Winnemucca today?” Hoss asked.

“I am,” Ben answered. “What about you Adam, you said you needed to go to town…”

“The school board has two candidates in that Abigail feels would be good additions to the staff.”

“That’s good news,” Ben acknowledged.

“I’m surprised she’s being so…” Hoss couldn’t find the word to use.

“Gracious?” Adam offered. “I was too. I mean when we first broached the subject of additional teaching staff and why, I thought she’d get hysterical; but after we logically explained our reasoning… “

“She admitted that she felt more comfortable in teaching the younger children and looked forward to someone else taking on the older students,” Ben concluded for Adam.

“Well, good luck to both a ya,” Hoss stated, his attention still on Dusty.

“When are you going to tell Joe about him,” Adam asked, jutting his chin towards the small horse.

“Probably tonight. We can’t keep it a secret any longer.”

“It’s not that we’re keeping it a secret, Pa. Joe just ain’t asked nothin’ about what’s happenin’ outside a the house,” Hoss declared.

“Other than how things are for us, and keeping with his school work…” Adam added. “He’s shown no interest in the ranch.”

“I just wish he’d finally crack,” Ben admitted, wanting to finally begin the healing process for his youngest.

*****

Tranquility bathed the Ponderosa as night settled over the land. Hoss had defeated Joe in two games of checkers before the youth admitted he was tired and was going to head up to bed. Joe acknowledged his family’s ‘good night’ with his own as he carefully maneuvered his way up the steps.

Once his bedroom door was closed, Hoss asked the question that had been burning in his mind, “Well, was ya successful?”

“Pa?” Adam inquired as well.

“I was. I had Rudy take the horse and stay at our original homestead location. Surprisingly, the corral is still in good order.” Seeing the surprised look on his eldest sons’ faces, “I went with Rudy, and took two other horses to leave with the pinto to help him settle in.”

“Good idea, Pa. What about you Adam?”

“The school board is planning to make an offer of employment to one of the candidates. He seems highly qualified, and is eager to begin this fall with the new school year. The one we chose had already relocated here from San Francisco. You’ve met him Pa, Michael Langsford. He had been a professor at a college preparatory school, but it just became too much, he would have preferred to have tutored, but there were so many tutors that he couldn’t make a go of it.”

“Sounds like a good man to help the older students and those who are preparing to go to college,” Ben stated.

“What’s Miss Abigail said about Joe’s progress reports?” Hoss curiously inquired.

“She’s about as astounded as we are… She didn’t think he had it in him and admitted that she never pushed him because of his behavior in school.”

“But you ain’t pushin’ him, are you?”

“No… Hoss, I’m not,” admitted Adam.

“As I said before… I wish he’d crack and talk,” Ben stated as he stood and bid his sons goodnight.

All three men jumped when they heard “NOO!” screamed and something heavy fall to the floor above them; as one, they ran up the stairs to Joe’s room. There they found Joe lying on the floor below his window, grabbing at his left leg.

“Adam, go get Paul!” Ben ordered.

Without voicing a response, Adam was out of the room, down the hall, pausing only long enough to grab his holster and hat, before he was out the door and in the barn.

“Joseph,” crooned Ben.

“I’m sorry Pa. It was my fault. I didn’t mean to. I tried,” Joe cried as he continued to wrap his arms around his splinted leg.

“Hoss, help me get him into bed.”

“Easy there Shortshanks, Pa and I are gonna lift you up and get you to bed.”

“NO!” screamed Joe as Hoss gently touched his leg.

Mortified, Hoss looked to his father, the same expression etched Ben’s face. Lifting up the hem of Joe’s nightshirt Ben said, “Paul’s gonna have to do something with his leg.”

“He rebroke it?” Hoss asked.

“I don’t know, but he’s dislodged two of the splints. Just lift him from his knees, I’ll take his shoulders.”

It was hard to block out Joe’s pleading as they moved him from the floor to his bed. Ben climbed into the bed so that he could help support and comfort his son.

“Hoss, the laudanum, please.”

After administering the medication, Ben continued to comfort his son with soothing words and rocking the boy in his arms. And waited; rubbing slow circles around the boy’s back in hopes of relieving his tension.

“I’ll behave Pa. I don’t wanna die…” Joe pitifully whispered, his eyes closed. “I’ll be good.”

“Aw, Shortshanks, ain’t no one ever died of a simple broken leg, unless they got gangrene in it. And your leg’s just fine,” encouraged Hoss.

“You can trust me. I won’t go near ‘em,” mumbled Joe, the medication having taken effect. “I’m sorry I…” His voice quieted and breathing steadied, indicating he was asleep.

“Whatcha reckon happened?” asked Hoss.

“I don’t know. Maybe he was dreaming.”

“He fell asleep in the windowsill?”

“Don’t you remember when he was younger… after we lost Marie… Adam told him about finding Marie’s star, to help him think she was still here watching over him. After I returned to you boys… I can’t count the number of times I found him sleeping curled up on the seat that Adam built in the windowsill so Joe could sit there and look out. I shouldn’t have left you boys alone…”

“Now Pa, we understand why ya felt ya had to leave and you’ve apologized aplenty. It’s long done and over,” Hoss offered in absolution.

“I know, but it’s times like this that reminds me of how I wronged each of you.”

“But you done made up for it over the years. You remember that!” declared Hoss, with a nod of his head for emphasis.

Still occasionally mumbling about ‘trust’ and ‘being good’, Joe slept in his father’s arms when Adam returned with Doc Martin and the necessary supplies in order to tend to the boy’s leg.

*****

Doctor Martin washed the wet plaster mix from his hands and forearms as his patient’s family sat in various chairs around the room.

“So, this plaster stuff is supposed to be better than splints,” Hoss stated.

“It’s gaining momentum within the medical community. Personally, I don’t like it because it’s so dang difficult to remove, have to saw it off. And a lot of patient’s say it itches. But, when Adam came to tell me what happened, I decided it might be for the best,” answered Doc as he dried his hands on a towel. “The good news is that he’ll only have to wear this for three more weeks instead of the normal six to seven, while the leg finishes healing.”

“So, he didn’t do any more damage to the leg,” a nervous Ben inquired.

“No, the bones appear to be mending just fine. But with the cast, he can venture out into the barn now and give Dusty a good grooming… However, I suggest wrapping the foot of the cast in an old towel to help keep it clean.”

“Maybe he’ll start bein’ himself when he can get out to the barn,” Hoss said to no one in particular.

“Just send someone for me if you need to. I’ll see myself out,” Paul stated as he picked up his medical black bag and left the family.

“Let’s leave Joe be for the night,” Ben stated as he motioned his two sons to leave the room.

“Maybe it’s for the best that you didn’t get to tell Joe about Dusty tonight,” stated Adam as he walked down the staircase, following his father and brother.

“I just didn’t have the heart,” Ben stated as he looked over his shoulder, back up the stairs towards his youngest son’s room.

*****

Three of the Cartwrights were dressing for the morning in their bedrooms when they heard the unmistakable cry of Little Joe yelling for his pa. Bolting from their rooms, meeting in the hallway in some form of undress, the brothers allowed their father to enter the room first.

“Joseph? What’s wrong?” Ben dared ask as he rushed to sit down on the edge of the bed.

“What happened? What’s that?” Joe asked, pointing to the heavy white material surrounding his leg, from just below his knee to where only his toes were visible.

“It’s a cast, son.”

“I don’t understand. When… What happened to the splints?” Joe asked. His family heard the panic in his voice.

“Don’t ya remember fallin’ out of the windowsill last night, Shortshanks?” asked Hoss.

“I fell… No… I couldn’t have fallen… again…” Joe stated, still trying to comprehend.

“Joe,” Adam stated as he sat down on the other side of the bed. “When you came up to bed last night, what do you remember?”

“I… I looked for Momma,” Joe forlornly looked over to his windowsill.

“And I believe you fell asleep, and maybe… you had a dream and you fell out of the windowsill. We heard you scream.” Adam paused to see if Joe was following him. “When we came into your room, you were crying and holding onto your leg… You’d dislodged the splints, so I went to get Doc Martin. He came and stated that it probably would be better to put a cast on your leg.”

“What was wrong with the splints… Why couldn’t he have put them back on?”

“Doc said this thing was gainin’… What exactly did he say, Adam?” Hoss deferred to their older brother.

“He said casting broken limbs was gaining acceptance within the medical community. It’ll be a little uncomfortable for you, you can’t scratch an itch, but it’s more secure.”

“How long do I have to wear it?”

“Only for three weeks. Paul said he didn’t think you did any more damage to your leg, and the bones appeared to be mending nicely,” Ben answered.

“Ain’t that good?” Hoss asked.

“Yeah,” Joe glumly voice.

“Besides, now… You’ll be able to go to the barn and groom Dusty,” Adam stated, hoping this news would make his brother smile.

“You’re a matched pair you are,” Hoss let slip.

“A matched pair…” Joe wrinkled his brow. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

Gaining his youngest son’s attention, Ben said, “Joseph, Dusty reinjured his leg when he was loose in the corral the other day. For now, Hoss has a poultice wrap on it hoping to help it heal.”

“He didn’t break his leg did he,” Joe asked, remembering Hoss’ words of them being a matched pair.

“Naw, poultices only work to pull out heat or pull out infections. Dusty just has some swellin’ and a lot of heat. Believe me, there’s nothin’ broken in his leg.”

“And… he’s being good for you?” Joe asked.

“Sure, you can come see for yourself. Like Doc said, you can get out to the barn now,” Hoss happily stated.

“Doc said I could?” A nervous shiver ran the length of Joe’s body at the implication of the doctor releasing him from being restricted to the immediate vicinity of the house.

“You want to go see Dusty, don’t you?” Ben asked.

“Uh… Sure… If Doc says it’s okay…” Joe answered and averted his eyes.

“Good, then that’s settled, after breakfast. Joseph, we’ll leave you to get dressed, only I want you to holler for one of us before you try to make your way down the stairs. That cast is a lot heavier than the splints and I don’t want your balance compromised to where you might fall, if not helped.”

“I’ll call out, Pa.”

“See you soon,” Adam stated as he patted Joe’s uncast leg and left the room.

“Just holler,” Hoss grinned as he left.

Ben just grinned as he left the room.

*****

Ben smiled as he watched his two eldest sons encouraging their brother as they escorted Joe across the yard from the house to the barn. Doc had been right… The weight of the cast did make Joe more wobbly as he used the crutches. But Joe was managing, slowly. Ben had just turned to re-enter their home when his heart panicked upon hearing horses galloping. Without conscious thought, he whirled on the porch as several of the ranch hands came cantering their horses through the yard instead of going around on their way to the range from the barn where the hired help horses were stabled. Ben was appalled at hearing the comments they voiced towards his youngest son. But what shocked him more was his youngest son’s reaction to the men; he’d dropped his crutches and clung to his middle brother for dear life.

Ben ran across the yard, yelling at the men for their actions and language, becoming more infuriated by the expressions on the men’s faces as they continued to ride away. Making a mental note to deal with the two later, Ben continued towards his sons.

“Joseph?” Ben calmly called as he reached the threesome, with Adam reaching down to pick up the crutches. “Are you okay?” he placed his hands on Joe’s shoulders.

With his eyes closed, Joe shook his head sideways, still not relinquishing his grip upon his brother.

“It’s okay Joe,” Hoss comforted. “No need to cry. I got ya.”

“Guess we shouldn’t have pushed you to come to the barn. I’m sorry, Joe, I should have thought to give you more time to allow your body to become accustomed to the weight of the cast,” Adam offered as an apology. “I’ll talk with those two about racing through the yard like that.”

“You want our help to get you back to the house?” Ben asked.

Joe nodded, still not letting go of Hoss, who mouthed, “I’ll carry him.”

With little effort, Hoss picked up his brother by placing his arms behind Joe’s shoulders and under his knees to carry him into the house and up to his bedroom.

*****

Once Joe was settled and asleep in his bed, Ben told the others he’d stay close to the house and for them to head on out as planned. “The ranch won’t take care of itself,” Ben stated as both brothers attempted to voice their complaints in being dispatched away from the house.

*****

With Adam on Sport and Hoss on Chubs they headed out to check several of the herd watering holes as the two brothers talked.

“Whatca gonna tell Reed and Torrington when you see them?” Hoss asked as he trotted his black horse alongside Adam’s chestnut.

“If I have my way, I’ll fire them.”

“For racin’ through the yard? Only Joe races in faster than them two…”

“Then you didn’t hear their comments. I’m sure Pa did.” Adam shook his head as he remembered the expression upon their father’s face.

“They taunted him? I didn’t hear anythin’ ‘cept Joe grabbin’ onto me. Dang near squeezed the breath out of me.”

Not sure how his compassionate brother would handle the comments, regardless Adam knew that Hoss had a right to know what the men had said, “Reed called, ‘Hey runt, get outa the way,’ and Torrington made a snide remark saying, ‘Told ya the kid needed a babysitter’.”

“I thought Charlie had taken care of all that ages ago…” Hoss regretfully stated, not realizing the hazing his younger brother was still taking from some of the hands.

“He may have… I’m sure if Charlie knew, he would have told us. Some men just have to push the boundaries…”

“Yeah, but to say it like that, when we’s all there to hear it?” Disbelief echoed in Hoss’ words.

“Doesn’t take a college education to push cattle or fix a fence.”

Unbelieving that his brother left himself wide open with such a statement, Hoss teased, “But you went to college. And you push cattle and fix fences.”

The expression on Adam’s face revealed his inability to believe his brother had the audacity to say what he said. When Hoss saw the look on his brother’s face he added, “Well, ya did… and ya do,” before he kicked his horse into a canter in order to escape his brother’s wrath.

*****

Ben sat in front of the fireplace, absent-mindedly smoking his pipe, the trail of smoke wafting towards the ceiling of the main room as Ben slowly exhaled. He’d hoped that sitting down with his pipe would lessen the anger he felt towards the two hands, but the more he thought on it, the madder the situation drove him. The one thing that tempered his anger was the image of his son… scared to death, clinging to his brother. Too much had happened to his son in the past four weeks and Ben wondered if the boy would be able to get past it all in order to return to being the youth who was always ready to meet the world head on.

Later in the morning, footsteps upon the porch and voices pitched in displeasure drew Ben’s attention to the front door. Hop Sing opened the door for his employer.

“Mr. Cartwright,” Charlie stated as he pushed Reed and Torrington into the main room. “These two want to collect their wages and head elsewhere.”

Sitting up and recognizing the two men, Ben arched an eyebrow in surprise.

“Yeah, tired of having to be a second-act babysitter,” Torrington muttered.

“Mind your manners in this house,” warned Charlie, his eyes narrowed upon hearing the man’s comment. “The Cartwrights are good employers and we ain’t got no room on the Ponderosa for men like you.”

“Well, we don’t wanna be here nohow. We want what’s due us,” jeered Reed.

“Considering it is close enough to the end of the month, I’ll go ahead and pay you a full month’s wages. I know I shouldn’t, but if it will get you off the Ponderosa quicker…” Ben answered while walking to the safe cached in the corner of the area he used as an office.

Once the safe was open, he pulled out a cash box as well as a receipt book. Filling in the necessary information he pushed the book across the top of his desk and asked the two men to sign their names where he had written “Final Payment” next to a dollar amount.

“Better places out there to work,” Reed muttered as he stuffed his money into one of the pockets in his pants.

“Then be my guest and go work there,” Charlie stated as he walked the two men toward the door. From there he said, “You have fifteen minutes to get your gear from the bunkhouse and be heading off the Ponderosa. If you’re found on the premises, I’ll haul your sorry carcasses to Virginia City and file trespassing charges against ya on behalf of the Cartwrights. Now get!”

As he watched the two men leaving, muttering under their breaths, Charlie turned when he heard his employer call his name.

“Yes, Mr. Cartwright?” Charlie stated as he walked back to Ben’s office area. His employer sat in his chair, elbows on the arms rests, fingers mirrored the image of a church roof and steeple.

“You care to tell me what that was all about?” Ben asked and raised an eyebrow in curiosity.

“Well… I figured it would come better from me than from you or Adam.”

“I don’t follow you, Charlie.”

“Boss, I was in the barn, watching as Hoss and Adam were helping Little Joe across the yard. I heard what those two said.” Fidgeting with his hat, he continued, “Most of the men it only takes once or twice of me or the others who like the kid, getting after them about watching their language and attitudes… But them two… I don’t know… I guess by our trying to protect Little Joe, they took it the wrong way. The other fellas have tried to tell me how they really are, but they’ve not done it in my hearing… Until today.”

“So it was your decision for them to ‘collect their pay’?”

“I’m sorry if I overstepped my job, but… Well… Me and the boys like the kid… I’m sure the other fellas will be happy not to have to deal with those two… If ya know what I mean… Men like that sorta stick in your craw.”

“Don’t worry, Charlie. I appreciate your looking out for Joe. Before you brought them in, I was trying to figure out how best to deal with them… Guess with all that happened to Joe on top of Adam’s accident, I’ve been too distracted to think straight. Thank you.”

“My pleasure, Mr. Cartwright.”

“Tell the other hands that I appreciate all that they do here,” Ben stated as he stood, returned the receipt book and cash box to the safe and closed the door.

*****

Hop Sing cleared his throat as he stood next to where his employer sat in his chair, to the left of the fireplace.

“I’m sorry Hop Sing. Did you say something?” inquired Ben.

“Lunch ready soon. Lit’le Joe come downstairs, eat with family?”

“I’ll see if he’s awake. He took a scare earlier. But maybe now he’ll understand why I keep after ‘him’ to not race Dusty into the yard,” Ben stated and stood to proceed upstairs.

“Some lessons lit’le boys never learn,” Hop Sing answered.

“And this is probably one of them,” Ben smiled.

Slowly Ben climbed the staircase and made his way to his youngest son’s room, without knocking, in case his son was still asleep, Ben opened the door. Without stepping into the room he saw the bed, unmade indicating Joseph had lain in it, but currently the bed was empty. Worried, he stepped into the room to look around and saw his son sitting at his desk.

“Joe?”

“Oh, hi Pa. I didn’t hear you come upstairs.”

“What are you doing?”

“Studying… Adam left Miss Jones’ lesson plan in here the other day. I thought I’d go ahead and do some of the work.”

Ben looked over his son’s shoulder and saw the mathematical equations written on the tablet of paper and at first glance, Ben couldn’t make heads or tails from the numbers. Shaking his head he looked to the book to see ‘Introduction to Algebra’ at the top of the pages. ”No wonder,” mused Ben.

“Hop Sing said lunch will be ready shortly. I thought maybe I could help you down the stairs…”

“Sure Pa, let me mark my spot in my lesson.”

*****

Ben and Joe were already at the table when Hoss and Adam entered from the kitchen, joking with each other about being thankful the water holes were not in need of cleaning out.

“Guess those beavers know Joe’s laid up,” teased Hoss as they rounded the corner.

“Yeah, otherwise we’d be out there dismantling it,” Adam thankfully agreed.

“Hey Adam, I…”

“We’s only teasin’ ya little brother,” Hoss announced.

“I know that. But… after lunch… Adam could you help me?” Joe hesitantly asked.

Looking to his Pa before answering and unable to decipher his father’s facial expression, Adam stated, “Sure.”

“I was going over the lesson plan Miss Jones left for me. And I kinda understand the beginning of Algebra, and think I answered some of the equations correct, but there’s a few that have me stumped…”

“Okay…” Adam answered, not expecting the requested help to be related to the boy’s school work.

“Pa, it’s okay that Adam helps me for a little while… Isn’t it?”

“Yes, it’s okay,” Ben quietly nodded.

Adam interpreted that Ben was concerned, any other time their father would be ecstatic over the youngest son’s eagerness towards his studies, but this was so atypical of Joe that no one knew exactly how they were supposed to react.

“Hey Hoss, don’t want you to feel neglected… How about a couple of games of checkers before supper?” Joe asked.

“I thought you’d want to go out and see Dusty settled for the night…”

“Well… I do… but, my leg is kinda tired. Dragging this cast thing around can sure wear a body out,” Joe replied eagerly eating the food he’d placed upon his plate. “And my arms and back are a little achy from using the crutches too. Would you take care of him?”

“Sure, I’d be happy to.”

*****

Ben walked down the stairs after being woken by a noise from the lower floor of the massive ranch house; he wasn’t surprised to see Adam sitting near the fireplace in his blue chair. It did surprise him to see a glass of brandy in his hand, the tray with the brandy decanter and three other glasses sitting on the low table in front of him.

“Son?”

“Sorry if I woke you, Pa. I was trying to be quiet.”

“I haven’t been sleeping too well since Joe’s accident…” Ben answered as he came around to where Adam sat and took a seat upon the settee.

“Can I offer you a drink?” Adam asked.

“Maybe, if you tell me what’s troubling you?” Having glanced at the grandfather clock that stood to the left of the door, the fire illuminated the room well enough for Ben to have seen it was well after one in the morning.

“The same thing that’s troubling all of us lately,” Adam quietly answered as he raised the glass to his lips and took a small sip.

“Joseph?”

“Joe,” Adam agreed. “Pa, I think I’ve finally figured out what’s wrong with him…”

“And?”

“And for the life of me I don’t know how to help him.”

“Maybe if you’ll tell his father…” Ben suggested. His unspoken words indicated that it was his right as Joe’s father to know what was wrong with his son, as well as to try to come up with a way to help him.

“You’re going to want a drink once you hear,” Adam stated as he leaned forward, poured a glass and held it out to his father.

Accepting the glass was Ben’s way of letting Adam know to proceed.

“He’s afraid…”

“I think we’ve all figured that out… But of what… I, for the life of me, don’t know…”

“Horses.”

Ben’s expression changed to one of disbelief as he lowered his eyebrows and titled his head towards his eldest.

“Think on it Pa. Think of everything he’s said, conscious or sleeping and the things he’s not said that he normally would have. Look at his actions, his avoidance of going to the barn. And this morning… It had nothing to do with what Reed or Torrington said or the fact that they raced their horses through the yard, it was their horses… There’s no other explanation. By the way, I plan to have words with those two in the morning to see that they ‘tow the line’ and follow our rules.”

“That won’t be necessary,” Ben answered

“Pa, I know you heard what they said towards Joe,” Adam’s words sounded harsh. “I don’t care who they are, they’ve no right to speak to or about my little brother, or anyone for that matter, as they did.”

“I agree Adam, however, they’re gone. Charlie brought them in while you and Hoss were out. He said they were here to collect their final pay.”

“They just up and quit like that?” asked Adam, not believing what his father was saying.

“Not exactly… Charlie fired them, and from what I hear it sounds like the remaining men in the bunkhouse think good riddance.”

“Well, that’s two less things to worry about… But back to Joe. Pa, I seriously think that Joe has developed a phobia towards horses. My little brother sees me injured in what could very well have been a serious accident. That had to be a shock to him. I commend him for keeping his wits about him and going after Paul, however, he’s injured after either being thrown or having fallen off his horse. Pa, think back to last fall, when I found him lassoing that bull and how hard we came down on him for pulling such a stunt. We agreed at the time that Joe needed to learn first-hand what it took to work on the ranch. We started by having him take on more responsibilities for doing chores around the barn over the winter.” Adam hesitated as he remembered the morning, only two months before, his voice softened, “Do you remember that morning? The morning we told him he was officially a working hand on the Ponderosa?”

Ben sat back and remembered, remembered how he had tried to instill the fact that life on the ranch was dangerous, how just riding a horse could be dangerous, but with cattle added to the equation… Ben raised the glass of brandy and swallowed half the contents before he lowered it from his lips.

“And while you were telling him how dangerous the work could be, we were teaching him the same. We kept right on instructing him how dangerous everything was… every time he worked alongside of us… I don’t think we ever started a project without some kind of warning about the dangers… Pa, Hoss and I are as much to blame for this as anyone.”

“But scared of horses… He… I don’t understand how he could go from being so vibrant and excited that morning at the corrals… It wasn’t even twenty four hours later when he first had a nightmare…”

“We have no idea how long he laid unconscious out on the road before the Caruthers found him. The other day, when we were meeting with Paul, he told us the mind was funny in how it interpreted situations… And now, instead of putting all his energy into working the ranch or being interested in what’s happening on the ranch… How like Joe is it to be eager to do schoolwork?”

“So, what should we do?” Ben asked in defeat. His youngest son, the son who begged and pleaded to ride at the age of four on his own, the one who could easily swing mount into a saddle, and with the slightest shift of his weight could ask the horse to change canter leads or change direction of travel… It was difficult to accept that his son was now scared of the one thing that he held such a passion for – horses.

“I don’t think there’s much we can do until the cast comes off. However, I would recommend that we no longer push him to venture out to the barn, and only talk of the ranch if he asks about what we’re doing. I’ll talk with Hoss in the morning.”

“Should I have Rudy continue working with the pinto?” Ben asked as he agreed with his son on what they needed to do in order to help the youngest Cartwright.

“Definitely. I’m sure that once the cast is off, and with Hoss’ help, we’ll get that young jack rabbit back in the saddle and you’ll be chastising him against racing into the yard. And since Dusty won’t be able to carry Joe for any more ranch work… he’ll need a new horse. Who knows, maybe seeing the horse of his dreams will be the ticket to break him out of this phobia.”

“I pray you’re right.”

“Well, if you don’t mind, morning’s going to come way too early. Good night, Pa.”

“Good night son; and thank you.”

After watching Adam head up the stairs to his bedroom, Ben banked the fire in the fireplace before following his son to the second floor.

*****

Hoss was just putting on his vest when he heard the gentle knocks on his door, “I’m comin’,” he answered as he adjusted the collar of his shirt. The door opened and he turned to see his oldest brother entering. “Adam, I said I was comin’.”

“I heard, but I wanted to talk with you about something,” Adam stated as he entered, looking like he’d lost his best friend.

“What’s up? Is Shortshanks okay?” Hoss asked, very perceptible to the mood of his brother.

“He’s not awake yet. And while he’s sleeping I thought I’d let you know we figured out what’s up with Joe.”

“Yeah?”

“Hoss, I think he’s developed a phobia towards horses,” Adam stated as he leaned his hip against the dresser in the room.

“That’s plumb loco, Adam.”

“And Pa thought so too, until I pointed out all the idiosyncrasies Joe’s been displaying.”

“The what?” Hoss did even try to repeat the word.

“His unusual behaviors.”

“Then why didn’t ya just say that?”

Casting his eyes upwards, squeezing the bridge of his nose between his thumb and forefinger, and breathing deep were Adam’s way of dealing with his frustration towards his middle brother. When they were growing up, Adam was always reading and learning when he had spare time and he’d tried to instill the same love for books and expanding one’s knowledge into his brother, but it had been apparent from early on that Hoss would learn better from nature and tending to animals than he ever would inspire to be a scholar. But now Joe… Adam thought back on the past few weeks and how much more he was coming to enjoy spending time with his youngest sibling. The questions Joe asked were more mature and more to the point of learning, versus what Adam previously considered his incessant babbling. As Adam took over the role of Joe’s teacher, he was pleased to see his brother’s vocabulary and grammar skills improve under his tutelage, as well as his thirst for knowledge.

“Sorry Hoss, it’s just that all of this is so frustrating, but I’m serious about Joe and horses, and Pa agrees.”

“Shortshanks scared of horses? I can’t believe that.” Seeing how serious Adam was, Hoss asked, “What can we do to make him unscared?”

“For the time being, at least until his cast comes off, when he’s present, we won’t talk about the ranch work unless Joe asks. And we won’t pressure him to go to the barn, maybe without us pressuring him he’ll choose to go on his own…”

“Ya think so?”

“Not really…” Adam replied with a discouraged voice.

*****

Upon taking the new direction in their dealing with Little Joe, the days passed with relative ease. The youngest spent his hours helping around the house when he could, sitting next to his father for an introduction to ‘doing the books’, or studying the lessons that Adam had gone over with him the night before. Or, when he was finished with his studies, he’d asked his oldest brother for permission to read some of his books, “Are there any in particular that you would recommend?” Joe asked Adam one night as he finished tidying up the desk in his room before going to bed.

Adam returned from his room carrying two books and handed them to Joe, “I think you’d enjoy reading these.”

Joe read the titles of both books, “Oliver Twist and A Tale of Two Cities. They sure don’t sound like lesson books.”

“They’re not. They’re considered literature – works of fiction, but as you’ll find out most works of fiction are born of real life struggles. I’d be happy to discuss your impression on either book; both are by the same author, Charles Dickens…”

“Didn’t he write, ‘A Christmas Carol’, about Mr. Scrooge and ghosts?”

“Yes, Mr. Dickens did write that story.”

*****

As Joe settled into his life of studying and reading what would in the future become among ‘The Classics’; his family would return from working to find him engrossed in reading. Discussions during supper became more of a one sided affair between Adam and Joe discussing his latest perceptions or questions on the story he was currently reading, leaving Ben and Hoss to sit and intently listen.

*****

The family sat around the great room one Sunday afternoon when they all heard the arrival of a horse and carriage.

Hoss rose from his seat to answer the knock at the door, “Miss Abigail… Won’t you come in…”

Abigail and another gentleman entered the great room as the rest of the Cartwrights, with the exception of Little Joe, stood to greet them.

“Mr. Cartwright, I hope you don’t mind our stopping by unannounced,” Abigail offered as she removed her bonnet.

“Of course not. Please won’t you come in?” Ben offered.

“Mr. Cartwright, I’d like you to meet Mr. Michael Langsford, he’s to be a new teacher at the school this fall… Working with the older students.”

“Yes, Adam informed me of the facts after the school board made their decision,” Ben answered and greeted the man with a firm handshake. “Welcome to the Ponderosa. You already know my oldest, Adam.” The man nodded. “This is my middle son, Hoss.”

“Pleased ta meet ya sir,” Hoss answered as he extended his hand.

“The same,” Mr. Lansford replied.

“And this,” Ben continued, “is my youngest son, Joseph. I believe he’ll be one of your students this fall.”

“Mr. Langsford,” Joe greeted and tried to stand.

“Please don’t get up. I understand how cumbersome getting around with a broken leg can be.” Returning his attention back to Ben, he said, “Actually, I insisted that Miss Abigail bring me to the ranch, I wanted to meet the young man whose works I’ve been reviewing since I was offered the job. I must say, there has been a considerable improvement in what I’ve reviewed.”

“You’ve been reading my homework?” Joe asked, surprised.

“It’s a habit that I picked up years ago. It gives me a better insight, and a better understanding of who my students are and just how serious they are about learning. And your lessons have intrigued me. I had hoped to meet you when you came to church with your family, but then Miss Abigail informed me of your accident. So, that is why we’re here, so Mr. Cartwright, please forgive this impromptu parent / teacher meeting.”

“No, I’m always pleased to discuss Joe’s schooling with his teacher.” Ben smiled, “Please won’t you be seated.”

“Yeah, at least lately it’s been good reports. He ain’t gettin’ into trouble, like he always done,” Hoss teased as he sat on the stones of the hearth and the others took seats in the chairs or joined Joe on the settee.

“Mr. Cart…” Mr. Langsford stopped; it was getting a little confusing as to how to address each man so as not to confuse who he was talking to.

Adam realized the new teacher was looking to him, so he offered, “Please call me Adam. Too many Cartwrights to stand on formalities.”

“I’d be honored if you’d call me Michael. I understand that you are overseeing Joseph’s studies during his convalescence.”

“He is,” Joe offered. “But just of an evening, after supper.”

“That’s true. Joe’s been very astute in picking up and understanding Abigail’s lesson plans, so he’s pretty much following along on his own and of an evening we’ll review what he’s learned and when he has difficulties, I’ll work with him to explain the lesson until he can understand.”

“Very remarkable… From what Miss Abigail said has transpired over the past month and half, I’m truly impressed. If I may… I have a proposition for you; I’d like to take over the tutelage of Joseph during the summer as well as private lessons during the school year. If I’m right, I believe that within two years, at the most, Joe would be well qualified to gain admittance to Yale.”

“What about Harvard? That’s where Adam graduated from,” Hoss eagerly stated, right pleased of the possibility that both his brothers would be college graduates.

“You graduated from Harvard?” Michael inquired.

“Oh, yes, he did,” Miss Abigail stated. “He has degrees in engineering and architecture.”

“A far cry from degrees in education,” Adam humbly replied.

“But you received Masters in both your degrees,” Joe defended.

“Yes, Joe, but this discussion isn’t about me… It’s about ‘your’ future,” Adam’s words indicated that ‘he’ as the topic of the discussion was closed.

“Would you like that Joe,” Ben asked.

“I don’t know… I mean, Adam’s done such a good job helping me…”

“What about college, Shortshanks…”

“That’s still some time away,” Joe stated, he couldn’t see leaving the Ponderosa, but then… he could no longer see himself working the land along side his family.

“Joseph doesn’t have to decide tonight, or even during the upcoming school year. I only mention it so that you, as his family, will understand how bright a young man you have here and you already know the opportunities that could await him as a college graduate.”

“What about Adam? Why don’t you offer him a teaching job at Yale?” Hoss chuckled.

“Hoss, my job is here. I left home to seek an education and expand my knowledge, and chose to return… so here is where I belong,” Adam concluded.

“But to me, it seems that it’s a waste of your talent as a teacher,” Michael stated. “We are in desperate need of instructors who can influence this kind of a turn-around in a student.”

“As I said, Joe’s done most of the work himself,” Adam again deflected.

Hearing and listening to the oldest Cartwright son, Michael stated, “I do understand. Abigail, I think we should return to town. Mr. Cartwright, I’m serious about continuing Joseph’s instructions. Please give it due consideration.”

The two teachers left the Ponderosa, leaving the family astounded and staring at their youngest.

“What?!” Joe stated as he reached for the book he had set down when their guests arrived.

“Maybe we got our own, Isaac Newton,” declared Hoss.

“Supper ready. Family come eat,” Hop Sing announced.

*****

“Come on Joe!” Ben hollered from the base of the staircase, looking up to the second floor.

“I’m coming. What’s the big hurry?” Joe asked as he carefully maneuvered down the steps. Seeing his middle brother he asked, “What are you doing home this afternoon, I thought you and Adam were supposed to be out working.”

“You forget you get your cast off today?” inquired Hoss as he walked across the floor to the stairway.

“My cast off? I guess I did…” Joe looked around the room, “Is Doc Martin in the kitchen with Hop Sing?”

“Why would Doc Martin be here? We told you… Joseph, we’re going to town to see Paul in his office and afterwards, I thought I’d take all three of my sons to supper at the International House.”

“Why can’t he come here?” Joe asked.

“Because he’s a busy man… and the removal of your cast is not a matter of life or death. Now come on.”

“Uh, I can wait for another day,” suggested Joe as he leaned heavily against the crutches, “when Doc’s not as busy.”

“The carriage is all hitched,” Adam stated as he easily breezed through the doorway.

“Joseph, we are going to town. Hoss, go upstairs and get his jacket. Come along Joe,” Ben stated as he placed a hand between his son’s shoulders to help encourage him to walk to the front door.

“I… I can’t Pa. I can’t go to town…” Joe pleaded as the horses came into his line of vision.

“You can, and you will. Now, get up in the buggy.”

“Here, let me help you Joe,” offered Adam as he watch Joe struggle with his inner demons.

A few minutes later, with Joe and Ben in the buggy and Hoss and Adam following on their horses, the family was on their way towards Virginia City. Ben cast a casual glance towards his son and saw the knuckles of his right hand clutched white as he gripped the side support of the canopy. ‘Joseph, if you’d only relax…’ Ben’s attention was drawn back to the horse he was driving as it startled when a jack rabbit scampered across the ground in front of its feet. Ben heard the sharp inhalation from his son. With the horse under control, Ben looked at Joe, both hands tightly grasping the canopy supports with his eyes closed just as tight.

“It’s okay Joseph,” Ben quietly stated as he placed a hand to his son’s shoulder and felt the tension within.

*****

Doc Martin greeted the Cartwrights on the boardwalk as they waited for Hoss to help Joe from the buggy. As Joe preceded him into his office, Doc said, “Bet you’re glad to be here and eager for the removal of your cast, young man.”

“Glad to be in here,” Joe answered as he made his way to the examination table and Hoss helped him lift his leg to lie on the table so it would be easy for the doctor to remove the cast.

“It’ll take me about an hour or so to remove the cast, why don’t you three go to the Silver Dollar and wait for me to finish with this young truant.”

“Ain’t ya heard Doc, he’s not a truant, he’s a scholar. Mr. Michael Langsford himself offered to tutor Joe over the summer and into the school year. Says he can to go to Yale,” boasted Hoss.

“Is that right…” Doc voiced, not as a question or a statement, but one of disbelief.

“I’ll see you three later, Pa,” Joe answered, followed by a quick gulp as Doc Martin uncovered the tray containing all sorts of tools to use during the removal of the heavy plaster that surrounded his leg.

“Here’s your boot, son,” Ben said before he left the examination room.

Setting to his task at once, Doc Martin offered Joe a small glass of water lightly laced with laudanum. “It’s bound to get a little uncomfortable as I work my way through the plaster, there’s only enough laudanum in here to act as a calming agent.”

“Okay Doc,” Joe stated as he accepted the glass and swallowed the entire contents.

“So, you’re thinking of going to Yale?” Doc asked as a way to pass the time while working.

“That’s what Mr. Langsford said I could do.”

“And you’re not sure?”

“Not yet. I mean… The Ponderosa is my home…”

“It’s Adam’s home too. He went away to college and returned. I’m sure your father would be pleased to see a second son attend college. Have you thought of a major yet?”

“I haven’t thought of anything…” Joe jumped as the tip of the saw blade poked his leg.

“Sorry about that, Joe. You doing okay?”

“Sure… Everything’s just fine,” Joe exaggerated.

“You still experiencing nightmares?” Doc asked as he stopped working on the cast to observe his patient.

“Sometimes…” Joe admitted as he gave a quick shrug of his shoulders.

“Have you discussed them with your father?”

“Nothing to talk about; I can’t remember them.”

Doc Martin, in disbelief at the boldface lie the young man told, slowly shook his head from side to side. “If that’s what you want to believe, but I for one can tell that you vividly remember your dreams. Your face gives you away Joe. If you ever want to grow up to play poker, you’ve got to learn to bluff your way a lot better than you’re doing.”

“Maybe that’s what I’ll become, a card sharp, if I don’t choose to go to college.”

“What’s that supposed to mean? I thought you were planning to work the Ponderosa with your brothers.”

“So was I…” Joe sulked.

Knowing the youngest Cartwright as well as he did, Doc chose not to press him on this subject as he returned his attention to the removal of the cast, but he didn’t forget the conversation either. He planned ask more questions of Joe in order to draw more out from him as the procedure continued.

Fifty minutes after it began, with multiple grimaces and clutching the edge of the table, the cast was off and Joe’s leg was bathed of the plaster that had attached itself to him through the sock that was worn between the cast and his skin.

“Are you ready to stand up and try walking on it, Joe?”

“I guess,” Joe stated as he swung his leg off the table.

“Take it slow and easy at first,” advised Doc as he offered to help Joe take his first few tentative steps.

The bell over the door rang, indicating someone had entered his outer office, “Be right with you!”

“Take your time, Paul,” they heard Ben’s voice reply.

“Well, care to show off your new skill to your family?”

“Sure,” answered Joe as he slowly transferred his weight from his right leg to his left and back again in order to walk through the doorway and to greet his family.

“Now, Joe. Just because I’ve removed the cast doesn’t mean that you can race your horse or spend all day in the saddle. It’s going to take time to rebuild your muscles to acclimate them to that activity.”

“I won’t be racing a horse… don’t worry about that,” Joe responded as Hoss handed him his hat and the brothers headed out the door after hearing Ben state he’d meet them at the International House and for them to go ahead and get a table.

“Ben, I’m glad you didn’t leave with the boys, I need to talk to you.”

“Is everything okay?”

“With Joe? Physically he’s fine, and I mean it when I say he can’t resume his regular activities right away. If he does, he’s going to be sore. Work him slowly back to where he was before the accident.”

“But you saw something else, didn’t you?” Ben asked.

Paul nodded.

“Adam thinks… through everything that’s happened, that for some reason… He’s become scared of horses.”

“And you agree?”

“I do.”

“Well, I have to agree with you. Based on comments he made while we talked as I worked. What are you going to do?”

“Well, we were waiting until his cast came off, and then take it one day at a time… Hoping he’d come around on his own to realize there’s nothing to be scared of… But if that doesn’t work… We have a plan B in the works.”

“Care to let me in on your plan?”

“I was successful in my dealings with Chief Winnemucca,” answered Ben.

“You got the pinto?” Paul was happy; he’d known for a long time how Ben had tried to trade for that horse to give to his youngest.

Ben smiled.

“I hope your plan works.”

“We do to, we all do.” Ben turned to leave.

“Goodbye Ben, just send someone for me if you need me.”

“Thanks for everything Paul.”

Ben left the clinic to join his family at the International House Restaurant.

*****

The sun had set and the town was quiet, except for the noise from the Silver Dollar. On the boardwalk in front of the International House, Adam took a risk and offered Sport for Joe to ride home.

“Uh…I really shouldn’t. You heard Doc Martin say I wasn’t supposed to overdo it.”

“Well, Chubs here is a lot calmer than Sport. Ya want to ride him home?”

“No… Thank you, Hoss. I really appreciate both your offers… I think I’ll just ride home in the buggy with Pa.”

The three elder Cartwrights looked to each other as Joe climbed into the buggy; each knew it was going to be a long road to get Joe back in the saddle.

Ben guided the horse along the road to their home as the moonlight bathed the landscape in a soft glow. The view spread before him was serene, and yet, his one hope and prayer was that his son would enjoy it. The clip-clop of the horse’s trot gently sounded on the ground; in Ben’s mind the sounds transformed to words, “Be okay, son. Be okay, son.”

*****

“Couldn’t convince Joe to go to town with us?” Adam asked.

“Nah, I even told him we could stop by the Bucket O’Blood and let him have a half a beer.”

“You didn’t. What would you have done had he agreed to come? Pa’d skin us alive if Joe came home smelling of beer,” Adam stated as they saddled their horses.

“Well, I wanted to get him out of the house and on a horse… What would you a done?!” Hoss demanded.  “It’s been a week…”

Looking over the back of Sport, Adam stated, “Probably the same thing.”

“I know you tried son, and it would have been worth it had it worked,” Ben stated as he entered the barn having heard his sons’ conversation. “If you could wait a few minutes, Charlie’s hitching up the team.”

“The team?” Hoss asked. “We’re just goin’ to town for the payroll and to get the mail.”

“Hop Sing pointed out to me that his order can’t wait until the weekend, especially since the last time you returned and several items on his list were missing.”

“He can’t blame us for that Pa,” Adam stated. “It’s not our fault that Cass was out of… whatever.”

“Well, this time if Cass is out of… whatever… Hop Sing can deal directly with him.”

“Yeah, instead a comin’ down on us a threatenin’ to go back to China,” teased Hoss.

The three men left the barn and met Hop Sing as he climbed aboard the buckboard for the trip to Virginia City.

“Take care,” Ben waved off as the small group left the yard.

“We will Pa,” Hoss hollered back, waving his hand over his head in acknowledgement as he and Adam followed Hop Sing and the buckboard.

*****

Having spoken with Charlie regarding plans for the next few days, Ben returned to their home. Upon entering, he saw Joe sitting on the settee, reading one of his lesson books. “You know, your brothers really wanted you to ride into town with them.”

“I know, but I just didn’t think that Dusty was up to that long of a ride.”

“You could have ridden in the buckboard with Hop Sing,” Ben added as he sat next to his son, his hands felt lost as he wanted to pat his son’s knee as a way to offer support and comfort.

“Oh… Hop Sing was going into town too?” Joe tried to innocently ask. “But if I’d gone, it would have taken me away from my lessons. You know how much longer it takes driving the buckboard and then waiting for the supplies and loading them…”

“Joseph, we need to talk. Just the two of us.”

“Sure,” he answered, his voice sounding anything but assured.

“It’s been a week since your cast was removed.”

“I know,” Joe answered, still looking at the page in his book.

“You have to get back in the saddle some time.”

“What’s that supposed to mean? I’m following Doctor Martin’s advice, and I’m sure that Mr. Langsford will be really pleased when he sees my latest tests.”

“Joseph,” Ben shook his head, “you’re avoiding the problem. I’ve never known you to avoid anything, unless it was a ‘necessary’ trip to the barn.”

“I’m not avoiding anything…”

“You know, you’re as bad at bluffing as Paul says you are.” Ben placed his hand on his son’s knee, “You haven’t once this week gone to the barn to see Dusty. And your excuses are just that… excuses.”

“But I thought you’d be pleased…”

“Any other time that my youngest son would devote himself to his lessons, and did as he was told, I would be thrilled. But this isn’t you, Joe.”

“Well, maybe it’s time I took Adam’s advice and grew up,” Joe said defensively.

“Another point in my favor; you following Adam’s advice. Though I happen to enjoy listening to the discussions between the two of you instead of the bickering and verbal sparing, I almost wish that mischievous part of you would reappear.”

“I don’t mean to disappoint you, Pa.”

“You’re only disappointing me in that you won’t face the truth… “

“I’ve not lied about anything…”

“No, I’ll agree with you there, you haven’t lied. But, you have learned to use your vocabulary to get across your specific point of view.”

“Okay, so what is it you think I’m avoiding? I’m sure you and Adam have discussed this ‘supposed’ problem of mine. Let me have it. What’s wrong with me?”

Here it was the challenge that Ben had hoped could be avoided; he had hoped his son would see things the way they really were. Joseph had given Ben no choice now but to take him to the one place where he knew he could break him… ‘No, not break him, but get through to him. Reach inside him and help him understand his fears so that he can conquer them,’ Ben thought as he stood from the settee.

“Let’s the two of us take a ride.” Without waiting for his son to object, he stated, “I know Dusty can handle this trip. We won’t go far.” Ben stood and walked to the door, “I’m going to saddle my horse, and I’d appreciate it if you’d join me.”  His tone conveyed the tone that he expected his youngest to heed his words.

Ben opened the door only to be pushed back inside by two masked gunmen forcing their way through the door and into the house.

“Get inside old man!” ordered one of the men, pushing Ben with his gun drawn. “Watch the brat!”

The second man entered and headed straight for the settee, his gun pointed towards Joe.

“There’s no need to point a gun at my son,” a panicked Ben stated as he was pushed towards his desk.

“Leave my Pa alone!” Joe yelled as he stood and moved to the end to the settee.

“Careful boy,” the second man scoffed as his thumb drew back the hammer to his Colt.

“That’s to help keep you in line. Now, open the safe!” the man barked in answer to Ben’s comment.

“There’s nothing in there but petty cash.”

“Yeah, right. This is the last day of the month, how do you expect to pay all your hands with only petty cash.”

“The money’s not here!” yelled Joe, body tense, fists clinched.

“Open the safe!” ordered the first man.

Ben knelt in front of the safe, his mind racing for a way out of this. Joe had told the truth; Adam and Hoss were late in returning from town. What would the men do when they found out there was no money? With the last turn of the dial, Ben lifted the handle and pulled the door to the safe open. The man behind him struck him over the head with the butt of his pistol. Groaning and dizzy, Ben sagged to the floor. As if from far away, Ben heard Joe scream, “PA!” while struggling to maintain his footing.

“Where’s the money?!” the first man demanded as he grabbed for the front of Ben’s shirt.

Shaking his head, Ben tried to hear what the man asked and tried to reply, but everything was fuzzy.

“Where’s the money?!”

“Leave my Pa alone!” Joe yelled as he rushed the second man who had turned away from him to watch his partner.

“Joe,” Ben mumbled as he fell into the first man.

The pain in his side registered before the sound of the gunshot or the smell of gunpowder. Ben grabbed at his side as he slowly slid down to the floor as the armed robber let go of him and watched with shocked fascination.

“PA!” screamed Joe. Forgetting all about the robbers, he ran to his father. “Pa?!” Joe cried. “Pa?”

“Where’s the money?” the second man asked as he came towards his partner.

“The kid weren’t lying, there ain’t none.”

“Let’s get out of here.”

The two men ran from the ranch house and viciously kicked and whipped their horses in their retreat.

“Pa?” Joe cried as he tried to stop the flow of blood from his father’s side.

Ben reached for Joe’s hand and stated, “Get Doc, Joe,” before he passed out, his head slipping sideways to the floor.

“Pa? I… I…” Joe scrambled to his feet and ran out the front door of the house. Halfway across the yard he tripped, and slammed his fisted hand to the ground is desperation. “I’m sorry, Pa… I … I can’t…” he cried as he couldn’t convince himself that he could saddle, let alone ride one of the horses to town for the doctor. “Charlie!” Joe remembered.

Clambering from the ground, Joe’s toes slipped for traction in the dusty dirt as he pushed himself forward on all four until he was actually running to the bunkhouse.

“CHARLIE!” Joe yelled as he approached the ranch hands’ living quarters and continued to yell as he pounded on the door. “CHARLIE!”

The door opened and Joe fell inside to the arms of their foreman, “Little Joe?”

“Pa’s been shot! Robbers! Ya gotta go for Doc!”

“Where is he? Joe?” Charlie asked.

“House, by safe. I gotta get back! Please Charlie!” cried Joe.

“I’ll be back as soon as I can. You get back there and take care of your pa.”

Without any further encouragement Joe ran back to the main house. Dropping to his knees by his pa he said, “I’m back Pa. Charlie’s gonna go get Doc. I’ll be right back. I need to get towels and put water on to boil.” He cringed when he touched his father’s side and fresh blood soaked through to his hands.

Joe left his father lying where he had collapsed as he ran into the kitchen and searched the cupboards until he found a pot he felt was the right size. He carried it to the sink and began pumping the handle of the water pump until the pot was three quarters full. Grunting, Joe lifted the pot from the sink, over to the stove and barely managed to slide it on the surface without dropping the whole thing on the floor. Opening the front grate of the stove, Joe shoved several pieces of wood inside as well as kindling and wadded up newspapers. Striking the first match, Joe cursed as it went out before he managed to get it close to the paper. With shaking hands, he held the match box closer to his target before he struck the second match. With bated breath he begged for the fire to take. He exhaled when his silent prayer was answered.

Leaving the kitchen, Joe ran to the bathhouse and stopped dead when he saw the empty shelves where the towels were stored. Laundry… Joe ran outside to the back of the massive house to where Hop Sing hung the laundry to dry in the sun and wind. Joe was oblivious to the fact that wherever he went, he transferred his father’s blood to the surface. Grabbing down a number of towels in different sizes, Joe returned to the house and tried his best to help his father until Doc arrived.

*****

“It’s not funny, Adam,” Hoss snickered as he loaded a bag of flour onto the buckboard.

Adam could not keep a straight face upon the sight of the diminutive Hop Sing castigating Hoss for interfering in getting the supplies he required. “Like you stay out of kitchen, you stay out of my way in store. Hop Sing no care about candy for big man! Very upset if no sugar for your coffee. Very upset if no sugar for cake!”

“You got to admit it little brother,” Adam said. “At least he was able to vent his anger at Cass this time instead of us for being out of sugar.”

“Yeah, that was kinda funny. How much longer do you think he’s gonna go on?”

“Until Cass finds the sugar in the store room.”

“Well, I just wish we could head on home. I don’t like the idea of us standin’ around with all that money on you.”

“I feel safer here, than on the road. We’ll go back when Hop Sing’s order is fulfilled. Besides, with Joe the way he’s been lately, I’ve missed laughing.”

“Yeah, I have too… I just wished he’d a come with us today.”

“Maybe when Rudy is finished with that pinto…”

“Yeah,” Hoss said as a shiver ran through his body.

“Don’t tell me the weather’s getting ready to change,” Adam stated as he saw his brother’s reaction.

“Naw, this ain’t weather. It’s like… feels as if someone’s dancin’ on my grave. I just got a case of the ‘somethin’ ain’t right’.”

“Well, come on. Maybe a beer will settle you,” Adam offered, “I’ll buy.”

“No, this ain’t somethin’ to drink over, Adam. It ain’t no beer call. We need to get home. Now!”

“You sure?”

“I’m sure,” Hoss stated, without waiting to see if his brother followed, he headed straight for where Chubs was tethered in front of the Sheriff’s Office, mounted and rode for home. Adam was only a few moments behind him; he’d waited for Hop Sing to come to the buckboard and told him about Hoss’ premonition.

“You go home! Protect Lit’le Joe and fatha!”

*****

Adam and Hoss were halfway home when they sharply pulled their horses to a halt. Sport objected by tossing his head up and down, while Chubs gave one of his infrequent rears.

“Charlie!” Adam yelled.

“Your Pa’s shot!” Charlie yelled, barely slowing his horse to deliver the news.

As Charlie continued his race to town, the brothers looked to each other and both voiced their dread in one word, “Joe.”

Whipping their horses with the ends of their reins, the brothers continued their race home.

*****

“PA!” Adam and Hoss yelled as they ran across the porch and pushed open the door to gain entry into the house.

“Adam! Over here!” Joe answered, tears streaming down his face. “They… they shot him. It won’t stop bleeding.”

The brothers saw their sibling’s distress and their father’s blood that covered his hands and soaked his clothes.

“Let Adam in there Joe,” Hoss stated as he gently guided Joe away from their father so that Adam could tend to him.

“How long ago was he shot? What happened?” Adam asked as he removed the blood soaked towels to examine the actual wound. “Joe, how long ago?!”

“I… I don’t know…”

“What happened, Joe? How’d Pa get shot? Who done it?” Hoss inquired.

“Pa was going to the… the… barn,” Joe stuttered out. “He was going to s-s-saddle Buck.” Joe paused; his eyes grew big as he saw the actual entry wound. He closed his eyes tightly in an effort to block out the scene.

“You’re doin’ good little brother. What happened next?”

“There were t-t-two of t-them. T-they wanted the p-payroll.”

“The payroll, but we weren’t back yet,” Hoss stated the obvious.

“Pa opened the… the safe. One of them struck Pa on the head with his gun,” Joe struggled to get the words out to describe what had happened. “He g-grabbed Pa when he didn’t find the money, Pa fell into him and…”

“And what Joe?!” Adam demanded as he tended to their father and listened to Joe at the same time.

“He shot him… Adam… Is he gonna live?” cried Joe.

“I hope so. If Doc can get here in time,” answered Adam. “I hope Charlie can get to him in time.” Looking up to his brothers, Adam stated, “Hoss get him to the kitchen and clean him up.”

“What about Pa?” asked Hoss. “Shouldn’t we move him to his room?”

“No, not with Joe telling us he was also hit on the head. I don’t want to move him until Paul says it’s okay. Just get Joe cleaned up.”

“I want to stay,” answered Joe plaintively. “I can help… I already have water on the stove to heat… I pulled the lanterns from the rooms, clean towels.”

As Joe spoke, the brothers looked to their father’s desk and saw the truth he had spoken.

“Ya done good little brother,” Hoss answered. “Now’s the time ta take care a yourself. We’ll take care of Pa from here.”

Torn between his desire to stay and the dismissal received from both his brothers, Joe left the room and headed to the kitchen. He checked the pot of water and added more wood to the stove, to increase the temperature inside, before he walked out the door and away from the main house.

*****

Ben’s moaning, gave the first hint of his return to consciousness.

“Ben? Ben? Can you hear me?” asked Doc Martin as he spoke beside the man’s ear.

“Joe… No Joe, don’t,” Ben stated. His return to consciousness was not a return to the present. “Joe, go for Doc.”

“What’s he saying Paul,” Adam asked as he sat forward in the chair in his father’s room.

“He’s calling for Joe. Telling him to ride for me…”

“Why’d he do that? He knows Joe ain’t been near a horse since his accident,” Hoss admitted.

“Pa wasn’t exactly thinking, but you know… I sort of figured that if anything would, that would be the trick to get Joe back on a horse. Having to ride to save Pa’s life.”

“But who’d he ride? If Dusty couldn’t make the trip to town for you… How’d he make the trip this time?”

“Guess that’s why Joe had Charlie ride for Doc.”

“Where is Joe anyway?” Paul Martin inquired.

“We told him to get cleaned up, and I’m sure he’s probably asleep in his room by now. I’ll tell you one thing, my heart almost stopped when I saw all the blood on him and his clothes.”

“He looked so scared kneelin’ there next to pa, putting pressure on the wound. And then listenin’ as he told us what happened.” Hoss shivered. “I can’t imagine what he went through here all alone,” Hoss added.

“Hoss, why don’t you go wake Joe, I’m sure he’d like to know that Pa’s going to be okay. Maybe if Pa hears Joe’s voice it will help bring him around.”

“Sure, be right back.”

Hoss left the room and walked to the bedroom of his little brother, knocking on the door he quietly called his brother’s name and opened the door.

“Joe? Joe?!” Hoss called upon seeing the empty bed. Turning back to the hallway, Hoss encountered Hop Sing. “Hop Sing, you seen Joe?”

“No see Lit’le Joe since morning. Someone leave bloody mess in kitchen, bathhouse, and on clean laundry.”

“That woulda been Joe, tryin’ to get stuff together for when Doc arrived. I hope his clothes come clean, that was his favorite shirt he was wearin’.”

“No find dirty lit’le boy clothes…”

“Whatcha mean, we told Joe to get cleaned up… Where’d he put his clothes?”

“No see Lit’le Joe, no see dirty clothes.”

“Adam!” Hoss called as realization dawned on him. “Joe ain’t in his room!” he called as he entered their father’s bedroom.

“Where is he?” Adam asked.

“I don’t know. Hop Sing ain’t seen ‘em either.”

“Hoss?” Ben slurred after hearing his son’s voice.

“I’m here Pa, so’s Adam.”

“Adam?”

“I’m here Pa. Welcome back,” Adam stated, his voice reflected his encouragement at the improving situation of his father.

“Joe got Doc?”

The brothers looked to each other before Adam stated, “He sent Charlie for Paul.”

“Oh,” Ben offered. “They didn’t hurt him, did they?”

“No, at least we don’t think they did. We didn’t really pay that much attention to him, other than insist that he clean himself up,” Adam stated.

“Ben, that’s enough. You go back to sleep,” Paul suggested.

“Want to see Joe,” Ben stated wearily.

“Later, when you wake,” Paul insisted.

“See Joe,” Ben mumbled as he fell asleep.

*****

“Where can he be?” Hoss asked.

“Where does he go whenever he’s troubled?” Adam answered with a knowing question.

“His momma’s grave?” Hoss replied.

Adam nodded. “Hop Sing, will you keep an eye on Pa while we go retrieve Little Joe?”

“Go, bring Numba Three son home.”

“I’ll stay here too, at least for the time being. I want to be here one more time when he regains consciousness,” insisted Paul.

“Thanks, Paul,” Adam stated as he and Hoss left the bedroom.

“How’d ya think he got there? Weren’t no horses missing in the barn.”

“He probably walked or ran. Lord… if he wouldn’t get on a horse to save Pa’s life, I can’t see him getting on a horse to go to Marie’s grave.”

*****

“Momma, I tried… I tried,” cried Joe as he lay sobbing in front of the headstone that marked his mother’s final resting place. “I tried, but I couldn’t… I’m scared Momma… I’m so scared. If Pa dies, they’ll hate me because I didn’t ride to get Doc. Momma, I don’t want him to die…”

“Well, well, well, if it isn’t the little boy without his babysitters,” Reed stated as he and Torrington rode their horses into the gravesite and stepped down.

Joe looked up, his eyes bloodshot, his clothes still covered with Ben’s blood.

“You… You! It was you, you broke into the house… You shot Pa!” Joe stood to his feet and threw himself at Reed, fisted hands pounding on the man’s torso.

“Hey! Leave off!” Reed called as he pushed Joe to the ground and pulled his gun.

“REED!” Torrington yelled. “I don’t want no murder rap.”

“But he knows it was us,” Reed answered. “How?” he looked to Joe still sitting on the ground.

“Your clothes. You’re wearing the same clothes those men wore,” Joe answered.

“What do we do now?” Torrington answered.

“WE get our money, one way or the other.” A wicked grin spread across the man’s face. “Kid, you’re coming with us.”

“No… No, I’m not… You can’t make me…” Joe spoke as he began to scramble backwards from the men, turned over, and pulled himself to his feet in an effort to run away.

Reed reached Joe and strongly grabbed him by the bicep; Joe struggled against the restraining hand. Even with a gun drawn on him, Joe fought with all the tenacity he knew. Without out any consideration, Reed slammed the butt of his pistol along the side of Joe’s head and allowed him to fall to the ground unconscious.

With his arm resting across the horn of his saddle, Torrington asked, “Just how do we get our money by taking him along? You thinking on holding him for ransom? I ain’t willing to go up against Ben Cartwright again, let alone Adam.”

“You’re thinking small… Think big… Think banks… Take this kid in as a hostage, bloody clothes and all… You think any teller or lawman’s gonna get in our way and risk shooting or killing the kid while tryin’ to stop us? Adam and Hoss’ll be too busy tending to their old man to think of looking for this brat. All the time they had to babysit him… they’ll be glad for his riddance.”

Like a sack of flour, Reed carried Joe and threw him over his saddle before climbing aboard behind him.

*****

Adam and Hoss returned to the house without Joe. Hop Sing informed the brothers that Ben was awake and wanted to see them upon their return. Like men climbing the steps to the gallows, the brothers climbed the staircase to go to their father’s room.

“He was there, Pa,” Adam stated.

“Was there. Where is he now?” Ben asked.

“We don’t know. There were signs of riders. It was getting’ too dark to continue,” Hoss thought to add, “we weren’t properly prepared to look into the night.”

“Prepared…” spat Ben. His youngest son was missing.

“Pa, let’s just wait until morning. Give Joe a chance to come back on his own. If he’s not back by morning, we’ll go searching for him. And we’ll be prepared to continue to look for him, even if it means riding tomorrow night.”

“Find him, Adam. He’s fragile right now… He knows we know the truth, but I didn’t get the chance to help him. Before… Before all this,” Ben indicated his injury, “I was pushing him to face the truth. I was getting ready to take him to Marie’s grave. I thought if any place would allow me to get through to him… That would be the place.”

*****

Dawn had broken over the Ponderosa for a second morning without the youngest being under the roof. Adam and Hoss somberly sat in their father’s bedroom as they recounted how they sent word to Sheriff Coffee that Joe was missing, presumed run away, and for him to keep an eye out around town.

“We also asked him to send word to Joe’s friends that we want him to come home. That you want him home,” Adam added.

*****

Hop Sing crossed the great room carrying a tray with Ben’s lunch when he heard a knock on the front door. Setting the tray on the table by the staircase, Hop Sing walked to the door to open it.

“Mr. Sheriff, why you come?”

“Hop Sing, I need to see Ben and the boys,” Sheriff Coffee stated.

“I take lunch to Mr. Cartwright. You follow.”

Hop Sing entered the master bedroom, followed by the sheriff.

“Ben, boys,” he greeted.

“Roy?” Ben replied.

“I got bad news, but good news for you.”

“You found Joe? Is he okay?” Hoss asked.

“What’s the news, Roy?” Adam asked, concerned that their father was quiet.

“We got a wire from Placerville this morning. Their bank was robbed.”

“How much money did they get away with?” Hoss asked.

“They didn’t,” Sheriff Coffee rocked back on his heels and looped his thumbs over his belt. “A deputy spotted them backin’ out of the bank and ordered them to drop their weapons. The robbers turned and fired, only to be shot down themselves.”

“Well, that’s good news, but… I’m sure you didn’t ride all the way out here just to tell us that,” Adam stated. He watched Sheriff Coffee’s body language and knew there was something more. “How’s this tie into Joe?”

“Yeah, that’s what I came to tell ya. They had Joe with ‘em.”

All three men perked up at the mention of Joe’s name.

“What about Lit’le Joe,” Hop Sing demanded as he made his presence known in the room. When the man wanted to, he could make people forget he was there by backing away from all the activity, and listening.

“The two robbers were Reed and Torrington… Seems they had Joe and the teller stated they were using him as a means to rob the bank; threatening to kill the boy if they didn’t turn over all the money.”

“Joe’s in Placerville?!” Hoss demanded. “Is he okay?”

“They weren’t sure at first. When they reached him, he was covered in dried blood.”

“But they’ve had the chance to examine him?” Adam asked.

“Doc Martin’s been wiring Doc Connors over there ever since we got word.” Roy exhaled just as deeply as he had inhaled. “He’s been roughed up a little bit, but… Couldn’t find a reason for all the blood on his clothes and body. But from what Doc Martin said, it’s probably Ben’s blood.”

“That days ago,” Hop Sing declared. “They no take care of Lit’le Joe?”

“Doesn’t look like it. Doc Connors says he won’t talk to nobody, doesn’t look at nobody… Just stares straight ahead. Paul thinks the boy might be in shock.”

“Saddle the horses,” Ben stated as he threw the covers away from his legs.

“Pa, you’re not well enough for such a ride,” Adam warned.

“I’ll not sit here when my son needs me,” Ben retorted.

“And if you tear open those stitches in your side? Doc says you’re doing fine in keeping that temperature from spiking… if you stay in bed,” Adam admonished.

“Adam’s right, Pa. You try an ride; you’ll get yourself sick… And what good’ll ya be for Little Joe?” Hoss asked, reinforcing his elder brother’s sentiments.

“Doc Martin said he’d wait in town for one of you two to join him on the trip to Placerville. He don’t want Joe traveling home without him and one of his family,” Roy announced.

“I’ll go,” Adam stated.

“Why should you go? You know how Shortshank…”

“Hoss, I’ll go because I’m the oldest, and I think that if I hadn’t insisted on him going to get cleaned up… If I had let him stay to help with Pa, he wouldn’t have left the house. I owe it to the kid…” Adam explained.

“Bring him home, Adam.”

“I will Pa.”

*****

Adam rode Sport into town and having bid goodbye to Roy, he stopped in front of the doctor’s office to dismount.

“Adam, how’s Ben? How’d he take the news about Joe?” Paul asked as he closed the door to his office.

“He’s doing as good as can be expected; he wanted to ride to Placerville for Joe.”

“Doesn’t surprise me.”

“Have you learned anything more about Joe?”

“Just that he’s in a state of shock, that’s why I told Roy I wanted to be present when he comes home. Sometimes a patient can become quite violent and if necessary, I want to sedate him.”

“You think it’ll come to that?” a distressed Adam asked.

“No, but it’s best to be prepared. I’ve already requested my horse and buggy be hitched; figured that would be the easiest way to transport him home… considering…”

“Yeah.”

Adam walked along side Paul Martin while leading his horse to the livery. Within ten minutes of his arrival in Virginia City, he and the doctor were on their way to Placerville.

*****

A deputy met the two men from Virginia City as they stopped in front of the Sheriff’s Office. “Afternoon gents!” he called.

“Deputy, I’m Adam Cartwright and this is Doctor Paul Martin.”

“Oh, Sheriff Rutledge and Doc Connors been expecting you. They’re at the clinic. Do you know the way?” Seeing the men hesitate, he said, “It’s this way. I’ll show you.”

“Do you know anything more on the boy’s condition,” Paul asked as they followed the deputy.

“Na, Sheriff ain’t said much ‘cept that all he does is lay there and nothing…”

The deputy showed them to a two-story wooden structured with a sign stating, “Medical Clinic” hanging over the front door.

“Sheriff! Doc! They’re here!”

Two men entered the front waiting room from a side office, “Paul, good to see you again,” greeted Doc Connors.

“Adam,” Sheriff Rutledge spoke, “it’s a shame that you have to come to our town under such circumstances.”

“Thanks, where is Joe?”

“I’d like to speak with you first,” Doc Connors addressed Adam. “It’ll better prepare you for what you’ll see when I take you to your brother’s room.”

Doc Connors had years of first-hand experience in dealing with all manners of people so when Adam crossed his arms and his dark eyes bore down on the physician, he didn’t flinch or give any indication that the man’s actions affected him in the least.

“Please have a seat. As we’ve stated in the wires, your brother is suffering a severe case of shock. From what Sheriff Rutledge has discovered, the two men were using him as a hostage in order to rob the bank. We’re not sure exactly how long he’d been in their presence but once he was brought in, I stripped the bloody clothes from him. You can rest assured the blood was not his, not sure whose…”

“The blood belonged to our father,” Adam offered. “Joe and Pa were home alone when two men broke into the house and tried to rob the payroll, only it wasn’t there. Hoss and I were delayed. The men shot our father before they ran out… We don’t have any idea how Joe came to be with them, except that…” Adam allowed his guilt to show, “When we returned home, I sent Joe to get cleaned up. He’d been trying to stop the bleeding on his own. I didn’t want him to be distressed anymore than he was. I thought he’d bathed and gone to bed. It wasn’t until after Pa’s surgery and starting to come around that we realized Joe was missing.”

“Adam it wasn’t your fault,” Paul sought to comfort the man.

“I know… we both know my little brother, but still… I should have made sure.” Adam continued to tell the doctor and the sheriff of how they followed Joe’s tracks and found foot prints of others and Joe’s prints disappeared and ultimately how they lost the trail of the men who had him.

“Do you think Reed and Torrington were the ones who shot your father?” Sheriff Rutledge asked.

“I don’t know… but I’d give good odds on any wager they were. Sheriff Coffee indicated that one of the wires said Joe had been rough up.”

“Yes, he had been,” answered Doc Connors. “He’s got bruises on his face, along his jaw. I’d say he’d been backhanded a few times, hard. And I’m presuming the bruises to his arms, legs, and torso were probably from them kicking him while they had him tied up.”

“Tied up!” The words shocked Adam. “He’s just fourteen!”

“The raw skin around his wrists proves to me that he was bound, as does the chafed skin around his ankles. Had he not been wearing boots and socks, I believe his ankles would be rubbed raw just like his wrists.”

“May I see my brother now?” Adam asked as he stood.

The physician nodded and began to show Adam up the stairs to the second floor.

“Adam,” Sheriff Rutledge called. “I’d like to talk with you in my office, once you’ve seen the boy. Maybe later tonight, after he’s fallen asleep.”

“Later,” Adam acknowledged.

“Lenora?” Doc Connors called as he entered the room. Adam had heard a woman’s voice singing a lullaby. “The boy’s family is here, as is his physician.”

“Aye, Doctor,” the woman spoke in a soft Scottish dialect. “I leave ye to take care o the lad.”

“Thank you, Miss Lenora,” Adam offered as she left the room.

*****

The eldest son of Benjamin Cartwright had thought he had steeled himself for the sight of his little brother and yet, he was still not prepared for the vision that met his eyes. The sheets on the bed made Joe appear paler than what he actually was. The colorful bruising along his jaw line indicated he had been struck upon more than one occasion, as well as the slight trace of blood along his split lip.

“Oh, Joe,” cried Adam mournfully, as he walked over and sat on the edge of the bed. Pulling the covers down, he saw the mottled bruises on his brother’s chest and arms.

“It still gets to me each time I see him. I could only do so much to soften the blow for you.”

“I understand. Thank you. He’s been like this since he was brought here?” Adam asked, indicating, the unseeing gaze of his brother lying there, eyes wide open, occasionally blinking.

“Other than us bathing him, yes. Lenora’s been able to spoon feed some beef stock broth into him, as well as some milk… Other than that, he doesn’t respond to any stimulation.”

“None?” Doc Martin.

“Oh, we can tap his knee or poke him with a straight pin and his body reacts, but as far as answering questions or following instructions, or jumping at loud noises… Nothing.”

Adam reached out and raised his brother from the bed so he could slip behind him and hold him in his arms. While rocking his brother, Adam talked of their father and Hoss.

“That’s it Adam, just keep talking to him,” Paul encouraged. “Let him hear the love in your voice and to know that Ben’s going to be okay.” Paul turned to his colleague and asked, “Is it okay for us to spend the night? I don’t think it would be wise for us to leave this late in the afternoon.”

“Sure. That’s no problem.”

Speaking to Adam, Paul said, “I’ll go to the telegraph office and send a wire home, letting them know we’re here with Joe and we’ll start our trip home tomorrow.”

“Thanks, Paul.”

*****

Joe had fallen asleep without ever acknowledging the presence of Adam or Paul. Both doctors were pleased that his breathing was regular as was his heartbeat. As the sun began to slip past the horizon, so Joe’s eyes began to droop and finally close.

“Adam, you’ve not eaten since we arrived. Why not go to the café for supper and stop by Rutledge’s office,” Paul stated as he again felt his patient’s forehead to ensure there was no sign of any fever.

“Okay, but…”

“I’ll send word if there’s any change.”

*****

Adam left the café feeling full, but empty at the same time. He wasn’t sure what exactly he expected but he had hoped at least to see recognition in Joe’s eyes as he entered the room. But, the whole afternoon and into the evening, Joe had just lain in the bed, staring at the ceiling. Adam had helped sit Joe up when Lenora returned and spoon fed Joe his supper of soup and milk. After years of seeing Joe kicking the covers off his bed and actively tossing around in his sleep, it was disheartening to see his brother lying without movement.

*****

Sheriff Rutledge raised his eyes from the paperwork on his desk when he heard the door to his office open and watched as Adam Cartwright entered.

“Adam, how’s your brother?”

“No change. You said you wanted to speak with me…”

“Yes, have a seat.” As Adam took a seat in a chair in front of the sheriff’s desk, the sheriff walked to a cabinet and pulled out a paper-wrapped package. “I’m sorry to have to ask this of you, but I’d be remiss in my job if I didn’t.” He set the packaged down on his desk, pulled out a knife, and cut the strings that tied it closed. Before unwrapping the package, he stated, “These are the clothes we pulled off the boy once we got him to Doc’s. I need for you to confirm what he was wearing the last time you saw him.”

“Without looking at those, I can tell you he was wearing dark brown trousers and a tan shirt, Hop Sing had monogrammed his initials on one of the cuffs. There should be a jCf.”

“Then I guess these are the same clothes. And there’s no chance he ran away to join the men?” Rutledge asked.

“He did run away, but only to his mother’s grave. From there, he was taken and I’m sure it was against his will. If they were the ones who shot Pa, there’s no way he’d have willingly have gone with them.”

Adam watched as the sheriff jotted down something in his notes.

“You care to tell me exactly what happened?” Adam asked.

“Not a lot to tell that wasn’t already in the wires we sent, except that had my deputy Marcus not recognized Little Joe, he probably would have shot him as well, thinking him in on the hold up. Cory, the teller, he said he recognized Little Joe from last fall when your family came through here with the cattle drive. He remembered being invited to sit down to eat supper with you. Adam, so much could have gone wrong and cost that boy his life.”

“You don’t have to remind me, I cringe just thinking about the ‘what ifs’. If you’re finished with me, I’d like to return to the clinic and my brother.”

“I’m finished. There’s nothing more you can add to my report, there’s only three who can… Two are dead and one… Well, I pray he gets better and can tell Roy the whole story.”

“Thanks, Zeke.”

*****

Upon returning to the room where Joe slept, Adam took a chance and laid down along-side his brother; it took a long time, but the toll of the events of the past few days finally won out as Adam closed his eyes in sleep.

*****

Waking in the morning, Adam sensed his brother was awake. He opened his eyes to see his brother lying exactly as he had lain the night before, eyes open, staring at nothing.

“Joe, come on buddy. It’s me, Adam,” he quietly pleaded as he rest a hand on his brother’s shoulder.

Adam looked up as the door opened for Doc Martin and Lenora bearing a tray of breakfast entered the room.

“Adam, let us tend to Joe this morning while you take care of you,” Paul advised.

While shaving, Adam watched over his shoulder via the mirror as Paul and Lenora changed for lack of a better description, a diaper draped around his youngest brother.

Paul looked up to see the revulsion on Adam’s face reflected in the mirror. “I’m sorry Adam, we should have told you about this. Until he can take care of himself… it will be necessary.”

Adam closed his eyes to keep his tears from falling.

*****

Having finished tending to his personal needs and shopping for clothes for his brother, Adam returned to the room to help Paul dress Joe for their trip home.

*****

Their arrival at the Ponderosa was a somber affair. As Paul stopped the horse and buggy, the door to the house opened revealing Ben Cartwright followed by his middle son and housekeeper making their way toward them. Adam carefully lifted his brother from the buggy and carried him towards his family.

Paul Martin advised for everyone to return to the house. Adam entered and carried Joe up the staircase and to his bedroom. Paul insisted in examining Ben, who refused by saying, “You can examine me once I see my son.”

When Ben finally agreed to allow Paul to examine his healing gunshot wound, he felt as disheartened as his eldest son had been since finding Joe in Placerville.

“Ben, I have every confidence that if anyone can come out of the shock that he’s experience, Joseph will be the one. With the love that this family and Hop Sing showers upon him… Just give him time and love, and if possible, make sure someone is with him at all times.”

*****

It was the third morning of Joe’s return to the Ponderosa and Hop Sing entered his room to clean the room as was usual. Hop Sing pushed Hoss out of the room telling the large man that he would tend to Joe that morning. After refreshing the water in the pitcher, Hop Sing walked to the windows to open the curtain and the window to allow fresh air into the room. As he turned, he saw Joe’s eyes open and his head turned towards him. Hop Sing’s heart lightened as he walked towards Joe and the boy’s eyes followed his movements.

“Lit’le Joe, you see me?” Hop Sing asked but was not favored with a response. “I need clean you for morning; need to roll you on side.” Hop Sing yelled, “MR. CARTWRIGHT!” when Joe voluntarily rolled onto his side.

Only moments had passed when the footfalls of three men thundered through the hallway and into the room.

“He move on own. Roll to side,” Hop Sing explained.

“Joseph,” Ben called as he knelt to the side of his son’s bed. He was pleased when his son’s eyes opened and looked at him.

“He’s gettin’ better?” Hoss asked and thrilled to see Joe look towards him.

“Should I send for Paul?” Adam asked and Joe looked towards him.

“Boys, let’s take this slow. Joseph, can you sit up?” Ben asked and found Joe willingly followed his instructions.

“Ya think he’d like a bath?” Hoss asked.

“Hop Sing fix bath, make boy feel better,” Hop Sing stated as he scurried from the room.

Encouraged by the improvements in Joe, Ben gambled and asked if he could stand. “Joe, Hop Sing is drawing a bath for you. Let’s go to the bathhouse.”

Wide-eyed, mouth gaped open, Hoss and Adam followed as Joe walked beside their father out of his bedroom, down the stairs, across the floor of the great room, and into the bathhouse. Unable to risk getting his own bandages wet, Ben sat in a chair near the tub and watch as his son undressed himself and slipped into the warm waters as instructed. The father laughed as his two oldest sons helped to bathe the youngest and wash his hair.

*****

By the time Paul Martin returned to the Ponderosa the next day to see if there was any change in the condition of his patient, he was pleasantly surprised to see the boy sitting on the settee, eyes following people as they moved about the room or spoke, but no more, unless instructed. There was still no self-initiated interaction.

As he was preparing to leave he told Ben, “This is a very good sign Ben. Keep doing what you’re doing. You’ll get through to him. Just give him time, but don’t push him.”

*****

Another week had passed and to the family, Joe was still too quiet for their liking, but at least he was interacting with them and following instructions. But there was no life in the boy’s eyes as he joined them, there was no spontaneous cackle or even the smallest bit of fight displayed.

*****

Mid-summer settled on the Ponderosa when Ben decided now was the time; the family took Joe to the breaking corrals, Ben drove the buggy while Adam and Hoss rode their own horses. The nervous father felt his youngest son tense as he helped him to the top rail. It was as he had been for weeks, there was no resistance, Joe did as instructed.

“Now Shortshanks, you just sit on the railin’ and watch what we got planned today,” Hoss encouraged.

Ben saw his son startle when Rudy led the black and white, saddled pinto into the corral and slowly walked around him, the man’s hands were always on some part of the horse’s body.

Rudy almost had the same touch with animals as Hoss, he knew what it took to deal with those timid and fearful, including people. He and Hoss had previously talked over the best way to introduce Joe to his horse in order to instill an air to foster encouragement so that the boy’s natural curiosity would ultimately win out over his phobia. But now, with Joe’s lack of participation in the simplest of things…

The whole time Rudy was in the corral with the horse he never addressed Joe in an effort to not put any pressure upon the boy.

With only Hoss at the horse’s head, Rudy slipped his foot into the stirrup and carefully pulled his weight into the saddle.

Hoss whispered, “Pinto, you best show how good you are for your new master over there on the fence.”

“Okay, Hoss, you can step back,” Rudy stated.

Hoss walked to the side of the corral where Adam waited, opposite from where Ben and Joe sat on the fence railing.

Slowly Rudy asked the horse to walk forward and stop, repeating the movements over and over. He lightened his seat and squeezed with a little more pressure from his calves and asked the horse to trot, clucking to help encourage the horse. He worked on walk, trot, and halt transitions, making sure the gelding was listening to him before he ever signaled the horse into a lope.

“Hey Hoss,” Rudy called as he halted the horse in the middle of the corral. “I think that’s good enough for today.”

“The two of them sure looked good,” stated Hoss as he waved to Rudy.

“I’ll second that,” Adam stated and whispered so that only they would hear, “I hope Joe looks half as good as that when he finally gets into the saddle.”

“Yeah, I miss Shortshanks…”

Ben offered Joe a hand down from the top rail and together they walked to the center of the corral. Gently talking to his son, fostering encouragement, but, “Give it time, Ben,” he heard Paul Martin’s voice say. Ben decided it was now or never.

“Hey Adam, what’s Pa doin’ with Little Joe?” Hoss curiously asked.

Adam turned to see Ben slowly walking their youngest brother to where Rudy stood with the pinto.

“Rudy, shorten the stirrups,” Ben quietly instructed.

Hoss and Adam watched as their brother didn’t resist walking towards the new horse.

Ben was taking a huge risk, he and Adam were present when Paul told them about the possible traumatic ways Joe could exit from the state of shock in which he currently lived, or that he could wake up one day and everything would be as it was before.

“But before what?” Adam had asked.

Without further explanation, Paul knew exactly ‘when’ Adam was asking.

“I don’t know. There’s just so little medical literature on this subject, and most of what we know comes out of asylums for the criminally insane; and from what I’ve read, it can be ‘cruel’ at times.”

“How do we treat him?” Ben asked.

“I believe he should be kept here,” Paul stated.

“Of course!” Ben replied.

“Just offer him your love and support. Keep him included in his surroundings. What I’m trying to say is that… don’t let him just ‘sit around’. Try to keep him active. He’ll follow instructions so begin there. Try to get him into a routine.”

“Joe, listen to me son. Lift your foot and place it in the stirrup. Can you do that son?” Ben questioned.

As compliant as he had been to suggestions, Joe didn’t even hesitate to do as instructed.

“Now, pull yourself up to sit in the saddle.”

Once the boy was secure in the saddle Ben praised him before he turned to Rudy, “Lead him around the corral for a few minutes; would you Rudy?”

“Sure boss, I’ll be gentle with him.” Rudy led the horse forward and began to circle the corral.

The rhythmic movement of the horse’s footfalls worked against the tension that had started to possess the youth in the saddle, who hung onto the saddle horn as if for dear life.

Minutes passed, “Adam, are you seeing what I’m seeing?” Hoss asked as he peered closely and pointed to his youngest brother. “He’s…”

“He’s smiling?” Adam answered and without hesitation he walked to Rudy and asked for the reins.

As Adam continued to walk the horse and his youngest brother, he smiled when he realized the boy’s smile reached his eyes. Calling over to Hoss, Adam said, “Open the gate and get the horses.” He continued to lead the pinto over to the open gate, and with reins in hand, he mounted his horse and signaled Sport into a walk.

So focused on his brother, Adam missed the rare occasion where Sport didn’t toss his head or act up, demanding to go faster than the walk. Hoss mounted Chubs and rode on the other side of Joe and his pinto.

“You sure about this Adam?” Hoss asked.

“No, but if Pa could get him in the saddle, I think we can take him for a nice slow ride.”

Ben held his breath as his three sons left the corrals, “Please God, for Joseph… Let this be the way to lead him home.” Ben slowly walked to the buggy to begin the drive to the house.

*****

Hours had passed as Ben sat upon the deck, outside the window to his office area and graciously accepted a cup of coffee from Hop Sing.

“Sons be okay, they look out for Lit’le Joe,” the faithful oriental offered.

“I know. Adam and Hoss will do anything they can to take care of their younger brother…” Ben answered.

“Pa! Hey Pa,” the two men heard as Hoss and Chubs came trotting around the corner of the barn.

Heedless of the pain caused to his almost healed wound as he stood to his feet and jumped down the two steps to meet his son in the yard, Ben knew he couldn’t sit still.

“Hoss, what is it? Where’s Joe?! What happened?!” Ben fearfully asked upon seeing the tears streaming down his middle son’s face.

“Ya ain’t gonna believe it. Joe… He’s Joe!” Hoss called as he swung down from his horse in order to embrace his father. “He’s back!”

“H-he’s o-kay?” Ben asked, forced into stuttering as Hoss continued to thump him on the back due to all his excitement.

“He’s better than okay! Hot diggity, my little brother is back!”

“What happened? Where is he… and Adam?”

Hoss released his father and began animatedly talking waving his hands and arms around to help with his explanation. “I couldn’t keep up with ‘em. They’re out there somewhere racin’. Chubs wanted so much to go, but… they’re racin’. Pa, that pinto is fast, you should see ‘em. He’s gotta be the fastest horse in this county, why… the fastest in the territory. And Joe…”

“How?!” Ben determinedly asked, thrilled with the news but wanting to know what had transpired.

“We’s just walking along, going to the lake. Adam and me just talkin’ back and forth. Adam said that Joe was really relaxin’ in the saddle, he weren’t tense like he was in the corral. Even though he was smilin’ in the corral, but it was more than just a smile, we saw it in his eyes. As we rode, Adam gave Joe his reins to hold… We weren’t leadin’ him no more.”

“Hoss, get to the point, what happened to bring Joe back?”

“Well, I done told Adam that he shouldn’t be surprised, Joe’s a natural, has been since he first sat in the saddle in front of ya, Pa.”

“Mr. Hoss, tell honorable father what happened!” Hop Sing voiced his displeasure at Hoss’ rambling.

“I am… That’s just what happened, we’s a talkin’ about Joe being a natural and all of a sudden we heard him cacklin’, and he said, and I quote, ‘Of course I’m a natural, what else would you expect of me?’ Pa, just like that!”

“And that was all?” Ben incredulously asked, his brows raised and furrowed.

“Well, that was the beginnin’… He pulled the horse to a stop, jumped down, and ran to a stand of trees. We followed him and found him pukin’. He looked so pathetic…”

“But you said they were racing, I’m not following you Hoss.”

“Pa, it all came out. When he could sit up, I done went and got him some water and Adam sat there like he done all those years ago, whenever Joe got scared. He wrapped his arm around Joe’s shoulder and pulled him close. Pa… for half an hour Joe told us everything… Including what happened when Reed and Torrington came upon him at Marie’s grave, and while they had him. Thems the two that shot you. Well… We’s able to comfort him and get him to feeling better. When he was done cryin’, we got him willin’ly back in the saddle.”

“But where are they?”

“Well, Joe didn’t want to come home…“ Hoss admitted, shuffling his feet in the dirt.

“Boy want ride horse, not see father?” Hop Sing asked.

Hoss heard Hop Sing’s question but chose to answer the question directly to his father. “Not exactly… He’s scared of how you were goin’ to react, Pa. He’s worried about you bein’ upset with him.”

“I’m not upset with him. My God, doesn’t the boy realize that we understand the trauma he’s been through? He brought this down on himself by not talking after the incident with Dusty, but it wasn’t his fault what happened in Placerville. Hoss, I want him home!”

“Give him time Pa, give Adam time to talk with him. He was doin’ a good job explanin’ ya to Little Joe. And it was Adam who done suggested the race, ya know, to give him somethin’ else to think on instead of broodin’. Pa, that pinto… Lordy, it was beautiful to watch him catch up with ol’ Sport and pass him almost as if they’s a standin’ still.”

*****

Adam sat under the canopy of a few trees, beside his youngest brother, with his middle brother on the other side, and listened. He and Hoss were drawn to tears as Joe recounted his anger when the two men broke into their home and demanded the money for the payroll. The youngest Cartwright was proud that he had not reacted, until they had hit Ben over the head, and he told his brothers of how he tried to launch himself at one of them, “But it was only to get the man out of the way so I could help Pa.”

Joe continued to tell them of hearing the gunshot and looking up to see the man drop their father to the floor…

“Pa told me to go get Doctor Martin… I tried… I tried…”

“Joe you succeeded,” Adam stated.

“But I didn’t… I sent Charlie,” Joe stated as tears again fell.

“Shortshanks, did Pa tell ya to go ride for Doc? Or did he tell ya to get Doc?” Hoss inquired trying to allay his brother’s guilt.

“He said to get Doc,” Joe replied after a few moments of thinking and remembering.

“And you did, you did what you needed to do to get Paul. Would Charlie have known where all the towels were? What about the lanterns you gathered? And Paul was thankful you’d set the water to boil…” Adam added. “Joe sometimes, what our heart wants and what we know to do conflicts. If you hadn’t stayed home to take care of Pa, he might have died. Paul said you’d done an excellent job of preventing Pa from bleeding to death until he arrived to operate.”

“Shortshanks, you’re a hero in our books, and in Pa’s,” added Hoss. The big man leaned over and wrapped a massive arm around the youth and pulled him close.

“Don’t feel like a hero, I let them take me…” guilt assuaged Joe again.

“What happened? We followed you to Marie’s grave…”

With his head hung in shame, Joe told the story of recognizing the clothes the men wore as the same worn by the men who’d broken in and shot their pa. “I was stupid and couldn’t keep that information to myself.” He told of trying to get away and being knocked unconscious, only to wake to find himself hung upside down over a saddle, being dumped to the ground, and Reed tying him. His story included listening to the men talk of what to do next and how they decided on robbing a bank to get money they needed, and how each time one would near him, the man would kick him.

“I couldn’t do nothin’, I just let them push me around and use me to rob that bank…”

“Joe, you’re a… barely into your teens,” Adam thought before he spoke, he’d almost said a ‘child’, but he didn’t want to upset his brother any more than he already was. He wanted to make his youngest brother understand he was going up against two grown men. “I don’t know if I could have done any different than you would have… They had guns.”

“Hoss wouldn’t have… He’d of fought them.”

“No I wouldn’t have… Not if I didn’t have a gun, and even then… I don’t know.”

“Joe, let’s go home. I think Pa would like to see you…” Adam stated as he stood, then pulled his little brother to his feet.

The three brothers mounted their horses and turned them for home. The brothers didn’t push for any more information Joe had said enough, the rest could wait for their father. For now, Adam was content just to let Joe ride.

“Pa’s probably disappointed in me,” Joe stated. “Twice I’ve been sent for Doc and failed. Ride Dusty to the point he can’t be used for work anymore… Get myself kidnapped, used in a robbery…”

“Joe, Pa ain’t disappointed in you. If he were, would he a traded Winnemucca for that pony yer ridin’?” Hoss asked.

“He is a nice horse… He’ll make one of the hands a good mount,” Joe grieved.

“Yes he will,” Adam smiled, knowing the ranch hand in particular that Pa had in mind, his youngest. “Joe, he’s yours, a gift from Pa.”

Joe halted his horse and looked to his oldest brother.

“Why?”

“Because you need a horse,” Adam answered.

Joe tried to protest, why was their father presenting him with a horse when he’d done nothing to deserve it. Adam insisted that it was as their father always claimed, “His prerogative.” Adam smiled, he knew he could go round and round with his youngest brother and not get anywhere in getting the boy to accept the truth, so Adam did the next best thing.

“Race ya!” Adam stood in the stirrups, gave Sport his head, and squeezed with his calves. His actions were the cue that Sport had been waiting for, his body quivered, his haunches bunched, head tossing, and then the horse burst into a gallop. Each stride longer than the one before until he was in a full out gallop. Hoss knew in a race Chubs was no match for Sport, but still, the thrill of an all out ride… Hoss held Chubs in check as the horse anticipated being given his head. Joe sat still, the horse he was on pricked its ears forward and blew hard through its nostrils, startling Chubs.

“Come on Joe… You ain’t gonna let Adam win one, are ya?”

Joe’s response came in the form of action, loosening his grip on the reins and using his legs he nudged the horse to move. As fast as Sport had been to respond to Adam, the horse Joe rode was more responsive to his rider. Within moments Hoss was trailing after his brothers, Chubs giving a good effort, but Hoss knew his horse wasn’t built for speed. As they followed, he watched as the gap between Adam and Joe closed and the pinto passed the chestnut and outdistanced him. Hoss pulled up Chubs and watched the difference between the two riders and their horses. Adam sat straight in the saddle while Joe leaned forward, almost lying on his horse’s neck. Sport ran, neck and head up, long reaching strides… The pinto… his neck and head were snaked out in front, while his strides were as long as his legs could go, they were faster, all four legs blurred as he galloped. As the sounds of thundering hooves faded across the distance, Hoss turned Chubs for home; he couldn’t wait to tell their pa the news.

*****

Joe allowed the natural rise of the land to slow his horse until the animal finally came to a walk. Joe dismounted and immediately loosened the cinch and began to walk the horse, all the while he took time to look the animal over, impressed with its compact build and overall conformation. This was the horse he knew that he wanted to have, ever since his pa had allowed him to go with them to deliver ten head of cattle to Winnemucca’s camp. The moment Joe had spied the pintos he knew that was the type of horse he wanted. He had incessantly talked of the horses all the way home. As they arrived, Ben had told Joe that there were plenty of good horses on the Ponderosa for him to choose from when the time came to replace Dusty. With the tone his father used, Joe knew the subject was closed. And so he consigned himself to Dusty being his mount until his brothers found a horse they felt would be the right horse for him…

Joe halted the horse when Adam came up beside him and followed his lead in dismounting and loosening the cinch to his saddle and walking the animal out until it was cool enough to ride home.

Adam sensed that Joe had thrilled with the ride but now the mood was waning, “Joe, so… Is he everything you thought he’d be?”

“That he is,” Joe answered as his hand moved up to pet the animal’s neck.

“I wish Pa had been here to see you ride him like that,” Adam stated, a good feeling enveloped him at the memory.

“He’d probably chastise me for racing, risking injuring him, like I did to Dusty.”

“Joe, what happened to Dusty was an accident, it could have happened to any horse. And I don’t think Pa would have minded you racing that horse considering I was the one who egged you on.”

“I don’t deserve him Adam.

“For Pete’s sake, Joe… When will you get it through your thick skull that Pa wants you to have this horse. He worked long and hard to trade Winnemucca so he could give you the horse of your dreams.” Adam’s voice was tinged with exasperation.

“That’s only because of what happened. He told me last year that there were plenty of horses on the Ponderosa…”

“Joe, he told you that because he had already started talking with the chief… The only reason you didn’t get him as a Christmas present was that Winnemucca was stubborn. Pa was finally successful before you got your cast off; he’s had Rudy working him to start him under saddle and to start his initial training. You should be proud that he wasn’t broke the way the rest of the horses are.”

“He wasn’t?” Joe’s curiosity was piqued.

“You’ll have to talk to Rudy about that.  Pa agreed with me, that the horse for you didn’t deserve to be broken the same way we break the horses for the cavalry… That’s why it took longer.”

“Still..” Joe hesitated.

“Why don’t we go home, and you can talk with Pa.”

The two brothers remounted their horses and headed for home at an easy trot.

*****

Chubs raised his head and shrilly whinnied, indicating horses were coming.

“Pa!” hollered Adam as he and Sport were first around the barn. “Did Hoss tell you?”

Hurriedly walking towards his oldest son, Ben answered, “He did. Where is that scamp?”

“I’m here Pa,” Joe answered as he walked along side his horse; eyes cast down.

“Joseph?” Ben hesitantly called.

“He’s a beauty… I’m sorry Pa…” Joe held out the reins to his father. “I don’t deserve him.”

“Why don’t you deserve him?” Ben asked, refusing to take the reins.

“I… I just don’t, not after all I put you… and Adam and Hoss through. I haven’t pulled my weight on the ranch… And with me causing Dusty’s injury…”

“Stop it right there young man,” admonished Ben, Joe dropped his hand with the reins to his side.

“Joe, if you wouldn’t listen to me,” Adam stated, “listen to Pa. Hear him Joe. Not just the words. Hear what we’ve been trying to tell you.”

“Joe, what happened to Dusty was an accident; he’s not a young horse any more. I’ve been trying to negotiate with Winnemucca since last fall to trade for this pinto, because I knew we would need to ultimately retire Dusty. You’re becoming a valuable member of this ranch and I wanted you to have a horse that you could learn with and would come to trust you.”

“Rudy did a good job in training him,” Joe answered.

“And so you’ll continue his training, he doesn’t know everything yet.”

“But Pa,” Joe tried to interrupt.

“So you haven’t pulled your weight on the ranch, kind of hard to work when you were injured… But if you insist that I should penalize you in some manner, then I’ll dock your allo… um your pay for the time you weren’t working. But as for the pinto… I want you to have him… Maybe you’ll accept him as a reward for improving your grades. Can you accept him for that?”

“Oh, about that…” Joe quizzically answered as he looked to his father, “do I have to work with Mr. Langsford outside a school?”

Father and son looked to their family members as they heard a loud harrumphing laughter, “Now I know… Shortshanks is back!” Hoss leaned forward, almost bent double as he slapped his knee. Adam rested his head on folded arms upon Hoss’ back, unable to stop his own laughter. “Little Joe, he’s tryin’… ta… ta weasel outa school!” Hoss continued. “Guess Yale… ain’t got… nothin’ to… worry about…”

“Oh, stop it Hoss!” Adam called out, between his own gales of laughter.

Hoss continued, “They don’t… gotta get ready… for Tornado Joe!”

“Hoss! Oh, my sides hurt,” Adam called out as tears of laughter sprung to his eyes. “Hoss, quit your joking. You’re gonna make me cry I’m laughing so hard.”

“I ain’t jokin’!” Hoss roared as his fit of laughter continued.

Joe walked to stand closer to his father and didn’t shrug away from the arm draped around his shoulders, ‘Yeah brothers, keep on laughing… Just wait…’ Joe rested his head into his father’s shoulder and was content that his growing up could cause his brothers to suffer such tears.

EPILOGUE:

Several days had passed and the family was thrilled to be whole once more. Each one smiled as Joe’s cackles sounded across the yard as he played a prank or two on his unsuspecting brothers, even the victims laughed. Joe willingly helped his brothers in and around the barn, cleaning stalls, moving hay in the loft or stacking bags of grain they had purchased.

*****

Joe sat in the windowsill of his room and watched the black and white horse prance around in the corral beside the barn. He looked up to the moonlit sky and saw his mother’s star.

“Hi Momma, you don’t have to worry about me no more. I’m gonna be fine. I get to work out on the ranch tomorrow… Adam and Hoss are gonna help me introduce Cochise to cattle.”

“So you decided on a name for your horse,” Adam stated as he entered the bedroom, also amused how his brother’s language habits had reverted back.

“Yeah, I did.”

“Kind of strange to give him an Apache name when he was a Paiute pony.”

“Not so strange when you think about it. He’s a great horse and strong; and I wanted to give him a strong Indian name. Did you know that in their language Cochise is called ‘Cheis’ and it means ‘having the quality or strength of oak’?”

“And just how do you know that?” Adam curiously asked.

“When I was waiting on Hoss and you outside the Feed and Grain, I got to talking to a man, he said something about my horse and we got to talking… He told me how he scouted for the Army and had met Cochise. Did you also he’s gaining strength within his tribe? Anyway, Corben, that’s the scout, he told me what his name meant. Don’t you think it’s a good name for my horse?”

“Yeah, I think it’s a good name. Come on, time for you to turn in.”

“Sure…”

As Adam blew out the lantern, Joe climbed into bed and nervously asked, “We’re gonna be okay tomorrow, aren’t we?”

“Yeah, you’re gonna be just fine. I have a feeling you and Cochise will put Sport and me to shame.”

“Hey Adam?” Joe called as Adam started to pull the door closed.

“Yeah buddy?” He leaned into the room, one hand on the doorframe, the other on the door knob.

“You were right.”

Adam paused before he said, “About what?” At first he had wanted to say, ‘Aren’t I always,’ but this didn’t seem to be the time for sarcasm.

“About Pa, he wasn’t disappointed in me like I thought he’d be… we’ve talked some more. He said… he only wished that I had talked with him about what was troubling me… after I broke my leg. I just didn’t know how,” Joe quieted, but quickly added, “but I’ll do better next time…”

“Just don’t let there be a next time… okay?” answered Adam.

Joe grinned as he pulled the covers over him, “Okay.”

“Good night, little buddy,” Adam stated as he exited the room.

“Night, Adam,” Joe answered as he curled up under the covers and began to dream of tomorrow.

~THE END~ April, 2013

Tears of Growing Up Series:

Tears of Growing Up
First Ride
Learning to Trust, One Last Time

Author’s Note:  A HUGE Thank You! to Krystyna for catching a few minor errors as well as one MAJOR blunder as this story came to fruition. I’d also like to thank her regarding a comment about wishing she could have ‘seen’ the race between Adam and Joe that Hoss told their father; I hadn’t thought to write of the scene. And thus the conversation among the brothers that began under the canopy of the trees was written for inclusion.

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