Synopsis: A mistaken identity sends the Cartwrights on a race to rescue one of their own.
Word Count: 6,800
Hop Sing’s soft-soled shoes quieted his retreat as he made his way back to the kitchen with the empty coffee pot in hand. Even if he’d worn boots, the laughter shared by the three men in the great room would have drowned any noise the ever-faithful servant might have made. His dire threats of going back to China when his charges were late to the table would not have been loud enough to be heard above their good mood.
At the knock at the door, absent-mindedly, Ben, Adam, and Hoss looked to where Joe normally would sit.
“I’ll get it Pa,” Hoss offered. Shaking his head from side to side with an arm over his ribs, the man gained his feet while trying to control his reaction to the hilarity of the discussion.
“If only you’d been there Pa.” Adam gulped, wiping moisture from his eyes.
“I still can’t believe it.” Ben gasped for a breath and broke into a hearty laughter once more. “I guess I shouldn’t have been so hard on him, sending him out of town for a little while.”
“Well, if not for this, I’m sure there are other things he’s done that we don’t know about.”
Laughter broke forth again.
Pulling open the front door, “Evenin’ Roy. What brings you all the way out here tonight?”
“Hoss. Your Pa and Adam home?” Sheriff Roy Coffee stepped into the room, removing his hat, as Ben’s middle son stepped back and motioned with his arm to where his family sat.
“Roy! Good to see you. Hop Sing!” Ben stood, followed by Adam. Ben approached the lawman. When he saw the Oriental man step into the dining area he called, “Bring Roy a cup of coffee.”
“Ben, I’m not here for a social visit.”
After closing the door, Hoss slipped his hands into his pockets, his thumbs catching on the outside as he followed Roy into the center of the room.
“Trouble in town?” Adam walked around the back side of the settee.
Reaching into his vest pocket, Roy pulled out a slip of paper. “Figured this couldn’t wait ‘til morning. It’s from Sheriff Stark down in Yerington.”
“Pa, ain’t that where Little Joe went to look at them horses?”
“This here wire’s concerning Joe.” Roy handed it to Ben.
“What’s the kid done this time?” Adam good-naturedly asked, his laughter from earlier had yet to fully dissipate as he leaned against the table that set behind the settee. “He try to kiss Don Alegria’s daughter?”
“Not this time, I’m ‘fraid.” Somberly, Roy answered, “He’s in jail, said he robbed a bank.”
“WHAT?!” “That cain’t be true.” “What do the witnesses say?” were voiced one over the other in disbelief.
“Don’t know anything else. I already wired back stating you’d be there late tomorrow.”
“I don’t understand how this could happen?” Ben lamented, his good humor dissolved.
“Pa, I’m sure it’s all a misunderstanding.” Adam stepped forward, a hand squeezed Ben’s shoulder.
“They’s wrong. I just know they are.”
“Ben, I’m sorry to be the one to bring you the news.”
“No, thank you. You were right in bringing this out tonight.”
“If you need anything, you let me know.” Roy bade goodnight, with Ben closing the door behind him.
Standing apart, Hop Sing spoke, “Hop Sing pack food; have all ready when you leave. You bring Lit’le Joe home.”
“I don’t understand how Joe could get mixed up in something like a bank robbery,” Ben bemoaned.
“Ya don’t think he lost that bank draft, do ya?”
“With our little brother, anything is possible.”
“Adam, that was uncalled for,” Ben warned.
“Sorry Pa, but until we get there and can speak to Joe, there’s nothing we can do other than speculate.”
“Don’t know about you all, but I’m gonna pack tonight.”
“I want the horses saddled and ready to go before first light.”
“No problem there Pa, I don’t think any of us will sleep tonight.” Adam strode to the stairs, Hoss close on his heels.
Wearily, three riders entered Yerington, heading straight for the livery.
“Ain’t we gonna see Joe, Pa?”
“The horses need tending to, we’ve pushed them rather hard to get here.”
Stiffly, they stepped to the ground, looping their reins over the hitching rail before stepping inside to seek the proprietor.
After securing lodging for their horses, the led their mounts to where the manager had pointed to three empty stalls. Buck, Sport, and Chubbs all answered the nicker that greeted them.
Slapping his horse on the rump to encourage him to enter the stall, Hoss looked at the black and white head and neck reaching across the aisle way. Sidling alongside the horse, the brand confirmed what he knew.
“Is he okay?” Adam inquired, stripping the saddle and unbridling his chestnut colored horse.
A quick once over didn’t reveal anything amiss, “He looks okay. Got lots a dried sweat on ‘im, but if’n Joe’s in jail, he probably didn’t have time ta groom him.”
“Pa, there’s always a chance that maybe someone waylaid Joe?” Adam stood outside the stall that Buck would call home for the foreseeable future. “I mean he was carrying that bank draft.”
“Adam, if it wasn’t Joe, why would Sheriff Stark wire us?” Adam recognized the annoyance in his father’s voice and decided to stay quiet.
“There’s no reason to think it ain’t Joe.” Hoss recognized his father’s displeasure when Ben dropped his saddle onto one of the racks. “That was one of them questions that ain’t supposed ta be answered, wasn’t it?” he whispered as Ben huffed and walked out in front of his sons. Adam nodded and followed.
They bypassed the hotel, stepping aside to allow a few ladies to pass as they headed for the Sheriff’s Office. Emotions heightened with their destination a few short steps away; the youngest member of their family would soon be within their circle of protection and they would have their answers.
“He better have a good explanation,” mutter Ben, having spent just under twelve hours in the saddle.
Adam reached the door first, intent on opening it and allowing his father to enter before him, only he found the door locked.
“He ain’t in there,” stated a man sweeping the porch in front of the general store next door.
“Do you know when he’ll return?” Adam inquired, as they all turned toward the man.
“Maybe ten, fifteen minutes. Depends on how many pieces a pie Miss Angeline talks him into eating. He went to fetch supper for his prisoner.”
“How is his prisoner?” Ben asked, needing to hear any news of his youngest son.
“Madder than a hornet if ya asked me.”
“Pa, you know how Joe acts when he feels it’s all a mistake.” Hoss laid a sympathetic hand on Ben’s shoulder.
The man continued, “All his hollering and yelling bloody murder.” Pausing his sweeping, he shook his head. “Caught him red-handed and he’s trying to blame that there robbery on others, saying he’s innocent and all.”
“Excuse me, gentlemen.”
“Sheriff, these here men were looking for ya.”
“Thanks Ed, I think I figured that out.”
“Right Sheriff.” Ed walked to the doorway of his store, standing so he could continue to hear the conversation.
“Sheriff Stark, I’m Ben Cartwright.”
“Figured you might be.” Stark balanced the tray in one hand while inserting the key and unlocking the door. “Roy Coffee stated you and your other two boys would be here tonight.”
“I’d like to see my son, if you don’t mind.”
“I do mind, long as you’re wearing those.” The lawman set the tray on a side table along the far wall, well opposite his desk where the Cartwrights were removing their holsters. Unlocking the door leading to the jail area, “You can take his supper into him too. I’m too tired to listen to his mouth.”
“That sounds like Joe.” Hoss started to give a laugh, but thought better of it.
Stark walked to his desk, picked up the holsters, and hung them on the hooks on the wall.
“If you don’t mind, I’d like to ask you a few questions.” Adam waited while his father and brother disappeared into the other room.
“That’s your choice, son.” Stark wearily sat down.
“Adam. Adam Cartwright.”
“Have a seat.” He waited, and when Adam didn’t sit, “Suit yourself. There were two of ‘em. We only found the one.”
“Where did you capture him? In town?”
“Wish we had. No, the bank robbery happened three days ago. Posse found him yesterday morning, easiest capture we ever had; he was riding that pinto hell-bent for leather back towards town.”
“That doesn’t make any sense for someone who just robbed your bank.”
“He’s your brother. You’d know him better than me.”
“Let me ask you this, did you see them as they rode out of town?”
“Sure did, it was my shot that winged one of them.”
“Then you’d be able to confirm if one of the outlaws was riding the pinto.”
An image returned to the lawman’s mind, one that he wasn’t keen to admit.
“Sheriff,” Adam finally sat. Leaning forward, resting his forearms on the edge of the desk, “Did he say why he was riding back?”
“Sure, said his brother’d been shot by strangers. Strangers.” The lawman huffed. “It’s my bullet. Yerington protects its own.”
Ben and Hoss walked along the corridor to the only occupied cell; they had traveled hard in order to rescue Joe, and there he stood with his back to them, head down. Hoss figured his brother had heard them arrive and was too embarrassed to face their father.
“Hello, sir,” he answered, turning around.
Already sensing something amiss, Ben wasn’t prepared for the green eyes that greeted him.
“Wait a minute. You said, he said his brother had been shot. Joe only has two brothers; and we’re both here.” Adam stood and hurried to the jail area, relieved to know it was a misunderstanding; it wasn’t Joe. He stopped at Hoss’ words, “Clay Stafford.”
Recovering, Adam pushed his way to the cell door, “Where’s my brother?! Where’d you leave him? Why didn’t you bring him with you?”
Behind his son, Ben struggled with the rapid-fire questions, trying to comprehend the fact Joe wasn’t in jail.
“Adam, get me out of here. Please!” Clay grabbed at the bars. “We didn’t do it.”
Having not heard his step-brother admit that it was Joe who’d been shot, Adam reached through the bars, grabbing Clay’s shirt and roughly pulled him forward, “Answer me, you were with Joe? He knew you were down here?”
“Yes, Joe was with me. We met down at Don Alegria’s ranch. And no, he didn’t know I was there. I’ve been there for a few months. But he didn’t know it, I swear. It was as much a shock for him to see me as it was for me to see him.” Grasping Adam’s wrist, “Adam, you have to get the sheriff to release me. Joe needs help.”
“How bad is he hurt?”
Being tugged from behind, Adam released Clay’s shirt, allowing his father to address the way-ward member of the family. “Clay, why did you tell them you were Joe?”
“They wouldn’t listen to me. I told them we met up with the strangers out on the road. After they told me he was arresting me for bank robbery, I figured those men were the robbers. Stark didn’t believe me. I knew the only way to get Joe the help he needed was to get you here.” The man’s eyes pleaded honestly.
“What help does Shortshanks need? Where is he?”
Glancing only briefly to his larger step-brother, he looked and spoke directly to Ben. “We’d headed out first thing yesterday morning; I was taking Joe to see a band of wild horses. These two men were running their horses and before we knew it, they pulled their guns and fired. Joe and I tried to get out of their way and returned fire to defend ourselves. I didn’t know until later that one of their bullets caught Joe in the side.”
Barreling forward, “He’s been shot?!”
“How bad?” stepping to the jail cell again, Adam pushed Hoss aside.
“I did the best I could to stop the bleeding. I hated leaving him out there. I told him I’d bring back help. Adam that was yesterday.”
“You left him?!” Hoss ignored Adam, unsuccessfully grabbing through the bars.
“He’s sheltered. I thought it best. I didn’t want him to pass out getting him to town.”
“Clay, was he shot in the front or the back?” inquired Adam.
“I told you, those men were riding toward us when they fired.”
“Sheriff, you said you shot the bank robber. Was it from the front or the back?”
“Seeing as how they were racing out of town; of course it would be from the back,” the man answered indignantly. Again that feeling of doubt niggled his consciousness.
“You need to let Clay out of jail…”
“Clay? He said his name was Joe. And why should I turn him loose?”
“I didn’t say turn him loose, he’ll still be in custody. Clay takes us to our brother and you have your answer. If Joe is shot in the front, it bolsters Clay’s statement of their innocence. If Joe is shot in the back…”
“Adam… Ya can’t mean ya believe him?” Hoss pointed toward the lawman.
“No, I don’t believe Clay or Joe had anything to do with the robbery.” Adam answered before addressing the sheriff, “And when we prove to you that they are innocent, you’ll need to reform your posse and look for the real culprits.” Adam recognized the lawman’s gulp as a sign that he was accepting he might have been wrong. “Because you and I already know that the men who robbed your bank weren’t riding that pinto.”
“He could have waylaid your brother out there.”
“And if he had, do you really think he would have ridden back here to get help? You’re not that stupid, Stark.”
A speechless Ben listened to the conversations, unable to participate. The worrisome feeling had returned with a vengeance. Joe was out there, somewhere; alone and apparently shot.
“I know I got one. I saw him flinch before they rode off the trail,” Ken Brewer growled.
“Why’d ya have to go and shoot one of them. I just wanted to scare them off so they couldn’t get a good look at us.”
Similar in appearance, a stranger could tell the two were brothers, slim build, black curly hair, same cheek bone structure below narrow brown eyes. Randy stood an inch or two taller than his older brother.
“All it would take was for them to meet up with the posse and tell ‘em they saw two men riding hard.”
“Ken, we need to get out of here,” Randy Brewer hissed in return. “Forget about them.”
“I ain’t gonna forget about them. They get to town, they’ll tell the posse where we’re goin’.”
“All the more reason for us to ride! We’ve already wasted too much time.”
“Ken, we need to get back to Aggie’s and let her get that bullet outa the back of your shoulder.”
“You’re fine now, but if that gets infected because of your stupidity.”
“I ain’t stupid!”
“Then forget about them! Now come on!”
Black and grays painted the landscape with the setting of the sun. Heat radiating off the solid rock walls failed to penetrate the depths where a single occupant laid curled on his left side in a cave, sweat beading his face and torso. His right hand pressed against the bloody shirt Clay had wadded and tied over the bullet wound. Pain lanced his body with each breath drawn. A revolver lay in his limp left hand, fingers no longer possessing the strength to close around the bloodied pearl handle. An empty canteen lay discarded a short distance next to where he sat before slumping sideways. The cool interior of the cave did little to compensate for the heat of fever that held Joe Cartwright.
“Clay… It hurts. Pa.” His tongue licked at dry lips. “You promised.”
Darkness claimed its victim once more as a second night fell on the youngest Cartwright, dreams soon followed.
Joe Cartwright rode toward the main compound of the Rocking A. Ben Cartwright had sent his youngest son to inspect and possibly purchase a number of brood mares being offered for sale. This trip had been arranged before the fiasco of the weekend’s dance.
Halting Cochise, he hooked his leg over the saddle horn, taking time to admire the mares and their newborn foals, as well as yearlings in the field on the south side of the trail.
“Sure are something, aren’t they fella. Bet you wish we’d never gelded you.” Cochise shook his heck, his main flopping from side to side. “No, you’re right. That many girls can be a problem. Sorry you have to suffer my punishment.” Pulling his leg back over, he petted the gelding on the shoulder. “Wasn’t my fault.” Ruing the events from the weekend before, “Pa sure was mad until Adam explained it all.” He signaled his horse to walk on. “Besides, I think I got the best end of the deal, I’m here looking at such fine animals and those girls are having to explain to their parents why they caused such a scene at a dance I didn’t even attend. Can you just imagine the fuss if they were after Adam? How someone can swoon over a bunch of poetry is beyond me. I tell you Cochise, if you think Pa was mad at me, I’d hate to see his reaction to that!” Joe cackled as he rode under an archway emblazoned with a Rocking A scrolled into the metal work.
“Senior Cartwright!” the Spanish nobleman greeted, his arms extended towards his guest, grasping Joe’s hand in both of his.
“Don Alegria, my father sends his best regards.” Joe removed his hat as he stepped up to the veranda.
“Si, si. I am honored you have come to look at my horses.”
“If those I saw on my way in are any indication of those you’re willing to sell, I hope we can come to a mutual agreement.”
“They will be worth every penny you pay.”
“Papi?” A six year old boy came out the door, a fisted hand wiping sleep from his eyes.
“Eduardo, did you have a good nap?”
“Si, I did. Mama asked if your guest would like some lemonade.”
Joe knelt to be eye level with the child, “I sure could use a cool glass right now. It was a dusty trip out here from Yerington. You tell your mama thank you, from me?”
“Si, I will.” The boy turned to run back inside.
“He’s a cute kid.” He watched the child and stood up.
“He’s part of the reason why I’m willing to offer my horses for sale.”
“Is everything alright?” Joe turned to face his host.
“My Maria is homesick for Mexico. Her parents are not so well, and they have never met their first and only grandson. Granddaughters abound with Maria’s older sisters. He is our last child, after four daughters myself. Ay, yi, yi. Enough of me.” The man motioned for Joe to sit. “I have heard of your Ponderosa, and specifically the horses that Joe Cartwright has trained for more than just the Army. The quality of their training speaks volumes, and I know that my horses will be taken care of as befits a Don Alegria horse.”
“If we can come to terms, I hope I can live up to your expectations.”
“You already have.” Noticing a worker walking across the yard, “Uno momento.” He stood and approached the railing. “Mr. Stafford! Come here please!”
Joe looked to the hand walking over; standing, he gripped and leaned into the railing. “Clay?”
Raising a hand to shield his eyes from the sun, “Joe?”
Jumping over the railing, Joe stood toe to toe with his brother, grabbing his arms by the biceps; a smile spread across his face, eyes wide-open in excitement, he whooped out loud.
“You know each other?”
“Know each other?! This here’s my older brother,” Joe proclaimed, slapping Clay’s chest with the back of his hand.
“Brother, but his name is Stafford…”
“We’re only half-brothers,” Clay clarified, not quite as excited to see Joe. “Senior Alegria, you called for me?”
“No, no, no longer. I’ll have someone else bring in the horses for Mr. Cartwright to inspect. Your hermano is here.”
“I’ll do it.”
“He has traveled far to see you.”
“He’s here for the horses.”
“I’ll help,” Joe offered. “It can be just like before.”
“No Joe, it’s my job.”
Clay turned and walked away, hoping he’d managed to hide how torn he really was to see his brother.
Walking down to the first step, “He was not so excited to see you.”
“We didn’t exactly separate on good terms.” Joe turned, following his host up the steps.
“Brothers always fight while growing up.”
Joe accepted the glass of lemonade from Don Alegria’s wife, before she retreated inside their home. “We didn’t grow up together. I didn’t know anything about him until he showed up at the ranch.” Joe sat on the chair he had recently vacated. “Pa knew Ma had been married before, and that she’d had another son. But Ma was told the baby died of a fever a few days later. I never knew.”
“Your mother, she…”
“She died when I was a child.”
“Most distressing. But what of your brother.” Alegria scanned the area where Clay disappeared.
“He wasn’t raised with us, he never found out what it was really like to be a family. I can’t imagine finding out he’d been lied to by those who supposedly loved him. When he learned the truth, he came looking for us.”
“It appears he found you. Did not your father welcome him?”
“Yes, but Clay had trouble fitting in.” He sipped from the glass in his hands. “He tried, but he couldn’t break free from his past. I may be speaking out of turn, but he’s good with cards, too good. He doesn’t need to cheat, but not everyone believes he isn’t. I guess that’s why he never put down roots.”
“I know of his penchant for cards. You wanted him to stay?”
“I did. And he still left.”
“I remember many times arguing to go with my own older brothers. It is a passage of brothers.”
A half-grin appeared as he remembered their night of indulging in pulque, and disappeared just as quickly as Clay told him, ‘I don’t want you along. I don’t need your family, and I don’t need you.’
“I thought he was going to Mexico.”
“He talks of going there, has even asked to travel with Maria and I, to be part of our guard. But I think his heart is not in it. I think that he’s trying to convince himself that it is where he wants to be.”
“Mexico is all he spoke of our first night out together.”
“Do you wish him to return to the Ponderosa with you?”
“I can’t ask him that. It wouldn’t be fair to him. He’s seen too much of the world to let one place claim him.” Joe’s disposition appeared to improve. “If Clay were to return home with me, he’d be like a prized stallion, always looking over the fence, looking beyond the next hill; regretting the loss of his freedom.”
“Why don’t the two of you spend some time together, get reacquainted. Spend a few additional days here. You can tell your padre that I drove a hard bargain and the negotiations took longer than expected.”
“Thank you, Don Alegria.” A genuine smile returned to Joe’s face.
“Pa. Don’t let him go,” Joe pushed off the covers.
“Easy Shortshanks, Doc Pearce wants you covered.”
“I know, but this doc seems to think it’ll help burn the fever out.”
Hoss turned at the opening of the door, “How is he?”
“Hey Doc, he might be comin’ around. He’s talkin’.”
“Clay, no.” He sighed deeply before quieting.
“Let me see him.”
“He pushed the covers off, said he’s hot.”
“He’s still running a fever, but it’s not that high. The incision looks good.” Doc Pearce pulled the blanket back over the young man’s chest. “See if you can get him to wake.”
Joe failed to respond to his brother’s voice, the one he always used to wake his brother.
“Guess he was just dreamin’.”
“Don’t be too discouraged. He’s a lucky young man.”
“Yeah, he is at that.” Hoss crossed his arms as he settled comfortably into a chair in the room.
“I have a few other patients to check on back in town, as well as a couple at outlying ranches, I’ll probably be gone the rest of the day.”
“Will Joe be okay?”
“I believe so.” Understanding the despondency of the large man, “Don’t be too worried that he hasn’t woke yet. He lost a lot of blood, and sleep is what he needs right now.”
“If you say so.”
Hoss gave quiet thanks that events had turned out at they had, Joe was alive and the family had been given a good prognosis for his recovery.
An hour later, Adam entered the room, “Any change?”
“Sorta. I thought he was comin’ around earlier. But he didn’t.” Seeing the light bandage around his brother’s brow, “How’s your head?”
Reaching up to gently rub, “Doc said it was just a scratch. And relax, it wasn’t from a bullet. I bumped my head while trying to locate Joe in that cave, without the benefit of a torch. Why don’t you go get some sleep.”
“Down for the count. He’ll sleep for a few more hours. Hopefully when he wakes, Joe will too.”
Walking to the door, “Doc wants us ta keep that compress on Joe’s forehead wet, and keep him covered. He’ll be back tomorrow sometime, I guess. He left to take care of his other patients.”
Adam nodded, placing his hand against Joe’s cheek. Rinsing out the cloth he reapplied it to Joe’s forehead before settling into the chair Hoss had just abandoned.
Even though his brother was in the same room, he couldn’t get the images of the past few days out of his head.
“He can ride with his hands cuffed,” Stark handed the reins to the man he still considered his prisoner. Additional horses had been secured for the family to ride while a few members from the original posse waited.
“And if we meet up with those men who robbed your bank and shot Joe?” Clay inquired.
“Then your family can protect you.” The lawman untied his own horse from the hitching rail and climbed into the saddle. “I ain’t giving you a weapon.” Speaking so all could hear, “We’ve got a few hours more before the sun goes down. Like before, I won’t have no man taking the law into their own hands. We’re following the prisoner to where he left his partner. We’ll take the other one legal like.”
Man to man, each one nodded in agreement. They all wanted to come home to their families and not suffer nightmares of a lynching.
“Sheriff, we’re wasting time,” Ben coldly intoned. “Hoss, follow us as best you can with the wagon. We’ll leave a trail for you to follow if the going gets too rough once we turn off the road.” Turning away from his blood sons, “Clay.”
His step-son understood that Ben meant for him to lead on. Pulling the reins sideways, he heeled the horse into a trot. At the edge of town, the ten-man group increased their pace to a lope.
“How much farther?” Adam asked as they gave the horses a fifteen minute respite.
“Took us three hours to get back to town after we found him,” Stark offered.
“The sun will be down before we get there.”
“You sure you can find your way back to Joe?” Adam strained to keep the worry from his voice.
“Adam, I’ve worked for Don Alegria long enough to know his ranch. I can find him.” He left, ‘Joe’s depending on me,’ unvoiced.
In the distance they all saw flames moving along the near horizon.
“What do you suppose?” Adam asked aloud. “Members of your original posse?”
“It ain’t anyone from the posse. They all returned to town yesterday morning when we captured your brother.”
“Don Alegria’s men?” he offered.
“No, they don’t keep cattle or horses out that way,” Clay answered, pushing back his hat to wipe away the sweat from his forehead. Worryingly, “Looks like they’re searching for something.”
“Or someone,” Ben spoke for the first time since leaving Yerington. The invisible band around his heart constricted, in face of his fears.
The first shot ricocheted off a boulder Ben had just passed. Pulling their rifles, the members of the posse dismounted and scrambled to take cover. A bright, full moon provided enough light for the shootout. Ten minutes later there was only one gun left firing from above, and it quieted moments after hearing a man scream in agony. The thud of a body striking hard ground was unmistakable.
“Your partner’s dead, give yourself up!” Stark shouted into the night.
“Either he’s playing ‘possum, or he’s trying to escape,” Adam offered, standing with his back to the boulder they were hiding behind.
“He won’t get very far. The Jameson brothers are the best trackers we have.”
“Evidently they weren’t in the posse the first time.” Adam’s voice dripped heavy with sarcasm.
Halting the team pulling the wagon, Hoss joined the group with his revolver pulled. He smiled at his brother’s barbed comment.
“All right, I’ll admit. That brother of yours might not be the robber.”
“Adam!” Clay shouted over in a loud whisper. “I’m heading out to get Joe!”
“Not without me!” Bending low, Adam ran along the ground until he reached his step-brother.
Stride for stride, the two ran the quarter mile distance to the caves where Clay had last seen his brother. Breathily, he pointed to an opening, twenty-five feet up. “There’s a foothold path up the right side.”
“You got Joe up there?” Adam looked up in disbelief.
“He didn’t like the other alternatives.”
Wishing he’d thought to bring along his saddlebag that contained a small supply of short candles, Adam groped along the wall to find the back of the cave. Joe’s lungs drawing in ragged breaths led Adam straight to him.
“Clay, go back down. Tell Pa and Hoss to bring the torches and blankets.”
Without a reply, Clay retreated, leaving the two brothers alone.
Rolling Joe to his back, Adam blindly searched for the wound Clay had described earlier. His hands found the blood soaked bandage. “Damn.” He envisioned the wound and the amount of blood pooling on the floor of the cave; no doubt his pants were now saturated, he felt the sticky mess soaking through to his knees. Reaching up he jerked the seam to the sleeve of his shirt; the sound of material ripping swelled in the close quarters.
“Joe, wake up.” Adam used his best ‘Pa voice’ to entice his brother to open his eyes.
From the dark recesses of oblivion, pain tormented him to the periphery of consciousness. “Pa?” he moaned.
“He’ll be here soon, Joe. Come on, wake up.” Adam patted Joe’s cheeks hoping to rouse him further. Feeling his brother’s head move away, Adam wadded his own make shift bandage.
A breath snatched, a hand snaked out and grabbed onto his as he replaced the soaked bandage with the sleeve of his shirt. A pain-filled cry reverberated across the darkness.
Adam closed his eyes at his brother’s pain, as well as to protect his eyes from the bright shaft of light from the torches entering the cave.
“Adam?” Ben’s voice pleaded, hoping to convey his desire without asking the question.
“He’s alive. He’s lost a lot of blood.”
“What’d you do to Shortshank that made him cry out?” Hoss asked.
“I replaced the bandage and applied pressure,” Adam snapped.
“I’m sorry Adam,” Hoss knelt down, setting a bag with proper bandages and padding between them. “I shouldn’t have barked at you.”
Ben knelt to the ground, lifting Joe’s head to his lap. Uncorking a canteen, he slowly dribbled water, hoping Joe wouldn’t choke on the much needed fluid. His chin lifted, the desire to quench his thirst overrode the pain; two bloody hands reached up.
“No Joseph.” Easily Ben pushed away his son’s hands.
“How’s he doing sir?” Clay asked as he entered the lit area.
“We need to get him back to Yerington.”
“The main house of the Rocking A would be a lot closer.”
“The doctor’s back in town,” Hoss argued.
“Senior Alegria’s wife has some medical training. She can take care of Joe while I ride for the doctor.” Clay ignored the lawman freeing his hands, his focus was on the members of what should have been his family, absently he rubbed his wrists.
“Pa, I hate to admit it, but Clay is right. I don’t’ think Joe could survive the trip in the wagon all the way back to town. And if Mrs. Alegria can help him.”
“Adam,” Ben looked between the two first borns; indecision was evident, yet short-lived. “Clay, get two blankets from the wagon. We’ll wrap Joe in one and use the other to carry him down that trail and back to the wagon. Then you hi-tail it to get the doctor.”
Silently, the family made preparations to transport Joe to the Rocking A.
The Sheriff and the posse prepared to transport the two dead outlaws, and the money still in their saddlebags, back to Yerington. Stark was thankful that he had listened to that little voice as Adam asked pointed questions in an effort to save his brother. It was a good thing that the real outlaws were dead; a double hanging would have left a bitter taste throughout the town.
“Where’s the doc?” Clay entered the room, hesitating as his oldest step-brother cast his eyes up to look at him.
Adam sat with his arms folded over his chest, his left ankle across his right knee.
“Left a few hours ago to check on other patients.”
Clay strayed to the far side of the bed where Joe lay so quietly. A quick touch with his fingertips confirmed the present fever. Exhaling, he turned to leave.
“I’m not going to bite you.”
“You’re family. You’re Marie’s first born. You didn’t have to leave.”
Stopping, “Yeah, I did.”
“You want to explain?”
“It wasn’t right, those miners beating him up because I killed their friend.”
“Families have a way of looking out for each other.”
“But as you so eloquently pointed out, I’m not really family.”
Adam heard the bitterness, “I was wrong. And here I accuse Joe of reacting instead of thinking first.”
Both turned as the door opened.
“I thought you were supposed to be asleep.” Adam fought a yawn.
“Couldn’t. Wish the doc woulda slipped me somethin’ like he did pa.” Pulling a chair closer to the bed, “What you two talkin’ about?”
Clay continued, “It doesn’t matter. Adam doesn’t trust me any more today than when I first showed up and told Joe we shared the same mother.”
“Nah, if that were true, you’d a still be in jail.” Taking a chance, Hoss motioned for Clay to take a seat. “You’ve got some explaining to do.”
Nodding, Clay sat on the trunk placed at the end of the bed. “When he came into camp, fool kid…” He slowly shook his head at the memory from so long ago.
“That’s what Adam always says.”
“Your family showed me something while I was there. I knew I couldn’t be the cause of him getting hurt any more, at least not as a way to get back at me. I deliberately said what I did that night. I knew how much it’d hurt.”
“How would you know?” Adam’s curiosity piqued.
“Because it hurt me to see the way it was for you as a family, that’s what you taught me. You don’t know what it feels like to be lied to all your life.” Adam and Hoss recognized his regret. “I didn’t know how to be what you folks are.”
“You didn’t haveta go.”
“Yeah, I did. I left because of Joe, so he wouldn’t have to suffer any more because of me. Family doesn’t hurt one another.”
“You know his suffering didn’t stop when you left,” Adam commented.
Hoss scratched behind his ear, “We ain’t heard a word from you in all this time. Didn’t know where ya was goin’. He never said nothin’, but I know how much he wanted to receive a letter from ya.”
“Hoss is right. Your leaving is one thing Joe never really talked about. To him family is everything.”
“That wasn’t exactly what I was askin’ about, but I think I understand.” Hoss stated as soon as Adam finished. “What I want to know is what mess you got into where Doc Pearce had ta pull a bullet out of ya.”
“Who says he did?” Clay respond as he took a seat.
“Doña Alegria. She also said ya ain’t touched a deck of cards since that night.”
Adam raised an eyebrow and listened as Clay explained.
Ben walked out the French doors, stretching to relieve the tension across his shoulders. He’d sat the afternoon and evening with his still unconscious son.
“It is a beautiful evening,” Don Alegria walked around a large rose bush that blossomed red blooms.
“It will be, once Joseph wakes.”
“Have you talked with your other son?”
“Which one? I have four sons under your roof.”
“Forgive me, I meant Joseph’s other brother. Your wife’s other son.” Knowing he had a story to tell, the Don motioned for Ben to join him.
“I thank you for opening your home to us, and for your wife helping the doctor to remove the bullet. Given that, I don’t see how my family…”
“It may not be my business, no? But maybe an outsider can tell you things you do not know. Come. I tell you a story over coffee.”
“My son needs me.”
“Your sons need you, but first, you listen.”
By the time the sun set once more, Ben had a better understanding of how much it hurt Clay to walk away. He wondered how it would have turned out had his step-son had brothers to back him up when he’d faced the rustlers who shot and left him for dead. Had he stayed, he wouldn’t have been in the position to have been ambushed.
Alegria had explained that it had taken Clay fighting against the possibility of his own death to realize what he’d given up, and that he had another chance to make something of his life, that didn’t involve a deck of cards. And the fact that he and Don Alegria’s oldest daughter were sweet on each other.
“Pa?” Joe woke the morning of their third day at the Rocking A. “Adam?” he asked trying to clearly see through his muddled vision the person sitting in the chair.
“It’s me, Clay. They’re in another room sleeping, Joe.” Offering his brother a glass of water, he waited.
“Yep. Take it easy, don’t need you puking it all back up.”
“Thanks.” After slowly drinking his fill, Joe handed the glass back. “Are you coming home?”
“Right to the point.” He set the glass back to the night stand.
“I don’t think so. Got me a girl.”
“You gonna tell Pa you’re not coming home with us?”
“They know I’m going with Don Alegria and his family.”
“After you’re well enough to head back to the Ponderosa.” Wearing the first genuine smile, “Your brothers aren’t getting rid of me that easily.”
“Our brothers.” Joe breathed deeply.
Nodding, “Our brothers. Let me go tell ‘our’ father, that you’re awake.”
The story was inspired by the episode, The First Born written by: Judith & George W. George and David Dortort. Please forgive me for not mentioning this is a what happens later story for The First Born, I didn’t want to give away the twist of the story.