Strength of Conviction (by Corinna)

 

Summary:    A What Happened Next for the episode “Vengeance.”
Category:   Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  9340


The wind whistling through the pines was sharp with cold, and Hoss Cartwright dropped Chubb’s reins long enough to tug the collar of his rough coat higher around his throat. His massive shoulders rippled with a small, involuntary shiver.

Beside him, Little Joe chuckled. “Cold, Hoss?”

Hoss grunted. “You’re dadburned right, I am. It’s colder than a well-digger’s toenails out here. And that sun’s going to be gone in a couple of hours, and then it’ll be colder still.”

Joe looked at Hoss’ grumpy expression and grinned. “Don’t you worry, older brother. We’re only an hour from home. You’ll be tucking into Hop Sing’s ham and sweet potatoes long before that sun goes down.”

Hoss’ big face brightened. “Yeah. Ham and sweet ‘taters. That’ll warm a feller’s insides right up.” He nudged Chubb into a trot. “Come on, Joe, let’s pick up the pace some before I freeze solid right here.”

They moved rapidly over the next slight slope in the trail and were loping through a thick stand of pines when the loud crack of a nearby gunshot sounded, startling both them and their horses. Several shots followed in quick succession, making it apparent that they were under attack, and from more than one man.

Joe snatched his gun from its holster and wheeled Cochise around, searching in vain for the gunmen. “Where’s it coming from?” he shouted at Hoss.

Hoss, too, was looking wildly about. “Can’t tell,” he muttered.

More shots sounded, and the insect-like buzzing of a bullet whipped past Hoss’ left ear. He quickly dismounted. “Whoever they are, they ain’t playin’, Joe. Get down off o’ that horse before they take you off.”

Joe hit the ground beside him, and they began to run toward the protection of a small stand of brush a few yards away. More shots spit at the dirt around their feet

“Hold it!” a voice commanded. “Throw down your guns and get your hands up, both of you.”

The silhouettes of four men began to emerge from the deepening shadows of the trees along the trail, all of them with guns aimed and ready.

Moving slowly, Hoss tossed his gun onto the ground before lifting his arms into the air. Joe, too, stopped, but held onto his gun.

“Drop your guns, I said!”

“Do it, Joe,” Hoss muttered. “There’s twice as many of them as there are of us, and they’ve got a better shot at us than we do at them.” He glanced sideways at his brother. A muscle in Joe’s cheek clenched as his eyes glared green and hard, and still he didn’t let go of his gun. Hoss felt his own heart beat faster. “Joe!” he hissed. For long seconds, Joe stood stock still. Then his shoulders slumped and he dropped his gun into the dust at his feet, moving to place his back against his brother’s as he held his arms up in the air.

Hoss let out the breath he had been holding, and his eyes narrowed upon the approaching men. As they drew closer, Hoss’ frown grew deeper. There was something about the man out in front…something that niggled at the back of Hoss’ head, but he couldn’t quite put his finger on why.

Two more men approached them from the opposite direction, and Hoss felt Joe’s muscles tense in readiness. “Don’t do nothin’ foolish, Joe,” Hoss warned softly.

“You’d better listen to him, son.” The advice was spoken by the man who had looked vaguely familiar to Hoss. “Your brother is only looking out for your best interests.” The man’s cold smile faded. “Just as I tried to look out for my own brother’s best interests—before he was murdered in cold blood.”

Hoss felt Joe shift position as he turned his head to stare at the man.

“Red Twilight,” Joe breathed.

Hoss stared at the man as realization dawned.

Red Twilight. A little more than two years ago, this man had shot him in the back. He had said he wanted to avenge the death of his brother Willie, who had died, to Hoss’ great distress, when Hoss had tried to disarm him in the street.

Hoss had seen Red only once, and very briefly, in the doorway of their barn. Red had come onto the Ponderosa with the intention of finishing him off in retaliation for his brother’s death, but Joe and Adam had stopped him in time. Hoss knew Joe had been beside himself with fury and fear over the possibility of losing his older brother, and he had been within a hair’s breadth of blowing Red’s head off when he caught him. Only Adam’s clear-headed intervention had—barely—held Joe’s rage in check.

Red had been quickly carted off to Sheriff Coffee’s office, and from there to the territorial prison, incarcerated on murder and attempted murder charges. Hoss hadn’t attended the trial—he’d still had weeks of hard recovery in front of him at the time—but Pa and his brothers had. Sometimes he thought Pa and Adam had gone as much to watch over Joe as they did to see justice done. Even though Joe had, somewhat reluctantly, decided to let the law take care of Red, his face had still blanched with white-hot fury whenever the man’s name came up. Sometimes Hoss wondered if he regretted letting Adam talk him out of killing Red Twilight.

Once Red was sent to prison, though, things had gradually settled back to normal. Hoss had come to terms with the circumstances of Willie Twilight’s death; physically, too, he had made a complete recovery, and he was now able to whip both his brothers with one hand tied behind his back, just as he always had. The hard glint that had stayed in Joe’s eyes during the trial had eventually faded, too—until now.

“What are you doing here?” Joe’s voice was soft, and Hoss wondered if Red recognized the danger that lay within that softness.

But Red was dangerous, too. An evil smile played around his lips.

“You Cartwrights thought you was rid of me, didn’t you? I guess you didn’t count on me breakin’ out o’ prison.”

“They’ll be huntin’ you down, Red,” Hoss said. “A smart man would be headed to Mexico.”

“Oh, I’m headed to Mexico, alright,” Red said. “But not until I get what I came for. I was headed for the Ponderosa to finish my business with you—never expected to see you two comin’ up the trail. Figured I’d have to break in during the night to get the job done. Guess my luck’s taken a turn for the better lately.” He pointed his pistol at Hoss. “I brought along friends of mine to help make sure things went according to plan. Your brothers stopped me once—they won’t stop me this time.”

Joe was shaking his head in disbelief. “I should have killed you that day.”

Red lowered his gun and gave a short laugh. “Well, son, we all make mistakes. I guess yours was in not pulling the trigger when you had me in your sights. Mine was in not sticking around long enough when I shot your brother. I should have made sure he was dead the first time. But I’m going to rectify that right now.” He raised the gun again, aiming it for the center of Hoss’ chest.

Everything happened so fast, Hoss remembered later. He sucked in a gust of air, his mind whirling as he tried to come up with a way to escape even as Red’s finger tightened on the trigger. Then the air left his lungs in a rush as Joe lunged around and shoved hard into his belly, knocking him to the side just as the bullet left Red’s gun in a puff of smoke and a loud explosion.

Joe’s body jerked, and he fell back, spinning until he fell facedown onto the ground. As if at a great distance, Hoss heard himself shouting as he scrambled through the dirt to reach his brother. Joe rolled slowly onto his back, his boots moving feebly in the dust, his arms wrapped around his middle.

“Joe!”

Joe had stopped moving and his eyes were shut. Hoss heard a huge humming in his ears, drowning out everything else. He grabbed Joe’s shoulders and gave him a small, desperate shake. “Don’t you do this, boy. Don’t you do this.” He felt his own lungs take in a deep, shuddering breath—and then those green eyes fluttered open again and looked back at him, dazed and unfocused.

Hoss swallowed, trying to slow the beating of his own heart as he realized his brother was still alive—badly hurt, but alive.

Behind him, Red Twilight started to laugh. “Well, this ain’t exactly what I intended to happen, but darned if I don’t think it’s better this way.”

Hoss ignored Red, his big fingers jerking Joe’s jacket open.

“Of course, I could just go ahead and kill you anyway, but seeing the look on your face—no, I don’t think so. I reckon I’ll just let you suffer at watching your little brother die. Then you’ll know how I felt knowin’ my brother had been kilt. And you can live the rest of your life knowing you were the cause of your kid brother’s death.” Red nodded smugly. “Yeah, I think you’ll suffer a lot longer and harder than if I just killed you outright. Serves the kid right, anyway—I didn’t appreciate the way he held that gun against my head two years ago.” He turned toward his men, then stopped and turned back. “They have a word for this kind of thing, don’t they? What is it? Oh, yeah. Poetic justice.” Red turned back to his men. “Run their horses down the mountain, and let’s get out of here.”

Hoss was dimly aware of the clatter of hooves on hard-packed earth as Red and his men rode away, driving Chubb and Cochise before them. As he unbuttoned Joe’s shirt, the sight of the hole in his brother’s left side hit him like a kick to the stomach. Blood ran unheeded from the wound, flowing over Joe’s fingers and puddling into a sticky dark mess on the ground.

“Hoss? H-Hoss, are you alright? He didn’t get you, did he?”

Hoss gently moved Joe’s hands out of the way, and winced in despair as he got his first clear view of the gunshot wound. It was bad, very bad. He raised his head, keeping one of his hands clamped tightly against the wound. “No, Joe, he didn’t get me. But you weren’t so lucky.”

“Y–yeah. You’re r–right about that, I reckon.” Joe’s voice was soft and breathy, catching in small, jerky hitches. “How bad is—is it?”

Hoss raised his free hand and brushed his brother’s brown curls back off his forehead. “Aw, it ain’t nothin’, Shortshanks,” he lied, forcing a joviality into his voice that he was far from feeling. “You had worse scratches than this when you tripped over the porch steps last month.”

Hoss’ feeble joke was rewarded with a weak smile. “Yeah, that’s w-what I thought. I’ll be okay, Hoss. Don’t worry.”

Trust Joe to downplay an injury even when he knew he wasn’t fooling anybody.

“You sure will, little brother. This ain’t gonna get you out of doin’ chores for long.” Hoss patted his arm and gave him what he hoped was a reassuring smile, and turned his attention back to the wound. The bleeding wasn’t slowing down. He had to do something, or his little brother would be dead in a matter of minutes. He placed Joe’s hands back over the ragged-edged hole.

“Keep ‘em pressed down tight, Joe. I’ve got to find something to stop the blood.” Hoss got to his feet and ran over to a scattering of boulders resting in the shadow of the slope rising up from the trail. Moss grew like a fuzzy green rug on the northern side of the rocks, and he took out his knife and quickly scraped off a large handful of the stuff.

He hurried back and dropped back down beside Joe. “I’ll have you all fixed up in no time, Joe, just you wait and see.” He pushed Joe’s unresisting hands aside, and began packing the wound with the cold moss.

Joe winced and grunted softly, but said nothing.

Hoss grimaced, knowing the pain had to be intense. “Sorry, Joe. I know it hurts. Just hold on a minute more.” He pressed the last of the moss into the wound and was gratified to see the flow of blood diminish greatly. He shed his coat to rip off one of his shirt sleeves, and then tore the fabric into long bandage-sized pieces. He tried to ignore Joe’s whimpers as he gently lifted his brother to wrap the cloth around his waist.

“There you are, good as new,” Hoss said, his breathing harsh with fear and exertion as he gave the knot in the bandage one last tug and pulled Joe’s shirt and jacket back around him.

Joe didn’t answer.

Hoss’ gaze flew to Joe’s face. Long lashes, black as soot, feathered across pale cheeks. His lips had lost their tight edge; they lay soft and slightly parted.

“Joe. Joe!” Hoss’ shout rang loud across the quiet mountainside, and when Joe’s eyes drifted open, he briefly shut his own in bone-deep relief.

“Thattaboy,” he breathed. He put his own coat on, and then carefully pulled his brother to his feet. “Ol’ Hoss is gonna get you outta this, and that’s a promise. Just lean on me, and we’re gonna get you home.”

With Hoss supporting most of Joe’s weight, they managed to travel a few hundred yards at an appallingly slow rate. Joe’s breathing became increasingly raspy, and though he remained conscious, his body became more and more limp against Hoss’ side. At last Hoss was forced to admit that they needed to stop. He gently lowered Joe to the ground.

Even in the biting cold, beads of sweat covered Joe’s face. That and the taut lines around his mouth were clear evidence of what the short hike had cost him. Even so, he knew as well as Hoss that they couldn’t stay here. I’m alright, Hoss,” he whispered. “Let’s keep going.”

“That’s alright, buddy; you just rest a minute,” Hoss soothed. He sat for a moment, getting his own breath back and looking into the crimson western sky for some sign of what he should do. No sign came.

Hoss checked the bandage; it was stained red but was so far holding back much of the blood flow. The coldness of the evening was some help with that, too. For the first time in his life, Hoss found himself thankful for the cold. “Joe? Joe, I’ll just carry you the rest of the way. You don’t have to do a thing, just hold on.”

He received no answer, and this time, no amount of shouting at his brother brought him around. “Dadburnit, Joe, don’t you let me down now.” He gave Joe’s face a few light slaps, but that produced no response, either.

Hoss gritted his teeth in desperation as he thought about what to do next. Joe’s light frame was easy enough for him to carry, but the going would be slow—maybe too slow. Joe needed a doctor’s care, and he needed it soon. Should he leave the boy here while he ran the rest of the way to the house for help? That might be the quickest way.

But in the end, he couldn’t bear to leave him. The possibility of returning to find his brother already dead was too much for him to contemplate. So he simply lifted Joe into his arms and continued on up the trail toward home.

*****

Adam sighed, looking up from his book to watch his father pace the floor. They had finished eating supper two hours earlier; Hop Sing had finally given up on waiting for Joe and Hoss, and had cleared away their untouched plates.

Ben stopped his pacing to stare out the small window behind his desk. Stars shone weakly back at him from between wisps of gathering clouds. “I just don’t understand what could be keeping those two,” he grumbled. “It was only a small break in the northern fence line that they had to repair. They should have been here by now.”

Adam shrugged. “Maybe it was a bigger repair job than you figured.”

Ben turned away from the window. “Maybe,” he agreed, but he looked unconvinced. He chewed thoughtfully on his lower lip, and then turned toward his eldest son. “Adam…“

Adam was already out of his chair and headed toward the door. “I’ll get the horses. Better bring a couple extra, just in case.”

Ben shot him a small, sheepish smile. “Am I that easy to read? Do you think I’m being overprotective?”

Adam’ lips curved gently upwards. “I’m worried about them, too, Pa. If it was just Joe, well, he’s always late. But Hoss is with him, and it’s bitter cold out there tonight. You know Hoss—he hates the cold. There’s no way he’d be out in this if he could help it. Something’s wrong.”

*****

Hoss lay Joe down under a tree and felt in the dark for the bandage. He grimaced and swore softly as he brought his hand away sticky and wet. He shuffled through the dark, scraping more moss off the north side of an ancient ponderosa pine, and repacked the wound.

“All this jostling around ain’t doin’ you no good, Joe, that’s for sure,” Hoss muttered to his unconscious brother. He sighed heavily. “But danged if I know what else to do.”

As much as Joe’s occasional soft whimpers pained him, he was thankful for the sound of them. It meant his brother still lived.

Hoss pushed his hat back and rubbed a trembling hand across his head.

He had ridden this same trail countless times during his life, and every twist and turn and rock and tree was familiar to him, even in the dark. On horseback, even at night, home would have been a simple matter of climbing up and down three more low ridges, a relaxed canter through the relative smoothness of the northwest pasture, and then a short climb up the final slope to the house. At most, maybe half an hour from this point.

On foot, climbing, carrying his brother, it was a different story. It could take him most of the night to reach home, and then the doctor would still have to be sent for. By then, it could be too late.

Again he considered leaving Joe in order to make better time. Again, he rejected the idea.

The moon had been shining earlier, but heavy clouds had now gathered, covering what little light had shone upon the path. The light breeze carried the sharp tang of change on it, and Hoss lifted his face into it.

“Dagnabbit, that’s all we need—snow,” he muttered. The wind had died down, at least. Thank the Lord for small favors. Blizzard conditions would have likely sealed his fate and that of Joe as well. He sighed, and bent to gather his brother up in his arms. Shutting his heart against Joe’s low grunts of pain, he set off once again.

*****

“It’s really getting thick,” Adam commented, holding the lantern higher and squinting his eyes against the wet flakes drifting across the trail.

Ben grunted agreement. If he had had any doubt that Joe and Hoss were in trouble, that doubt was gone now. The snowfall was growing heavier by the minute, and his sons would not have voluntarily stayed out in weather like this, not without good reason.

“They could have holed up in that old line cabin up north,” Adam offered.

Ben smiled slightly at his eldest son’s attempt to ease both their minds. “Perhaps.” But his heavy brow was furrowed with worry as he urged Buck along.

Adam sighed. He clucked to Sport, tugged at the lead of the horse he was towing along, and followed his father down the increasingly slippery trail.

*****

The first strikes of hoof on snow-covered earth made Hoss think he must be hearing things. The snow lay in a soft mantle, muffling the sounds of his boots on the trail and surrounding him with an eerie quiet. He stopped, holding Joe close, straining his ears.

There it was again—the soft clip-clop of hooves in shallow, wet snow.

“Hey out there!” Hoss shouted, his big voice booming against the rocks. “Help! Hey, over here! Help!”

Deep baritone voices immediately echoed back down the trail to him, and he instantly recognized them as belonging to his pa and Adam. He blinked his eyes rapidly against tears of gratitude, and bent his head near Joe’s.

“It’s Pa and Adam,” Hoss said softly. “They found us, Joe. Everything’s going to be alright.”

*****

The sight that struck Ben as they rounded the curve in the trail made his heart leap into his throat. Hoss stood in the middle of the path, his face a mixture of exhaustion, relief and despair. In his arms, held like an offering, lay the limp, unmoving form of Little Joe. The boy’s head lolled back over the crook of Hoss’ elbow, and his arms dangled freely. The dark splotches of blood that covered the two of them was visible even by the dim light of the lanterns.

“Oh, my God,” Adam swore harshly. “What happened?”

Without waiting for an answer, they grabbed the blankets they had carried along and were off the horses and at Hoss’ side in moments. Ben relieved him of his burden, wrapping Joe in a blanket before easing him to the ground. Adam threw another blanket around Hoss’ shoulders.

“Thank God you two are here,” Hoss said, his voice rough and weary. “Little Joe, he’s—he’s hurt bad, Pa. Shot in the belly.”

The faces of his pa and brother shot up toward him, stunned and horrified.

“Gutshot?” Adam asked what Ben couldn’t. They had all seen victims of gunshots to the intestines, and they all knew what such an injury would mean—almost certain death, regardless of how soon the victim was treated.

Hoss shook his head. “No, no I don’t think so. It’s more off to the side, like.”

Ben raised Joe’s jacket and shirt and gently pulled the bandage aside. He winced at what his inspection revealed. “You’re right, it’s off to the side, hopefully far enough to have missed the intestines. We—we won’t know for sure how much damage has been done until the doctor sees him.”

“Pa.” Hoss waited until Ben looked up at him. “Pa, he’s—he’s lost a lot of blood. An awful lot.” Hoss offered the information unnecessarily. The proof of his comment was smeared all over him and Joe, too. But the warning to his father was plain in his face and words as their eyes met and held.

Ben tightened his mouth, gave a short nod and turned back to his youngest son.

“Who did it? Did you recognize them?” Adam’s voice was cold and hard as he dropped to the ground beside Ben.

Hoss heaved a great sigh. “It was Red Twilight.”

At Hoss’ words, Adam whipped his head around. “Red Twi—but Hoss, that’s impossible. Red Twilight’s in prison.”

“Yeah, well, he broke out, I guess. Came back here to finish me off, and little brother here got in his way.” Hoss’ head dropped. “He took the bullet meant for me.”

Ben glanced around at the surrounding woods. “Is Twilight nearby, do you think?”

“No. He took his men and left. Took our horses. Guess he figured that was enough to keep us good and stuck.”

Ben’s gloved hand shook as he wiped the gathering snowflakes from his youngest son’s pale face. Then he shook his head and gathered his senses. “We can’t help him out here. Let’s get him home.”

Quickly, Joe and Hoss were bundled up with every blanket available, and then Adam helped Hoss onto one of the extra horses. Joe was obviously unable to sit a horse by himself, and Hoss beckoned from his place in the saddle. “Put him up here. He can lean on me.”

Ben shook his head. “I’ll take Joe. Adam will ride into town for the doctor.” When Hoss started to argue, Ben rested a hand on Hoss’ thigh. “You’re bone-tired, son. You’ve done everything you can. Leave things to Adam and me for now.”

Hoss frowned, and then gave his father a grudging nod. Adam lifted Joe onto the saddle in front of Ben.

“I’ll ride as fast as I can, Pa,” Adam said. “I’ll have to come back up with Doc on the regular road, but I’ll go down by way of Blake’s Pass—it’s faster.” But it might not be fast enough. They all thought the words they didn’t dare speak.

“Be careful, son.”

Adam nodded, staring up at Joe’s still face. He couldn’t help wondering if it was the last time he’d see his kid brother alive.

“He’ll be here, Adam.” Hoss knew what he was thinking. “He’s too dadblamed ornery to be done in by a little nick like this.”

Adam gave him a grim, humorless smile. “Right.” He stepped back, slapped Buck’s rump, and watched his family ride up the trail before swinging onto Sport’s back and heading in the direction of Blake’s Pass and Virginia City.

*****

Every tick of the clock resounded loudly in Joe’s bedroom. Ben had tried to get Hoss to get some sleep, but he had refused to do so. They both sat at Joe’s bedside, Ben with his eyes rarely leaving his youngest son’s face, Hoss with his head resting in his hands.

The clock struck two, and Hoss sighed and stood up, pacing over to the window to stare out.

“He’ll be here, Hoss,” Ben said quietly, then started as Hoss pounded a big fist against the window frame. “Hoss…“

“I never should have made him go with me, Pa! I could have done the job by myself. I just wanted him along for company. I should’ve gone by myself, and this never would have happened.

The torment on Hoss’ face pulled at Ben’s heart. He got up and moved to put a hand on his son’s arm. “Hoss, stop this. Things happen for a reason. If Joe hadn’t been with you, you’d be lying dead out there right now.”

“But Pa…“

“Enough, Hoss.” Ben’s voice was stern. “Your brother has a chance, and he’s fighting for it. Your berating yourself over circumstances beyond your control isn’t going to help him.”

“Pa?” Joe’s soft moan brought them both hurrying back to the bed. He had drifted in and out of consciousness throughout the night but had spoken little.

Ben bent over his son, brushing a soothing hand through his thick curls. “I’m here, Joe.”

“Hoss—Hoss is in trouble, Pa.” Joe’s voice was weak and slurred.

“No, Hoss is fine. He’s right here with me, son.”

“Red Twilight…he’s after Hoss. Wants to…wants to kill him. Gotta stop him.”

Hoss reached out and grabbed Joe by the hand. “Red Twilight’s long gone, Joe. Don’t you be worryin’ about him.”

Whether or not Joe heard what Hoss was trying to tell him was debatable, for he drifted back into unconsciousness before the words were finished.

Ben placed a hand on Joe’s forehead and frowned. “Fever’s starting. No surprise there. Go ask Hop Sing for some cloths and a pitcher of cool water from the kitchen pump, will you, Hoss?”

Hoss nodded and quickly left the room, leaving Ben to tend to Joe. Ben sat with his shoulders slumped, feeling helpless as he watched his youngest son struggle to hang on. A few minutes later, Hop Sing hustled into the room on Hoss’ heels. They both carried a pitcher of cool water and clean cloths, which Hop Sing efficiently arranged on the stand just inside the door.

“How Little Joe?” Hop Sing asked, handing a cool, wet cloth to Ben.

“He’s holding his own,” Ben said gruffly, gently patting the cloth against Joe’s forehead.

Hop Sing frowned, wringing his hands as he peered anxiously at the slight figure in the bed.

The Cartwrights’ Chinese cook loved that boy like he would his own son, if he had had one. Of course, he loved Adam and Hoss, too, but Joe had always been special to him, probably because he had come to the Ponderosa when Joe was still very little. He had watched the boy grow up, and had often taken active part in his raising, especially after Marie’s death. Through the years, he had taken pride in Joe’s successes and sympathized with his failures. He had grumbled at his frequent disobedience and chuckled at his outrageous antics.

Now, as had happened so many times over the years, he stood with family members at the boy’s bedside, anxious with worry and fearing that this might be the time Joe wouldn’t be able to make his way back from the brink of death.

Joe had always been such a bundle of vitality, bursting with vigor and enthusiasm for everything life had to offer. Even now, as he lay deep in an uneasy world of delirium, his head moved restlessly against his pillow as if to deny death the chance to catch him; a myriad of expressions played across his face with a vividness that most men didn’t show even during their waking hours. Fright, worry, anger—Little Joe was feeling all those things, even as he fought for his life.

Hop Sing surreptitiously studied the other Cartwrights in the room, and his own fear grew as he saw the fright plainly etched on their faces. They were worried, just as he was—-worried that Adam wouldn’t make it back with the doctor in time, worried that Little Joe might not see the light of another day.

Hop Sing could not imagine such a thing happening.

Adam had once read a story to him, a tale of an enchanted kingdom. To Hop Sing’s way of thinking, the Ponderosa was like that kingdom, with wise Ben Cartwright seated at its throne and serious-minded Adam as the heir-apparent. Hoss was the brave knight, mighty with the sword but gentle with those weaker than himself.

And Joe—strikingly handsome of face, astonishingly cheerful yet quick to anger—and just as quick with endearing shows of affection.

Joe was the kingdom’s sweet prince. If he left the world, the Ponderosa kingdom might persevere, but the enchantment and light would be gone.

The thought left Hop Sing severely shaken.

“Little Joe be all right,” the cook told Ben decisively. “He not quit. You see.”

Ben smiled half-heartedly. “I hope so, Hop Sing. I hope so.”

*****

The ride back to the Ponderosa was excruciatingly slow for Adam. Due to the snow, he had been worried that Doc Martin’s curricle might have trouble negotiating the rougher parts of the trail, and had convinced the older man to ride horseback instead. He carried the doctor’s bag himself to help speed Paul along. Even so, conditions made the ride treacherous, and they could only push the horses so fast.

The slow going gave Adam too much time to think and worry. Joe had been so bad off…had he even made it back to the house alive? “I should have let Joe kill him,” he said suddenly, more to himself than to Doc.

Paul looked at him, startled. “Kill him? Kill who?”

Adam sighed. “Red Twilight. If I had let Joe kill him, none of this would have happened.”

Paul was astonished at Adam’s revelation, and said so. “Adam, I know you don’t believe that. You’d never allow a man to be cut down like that, not even a cur like Twilight. You certainly wouldn’t stand by and allow a member of your own family to do such a thing. You’d never presume to set yourself above the law like that.”

Adam snorted. “No, we couldn’t possibly have Adam Cartwright set himself above the law, could we?”

His sarcastic tone had Paul glancing sideways at him. “You’re under a lot of stress right now, son…”

Adam cut him off impatiently. “Doc, if you’re walking along and you come upon a snake coiled up in front of you, what do you do?”

“Excuse me?”

“A snake, Doc. A poisonous snake, a rattler. What do you do?”

“Adam, I don’t understand how this…“

“Please, Doc, humor me. What do you do about the rattlesnake coiled up in your path?”

“Well, kill it, I suppose. Adam…“

“Why kill it, Doc? It hasn’t bitten you, not yet. You could just walk around it. Or you could turn it over to someone else, some sort of snake expert, let’s say. Let someone else make the decision about whether or not to let the snake live.”

“Don’t be silly, Adam. You know I couldn’t leave the snake there. Someone, anyone, a child maybe, could come along and be bitten…“ Doc looked at him with wide eyes, suddenly well aware of what Adam was getting at. “But Adam, this…“

“So you admit you would feel compelled to kill it. Fine. Now, exactly how does a man kill a snake?”

Paul gave a disapproving harrumph. “I’m not discussing this ridiculous notion with you any further, Adam. You’re worried sick, and you’re…“

“A man kills a snake by cutting its head off,” Adam answered for him. “Or, if he’s got a gun handy, by blowing its head off. You kill a snake, not just to prevent it from striking at you, but to prevent it from hurting someone else later on.” He turned to look at Paul, who stared back at him through the darkness. “Red Twilight was a man who thought only of getting revenge. It didn’t matter to him that Willie’s death had been accidental. It didn’t matter that Willie had been in a drunken stupor that day, shooting up the town and endangering innocent citizens. Willie forced Hoss’ hand that afternoon, and Hoss would have given anything to have had things turn out differently, but Red didn’t care about that either.”

Adam turned back to stare at the shadowy trail ahead. For several minutes, he said nothing more. When he spoke again, his voice was low and intense.

“When I looked at Red Twilight, do you know what I saw? I saw a criminal who thought nothing of shooting an unarmed man in the back, all in the name of revenge. I saw a man of low moral standards who needed to be taken off the streets and into the custody of the law.” He looked back at Paul. “Do you know what Joe saw?”

Paul gave his head an uncertain shake.

“Joe saw what Red Twilight really was—a snake. His instincts told him to destroy something that was a danger to the lives of his family. I was determined to let the law handle Twilight. But Joe…Joe went after that killer like the vermin he was. Doc, if it hadn’t been for Joe’s hardheadedness, Twilight would likely have gotten away with murdering Hoss right in his own bed. No doubt he would have finished me off as well.” Adam shook his head and gave a short bark of a laugh. “But Joe just wouldn’t quit, wouldn’t give up. And he caught that snake in the act of striking again, right there in our own home.” Adam swallowed. “And then I…I got in Joe’s way. Convinced him that what he was trying to do was wrong.”

“Adam, son, it was wrong. You prevented your brother from doing something that would have ruined his life.”

Adam turned his head away, and when he spoke again, his voice was so soft Paul had a hard time hearing him. “I thought so, Doc, at least at the time. I told myself that I’d saved my brother from making a terrible mistake.”

Paul waited for him to continue. When he didn’t, he prodded. “And now? What do you tell yourself now, Adam?”

“That I turned a treacherous snake loose and sentenced my kid brother to death.”

“Adam—“

Adam held up a hand. “Doc, don’t. Please. Let’s just concentrate on getting to Little Joe, can we?”

There would be no reasoning with Adam in this mood, and Paul knew it. Sighing, he urged his horse along through the swirling snow.

*****

From his vantage point atop the ridge above, Red Twilight watched with narrowed eyes as the two men passed by.

He had never had any intention of letting Hoss Cartwright live. When the kid had gotten hit instead, he had taken it as a great opportunity to see Hoss suffer, the way he himself had suffered when he found out Willie had been killed. He figured he would ride to Virginia City, have a few beers, and then come back up the trail to revel in the big man’s devastation. After a few laughs, he would finish him off.

But the stop at the saloon had been a mistake; they had spent more time there than he had intended. By the time they walked out, the boys were refusing to go back with him.

“We’ve wasted enough time already on those Cartwrights of yours. You want to go back and risk your neck, go ahead. We’ll see you in hell or Mexico, Twilight!”

Drunk and laughing, they had clambered up on their horses and headed south.

So he was alone as he rode back up the pass to finish the job, but that didn’t matter. It shouldn’t be difficult to catch up to two men on foot, one of them badly wounded if not already dead. Of course this damn weather would slow him down some, but not as much as it would slow them.

Even in the snow and falling darkness, their trail hadn’t been difficult to follow. Their shuffling steps and dark drops of blood, even lightly dusted with snow, had clearly marked their progress. Two sets of prints eventually turned into one large, deeply imprinted set, and he had laughed as he realized that Hoss Cartwright was now carrying his brother. Good. That would slow them down even more. The snow was beginning to obscure the tracks now, making them more difficult to see.

Then he had come upon a spot where the snow had been trampled by the hooves of several horses, and the footprints disappeared. He had sworn in disgust, realizing that someone had come to his quarry’s rescue.

No matter. The hoofprints led in the direction of the Ponderosa, and that’s where he’d find his prey. It wasn’t far off, and he’d have his satisfaction soon.

The sounds of horses coming up the trail behind him made him scoot up out of sight. He watched as two men hurried up the trail. One was an older man, slightly hunched and obviously uncomfortable in the cold. The other, carrying a doctor’s black bag, wore a yellow coat. He wore his black hat pulled down low, but Red recognized him as being Adam Cartwright.

So, the kid hadn’t died on the trail. They were bringing in a doctor for him.

Red chewed his lip, considering. He could shoot them both easily, right now.

Almost immediately, he discarded the idea. The Ponderosa was near enough that the sound of gunshots might carry to the house, and he didn’t want to give them any warning. After all, killing his brother’s murderer was still his main objective. He didn’t want to risk doing anything that might jeopardize his chances of finishing what he’d first come here to do more than two years ago. He had waited too long to blow it all now.

*****

The snow had stopped falling, thankfully, and the lights of the house beckoned warmly as they rode into the yard. Adam jumped down and handed Paul his bag as soon as the older man dismounted. “I’ll take care of the horses. You see to Joe,” he said.

Paul nodded, hurrying to the house as Adam led the horses into the barn.

Mechanically, Adam went about his tasks, trying not to think about was going on inside. Now that he was here, he was afraid to go in, afraid of what he might find. Joe had been shot hours ago—had too much time passed?

Unable to face the possibility, Adam concentrated on providing the animals with hay and water, and then on rubbing them down. How long he stayed in the barn, alone with the horses, he didn’t know. He was standing next to Sport, swiping a brush methodically along his flank, when he heard someone move up behind him.

“Adam.”

His hand stilled, but he didn’t turn his head. Adam kept his eyes on Sport’s sleek hide and said nothing.

“Adam, come on inside. You’ve had a long, hard ride, and it’s cold out here.”

Hoss’ voice was low and troubled, and what he didn’t say was what frightened Adam. Very slowly, he turned to face Hoss. “Is he gone?” he whispered.

The bleakness in Adam’s dark eyes hit Hoss like a hard blow to the gut, and he winced as he realized what his older brother had been thinking.

“No, Adam, no, he’s not gone. He’s bad off, but he’s still here, fightin’ with everything he’s got.” Hoss smiled. “Would you expect any less from our little brother?”

Adam stared at him for an instant, as if expecting him to change his mind about what he had said, then shut his eyes in relieved prayer.

“He’s awake now, or he was when the doc went in,” Hoss added. “Why don’t you come on up and look in on him? I know it would make him feel a heap better just seeing you.”

A strange expression flickered across Adam’s face, and he turned back to brushing Sport. “Tell Pa I’ll be in soon.”

Hoss hesitated. “Adam—Adam, Doc Martin told Pa and me about something you said back on the trail.”

Adam’s hand once again ceased moving. “Did he?” His tone was flat.

“Adam, this ain’t your fault, none of it. You got to know that.”

“I know that, if it weren’t for me, Red Twilight wouldn’t have had the chance to come back. If it weren’t for me, Joe wouldn’t be lying up there right now.” Adam shook his head. “When Red showed up here two years ago, Joe saw clearly what needed to be done. All I could see was what I had trained myself to see—a fairy tale ideal where men can depend on the law to protect them and their loved ones. Well, it’s plain to see who was right and who was wrong.”

Hoss grabbed Adam’s arm and yanked him around to face him. “Now, you listen here, older brother. I ain’t used to hearing you spout nonsense like that, and I don’t much like having to beat sense into you. But I’ll do it if I have to, because you ain’t thinkin’ straight, that’s for sure.” His face softened, and he eased his grip on his brother. “Alright, Adam, you tell me—just what do you think would have happened if you had let Joe pull the trigger that day?”

Adam shrugged. “Red Twilight had already tried to kill you. Then he killed one of our hands at point-blank range, broke into our home, and shot me. Joe stopped him from killing us both. There’s not a jury in Nevada Territory that wouldn’t have ruled in self-defense in Joe’s favor. Nobody would have to know any more of the circumstances.”

Hoss nodded. “No, I imagine you’re right in sayin’ that Joe wouldn’t have been punished. Not by the law, anyway. But in all the years that followed, how many times do you think Joe would have relived that moment? How many times do you think he would have replayed everything in his mind, wishing he had handled it differently?” He sighed. “Joe’s still a kid in lots of ways, Adam. He didn’t have to grow up as fast as you and me did. He’s busy growin’ into a man, but he’s not done yet. And while he’s growin’, he’s dependin’ on his family to guide him in the right direction. To make sure he grows into the kind of man he should be.” Hoss sighed, and dropped his gaze to the ground. “I’ll tell you this much. If you hadn’t stopped him that day, Adam, you would have failed him. Failed him as a brother, and failed him as a man.”

Adam said nothing. Then his shoulders slumped. “Oh, Hoss, I just don’t know…”

Hoss raised his head and looked his older brother in the eye. “Well, I do. Little Joe needed your help that day, and he needs it now. Now, are you comin’, or do I have to carry you?”

Adam stared at him, and then smiled and shook his head. “I think you’ve carried your share of loads lately. I’ll walk.”

*****

They climbed the stairs to find Ben pacing the upstairs hallway.

“How is he?” Adam asked.

Ben glanced at the closed door to Joe’s room and lifted a hand in helpless bewilderment. “Paul is still in there with him. Hop Sing is assisting him, but they shooed me out.”

Hoss took in the dark smudges below Ben’s eyes and frowned. “Pa, why don’t you get yourself some rest? Adam and I will let you know as soon as Doc is finished.”

Ben shook his head. “No, I couldn’t…“

His words were interrupted by the opening of Joe’s door, and all three Cartwrights surged toward Doc Martin as he stepped out into the hallway.

“Paul—how is he?” Ben asked, his voice thin with worry and fatigue.

The doctor gave them a tired smile. “I managed to remove the bullet, and he’s resting comfortably enough. The bullet was clean and whole—no fragments to worry about. And I had to put in quite a few stitches, of course, inside and out. Luckily, none of his internal organs seem to have been damaged.”

“So he’s…“

Doc reached for Ben’s hand and gripped it with both of his. “He’s worn out and weak from blood loss, but once he gets some rest, I see no reason to believe he won’t recover completely. I believe the worst of it is over.”

Ben seemed to wilt with the relief of the doctor’s words. “Thank God,” he breathed.

Adam put a steadying hand on his father’s back. “Can we go in, Doc?”

Paul nodded. “Only for a few minutes. I don’t want him tired out any more than necessary. He’s a very lucky young man—but then, you already knew that.” He smiled and pulled the cuffs of his shirt sleeves back into place. “And now, gentlemen, if you’ll excuse me, I believe I’ll help myself to some of that coffee Hop Sing told me he had brewed up.”

“Of course, Paul, make yourself at home,” Ben told him. “And…thank you.” Ben shook his old friend’s hand in gratitude, and then hurried into Joe’s room with his two sons close behind him.

Hop Sing bobbed his head and beamed as they entered. “Little Joe be better soon. I told you, he not quit,” he whispered happily as he gathered up soiled bandages and carried them from the room.

“No, he’s no quitter,” Adam smiled. He suddenly felt exhausted, both from worry and the strain of the hard night’s ride. He realized he hadn’t even bothered to remove his gun and holster, and he did it now, wrapping the leather around the pistol and placing the weapon on top of the bureau.

Joe’s delight in their presence was obvious. “Hey, Pa. Hey, Adam.” His voice was weak, but the smile that wreathed his face lit the room. He looked at Hoss, his green eyes shining even though the lids drooped with coming sleep. “Hoss, didn’t I tell you…didn’t I tell you that Adam would…would get that doctor back here…”

“You sure did, little brother,” Hoss agreed.

Ben sat down and bent near his son, stroking his dark curls as he had done since he was a baby. “Shh, now. Doc Martin says you need to rest.”

“Did you…did you tell Roy about Twilight, Adam?”

“Not yet.” Hell, taking the time to inform the sheriff had been the last thing on his mind. “I’ll have one of the hands ride in and tell him. He’ll have a posse put together in no time. Don’t worry; they’ll catch him.” He wished he was as sure of that as he forced himself to sound. The truth was, he was afraid that Twilight was long gone and would soon be beyond the reach of the law.

Joe smiled. “I’m not…not worried. Roy will catch him…” With that, sleep claimed him, leaving his family to look at each other in grateful relief.

“Why don’t you boys go downstairs and help yourselves to some of that coffee?” Ben suggested quietly. “I’ll stay here with Joe for a few minutes.”

His oldest sons nodded and eased themselves out the door.

*****

Half an hour later, as the eastern sky began to pale with the promise of dawn, Hop Sing had put together an especially admirable breakfast, which Ben insisted Paul share before heading back to town. With Joe relatively out of danger and sleeping peacefully, the atmosphere around the table was joyful. Hop Sing bustled around, happily refilling plates.

Hoss paused in buttering his fourth biscuit. “Seems a shame that poor Joe is missin’ out on all this. Maybe a biscuit…“

“Hoss Cartwright, don’t you dare,” Paul admonished. “Nothing but liquids for that boy, not for the next couple of days, at least.”

Hoss looked slightly crestfallen. “I don’t see how he can get his strength back on nothin’ but soup, Doc…“

“He’ll get his strength back alright, as long as his family cooperates with his doctor’s orders,” Paul maintained.

“I wouldn’t worry about him getting his strength back if I were you, Hoss Cartwright. Whether he lives or dies, you won’t be around to care.”

Startled, all five heads swiveled in the direction of the front door, where Red Twilight stood grinning, his gun aimed in their direction.

Adam eased out of his chair, and Red shot toward his feet. He laughed. “Come on, Cartwright, try it if you want. I’ll cut you down before you can move two steps.”

“You’ll never get us all,” Ben said coldly. “One of us will reach you.”

“I doubt it, seeing as I’ve got a gun in my hand and you don’t.” He patted another gun still in his holster. “Got an extra, too, so I can finish you all off with no trouble.”

Hoss slowly stood up from the table. “I’m the one you want, Twilight. There’s no need to involve my family and Doc.”

Twilight pursed his lips as if considering as he moved carefully toward the fireplace. “Yeah, you’re the one I came after, alright. But after I kill you, I don’t aim to have to worry about the rest of this bunch chasing after me. My plan was to make a clean break to Mexico, and that’s what I intend to do. By the time anybody realizes what happened, I’ll be long gone.” He aimed his gun at Hoss. “So say adios, Cartwright.”

“Hold it!” The cry came from the landing halfway down the stairs. Joe stood there, gripping the banister with one unsteady hand and Adam’s pistol in the other, his feet bare and his hastily donned pants still unfastened. His face was beaded with perspiration and his hand trembled as he pointed the gun at Twilight. “Put the gun down, Twilight, or I swear, I’ll drop you where you stand.”

Twilight gaped at him, and then growled and whipped the gun in his direction. Adam took a running leap and hit him just as he pulled the trigger. The shot went wide of its mark and the gun careened across the wooden floor, sliding to a stop at the foot of the stairs. Twilight moved to pull the second gun from his holster, but Adam was upon him. As they wrestled for control of the weapon, everyone else rushed toward them. Joe staggered down the stairs toward the loose gun, but weakness caused his legs to buckle just as he reached the bottom, and Twilight saw his chance.

With a roar, he turned and dove at Joe, yanking his gun from his grasp and locking his forearm around his throat. He held him tightly against his own chest, using him as a barricade against the others. He pressed the gun barrel against Joe’s temple. “Drop the gun, or the kid’s dead.”

Adam stood frozen, his hand wrapped around Twilight’s gun. His eyes met Joe’s, and he wondered at the trust he saw there. Green, expressive eyes, glazed with pain and fever, dark with fear and anger, and yet clear with the trust he had in his older brother. “It won’t work, Twilight. Let him go.”

“I’ve still got the upper hand, Cartwright. Drop the gun!”

Joe winced slightly as the gun barrel jabbed against his head, but his eyes never left Adam’s.

Hoss and Ben were both armed now, and they held their guns on Twilight, too, both of them shouting for him to drop his weapon. Twilight held Joe tightly, making it impossible for anyone to get a clear shot at him. He shouted back at them, and waved the gun wildly, his finger tightening on the trigger.

Time slowed to a halt for Adam, and he no longer heard the shouts ringing through the great room. Instead he heard the beating of his own heart, all but drowning out the raspy harshness of his own breathing. His mind, normally so active, ceased in its continuous quest for information and became blank, clean and empty as a virgin field of snow.

His hand was all that moved, in a blur of fluid invisibility. He pulled the trigger once, twice, three times.

He saw his brother’s eyes widen, and in that brief instant, his own heart ceased to beat.

Red Twilight looked at him in shock—and then slowly toppled away from Joe to crumple onto the floor.

*****

They got Joe back to bed with little argument from him. He had pulled a few stitches loose, which Doc Martin repaired with a few disapproving tsks, but was otherwise unharmed.

Hoss and Ben had gone down to see the doctor off. Adam sat beside Joe’s bed, reading from a book of poetry as he waited for his brother to drift back off to sleep.

Joe eyed Adam from his pillow. “I’m sorry, Adam,” he said suddenly.

Adam looked up, his brow furrowed in puzzlement. Joe’s face was somber. “Sorry? What for?”

“I know you didn’t want to kill him. It’s a terrible thing—I wish there had been some other way…”

I wish there had been some other way.

A corner of Adam’s mouth quirked slightly as he regarded his little brother. It suddenly hit him that Joe knew very clearly the difference between killing out of anger and killing out of a last-ditch effort at survival. He knew there was no pleasure to be gained from taking another man’s life.

Joe knew, and that knowledge had come, at least partially, from Adam himself.

In that moment, Adam knew he had done his duty, both as a man and as a brother. He had failed no one, not himself, and not his family.

The strength of his conviction was no longer compromised.

“I wish so, too, Little Joe,” Adam said softly. “I wish so, too.”

***The End***

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