A Son for a Son (by freyakendra)

Summary: A man from one of Ben Cartwright’s previous lives has come to take revenge on his oldest son, Adam–but it’s Joe who pays the price.
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated: MA  (violence)
Word Count:  14,000


 

The Stranger

Joe Cartwright pulled a cloth from where he’d tucked it into his belt and used it to wipe sweat from his brow. The sun was growing hotter by the minute. He would have to hurry if he had any hope of finishing the repairs to the front porch before his self-imposed deadline of high noon. Grinning at the challenge, he returned to his work, putting everything he had into sawing the final cuts in the wood plank affixed to the sawhorses in front of him.

He’d planned to have enough chores finished by the time his pa and brothers got home to prove them all wrong. He wasn’t too young. He wasn’t irresponsible. He was as competent and capable as any of them — maybe as all of them combined.

Joe’s grin turned into a chuckle. He knew better than to actually believe he could outwork Pa, Adam and Hoss all together. It didn’t matter. He was going to finish enough chores during his family’s absence to finally earn the full respect of each and every one of them. He had one more week during which this was his ranch, his alone. Not even Hop Sing was around to interrupt him.

With no one else around, he became fully engrossed in his work. Too much so, apparently. He failed to notice an approaching rider until the man’s horse kicked up a cloud of dust right in front of him.

Joe looked up in surprise, his heart jumping into a wild rhythm. He almost shouted out in anger, accusing the man of…what? What had he done, after all, except to catch Joe off guard? Only after Joe managed to calm himself with a deep breath, swallowing his complaint, was he able to take a good look at the newcomer, and then he noticed there was something odd about the man, like he didn’t belong there — maybe even like he knew he didn’t belong there.

He was dressed like an easterner, wearing a gray suit that had probably once been as fine as any but was now layered with trail dust and riddled with holes and loose threads. His gray hair was darker and thicker than Pa’s silver; it was also long enough to show he had not been too concerned about looking for a barber anytime recently. At least he had been properly diligent about keeping it combed. Clearly such diligence didn’t extend to his razor, however; his cheeks and neck were dark with stubble.

Like his now tattered clothes, the stranger seemed too fine for the west, as though he hadn’t been — and perhaps still wasn’t — prepared to face its harsh demands. Nonetheless, he held himself high in the saddle, apparently unconcerned with the incongruous nature of his appearance. He even offered a pleasant smile.

“You a Cartwright?”

Joe’s anger melted into curiosity. He nodded and stepped out from behind the wood. “I’m Joe Cartwright,” he answered as he wiped his hands on the cloth. “What can I do for you?”

“I’m an old friend of your father. From back east.”

“Then I’m sure he’ll be sorry he missed you. He’s out on a cattle drive with my brothers. But if you come back…”

“No!” the stranger barked, locking his gaze unnervingly on Joe’s. It was even more unsettling to see he still wore that smile, despite the sharp sound of his voice. The smile looked out of place, like a mask hiding something dark, maybe even cruel in the man’s eerily gray eyes. “I’m here now,” the man went on in a more casual tone, suddenly sounding as though he had merely stopped by for a pleasant visit. “Here for a reason.”

“What reason?” Joe found himself breathing faster, his heart picking up its wild beat once more.

The stranger’s smile broadened. Maybe it was meant to put Joe at ease. Instead, it set the youngest Cartwright’s blood cold. That smile was not right. Not right at all. “We’ve a debt between us, your father and I. An old debt.” He spoke slowly, as though he was thinking hard about his choice of words. “I’m here to finally take care of it. Your father, you know… he won’t mind whether or not this debt ever gets paid. Probably even forgot all about it. But not me. No. I’ve been living with it for too long. Far too long.”

When the stranger was finished, Joe shook his head. “I’m sorry. I can’t help you. I never heard my pa mention an old debt.” His answer was polite, but firm. “Whatever it is, it will have to wait until he and my brothers return. Why don’t you come back in about a week, and then…”

“A week!” The stranger cut Joe off with a gleeful shout. Then he nodded, his smile widening. “That’s good. Plenty of time.” He tugged the reins to turn his horse until he was facing away from the house.

Relieved to see his unexpected — and unwelcome — visitor was about to leave, Joe took a deeper breath than he’d been able to for the past several minutes, one that finally filled his lungs. As disturbing as it was for him to realize, there was something about this man that had Joe wishing he had not been left alone after all. He found himself hoping Adam would choose that moment to ride home to check up on him — something Joe’s oldest brother had a tendency to do, whether he admitted it or not. Of course, this time it wasn’t likely. Adam was with Hoss and Pa, along with Hop Sing and every ranch hand they had, leading the biggest cattle drive of the year. There was too much at stake for him — for any of them — to turn away from it. Like it or not, it was up to Joe to handle this stranger on his own.

“What’s your name, mister?” Joe found himself asking, despite his apprehension. “So I can tell my pa you called.”

A sudden jerk of the reins and a boot planted firmly into Joe’s chest was the only answer the stranger provided.

Joe flew backward, crashing onto the wooden plank and knocking the entire sawhorse contraption into a pile beneath him.

“I’m afraid you won’t be telling him a thing, son.”

Winded and fighting to refill his spent lungs, Joe’s vision darkened. He could no longer see the smile behind the man’s words, but he knew it was still there. He’s not right in the head, Joe realized. That thought was enough to temper a sudden burst of rage with a healthy dose of fear.

Fear or not, Joe had no choice but to react. The instant the black spots started to fade from his vision, he prepared to push himself back to his feet, grabbing for the only weapon close at hand — an old, wooden plank with an even older nail still embedded within it.

The stranger seemed to anticipate the move. Just as Joe’s left hand touched the edge of the wood, the loud crack of a rifle shot underscored the searing pain of a bullet boring its way through Joe’s forearm. On reflex, Joe grasped for the wound with his good hand and was sickened to find the flow of blood more pronounced in the softer flesh on the underside of his arm. The bullet had gone clean through.

Anger overruled fear. Joe faced his attacker. “Who are you? What is it you want?”

But clearly Joe’s glare had no effect on the stranger. He said nothing, and made no move other than to shift the aim of his rifle, angling it dead center between Joe’s eyes.

Joe stared defiantly up at him, meeting the man’s cold gaze with one that may as well have been forged in fire. “Well go on, then,” he coaxed, panting more from the rage boiling hard within him than from the pain of his wound. “If you’re going to kill me, just get it over with.”

Joe took a slow, steady breath, expecting it to be his last. And then he took another. And still nothing happened. “What are you waiting for?”

“Not so fast,” the stranger answered. “Has to be slow.” He shifted his aim, moving the rifle lower, and then he pulled the trigger again, putting a bullet into Joe’s right thigh.

The world spun beneath him, around him. Joe couldn’t breathe. He could hardly see through the encroaching blackness. Struggling to stay focused, to stay conscious, Joe was dimly aware of the stranger dismounting. He could sense the man approaching, though the soft thud of footsteps was barely noticeable over the thick feel of stuffing in Joe’s ears.

When the man was right beside him, Joe tried to blink his eyes clear of dark, empty patches. Failing that, he looked up toward a shadow of the smiling stranger. “Just tell me why,” Joe demanded in a harsh whisper.

His answer was lost in oblivion when the stranger slammed the butt of his rifle down onto Joe’s forehead.

*****

 The Debt

Pain was the first thing Joe recognized as he came awake. His right leg throbbed. His head was pounding and seemed on the verge of casting him adrift. But his arm seemed to have gotten the worst of it. He could almost believe everything from his elbow to his wrist had been ripped open.

As he cautiously tried to pull the world back into focus, he could feel the tickle of sweat, or blood, or a mixture of both gliding from his forehead. It coursed over the ridge of his brow, and then slowly began to drip onto his right eyelid. It wasn’t long before it found its way past his lashes, slipping — burning — into his eye. Instinct drove Joe to wipe the bothersome moisture away, but when he tried to lift his good arm he discovered it was locked tightly to his bad one, further kindling the already raging fire where the stranger’s bullet had dug its way through.

Joe’s hands had been tied together behind him, secured by a thick coil of new, unyielding rope –the fibers were raw enough, fresh enough to scrape into the thin skin at his wrists with each and every movement.

Closing his eyes against the persistent salty sting, Joe pulled as much air as he could into lungs that seemed to have grown disturbingly thin. He had to try to think beyond the pain. He made a small, subtle test with his left leg, proving that his ankles had been trussed just as his wrists had been. Whatever it was the stranger planned to do, clearly he had no intention of allowing Joe to interfere.

I’ll find a way, Joe told himself as he focused on the red suns and black stars inside his eyelids. He had to find a way. No one else was going to get him out of this. After all, he was on his own, at least for another week.

But could he survive for a full week? Left like this, he figured he’d be lucky to survive a full day.

Pa? he called out silently somewhere deep within him. Please, Pa. Come home.

He could almost imagine his pa’s strong voice driving the stranger away. But it wasn’t a voice that reached Joe’s ears then. It was whistling.

Joe tried opening his eyes once more, blinking through the fog of thick, salty moisture. The stranger was whistling casually as he drove a wooden stake into the ground, pounding it down with a heavy mallet. It looked — and sounded — as though he was working at some common household chore.

Why? Joe tried to ask the question aloud, but his throat was dry. Coughing, he tried again. “Why?” he rasped.

The stranger paused for just a second before returning to his work.

“For Ed,” he replied an instant later, not bothering to look Joe’s way. “An eye for an eye. A life for a life.”

“Ed? What…are you….” Joe inhaled sharply, desperate to fill his lungs. “What life?”

The stranger froze, his shoulders growing taut. A slow, deliberate turn brought his attention back toward Joe. Even through the fog, Joe could tell the man’s entire demeanor had changed, his posture gone rigid.

“Don’t you dare tell me you don’t remember him, Adam Cartwright! Don’t you dare!”

Adam? Joe mouthed the name. “I’m not…I’m not Adam,” he finally said aloud.

The stranger’s posture changed again as he relaxed. “Yes.” He might have nodded; Joe could not be sure. “Yes,” the man repeated, “well, a son for a son, anyway. You were here. He was not.”

“Ed…your son?”

“A life for a life,” the man replied as he wiped dirt from his hands. “A son for a son.” He moved forward and grabbed Joe’s right arm, pulling Joe across the ground as though the young Cartwright was nothing more than a sack of dry goods. But the ruined cloth of Joe’s trousers and the punctured skin in his thigh offered even less protection than a burlap sack, especially when the stranger seemed to make it a point to ensure the wound on Joe’s leg scraped foremost against the sandy soil.

The scouring effect stole Joe’s breath and ripped every conscious thought from his mind.

When the movement stopped, the pain did not. Joe felt a dim sensation of the rope binding his wrists falling loose, but he was too dazed to take advantage of the temporary freedom. Before he could even try to fill his lungs again, he felt his right arm being tugged outward and bound once more, this time to one of four posts that had been driven into the ground.

“What….” How could a man talk when he couldn’t even breathe? But Joe had to. He had to know. “What…are you…?”

The stranger grabbed Joe’s injured left arm. A hand clamped down directly onto the wound, the thumb pressing hard into the softer, more vulnerable flesh beneath Joe’s wrist while fingers dug into the bone on the other side.

Joe’s desperate words gave way to a tortured, ragged scream that sounded like nothing at all yet still managed to drain what little breath he’d managed to salvage.

And then blackness claimed him once more.

*****

Beyond Reason

Ben Cartwright could feel something chewing away at the raw edges of his reason. It ate at him bit by bit until reason itself seemed to have become irrelevant, a scrap left behind for buzzards to pick apart. He was needed at home. He didn’t know why, or how he could even allow himself to accept anything as unfounded as a hunch or a feeling as factual. It didn’t matter. He’d spent the last two hours rationalizing against the driving need to get home, telling himself over and over again the cattle drive was nearly finished; they might well be home by the end of the week. But the need only grew stronger and more persistent. He couldn’t wait another day, let alone the better part of a week.

Looking up at the mid-day sun, Ben knew he would be hard-pressed to reach the house before nightfall. Even so, he had to try.

First he rounded up both Adam and Hoss, and then he announced, “I’m going home.”

Neither said a word. They simply looked at him as though…well, as though he’d gone mad. And maybe he had. Still, he knew what he had to do.

“You two can handle things from here,” Ben added after a moment.

His sons looked to each other, perhaps wondering if they’d heard Ben correctly. When their eyes met his again, they seemed unsettled. Or maybe he was just seeing a reflection of his own unease.

Adam was the first to break the standoff. He tried to offer up a grin, and then casually asked, “You’re not still worried about Little Joe, are you? I mean, he may be young, and foolish, and hotheaded, and…”

“He can handle things,” Ben shot back. “I just, I’ve got to.…” Uncertain how to explain exactly what it was he had to do, Ben let his words trail away.

“Look, Pa,” Adam offered more seriously. “I know we tease him a lot, but he is perfectly capable…”

“Of course he is,” Ben cut him off, his voice booming with unchecked–and unnecessary–anger. He cleared his throat before continuing more softly. “There are just some things…things I need to take care of. I’ll explain after you finish here. Just remember to…”

“You don’t think somethin’s wrong, do you, Pa?” Hoss asked.

Ben studied his sons. A moment later, he sighed heavily, shaking his head. “I honestly don’t know. I just keep thinking I need to get back.”

“Then why don’t we come with you?”

Adam’s suggestion caught Ben off guard. He stared hard at his eldest son, looking deep into eyes that should be questioning Ben’s good sense. “You know you’re needed here,” Ben answered, realizing he sounded as uncertain as he felt.

“So are you,” Adam challenged.

“Yes, well….” Dropping his gaze, Ben also dropped the rest of his words, feeling suddenly sheepish, as though he’d been caught. But caught doing what? Listening to his gut? Was that so wrong, after all? “Just…get home when you can.”

“I’m coming with you,” Adam said then, his tone making it clear the decision was made and Ben was not going to change it.

Ben stared at him once more, indecision holding his tongue.

“You’re not gonna leave me outta this, whatever it is,” Hoss broke in. “I’m comin’ too.”

“Why?” Ben found himself asking as he shifted his gaze between Adam and Hoss.

Adam looked different at that moment, as though…as though whatever had been gnawing at Ben was slowly beginning to gnaw at Adam as well. He looked…worried. It was a look that made Ben’s worry that much more compelling.

“Because,” Adam answered, “you’re not the kind of man to walk away from his responsibilities on an unfounded suspicion. If you feel you need to walk away from this drive, especially now, so close to the end….” He shook his head, glancing toward the herd for just a moment before locking his gaze once more on Ben. “If something really is wrong, you’ll need us with you.”

Ben had no idea what to say. He felt old and foolish. He also felt…gratified?

“The men can handle this,” Adam went on. “We can catch up with them again in Copper Creek.”

Looking to Hoss, and then back to Adam, Ben slowly began to nod. “All right,” he said softly.

Hoss’ gaze darkened. Adam’s gained intensity. If Ben’s rash decision had already begun to worry them, his acceptance of their help clearly compounded that worry. They all knew the work of every single man counted on a drive as hard as this one. Losing one man increased the workload for all the others. Losing three men…and not just men, but leaders…could wear the remaining men right down to the bone.

“Tell Mick,” Ben said, referring to the foreman. “And make sure he knows there will be a bonus for every man who finishes the drive pulling his extra weight.”

“I’ll tell him, Pa,” Hoss said, already turning.

Something’s wrong, all right, Ben told himself as he watched Hoss ride away. Neither of his sons was even bothering to argue with him.

*****

The Sermon

Joe’s latest flight back to consciousness was heralded by a steady, rhythmic creaking sound.

…creak-creak…creak-creak…creak-creak

It took him a long while to filter through the clouds in his brain before he realized it was the sound of a rocking chair pressing down on the loose floor boards of his front porch.

I need to…need to fix thoseI was, wasn’t I? I was… fixing them. I was gonna…fix them. Joe’s thoughts were jumbled. He couldn’t make sense of anything. Why was he sleeping in the middle of the day? And why on the ground? And who…?

Joe tried to force himself awake. He needed to understand. He couldn’t move. He could hardly think. And the pain….

Joe’s eyes came open to a blinding, white sun. The sun…. A son…. A son for a son.

As memories began to surface, Joe realized he was lying spread-eagled on the ground. His wrists and ankles had been tied tightly to posts driven into the hard, dry earth. The sun, a searing white flame directly overhead, was already baking his skin and stealing precious moisture from his lips, his eyes, his throat.

“Thou shalt not…creak-creak…show pity…creak-creak….

A preacher was giving a sermon somewhere close.

“Life for life…creak-creak…eye for eye…creak-creak….”

Turning his head to his right, Joe tried to see the preacher. He needed to find him. Joe needed his help.

“…Tooth for tooth…creak-creak…

The dry, salty grit in Joe’s eyes prevented him from seeing anything, or anyone…except… himself. He could glimpse his injured leg, could see the red, moist sand beneath. The sand…. It wasn’t supposed to be red, was it?

“…Hand for hand…creak-creak….”

“Hey,” Joe tried to shout. The sound was small, ineffective. And the effort scraped knives across his throat.

“…Foot for foot…creak-creak….”

“Hey,” Joe tried again. This time his voice was even smaller than before. He turned his head to the other side in a useless effort to shield his eyes from the sun’s merciless, blinding rays.

“And a sun for a sun.”

Creak-creak…creak-creak…creak-creak….

A sun for a sun? No. That wasn’t it, was it? Besides, there was only one sun, and Joe was desperate to get out from under it.

“Just as he has…creak-creak…injured a man…creak-creak….”

It’s not a sermon, Joe realized then, his thoughts gaining more clarity. That wasn’t a preacher at all. It was the stranger, the rumpled easterner with the wild smile and cold eyes. He was rocking in Ben Cartwright’s chair, on Ben Cartwright’s porch, while Ben Cartwright’s youngest son was cooking under the noon sun, his blood turning the sand red beneath him.

“…So shall it be…creak-creak…inflicted… creak-creak…upon him…creak-creak….”

Why? Joe struggled to understand. He needed to understand.

“Just as he has injured a man….”

You think…I injured someone?

“Just as he has injured a man, so shall it be inflicted upon him.”

No. I didn’t…I wouldn’t do this to anyone.

“A life for a life…creak-creak…a son for a son.”

A son for a son. Was that why Joe was tied to posts in the ground in front of his own house? To compensate for another man’s dead son? A boy named Ed? Someone Adam was supposed to have known….

Adam? Joe called out silently somewhere in the depths of his soul. Why does he think you did this to Ed? Adam? Please tell him he’s wrong. He’s wrong, Adam. But he won’t…I can’t…I can’t ell him.

“Life for life…creak-creak…son for son…creak-creak….”

Adam? Tell Pa I’m sorry. I’m sorry I made him let me stay here. Please, Adam. Please. Come home. Come check up on me like you always do.

…creak-creak…creak-creak…creak-creak….

Please!

*****

Desperation

The three Cartwright men rode hard through the afternoon, stopping only to prevent their horses from collapsing beneath them. Through the course of the ride, Ben’s desperation to reach home clearly afflicted Adam as well. His oldest son was now as eager as he to make it back. Hot words were exchanged at each and every stop.

Ben would feel like an old fool–and Joseph would probably be indignant by the insult–if they arrived home and all was as it should be. So be it. In fact, Ben prayed that would be the case. But his gut told him differently. It also told him he had no time to spare.

Time was getting away from them, nonetheless.

Stopping yet again, this time for fresh water from a small stream, Adam dismounted along with his pa and brother, though he clearly had no intention of resting his horse. He was only concerned with tightening the cinch. “You two stay here as long as you need,” he said. “I’ll ride on ahead.”

Ben looked at him, curious and afraid. Yes, he realized he was afraid. Adam was acting as though he knew, as though he had no doubt whatsoever that Little Joe needed him. It was absurd. He couldn’t know any such thing. None of them could.

“No.” Ben said it like a command, one that allowed no room for refusal.

Adam did refuse, nonetheless. “I can’t wait around doing nothing!” His eyes were dark; his words came out as an angry shout.

“Look at yourself,” Ben shouted back. “Look at both of us,” he said more softly. “Why are we behaving this way?”

“Because something’s wrong, and we both know it.” Adam looked away as he answered, seeming embarrassed by the admission.

“We know no such thing,” Ben tried to reason, despite his own irrational concerns. “Use some common sense, Adam. We don’t even know what we’re riding into, or if we’re riding into anything at all.”

“I don’t see no common sense around any of this,” Hoss said, dumbfounded by the peculiar behavior Ben and Adam were both exhibiting. “Whatever is goin’ on with you two, I shore don’t like it. You’re all fired up to head into a fight, and you don’t even know why.”

“You’re right,” Adam answered with a sigh that appeared to have loosened some of the knots in his tense shoulders. “I don’t know why. But I do know something’s wrong.”

Smiling sadly, Ben took off his hat to run his hand through his hair. Suddenly weary beyond words, he felt his own shoulders droop. “I don’t know why, either,” he admitted. “But something is wrong. Something is very wrong. I can’t explain it; I just know we’ve got to get back.”

“Somethin’s wrong all right,” Hoss said then, “and I don’t need no weird feeling to tell me that. All I need to do is look at the two ‘a you. I just can’t figure what’s got you both so riled up.”

“Yes, well,” Ben checked his own cinch. “I may be a foolish, old man, but I’d rather be that than….” Than what? Ben wondered. Than a mourning father? What reason could he possibly have to even imagine such a thing? Common sense certainly had nothing to do with any of this.

What if it was something more along the lines of divine intervention?

Adam gave him a small, worried smile. “You’re no more foolish than me, Pa,” he offered.

Ben sighed, nodding. “Let’s just get back and then we can do whatever figuring or rationalizing we’ve got to do to make sense of all this foolishness.”

“What about the horses?” Hoss asked.

“They’ll survive,” Ben said. He only wished he could be equally certain about Little Joe.

*****

Dust to Dust

“For dust thou art… creak-creak…,” the preacher said, “unto dust…creak-creak…thou shalt return… creak-creak…

No, Joe reminded himself. He’s not a preacher…not…not a preacher.

But the man was right, anyway. Wasn’t he? Joe was turning to dust. He was trapped under the sun…maybe…maybe he was in the sun, right in the heart of it. He couldn’t see anymore…couldn’t…wouldn’t open his eyes. But it was always there, right in front of him, that white, blinding sun.

“I commit his body…creak-creak…to the ground…creak-creak…earth to earth…creak-creak …ashes to ashes…creak-creak…dust to dust…creak-creak….”

Me, Joe realized. He’s talking about me. Joe was on the ground, trapped under a blinding sun, his blood seeping into the earth beneath him…into the ground.

I commit his body to the ground….

His blood…. There was something different about it now…as though…as though it wasn’t…wasn’t flowing right anymore. As though it was…maybe…thickening in his veins. Too thick to flow. Or…or drying. Becoming dust.

“Dust to dust…creak-creak…ashes to ashes…creak-creak…dust to dust…creak-creak….”

Why?

For Ed. It was all the stranger had told him. For Ed. And he thought Joe was Adam.

No. He didn’t care that Joe wasn’t Adam.

You were here. He was not.

A life for a life. A son for a son.

…creak-creak…creak-creak…creak-creak….

The stranger would have done this to Adam. For another son…the stranger’s son? For Ed.

Adam? Joe could see his brother standing right there in front of him…could see him through the sun. Adam looked…angry. It’s all right, Adam, Joe said without words. I’m glad it’s not you. I know you didn’t…you wouldn’t have done this to Ed. He’s wrong, Adam. I know he’s wrong.

“The Lord…creak-creak…is my shepherd…creak-creak…I shall not want…creak-creak….”

It’s all right, Adam. I’m glad it’s not you.

“He maketh me…creak-creak…to lie down…creak-creak…in green pastures…creak-creak….He leadeth me…creak-creak…beside…creak-creak…the still waters…creak-creak….”

Something changed then. The words settled into Joe, somehow finding passage through his thick blood, his dry veins. He began to hear his pa’s voice over that of the stranger.

“He restoreth…creak-creak…my soul.”

Pa? I’m sorry, Pa. It’s my own fault, not yours.

“Yea, though I walk…creak-creak…through the valley…creak-creak…of the shadow…creak-creak…of Death….”

The stranger’s voice sifted through a cloud of dust….

…Sifted and changed….

…Became Pa’s. “I will fear no evil, for thou art with me.”

Pa was with him then, Joe realized. And it was okay. It was all that mattered.

It’s all right, Pa. Joe settled back. He could almost feel the ground softening, giving way beneath him. It was taking him in, as though he was exactly where he belonged.

“My cup runneth over.”

 …creak-creak…

It’s all right, Joe said again, somewhere deep inside him. Tell Adam I’m glad.

“And I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”

 …creak-creak…creak-creak…creak-creak….

*****

Home

The sun was low and the shadows long by the time Ben and his oldest sons rounded familiar corners to home. And the house was dark. Too dark. But there was something in the yard –something on the ground that stood out in the dim glow that washed across it like blood-red fire flicking across a fallen log in the woods.

“Pa….” Adam’s voice was low, his tone filled with caution. And fear.

Only then did Ben allow himself to accept what he knew — what he did not want to know — was true. That blood-red figure encased in shadows on the ground…it was Little Joe. “Dear God,” he uttered softly as he kicked his horse forward.

“Pa, hold up!” Hoss called out behind him.

Ben could sense Adam and Hoss following closely, and he knew Hoss was right in cautioning him against riding blindly forward. But he couldn’t do it. He could not hold back…not even when a rifle shot flashed briefly from the house and sent up a spray of sand near Buck’s feet, causing the horse to dance nervously sideways.

“Far enough,” a voice called out from the shadowed porch. “Isn’t over yet.”

“Who are you,” Ben shouted back while he dismounted, having no intention to stop moving forward. “What have you done?”

Another bullet hit the ground at Ben’s feet. He paused, but did not stop. The gunman would have to do more than that to keep Ben from reaching his son.

“You owe me, Benjamin Cartwright,” the voice on the porch shouted. “You owe me a son!”

“What are you talking about?” Ben shouted back. He was almost to Joe’s side. “And who are you? Show yourself!”

“You don’t know,” the stranger answered. The crack and creak of footsteps across old floorboards cued Ben in to the man’s movements. He seemed to be pacing. “You really don’t know.” The sound of surprise in his voice gave way to…laughter.

Laughter. Little Joe was lying on the ground, and that man was laughing.

It didn’t matter, Ben decided. All that mattered was Little Joe. Trusting in Adam and Hoss to deal with the intruder, he took the final steps to his youngest son. “Dear God,” he said then, this time in a whisper even he could barely hear.

Despite the growing darkness, Ben could see dried blood on Joe’s face. It was caked along both sides of his head, matting his hair. His lips were cracked, and whatever exposed skin wasn’t painted in blood seemed hellishly red, an effect that was surely exaggerated by the dying sun. Even so, one thing most certainly was not an illusion. Red, muddy pools dampened the ground under Joe’s right leg and left arm.

“Joseph?” Ben said, kneeling close and reaching his hand to smooth the crusted dampness in his son’s hair. “Can you hear me, son?”

Joe lay still — deathly, frighteningly still. He was barely even breathing. At least, thank heavens, he was breathing.

*****

A Life for a Life

Adam had to force himself to keep his eyes off Joe. When he’d first caught sight of his young brother lying there, when he’d first realized it was Little Joe, he’d felt…drained. It was as though all the fear he’d taken with him and all the hope he’d tried to hold to during their frenzied ride home had gone to dust, leaving him empty. He would never understand why he and his pa had both felt such an urgent need to return, but seeing Joe made him begin to believe that need, from whatever divine being it had come, had reached them too late.

Emptiness, however, quickly gave way to rage the instant that shadowed man shot his rifle toward Pa.

One quick look at Hoss showed Adam the fire that must be in his own eyes as well. Logic might tell him it was merely a reflection of the sun sinking low beneath the mountains. But logic had had nothing to do with whatever had driven them home. Why should he let logic rule him now?

He let the fire pull him forward.

Keeping low to the ground, staying to any shadow they could find, Adam and Hoss approached the house. When it was clear the intruder’s attention was focused on Pa, they used that as their advantage. They couldn’t quite flank the man; Hoss worked his way toward the side of the porch while Adam took a more direct approach. The angle took Adam closer to Pa and Joe — close enough to feel the fleeting desire to abandon his plan and turn toward them, to prove to himself Joe was alive. But he couldn’t. He mustn’t. The man who did that to Little Joe, the intruder who had made seemingly lazy, careless shots toward Pa, was right there on the porch. God help him when Adam and Hoss reached him.

The intruder made another turn in his steady, rhythmic pacing, and Adam waited. Two more steps and then…there, he turned again, moving away once more from Hoss. Three more steps and then Adam was clear again as well. He hurried forward and crouched low. He had reached the porch. A glance to his right showed him Hoss was there as well.

At the far edge of the steps, the man stopped. “You owe me,” he repeated, shouting toward Pa. “You both owe me!”

Adam could see him raise his rifle. He couldn’t let the man fire again. What if he didn’t make a lazy shot this time? Pa’s back was to him, shielding Little Joe. It made for an easy target. Too easy.

“Drop it!” Adam demanded, cocking his gun and rising to his full height.

The man swiveled around, his face still hidden in shadows. “They…. You…owe me.” The man started to sound confused. He held his rifle at an odd angle, as though not quite sure where to aim it.

“I said drop it,” Adam repeated.

“Better do as he says,” Hoss added. He stepped up onto the porch and started a slow approach, keeping his own gun leveled at the intruder while Adam stayed put, ready to pull his trigger in an instant.

“It was Adam,” the man said. “All Adam’s fault.”

Startled by the man’s words, Adam’s finger loosened on the trigger. “Who are you? How do you know me?”

“You?” the man asked. “Adam?”

“Who are you?” Adam said again. In the corner of his eye he saw Hoss moving closer to the stranger.

“You killed him,” the man said.

Joe? Those words nearly killed Adam. He felt the emptiness return as though it was a chasm swallowing him whole. The gun wavered in his hand as he turned toward Pa and Joe. Then, “No!” he shouted, coming back around, ready to shoot the man who’d killed Little Joe, to empty his entire gun, bullet for bullet…life for life.

He saw the man move his rifle, shifting his grip. Adam’s finger touched his trigger, though the man did not aim the rifle at either him or Hoss. Instead, the stranger held his arms low before him, and brought the barrel up under his own chin.

“Mister?” Hoss sounded puzzled. “What are you…”

When the rifle went off, Adam felt his entire body lurch. He dropped his hand, letting his gun fall to the ground beside him.

“Good lord,” Hoss said softly.

Adam let his gaze move from the dead man to Hoss, but he couldn’t see his brother’s eyes. And then, shaking, he set himself down on the edge of the porch.

“Adam?” He felt Hoss’ hand on his shoulder. “You didn’t shoot him. He did it himself.”

“He said I killed him.” Adam forced himself to look again toward Pa and Joe. He watched Pa lift Joe into his arms. Little Joe’s body was limp. Lifeless.

“Who?” Hoss asked.

“It’s going to be all right now, son,” Pa was saying. “It’s over.”

“Pa?” Hoss called out without waiting for Adam to reply. “How is he?”

“He needs Doc Martin,” Pa said. “Hurry. Please.”

“He’s alive?” Adam was confused.

“Yes.” The word shocked Adam every bit as much as the rifle shot that had ended the intruder’s life. “Barely,” Pa added.

Hoss patted Adam’s shoulder. “I’ll ride to town. You stay here with Pa and Joe.”

“He’s alive,” Adam repeated.

“And I’m gonna see to it he stays that way.” One more pat of Adam’s shoulder, and then Hoss was moving faster than his bulk should allow, jumping down off that porch and running as though the devil himself was on his heels.

No, Adam decided, looking again toward the dead stranger. The devil killed himself right there on the porch. But why?

*****

Giving Thanks

It seemed to take an eternity for Hoss to return with the sheriff and the doctor. While Adam kept busy — first gathering up necessities such as water and bandages, and then seeing to the horses –Ben spent the time administering to his youngest boy’s wounds to the best of his ability. He feared Joe had lost too much blood. That fact alone was chilling, but there were also troubling signs of infection. When Ben considered the dehydration and raw, red patches of skin from the merciless sun, it seemed impossible to believe Joe was still alive.

“Stubborn,” Ben muttered as he cleaned the wound in Joe’s arm. “Mule-headed. You hear me, Joseph? That’s why you’re still alive, because you’re so stubborn. Well, you can’t stop now. You just keep being stubborn and willful and mule-headed. You just keep fighting, son. You just… you just keep…” Ben closed his eyes around the tears he could no longer contain and sank to his knees at Joe’s bedside. “You just stay with me, son.”

“Pa?”

Startled and not entirely sure what he’d heard, Ben allowed himself to look hopefully toward the burned and bruised face of his youngest son. Joe’s swollen eyelids remained closed.

“Joe?” Ben smoothed Joe’s hair. “Joseph? Can you hear me?”

There. Ben saw a slight tremor around Joe’s eyebrows. Though the young man’s eyes refused to open, a moment later one small, hopeful word escaped Joe’s barely parted lips. “Pa?”

“I’m here, son. I’m right here.” Ben’s voice broke on the words. And then he dropped his forehead to the mattress, offering up a silent, grateful prayer.

*****

The Puzzle

Hours after the sheriff left and the doc finished doing what he could for Little Joe for the time being, Hoss stood alone downstairs. He cupped his thick hand around the edge of the mantel and stared into the cold fireplace. But Hoss wasn’t seeing blackened logs or ash. He was seeing his little brother, his skin all red, trapped under a sun that burned him no less effectively than that fireplace might if he got too close when it was lit. Fire, that’s what it had to have felt like for Joe out there all those hours, like he was right in the middle of a fire. Hoss could almost feel the heat of it right there where he was, in the middle of the house during the coolest part of the night. And fire hadn’t even been the worst of it. That stranger had shot Joe twice, and hit him hard in the forehead, too, from what Doc Martin said. Joe must have sure tried to put up a fight. Of course, that stranger had to have had the upper hand right from the start. Gray-haired as he’d been, coming up against someone as young and fit as Little Joe…well, that rifle was the only thing that let him win. Or at least he had been winning, right up until he shot himself.

“I thought you were going to bed.” Adam’s voice pulled Hoss’ gaze to the stairs.

Hoss watched his brother moving toward him, and then slowly shook his head. “I didn’t figure there was much point. Sun’ll be up before too much longer, and….” Lowering his eyes, Hoss returned his attention to the cold logs. He followed the rest of Adam’s approach by the soft sound of footfalls until a hand landed on his shoulder.

“And you can’t stop seeing Joe lying out there like he was,” Adam finished for him.

Hoss nodded without turning. “Yeah. The stranger, too. I just can’t figure it. What would make a man shoot himself like that?”

“I’m more bothered with what he did to Joe. Clearly the man was sick. That much is certain. No sane man could do…any of it.”

But there was still another part of this whole thing that was bothering Hoss. He turned his head just enough to glimpse his brother’s face. “How did he know you, Adam?” he asked. “Who was he sayin’ you killed?”

Adam’s grip on his shoulder tightened for an instant before pulling away. “I don’t know,” he said as he moved toward the settee and out of Hoss’ peripheral vision.

Losing interest in the fireplace, Hoss finally gave Adam his full attention. “You don’t have any idea?”

“No. I’ve been asking myself that same question since…well, all night. I just can’t puzzle it out.”

Hoss knew he could never chew on any puzzle as long or as hard as Adam might, but he had been chewing on this one some. “I was thinkin’ maybe Pa or me…well, maybe he just heard one of us call your name. Maybe you never did know him.”

“Maybe.” But Adam didn’t seem too convinced.

“Sheriff’ll figure it out,” Hoss decided. “He’ll find somethin’. He knows how to look. You know, we never did give any thought to goin’ through his saddlebags or his clothes or anything like that.”

Adam chuckled, but it was a cold sound, cold as the fireplace. “We had something else on our minds.”

“I reckon we did at that.” Hoss looked once again toward the stairs. “How is he, Adam?”

“Same as he was an hour ago, and an hour before that.”

Hoss could not pull his eyes away. He kept staring as though he might be able to see right into Little Joe’s room if he tried hard enough. “He’ll be okay,” he said after a moment. “Might take some time, but he’ll be okay.” And maybe saying the words would be enough to make it true.

“Doc Martin doesn’t exactly share your optimism.”

“Yeah, well, Doc Martin don’t know everythin’.”

“He knows a fair bit more than we do about medicine.”

“And we know a fair bit more than he does about Little Joe.”

The hand returned to Hoss’ shoulder. “I imagine we do, at that.” Adam’s touch became a gentle pat. “Come on. If we can’t sleep, we might as well sit up with Pa for a while longer.”

Hoss looked to his brother and then gave a small, quick nod in reply. “Yeah. I reckon so.” Yet, for all the heat he’d been bothered by since they got home, Hoss’ belly came to feel as cold as those logs the moment he started walking up the stairs. He knew the image of Joe in his mind, bad as it was, could never compare with seeing him now, for real, in his bed. Hoss prayed with all his might there would be something, some small change for the better by the time they opened Joe’s bedroom door.

When he saw there wasn’t any change at all, Hoss could only sigh and accept the fact that even miracles need time.

*****

Haunted

“Pa?”

Joe’s voice wasn’t much more than a whisper, but it was enough to pull Hoss’ thoughts back from the dark places they’d gone. Looking to his little brother, it was clear Joe was still asleep. It was also clear he wasn’t sleeping soundly. His brows were drawn down and his head was rolling back and forth across his pillow.

“Pa?” Joe rasped again. “Please.” The creases at the corners of his eyes deepened, like he was in all kinds of pain.

“Joe?” Hoss reached out his hand, wrapping it gently around Joe’s good arm. He noticed Adam followed the same instincts on the other side of the bed, reaching for Joe’s shoulder.

But the comfort both brothers tried to provide didn’t soothe Joe any. Instead, he started thrashing, moving his arms and legs like…well, like he was trying to fight off whatever was bothering him in his dream. Hoss could only reckon it was the stranger, and he sure didn’t want to stop Little Joe from taking on that kind of fight. But he also didn’t want Joe to aggravate the wound in his leg.

“You’re okay, Little Joe,” Adam said.

“You don’t have to fight him no more,” Hoss added, moving both hands to Joe’s leg to try to hold it steady. The bullet was still in there, buried deep, maybe even pressing up against the bone; the doc couldn’t be sure. Doc Martin had said he wanted to give Joe a few hours to heal up some before he tried to dig the bullet out, enough time at least so the added blood loss wouldn’t make Joe any worse off than he already was.

“Please! Pa!”

Joe’s voice, soft as it was, about tore Hoss’ heart to pieces. He looked to the other side of the bed to see the turn of Adam’s brow had the same kind of hurt in it Hoss felt. But Pa hadn’t heard Joe. He was sound asleep in his chair. Hoss figured that was a good thing, wore out as he was.

“Pa! Pa, please!”

Hoss had to press down harder on Joe’s leg. “Dadburnit, Joe! Hold still.”

Clearly, Joe wasn’t hearing him. “Pa!” he called out again. “Home…come home.”

“We’re home, Joe.” Adam kept his voice soft, but he spoke right up close to Joe’s ear, making sure Joe could hear him. “We’re all home. You’re safe. You hear me, Little Joe? You’re safe.”

“Adam?” Joe whispered.

Adam looked up at Hoss, showing a small, relieved smile. “Yes, Joe,” Adam answered, still holding that smile while he nodded tiredly toward Hoss. “It’s me. We’re all h…”

“I’m not…not Adam,” Joe went on.

Relief changed to confusion. Adam and Hoss both gave their attention back to Joe.

“I’m not Adam.”

“‘Course, you’re not,” Hoss said.

“A son….” Joe went on.

“Can you hear me, Little Joe?” Adam said. “You’re safe.”

“Son for…a son.” Joe cried, tears spilling down to his pillow.

“Joe?” Adam tried again.

“Please…come home.”

“We’re home, Joe. We’re all here.”

“Son for a son.”

“You’re dreaming, Little Joe,” Hoss added. “That’s all it is. It’s just a dream.”

“Son…for a son.”

“Joe?” Adam eased back on Joe’s shoulders to lay his hand against Joe’s head. Hoss couldn’t help but be reminded of their pa as Adam started to gently stroke Joe’s hair. “Come on, Joe. Wake up.”

“Ed.”

Adam’s hand stilled. “Joe? Who’s Ed?”

“Not…not Adam,” Joe rasped.

“Who’s Ed, Joe?” Adam repeated. “Was that the stranger? Was that his name? Ed?”

“For Ed,” Joe said. “A son for a son.”

“Little Joe?” Adam called out more loudly.

“Adam?” Joe stopped thrashing. He even turned his head some toward his oldest brother, though his eyes remained closed.

“Yes, Joe,” Adam said. “It’s…”

“I’m glad, Adam,” Joe said. “Glad…it’s not you.” And then Joe was asleep again. Just like that, he was sound asleep, as deep as before.

Hoss looked up, wanting to see if Adam was as confused as he was. But it wasn’t just Adam gazing back at him. It was Pa, too. Only Pa didn’t seem confused. He seemed…upset, as though whatever Joe was talking about made a kind of sense to him — a kind of sense he didn’t like at all.

*****

Blame

A few days later, Sheriff Coffee paid the Cartwrights another visit. A frequent guest since their encounter with the stranger, Roy was clearly doing everything he could to figure out just why that man had so cruelly victimized Little Joe. Ben was grateful for his efforts.

“Well, Ben, I finally put a name to that stranger,” he explained as soon as Ben opened the door. “George Edward…”

“Thornton,” Ben provided as he silently invited the sheriff into his home. “Yes, I know him. I…knew him. Back when Adam was just a…a very small boy.”

The sheriff took a seat in the house’s main room. “If you knew this already, then what’d I come here for?”

Ben offered a sad smile. “Joe said some things in his sleep.” It was odd, how placid the word sounded as he said it. Sleep? What Joe had done these past days could hardly be called sleep. He had been tormented with fevered dreams, suffering in his bed maybe every bit as much as he had in the yard. Ben could only imagine Joe had been reliving those hours, over and over again, crying out for help even when he knew his family was miles away.

Recognizing the sheriff was waiting for him to continue, Ben pressed on. “He said…enough…to help Adam and me put the pieces together. George’s son, Edward, had been a friend to Adam when we lived out east.” Ben settled heavily down into a seat beside Roy, none too eager to revisit the troubling memory. “Those boys were inseparable, like brothers almost. But Edward, he was a bit of a rascal, always pulling tricks. One evening Edward came looking for Adam. He had something to show him or tell him or… something. I don’t really remember what it was. He told Adam to meet him back at the schoolhouse. But I…I didn’t let him go. He disobeyed me so I kept him home as punishment.”

Ben took a deep breath before continuing. “While Edward was there, alone in the schoolhouse, there was an accident. A fire. The boy…he…never made it out.” Ben shook his head, and then said nothing for a long moment, feeling the weight of the boy’s death nearly as much as he had all those years ago. No man should lose his son so young, and so horribly.

“Not long after Edward died,” Ben went on, “his mother died too. They said she was broken-hearted. And George…I suppose he just needed someone to blame. He blamed me, and Adam, too; he blamed both of us. You would think after all these years….” Lacking the words to continue, Ben left the sentence unfinished.

“At least we can spare Joe the trouble of a trial.” Roy Coffee rose and started to walk to the door, but then stopped himself. “I almost forgot,” he said, reaching into his pocket, “I found this in Thornton’s saddlebag.” He handed Ben a faded daguerreotype of two small boys. “I suppose that one there is Adam.” He grinned, giving his head a quick shake. “I knew he looked familiar. Now I guess I know why.”

The image gave Ben only an instant of happy recollection. When the instant passed, it filled him with sorrow. He handed it back to the sheriff.

“Don’t you think Adam might want that?” Roy asked.

Ben shook his head. “It will only make things worse, I’m afraid. Adam feels responsible for what happened to Joe. I think he’s even feeling some responsibility now for Edward. No. I’d rather he never saw this.”

Roy accepted the tiny portrait and placed it back into his pocket. “How is Joe?”

“A little better every day,” Ben answered. “The worst is over. He’s going to be just fine.”

“Why that’s good to hear, Ben. Nasty business that. It takes a mighty sick mind to do a thing like that to anyone, let alone someone he never even met.”

“I’m afraid George Thornton died along with his wife and son years ago. All that’s remained on this Earth has been his festering sickness.”

“Well, that’s done with now, too,” Roy said.

Ben nodded. But as he glanced up the stairs to where he knew Adam was still watching over his brother, burdened with a sense of guilt that was never his to hold, Ben couldn’t help but wonder if that was true.

*****

The Fire

People were running and shouting in the street. Why? Adam was confused and frightened. When his pa came into his room, Adam looked to him for comfort, but there was none to be found in Pa’s dark gaze.

“There’s a fire, Adam,” Pa said. “I have to go. You stay right here. You hear me, boy? Stay here.”

But how could he? How could Adam sit alone in his room with all that yelling and screaming going on outside? He had to see for himself what was happening. Cautiously following after his pa, Adam was soon caught up in the wave of people moving toward the schoolhouse.

“There’s a fire, Adam,” Pa said again — except Pa was nowhere to be seen. He had gone to fight the fire. And the fire was at the schoolhouse.

The schoolhouse…that was where Eddie was supposed to be. Adam’s friend had gone there to set off a handful of firecrackers. Adam had tried to talk him out of it, had even tried to follow the other boy, hoping to get the firecrackers away from him. But Pa had caught him.

“Have you finished your chores, son?”

“No, but Pa, I have to…”

“I’ll have none of your back-talk, young man. You just do as you’re told. You get inside this minute and get your work done.”

“But Eddie’s at the school,” Adam tried to explain — until he realized there was no one listening. His pa was gone.

“Eddie!” Adam shouted hopelessly. His voice was too small, the roar of the flames too fierce. Adam was alone in the middle of the crowd in the middle of the street; and not a single soul seemed to hear him. He fell to his knees, tired and lost. And then he heard someone calling to him.

“Adam!”

Again giving his attention to the schoolhouse, Adam caught a glimpse of his friend standing just outside the building.

Eddie?

Strangely, the other boy seemed oblivious to the flames raging so close behind him. And the crowd of men trying to douse those flames seemed oblivious to the small boy. It was as though no one could even see Eddie. No one could see him but Adam.

And as Adam watched, alone and afraid, Eddie started burning. Like the schoolhouse, Eddie was on fire. The burning boy reached out his hand, begging and screaming for Adam to help him. But how could Adam help? If he took Eddie’s hand, Adam would burn too.

“Adam!” Eddie cried out. “Adam!”

Then the voice changed. It wasn’t Eddie anymore. It was Little Joe. Joe was burning and reaching out his hand, desperate for Adam to save him. Somehow Adam found the courage to reach forward, but his arms were leaden. The air itself was thick, impermeable. It took everything he had to simply touch Joe’s fingertips. It wasn’t enough. He could not seem to grasp Joe’s hand. He could not get close enough.

“Adam!” Joe shouted again.

The street changed then. It closed in around him. And Adam was no longer standing. He was seated in a hard, wooden chair.

“Adam, wake up!” Joe called out urgently.

Adam blinked the sleep from his eyes to find himself in his brother’s room, seated at Joe’s bedside. Adam had his legs stretched out on the floor, with his toes jammed up against the bed frame. Forcing himself fully awake, he pulled his feet back and straightened himself in his chair.

“You all right, Joe?” Adam asked quickly.

But Joe could not answer right away. Clearly fighting off a wave of pain, he was grimacing and biting down on his lower lip.

Adam jumped to his feet. “I’ll get you some…”

“No,” Joe said through steadily slowing gasps. “No, Adam.” He finally took one, deep breath, and then added, “I’m fine.”

“Yeah,” Adam said. “Sure you are.”

“Just do me a favor.” Joe took another breath. “Stop shaking the bed, will you?”

Remembering how his feet had been positioned, Adam chided himself. How could he have been so careless, allowing himself to fall into a fitful sleep so close to Joe’s bed?

“Joe, I’m sorry.” He shook his head and rubbed his eyes. “I should never have…”

“You were having a nightmare.”

The statement surprised Adam. Joe said is so casually…or rather, academically. It was as though…as though nightmares were nothing more bothersome than a snake well out of striking distance.

Sure, Adam had been having a nightmare, but it was nothing compared to whatever dark thoughts had been thrashing Joe these past few days in his sleep. In fact, it was strange to see how clear Joe’s eyes looked at that moment. Could his memories of the hell he’d endured have faded so quickly? Gone with the fever he’d broken only a few hours before?

Joe must be well on his way to recovery, Adam decided. At least he was recovered enough to push aside his latest nightmares — perhaps the darkest ones he’d ever known.

“When was the last time you slept, older brother?” Joe went on, his voice soft but as clear as his eyes. “In your bed?”

And then Joe smiled in that impish way of his, and Adam couldn’t help but offer up a smile of his own. He sighed heavily, feeling his tension relax. It was good to see Joe smile.

“That’s not important,” Adam answered.

Joe gazed at him for a long moment, seeming skeptical. Then he gave another quick smile and closed his eyes; yet rather than preparing to fall back asleep, he seemed to be trying to puzzle something out in his head.

“How long have I been here, in mine?” Joe asked finally.

“Four days. Not counting the night we found you.”

“Adam?” Joe opened his eyes again, his gaze reaching for his brother’s. “Who was Ed? What happened to him?”

For an instant, Adam’s entire body went rigid, and then he felt…heavy, as though the weariness these past few days had sunk deep into his bones could be measured in tons.

“I’m sorry, Joe.” He leaned forward, resting his arms on his knees. “None of this should ever have happened. Thornton was after me, not you. You should never…”

“I’m not asking about me. I want to know about Ed.”

Adam closed his eyes, looking inside for memories he wished had never had to surface. When he found what he needed, he gave a sad shake of his head and started studying his right hand.

“Ed was a friend of mine back in Boston. He was older than me. For a while I guess I sort of looked to him like an older brother. It’s hard to imagine I could have forgotten about him, but until this whole…until Thornton attacked you,” Adam looked to his young brother, “maybe I just didn’t want to remember. You see, Joe, Ed was a good friend, but he was also a trouble-maker. And one day he got himself into a mess of trouble he couldn’t get out of.”

“What happened?” Joe prodded softly.

“Some of the older boys had been bullying him. He thought he’d get back at them by setting off fire crackers in the schoolhouse and somehow pointing the blame to them. I really don’t know how he planned to do that. All I do know is something went terribly wrong. He ended up starting a fire. It spread fast. He never made it out.”

“Why did Mr. Thornton blame Pa and you?”

Adam took a deep breath. “Someone told him Ed was only in the schoolhouse because he was looking for me. I don’t know who told him that, or why he refused to believe my story. Maybe he just couldn’t face the fact that Ed was responsible for his own…death.” It was strange how difficult Adam found it to say the word. Death. It was as though the word itself created a sense of finality he would rather have avoided.

“And Pa…,” Adam rubbed his hands together, gazing down at the floor. “Pa saw me with Ed when I was supposed to be doing chores. I was punished.” He gave his attention back to Joe. “If Pa hadn’t ordered me inside, I would probably have gone with Eddie. I would have been in that schoolhouse, too. Maybe I would have been able to stop him.”

“Or maybe you would have been caught in that fire.”

Instead of replying, Adam merely shrugged and cocked his head to the side.

“Adam, it wasn’t your fault. Not back then, and not now.”

Adam looked at Joe, but found himself unable to respond. He knew what his brother said was true. Still his heart refused to deny him a burdensome sense of responsibility.

“It’s true, Adam. You know it is. You were a boy, a child. And Ed was older than you. He would have had more control over you than you could ever have had over him. Trust me; I know what it means to be the younger brother,” Joe added, smiling.

Adam raised his eyebrows. “If I just heard you right, younger brother, you’re saying I should actually be able to get through that thick skull of yours.”

Joe’s smile widened, though his eyelids began to drift closed. “Sometimes,” he said drowsily.

Adam watched his brother begin to slip back into sleep, and as Joe’s breaths grew heavier, Adam allowed his own eyes to close. He found it comforting to hear the ease of Joe’s current slumber. Maybe the worst really was over.

“Adam.”

Joe’s voice startled him awake once more. “Sorry, Joe,” Adam offered quickly, not entirely sure what he was apologizing for.

“Go to bed.”

“What?” Now it was Adam’s turn to give his brother an incredulous look.

“You don’t need to sit with me,” Joe said, grinning. “Not that I don’t appreciate the attention, older brother, but I think I can handle being on my own for a little while.”

Adam smiled back at him, grateful to feel a heavy weight begin to slide off his shoulders. “Now who’s trying to control whom, younger brother?”

“Just get some sleep, will you? I’ll be fine.”

“I suppose you will be at that.” Adam gave a gentle squeeze of his brother’s good leg before rising to leave the room. “I am glad to see you’re feeling better.”

“Adam?” Joe called out as Adam reached the door. He waited until Adam turned, and then added, “Thank you.”

“What are you thanking me for?” Adam asked, confused. “If it weren’t for me, you wouldn’t be lying there.”

“If it weren’t for you and your occasional ability to get inside this thick skull of mine, I might have done something worse than this all on my own years ago. No, Adam. I’m thanking you for being my brother, the kind of brother who’s always there for me when I need him.”

Adam shook his head, feeling that weight return. “I’m afraid I wasn’t there this time.”

“You were there when it really counted, Adam. You were there when it mattered. And from the looks of those bags under your eyes, you’ve been here ever since.”

“Well, I guess that’s just what older brothers do.”

“No. Only the ones who matter.”

“You know, Hoss and Pa have been here a good while, too.”

“I know.”

“Yeah,” Adam said softly.

After closing the door behind him, Adam leaned back against it, looking up and focusing his gaze far beyond the ceiling. “Thank you,” he said in a whisper only God could hear.

*****

The Shadow of Death

It was mid-day and the house was quiet, as it should be. No one should be holed up inside on a clear day like this. Adam, Hoss, and even Pa were all outside somewhere, doing something useful, something important. Yet the only thing Joe could do was lie in bed.

No, he decided. He was not just going to lie there, not anymore. He’d had enough of this bed, and this room. He needed to get up and move around. He needed to get outside.

So that was exactly what he would do.

Of course, it was a struggle just to sit up. Joe had to roll to his left side without putting weight on his left arm. He succeeded through sheer strength of will. Next, he slid his legs over the edge of his bed, careful to avoid any unnecessary pressure on the wound in his right thigh. And then he stared at the cane Pa had brought in for him earlier that morning.

“Now don’t argue with me,” Pa had said. “You’ll need this when you’re ready. Don’t even think about trying to walk without it.”

Joe wasn’t about to argue. He knew he needed it. Trouble was, Pa had set it against Joe’s dresser. Though it was just a few short feet away, it seemed an insurmountable distance. Sighing, Joe called upon some of that willful, mule-headed determination Pa was always chiding him for….

No. Not always, Joe realized.

You just keep being stubborn and willful and mule-headed.” Pa said somewhere in the depths of a fading dream. There had been pain in Pa’s voice, but the message had been clear. Joe’s stubborn determination had kept him alive long enough for his family to reach him. Now that same determination was going to get Joe outside.

Joe smiled, recognizing that neither Pa nor his brothers would accept such an argument.

“You know perfectly well what I meant,” Pa would say.

Well, go ahead and say it, Pa. I’m just determined enough to do it anyway.

As it turned out, Joe needed every last bit of his determination to achieve his goal. By the time he reached the cane, he was already tired. By the time he made it to the bottom of the stairs, he felt on the verge of collapse. Still, he pressed on, resolute about making it to the porch — although with each and every hobbled step Joe could almost believe the sun was growing dimmer around him. He used the last bit of his failing strength to stumble across the threshold, barely making it to the closest chair on the porch before dropping heavily into it. And then he promptly fell asleep.

*****

 Creak-creak … creak-creak … creak-creak …

“Yea though I walk through the valley in the shadow of Death….”

Mr. Thornton was rocking in that chair on the front porch and preaching to the world at large. Only there was no world. There was only the sun.

“A sun for a sun….”

Joe’s leg was throbbing. The sun was a close fire…a schoolhouse fire. Joe was on fire. And he could feel the rocking chair beneath him, swaying back and forth, fanning the flames.

 Creak-creak … creak-creak … creak-creak …

 No. Please Pa, help me. Adam… Adam help me.

“A sun for a sun….”

Joe was rocking in that chair on the porch, creaking across the loose boards he had failed to fix.

 Creak-creak … creak-creak … creak-creak …

He could see Adam through the flames. Joe’s oldest brother was lying on the blood-soaked ground, his arms and legs outstretched, his face blistering from the heat. Joe could even feel the wound in Adam’s leg. It throbbed with each back-and-forth motion of the chair.

 Adam? Adam, don’t… don’t make me do this. Please. Adam?

“A son for a son….”

 Creak-creak … creak-creak … creak-creak …

But those weren’t Joe’s words. Joe was not Mr. Thornton. And how could Adam expect him to just sit there?

 Adam? Joe called to his brother, but Adam couldn’t hear him. Adam? Don’t, Adam.

Joe had to help him. He could not just sit there on the porch and watch his brother die!

“A son for a son….”

“No!” Joe shouted. He pushed himself from the chair, ready to run to Adam’s side. But all he managed to do was fall face-first onto a freshly-cut and sanded wooden plank.

Blinking the cobwebs from his brain, Joe realized he had launched himself right out of the rocking chair and onto the floor of the porch. He studied the planks for a dazed moment, noticing how clean and smooth they were until it occurred to him that someone had finished his chores. Fixing the porch was supposed to have been Joe’s job, Joe’s responsibility. His Pa had entrusted him to do it. And Joe had failed.

Anger surged within him. Using his good right arm and ignoring the awakening agony in his left, Joe pushed himself up onto his good knee. When the effort made him dizzy, he held that awkward position for a good, long while.

“Joe!” He heard Hoss call out.

He felt strong hands grab him under the arms and lift him up.

“Leave me alone!” Joe shouted back. He wanted to struggle, wanted Hoss to just let him stay there on the floor where he could revel in his anger. It was useless. He was too weak.

But when Hoss started to set him down onto the rocker, Joe somehow found a tiny scrap of strength, just enough to grab the edge of the chair and throw it sideways. “No, Hoss! No!”

“What in tarnation is wrong with you, little brother?” Hoss countered as he set Joe down into a more stable arm chair.

Joe just shook his head, unable to speak as he used what little energy he had left to fight against a threatening barrage of tears.

“Joe?” The sound of Adam’s voice struck like an ax at the bottom of a rain barrel. Joe could no longer stop the tears from flowing. He felt like an idiot, a worthless, useless little boy. He had actually believed he could handle the ranch on his own, yet here he was, crying like a baby for his whole family to see.

And then Adam was kneeling beside him. Joe looked away, but could not ignore the hand resting gently on his knee.

“It wasn’t your fault either, you know,” Adam said.

*****

Epilogue

Joe’s story was a sobering one. Ben found himself struggling against disturbing emotions with each new revelation. Certainly he had already known what happened. Joe had been brutally attacked and left to die. Yet that was only part of the story. What Joe told his family that evening on the porch in soft, pain-filled words provided so much more. He gave them horrific glimpses into what he experienced for all those hours — what he heard, what he felt, and even the thoughts he’d had while he lay dying.

It was impossible to imagine such an utter sense of abandonment. Joe had been no less isolated than a lone sailor at sea, even while one man stayed close, close enough to hear Joe’s tortured cries begging for mercy. He heard them and did nothing except to wait for the end. Joe’s end. That one man, that one person who could have saved him chose instead to quote Bible passages he had no claim to, while he rocked back and forth across loose floorboards, tormenting Joe with that incessant creaking, proof that help was just a few steps away and completely out of reach.

“I don’t know how you did it, little brother,” Hoss said, his voice quiet yet full at the same time, filled up with something Ben had to believe was respect.

“Did what?”

Ben was almost surprised to hear Joe’s question. Almost. He knew exactly what Hoss meant. He also knew Joe couldn’t see it the way the rest of them did. Maybe he never would.

“You know.” Hoss shrugged, clearly uncomfortable about answering. “How you held on like you did.” What Hoss didn’t say was still there in that quiet, respectful tone. Joe’s stubborn refusal to abandon hope had kept him alive — and the longer he stayed alive the more his suffering had intensified.

“What else was I gonna do?” Joe’s question sounded light, almost innocent, as though he and Hoss were discussing how to approach the day’s chores. But Ben saw something in his eyes then. Despite the growing shadows, or maybe actually enhanced by those shadows, Ben saw…something that made it clear Joe hadn’t told them everything.

“Aw, you know what I mean, Joe,” Hoss complained. “Don’t make me say it.”

Joe gave his brother a small smile and then, sighing, turned his gaze outward. It took a few moments for him to answer. When he did, his voice began to break. “I guess I just…I kept thinking somehow…you’d come home.”

“But as far as you knew, we wouldn’t be back for at least another week.”

“Maybe all those Bible words got me believing in miracles.” Joe tried to smile broader this time. It was a worthy attempt, but an attempt, nonetheless.

“That must have been what it was, then,” Hoss decided.

“What?” Joe asked.

“A miracle. I swear Little Joe, it was like an angel was whisperin’ in Pa’s ear, telling him to come home. He started whisperin’ in Adam’s ear, too. Funny though, I never heard a thing.”

“Well, if it was an angel,” Adam added, offering the small quirk of a half-formed smile, “maybe he was just trying to make sure at least one of us stayed level-headed.”

“Then oughtn’t that be you, Adam?” Hoss asked. “Or Pa?”

Ben smiled, feeling his own sense of respect for each and every one of his sons. “Well, Hoss, if I were a betting man, I’d bet that angel knew you were the only one who wouldn’t need as much convincing as Adam or I, and that’s precisely why you didn’t hear him, because you didn’t need to.”

“I still don’t get it, Pa.”

“All we had to do was suggest Joe might need us, and you never even questioned it. You didn’t try to reason with us. You just did what you had to; you came home.” Suddenly weary — in fact, feeling tired enough that perhaps tonight he would finally get some real sleep — Ben stood up and stretched a number of kinks out of his back. “Now I suggest we all head upstairs and go to bed. It’s been a long, trying day for all of us.” His gaze landed on Joe, but his youngest son did not look up. Instead, Joe restlessly glanced around, seeming uncertain.

“You all go ahead,” Joe said after a moment. “I think I’d like to just stay out here for a while.”

“Ain’t you had enough fresh air for one day?” Hoss asked.

“Haven’t had near enough this week.” The words were true and the small smile that accompanied them might have been genuine, but Ben was certain that particular truth had nothing to do with Joe’s determination to stay outside alone.

Adam must have seen it too. “You’re crazy if you think we’re going to leave you out here.” He crossed his arms in front of him, making it clear he meant what he said.

“What? I’ll come up when I’m ready.”

Ben didn’t like the pitch of Joe’s voice; he didn’t like it, but he appreciated it nonetheless. It rose as Joe spoke, like it always had whenever he was hiding something — a remnant of the boyhood he’d so recently left behind. Joe was a man now, a grown man who’d deserved the chance to prove he could handle the ranch on his own for a while — George Thornton be damned — but the boy he’d been was still in there. Ben actually found that thought comforting. He found himself hoping it would still be in there for years and years to come.

Adam was no less aware of Joe’s ploys. “Just as easily as you came down earlier, right?”

Joe looked to his brother, seeming unable to answer. And then, as Ben watched, the glare in his young son’s eyes began to shift from hurt to anger.

“Need I remind you,” Adam went on, perhaps oblivious, perhaps not, “that you’ve been sitting there in that hard, wooden chair for the past several hours? Your leg is going to be as stiff as one of these boards here. Not to mention the fact that you’re about fifty times more tired now than you were when you…”

“Just leave me be, will you?” Joe shouted.

“No.”

Joe’s stared at Adam with renewed focus. “N…no?” he asked, seeming shocked and maybe even a little confused by his oldest brother’s response.

“No,” Adam repeated. “There are times when I will admit you deserve to have us leave you be. This isn’t one of them.”

“Adam’s right, Little Joe,” Hoss said.

Ben smiled warmly at all three of his sons. “We go together.” He felt his own voice break then, coming to realize in that moment none of this would have happened — none of it — if he had said those very words when they were first preparing for the drive.

“Pa?”

Ben pulled his thoughts back to the moment. Apparently, Little Joe had given up his argument. He was already on his feet, supported on both sides by brothers who would never willingly let him fall. That was what counted, what mattered, Ben decided. He had learned long ago that no amount of wishing or second guessing would ever hold any power against the past. All the power they could ever want or need existed in the here and now. And right here, right now, that power filled him with more warmth than he’d known for a very long time.

Grabbing the abandoned cane, Ben started to follow his sons inside until his eyes landed on the rocking chair. He stopped for only a moment. That, too, didn’t matter — or at least it wouldn’t, soon enough.

By the time the sun rose the very next day, the rocking chair was no longer in its traditional place on the porch. No one ever questioned its absence.

***The End***

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