One Bullet & Holding to Hope (by freyakendra)

Summary:  One Bullet  Wounded and running out of time, Joe’s only hope is his ability to believe that a single bullet can make any difference at all.   Holding to Hope (Sequel to One Bullet.) In the wake of Annie Grainger’s murder, Joe’s family and hers are brought together in bitterness, compassion, and a shared need for hope: one, for survival of the body; the other, for survival of the soul.
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  9000


One Bullet

 

One bullet. He had one bullet left.

Rolling it between his finger and thumb, he considered the value of using it at all. One bullet would make no difference. He would be dead soon anyway. Why should he bother slipping it into the chamber?

“Because there is always room for hope,” Pa said somewhere in his thoughts. “And no man is ever truly defeated unless he defeats himself.”

“But they’re too many,” he answered softly. “And I can’t…fight them anymore.”

“You have a different fight now, Joseph. One that demands you must hold on, to hold to hope.”

“How?” he gasped through the start of small, tired sobs. “How can I?” Clutching the bullet in a loose fist, he set his gun onto the cold sand and then gently prodded the warm, damp spot on his jacket. It was growing wetter. The threads torn loose by another man’s bullet were no longer distinguishable from the rest of the soaked fabric. He knew there was a similar dampness at his back, where that same bullet had first struck him.

“I’m already….” Already what? Succumbing to the darkness? To unfeeling nothingness?

Maybe that wouldn’t be such a bad thing. He’d grown numb to the pain already. And his thirst no longer tore at his throat.

No, the darkness might not be a thing to be feared. Maybe it was more like a haven…like this cave he’d stumbled upon, offering him shelter from the sun, damp air to soothe his raw throat, and… space to hide within, shielding him from vigilantes who demanded a target for their anger, with no regard for truth.

“We’re coming, son,” Pa said as Joe’s thoughts began to come alive, despite — or maybe because — of the fact that his body was dying.

“How?” he asked again, almost too tired to care. “You don’t even know. You don’t… You think…” He swallowed some of that blessed, damp air. “Should’ve stayed in Placerville. Should’ve…should never have…”

“Believe, Joseph. Have faith.”

“But you don’t know. How could you? I never told anyone. Not even…” He grimaced against a sudden resurgence of pain, and tried to shift his position. It did little good. The ground was too hard, the rocks at his back too unforgiving.

Unforgiving… Would his pa ever forgive him? Would he ever know what really happened?

“I know you, Joseph. I know your heart. You would never do the things they accuse you of doing. And you would never knowingly, willingly bring harm to a woman.”

“You still might believe I did it, though. Maybe unknowingly. Maybe…unwillingly.”

“I trust you, Joseph.”

“I hope so.”

“Hope, Joseph. Hold to that hope. Believe that we’re coming.”

“I want to,” he cried. “Oh, God…I want to.”

He heard voices then. Other voices. Real voices. Someone was coming, but it wasn’t his pa and brothers. No. It was Mr. Grainger and that no-good foreman of his, the one who had accused Joe right off, just as soon as he’d laid eyes on him.

“He done it!” the foreman had said, his arm extended, his finger jabbing at the air. “He killed her!”

“Look, mister,” Joe had angrily replied. “I don’t know who you think I am, but I didn’t kill anyone! I only came here to look at a horse I heard about back in Placerville.”

“No, you done it all right! You’re the only one who could have done it! Everyone else here’s a good man! Honest men, every one! You’re the only stranger! You’re the one who done it!”

Just because he was a stranger. That was all it had taken to get Grainger and his whole crew of ranch hands to believe Joe was a killer. And Joe would never have even been there if he hadn’t decided a stallion he’d heard about over a few friendly beers was worth checking out.

He hadn’t bothered to tell anyone where he was going either. He’d just jumped on Cochise and headed out of town. No one knew. Not the hotel clerk. Not the sheriff. Not even old Rudy behind the bar. And if none of them knew, how could Pa? Joe’s family had no reason to believe he was in trouble. No reason at all. For all they knew, he’d spent the last two days making preparations for the upcoming cattle drive, not running for his life from men intent on killing him for the killing of a girl he’d never even met.

And now here he was, hiding in a damp cave, bleeding to death and trying to decide if one bullet was worth the effort it would take to load it into his empty gun.

“He’s close, I tell you,” the foreman said.

Yes, they were close. It sounded like that foreman was standing just beyond the cave entrance.

Believe, Joseph,” Pa said from somewhere in the darkness. “Have hope.”

A rustling sound told Joe the foreman was closer still, close enough to see the black hole in the rocks. “Blood trail don’t go nowhere else.”

Joe knew it was only a matter of time before the man pulled aside the overgrowth and discovered the cave.

“Believe, Joseph….”

“Sheriff’s comin’!” someone else shouted in the distance.

“About damn time!” Mr. Grainger hollered back. “See if you can’t pick up that trail again while I go fill him in.”

Joe held his breath, waiting to hear something else — anything else — that might tell him if the foreman was still close. And then, more rustling…

“Well, I’ll be,” the foreman said in a low voice before hollering out, “Tell Grainger I got ‘im!”

“Believe…”

With hands that were shaking for no good reason — he wasn’t cold and he was far too tired to be afraid –Joe loaded that last bullet, turned the cylinder to align it for firing…and waited.

“I know you’re in here, boy. I can smell you.”

A lighter shadow pulled away from the blackness of the others near the entrance. It slowly grew into the shape of a man.

“You’re already dead, an’ you know it,” the shadow called out in a loud voice that echoed far into the belly of the mountain. “Now why don’t you come on out and let me hasten you along? Make it easier on you.”

Holding his gun in both hands, Joe aimed it toward the shadow.

“Just about everyone ’round here loved that little gal. No one’s ever gonna let you live long enough for a trial. I’ll just plant one between your eyes, an’ you won’t have to worry ’bout it no more.”

Several voices shouted back and forth outside. The sudden cacophony stopped the shadow. It turned to stand sideways to the entrance.

Keeping his eye on the man-shaped shadow, Joe tried to listen to what was being said, but he couldn’t seem to distinguish one word from another, or even one voice from another, until…

“What have you done to my son?” That sounded like Pa.

“Believe…”

“We thought he killed Annie!” Mr. Grainger shouted back. “In fact, we were sure of it!”

“So sure you didn’t bother with facts?” Adam?

“Where is he?” Hoss shouted next. Joe could imagine him grabbing Mr. Grainger’s collar and hauling him up off his feet.

Relief loosened Joe’s grip on his gun. His hands, still shaking, eased downward. And he found himself…smiling.

“You killed her!” the foreman said then.

Joe had already forgotten he wasn’t alone. He looked back toward the shadow…and saw instead the man. The foreman was standing right in front of Joe, his gun targeting Joe’s forehead.

“You tell ’em you killed her! Tell ’em!”

“Why?” Joe’s voice sounded…odd. It was too soft, too…weak. “To protect you?”

“Tell ’em! Or by God I’ll kill you!”

“Then they’ll hang you for sure.”

“Tell ’em!”

“No.”

“You killed her! Say it! You wrapped your hands around that soft, satin neck of hers and you squeezed the life right out of her! Say it!” The foreman’s gaze grew distant, as though he was remembering the feel of that soft, satin neck beneath his own hands.

“Why?” Joe asked. “Why’d you kill her?”

He looked at Joe, startled, maybe confused before his eyes flashed in anger. “That brat deserved it! She laughed at me! Called me ugly…and stupid!”

You killed her.”

“Damn right I did!”

You, Colby?” Mr. Grainger’s voice pulled Joe’s attention to a small group of shadow men who were now standing behind the foreman. “How could you? I trusted you! Damn you! How could you? You killed my little Annie!”

“Weren’t me! Was him!”

“No,” another voice answered. “We heard you. We all heard you.”

“He made me say it, sheriff!”

“Don’t be a fool,” the sheriff said. “You’re the one has your gun on him!”

“It’s his fault, sheriff! It’s all his fault!”

“Drop your gun, Colby.”

“The hell I will! This boy needs to pay for what he’s done!”

“He’s done nothing,” the sheriff said. “Now leave him be.”

“You want to save this boy? This no-good…”

“He’s innocent!” Joe heard his pa shout. “And he’s my son!”

The sound of that voice, so close, so strong, renewed Joe’s strength. He remembered his own gun, still loosely resting in his hand. He curled his fingers around the handle.

“You want your son alive, you’d best get on out of here! Get all these folks on out of here and let me get on my own way!”

“You know we can’t do that,” the sheriff said.

“I know you’d better do it! Or I’ll kill him. I swear I will!”

“Then you’ll die, too. I’d have to shoot you down.”

“Well maybe…maybe that beats hangin’!”

“Get away from my son!” Pa shouted. “Or I promise you will wish you’d been hanged!”

Pa? No. You’ve always said we have to trust in the law. There is no justice in vengeance.

The foreman took Joe by the collar, roughly pulling him upward. Joe’s head swam from the sudden movement. He heard shouts echoing through the cave, but once again could make no sense of the words. There was only one thing he could do to stop it…to stop all of it…the pain, the enveloping darkness, his pa’s threat of vengeance…

Just one thing he could do…and…

Just…one…bullet…

*****

When the echoes faded, Joe felt other hands tugging at his shirt. A warm palm pressed against his cheek.

“Joe?” Pa called softly. It was a simple plea, one that drove Joe to open his eyes. “Joseph? You stay with us, son. You hear me? It’s all over now. You’re going to be just fine.”

“Pa,” Adam said even softer. “It’s…”

When he said nothing more, Joe knew the reason why. He could see it in his pa’s worried brow, and in Hoss’ watery, blue eyes. His wound was bad, maybe even mortal — but only if he refused to believe in hope.

Turning his attention to Adam, Joe saw his older brother frantically stuffing whatever cloth he could find against the worst of Joe’s wounds. “Adam?” He waited for his brother to meet his eyes, and then smiled. “Believe,” he said then. “Hope.”

Adam paused in his efforts. Joe watched the stiffness in his shoulders loosen as he puzzled over Joe’s words. He would figure it out, Joe knew. Confident, Joe looked to his pa again.

“I got him. Didn’t I?” Joe was still smiling; that seemed to bewilder his pa just as it had Adam.

“Yes, son.” Pa smoothed Joe’s hair. “You got him.”

“Only took…one bullet.”

Pa still looked confused. “Easy now, Joe. You just rest.”

“Hold to hope,” Joe told him.

Pa’s other hand gripped tightly around Joe’s arm. “Of course, son.” He blinked hard, turning his face away for a brief moment. “Of course.”

“It’s what…you told me…” Joe closed his eyes again. It was getting too hard to keep them open. “It’s why…I knew…one bullet…was enough.”

“Joe?” Pa asked softly, still confused.

“Believe.” Then Joe slipped off into a warm darkness, one that wrapped around him like Pa’s comforting hand.

It was okay. He knew he would come awake again soon enough to find his family around him still.

Because his pa had told him to believe.

And he did.

***

Holding to Hope

Muffled voices pulled Hoss from his perch in the parlor chair that had been set at Joe’s bedside. Upholstered in pink velvet, the chair’s back was too stiff, its seat too firm, and its girth far too small for his comfort, but he didn’t mind it, mostly — at least, not until he had to get up. Then it seemed like all his muscles and joints wanted to yell at him for sitting there so long. How longhad he been sitting there? He didn’t really know. Not this time around. Maybe not at any other time, either. He wasn’t paying much attention to time. About all he was paying attention to was the rise and fall of his little brother’s chest, making it clear Joe was still alive.

Sighing, he turned to the window, then crossed the tasseled rug to the first of two bay windows, where he pulled aside the lacy curtains to look out into the yard beyond. A group of finely dressed men and women was emerging from the tree-shaded path to gather at Mrs. Grainger’s flower garden.

Hoss knew that path. When he had arrived with his family the evening before last, they had taken that very path to reach this house. His attention had been drawn beyond the white fence marking the entrance to a small cemetery. A man had been working there, measuring out the space for a new plot beside a tall, white headstone. The sight had left Hoss cold with foreboding.

Joe ain’t gonna die, he’d told himself then — and about a thousand times since.

No, that plot hadn’t been meant for Joe. Hoss had known it then, and he knew it even better now. It had been meant for Annie Grainger. Seeing those people coming back to the house made it clear poor Annie had been laid to her rest in her freshly dug grave already. It was over. For her, for her family, it was over. But it wouldn’t be over for Hoss and his family until they were riding that path again, going right on by that cemetery, and taking Little Joe back with them — alive and well. Or better, anyhow.

But Hoss knew if things had gone differently, he and his family would have had to do for Joe what the Graingers had just done for Annie. If they’d gotten to that cave too late…if Joe hadn’t had one, last bullet in his gun…if the sheriff hadn’t been able to vouch for the fact Joe had been in Placerville when Annie had been killed… If any of it had been different, Joe could be dead now, too. He might still die. It didn’t much matter what Joe had said back in that cave.

Hold to hope, he’d told Adam. Believe, he’d told Pa. He’d said all that right up until he couldn’t say anything more.

Hoss had to figure it meant Joe didn’t think it was his time to die. But can any man really know whether it’s his time or not? Had Annie known it was her time? When that Colby fella was stranglin’ her, was there a moment when she knew she wouldn’t ever open her eyes again?

Hoss had watched Joe close his eyes back in that cave. When Joe’s family had finally reached him, after he’d been hounded by vigilantes for the better part of two days — after he’d been run ragged, shot at, and then, finally, shot in the back — after all that, right when he’d known he wasn’t alone anymore, Joe had smiled. He’d bled out half to death — maybe more than half — but he hadn’t looked afraid or sad or anything like that. He’d smiled. And he’d still been smilin’ when he’d closed his eyes, like all that talk of his about hope and belief made it a sure thing he’d be opening those eyes again.

That had been more than a day ago. Joe hadn’t opened his eyes since.

How could any of ’em be sure hope and belief would be enough to keep him from joining Annie, a gal he’d never even laid eyes on, a gal none of his family had ever laid eyes on until hers had already been sewn shut and she’d been laid out in the Grainger’s parlor where her family could say their last good-byes?

Turning to look at his young brother lyin’ so quiet and still on Annie’s bed, Hoss shuddered at the thought of Joe’s eyes being sewn shut. Joe was almost as pale now as Annie had been out in that parlor.

Joe’s alive, Hoss shouted inwardly. Annie was dead, but Joe’s still alive. And, dadburnit, he’s gonna stay that way!

Swiveling back, Hoss grabbed a pillow from the window seat. He absently plucked at the fine stitching that had been made to look like a field of flowers, and then tried to catch sight of Pa and Adam among the crowd.

There they are! Toward the back. They looked to be keeping a respectful distance, and folks seemed happy to oblige them with that distance.

They hadn’t known Annie Grainger; the Cartwrights hadn’t known any of them folks until not quite two days ago. But Hoss’ pa and older brother figured they ought to pay their respects just the same. The Cartwrights were guests in the Grainger house, after all — more than guests, even…or maybe less.

It was awfully confusing when Hoss put too much thought into it. If it weren’t for the Graingers, Joe wouldn’t have been shot. Joe would not be there right now, lying too still and too quiet on the same feather bed Annie used to lay down to sleep in every night…right up until that man Colby had strangled her to death and then blamed Joe for doin’ it.

Grainger’s men had hounded Joe for two whole days, finally shooting him in the back and then cornering him in a dark cave where he’d darned near bled out — where he would have died one way or another, if the sheriff hadn’t gotten there in time with Joe’s family in tow, and if Joe hadn’t had the strength, the gumption, or the ammunition to shoot Colby before Colby shot him again — or maybe again. No one would ever really know if it was Colby who’d shot him in the first place; might even have been Mr. Grainger’s bullet. They’d all been shooting at Joe. They’d all been running him down. No one had been thinkin’ about justice then. No one had been thinkin’ much at all. They’d been madder than hell that gal was dead, so mad all any of ’em had given thought to had been vengeance.

On the other hand, if it weren’t for the Graingers, Joe probably would not have lived this long. He would never have survived the trip back to Placerville. The Grainger house was as far as they’d dared take him. And without a proper doctor anywhere close, Mrs. Grainger had given Joe better doctorin’ than Hoss or Pa or Adam would ever have been able to provide. She’d stitched him up as fine as one of these pretty needlepoint pillows. Her daughter was dead. But Mrs. Grainger had put her grief aside to save Little Joe.

Yessir, it sure was confusing. The Cartwrights owed Joe’s life to Mrs. Grainger. But his life would never have been threatened if it hadn’t been for Mr. Grainger and his men. How could anyone make sense of all that?

Frustrated, Hoss tossed the pillow back and crossed the room to Joe’s bedside. This time he didn’t bother sitting down. Instead, he planted his feet on the floor, dug his hands into his pockets, and looked at Joe’s closed eyes. “I’m tryin’ to hold to hope, Little Joe. I really am. But if you could just show me that smile again, like you did in that cave, it sure would make things a whole lot easier.”

While his brother gave no indication of having heard him, keeping as still as ever, Hoss gained assurance from the steady rhythm of Joe’s breathing. He sighed heavily, even so. “Whenever you’re ready, punkin. Just…don’t make it too long, okay?”

By the time Hoss sat back down, he’d forgotten all about the chair’s discomfort. It didn’t matter. Nothing mattered, except the fact that Joe was still breathing.

*****

When Adam returned to the room, he asked Hoss to accept a supper invitation from Mrs. Grainger. Adam, himself, wasn’t the least bit hungry. His stomach had been churning all afternoon with his struggle to be cordial to their hosts — one, a woman he admired and appreciated; the other, a man who bore much of the blame for Joe lying so near death.

If Adam had found it difficult to be gracious during Annie Grainger’s funeral, certainly it would be infinitely more difficult to break bread with Mr. Grainger. It did not surprise him, therefore, to see Hoss appear ready to refuse the invitation. Hoss pulled back his shoulders, took a quick breath, and opened his mouth to spit out the expected diatribe against sitting down at a table with a man he would prefer to tear limb from limb, in addition to his unwillingness to leave Joe when the youngest Cartwright brother could come awake any time now. But a quick look at Little Joe seemed to punch the breath back out of Hoss without a word being uttered. His shoulders sagged again. He rubbed the back of his neck, looking every bit as frustrated as Adam felt. Then, with a quick nod, he quietly left the room.

There was no telling when Joe would come awake — or even if he would come awake. Joe had lost a lot of blood while on the run from Grainger and his men. Too much, Adam had thought when they’d found him in that cave. There had been so much blood saturating Joe’s jacket and seeping into the ground beneath him that Adam had been shocked to discover his little brother’s heart was still beating — still pumping out blood — long after he had finally slipped into unconsciousness.

So much blood…

Adam’s hands had been soaked in it while he’d worked feverishly to stem the flow. There were probably traces still under his nails, but he refused to look. He had seen enough of Joe’s blood already — enough to spend a lifetime regretting Pa’s decision to send Joe alone to Placerville when Adam had been planning to go all along, or Joe’s decision to arbitrarily ride out to the Grainger’s ranch for no reason other than to look at a horse, despite the fact they already had plenty of horses on the Ponderosa. Or Adam’s own decision to ignore the telegram Stubby Howard had shoved into his hand until Estelle Rogers had disappeared around the corner after sashaying ever so slowly down the street, the pronounced swaying of her hips making it clear she’d known Adam was looking. Every minute had mattered while Joe had been running from Phillip Grainger and his men, and too many had been wasted by the time Adam had found himself in that cave, washing his hands in his brother’s blood.

It’s over, Adam told himself. Joe isn’t bleeding out anymore. He’s resting. His heart is pumping new blood through his veins. He’s recovering. He’s going to be just fine.

Absently rubbing his palms across the fabric of his trousers, Adam settled into the chair at Joe’s bedside and forced himself to accept that he had done what he could for his young brother, both by riding hard and fast from the moment he’d finally read Sheriff Blanchard’s telegram and by putting pressure on Joe’s wounds to keep the rest of his blood from leaking out. He — and Pa, and Hoss — had kept Joe alive until they’d been able to bring him here, where he could be taken care of properly.

Here. In Phillip Grainger’s home.

Phillip Grainger… Adam wanted to hate the man. He needed to hate him. But just as one look at Joe — resting and recovering, thanks to Mrs. Grainger — had taken the fight out of Hoss, an entire afternoon of looking at Mr. Grainger seemed to have taken the fight out of Adam. Watching Mr. Grainger at that gravesite as he swiped at errant tears and tried to hold his head high despite the grief pulling at his shoulder, seeing him wrap an arm around his oldest son and give a gentle squeeze of assurance — watching all of that had shown Adam that Mr. Grainger was not just a rancher who had allowed Little Joe to be shot down in cold blood. He was also a father mourning the child he could not save, and comforting another he could still protect.

A trace of movement on the bed caught Adam’s attention, providing a more than welcome distraction from his disturbing thoughts. Joe’s arm twitched and his head turned the smallest fraction.

“Joe?” Adam leaned closer and laid his hand on his brother’s arm. “Little Joe?”

Joe’s lips parted barely a sliver’s width.

“You’re doing well, Little Joe,” Adam said softly, feeling encouraged by those subtlest of movements. Joe truly was recovering. He was going to be just fine. “You’ll be home eating a Hoss-sized slice of Hop Sing’s apple pie before you know it.”

Maybe Joe smiled. It was hard to tell. A moment later, his breathing deepened, proving to Adam he’d fallen asleep again — if, in fact, he had actually come awake.

Yes, Adam decided. Joe had come awake. And yes, he was recovering. Adam had to believe, just as Joe had told him to do in the cave.

Adam felt a strange sense of relief wash over him then, as though the simple act of believing was all he’d really needed. “You can be curiously wise when you set your mind to it, younger brother,” he said, smiling through a deep sigh that melted the tension in his muscles.

A moment later, he rose to peruse the small book shelf in Annie Grainger’s room. Noticing several dime novels amongst the more literary offerings by Longfellow and Shakespeare, it occurred to him the poor girl would probably have got on well with Little Joe, considering Joe’s own penchant for such nonsense.

“So much for wisdom.” Adam chuckled, shaking his head, and reached for the Longfellow. But then he thought better of his decision. If Joe was on the verge of coming awake, Adam might as well read aloud. And Joe deserved to hear a story he would enjoy rather than being forced to appreciate the poems Adam, himself, preferred.

Selecting a book titled, “The Lost Trail,”[1] Adam was somewhat surprised to discover the story opened with a small quote from Longfellow’s “Hiawatha”. Hoping perhaps that indicated he’d selected an amenable title, Adam settled back into the chair.

Hold to hope, Joe had said back in that cave. Of course, he had not been referring to story selections, but Adam decided to hold to it, nonetheless. Then he cleared his throat and began to read. “One day in the spring of 1820, a singular occurrence took place on one of the upper tributaries of the Mississippi…”

*****

Deep in the night, when the house was still and silent, Ben finally found himself sitting alone with his youngest son. It was strange — disturbing — how truly alone he felt. Joe, too, was still. And silent. So, so very silent. So unlike Little Joe.

Sitting alone in all that silence was unsettling, particularly there, in an unfamiliar room –the room of a young woman whose murder had been a catalyst for the suffering his son had been forced to endure. Ben could not stop his thoughts from taking him back to that damp cave. He could still see his young son — blood-drenched, dying — and Adam gazing up with fear in his eyes, his hands thick with his brother’s blood.

Ben had not seen his oldest boy so afraid since…well, since Adam had been a boy. Seeing such fear in Adam had nearly stopped Ben’s heart, planting within it a sense of dread that might well have led to panic, if not for Little Joe, himself.

Ironically, miraculously perhaps, it was Joe — the youngest of them all, the one for whom they had all been afraid — who had sought to ease those fears.

“Hold to hope,” Joe had told them.

Joe had been wounded, bleeding, clinging to life by little more than some thin strands of hope, and yet he had smiled.

Even now, Ben could hear Joe encouraging him, “It’s what you told me, why I knew one bullet was enough,” as though Ben had been there to help him, to encourage him, to give him hope when Joe had truly needed his father, rather than after it was too late…or nearly so, anyway.

“He’s fine!” Ben scolded himself. There was no point to dwelling on a moment they’d left behind them.

He forced himself to look at Little Joe, to focus his thoughts on his son as he was at that very moment lying safe and secure on a feather mattress, in a warm room. He was not in that cave; none of them were, not anymore. Joe was no longer bleeding. He was healing. It was time, it was past time for Ben to hold to the hope Little Joe had spoken of.

Watching his son breathing, Ben felt his own breaths deepen, until, finally, he was able to chase his unsettled thoughts back into the dark corners where they belonged. With his own mind quieted, he looked around him as he hadn’t before, and then picked up the book Adam had left on the nightstand. He was surprised — and yet, not surprised — to find it to be a dime novel, a penny dreadful, as some would call it, the kind of book Joe would enjoy but Adam would never have selected for his own pleasure. While thumbing through the pages, Ben came to realize his mind was still not quite quieted enough to allow him to concentrate on reading; penny dreadful or otherwise, it wouldn’t matter. Sighing, he set the book back onto the nightstand and settled into the firm chair as best he could, crossing his arms in front of him.

He let his eyes slip closed, only for a moment…

A stirring in the room prodded Ben awake. He leaned forward in his chair as he blinked the fog from his eyes.

“I’m sorry to disturb you, Mr. Cartwright.” Mrs. Grainger’s soft voice broke through the fog, along with the subtle swish of the material in her night clothes as she stepped in front of him, moving to stand beside Joe’s bed — Annie’s bed, Ben corrected in his thoughts. “I wanted to freshen his water,” Mrs. Grainger went on. Refilling the basin on the nightstand, she then pushed the dime novel aside to make room for the pitcher. With that done, she checked Joe’s forehead with her wrist. “His temperature is no worse. I dare say your son is recovering just fine.”

Why was she here, rather than in bed where she belonged, where she needed to be, given the day — the days — she had faced dealing with her daughter’s death?

“Yes,” Ben agreed. “And we have you to thank for that.” He wanted to tell her to return to bed, that he was perfectly capable of looking after his son, but she turned from him so quickly he was taken aback.

“Nonsense,” she said hastily, almost coldly. Avoiding Ben’s gaze, she busied herself moistening a clean cloth. “You have us to thank for the injury that brought him here in the first place.” She brought the wet cloth to Joe’s lips and squeezed water into his mouth.

“Allow me.” Ben gently pulled the cloth from her light grip. Then, clasping her hand, he waited for her eyes to find his. “Please. You are not responsible for harming him, but only for healing him. I cannot begin to express my gratitude for all you’ve done, and especially now, with…with what you’ve been going through, yourself.”

“Mr. Cartwright, I cannot stop myself from imagining what he went through, what my husband put him through.”

“Your husband was angry, violently angry. Any father would be after what happened to your daughter.”

“There is no excuse for allowing that anger to be so maliciously…so viciously misplaced.”

“No. No, there isn’t. But Joe will recover. And your husband knows he made a grievous mistake. You and he both have some recovering to do, too.”

“How? How can you be so forgiving? Your son could have died out there!”

“But he didn’t. Nor will he, in here, thanks to your care. As for me forgiving your husband…well, to be honest, I haven’t. I’m not sure I can. But I can accept that he is a man, a grieving father, who knows his mistake nearly cost my son his life. And he is suffering, as are you. There is nothing to be gained — for any of us — by taking my anger out on him. It is better for all of us to hold to hope.” For an instant, Ben’s thoughts took him once more to that blasted cave where Joe had spoken those very words. Hold to hope.

“What hope, Mr. Cartwright? My only daughter is dead. My sons will surely follow in their father’s footsteps. What happens when they misplace their own anger? Who else will be made to suffer then?”

“You can hold to the hope that they will all learn from your husband’s mistake, hope that they will recognize the importance of true justice, hope that this experience will help them to become better men, stronger men, wiser men than they would otherwise have ever been.”

“I only want for them to grow up! To actually become men! As my daughter should have grown up, should have…should have become…”

“Believe.” The word was spoken in a breathy whisper. It was barely a sound at all. But it was enough to draw their attention to Little Joe, whose eyes were finally open, if not entirely able to focus.

“Joe!” Ben greeted his son with profound exuberance. Belatedly realizing he’d abandoned Mrs. Grainger in an equally profound moment of need, he gently pulled her forward. “This is Mrs. Grainger, son. She took care of you. Fine care! I’m not sure even Doc Martin could have done a better job.”

Joe’s responding smile nudged Ben’s own smile that much wider. Then Joe looked toward Mrs. Grainger. “Annie’s mother?” he asked, his voice strained.

Ben was surprised to see Mrs. Grainger turn away, and then reassured to find her merely pouring a glass of water. “Here you are, young man. You must be terribly thirsty.”

Noticing the slight tremble in her hand, Ben took the glass from her and then helped his son take a few sips.

“I’m sorry,” Joe rasped a moment later, looking again to Mrs. Grainger.

“Sorry?” she asked, clearly dumbfounded. “For what?”

“Annie.”

Once more, the woman turned away. This time, it was for nothing more than to glance around her daughter’s room. “You are not to blame,” she said without looking back, her voice almost as soft as Joe’s.

“No. But I’m still sorry.”

Ben gently squeezed Joe’s shoulder. “We are all sorry for what happened.”

Mrs. Grainger’s back began to shake. She did not turn to face her guests.

“Have to…believe,” Joe said.

“I do not doubt your sympathy,” she sobbed quietly, “But…”

“No,” Joe interrupted. “Believe…she’s in… good hands.”

Mrs. Grainger swiveled around. “She’s dead!” she cried.

God’s hands,” Joe added.

The door came open as Mrs. Grainger began to drop to her knees, and then, suddenly, her husband was beside her, taking her into his arms.

Seeing the rancher stirred a new surge of rage within Ben, a sensation that warred with the sympathy he could not help but also feel. He looked away even as Adam and Hoss spilled into the room, returning his attention to Little Joe. And he saw something in his youngest son’s eyes that utterly confounded him. Or rather, he saw something missing from Joe’s gaze. He saw nothing of rage or hatred, or even fear.

“Believe,” Joe said to the rancher and his wife, “your sons…will be…better…wiser.”

Startled at Joe’s repetition of his own words, Ben wondered how much more of the conversation his son had overheard. Ben had said he could not forgive Mr. Grainger. Could Joe? Had Joe already forgiven him?

Finally Ben did look at the rancher; the tears in the man’s eyes made it clear he understood what Joe was trying to say, what Ben had tried to explain to his wife. Phillip Grainger’s sons could be better, wiser than he himself had proved to be. He gave Ben a small nod. A promise? An affirmation? Then he tightened his grip on his wife and cast his gaze heavenward.

“Hold to hope,” Joe whispered. Spent now, his eyes were closed once more. Within moments, his breathing grew deeper, slower, as he slipped back to sleep.

*****

Joe heard a robin’s song…someone sniffling…the soft swish of fabric brushing fabric….

Opening his eyes to the warm glow of an oil lamp, he noticed a similar glow in the window beyond. The sun was rising. That meant it was time for him to rise as well. But when he tried to sit up, a shock of pain held him back; it blacked out all those warm glows and stole his breath.

“There now,” a woman said. Small hands held him back with a touch far too light to be effective…and yet it was effective. He lacked the strength to push against it. “Rest easy. You will need help to do any sort of moving about.”

He took a small breath, and then another, before he opened his eyes to see she was a woman of middle-age with gray streaks in her unbound, black hair and eyes that were red and swollen with grief. Mrs. Grainger, he remembered. He noticed then the lacy bed covers and, beyond the woman, a dressing table that stood against the wall beside the door. “Annie’s room,” he tried to say, but his throat was so dry the words were reduced to an unintelligible croak.

In an instant, Mrs. Grainger held a glass of water to his lips. He took a few welcome swallows and was anxious for more, but she drew the glass away. “Not too much too soon. Give it time. You’ll start to feel better.” She turned toward the door. “I’ll let your family know you’re awake.”

“Where…?” Joe was frustrated when the rest of his question remained stuck in his throat.

Sighing, Mrs. Grainger returned to Joe’s bedside to retrieve the water glass. “I suppose another swallow or two wouldn’t hurt.” She held the glass to him again, one arm cradling his shoulders. “Your father and brothers,” she started to explain, “and my husband…”

Joe swallowed air. He coughed up a dribble of water and found the room growing black once more as the pain of his wounds sprouted back into the agony of his hours in that cave. While she struggled to hold him upright, he started to catch sight of the floor. and each cough seemed intent on bringing him closer to it.

“Mr. Cartwright!” she shouted, maybe more than once; it was hard to tell. Her voice sounded oddly distant, as though her words were being carried away on the wake of his coughs.

And then, somehow, the arms around him grew stronger, holding him tighter. He felt secure again.

As the coughs came less frequently and Joe started to draw in small gulps of air, he heard a voice that could calm him like no other. “Easy, Joe,” Pa said. “It’s all right, son. I’ve got you.” A warm hand rubbed Joe’s upper back; it seemed to help clear his lungs. He finally took in a full, solid breath, one that hitched at his wounds but was welcome, nonetheless. “That’s it, Joe. Just relax.”

Once he was settled back against the pillows, Joe saw his brothers were there as well, although Mrs. Grainger was gone. And not a one of them — not Pa, nor Adam, nor even Hoss — was sporting raw knuckles or tell-tale bruises. “You didn’t,” Joe rasped, smiling despite the raw fragments still in his throat.

Hoss and Adam shared a confused gaze, and then both looked at Pa, who only shrugged and shook his head.

“Didn’t what?” Hoss finally asked.

Joe reached for his pa’s hand and rubbed across the knuckles with his thumb. “Grainger.” It was about all he dared to say without stirring up another round of coughs. He hoped it was enough. He watched as understanding dawned first on Pa, and then Adam, who grinned back at him, shaking his head.

“Don’t think we didn’t want to,” Adam offered. “Brother Hoss here looked like a bull about to charge, and I was more interested in cheering him on than holding him back.”

“Then what…?”

“Pa reminded us of some pretty wise words.” Adam glanced at Pa, and then locked onto Joe’s gaze for a moment before continuing. “First yours,” he said, dubiously raising an eyebrow before grinning and adding, “and then Luke’s.”

“Who?”

“The Bible, son,” Pa explained. “’Be ye therefore merciful,” he recited, “as your Father also is merciful. Judge not, and ye shall not be judged. Condemn not, and ye shall not be condemned. Forgive, and ye shall be forgiven’.”[2]

Joe understood, but at the same time, hearing those words spoken somehow brought him back not just to the cave, but to the entire chase. He’d been both judged and condemned. No one had shown him any mercy. And Mr. Grainger could have stopped all of it.

“Joe?” He felt Pa’s arm around him again.

When Joe looked back up at his family, it was through a watery gaze. He thought he’d forgiven Mr. Grainger, after having seen so much regret in the man…but had he really? He shook his head, unwilling to let his family know how selfish he suddenly felt. “What did I say?” he asked, his voice still sounding raspy and weak.

Both Pa and Hoss looked to Adam for the answer. Joe was surprised to see his oldest brother’s eyes grow slightly watery, too, if only for an instant. Then Adam cleared his throat and pulled his back up straight, looking like he was preparing to read something from Shakespeare. But instead of an overlong speech filled with words Joe didn’t understand, Adam said, simply, “Hold to hope.”

Feeling a stab of disappointment, Joe looked toward the ceiling. “It was all I had left.” He rolled his head back and forth on the pillow. “Hope that somehow you would know I needed you, and…”

“And?” Pa prodded after a long, quiet moment, his voice sounding oddly strained.

Joe was confused to see that his pa looked almost as regretful as Mr. Grainger had. “One bullet,” Joe said, smiling despite the discomfort he felt over seeing that regret.

“Well, your bullet sure took care of that fella Colby,” Hoss said, his cheerful tone seeming as put on as Joe’s.

But Joe couldn’t even pretend to be cheerful anymore. His smile fell away, forgotten. “Without hope, I would never have fired it.”

Pa’s grip tightened on his shoulder.

“You held to hope to survive,” Adam offered. “We held to hope to keep you alive. And Mr. Grainger…” Adam did not continue until Joe met his gaze. Then he drew a deep breath, and added, “Is now holding to hope for redemption.”

“He didn’t expect any of us to forgive him,” Pa added.

“But you did.” Wasn’t that what Joe had wanted after seeing all that sadness in both Mr. and Mrs. Grainger? But then why did it hurt to hear that’s exactly what his family had done?

“We didn’t expect to be able to, either,” Pa said. “But we came to realize that we are, all of us, human. We make mistakes, sometimes grievous ones, seemingly unforgivable. But…”

“’But if any have caused grief’,” Hoss interrupted, “’ye ought rather to forgive him, and comfort him, lest perhaps such a one should be swallowed up with overmuch sorrow’.”[3] His gaze skittered away when Joe, Adam and Pa all looked at him. Then he dug his hands deep into his pockets, adding, “That’s what Mr. Grainger was like, Joe. He was gettin’ swallowed up with sorrow. Then you told him to hold to hope, just like you told us. Then we all got to talkin’, Mr. Grainger, Pa, Adam and me. And…”

And,” Adam broke in, “we could all imagine doing just what he had done. If you had…” Adam stopped, looking at Pa and Hoss before clearing his throat and adding, “If we hadn’t found you in time, I don’t think any of us would have held back.”

“I’d ‘ve killed him,” Hoss said. He didn’t look at all nervous anymore.

“No,” Joe argued softly.

“Yeah, Joe. I would’ve. I was half ready to, even when I knew I needed him to tell us where to find you.”

“No,” Joe repeated. “Pa would’ve stopped you. Or Adam.”

“Sorry, Joe,” Adam said then. “I don’t think I would have wanted to stop him. In fact, I’m not sure I would have been able to stop myself.”

“No,” Joe said yet again. “You would have come to your senses before…”

“Blind rage, son.” Pa’s words stopped Joe’s as effectively as his dry throat had earlier. “Any man is capable of falling into it, if he is provoked enough — if someone does him so much harm that it tears right into his soul, the kind of harm that so nearly took you from us…and the kind of harm that did take young Annie from her parents.”

“Not you,” Joe said in a small whisper.

But all Pa could do was look back at him with something unfamiliar in his gaze, something that looked an awful lot like uncertainty.

It was Hoss who finally broke the troubling silence. “Mr. Grainger knows what he did was unforgivable, an’ he hates himself for it. If there was one thing I learned tonight…last night,” he corrected, glancing at the window, “it’s that I just can’t hate a man who already hates himself. An’ he still has three sons and a wife who need him to stop hatin’ himself so they don’t have to hate him, too. Joe, do you know what a man has to do to stop hatin’ himself?”

Joe shook his head.

“He has to forgive himself first. But Mr. Grainger can’t do that until we forgive him…you, most of all.” Hoss was looking at Joe with so much purpose in his gaze, Joe could no longer imagine him hauling Mr. Grainger clear off his feet. “Think about it. We spent all night thinkin’ about it and talkin’ about it. Maybe all you had back in that cave was hope and a bullet; as it turned out, that was all you needed. Well, now all Mr. Grainger needs –all his whole family needs — is a bit of hope.”

They were all looking at Joe then, as though…as though he was supposed to give Mr. Grainger that redemption Adam had talked about. But, could he?

Joe closed his eyes again, unable to face them, but maybe that would have been the better choice. By shutting himself off from that room, Joe’s thoughts took him back to the chase, reminding him of his two days on the run from Mr. Grainger’s men. “By the time I found that cave,” he said, looking at his family once more, “I knew…it was over. I couldn’t…keep going.” He focused his attention on Pa. “I was ready to just…let it end. But…I heard you telling me there’s always room for hope. I had to…believe…you were coming. I had to…hold to hope. I knew it wasn’t real…but…somehow…it was real enough. I guess it gave me something to hold onto, when I didn’t have anything else.”

“And I’m the one,” a new voice — a familiar voice — called in from the doorway, “who caused you to have nothing left except hope.”

Joe followed that voice, one he’d had to run from before, and once again he found himself confronted with the visage of a distraught, grieving father who had become swallowed up in overmuch sorrow — as Hoss had recited — after losing himself to the blind rage Pa had spoken of: Phillip Grainger.

“I’m sorry,” Mr. Grainger went on. “I didn’t mean to intrude. And I know there is nothing I can say to make up for what I did to you. There’s no point to even trying. I was wrong. I was about as wrong as any man could ever be. And I will regret it as long as I live. But I promise you, I will not let my sons repeat my…sins. I will make sure they…”

“No.” Joe’s voice was too soft to effectively interrupt the rancher, but Mr. Grainger stopped speaking even so. “You can’t stop them.” And suddenly, it all began to make sense: Joe’s family doubting they could stop themselves from slipping into a blind rage; his pa telling him to hold to hope and Joe repeating that message right back; and, finally, Adam telling him how Mr. Grainger had to hope for redemption.

“You can only,” Joe went on, “hold to hope.” Surprisingly, Joe discovered he was able to smile again, even through his tears.

Mr. Grainger nodded slowly, thoughtfully, giving Joe a small, tear-filled smile in return. “Sometimes,” he struggled to say, “hope…is all you have.”

“And sometimes,” Joe added, “it’s all you need. Especially when you have your family to remind you.”

There was another long silence. Joe felt, somehow, that he ought to say something more, but he was out of words. And out of breath. And out of strength. As though the gift of redemption — or at least forgiveness — took as much effort as…as a fast ride on a powerful horse that could take him to places he’d never thought to go. And suddenly, that’s just what he was doing, riding hard on Cochise, heading toward a high, grassy hill and curious to see what was on the other side.

“Thank you.” Mrs. Grainger’s quivering voice pulled his eyes open before he could climb that rise. Joe saw her slip her hand into the crook of her husband’s arm. “And bless you.” Then she sniffled, pulling her back straight and holding her head high. Abruptly, she moved away from her husband. “But now, young man, we need to get some food into you before we can allow you to fall back to sleep. And those bandages will need changing. Mr. Cartwright, would you be so kind as to see to that while I get some broth to simmering? And Phillip? Would you please wake the boys? I’ll need some fresh eggs to make breakfast for our guests, and…”

Her voice faded as the Graingers moved out into the hallway.

And then Pa cleared his throat. “Well, I’d better do as the doctor says. Hoss, could you get some fresh bandages from the cupboard?”

Pa stepped away, rolling up his sleeves, and Adam began to turn away as well.

“Adam?” Joe stopped him. He waited until his brother looked his way. “You saved my life.”

Adam looked skeptically toward Pa. “We all did, Joe.”

“In the cave,” Joe explained. “The way you tried to…stop the bleeding.”

Focusing with an unusual intensity on his fingernails, Adam shook his head and then curled his hand into a loose fist. “You did some saving yourself, little brother,” he said, finally looking at Joe again, “with those words of yours.”

“Pa’s words,” Joe countered, remembering the sense of peace his thoughts of Pa had given him.

“No, Joe,” Pa said as he draped an arm across Adam’s shoulders. “Those words were entirely yours. And they were wisely spoken. You seemed to know exactly what we all needed to hear, right when we needed to hear it, even despite your own…” Pa took a heavy breath. “Needs,” he finished softly, the word nearly falling victim to Hoss’ much louder tone.

“Yeah, Little Joe,” Hoss added. “How’d you come to have so much wisdom all of a sudden?”

“Not wisdom.” Joe corrected. “Faith.”

Pa nodded, squeezing Adam’s shoulder. “Faith indeed.”

For a brief moment, Joe’s whole family stood together, smiling down on him like there wasn’t a thing in the world to concern them. It was enough to make Joe realize that sometimes hope is all you have, and sometimes it’s all you need. But sometimes you don’t need it at all, because you already have everything else.

***The End***

End Notes:

[1] “The Lost Trail,” written by Edward Sylvester Ellis, was originally published by Beadle & Company in 1864. A later version, opening with the Longfellow quote but without attributing the quote to Longfellow (it is only referred to as “Hiawatha”) was found on Google books, shown as copyrighted and published by Hurst & Company in 1911.

[2] Luke 6:36-37

[3] Corinthians 2:5-8

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