Blind Man’s Bluff (by Linda J & Michelle K)

Summary:
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  15,000


Adam watched the last horse trot into the corral. It had been a long hard week. He and his brother, Joe, were delivering some Ponderosa horses to a remote ranch in northern Arizona. The days had been long. The rocky terrain made the nights even longer. The jagged rocks pierced into their backs as they tried to rest. Adam was relieved when they finally reached their destination.

Joe closed the corral gate as the lone horse joined the others. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, removing some of the sweat that had accumulated on his upper lip during this last spurt of work. Adam pulled out his handkerchief and swiped his face. He pulled his hat off and wiped some of the encrusted dirt and sweat from the inside.

Joe reigned his horse, Cochise, over to where his brother sat on his horse. “Well, that’s the last of ’em! I didn’t think we’d ever get here.”

Adam nodded, “Me neither. Come on, let’s get over to the house and let Mr. Hobbes know his horses are here.” With that Adam headed for the house. He stopped at the barn and waited for Joe to come close enough to talk to him.

“Joe, why don’t you put our horses away. I’ll go up to the house and tell Mr. Hobbes we’re here.” Dismounting, Adam handed his reins to Joe. Slapping him on the back, he said, “See ya in the house.”

Joe nodded tiredly and took the horses into the barn.

Before Adam knocked on the door, he tried make himself presentable. He was covered in trail dust from head to foot, he imagined he probably made for a pretty rough sight. Deciding he was as clean as he was going to be, he knocked on the door.

After almost a full minute of waiting and not hearing any sign of anyone in the house, Adam was becoming annoyed. Figuring that no one was home he started to walk back to the barn to help Joe with the horses. No sooner had he turned around when the door cracked open, and a small face peeked through the door crack. Adam smiled as he saw the young boy peering at him suspiciously. Tipping his hat he smiled, “Howdy. Your Ma or Pa home?”

The boy was about to answer when he heard a voice behind him. “Jonas! Who’s at the door?”

Adam stood up, waiting expectantly. The little boy, looked up at his Ma as she opened the door wider, but didn’t say a word. The woman, who held a small baby in her arms, looked at Adam suspiciously, “May I help you?”

Adam smiled and took off his hat, “Afternoon.” Extending his hand he said, “I’m Adam Cartwright…”

The woman’s face changed from skepticism to one of recognition at the mention of the name Cartwright. Taking his proffered hand she smiled brightly, “I’m sorry, Mr. Cartwright; I forgot you were coming in today. My husband is gone, and it’s been a hectic few days here.” Ushering him in the house, she continued, “Are you the only one that brought the horses?”

Adam shook his head, “No, my younger brother Joe is in the barn putting away our horses. Excuse me, Mrs. Hobbes, but you said your husband is out of town?” he asked.

Still holding the small infant, Mrs. Hobbes sat down tiredly in a chair. Jonas, her three year old son, reclined on the couch, still eyeing Adam with suspicion. Mrs. Hobbes rubbed her temples in exhaustion, “Yes, he was supposed to be back yesterday but his stage was delayed… he’s expected back any time now.”

Adam furrowed his brows, not liking the idea of staying any longer than necessary. Rubbing the back of his neck, he massaged the sore muscles. “Any chance you know about the contract we made with your husband?” he asked hopefully.

Mrs. Hobbe’s shook her head, “I’m afraid not, Mr. Cartwright. My husband doesn’t tell me much about the runnin’ of the ranch. I’m busy enough taking care of my kids and the house.”

Adam nodded in acceptance, “Well, I guess my brother and I could get a room in the nearest town and wait for your husband to get back.”

“Oh no, you and your brother can stay right here! We have plenty of room here at the house. Besides its a five hour ride to the nearest hotel. You two can stay right here till George gets back from his trip.”

Adam was about to respond, when there was a knock on the door. Smiling he held up his hands, to stop Mrs. Hobbes from getting up. “Let me get it, its probably my brother,” he smiled.

Mrs. Hobbes nodded appreciatively as she sat back down in her chair. Adam opened the door letting in his younger brother. Joe took off his hat as he entered the house.

Adam commenced with introductions, “Mrs. Hobbes may I present my brother Joe Cartwright. Joe this is Mrs. Hobbes and that young fella over there is Jonas.”

Joe smiled charmingly, “Nice to meet you ma’am.” Turning to Adam he said, “I got the horses put away. I hope you don’t mind Ma’am but I gave them some hay.”

Mrs. Hobbes smiled, “Oh, of course not. You’re welcome to give them anything we have to offer, Mr. Cartwright.”

Joe nodded, “It’s Joe, ma’am and thank you.”

“Oh all right, Joe then. Now, Mr. Cartwright, you and your brother can stay in our spare bedroom down here. It just so happens we have a bed in there just for this type of circumstance.”

Joe’s look at Adam showed his surprise that they were staying the night here. Adam saw the look, “Mr. Hobbes isn’t here yet, he’s been delayed.”

“Delayed?” Joe questioned. “Wasn’t he expecting us?”

“Yes, but Mrs. Hobbes said his stage was delayed, so she’s offered us a room for the night,” Adam answered.

“Oh, and don’t worry about a thing,” Mrs. Hobbes answered, “You can both take a bath, and we’ll have a nice supper for you tonight as well. Mr. Hobbes should be here by around noon tomorrow.”

Adam nodded, “Sounds great.”

“Yeah, you sure could use a bath,” Joe said, poking Adam in the ribs.

“Speak for yourself, little brother,” Adam retorted.

Mrs. Hobbes smiled, amused by the two brothers. “Okay, let me go put the baby down, and I’ll get the water warming.”

“Oh that’s okay, ma’am, just point us in the right direction and we’ll take care of it. Looks like you got your hands full,” Joe said, flashing a row of white teeth against his grimy face.

*****

Several hours later, Joe found it difficult to keep his eyes open. They had a wonderful meal prepared by Mrs. Hobbes, and enjoyed several stories told by her elderly father, John Spriggs, who lived with them. They were sitting around the fireplace when Mr. Spriggs began another story.

“Now, Father, make this a short one,” Mrs. Hobbes said. “I’m sure Adam and Joe are very tired and will be ready to retire shortly.”

“Oh, go on and put the younguns to bed, Abbie. I’m gonna tell ’em about the time I met Andy Jackson, right after the Battle of New Orleans. I was just a kid at the time,” the spry old gentleman began, “but I decided to….”

Try as he might, Joe just couldn’t keep his eyes open. He fell asleep in the chair while Mr. Spriggs went on with his tale. Suddenly, Mr. Spriggs got excited and yelled, causing Joe to fall out of his chair.

Adam burst out laughing. “Pardon my brother, Mr. Spriggs, its past his bedtime. Please, go on with the story!”

“I’m sorry, I guess I am pretty tired. I think I’d better go on to bed. Please tell Mrs. Hobbes goodnight for me,” Joe said. “Mr. Spriggs, maybe you can tell the story to me again in the morning?”

“Sure thing, Sonny, have a good sleep.”

“Goodnight, Joe. I’ll be in, in a bit,” Adam said.

Joe stretched and yawned and headed to the guest room. He closed the door and could still hear Mr. Spriggs talking excitably. Joe chuckled to himself, thinking what a neat family this was. “I wish I weren’t so tired,” he thought, “I could listen to those stories for hours.”

*****

After 45 minutes of wrestling with her two young children Abbie Hobbes walked down the stairs and into her living room where Adam Cartwright still sat, listening to her father. Abbie ran her hand over her face, removing the stray hairs that had fallen from her bun throughout the day. She smiled as her father gabbed on about his adventures as a young man.

Adam stifled a yawn and decided that he should try to get some rest. He stood up and hoped that would be a sign for the energetic old man to stop talking. However, it did not seem to get a reaction from the older man. He continued to talk.

Abbie stifled a laugh as she watched Adam and her father. “Pa… I think Mr. Cartwright would like to call it a night. Perhaps you can finish your story tomorrow, he’s had a long day.” she smiled.

Adam smiled at her, letting her know his thanks for her intervention. Mr. Spriggs, stopped talking and looked in the direction of his daughter’s voice. “All right, if you say so Abbie. Night Mr. Cartwright!” he said not really looking at anyone.

“Night Mr. Spriggs. And thank you for sharing your stories.” Adam smiled.

Abbie smiled at Adam, “Sorry if he kept you up too late, Mr. Cartwright.” Turning to her father who stood by his chair, she grabbed his elbow and led him upstairs.

Adam was surprised by this. To him Mr. Spriggs appeared to be a perfectly healthy old man. He didn’t look so frail that he would need to be helped up the stairs. He continued to study their slow progress up the stairs, watching as Mrs. Hobbes placed her father’s hand on the banister. It was then he realized why their progress was so slow, Mr. Spriggs must be blind. He hadn’t even noticed it before, but now it made sense. He recalled how Mr. Spriggs never looked directly at him or Joe while talking.

Yawning again, he headed for his room intending to get a full nights sleep.

*****

Abbie Hobbes shivered as she headed to her room. The temperature had dropped several degrees since sunset. She checked on her children and father one last time before she entered her room. Shivering again, she decided to start a fire for the night. She put several logs into the fireplace and then placed kindling in it as well.

Adam came out of the room he and Joe were sharing and saw her.  “Can I help you with that?” he asked.

“I think I’ve got it now, thank you. We haven’t used the fireplace since the spring. I’m so glad Mr. Hobbes got it ready before he left or we’d be really cold tonight! I’m going to put a couple extra logs on so we can stay warm through the night. I hope it doesn’t get too warm for you down here!” Abbie said with a smile.

“We’ll be fine, Mrs. Hobbes, thank you. I was just going to put a little water in this pitcher and then I’ll be going to sleep.” Adam said. He watched as Abbie added the extra logs to the fire. It was blazing strong now and the heat felt good in the chilly room. Adam rubbed his hands together, letting the warmth pour over his tired muscles. Abbie had gone back upstairs, leaving him alone in the big room. After filling the water pitcher, he decided to put one more log on the fire before heading to bed.

Once that was done, he entered the bedroom that he and Joe were sharing. Joe was already sound asleep, and was sprawled across the bed… the ONLY bed in the room. “Well, do I move him over and share the bed or do I sleep on the floor?” he said out loud. After watching Joe toss and turn several times, he decided he’d be more comfortable on the floor. He threw a blanket down first, and then put a pillow on top. He stretched out on the make shift bed and attempted to sleep.

Sleep, however, would not come for Adam. It was cold on the floor…. not to mention hard and uncomfortable. He looked at Joe sleeping soundly on the soft bed and shook his head. Standing up, he decided to go put another log on the fire.

The fire danced in the fireplace. Adam looked at the different colors that were produced– the blue flames closest to the log, and then the white hot tips that fanned northward to the chimney above.

That ought to keep it warm in here. Well, since I’m still up I may as well check on Sport and Cochise in the barn and make sure they’re warm enough tonight.

Adam left the sleeping house behind as he walked towards the barn, pulling his coat up around his neck as the wind blew. He entered the barn, grateful to be out of the wind for the moment. He found a lamp and lit it.

“Hey, Sport,” Adam soothed, “You warm enough in here, boy?” He fed Sport a sugar cube as he patted his silky mane. Peering out the corner of his eye, a bright object on the ground reflecting off the lamp caught his attention. He bent down to see what it was. When he started to pick it up, he realized it was a book with a shiny silver bookmark sticking out. He sat down, got comfortable, and began to read. It was “The Odyssey” written by Homer. “One of my favorites,” Adam mused.

*****

Back in the house, everyone slept. No one saw the fire, which still burned strong in the fireplace. The flames flicked high into the chimney. Up near the top, inside the chimney, a bird’s nest lay undisturbed. The heat from the flames soon caused it to begin to burn, and the sparks flew out the chimney unnoticed. First one spark, then another. Soon the roof of the two story ranch home had begun to catch fire.

*****

Adam sat in the barn, reading intently. He had read the book many times, and each time he read it he found some new fascinating aspect of the great epic which he had not considered before. He would have read more if it weren’t for the cold creeping into his hands, making them numb. Reluctantly he closed the book, setting it upon a shelf. He stifled another yawn as he opened the barn door. He was sure he would have no trouble sleeping now.

He had walked several feet when something caught his eye. Looking at the roof-line of the house he saw the eerie glow of flames flickering across the wooden shingles of the house. Frozen for a moment in disbelief, alarm quickly set in. He broke out in a dead run for the house, yelling as he threw open the door. “FIRE!!! FIRE!!!”

He quickly ran for the room he and Joe were supposed to share. Shaking Joe roughly he yelled urgently, “Joe! Joe come on wake up, there’s a fire, we have to get everyone else out!”

Joe sat up groggily, “Adam? Wh-what…what’s going on?”

Adam threw Joe his shirt and boots. “There’s a fire! Come on we have to get the family!” With that Adam ran out of the room and up the stairs to wake the rest of the family.

At the mention of fire, Joe became fully awake. Quickly throwing on his shirt he shoved his feet into his boots and ran after Adam.

The fire was quickly getting out of hand. Smoke filled the upper level of the house, making it hard for Adam and Joe to see where they were going. Adam found the room where the oldest child, Jonas, slept. He heard Joe behind him. “Joe! Go wake up Mrs. Hobbes and get the baby!”

Joe ran out of the room and down the smoke-filled-hall. He wasn’t sure where the master bedroom was. All these doors I’m opening are empty… where are they?

Then he found a room occupied by Mr. Spriggs. Joe ran into the room, shaking the elderly man awake. “Mr. Spriggs! Mr. Spriggs, wake up!” After a moment the old man opened his eyes, a confused look on his face. “Mr. SPRIGGS! There’s a fire, come on you have to get out of here!”

Mr. Spriggs sat up, still looking a little disoriented. The smoke was very thick and Joe was beginning to cough. Taking the old man’s elbow, Joe pulled him up out of the bed. Both men heard the sound of a baby crying. “Get the baby!” Mr. Spriggs cried out, suddenly very aware of what was going on.

“Where is he?” Joe asked as he once again coughed from the smoke.

“Two doors down, to the right. I’m okay, go get the baby!” Mr. Spriggs said. He was also coughing deeply, and Joe was not certain about leaving him.

“Mr. Spriggs, you follow me, okay? We’ll get the baby and head down the stairs. Stay right behind me! Can you do that?” Joe asked, already heading out the room.

“I’ll be okay,” Mr. Spriggs assured, “Just get my grandson!”

Joe nodded wordlessly and began feeling his way down the hall. The smoke was so thick he could not see anything. He crawled along the floor, feeling the wall as he crept. One door…. must be the next one… a little further… another door. He opened the door, relieved that it was not yet full of smoke. The baby was crying in his crib. Joe picked him up, placing a cloth over his nose and mouth to filter the smoke. Mrs. Hobbes was still sleeping. Joe could not stop coughing long enough to call the woman’s name. He shook her roughly and she woke with a start. “Oh my Lord!” she cried out.

*****

Adam worked quickly scooping the small child into his arms and wrapping him with the quilts on top of his bed. The child woke up crying as he was jerked from his peaceful slumber. Adam held the boy close, throwing part of a quilt over the boy’s head.

“Shh,” he said trying to calm the child. “Its okay I’m going to get you out of here.” He ended the sentence with a coughing fit, as the smoke snuffed out the breathable air.

Adam made his way carefully and quickly down the stairs. He hoped Joe was already outside waiting with the rest of the family. He made it to the bottom of the stairs safely, coughing as he walked through the sitting room and finally outside to safety.

He was frightened when he saw no sign of Joe and the rest of the Hobbes family. Setting down Jonas he uncovered his head and looked him over making sure he was not hurt. “Are you okay?” he asked gently, kneeling down to look in the child’s eyes.

The little boy nodded his head bravely. Adam saw the look of relief change to a look of confusion, settling on fear when he didn’t see his mother. Nervously, Jonas searched the yard looking for her. When he didn’t see his mother, his breathing quickened as panic started to overtake him. Tears silently rolled down his cheeks again as he looked to no avail. The blood pounded through his veins drowning out everything around him. His worst nightmare had come true.

“Wh-where’s Mommy?” he asked anxiously.

Adam inhaled a fresh breath of air, regretting it as he was hit with another coughing fit. After regaining his composure, he turned to the child, “Don’t worry, my brother is getting your Ma. They’ll be out soon.”

Adam turned back anxiously, silently trying to will Joe to hurry up. It had only been about three minutes later when Abbie Hobbes emerged with Joe and her baby, but to Adam it seemed like it had been an eternity. Once Joe was clear of the doorway, he waited for Mr. Spriggs to emerge, growing alarmed when he didn’t see him.

Joe walked with the distraught mother and crying baby. Abbie was relieved to see Jonas safe and sound, she pulled him to her and hugged him. She then turned to Joe, anxious to have her baby in her hands once again. He coughed as he handed the baby to its mother.

Joe was still coughing when Adam asked him the question, “JOE! Where is Mr. Spriggs?? I thought you went to get him!”

Joe looked confused as he searched the yard, “I already got him. I told him there was a fire… He said he would follow me out….”

Adam’s eyes opened in fear. “HE’S BLIND, JOE!”

Joe looked at him with disbelief, “Adam… I didn’t know…”

Adam quickly turned on his heel and ran for the house and Mr. Spriggs. Joe stood there for a moment in shock, he had had no idea that Mr. Spriggs was blind. Glancing at the frightened woman and her two young children Joe said, “Don’t worry we’ll get him out!”

He ran for the house, realizing that Adam had no idea where Mr. Spriggs’ room was. Reaching the entrance, he saw Adam dart up the stairs. “ADAM! WAIT! YOU DON’T KNOW WHERE HE IS!” he cried urgently.

However, it was too late, Adam could not hear his younger brother over the roaring of the fire as it quickly claimed the house.

The heat from the flames licked Adam’s back as he precariously made his way back to the stairs. Crawling on all fours, he made it to the top. Just as he began to make his way down the hall, he heard a cracking sound. Looking up, he saw the ceiling giving way right over him. He put his arm up instinctively to protect his face, and then all he knew was darkness.

“ADAM!” Joe screamed as he watched his brother go down. He ran towards him and grabbed the burning wood off his brother at a frantic pace. In his adrenaline-rushed state, he did not feel the heat that penetrated his hands. Once he got Adam uncovered, another sight caught his eye. Mr. Spriggs lay several feet away in the hallway, also unconscious. Joe ran to him, felt a pulse, and was relieved that the man was still alive. Joe looked at his surroundings and was shocked. He sat frozen for a moment, uncertain of what to do. As the smoke and flames drew closer, it shook him out of his trance. He crawled back to where Adam was, and looked back at Mr. Spriggs. I’m not going to be able to get both of them. Just as he made a move back to Mr. Spriggs, more of the ceiling came crashing down.

“NO!!” Joe screamed. There was nothing he could do for Mr. Spriggs. A large beam landed right on top of him, with deadly results. He had to get himself and Adam out NOW!

Adam began moaning softly. “Adam, Adam, wake up, we have to get out,” Joe coaxed as he put Adam’s arm around his shoulders.

The two men began the descent down the stairs when Joe was overcome by the heavy smoke and he started coughing violently. Every breath he took burned his lungs. Between Adam leaning on him and the coughing he was experiencing, he soon lost his balance on the stairway. He leaned heavily on the railing which gave way under the weight of two men. They came crashing down to the first floor with a thud.

Adam became fully awake at that point and was panicked when he realized he couldn’t breathe! He quickly realized it was because Joe was lying on top of him.

“Joe,” he wheezed, “Joe, get up!”

Stunned, Joe heard his name being called, and thought at first that he must be dreaming. Seconds later he remembered where he was and what had happened. He quickly rolled to his right, getting off his downed brother. He sat up too quickly and had to stop and blink the darkness away that threatened to overcome him. Whoa… I’m dizzy. Getting his bearings, he stood shakily and pulled Adam up beside him. Forcing his brother to walk, the two made their way out of the burning house.

Outside, Abbie watched her home burning to the ground. She stared in horror, waiting for her father and the two Cartwrights to exit the inferno. She clung to her two precious children as tears began to flow from her eyes. Finally, the sight she had been praying for was before her. She saw the Cartwright brothers emerge from the house. She gently laid the baby down and told Jonas to stay put as she ran to help them get clear of the house.

“Where’s my father?” she asked in a panicked voice.

Still coughing from the smoke, Joe was unable to answer her. He half dragged, half carried Adam a safe distance from the house. He looked over Adam searching for injuries. Adam’s face was cut, but it was hard to tell how badly as his face was covered in soot. Joe shook him gently, hoping to wake him, “Adam, come on, wake up… Adam, come on, you have to wake up.”

Abbie repeated, half screaming, “WHERE’S MY FATHER???”

Joe stopped his administrations and looked at the distraught woman. He felt a lump form in his throat and his eyes clouded over with tears as he shook his head.

“I’m sorry,” he whispered softly, “The ceiling fell in on him. There wasn’t anything we could do. I’m so sorry.”

“NO!!!” Abbie screamed, and began to run towards the house. Joe grabbed her forcefully.

“You can’t go back in there! There’s nothing you or anyone can do! He’s gone!”

Abbie crumpled on the ground as Joe’s words hit home. Joe watched her for a minute, to be sure she would not try to enter the house again. He felt his eyes burning with tears, which he wiped on the back of his hand. Certain that Abbie was okay, he went back to Adam’s side.

By this time two ranch hands, Sam and Henry, had emerged from the bunkhouse after hearing the woman’s screams. The hands looked in shock as they saw the house consumed in fire. The older hand, Henry, ran to Abbie as she sat crying on the ground.

“You all right ma’am?” he asked his voice filled with concern. Abbie did not answer and continued to cry.

Henry then noticed Joe at his brother’s side. Joe was still trying to revive his older brother. Each time he pleaded for him to wake up he was plagued by a racking cough. Henry stood next to Joe and leaned over his shoulder looking down at Adam.

“You all right, son? What happened?”

Joe looked at him, shock apparent in his eyes, “I… I… don’t know…” he said his voice barely above a whisper. He could not take his eyes off his older brother. Suddenly he looked up at the ranch hand. “We have to get him to a doctor! And the rest of the family too!”

The ranch hand nodded, “Right. I’ll get a buckboard ready!” With that, he ran for the barn.

Joe glanced at his brother once again willing him to wake up. He ran his blistered hands over his brothers soot covered face, “Come on Adam. You need to wake up… You HAVE to wake up!”

Abbie sat on the ground now clutching her baby and her three year old son as she sobbed in despair. Joe glanced over at her, wishing there was something he could do for her. Her eyes looked up at him with contempt as she cried. Joe looked away not able to meet her gaze any longer. I should have gotten him out the first time…. He turned back to his brother, who had yet to wake up. Joe was becoming increasingly worried as he waited for the hand to return with the buckboard.

He waited for what seemed like an eternity when Henry finally came out with the buckboard. “Sam, go get some blankets and a mattress from the bunkhouse,” he said as he led the horse to a stop.

Sam ran back to the bunkhouse, grabbed the necessary items, and was quickly back outside. He positioned the mattress in the back of the buckboard, along with a couple blankets. He took two blankets and walked over to Abbie and her children. He wrapped one around her as she sat unmoving on the ground. Sam gave Joe the other blanket to place over Adam.

“Come on, let’s get your brother and the Hobbes in the wagon,” he said as he finished.

Joe nodded numbly. Sam left him and proceeded to help Henry load the family onto the buckboard. He sat Mrs. Hobbes on the seat, and put Jonas in the back. He then walked to Joe.

“Why don’t you go get in the wagon? Me and Henry here will get your brother in the buckboard,” he said gesturing toward the other hand who was consoling Abbie Hobbes.

Joe shook his head. “No, he’s my brother! I’ll help move him!” he said, steadying himself as he rose.

Sam frowned, “Son, you look pretty beat. Me and Henry can carry your brother to the buckboard. Why don’t you climb up there and you can help us get him situated.”

Joe looked indecisive but finally relented to reason. He was exhausted and he was also finding it increasingly difficult to breath. He walked back to the buckboard and climbed in, making room for his brother.

Then Sam and the older ranch hand, Henry, lifted Adam with great effort over to the buckboard. Once they had Adam situated in the back, Joe covered him with some blankets to keep him warm.

*****

Joe kept vigil over Adam on the long trip into town. Adam woke up several times during the journey, and each time was in a great deal of pain. As the sun rose over the horizon, Joe could finally clearly see the extent of his brother’s injuries…. and his own. He glanced at Mrs. Hobbes, who was sleeping with the baby, grateful that at least they were uninjured.

Joe discovered that if he took shallow, short breaths he could breathe for longer periods of time without being overcome by a coughing spasm. It hurts too much to cough…. I wonder how much longer it’s going to take us to get to the doctor…..

Adam moaned. “Joe?” he asked weakly, struggling to open his eyes.

“Yeah, big brother, I’m here.”

“Where are we? What’s going on?” Adam asked, breathing heavily and blinking his eyes to fight the pain.

“We’re on our way to town to get you to a doctor. You got some broken ribs there, Adam, a broken arm, and a pretty nasty bump on your head too.” Joe replied.

Suddenly, Joe began to cough violently. Adam watched with concern, unable to do anything to help as his little brother fought for every breath. He sounds bad. 

“You okay, Joe?” Adam asked when he stopped coughing.

“Yeah,” was all the reply Joe could muster.

*****

Henry drove the buckboard into the edges of the town. His arm had fallen asleep an hour earlier from Mrs. Hobbes leaning on him. He looked at her still form as she cradled the sleeping infant. She and her father were so close. I hope she can get over this. Thank God the kids are all right.

“Mrs. Hobbes…” Henry said gently. Abbie sat up wearily and looked to see where they were. Her swollen eyes were testament to what she had experienced hours before. “Mrs. Hobbes,” Henry continued, “We’re in town. The doctor’s office is just down the street.”

Mrs. Hobbes nodded wordlessly as she took in her surroundings. When Henry stopped the buckboard, she waited for him to help her down. Henry looked in the back where the Cartwright brothers both lay sleeping. Little Jonas was also asleep, curled up beside Joe.

“Jonas,” Henry called, shaking the small boy awake.

Jonas raised his arms sleepily for Henry to pick him up out of the wagon. He brought him to Abbie and they walked to the doctor’s office.

They were greeted by the doctor, who had just arrived a few minutes earlier himself. “Mrs. Hobbes, what’s wrong?” he asked the shaken woman. Abbie’s lower lip began to quiver as recent events came flooding back.

“The house caught fire last night,” Henry spoke up.

“Oh no,” Dr. Grady replied. “Come in, let me check to be sure everyone is all right. Where’s Mr. Hobbes…. and you’re father, Mr. Spriggs?”

“George is still out of town,” Abbie began. “And my father…..” Abbie stopped and began crying again, unable to speak of the tragedy.

“Doc,” Henry once again spoke up, “We have two men in the back of the buckboard. They was at the ranch on business and tried to get Mr. Spriggs out. They both need tendin’ to.”

Dr. Grady guided Mrs. Hobbes and Jonas to a room in the back where they could get cleaned up and rested. He also gave Mrs. Hobbes something to help her relax. Back in the entrance to his office, he saw Henry waiting anxiously near the door. “Henry,” the doctor said, “Let’s get the men inside, then I want you to go get Anna down at the post office, and Josh too. I’ll need their help. Then stop by the hotel and tell them you need some breakfast for the Hobbe’s family sent to my office, okay?” Henry nodded as he led the way to the buckboard.

He led the doctor to the back of the buckboard. “Here they are, Doc. They’re both pretty bad. The one there with dark hair, he’s got a broken arm and who knows what else. The other one is his brother.”

By this time the sun was shining brightly over the town. The sky was clear blue and a pleasant breeze ran through the street. Joe had awoken not long after they had arrived at the Doctor’s office. He was exhausted and didn’t want to move just yet. He then heard the doctor and Henry approaching the buckboard. He sat up wearily as the doctor peered in the back.

The doctor eyed Joe, evaluating the seriousness of his patient’s injuries. “Howdy, I’m Dr. Grady. You going to be able to walk in, son?” he asked Joe. Turning to Henry he said, “Henry, you go ahead and fetch Josh and Anna. I could use help movin’ this one.” indicating Adam with his hand.

Joe nodded, “Yeah I’ll be able to walk in, Doc.” He looked nervously to his brother, who was still sleeping. “My brother here, you take care of him first; he’s bad off.”

The doctor nodded. He climbed in the buckboard to get a closer look at his patients. He leaned down to examine Adam, feeling for broken bones. He ran his hand over Adam’s right arm, checking the extent of the break. Adam’s face contorted in pain as the doctor poked and prodded, he let out a cry as the doctor checked his ribs.

Adam was now breathing heavily, trying to blink away the pain that encompassed him. His head throbbed, and his chest screamed with each breath. He tried to put his hand to his head, when a white hot pain radiated from his arm, causing him to cry out. He felt a hand rest on his shoulder and opened his eyes to see the blurry form of his brother leaning over him, trying to soothe his pain.

“Shh, Adam, you’ll be all right. Your arm’s broken, its just the doc checking you out.” Joe said, trying to get his brother’s attention away from the doctor’s examination.

Adam blinked hard, wishing his eyes would focus on Joe. “J..Joe, you all right?”

Joe smiled, “Yeah, I’ll be all right.” Patting his brother on the shoulder he looked to the doctor who was frowning at what he saw. “Well, Doc? How is he?”

The doctor looked at the young man concern shown in his eyes, “Son, it’s hard to tell. I think he’ll be all right, but that bump on the back of his head doesn’t look so good. He’s got a broken arm, as near as I can tell three broken ribs. We’ll know more when I can get him in the office.”

Joe did not like the doctor’s prognosis and it showed on his face. “He’ll… he’ll be all right though, won’t he?” he asked urgently. Before the doctor could respond, Joe was hit with another racking cough.

The doctor crawled to his side and listened to his patients uneven breathing. “Sounds like you inhaled a lot of smoke, son. You’ll need to get in my office and rest up. There’s risk of catchin’ pneumonia if we aren’t careful.”

Joe nodded. “Take care of my brother first,” he demanded.

The doctor could see the determination in the young man’s eyes. “All right, but as soon as we get him settled, I want you to lie down and get some rest.”

Joe nodded in acceptance as he turned his attention back to his brother. Adam was still awake and listened to the exchange between the doctor and his younger brother. He touched Joe on his knee with his good arm, “Joe, I’ll be all right…. Don’t argue with the doctor, ya hear?”

Joe smiled at his brother, “Yeah, I hear ya, Adam.”

“Good. It’s about time you started listening to me!” Adam said smiling weakly. The smile quickly faded as he began to cough. He cried out in agony as the coughing aggravated his broken ribs. Joe squeezed his brother’s hand, as he watched him fight the blackness that soon over took him.

The doctor watched the exchange with interest. The two brothers deeply cared for each other, he knew that. He frowned as the oldest one coughed, not happy with another complication to his patient’s injuries. The younger brother looked at the doctor with worried eyes. “Don’t worry, its just from the smoke,” he said, trying to comfort the young man.

“Should he pass out?” Joe asked.

“Well, with the pain from the broken ribs and the coughing, it’s probably better that he did. I’ll give him some pain medicine as soon as we get him inside.”

Joe nodded and then leaned against the side of the buckboard. He closed his eyes in exhaustion. Sleep had almost claimed him when he heard Henry approach the wagon along with two other people. He presumed they were Anna and Josh, the two people for whom the doctor had asked.

The doctor smiled when he saw the three approaching. “Boy, am I glad to see you! Let’s get these two in the office. This young man,” he said pointing to Joe, “will be able to walk in, but we’ll need to carry this one in,” he said, pointing to Adam.

Josh climbed up in the buckboard to help Doc Grady move him down. Henry, Josh, and the doctor moved Adam carefully.

“Careful!” the doctor said. “He’s got some broken bones. We don’t need to make them worse.”

After several minutes, they carried Adam inside the doctor’s office. Dr. Grady instructed them to move him to a back room where he could be cleaned up. Joe followed, much to the doctor’s protest, close behind, not willing to leave his brother’s side.

“Let’s get these clothes off of him,” Dr. Grady began. “What did you say your names were, son?” he asked Joe as he worked.

“I’m Joe Cartwright, and that’s my brother Adam.” Joe answered, never taking his eyes off his brother. Suddenly, the cough that had been threatening overcame him. He grabbed his sides in pain as he continued to cough violently.

“Anna,” Dr. Grady ordered, “take him to the other room. I’ll be in as soon as I finish with his brother.”

Anna led Joe into a small sitting room as he continued to cough. When he finally stopped, he was exhausted. “Lie here and get some rest if you can,” Anna instructed, pointing to a settee. Joe readily complied, too tired to argue. “I’ll go check on your brother,” Anna said with a sympathetic smile. Joe returned the smile, but was afraid speaking would cause another bout of coughing.

Dr. Grady had just finished taping Adam’s ribs when Anna returned. “Let’s get this arm set before he wakes up,” he ordered. “Josh, you better hold his legs. Anna, hold his other arm. I need to pull pretty hard. Make sure he stays on the table. Ready?”

Anna and Josh got into position. Fortunately, Adam remained unconscious throughout the process. “Anna, stay with him while I check his brother. Josh, go make sure Mrs. Hobbes has everything she needs. She should be resting by now,” Dr. Grady said as he left Adam’s side.

*****

Dr. Grady found Joe lying on his side and noticed him wheezing audibly. Joe began coughing as he attempted to sit up. “How’s Adam,” he asked weakly.

“I got his arm set, and his ribs taped up. They’ll both heal just fine. He hasn’t woken up yet though, so I won’t really know the full extent of his injuries until he regains consciousness. How are you doing?” he asked, pulling out his stethoscope.

“I’m okay, Doc,” Joe replied, not sounding very convincing.

“Let me be the judge of that, young man. Is your breathing painful?”

“A little,” Joe admitted, closing his eyes as he felt the doctor’s cool hand against his hot forehead.

“You have a nice little fever going here, son. Do you have family somewhere you’d like us to notify?”

“Yeah,” Joe replied, shaking his head to clear the cobwebs. “Ben Cartwright, our father. Virginia City, Nevada.”

“Okay, you just rest easy, son. I’m going to send Anna in here to give you some medicine, and Josh will go send that telegram.” Joe nodded gratefully.

*****

Adam woke up several hours later to the voice of a young woman and the gentle shaking of his shoulder. His vision blurred and he couldn’t quite make out her words. His whole body ached. He felt as if his head were about to explode, every breath was painful, and his arm throbbed.

Anna smiled down at the patient, “I’m glad to see you finally came around. I was beginning to worry I wouldn’t be able to wake you.”

Adam stared at her blankly, he didn’t recognize this young woman nor his surroundings. “A…a drink?” he asked, his voice barely above a whisper.

Anna nodded, “I would imagine you’d be pretty thirsty by now. Just a minute, first I gotta get the doc.” She left the room and Adam heard her call for the doctor.

He was still disoriented and not really sure what was going. At the moment all he could think about was getting a drink and going back to sleep, he felt completely exhausted.

Soon Dr. Grady entered the room, followed by Anna with a glass of water.

“Here ya are, a nice cool glass of water.” She put her hand underneath Adam’s head to help him drink. However, when she lifted his head up he yelled from the pain it caused.

Anna let go. “I’m sorry!”

Doc Grady furrowed his eyebrows, “It’s all right; he doesn’t have any serious abrasions on the back of his head.” Turning to Adam he said, “I’m afraid what you do have Mr. Cartwright is a serious concussion.” He leaned down to look in Adam’s eyes. “Tell me, Mr. Cartwright, can you see me clearly?”

Adam nodded, “Yes.”

“Do you have any ringing in your ears?”

Adam nodded again, “Yes, a little.”

“Well, son, it doesn’t surprise me at all. We’ll just have to keep a close eye on you. That also means I’m not going to be able to give you much for the pain, at least until that concussion clears up.”

Adam closed his eyes and nodded. Anna once again approached him, “How about we try that drink again. I promise to be more careful.”

Adam gave her a weak smile as she carefully propped him up to take a sip of water. The doctor watched intently, trying to ascertain his patients condition.

“Mr. Cartwright, your brother’s been awfully worried about you. He’s asks me if you’re awake every time I walk in the room.”

Adam looked at him with a confused expression his face changed as he began to remember the events that brought him here. “Joe? Is he all right? Where is he?” he said, the worry evident in his voice.

The doctor held up his hands. “He’s all right. He’s resting in the other room. He’s got some minor burns on his hands and he inhaled a lot of smoke, but I think he’ll be all right. Do you remember what happened?”

Relief washed over Adam, thankful that his brother was okay. He closed his eyes trying to piece together his memory. “There… there was a fire…”

The doctor nodded, “That’s right. Do you remember anything else about it?”

Adam was quiet for a minute, “Yeah… I got Jonas out… is he okay?”

“Yes, he’s fine. You and your brother saved that family you know.”

Adam shook his head. Suddenly he remembered something else, “Mr. Spriggs! I went back in to get Mr. Spriggs! Did he make it?”

Dr. Grady sighed, he had hoped he wouldn’t have to bring the young man such news, “I’m afraid he perished in the fire.”

Adam swallowed hard and nodded solemnly. “Can I see Joe?”

“Yes, I think I can arrange that, but not quite yet. I’d like both you and your brother to get some rest. All right?”

“Joe’s all right?” Adam asked still not quite believing Mr. Spriggs was gone.

“Yes, he’s all right. He just needs to rest for awhile. Its been a long day for you two,” he smiled.

Adam sighed his acceptance. He was tired and now that he knew Joe and the Hobbes’ family were all right he felt safe to rest again.

*****

Three days later, a frantic Ben Cartwright made his way into the town where his two injured sons were recuperating.

“There’s the doctor’s office, Pa,” said an equally worried Hoss, who had accompanied his father.

Ben nodded and the two of them dismounted in front of a building which displayed a sign that said, “Dr. William Grady”. Ben was prepared to knock on the door, but Hoss beat him by just opening it and quickly walking inside.

Relief washed over Ben when he saw his youngest son sitting on a chair in the front room. Joe immediately stood and walked to his father, greeting him with a warm embrace. Hoss grinned and patted his brother on the shoulder.

“Son,” Ben began, “I was so worried when I received that telegram. Are you all right? Where is Adam?”

“I’m fine, Pa. Adam is taking a nap in the room back there,” Joe said, pointing towards the room. “Adam’s going to be just fine. The doc’s been taking real good care of him… of both of us.”

Ben smiled and let out a breath he didn’t realize he’d been holding. “Is the doctor here, Little Joe?”

Joe shook his head. “He went out this morning. Hasn’t gotten back yet.”

Ben felt the need to peek in on Adam, and to see for himself that his son was indeed all right. He opened the door that Joe had indicated, and was relieved to see Adam sleeping peacefully. He had a bandage on his head, and his arm was in a splint, but his color was good, and he was breathing evenly. He slipped quietly back out of the room.

Hoss couldn’t help but notice that even though Little Joe looked fine, something was terribly wrong.

“Little Joe,” he asked, “Feel like telling us what happened?”

Joe didn’t answer for a moment, and Hoss was beginning to think he shouldn’t have asked.

“Okay,” Joe finally said. “Let’s go sit over here.”

Joe led them to an area with a settee and a couple of chairs. The three men got comfortable, and Joe began telling his story. He related that the trip to the ranch was uneventful, and that the horses had been delivered as planned.

“But when we arrived at the Hobbes,” Joe continued, “We learned that Mr. Hobbes was out of town, and was expected to arrive the next day. We were invited to stay the night.” At that, Joe stopped talking and took a deep, shaky breath.

“It’s okay, son; take your time,” Ben said in a soothing voice, obviously concerned about what his sons had endured.

“They were a real nice family, Pa,” Joe said, as tears began to well up. He couldn’t help but think about Mr. Spriggs, and the tales he told them that night. “There was Mrs. Hobbes, and her little boy Jonas, and a baby. Her father lived there too. A real nice old man. You would have really liked him, Pa. You too, Hoss.” Joe looked away from his father and brother as he continued his story. His voice was soft, and it shook occasionally as he fought to control the emotions that threatened to overwhelm him.

“Mr. Spriggs was telling us stories about his adventures. He was still talking up a storm when I went to bed. Adam stayed up and listened to him for a while longer. I was pretty beat. I was sound asleep before my head hit the pillow.” Joe stopped talking and shook his head. “I…. I’m not sure what happened next. I remember Adam waking me up, and telling me that the house was on fire. We went upstairs to find the family. Adam got Jonas out. I found Mr. Spriggs, I was helping him out, but he told me to get the baby. He said he would follow me. So… I found Mrs. Hobbes and the baby, and I helped them get out. I thought Mr. Spriggs was behind me. It wasn’t until I got outside that…” Joe stopped talking. He was miles away, caught up in the memory that had haunted him the past few days.

“Go on, Joe,” Hoss urged.

No longer able to keep the tears at bay, Joe wiped his eyes with the back of his hand. Taking a deep breath, he continued. “When I got outside, I handed the baby to Mrs. Hobbes, and Adam asked me where her father was. I thought he’d gotten out, Pa, I thought he was right behind me! Adam ran back in the house. I ran after him cause I knew he didn’t know where Mr. Spriggs was…” Suddenly Joe stopped. “Oh, Pa,” he cried.

“It’s okay, son. That’s enough for now.” Ben said gently massaging his son’s tense neck.

Adam stood silently in the doorway, listening to his brother tell the events which had brought them here. The memory that haunted his dreams now flashed before his own eyes. How are we ever going to get over this? He sniffed, bringing his arrival to the attention of his family.

“Adam!” Ben called. “Adam, son! Come sit down. We didn’t wake you did we?”

“No, you didn’t. I woke up a little while ago. Thought I heard voices out here.” He said with a small smile. “Good to see you, Pa, Hoss.” He walked gingerly to the settee and sat down, cradling his still sore ribs. He looked up and saw Joe with his head in his hands.

“You okay, Joe?” he asked.

Joe nodded, bringing his hands down. “Pa, I’m gonna go for a little walk, if that’s okay with you.”

Ben nodded his consent, watching with concern as Joe walked away. He then looked at Adam. “You sure you’re all right, son? You look pale.”

“I’m fine, Pa, really. It’s just going to take some time to get over this.” Adam bowed his head, unable to keep eye contact with his father.

“Adam,” Hoss said quietly, “Little Joe never finished telling us what happened. You feel up to filling us in?”

Adam leaned back, taking a deep breath. He grabbed his still sore ribs when they protested. He looked at Hoss and then at his father. “Okay, I’ll tell you the rest of the story,” he began.

“Little Joe told you that he thought Mr. Spriggs had followed him out, right?”

Ben and Hoss nodded. “Well,” Adam continued, “What Little Joe didn’t know was that Mr. Spriggs was blind. There was no way he could have followed him to safety. Joe was carrying the baby and the smoke had really gotten to him. There wasn’t anyway for him to see that Mr. Spriggs was not behind him. When they got out, I noticed Mr. Spriggs wasn’t with Joe. Joe said he thought he was right behind him. Well, I knew Mr. Spriggs was blind, I told Joe and ran back in the house to get him. I guess Joe followed since he knew right where Mr. Spriggs was. I made it back up to the second floor, but the roof caved in. That’s when my arm got broken, and Joe burned his hands when he pulled the beams off me.” Adam stopped for a moment, taking another deep painful breath.

“The worst part of everything was that Joe saw Mr. Spriggs get killed. He was still alive when we arrived upstairs, but when the roof collapsed some more, Mr. Spriggs was killed… I was unconscious. Joe carried me to the stairs, and then, I guess the railing gave way and we fell. We landed on the first floor. Joe landed on top of me, so that’s how my ribs got busted,” Adam had a small grin on his face. “I don’t know how ended up on the bottom! Just glad it wasn’t Hoss that landed on me!”

Ben sighed and sat down next to his oldest son. He knew they must both be having a hard time with what had happened. He gently massaged his son’s tense shoulders.

Adam continued, “I don’t remember much after that. From what Joe told me a couple ranch hands loaded me into the wagon and we rode into town. I must have been out my head during that time, the next thing I remember is waking up here in the doc’s office.” Adam looked at his father, “We haven’t heard anything from the Hobbes family…” he said, his voice fading at the mention of the family.

Ben frowned, he hated to see his sons feel this way. He knew they both must be feeling some guilt over the loss of Mr. Spriggs.

After a moment of awkward silence, Adam spoke again, his voice still quiet. “I think Joe’s taking this real hard, Pa. I’ve tried to talk with him about it, but he doesn’t want to listen. I keep telling him it wasn’t his fault, that I should have told him Mr. Spriggs was blind before… but he doesn’t want to listen to me Pa… The kid’s really beating himself up over this. I guess he had to hold Mrs. Hobbes and keep her from going back in the house after we came out. From what he told me, she blames us for not getting her father out…”

Ben sighed, “She was upset. I’m sure she doesn’t mean what she said.”

Adam nodded, “I know that, but I can’t help feel that I could have gotten him out, I should of told Joe he was blind, it… it just didn’t occur to me at the time…”

Just then the door clicked open, revealing Dr. Grady. He frowned when he saw Adam, “Adam, I thought I told you to take it easy. You look awful.” He paused when he saw the two other men sitting by Adam. Extending his hand out he said, “Hi, I’m Dr. Will Grady.”

Ben took his hand in a firm grip, “Pleased to meet you doctor. I’m Ben Cartwright and this is my other son, Hoss.”

Hoss took the doctor’s hand, “Nice to meet ya, Doc.”

“Glad you gentlemen could make it. These two sons of yours, Mr. Cartwright, have been climbing the walls the last two days,” he said with a chuckle.

Ben smiled, “Yes, they don’t like to stay in one place for too long.”

Dr. Grady turned serious, “Mr. Cartwright, you’re two sons are actually very lucky to have survived. They gave me a little worry the first couple days they were here. Adam here, had a few more complications then Joe, but as you can see he’s pulled through nicely. They both gave me a bit of a scare the first night… both had fevers to contend with. From what I understand there’s nothing left of the Hobbes’ house… And if it wasn’t for these two, there wouldn’t be a Hobbes’ family left.”

Ben looked thoughtful for a moment. “Dr. Grady, is there anything we can do for the Hobbes? Where are they staying?”

“They are staying with relatives in another town. They’ll be fine, Mr. Cartwright. Let’s just concentrate on these two sons of yours, shall we?” Dr. Grady looked around the room. “Where did Little Joe go?”

“He went for a walk,” Ben answered. “He was telling us what happened, and it was really getting to him. He seems to be taking this really hard.”

The doctor nodded. “He’s been rather depressed… poor appetite… not sleeping well. I’m hopeful that once he returns to familiar surroundings he’ll snap out of it.”

“When will the boys be fit to travel?” Ben asked.

“Adam needs a couple more days for those ribs to mend. He shouldn’t sit a horse for another two weeks though,” Dr. Grady answered.

*****

A tirade of cursing filled the kitchen at the Ponderosa ranch. Ben frowned, having some idea of why the Chinese cook was unhappy. He entered the kitchen to find Hop Sing scraping uneaten food into a bucket.

“Hop Sing cook, all the time, make good meal for family. Why Mr. Adam and Little Joe not eat? They no like Hop Sing food anymore?” Hop Sing spoke to Ben, and continued his rant in his native language.

“Give them time, Hop Sing,” Ben said, attempting to calm the irate cook.

“Zhu nin jian kang!” he continued. “Hop Sing cook, all the time. Only Mr. Ben and Mr. Hoss eat. You tell Mr. Adam and Little Joe… they no eat, Hop Sing no cook! Hmph!”

Ben sighed. They had returned from Arizona nearly two weeks ago, and while Adam and Joe seemed to be recovering physically from their ordeal, they were far from well. They spoke only when spoken to, and had poor appetites. And the nightmares… Joe’s had nightmares since he was a small child… whenever something is bothering him… I’ll go talk to Dr. Martin tomorrow… maybe he’ll know what to do for him… For both of them.

*****

Once again, Ben’s sleep was disrupted by the sound of his youngest son’s screams. He got up tiredly, threw his robe about his shoulders, and made his way to Little Joe’s room. When he arrived, he heard the sound of soft voices coming from inside. He didn’t need to look to know that it was Adam’s voice he heard.

“Little Joe, wake up,” Adam said, his voice soft and soothing. He heard his brother’s cries as soon as they started. “At least you’re sleeping… even if your haunted by the nightmare…” Adam rubbed his eyes wearily. I’d give anything for a good night’s sleep.

“Adam,” Joe mumbled sleepily, “that you?”

“Yeah,” Adam replied gently. “Wanna talk about it?”

“There’s nothing to talk about,” Joe said harshly.” Just get out and leave me alone.”

“Suit yourself, but try to keep it quiet. Some of us are trying to sleep,” Adam retorted as he turned to leave. He stood at the doorway for a moment, watching as his brother stared aimlessly at the ceiling. He stepped out, closing the door behind him.

“Is he all right?” Ben asked, concern filled his voice.

Adam shrugged. “How should I know? He’s not talking to me.”

Ben sighed deeply, noting the dark circles that had formed beneath Adam’s sleep deprived eyes. “You go back to bed, son. I’ll go see if I can get Joseph to talk.”

“Hmph,” Adam snorted, “Good luck.” He stuffed his hands in his robe and walked to his own bedroom, closing the door behind him.

Ben stood in the empty hallway and sighed once more. He knocked on Little Joe’s door.

No answer.

Ben knocked again and this time opened the door. “Joseph?” he called softly. He could see that his youngest son was awake, and was disappointed with the silence that greeted him.

He approached Joe’s bed and sat down on the edge. “Joseph, why don’t you talk to me, son? I know something’s eating away at you.”

“I don’t want to talk, Pa. I want you and Adam to just leave me alone,” Joe said in a serious tone.

*****

Breakfast that morning was a somber affair. The four Cartwrights sat silently. Ben looked at each of his sons, starting with Hoss. Hoss was eating, trying to pretend everything was “normal”. Adam looked as though he were forcing himself to eat, focusing all his attention on the meal before him, tuning out everything else. Joe ceremoniously played with his fork, but Ben never saw him take a bite.

He put his own fork down and took a sip of his coffee. Smiling, he looked up. “Adam, I need you to go to the south pasture this morning and check the herd,” he began, hoping to break the tension at the table. “Hoss, you go with him, make sure he doesn’t overdo things.”

Adam looked up sharply. “I’m fine, Pa. I can check the herd by myself if you need Hoss doing something else.”

Ben shook his head and frowned. “Adam, you just started sitting a horse again, so I don’t want you working alone. Keep it short today. Check the herd and come straight back to the house. If there are any problems, report them to Hank, but don’t try fixing them yourself, understand?”

Adam nodded, knowing to argue would be pointless.

“Little Joe, I need you to finish the fences today. We need to have them finished before we get the new herd.” When Joe didn’t acknowledge him, Ben spoke again. “Did you hear me, Joseph?”

“Yes sir,” Joe replied less than enthusiastically without looking up.

“Boys,” Ben continued, “I have to go into town this morning, but I would like us all to be home early this afternoon.” Ben smiled as three sets of questioning eyes looked his way. “There’s a dance in Virginia City tonight, and I thought we’d all go. Slim Duncan and the boys are playing,” he said with a wink.

“Hot-diggity!” Hoss exclaimed, “That sounds great, Pa!”

Ben wished he’d get some enthusiasm from Adam and Joe as well, but all they managed was to smile. “Boys, I’m going to head out. You stay and finish your breakfast.” Pushing himself away from the table, he made his excuses and headed toward the door.

“Well come on, Adam, lets get goin’ so we can go to that dance tonight!” Hoss said.

Before Adam could answer, Joe slammed his fists down on the table in frustration. “I can’t take this anymore. I can’t stand us sitting here like nothing’s wrong. You two can sit and make your small talk, but I gotta get out of here.” He stood and hastily made his way to the front door.

“Little Joe…” Hoss called, starting to go after him.

“Let me handle this,” Adam said with a look of dismay. He walked outside and went to the barn where Little Joe was saddling his horse. His jaw locked in anger, Adam knew to tread lightly.

“Little Joe…” he began.

Joe shook his head. “I don’t want to talk about it, Adam. Can’t you get that through your thick head?”

Adam grabbed Joe’s shoulder, forcing the younger man to turn and face him. “Look, just because this thing is still bothering you is no reason to take it out on everyone else. You better get your act together… and soon.”

Joe’s muscles tensed with anger and frustration. He turned his back to Adam once more and continued saddling Cochise. “I said I don’t want to talk about it.” He finished tightening the cinch and quickly mounted the steed.

Adam stepped back out of the way and crossed his arms in frustration as he watched Little Joe ride away. He stepped over to Sport and began putting the saddle on when Hoss entered the barn.

“Were you able to get anything out of him?” Hoss asked.

Adam shook his head and let out a frustrated sigh. “No. It’s like trying to talk to a stone mountain.”

*****

Ben made good time getting to Virginia City. He rode straight to Dr. Paul Martin’s office, relieved to see that he was in his office. The two men shook hands.

“Ben, good to see you,” Paul said. “What brings you my way? No one is ill, I hope.”

Ben shook his head. “No, no – nothing like that, Paul. The boys are fine. Well, at least physically, that is.”

“Oh, I see,” Paul frowned, certain something was troubling his friend. “It’s Adam and Little Joe, isn’t it.”

Ben nodded and turned away. He gazed out the window. “I just don’t know what to do… or what to say when I’m around them. Oh, on the outside everything appears to be just fine.” He turned and faced the doctor. “Adam is getting his strength back. His appetite is returning, and he seems to be putting things in perspective.” He shook his head and continued before Paul could say anything. “He’s not sleeping, Paul. He has dark circles under his eyes. He stays up till all hours reading, or sometimes just sitting… staring out the window. I don’t know when’s the last time he had a good night’s rest.”

“And Little Joe?” Paul asked, not liking what he was hearing.

Ben shook his head and frowned. “He’s short-tempered, not eating, only speaking when spoken to. But the worst of it is the nightmares. Nearly every night since the boys have returned, I’ve woken up to Joe’s screams.”

Ben walked over to a chair that was in the room and sat down, rubbing his eyes wearily. “He won’t talk about it,” he continued. “We’ve all tried to get him to open up. He’s even turned Hoss away. I just don’t know what to do anymore. It’s like being around a stick of dynamite that’s about to explode.”

Paul walked over to a cabinet and reached inside. He turned and handed Ben a small white packet. “Some sleeping powder, Ben. Try to get both of them to take some tonight. You’d be surprised at what a little sleep can do for one’s disposition.”

Ben took the powder and nodded appreciatively. “Is there anything else I should be doing–saying?”

“It’s going to take time, Ben. But don’t let them shut you out. Keep the communication going. Keep trying to get them to talk about the fire. Especially Little Joe. If things don’t improve soon, I’ll talk to him. He may open up to me.”

“Yes, Paul, he just might do that. Thank you.” Ben shook his friend’s hand and walked toward the door.

“Good luck,” Paul called out.

Ben smiled and left the office. Taking a deep breath, he mounted his horse and headed back to the ranch.

*****

Adam and Hoss were soon on their way to the south pasture. They traveled in amicable silence. Adam was not in the mood for conversation. As they rode his mood continued to worsen. He kept thinking over the heated exchange with Joe in the barn. He was tired of Joe’s surly attitude since they had returned from Arizona. He resented his father demanding that Hoss accompany him on this routine check of the herd. By the time they had arrived in the south pasture, he was thoroughly ensconced in a foul mood.

Unfortunately for Hoss, he didn’t notice or sense his brother’s mood change. Seeing that the herd looked all right, Adam rode along the fence line checking for signs of rot setting in or any weak points in the fence. Most of the fence line seemed to be in fair shape until he came upon an area that had fallen. The small section needed only to be pieced back together, something that would take less then half an hour. Adam dismounted slowly, as he was still feeling a bit sore.

Hoss frowned as he watched his brother. He knew what he was up to. “Hey, Adam? I thought Pa said you weren’t to fix nothin’ out here?”

Adam barely glanced at his brother, speaking tersely he replied, “So he did. Well there’s no reason to make Hank come all the way out here just to fix this.”

Hoss frowned not liking the situation, but he could his brother’s point. Dismounting himself, he walked over to Adam. Picking up the fence post Adam was reaching for, he said, “I’ll get it Adam. You go over there and rest a bit.”

Adam rolled his eyes, becoming agitated with Hoss. “Look, Hoss! I can do this myself I don’t need you treating my like I’m some sickly kid!”

Hoss stepped back , surprised by his brother’s anger. Adam fumed, Hoss could tell by the look on his face that he was not going to give in on this. “All right, fine. But just don’t expect me to tell Pa why it is you ain’t able to set your horse no more!”

Adam, seeing Hoss was relenting, quickly bent down to pick up another piece of railing. He winced noticeably at the quick movement. Hoss shook his head; his two brothers were one and the same, whether they liked to admit it or not… both were stubborn as mules!

Hoss sighed, “I’ll go finish checking the rest of the fence line.” Adam didn’t respond but continued his task of putting the section of fence back together.

*****

It didn’t take them long to finish the job. Satisfied, Adam turned to Hoss. “Let’s ride up toward the north end and see if Little Joe needs any help.”

Hoss shook his head. “You’ve done enough for today, Adam. You go back to the house. I’ll go check on Little Joe.”

Adam tensed his jaw and could feel the muscles in his neck tighten. I’ve had about all of this I can take.” I think I know better than you when I’ve done enough.” He mounted his horse and rode off toward the north end, leaving Hoss standing, watching in concern.

*****

Little Joe continued hammering the fence post into the ground. Despite the chilly temperature, sweat glistened across his bare back as he continued the task. Each blow brought an image from the past.

*BAM* Little Jonas clinging to his Ma’s skirt shyly…

*BAM* The little baby, smiling and cooing…

*BAM* Abbie beaming and serving supper…

*BAM* Mr. Spriggs telling stories…

*BAM* The smell of smoke…

*BAM* Fire…

*BAM* Mr. Spriggs… dead eyes staring

*BAM* It’s my fault!

*BAM* It’s my fault!

*BAM* It’s my fault!

*BAM* “It’s my fault!” he screamed, throwing the gavel to the ground.

“Hey, watch it!”

Joe whirled to see his brother, Adam, staring down at him. Breathing hard, he turned and grabbed his shirt.

“You’re gonna get sick again, working like that,” Adam warned.

“Just mind your own business, Adam,” Joe retorted. A chill ran through him as the wind blew. He removed the gloves from his hands and slipped his shirt and jacket on. He began pulling the gloves back on, covering the lingering scars that would be a constant reminder.

Adam looked at the fence. “Looks like you’ve about got it. Need any help finishing up?”

“No.”

“All right. See ya at the house then.” Adam turned his mount and rode off.

Joe picked up the gavel and began pounding the last post, determined to stave off the memories that haunted him all morning.

*****

Hoss led Cochise out of the barn and walked him to where Sport, Buck, and Chub waited for their masters. Ben had practically insisted that they all go to the dance. Hoss agreed that it might help. None of them had been to a social event in quite some time, so seeing old friends would be a welcomed distraction.

His two brothers stepped out of the house, followed a step behind by their worried father. The four men mounted up and rode to Virginia City.

*****

Adam stood by the refreshment table watching the couples dance across the floor. He had managed to dance a few times with a couple young ladies, but it was forced on his part. He wasn’t really in the mood for conversation nor dancing. Taking another sip, he checked the clock again hoping that more than 20 minutes had passed. He was disappointed to find only five minutes had passed since he last looked.

He was surprised when he heard his younger brother say, “Is it time to go home yet?”

Adam smiled, saying dryly, “I know how you feel. Seems like we’ve been here for days…”

Adam watched as Joe filled another glass with the heavily spiked punch. Adam frowned, “Joe how bout you lay off the punch, huh? Have anymore of that and we’ll have to carry you home.”

Joe stopped filling his glass, his eyes narrowed as he turned to Adam, “How about you mind your own business?”

Adam straightened his stance moving closer to Joe, he said in a low whisper, “Hey, Its just a suggestion; you don’t have to get your dander up about it…”

“Well, you can just keep your suggestions to yourself next time!” Joe snapped back.

Adam fumed. He was tired of walking on egg shells with his brother. Backing away, he indicated to Joe that he did not want a confrontation at the moment. Joe, seeing Adam back down, filled his glass once again.

As Joe filled his cup, a young lady approached him. “Joe? I thought you were going to come back and dance with me?”

Joe sighed, annoyed by her whining. “I’m really not in the mood right now, Marleen. Why don’t you go dance with Henry over there…” he suggested hoping she would leave him alone.

Adam watched the exchange with interest. Keeping an eye on his younger brother.

“But… Joe… I don’t want to dance with Henry. You promised me you would come back to dance. Come on, you’ve been so quite all evening…”

“LOOK! I said I don’t want to dance! Can’t you just accept that?” Joe snapped.

Marleen stepped back, surprised by his anger. He had never treated her like this before. “I-I’m sorry…” she said as if in shock. Turning quickly around, she disappeared into the crowd. Joe downed another glass of punch.

Adam approached Joe angrily, “JOE! You had no right to talk to that girl like that!”

Joe rolled his eyes. “Adam, why can’t you just mind your own business?” he asked, anger in his voice.

“Well, I’m making it my business, now. You had no right to treat her like that! What’s gotten into you lately, huh?” Adam replied, his voice equally conveying the anger he had been holding back earlier.

“Maybe you, Adam!” Joe yelled back. “Maybe you’re the problem! If it wasn’t for you, maybe we would both be enjoying this dance.”

“What?” Adam asked, confused.

“If it wasn’t for you, Mr. Spriggs could be tellin’ his youngest grandson bed time stories instead of lying six feet under!” Joe yelled, catching the attention of the other party goers.

Adam looked as if he were just going to walk away from his brother, but no longer able to control his anger, he turned around and decked his brother fully on the chin, knocking Joe to the floor.

Despite his intoxicated state, Joe quickly recovered and was soon back on his feet charging his older brother, knocking him into the crowd of stunned people. Joe was able to land a couple well-placed punches before he felt himself being pulled away from Adam and being restrained by his brother Hoss.

Almost as soon as Ben and Hoss had heard the raised voices of Adam and Joe, they had started to move towards the two arguing brothers. By the time Ben had reached his two sons, the brothers had managed to each get in a few blows. Hoss had grabbed Joe while two other men had been able to restrain Adam. When Ben saw that neither son was physically harmed, he became angry. Turning to Adam he said, “Get outside now.” He motioned for Hoss and Joe to follow.

Never releasing his iron grip, Hoss guided his hot-tempered little brother out the door. Ben and Adam followed right behind. Once the four men were outside, Ben looked upon his sons and let out a big sigh. “Will one of mind telling me what this was all about?” he asked.

When neither son spoke, Ben turned to his oldest. “Adam?”

Adam shook his head. “I don’t know what’s gotten into him, Pa.”

Little Joe felt everyone’s eyes on him. I feel like I’m suffocating! He swayed slightly, held up by Hoss’s strong arms. I need to get away from here… He broke away from his brother’s grasp.

“Joseph?” Ben questioned his youngest. “Did you start this?”

“No sir, I didn’t,” Joe answered defiantly.

“We’re not going to get anywhere at this rate. Let’s go home. We’ll discuss it there.” Ben headed to the livery to collect the horses, followed by his three sons.

Joe remained a few steps behind the rest of his family, following in silence. He watched as everyone else mounted up.

“Little Joe? You feelin’ all right?” Hoss asked.

“Why won’t everyone just leave me alone? I’m FINE!” Joe blurted out, taking everyone by surprise. He then mounted his horse quickly and rode away, leaving a trail of dust behind him.

“I’ll get him, Pa,” Hoss said.

“No, son, leave him be for now. Let him cool off.” He turned to Adam. “Tell me exactly what happened between you two at the dance.”

Adam shook his head. “I’m not sure I understand it all myself,” he began. “Joe was hitting the punch pretty heavily, and when I suggested he lay off a bit, he started getting all defensive, telling me to mind my own business.” He walked to the side of the stable and sat on a bale of hay. Ben followed.

“I didn’t want to argue with him, so I backed down and got out of his way. Then the girl he’d been with came over and asked him to dance with her. He was downright mean to her, Pa. Told her to dance with someone else. When I confronted him about it, he lit into me. He blames me for everything that happened at that fire.”

“He blames you?” Ben asked, confused.

Adam swallowed hard and shook his head again. “Like I said, I’m not sure I understand it myself. A lot of what happened that night is fuzzy. I can’t remember much of it.”

Hoss, who had had been listening, stepped forward. “Hey Adam I just remembered something.” Reaching in his vest pocket he pulled out a letter. “I plum forgot about this. Danny gave it to me earlier tonight ’cause Joe forgot to pick up the mail the other day. It’s addressed to you and Joe.”

Adam looked at him peculiarly, “To me and Joe?”

“Yup,” Hoss said, “It’s from Arizona.”

Adam stood up quickly and grabbed the letter from Hoss’s hand. Ripping it open, he quickly read it. Ben and Hoss both waited, curious as to it’s contents. Adam looked up when he finished, lost in thought.

“Well, what does it say, son? Is it from the Hobbes?” Ben asked gently.

Adam nodded, “Yes, it is. Its… well, its a thank you letter of sorts, and an apology.”

Ben looked confused, “An apology?”

“Yeah, I have to go find Joe. He needs to see this.”

Ben sighed. “No, Adam, you and Hoss go home. I’ll go after Little Joe. Whatever it is you two need to discuss can be discussed at home.”

Adam grabbed his father’s elbow. “No, Pa. Let me go. This is something Little Joe and I need to work out… on our own.”

Ben hesitated. Looking at Adam, he sighed, “All right, Adam. But bring him home. Neither of you should be spending a cold night outdoors.”

Adam nodded and mounted his horse. “I think I know where he is… Don’t worry, we’ll be back soon.”

“Let’s go home, Hoss,” Ben said wearily.

*****

Adam rode for about an hour until he came to the place he expected to find his little brother. In the moonlight, he could see the familiar paint horse tied to a tree nearby. There, near the lake, stood his brother beside his mother’s grave. He was looking out toward the water, his back to Adam. Ah, Joe, you only come here when you’re really hurting, or searching for answers.

“Joe?” Adam said as he approached.

Joe quickly spun around, drawing his gun. When he saw who it was, he returned the weapon to it’s holster. “Don’t you know better than to sneak up on a man like that?” Joe asked.

“Sorry,” Adam said, drawing closer. He sat down next to where his brother stood and gazed out on the lake. The full moon reflecting on the water made an awesome sight. “It sure is beautiful here.”

Joe was tempted to sit next to his brother, but stopped. “What are you doing here, Adam? Run out of people to boss around?” He was still angry about their earlier confrontation.

Adam sighed, “Joe we need to talk about this…”

“About what? As far as I’m concerned there’s nothing more to say about what happened tonight.”

Adam spoke quietly, “Not just about tonight, Joe. About everything. About everything that’s happened in the last two months.”

Joe turned away. “I don’t have anything more to say to you about any of it, Adam.”

“I think you do. You own me an explanation.” Adam now stood and faced Joe.

Joe sighed and shook his head. “An explanation for what? For not being in the mood to dance?”

“You know that’s not what I’m talking about. Dammit, Little Joe, quit skirting around the issues! This is not about the dance and you know it! It’s about the fire.”

“Okay, Adam, you want to talk about the fire… let me tell you about that fire!” Little Joe raged. “For starters, why didn’t you tell me Mr. Spriggs was blind?”

Adam shook his head. “I didn’t know it myself, until after you went to bed, Joe.”

“I could have gotten him out, Adam. I was right there in his room! I told him to follow me! I had no idea he couldn’t see.”

Adam started to comment, but Joe continued. “I just keep thinking… if only I had known! I would have done things differently. And then when you ran in after him… well, I already knew how hard it would be to find him. You never should have gone back in there, Adam. If I had gone alone, I might have been able to get him out.”

“Or you might have been killed, too. Joe, don’t you see?” Adam could no longer keep silent. “You know I think about what happened almost every day, Joe. What if I had done something different? Why didn’t I go after Mr. Spriggs instead of Jonas? Maybe I should have left Jonas to you… there are dozens of different decisions either of us could have made, but I always come to the same conclusion, Joe. Something terrible would have happened that night no matter what either of us did. Right now it’s useless to think about what might have been. If you had gone back in alone, it may have been you that that beam had fallen on, and not me or Mr. Spriggs. We can’t second guess or dwell on the ‘what-ifs’ of a situation. It’s over with, and we can’t change it. We’re lucky to have gotten out alive, and that Mrs. Hobbes and the children were unharmed. Be grateful for that, Joe,” Adam pleaded.

Joe sat down and gazed out at the lake. “I guess I haven’t looked at it that way,” he said softly. “But I can’t help thinking there was something I could have done…” He put his head in his hands as he sat on a boulder next to Adam.

“Here. Hoss gave this to me tonight,” He said, handing Joe the letter he had pulled from his pocket. “I guess you forgot to pick up the mail as usual,” he grinned.

Joe opened the letter, not sure why it was important. He read it silently to himself:

To Mr. Adam and Joseph Cartwright,

Dear Sirs,

I have been thinking of you two and what you’ve done for my family almost constantly over the last month. I am writing this letter much later then I should have. I’m sorry it has taken me so long.

First of all, I want to convey in this letter, how grateful I am for what you did for my family and myself. Without you, there would be no future for me and my children. I have thought often of the night you stayed with us and of the fire that claimed by dear father’s life. He was such a vibrant man and meant a great deal to me and my children. To lose him so quickly and tragically was at the time more then I could bare. That brings me to the second reason I am writing this letter.

Joseph, I know that I said some awful things to you that night. I am not exactly sure what came over me except that I was, well, to put it simply, grief-stricken. However, there is no excuse for what I said. I know my father was a stubborn man and he would not have let you get him out first, no matter what the situation. In essence, what I am trying to tell you is that I’m sorry. I apologize for what I said that night, and I hope you realize that I rest no blame on you or your brother. I pray that you have in no way let what I said bother you. You and your brother saved my life, and the lives of my children. Then you risked your own lives trying to save my father and that is the most courageous thing anyone, let alone twostrangers, has ever done for me and my family.

Please accept my thanks and my apology to you both. My husband and children also thank you. You will both always be welcomed in our home.

Sincerely,

Mrs. Abbie Hobbes

Joe folded up the letter and put it back in the envelope. He sat next to Adam in silence as he stared out at the moonlit waters of the lake.

Adam, no longer to remain quiet, broke the companiable silence “It’s time to put this behind us and move on, Joe.”

Joe didn’t reply, but continued to stare out at the lake.

Adam waited for a minute and stood up. “Well, I don’t know about you, but I’m going back home. It’s too cold to stay out here all night.” He waited to see if Joe would follow. When he didn’t move, Adam started for his horse.

“You’re right.” He heard Joe say quietly.

Stopping, Adam turned around to see his brother, “What?” he said confused.

Joe stood up and looked at Adam. “I said you’re right. You’re right about second guessing. There really isn’t anything more either of us could have done.”

Joe walked over to his brother, “And it is time to put this behind us.”

Seeing Adam grin, Joe balked, “What’s so funny?”

Adam smiled as he walked back to Sport, “Well, its not often that my stubborn little brother actually admits that I’m right about something.”

Joe smiled, “Well don’t let it go to your head. This isn’t going to be something I do often, big brother.”

Adam, laughed. “Come on, if we don’t get home, Pa and Hoss will be out with a search party soon.”

Joe mounted his horse and soon both brothers were on their way home. They rode back to the house in silence. Walking to the house from the barn Joe broke the silence, “Adam, I’m sorry about what I said tonight at the dance…”

Adam, nodded, “And I’m sorry I hit you.”

Joe grinned, “Well I guess I deserved it, for once.”

Adam laughed, “For once? You know how many times I’ve wanted to do that to you?”

Joe grinned, “Yeah sure I do… That’s when I usually duck behind Hoss.”

Adam grinned and made a light-hearted attempt to hit his brother. Joe ducked and quickly headed for the door, disappearing into the house. Adam smiled as he watched Joe enter the house. It was good to see his younger brother smiling again.

***The End***

Note: Special thanks to Theresa Karle for all the time she spent helping me edit!! Also, thanks to everyone else who previewed the story and offered suggestions along the way. We couldn’t have done it without you all!!

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