Troubled Past (Linda J)

Summary:
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  6500

Hoss Cartwright shifted uncomfortably in the stagecoach. It had been a long trip, and he was getting anxious as his destination came closer. He had made polite conversation with the young woman sitting across from him, but for the past hour they both sat in awkward silence. She looked to be about 25 years old, and although she was a beautiful woman, she had a troubled, pained look about her; a look that told him she had been though something unpleasant. He was grateful that their trip together would be over very soon.

“Well, Miss Thompson, we’re almost in Virginia City,” Hoss informed.

“Oh good! I was getting tired of this long ride,” Becky Thompson said with a smile. “Um, Mr. Cartwright, can you recommend a place for me to stay for a while? I will be staying for several weeks at least.” Her big green eyes reflected a trace of sorrow.

“Well, the Widow Logan runs a boarding house, just on the east side of town. I’ll be happy to show you the way if you’d like.”

“Yes, thank you. I’d like that very much.” Even when she smiled, Hoss could detect the sadness within her. He wondered what could have happened to make her so sad, and to be coming to a new city all alone.

*****

Joe Cartwright, along with his 15-year-old adopted brother, Jamie, were in town awaiting the arrival of their big brother Hoss. Joe had told Jamie to wait by the stage depot, and to come get him at the saloon when the stage arrived. Joe figured he may as well enjoy himself while he waited, so he was working on his second beer and catching up with a couple of old friends. He was so busy talking and having a good time that he did not notice the stranger sitting alone in the corner of the saloon. There was no reason he should have noticed, for the stranger was wrapped up in his own world, nursing a half-empty bottle of whiskey. Joe was just about to order a third glass of beer when Jamie ran through the double-doors announcing the arrival of the stage.

“Hey Joe…..staying in town for the dance tonight?” asked Jimmy Peterson, a longtime bachelor like Joe.

“Oh yeah, lookin’ forward to it. Of course it won’t be the same since Sally up and ran off with that Jerry fella,” Joe said with a dismayed look.

“Well, let’s just hope the Keller twins show up tonight,” Jimmy said with a wink, his brown eyes gleaming.

“Come on, Joe!” Jamie called.

“See ya, Jimmy,” Joe said as he left the saloon.

The stranger also left the saloon, remaining unnoticed in the shadows.

Joe couldn’t believe his eyes. He was frozen in a stare as he watched the most beautiful woman he had ever seen get off the stage. She was talking to his brother Hoss.

“Hey Hoss, Ma’am,” Joe politely tipped his hat.

“Joe, this is Miss Becky Thompson. Miss Thompson, my brother Joe, and my brother Jamie.”

“Pleased to meet you both,” Becky said politely.

“Hey Hoss!” It was the postmaster calling from across the street. “I have a package for you!”

“Hot-diggity!” Hoss grinned. “Hey Joe, can you show Miss Thompson the way to  Widow Logan’s place? I want to go see what the package is.”

Joe grinned, “It’d be my pleasure……Miss Thompson?”

Becky Thompson was instantly taken with Joe’s good looks and charm. “Please, call me Becky,”

“Becky, call me Joe. Do you have any luggage?”

“Just this one bag.”

Joe took the bag and extended his arm to escort Becky.

 Jamie rolled his eyes. “Joe, can I go catch up with Hoss?”

“Hmmm? Oh , yeah sure.” Joe had all but forgotten Jamie’s presence.  “So tell me, Becky, what brings you to Virginia City?”

Jamie shook his head and left the couple to get acquainted. Joe was obviously very taken with Becky Thompson. She was a petite woman with dark hair, a small upturned nose, and sparkling green eyes. She couldn’t help but smile and feel totally at ease with Joe Cartwright.

“It’s a long story, Joe,” said Becky, as the smile on her face suddenly faded.

“Well I’ll tell ya what…..let’s get you that room at Widow Logan’s, and then you can tell me that long story over  supper. I’d love for you to join me, and then we can go to the dance  after.”

“Okay Joe, that’s sounds great.”

They soon arrived at the boarding house, and Joe told Becky he would come get her in about two hours. He headed back to town to locate Hoss and Jamie. He soon found both of them still with the postmaster.

“Hey Hoss! Watcha got there?” Joe asked.

“Well I don’t rightly know, Joe. It’s all sealed up in this here crate, and Charlie here says I gotta pay before I can open it. I can’t remember ordering anything….did you order something?”

“No, I didn’t order anything. Why don’t you just go ahead and pay so you can see what it is? Maybe you ordered it a long time ago and you forgot.”

“Well I reckon that’s possible. Only trouble is he wants $25.00 and I ain’t got that much on me. Say, Joe, you reckon you could loan me the money?”

“Lemme see Hoss.” Joe took out his wallet and began counting money. “If I give you $25, that will just leave me with $10, and I have a date tonight.”

“You gotta date? Who with?”

“Becky Thompson.”

“You mean to tell me you walked that young lady home and already got a date with her?”

“Well some of us got it, big brother,” Joe said with a wink. “What about you Jamie? Got any money on ya?”

“I just have $5, and I was plannin on spendin’  it in the store later.”

“Well Hoss, I’ll give you $20, and if you can convince Jamie to give you his $5, you can get your package.”

“Jamie?”

“Well……there’s only one problem…… If we pay for it now, how we gonna get it home? We can’t take it on horseback, and we won’t have enough money to get a buggy.”

“Dadburnit,” Hoss said, clearly frustrated, “Say, Charlie, can I pick it up tomorrow?”

“Tell ya what Hoss….leave me a deposit on it and I‘ll hold it till you can come back for it.”

“Thanks Charlie. I’ll pick it up tomorrow.”

“Well now that that’s settled I’m goin’ to get a shave. I’ll see you two at the dance tonight.” Joe said.

“I’m too plumb tuckered out to do any dancin’ tonight. I’m going on home. Jamie, you coming?” Hoss asked.

“No, I’m gonna stay for the dance. I’ll ride home with Joe.”

With their plans all set, the three Cartwrights went their separate ways. Joe got his shave, and was soon on his way to meet Becky. On the way, he met Candy, the Ponderosa foreman, coming into town for the dance. The two men clasped shoulders and exchanged small talk for a few moments, all the while unaware they were being watched by the stranger.

“She sounds great, can’t wait to meet her, Joe!” Candy called out as they parted ways. The stranger heard, and continued to follow Joe. He watched as the young woman joined him, and he saw them walking side-by-side, soon holding hands.

At the restaurant, Joe and Becky talked and laughed the entire time. They found that they had a lot in common, and were enjoying each other’s company.

“So Becky, you never did tell me what brought you to Virginia City,” Joe said.

Becky took a deep breath, the scent of the Bay Rum Joe was wearing flooding her sensations. Why couldn’t I have met him sooner? “I came to Virginia City to get a fresh start, and this is about as good as it can get!”

They finished their supper, and began walking to the dance. Joe took Becky’s hand like he had been holding it for years.

This feels so right, he thought.

At the dance, Jamie and Candy noticed that Joe and Becky were totally taken in with each other. There was no talking to either one, as they were in their own little world together.

“Would you look at that, Jamie?” Candy said.“They meet this afternoon and he’s got her head over heels in love with him already.”

“Looks like we won’t be seein’ much of Joe for a while!” Jamie agreed.

“You ready to go Jamie? I’ll ride home with you.” Candy said.

Jamie nodded, and they let Joe know they were leaving. They got on their horses and were about a half mile out of town when a rider pulled out in front of them from the shadows, taking them both by surprise. The stranger pulled out his gun, and told Candy to throw his gun to the ground. Then without warning, he fired his weapon. The force of the bullet caused Candy to fall from his horse.

Jamie, in shock and fear cried out, “What’d ya do that for? He threw his gun down!”

“I did it to make my message loud and clear. You tell your brother to stay the hell away from Becky. Tell him to stay away, or I’ll kill him.”

With that, the stranger rode away, leaving Jamie with his jaw gaping open.

“Come on Jamie, help me up,” Candy said, gritting his teeth. “He hit me in the shoulder. Help me on my horse and we’ll ride back to town. We have to warn Joe.”

“We have to get you to a doctor first,” Jamie said.

“Let’s find Joe first, then we’ll find a doctor,” Candy insisted.

Candy and Jamie rode back to the dance, which was still going strong. By the time they got there, Candy’s wound had bled a great deal, causing the entire front of his shirt to turn  crimson red. They stood together in the doorway, and Jamie began asking for Joe.

“He and that girl left right after you and Candy left…..we better get him to the doc!” It was Jimmy, Joe’s friend, who spoke.

“No, we have to find Joe first,” Candy replied with a ragged breath.

“Jamie, do you think you can get him to the Docs by yourself? I’ll find Joe and we’ll meet you over there.”

“Yeah, I can get him there…..come on, Candy.” Jamie led Candy back out into the street and they began walking to the doctors office.

*****

Meanwhile, Joe and Becky were taking a leisurely stroll. They ended up back at the boarding house, and sat together on the porch swing.

“Can I see you again?” Joe asked.

“Yes, I’d like that very much,” Becky replied.

“How about a picnic tomorrow afternoon?”

“That would be lovely! Joe, I am so glad I met you today….I…I feel as though I’ve known you all my life.”

“I feel the same way,” Joe replied huskily, and then he leaned over and gently kissed her. She quivered as she felt his warm breath so near. He drew her closer and the kissing became more passionate. They were so absorbed in the moment that neither of them heard Jimmy approach.

Jimmy cleared his throat loudly. “Excuse me.”

Joe and Becky looked up, both faces were flushed. Joe looked annoyed at the sight of his friend.

“Jimmy?”

“Joe, ma’am….sorry to, uh…interrupt.”

Joe looked even more annoyed. “What do you want?”

“Joe, there’s been some trouble. Candy’s been shot. Jamie’s taking him to the Docs now, but they were both pretty insistent on seeing you. I told ‘em I’d find you and meet them over there.”

Joe turned to Becky. “I have to go….I’ll see you tomorrow.”

Becky nodded, as a terrible feeling of dread washed over her. “Could it be?” she thought, and then quickly dismissed the idea.

*****

Joe and Jimmy arrived at the doctors office and found Jamie in the waiting room. He looked scared and pale.

“Jamie?” Joe asked in an uncertain voice.

“He’s okay, Joe; the doc is patching him up now.” Jamie looked as if he was about to cry.

“What happened?” Joe asked.

“A man stopped us…..told Candy to throw his gun on the ground.  Candy did what the man asked, but he shot him anyway…..he said……he said….” Jamie lost control as the tears started to flow.

“Take it easy Jamie….what did the man say?”

“He said this was a message for you, Joe.”

“A message for me? What kind of message?”

When Jamie did not speak right away, Joe took him by the shoulders and asked again, “What is it Jamie?”

“He…..he…..he said for you to stay away from Becky. He said he’d kill you if you didn’t stay away from her.”

Joe released his grip on Jamie and ran out of the doctors office. All he could think about was Becky. He had to talk to her and find out who this man was. He soon found himself banging on the door of Widow Logan’s.

“Who’s there?” the widow asked.

“It’s Joe Cartwright….I have to speak to Becky, Mrs. Logan. It’s important.”

Mrs. Logan let Joe in and told him to sit in the parlor while she got Becky for him. She reappeared shortly with Becky.

“What is it, Joe?” Becky asked, fearful of the look on Joe’s face.

Before Joe spoke, he looked at Mrs. Logan. Mrs. Logan sensed the need for privacy and excused herself. Once they were alone, Joe asked, “Tell me the truth Becky……what’s going on with you?”

“Why do you ask, Joe? What happened?” Becky’s voice was filled with nervous fear.

“The man that bushwhacked my little brother and Candy gave them a message. He told them to warn me to stay away from you! Who was it Becky? What are you not telling me?” Joe has grabbed Becky’s shoulders, obviously upset.

Becky suddenly became fearful of him. “Don’t hurt me!” she cried.

Joe released his hold on her. He shook his head and said soothingly, “I would never hurt you. Please, tell me who the man was, tell me what’s going on!”

“Oh, Joe! I’m so sorry,” she cried.

“Is the man your husband?”

Becky shook her head. “No, not anymore. I divorced him. He…he,” Becky stopped and took a breath before continuing, “He used to beat me, Joe. He was extremely jealous. If another man even looked my way he accused me of having an affair. Then he’d beat me so I couldn’t leave the house. The last time it happened, he nearly killed me. He had to get the doctor. That’s how I finally got away from him. The doctor sent a telegram to my parents, and they came and brought me home. He went crazy when I left, went and smashed up the saloon, and then beat up the sheriff when he attempted to arrest him. He was convicted of attempted murder and sent to prison. That’s where I thought he still was.”

Becky stopped talking and began crying hard. Joe took her in his arms and held her tight. “It’s all right,” he soothed. “I won’t let him hurt you again.”

“How did he know where I was? Oh, Joe, I can’t stay here now. He’ll kill me…..oh my God, Joe….he’ll kill you too. You better stay away from me! He could be watching now!”

“Shhh, calm down. I told you I won’t let him hurt you. Go get your things together. I’m taking you to the Ponderosa. You’ll be safe there.”

Becky closed her eyes and allowed herself to be comforted by his strong arms. She felt perfectly safe with him and decided she could trust him to protect her.

“I’m going back to the doctors office to get Candy and Jamie, and we’ll come back by here to pick you up.”

Becky nodded, and wiped the tears from her eyes as Joe left the house. She went to her room and packed her bag…..again.

*****

Two weeks later, Becky was enjoying a leisurely afternoon sitting on the porch with Jamie. It was the first time Joe left her since the night he brought her home. There had been no sign of her ex-husband. They hoped that he had no idea where she was, and since so much time had passed, they presumed it was so.

Joe and Becky had spent the last two weeks getting to know each other. He had taken her on picnics, and had shown her nearly every inch of the Ponderosa. Evenings were spent playing checkers, going on strolls, and sitting on the porch. They had come to feel as though they had known each other all their lives. Joe hated leaving Becky. He had been able to do work in or near the ranch house, but today he had to go to Virginia City. Not knowing the whereabouts of Becky’s ex-husband, they thought it best that she remain at the house with Hoss and Jamie.

This decision had been made the night before, during a heart-to-heart conversation between Ben and Joe. Everyone had gone to bed except for Ben, who was enjoying a late night of peace and quiet all to himself. Joe had retired early and was glad to see his father still up when he went back downstairs.

Ben was sitting in his favorite red leather chair, reading a novel. Joe sat down on the sofa nearby and didn’t say a word. After a few minutes, Ben looked up.

“Something on your mind, son?” he asked.

“Well, yeah Pa, as a matter of fact there is…..” Joe started. He sat thoughtfully for a moment, and ran his hands through his curly brown hair. “I wanted to talk to you about Becky.”

Ben smiled. He knew this conversation would be coming. “She a fine girl, Joseph.”

“Yeah…..she sure is Pa……..I know we haven’t known each other very long….but that’s the weird thing about it, Pa. It’s as if we’ve known each other all our lives.” Joe smiled and laughed as he recalled the picnic he had with Becky earlier. “You know, we went out to the lake and talked for hours.  Did you know we could actually finish each other’s sentences?”

“Well, I have noticed how well you two seem to get along.”

“I sure would feel better if I knew what her ex-husband was up to. When I go to town tomorrow, I’ll check with Roy and see if they’ve had any luck finding him.”

“Yes. I think we’d all sleep a little better knowing he was back behind bars.”

“I’ll ask Hoss and Jamie to keep an eye on her while I’m gone. I don’t think it’d be safe for her in town.”

“I agree, Joe. Is there anything else you wanted to talk about?”

Joe smiled. “No, not tonight at least. I’ll see you in the morning.”

“Goodnight, Joe,” Ben said with a warm smile. He was glad Becky had come into their lives. She was a beautiful, sweet, bright girl, and would be a welcomed addition to their family when the time came.

Becky was enjoying the afternoon with Jamie. She talked to him about  school, and about how he came to live with the Cartwrights. Jamie was also enjoying his time spent with Becky. He found himself telling her his hopes and dreams about his future, she was so easy to talk to.

Suddenly Hoss came running out the barn. “Jamie, go fetch Doc Harper. This mare is having trouble and I need him here quick.”

“Sure Hoss,” Jamie said as he got up.

“Jamie,” Becky said, “Can I come with you?”

“Sure Becky, it’s not far. It’s good to have a vet close by.”

Two horses were already saddled, and Becky and Jamie mounted up and rode off quickly. Hoss returned to the barn to tend the mare who was about to foal. She was in distress and he feared losing her. The minutes passed slowly, and as more minutes passed and no help arrived, Hoss began to grow worried.

An hour later, Hoss had managed to deliver the foal, but he lost the mare. The crisis over, he had a new worry. Where was Jamie and Becky? They should have been back within 20 minutes at the most.

Hoss was just about to go look for them when Joe rode up.

“Joe, I’m glad to see you; we may have a problem.”

Joe looked at his brother, “Where’s Becky?”

“I don’t know, that’s the problem.”

“What do you mean you don’t know?”

“Well Joe, I was having trouble with the mare, and sent Jamie for the vet. She rode with him. They should have been back a long time ago. I was just fixing to go out looking for them.”

Joe suddenly had a very bad feeling. “Come on,” he told Hoss as he quickly got back on his horse and began riding. They rode fast and furious to the vet’s house, and were alarmed to discover that Jamie and Becky had never made it there. They began to backtrack. Suddenly Hoss stopped.

“Look here, Joe,” he said, pointing to tracks on the ground. “There’s a third set of tracks here;  they all three go off in this direction.” Hoss indicated the way to go, and Joe swore under his breath as they rode off in pursuit.

*****

Jamie didn’t know what hit him. One minute he was riding along with Becky, and the next thing he knew he was gagged and tied to a tree. His head hurt tremendously, so he figured he must have been knocked out for a while. His vision was blurred, but still he recognized the surroundings enough to know that he was not far from home. He saw no sign of Becky, and the effort of moving his head around sent a tremendous pain shooting through the base of his skull. He felt his eyes grow heavy, and he soon gave in to the darkness once again.

“Jamie?” Jamie heard a voice calling his name, but he couldn’t open his eyes to be sure.

“Jamie!” He heard it again. The voice sounded familiar.

“Jamie! Wake up boy!”

“Hoss?”

“Jamie, come on, open your eyes.”

Jamie slowly opened his eyes. His head still throbbed with pain. He winced and covered his eyes with his hands.

“Jamie, Jamie, stay with us now. Tell us what happened. Where’s Becky?” Joe asked.

Jamie shook his head, “I don’t know. I don’t remember anything. I was riding along with Becky one minute, and the next thing I knew I was tied to this tree.”

“Hoss,” Joe said, “You get Jamie home, I’ll keep looking for Becky.”

Hoss nodded. “As soon as I get him settled, I’ll come back and help.”

Joe gave a quick nod and was back on his horse continuing the search for Becky. He hadn’t gotten very far when he suddenly felt a rope thrown over his head, and pulled tightly bounding his arms to his side. He was pulled roughly off his horse and fell to the ground with a loud thud, unable to use his arms to soften the blow. He struggled to catch his breath as the wind was knocked out of him.

Towering over him was the meanest looking man he’d ever seen. He had nothing but coldness in his eyes. No compassion, no mercy.

“What do you want?” Joe asked as he struggled to regain his breath.

“I’ve reclaimed what’s mine already; now I’m just protecting it,” the stranger said coldly.

Joe suddenly felt a chill run through him as he realized he had neither seen nor heard any sign from Becky. Has he already killed her?

“What are you protecting?” Joe asked, acting like he had no idea what this man was talking about.

“I’m protecting the bond of Holy Matrimony of Jack and Becky Thompson. I will let no man put it asunder. I will do everything necessary to eliminate the problem.”

Before Joe could react, he felt a heavy boot kick him in his chest. The pain was intense, and Joe felt certain it resulted in a couple of cracked ribs.  Closing his eyes against the pain, he asked through clinched teeth, “What did you do with Becky?”

“That doesn’t concern you!” Jack was becoming enraged. He kicked Joe again,  once…..twice….and a third time for good measure, until he was certain he had done considerable danger to his opponent.

Joe was laying on the ground, moaning in pain and struggling to breath. Satisfied, Jack suddenly walked away. Joe attempted to sit up, but the pain in his ribs stopped him quickly. He barely had time to get his thoughts straight when Jack returned with Becky in tow. Overwhelmed by the sight of Joe paying wounded on the ground, Becky ran to him.

“Joe! Joe, are you okay?” she asked.

“Becky, oh thank God….I thought…I thought he killed you.” Joe was relieved to see that Becky looked unharmed.

“Now, now there, I  would never hurt MY Becky! This is just a lesson for her. A lesson she won’t soon forget. Step away from Mr. Cartwright, honey.”

Becky, shaking and obviously terrified, did as she was told.

“Oh Joe, I am so sorry!”

“There’s nothing for you to be sorry about Becky, just do as he says.”

“Keep you mouth shut woman!” Jack yelled, and then he hit Becky across the mouth, causing her to fall. Blood trickled from the corner of her mouth.

“You son of a…..” Joe started, enraged at what he’d witnessed. Before he could finish his rebuke, Jack kicked him once more in his tender ribs. Joe winced from the pain. Each intake of air caused a tormenting pain. He was still laying on the ground where Jack had pulled him off his horse, and his arms were still bound to his sides, causing a feeling of total helplessness to wash over him.

“Let’s just finish this off and get it over with,” Jack said, drawing his gun. He drew back the hammer and aimed the weapon straight at Joe’s head.

“Now watch, honey; this is what happens when you don’t obey me.”

Just as Jack pulled the trigger, Becky let out a piercing scream and threw herself in front of Joe.

*****

Hoss heard the gunfire. He sped Chub forward at a fast pace. He had decided to take Jamie to Virginia City instead of the ranch. It was closer, and it would also give him a chance to get some additional help for Joe. He left Jamie at the doctors office and then went to the sheriff to see if he could get help looking for Becky. The sheriff, Roy Coffee, said he would follow Hoss as soon as he finished up his business, which would take him about 10 minutes. So when Hoss heard the gunfire, he knew at that moment it was up to him alone to do something.

The moment he saw Joe’s horse his heart froze. He stopped Chub and dismounted as quietly as he could. He still could not see Joe or anyone else. It was all he could do not to run forward at full speed, but he did not want to get himself trapped. Finally, after walking about 100 paces, his search was over. He saw Joe and Becky both lying on the ground, and he saw a man with a gun in his hand. Not knowing if his brother was dead or alive, he charged forward, his own gun drawn.

“Hold it right there, mister!” Hoss said, his voice full of anger.

“What can you do to me?” Jack’s words spat from his mouth. “I’m a dead man, I’m dead already!” With that, Jack raised his gun and aimed it directly at Hoss. Hoss fired, and Jack fell face first onto the ground.

Hoss ran to Jack first, and, seeing that the man was dead, he ran to where his brother and Becky both lay unconscious. Blood was everywhere. He turned Becky over and was overwhelmed by grief, as the young woman that he had come to know so recently, and who was so full of life just hours earlier, was dead. His gaze left the young woman and went to his brother. What if Joe was killed too? Not stopping to dwell on that thought he moved to his brother’s side.

He could see the steady rise and fall of Joe’s chest, so relief poured through him that his brother was alive. Joe’s head was bleeding profusely, so he took the bandanna he was wearing and tied it around Joe’s head to stop the bleeding. Then he untied the rope that was bound around him.

At first the sound of a horse approaching startled him, but was soon replaced with relief as he say Roy Coffee, along with his deputy, Clem.

“Roy, we’re gonna need a wagon,” Hoss said.

“I’ll go get one,” Clem said, and he turned around quickly and rode off.

Roy dismounted and began investigating the situation. “Hoss, this here fella musta been Miss Becky’s husband,” he said, pointing to Jack.

“I reckon you’re right about that, Roy.”

“How’s Joe?”

“I don’t know Roy, looks like a bullet grazed his head….I can’t get the bleeding stopped.”

Roy picked up Jack’s gun that was laying on the ground. He examined the weapon, and then said, “Only two bullets were fired. You sure no one else was around?”

“I’m sure Roy. I only heard one shot, and then he fired at me.”

Roy bent to examine Becky. “The bullet went clean through her, musta been the same one that hit Joe.”

Hoss was relieved when Clem returned with the wagon. They got Joe to the doctor’s where Jamie was still waiting. They had no sooner gotten Joe in the examining room when Ben came charging in.  He had heard about Jamie, and was relieved to see him  sitting up in the waiting room. His heart caught in his throat however when he saw Hoss come out of the examining room, covered in blood.

“Hoss?” Ben was almost afraid to ask.

“Pa, Little Joe’s gonna be  okay….he had a bullet graze his head and he’s unconscious, and the doc said he’s got some busted ribs. He’s patching him up now.”

“Doc Martin sent word to me about Jamie, but I have no idea what’s happened or what’s going on.”

“Pa, Jamie and Becky were going after the vet for that mare that was about to foal. When they didn’t come back I gotto worryin’ and went out lookin’ for them. Joe got home just as I was leavin’ so he went with me. We found Jamie tied up and hurt, so  I brought him here while Joe kept on lookin’ for Becky.”

Ben looked at Hoss, suddenly having a terrible feeling about what was coming next in the story.

“Becky?”

“She’s dead, Pa.”

Ben brought his hands to his eyes as he let out an audible sigh. He had grown rather fond of Becky during the last two weeks. She was beautiful both on the inside and the out. She was so happy about starting a new life. This was so unfair. And Joseph. Joe will be devastated. He was falling in love with Becky.  “Does Joe know?”

“I don’t think so, Pa. Roy thinks the same bullet that killed Becky is the one that hit Joe, and he’s been unconscious since I found him.”

“This is all my fault!” Jamie suddenly cried out. “I should have told her not to come with me, and then none of this would have happened!”

“Son, that’s not true,” Ben soothed. “It was nobody’s fault. There wasn’t anything you could have done. I’m just grateful you’re alright.”

At that moment the doctor came out, wiping his hands on a towel.  Ben looked up, his faced etched with worry and concern. “How is he?”

“Ben, I  think he’s going to be just fine, but I’ll be able to tell you more once he wakes up. The bullet grazed the right side of his head. It caused a lot of bleeding, but that’s typical with head wounds. I had to put in few stitches, and the bleeding has stopped. He took quite a beating too, Ben. He’s got four busted ribs, so that’s going to keep him in bed for the next week or so.”

“Can I go see him?” Ben asked.

“Yes, someone needs be stay close by when he wakes up. He’s going to be in a great deal of pain,” the doctor advised.

As soon as Ben walked into the examining room, Joe started to stir.

“Mama?” Joe asked.

The call for his mother sent a sudden feeling of sorrow through Ben. Joe was a grown man, and had been motherless for nearly thirty years. Yet still, after all this time it was his mother he called for.

“I’d give anything for your mother to be here for you, son,” Ben said, sighing deeply.

Joe stirred again, struggling to open his eyes. “Pa? Pa, my head hurts.”

“I know, son; just try to take it easy.”

“I’m sorry, Pa,” Joe said.

“Sorry for what son?”

“I didn’t mean to scare you and mama.”

Ben looked at his son with new concern. Joe wasn’t making any sense. “Joe, you just rest easy son. I’m going to get the doctor, and I’ll be right back.”

“I was afraid mama’d be mad……I didn’t mean to scare her. Go get mama, Pa.”

Frightened, Ben left the room and called the doctor. He returned a moment later followed by the doctor and Hoss.  Joe was clearly agitated, and still murmuring about being sorry and asking for his mama.

“Joe?” the doctor asked, “Joe, can you hear me?”

Joe looked from his father to the doctor, and nodded. “Yeah.”

“Joe, do you know what day it is?”

“My head hurts.”

“I know, son; I’m sorry about that. You’ve been injured.” The doctor held up two fingers. “Joe, how many fingers do you see?”

“Two.”

“Good. Can you tell me what day it is?”

“Um, Friday.” It was Monday. “Did you find mama yet? I’m tired; can I go to sleep now?”

“Yes, Joe. You get some rest. We’ll talk more later.”

The doctor turned to Ben. “Ben, you and Hoss go get something to eat. I’ll stay with him…..and don’t be too concerned. Head wounds can be tricky, but I have seen people with total memory losses recover completely within hours of their injury. Jamie can stay here with me, and you can bring him back something to eat.”

“I don’t think….” Ben started.

“Ben, the best thing for Joe right now is to rest. I want him left alone for a couple hours. Now go and do as I suggested.”

Ben reluctantly agreed, and he and Hoss walked across the street to get a light meal. Neither were able to eat, and as Ben told Hoss about Joe saying that he was sorry for scaring his mama, Hoss got a strange look on his face.

“What are you thinking, son?”

“I was just thinking about that time when Joe was about three years old, and he disappeared. Remember that? Mama was beside herself with worry. You and she had everyone out looking for him. We searched for hours, calling his name, over and over. Adam and I went and looked out by the lake, scared to death he’d fallen in and we’d never see him again. Then it started getting dark, and we all met out in front of the house, handing out lanterns and torches. Then we heard a soft crying noise. At first  I thought it was mama, but then I realized the sound was coming from a different direction. I followed the sound to the barn, climbed up in the hayloft, and there he was.” Hoss smiled and couldn’t help but laugh at the memory of his little brother. “He had hidden himself good up there so nobody could find him.”

“Yes, I remember. And even after we found him he wouldn’t come down.” Ben laughed. “It didn’t take long to figure out why!” Both men were laughing now. “That rapscallion had soiled his pants and didn’t want anyone to see!”

Hoss was laughing so hard he had to wipe the tears from his eyes. As the laughter stopped, reality of the present situation took over.

“Well,” Hoss began, “I reckon we’d better be getting some of this food back to Jamie.”

Back at the doctors office, reality had also set in for Joe. During the time that his father and Hoss were away, his confusion parted and he understood where he was and had asked the doctor what had happened. His first question was about Becky. The doctor had hesitated telling him the truth at first, but he decided Joe was stable enough to handle it.

When Ben and Hoss arrived, the doctor filled them in on the latest. Although relieved that Joe was going to be all right, they knew that dark days were ahead. But they also knew that as long as they had each other, even the darkest of days could not subdue the light of the love they had within their family. And with time, the light would shine through the darkness.

Ben entered the room where Joe was and sat next to the bed where he was laying. Joe was sitting up with his head in his hands, unaware that he father had entered. Ben put his hand on Joe’s shoulder, and when he saw his son’s face he knew that he had been crying.

Joe rubbed his eyes with his hands. “Pa, I didn’t hear you come in.”

“Are you all right, son?”

Joe nodded wordlessly. “Pa…….why do things like this have to happen? Why can’t I ever be happy?”

Ben sighed, his heart breaking for his son. “I don’t know the reason, son. All I know is that God has a plan for everyone, and He has promised us that we will be given no burden that we cannot bare.”

“I know…..but, Pa, why does it have to hurt so much? I’m tired of the hurt, Pa.”

“You don’t have to hurt alone, son,” Ben said has he embraced his son, careful not to put pressure on his tender ribs. Joe wept in Ben’s arms, and Ben said a silent prayer for strength and healing.  Praying for a time for the light to shine once again.

***The End***

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