Legacy of Honor (by Wrangler)

Summary:  Lies have devastating consequences for Joe when her father fails to accept his legacy of honor.

Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  35,081


 

This story is dedicated to David Dortort, whose brilliance produced the four characters of the Cartwrights.   The values they portrayed of honesty, integrity, and honor have inspired generations of fans, and is the theme that inspired this story as well.  Thanks to Deb Farwell for the creative ideas suggestions.

 

“In the fell clutch of circumstance, I have not winced nor cried aloud. Under the bludgeoning of chance, my head is bloody, but unbowed.”

–William Earnest Henley

 

The town of Virginia City was always a buzz of activity on any given Saturday.  This one was no different.  Hired hands from various ranches made it a habit to entertain themselves in the local saloons where there would be a vast assortment of distractions to pass the time.  Most cowboys, having worked hard and long over the week, were more than ready to part with their wages for a bottle of whiskey and the company of a dance-hall girl.  The trouble was that there were not quite as many ready and available saloon girls to satisfy the large numbers of cowpokes, and that usually led to brawls breaking out.

For that reason, Sheriff Roy Coffee spent a great deal of his time on the weekends just walking up and down the streets of his town waiting to stop a fight before it got out of control.  This afternoon, after he had just checked with Bruno at the Bucket of Blood to get a report, Roy sauntered down to the other end of town to the much fancier Silver Dollar Saloon to see what was going on there.

Joe Cartwright was peering over the swinging doors of that saloon when he felt a hand on his shoulder.  Spinning around on his heels, Joe grinned to see it was Roy standing there next to him.

“Hi ya, Roy!  How you been?”

“Fine, Little Joe, just fine. Haven’t seen you around in a spell.”

“Oh, Pa had me and Hoss up at the logging camp for awhile helping out since Adam hasn’t made it back yet.  We just got in last night.”

“Looking for a little excitement?”  Roy smiled and nodded toward the saloon and the loud music that echoed out onto the street.

Joe frowned and shook his head.  “Wish I could, but I promised Pa I would get the mail and the supplies and head right home.  I’m afraid if I go in there now, I probably won’t leave until morning.”

“You are probably right.”  Roy laughed and patted the young man on the shoulder.  “You go on along, like as not there will be a fight brewing before long and you don’t want to be a part of that.”

“Yeah—well, I’ll stop and see you next trip out.”

“Tell your Pa I said hi–and Hoss too.”  Roy called as Joe turned and headed back to the general store to see if his supplies were ready to load.

*****

From a distance a young woman paused and watched Joe as he made his way into the store.  Her hand fell down to her stomach and her thoughts swirled wildly in her mind.  She remembered how, long ago in her school- girl days, she had a very bad crush on the boy with the curly hair and bright penetrating hazel eyes.  But, that had died of it’s own folly.  Joe had never been interested in her other than as a friend.  Had that really only been five years ago?  The young lady shook her head sadly at the passing of time.  When she looked up again, she could see Joe’s form as it got smaller and smaller fading into the distance as he headed back to his ranch.

“Pamela?  You okay?”

The woman turned and stared over at her father.  “Yes, Papa, I’m fine.”

“You looked like you were in a trance or something.”  The man remarked and then noticed the object of her piercing gaze; Joe Cartwright.  “You and Joe have words?”  He asked as he moved to sit next to his daughter in their wagon.

“Oh, no–not today.  I’m sure we will see each other soon, though.  Just like he promised.”  Pamela now smiled and made sure she straightened her dress in front of her.  She did not want her father to notice the small increase in her waistline.  He would find it out soon enough.

*****

Joe tossed his hat down on the credenza and let his hand run through his unruly hair.  He was hot from the long trip home in the buckboard and deep down wished he had opted for a beer or two before leaving town.  Walking over to the settee, Joe dropped down upon it.  He had just closed his eyes when he heard the front door open and both his father and brother made their way into the room.

“Back early and with all the supplies!  I am impressed!”  Hoss kidded his little brother and plopped down on the sofa next to him.

“I did like I was told.  You know I always follow orders!”  Joe winked at his brother and heard his father’s laugh over by the door as he tossed his gunbelt on the credenza.

Ben made his way over behind the settee and his hands went around Joe’s neck and he squeezed in playfully.  “Why of course, Joseph–you are the perfect son!”  He kidded and then called into the kitchen for the cook and Chinese member of the family.

“You no yell!”  Hop Sing came out of his kitchen protesting Ben’s booming voice.  “You eat soon–now wash off cow smell!”  Hop Sing insisted and the two sons laughed at how the cook was always able to put their father in his place.

“Yeah—I guess we do need to wash up–” Ben agreed looking towards his sons.

Joe leaned back on the settee and let his feet linger on the coffee table.  “You and Hoss go ahead–I’ll clean up when you are done.  I’m gonna catch a few winks first.”  Joe said and closed his eyes.

Ben stared down at the placement of his son’s dirty boots on the coffee table.  “Perfect son, you take those dirty boots off of that table!”  He commanded indignantly.

“Hey–yeah–I thought you said you always follow orders, Little Brother?  I know Pa’s told you to keep your feet off of that table a million times.”

“More than a million!”  Ben protested and watched to make sure his order had been followed.

Joe frowned and withdrew his feet from the table and stood.  “It’s just a table—” He started but then noticed his father was not really in the mood for another go-round.  “But, like I said–I always follow orders.”  Joe patted his father’s shoulder and laughed.  He knew he was right back in Ben’s good graces now as he shot Hoss a conceited grin.  “Now you both better do what Hop Sing said if you want to eat!”  Joe said sternly, but his face broke into a smile as he hurried to the stairs.  He was going to make sure he was the first cleaned and ready for dinner.  Hop Sing would surely reward him for being so prompt in doing as he had been told.

Hoss laughed as he watched his brother charge the stairs.  He looked over at his father who seemed equally amused.  “How’d you ever end up with a kid like that anyway, Pa?”

“I haven’t a clue.”  Ben said somberly but then broke into a grin.  “He does keep the house laughing though–doesn’t he?”

“Yeah, he is a peculiar blend of ornery and amazing ain’t he?”  Hoss asked as they both headed for the staircase.

“He sure is.”  Ben confessed as he threw his arm around Hoss’ shoulder.  “I’m just glad that I have you to keep things a bit even tempered around here.  If I had fathered two like that I am sure I would now be in an asylum!”  Ben’s laughter filled the hallway as he and Hoss made their way to clean up for dinner.

*****

Pamela Kincaid sat that evening in front of her vanity mirror and brushed through her long brown hair.  She smiled to see a subtle glow to her complexion.  Had her father noticed it yet?  Would he figure out her secret soon?  Her thoughts were muddled in confusion over what she would do once her father realized that his little girl was with child.

Pamela pulled out the small cedar jewelry box she kept on her bureau.  Pulling open one of the tiny drawers, her hand fell on the small brooch.  Taking it in her trembling fingers, she opened to the picture that it held.  A picture of the love of her life, Richard Lott.  Pamela closed her eyes and could still see the man in front of her, still smell the scent of his cologne.  Tears formed in her eyes as she thought back on the long three months since she had last seen Richard.  He had vowed to come back, and in time.  But, now the letters no longer came to her at her friend’s house as they had for weeks after he had left for St. Louis.  Pamela worried that he had fallen into bad company or perhaps even been killed.  She knew of no other reason why he wouldn’t still write to let her know that things were going according to plans.

Plans.  Yes, her getting pregnant had not been a part of their original plan.  Pamela let her hand fall again to her stomach and she circled the slight bulge that was growing each day.  It hadn’t been her fault, she had no idea that she could get pregnant so quickly.  They had only been together in that way a few times before they learned what had happened.  It had taken a quick trip into Carson City to learn why she was constantly sick to her stomach.  Fortunately no one else knew, just her and her lover.

Spreading out on her bed, Pamela pulled her robe tighter around her waist.  It was cold and missing Richard was making it even worse.  She longed for his arms and his comforting voice to tell her it would all soon be all right.  They both knew that Richard was not welcomed at the Kincaid ranch.  Her father hated Richard, though she really didn’t know exactly why.  Pamela thought it was because he was a bit wild and her father worried about what he was really up to.  Her father did not know that they had gone ahead with their affair long after he had forbid the girl to see Richard Lott again.  Pamela wished she could confess it all to her father, so that she would not have to worry every day about him finding out about it.  She knew that if Richard didn’t make it back soon, that her secret would be out and there wouldn’t be anything she could do about it.

Pamela closed her eyes and thought on some of the lies that she had already told her father.  It had been a matter of self-preservation, not because she wanted to deceive him.  Besides, Pamela still felt it was her father’s fault for being so totally against her relationship with Richard anyway.  If he had just accepted the two of them then there would have been no need to make up the stories.  She regretted the fact that she had to choose someone to throw her father off the trail of Richard.  Pamela hated the fact that it had been Joe Cartwright that she had used as her ruse when asked who she had been seeing.  Pamela felt she had to come up with someone that her father would approve of.  And Joe just happened to fit all the criteria.  The youngest of the Cartwright boys was handsome, hardworking, and heir to one of the largest ranches in the country.  Pamela had told her father that the romance was a bit secretive but that it was due to Joe’s desire to keep it from his own father for the moment.  She was surprised when her father agreed to go along with it all, but figured that was because he felt that Joe Cartwright would be a fine addition to the family eventually.  Pamela had told her father that soon the two young people would announce their intentions to all and then it would all be out in the open and she wouldn’t have to go on midnight rendezvous as she had in the past.  Yes, those midnight rendezvous were how she ended up in the predicament that she was in, but they were with Richard and not Joe.

“Hurry back, My Love.”  Pamela whispered to Richard’s picture and held it to her breast.  She knew once he was back that they would run off and get married and then upon returning with child in tow her father would just have to accept the man that she loved.

*****

The following day the three Cartwrights arose early and prepared themselves to attend church services in town.  Ben was especially pleased, as he had missed their usual routine for weeks, being the only member of the family who had gone to church recently.  He had raised his sons to be strong in their convictions and to serve God in the manner in which they had been taught.  That meant going to church when at all possible, but also to treat folks with respect and kindness regardless if they were inside a formal tabernacle or outside the house of the Lord.  Ben watched from the window behind his desk his two sons as they readied the carriage.  His chest swelled with pride just looking at them.  Ben knew it had been a hard job all right, raising three fine sons and all without the love and tenderness of a mother to guide them along the way.  But, now, with his youngest soon to be twenty-three, Ben could see that the fruits of his labors were well worth the many long days and nights of being both parents to Joe and Hoss and Adam as well.  They were all fine young men, and a tribute to the man who had raised them.

“All ready, Pa.”  Joe called in as he approached his father’s study.  He stopped in his tracks when he noticed a peculiar shine to his father’s eyes.  It almost appeared as though the man had been crying.  “Something wrong?”  Joe asked drawing closer.

Ben realized what Joe was seeing, the tears which had formed during his rather emotional recollection of his sons.  Instead of making a flimsy excuse, Ben put his arm around his youngest and smiled.  “Just thinking about how proud I am of the three of you–that’s all, Joseph.  If you witnessed any tears from this old fool you have for a father, they were joyous ones.”

“Sure am glad that I didn’t get your emotional side, Pa.”  Joe teased and then broke out into his own distinct laughter.  Everyone knew that Joe was perhaps the most emotional of all of the Cartwrights.

“Maybe not–” Ben stopped and then gave Joe a slight push towards the door.  “But, you sure got your good looks from me.”  With that last bit of humor, the two men walked out of the house to meet Hoss and get on to town.

*****

The church was filled to capacity, something that was a rarity other than on holidays, and it inspired Reverend Hastings.  Up at the pulpit the reverend belted out one of his all time best sermons and the congregation directed their attention only to him.  There were no sleepers in the back of the room, as was sometimes the case, the reverend was so filled with the Holy Spirit that the whole church seemed to feel the enormous energy being sent forth from the words that the man of God spoke.  It was no surprise then, when the time had come for the weekly collection plate to be circulated around the room, that the amount of contributions was much greater than usual.  After a closing hymn and prayer, the Reverend left the pulpit, and as was typical, took his position outside of the church doors to address each parishioner as they left the building.

“So happy to see you and your boys again, Ben.  Where have they been hiding anyway?”  Reverend Hastings teased as he shook all three men’s hands.

“Up at the timber line I am afraid. With Adam gone we are short handed.  He will be back in a few days though–which is why these two got a brief reprieve.”  Ben answered and smiled over at both of his sons.

“Hey–you know what a slave driver Pa is.”  Hoss laughed and put his hand on Ben’s shoulder.

Joe was just about to join in on the amusement and jibes that were being directed toward his father when he felt the tug to his left arm.  He turned to see Clayton Kincaid.

“Joe?  Can I have a word with you?”  The older man asked.

“Sure, Mr. Kincaid.”  Joe nodded and walked down the steps leaving his father and brother with Reverend Hastings.

Pulling Joe over to the side of the church building, Clayton addressed him now.  “Joe, I just want you to know that if you need help talking to your father about things—well you just let me know.  I’ll be glad to help you.”

“Huh?”  Joe had no idea what the man was referring to.  “Talking to Pa about what?”

Clayton smiled.  “You don’t have to play games with me, Joe.  You know I am on your side.  Well, there’s Pamela now–you want to say hi before we leave?”

Joe still was at a loss in trying to figure out what in the heck Pamela’s father was talking about.  He walked with the man over to where the girl was starting to get into the family’s wagon.

“Hi, Joe.” Pamela said and gave her warmest smile.  She hoped that Joe hadn’t been talking long to her father.

“How are you doing, Pam?”  Joe nodded and tipped his hat.

“Just fine—” She continued as he father got into the wagon and took a hold of the reins.

“You remember what I said, Joe, I’ll help you in any way I can.”  Clayton patted the boy on his shoulder and then sent the team of horses forward.  Joe stood dumbfounded in the road.

Hoss and Ben came down the church steps and crossed the road over to where Joe still stood staring at the departing Kincaid’s wagon.

“What was that all about?”  Ben asked noticing his son’s peculiar facial expression.

Joe shrugged his shoulders and then stared into the faces of his two family members.  “I haven’t got a clue, Pa.  Think old man Kincaid has been helping himself to the loco weed.”

Hoss laughed and then threw his arm around his little brother’s shoulder.  “Well, whatever it was it can wait.  Pa here has just agreed to take us to lunch at the International House.  And my stomach tells me that’s a right good idea.”

Joe shook himself out of his bewilderment and patted his brother’s stomach.  “I know you look as though you are withering away to skin and bones.  We better get this son of yours some food, Mr. Cartwright, before he just falls down right here on the street.”  Joe was back to his normal routine of teasing his brother now and all thoughts about what had happened with Mr. Kincaid were gone.

“Well, let’s get him down to the hotel to eat—I don’t think between the two of us that we could lift him if he went down.”  Ben laughed and threw an arm around each of his son’s shoulders and the three Cartwrights walked down the sidewalk towards the hotel.

*****

The end of winter threw out its final coat of snow and the Ponderosa ranch had more than her share.  Two feet of snow in the flat lands and it increased as it made it up to the higher elevations.  This meant extra work for the Cartwright family.  Hoss was in charge of seeing to the large herd of cattle that had been winter fed in preparation for the coming drive south to market.  Joe was sent back up to the timber camp to see if the crews there had kept busy and had the shipment of railroad ties ready.  Ben stayed at the ranch house and organized his finances and saw to it that everything was lined up for the coming trail drive.  Adam Cartwright was still away on business but was expected to return in time to help drive the steers to market.  The four Cartwrights were a remarkable family and team of workers.  Each man knew what he excelled at and was given the opportunity to work in that particular field.  Joe knew his was buying and gentling the horses that were needed for the cattle drive and also for sale to local ranches and beyond that to the cavalry.  Hoss knew his forte was not just in his strength, though that was a given just looking at how he towered over all others, but also in his ability to get the very best out of others.  He was the true diplomat of the family.  Adam had the book smarts and the ability to coordinate many ventures at the same time.  He excelled at making plans, following through with them, and turning even the smallest business deal into a lucrative operation.

That left Ben.  He excelled as a father.  He had the expertise to know what each son needed at any given time, and saw to it that it was taken care of.  Not always an easy task, as each of his sons were as different as the mothers who had bore them.  Ben enjoyed his role as father even more so than his role as one of the most prosperous ranchers in the state.  It took just as much gentling as his son Joseph used with the horses.  It took just as much diplomacy as Hoss used on the other ranch hands.  It took just as much smarts and coordination as his son Adam used in securing business contracts.  It took all these things and a great amount of love to be the kind of father that Ben Cartwright was.  And he never even had to give it a thought, it came as natural as his love for each of his boys.

And so, while the Cartwrights were busy getting the ranch ready for the fast approaching spring and fighting through the final snowfall, there were also changes going on at the Kincaid ranch.  Pamela was having a very hard time of it now.  The corsets could only do so much to hide the growing child in her womb.  She tried her best to avoid direct contact with her father, but it was almost impossible.  She was his only child.  Her mother having died in delivering her, it made Pamela all that more precious to Clayton.  He had held a tight rein on the young lady her whole life.  It had only been the knowledge that she was now seeing such a fine and respectable boy such as Joe Cartwright that let the worried father relax in his rules a bit.

This night, as Pamela was preparing to climb the staircase and turn in for the evening, Clayton noticed something a bit different.  His daughter did not look quite the same.  Not being able to figure out just what it was, Clayton finally called over to her.  “Pamela?  You do something different to your hair or something?  You just look different somehow.”

Pamela stopped on the bottom step and caught her breath, terrified that her father had at last guessed her secret.  “No, Papa–unless you mean this dress—it is new.”  She lied.

“Maybe–” He answered and then paused.  “How come you haven’t been out with Joe lately?  I thought you said that he was going to break the news to his father soon?”

“He is —it’s just he’s been so busy lately–they have so much to do right before spring.  You know–just like you do.”

“The lad’s not getting cold feet is he?”

“No, Papa.  Nothing like that–he loves me.”  Pamela said letting her head drop down and away from her father’s gaze.  It was yet another lie, and they were all starting to get to her now.  If only Richard would hurry back, she was running out of time.  She was well into her fifth month of pregnancy.  Pamela did not know how much longer she could hold out.

“I just want you to be happy, Honey.  Can’t blame a father for prying.”  He called over apologetically.

“I know, Papa.  Goodnight.”  Pamela replied and walked slowly up the stairs.  Her father’s worried stare followed her.

*****

“Sounds like Joe now.”  Hoss remarked to his father and stood to approach the front door.

He had been right, the rushed hoof beats outside had been Cochise.  Joe turned the doorknob and walked in to see his brother standing there welcoming him with his grin.

“Hey there, Big Brother!”  Joe exclaimed and patted his brother’s arm.  He had not seen his brother in almost two weeks with each of them being on other assignments.  Joe removed his hat and guns and walked with Hoss over to the living room.

“Welcome back!”  Ben gleamed and gave his youngest son a brief hug.

“Good to be back, Pa.”  Joe replied and stretched his hands out towards the flames of the fireplace.   “It sure was cold up at that timber camp I tell you.  I almost froze my—” Joe stopped and looked at Hoss and winked.  “My fingers off.”  Joe kidded, not giving in on what he really wanted to say.

“How is everything?  Are the ties cut and ready?”  Ben asked and handed Joe some coffee that Hop Sing had earlier brought in for them.

Joe sat down on the coffee table, still not wanting to leave the warmth of the fireplace.  “All stacked and ready to deliver.  The guys are taking them up to Twin Forks tomorrow, Pa.”

“Good.  Hoss got the cattle all turned and down at Southshore.  So, once you get settled we will need to start getting the horses ready.”

Joe frowned and looked pensively at his older brother.  “Here I just get home and he’s already thinking of more things for me to do.  You know, Hoss, you were right!  Pa is a slave driver for real!”

“Uh oh—you’re in for it now–right before you came in Pa had just told me he’s giving you and me the next two days off.”  Hoss returned and winked over at his father.

“Well, since I am a slave driver–guess it will just be you, Hoss, who gets some time off for good behavior.”  Ben said sternly, masking his amusement at seeing the scowl on Joe’s face.

“Hey–I was just repeating what HOSS said, Pa!  See how you always get me in trouble, Big Brother?”

Hoss laughed loudly.  “ME get YOU in trouble?  Now that’s a whopper if ever I heard of one!”

“Okay–if it means shutting the two of you up so that there will be a little peace in this house, then the deal still stands.  You both have the next two days off.  But, remember, after that we have an awful lot of things to do around here.”  Ben warned.

“Yeah–well old Shakespeare should be back by then to help us, right?”  Joe made his usual sarcastic remarks referring to his oldest brother.

“IF you mean your brother Adam, Joseph, yes he will be back.  But, it’s YOU that will be breaking all those horses remember!”

“Yes, Sir.”  Joe nodded, figuring he had raised his father’s ire with the Shakespeare remark.

“Oh, Pa–don’t be mad with Little Joe–I think old Adam would like to be called Mr. Shakespeare.”  Hoss teased.

“It wouldn’t hurt either of you two to have a bit more refinement.  Maybe if you would read a book once in awhile—” Ben started but Joe broke in.  The comedian of the family stood on the coffee table and raised his hands, starting a sarcastic performance.

“Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow creeps in this petty pace from day to day–to the last syllable of recorded time—and all our yesterdays have lighted fools the way to dusty death–”

Ben stood and reached up putting his hand over his son’s mouth to stop the soliloquy.  “On second thought—-let’s just have one Shakespeare around here, okay?”

With that remark the room filled with laughter and Ben was glad that his eldest son had not been around to witness the laughs that were intended for him.

*****

Clayton Kincaid stepped out of his room sooner than his daughter had expected.  Still in her nightgown, the young woman had forgotten to pull on her robe and now the secret was out.  Her father fell against the wall trying to catch his breath.  His whole body shook over what he had seen.  There was no denying it, Pamela was pregnant.

“Oh, Papa!”  Pamela cried, realizing that there was no taking back what he had seen with his own two eyes.  “I can explain–Papa–”

Reaching for her arm, Clayton pulled his daughter in front of him to gain full eye contact.  “How could you?  How could you do this to me?  Why?”  He shot out a rapid succession of questions with both hurt and disbelief pouring out in his tone.

“I was gonna tell you–honest I was—it’s gonna be okay –we’re gonna be married soon.”

“Soon?  Soon isn’t good enough!  I’m going to get that Cartwright boy out here and you are going to be married right away!  Now I know why he didn’t want to talk to his father!  He didn’t want the man to know how much he has shamed him—and us–by what he has done!”  Clayton’s face now turned beet red with anger at the young man who had taken advantage of his little girl.

“Papa, no!  Please, just let me talk to you–let me explain!”  She begged to deaf ears.  Her father hurried down the stairs on his way to town.  He had already decided it was time to get a preacher and then the father of the child his daughter carried and get them married before nightfall.

Pamela sank down to the floor in tears.  She still could not bring herself to tell the truth.  Praying for divine intervention, she covered her eyes with her hands.  Pamela had no idea what her father would do to Joe, nor what Joe would say once confronted by the angry man.

*****

Ben, Hoss, and Joe rode to Virginia City that day together.  Ben had promised his sons the day off, but that didn’t mean that all business would be pushed aside.  He needed to check in with the local feed store and then the mercantile to order the large list of supplies they would soon be needing.  Hoss opted to go with his father on the errands while Joe decided he would wait for them over at the Silver Dollar so he could get a jump start on his own celebrating of his day off.

Joe sipped his beer as he watched the comings and goings around him in the saloon.  There were several tables filled with cowboys playing poker and other tables with just the usual hard drinkers at them.  The saloon girls passed by and Joe was quick with a smile or a wink towards them.  They returned his smile, knowing that he was far too respectable to encourage him to go off to the back area for other things.  That didn’t stop him from looking, but it was as far as he would go in that area.  He had been raised to know the difference between a little flirting and getting himself into some real trouble.  He chose to simply flirt and wait for the right woman to come along, hopefully one like his mother with beauty and soul.

“How about another one, Sam?”  Joe called to the bartender and he nodded his way.  Sam drew off another beer and handed it to the young man.

“You want a table, Joe?  I’ll have one ready in a minute?”  Sam asked, smiling at one of his favorite patrons.

“Naw–not yet–Pa and Hoss will be here in awhile.  This is fine for right now.”  Joe replied and handed the man his money.

It was at that moment that Clayton Kincaid walked into the saloon and saw Joe standing over at the bar.  He had noticed the very visible pinto tied outside, and Clayton changed his plans about getting the preacher.  He wanted to have a little talk with the young man who was soon going to be his son-in-law.

“Joe?  You got a minute?”  Clayton asked politely nearing the bar.

“Sure, Mr. Kincaid.  What can I do for you?”

“I’d like to talk with you–private like–mind if we go outside for just a minute?”

Joe tossed down his beer and nodded.  He didn’t know what the man wanted, but he figured he would go and see.  Besides, he still wanted to ask the man what he had meant several weeks earlier when he had mentioned something about talking to Ben.

Clayton signaled Joe to come over to the alleyway with him.  Joe stepped down off the sidewalk and he turned to see the man’s rig waiting there.  Joe looked over at Clayton confused.

“What’s going on?”  Joe asked and then saw the glint of the man’s six-gun.  It was pointed right at Joe’s abdomen.

“We’re going for a little ride, Joe.  Looks like we have some things to talk about.”  Clayton reached over and grabbed Joe’s gun and forced him to get up into the buckboard.  Joe wasn’t sure what to do, so he decided to go along with it for the present time.  He knew that Hoss and his father would soon be looking for him anyway, so Joe figured it was best to just bide his time and find out what in the world was going on.

The Kincaid’s ranch was a little less than an hour’s ride from Virginia City.  By the time the two men pulled up in the buckboard, the sun was going down over the mountain range.  Joe had watched all the way out to the ranch for a chance to subdue the man at his side, but never had gotten that opportunity.  Clayton motioned Joe with his gun to step down out of the wagon and the young man obeyed.  He then pushed Joe into his barn and kept an eye on the boy as he lit the lantern by the doorway.  It was then that he closed the planking, and they were alone and now locked inside the barn.

“You wanna tell me what the Hell is going on?”  Joe yelled.  His temper had held out as long as was physically possible for him.  Once he reached his peak there was no going back.

“Don’t play games with me, Boy!  You have been going behind my back all this time and enough is enough!  Now you are going to marry Pamela and you are going to do it tonight, you hear?”

“What!”  Joe blasted out.  “Why?  Why would I marry your daughter?”

“You have been seeing her all these months–wooing her—doing vile things with her!  Now you have deflowered my child and you are going to make an honest woman of her or die!”

Joe’s mouth dropped open, he couldn’t speak.  He tried his best to take in all that the man had said but was finding it impossible.  When at last he came to his senses he asked in a little more than a whisper, “Deflowered her?  Mr. Kincaid I have never been with your daughter!”

To that remark, Clayton backhanded Joe so hard that he fell to his knees onto the barn’s floor.  “She is carrying YOUR child!  You know this!  Now are you gonna marry her or do you die?”

Joe touched his face with his left hand and stared up at the furious man.  “Mr. Kincaid, I swear on my Mother’s grave that I have never touched your daughter.  Who would have told you this lie?”  Joe was now scared, the man did not seem to want to listen to any reason.

“Pamela told me.”  Clayton answered angrily.

“Then I am sorry, Sir, but she lied.”  Joe replied and then felt something hit him and then everything went black.

*****

Ben and Hoss noticed that Cochise still stood tied in front of the Silver Dollar as they approached. Their business having taken a lot longer than they had planned, both men wondered just how many beers the young man had consumed while waiting for them to show up.  Pushing open the swinging doors, their eyes searched the room for Joe.

“Where you reckon he is, Pa?”  Hoss asked not spotting his brother at any of the tables.

Ben just shrugged his shoulders and walked over to the bar to ask Sam.  “Sam?  You seen Little Joe?”  Ben asked and motioned with his fingers for two beers along with the information.

Sam brought over the two mugs and set them in front of Hoss and his father.  “Yeah, he left about an hour ago—thought he’d be back by now.”

“You know where he went off to?”  Hoss asked accepting his beer and taking a long sip of it to quench his thirst.

“Clayton Kincaid came in—and he and Joe walked outside.  That’s the last I’ve seen of him.”  Sam answered and walked to the end of the bar to fill more glasses.

“Why would Joe leave Cochise out there?  And what do you think Mr. Kincaid wanted from him?”

“Don’t know.  We’ll give him a couple of minutes longer.  If he doesn’t show back up we’ll go and see.  Go ahead and drink your beer.” Ben tried to sound encouraging, but he was starting to get that old familiar feeling in his gut.  It was the kind of feeling he often had when Joe was in some kind of trouble.

*****

Joe coughed as he fought his way back to consciousness.  His first thoughts were of how bad his arms hurt.  As he slowly opened his eyes he realized why he was starting to feel pain.  Clayton had tied him up, spread-eagled against two stall posts in the barn.  His jacket lay on the floor at his feet.  He could hear the other man breathing behind him as he waited to learn of his own fate.

“Back with me, Joe?  Good.  Now, I thought you just might need just a little push in order to agree to marrying Pamela.  Not that you should need one, she is beautiful and IS carrying the first Cartwright grandchild!”

“I told you before—I have never been with her.  If she is going to have a child it is not mine!”  Joe still protested his innocence.

“I’d prefer to have a son-in-law who was intact–you are making this very difficult for me!  But, if I have to beat some sense into you I will.”  Clayton said and then Joe heard the sound of a bullwhip as it hit the ground by his feet.

“You are making a big mistake—why would I lie?  Just let me go and I won’t say anything about this.”  Joe was now pleading with the man.

“Why would my daughter lie?”  Clayton shouted back and sent the first blow towards Joe’s back.  Joe screamed in pain and tugged at the ropes, which held his arms.  “Now, do you agree to marry Pamela or do you get more?”

Joe could feel the sweat beading up on his forehead.  He feared the worse now, feared that the man in his anger might surely kill him.  But, he couldn’t admit to what the man had said.  He had not touched the girl.  Joe prayed that the angered father would come to his senses before he sent another lick of the whip.

“I am not the father.”  Joe answered once more and braced for the next assault of the whip.  He was correct in his assumption as another blow knocked the wind out of him once more.

“I’m going to keep doing this until you admit you are the father and agree to marry Pamela, Joe.  You might as well spare yourself some scars.”  Clayton yelled at his captive.

“Go and get your daughter–” Joe replied biting back the pain, which had ripped his back.  “Ask her again!  I tell you she is lying!”

“We all know who is lying!”  Clayton screamed and sent a series of strikes at Joe’s back.

*****

Hoss and Ben knew something was dreadfully wrong.  There was just no way that Joe would have gone off and left his horse.  There was no way, unless there had been some kind of trouble, that Joe wouldn’t have told his family where he was going that night.  Joe of all people knew that his family would worry if he was not where he was supposed to be for long.

Taking Cochise by the reins, Hoss had mounted his own horse and led the pinto behind him.  Ben and Hoss rode out to the Kincaid ranch to see what was going on and why Joe would have left so abruptly.  A little less than an hour later, both men dismounted right by the vacated buckboard.  As they started for the house, they heard a peculiar sound coming from the barn.  Casting a bewildered glance between them, Ben and Hoss headed toward the sound.  They froze in their tracks when they heard the distinguishable sound of a bullwhip.

Hoss pushed on the door to no avail, it was secured with a two by four plank.  Ben signaled his son over to the side where there was a single window.  Looking inside, with what little light that the lantern inside gave off, both Cartwrights were aghast to see the sight before them.  Hoss crashed with all his might through the window and barreled toward Mr. Kincaid.  Clayton turned just as the big man plowed into him, knocking him to the floor.  Ben watched as Hoss tried to choke the man to death with his powerful hands.  Fighting his own anger, Ben was forced to stop Hoss’ assault.

“No, Hoss!  Don’t kill him!  Help me with Joe!” Ben begged his son.  It took all the internal strength that the big man had not to strangle the man before him, but he stopped at the sound of his father’s protests.

Hoss dropped the man to the floor and turned to see Joe strung up between the two posts.  He shared a glance with his father, and Hoss could see the tears leaving Ben’s eyes.  Joe was a bloodied mess.  His clothes were so ripped and mangled that you could hardly tell he still wore any.  The boy was unconscious as Ben took out his pocketknife and cut the ropes, which bound his wrists to the wooden posts.  Joe fell into his father’s arms, and Hoss engulfed the two of them with his own outstretched arms.  The tears from his family member’s eyes bathed Joe’s face, but he was not aware enough to know it nor feel the love which now circled him.

“He’s got to have a doctor—and quick–” Ben pulled himself together and lifted Joe up off the dirty floor of the barn.

Hoss started to follow Ben but stopped briefly and looked down at Clayton who was still rubbing his throat.  “Just tell me why.”  Hoss asked his voice breaking.

“Your brother is the father of my daughter’s child.  I gave him the chance to admit to it–but he wouldn’t –he got what he deserved!”

“You’re a damn liar!”  Hoss spat back at him.  “And we ain’t through with you–I promise you that!”

“Let’s go, Hoss.”  Ben called at the doorway.  There would be time for revenge later, right now Joe’s life was in jeopardy.  Hoss pulled across the wood planking and opened the barn door.

“We’re taking your buckboard with us—we’ll send it back–” Hoss paused and looked viciously back at Clayton.  “Yeah, we’ll send it back with the Sheriff!”

Ben managed to get Joe into the buckboard.  He propped him onto his side, the best he could do.  Leaning next to his son in the back of the wagon, Ben signaled Hoss to tie on the other horses.

Hoss was quick in his actions and soon they were pulling out of the Kincaid yard and hurrying back to the ranch.

*****

The only true piece of luck for any of the Cartwrights that night was the fact that they just happened to pass Doctor Martin’s surrey as it turned off the road, which led back to town.  Paul had taken one quick glance into the back of the buckboard and sent his carriage at a quick pace to the Ponderosa.  Hoss tried his best to keep up with the doctor’s surrey, while also trying not to cause any further harm to his brother.  He glanced back a time or two and each time his father had given him the signal to speed up.  It wasn’t long before they were pulling up in front of the ranch house.  Hoss darted out of his driver’s seat and ran around back of the wagon.  He lifted his brother into his strong arms.  The young man made no sound whatsoever.  Hoss had to fight back tears again, as he proceeded into the house followed by his father and the doctor.

With Joe spread out on the bed in his room, the doctor got his first good look at what the damage was.  Ben and Hoss helped to pull off the boy’s boots, but stopped when they went for his clothes.  So much of the material was either cut away or imbedded in his skin, they weren’t sure what to do.

Doctor Paul Martin had seen everything in his forty-year career at tending folks.  And he had seen and tended to just about every imaginable illness and injury possible when it came to Joe Cartwright.  But, the sight before him gave him pause.  He sat down in the chair by the bed and put his hands to his face.  Ben and Hoss were not expecting this kind of reaction.  Paul was always the one who instilled calm in a terrible situation, he was the last person to fall apart no matter how severe or ghastly the injury.

“Paul?”  Ben called over to the man worried now for the doctor’s own health.  The man was in his sixties after all.

Paul took in a deep breath and pushed away his tears.  This was all getting to be a bit too much for him.  Looking over at the amount of damage that had been caused by the whip made the doctor wonder just how much he could help this time.  He also wondered just how Joe would survive this kind of an attack.  Caught between anger and fear, Paul finally addressed the situation before them all.

“Let me get my bearings—then we will do what we can.”  Paul’s voice trembled and the two Cartwrights were more than worried now.  The doctor stood from his chair and now brought the table lamp closer to inspect the numerous lacerations.  “Who in the Hell would do this to the boy!”  Paul yelled and turned to stare directly towards Ben.  Paul wanted some kind of an answer.  He had not spent a good piece of his life trying to patch Joe up in order to see this happen at the hands of some lunatic.

“Clayton—Clayton Kincaid.”  Ben replied quietly.  He could still feel his own rage coursing through his veins, so he understood why the doctor was also having trouble.

“Kincaid?  Why in God’s name?”  Paul asked again.

“Said that Joe is the father of his daughter’s child–” Hoss began and noticed the grimace on his father’s face after hearing the words again.

“It’s not true!”  Ben sounded off, to all in the room and to the entire world as well.

Paul gathered himself now, as he saw the anguish, which Ben wore.  He could see the tears that welled in Hoss’ eyes as he stared now at his baby brother in the bed bleeding.  It was then that the doctor in him took over.  He had at last gotten his second wind.

“You do not have to tell me that, Ben.  Don’t you think that having patched up this boy all these years that I would know what kind of person he is?  Joe is his father’s son, plain and simple, no explanation needed–nor wanted for that matter. Now let’s concern ourselves with saving him once again.”  Paul leaned over the bed and studied the wounds.  “Hoss, get Hop Sing to bring us some boiling water, and plenty of soap.  I just thank God that Joe is out of it.  This is going to be excruciating!”

“I’ll go fetch it.”  Hoss nodded and hurried down the stairs.

“Okay, Ben, now you and I are going to pull the remnants of Joe’s clothes out of these lacerations.  Be as gentle as you can.  Wait—let’s do it this way!”  Paul stopped and moved over to the washbowl in the corner of the room.  He soaked two hand towels and handed one to Ben.  “Whenever it starts to pull the skin, wet it with this towel that should loosen it some.  Try not to think of how awful they look, just focus on getting the material out of his wounds so we can cleanse them.  Infection is going to be our biggest enemy with this it looks like.”  Paul started up by Joe’s shoulders and Ben concentrated on his lower back and legs.  There didn’t appear to be any place that the lashes of the whip hadn’t touched in Clayton’s assault.

Right before Hoss and Hop Sing appeared with the needed supplies, Joe started to inch back into reality.  He groaned loudly as he blinked his eyes opened.  The pain was unspeakable.  Joe sucked in air and his hands grasped the pillow under his face.

“Oh, God—God it hurts—” Joe cried, feeling each tug that both the doctor and his father were making in pulling out pieces of his clothing.

“It’s going to be all right, Joseph—” Ben whispered, but continued with what he was doing.  They had so much more to do before they could clean the area.

“Pa–Pa I have to tell you–I have to tell you–” Joe started to sob and Ben had to stop what he was doing now to go to the head of the bed.  He kneeled down next to his son and wiped at Joe’s eye pushing back the tears.

“You just go back to sleep, Joseph—you don’t have to tell me anything right now.”  Ben insisted.

“I do—I do!”  Joe sobbed and his left hand found his father’s arm.  “He said I —he said that I–Pa I didn’t—” Joe spoke in broken sentences, fighting to get his meaning out.

“I know you didn’t, Joseph.”  Ben tried to quiet the boy.

“I’ve never—never done that—Pa—you just have to believe me–” Joe was now starting to get so upset that the doctor left what he was doing and went for his medical bag.

“Joseph—of course I believe you—we all do—now you just settle down so we can fix you up.”  Ben tried again to make Joe relax but it was not working.  The boy was actually trying to get off the bed now.

“Grab that arm!”  Paul shouted over to Ben.  He knew that they had far too much to do in caring for Joe to have him getting so upset.  He would have to be sedated.  Ben grabbed his son’s left arm and the doctor moved closer and sent the injection into the fold of his elbow.

“I didn’t do that—I never would—” Joe whispered and was soon fast asleep.

“I know, Son, I know.”  Ben whispered and bent down and kissed his son’s forehead.

“Here’s the water and soap.”  Hoss announced moving over to the nightstand and setting it down.  Hop Sing walked to the other side of the bed and focused in on the boy who he had helped to raise from infancy.  Feeling as though his heart would surely break, Hop Sing whispered a few words in his native tongue and then looked up at the doctor for reassurance.

“Little Joe—he be okay?”  The cook asked sadly.

“We’ll do all we can.  C’mon, Ben, we still have a good deal of material to get out.”  Paul called over to break Ben’s intense gaze on his youngest son.  Ben moved back down to the bottom of the bed and with Hoss and Hop Sing assisting him this time, continued to pull out the bits and pieces of what had been his son’s clothes.

Paul stood to stretch the kinks out of his back.  It had been almost an hour since they had started to tend to Joe and finally they had rid the boy’s back of the parts of his clothing.  Now they would have to cleanse the wounds with sterile towels and soap to help control the infection which was surely there.

“All right, now that the material is out, we have to clean out the dirt and grime from that whip and whatever else was in that barn that got into these wounds.”  Paul stopped and looked at Hoss.  The big man looked like he was very close to fainting.  Paul knew that Hoss was as tough as they come normally, but this had been an awful thing to contend with, especially since the victim was Hoss’ baby brother; a boy Hoss loved dearly.  “Hoss, you go on downstairs and get some more water.  And Hop Sing you go with him–how about making us all some strong coffee?”

Hop Sing nodded toward the doctor.  He, too, had noticed how Hoss was starting to sway a bit, and since he loved the large grizzly bear of a man he also wanted to protect him from any further pain.  “We go get water–get coffee.”  Hop Sing sang out and turned Hoss toward the door insistently.

“Thanks.”  Ben addressed the doctor and touched the man’s arm.

“We have our hands full with Joe–no sense having someone else fall out.”  Paul nodded.  “And what about you, Ben?  You need to take a break?”

Ben shook his head adamantly.  Though it was about the most gruesome thing he had as yet helped to doctor, Ben would be there from start to finish.  Later on, after the danger was over, he would take the time needed to fall apart.  But, Ben would do it far away from the stares of family and friends.  He had an image to maintain as the stoic of the family.  “I’m fine.  Let’s finish washing him down.”

Paul and Ben scrubbed down the whole area with good strong soap.  The doctor was not at all sure if they had been able to scrub away all of the minute particles of dirt, but it was done as thoroughly as they could for the moment.  After Paul rinsed the area down with fresh cloths soaked in the water, it was then that the doctor sat down again and pointed for Ben to do the same.  Ben reluctantly took a seat across from where Paul sat staring at his patient.

“What now?  He’s still bleeding in a whole lot of places.”  Ben whispered his concern.

“We are going to have to suture those areas.  That’s what I am sitting here thinking about now.  It’s going to take quite awhile to stitch that large an area.  I just can’t believe that this could happen.  And all because some fool blamed Joe for something he didn’t do.  Just doesn’t seem possible!  I know you, Ben Cartwright, you are thinking about revenge right now, aren’t you?”

“Honestly, Doc, all I am thinking about right now is Joseph.  It takes my breath away just to see his back.”  Ben remarks came with tears that flowed from both his eyes.  His heart was heavy at the thought of what Joe had gone through and what he would have to endure in order to be healed.

“Well, you know how I feel about Joe–I don’t have to tell you.  I couldn’t care about him any more than if he was my own son.  I am here thinking about revenge myself!  No-one should be allowed to harm another human being like this!”  Paul was still being controlled by the brutality that he had witnessed.  “I am getting too old for this, Ben.”  Paul confessed and stood again.

“Let’s get you some coffee before you start the sutures, Paul.  You already look exhausted.”  Ben said concerned again for his friend.

“I wouldn’t mind it a bit if you found some of that brandy to put in it either.”  Paul nodded, thinking at the task that lay ahead of him.

“I’ll see to it.  Be right back—and then–” Ben stopped before he made it to the door.  His eyes caught on the horrendous sight of his son’s back again.

“Be sure to bring enough for the whole house.”  Paul called over to the other man and Ben nodded again and headed down the stairs to get both coffee and brandy to settle everyone’s nerves.

Ben, Hoss, and Hop Sing stood in silence watching Doctor Martin draw his sutures through Joe’s skin.  The man worked as if in a trance, never showing the exhaustion to his body that the ordeal had to be causing by now.  Ben had lost count.  He had tried to keep up with each stitch as it had been tied off.  He wanted to remember this, commend it to memory, so as to use the trauma of the event to fuel his revenge.  There had been too many sutures to count by the time Paul finally stood erect and turned toward the anxious family members.

“This is a bit much–even for Joe.”  Paul stated bluntly and moved to the washbasin that Hop Sing had provided for him.  Rinsing off his hands he knew what the next question would be.

“Will he be all right?” came Hoss’ voice.

Paul dried his hands and took a seat next to the bed.  The night of treating the young man had at last caught up with the weary doctor, and his body ached as it settled back in the chair. He reached for Joe’s right wrist and felt for his pulse.  Paul shook his head, he was finding it hard to believe that Joe would really be able to pull himself out of this one.

“Doc?”  Hoss asked again and moved closer to him.

“Your little brother is a medical marvel–always has been.  But, the boy’s luck is bound to run out eventually.  When a body has been punished like his has over the years, it could be something just like this that kills him.”

Ben reached down and touched the back of Joe’s head and looked across the bed to address what Paul had said.  “You are right, we have been awfully lucky in the past.  And beyond that, if we had not had you, Paul, to help, then Joe wouldn’t be here now.  We never expected you to perform miracles, but you have so many times.  Do you have one more for Joseph?”

Paul stood up and glanced down at his patient and then over to the boy’s father.  He shrugged his shoulders noncommittal.  He did not want to lie to anyone in the room.  The chance of Joe surviving the injury was at best fifty-fifty.  Paul then broke into a reassuring grin.  Fifty-fifty?  Why those odds were much better than Joe usually had!  Of course the boy could beat those kinds of odds!  “Don’t quote me on this–but I’ll put my money on Joe.  If for no other reason than his previous track record.”

“Thanks, Doc.”  Hoss patted the man’s back happy to have some hope for his brother’s recovery.

“Doctor come—have guest room all ready for you.  Need rest–and need quiet–you come now!”  Hop Sing insisted and Paul wasn’t about to go against the man’s wishes.  He was much too tired to protest.

“Wake me if you notice any change, Ben.”  Paul called over as the weary father settled down into the chair next to his son’s bed.

“I will–Hop Sing’s right–you go and get some rest.  And—Paul–thanks.”  Ben’s voice had a distinct sentimental tone to it.

“It’s my job.”  Paul replied with a wink and left the room.

*****

The silence had become deafening and Hoss began the worried pacing back and forth in his brother’s bedroom.  Ben knew what was going on in his son’s troubled mind.  Hoss wanted to go after Clayton Kincaid and make him pay for what he had done to Joe.  Ben had to curb his own rage and need for vengeance.  He needed to be there in the room with Joseph.  He wanted to be the one to welcome Joe back to consciousness and assure the boy that he would survive his injuries.  Ben could tell that Hoss wanted something a whole lot more primal. He wanted to kill the man who had harmed his brother.

“Why don’t you sit down, Son?  It’s going to be a long night.”  Ben called over to him.

Hoss stopped his pacing and stared first at Joe and then at his father.  “I gotta go–” He started and went toward the door.

“Eric!” Ben’s voice boomed, and it was commanding his son to stop.

Hoss looked down at the floor and his hand still held onto the doorknob wanting to leave.  He had been called by his real first name, and it gave Hoss pause enough to stop in his tracks.  Ben only called him that in times of dire distress or emergency, and it was usually done to jolt him into compliance.  This time, however, Hoss did not feel like obeying his father.  He knew that Ben wanted him to stay, to wait the long night out before taking the law into own his large hands.

Ben felt the need to comfort his middle son now.  He stood from his chair and neared the young man.  “I know what you want to do, Hoss.”  Ben started, with a softer tone to his statement.  “You know I want to do it too.  But, there will be a time for all of that.  Right now the only thing that matters is that boy laying over there.”  Ben pointed towards his youngest.  “And I think he’d rather see your face when he wakes up than to hear that you’ve gone out on your own private mission to kill Clayton Kincaid.”

“Look what he’s done to Little Joe!  Look and tell me I shouldn’t go and beat the Hell out of that man!”  Hoss protested vehemently taking in the sight of the bloodied and sutured back of his brother.

“We will turn it over to the law–now isn’t that what I’ve taught you boys all these years?  If you think that I don’t have the same desire to kill Chanced—well, you are wrong!  I love your brother too—and I can barely stand to see him like this myself.  But, it’s not our job to punish Chanced for what he’s done—it is the law’s job.”

Hoss’ right hand made a fist and he wanted to punch something, anything at the time, to release the hostility he felt in his gut.  Ben reached over and touched the fist gently.  “I know how hard this is on you, Son.  How about seeing to the horses for right now?  I bet some fresh air would help.”

Hoss sighed and nodded, defeat on his mournful face.  “At least it would be doing something.  I’ll see if one of the hands are still up and can take Chanced’s wagon in to town and tell Roy we need him.”

“Good idea, Hoss.”  Ben replied, satisfied now that he had helped to tone Hoss down a little.  He patted his son’s shoulder for a show of support and then Hoss left the room.

*****

Ben stood alone in his son’s room now.  Hoss had gone off to take care of the horses and to send someone to bring the sheriff.  It was quiet, almost too quiet for Ben.  Joe’s breathing was so faint that the worried father had checked the boy’s pulse himself a time or two to be sure it was still there.  Surveying the damage to his son’s back, made the tears again well up in the Ben’s eyes.  It seemed as though there were hundreds of stitches, and what skin was not held together by a suture was swollen and flame-red.  Joe had been beaten half to death and Ben thanked God that he had not been any longer in getting to the Chanced ranch.

There was little that Ben could touch that wouldn’t cause pain, so he settled for a soft brush of his fingers through the boy’s tasseled curls.  “He’ll pay for this, Joseph.”  Ben made the vow that his son could not hear but would have expected to hear coming from his father.  “Fight your way back, Boy.  I know you have done it so many times.  Please–one more time–for me.”  Ben whispered and then settled back down in the chair and waited.

The rest of the long night went by slowly, yet with little event.  Ben and Hoss kept a watchful eye on Joe, but the boy had not come around.  A little after six the next morning, Paul appeared in the room and looked over at the bleary-eyed family members.  It was apparent that neither of the two Cartwrights had gotten any sleep.  The doctor really hadn’t expected anything different from the two men, just as in the past, they always insisted on keeping vigil over the youngest son.

Paul examined Joe’s back and checked for signs of infection and fever.  “So far so good.  He’s just got a wee bit of a temperature, I think that shows that we got him cleaned up pretty well.  Why don’t the two of you go downstairs and grab some breakfast.  I’ll sit here with Joe for a spell.”

Ben and Hoss both stood and stretched and reluctantly took the doctor up on his offer.

“We’ll bring back some coffee with us.”  Ben called as he and Hoss walked to the bedroom door.  Paul nodded his thanks as they left the room.

“Now you better cooperate, Joe Cartwright.”  Paul whispered to his patient.  “Your family thinks I am some kind of miracle worker, but you and I both know that it’s you and not me who does the miracles around here.  So, let’s see another.  You come back to us.”  Paul patted the young man’s arm and hoped that somewhere in his subconscious mind that Joe had heard the message he had just sent to him.

*****

Hop Sing answered the loud pounding at the front door.  He had just set the breakfast plates out in front of Hoss and Ben and did not want them disturbed while they ate.  Hop Sing could see how tired both men were from the long night of worrying, and the intrusion by a visitor was not welcomed.  He drew the door back and stared at Roy Coffee.

“Howdy, Hop Sing, is Ben around?”  Roy asked and the Oriental frowned but allowed the man to move into the room.

“Need eat breakfast.”  Hop Sing replied still upset over the interruption.

“C’mon in here, Roy!”  Ben called from the table.

The sheriff moved to the dining room and Ben pointed for the man to take a seat.

“Will you bring out another place setting please?”  Ben asked Hop Sing.  Usually Hop Sing would have sounded off angrily, but he decided that Ben had far too many worries on him at the moment.  He nodded obediently and was soon back with a plate, cup and silverware for Roy.

“Thank you kindly, Hop Sing.  All’s I had was a cup of coffee before I left town.”  Roy piled on the food and began to eat.

“I guess Hank filled you in, huh?”  Hoss asked setting down his coffee and staring over at the lawman.  The anger from the night before was starting to rise back up in his chest just thinking of his brother lying upstairs.

“Yeah, he told me.  How’s Little Joe?”  Roy turned deadly serious, he had been told by the hired hand that the youngest Cartwright boy was badly injured.

“Well, he’s still with us–no thanks to Clayton Chanced!”  Ben responded madly.  “There aren’t enough words in the English language to describe how badly Joseph was beaten.  You eat your breakfast and I will show you.”

“That bad?”  Roy stopped eating now, he could see the pain on Ben’s face and it cut right through him.  Roy had been a close friend of the Cartwrights for years, and he knew how much each of them loved the other.  There would be hell to pay now, Roy was sure.

“That bad.”  Hoss replied solemnly.

After they finished breakfast, Ben, Hoss and Roy walked up the staircase heading to Little Joe’s room.  They passed Hop Sing up in the hallway.  He had brought the doctor some fresh coffee.  Roy paused at the end of the bed.  His mouth dropped upon witnessing the damage that was visible to Joe’s back.

“What in the hell did Clayton do to the boy?”  Roy asked, his voice having a slight tremble to it.

“When we got there he was beating Joe with a whip.”  Ben stated and shot Hoss a glance.  He noticed how his son’s hands had formed fists again.  Ben hoped he could contain his son as he had the previous night.

“I’ll file the assault charges.”  Roy nodded.

“Assault!”  Hoss yelled in response to what the sheriff had said.  “This here was attempted murder!”

“I think I’d have to agree with him on that, Roy.”  Doctor Martin said standing from his chair.  “If his family hadn’t gotten to the boy, Joe would surely have died from his wounds.  In fact I am rather surprised he didn’t succumb to his injuries last night.”

“We’ll check for the technicalities with Judge Wheeler, main thing right now is to bring Clayton into town.  Anyone want to tell me why he did this?”  Roy directed his gaze right at Ben.

Ben looked down to the floor embarrassed to have to answer the sheriff.  He didn’t even want to say the words, they were too awful.  Finally, clearing his throat, Ben answered, “Clayton’s daughter is going to have a child, for some idiotic reason Clayton decided that Joseph was the father.   I have no idea why, we haven’t gotten the chance to ask Joe about it.”

Roy frowned and took a deep breath.  Now, as sheriff he had to ask the question, but as a friend of the family he hated that he needed to ask it at all.   “Could there be any truth to his allegation?”

Ben and Hoss looked angrily at Roy, they couldn’t believe he could ask such a thing.  “You know Joseph, Roy, why don’t you answer that one yourself.”  Paul answered the man’s question, knowing Ben and Hoss were much too irate to do so.

“It’s my job to ask–you all know that.  I personally would never think this of Little Joe.  Now, I guess I have to ask him when he comes around.  He has to say it so I can write it down all formal like.  This is all going to court and it ain’t gonna be pretty.  These are some pretty danged serious charges.  We got us attempted murder—and they are sure gonna throw in all of this about the child to try and get out of the charge!”

“You file the necessary papers, Roy.  They have no case against Joe, I would bet my life on his honor.”  Ben said and moved closer to his injured son as the boy began to stir in the bed.

Kneeling down at the head of the bed, Ben listened as his son came back to them all.

“You are going to be fine, Joseph.  Just fine.”  He whispered as Joe’s eyes flickered open.

“Pa? “ Joe muttered and then felt the searing pain coming from his mass of lacerations.  He winced and reached for his father’s hand.  Ben took hold and cast a look over at the doctor for help.

“You’ve got a back full of stitches there, Joe.  You need to stay calm.  Let’s get you some water and then in a little while we can give you something for the pain.”  Paul’s patient voice took charge once more.  He set a straw into the water glass and handed it to Ben.

“Here, Son.”  Ben said and pushed the straw towards his son’s parched lips.  Joe drank what he could and then motioned for his father to withdraw the cup.

“Who all is here?”  Joe asked, his vision obscured due to his position on his stomach.

“I’m right here, Little Brother.”  Hoss called and moved to the other side of the bed and let his hand fall onto the boy’s right arm.  “And Doc and Roy.”

“Guess I’m bad off, huh?”  Joe tried to smile but the pain was too great.

“Nothing that you can’t beat, Joe.”  Paul was quick to reply.  “Now, I want you to rest.  I will allow only a couple of questions if you think you are up to it?”

“I know what you want to ask, Roy.” Joe started and closed his eyes again to try and will away the nausea and pain he was feeling.  “Clayton got me to his ranch–he pulled a gun on me–that’s how I got there–in his wagon.  Then he knocked me out and tied me up.  He said that I–”  Joe stopped again and now tears were leaving his eyes.  He felt so humiliated to have to say the things that Clayton had accused him of.

“It’s okay, Son.  You just tell Roy–we all know that none of it was true.”  Ben coaxed Joe on with his recollection of the horrible event.

“He said that I am the father of his daughter’s child.  He said that I—I didn’t –I never ever was alone with her—I am not the father of that child.  I asked him who would have told him such an awful lie and he said that Pam told him.  He said I was lying and that he would keep beating me until I admitted to the truth and married her.”

Paul saw the anguish and hurt spreading across his patient’s face and decided that enough was enough.  “That’s it.  I want this boy to rest now.  Joe, you are in bad shape, we almost lost you this time.  You are going to have enough to do just recovering.  I don’t want you worrying about any of this.  Now that’s doctor’s orders!”  Paul said sternly and then turned toward the sheriff.

“I have all I need now, Joe.  Sorry to put you through this.  You just get yourself well, you hear?”  Roy called over to the boy and turned out of the room.  Hoss followed the man down the stairs to further discuss what would happen next.

“Cold—” Joe muttered and could see out of the corner of his eye both his father and the doctor staring at his injuries.

“We can’t put anything over you just yet, but we can get this room warmer.  Ben, let’s get this fireplace going shall we?”  Paul called over to distract his friend who seemed caught up on the awful view of his son’s back again.

“Yes—I’ll go bring up some wood.”  Ben broke from his trance and headed out of the room.  By the time he reached the living room he could hear the heated debate between Roy and Hoss.

“What’s going on now?”  Ben demanded casting a disapproving look towards his son.

“I want to go with Roy to bring in Clayton but Roy won’t let me! “ Hoss protested.

“Now look here, Hoss, I ain’t having none of your shenanigans!  I know you want to beat him and beat him good.  And I don’t even blame you none.  I seen what he done to Joe—but if I take you with me I might just as well hang up this badge.”

“He’s right, Hoss.  Let Roy do his job.  The court will deal with Clayton Chanced.”

“Well, all’s I can say is that they better throw the book at him!”  Hoss argued against the logic of this father and the sheriff.

“I’ll do everything in my power to see to it, Hoss.”  Roy answered, but this time was more gentle in his voice.

“Keep us filled in will you?”  Ben asked as he walked the sheriff to the door.

“I will–and you all let me know how Joe’s doing.”

“We will–thanks for coming out.” Ben patted Roy on the back as the man left the house.

Ben could still see the rage behind Hoss’ eyes, he knew it would probably be there for a long time, at least until the man had seen some kind of justice take place.  “Your brother is cold.  How about helping me gather some wood so we can build him a fire?”

Hoss nodded, it was all he could do at the time, just stay at the ranch and try to assist his father in caring for his little brother.  He moved over to the wood box and began filling his arms with firewood.

*****

By the time that Hoss and Ben reappeared in Joe’s bedroom, the young man was fast asleep.  His strength had waned due to the amount of blood loss and the severity of his injuries.  Hoss went about the task of getting the fire started, and soon had the room toasty warm.  Ben noticed that there was a sheet over his son now and he looked to Paul concerned.

“I thought you said we didn’t want to put anything over those wounds just yet?”

“Oh that’s what I said all right–your son here had other plans.  He said he wasn’t about to be stared at and insisted on at least a sheet to cover his back.  At least it shows us that he is still fighting.  And I take that as a very good sign.”  Paul smiled now and closed his medical bag. “I gave him some powders to help ease the pain.  They aren’t very strong, and needless to say I made sure not to give him anything addictive.”

“We don’t want to go through that again do we?”  Ben sighed thinking back several years to another injury that Joe had suffered.

“Try and get some food into him when he comes around–even if it’s just broth.  We have to build him back up, this is going to take awhile you know.  It’ll be a week, maybe two before I can remove those sutures.  And we all know how tough it will be to keep him in that bed once he starts feeling a little better.”

“I’ll handle that part of it, don’t worry.”  Ben replied as Paul handed him a bottle.

“This has some pain medication.  Use it sparingly, after a few days hopefully we won’t need it, but I don’t want him hurting right now.  I’ll be back tonight to see how he is coming along.”

“Looks like you did it again, Doc.”  Hoss grinned at the man whom he credited for saving his little brother many times in the past as well.

“Give credit where credit is due–I helped–but it’s Joe that created this little miracle.  Now, I suggest you both get in a nap sometime today so I don’t have to tend to you later!”

“We will—thanks again–we could not manage without you, Paul.”

The doctor patted Ben’s arm and turned out of the room.  He needed to get back to town and write down in his journal another Joe Cartwright adventure.  Paul was sure that no one in his profession would ever believe the many miracles he has witnessed concerning the youngest Cartwright.  And the fact of the matter was that Paul himself would never have believed it either, had he not witnessed it all first hand.

*****

Roy turned the key in the lock of the jail cell and made sure it was secure.  The last thing he needed was for his prisoner to be out on his own.  Word was already spreading all over Virginia City about what had happened the previous night, and there were many of the Cartwright’s friends who wanted their own form of revenge against Clayton Chanced.

Settling down into the chair at his desk, the sheriff put his hands to his head exhausted.  Though Clayton’s arrest had gone down uneventfully, it still had stressed Roy more than the usual arrest of a criminal.  He could still see the look on the man’s face as he opened the front door to his home.  It was as if Clayton knew he would be brought to town and to the jail at any moment.  Even the verbal protests that the angered father shot towards Roy as they turned to leave had not grieved the lawman as much as the pathetic look he had seen on Pamela Kincaid’s face.  She had stood off in the corner of the main room and begged Roy not to take her father.  That had been the toughest part of his job.  Roy knew that the girl was frightened, alone, and very much pregnant as he left with his prisoner.

“I need to get a message to my lawyer!”  Clayton yelled from the back jail cell.

Roy frowned and grabbed a piece of paper and a pencil and strode back to where Clayton was locked up.  “Write it down and I’ll send someone with it for you.”

“I’ve known you a long time, Roy.”  Clayton started as he began jotting down a note to bring his lawyer over to the jailhouse.  “You know how much I love Pamela.  Tell me this, if she were YOUR daughter–wouldn’t you have done the same thing?”

Roy’s face turned into a bitter scowl at what the man had said, he fought to control his anger as he replied.  “There ain’t nothing wrong with you wanting to protect your daughter, Clayton.  But, what you done was a crime–plain and simple.  I’ve seen the damage you did to Joe Cartwright with my own eyes!  You just about killed that boy!  You are just lucky that the kid has the internal strength of two men or you’d have yourself a murder charge to deal with!”

“After what he did to Pamela he deserves to be dead!”  Clayton fired back.

“You ain’t got no proof it was Joe–nothing but what your daughter told you.”

“That’s more than enough for me!”  Clayton yelled and handed the sheriff back the paper.  “I should have known you’d take the Cartwright side in this matter.  Everyone knows they have you in their pocket.”

“You’d just better hold off right there, Clayton, before I have to pin some other charges on you.”  Roy warned and turned back to his desk, angered more than before.  He had heard the insult before, in fact many times.  Others had said that Roy was much too soft on the Cartwright family.  Roy knew it was untrue, and said out of total jealousy.  For it was hard on less than honest folks to measure up to a family that was above reproach like the Cartwrights.

*****

Ben rolled over in his bed and reached for his pocket watch on the nightstand.  He wasn’t happy when he saw how late it was.  He had laid down for a short nap, and here it was almost six hours later.  Leaning over, Ben pulled on his boots and headed into Joe’s bedroom.  He saw that Hoss was no longer watching the boy, Hop Sing was in the chair now as his replacement.

“How’s he doing?”  Ben whispered as he moved over to the bed.

“Opened eyes short time.  Only had water before going off again.  Hop Sing worried.”

Ben pulled down the sheet to have a look at his son’s back.  He could see why the cook had voiced his concern.  “Swollen pretty bad–Doc should be here soon–but do you have any suggestions until then?”  Ben asked Hop Sing.   The man was not just the house caretaker, nor cook, nor friend to the family.  Hop Sing also possessed some of his own medical knowledge and that had come in very handy in the past.

“Hop Sing think need ice.  Make swelling go down.  Skin pull too tight–stitches pull out.”

Ben nodded, he couldn’t think of a better plan of action.  “Where’s Hoss?”

Before Hop Sing could answer Hoss appeared in the doorway.  “I’m right here, Pa.  I got me a nap while Hop Sing watched Joe.  What do you need?”

“Hop Sing thinks we need to ice down Joe’s back.  It would take too long to get into town and bring back ice from the block house–you know of any snow banks closer?”

Hoss thought for a few minutes and then nodded.  “Yeah–I was up to Syler’s Ridge a couple of days ago–they still have a couple of feet of snow–or did then at least.”

“That wouldn’t take long–yes, let’s try it.  Dig off the first couple of inches–the snow underneath should be a whole lot cleaner.  Bring back a couple of buckets.”

“Right, Pa–I’ll go and see if Fletcher can help.”  Hoss darted out of the room.  He wanted to do something to ease his brother’s pain, and this was it for the moment.

“Cool cloths till then you think?”  Hop Sing asked and Ben sighed.

“It’s the best we have.  Use the pump outside–the water is a bit cooler than the kitchen pump.”  Ben changed positions with Hop Sing, now sitting in the chair.

“Hop Sing hurry back.”  The cook replied and turned out of the room.

Whereas the coolness of the cloths that his father and Hop Sing used to soothe his back did not bring Joe back to consciousness, the feel of the snow did the trick.  Hop Sing and Ben had rigged up extra sheets on the bed to help with the run-off and then began the slow process of covering the lacerations with fresh snow that Hoss had provided.

“Pa?”  Joe called out and tried to pull himself up.  He was stopped by Hoss’ strong grip on his arm.

“Lay still there, Little Brother, we’re trying to fix you up.”  Hoss called soothingly.

“What are you doing?”  Joe asked confused.  One minute he had felt as though his back was on fire and the next minute he felt like he was frozen.

“This won’t be for long, Joseph.”  Ben let Hop Sing take over on his side and moved to the head of the bed so he could settle Joe down.  “You had some pretty bad swelling to those cuts and we are just trying to ease it up a little.  Just give us a couple of minutes and we will get you all warm again.”

Joe groaned at yet another indignity.  But, he figured he was in no position to argue the point.  Though the snow was cold and wet, it had started to numb the area, and that did feel a whole lot better than it had before.  “He really beat the hell out of me, Pa.”  Joe confessed and Ben reached for his son’s hand and took hold of it for support and comfort.

“Yes, I am afraid he did.  But by now Roy has gotten him locked up in the jail and he will have to pay for what he did to you.  I know that does little to stop your pain–but at least he’s nowhere where he can harm you or anyone else again.”

“I wanted to go and break him in two, Joe, but Pa here wouldn’t let me.”  Hoss called down to his brother.

“Thanks, Brother, I know I’d feel the same way.  I’m sure Pa gave you the “leave it to the law” lecture didn’t he?”  Joe fought past his hurt to try and lighten everyone’s spirits.

“Yeah, several times in fact.”  Hoss chuckled, trying to also lighten his brother’s mood.

“That’s how I’ve raised you two isn’t it?” Ben asked them both.

“Yeah—” Joe said and then winced at the pain, which was back in full force, breaking out from under the snow, which now bathed his back.  “But, somehow I don’t think that Mr. Chanced will ever hurt as much as I do right now.”

Ben and Hoss exchanged sorrowful glances.  What Joe had said was probably the plain truth of the matter.  The man may get a couple of years in jail, but he would not have to suffer the physical pain that Joe would have to endure for weeks.

*****

“What in the Hell is going on?” came a booming voice at the doorway.  Ben, Hoss and Hop Sing turned to see Adam Cartwright standing there.  They could read on his face the shock of seeing what was left of his little brother’s back.

“Adam–” Ben started but his son still stood dazed.  He finally moved over to the bed and got a full view of Joe’s injuries.  “I wasn’t expecting you until tomorrow.”

“Caught an early stage—” Adam began and then pushed his way past his father and knelt down so Joe could see him.

“Hope you don’t mind if I don’t get up to greet you.”  Joe addressed his brother.  He could see the intensity on his oldest brother’s face, and it shocked him a bit.

“Those are whip marks–who did this to you!”  Adam was now yelling, demanding an answer.

“Adam, calm down.  Your brother needs to stay quiet.”  Ben protested the outburst.

“Pa, Hop Sing and I can finish this–why don’t you take Adam downstairs and explain it all.”  Hoss said and shot them both a warning look.  He had noticed that tears were starting to leave Joe’s eyes and he worried about the boy having to tell yet again the awful allegations which had been thrown at him by Clayton.

Ben caught sight of what Hoss was witnessing.  He moved back next to Joe and dropped his hand down to his face and pushed back the falling tears.  “It’s okay, Joe—everything is going to be okay–I promise you.  Now you let your brother and Hop Sing finish with you and I’ll be back in a minute to help get you warm again.”

Joe did not speak, he nodded at what his father had said and watched from the corner of his eye their departure from the room.

Three brandies later, Adam stood in the middle of the living room madder than he thought he could get.  Ben had told him the whole story, and still it was impossible to totally fathom.  Adam could not believe that someone would act in the manner that Clayton had, regardless of the situation.  Adam considered it to be a totally barbaric act.  He knew in his heart that Joe was innocent of the awful charge that Clayton had accused him of.  Though the good-looking hazel-eyed boy turned many a woman’s head in town and he did more than his share of flirting, Adam knew that Joe would never dishonor his family.  The youngest son cared too much about the Cartwright name and his beloved father, he would never let them down this way.

“Why do you think Pamela Chanced would accuse Joe of this?”  Adam asked his father.

Ben leaned forward in his chair and shook his head bewildered by the whole turn of events.  None of it made any sense to him.  “Well, if it is true that she is with child, then perhaps whoever is the father is no longer around.  Perhaps she had to confess something to her father when he found out, and Joseph was the unfortunate victim of her lies.”

“He ought to be shot for what he did to the kid!”  Adam replied viciously.

“All right, then we are all in agreement, you and I and your brother Hoss–we all want to shoot Clayton!  HOWEVER you know that’s not going to happen, so the law will handle it now.”

“Is Joe going to be okay?  He looks awful!  I’ve never seen that many stitches in one person in my life!  Is it gonna scar?”  Adam directed his attention back to his brother.

Ben put his face in his hands and shook his head wearily.  “I haven’t even asked that question.  I’ve been much more worried over his survival of these wounds.  Last night we weren’t even sure he would pull through.”

“What did Doc say?”  Adam asked as he poured another drink for both him and his father.

“He says that your brother is a medical miracle.  How many times have we heard that one?”  Ben noted ironically and hoisted the glass to his lips.

“What can I do to help, Pa?”

“Someone is going to need to talk with the prosecutor.  I didn’t want to send Hoss in–he’s been too upset and I didn’t want him anywhere around Chanced.  But, perhaps the two of you could go into town tomorrow and see what needs to be done.  Roy has already sent in the charges to the judge and he was going to lock Clayton up today.  That’s all we know right now.”

“I think I should go and pay Pamela Chanced a little visit.”

“No!”  Ben protested strongly.  “You stay away from her.  All of this will be handled by the law, I mean it, Adam.  If any one of us shows up at her place then they will surely say we are harassing her or threatening her in some way.  I want a clean conviction of Clayton Chanced, and I don’t want anything to stand in the way of it.”

Adam saw how upset his father was over his suggestion.  He could tell that Ben had wanted to do the very same thing; talk to Pamela.  But, Adam could see that Ben wanted to be able to go into court without any further charges hurled at Joe nor the rest of the family.

“Okay, Pa.  Whatever you say.  Hoss and I will go talk to the prosecutor tomorrow.”

Ben stood and put his hand on his son’s shoulder.  “Thanks.  Now, you have had a long trip–why don’t you get cleaned up and Hop Sing will get you some dinner?  He and Hoss should be done by now, I am going to see how your little brother is doing.”

“Dinner does sound good.”  Adam smiled to relieve some of his father’s strain.  He followed Ben back up the stairs.

*****

The older three Cartwrights ate their dinner while Hop Sing kept a watchful eye on Joe.  The boy had been dried off after his snow therapy and was starting to get warmed up again, with the fire in the fireplace blasting out heat.

“Dinner is served.”  Ben called as he made his way into the bedroom with a tray.  “Hop Sing you go on down and grab you some too!  Hoss and Adam are gonna help you with the dishes afterwards, you have had a long day tending this young man and deserve some rest.”

Hop Sing smiled and nodded and turned to leave.  Ben looked down at Joe, and was glad to see that he was still awake.

“Doc said to get some real food in you today—so here it is.”  Ben said and drew off the plate.  “I’ve cut everything into small pieces to make it easier for you.”  He said and set it next to Joe at the head of the bed.  Joe tried to pull himself up on his elbows but the arch it created to his back made him gasp in pain.

“That won’t work.”  Joe sighed and settled back against his pillow.  “And I’m not all that keen on you feeding me–think you know that.”

Ben laughed at his son’s independence.  He had expected that much from Joe.  “Let’s try this.  I will put it on the fork and you can take it in your hand and put it in your mouth.  Of course it will take a whole lot more time than if you just let me spoon it in.”

“Put some on the fork.”  Joe answered, at least that way it afforded him a little bit of dignity.

Ben patiently speared each piece of meat and vegetable on his son’s plate, handing the fork over to Joe each time and allowing him to feed himself.  The plate was almost empty when Joe shot up his hand in front of his face and gave up the fork for the last time.

“Can’t eat any more, Pa.”  He insisted.

“You did real well—and it only took an hour.”  Ben teased and handed Joe the glass of water.  Joe sipped through the straw and then handed it back to his father.  “Want something for pain?” Ben’s words came out a bit uneven, and he could almost feel his heart skip a beat to be asking this of his son.  But, the doctor had assured the worried father that what he had left for the boy was in no way addictive.

Joe closed his eyes and in his mind he could hear his father’s words usher in memories of the past.  There had been another time in his life when he had to fight back from a severe back injury.  That time it had been caused by an accident and the mass of burns that he received were just as life threatening as the lacerations that he now wore.  Joe had struggled to survive that time and during that fight for life had inadvertently become addicted to pain medication.  Now, in thinking back to that period in his life, Joe noticed the uncanny coincidence of it all.

“Joseph?”  Ben called again hoping to release his son from whatever was haunting him.  He could see that far away look in the troubled hazel eyes and it worried him.

“What’s that French phrase?  You know, it means that something has happened before?”

“You mean dejavu?”  Ben replied.

“Yeah–that’s it.”  Joe nodded.  “Isn’t this just like it was four years ago, Pa?”

Ben sighed knowing what his son was now focusing his attention on.  “Yes, it’s not that I haven’t thought of the similarities myself, Joe.  This has been a haunting reminder for both of us.  But, you overcame that injury, and you will this one as well.”

“Last time didn’t leave scars.”  Joe reminded his father.  “I can’t see what damage Mr. Chanced caused, but I can sure feel it.  And I can see it in your eyes too.  I’m not going to be so lucky this time.”

“You are laying there worried about scars and I am sitting here thanking God that you are still with us.  Let’s concentrate on that for right now shall we?”

“Pa–the last time I got hurt like this–well I took my chances.  I went into that hayloft to save Mattie, it was no-one’s fault but mine.  This time I was beaten due to some lie–I wasn’t even aware of.  He didn’t even give me the chance to explain.”  Joe now had desperation in his tone as he spoke out of the injustice of it all.

“I know, Son.”  Ben replied quietly, still trying to find words that would console the boy.

“If I carry the scars from this it just won’t be fair–not fair at all.  You know I’d never do something like he accused me of!  Pa, I have never been with a woman–you know what I mean?”  Joe’s voice was now softer as he vented his hurt and humiliation over what had happened to him.

“Of course I know what you mean.”  Ben paused briefly to put his next words together as delicately as he could.  “There’s nothing to be embarrassed about, Joseph.  You have conducted yourself with honor, and I am so very proud of you.  But, you should know that.”  Ben reached down and touched Joe’s chin to direct his gaze.  “The day will come when you will find the woman that you want to marry and you will be glad that you waited.  That is how it was when I met Elizabeth.  I always hoped that my sons would follow in the path I chose to live my own life.  And you, Joseph, have never let me down in that regard.  It’s a hard life to live when you choose honesty, integrity and honor, but you have done well, my son.”

“Thanks, Pa.”  Joe whispered, tears leaving his eyes.  “I needed to hear you say that–especially today.”

Ben stood from the chair and set the dish back on the tray.  He didn’t know if Joe had noticed the tears that were in his own eyes at the time, but figured it really wouldn’t matter.  It was then that Ben spied the pocket watch sitting next to the lamp’s base.  He smiled fondly as he placed it in the palm of his hand and opened the lid.  “Dejavu” He whispered and saw Joe look towards him, a question in his eyes.

“You seemed to be taking a trip down memory lane a little while ago–it reminded me of this watch that I gave you.  Something tells me that you weren’t quite sure that I believed you at first about Pamela.  Seems to me that you haven’t read this inscription lately.”  Ben handed the watch over to Joe.  He took it in his own hand and his fingers folded around it.  He knew what his father was getting at.

“Absolute faith.”  Joe whispered and a grin found it’s way to his mouth.

“Exactly.  Now let’s concern ourselves with the future for right now.  And that means getting you well.  I’ll ask you one more time–like I did a little while ago–but you got side tracked I think.  Can I get you something for pain?”

“Maybe later.”  Joe replied and closed his eyes, exhaustion taking back over his body.  Ben turned and lifted the tray to take it downstairs.  He walked to the door and paused and watched his son fall off to sleep, the pocket watch still wrapped tightly in the boy’s hand and pulled up to his face.

“Absolute faith.”  Ben whispered to himself now and left the room.

*****

That night had been followed by four long days of trying to heal for Joe.  While his family tried to handle the legalities over what had happened, Joe fought to recover.  It was a slow and painful process and the other Cartwrights were worried over his attitude as well as his injuries.  Joe seemed to fall into a lingering form of depression, which no one could coax him out of.

“How is he?”  Ben asked as Paul made his way down the staircase.  He saw the frown on the doctor’s face as he made it to the bottom landing.

“I’m worried over his progress to tell you the truth, Ben.  He is not healing well.  I know we’ve come to expect a lot out of Joe in this area–perhaps it’s because he is older and won’t be bounding back as readily as he did in the past?”  Paul replied and took a seat next to the fireplace.

“I tried to get him to talk today–but he clammed up on me.  And Hoss tried to get him into a game of checkers to no avail.  You think it’s because he’s worried about the scarring?”

“Possibly—or maybe it’s that on top of all the gossip about him and Pamela Chanced.  He’s a bright young man, and Joe knows how the rumor mill in Virginia City works from past experience.”

Ben nodded at what the doctor had said.  “He’s worried about his reputation and all that will come out at the trial.  Hoss and Adam spoke with the prosecutor the other day.  He wants to come here and talk directly to Joe.  I have postponed it as long as I can–the trial is next week you know?”

“I guess there’s not much we can do about it but get it over with, Ben.  I doubt it will help Joe’s attitude, but at this point I can’t see it harming it much more either.”

“Then I will send for Mr. Bell tomorrow.  Maybe if he doesn’t have all this hanging over his head Joe will start to get better.”

“I have to tell you there’s still some signs of infection on his back. I showed you it yesterday but today it looks worse.  I applied some more of that ointment tonight, but if it doesn’t look better in the next few days then we’ll have to open the area back up.”  Paul said, dreading how Ben would take the bad news.

“Dear God–hasn’t he gone through enough!”  Ben protested and stood turning his back on the doctor.  “Why?  That’s all I want to know–just why?”

“I wish I could answer that for you.” Paul replied, and stood and put his hand on Ben’s shoulder to comfort him.

“That girl lied about my son—and this is the result of that lie!  It seems to me she should be in that jail along with her father.”

“I am sure she is in her own little Hell right now, Ben.  Obviously the baby’s father is no-where to be found, her father is in jail, not exactly the ideal situation for a girl of that age.”

Ben frowned at the doctor’s reasoning.  He was right after all.  It was just the thought of wanting someone to pay for his son’s suffering which controlled Ben’s mind.  “Yes, I guess you are right, Paul.”

“I have to get back to town.  I will stop and tell William Bell for you.  Let’s get this part over with and see if Joe does better afterwards.”

“Thank you—for your capacity as a doctor—and also as one of my very best friends.”  Ben smiled warmly at Paul.

“Likewise.”  Paul nodded and walked toward the front door.  “I’ll be back tomorrow night and we will see how Joe has done.  Goodnight.”

“Goodnight.”  Ben said and waved as the man left the house.

*****

“Mr. Bell just pulled up, Pa.”  Hoss called into his brother’s room the next afternoon to let his father know of the prosecutor’s arrival.

“Give us a couple of minutes to get ready and then send him up.”  Ben replied setting down the glass he had just offered Joe.

“Okay, just holler when you want him to come up here.  I’ll go and wait with him.”  Hoss nodded and turned out of the room closing the door behind him.

“Help me up.”  Joe stated flatly.

“What?”

“I said help me up!  I’m not going to have another visitor see me this way.  If you will help get me to standing then we can go downstairs.”  Joe answered matter-of-factly.

Ben stared at the water glass and then replied, “What did Hoss bring you to drink?  Whatever it was must have made you delusional!  You are going to lay in that bed, Young man!”

“No.”  Joe insisted and threw his left leg out towards the side of the bed and lifted himself up, as if he was doing a push-up on the bed.

“This is ridiculous!  Joseph, stop it this instant!”  Ben yelled, but noticed his son was not paying one bit of attention to the order.

Joe sucked in air, to muster the strength he needed.  “Pa, you can either help me or watch me do this myself.  I would appreciate the help though.”

Ben’s heart caved in his chest.  He could not bear to see the torment Joe was putting himself through in trying to rise from the bed, but he also could not just stand there and do nothing.    “If I had known you were going to try something like this I would have sedated you!  Here.”  Ben grabbed the boy’s arm and helped to steady him as Joe’s left foot found the floor and his right leg pulled across the bed to ease into a standing position.  Ben saw the color drain from Joe’s face and for a minute he was sure the boy was going to pass out.  Instead, Joe’s arms shot out and his hands reached for his father’s strong shoulders for support.

“Give me just a second, okay?”  Joe whispered and tried again to catch his breath.  He had no idea how badly the motions he had just made would hurt.  Ben, still maintaining the support for his son, reached behind the chair and grabbed the boy’s robe.

“You want to put this on or do you want to further embarrass us both when you greet your visitor?”  Ben’s sarcasm poured out.  He was still highly perturbed at what his son was trying to do.

Joe shot out his left arm towards Ben and his father slipped the sleeve of the robe over it.  He waited until Joe was better balanced before holding out the right sleeve.  Joe grimaced at the weight of the heavy cotton robe against the lacerations on his back.

“Guess there’s no point in my threatening you with a tanning if you don’t get back in that bed is there?”  Ben asked frustrated.

The comment forced a smile to break out on Joe’s lips despite the pain.  “I don’t think you could really hurt my backside any more than it hurts right now, Pa.  But, good try.  Now how about just walking on my right side—just kinda support me as we walk, okay?”

Ben shook his head and helped tie the robe’s sash around Joe’s waist.  It looked as though there was little he could do to prevent Joe’s march out of the room, short of throwing the boy in the bed.  Ben decided against doing that as he knew that as stubborn as Joe was, he would get right back up anyway.  Moving to Joe’s right side, Ben let his son make the first step.  It was followed by several more, each one coming with a loud groan to accompany it.  By the time that the two of them made it to the dresser, they were still a good yard and a half from the bedroom door.  Joe grabbed his father’s arm tightly and took a sharp breath, holding it in trying to steady himself.

“You were right.”  Joe finally admitted to his father.  “I can’t make it, Pa.  I feel like I’m gonna be torn in half.”

“I was afraid of that!   If you have ripped any of those stitches you are really going to be in trouble with me and Doctor Martin!”  Ben exclaimed hotly.  “Now let’s get you back in that bed and stop this nonsense.  Honestly, Joseph, sometimes you make me so mad!”

“Wait!”  Joe protested and leaned into his dresser.  “I can stand right here.  Go send for Mr. Bell.  It’s the walking that was hurting the most.  If I just kinda lean here I think I will be okay.”

“Joseph!”  Ben protested angrily.

“C’mon, Pa–I’m already here—I’ll go lay down as soon as we’re done.  Please?”  Joe turned his hazel eyes on his father and fought for his approval.

“Just as soon as you are healed—”Ben started with his threat and then gave up on it.  No threat seemed to bother his son anymore.  “I’ll go get him–but I swear if I come back and find you on the floor —” Ben could not continue his statement, he turned for the door.

Joe was pleased to have gotten his own way about it, but hoped that it wouldn’t take long for his father to return.  He could feel his legs starting to shake already just standing there.  Fortunately his father and Mr. Bell came right up little more than a couple of minutes later.

“I’m surprised to see you standing, Joe.”  Mr. Bell said as he entered the room.

“Yeah, me too.”  Ben responded and shot a stern look towards his youngest.

“Just wanted to stretch a little–been in that bed too long.”  Joe replied trying not to look at his father.

“I have pretty much the whole story already, Joe.  Just need to ask you a couple of questions.”  The prosecutor said and sat down in the chair next to Joe and pulled out his notebook.  “This will basically be your deposition.  Now tell me when you first learned of Mr. Kincaid’s assumption that you were his daughter’s lover.”

“That night–that’s the first I knew of it.  But, I’ve been thinking–hey -Pa remember that Sunday a few weeks back when I told you Mr. Chanced acted strange?  Remember we were just leaving the church and he called me over?”

“Yes–I remember.  What exactly did he say back then?”

“He just said that if I needed any help talking to my Pa about things that he would be glad to help me.  It made no sense at the time, but now it kinda fits in.  He wanted me to come over and say hello to Pam.  She was smiling at me real strangely too!  I bet she had already told her father that the two of us had been seeing each other.”

“And you weren’t?”  William asked, still writing down notes.

“No, Sir.  I’ve never dated her.  I’ve never done anything with her.  I’ve never even held her hand.  Back when we were in school I think she liked me–kinda. But, we were always just friends–or so I thought.  No friend would tell this kind of lie!”  Joe was now angered at the thought of the betrayal.

“So, then Chanced took you at gun point to his ranch.  He took you into his barn and then what?”

“I asked him why–and he said that I knew why!  I told him I didn’t.  That’s when he told me about his daughter–and that she had said we had been lovers–had snuck around and that she was carrying my child.  I told him she was lying.  Next thing I knew he had knocked me out cold.  When I came to I was tied up.  That’s when he–” Joe trailed off.  He was having trouble standing but would not let the others know.  He fought to stay upright just long enough to get the deposition over with.  “He beat me with a whip.  I must have passed out–next thing I knew I was back home.”

“Roy submitted the charges as attempted murder.  It’s going to be up to Judge Wheeler if that stays or gets reduced to a lighter charge.  Would you mind if I take a look at your back?”

Joe looked over at his father and then back to the prosecutor, his face flushed with embarrassment.  “Do you have to?”

“You can just drop down the top part of your robe, Joe.  Doc has already told me how extensive your injuries are.  It would help me to explain to the judge if I have to.”

Joe was still using his left hand to help brace himself at the time.  Ben saw that if Joe were to let go of the dresser that he would probably fall down.  He moved quickly next to his son.

“Here–I’ll help you.”  Ben said and carefully pulled down the top of his son’s robe just low enough so that Mr. Bell could see the damage to the top half of the boy’s back.  It was enough to sicken him.

“That’s all I need.”  William said trying to contain his repulsion from seeing the extent of brutality that the young man had suffered.  “I’ll do everything I can to make the attempted murder charge stick.  Thanks for you help.”

“I’ll see you to the door.”  Ben offered but William shot his hand up to let him know that it wasn’t needed.

“I’ll see myself to the door, Ben.  Looks like you better get Joe into bed before he falls.”

“You’re right.”  Ben nodded.  “Thanks for coming out.”

“I’ll see you at the trial, Ben.  Joe, you just take it easy, let me handle all this.”  William said and left the room.

“Well?  You want to stand there until you fall on the floor or do you want me to help you back into your bed?”  Ben asked sarcastically.

“Okay–I apologize–you were right.  Now, will you either help me to the bed or move it over here?” Joe asked trying to joke about the situation even though he was sure he would never make it back to the bed without fainting.

Ben knew his son all too well, and could read the anxiety-ridden face.  He grabbed Joe’s arm tighter than before. “Lean in towards me, Joe.  I’ll get you in that bed as quick as I can.”  Ben instructed and Joe did exactly as he was told this time.  Slowly the two of them inched their way over to the bed, with Ben being careful with the placement of his hands.  He had to be sure not to touch his son’s back, but to help guide and support the boy and prevent him from falling. Both father and son were very thankful when they got to the side of the bed.  Joe’s arms shot out to brace himself as he lowered himself onto the sheets.

Ben was now beside himself with worry.  Joe looked far worse than he had before and all because of the needless act of proving himself to be strong and caving in to his own vanity.

“Pa?”  Joe whispered noticing the tension on his father’s face, and feeling guilty for having caused it by his own actions.

“Yes, Joseph?”  Ben asked wearily.

“Why do you let me do such stupid things?”  Joe winked at his father to assure him that he was okay and to ease his worry.

Ben shook his head amused at the question.  “I guess because I like hearing you say that I’m right after you do the stupid thing.  It makes my day.”

“I’ll be all right.”  Joe said and this time was serious in his tone.  He worried about the stress his father had been under and what it was doing to him.

“Well, I won’t!”  Ben stated firmly.  “But, after a couple glasses of brandy I will be a little better.  I hope you are happy to know that you have driven me to drink.”

“Hey–bring some up here for me too!”  Joe teased and saw his father shake his head.

“Go to sleep or I will—” Ben stopped in mid-sentence.

“You’ll what, Pa?”

“I have no idea–just go to sleep without a threat this time–you are making your father old.”  Ben sighed and left the room.  Joe was soon asleep, not because of his father’s request but due to the physical strain of walking earlier.

*****

Ben Cartwright was angry.  Actually he had gone beyond angry and had worked himself up to the rage level.  As he tied his horse to the hitching post in front of the law office of Benton Hill, Ben had to take a deep breath to try and shake the urge to pull out his six-shooter.  He closed his eyes and remembered earlier that morning when the messenger had dropped by the ranch house.  He remembered vividly the words on the letter. ***Opposing attorney Samuel Higgins seeks meeting with you at my office this afternoon at noon.  Sincerely, Benton.***.  Ben cursed under his breath at the notion of talking to Clayton’s attorney.  The man was as guilty as sin, and though he was allowed an attorney according to the law of the land, Ben felt it was a waste.  There was nothing an attorney could say in defense of what the man had done to Ben’s son.  There surely would be no court in the land that would fail to convict Chanced for his heinous deed.

Ben entered the law office and Benton greeted him right at the door.  Ben shook his attorney’s outstretched hand and then was ushered into the back office where Mr. Higgins sat waiting.

“Mr. Cartwright.”  Mr. Higgins stood and greeted the man.  “I appreciate you coming on such short notice.  I hope I haven’t taken you away from anything important?”

Ben looked piercingly at the attorney and answered, “As a matter of fact you have, I was tending my son.  You know–the boy who your client almost killed last week?”  Ben was sharp in his remark and Benton cleared his throat.

“Ben, let’s all try and keep our composure.”  Benton offered and saw Ben’s scowl in response.

“Let’s all cut to the chase.  What do you want, Mr. Higgins?”  Ben asked, his eyebrows narrowing towards the man.

“My client and I are willing to offer you and your son a deal.”

“A deal?”  Ben said and then laughed sarcastically.  “What in Heaven’s name would make you think either one of you are in the position to make a deal with Joseph or myself?”

“Just hear me out please.”  Higgins asked and handed Ben the same piece of paper he had shown Benton earlier.  It was a contract, which drew up the provisions for paying for the support of Pamela’s unborn child.  “We are willing to accept the fact that your son does not wish to marry Miss Chanced, and instead of forcing that issue we are willing to settle for a monetary settlement.  Of course, to keep it all out of the courts and to spare both young people the embarrassment of dealing with public knowledge of all of this, we expect you to drop the charges against my client.”

Ben stared down at the paper and read the terms and then shot a glance at his attorney.  Benton knew exactly what his client would do next.  He braced himself for the explosion.

“Benton?  Did you tell this fool what I would think of this?”  Ben asked loudly.

“No, Ben, I figured you’d want to handle that part.”  Benton nodded over at his long-time friend.  He knew the man was just about at the boiling point now.

“Your client!”  Ben boomed and Mr. Higgins fidgeted in his chair, worried that there might be a physical assault forthcoming.  “He almost killed my boy!  Now did you really think I would let him off?  And this paternity matter–well it might be a good idea if you would take it up with the father of the child. Not Joseph!  Talk to your client’s daughter—she just may tell the truth for a change.  My son is not the father of that baby.  And don’t even think of blackmailing us with her asinine lies!  I will see you in court.”  Ben grabbed his hat from off his lap and stormed out of the office building.  He mounted Buck and was going to head back to the ranch, when his anger stopped him and he turned his horse toward the jailhouse.

*****

“Ben!”  Roy called as his friend entered the room.  “How are you doing?  How’s Little Joe?”  Roy moved over to shake the man’s hand but noticed the set to the man’s jaw and knew he was irate.  “What is it?” He asked trying to calm the man down.

“Is there any law that prevents me from seeing your prisoner, Roy?”  Ben returned coldly.

“Reckon not–but I’ll have to take your gun.”

Ben nodded and unstrapped his weapon and handed it over to Roy.  He followed the lawman back to the cell, which had housed Clayton for a week.

“I just finished talking to your lawyer, Chanced.”  Ben spoke out hotly.

“Well, then, I think Roy can let me out now.”  Clayton reached down for his hat, thinking that Ben had agreed to his terms.

“I’ll tell you what I just told Mr. Higgins.  You almost killed my son and you are going to pay for it!  Your daughter is lying and it’s time you found out who the real father is.  My son is not the father and I believe you know that.  I’m sure that it was hard learning that your daughter had disgraced the family, but that was no reason to half-kill my boy.  You are going to prison for what you’ve done.  And if anyone is to blame it’s you and your daughter.”

“We are going to smear the Cartwright name from here to San Francisco, Ben.  In every paper from here to the west coast!  Think about it!  Is it worth the shame of it?”  Clayton was now shouting through the bars to his cell.

“Blackmail won’t work—the child is not a Cartwright.  You can put your lies in every paper around the world and it won’t make any difference to me.  I know my son.”

“I’ll get out eventually and when I do your son is dead!”

Ben turned to Roy and said, “That would be a death threat wouldn’t it?”

“Yep, that’s what it was all right.”  Roy nodded.

“And he said it in front of an officer of the law.  Think we need to mention that to the judge, Roy?”

“Oh, I will mention it to him all right.”

“See you in court, Chanced.”  Ben said calmly and walked into the other room with Roy.

“Here–” Roy said and handed Ben back the holster.  “I sure hope they throw the book at that man.  He could be dangerous.”

“Could?”  Ben gave an ironic laugh at the sheriff’s statement.  “He already almost killed Joe once, and now he is threatening again.”

“He ain’t going anywhere, Ben.  I’m not taking my eyes off of him till he’s in the wagon heading for prison.”

“Thanks.  I’ve got to get home.”

“How’s Joe doing anyway?”  Roy asked walking his friend to the door.

“I left Doc with him–don’t know for sure.  He’s running a bit of a fever still.”

“You tell him I asked about him will you?”

Ben nodded and shook Roy’s hand.  “I’ll do that.  See you at the trial.”  Ben said and left the jail to head back to the ranch.

*****

Ben tossed his hat on the credenza as he entered the house later that afternoon.  He had already noticed that the doctor was still there, and he worried that it was a bad sign.  To confirm that feeling, Adam came down the stairs and called over to his father.

“Pa—Doc needs to see you.”

“What is it?”  Ben asked reading his son’s face and the sadness it carried.

“Joe’s fever is higher–Doc says he’s gonna have to open up some of the sutures.”

Ben took a deep breath and then hurried up the stairs.  Walking into the room he saw Hoss standing next to the bed trying to console his brother.  Joe apparently was scared about what was going to happen.  Moving closer, Ben could see that Paul was ready and had been waiting for him to return before beginning the procedure.

“Glad you’re here.  Maybe you can do something–Joe is fighting me on this.”  Paul called out frustrated.

Ben motioned Hoss to move aside and he sat down next to the bed and reached over for Joe’s hand.  Joe immediately withdrew it and turned his face to the other side.  He was having no part of the whole thing.  Joe didn’t want to be consoled, he didn’t want to be encouraged, he just wanted to be left alone.  He felt he had endured far too much already and the thought of yet another procedure to open his back and cause him more pain was out of the question.

“Why don’t you both go and get some coffee while Joe and I have a little talk?  We will only be a couple of minutes.”  Ben called over to Hoss and Paul, giving them the sign that he needed to be alone with his son in order to convince the boy to go along with the plan.

“C’mon, Doc, I’ll even get you a little of that brandy to take the edge off.”  Hoss smiled and walked out with Paul.

“Now, Joseph, you and I need to do some talking so look over here and not at the wall.”

“I’m not gonna get cut on again.  And you’re not going to talk me into it either, if that’s what you are trying to do.”

“You have infection in that back–now it’s only in a small part–he won’t have to cut and stitch much.  Now why are you getting all worked up about it?  You have had a whole lot worse in your life–you know that.”

“Maybe I’ve reached the point where I don’t want anything else done to me–did you ever think about that?  I mean I’ve been a real sport for a long time, going along with everything you and the Doc ever said.  But, you know enough is enough.  My back already looks like it has been put through a damn meat grinder.”  Joe stopped and the tears started, but he kept faced away from his father so Ben couldn’t see them.

Ben breathed deeply and sighed trying to think of what to say.  Joe had made a very valid point.  He had been through an awful lot, more than the rest of the family put together in fact.  And maybe everyone did just naturally expect the boy to go along with any treatment that was suggested, just because he always had.  Maybe Joe had reached his emotional limit.  Ben was not sure what to do this time.  Of course there was always the fact that they could simply knock him out with medication and perform the incision without his knowledge or approval, but that would not really be fair at his age.  He was not a little kid, and after all, it was his body that they planned to cut into.

“Is it the pain, Joe?  Is that what has you worried?”  Ben asked softly.  Joe did not reply he just continued to look the opposite way.  “I can’t help you if you won’t talk to me.” Ben continued and finally, frustrated, he reached across the bed and forcefully turned his son’s head his way.  “Look at me and let’s discuss this.”  Ben pleaded and Joe closed his eyes trying to force away his tears.

“Yeah it’s the pain!”  Joe burst out loudly.  “The pain, the scars, the whole damn thing!  I feel like a piece of meat lying here already.  Do you know how many times I’ve been sewn up, reset, strapped together and doctored in every way known to medical science? I’m almost twenty-three, Pa–and I bet I have had more damage to my body than someone who’s eighty!  Maybe more than that even!  I just can’t do this anymore.  I’m just tired.  My body is tired, I am tired, just let me be.”

Ben sat back in his chair stiffly.  He had never heard this kind of a protest out of his son before and it did shock him.  Joe had always been a fighter.  The boy would go through anything in order to be healed and back to normal.  Had this injury been the straw that broke the camel’s back?  Ben wondered looking over at the tears that coursed down his son’s cheeks and spilled onto the pillowcase.  His youngest son’s face was a mask of desperation and fear.

“Joseph, listen to me.  I know what you have gone through because I have gone through it along with you.  If you think it’s easy being on this side of the bed watching all your suffering I can assure you it’s not.  Someday, when you have children you will understand what I am telling you right now.  But, you know you have to keep fighting, no matter how tired you are.  I’ll tell you a little secret.  But you can’t mention it to Doc.”  Ben paused and waited for Joe to ask what the secret was.  It was a few minutes, but Joe finally took the bait.

“What?” he mumbled, still upset.

“When we brought you in here last week–you were in such bad shape that the first thing that Doc did was to sit in this chair and cover his face.  It made him tear up.”

“Doc?”  Joe asked amazed at the thought.  Doc had always been the strongest person Joe had known, other than his father.

“He said he didn’t think he could handle it.  Seeing you the way you were, all torn up–Hoss and I were afraid he wouldn’t be able to work on you.  But, he did.  It took all of his strength but he stood over you patiently for two hours stitching you up and making you comfortable.”

“You’re telling me this to make me feel bad, aren’t you?”

Ben reached over and put his hand to Joe’s cheek lovingly.  “No, Son, not to make you feel bad–to show you that we all get to a point where we think we’ve had enough.  That’s when you have to pull from your inner strength and go on anyway.  No matter how tired you are mentally or physically.”

“I know what you are saying, Pa.  And I know what you and Doc and everyone has gone through with me.  But, it’s not the same–I’m the one laying here going through the pain.  I’m tired of hurting.  And now these scars—” Joe stopped as tears started to flow again.

“I know you are worried about what your back is going to look like and I wish I could reassure you–but I can’t.  But, I can tell you that you won’t have to worry about scars if you don’t have this done.”  Ben stopped and put his hand to Joe’s forehead and felt the mounting fever.  “You won’t be around to see them.  Your fever is getting worse, how about we get on with this now?”

“And if I say no?”  Joe asked but already knew his answer just looking at the determination on his father’s face.

“Wasn’t it just last night that you asked me why I let you do stupid things?  Well, let’s just say that this would be one stupid thing I wouldn’t let you do.  You have to have this surgery, and we really can’t wait any longer.  Now I want you to take a deep breath and tell me that you are ready.”

“But, I’m not ready, Pa.  I don’t want to be cut on.”  Joe’s voice now trembled and Ben saw the true fear that the hazel eyes conveyed.

Ben stood and sighed, there wasn’t anything more that he could come up with to ease his son’s mind and time was running out.  He walked away from the bed and moved out into the hall where he saw the doctor and Hoss were waiting.

“Sedate him—we can’t wait any longer his fever is worse.”  Ben said sadly.  He wished Joe could have gotten to the point where he had accepted the fact that he had to have the surgery and had given his consent.  But, that wasn’t going to happen.

“I’ll help you, Doc.”  Hoss offered, knowing there was probably going to be a bit of a fight put up by his brother and not wanting his father to have to hold the boy down this time.

Together the three men walked into the room.  Paul opened his black bag and drew up some medicine in a syringe.  Joe could see what the man was doing and he bit at his bottom lip anxiously.

“Just wait until tomorrow–my fever will probably break by then.”  Joe begged.

“Joe, that fever isn’t going anywhere but higher unless I get that infection out.  Now, how about we get this over with?”  Paul said moving closer to the bed.  It was then that Joe felt Hoss’ large hand on his left arm and knew that there would be no escaping the grip.

“You’re gonna feel so much better when you wake up, Little Brother.”  Hoss whispered as Paul plunged the needle into Joe’s arm.

Joe looked over at his father standing alone on the right side the bed.  “I told you it didn’t matter what I said—you all were going to do it anyway.”  Joe’s voice sent forth a note of betrayal and then he fell into a deep sleep.

“Don’t pay any attention to him, Ben.”  Paul called across the bed.  He could see how Joe’s words had upset the man.  “Joe knows we are only doing what’s best for him.  Now let’s get this done.  Hoss, hold this light closer so I can see what I’m doing.”  Paul reached for his scalpel, which Hop Sing had already sterilized for him.  Before making his incision, the doctor looked over at Ben.  “Maybe you should go downstairs for awhile?”

“I’m fine–let’s get this over with.”  Ben answered and watched as the surgical knife cut through the sutures, laying the skin open once again.

“Hand me those heated towels.”  Paul called to Hoss and he took them one by one by the corners and laid them over the open wound to draw out the infection.  “This boy is gonna feel a whole lot better tomorrow I promise you.”

“He may feel better, but he is not going to be very happy with us.”  Ben assured the doctor.  He knew Joe, and the way his temper was never far from the surface. There would be hell to pay when the boy came back around, and most of it would probably be directed at his father.

Paul looked up from what he was doing and shrugged his shoulders and replied.  “He has the rest of his life to get over it.”  Then the doctor went on about his work.  Hoss fought back his grin at what Paul had said and the manner in which he had said it in.  He knew his little brother would be no match for the doctor if he chose to go after him for having operated on him without permission.

*****

Later that evening Ben sat alone in the living room mulling over all the events of the day.  He never remembered being so tired in his life.  The emotional factors had taken their toll, the day having been a wild ride in that area.  From the anger and contempt he had felt earlier at his attorney’s office to the awful feeling of betrayal thrown at him by his youngest son.  It had been a day for the ages.

Ben was shaken from his thoughts when Hoss walked in from the kitchen and handed him a cup of coffee.

“Looks like you need it.”  Hoss smiled over at his father and sat down opposite the man.

“Any change with your brother?  Has he come around yet?”  Ben asked setting his cup back down on the coffee table.

“Naw–Adam is up there with him.  I asked a little while ago and he said Joe hasn’t moved a muscle.”

“The boy worries me.” Ben admitted as his gaze was directed toward the stairs.

“Oh, Pa—he’ll be okay–he’s gotten through worse you know.”

“I’ve been sitting here thinking about what he said to me this afternoon.  He went on and on about all the injuries he has suffered through over the years.  Listening to him, it dawned on me for the first time how all of the tragedies in his life have just been shrugged off by me and all of the rest of us.  While Joseph remembers each one, and very clearly.”

“I don’t rightly understand, Pa.  What are you saying?”  Hoss asked, not certain where his father was going with his rambling.

“Joe gets hurt and we watch him get a bone set, maybe a stitch or two and don’t think a thing of it.  Unfortunately for him, his mind thinks back on each time, each moment of suffering that he has endured.  Today it seemed insurmountable to him.  Just the thought of being cut on terrified him, it really did.  He’s a brave young man, we all know that, but the fear I saw in those eyes was something other than just being scared of the procedure.”  Ben stopped his speech and stood and toyed with the logs in the fireplace, turning them randomly with the fire poker.

“Pa–” Hoss began and decided his father needed some moral support so he stood and approached him.  “This was a pretty bad thing that happened to him.  It wasn’t just some kind of accident that could not be prevented.   Clayton purposely tried to kill Joe.  I don’t know if Joe is thinking about that, and how unfair it all was or not.  I do know he has asked me how bad I thought his back was and whether it would scar—he’s asked me that more than once, too.  Maybe that’s all it is?  His appearance has always mattered a whole lot to him you know?”

“If it were just vanity—I think it would be easier to handle, Son.  I saw something today in your little brother that I don’t think I’ve ever seen before.  Something that scares me.”

“What, Pa?”  Hoss asked quietly.

“He looked as though he had totally given up on everything.  And, with his condition as bad as it is, we’re in trouble if that’s the case.”  Ben answered, and set down the poker staring directly into his son’s troubled blue eyes.

“Oh, Joe won’t quit—no matter what he said to you today.  He was just hurting and all! His mood will lift once his fever goes back down and he isn’t hurting quite so bad.  You’ll see, Pa.”

“I hope so.” Ben nodded and put his hand on Hoss’ shoulder affectionately.

“I’m gonna go spell Adam now.  Why don’t you turn in?  You’ve had a long day.”

“Think I will.  I’ll spell you in a couple of hours.”  Ben replied and turned for his room.

*****

The first rays of sunlight floated through the curtains and over to where Joe was still fast asleep.  Ben rubbed his own eyes, realizing he had dozed off somewhere along the line.  He stood and stretched trying to loosen the kinks in his back caused by the chair he had been sitting in for hours waiting for his son to come back around.  Leaning over, Ben felt the boy’s forehead and was relieved to find it only slightly warm.  That was a wonderful improvement over the previous day, and only further confirmed to the worried father that the operation had been well worth the aggravation his son had caused them all trying to get out of it.

Walking over to the washbasin in the corner of the room, Ben soaked a washcloth with water from the pitcher and wrung it out in the bowl.  He carried it back over to the bed and placed it gingerly on Joe’s forehead.  The boy was still slumbering on his stomach, his face turned toward the left side of the bed.

“Joseph?”  Ben whispered and sat down along side his son on the bed.  “Can you hear me, Son?”  He continued, hoping for a response.  Still there was nothing from the boy.  Ben tugged down the sheet to inspect the new sutures and the area, which had held the deeply impacted infection.  It was swollen but did not look nearly as festered as it had prior to the surgery.  Ben stared at all the stitches and welts which still covered Joe’s back.  He closed his eyes, fighting back the idea of scarring.  Joe had weathered so many serious injuries without scarring, that it would be sadly ironic if this was the one that finally caused the boy to carry a visible reminder of the brutality he had endured.  The doctor had spoken of removing some of the sutures in a day or two, and Ben hoped that might help ease Joe’s pain as well as his provide some hope that the healing had begun.  Being an optimist, it was hard for the father to admit that there didn’t appear to be even the slightest chance that his son wouldn’t carry a scar for the rest of his life from all the damage that the whip had caused.  Joe would have to learn to handle that, as would the rest of the family.  They would carry the reminder in their hearts if not on their backs, like Joe.

Ben was so far into his own mental pictures of what the future would hold for them all that he did not see the move that his son made on the bed.  Joe’s left hand slowly fell from the pillow, where it had been resting just under his chin, and sought out his father.  Joe’s fingers wrapped around those of his father’s right hand before Ben was aware that his son was finally awake.

“Joe?  You awake?”  Ben whispered and squeezed the boy’s hand lightly and kept a hold of it.  He hoped it was a good sign that Joe was not as angry as he had presumed he’d be.

Joe nodded his head faintly but did not speak.  As he began to get his senses back he was hit again with an intense pain, which migrated up from his legs and worsened as it reached the middle portion of his back.  A groan escaped Joe’s lips, though he had tried to keep it inside to no avail.  Ben could see how his son’s facial expression had changed, the boy now scrunching up his cheeks in a deep grimace.

“I’ll get you something, Son.”  Ben whispered and stood from his position next to Joe and moved to the nightstand.  He found the pills, which the doctor had left.  In fact, Doctor Martin had already warned Ben that Joe would be hurting a bit more at first, since the incision was made deeper than the actual laceration was originally.  But, that had been needed to drain the infection from the wound.  Paul had told Ben to give his son two pain pills upon waking and later on in the day Joe should start to feel a whole lot better.  Ben hoped that the doctor would be as right about later on in the day as he had been about Joe hurting upon waking up.

Ben poured some water and set the glass straw inside of the cup.  Next, he neared Joe again and handed him one pill at a time.  Joe accepted them without a protest, and Ben knew that meant the boy had to be in a whole lot of pain by that point.  When he was sure that Joe had swallowed both pain pills and had washed them down with enough water, Ben set the glass back on the nightstand and returned to where he had been sitting on the bed next to his son.  “Your fever is almost gone, Joe.  That’s a very good sign that Doc got all that infection out.”  Ben stated and paused hoping Joe would say something, but he didn’t.  He waited for the boy to address what had happened, but was not getting any response at all and it was starting to make him worry that much more.  “Joe?  You still awake?”  Ben asked, seeing that Joe had closed his eyes again.  It was at that moment that tears drifted down the boy’s face, yet he still did not speak.

“Joseph—I’m sorry–sorry we had to go against your wishes yesterday–but there wasn’t anything else we could do.  Please don’t be angry with me.  I can’t stand to see you this way.”

“I’m–not–angry.” Joe answered, his words breaking as he choked back tears.

“You’re not?  Then what is it?  Why are you crying?”  Ben asked, and his hand lifted off the washcloth on the boy’s forehead and wiped away the tears running down Joe’s cheeks with it.

“I have no idea, Pa.”  Joe sobbed and pulled his hand up to his face to cover his eyes.

“You’ve been through an awful ordeal, Son.  Your nerves are probably shot.  Don’t worry yourself about it.  Let’s get you some breakfast, okay?”  Ben asked softly and Joe reached for his father’s hand again.  He held on tightly and Ben could not for the life of him figure out what was going on with his son.

“Don’t leave.  Not right now.”  Joe’s voice was different.  Ben thought that it sounded like it use to sound like back when his son was much younger.  The normal Joe Cartwright independence was gone in its tone.  He sounded like a frightened child.  Ben squeezed the hand again and stayed put.

“I’m not going anywhere.”  Ben answered calmly and watched as Joe took a deep breath and pushed aside the tears again which were still tracking down his face.

“I feel like such an idiot.  Crying like some little kid.”  Joe whispered.

“It’s okay, Joe–I told you you’ve just gone through so much here lately that it’s all been just a bit too much for you.  You have been poked and prodded and sutured and cut again and re-sutured.  Honestly sometimes I think you have more strength than the whole lot of us put together!” Ben tried his best to offer encouragement in his words, and yet the tears continued to fall.  Joe looked so sad and so desperate that it tugged at his father’s heart.  “You know I’ve been thinking about some of the things you said yesterday, Joseph.  And, in a lot of ways you were right.  We have seen you go up against so many things in the past that we just naturally assume that you can handle anything that gets thrown at you.  I know I have always taken your strength and your will power for granted.  To me this was another serious injury, but nothing that I didn’t think you could handle.  I’m sorry that I wasn’t more in tune as to how you were feeling.”

“Pa—I think I’d like to go back to sleep for awhile now.”  Joe said and withdrew his hand from his father.  He closed his eyes and willed himself back to sleep.

Ben sat there a long while watching the young man as he went back under.  As soon as he was sure that Joe was down for good, Ben stood and made his way out of the room.  He hoped the doctor would be by soon, as he had promised.  Ben needed to talk to him.   Something was very wrong with his youngest and he needed to know what it was.

*****

Adam and his brother Hoss stood outside in front of the corral.  They had waved to Paul when he had earlier pulled up in his carriage and watched as the man entered the house to check on his patient.

“I hope he has some good news for a change.  Pa, looks like he’s aged ten years these last few days.”  Hoss said to his brother.  Adam removed the saddle from his horse and tossed it up on the railing and then led the animal through the gate.  He turned back around and addressed his brother.

“Well, between Joe’s condition and what that idiot attorney of Kincaid’s said to him yesterday can you really blame him?”

“No—I can’t.  Do you believe that they actually thought we would drop the charges and also agree to paying for that kid?  I just can’t get over it!”  Hoss replied anger taking over his tone.

“This trial can’t come a day too soon for me.  I’m glad it’s the day after tomorrow.”

“Yeah, I think we all will be a heap better off getting it out of the way.  I don’t think our little brother is gonna get better until his name gets cleared either.  I think that’s eating at him as much as anything else is right now.”

“I wish Pa would have let me talk to Pamela Kincaid—if she would just admit to lying, it sure would help.”

“Benton said he’d be doing some digging around about her.  If we’re lucky maybe he can find out some clue as to who really is the father.”  Hoss said hopefully.

Adam lifted his saddle again and started to carry it into the barn, Hoss followed along.  “Let’s get the chores done so we can check and see what Doc said about Joe.”  Adam instructed and his brother nodded his agreement.  They were both anxious to hear what the prognosis would be.

*****

Ben paced back and forth in front of his study.  He had already refused the coffee that Hop Sing had offered and had been a bit short with the man.  Ben was beside himself with worry.  After apologizing to the cook, he had started back up the staircase and stopped himself before reaching the top.  Paul had instructed the weary father to stay downstairs while he examined Joe.  Ben was having a very hard time following those orders, and it seemed as though the doctor had been in his son’s room for hours already.

It was then that Ben saw the doctor at the top of the stairs descending them slowly.  He noted the appearance on the man’s face and Ben was doubtful that there would be good news forthcoming.  When Paul finally moved to sit in the living room, Ben joined him there.

“Well?  See what I mean?  Is he acting strangely or what?”

“Yes.”  Paul nodded and Ben handed him over a cup of coffee.

“What do you think is causing it?  Do you think it is an after effect of the surgery?”  Ben was impatient, trying to get right to the reason for his son’s behavior.

“Battle fatigue.”  Paul stated firmly and noticed the bewilderment on his friend’s face.

“Huh?  Battle fatigue?”  Ben repeated the diagnosis.

“Sit down, Ben.  I’ll explain myself–but not with you hovering over me.”

Ben reluctantly sat on the coffee table directly opposite from the doctor and waited.

“Now—how to explain this so you will get my drift—” Paul paused and sought out the words he needed.  “When a soldier works the front line—through battle after battle, war after war and lives through it, after awhile it starts to affect his mind.  He sees death all around him, and yet though he may be wounded, he is still alive.  Life and death situations, one right after the other–that is what causes battle fatigue.”

“Joseph is not a soldier and he’s never seen battle.”  Ben argued against Paul’s logic.

“Hasn’t he?  I think I would differ with you on that one, Ben.  Joe has been through so many life and death situations—I think I would consider him a soldier of sorts.”

Ben nodded now, starting to catch on what the other man was getting at.  “Go on.”

“I believe you witnessed a little battle fatigue on my own part just a week ago, Ben.”  Paul smiled a bit embarrassed at the brief scene he had made when they brought Joe in from the Kincaid’s barn. “And if I had a touch of it—and I am just the man who doctors the boy–well you can just imagine how bad it is for the boy himself.  Joe has had to cope with more pain than any of us will ever really know.  But, he’s fought bravely all these years, and has never given up.  I just think that this time, it was perhaps one battle too many for him.  He’s never fought us before, not like the way he did yesterday!  We have always been able to reason with him.  But, I think that yesterday was the culmination of a whole lot of years of previous injuries all rolled into one.  Who could really blame him now if he never wanted to see me again?  Who could really blame him if he refused all medical treatment from anyone? “

”Okay, I go along with you on your explanation, Paul.  I think you are one hundred per cent correct.  But, now that it’s all said, what in the devil can we do about it?”  Ben asked, hoping that the man before him would have an answer to it all.

“I think the only thing we can do is let him be.  Unfortunately, Ben, no matter how much you love him, I don’t think you can help Joe with this one.  He will have to work it out himself and in his own way.  He’s not going to just bounce back this time, no matter how much we’ve come to expect that out of him.”

“There has to be something that I can do.”  Ben was insistent, he felt so powerless now.

“Just be patient with him, that’s really all you can do.  I don’t think there’s any magical lecture that you can spout that will turn him around this time.  He has to find his way alone.”

“Do you think he will?”  Ben’s face was the picture of distress as he waited for the reply.

“If you are asking me if we will ever see that Joe Cartwright spunk again—well, I sure hope so!  I would even settle right now for some complaining on his part to tell you the truth!  He is much too compliant right now, not at all like he should be after a whole week in that bed.  Never thought I would wish for him to lose his temper–but right now it would be a welcome sight.”  Paul now smiled fondly thinking back to the irascible young man he had doctored for years.

“Maybe after this trial business is done–” Ben trailed off as Paul stood to leave.

“Perhaps–until then just be understanding.  I’ll be back tomorrow and I think I can remove some of the sutures then.  Probably won’t help his attitude any, but at least it will ease some of the pain.”

“Thanks, Paul.”  Ben nodded and shook the man’s hand and then walked him to the door.

*****

“You can take this, Hop Sing, I’m done.”  Joe called over to the cook who had been patiently waiting for the boy to finish his supper.

“Not eat enough to keep bird alive.”  Hop Sing protested setting the plate on the tray.

“Just wasn’t very hungry—I’m sorry.”

Hop Sing’s ebony eyes looked sympathetically over at Joe.  He knew that the young man was having a very tough time of it, and it pained his heart not to know what to do for him.  “What Hop Sing do for Little Joe?”  He asked softly and watched as Joe just shook his head sadly in reply.  “Have made apple pie–just for you–your favorite–Hop Sing bring up now!”  He continued to try to shake Joe’s mood.

“Thanks just the same—I really couldn’t eat anything more.  I just don’t have an appetite right now–it’s not that I don’t appreciate all you do for me.”  Joe apologized when he saw the hurt on the cook’s face.

“All things work out in time, Confucius say this.  Little Joe need patience.  Soon all problems disappear and happiness return.”  Hop Sing spouted his encouragement and then turned for the door.

****yeah–problems disappear and new ones take their place you mean****Joe muttered to himself once the cook had left the room.  He found himself to be falling much further down the well of depression and for the life of him could not slow the descent.  Closing his eyes, Joe fought to return to slumber where his troubles could not find him.

*****

When Thursday rolled around, each family member had had their own chance to try and lift Joe’s spirits.  However, their attempts always proved to be futile.  Ben had discussed with his oldest two sons what Paul had told him about Joe’s mental state.  He also advised them not to try and force themselves on Joe like they were purposely trying to shake him out of his doldrums.  Ben told them that the doctor had suggested time and patience, and he felt that the man was probably correct as always in his prognosis.

“Well, that rids you of about twenty stitches now, Joe.  I know that you still have a slew of them left in you, but at least it’s a start.”  Paul tried to sound cheerful as he dabbed the antiseptic solution over the area where he had just relieved Joe of the sutures.

“How many more are there?”  Joe asked.  He had yet to see exactly what his back looked like.  Joe had only been out of his bed a couple of times since the night he had spoken to William Bell, and those times only long enough to allow Hop Sing to change his bed linens.

Paul looked over at Ben wondering whether he should tell Joe the truth or give some vague answer for the time being.  The weary father wasn’t much help.  He shot back a shrug of his shoulders, as he read what Paul’s eyes had been asking him.

“Not sure exactly, Joe–to tell you the truth.  I never did count them when I was putting them in.  You have the original ones–maybe about three dozen or so of them.  Then, the ones I had to put in the other day—maybe twenty or so.  But, we’ll be getting them out soon, don’t worry.”

“Why would I worry?”  Joe asked frowning as he allowed his head to fall back down on the pillow.  “It’s not like I can do anything about it, right?  And I’m sure that I’ll have lots and lots of sutures in the future–that is– if the rest of my life plays out the way the past years have.”

The doctor looked to Ben and nodded.  It was another example of the battle fatigue that he had described to the father the previous day.  They could tell that Joe had made the subtle hint that he fully expected injuries to continue to plague his life.

“Well, I certainly hope your assumption is incorrect, Young Man.”  Paul answered firmly.  “I would hate to see you go through another injury—and I sure don’t want the business either. Now, I have to be going.  I have my notes to look over for that trial tomorrow.  Ben, I will see you there.  Joe, you only have another week and then we can start letting you move around some–so try to be patient for just a little while longer, okay?”  The doctor called as he reached for the door.

“Whatever you say.”  Joe replied with a total lack of enthusiasm.

Ben exchanged a worried glance with Paul.  The two men had so rarely heard the young man agree to anything before, that when Joe spoke his casual reply it seemed very odd.  Joe had just been informed that he would have to remain in bed for yet another week, normally that would not have gone unchallenged.  In the past they would have had to threaten the young man in order to keep him in his room let alone in bed that long.

“I’ll see you in town tomorrow, Paul.”  Ben sighed and shook the doctor’s hand.  Paul nodded and whispered a barely audible “don’t worry” to Ben and left the room.  Turning back towards the bed, Ben decided to stay and talk with his son a little while longer.  He sat down in the chair and let his hand fall onto Joe’s arm.

“You don’t have to stay, Pa.”

“I know I don’t have to–I want to.  How’s your back?  Can you feel any difference since those sutures were taken out?”  Ben asked, hoping to get his son to focus in on something, even if it was his injury.

“Not really.  But, like the Doc said–I do have a slew of them still in me.”

“Chanced is going to be tried and convicted tomorrow, Joseph.  I know it won’t help with what you are going through right now, but at least there will be some justice to all of this finally.”

“Be sure to give him my regards.”  Joe said sarcastically and closed his eyes.  He didn’t want to think about the trial, for he knew he could not attend.  Joe wouldn’t be able to explain what had happened, nor show the violence which Mr. Chanced had displayed the night he had beaten him.

“You know we are going to stop Pamela’s accusation tomorrow—there will be no doubt when we leave the courthouse that she lied.  The truth will win out and maybe this time tomorrow we can get back to a normal life again.”  Ben tried to sound hopeful in all he had offered Joe but he could tell that his son apparently didn’t care one way or the other what the outcome would be.

“You know, Pa—I am tired of proving myself to others, I really don’t give a damn whether the people in Virginia City believe I am the father of her child or not.  I just want to be left alone by everyone.  I’m sorry about the Cartwright name and all—but none of this was my fault.  I was minding my own business, sipping a beer when some lunatic decided he’d use me for a whipping post!”  Joe’s eyes opened and suddenly he became hostile in his tone of voice. Ben saw the hazel eyes, which had earlier been so dull and lifeless, blaze over at him filled with anger.

“Joseph—” Ben started and tried to calm the boy but saw that it wasn’t going to work.  Even though he ached to see the pain and anguish on Joe’s young face, Ben was relieved to see something there taking the place of the compliance he had worn for days.  Any reaction was better than no reaction at all.  “I know that you are mad–” Ben began again but Joe jumped in and cut him off in mid-sentence.

“Mad?  Hell no!  I am not mad!”  Joe now shouted and pulled himself up on his elbows.  “I am furious–that’s what I am!  To think that I had to go through this suffering because someone told a lie and another person believed it is not fair!”

“Yes, Joseph, of course you are right.”  Ben agreed and then shut up to allow more fumes to come out from his son.  He felt that this outburst might be the tonic the boy needed more than anything else.

“It wasn’t a matter of me being at the wrong place at the wrong time–not this time, Pa!  And, it had absolutely nothing to do with anything that I had done either!  It was just a damn senseless act!”

“Yes, it was.”  Ben nodded and fought back a smile.  He didn’t want Joe to think he thought the ordeal was a laughing matter, because he didn’t.  The only amusement that Ben felt was in the coming alive of the Joe Cartwright temper.  Because if the temper was back, then the boy he loved could not be far behind it.

“Pa—I want you to do something for me.”  Joe said and Ben knew that look in his son’s eyes, having seen it many times before in the past.

“All right–something tells me you are going to ask me something that I should say no to–go ahead.”

“Help me up—I want to go over to my bureau for just a minute.”

“Joe, we went through this the other night, remember?”  Ben argued but then stopped himself suddenly.  Maybe getting out of the bed, if only for a few moments, would help the situation and lift the boy’s spirits some.  “Let me get your robe.”  Ben sighed and stood to get it.

Then, just as he had a couple of days earlier, Joe slowly made his way out of his bed, still leaning on his father as before.  Ben assisted him with the robe and then allowed Joe to lean in to help keep his balance.  The pair slowly inched over to the bureau at the far end of the room.  Joe still ached with each step, but this time the walk was fueled by some pent up anger and it helped.

Once reaching the end of the room, Joe found himself looking into his mirror.  He had to admit to himself that he looked pretty damn awful at the time.  Joe noticed he had lost a few pounds during his recuperation, his cheeks caved in a bit and there was a slight stubble of beard on his face which made him look like a saddle tramp.  On top of all of those differences, his hair was in a total disarray making his appearance look a bit wild at that.

“I look like hell warmed over.”  Joe frowned and shook his head.

“Well, I will agree with you on that.”  Ben smiled when he saw the partial grin that Joe had shot him in response to what he had said.

“You think you can help me?  I want to shave and brush my hair.  I just need you to stand here in case I start to fall.  I haven’t quite gotten my sea legs yet.”

“Of course I will be glad to help you–but what’s with the sudden concern for your looks?”  Ben asked and reached over to pull the washstand closer to the bureau.

“I have no idea, Pa.  I guess just because I feel awful it doesn’t mean I have to look awful does it?”

“Here.”  Ben said and handed the boy his shaving mug.  “I’ll hand you everything you need, but you let me know if you start getting weak–deal?”

“Deal.”  Joe nodded and started lathering up his face.  Ben stood there and watched, totally amazed by the abruptness of Joe’s attitude change.  He hoped that it would last, as it would be a good sign that Joe was starting to come out of his depression.

*****

Joe shaved and washed thoroughly at the water basin.  He then took the time to brush his unruly hair.  Ben stood by his side the whole time and assisted where he could but still gave Joe as much independence as he could allow.  Joe looked satisfied with the improvement of his appearance when he was done and stood admiring himself in the mirror.  It had taken a little more than thirty minutes to clean up, and Joe could tell his strength was starting to diminish.  Ben could also tell that the appearance of pain was back again on the boy’s face.

“I think that did the trick—you are once again the handsomest Cartwright in this house–now how about we get you back into that bed?”  Ben asked smiling.

“Okay–” Joe replied as Ben reached to take his arm.  “Wait!” Joe insisted and prevented the move away from the bureau.  He knew there was one more thing that he needed to do.  In fact, it had been the motivation for the whole walk in the first place.

“What is it?  We need to get you back into bed.”

“One more thing and then I’ll go, Pa.  Hand me that hand mirror will you?”  Joe pointed over to the object sitting on the far end of his bureau.

“Huh?  Why?”  Ben did not understand his son’s request, but handed the mirror over in order to appease him.

Joe set the mirror down in front of him and slowly pulled off his robe, handing it to Ben temporarily.  It was at that moment that Ben became aware of what Joe was getting ready to do.

“Joseph—not just yet–” Ben protested and tried to take the hand mirror from the boy.

Joe resisted his father’s attempt, clutching the mirror tightly in his left hand.  “I’ve got to know, Pa.”  He whispered and turned around so he could look into the hand mirror and catch a view of his back cast back from the mirror of his bureau.

Ben bit his lip in worry.  Joe just stared at the damage to his back.  He did not speak, he couldn’t.  Joe had known for a little over a week that the injury was extensive, but he had no earthly idea that it was as horrible as what he was now seeing in his reflection.  Long lines of sutures flowed distinctly from his shoulders all the way down to the back of his thighs.  What skin wasn’t held together by a stitch was swollen into large welts.  His back was indeed a bloodied mess.  Joe now knew the questions that he had been asking about whether he would have any scarring had been ridiculous ones.  There was no way that the damage caused by Clayton Chanced would ever totally go away.

Ben watched as Joe made the motion of taking a deep breath, to gather some strength he supposed.  Joe turned and set the hand mirror back on the top of his bureau.  He then reached for his robe.  Ben handed it to the boy and Joe slowly put it on to cover the hideous sight of his back.   It was then that Joe finally looked into his father’s eyes.

“Oh—Pa–” Joe cried and fell towards his father.  Ben tried to comfort the boy as gingerly as he could.  He couldn’t take him into his arms, due to the damage to his back.  But, Ben cupped the boy’s face in his hands and whispered to him.

“I’m so sorry, Joseph.”

“Help me–help me back to bed–” Joe begged, tears streaming from his eyes.  Ben grabbed Joe’s left arm and they took the steps even slower than they had earlier.  Helping Joe back down onto the bed, Ben never took his hand completely off of him.  He sat down along side of his son, debating over what he could do or say to make him hurt less emotionally or physically.

Joe tried to summon his courage but was finding it very difficult to do.  He tried to speak, but kept getting choked with emotion whenever he started to form a word.  Finally, he was able to talk.

“I guess that was why Doc couldn’t handle it at first, huh?”  Joe asked between slow breaths trying for control.  “Looks like more stitches than I have had in my whole life all added together.”

“There’s a lot of them.”  Ben nodded, slowly stroking Joe’s arm to calm him.

“Stupid of me wasn’t it?  Stupid to ask about scarring, huh?  Damn—I’m lucky to have a back at all looks like.”  Joe admitted and tried to push away the remaining tears.

“It won’t all scar, Joseph—just some of it.”  Ben replied and then realized it was of little consolation to his son to hear it.

“Pa?”  Joe whispered and looked up at his father.  He saw the tears that Ben had been trying his best to contain, but they were in his brown eyes nonetheless.  Joe knew how much his father loved him, he also knew that the man would do anything in the world for him.

“Yes, Son?”

“Make Chanced pay for this will you?  Make sure everybody knows how bad he hurt me when you go in there tomorrow.  I want them to know how bad this is and how bad I feel right at this moment.”

Ben bent down and kissed Joe on the forehead, and as he did, the tears from his eyes spilled out onto the boy’s face.  “That’s a promise, Joseph.”

*****

Joe could not sleep that night, though he played possum long enough to make his father believe he was slumbering.  Ben waited until then to leave for his own room.  He knew the next day would be a very challenging day for the three Cartwrights who would be attending Clayton’s trial.  It was that very thought which weighed on Joe’s troubled mind long into the wee hours of the morning.  He really wanted to be there to see his tormentor be sentenced.  Joe needed to feel there had been some form of revenge administered by the court in response to the horrible beating he had endured.  Thinking back to the reflection in his mirror, Joe’s stomach churned.  He still was having a hard time dealing with the horrendous appearance of his back that night.  Joe remembered his father saying that it wouldn’t “all” scar, but wasn’t too sure exactly what he had meant by those words.  Was “all” supposed to mean half of his back would heal?  Maybe a third of it would heal?  Joe knew that both his father as well as the doctor had been purposely leading him on, so as to not upset him with the bad news.  He knew that their vague answers to his numerous questions had been meant to change the subject each time scarring had been mentioned.  Now, after seeing for himself the damage, it was clear to Joe that they were trying to keep him calm and allow him to heal before addressing what the future would hold in that respect.

But what to do about it?  Joe still fought with his desire to appear at the trial.  He could just imagine asking his father to take him.  There would be one hell of a blow up with that request, that was for sure!  Ben might even go so far as to sedating him if he even got the faintest hint that it was on his son’s mind to go into town for the trial.  Joe sighed trying to think of another way.  He could not trust either one of his brothers to help him either.  Joe knew that they would tell him he was crazy and then run right to their father with word of his plan.  No, there had to be someone else, some other ally who could help him.  A wicked smile creased the corners of Joe’s lips.  He had found his ally, and was already formulating a plan in which to win the man over to his side to get his way in the matter.  With that thought, Joe finally closed his eyes and fell to sleep.

Joe looked over at his bedroom door as it opened.  He could see his father was all dressed and ready for the trial as the man moved over to stand next to the bed.

“We are leaving a little early, Joseph.  Thought we’d speak with Benton before the trial starts in case he has any new information for us.”  Ben explained and let his hand fall down to Joe’s shoulder in the one spot where he did not detect a welt or suture.  “Is there anything I can get for you before I leave?”

“Yeah—Pa–could you ask Hop Sing to bring me up some coffee?  I had some at breakfast, but could sure use some more.”  Joe replied, trying to hide the glimmer of scheming that was surely in his hazel eyes at the time.

“Sure, Son.  I’ll tell him on my way out.  I’ll see you soon.”  Ben gave Joe a comforting pat to the shoulder and turned to leave.

“Sooner than you think.”  Joe mumbled low enough that his father had not heard it as he left the room.

Hop Sing saw off the three Cartwrights and then carried up coffee for the injured youngest son.  He made sure to put on his brightest smile as he entered Joe’s room, worried that the young man would probably still be in a gloomy mood.

“Hop Sing bring coffee.”  He called over to Joe and set it on his nightstand.  “Anything else you like Hop Sing to get you?”

“As a matter of fact there is.”  Joe grinned over at the cook.

Hop Sing had been around the boy ever since he was a baby and he knew that the look that Joe now wore on his face meant trouble.  “What Little Joe up to?  Hop Sing know that grin!”

“I’m not up to anything.”  Joe protested, feigning hurt by the accusation.

“Okay then, what you want?”  Hop Sing looked skeptical.

“I just need you to help me get dressed.”

“Dressed?  Why you want?  Doctor say no clothes till back heal.”

“Oh he worries too much.  Just help me get dressed and I have just a couple of other things I need you to do for me.  Remember you asked yesterday?  You asked what you could do for me?”  Joe reminded the man of their previous conversation.

“Hop Sing not like sound of this.  What more you want?”

“Well, after you help me get dressed, I just need you to help me down the stairs.  Then, um—I need you to drive me into Virginia City so I can go to the trial.”

Joe winced his face and covered his ears.  The Chinaman sent forth a long string of protests in his native tongue.  He could not believe that the boy would ask him to help him with such a terrible plan.  Hop Sing knew that Joe was in no condition to travel.

“C’mon, Hop Sing.”  Joe pleaded trying to stop the protests that the man was still sounding off loudly.

“Little Joe get Hop Sing fired!”  He shouted raising his hands in gesture.

Joe smiled and reached to pat the man’s arm fondly.  “Yeah, well, Pa will probably fire me too–but after he calms down I am sure we’ll get hired back.”  Joe replied casually.

“You no go–you no get dressed–Hop Sing put down foot.”

Joe frowned and then decided to go another route to gain Hop Sing’s support.  He changed his facial expression to his most sincere and looked sadly into the cook’s ebony eyes and said, “Hop Sing, you of all people should understand how I feel and why I just have to go to this trial.”

“Why that?”  Hop Sing asked still keeping his guard up to prevent being sucked into the boy’s plan.

“From the time I was just a little guy you’ve told me about how your people feel about “losing face” right?  I mean your people are men of honor, you would never stand to have your name sullied by lies now would you?”

“Father save face—you no need go there.”  Hop Sing insisted, still fighting the pathetic looks that the boy was shooting in his direction.

“I have to do it!  Don’t you see that?  Look what that man did to me!  If it had been you, wouldn’t you want to be there?  Wouldn’t you have done everything you could to be sure that your name was cleared and the person who tarnished it was punished?”

Hop Sing stopped and thought over what Joe had said.  He had a point at that, a strong point the cook nodded to himself.  But, what if the trip to town caused the boy more damage?  And how in the world would he ever explain his actions to Ben Cartwright?  The man would be outraged that he had aided and abetted his son.

“Please?”  Joe called again to the man who was still deep in a quandary over what to do.

Hop Sing answered with yet another long string of Chinese chastisements and then shrugged his shoulders helplessly.  “How you ride to town–you no sit down?”

Joe smiled, he knew he had won Hop Sing over now.  “After you get me downstairs all you have to do is hitch up the buckboard and I will lay down in the back.  I’ll be fine, I know I will.”

“Mr. Ben fire Hop Sing—no doubt in Hop Sing mind.”  The man reached for Joe’s outstretched hand and helped to pull him to his feet.

“Oh—you know we can’t do without you–Hoss would wither away to nothing if you were gone.  Don’t worry.”

“Mr. Ben be vely mad at Little Joe too!”  Hop Sing warned as he began assisting Joe over to his dresser.

“He’ll get over that too.”  Joe smiled and held out his arms as Hop Sing helped him on with a shirt.  He fought to hide his grimace, clothes were going to be a real challenge.  Joe reached for the trousers and carefully pulled them on, still trying to stifle his groans.  “I think I’ll just wear the shirt outside of the pants this time.  I think the judge will know why I am not too formal today.”  Joe sighed trying to get use to the weight of the material.  Hop Sing had to pull on the boy’s socks and then his boots, since Joe was unable to bend due to his stitches.

“You want to rest before we go down stairs?”

“Naw–no time like the present.  Let’s just take it slow, okay?”

Hop Sing spieled off more Chinese as he slowly led Joe over to the door and then out into the hallway.

*****

Joe stood leaning heavily against the back of the settee.  He was hurting beyond belief but was doing his very best acting job trying to prevent Hop Sing from learning the truth.  Descending the stairs had been excruciating, and Joe had almost decided that no trial was worth the pain that the move to the living room had caused.  He had taken some long deep breaths to ward off the need to scream out, and had even shot Hop Sing a pleasant smile when the man had left the room to hitch up the team of horses.  Joe hoped it wouldn’t be long in getting into the back of the buckboard.  He wasn’t sure how long he could keep from screaming out in pain.  Hop Sing must have known this, as he was soon back and had made it a point to grab blankets and pillows to cushion Joe’s ride in the wagon.  They were finally on their way, and Joe wondered just how his father would take his sudden appearance in the courtroom.  He chuckled to himself as the wagon drew closer to town.  Pa would surely be surprised!

*****

The two opposing attorneys looked across the aisle at each other, perhaps in an attempt to figure out the tricks each side would soon be performing in the criminal trial of Clayton Chanced for the attempted murder of Joseph Cartwright.  The courthouse was filled to capacity with citizens both concerned about the welfare of Joe Cartwright and those who just wanted to hear some gossip first hand.  Clayton had insisted that his daughter not be brought in on the case, wanting to spare her the humiliation.  Unfortunately for him, the prosecutor had sent her a subpoena so she had to be there.  She sat behind her father and placed her hand on his shoulder for comfort.  He turned around and kissed her cheek and then looked back to where the judge was addressing the court.

Both Samuel Higgins and the prosecutor, Benton Hill, had already made their opening statements and Judge Wheeler had just finished looking over the notes of the case in front of him.

“Your first witness may proceed.”  The judge nodded over at Benton.

“The prosecution calls Doctor Paul Martin to the stand.”  Benton announced and Paul stood and was sworn in and took his seat in the witness chair.

Clayton whispered over to his lawyer, worried about what the doctor would provide as far as testimony.  Mr. Higgins whispered something back to the man, trying to calm him down.  He had already had a time with his client that morning.  The man was so irate once he had found out about his daughter being summoned to testify that he had threatened Benton’s life along with Joe’s this time.   The defense attorney was worried about other charges being added by the judge whenever he learned about his client’s persistent threats.  The attorney warned Clayton that he needed to be on his best behavior at the trial to prevent the book from being thrown at him and his sentence being greatly elevated.

Clayton looked two chairs over where Roy and his deputy sat patiently.  They were the only two people in the courtroom who carried weapons.  He made a mental note of the exact position of the deputy’s gun, just in case.

“Doctor Martin, “ Benton began his questioning.  “You tended Joseph Cartwright the night he was beaten, is that correct?”

“Yes, I met the Cartwrights on their way back from the Chanced ranch.  I followed them to the Ponderosa where I tried to save the boy’s life.”

“And is it your opinion that this was merely a severe beating—as the defense has suggested–or in your opinion was this a case of attempted murder?”

“Objection!”  Samuel Higgins shouted as he jumped to his feet.  “Your Honor, this man is a doctor but he has no expertise in determining if my client was trying to kill Mr. Cartwright or if he was merely trying to get him to do right by his daughter.”

Judge Wheeler looked over at the doctor and then over at Benton Hill and thought for a moment.  “All right, Mr. Higgins, I will agree that the doctor’s opinion over what the intent was in your client’s mind is not pertinent.  So, I would advise Mr. Hill to change to a little bit more reasonable question.  Objection sustained.”

Benton frowned and then tried again.  “Doctor Martin, will you tell the court, as a doctor, whether the wounds that Joe Cartwright suffered that night at the hands of the defendant were severe enough to have killed him.”

Paul smiled at the way Benton had basically asked the same question, but had worded it in a way that the defense could not protest this time.  “Yes, the wounds were severe enough to kill the boy.  He barely pulled through that night.  And, he has been in a life or death situation for most of the week and a half since the injury.  He will have some long lasting scarring from his wounds as well.”

“Your witness.”  Benton nodded and Mr. Higgins walked over to the witness chair.

“We have already admitted to having had a fight with Joseph over the honor of my client’s daughter.  Mr. Chanced is not denying that he struck him.  But, he in no way was trying to kill the boy.  Are you sure that it isn’t your prejudice in this case that leads you to testify in the manner in which you have?”   The attorney tried to cast a doubt as to the doctor’s honesty and the room fell hushed to hear the question asked the way it had.

“Prejudice?  I have no idea what you are saying.”  Paul answered plainly.

“It’s common knowledge that you are good friends with the Cartwright family!  You wouldn’t be perjuring yourself for their benefit would you?”

Paul laughed and looked over at the judge.  “I’m sorry, but that sounded amusing to me.  Yes, I am friends with the Cartwrights, I am also friends with most of the folks in this town.  Can’t see myself perjuring myself for any of you!  What I said stands.”

“And you are SURE that Joseph Cartwright’s injuries were that severe?”  He asked again, this time with a bit of sarcasm to his voice.

Paul looked down the center aisle and saw the door open.  There, being assisted by Hop Sing, was Joe Cartwright, entering the courtroom.  Paul smiled in spite of himself.

“Well, why don’t you ask him?”  Paul called over to Mr. Higgins.

The room was filled with commotion as Joe slowly made his way towards the front of the room.  Ben, Hoss and Adam were the picture of confusion when they turned to see the appearance of the young man.

“Yes, Your Honor—” Benton broke in, seeing what was happening.  “Why don’t we let Joe Cartwright speak for himself—-I call him as my next witness.”  Benton signaled for Paul to step down.

“Highly irregular procedure–” Judge Wheeler started to protest, but then could see that the young man walking toward the bench was in pretty bad shape and he stopped.  “Any objections, Mr. Higgins?”  He called down to the defense attorney.

“Well—-” He tried to come up with a plausible excuse to disallow the testimony, but could not come up with anything.

“Your Honor, I beg the court’s indulgence.”  Benton said as he drew closer to the judge.  “Joe Cartwright, by all logic should not be here today—but since he has shown up, it is only fair to hear what the victim to this crime has to say.”

“I agree.”  Judge Wheeler nodded and waved Joe forward.

Passing Doctor Martin as he neared the witness stand, Joe felt the man grab his arm and whisper to him, “I’m going to give you a very strong talking to when this is over, Joe.”  He warned.  Joe shot the man a pathetic look and pointed over to where his father was looking scathingly towards him.

“You are going to have to take a number it looks like, Doc.”  Joe whispered and headed for the witness chair.  Joe waited while the deputy brought over the Bible and called out to him.

“Do you swear to tell the truth the whole truth and nothing but the truth so help you God?”

“I do.”  Joe nodded.

“You may be seated.”  The judge nodded over to the young man.

“Um—” Joe started and looked sheepishly over at the judge.  “I’m sorry, Your Honor, I can’t sit down.  The only two positions I have right now are standing or laying down.”  Joe tried to explain.

“I’ll testify to that!”  Paul called out from the audience.  “That boy has about fifty sutures in him right now!”

Joe looked down to the floor embarrassed.  The doctor sure had chosen one heck of a time to remember the stitch count that he had earlier denied knowing.

Ben leaned over to Hoss, who was sitting to his right and whispered.  “As soon as he is better I am going to kill him.”

Hoss fought back a chuckle and winked over at Adam who had also heard the threat.  They knew that their father was now caught between anger and worry over the boy who never should have left the ranch.

“You can stand, that’s fine.”  Judge Wheeler nodded sympathetically towards Joe.

“You really shouldn’t be here today should you, Joe?”  Benton asked as he got closer to the boy.

“No, Sir.  But, I wanted to be sure that the truth was told.”

“All right, since you obviously went through great pains to get here–” Benton paused and then shot a look towards his old friend Ben Cartwright and winked.  “And since I am sure your father will be reminding you about this little stunt for a long time to come—I think this court is ready to hear your story, Joe.  Tell us what happened.”

“I was standing at the Silver Dollar Saloon having a beer when Mr. Chanced came up to me and asked if I would come outside and talk to him.”  Joe stopped and looked over at the man at the defense table and his daughter who sat behind him, trying her best to avoid Joe’s penetrating hazel eyes.  Joe shook his head sadly staring over at the girl, still having no idea of why she had lied about him.  “Anyway, I went outside to the alley with him, there he pulled a gun on me and said we needed to talk.  I had no idea what was going on, but I went with him–afraid that he just might shoot me and I would never know why.  When we got to his place, Mr. Chanced forced me into his barn.  I asked him why he was doing it and he said that I knew!  I didn’t have a clue as to what was going on.  Well, he finally told me it was because he wanted me to marry his daughter, Pamela.”  Joe stopped his rendition.  He was not at all sure how to proceed with the story.

“Go on, Joe, the story has to come out now.” Benton coaxed the young man and he continued.

“For some reason he told me that Pamela said that we had been seeing each other and that I—well, she said I was the father of the baby she is carrying.”

Normally there would have been an outburst in the large crowd gathered in the courtroom.  However, what Joe had related was old news by then.  The rumor of what had happened had circulated through Virginia City for over a week.

“I told him I wasn’t–that I had never even been with her–never dated her!  But, he told me I was lying and he knocked me out.  When I came to I was tied between two posts by a stall in the barn.  That’s when he started to whip me—he beat me with a bullwhip until I passed out.  That’s when my father and brother came—before he had a chance to finish me off.”

“And is there any truth to the matter?  Are you the father of that child?”  Benton asked to be sure to address the situation properly before the defense had their chance with Joe.

“No, Sir.  I have never touched Pamela.”   Joe answered.

“Your witness.”  Benton called over to Mr. Higgins.

“Joe?  You are quite the ladies man are you not?”  The defense attorney smiled towards the young man standing at the witness chair.  He was obviously trying to paint a picture of Joe that would discredit him.

“No.”  Joe remarked bluntly.

“Oh–I am sure you have dated just about every pretty girl in this town at one time or the other—isn’t that true?”

Joe looked around the room and frowned, he knew what the man was trying to imply.  “I don’t think I would have the time to do that, Mr. Higgins.  There are far too many pretty girls in this town and not enough Saturday nights to court them in.”  Joe was now at his charming best.  The defense attorney was now getting mad that Joe was not cooperating with what he was trying to do.

“You ARE the father of Pamela Kincaid’s baby!  And it’s the knowledge of that which made my client so upset that he lashed out at you.  A crime–perhaps, but one any good father here would do to protect his daughter!  Clayton Chanced was not trying to kill you was he?  No!  He was trying to get you to take responsibility for YOUR own actions!”  The man shouted.

Joe fought the internal rage he was feeling now.  He cast a quick look over to his father and could tell that the man was hoping his son would show restraint.  “I am NOT the father.  I have never had relations with Pamela Chanced–” Joe paused and decided it was time to quell any rumors that had been formed in the minds of the towns people once and for all.  “In fact, despite rumors to the contrary, I have never had relations with any woman.  I was raised better than that.”  Joe paused again and his eyes fell on those of his father’s again and saw the man nod proudly towards him.  He could tell that Ben was not only happy to have his son address the issue to stop the current question of paternity, but also that he was proud that Joe had lived his twenty-two years honorably and was not embarrassed to admit it.  “And Mr. Chanced WAS trying to kill me and I have the scars to prove it!”

Just as Joe’s last remark was heard Clayton made the move he had been waiting for.  He caught the deputy off guard and lunged for his revolver before the man knew what was happening.  He charged his way toward the witness stand as shouts went up in the crowd. Before Roy could draw and aim his weapon, Clayton had the stolen six-shooter pointed to Joe’s forehead.

Ben and his other two sons jumped to their feet, shocked and terrified over what the maniac might do next.  They all wished that the weapons that they carried had not been sequestered in the front room of the courthouse.  It only left Roy Coffee with a gun in his hand, but there was no way he could discharge the weapon without Clayton killing Joe.

Joe felt the coolness of the Colt forty-five against the thin skin of his temple.  He held his breath waiting for the man to pull the trigger.  So many thoughts raced through his mind, that it seemed as though time had stopped for everyone but him.  He saw the panic on his father’s face and now he regretted the foolhardy trip into town.  He knew that if Clayton shot him there, in cold blood, that it was more or less his own fault.  Joe also knew it would be something that would haunt the lives of his family members forever.

“Now you are going to go out with me, Joe.  Anyone here tries to stop me and I will not “attempt” to murder this boy—I will do it outright!  Now clear a path!”  Clayton demanded and shoved Joe out of the witness booth. Joe almost fell from the push.  The man had hit an area of his back that held the newest of the sutures and Joe could feel the area rip apart.  “Move!”  Clayton shouted again at Joe, angered that he wasn’t moving faster.  Joe tried his best to keep up with the man’s pace to prevent another assault of his hand.

When Clayton and his hostage had cleared the courtroom, Roy went into action.  He rushed over to Ben.  “I’m going around back–you all head out onto the street.  He won’t see me coming!”  Roy shouted and dove out the back of the courthouse.

“The rest of this court stay seated!”  Judge Wheeler demanded.  He wanted to prevent as much bloodshed as he could by keeping folks in their seats for the time being.

“I have to save my father!”  Pamela Chanced screamed and ran out of the room before anyone could stop her.

Clayton had commandeered the Cartwright’s buckboard, which had been sitting right across the street from the courthouse.  He had shoved Joe onto the front seat, and by now the young man was barely conscious due to the pain from his wounds, which were bleeding from the rough treatment.  The three Cartwrights charged out of the courthouse, having retrieved their weapons.

“Go ahead and shoot!”  Clayton yelled as he started to send the team of horses forward.  “I’ll kill Joe now–just start firing!”  He held the gun directly at Joe’s chest as the horses lurched forward.

From around the corner of the mercantile came the voice of Roy Coffee.

“Drop it, Chanced!”  He yelled toward the man.

The sound of the sheriff’s voice caught the man off guard, and when he shot a glance behind the wagon, Ben Cartwright took advantage of the opportunity.  He only had one chance to send a bullet towards the man who was starting to leave with Joe as his hostage.  When he squeezed the trigger, with the bullet went a prayer towards the heavens that it would find the right mark.  As the wagon came to an abrupt halt, Ben was thankful that both the bullet and the prayer worked.  Clayton fell forward and then slid to one side dropping out of the wagon and onto the street.

“No!”  Pamela Chanced screamed as she ran across to where her father lay dying.  “Oh, Papa! It’s all my fault!  All my fault!  I lied to you!”  She cried as she took his head and cradled it in her lap.

“What?”  Clayton whispered, biting back the pain from the bullet wound in his chest.

“It wasn’t Joe—I’m so sorry, Papa—it wasn’t Joe–It was Richard–Richard Lott.  He is the father of my baby!  I thought he’d come back–and then I would explain–I never thought you would find out—and then it was too late.”

Ben had hurried across the street along with Hoss and Adam.  They lifted Joe out of the wagon, and he, too, was spread out on the street along side the wagon.  He managed to open his eyes briefly and saw the scene that was going on between Pamela and her wounded father.  As angry as he was at both Pamela for her lies, and Clayton for his brutality, Joe couldn’t help feeling sadness for them both.

Clayton tilted his head so he could see the four Cartwrights.  “I’m sorry.”  He whispered and then closed his eyes.  He died there on the street, his daughter crying at his side.  A few moments later several of the women from the town gathered around and helped the young woman over to the hotel to rest.  Roy and his deputy carried Clayton away and then reported back in with Judge Wheeler telling him that the trial was over.

Ben helped Joe up off the ground and eased him into the back of the wagon.  No one spoke a word.  The events of the afternoon had left them all speechless.  Getting Joe back to the ranch and having him tended to was all that mattered now.

*****

Epilogue:

Doctor Martin rinsed his hands at the basin in Joe’s bedroom and stood there drying them off on the towel.  He had put in a long day, but then, lately they had all been long ones.  Walking back over to the bed he looked over at the worried father and down at the wayward young man.

“Well?”  Ben finally spoke.

“Well—now he has MORE sutures.” Paul said sarcastically.  “And he has just cost himself another two weeks in bed.  You think you can keep him there this time, Ben?”

“Oh, he’ll stay down, I’ve thought up some brand new threats that will do the trick.”  Ben winked at the doctor and noticed the smirk on his son’s face after his comment.  “I wouldn’t smile, Young Man, I’ve had plenty of time to come up with new forms of punishment.  As a matter of fact I have been thinking about it ever since I saw you walk into that courthouse today.’  Ben said sternly and seemed serious this time.

“C’mon, Pa!  I did what I had to–and it helped too!”  Joe protested his father’s ire.

“Helped what?  Helped to make you worse off than if you had listened to both your father and your doctor?”  Ben retorted and Paul nodded.  The doctor was none too happy with his patient either.

“Let him have it, Ben!  He just shaved several years off of both of our lives today!”  Paul exclaimed and sat down in the chair to watch the battle between the two head- strong Cartwrights.

“No—now, Pa—Doc—if I hadn’t shown up then Pamela might never have admitted who the father was!  That might have been hanging over our heads for years!”  Joe explained his theory.

“And if you hadn’t gone into town today you wouldn’t be in the condition you are in now.  Doc wouldn’t have had to spend his afternoon here suturing you for the millionth time and I wouldn’t have almost had a heart attack watching Clayton taking you off to be killed!”

“You would have done the same thing–you know it.  And you BOTH know I have never been able to lay around for weeks without doing something outrageous, so neither one of you should be all that surprised!”  Joe was now trying to get the other men to not only smile but to also let him off the hook about his disobedience.

“He has a point there, Ben.  I believe you and I WERE worried the other day that Joe had lost all of his spunk—and it IS our fault for saying we wished he was back to his normal self.  Well, welcome him back–cause this is what he’s been like for twenty-two, almost twenty-three years now.”   Paul sighed, taking up Joe’s cause again.

“Okay then–” Joe started and winked over at the doctor and then turned back to look at his father.  “Doc forgives me—now do you, Pa?”

“Paul, let’s go and get some brandy, shall we?”  Ben asked ignoring his son’s question.  Paul laughed at the change of subject, but decided that some brandy would surely be welcomed after the day that they had all had.  He walked with Ben to the door.

“Hey!  You didn’t answer my question, Pa.”  Joe protested as his father prepared to leave the room.

“Oh?  You want an answer do you?”  Ben called from the doorway.  “Well, I’ll tell you what I just told Hop Sing a few minutes ago while the Doc was patching you up.”

“What?”  Joe asked anxiously.

“You’re fired!”  Ben said straight-faced and closed the bedroom door.

Joe smiled and settled his head back down on the pillow to rest.  It had been a long day that was for sure.  He had taxed his body in just about every way possible and was now suffering the consequences of those actions.  But, it had all worked out.  Though he felt bad that Mr. Chanced had been killed, he realized there had been no way to avoid it.  At least the man had died knowing the truth.

Joe closed his eyes and thought on the whole ordeal.  It had been almost two weeks of pure Hell and he was still suffering from the trauma of his wounds.  He still was not sure whether he would heal totally or whether the scars would always be a reminder of his assault at the hands of Clayton Chanced.  Joe sighed deeply.  Whether he would carry the scars of his ordeal or not would just have to be tomorrow’s problem.  Tonight he would concentrate on the here and now.

For the moment Joe felt warm and safe and protected.  He was home with his family and there was nowhere else that he would rather be.  As long as there was a tomorrow there would always be hope for better things.  He refused to be held a hostage to thoughts of what might lie ahead for him, good or bad.  There might always be pain in his future, but hopefully, if that were to be the case, there would always be someone to care for him and help him through it.  Joe started to drift off to sleep, feeling more peaceful than he had felt for a long while.  Just before totally sinking to the final stage of slumber, Joe’s eyes shot open as the sudden thought hit his brain.  “Pa fired me!”  He muttered to himself.  “Damn–that makes three times this year!”  Joe sighed and closed his eyes again.  He knew it might take a day or two, but he was sure to get his job back.  Nepotism came in handy around the Ponderosa.  And it sure didn’t hurt to have your father as your employer and very best friend.

*****End*****

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