Summarys: After riding away from home in anger, a close call threatens one of the Cartwrights.
Word Count: 1,995
Little Joe stood by the lake gazing out at its beauty with unseeing eyes. He had tried counting to ten but when he got to 220 and his anger still threatened to erupt he gave up. He berated himself; why did he allow Adam to get under his skin? Hoss had tried telling him time and time again not to over react, but when the red mist came down all of Joe’s reason abandoned him. Many times he felt like hitting out at his older brother and when that happened he knew his best option was to get away from the situation as quickly as possible. Oh boy, he couldn’t bear to imagine the consequences if his temper got the better of him and he actually lashed out.
On this particular day things had been going quite well until Adam arrived home. Joe and Hoss had almost completed the afternoon chores and were about to wash up and relax when Adam rode into the yard with a scowl on his face. Dismounting from his horse, he handed the reins of Sport over to Joe, just expecting him to do the necessary, without even so much as a please or thank you. Who made him the boss?
As if that wasn’t bad enough, Adam later complained that Joe hadn’t rubbed the horse down correctly. Who was he to tell Joe how to look after horses? Joe would never neglect a horse – even Adam’s horse; after all, it wasn’t the horses fault he had such a grumpy owner.
When the exchange of words had began, Ben was in his study doing the books and in Joe’s eyes when his Pa was home, Adam had no right to start throwing his weight about. Joe’s big mistake had been to point this fact out to Adam in a very loud voice in front of half the ranch hands. Joe believed in living dangerously.
There wasn’t an argument; Adam had stood hands on hips, his lips pulled back almost in a sneer and calmly asked Joe to repeat what he had just said.
Joe knew that the answer he wanted to give was not the right one if he valued his hide and so, in sheer frustration, he had jumped on his horse and left, his brother’s booming voice telling him to ‘come back’ ringing in his ears.
The tranquility of the water was beginning to work its magic. Joe’s breathing had slowed and his pulse had stopped racing. A wave of guilt washed over him; he was sure his father would not be proud of his behavior, and now that he had time to think about it, neither was Joe.
Skimming stones across the water, he thought there was little point going back to the house for a while. Adam may have calmed down but he would no doubt have informed Pa about Joe’s insubordination, and if past experience was anything to go by, his father would take a lot longer to calm down than he did.
An hour later and Joe was beginning to get bored. It must be getting near suppertime as his stomach was starting to rumble. He wanted to return home but thought the time was still not right. Leading Cochise slowly behind him, he headed towards the hills. His eyes scanned the landscape, and just for a second, he thought he saw movement from behind one of the rocks.
Joe knew better than to take chances. Dropping to his knees, he pulled his gun from its holster in one swift movement. Lying down in the dirt, he dragged himself along by his elbows and, as quickly as he could, he made his way over to the nearest rock and crawled up behind it. Peering out as unobtrusively as he could, he squinted in the late afternoon sun trying to focus on the many scattered hills in front of him. There it was again; there was definitely someone moving around up there. Oh no, there was also movement off to his right, which meant there was more than one of them. Well, this was one fight he wouldn’t be backing away from.
Joe checked his gun and made sure it was cocked and ready; he hoped he wouldn’t have to use it but it was best to be prepared. Peering out once again, he jumped back in an instant when a bullet whizzed past his ear. Phew! That was a close call; he would need to be more careful next time.
Lying low, Joe crawled slightly out and away from the rock he was hiding behind. The grass was long and he hoped it would give him enough coverage not to be seen. Keeping as still as possible, he waited for all of ten minutes before he saw movement again. Taking aim and holding his gun between both hands, he pointed and fired three shots. There was a scream as one of the bullets found its target and he was surprised and more than a little shocked to see a Paiute brave stagger forward before rolling down the hill.
The sweat began to trickle down Joe’s face and he wiped his eyes on his sleeve. He had no doubt that if there was one Indian, there would be others and what was even more worrying, they had guns.
When the attack came, Joe was prepared but totally out numbered; he fought bravely and managed to shoot at least two of them. The bullet that hit him came from behind; it entered his shoulder and lodged between his ribs. Joe fell forward onto the dry earth face down, crying out in pain as he began to feel the full impact of the wound.
Joe did not lose consciousness, as he lay hurt and bloody on the ground. He tried to lie very still in the hope that the Indians would think him dead and ride off. The late afternoon sun beat down upon him and his mind drifted to thoughts of his family. Praying silently, he hoped Adam and Hoss would find him in time, he didn’t want to die out here in the wilderness alone.
Adam had washed and shaved and was sitting in his favorite blue chair reading. Out of the corner of his eye he could see his father pacing backwards and forwards in front of the fire. His Pa worried too much; Adam was sure Joe would be back once he calmed down and his hunger got the better of him.
Hoss entered the house in his usual manner, slamming the door shut behind him.
“Do you have to slam the door, Hoss? Just for once could you please enter the house quietly?”
Adam looked over at Hoss and they both allowed their eyes to roll towards the ceiling.
“Sorry Pa,” said Hoss “Little Joe home yet?”
“Does it look like it?” snapped Ben in irritation.
Ben would never admit it, but until Joe was home, he wouldn’t be able to relax and everyone else would have to bear the brunt of his irritation in the meantime.
Adam’s conscience was nagging away at him. When he had returned from town that afternoon, he had been in rather a bad mood after a business meeting had not gone his way, and Joe, as often was the case, had received the brunt of his anger. Now that he had time to think about it, he felt that maybe he owed his younger brother an apology; on the other hand, Joe still needed to be reprimanded for his display of temper in front of the hands.
After his father had paced up and down once more, Adam sighed deeply and with just a hint of reluctance closed his book. Standing slowly, he walked towards the door, put on his hat and gunbelt and threw up his arms in mock surrender.
“Come on, Hoss; I guess none of us will be eating tonight until I find that brother of ours and bring his ornery hide home.”
Ben stopped pacing and sheepishly smiled at Adam. “Try to leave him in one piece, Adam. Rest assured I will deal with Joseph.”
Adam and Hoss had a fairly good idea where Joe would be. Whenever Joe was troubled, he would make his way to the lake and take solace in spending time at his mother’s grave.
The brothers laughed together as they approached; they had no reason to believe anything was wrong. But as they neared their destination, the laughter died on their lips as they saw Joe lying face down in the dirt.
Adam was the first to dismount and, rushing over to his brother, he knelt down on the ground. Taking Joe in his arms, he gently turned him over to face him. The worry was etched in his voice as he said, “Joe what happened?”
Joe slowly opened his eyes and looked up at his elder brother. Flinching with pain, he slowly said, “A-A-Adam, it was Indians. I tried, Adam. I tried real hard, but there was just too many of them.”
“Don’t worry, Joe, you’ll be okay. We’ll take care of things.”
Hoss by now had dismounted and joined his brothers on the ground. Joe lay limp in Adam’s arms and Hoss reached over to stroke his face.
“You mount up, Adam,” said Hoss. “We need to get him back to Pa as quickly as possible.”
Taking Joe in his strong arms, Hoss lifted him as if he weighed no more than a feather. Adam had mounted his horse and Hoss placed his little brother gently in his outstretched hands. A knowing look passed between the brothers but nothing more was said.
The ride back to the ranch house was much quicker than the ride out. As they entered the yard, Hoss dismounted first and, reaching up, he took the burden of his younger brother once more and strode into the house without pausing to wait for Adam. Hoss quickly crossed the room and laid Joe on the settee.
Seeing his youngest been carried into the room, Ben’s heart missed a beat and he rushed to his side.
“Oh God Joseph, what happened?” Ben sank down onto his knees in front of the settee and anxiously began to check out Joe’s injuries.
Adam silently entered the room and stood in front of the fire with arms crossed over his chest watching the scene in front of him unfold.
Catching sight of his eldest, Ben looked in Adam’s direction and raising his eyebrows he waited for Adam to give an explanation.
“It was Indians, Pa. Joe didn’t stand a chance.”
With a trained parental eye, Ben quickly assessed the situation. “Better get one of the men to go for the doctor,” he said, stroking a loving hand across Joe’s face before adding, “It’s a real pity; Hop Sing has made Joe’s favorite fried chicken for supper tonight. Guess you’ll have to have an extra helping, Hoss.”
Joe’s stomach began to rumble; he’d forgotten how hungry he was. Opening his eyes slowly and squinting up at his father, he bit momentarily on his bottom lip before saying, “It doesn’t feel too bad, Pa; maybe I could eat a little supper.”
“Well if you really think so, son. Why don’t you go wash up, come to the table, and see how you do?”
“Okay, I’ll try.”
And with that Joe sat up, jumped from the settee and headed for the washhouse.
Ben, Adam and Hoss kept their laughter well in check until the small boy left the room, whereupon Ben looked at his elder sons and winked, “That boy sure has a good imagination.”