With Wings as Eagles (by Wrangler)

Summary:    Part 3 of the trilogy which began with “The Promise” and “The Jonah.”

Note From Author: I would like to dedicate this story to two people who are very special to me. First to Deer, whose talents created the medium for me to write. Without her assistance, my stories would be gathering dust under my bed. Next, to Heidi; it was your courage and wisdom which ultimately created the idea for this last story in the trilogy. The two of you are my heroes.

Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:   34,114


 

(the last and final story in the trilogy which began with The Promise and The Jonah)

“He giveth power to the faint; and to them that have no might he increaseth strength. Even the youths shall faint and be weary, and the young men shall utterly fall:  But they that wait upon the LORD shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint.”

The Book of Isaiah, Chapter 40, Verses 29-31

 

Three tired and dirty men dismounted in front of the Silver Dollar Saloon. Shaking the dust from their shirts they tied the three horses up to the hitching post and stepped up onto the porch. With but one thought in their collective minds they started towards the swinging doors to the saloon, wanting nothing more than to quench their thirst with the liquor that waited inside.

“Now, you two…” Adam Cartwright stopped his two brothers from proceeding through the door. “No trouble. You understand?”

“Trouble?” Hoss grinned. “Joe, reckon why older brother here would even suggest such a thing?

“He’s a bit senile, Hoss; leave him alone and just nod his way.” Joe laughed until he felt Adam’s hand grab up a good amount of the jacket he had on.

“You know what I mean!” Adam replied and tried to take on the role of boss. “We are here for two beers–that’s it! I probably shouldn’t have let you nitwits even talk me into coming here. Pa is probably back from Carson City right now wondering what’s keeping us!”

“Relax, Big Brother!” Joe put on his most captivating smile as he fought to release himself from his brother’s tight hold. “We’ll have our two beers and leave peacefully. Won’t we, Hoss?”

“Sure thing, Joe! ‘Sides I don’t know what your problem is, Adam? Me and Joe haven’t busted up a saloon in at least a month or more.”

“That’s because we have been moving cattle for a month.” Adam commented and let loose of his brother Joe’s jacket, smoothing it out with a wink to him. “I know how you both get when you have been working as hard as you have—and I don’t want to see you go in there and try to unwind by getting into a free for all!”

“He just doesn’t trust us at all does he, Little Brother?” Hoss chuckled.

“Naw–and wasn’t it you, Adam, who made the two of us work so danged hard in the first place?” Joe asked and watched as his oldest brother rolled his eyes.

“Go in–but if you both start anything I am leaving and not looking back. I’ve rode herd over the two of you for longer than even I can tolerate. Once we are back home, I am gonna make sure that I get some peace.” Adam caved in and pushed his brothers forward and they all sauntered joyously over to the counter.

“Three beers!” Joe addressed Sam the bartender smiling. “Oh, and they are on the boss here.” Joe pointed over to Adam and Sam held out his hand to retrieve the money.

“I will buy the first round, but Joe gets the honors of the second,” Adam replied and handed the bartender the cost of the three drinks.

Hoss lifted his beer mug and toasted to his brothers. “Here is to my two wealthy brothers who will be supplying me in beer tonight!”

“Yeah–hey–we have to have three drinks a piece, Adam,” Joe argued the point. “If we don’t, then Hoss gets off scot free!”

“Two,” Adam answered sipping his beer calmly.

“Who died and left you in charge?” Joe retorted hotly. It was starting to get to him, after spending a month in the constant charge of his oldest brother. He would be glad to have things get back to normal now that his days of driving cattle were over for awhile. Pa was the only person Joe would even consider taking orders from, and he was a whole lot easier on him than Adam had always been.

“You, if you don’t stop jawing at me,” Adam said and tugged Joe’s hat down over his eyes. “Now let’s go get us a table, shall we?” He walked off with both of his brothers following right behind.

“Ah…” Hoss said as he sank down into the chair. It didn’t matter that it was a hard wooden one; it just felt good to be stationary for a minute. He sipped on his beer and felt a perfect peace come over him.

“I sure wouldn’t mind getting into that game over there.” Joe pointed across the room where a poker game was in progress.

“Naw–you just keep your money for the beer.” Hoss laughed and saw Joe shoot him a sneering look.

“I could make enough to buy this whole bar and the whole stock of liquor if I had a little time,” Joe boasted.

“A fool and his money,” Adam nodded over to his little brother.

*****

While the Cartwright brothers relaxed and enjoyed their drinks and soon signaled the bartender for another round, the saloon filled with more patrons. A group of six cowboys took their seats at the next table and started in on their loud conversation.

“I can’t believe it, Hank, just look at what is on the front page here!” One of the men handed his friend to his right a copy of the Territorial Enterprise. The other man laughed as he read the headlines and then shot a look over at the next table where the Cartwrights all sat.

“Ben Cartwright, illustrious citizen of Virginia City, appointed head of committee on Indian affairs,” the man reading the paper said loud enough to grab the whole bar’s attention.

Joe shot a look over at him and noticed it was Bob Stevens, the foreman of a ranch that sat on the southern border of the Ponderosa. He turned towards Adam and shot him a warning look. There had been bad blood brewing for months, and not just with that ranch but with other ranches in the area over what their father had been trying to do. Virginia City was split into two factions: those wanting some reparations for the Indians, and those who were totally against the idea. The Circle W was not in favor of helping the Indians in any way, and it was apparent that the folks at the next table were trying to start something.

Joe and his two older brothers were very aware of the feelings of Justin Weathers, the owner of the Circle W. That man hated Indians, no matter what tribe they were from. He had lost his oldest son in battle up at Pyramid Lake fighting with Major Ormsby’s men. By the time that the well-known fight was over, forty-six Indians had perished along with sixty-six white men. Mr. Weathers had made it known from that point on that he hated all Indians and would fight any legislation to help them. It didn’t matter that his son had been killed some four years earlier; his hate for Indians was just as strong as it had been the day he had buried his son.

Joe gritted his teeth and knew the trouble was going to escalate as he saw Mr. Weathers walk into the saloon and sit down with his ranch hands. He knew that his father had warned both him and his brothers that there would be some hard feelings over what the new committee would be trying to do. Joe remembered his father talking to all three sons the night before they had left for the cattle drive. Ben so vividly explained his thoughts and his views on why he felt the Indians needed his help that none of his sons ever questioned what the outcome of his actions would be. The Cartwrights shared the same vision of helping the Native Americans and they all vowed to do whatever was necessary, regardless of the consequences of those actions. As Joe looked back to the next table, he figured one of those consequences was about to take place now.

Mr. Weathers was handed the newspaper and his eyes skimmed the article about his neighbor. “Ben Cartwright! My nefarious neighbor!” he called out loudly, knowing it would start a ruckus at the next table. “Look at what that do-gooder has done this time!”

Adam shifted in his seat and cast a look between Joe and Hoss and warned them with his eyes not to take the bait offered. He slowly sipped his beer and tried to pretend he hadn’t heard the slam about his father.

“He got himself appointed to the head of the committee! If he had his way, he’d give up all the Ponderosa to help those thieving savages! Now that’s just fine for him–but you know I think he should keep his mouth shut about all other land!” One of the other ranch hands jumped in with his opinion.

Joe started to stand but Adam’s rough clamp of his hand to the boy’s wrist stopped him. “No,” Adam whispered and Joe reluctantly sank back down in the chair.

“You know what I can’t figure?” came Mr. Weather’s voice again loudly, shot over towards the Cartwrights. “I just can’t figure why Ben likes them Injuns so much. Hey–Hoss! Wasn’t it an Indian’s arrow that killed your ma?”

The slow simmer in Hoss’ veins turned to a fast boil as he heard what the man had said. Adam threw his hand on top of Hoss’ right hand and shook his head, “no”. Hoss frowned; he wasn’t sure how much more he or Joe could take.

“You know, it wasn’t even a year ago that Ben was burying what he thought was you, Little Joe! Funny that your Pa didn’t get mad at them redskins even though they stabbed you and left you for dead! I guess his love for those savages beats his love for you too!”

It was when Mr. Weathers finished his statement that Adam slowly removed his hat and placed it calmly on the middle of the table in front of him. “I don’t mind him picking on you,” Adam whispered to Joe and then looked at Hoss. “And I don’t mind him picking on you.” Both brothers smiled knowing what the next statement would be. “But, they are picking on my daddy now.” Adam stood and pointed for his brothers to remove their hats. Joe and Hoss broke into big grins. It had been more than a month since they had indulged in any type of brawl and they were more than ready. They decided that even Pa wouldn’t be too mad about it later. After all, they were defending the Cartwright name.

The Silver Dollar Saloon erupted into total chaos. The by-standers decided which cause was the better of the two and they joined along with either the Cartwright or Weathers’ camp and started to bust the place up. Hoss sent one of the Circle W hands flying through the air and over the counter, a second after Sam had ducked out of the way. Then Adam got slammed up against one of the walls and came back with his fists flying. Joe took the time to gather the two unfinished beers that had been on their table and made it across the room. Once there, Joe sought safety under one of the poker tables and drank heartily and watched his two older brothers doing battle. He sent out a cheer of encouragement every now and then between sips, content to know that they didn’t need him at the moment. When the fighting had subsided just a bit, and when the last of the beer was gone, Joe crawled out from under his hideout and joined in on the melee. He had only sent a couple of punches when Roy Coffee made his grand entrance into the saloon. The sheriff fired off a round of buckshot to draw the attention of the brawlers.

“Gentlemen,” Roy paused and shot a woeful look around the room, stopping the sound of fists. “If you will all give me the great pleasure of your company, we are going to the jail house now.”

With the saloon bathed in complete silence, Joe walked over to his two brothers and handed them their hats. Then all the parties involved proceeded to follow the sheriff over to the Virginia City Jail

*****

Ben Cartwright descended the staircase feeling so much better than he did when he had first arrived back home that afternoon. He had spent the better part of the week in meeting after meeting in Carson City and was more than glad to be home. It had been a productive week though, and Ben was very satisfied with the progress he had already made with the newly appointed committee. Though it was still in its fledgling stage, just the fact that the new governor, Henry Blasdel, had commissioned the Indian affairs committee was a big accomplishment. Now it would be up to Ben and the other seven members of the committee to gather all the information needed so they could send it, with the governor’s approval, to the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Washington, D.C. There was still so much to do that it worried Ben over how much time it would take away from his duties on the Ponderosa. He tried not to let the thought bother him too much. He had all three of his sons to help out and they were due back any minute from the cattle drive.

“You feel better after your bath?” Hop Sing asked as he brought the man some coffee and handed it to him.

“Much better, Hop Sing! Thanks so much for getting it ready for me. It sure is nice to be home.” Ben smiled as he reached up from his chair and accepted the coffee cup.

“When boys come home? Hop Sing make stew so not have to worry about keeping roast warm again.”

Ben grinned; the cook was getting anxious to see his three favorite people in the world. He knew that Hop Sing felt like a second father to Adam, Hoss, and especially Joe. “Oh, Adam sent me a telegraph from Sparks three days ago. I am sure they will make it in tonight sometime. You just leave the stew on the stove and they will be mighty glad to have it when they do show up. I know I have missed your cooking, and I have only been gone a couple of days. The boys are probably dying for your home cooked meals. You are a culinary master.”

Hop Sing stared over at Ben trying to figure out exactly what the man had said. It bothered him at times that Ben used big English words, when the little ones were tough enough to remember their meanings. “What you say Hop Sing master of?” he asked bewildered.

Ben laughed when it dawned on him what he had just said. “I was just saying you are a wonderful cook!”

“Then you say that–Hop Sing no need other words–talk right.” He tried to sound mad but his twinkling eyes showed Ben he appreciated the compliment.

“Very sorry—I must remember.” Ben grinned as the cook made his way back into the kitchen. He didn’t know what he would have done in raising his sons had it not been for the faithful manservant who was far more than that. Hop Sing was as important to the Ponderosa as any of the Cartwrights.

*****

Ben fought his yawns as the night turned late and still there was no sign of his three sons. He had half decided to turn in when he heard the sounds of horses out in the front yard. Knowing it wouldn’t be long before the house would be filled with the sounds of his sons, Ben made his way into the kitchen to bring in a pot of coffee for their arrival.

After bedding down their horses, the three Cartwright brothers made their way into the ranch house sullenly. Joe had insisted on bringing up the rear as they walked through the doorway, not wanting to be first in line when their father caught a good glimpse of the way they all looked.

“Well welcome home, boys!” Ben called cheerily as he made his way around from the kitchen. His warm smile drifted from off his face as his eyes fell on the bruised and battered faces of his sons. “What in the world!” he bellowed and all three men dropped their heads down and away from his piercing eyes.

“Hello, Pa.” Hoss tried to smile as he held his hand up in a futile attempt to throw the man back into his earlier good mood.

“Don’t ‘hello pa’ me. I guess you three made a little stopover in town,” Ben called out caustically as they all walked over to the settee. Hoss and Adam sank down onto the cushions as Joe rounded the room the other way and went for his normal perch on the hearth of the fireplace.

Ben set the coffee pot and cups on the coffee table and marched into the kitchen for towels and water to patch up the cuts and bruises his sons wore on their faces. When he made it back into the living room, he could tell that none of his sons wanted to be first with their explanation. Ben dipped a cloth into the water basin and handed it to Adam first. Then he soaked another cloth and handed it to Hoss. When he turned towards his youngest, he noticed Joe wasn’t too bad off. He hardly had a scratch on him. With that sight before him, Ben broke out into a smile in spite of himself. He held his hand out to Joe for a quick shake.

“Well, congratulations, Joseph. For the first time in your life, you got the least damage.”

Joe shook his father’s hand grinning over the compliment. It was then that he noticed both of his brothers sneering over at him.

“Couldn’t get too banged up hiding under a table,” Adam called out angrily.

“Yeah—here we wuz getting punched out and Little Brother was resting under a poker table drinking a beer!” Hoss joined in on the character assassination.

“Hey!” Joe yelled jumping to his feet in protest. “You both had it under control, remember? No sense wasting good beer.”

It was at that moment that Joe felt the tight squeeze of his father’s hand to his shoulder. Joe looked up into the man’s eyes and saw that he was not happy. Sinking back onto the hearth, Joe decided to keep his mouth shut.

“Does anybody want to tell me why you boys were in town brawling tonight instead of coming home?” Ben asked still towering over them all.

“Adam started it!” Joe was quick to blurt out, hoping to turn his father’s wrath on the oldest son for a change.

“Hey–yeah–that’s right!” Hoss replied. “He’s the one who told us we could go after those idiots from the Circle W!”

“I held them back as long as I could, Pa,” Adam explained, shooting each of his brothers a very unkind expression. “But you know how they are.”

Ben sat down in his chair and let his eyes move from one son to the other. He shook his head and then poured the coffee for all three. “The Circle W? Why were you boys fighting with them?”

“They were shooting off their mouths again! You know about what you are trying to do and all,” Joe said as he accepted his cup.

“Oh they were, huh?”

“Yeah, Pa–Joe’s right. And they said some really rotten things about you.” Hoss re-entered the conversation as he wrung out his cloth and tried to ease the pain from the cut on his face.

“And that was what made you boys fight, is that right?” Ben asked shooting his eyes over to Adam now.

“Yes, Sir. They had it coming,” Adam nodded.

“Okay–what are the damages? Or do I want to know?”

“Tell him, Joe,” Hoss said.

“I ain’t telling him–you tell him!” Joe fumed at being put on the spot.

“One of you tell me!” Ben demanded and set down his cup.

“Three hundred dollars,” Adam whispered just barely loud enough for Ben to hear.

“What!” Ben shouted. “What did you boys do, burn the saloon down?”

“It wasn’t me, Pa,” Joe answered giving his father his most innocent face at the time. “I was just under a table–Hoss and Adam was flinging them around, breaking glass and all.”

Ben stared at his youngest and his expression turned harsh. “Joseph—don’t even think of playing me. You are in just as deep as your brothers are.”

“Nice try,” Adam sneered over at his youngest brother.

“Now listen.” Ben fought for control over the room. “I understand you don’t like hearing people saying bad things about your father. However, I expect more from all three of you! I do not want you boys to go breaking up saloons over a few bad comments. There are plenty of folks out there that are not too keen on the idea of me heading the governor’s committee. But, you are all going to just have to deal with it.”

“But, Pa…” Hoss broke in, his soft blue eyes seeking out those of his father. “They said things about my mother. They said things about what happened with Joe and Lone Eagle too!”

Ben looked at his middle boy and felt a twinge of pain. He could see that the mention of Inger had hurt the big man very much. “What did they say about your mother, Hoss?” Ben asked and this time was much more sympathetic in his tone of voice.

“They said that it was an Injun’s arrow that killed her and that you shouldn’t be trying to do things for the Indians because of it.”

Ben frowned and shook his head once more. “Hoss, we’ve talked all about this before. You feel the same as I do, don’t you?”

“‘Course I do, Pa. But, that don’t mean I like my ma’s name brought into it,” Hoss explained.

“I can understand that,” Ben replied and reached across and patted Hoss’ arm to show him that he felt what Hoss was feeling. Next he turned towards Joe. “Now, what all did they say about Lone Eagle, Joseph?”

“They said that you must care more about the Indians than you do about me. He brought up about Lone Eagle stabbing me and leaving me for dead,” Joe answered solemnly.

Ben fought his emotions again. The image was back in his mind, the image of his youngest son who they thought had been killed. Though it had almost been an entire year since the attack on the stage which Joe had been riding in that day, sometimes it seemed like only yesterday to Ben. Lone Eagle had stabbed Joe, but he had also not killed the boy. To return an old favor, the Indian had left Joe alive. Of course he had harmed the boy in the process and it was a full eight months before Joe actually regained all he had lost in mind and spirit that day. Ben remembered clearly the raid on Lone Eagle’s renegades four months earlier. Though it was Lone Eagle who was the main target of the posse, he was one of the Indians who had gotten away. When the skirmish was over fifteen braves lay dead in the Indian camp, but Lone Eagle was nowhere to be found.

Ben tried to shake himself from the haunting reminders of the terrible events from the past. He had witnessed his youngest son’s renewal in spirit and vowed not to let anything change his attitude. Ben was a bit worried at first, when he had brought to his son’s attention the whole idea of aiding the Indians of the area. But it had been largely his youngest son who had no problem with what his father wished to do. All three sons had given their father their blessings on his project.

“Joseph…you still feel the same way about me being on this committee that you did before you left on the cattle drive, right? Because if you don’t…” Ben was cut off by Joe at that point.

“Pa, of course I feel the same way! I know that what those loud mouths said wasn’t true. Well, it’s just that I didn’t want to hear them say it.” Joe reached for his father’s hand and squeezed it in a show of affection and support. “Nobody has to tell me how you feel about me. I know it.” Joe smiled.

Ben returned his son’s smile and patted the boy’s shoulder. “Looks like that just leaves you, Adam. How about it? You think I should go on with what I am trying to do?”

“Sure, Pa. But, there’s gonna be more trouble before your recommendations are sent to Washington.”

“That’s why I want the three of you to do whatever you can to stay out of harm’s way.”

“Adam started it.” Joe laughed again and his oldest brother threw a pillow at him. Joe wasn’t quick enough this time and it hit him smack in the head.

Ben shook his head and laughed. His sons were a pure caution but he was so very proud of them it made his heart swell. “Okay–enough with the rough housing. Now if you boys will go and wash your hands I think Hop Sing still has the stew on the stove. I’ll go get you some,” Ben announced standing up.

“Joe doesn’t need his hands washed; he never got them dirty,” Hoss teased his brother and tried for a swat at him as he moved from the hearth.

“You can come with me to help then, Joseph. Since you did the wisest thing for a change.”

“Wisest thing, Pa?” Joe asked as he followed Ben towards the kitchen.

Ben threw his arm around Joe’s shoulder and chuckled. “You stayed under a table and finished your beer. Looking at your two brothers, I would say you did the wisest thing. For a ‘change’.” Ben patted Joe on the back as they made their way into the kitchen to rustle up the food.

*****

The next morning brought with it a drastic change in the weather. A rare summer storm deluged the Ponderosa with torrential rain. As the sleepy headed Cartwright brothers made their way down the staircase smiles fell on their faces. The Cartwright sons thought it was a great sign that they would get a day of rest. Ben was already seated at the dining room table and he bid each of his sons good morning as they took their seats next to him.

“That’s some powerful storm out there, Pa,” Hoss said as he poured himself some coffee and passed the coffee pot down the line for his brothers.

“Yes, and from the look of those clouds it will probably be with us most of the day.” Ben nodded.

“Good. I have a new book and I am going to enjoy just sitting down with it and relaxing after a month on the trail.” Adam reached across the table for the platter of eggs. The bruises from the night’s brawl were very visible on both of the two eldest Cartwright brother’s faces.

“I think I’ll just eat and go back to bed.” Joe smiled at the thought.

Ben cleared his throat, and that was not a good sign. All his sons turned toward the man and waited to hear what his warning meant. “I hate to break up your visions of an easy day, boys. But, I just happen to have a little project here inside which will require your attention.”

“Huh?” Joe asked frowning.

“I have a stack of papers which need copying. As a matter of fact, there are twenty-one pages in all and they need seven copies each. So, this will be just right for dividing between the three of you.”

“But, that’s…” Hoss broke from his statement and tried to count how many copies his father needed in all.

“One hundred and forty-seven,” Adam jumped in showing off his expertise in mathematics.

“Show off,” Joe muttered under his breath as he tried to figure out something else that needed his attention which would take him away from his father’s planned assignment.

“That’s forty-nine pages each,” Adam continued.

 “Very good, Adam,” Ben nodded towards his eldest. “I knew all that college would be good for something.”

“Forty-nine pages!” Joe burst out loudly. “C’mon, Pa! That’ll take all day.”

“Well, you have all day, Joseph.” Ben grinned as he looked at the forlorn faces in front of him. “I need this for the next committee meeting which is in Carson City tomorrow.”

“But, Pa—-you know nobody’s ever been able to read my writing,” Joe continued his protests still hoping for his father to cave in.

“And that is why you will print, Joseph,” Ben replied sternly. “You do remember how to print don’t you?”

Hoss and Adam looked over at their little brother and the expression on the boy’s face was priceless. In fact, it was almost worth it to the two older brothers to have to do the assignment just to see Joe getting put on the spot.

“When did we turn this into a school house anyway?” Joe asked sarcastically.

“Ah, don’t feel so bad, young’n; there’s always recess you know,” Hoss teased his brother and felt the kick of Joe’s boot from under the table.

Ben laughed and finished his breakfast. Standing now, Ben let his hand fall on the distraught shoulder of his youngest son. “Now don’t be late for school, Little Joe. It convenes at my desk in ten minutes.” Ben chuckled and walked into his study.

“I’d rather be out in the mud,” Joe muttered as his father walked away from ear shot.

*****

After all three sons took as long as they possibly could with breakfast, they moved into the study and were handed the pages they were to copy. And so, with inkwell, pen, and paper in hand they all moved into position to start their work. Joe sat opposite Hoss at the small table by the stairs and Adam spread out his sheets of paper on the coffee table and pulled up the chair to be closer.

“While we are doing this, what are you going to be doing?” Joe asked his father in hopes that the man might switch assignments with him.

Ben looked up from his desk and grinned over at the boy. “Oh, don’t worry, Joseph. I have plenty of work on these land plats to keep myself occupied.”

“Wanna swap?” Joe called across the room hopefully.

“No, I don’t, young man.”

“But, what if…” Joe started and his father cut him off quickly.

“No talking in school or I’ll have to keep you after class,” Ben replied with heavy sarcasm in his tone.

Joe gave up on a reprieve and looked over at his brother Hoss. “Hey, Hoss, I’ll give you two dollars if you do my copying for me,” Joe whispered.

“Oh no you don’t! You did that to me when you wuz in school remember? And it got me in big trouble then. ‘Sides, two dollars ain’t worth it anyway.”

“Three?” Joe persisted.

“Joseph!” Ben called across the room wanting some peace so he could concentrate.

“Put the dunce cap on him, Pa,” Adam laughed and looked over at Joe and smirked.

Joe frowned and sighed. Since there was no getting out of his chore, he reached for the pen and inkwell and started to copy his first page. He remembered now why he had hated school so much. But, at least back in those days he had pretty girls to look at and not the faces of his two brothers.

*****

The Cartwright brothers worked diligently on their task up to lunch time and then took a break. Once that was over, they went right back to it. It was right around two o’clock that Adam strode across the living room triumphantly and handed his father his share of the work.

“Very good, Adam,” Ben nodded his thanks as he looked at the fine penmanship of his eldest.

“I think I will go grab that book now,” Adam cast a sarcastic smile over to his brothers as he walked away.

“How about you, Hoss? How are you coming along?” Ben called out.

Hoss blew across the sheet of paper to dry the ink and looked over at his father. “Got me eight more sheets and I will be done too.”

“Wonderful. And what about the class clown? How are you doing, Joe?”

Joe looked up from his writing and set down his pen shaking out the kinks from his hand. “My danged hand keeps cramping on me, Pa.”

“How many have you done?”

“Um, not too sure.” Joe stalled and saw Hoss’ whimsical stare.

“How many?” Ben reiterated.

“Eleven pages.”

“Joseph…” Ben paused and arose from his chair and headed towards the young man. “This meeting is tomorrow, not next month.”

“Maybe if I’d get a little help around here…” Joe shot back, looking over at Adam.

“Oh no you don’t! I did my work.” Adam called across the room.

“Hoss?” Joe asked pleadingly.

“Nothing doing. I’m almost done and I ain’t doing no more,” Hoss replied.

“You are just going to have to work a little more diligently, Joseph,” Ben said and squeezed the boy’s shoulder.

“He’ll be sitting there all night,” Hoss laughed and Joe sneered over at him.

“You know how important this is, right, Joe?” Ben tried to get to the boy in another way.

“Yeah, Pa, I know.” Joe nodded as he drew off another sheet of paper.

“Okay then. Let’s get to it.” Ben smiled as he saw the left hand move back into action.

*****

Hop Sing held supper as long as he could waiting for the youngest member of the family to finish his chore. Finally Joe stood from the table and called over to his family who had taken their seats at the dining table. “Finished!”

“Good job, Joseph,” Ben called over to the boy as he made his way to the table.

“I probably won’t be able to lift my fork now,” Joe complained and got no sympathy from the others.

“You got two hands, ain’t you?” Hoss said and kicked his brother under the table in payment for the earlier assault on his leg at breakfast.

“Now, listen. Tomorrow I have to leave bright and early. I’m going to be speaking to the governor at ten and then the first meeting is at noon. I should be back before supper, but if I’m not home by seven you all go ahead without me,” Ben explained his itinerary for the next day.

“I want to go and check out that new string of horses that Clyde Jensen brought up from Texas, Pa,” Joe said as he moved his fork into his right hand and tried to eat that way for awhile.

“That’s fine; just be sure to join up with your brothers at the timber camp after you are done,” Ben nodded.

“Yeah–and don’t take all day either. We’ve got to get that new crew going and believe it or not, we will need your help,” Adam addressed his brother in his usual fashion.

“I’ll only be a couple of hours. I am sure you two old men can handle things until I get there.”

“Yeah, well just get there,” Adam replied, never sure whether he could completely count on his youngest brother, especially when their father was away on business.

“No getting into any trouble either. And that goes for all three of you.” Ben was clear in his message.

“Us?” The three men asked in unison and it made the room fill with laughter again.

*****

Ben Cartwright straightened out his string tie and stared at his reflection in the mirror of his bureau. He wasn’t very happy about getting all duded up to go and see the governor, but he knew he had to present a confident appearance when he met with the man. Walking down the stairs Ben noticed his three sons down at the bottom staring up at their father.

“I thought you boys would be gone,”  Ben said as he made his way down to the living room.

“No, Pa, we wanted to tell you something,” Hoss started and then looked over to Adam to continue.

“Oh?” Ben asked.

“We just wanted to tell you how proud we are of you, that’s all. You taking on this whole Indian affairs commission, well, we really think it’s great,” Adam said his peace.

“No finer man for the job,” Joe grinned and patted his father on the shoulder.

“Thanks, boys. It means a whole lot to me, and so does your opinion of your old man,” Ben replied feeling somewhat overwhelmed by the faith his sons had in him.

“Now go and make us famous.” Joe laughed as they all followed Ben to the front door.

“We hitched up the surrey for you, Pa. So, you are all set,” Hoss said as he pulled open the door.

“You boys are awfully chipper today. You aren’t planning something, are you?” Ben asked suspiciously.

Joe laughed and followed Ben out of the house. “No, Pa, we aren’t planning anything but to go to work. I guess we are just so happy to be out of school is all.”

Ben chuckled as he stepped up into the buggy and waved goodbye to his sons.

*****

“Okay, Joe, now you meet us up at the timberline right after you check on those horses,” Adam said as he swung himself up into the saddle. Hoss pulled Chubb’s reins around and mounted too.

“I will; it won’t take me long,” Joe promised and headed out to the barn to saddle Cochise.

*****

While Hoss and Adam headed up to the northern border of the ranch, Joe made his way to the Jensen ranch to check out the new horses that Clyde Jensen had purchased. He spent just a little over an hour’s worth of time with the man and then headed back out to meet up with his brothers. He hadn’t made it more than halfway to the timber camp before he started to get an uneasy feeling. Joe pulled back Cochise’s reins and turned in the saddle. He could have sworn he felt someone looking at him. Joe’s eyes searched the hills around him but saw nothing. Hearing a strange sound Joe looked towards the sky and spotted a single eagle in flight right over his head. Eagles were common to the Ponderosa, but it was rare to get such a good sight of one. Joe could make out the color and size of the bird as it circled above him for a few minutes and then took off towards the mountain range in the distance.

His eyes and his mind being on the bird above for the moment, Joe did not hear the very quiet approach of the man on foot. Suddenly Joe felt the fierce tug to his left arm that flung him out of his saddle. Dazed momentarily, Joe focused in on the Indian who now stood above him.

“Lone Eagle,” Joe whispered to himself, wondering if he was still daydreaming.

The Indian never spoke a word. He reached behind him and with one swift move struck Joe over the head with his tomahawk, rendering the young man unconscious. Lifting the stricken boy up into his arms, Lone Eagle threw him face down over his own saddle and grabbed up Cochise’s reins in his hand. Slowly the Indian led the horse over to his own mount and he leapt upon the other pinto mare. Kicking at the sides of his animal, Lone Eagle headed off towards the mountain range pulling the unconscious man on the other horse with him.

*****

“Dadgum his ornery hide!” Hoss yelled frustrated and spat on the ground. “I might have known Joe wasn’t gonna show up. He’s probably in Virginia City right now drinking a beer and laughing at us up here waiting on him.”

“Once he knew Pa was going to be over in Carson all day, he probably made his own little plans for the day. I’ll get even with him tomorrow. Let’s head on back, Hoss,” Adam replied and threw himself up into the saddle. Joe not showing up for a chore was not exactly a rare experience. Adam knew better, after all the past history of the boy, than to wait around for him to show up. The two older brothers had made up for the lack of the third Cartwright all day and were worn out. They decided to head on back to the ranch and wait until Joe arrived with whatever whopper of a lie he would offer.

“I hope Pa clobbers him when he finds out,” Hoss said as he rode alongside Adam.

“If he doesn’t then you and I will.” Adam smiled vindictively at the thought of teaching his little brother a lesson.

*****

Ben had been in very good spirits when he had first arrived back home that evening. The committee that he chaired was moving along quite nicely and the first draft of the new proposals had already been started. With that thought in his mind, Ben had been smiling as he walked into the ranch house right before supper time. It didn’t take long to kill his cheery mood. Both of his older sons made sure they ratted on their little brother just as soon as their father had taken his seat at the dinner table.

“So, what you both are saying is that Joe never showed up at all?” Ben asked exasperated now over the news.

“Yeah, haven’t seen hide nor hair of him since he left this morning,” Hoss nodded.

“He probably went to see Clyde and then decided he deserved a beer for his trouble,” Adam jumped in.

“But, to not come home yet…” Ben began but Adam again broke in.

“You know how he is, Pa! Probably got into a poker game and lost all track of time. And, if luck is with him and he’s actually winning we probably won’t see him tonight either.”

“No.” Ben shook his head. Though Joseph had pulled a stunt or two in his day, and even though he had a little problem with doing exactly as he had been told, still Ben could not believe that he would not show up for supper. He knew that his father would be worried. “You don’t think that maybe he’s gotten in some trouble–maybe had another run-in with someone in town? Maybe Roy has him locked up for busting up the saloon?” Ben grasped at straws now.

“Look, if it will make you feel any better, Hoss and I will head into town and bring the kid back,” Adam offered after witnessing the worry that had spread across his father’s face.

“Yes, it would make me feel better,” Ben replied.

“On one condition,” Hoss broke in again.

“What’s that?” Ben looked over at his middle son.

“You really let him have it when we bring him back.”

“Oh I will. Don’t you worry. Now just go fetch your little brother.” Ben grinned over at his two sons who he could tell were very perturbed at their brother.

“Let’s go,” Adam called over to Hoss and they headed out to bring back their disobedient younger brother.

*****

Joe groaned as he started to come back around. It was already dark and he had been unconscious for the whole long ride up into the rocky shelter of the mountain side. Squinting his eyes, Joe saw the campfire burning in the foreground about ten yards away. He pulled on the ropes which bound his arms in back of him. It was at that moment that Lone Eagle stood from his spot in front of the fire and headed over to his victim.

“Lone Eagle, why?” Joe asked still trying to better focus in on his surroundings.

“Lone Eagle should have killed you with others. Instead I free you only to have you kill my warriors,” the Indian began.

“You only let me live that day because you said you owed my father a favor. Is this how you repay what he did for you all those years ago? He saved your life!”

“Then he mount up his pony soldiers to kill tribe. Father is no friend of Indians.”

“He is so! Right now he is heading up a committee to try and get you and all the other tribes back some of their land!” Joe protested, as he still struggled to free his hands.

“Lone Eagle know about white man law. Indian no need white man to give back land that they stole. Your father pretend to be friend of Indians. He worse white man than ones who talk hate of Indians. Lone Eagle will take back land; no need help of Ben Cartwright.”

“You are wrong about all of this. My father is trying to help, but you don’t want to hear it. You only want to kill. You killed four innocent people the day you raided that stagecoach! You let that massacre happen!”

“Should have killed you! You bring men; they kill this many of Lone Eagles warriors.” The Indian lifted up his hands twice to signify fifteen, the fifteen braves who had perished when the Cartwrights and Roy Coffee’s posse had raided Lone Eagle’s camp. The only good thing about that day was the fact that they had rescued the little girl who was stolen from the stagecoach during the massacre. Joe had risked his life to save Sandra, and had taken an arrow in his leg for his trouble. The arrow had been sent from Lone Eagle’s bow.

“What did you think was going to happen when you went around killing innocent settlers?” Joe asked bitterly.

“One by one, all white men will die. But, you first. As many men as your people killed that day–that how many times I kill you.”

Joe laughed; he couldn’t help himself. Though he knew all too well he was in a deadly situation, the thought of someone killing him fifteen times struck him as funny. “I hate to tell you this, but you can only kill a man once,” Joe replied.

“You not know Apache.” Lone Eagle stood again, looking down at Joe. “In morning, Lone Eagle show how we kill that many times. You will pray to your God that I had killed you at stage,” Lone Eagle stated and then walked back to his campfire.

I sure hope that you and Hoss have run to Pa by now telling him I never made it in, Adam, Joe thought to himself. I hope you find me before I find out about this Apache stuff first hand.*

*****

The search for Joe was not going well. Hoss and Adam checked out all of their brother’s known haunts to no avail. They had checked with Sam over at the Silver Dollar Saloon as well as the bartender over at the less elaborate Bucket of Blood Saloon and neither man had seen Joe that day. After checking with Roy to make sure he didn’t have a familiar prisoner resting in his jail, both men headed out to the Jensen ranch. That, too, proved futile as Clyde told the two Cartwrights that Joe had left before noon and had stated he was going to meet up with his brothers.

When the front door to the ranch house opened, Ben was well prepared to give his youngest son a good tongue lashing. As his eyes fell on Adam and Hoss, he knew that something was badly amiss.

“Where is he?” Ben asked as the two men walked over to him. He could see that their anger towards their little brother had been replaced by worry.

“Nobody’s seen him. Clyde said he was there all right, but he left before noon,” Hoss replied somberly.

“This just doesn’t make any sense! You both sure Joe didn’t say he was going anywhere else besides the Jensen ranch?”

“No, and he promised he would meet us. I feel kinda bad now,” Adam said and stared into his father’s anxious eyes. What he saw in them told it all; something had to have happened to the boy. “I never should have just assumed Joe was goofing off in town. I’m sorry, Pa.”

Ben sighed and put his hand on Adam’s shoulder. “None of that matters right now, Adam. We have to back track and find the boy.” Ben tried to force a state of calm in his voice though he felt totally different in his heart.

“Mr. Cartwright!” A voice sounded on the other side of the front door and a heavy pounding followed it.

Ben threw the door open to see one of the Ponderosa ranch hands standing there. “Cliff? What’s wrong?”

“Come out here,” the hired hand said and the three Cartwrights walked out into the front yard. It was very dark, but the light from the small porch lamp lit the ground in front of the house enough so that all the men could see what Cliff had been upset about. There, standing off by the hitching post was Cochise, and she was minus one rider.

Hoss walked over to the horse and calmed it with his quiet manner. He checked the saddle and did not detect anything that would give them a clue as to what had happened to Joe.

“She came in just a minute ago. I was just coming in from town when she trotted right into the yard,” Cliff explained. “Where’s Joe?”

“That’s what we would all like to know. Nobody’s seen him since noon today,” Adam replied and also walked over to check on his brother’s horse.

Ben stared over at the ominous sight of the riderless horse and his heart pounded rapidly in his chest.

“Maybe she threw Joe?” Adam suggested and Hoss shook his head in response.

“Cochise throw Joe? Not likely, Adam. This horse has brought Joe home even when he was unconscious before. Something has happened to him,” Hoss said and then wished he hadn’t when he saw his father’s face go pale.

“There’s little we can do in the dark,” Ben muttered and patted the pinto’s neck. He wished the animal was as psychically bonded to him as she was to his son. Unfortunately there was no way for the animal to give up the information about what had happened to her beloved master. “First light we’ll head on out.”

“I’m sure Joe is okay, Pa. We’ll get to him, don’t worry,” Adam tried to make his father feel better, but he knew in his own heart the worry would not stop until the green-eyed boy was back with his family.

Oh, Joseph, what’s happened to you? Ben thought to himself as he reluctantly walked back into the ranch house. It would be an awfully long night as they waited to begin their search.

*****

The first light of morning fell on the rock laden ground where Joe sat trussed up with his back leaning against one of the prominent boulders which surrounded the area. He shifted his weight and tried as he had all night to loosen the leather ties which bound his arms behind him. It appeared as though there was no way out of his present situation and all that Joe could do was to hope that his family would come searching for him soon.

Lone Eagle saw that his captive was awake and knew it was time to seek his revenge on the young man. He moved over to Joe and looked down at him, anger flaring in his ebony eyes.

“Now you see what Apache do to white man.”

“No matter what you do to me it won’t help your cause. If you want to see your people getting help, you will wait and see what my father can do. He has gone to see the governor and soon your people, along with the Paiute and the Shoshones and all the other tribes, will start reclaiming their lands legally.” Joe fought to stall Lone Eagle in hopes that he would soon have some help.

“Once father sees what Indian has done to son, there will be no law, only hatred for all Indians. Then we will battle all of your people and the tribes will rise up against white men all over and we will have land returned to Indian.”

“You don’t want peace!” Joe shouted angrily. “You do this to make war! You don’t care about your people nor about any of the other tribes out there. Your hatred is all you care about. No matter what you do to me, my father won’t stop his legislation. He is a man of honor, unlike you, Lone Eagle.”

“You have spoken; now you die.” Lone Eagle yelled and reached behind Joe and encircled a lariat around the boy’s body, forcing it down to his ankles and then pulling the rope taunt. Next he untied Joe’s arms from in back of him and secured them again tightly in front of his body. Joe struggled against the ropes trying to break free but he was overpowered once more. “First death comes now.”

Joe watched in muted horror as the Indian leapt on his horse, throwing the rope’s other end around his saddle horn. It was then that Lone Eagle kicked the sides of the animal and suddenly Joe was pulled onto his back and dragged along behind the horse. Joe could feel his shirt torn by the jagged rocks around the Indian’s camp and soon he could also feel the intense pain throughout his back. Lone Eagle went faster and faster and took his prisoner over dirt, rocks and sagebrush before pulling back up by the campfire.

Joe tried to catch his breath as he fought both the fear and pain from being dragged behind the Indian’s horse. He knew that his back and parts of his legs were now cut and bleeding, but he had been fortunate enough to have kept his head above the ground for protection. Biting his lip to stifle his moans, Joe watched as Lone Eagle dismounted and walked back over to him with a sadistic smile on his face.

“That only one. And, that is the least of death. Now we move to much worse for you.” Lone Eagle said as he untied the rope around Joe’s ankles. Joe tried to kick at the Indian to knock him over in an effort to free himself but the attempt failed. Lone Eagle pushed Joe back even harder and his victim collapsed on the hard ground. Next the Indian pulled off Joe’s boots.

Joe watched as Lone Eagle walked back over to the fire and wondered what was in his plans this time. He could see the other man spreading out the hot coals with a stick. Joe wondered if maybe he was going to douse the fire and leave the area. He didn’t realize at the time that Lone Eagle had no intention of leaving; he was merely trying to spread the hot coals to intensify the fire.

Nearing Joe again Lone Eagle reached down and pulled the boy to standing in his stocking feet. He shoved him over towards the coals and Joe stopped abruptly right before the campfire.

“You move!” The Indian shouted and shoved Joe again. The prisoner tried his best to keep his balance and not move into the blazing campfire. Yet another time Joe was shoved and this time he stepped right into the hot coals, screaming out in anguish. He could feel the material of his socks catch fire as his feet blistered with heat. Lone Eagle reached over again and pushed Joe to the other side of the fire and he fell to the ground. Joe pulled his legs up to his chest and reeled in pain from the burns on his feet.

“That two.” Lone Eagle commented casually as he watched his victim struggle to ward off the intense burning that the coals had caused.

Joe blinked back tears. It became very evident to the young man that the Indian had every intention of putting him through different forms of torture before finally killing him off. Joe closed his eyes and could see the faces of his family. Tears fell from his eyes as he thought of how they had felt when they thought he was dead almost a year ago. He knew that now, when they found him, he would be killed and they would all have to mourn him yet another time. Joe thought of his father and how it would devastate the man. Hoss had told him that Ben had struggled with a weak heart when he had thought he had lost his son to the stagecoach attack. Joe worried that the event of his death would surely kill his father as well.

Right before Lone Eagle started his next form of torture, Joe’s eyes caught on the bird circling above him. It was the eagle he had spotted on the previous day, or one that looked just like it. Joe’s mind went back to his childhood and he fought to remember something his father had once read to him from the Bible. They that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings as eagles, they shall run, and not be weary, they shall walk, and not faint. Joe ran the verse through his mind and then closed his eyes in prayer. Please, Dear Lord, help me to soar over this pain like the eagle above me in flight. Help me to endure whatever this man does to me. Keep me alive for the sake of my family. No matter what happens from this point on, please, let me live.

*****

Ben rode in front of his two oldest sons and they all watched for any signs of Joe. They had back tracked from the Jensen ranch and then turned and headed the way Joe would have gone the previous day if he had been headed out to meet his brothers up at the timberline. There wasn’t much conversation that morning as they rode. Both brothers were consumed at the time with the same form of guilt. Hoss and Adam were blaming themselves for not trying to find their brother when he hadn’t showed up at the timber camp. They were both feeling it was their fault for just assuming that the boy had disobeyed and headed into town. Both Adam and Hoss wondered whether their lack of faith in Joe could have made the difference in what had ultimately happened to him. Ben jumped down from his saddle when he spied his son’s tan hat laying alone in the grass. He lifted it up to his chest and knew it was a bad sign. Joe had to be hurt not to have picked up his hat. Perhaps he had been kidnapped? Ben shook his head to erase that thought since there had been no form of a ransom note offered by the time they had left the ranch house.

“He’s out here somewhere,” Adam said after seeing the hat. He stood in his stirrups and cast a hard glance around the area. “See any tracks, Hoss?” he asked noticing the big man was walking around the whole area hoping to find a clue that would tell them which way Joe had gone.

“Two horses. This one was unshod,” Hoss replied and then looked into Ben’s eyes and saw the pure dread forming in them.

“Unshod? Like an Indian’s horse?” Ben whispered. There hadn’t been any bad trouble with the Paiute recently, and they were the tribe that most frequented the area around the ranch. His mind fought the image it was forming, the image of the skirmish which had taken place four months previous. “You don’t think…” Ben started and stopped himself from saying it.

It didn’t matter; both of his sons read what was on their father’s face. He was thinking about the run-in they had earlier with the Apache renegade Lone Eagle.

“I thought we had run Lone Eagle out months ago,” Hoss commented as he mounted his horse again.

Ben swung into his saddle and stared over at his sons. “I only hope it’s not true. Because if it is…” Ben stopped once more. He didn’t even want to think about the possibility that his youngest son had encountered Lone Eagle another time. “Let’s ride. Those tracks can’t be that hard to follow.” Ben turned his horse and followed Hoss’ lead this time up towards the mountain range.

*****

While his family continued to search for him, Joe was being staked spread-eagled on the ground. Lone Eagle had ripped off what had remained of the boy’s shirt and secured wooden stakes in the ground to hold down both of Joe’s arms and legs. The hot summer sun beat down against the rocks and dirt and Joe’s body was soon soaked in sweat. He closed his eyes to stop the penetrating glare of the sun above him. It was then that Lone Eagle bent down with a large rock in his hands.

“Ten deaths all together now.” The Indian announced and put his knee down in the palm of Joe’s left hand.

Joe inhaled waiting for the next injury. He prayed again for the ability to soar above his torture. Then, one by one, Lone Eagle thrust the rock at Joe’s outstretched fingers. Joe screamed as he heard and felt each finger break from the weight of the rock’s blow. It was then that Joe felt so lightheaded he wasn’t sure if he had fainted.

Joe looked down at his own body and watched as the Indian moved over to his right hand. It seemed so strange, as if in a dream, as he watched as the fingers of the other hand were broken, and yet he felt nothing. The pain was gone from him. Joe could feel the cool breeze against his cheeks and felt as though he was flying far above the scene of torture below.

Lone Eagle wondered why the boy had stopped his protests after the last finger had fallen to the weight of the rock. It was only a few moments later that Joe’s eyes reopened.

“That ten and two. Three more to die,” Lone Eagle announced. “You pray to your God that he take you before next death.”

“I already have,” Joe muttered as the Indian pulled the knife from out of his leather sheath. Lone Eagle knelt alongside his victim again and laid the blade against the left side of Joe’s face. With a swift movement he cut through the boy’s cheek leaving a four inch gap in it. The blood flowed swiftly down Joe’s face and pooled as it reached the hollow of his neck.

Again Joe’s mind soared above his position on the ground. The pain could not reach him there. Lone Eagle wondered once more how his victim could remain conscious throughout the torture. He had used the same methods of torture on other men and they had either died or passed out before he had even cut them. Joe was still conscious and continued to stare up towards the heavens.

“That ten and three,” Lone Eagle stated and wiped the blade of the knife on Joe’s trousers. “Next one make you beg me to kill you.” The Indian walked off and Joe continued to lie still and let his mind rise above it all.

When the Indian returned, he had a pouch which he had filled with sand that he had gathered from the base of the boulder at the far end of his camp. He kneeled down and took Joe’s bloody face into his left hand to force the boy’s gaze.

Joe broke away from his thoughts temporarily and stared up at the Indian. It was then that Lone Eagle forced open each of Joe’s eyes and poured the fine grained sand into them. Joe tried to release his face from Lone Eagle’s grasp but he couldn’t. Shouting for God to help him, Joe again felt his spirit leave his body and lift up into the sky. The Indian shoved each eyelid down roughly causing the sand to scratch the surface of Joe’s eyes. Lone Eagle was especially confused now; he had never had anyone survive up to this point without going mad. But, Joe’s strong countenance was still very apparent. The Indian walked over to the fire again and heated his knife in the flames.

Turning back for Joe, Lone Eagle called out to him, “That was ten and four; this ten and five, then you die last time.” The Indian reached down and wrapped his hand tightly around Joe’s throat causing a gag reflex. Joe opened his mouth to try and force air into his windpipe and Lone Eagle thrust the end of the fiery hot knife into the boy’s mouth scalding his tongue.

Joe did not feel the heat of the Indian’s knife, once again being spared the torture as he soared above the scene below. Lone Eagle stood and walked off to prepare the final death.

*****

The three Cartwrights had followed the tracks high up into the mountains. It had become much harder to spot the horses which had headed upwards into the rocky shale on the previous day. Fortunately Hoss was an expert tracker and he spotted even the faintest sign which sent them onward. The horses climbed higher and higher and the riders surveyed the rocks and boulders in their path.

“Look over there, Pa!” Hoss called and pointed way ahead in the distance where the faint smoke of a fire could be seen.

“Let’s go.” Ben answered and they all picked up the pace.

*****

Lone Eagle had emptied out all of the snakes he had captured the previous day. It had taken a long while to gather over a dozen rattle snakes, but, fortunately his victim had been unconscious the whole time from the tomahawk chop to his head which gave the Indian time to trap them. Lone Eagle set them down carefully into the rock crevice below the campsite. The drop was only about ten feet and the only thing it had done to the rattlers was to make them even angrier than they had been in their burlap sack.

Lone Eagle removed the stakes from the ground and pulled Joe to his feet. Joe became aware of the movement as his feet fell on the rocky ground again and the burns shot pain up Joe’s legs. In spite of the burns, Joe fought to stay upright. Unable to see the pit below, Joe could nonetheless hear the sound of the rattlers. His eyes so full of sand and his hands unable to reach up to them to try and ease the pain, Joe waited for what was coming next. Sending forth one final prayer, the young man held his breath.

“You live through ten and five deaths, better than most white men. But, now you go to pit of serpents. Now you die for the last time.”

*****

Ben put his hand on Hoss’ shoulder and whispered, “you only have one shot, son; make sure you don’t hit Joe.”

Hoss bit at his lip and aimed his rifle at Lone Eagle. They all knew there was no way they could take the Indian by surprise and felt this was the only way to save Joe. Hoss squeezed the trigger of his weapon sending out with it a bullet along with a prayer.

The bullet found its target, but right as Lone Eagle fell to the ground, he managed to shove Joe down into the pit below. And with that last evil deed accomplished, the Indian drew his final breath.

*****

Joe could suddenly see again, but it wasn’t a normal type of vision. He could see himself spread out on the ground at the bottom of the snake pit. He could feel a presence behind him and looked up to see a shepherd. It would have seemed a strange sight, but it was no more strange than to be looking across the pit at his own body.

“Am I dead?” Joe asked the shepherd who stood there in a long white robe holding a staff at his side. The vision was surrounded by a multitude of bright colors which cast a peaceful glow.

“No, my son, you are not. I am keeping the snakes from you now. See how they stop right before reaching you?” The shepherd answered with the most serene voice Joe had ever heard.

“But, how can I be here and over there too?”

“I pulled you out of your body for a short while so that you would not feel the pain. I heard your prayer.”

“Are you God?” Joe asked the vision before him.

“I am the shepherd who watches over all of God’s lambs. Your prayer was for your family and not for yourself. It was that which saved you. And, Joseph, you are not done here on Earth. Your family is coming. I will keep the snakes from them as they pull you up,” the shepherd said and walked over to where Ben Cartwright was climbing down into the pit. The shepherd stepped in between the anguished father and the snakes as he drew his son up into his arms.

“Don’t leave,” Joe told the shepherd as he started to vanish before his eyes.

“We will talk again, Joseph. Your family is with you now; you must stay alive for them.” The shepherd touched Joe’s shoulder and then disappeared.

“Don’t leave,” Joe muttered, but his father could not understand what he was trying to say. Joe’s tongue was so swollen from the burn from the Indian’s knife that his words were slurred.

“Your pa has you now, Joseph,” Be whispered to his son as Hoss and Adam hoisted them both up.

*****

Hoss and Adam reached for their father’s shoulders and for the boy clutched tightly in his arms. They pulled them both to solid ground and gasped at the sight of their little brother. Ben tried to catch his breath as he sought out Joe’s ankles and other exposed areas of his body to inspect for any sign of snake bite which was the first immediate danger.

“Is he bit?” Adam asked anxiously kneeling down alongside his father.

“I don’t think so.” Ben stopped when he caught a good glimpse of his son’s injuries. “My God.” Ben drew in his breath and fought the sickness in the pit of his stomach at the sight before him.

Hoss brought over the canteen and poured water onto the neckerchief Ben had removed. Ben held it up to his son’s bleeding face and it was at that moment that he felt something inside of his own soul die. He knew his youngest son had been tortured, as his eyes inventoried the boy’s body. With the horrendous sight before him, the seed of hatred was planted in Ben’s heart.

“We don’t have time to do any doctoring; if we don’t get Joe home, he’ll die.” Ben whispered.

“Look at his eyes!” Adam exploded when he realized the extent of torture that his brother had been forced to endure.

“Give me that canteen, Hoss,” Ben called to his son and was handed the water. “Pull open his left eye, Adam, Ben said and when the eye was forced open, he poured the water from the canteen into his son’s eye. He then did the same with the boy’s right eye. A sickness came in waves over Ben’s whole being. He didn’t have the time to worry over whether his son would be permanently blinded by what the Indian had done to him. Ben knew if they were going to save Joe’s life they would have to hurry back to the ranch house and get him immediate medical care. “Remove my saddle, Hoss. I’ll hold him on the way back.”

“We could make a travois,” Hoss replied.

“NO! “ Ben shouted, not in anger over Hoss’ suggestion, but in anger over what had happened to his youngest son. “Can’t you see we don’t have time for that? Your brother is dying. Adam, get to Doc’s as quick as you can and bring him to the house. Hoss and I will bring Joe in.”

Adam sprang to his horse and mounted. “We’ll meet you there!” he shouted and turned Sport abruptly and rode down the mountain side. Hoss quickly removed the saddle from his father’s horse and walked back over holding the reins in his hand.

“Hoss, lift Joe up. I have to get on Buck first,” Ben said pulling himself off of the ground.

Hoss knelt down and lifted the battered body of his little brother up into his arms. “Don’t leave us, Short Shanks,” he whispered to the boy as he walked over to his father’s horse.

Ben positioned himself on his horse and reached down for Joe. “Face him towards me, Hoss. We can’t lean him forward; he doesn’t have any strength left in him.”

Hoss lifted his brother up into the protective arms of his father. Ben pulled Joe close so that his face rested on his father’s shoulder and his arms fell around his waist. By the time Hoss had mounted his own horse, Ben’s shirt was already coated in the blood that was spilling out from his son’s wounds. “We’re going home, Joseph. Fight to stay with us. We love you,” Ben whispered as they headed towards the Ponderosa ranch house.

*****

The road back home never had seemed longer that it had that afternoon. Ben held his horse’s reins in one hand and fought to hold his son close to him with the other. His mind racing and his heart beating rapidly, Ben prayed each mile of the way. Joe never made a sound, and if it hadn’t been for the faint sensation of his son’s breath against his neck, Ben would have presumed the boy to be dead.

Hoss rode right next to his father’s horse keeping a watchful eye towards his brother all the way home. He could see the intensity on his father’s face and it scared him. Ben’s anger covered his face like a tight mask and in his somber eyes Hoss could read the pure hatred building for the Indian who had tortured Joe.

The two hour journey came to a merciful end as the Cartwrights entered the front yard of the ranch house. Hoss quickly dismounted and rushed over to Buck to lift his brother down.

“Easy,” Ben called out as he maneuvered Joe into his big brother’s waiting arms.

“I got him,” Hoss said cradling Joe in his massive arms.

Ben jumped down off of his horse and ran ahead of his sons to open the front door. “Hop Sing!” Ben shouted as they entered the house and headed briskly for the stairs.

Hop Sing made it as far as the dining room table before comprehending what all the shouting had been about. He could see the young man in his brother’s arms and the panic written on both Hoss and Ben’s faces.

“Joe’s hurt bad. Bring up whatever you can get your hands on to help us,” Ben yelled as he climbed the staircase behind Hoss.

Ben passed Hoss in the second floor hallway and threw open Joe’s bedroom door. He tossed the blanket and comforter back off the bed as Hoss entered the room. Leaning over the bed, Hoss tried as gingerly as he could to set his brother down onto it.

“We’ve got to get his clothes off,” Ben instructed and started at the boy’s feet. When his eyes fell on what was left of his son’s socks Ben realized for the first time that Joe’s feet had been burned. “Don’t touch these,” Ben insisted grimly. “We’re going to have to soak Joe’s feet in order to get what remains of his socks off.”

Hoss looked over to see what his father was seeing and it was then that the tears stung the big man’s eyes. Both men were just starting to get a clearer picture of the extent of the torture that Lone Eagle had doled out.

Ben reached across the side of the bed and removed Joe’s belt. He and Hoss carefully tugged down Joe’s trousers and tossed them over in the chair. Deciding that he needed to inspect his son’s entire body to determine which injury would take priority, Ben started at the laceration on the boy’s face. Ben closed his eyes for a moment trying to quell the thought of there being a scar on the handsome boy’s face. He knew that he had to try and not dwell on that idea long, there was so much more damage and the major importance at that time was to keep Joe alive.

Knowing already that Joe’s eyes had sustained some kind of damage to them, Ben moved down his body to inspect the two hands which were swollen to twice their normal size. “They’re all broken,” Ben called over to Hoss as he checked each finger one at a time.

“Son of a bitch,” Hoss cursed as he clenched his fists. He wanted so badly to punch something to control the rage brewing in his chest over what had been done to his beloved little brother.

“Help me roll him over,” Ben whispered and they carefully moved Joe to his side.

“He was dragged,” Hoss said horrified at the abrasions and bruises on Joe’s back and legs. Hoss knew that his brother had been pulled behind the Indian’s horse, the damage told the story.

Hop Sing entered the bedroom carrying as much as he could to help tend the injured boy. Moving next to Ben, Hop Sing set down the tray and began soaking a couple of wash cloths in the basin of fresh water.

“Let’s clean him off some first,” Ben addressed the two men. “We need to wash down his back as quickly as we can and then get him back into position to work on his face.”

Both Hop Sing and Hoss took turns washing down the boy’s back and legs, trying to be as gentle as they possibly could. Ben stood at the opposite side of the bed, resting his hand on Joe’s side trying to keep him balanced. He tried with all his will power to overlook the awful damage to his youngest son, but found himself to be losing the battle.

“That’s as good as we can get right now, Pa,” Hoss called across the bed and handed Hop Sing the wash cloth.

“It’ll have to do. We have more important things to contend with now,” Ben nodded towards Hoss and eased Joe onto his back again.

Hop Sing hurried downstairs again to fetch more fresh water and towels. He also set several pots of water on the stove to bring them to boiling knowing the doctor would be needing them soon.

Holding a clean towel up to the cut on Joe’s face Ben noticed the blood had started to clot. The bleeding had slowed, but the laceration would need an awful lot of stitches to close it up. “My poor boy,” Ben whispered as his hand fell to his son’s forehead.

“His eyes, his face, his hands, his back, his feet—dear Lord–Lone Eagle tortured the kid in every way,” Hoss muttered shaking his head in disbelief. He had seen other men who had been tortured by Indians, but none as bad as the sight before him now.

Ben noticed how swollen Joe’s lips were and then he remembered how odd the boy’s words had sounded to him when he was being lifted up out of the snake pit. “Hoss, come here,” Ben whispered and waved his son over closer to him.

Hoss moved to stand right next to Ben and questioned the man with his eyes.

“Help me. I need to make sure…” Ben began to explain but found himself to be choking on his own words. The terrifying thought of Joe’s tongue having been cut from him would not leave Ben’s mind. He had seen it done before to other men who had been tortured; especially by Apache. Ben prayed that they would find his son’s tongue to be intact, but he had to be sure and there was only one way to do that.

“What is it, Pa?” Hoss asked not understanding the newest worry on his father’s face.

“His tongue…” Ben stammered. “I need to know.”

Hoss mashed his lips together tightly fighting back the gruesome thought. He felt as though he was going to be sick to his stomach right there in the room. “No, Pa,” Hoss’ reply came off like the plea of a frightened child.

“Help me,” Ben repeated as he reached over to try and pry Joe’s mouth open. Hoss’ hand shook as he held the bottom of his brother’s chin to assist his father.

Ben parted the boy’s lips and his mouth opened ever so slightly. Both men could see the end of Joe’s tongue and there was a collective sigh sent out. Ben pulled the mouth open a little more and with the index finger of his right hand he tried to inspect the area for damage.

“Move that light over here,” Ben directed and Hoss reached behind him and grabbed the lamp off of the night stand. Holding it closer so that his father could get a better view, Hoss waited to hear the verdict of the inspection.

“No!” Ben cried weakly. He maneuvered Joe’s tongue so he could see the surface of it clearer. It was then that he spied the blisters which had formed all over it.

“What is it?” Hoss asked unsure of what his father had seen.

“His tongue—it’s been scalded,” Ben groaned and moved abruptly away from the bed leaving Hoss standing there by himself. Moving over to the window, Ben fought to find the internal fortitude which had just left him. “Savages,” Ben muttered and wiped his eyes with his shirt sleeves, his back still turned towards Hoss.

The movement from down below the window forced Ben’s gaze and he could see the surrey and rider pulling up. His heart soared as he recognized both Doctor Martin and Adam rushing towards the house. “Thank God,” Ben called over to Hoss. “They’re here!”

*****

“We got here as quick as we could!” Adam called over to his father short of breath.

“Doc…” Ben started as he neared his old friend. “It’s bad–real bad.” Ben spoke sullenly and Paul read the look in the man’s eyes. Though the doctor had seen fear in the father’s eyes before, especially when dealing with an injury to one of his sons, it was never more evident than now.

Paul rolled up his sleeves and walked over to the water basin in the corner of the room and scrubbed his hands thoroughly. After drying them off, the man walked dutifully over to the bed and his eyes surveyed some of the damage. “Tell me what we have, Ben.” Paul said as he bent over and inspected the gaping wound on the boy’s face.

“You aren’t going to believe this—Lone Eagle didn’t spare a part of Joe’s body,” Ben spat out angrily. Deciding to start from top to bottom with his list, Ben began, “His eyes had something poured into them—maybe sand–not sure. We rinsed them out once on the trail. Then the cut…” Ben stopped his rendition. He couldn’t believe he could go on with the details; his heart was in his throat now.

“Go on,” Paul commented as he lifted up each of Joe’s eyelids to inspect for damage.

“He’s been dragged–his back and legs are torn up pretty badly. We washed him off to try and remove some of the dirt. Then his hands…” Ben paused again as he watched Paul looking down at Joe’s fingers. “All his fingers are broken, Paul.”

“Yes, I see that,” Paul replied, shaking his head in disgust.

“The bottoms of his feet are burnt so bad, we were afraid to try and remove his socks for fear that we would pull off skin with them.”

Paul walked to the end of the bed and winced at the sight of the boy’s burns. “You did right–we need to soak these first.” Paul looked into the glazed eyes of his old friend and put his hand on his arm. “Is that it?” Paul asked and then thought it sounded awfully trite a question. As if that isn’t enough? Paul thought to himself.

“His tongue…” Ben replied and then the thought of the whole ordeal suddenly came down on him like a crushing weight. He sank down onto the chair and covered his eyes with his hands and wept. He could not continue on, it had all just been too much for the anguished father.

“What about his tongue?” Paul asked turning to Hoss now, trying to give Ben time to gather himself a little.

“Looks like it’s been burned too, Doc,” Hoss answered and noticed then how his oldest brother went pale.

Paul paced the room for just a minute or two trying to plan the strategy for what he had to accomplish. Abruptly stopping in his tracks, he struck his most authoritative pose to address the family. “Here’s what we’re going to do,” Paul started and walked over to Ben first. “I want you to go get yourself some brandy first, Ben. Hoss, you go with your pa. On your way back up, bring two basins with tepid water in them. We will begin soaking Joe’s feet while we work on other areas. Oh–and send one of the ranch hands into town to the block house–we are gonna need some ice. Have them bring as much as they can, and when it gets here, we need to have them chip it rather finely. We are going to have to get the swelling down in Joe’s hands before we can set his fingers. Right now, with Adam’s assistance, I am gonna close this cut on Joe’s face. Then I will need some sterile water to rinse his eyes.”

Hoss reached for his father and helped him stand. His heart bled for the anguish he saw written on the man’s face. Hoss thought of how his father had always been the rock of the family, especially in times of a crisis. He didn’t blame Ben for falling apart a little now, Hoss felt like he was about to explode himself. “C’mon, Pa,” Hoss whispered and his father started to turn out of the room with his middle son.

Stopping his exit, Ben turned and faced the doctor again. “Paul—can you save him?”

“I’ll do everything I can–you know that. Now go on downstairs for a minute and get some air. Then I am going to need all of you to help me tend the boy.”

Ben nodded and turned out of the room with Hoss’ arm thrown over his shoulder for comfort.

*****

Hoss raced outside to summon a couple of hired hands to hurry into town for the ice they needed for Joe. He was back quickly and walked to the kitchen to tell Hop Sing what all the doctor needed. Ben had made his way over to his desk and was preparing to down his second shot of brandy. His eyes fell on the stack of papers on his desk. Committee for Indian Reparations, Ben read to himself the top sheet there in front of him. With an anger which had very rapidly turned to disgust and hatred, Ben’s hand shot the papers off of his desk, scattering them like fallen leaves all over the floor in front of his desk. Damned the committee, Ben cursed internally.

It was at that moment that Hoss re-entered the living room and his mouth fell open witnessing his father’s sudden rage. “Pa?” He called over to him. “Pa–your papers…” Hoss continued and moved to where his father was standing. He started to bend down to pick up the sheets of paper but Ben’s hand fell onto his shoulder stopping his progress.

“Leave them be! Let’s get back upstairs,” Ben commanded and headed into the kitchen to bring up the supplies the doctor needed.

Hoss stood momentarily stunned by his father’s harshness. He hoped that is was just a passing thing as he stared down at the weeks of hard work that the man had already put into the project. Shaking his head wearily, Hoss turned and walked away to join his father in the kitchen.

*****

By the time Hoss and Ben made it back upstairs to Joe’s room, the doctor was just finishing with the last suture to the boy’s face. Ben and Hoss carried with them the two basins of water.

Paul cut off the last stitch and turned to the two men at the foot of the bed. “I tried my best to make them small, Ben. But, in all likelihood the boy’s gonna have a scar.” Paul’s words came off with an apology in their tone.

“I know.” Ben nodded towards the man. “Here’s the water you wanted,” Ben continued trying to shake off what the doctor had told him.

“Adam, you and Hoss each take a foot and soak it slowly. Keep a watch out. We can’t pull off the material until it loosens more from the skin,” Paul directed and one by one each brother took one of their brother’s feet, bending each of Joe’s legs at the knee to help keep them in the water basin.

“Ben, you come up here and assist me with Joe’s eyes.” Paul waved Ben over. “Has Hop Sing got the water boiled?” he asked just as the cook appeared in the doorway.

“Just as Mr. Ben say—water boil–water cooled,” Hop Sing stated and handed the doctor a small pitcher filled with the sterile water.

“Very good, Hop Sing, thanks.” Paul nodded and then looked around. “Hand us those towels will you?”

Hop Sing reached over to the night stand where the fresh supply of towels had been placed earlier. He handed one each to Paul and Ben.

Paul rolled one of the towels to give it more depth to soak up the water runoff. He pointed for Ben to do the same with his towel and they placed each one at either side of Joe’s head. “One at a time–let’s get his right eye first. You pull the lid open as far as you can and I will wash it out.”

Ben nodded that he understood and gently lifted Joe’s right eyelid. Paul slowly poured the sterile water into the bloodshot eye maintaining a stream to try to pull out whatever sand remained trapped in it. They then did the same procedure to the other eye.

“Well?” Ben whispered. “What do you think?”

Paul pulled away the soaked towels and handed them off to Hop Sing to remove. “I have some medication to put into Joe’s eyes now and then we are going to have to bandage them. We really won’t know anything until we can talk to the boy. He hasn’t come around at all?” Paul asked concerned as he checked Joe’s pulse again.

“Just once when we first got to him. Nothing since then.”

“Just as well, I guess—I would only have to sedate him anyway,” Paul commented and reached into his medical bag for the eye drops. He shot a few drops in each of Joe’s eyes and then reached for the gauze pads. “Help me wrap these up.” He called to Ben and they carefully encircled the boy’s head with the gauze wrap securing the pads over each of his eyes. “We’ll give it a day or two and then take this off and see what we have.”

“They’re scratched pretty bad, aren’t they?” Ben asked.

“Yes—but let’s just put that aside for now–we have too much to do yet,” Paul looked down towards Hoss and Adam. ‘Well? Is it loosening any yet?”

“I think so–but I’m afraid to even try to pull this loose,” Hoss replied biting his lip. He couldn’t stand the thought that he might accidently harm his little brother if he did something wrong.

Paul walked to the end of the bed and took over. He eased the remainder of Joe’s right sock off and then did the same with the left. “Take the basins away–and hand me that ointment out of my bag.” He called to the other men. Hoss and Adam moved the water away and Ben handed Paul the jar of medication.

Paul patted the bottoms of Joe’s feet dry and then coated them with the ointment. “Let’s let these breathe for awhile before wrapping them in gauze, Ben,” Paul stated and then moved back to the top of the bed. “Now, I guess we’d better have a look at that tongue–I can’t do anything with Joe’s hands until that ice gets here.”

Ben stepped back to allow the doctor to move closer. Paul used the same method that Joe’s father had earlier with his inspection of the mouth. When Paul had made his own probe of the tongue he stood back up shaking his head.

“Is he gonna be okay, Doc? His tongue and all?” Hoss asked before anyone else could.

“It’s burned–that’s for certain. And there really isn’t a whole hell of a lot you can do for a tongue. It’s gonna be months before Joe will be able to taste anything, and until that time, it’s gonna be awfully painful to eat. Once he comes around, we will just give him drinks through a straw to help. Nothing with any spices…absolutely no salt, Hop Sing.” Paul called over to the cook.

“Not worry…Hop Sing make broth…no salt.” He nodded towards the doctor.

“He’s got a bit of a fever going,” Paul commented as he touched Joe’s forehead. “But, after all that he’s been through he’s lucky to still be alive. This kid is as tough as they come. But, you all know that.” Paul tried to sound optimistic but he was finding it harder to do this time than in the past. Even though he had absolute faith in the boy lying there unconscious in the bed, he wasn’t at all sure that even Joe could rise above all his injuries this time.

*****

Without warning Joe began to talk and it shocked all of those in the room. Ben moved quickly to his right side as the doctor and the boy’s brothers walked around to the other side of the bed. The sound of Joe’s voice was so peculiar, partly due to the thickness of the boy’s tongue which had swollen due to Lone Eagle’s fiery knife. When the first few words came forth, all the members in the room strained to hear what the boy was saying. It only took a few seconds to realize Joe was not talking to any of them.

“I see. I know they are. I hate what is happening,” Joe began, pausing between each choppy sentence. “No, he won’t. I’m sure of it. Okay, I’ll try,” Joe continued.

Ben leaned in closer to his son and let his trembling hand caress Joe’s forehead.

“I can’t make it out,” Adam whispered over to his father. “What’s he saying?”

Ben shook his head wearily. “It’s like he’s talking to someone–but not to us.”

“Probably out of his head with fever,” Hoss remarked and dropped his hand onto his brother’s left arm gently. “It’s okay there, Short Shanks. You just rest easy.”

Joe began again to speak, his words still slurred and barely recognizable. “I’ll do the best I can. It’s gonna be hard. Yes, I know.”

Ben cast a glance over at the doctor’s face and instantly knew what he was thinking. His heart fell in his chest as he saw Paul reach again for Joe’s pulse, deep consternation taking over the man. “It isn’t the fever, is it?” Ben asked barely audible.

Paul looked back over at Ben and shook his head. “He doesn’t exactly sound delirious if that’s what you are asking me.”

“Then what is it? Joe is having a whole conversation with somebody,” Hoss broke in.

Ben slowly lowered himself into the chair next to the bed, his face wrought with despair. “Tell them, Paul,” Ben whispered covering his face again with his hands.

“We don’t know it for sure, Ben,” Paul argued against the logic of worrying the two brothers any more than was necessary.

Ben dropped his hands down to display the tears which had started to drift out from his eyes. “I remember when my father died. The night before he passed he did this same thing. He had a whole conversation with someone who wasn’t in the room–or at least not that we could see. I believed that he was talking to my mother—who had died two years earlier. You’ve seen this with other patients haven’t you, Paul?”

“We don’t know this to be fact yet, Ben. We have to stay focused for Joe’s sake. Just because he is talking like this doesn’t mean he is dying. You should know better than to quit on this boy so easily. How many times has he proved us to be wrong in the past?” Paul fought to ease Ben’s worry. He had seen the same behavior from other dying patients. In fact, he had seen it numerous times. Paul felt that nothing good would come of him agreeing with Ben’s diagnosis. He would never stop trying to save the young man; Paul had grown to care about him far too much.

“If’n Joe is talking to someone who’s passed–then I betcha it’s his ma–and she’s telling him to come back to us,” Hoss stated trying to keep from crying himself.

Ben closed his eyes again to try to feel the presence of his beloved third wife. He did not feel her there with them, though he had in the past on many occasions when their son was in danger. “Paul’s right.” Ben drew in a deep breath to cast away any doubt in his mind. “Joe’s gonna come back to us just like he always has in the past.” Ben stood back up and bent down and whispered to the boy, “Isn’t that right, Joseph? You won’t stop fighting will you?”

“I’ll tell him,” Joe muttered and then ceased talking. All of the other men in the room shook their heads wondering again just who the boy had been conversing with so intently.

*****

The door to the bedroom was already wide open as Cliff Hartman walked down the hallway and entered the room. “Hop Sing told me to bring this right up,” the hired hand said and placed the large pail of ice on the floor by the night stand.

“I didn’t even notice Hop Sing leave,” Adam replied looking around the room. “Thanks for fetching the ice so fast, Cliff.”

“I brung more too–Hop Sing and Fletcher are downstairs breaking the rest of it up.”

“We’ll use the two basins that we used earlier. Hoss go empty them out so we can get to your brother’s hands now.” Paul was quick to pass on his instructions. He had been extremely concerned over the boy’s hands and wanted to get them right into the ice to bring down the swelling.

Hoss exited the room momentarily and hurried back with the empty basins. He handed them to the doctor. Cup by cupful Paul placed the ice into the two containers. When each was halfway full Paul handed one over to Adam and one to Ben. He felt it would be a good thing at the time to keep the anxious father busy by helping him assist in his son’s care.

“Slowly set his hands into the basins and I will cover them up with the remaining ice,” Paul instructed and Ben and Adam carefully took each one of Joe’s wrists and set the hands down into the shaved ice. The doctor covered the swollen hands with the additional ice and then turned to look into Ben’s apprehensive eyes. “We will alternate every ten minutes taking them out and putting them back in. Until the swelling is down, I can’t even see his fingers well enough to set them.”

Hop Sing re-entered the room with another load of ice. “Bring more for you, Doctor. Plenty more downstairs.”

“That’s fine. Let’s put a bit of it in a towel and we can ice down Joe’s cheek a little too. That cut is gonna be awfully sore when the boy wakes up.”

“When do you think that will be? He’s been out of it all day,” Adam asked as he kept a watchful eye down at his brother’s left hand.

“Hard to say,” Paul commented and took a minute’s breather over in the chair. He had been standing for almost two hours and was wearing thin. “His body is just worn out from all it’s gone through I guess. It’s good in a way, gives us time to do all the patching up without heavy sedation. I am sure he will need some pretty strong stuff once he does come around. Those injuries even by themselves would be terrible, but combined as they are—well—it will be excruciating I’m sure.”

Hoss moved to the head of the bed while both his father and his brother continued to tend to the boy’s injured hands. He inventoried the body before him. It pained Hoss’ whole person, right down to his very soul to see his baby brother in such dire circumstances. Hoss had dealt with injuries before, and was known to all in the area as one of the best animal doctors there was. Staring at his brother now, Hoss realized that if these same injuries had happened to a horse, or any of the other critters he was tending that he would have sent a bullet into the animal to humanely put it out of its misery.

Hop Sing witnessed the look in the big hearted brother’s eyes and it melted his heart. He knew that Joe’s condition was eating away at everyone in the room, himself included. Folding some ice into a soft wash cloth Hop Sing handed it over to Hoss. The Oriental member of the family figured that just the act of trying to ease his brother’s pain would help the big man as well. “You hold to Little Joe’s cut—make pain go away.” He whispered over to Hoss and saw him nod his thanks. With the gentleness he had perfected over the years, Hoss tried to soothe his brother’s swollen cheek. “You’re gonna be fine, Little Brother. Just fine,” Hoss called down to the boy, hoping underneath somewhere Joe would hear his words and respond.

*****

After spending the better part of an hour icing down Joe’s broken fingers, Paul determined that the swelling had gone down sufficiently to try and set the bones. He was very worried that far too much time had elapsed already and that the fingers would never be as they had been prior to the Indian’s assault. Paul dug into his medical bag and came up with a handful of heavy wooden tongue depressors.

“I think these will do nicely. We will set the fingers and use these for splints. I think with a little careful binding we can get them to hold up for the job. Once we are sure that the set has worked I will bring back some plaster from my office to cast them, but let’s just take it one step at a time.”

Ben and Adam moved the basins off the bed again and turned to the doctor to see how the set would be accomplished. Paul put his hand on Hoss’ shoulder and looked him straight in the eyes to gauge whether the big man would be up for the task he had planned for him. “Hoss? This job is unfortunately going to require a great deal of strength. What I need is for you to snap each finger back into place while I hold your brother’s hands rigidly. I can’t do both, and, well, I figure out of all of us you could do this better. You think you are up to it?”

Hoss chewed at his bottom lip and cast a frightened look over to his father. He was just as worried as he had been when he had the task of soaking his brother’s feet earlier. Hoss was so afraid he might make his brother worse off if he made a mistake.

“If you’re not up to it…” Ben said softly, noticing the dread on his middle boy’s face. “I will do it.”

Hoss swallowed hard. The last thing he wanted to do was to put any more strain on his father. Always in the back of his mind was the fact that Ben had once suffered from a weak heart and he didn’t want anything to encourage a relapse. “I got it okay, Pa.” Hoss nodded bravely towards his father and moved closer to the doctor. Paul held up Joe’s right hand, bracing it at the palm and holding the swollen fingers out towards the boy’s brother.

“Just pull quick and straight, Hoss. Let’s start at the thumb, shall we?”

 Pulling from whatever internal strength he had left in his body, Hoss clasped Joe’s thumb between his clenched fist and gave it a quick jerk. The sound of the bone snapping back into place could be heard across the room. Both Adam and Ben grimaced upon hearing the noise.

“Very good, Hoss!” Paul tried to encourage the man as he went about wrapping the thumb with gauze so that it would sit firmly on the wooden splint. “Ready for the next one?”

Hoss nodded and again readied for the set. He closed his eyes briefly and sent up another quick prayer and then snapped Joe’s index finger into its original position. Again, Paul bound the finger to the splint. One by one the two men continued, until all of Joe’s fingers were held into their normal position by the wooden tongue depressor splints.

“Great job, Hoss.” Paul nodded over to him and patted his arm. “You made a fine assistant.”

“Thank you, son,” Ben called over to Hoss. He knew how hard it had been on the kind hearted young man to have done what he did, and Ben’s eyes reflected the great pride he had for his son.

“Hop Sing—can you find me some more pillows? I want to elevate these hands a little,” the doctor called over to the cook and the other man took off into the guest room on his mission. He was back in only a minute’s time with two pillows clutched in his arms.

Paul rested Joe’s two bandaged hands on the pillows on either side of him. He then turned to all the men in the room. “Now, I want you all downstairs to get some dinner in you. I don’t want to hear any complaints about it either! I’m going to sit here until you are back and then I will have some dinner as well.”

“I’m not hungry,” Hoss muttered, not wanting to leave his brother’s side for even a minute.

“I said no complaints! Now get,” Paul replied sternly.

“C’mon, Pa. Doc’s right—we’ve got a long night ahead of us–we’ll need to eat something,” Adam said to his father and tried to coax him out of the room.

“I want you all to go–Doc you too—I will eat when you get back. I am not leaving Joseph–not now at least. When you are done then I will go down for a few minutes. And–Paul–this time you just have to listen to ME–okay?” Ben addressed the doctor and his sons forcefully.

Paul frowned but gave up on the idea for the time being. He had seen the look in Ben’s eyes and knew that a protest of the matter would prove to be pointless. “Let’s eat, boys.” Paul sighed and motioned Adam, Hoss, and Hop Sing out of the room.

*****

A short time after everyone except Ben had left the bedroom, Joe began to move his lips slightly as if he was again going to speak. Ben pulled the chair closer to the bed and waited breathlessly for the boy to say something.

“Pahhhh…” The faint sound of the boy’s word could be heard, though still hard to understand.

“I’m right here, son,” Ben whispered and brushed the curls off of the boy’s forehead.

“Pahhhh…can’t…see…you…” Joe muttered unaware of the bandages which covered his wounded eyes.

“I’m right here next to you, Joseph. You just rest easy,” Ben replied softly trying to calm the fear he knew had to be growing in the young man’s mind.

“Pah…hold…hold…my…hand…” Joe struggled with his words again. Every word that he spoke caused fierce pain to his tongue as it brushed against the roof of his mouth and his teeth.

Ben looked down at Joe’s hands lying helplessly at the boy’s sides. Silent tears fell from the grieved father’s eyes as he answered his son’s request. “I can’t –not right now, Joseph…” Ben stopped in mid-sentence. He didn’t want to remind his child of the magnitude of his injuries. Joe had obviously forgotten what had happened to his hands. Ben placed the palm of his hand to the right side of his son’s face and stroked it gently. “I’m right here—can you feel my hand on your face?”

“Pahhhh…where are you? Can’t see you…so dark…” Joe continued on, his mind only focused on the fact that he could not look into his father’s eyes at the time.

“Joe, listen to me; your eyes are bandaged, but you are gonna be fine…” Ben tried for another brave front but it was killing him on the inside.

“Pahhhh hold my hand,” Joe repeated his earlier plea.

“I can’t…” Ben whispered and then covered his eyes to fight the tears that were leaving them.

“Don’t cry…Pah…don’t cry…” Joe pleaded.

Ben pushed back his tears and stared over at his son. He could not comprehend how the boy knew he was crying. Ben had made sure he hadn’t made a sound to give away the fact that tears were leaving his eyes.

“I won’t, Pahhhh…I won’t,” Joe whispered feeling light headed again.

“You won’t what, son?” Ben asked confused.

“I won’t die…Pah…” Joe replied softly.

Ben knew his heart was breaking now without any doubt. Just to hear Joseph address the idea of him dying sent a pain through to Ben’s heart.

“Promise?” Ben whispered and let his hand fall down to the boy’s swollen lips.

“Promise…Pah…but so tired…so tired…hold my hand.” Joe barely got his words out before falling back into the dark void where the pain could not reach him.

Ben reached down for the boy’s right hand and carefully wrapped his fingers around just the palm of it to give his son the reassurance he had asked for. When he looked back up, Ben could tell Joe had fallen back to sleep. Leaning over, still holding his boy’s hand, Ben kissed him on the cheek and said, “I’m holding your hand, Joe. You rest awhile, your pa’s right here.”

*****

It wasn’t long before Hoss, Adam and Doctor Martin appeared back in Joe’s room. They had all decided that they would forcefully remove Ben from the room if need be. Hours of hovering over his injured son had worn the worried father emotionally thin and it showed on his face as the three men neared him.

“Hop Sing has your dinner all ready, Pa,” Hoss began.

Ben looked up at his son and sighed. He could read the determination on the faces of his sons and the doctor as well. Knowing he had promised to go and eat after they had returned, Ben slowly pulled himself to standing.

“Any change while we were gone?” Paul asked checking his patient’s pulse.

“He talked to me briefly. Joe’s very disoriented,” Ben replied looking down at the injured boy.

“But, he was talking to you this time, right, Pa?” Adam asked hopefully.

“Yes—only for a few minutes and then he fell back off.”

“What did he say?” Hoss broke in with his question.

“He promised me that he wasn’t going to die,” Ben answered, the emotion of his son’s promise starting to form tears in his eyes again.

“Well, if Joe said it then it’s good enough for me.” Paul smiled and patted Ben’s shoulder. “I think we all know how hard the boy tries to keep his promises—especially to his father.”

Ben nodded and turned rather reluctantly to the door. “I won’t be long.”

“He’s in good hands, Ben, you take some time to relax, we still have a long night before us,” Paul stated sternly and Ben walked out of the room.

*****

Ben ate his meal, though his mind was never far from his son who still fought for his life upstairs. He still found it so hard to believe that his youngest had fallen victim to such horrible forms of torture by the Indian who obviously planned it all out before capturing the boy. Ben knew that Joe had more strength of spirit than perhaps all of the other Cartwrights put together. Despite that fact, he couldn’t help worrying about how the boy would ever be able to recover from both the physical and emotional abuse he had been forced to endure.

Walking over to his desk for another badly needed shot of brandy, Ben’s eyes fell to the floor and noticed that the papers he had earlier thrown off his desk were back on top of it now. He frowned when he realized someone had taken the time to put them back together in order, just as they had been when he had set them there the night before. Had it just been last night that he had returned from Carson City after yet another committee meeting? Ben shook his head at the thought. It seemed like a lifetime ago now. Pouring brandy into his glass the distraught father could feel his growing hatred. It pressed against his heart and grew from there upwards to his mind. Ben could feel it and almost taste it as it wrapped it’s venom around his thoughts for revenge. Here he had been so worried about the affairs of all of the Indian tribes when his son was being cut and burnt and dragged by Lone Eagle. Ben cursed his actions and all that had sent him into Carson City that day. He couldn’t get it out of his mind that if he had been home that day that maybe he could have prevented what had happened to Joe.

“It’ll never happen again,” Ben muttered to himself and placed the glass on his desk.

*****

After having taken the time to wash up and change his clothes, Ben walked back into his son’s room and cast a look into the faces of the three men who were tending the boy. “How is he? Did he come around again?” Ben asked nearing the bed.

“He’s moaning a little–I think he’s starting to feel the pain of his injuries,” Paul replied and drew up some pain medication into his syringe. “I’m just going to give Joe a little something that will take the edge off. If he’s gonna come around this won’t prevent it–just make the pain a little more bearable.” Paul injected the medicine into the inside of Joe’s right arm.

Ben rinsed a wash cloth in the basin on the night stand and wrung it out. He then used it to cool his son’s feverish brow. It was at that point that Ben and the other men noticed the fierce grimace on Joe’s face and knew that his suffering was getting far worse. “Joseph—you’re gonna be okay–you just rest easy—we are all here with you.” Ben whispered to the boy. “Your brothers are here—and Doc…” Ben stopped as Hop Sing entered the room.

“Hop Sing here too—Little Joe,”  Hop Sing whispered to the young man and stood at the opposite side from where Ben was still attempting to cool Joe’s fever. Brushing back the boy’s hair from his forehead when Ben turned to rinse the cloth out again, Hop Sing muttered a prayer for Joe’s recovery. “Hop Sing fix you all up–you see–you be all better vely soon.”

*****

Joe watched the whole scene as it was happening from across the room where he stood with the shepherd who had earlier saved him from sure death.

“They love you so much,” the shepherd said smiling over at the boy. “They haven’t left your side—and they won’t until you are all better.”

“But will I get better?” Joe asked the vision before him. “I look pretty bad off—I’m really gonna make it?”

The shepherd’s arm fell around the frightened young man. “They all need you just as badly as you need them, Joseph. There’s an awful lot you still have to do with your life. You will live.”

“My eyes—will I see?”

“All your injuries—you will recover from them all. You have a long road back, but you will rise above it all. You will only have a small scar to show that this ever happened. But you will see, you will walk, and you will have all the usage of your hands.”

“Not such a bad trade, I guess–just a scar. I can handle that. Looks like there’s gonna be a whole lot of pain when I move back over there.”

“Pain can be a lesson in itself. Your father has a different kind of pain right now. One that hurts as much as any physical pain actually.”

“What? You mean ‘cause he’s worried about me?”

“Yes–that—along with a whole lot of other things. And this time it will be your turn to help your father.”

“Help Pa? Help him how?” Joe asked confused. He could see his father mopping his brow across the room.

“The seed of hate has grown in his heart. It is up to you to pull it from him. He is a fine man—one we are proud of. But, even the best of men can fall from grace–and I am afraid that is what is going to happen now.”

“I don’t understand—you said this before–but I still don’t know what you mean? How could Pa fall from grace? My father is the kindest most loving person I know—even if he wasn’t my pa–I would still say this.”

“He has been tested–perhaps by fire this time. You must put him back on track. He has hate in his heart now towards all Indians–just because this happened to you.”

“NO–not my father! Pa wouldn’t hate—not a whole race of people because of what Lone Eagle did!” Joe insisted staring into the kind and patient eyes of the shepherd.

“You will see, Joseph. And when you have your chance you must tell him.”

“Tell him what?”

“Do not hate an entire race for the evil of one. You must make him understand.”

“I’ll try—I still can’t believe that he would think that way. My Pa is as perfect as a man can get.”

“No-one is perfect…” the shepherd insisted wisely. “But, he is closer than most. Let’s keep him that way. Now are you ready to go back?”

Joe stared over again at his mutilated body and sighed. It scared him to feel the pain again. It would have been so much easier just to let go, but he couldn’t. Joe could feel the love which surrounded his bed and knew he was needed, regardless of the consequences of returning to his battered body. “I am ready now. Will I ever see you again?”

The shepherd nodded, and when he smiled at Joe, the boy could almost see the face of God in his glow. “Yes, Joseph, you will see me again. Now remember—it’s up to you to help your father.”

“I will.” Joe nodded and when he closed his eyes he suddenly had the sensation that he was flying. Then, just as quickly, Joe felt as though he was back inside his body again. He moaned as the pain fell on him like a dead weight.

*****

Ben stared over at the doctor and shook his head worriedly. They had once again witnessed another conversation Joe had been having with an invisible presence. All they could hear were his answers to the shepherd and had no idea what the conversation had been about. Ben only knew that Joe was now hurting and far worse than earlier. The boy’s moans became louder as his face scrunched up into a deep grimace.

“Pain…” Joe mumbled and tried to draw up his bandaged hands to his face. Doctor Martin forced the boy’s arms back down at his sides.

“It’s going to be all right,” Paul whispered and looked hesitantly over at Ben. “We need to get some water into him before I do anything else. Hand me that glass, Ben. Adam, get me one of those glass straws out of my bag please.”

Adam grabbed a straw and handed it to his father who poured some water into a glass and handed it to the doctor standing at the head of the bed.

“Joe—you have to drink now—I’m going to lift your head up just a bit,” Paul said a little louder in tone to try and make the boy more alert. Carefully reaching under Joe’s head, the doctor lifted it slightly and maneuvered the straw towards the dry and swollen lips. “Try to take a sip now, Joe. Take it easy.”

“Pain…” Joe repeated and tried to refuse the straw he could feel poking at his bottom lip.

“You have to drink something first, Joe. Then we can give you something more for the pain,” Paul replied.

“C’mon, Joseph,” Ben called to his son and held onto his right arm. “Just try.”

“Pah?” Joe’s word came out still a bit thick sounding. “Pahhh–where are you?”

“Right here–we’re all right here,” Ben reassured the boy who seemed a bit agitated over what they were trying to get him to do.

“C’mon, Joe—just drink some, okay?” Hoss called out and Adam repeated the plea.

“Just a sip will do, Little Brother.”

“Can’t see—dark—pain,” Joe muttered still fighting the movement of the straw against his lips.

“Your eyes are bandaged–but not for long–now let’s get some water down, Joe,” Doc tried again.

Joe’s lips wrapped around the straw and he tried to gather the strength to take a quick pull of the water from it. He ended up half-choking on it and most of it poured back out. “No… hurt…hurt!” Joe cried. The water had passed over the blisters on his tongue and pain shot throughout his mouth.

Paul looked over at Ben and shook his head. They all hated what they had to do. Everyone in the room now had seen the extent of damage that had been done to the boy’s tongue and it pained them almost as much as it did Joe himself. Drawing in a deep breath to figure out their next move, Paul looked over to the pitcher of ice Hop Sing had earlier left by the lamp. “See if that’s melted at all, Ben,” Paul pointed over to it.

Ben lifted the pitcher up and nodded. “Nothing but ice water now, why?”

“Dump this out—it’s lukewarm. Maybe the ice water will not hurt as badly.”

Ben handed the water glass to Adam and he emptied it into the basin on the floor which had been used earlier to ice down Joe’s hand. Paul poured the ice water into the glass and tried again. “Okay, Joe, this is gonna feel lots better than the last time. It’s going to ease your tongue a bit. Try one more time and we will let you rest,” Paul said and lifted Joe’s head again.

Joe attempted to draw in the liquid again, and this time had better results. He drew in a couple of good long sips before giving up. Paul eased his patient’s head back onto the pillow.

“Let’s keep the ice going. He needs to get as much water into him as he can and I think it will really help that tongue if it’s good and cold,” Paul directed.

Ben took Paul’s place at the head of the bed and pulled the chair back up to it. “Joseph? You still with us?” he asked. Unable to see his son’s eyes, Ben could not be sure if he had fallen back to sleep or not.

“Pah…hurt…all over…pain…” Joe muttered and tried again to lift his hands. Ben caught a hold of his right arm and set it back down on the pillow as Hoss did the same with his left one.

“Son…try not to move your hands, okay? They are bandaged and you have to keep them still for awhile,” Ben spoke soothingly and held onto the boy’s right palm to try and calm him.

“Lone…Eagle…he tried…” Joe stopped as the sharp pain jabbed at his face. “Hurt…”

“It’s okay, Joseph. He can’t hurt anyone anymore. Don’t you fret about him.”

“Hurt…all over…pain,” Joe repeated himself again.

“Where does it hurt, Joe?” Paul asked, wanting to know what area was the worst before giving the boy any more medication. He wanted to be sure he hadn’t missed any injury when he had treated him.

“Face…” Joe began and scrunched his cheeks again in agony. “Hands…back…feet…tongue…” Joe listed all his known wounds. “Pain…hurt.”

Ben stood abruptly from the chair and moved over to the window. He had to get away from the sight of his youngest son, if only momentarily. Seeing the boy suffering so terribly was killing him. The rage and hatred he felt inside him grew by leaps and bounds the minute Joe started to tell of his pain. All eyes in the room fell over to Ben at that moment, worried for his health. They could see he was struggling in spirit just to prevent screaming out of the injustice of his son’s torture.

“I’m going to put something in your water this time, Joe. We’ll kill two birds with one stone, how’s that? We’ll give you something to help with the pain and get some more fluids in you as well. Think you can drink just a little more for us?” Paul whispered.

“Pah? Where’s…Pah?” Joe called out. Though he couldn’t see his father, somehow Joe could sense that he was no longer there at his side.

“Ben!” Paul called over to the man who was deep in thought and had not heard his son’s question.

“What?” Ben asked shaking himself out of his anger filled daze.

Paul signaled for him to come back over to the bed. He knew he could get nowhere with his patient if he didn’t have the boy’s father to assist him. Ben slowly moved back over to the chair next to Joe and sat back down. He reached again for the boy’s hand and battled his emotions to try to force a calm into his voice as he spoke to Joe.

“I’m right here, Joseph…” Ben whispered and accepted the glass the doctor handed to him.

“There’s a sedative in there this time that will help ease his pain.” Paul told Ben.

Ben nodded and lifted his son’s head up once more. “Now you drink this and before you know it that pain will ease up, son. Drink as much as you can this time.” Ben positioned the straw up to Joe’s lips and waited patiently for him to start drinking.

“Done…” Joe said when he had taken as much as he could get down. “Snakes…snakes on the ground…” Joe mumbled. He was starting to fade away again and all the men in the room knew he was trying to explain what had happened to him with Lone Eagle.

“Yes…there were snakes…but they didn’t get to you, Joseph,” Ben replied calmly and handed the glass back over to Paul.

“Shep…heerd..” Joe broke up his word and no-one in the room could understand what he had said.

“What was that, Joe?” Ben asked stroking the boy’s face gently.

“Shepppp…herrd…” Joe repeated groggily.

Ben looked around at the other men and they all shrugged their shoulders. No-one could make out what the boy had said even the second time.

“You just go back to sleep, Joseph. Everything’s going to be fine.”

“Pah…” Joe whispered, fading faster.

“Yes?”

“Pah…shep…herd…shep…herd…” Joe tried to get his meaning across, but failing to get his father to understand he grew weary and dozed back off again.

“Shepherd?” Ben asked confused and looked again at his sons and the doctor. “I think he said shepherd.”

“Must’ve been that medication,” Paul nodded over at Ben.

*****

All night long the five men took turns tending the injured young man, each getting little rest in between care giving. Paul had been ready to force a sedative on Ben, but stopped short when he saw that the worried father had passed out due to exhaustion in the chair next to his son’s bed. Sending both Adam and Hoss to their rooms to get some real sleep, Paul kept his own vigil waiting for morning.

“I must’ve dozed off,” Ben muttered at first light and stood from the chair trying to ease his sore back.

“You got in a couple hours, Ben. But, you are going to have to try to get some real rest later today or you’ll be in your own sick bed soon,”  Paul commented as he checked his patient’s forehead once more. “Still has some fever going–but I would say it’s safe enough to leave him for awhile. I need to go into town for more supplies.” Paul closed his medical bag and turned for the bedroom door when it opened and in walked Hoss and Adam again. “Good. You boys can spell your father for awhile. I am heading back to my office.”

Ben walked over to join Paul, wanting to walk him down the stairs and get any last minute instructions for Joe’s care before he left.

“Looks like we need more ice,” Adam said staring into the water pitcher. He reached for it and turned out of the room with the other two men while Hoss sat down in the chair Ben had just vacated.

*****

Walking down the long staircase, Ben and Paul discussed Joe’s prognosis.

“I think that set is holding nicely. I will bring back the plaster we’ll use to make the castings of his hands. We need to rinse his eyes again when I return. Until then, you just keep getting fluids in the boy. It’ll help with his fever,” Paul said making it down to the living room.

“I’ll send Cliff back into town for more ice,” Adam said and Paul turned towards him.

“No sense doing that. I’ll bring a supply back with me, Adam. Hop Sing told me a little while ago he still has some left. He’s been keeping it cooled in the root cellar all night. It should be enough to get you by till I return.”

“Doc—what do you think? I mean–Joseph…” Ben asked hoping for some reassurance.

Paul put his hand on Ben’s arm and stared into his careworn face. “Ben—he’s got an uphill battle ahead of him–but at least he’s not at death’s door like he was yesterday. He’ll survive…” Paul stopped short of saying Joe would be okay eventually. The doctor really didn’t think the boy would totally recover from all his massive injuries. He worried about the damage which had been done to Joe’s fingers. Even with the set seemingly doing well, there was always the chance that the boy would lose some mobility due to the severity of the fractures.

“But–will he recover? I mean—his hands–his face–everything. He just looks so terrible.” Ben tried to convey his fears without again breaking down to tears.

“I am not sure about his hands—we are gonna have to wait and see.”

“And his eyes?” Ben begged for a straight forward answer this time.

“They’re scratched pretty badly–Ben–I am not trying to dodge your questions—I just simply don’t have an answer to them yet. Joe’s a very injured young man right now; I consider it a huge accomplishment that we were able to keep him alive. We’re going to just have to wait. But, realistically we can’t fool ourselves either. That scar on his face–well–it’s not going away. He’s going to have some permanent damage, the extent of it can’t be determined just yet.”

Ben looked down to the floor fighting the anger again and the images of his son’s tortured body. He could not speak, the words choked in his throat.

“Ben—let’s concern ourselves with the most important things right now. I’d say Joe’s eyes and his hands have to be our biggest concern. His tongue—as well as his feet–they will eventually heal with proper care. Let’s do all we can for the boy’s eyes and his hands and let nature deal with everything else. Nature and God that is,” Paul whispered, trying to help his old friend through his emotional pain.

Ben took a deep breath, trying to pull from whatever internal reserve he still had. “Will you send a telegraph for me when you get back to town?” Ben asked abruptly and Paul looked at him bewildered.

“Telegraph? To whom?”

“Clark Rogers—-he’s the second in command on the Indian Affairs Committee.”

“Sure—what do you want me to tell him?”

“Tell him I resign,” Ben said flatly and started to walk away from where both Adam and Paul stood at the front door.

“What!” Adam called out loudly. “Pa–you can’t resign…”

“Ben—maybe you can just get a postponement—maybe a couple of weeks–and then you can get back to it.” Paul tried to offer an alternative to his friend. He knew how hard Ben had fought to get the committee appointed by the governor. Paul also knew that without the guidance of Ben Cartwright, the committee would never meet their goals. It had been Ben’s idea and his drive which had started the whole thing.

“No–I resign—I don’t want to have anything to do with it,” Ben insisted, his anger bleeding out as he spoke.

“But–Pa…” Adam reached for his father as the man tried again to walk away. Gripping Ben’s arm his eldest son stared intently into his eyes. Adam could not believe the hatred that burned in the brown recesses of his father’s normally compassionate eyes. “You know how important this is to the Indians–you were the one who started it! You can’t just quit!”

Ben broke Adam’s grip harshly and shot his own arm towards the stairs and pointed. “You tell that to your little brother, will you? You go up there and tell him that his father is needed in Carson to help the Indians! You tell him that he can just lay there and suffer alone–without his pa—just so those savages can get more land!”

“Pa—I can’t believe you are saying this…” Adam whispered so stunned by all that Ben had said. Paul also stood at the door with his mouth opened in wonderment.

“If I had been here two days ago instead of working on that damned committee maybe Joseph wouldn’t have been tortured! If I had been here doing my job as the boy’s father instead of as some head honcho over a meaningless committee maybe Joseph wouldn’t be blind! Maybe if I had cared more about my own people—well–maybe I could have prevented all of this!”

“Ben—this isn’t like you—you are just upset,” Paul broke in gently.

“Upset!” Ben yelled. “Oh yes–I am upset! My youngest son is upstairs battling pain because some savage decided to seek his own vengeance on the white man by torturing him! Help the Indians now? No—and never again either!” Ben fired back, his hatred flowing like a venomous river, drowning all things in its way.

“That was Lone Eagle, Pa! Not all the Indians…” Adam argued against his father’s logic. “You’ve taught all of us–Joe included—not to hate–and here you are spouting this kind of prejudice just as if you were Justin Weathers himself! This isn’t like you, Pa!”

“He had a son murdered by Indians—-now I have had a son almost murdered by them too. Perhaps I misjudged the man all along.”

“This isn’t you–Pa–you are just upset and tired…”

“Paul—please send the telegraph,” Ben broke in on Adam’s protests staring over at the doctor. He then turned and headed into the kitchen.

*****

Adam walked sullenly with the doctor outside to the other man’s surrey. Fletcher, one of the hired hands, had readied it for the doctor’s trip back to Virginia City. When Paul stepped up into the surrey he put his hand on Adam’s sunken shoulder.

“Try not to be too hard on your father, Adam. This whole thing is eating away at him. You have to understand how much seeing Joe like this has killed him on the inside. Your brother is in awfully bad shape.”

“I know that, Doc—and I hurt for Joe too. But, you’ve known Pa for a lot of years. He’s a good man. If he gives up his post on that committee he may regret it for the rest of his life. Maybe we can get him to come back around–I mean once Joe starts doing a little better?”

“Maybe–okay–I’ll tell you what.” Paul stopped and patted Adam’s shoulder again and winked at him as a thought came into his head. “I’ll send a telegraph explaining about what happened to Joe—and I’ll ask for a two week postponement. I’m sure with what’s happened and all they’ll agree to it. That buys us a little time to work on Ben. But, I think it would be wise if we waited a couple of days. How about it?”

Adam nodded gratefully. “Yeah–that will work. Thanks, Doc. You’re a good friend–to all of us.”

“Well, after tending that little brother of yours so many times, I almost feel like one of the family now anyway. I should have my own bedroom at least.” Paul laughed and sent the carriage forward and headed back to Virginia City.

*****

Hop Sing had noticed the anguished look on Ben’s face as he had entered the kitchen. He had also heard the loud discussion in the next room earlier and worried more now about Ben. Removing from the stove the fresh pot of coffee, Hop Sing insisted that his employer and friend sit down in the kitchen to regroup.

“Thanks, Hop Sing. I needed this,” Ben commented as he sat at the small table in the kitchen and sipped on his coffee. The cook brought over another cup and poured coffee for himself and sat down next to Ben.

“Mr. Ben vely worried about Little Joe— Hop Sing read it on face,” he began.

“Yes—I couldn’t hide it even if I wanted to. I guess it’s a good thing that Joseph can’t see my face–” Ben started and stopped abruptly thinking about his son’s eyes. “What will we do if Joe loses his sight? What if he can’t use his hands?” Ben asked the other man, his voice trembling at the horrible images that his mind had conjured up.

Hop Sing reached across the table and patted Ben’s arm affectionately. “Little boy always make worry–no matter when he hurt…”

“Little boy?” Ben said and the thought of what the cook had called Joe forced a smile onto his face. “Don’t let Joseph hear you calling him a little boy, Hop Sing,” Ben warned.

“Always be Hop Sing’s little boy–no matter how old he get…” Hop Sing insisted. “Raise from baby—Little Joe know–Hop Sing love him vely much.”

Ben nodded and put his hand on the cook’s arm this time in a show of support. “Well, he’s my little boy too–you know? Of course, that’s what he gets for being the youngest, I guess. I couldn’t have gotten him this far in life if it hadn’t been for you.”

“We help him together–like we do always.” Hop Sing offered his brightest Oriental smile.

“But–he’s so bad off this time,” Ben replied shaking his head in worry again.

“One step at a time–you say this to Hop Sing all the time.”

Ben nodded. “Yes–I guess I do.”

“Hop Sing hear much yelling—you fight with Mr. Adam?” Hop Sing got to the root of the matter trying to smooth things out in the family.

“No–I am not fighting with Adam–just disagreeing with him. I have resigned from the committee—and he’s not happy with my decision.” Ben was now frowning as he thought about the words he had earlier with his oldest son.

“Son learn from father–sometimes father learn from son same thing.”

“Let’s get back to Joseph if you don’t mind. I’m about spent on the other topic at the moment. We’ve got to get something down the boy more than just water. He hasn’t eaten in days—and with his tongue…” Ben stopped as his mind flashed back to the picture of the burn he had found in his son’s mouth the day before. It sent a pain throughout his body.

Hop Sing could tell that Ben was once again hurting over all he had witnessed and decided to offer what help he could. “I make broth—on stove now,” he said standing and moving over to a large pot on top of the stove.

Ben neared the other man and looked down into the pot with a confused look on his face. “Hop Sing—Doc said Joe could only drink cold things now—warm or hot liquids will hurt him too badly.”

“Hop Sing know—will cook and then cool—and then add ice.”

Ben’s face scrunched up at the thought of ice cold beef broth. “You think he’ll drink it?”

Hop Sing smiled broadly and nodded his head. “Little Joe drink whatever Hop Sing bring him.”

Ben patted the cook’s shoulder and grinned. The man sure did have a way with the youngest member of the family, that was for certain. And if anyone could get Joe to drink the concoction it would be Hop Sing. “Whatever you say. I think I’ll go up and send Hoss down for breakfast.”

“NO–you stay–you eat first–then Mr. Hoss and Mr. Adam,” Hop Sing replied sternly.

“Okay–okay—I’ll eat first and then send them down. I’ve already fought with two people today–don’t want to chance having a run in with you.”

“Run in? What that mean?” Hop Sing asked bewildered.

“Fight–a fight—you know?”

“No–you no fight Hop Sing–you know Hop Sing always win.” The cook grinned and started to crack the eggs into a frying pan.

“Yes, as a matter of fact you do.” Ben nodded and reached again for his coffee. For some strange reason his little conversation with Hop Sing had cheered him from his earlier glum mood.

Hop Sing stared over at the head of the Cartwright clan and knew he had gotten through to him. He started humming a Cantonese tune pleased with his minor victory. One step at a time, Hop Sing thought to himself grinning over towards Ben.

*****

That whole second day was spent just as the first one had been. All of the Cartwrights and Hop Sing took turns tending to the injured boy. Joe only intermittently returned to consciousness, though he managed to drink a few sips of water here and there before falling back into protective slumber. By the time the doctor had returned to the ranch house early in the evening, Joe’s family were very anxious to hear what Paul thought about the boy’s condition.

“Has he said anything?” Paul asked as he examined his patient.

          “He’s mumbled a bit–but nothing intelligible. I’m worried–shouldn’t he be starting to come around more by now?” Ben asked.

“Not necessarily, Ben. Look at all his body has been put through,” Paul replied and opened his medical bag and removed the eye drops and gauze he needed to treat Joe’s eyes again. “Let’s get his eyes taken care of before we move to his hands. It’s going to take awhile to cast both of them.”

Ben carefully eased the gauze bandage from around Joe’s head in preparation to rinse his eyes. Hop Sing had brought in the sterile water and handed it to Doctor Martin. They set the towels again on either side of Joe’s head and began the procedure.

“How’s it look?” Ben asked as Paul inspected both eyes once the water had run out of them.

“A bit better—perhaps tomorrow–if Joe is back with us–we can ask him about his vision. But, for right now, we need to cover them again.” Paul dropped the medication into both eyes and then reached for the new bandage to place over them. After he secured Joe’s eyes Paul moved down to his feet to take a look at the burns. “These look better—I was worried about infection–but I think they are coming along nicely. Let’s put some more salve on them and wrap them up–they’ve aired out enough.”

Hoss and Adam jumped into the picture and helped Paul with their brother’s feet, so glad to hear some good news for a change. The salve was spread onto both feet and then the gauze was wrapped loosely around the burns.

“Now—I think we should try to get Joe to drink something before we start with the casts. He has to keep from getting dehydrated–and he’ll need something for the pain of us working on his hands.”

Ben bent down closer to Joe and began softly caressing his face and calling out to him. “Joseph—come on–time to wake up–come on–can you hear me?”

All eyes in the room were on Joe as he changed his breathing and winced up his face in pain. “Pah?” Joe whispered, his voice hoarse and dry.

“Right here next to you, Joe—we have to get you to drink now,” Ben said and reached for the glass Hop Sing offered him. Ben saw that it was the iced down broth and his stomach churned at the thought of having to drink it himself. Ben positioned the straw in the glass and lifted his son’s head a bit. “Now you drink this all up.”

“Water?” Joe asked still foggy in mind.

Ben shot a look around the room and shrugged his shoulders helplessly. He didn’t want to describe to his son what was really in the glass. Remembering the doctor having told them all that Joe would not be able to taste anything for months, Ben decided that a small lie was appropriate at the time.

“Yes—Joseph–just some water…” Ben replied and fought off a slight grin as he watched Joe drink the broth. It took a little prodding but Ben was able to coax Joe enough to finish the entire contents of the glass and then he handed it over to Hop Sing. The cook winked at Ben pleased to see that their little plan had worked. “Very good, son,” Ben smiled and patted Joe’s arm lightly.

“Pah? Can’t see…who…who’s here?” Joe stammered.

“We’re all here, Little Brother,” Hoss sang out.

“Yeah–right here next to the bed,” Adam joined in and patted the boy’s leg.

“Bad…off…” Joe muttered.

Ben turned to the doctor to let him address Joe’s worries this time.

“You’ve had a bad time of it, Joe–but you are gonna make it,” Paul reassured the boy.

“I…know…shepherd…said…” Joe slightly nodded his head as he spoke.

All the men in the room questioned in their minds again what Joe was saying. Had he said shepherd again? They wondered if the boy was falling back under.

“Did you say shepherd, Joseph? It’s kinda hard to hear you,” Ben asked softly.

“Tongue…burned…can’t talk…can’t talk so good…” Joe replied sadly.

“You’ve kinda been in and out of it for a day, son. Don’t you worry–you’re gonna be fine.”

“Pah? Have to tell you…have to tell you…”

“Tell me what, Joe?” Ben drew closer to hear what Joe was saying to him, it was getting harder to understand him again.

“Shep…herd…have to tell…” Joe stopped as he started to feel weak once more.

“Shepherd? I’m sorry, son–I don’t understand—what’s this about a shepherd?”

“Too tired…hurt…too tired,” Joe repeated over and over again.

Paul laced another glass of water with some medication and handed it to Ben. “Give him this before he falls back under, Ben. We don’t want him coming around while we are casting his hands.”

“Just a little more water, Joseph–now you drink this for me.” Ben lifted Joe’s head up again.

“Too tired…” Joe mumbled.

“C’mon–just a bit—just try,” Ben urged on. Joe finally drew some of the liquid up in the straw and swallowed. A minute later Ben could feel his son’s head fall a little in his grasp and knew the boy had gone back to sleep. “He didn’t get much down.” Ben said turning back towards Paul after he had settled Joe back onto his pillow.

“Well–it will just have to do. We need to get to these hands now,” Paul said and moved to inspect the splints. The fingers of Joe’s right hand were fine, and had held up to the sets well. Paul then noticed that two of Joe’s fingers on his left hand had not fared so well. He chewed on his bottom lip as he realized that the index finger and thumb appeared to have moved too much and would need to be re-set. “Ben–how about going downstairs for a little while? I have more than enough help here.”

Ben stared over at the doctor and knew by the man’s facial expression that something was very wrong. He also knew that Paul was trying to withhold the bad news from him.

“What is it? C’mon–level with me,” Ben demanded the truth.

Paul breathed in deeply and let it out very slowly trying to figure out what he was going to tell the man. He could see the fatigue all over Ben’s face already; he also knew how much anger there was still in the worried father’s heart. “We need to re-set two of these fingers here. I’d just really rather you not stay for it. Hoss can help me. Right, Hoss?” Paul cast a pleading glance over to the big man at the end of the bed.

“Sure thing, Doc–no problem–won’t take long at all,” Hoss nodded. Deep in his soul, he dreaded having to do what he had just done the previous night. He could still remember the sounds of his brother’s fingers snapping back into place and it pained his heart at the thought he’d have to do it yet again.

Ben looked over at both of his sons and then back at Paul. He knew that if he stayed in the room one more minute he would explode in anger. How much more could his child endure anyway? Ben couldn’t believe all the pain and suffering that Joe had already had to deal with, and now yet another procedure. Why? Why was all this happening? Ben’s thoughts raced in his mind and always stopped on the one solid image in his head; Lone Eagle. Without responding verbally, Ben hurried out of the bedroom.

*****

“Pa?” Hoss asked quietly as he made his way down into the living room an hour later. He could see his father deep in thought in his leather chair in front of the huge fireplace. Hoss couldn’t help thinking that Ben looked old. He worried again about the man’s heart and hoped that all that had happened to his little brother would not take its toll on their father this time.

“Pa—it’s all done–Joe’s got his hands all casted and Doc says they look real good. We don’t have to worry about them moving now that the plaster is holding them.” Hoss tried to sound as encouraging as he could as he walked over to the man and put his hand down on his shoulder for support.

“Thank you.” Ben nodded, knowing it had taken an awful lot of internal and external strength for Hoss to have re-set his little brother’s fingers.

“Pa–Joe’s gonna be okay–you just gotta stop brewing over it. It’s not helping him none–and it’s not good for you. Remember your heart, Pa, we don’t want nothing to happen to you,” Hoss pleaded with his father.

Ben finally looked up into the blue eyes of his middle boy and read the compassion and love shooting out from them. “Nothing is gonna happen to me, Hoss. Stop worrying. I’m fine.”

“No –I don’t think you are,” Hoss said shaking his head. “I had a talk with Adam earlier today. I know you probably don’t want to talk about it–but I can’t help it! Pa–you’ve got to get back to your committee! Now I ain’t saying today–or even this week. I know you have to stick around for Joe’s sake and all. But, once he is on the mend you just gotta go back there. Please don’t quit now. Adam and I don’t want you to—and neither does Joe!”

Ben stood up and began pacing the room trying to contain his anger and hatred. It was a losing battle. Looking over at his second child he could see the vision of the young man’s mother there before his eyes. Hoss’ eyes and hair and even his gentleness were a constant reminder of Inger, his mother. Ben remembered the love he had for the blonde beauty and also the grief he had felt when she had been killed. Killed by an Indian’s arrow! Ben groaned without thinking about it as he remembered that day so long ago that he had buried his second wife out there on the dusty trail. He thought he had buried his hatred for Indian’s that day too, but, evidently he had not. It burned now in his heart just as strong as it had when he had seen Inger fall. Ben had tried through the years to make up for the hatred he had felt by trying everything he could to help the Native Americans. He wondered now if all his so-called help had caused the torture of his son inadvertently. Ben knew he would never be able to forget seeing Joe’s body laying there in the pit of snakes. He would never forget taking the boy home on his horse and praying that he didn’t die right there in his arms. Ben knew he would never forget the sounds of hearing his son’s fingers, one at a time popping back into place nor the way his face gapped from the Indian’s knife wound. He could never forget the burns or anything else that had been done to his youngest son, nor could he ever forgive.

“I don’t want to talk about that committee ever again. And I’ve turned the other cheek for the last time as far as all Indians are concerned. Before you ask me something foolish—like WHY I feel this way–why don’t you go and take a good look at your little brother. That says it all,” Ben replied to his son and then headed back towards the stairs.

Hoss closed his eyes in prayer. He prayed for guidance and for a way to help his father now. The man who had left and hurried up the stairs was not the man who had raised him. Hoss wanted that person back, the father he knew and loved and the man who he respected above all those he had known in his life. He asked for God’s help to accomplish that task.

*****

Doctor Martin could not force Ben to change his attitude. He could not force the man to stop his hatred towards the Indians either. But, he could force a sedative on his old friend, and that’s exactly what he did with the help of Hop Sing. They put the medication into his drink while he wasn’t looking. They all knew that if Ben didn’t get some real sleep that he would become ill. They also knew if they hadn’t sedated the man that he would spend yet another night in the chair next to Joe’s bed. Paul made sure that didn’t happen.

Ben slept all through the night and into part of the next day, his body taking over where the sedative had left off. When he awoke he was surprised to find himself in bed and frowned when he realized that he had been sedated. He washed and dressed and hurried into the next room.

“He’s doing fine, Pa,” Adam called over to his father as he entered the room. Adam set down the book he was reading and stood from the chair making room for Ben. “He only woke up a couple of times.”

Ben stroked Joe’s hair and looked back towards his eldest son. “You all doped me up,” he said angrily.

“Had to—you didn’t give us any choice in the matter. Joe needs you—you don’t want to fall out do you?”

Ben frowned at Adam’s logic, even though he knew it was valid. He sank down into the chair and felt Joe’s forehead. “He doesn’t seem as warm.”

“No–his fever shot up a little last night, but has been coming down all morning. Doc’s gonna be back soon and we’re going to look at those eyes.”

“Did Joe call for me?” Ben asked worriedly.

“Once–but we told him you were sleeping and he was fine. The kid worries about you too you know?”

“Has he drank anything today?”

“Yeah–Hop Sing gave him more of that special water,” Adam laughed. “He drank it all up.”

“Good,” Ben said and settled back in the chair.

“I’m gonna go see if Hop Sing has made lunch yet. I’ll bring you back something.”

Ben smiled up at Adam, relieved that his son did not seem to harbor a grudge over the words the two of them had the previous morning. “Thanks, son.” Ben nodded over to him.

*****

Pulling the curtains closed, Paul looked across the room at all the worried family members. He knew that they were frightened about the outcome of his examination of Joe’s eyes. Joe had come back around a short time after the doctor had returned from town, and Paul decided it was the right time to check for damage now. He walked back over to the head of the bed and slowly removed the gauze bandages that covered the boy’s eyes.

“Now, I want you to slowly open your eyes, Joe. And, remember what I told you. Don’t worry if you can’t see anything right away. Your eyes are badly scratched–and it may take awhile.”

Joe nodded as the doctor removed the two pads which covered his eyes and he slowly blinked trying to clear his vision.

“Well?” Paul asked calmly.

Joe turned his head from the left side where the doctor stood, over to the right side of the bed where Ben stood. “Hi…Pa,” Joe whispered.

“Can you see me?” Ben choked out.

“Just a little blurred is all—but I can make you out fine,” Joe replied.

“Thank God,” Ben whispered as tears fell uncontrollably from his eyes. It had been the first good news that he had heard in so long.

“Let me take a good look,” Paul said and checked the eyes more thoroughly. “How clear, Joe?”

“I can make out features and things—just a bit hazy you know?” Joe answered, but his words were again starting to slur due to his tongue. He swallowed hard as the pain started to get to him.

“It’s going to take awhile–but I believe you will get all of your vision back, Joe. I want to keep your eyes bandaged for awhile to protect them.”

“Wait–wait just a minute will you?” Joe pleaded. He wanted to take a good look around the room.

“Okay–just a few,” Paul gave in to the boy.

“Hoss…Adam…” Joe started and then coughed. His throat had dried and his tongue was throbbing from all he had spoken already. Ben reached over and made sure he just had water in the glass this time. Now that Joe could see what he was drinking, the game he had been playing with the boy was over. Joe took a couple of sips and then looked back over at his brothers. “You don’t look so good—think you all need sleep,” Joe called over to them and they laughed.

“Well, we’ve missed a night or two because of you!” Adam smiled over at him.

“Yeah–Little Brother–you worried the devil out of us this time,” Hoss joined in.

Joe looked down at his hands lying helplessly on the pillows at his sides. He then tried to pull himself up on the bed by using the bottoms of his feet. He moaned in pain as they touched the sheets. “Guess that wasn’t such a good idea,” Joe whispered, he had forgotten all about the burns he had received due to his walk in the campfire. “Somebody pull me up will you…I can’t use my hands…or my feet…”

Ben reached down and pulled Joe up higher in the bed so he could better see everyone in the room.

“Sorry I never made it to the timber camp–bet you thought I was goofing off somewhere,” Joe called over to his brothers. Hoss and Adam looked down at the floor feeling guilty.

“You need to rest, Joe, I think that’s enough talking for now,” Paul instructed his patient.

“How much for the damages this time, Doc?” Joe asked fighting back pain with his humor.

“Oh, you’ll get my bill once we have you all fixed up. You still have a long way to go, though.” Paul smiled and patted Joe’s arm.

Joe noticed how quiet his father was. It was hard for him to read Ben’s face, as it was still a bit blurred due to his weakened vision. “Pa… don’t worry…I’m gonna be okay,” Joe whispered.

Ben looked at his son and fought his tears again. Joe had no clue as to how bad off he really was. His son had yet to get a look at the four inch scar which ran down the left side of his face; Ben worried what that would do to the boy once he could see it. He also realized that his son’s hands might never be as they had been before. Ben figured that Joe was the only person in the room who thought that he would really be okay. He hated to take that hope from him now.

“One step at a time, Joseph–right now you are a bit…” Ben stopped in mid-sentence trying to think of an appropriate word to use.

“Mangled?” Joe shot back to his father.

Ben had to fight off his smile at Joe’s very descriptive word. It did, however, sum up his son’s appearance nicely. “I wouldn’t exactly say that,” Ben replied.

“I would.” Joe nodded and closed his eyes as a flash of pain shot into them.

Paul could see the strain on Joe’s face and knew he was suffering. “Enough is enough. Let’s get those eyes bandaged again. You can talk more later. Right now you need all the rest you can get,” Paul stated and began to wrap the gauze around the boy’s eyes.

“So does everyone else in this room, Doc. Make them go away for awhile. I’m okay,” Joe said after his eyes were again bound.

“Hop Sing…” Paul called as the cook appeared in the doorway. “Why don’t you sit with Joe for awhile? I’m ordering everyone else downstairs at Joe’s request.”

Hop Sing moved gladly over to the chair and sat down next to the bed. He put his hand out onto Joe’s right arm. “Little Joe need sleep–Hop Sing make sure he get it.”

“Okay–let’s go,” Paul called to the others in the room. Adam and Hoss filed out, but Ben paused for a moment at the head of the bed. He bent down and planted a kiss on his son’s forehead.

“I’ll be back up in just a little while,” Ben whispered and turned to leave the room.

Later that night, Adam had taken over as Joe’s care giver hoping to give the others some rest. Joe dozed in and out but started to stay awake for longer periods of time. His oldest brother read to him from one of the boy’s favorite books trying to take his mind off of his injuries for a little while.

“Had enough for one night, Joe?” Adam asked looking over at his brother and noticing the boy was yawning.

“I guess so–why don’t you read me the end tomorrow?”

“You know how it ends anyway.” Adam laughed and closed his book. “I think I’ve read you this book a dozen times over the years.”

“I love The Three Musketeers—reminds me of the three of us.” Joe attempted a smile, but his sutures tightened on his cheek and he winced.

“Yeah—I bet it does. That’s why you use to run around with that blasted sword jumping from table to table when you were a kid.”

“You gotta admit I was cute back then,” Joe replied thinking back to his younger days.

“Maybe–just a little bit.” Adam chuckled and stood and stretched.

“Don’t think I’ll be jumping on any tables for awhile–and I can’t even move my fingers right now–so sword fighting is out of the question.”

Adam sighed; he wondered if Joe would ever be as he had been. All he could see now was a very badly battered little brother. He hoped that Joe would regain the use of his hands, but having watched as the doctor set all his fingers, Adam was having some doubts as to Joe’s chance for a full recovery. He looked down at his brother and saw the horrible scar that he now wore. It cut through his heart to think that Joe would no longer be considered such a handsome young man. Adam wasn’t sure how his little brother would handle all that.

“What’s wrong, Adam? You sure are quiet all of a sudden,” Joe whispered.

“Nothing—I was just fixing you something to drink,” Adam lied and poured water into a glass and held it up to his brother’s lips. He pulled Joe’s head up a little higher and the boy drank all that had been offered to him.

“Thanks—but I think you have something on your mind. I may not be able to see you right now–but I can sense things pretty good. What’s wrong?” Joe repeated his question.

“I guess I am just a little worried about you.”

“Don’t be—I’m gonna be okay.”

“Joe—you might not get back to one hundred per cent–but you know we almost lost you…” Adam stopped in what he was trying to get across to the boy. He didn’t want to put anything more on Joe than he could handle at the time.

“I said I am gonna be okay–so stop worrying. Now tell me what’s going on with Pa?”

“What do you mean?” Adam asked sitting back down in the chair.

“I can feel that there’s something wrong with him too. He’s taking all this hard, huh?”

“You stop worrying about others–you just worry about Joe for awhile.”

“Adam–I need to know. Tell me. There’s something wrong with Pa. He’s not sick, is he? Is his heart acting up again?” Joe asked heightened concern taking over his voice now.

“Relax, Kid, Pa’s health is fine. Other than being a little tired he’s okay.”

“Then what is it?”

“Well…” Adam began and then looked over at his brother and wondered if he should be burdening the boy with the truth of the matter. He could tell that Joe was not going to ease up in his questioning, so he decided that he would have to tell him what was really going on. “Joe–Pa wants to resign from the committee. He’s so upset over what happened to you.”

“What does what happened to me have to do with the committee?”

“Pa—well–he blames all the Indians for what happened to you. I think he blames himself a little too. He thinks that if he had been here on the ranch that day instead of being over in Carson City that he could’ve protected you somehow.”

“That doesn’t make any sense,” Joe whispered, very upset over what he was hearing.

“Joe–I’ve just never seen Pa like this–you wouldn’t believe it either. He has such hate in him now…” Adam trailed off. He was feeling guilty for having unloaded on his little brother. The boy had far too many other problems just in trying to recuperate. “Sorry, Joe, you don’t really need to worry about this right now.”

“No–Adam–I need to know–I need to help.”

“I don’t know if anyone can help Pa right now. His anger and hatred are out of control. And–this from a man who taught the three of us ‘musketeers’ not to be prejudiced!” Adam gave an ironic chuckle at the thought of it all.

“I’ll talk with him, Adam.”

“I don’t think it’ll help. One look at you–and all that you suffered through, and it will be even harder for him to stop hating.”

“But I didn’t suffer…” Joe started and then coughed. His tongue was throbbing again and the pain was back in his hands.

“Joe—I know you are trying to be brave and all—and you know I think you are as tough as a person could be. But, if you were on this side of the bed you would see what we do when we look at you. You were tortured—we all know you suffered.”

“Let me talk to Pa—just give me a little while to rest—and then I’ll do it,” Joe replied as he tried to battle his fatigue and hurt.

“I’ve got some of those powders the doctor left to ease your pain. Let’s get that into you now and then you rest. There’s plenty of time to talk to Pa.” Adam reached back over to the night stand and mixed the pain medication into Joe’s water glass. “Here–you drink this and then you need to sleep awhile,” Adam said as he lifted his brother’s head again and Joe accepted the straw. He finished all the contents again and his brother set the glass back down.

“I’ll talk to Pa,” Joe muttered and then fell right off to sleep.

Adam pulled the covers up around his brother’s shoulders and shook his head wearily. “Poor kid,” he whispered as he sat back down in the chair to keep a watch over him.

*****

Joe didn’t have a chance that night to speak to his father. The medication and fatigue put him back under for the entire night. The next day the doctor returned and examined him again thoroughly and treated his eyes once more. It wasn’t until later that afternoon that Joe finally got the opportunity to talk alone with Ben. Hoss and Adam were just leaving the bedroom as Ben reappeared in the doorway.

“Hop Sing wants you two downstairs for lunch,” Ben called over to his sons.

“We were just leaving. See you in a little while, Joe,” Hoss replied and turned out of the room with Adam.

“Well–how are you doing, Joseph?” Ben smiled and sat down next to his son.

“I’m okay–Pa–I’m glad you’re back—I need to talk to you.”

“Is there something wrong? Are you hurting?” Ben asked, the worry coming back in his voice.

“No—I just need to talk–that’s all. Will you take these bandages off of my eyes?”

“Now–you heard what the doctor said–we’ve got to keep them on for awhile yet. Your eyesight is coming back–but that doesn’t mean we don’t have to be careful.”

“Please–Pa–I need to see you–it’s really important,” Joe pleaded. “As soon as we’ve talked, you can wrap them back up, okay?”

“Joseph…”

“Please?” Joe shot back adamantly.

Ben frowned and shook his head. He didn’t want to go against the doctor’s instructions, but it seemed like there was something very desperate in Joe’s request that he just couldn’t deny.

“Just for a bit–but then right back on, agreed?” Ben sighed and started to unwrap the gauze bandage.

“Agreed.” Joe nodded as his father freed his vision. Joe blinked a couple of times trying his best to clear his sight. He focused in as best he could on his father’s careworn face.

“Okay–now what was so important, son?” Ben asked patiently and reached for Joe’s arm.

“I have so much to tell you, Pa—I—I–don’t know where to start. But–I need you to listen to me.”

“Of course I’ll listen to you.” Ben grinned and patted the boy’s arm fondly. “Why don’t you take a drink to soothe your tongue first? I’m getting the notion that this is gonna be some chat.” Ben held up the glass straw to his son’s lips and Joe drank the water gratefully.

“Thanks–that’s better. I know it’s kinda hard to understand me at times–that’s why I hope you will listen carefully.”

“I’m listening–go on.” Ben nodded.

“Pa, Adam told me about you resigning from the committee…” Joe began but his father cut him right off again.

“Joseph—he shouldn’t have told you–and I don’t really want to get into this right now. So, if that’s what this whole thing is about…” Ben was then cut right back off by his son.

“I thought you said you’d listen,” Joe argued. “I told you this is important to me. Will you please let me say what I have to say?”

Ben groaned and let go of Joe’s arm and leaned back in the chair. “Go ahead.”

“Pa–I know you are looking at me and you are thinking that I have suffered–but I haven’t –not really.” Joe said and paused briefly to clear his throat. “I know that I look like death warmed over—but it’s not really as bad as it seems. Pa–I didn’t suffer–not really–I hardly felt anything that Lone Eagle did to me.”

“Nice try—and I know that you are saying this to get me to go back to Carson–but it’s not going to work. Joseph–you fail to remember that I helped doctor you! I was the one who pulled you from that pit of snakes you were in. Don’t think that I don’t know how badly you were tortured–because I know it all too well.”

“Pa–look into my eyes–go on! Pa–I don’t lie to you–well–maybe a fib or two in the past–but never over something this important! And, I am not lying now.”

“I know you don’t want me to know how bad it was on you–you have some idea in your head that if you didn’t suffer then everything will just be fine!” Ben retorted.

“Pa–I didn’t suffer. Now let me explain while I can still talk.”

Ben folded his arms across his chest and nodded back over to his son. “Go on then, get it all out of your system.”

“Pa, you remember a verse you use to read to all of us–I think it was one of your favorites from the Bible? It goes something like this—they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings as eagles–you remember?”

Ben fought back the bitterness in his heart for a moment to recall what had been his most treasured verse. “Yes, Joseph–yes–I remember. Why do you mention it?”

“When Lone Eagle had me–right when he was about to break my fingers—I saw this eagle that was high in the air above me—I watched it for a minute, lying there on the ground. It made me remember that verse. I prayed to God to let me rise above the pain. I prayed that I would live—so you wouldn’t have to go through the pain of burying me–again–like when you thought I had died on the stage.”

Ben stared intently over into his son’s eyes and saw the earnest way he was looking towards him. He knew that Joe was trying his best to relate to him exactly what had happened. “What happened, Joe?”

“It’s gonna sound strange—you probably aren’t going to believe the rest of this story. But, Pa–I promise you I am telling you the whole truth.”

“Go on.” Ben nodded and found his hand to be back on Joe’s arm again urging him on with his story.

“I felt like I was lifted up into the air–I could feel the wind on my cheeks–just like the eagle so high in the sky. I could see my body below and what the Indian was doing to me. But, Pa–I felt nothing–there was no pain–there was no suffering. You’ve just got to believe me!” Joe insisted.

Tears rolled out of Ben’s eyes as his son begged him to accept all he was telling him. He had worried so much over all that Joe had endured. His heart ached at the thought of the torture that the boy had lived through. And now, Joe was trying his best to tell him that there had been no real suffering–no real pain. Ben struggled to believe his son’s story.

“I believe you—I believe that you are telling me what you think happened at least.”

“Pa –it DID happen–just like I’ve told you. No matter what Lone Eagle did to me from that point on–I was able to soar above it. God kept me from suffering–you have to believe that! If he hadn’t–well–if I had felt all that Lone Eagle did–I don’t think I would be here talking to you now. I never could have endured that kind of pain. I’m only human you know?”

“I understand you are telling me this to ease my worry–and my pain–over what happened to you, son. And, I thank you for that. But, this has nothing to do with why I have resigned from the committee—at least it’s not the whole reason for it.”

“But–I’m not done, Pa! I have to tell you the rest—could you get me some more water?” Joe stopped abruptly, his tongue aching from all the talking.

“Maybe we should continue this later?” Ben asked as he held the glass back up to Joe’s lips and he took a long pull on the straw.

“No–I have to tell you this,” Joe insisted getting back to his story. “Now–promise me you won’t think I am crazy—what I am about to tell you–well—is gonna sound very strange.”

“It won’t be the first time you’ve told me something strange–go ahead.” Ben smiled and waited for Joe to settle back to continue.

“Okay–now–when Lone Eagle was done all his tortures–he got up to fifteen I think–wanted to pay us back for the fifteen braves he lost when we raided his camp.”

Ben’s face turned into a harsh scowl just thinking again about Lone Eagle, and all Indians in general. “I wish we had killed him when we had the chance. I wish I hadn’t saved him all those years ago…” Ben whispered.

“Pa? Pa–you gotta listen now–you listening?” Joe asked as he noticed the far away gaze in his father’s eyes.

“Yes—son–go ahead–I’m still listening.”

“Okay–so he was getting ready to push me into this pit of snakes when I guess one of you sent that shot that killed him. He was able to shove me right before he fell to the ground. Anyway—all of a sudden–though my eyes were full of sand—I could suddenly see again! But, it was weird—like it was so bright and all. I looked up and I could see my body lying over on the other side of the pit–I could see all the snakes around me–but I wasn’t in my body. That’s when I saw him…” Joe stopped and swallowed hard. He had to somehow convey his vision so it would seem real to his father.

“Saw who? There was no-one there with you when I climbed into the pit, son.”

“The shepherd, Pa,” Joe whispered and noticed his father’s eyes jumped at the word.

“Shepherd? Joe, you have been muttering something about a shepherd ever since we first brought you home. You’re saying that there was a shepherd there with you? Did he leave before I came or what?”

“No, Pa–he was still there when you climbed down to get me.” Joe nodded.

“Then why didn’t I see him?”

“I guess you weren’t supposed to—Pa—this is the hard stuff to explain to you. I know you are gonna end up thinking I was just out of my head or something. But, it was real. He stood there next to me and put his arm around my shoulder. I asked if he was God and he said that he was the shepherd who watches over all of God’s lambs.”

Ben’s eyes showed both doubt and amazement in them. But he could tell that Joe was dead serious in what he was relating.

“I thought that maybe I was dead–but he said I wasn’t–and he showed me how he was keeping the snakes from getting to me. He said that he heard my prayer and pulled me out of my body so I wouldn’t feel the pain. That’s when I saw you climbing down into the pit.”

“But–you couldn’t have seen me–you were lying face down on the ground as I made my way to you.”

“But–Pa—I wasn’t in my body at the time! I remember you reached for my head and you slowly rolled me over. Then right before the snakes started to move towards you the shepherd took his staff and placed it between you and them and they started to move back.”

Ben thought hard on the information Joe had just offered him. All Joe had said about what he had done and what the snakes had done were accurate. Ben could not figure out how Joe could have known all that. He had been totally unconscious when his father had lifted him up into his arms.

“Well–you’ve got my full attention now, Joseph. Go on.” Ben grinned, anxious to hear the rest of the story now.

“He told me that I was needed here–that you all needed me as badly as I needed you.”

“He was right about that.” Ben nodded and patted his son’s arm again.

“He said I had to live–that I still had things to do here. Then he disappeared and that’s all I remember until I got home.”

“Well–that is some story, son.”

“Wait–it’s not over yet. I am getting to the most important part. I saw him again–the shepherd–and he was right here in this room the night you were all trying to patch me up! I talked with him again.”

Ben closed his eyes and remembered the one-sided conversation he had witnessed his son to be having the first night he was brought home. He remembered wondering who the boy had been speaking to. Ben sat perplexed in appearance as Joe continued on.

“He told me that you would fall from grace—he told me you would have hate in your heart towards the Indians now–because of what happened to me. I told him that you wouldn’t but he insisted that the seed of hate had been planted in your heart. He told me that I needed to tell you…” Joe stopped and tried to remember exactly what he had been instructed to say to his father.

“Tell me what, Joseph?”

“Do not hate an entire race for the evil of one.” Joe repeated the exact words that the shepherd had used.

Ben swallowed hard after hearing his son’s words. He fought to register them in his brain and in his heart, but, looking at the battered body of his youngest child he resisted letting go of the hatred he felt.

“Pa–you just have to let it go–you just have to,” Joe insisted urgently. “You are too good of a person to hate any one race–just because of what one stupid man did to me.”

“Joseph…” Ben started and placed the palm of his right hand gently against his son’s scarred face. Tears left his eyes again as he thought on the damage that had been done to his boy. “I can’t let it go. Don’t you understand? Joe, you’re never going to be back to normal. I wish to God I could make it so–but it’s not going to happen. There’s a strong possibility that your hands will never work as they did before. Then your face—oh–Joseph–your face!” Ben sobbed as he stared at the grotesque four inch sutured gap on his handsome son’s face.

“No–Pa–you don’t know that for sure—but I DO! The shepherd said I would get it all back—my hands will be fine–my feet–my tongue—my eyes! And this scar–that you are so worried about–it’s gonna fade too. It’s just gonna turn into a tiny one–hardly even noticeable.”

“Joseph—you can’t count on that—I don’t want you to be disappointed in the long run.”

“Pa,” Joe whispered and tried his best to smile at his father. “I’m not gonna be disappointed–don’t worry. The shepherd told me I would be okay–and I believe it. I know it. He saved me–you gotta believe all that I’ve told you. ‘Cause it’s the truth, Pa. I promise you.”

Ben sighed and brushed his eyes with his shirt sleeve to push away his tears. He saw the complete faith on his son’s face and wanted to believe all that the boy had told him to be fact.

“Pa—it’s important to me to keep my promise to the shepherd–for all he did for me. You’ve got to go back and get your work done with the committee. If you can’t bring yourself to do it for the Indians, or for yourself–please–Pa–please do it for me.”

Ben felt a pain in his heart, a very strange kind of pain. It was the removal of the deeply imbedded seed of hatred and prejudice which had been lodged there for days. Looking at his son Ben couldn’t help but to abide by his wishes. If all that the boy had conveyed was fact, then Ben reasoned that he definitely owed the shepherd something for saving something so precious to him; Joseph.

“You’re really going to be okay?” Ben whispered as he stared back into the hazel eyes of his boy.

“You bet,” Joe nodded. “Will you do it?”

“Who am I to argue with a shepherd? Especially a shepherd who saved my son. I’ll go back. But, not for another week. I’m going to stick around until I know you can do without me.”

“Pa–I’ll never be able to do without you. But, Carson City isn’t all that far away. You’ll be back home every night. And it doesn’t look like I’ll be getting out of bed anytime soon.”

Ben stood and grabbed the bandages to cover Joe’s eyes again. “Well, young man, if you are through with giving your father a badly needed talking to, then I think we’d better cover those eyes back up.” Ben grinned.

“Yeah–I’m through. I’ll have to hand it to you, Pa–this lecturing stuff sure takes a lot out of you. Glad you aren’t nearly as hard headed as some other folks we know,” Joe teased as his father circled the bandage around his eyes.

Ben’s hand fell again to Joe’s face and he said, “Just a little scar, Joseph?”

“Yeah–Pa–you’ll hardly notice it at all,” Joe whispered.

“I’m very proud of you, Joseph–next time you see that shepherd of yours you tell him thanks for me will you?”

“Sure, Pa.” Joe nodded and settled back against the pillows. He was very worn out from his long talk with his father, but very satisfied with the results.

“You’re a credit to the man who raised you.” Ben laughed and sat back down in his chair.

“Hop Sing will be glad to hear you say that,” Joe teased and felt his father’s hand on his arm.

“Okay–let me rephrase that–you are a credit to the men who raised you. I want partial credit.”

“You got it, Pa. Now why don’t you go and get some lunch. I think I’ll doze off awhile.”

“I believe it’s time for your lunch too,” Ben replied.

“Hold up on the brown water for awhile–I’m too tired.”

“Brown water?” Ben asked raising his eyebrows surprised.

“Yeah–you know–what you have been passing off for water? I’ve known for two days now it wasn’t water. I just didn’t want to take away all your fun–or Hop Sing’s either.”

“But–how did you know?”

“Pa—I’ve lost my taste buds — and my eyesight under these bandages–but I still have my sense of smell. You think I couldn’t recognize Hop Sing’s beef broth after all the times he’s cooked it for me?”

“You have become a very smart young man, Joseph.” Ben laughed again over the thought of Joe finding out about his father’s little deceit.

“A credit to the father who raised me,” Joe whispered and fell off to a restful slumber.

*****

Joe continued to heal, though slowly at first. After two weeks had passed Ben finally agreed to go back to Carson City and chair the committee he had created. He started to feel more at peace with his decision as each day passed and his hatred had melted away completely due to the loving words of his youngest son. Even still, Ben was a bit apprehensive leaving Joe the first day as he prepared to gather his papers and slip on his suit coat. He knew it was what the boy had been pestering him about for days, and yet the thought of being miles away troubled him. Ben couldn’t help but to think of the last time he had gone into Carson City and all that had happened when he had returned.

“Well, I guess I have everything. Think I’ll just go and tell Joe goodbye,” Ben called over to both Adam and Hoss who stood in the living room.

“I thought you already done that, Pa.” Hoss grinned and winked over at his brother. They both could read the apprehension on their father’s face. Both men knew that their father would worry about the boy all day.

“Hey–you know we’ll take good care of him. It’s not the first time we ever babysat the kid you know,” Adam teased.

“Don’t you dare tell Joseph that you are babysitting him–he will find a way to get out of that bed if you do? And I am quite sure the boy could pack a real whollup with that casted left hand of his,” Ben warned jokingly.

“He’ll be fine,” Adam replied turning serious for a moment. He walked with Hoss over to their father and they both gave him an impromptu hug.

“Hey–what’s that for?” Ben smiled, touched by their gestures.

“Just to let you know how proud we are of you–we’re mighty glad to have our Pa back,” Hoss replied patting his father on the back.

“Thanks, Boys—sorry for all I said…” Ben felt a bit embarrassed now over his former behavior.

“You just go and get that bill written up so they can get it to Washington the way only Ben Cartwright can.” Adam nodded over to his father letting him know he forgave his earlier outbursts, and that he understood why he had acted the way he had.

“I’ll just be a minute–tell Fletcher to hold the surrey.” Ben grinned and hurried up to his youngest son’s bedroom.

*****

Joe turned his face toward the door as he heard it open. His eyes remained bandaged, but he was able to take them off for a bit longer each day now.

“Hi ya–Pa!” Joe called across the room.

“How’d you know it was me?” Ben asked as he approached the bed.

“Bay rum–and quite a bit of it I might add.” Joe laughed as he felt his father’s hand ruffling his hair in protest over his statement.

“Can I get you anything before I leave?” Ben turned serious.

“Let’s see now—two new hands–two feet that aren’t blistered and itching to high heaven–a tongue that can taste anything,” Joe started in on his long list.

“You are in rare form today I can see. Wish I could stay for the rest of your performance, son, but I have to be going. Now you sure you’ll be okay while I’m gone? I won’t be back until around dinner time.”

“Yeah—think I’ll run those two brothers of mine ragged for awhile–fetching things all day. You don’t have to worry, Pa. I’m just kidding. I’ll be fine–I sure as heck ain’t going nowhere.”

“Okay–well–I guess I’d better get going.” Ben paused and bent down and kissed Joe’s forehead. “I’ll see you tonight, Joseph,” Ben said and turned for the door.

“Pa?” Joe called across the room before Ben made it out of the doorway.

“Yes, son?”

“You’re my hero.” Joe smiled sightlessly over towards his father’s voice.

“I think I’ve heard that somewhere before.” Ben laughed, remembering back several months to when he had said that very thing to his youngest son. “I’ll try to live up to your compliment this time, Joseph. See you later.”

“You’ve never let me down. Now get out of here so I can sleep,” Joe called across the room as his father turned to leave. He could hear his father’s laughter in the hallway and it lifted his spirits. He felt he had his pa back, and this time for good.

*****

Epilogue

The Committee on Indian Affairs worked well through the summer on their plans for reparations for the various Indian tribes in the area. It was three months of arduous work and planning and many late nights of discussions and rewrites of the bill they planned to send on to Washington, D.C. During this time, while Ben was hard at work with the committee, his youngest son was slowly healing from his injuries. Joe had regained his vision, and it was just as clear as it had been before Lone Eagle’s attack. The burns on his feet healed, as did his back and leg injuries. Joe still had a long while to go before he could actually taste food again, but at least he was now able to eat soft foods without it causing him any pain.

Doctor Martin had been extremely strict this go-round with his favorite patient. When Joe could finally move about a bit, the doctor made sure he stayed confined to the inside of the ranch house. The casts had just been taken off the boy’s hands the previous week, and Joe was busy with various exercises to try and work them enough to undo the stiffness that had settled in the bones of each of his fingers.

The most amazing thing about Joe’s recovery was the fact that the horrid scar on his face had gradually faded. In little more than three months, it had healed so well that only a little over an inch of a scar could now be seen at all. Fortunately that scar fell right along the normal lines of Joe’s left cheek and jaw, and had to be sought out in order to be noticed. Paul Martin wished he could take the credit for such fine suturing, but he knew that the disappearance of most of the scar had to have come from a far greater healer than himself. He was content and happy to know that he had an unseen assistant helping him in the healing of one Joseph Cartwright.

*****

Ben Cartwright entered the ranch house a bit exhausted from his long day in Carson City. He had met again with Governor Blasdel and received an accommodation for all of his hard work. All of the committee’s findings had just been forwarded to the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and were now out of the hands of all those who had worked so hard trying to assist the Indians. Ben was more than content as he removed his dress coat at the front door, hoping he wouldn’t need to wear it again for a long time. He was ready to go back to the dull routine of running the large Ponderosa and helping his sons with preparations for the fall round-up.

Turning at the credenza, Ben spied his youngest standing by the bottom of the stairs. The boy, he reasoned, must not have noticed the entrance of his father. Joe had his holster strapped to him and was practicing twirling his revolver and putting it back rapidly into its holder. Ben watched amused for a minute or two before clearing his throat loudly to gain the boy’s attention.

“I sure hope that’s not loaded!” Ben called sternly across the room. The twinkle in his eyes gave away the fact that he really wasn’t angry to see the boy practicing in the house.

“I hope so too!” Joe teased as he accidently dropped the weapon at his feet.

“Joseph!” Ben shouted, now worried for real.

“Just kidding–naturally I took out the bullets, Pa. I’m a very smart young man—–remember?” Joe grinned and holstered the weapon again. “Hey–call out to me and I’ll show you how fast I’ve gotten.”

Ben sighed. He was tired, but he didn’t want to quell Joe’s enthusiasm in trying to get his gun prowess back to normal. “Go!” Ben shouted and out like a flash came Joe’s revolver. Then Joe spun it rather fanciful and holstered it again.

“Hey-pretty good, huh, Pa?” Joe smiled and walked over to where his father was now taking a seat by the fireplace.

“When Doc told you to exercise your hands–I’m not sure that was what he had in mind.”

“Oh–I know–I’ve done the other stuff too, Pa. But, can you believe how good my left hand has gotten lately? The other week I could barely even bend the fingers–and now it’s almost as good as new. So is my right hand for that matter.” Joe grinned and perched on the coffee table opposite his father.

“Yes—but then again–you did say you would get everything back to normal. So, we shouldn’t be surprised, right? Isn’t that what your shepherd said?” Ben winked over at his son amused.

“Hey–yeah–and I want to thank you again for not telling Hoss and Adam about it. Glad it’s just between you and me. They would tease me–and make it all a joke.”

“Well, we know it was real, don’t we?” Ben smiled and let his hand fall lightly on the left side of Joe’s face. “I’ve known it was real ever since that scar left. You can hardly tell you have one there anymore, Joseph. Only when you turn just a certain way can I even see the tiny mark that remains.”

“Just like he said.” Joe nodded. “So–how’d it go today? You got everything done? How did your meeting with the governor go?”

“Everything is all sent to Washington. We had our final meeting today–and Governor Blasdel gave me a formal commendation for heading the committee.”

“Really? In writing? Can I see it?” Joe asked very excited that his father had received the accolade.

Ben leaned over to where he had set down his briefcase and opened it. He handed his son the certificate the governor’s office had printed up with his name on it.

“To honor Benjamin Cartwright, for his assistance in forming Nevada’s first Committee for Indian Affairs, Governor Henry Goode Blasdel humbly thanks you for all your efforts on behalf of the State of Nevada.” Joe turned and patted his father’s knee proudly. “We’ve got to frame this.”

“Maybe—” Ben replied and then reached down into his briefcase again. “I have a little something for you too.” He said and handed his son a package.

“Me? Why?” Joe asked as he started to tear at the brown paper to get to his gift.

“You’ll see.” Ben grinned and watched as Joe finally pulled the piece of finely crafted sculpture from the box.

Joe held the form up and his face broke into a peaceful grin. Carved out of ivory was a beautiful figure of a shepherd, staff at his side and all. “Oh–Pa–this is wonderful…” Joe whispered.

“Is it pretty close?”

Joe looked up with tears glazing his eyes, so touched by the meaning behind the gift. “Yeah–Pa–just like him. Where did you find it?”

“Oh–just passing a store in Carson City one day—a couple of weeks ago.”

“You’ve kept this for weeks? How come?”

“Actually I was waiting to see—just to be sure…” Ben replied a bit embarrassed.

“Oh–you wanted to see that everything was going to come out just as he said it would!”

“Well–all that matters is that it did. You are almost completely back to normal, and the committee is over. And I’m very thankful.”

“It’s been a wild year all right–but I think we’ve all learned some important things for our trouble–don’t you?” Joe asked still holding the statue in his hand.

“Yes, you are very right, Joseph–on both counts. It has been a wild year–and I have learned a great deal. I’ve learned to practice what I preach for one thing. And it was a tough lesson–but with the help of my youngest I came to my senses.”

“I did have a little help you know, Pa,” Joe replied and handed Ben the shepherd.

Ben took the figure into his hands and stared fondly at it, remembering all that his son had told him about his encounters with his own shepherd. “I think that has got to be one of the best lessons I’ve learned.” Ben stated nodding his head.

“What was?” Joe didn’t understand his father’s statement and he looked at him questioning him with his eyes.

“It does my heart good to know–that no matter where you are–no matter how far away you are from me–that there’s always someone watching over my little lamb.” Ben grinned and patted his son’s shoulder.

“That’s real nice and all, Pa…” Joe started and then scrunched up his face as he thought about the remark his father had just made. “But don’t say this little lamb stuff around my brothers—they’ve always called me the black sheep of the family–let’s not give them any new material to use.”

“Okay–now go find a good place for this shepherd–I doubt you’ll want to explain this one to them either.” Ben smiled and handed his son the statue.

“Yeah—I’ll put it up in my room just as soon as I dig around upstairs for a minute.”

“What for?” Ben asked and he stood as Joe headed to the staircase.

“Gotta find a frame—it’s not every day that you get a certificate from the governor you know!” Joe winked at his father and on his face was one hundred per cent pride for the man who had raised him.

*****End*****

I would like to thank my friends, Deb and Carol for their encouragement throughout the writing of this trilogy and give special thanks to Leesa and C J for their assistance in proofing them. Your support and efforts are greatly appreciated!  Wrangler

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