Summary: Joe looked over his shoulder apprehensively. He had the uneasy feeling he was being followed. This story is dedicated to Terri, whose ‘gentle’ but persistent nudging is responsible for this one!
Word Count: 11,446
Joe looked over his shoulder apprehensively. He had the uneasy feeling he was being followed, and after a long day in the saddle, he was weary of the tension. Several times he’d doubled back in an attempt to flush out anyone hiding along the trail behind him, but each time the effort was futile. Finally he resolved to continue on as quickly as possible to the ranch. The fact that he had five thousand dollars in his possession only fueled his desire. It was only another hour to the house, and though his body longed to dismount and bed down for the night, he knew the safest course was to push on to the security and comfort of home.
Several hours had passed since the sun descended behind the western peaks of the Sierra’s, and Joe pulled his green jacket closer against the night air. He reached into his saddlebag for another piece of jerky as Cochise continued along the familiar road. The moon was full and Joe was grateful for its light, yet he couldn’t shake the anxious feeling that had overcome him. “What do ya think, Cooch? Ready for a nice warm stall and a measure of oats?”
The pinto nickered as if in reply and Joe grinned tiredly as he rubbed the horse’s neck. “Okay, then, let’s pick-up the pace. I’m ready to get home, too.”
Looking once more over his shoulder, Joe urged his horse into a trot.
The trip had been a relatively simple one, the final string of horses delivered to the army and payment in full to be returned to the Virginia City bank. The only problem had been in the payment. Through some army foul-up that even Colonel Jenkins couldn’t explain, Joe was forced to take cash instead of the customary army draft. Unfortunately, the delivery and payment had taken place across the state line at a temporary post, and there had been no bank in the vicinity to deposit the funds. Being forced to return home alone with the large payment had worried Joe, but he’d covered that concern with his customary bravado.
Now, as he looked back on it, he wished there’d been some other way out of the predicament. He trusted his instincts, and right now they were telling him that someone was trailing him, someone who must have been privy to the information regarding the cash he was carrying. Glancing to the sides of the road as they topped another rise, Joe pulled Cochise to a stop. “Let’s take a little breather, Cooch. Don’t want you to get too tired out.”
Dismounting briefly, Joe looked about, his apprehensiveness suddenly blossoming into a sense of dread. He attempted to quell the rising fear, but no matter what type of rationalizations he tried, nothing worked. Realizing that the closer he was to home, the less chance there was for trouble, Joe quickly remounted and urged Cochise into a brisk walk.
Suddenly, the pinto reared in fright and Joe struggled to keep his seat on the distraught animal. The sharp retort of a gun sounded a mere instant before the searing pain ripped through Joe’s shoulder. He grabbed his arm as he felt himself slip from the saddle and plunge to the earth below. A blinding flash of light seemed to explode within Joe’s head before the blackness enveloped him.
The tall man moved slowly towards the lifeless form as he cocked his pistol. Stretching out one foot, he placed his boot on Joe’s side and slowly pushed his body all the way over. The object of his quest remained unmoving and the tall man carefully eased the hammer of his gun back into place. Sliding his revolver quietly back into its holster, the man turned to his partner and quickly backhanded him across the face. “What the hell did you do that for? I told you we didn’t want to kill him. We wanted it to look like he had an accident on the trail. Now you’ve went and put a bullet in him, and when the law finds out, they’ll be looking for us for sure.”
The short man rubbed his chin gently as he glared back at the older man. ”No they won’t! They won’t have any idea it was us. We got our alibi and as long as we’re back to the post by tomorrow afternoon, there won’t be anybody suspicious of us. So let’s get that money and get out of here.”
The tall man grumbled a few unintelligible words as he searched for Joe’s wallet. Mounting his horse, he watched as his partner walked towards the pinto. It took only a few minutes to catch Cochise, who had calmed down and was now standing close to Joe. ”Well, come on then. Let’s go. We’ll let the horse go further back down the trail.”
There was no further discussion as the two men rode away from their victim. From far up on the hill, an owl hooted, but there was no one there to hear his warning.
It was almost noon before Joe began to stir. The first thing he was aware of was a searing pain deep in his shoulder, but as he attempted to sit up, the blinding flash of pain in his head caused him to fall back. Pure luck kept the young man from striking the rock again. Rolling slowly to his side, Joe was able to make out the red smear visible on a large boulder and realized this must be the cause of his massive headache. No longer able to hold back the pain, Joe groaned out loud as he grasped his head in both hands. The pain grew with each breath, and within minutes, Joe was unconscious again.
The last rays of the sun were filtering through the massive pines when Joe awoke the second time. Again he struggled with the blinding pain, but this time he was able to stay still enough to remain awake for a while. Wondering at his predicament, he knew it could be some time before anyone would come looking for him. Licking his lips, Joe knew the first order of business was to find water. It had been almost twenty-four hours since he was ambushed, and laying out in the hot sun, bleeding and with no water, had taken a toll on his body.
Fighting against the blackness that threatened to overtake him again, Joe struggled into a sitting position and pulled his right arm in close to his body. He realized that the bleeding had stopped, but from the look of his jacket and the ground around him, it was obvious that he’d lost a lot of blood. “Well, Cochise, looks like I didn’t make out so good. Wonder where you got to. . Sure wish you’d show your pretty face. I could really use a some help about now.”
Leaning forward, Joe rested his head on his knees as he slowly became aware of a new sound. Far below, he could hear the sounds of water. Sitting up again, Joe looked about for something to pull himself up with. The loss of blood and lack of water had left him weak, and the dizziness from the head wound threatened to halt his activities at any minute. Working slowly, Joe was able to move himself next to the boulders along the path, but after a feeble attempt at standing, he realized he didn’t have the strength to make it to the river below. “Sure wish you’d find me, Pa. Don’t know how much longer I can make it out here.”
His thoughts had turned to family and home. Realizing that it could be some time before his father or brothers would become concerned, Joe knew that his feeble hope was useless.
Easing himself back to the ground, Joe lay quietly as the world around him seemed to tilt and turn. Moments later, he slipped back into unconsciousness.
“Pa! Pa, where are ya?”
Hoss looked about frantically before raising his voice to shout again.
“Pa! Pa, come quick!”
Ben Cartwright glanced up from his desk and frowned. The ledgers before him required his undivided attention, and he didn’t have time for any interruptions this morning. But as the shouting continued, he quickly recognized the urgency in his son’s voice. Pushing back from the desk, Ben moved towards the door, only to be met by Adam who had descended the stairway in record time. “What in tarnation?”
“Hurry, Pa. I was looking out the upstairs window, and saw Cochise in the front yard, but I didn’t see any sign of Joe,” Adam answered his father as the two men raced out the door and almost collided with Hoss, as he hurried towards the house in search of his father.
“What’s going on, Hoss? What’s all the shouting about?” Ben looked over his son’s shoulder and realized instantly that Adam was right. Cochise stood quietly near the barn, as if waiting for someone to come and let her in. Joe’s saddle was still strapped on her back, but it was twisted to the side, and although his bedroll was still lashed in place, Joe’s saddlebags were gone. “Where’s Joe?”
Ben’s question lay unanswered between them as Hoss struggled to speak. His chest heaved with anxiety and he found it hard to place his fears into words. Working with a new stallion in the corral, he’d been the first to see Cochise as she trotted quietly up to the barn. Instinctively, Hoss knew there was only one explanation for the situation. Something had happened to his little brother. And the pain he felt at that knowledge, left the big man struggling for control.
Adam was the first to react. In his ever-practical manner, he barked orders to the two ranch-hands who’d come out of the barn to investigate. “Harry, Sam. Saddle up the horses.”
Ben followed Adam’s lead as the three men hurried toward the house. “Hoss, get HopSing to pack some food. We don’t know where we’ll find Joe or what kind of shape he’s in.”
Moving quickly, years of experience showed through as the three men readied themselves for the search. Each man knew without speaking, what the other was thinking. Their son and brother was missing, maybe hurt, and there was no time to discuss the matter. Their only objective now was to find Little Joe, and find him fast.
As Joe opened his eyes once more, the pain rushed to meet him, and he wasn’t sure which hurt most, the blinding light of the sun or the pain from his injuries. A low moan was all he could muster as he closed his eyes once more.
He no longer had the energy to move about, and a roaring sound had taken up residence in his head. Every sound in the woods seemed to have intensified and Joe covered his ears in an effort to find relief from the din.
His thoughts were no longer coherent, not even a solid memory of where he was or why he was there. Only an overwhelming desire to find his father and brothers existed. Calling on resources even he didn’t know he possessed, Joe pulled himself onto his knees and then across the rocky ground. There was no thought or plan involved, only the need to be with his family.
Dropping once more to the ground, a feeble cry emanated from Joe’s cracked and swollen lips. ”Pa . . .”
The three men continued their search as once more the sun dipped towards the mountain peaks. Although frustrated, the three moved steadily onward, only the looks on their faces revealing their sense of fear. There had been no sign, nothing to indicate that they were headed in the right direction. Only their knowledge of the area and Joe’s tentative plans, sent them on the right path.
It was almost dark when Adam finally called out excitedly. “Pa! Hoss! I found him.”
The two men pulled their mounts to a halt and dismounted quickly. Adam knelt on the ground before them, Little Joe cradled gently in his arms.
“Adam? Is he. . .”
“He’s alive Pa, but barely. Looks like he’s been shot and he’s got quite a cut on the back of his head.”
Ben knelt down next to his youngest son and took him in his arms. Looking up at his oldest sons, he nodded towards the horses. “We’re going to have to get him home and that’s the quickest way.”
Adam and Hoss nodded as they prepared for the journey home. Handing his father a canteen, Hoss watched his brother closely for any sign that he might be coming to. Even as Ben held his youngest son and dribbled a thin stream of water between Joe’s parched lips, there was no reaction.
Within a short time, Joe was settled on Buck, leaning against his father’s broad chest as Ben held him upright. The family moved slowly towards the ranch, the only conversation an occasional question regarding Joe’s position. Not until they reached the flats was there any discussion, but when they were within a short distance from the house, Ben pulled up and addressed his sons. “Hoss, I want you to ride to town. Bring Doc Martin back immediately and ask Roy to come out as soon as he can. Adam, I want you to ride on to the house and get things ready. Tell HopSing that besides losing a lot of blood, Joe’s running a high fever.”
Adam and Hoss gazed briefly at their brother before kicking their mounts into action. Within minutes, Ben was alone with his son, only the sound of Buck’s hooves on the hard ground, and Joe’s soft breathing against his chest.
Adam was waiting when Ben rode up to the house, and with the help of HopSing, they’d managed to settle the youngest Cartwright in his own bed before the doctor arrived. Paul had been startled at Joe’s appearance. The bullet wound was definitely infected and there had been a significant loss of blood. Joe’s face was reddened from his prolonged exposure in the sun, and it was obvious the young man was suffering from dehydration.
But the most worrisome injury was the one to his head. There was some relief at the fact that it had bled, but the doctor was still worried about the possible effects that such an injury could cause. He hadn’t given the family any of the details, but from the look on Ben’s face, Paul knew he wouldn’t need to do much explaining. Only time would tell. For the time being, all they could do was wait, and pray.
Ben continued his vigil long into the night. As he sat next to Joe’s bed, periodically exchanging the wet cloths placed on Joe’s forehead, Ben thought back over the events of the evening.
After Doc Martin finished removing the bullet from Joe’s shoulder, the family had gathered in his room. No amount of talking could change Ben’s mind, and finally Paul had given up. Now the doctor slept soundly in the downstairs bedroom, his intentions were to check on Joe’s condition again before leaving in the morning. Roy Coffee had not made it to the ranch during the evening, but the deputy had assured Hoss that he’d send the sheriff out first thing in the morning.
Ben reached up and placed his hand on Joe’s forehead. Brushing back the damp curls, he studied his son’s face once more. You’re going to be all right, Joseph. You have to be all right.
Adam woke with a start and realized in an instant that the crowing of a rooster had brought him out of his dreams. Looking across his brother’s bed, Adam was not surprised to see Ben still working quietly as he traded a warm cloth for a cool one.
There seemed to be no change in Joe’s condition, and Adam was loath to ask Ben about it. His father had barely spoken since they lay Joe in his bed the night before, and Adam knew that if his brother didn’t make it, the loss could be too much for Ben. The man had borne many losses during his life, but the loss of a son, especially the youngest, might be too much even for a man as strong as Ben Cartwright. Adam pushed the thought from his mind. Pulling himself slowly from the chair, he reached across the bed and laid his hand on his brother’s cheek. The skin was hot to his touch and he pulled his fingers away quickly. “Pa, let me take care of him for awhile. You need to get some sleep or you won’t be any help to him.”
“No, Adam, I have to be here if . . I just have to be here.”
“I know, but you can at least sit back in the chair for awhile. I’ll wake you if you’re needed.”
Ben stared at his son for a moment then nodded his head in agreement. His only desire was to stay next to Joe’s side, but he knew that if he didn’t rest soon, his body would take the choice away from him. This way, he’d still be next to his son, close enough to hear if Joe should wake up and call for him.
Adam breathed a sigh of relief as Ben nodded his assent. His worry over his brother’s health had grown to include his father, and for a brief moment, he had some respite, at least from the one concern. As he settled himself in the straight-backed chair, Adam glanced into the corner where Hoss slept in the overstuffed chair they’d placed there the evening before. He was glad to see that his brother had finally given in to the much needed sleep.
Dipping a cloth into a basin of cool water, Adam wrung it out quickly and exchanged it for the warm one. The fever seemed to be slightly less than the night before, but still there was no sign that Joe might be coming to. Closing his eyes briefly, Adam whispered a prayer for his brother, then opened them to find Joe staring at him intently. Breaking out in a smile, Adam grasped his brother’s hand gently. “Welcome back, brother.”
Joe’s voice was weak and barely audible, but Adam knew almost instinctively what his brother needed. “’I’m thirsty. .”
Working quietly, Adam lifted his brother a few inches and held a glass of water to his lips. As he watched Joe struggle to take a sip, Adam called out softly to his father. “Pa.”
But that one word was all that was needed. Ben sat up almost instantly, and the relief was visible in his eyes. Coming to sit on the edge of the bed, he took his son’s hand and began to gently stroke his fingers. “Well, young man, it’s about time you woke up. Did you think we were going to let you get away with this lolly-gagging for long?”
Ben’s gruff words didn’t fool anyone, especially Joe. He looked up into his father’s eyes and was not surprised to see the tears pooled there. “I’m okay, Pa.”
Ben smiled through his tears as he recognized his youngest child’s attempt to relieve his worry. “Yes, you are son. You’re going to be fine.”
From the end of the bed, another voice joined in agreement. “Sure you are, little brother. Take more than a night out under the stars to do you in.”
Joe grinned thinly at his family before his eyelids drooped closed once more. But this time he fell into an easy sleep, and the men gathered about his bed, sighed in relief.
The sounds around him were distant and muffled, and when Joe tried to open his eyes, he found them dry and gritty, as if sand lined the inside of the lids. The air seemed hot and sticky, and he longed for a cool breeze. When he recognized a familiar voice next to him, Joe strained to lift his hand in an effort to beckon for attention, but there was no response. Becoming frustrated in both his lack of ability and absence of help from those around him, Joe struggled for attention.
The two men watching were surprised at the sudden burst of activity from the bed. Joe was thrashing about, yet in his weakened condition, it was more of a gentle struggle. Still, the bedclothes seemed to wind about him as the young man moved between the sheets.
“Paul, is he having a convulsion from the fever?”
“No, I don’t think so. Look at his face, Ben, I think he’s coming to.”
Watching Joe closely, Ben realized that the doctor was right. But even calling Joe’s name did not bring the young man fully awake. Putting his hands on his son’s shoulders, Ben tried once more to reach him. “Son, calm down now. You’re alright. You’re in your room and the doc is right here with us.”
Adam entered the room, a bucket in his hands. As he dumped a mound of silvery fragments into the basin, he spoke to his father. “Hoss went to get more ice. He’ll be back as quick as he can.”
Ben nodded in response, his attention fully focused on his youngest son.
Adam moved to the other side of the bed where he looked down on his brother. Still moving from side to side, the young man was obviously distraught. As he dropped down on his knees next to the bed, Adam laid a hand on Joe’s shoulder. “Joe. Joe, can you hear me?”
The voice was so close, so inviting. Once again he recognized the timbre, but this time it was different. Yet the voice was closer and more insistent, and Joe strained to answer. Turning his head slightly to the side, he struggled to speak. Adam leaned closer in an effort to hear and was rewarded with a single word. Looking up, he met his father’s questioning eyes. “He said: hot.”
Ben breathed a sigh of relief. Grabbing another cloth, he dipped it in the icy water and wrung it out. Then he sat on the edge of the bed as he bathed his son’s face. All the while, he continued his silent prayers. Thankful that Joe was waking up at last and somewhat aware of his surroundings, Ben was also conscious of the fact that his son was still not ‘out of the woods.’ As he moved the cloth away from Joe’s face, he finally heard his son’s voice.
“Yes, son. I’m here.”
“Pa . . what happened?”
“You’re going to be fine, son. Just rest, everything’s going to be all right.”
Joe relaxed against the pillows as he felt the cool cloth upon his skin. The feel of his father’s hand upon his arm was added comfort, and he felt himself drifting away from the voices again.
A week passed before Doc Martin would allow his patient downstairs. The first days, after they found Joe, had been spent fighting the persistent fever. Once it passed, the young man had bounced back with amazing speed. His shoulder wound was healing, as was the cut on Joe’s head, and in his usual fashion, the youngest Cartwright was not a very agreeable patient.
Although Paul had voiced concerns to Ben regarding the head injury, there had been no further complications, and after several days of constant needling, Joe got his way and was allowed to leave his room for a few hours. From then on, the young man could not be kept down. He was anxious to return to his normal activities, but both Ben and Doctor Martin had insisted that there be no riding for the time being. This both amused and angered Little Joe, who felt the men were being over-protective. Yet, something kept him from arguing with them. That, in itself, should have triggered concern to Ben.
It was a warm afternoon, and Ben had been seated behind his large mahogany desk for almost three hours. Joe sat across from him, both men quietly working on the ledgers spread upon the desktop. The only sound in the room, besides the ticking of the large grandfather clock, was an occasional groan or sigh emanating from the somber figures.
“How about a cup of coffee, Pa? Might wake us up.”
Joe’s voice had interrupted Ben who had been adding a long column of figures. As he raised his head to glare at his youngest son, he was suddenly overcome by an urge to laugh. The young man before him looked utterly dejected and Ben briefly wondered if he wore the same hangdog expression on his face. “Sure, a cup of coffee sounds good. Besides, we deserve a break, don’t you think?”
The relief was evident in the sound of Joe’s laughter as he stood up and slowly stretched. “I don’t know how you do it, Pa. Working with the books has to be the worst job on the ranch. I’ll sure be glad when I’m back outside. Don’t think I’ll even complain about mending fences anymore.”
Even Ben had to chuckle. The idea of Little Joe not complaining about working was too much to hope for. But watching his son cross the room to pour two cups of coffee, Ben once more breathed a silent prayer of thanks. He knew how lucky they’d been to find Joe when they did. Even Paul had commented on the strength of the boy as he lay fighting to live. Hard to believe that was only a few weeks ago.
Joe crossed the room to his father’s desk, careful to hold the cups and saucers steady as he walked. He knew his father had been watching him at first, but when he turned around, Pa had dropped his head back down, and now appeared to be studying the ledger intently.
Ben sprung from his seat at the sound of china shattering on the floor. Racing to Joe’s side, he grasped his son’s shoulders in an effort to soothe the visibly distraught boy. “Joe? Joseph, what is it? What’s wrong?”
There was no answer to his anxious questions, only a low moan of pain as Joe knelt on the floor, head in his hands. Ben struggled to remain calm as he called out to HopSing for help. In moments, the man was there beside them, helping to move Little Joe from the floor to the settee. The two worked quickly to make the young man comfortable, and their efforts were soon rewarded with a weak grin as Joe moved his hands from in front of his eyes. His smile broadened just a little as he recognized the worried countenance of his father. “I’m okay, Pa, it’s just that darned headache again.”
“What do you mean, again?”
“Oh. . .” Joe struggled for the right words as he realized he’d just revealed his carefully harbored secret. “Umm, well, I’ve just had a few headaches lately.”
Ben’s attitude shifted several times from frustration to worry. He could see that this wasn’t the time to discuss the issue further. Joe’s eyes were glassy with pain and he moaned occasionally, albeit unwillingly. “Alright, young man, let’s get you up to bed. Then I’ll send Hoss for Doc Martin. I want to know what’s going on here.”
Nodding his resigned agreement, Joe stopped suddenly as another wave of pain assuaged him. He struggled for several minutes in an effort to control the agony, not noticing until it passed that his father was holding him tightly and rubbing his back in an effort to comfort him.
“Yeah. . .”
“Okay, then, let’s get you up to bed.”
For once there was no argument as Little Joe allowed himself to be helped from his seat, and towards the stairs. The front door swung open as his brothers entered the room, and Joe could tell from their sudden halt in conversation, that he must be a sight.
“Adam. Hoss. Give us a hand, will you?”
The two men hurried to help their brother up the stairs, taking over as Pa and Hop Sing stepped aside.
“Make special tea for Little Joe. Will make headache go away.”
Ben didn’t even have time to utter his thanks as Hopsing disappeared into the kitchen. Following his sons up the stairs, he stopped at Joe’s doorway and listened to their conversation. The surprise in Adam’s voice was tangible. “How long?”
“About five or six days.”
“And you haven’t told the doctor, or Pa?”
“I was going to. If it didn’t go away.”
“Can you believe him, Hoss? Having headaches like this and doesn’t bother to mention it to a soul?”
Ben could imagine the look on Adam’s face. He realized with a start, it was probably a mirror image of his own. Moving toward the open doorway, he stopped once more as the conversation continued.
“Heck, Adam, this one’s been the worse. I didn’t think it was anything to worry about. Doc even told me I might have a few headaches.”
“A few, Joe, a few. Not two or three attacks every day, and not bad enough to drop ya to the floor, little brother. Adam’s right, you should’ve told Pa. He’s gonna give ya a tongue lashing for sure.”
Their father almost grinned. Would have, if his gut hadn’t been so tight with worry. Realizing he couldn’t continue the eavesdropping, but also appreciative of the information he’d just been provided, Ben moved through the doorway and into Joe’s room. “You’re right, he is going to get a tongue lashing, but not today. Hoss, I want you to ride into town and ask Doc Martin to come out and check this young man over. Adam, would you draw those blinds please.” Directing his attention to his youngest laying quietly on the bed, Pa continued with firm authority. “You, young man, are going to stay in bed until the doctor gets here.”
“But, Pa, the pain’s almost gone. It usually doesn’t last too long, and it’s more like an aching now. I can go back downstairs if I’m careful.”
Shaking his head with renewed vigor, Ben would hear none of it. “You most definitely will not! You’re going to stay right here until the doctor examines you and tells us what’s wrong.”
Lying back on his pillow, Joe closed his eyes, and felt secretly relieved. The headaches, which had started out as an annoyance, were gradually developing into frightening episodes of pain. He didn’t want to admit how scared he really was, but was surprised to find he was relieved that Pa knew about it. There had been several attempts on his part to talk to his father, but each time, he’d shoved the conversation back. He didn’t want to say or do anything that would delay his return to regular activities, but this last spell had really scared him.
Moving carefully on his pillow, Joe struggled for a more comfortable position in which to relax. From his chair near the bed, Ben watched his son carefully.
It was almost an hour before the boy finally fell asleep.
Snapping his bag closed, Paul hesitated while he studied its handle carefully. He knew how important Ben’s sons were to him, and he didn’t want to worry him needlessly. But he was concerned over the young man’s symptoms. Moving to stand next to his friend, Ben broke the silence. “What is it, Paul?”
Turning to look at the worried father next to him, Paul’s first thought was to brush Ben’s concerns aside, but within moments, he realized that ploy would be useless. Ben was watching him like a hawk, waiting for any shred of information, and rightfully so. His youngest son was recuperating from a serious injury, and now there was a complication. In his shoes, the doctor realized he’d be insisting to hear the truth. He could offer his friend no less. “I’m going to be honest with you, Ben. There’s not a lot I can tell you here. We don’t know a lot about head injuries, and can do even less for them. I’ve seen men with symptoms much worse than Joe’s, and they’ve come through just fine. It’s just going to take time.”
“Time? You mean there’s nothing you can do for him? Nothing to help him through this?”
“Well, of course I can leave you some headache powders. When the pain gets bad, I suggest he find a dark, quiet place to rest in. From what I’ve been told, Joe will learn to recognize the signs that precede the headaches, usually after a period of physical activity. Taking it easy will help, but other than that, there’s nothing more we can do.”
Staring at the doctor, Ben remained silent, even as his thoughts were running rampant. He couldn’t get over the doctor’s admission that medical science had no answers for them. The question was out of his mouth before he even realized it. “Another opinion, Paul? Should we get another opinion? Take him to San Francisco, maybe?”
Shaking his head slowly, the doctor quickly smashed Ben’s last hope.
“No, I don’t think that will make any difference. I was planning to wire several of my colleagues, but I don’t expect them to have any other suggestions. You know I’m very faithful in keeping up with the new information through my medical journals. Of course, if you’re determined to take him, I’ll make all the arrangements and direct you to the best doctors. But I think you’ll be wasting your time, and possibly risking Joe’s health on a useless trip.”
Ben’s head had dropped lower on his chest as he listened closely to Paul’s answer. He trusted his friend implicitly. The man had brought them all through more illnesses and injuries than he cared to remember. It was just a bitter pill to have to swallow, the knowledge that there were no cures or remedies this time.
Leaning over the small table, Ben rested his hands on the edges as he sighed deeply. Doctor Martin wasted no time in reassuring the dejected man. “He’s going to be alright, Ben. He’s young and strong. But it’s important for you to take care of yourself too, my friend. If you fall apart, what help will you be to him? Like I said, there’s been others I’ve seen, hurt much worse than he was, and they’re fully recovered now. You’re going to have to remain positive. Keep him safe, but busy. Give him time to get better.”
Longing to utter the unasked question, Ben sighed again and pushed himself up from the table. He breathed only two words as he reached out to grasp Paul’s hand. “Thank you.”
The doctor moved quickly but quietly to the door and out to his buggy. Looking back towards the house, he could see Ben watching him from the doorway. There was no way to comfort the man. They both knew how much was left unspoken between them, the tragic possibilities that neither had mentioned during their conversation. “Call me if you need me.”
Ben watched the doctor drive away and finally the words he dreaded to speak were released. “But what if he doesn’t get better?”
With each passing day, Joe found himself further removed from his family. The emotions he battled were varied. Some justified, some without cause. At any given moment, the young man might feel depressed or angry, bitter or grateful. He knew his father and brothers were only doing what they felt was right, but Joe was sure he couldn’t live this way much longer. He felt like a trapped animal.
Watching his son carefully, Ben waited for any sign or symptom that the boy might stumble or collapse. He knew that Joe chaffed at the inactivity and longed to be working out on the ranch. But his parental instincts would not permit him to allow Little Joe to even mount a horse. What he didn’t realize was that in holding his son back, he was, in fact, pushing him away.
Roy Coffee didn’t realize what he was riding into as he arrived at the Ponderosa late one afternoon. It had been a long search, but he finally felt he had a lead on who had ambushed and robbed Little Joe Cartwright. Now, as he tied his horse to the hitching rack in front of the large ranch house, the sheriff felt a sense of relief in being able to bring his friends some good news for a change.
As he reached the door, Roy couldn’t help but overhear the heated conversation from inside the house.
“Pa, you can’t keep me caged up in here forever! I’ve done everything you said, stayed off Cochise, taken every nap and read every book. You know I haven’t had a headache in almost four days.”
“I know that. And if you think real hard, you’ll realize that the reason you haven’t had any headaches is because you’ve been taking it easy.”
“You don’t know that! Even Doc Martin said they’d probably just go away.”
“No, Joseph, he said they might go away. There’s a big difference.”
“No, there isn’t! It’s only a different set of words. Pa, you’ve gotta let me make my own decisions now. I’m not a little boy anymore; I’m old enough to decide things for myself! And I just don’t think I can live like this anymore.”
The sound of boots stomping up the stairs was clearly heard even through the heavy front door. Standing there a moment longer, Roy finally reached up to knock hesitantly at the door.
Once again he heard footsteps, but this time they were moving slowly towards the doorway. As it swung inward, the sheriff was not surprised to see the worried expression on his friend’s tired face. “Evening, Ben.”
The two men stood quietly for a moment, neither offering to start the conversation. Finally Ben broke the silence. “Come in.”
Walking toward the settee, Roy listened carefully as Ben closed the door and followed him across the room. He was relieved that whatever anger Ben had been feeling, was now gone, or at least concealed. The sheriff decided to get right to the point. “Ben, I think I have some good news for you.”
He looked over and realized his friend was staring at him intently.
“Well, there are two men being held at the army post where Joe delivered those horses. Seems they’ve been pretty flush lately, and after I sent a wire to the Colonel, he did some checking around and discovered some interesting information. These men each took a three-day leave right after Joe left the post. After that, they started spending big money in the local tavern, including some pretty large bets at a poker game. The Colonel had all their gear searched and discovered saddlebags that look like Joe’s. He’s holding the bags until someone from your family can ride up and positively identify them.”
Silence filled the room as Roy finished his story. He watched his friend closely, unable to discern the effect of his findings. Waiting patiently for some kind of response, Sheriff Coffee was surprised to hear the voice of Little Joe. “I’ll be going with you to the army post.”
Looking up, both men were startled to see the young man at the foot of the stairs. Little Joe was dressed for traveling, his bedroll under his arm, bulging saddlebags slung over his shoulder. Ben felt as if all the air had suddenly been sucked from his lungs. He knew that Joe hadn’t packed his things because of the information Roy had just supplied. There was only one explanation; his youngest son had already planned to leave.
“Did you hear me, Roy? I said: I’ll be riding with you to identify my property.”
Striding purposefully across the room, Joe found his progress halted by his father’s strong hand on his forearm. “Joe.”
The two men stared at each other silently. The older man fought against the overwhelming emotions, which battled within him. He refused to give in to either the anger or the fear. The firm set of the younger man’s jaw revealed his intentions. There would be no further discussions. His mind was made up.
Ben realized he could no longer hold the young man. His only desire had been to protect his son, but he also knew that Joe was a man, old enough to be making a life of his own away from the ranch, his father and brothers. Feeling fortunate that his sons had remained with him, and continued to show him the respect and cooperation they had, Ben uttered a silent prayer that this situation would not cost him his youngest.
“Pa, I’ve gotta go. . .”
Joe pulled his arm gently from his father’s grasp, and moved toward the door. Stopping briefly at the sideboard, he strapped on his gun belt and reached for his hat. “I’ll be careful, Pa.”
With those simple words, Little Joe turned and left the house.
As his son walked through the door, Ben felt as if he were the one who’d been ambushed. The sinking feeling in his stomach seemed to spread to his whole body, and he reached for the edge of the chair as he sank into its depths. Roy moved quickly to his side, and then reached down to grasp his friend’s shoulder. He knew how hard this situation was for Ben. Doc Martin had filled him in on Joe’s progress, and he knew the headaches were frequent and severe. Finding no words to reassure the man, Roy stood for a moment, and then followed Joe out the door.
“Pa, where are ya?”
Adam’s deep voice followed by the booming Hoss, brought a weak response from the person in question.
“I’m in here, boys.”
The door slammed as two anxious men rushed into the room. Their momentum came to an immediate halt as they saw their father behind the desk. The man seemed to have aged ten years since they’d left the house early that morning. He now sat, slumped, behind his desk, head bowed as if in defeat. In front of him sat a picture of his third wife, Marie, and another of his youngest son, Joe.
“What’s going on? We saw Roy Coffee riding toward the lake, and it looked like Joe was with him. I thought you’d told him to stay off horses for awhile. . .”
Nodding weakly, Ben offered no explanation, but Hoss would not be ignored.
“Pa. You gotta tell us. Where’s Little Joe goin’? Is he alright?”
Adam stepped closer to his father and probed gently for more information. “Gone? Where’d he go?”
“He and Roy are headed for the army post. Colonel Jenkins believes he’s found the men who ambushed Joe, and wanted someone to ride up and identify Joe’s saddlebags.” The despair was evident in Ben’s voice, and the brothers worried over his quiet demeanor. It seemed there must be more to the story.
“Pa, how come you let him go? It’s dangerous for him to be riding, isn’t it?”
Ben looked up to see Hoss anxiously watching him.
“Yes, it is dangerous. But he’s a man now, old enough to make his own decisions.”
Pulling himself from his chair, Ben walked slowly across the room and stood before the fireplace. Adam watched his father as he stood silently staring into the cold embers. It only took a few moments for Adam to reach a decision. Stepping over next to Hoss, he caught his brother’s attention, and spoke softly. “Get our bedrolls and pack some food, we’re going after him.”
Hoss nodded in reply and hurried off to prepare for their journey. He’d been watching his father, too, and knew that Adam’s decision had been the right one. Maybe it was best for Ben to let Joe leave, but that didn’t mean his two brothers couldn’t keep an eye on him… just in case.
“We’re going to ride along with them, Pa. Hoss and I will make sure he’s okay.”
“I don’t know, Adam. . .”
“You know we have to go. What if they get out on the trail and something happens? Roy would need help, fast. We’ll make sure Little Joe knows this is our idea; we’re just going along to help the sheriff.”
Ben’s grateful smile was a relief to Adam. He knew how worried his pa was. Their father, although close to all his sons, had always been especially fond of his youngest. Knowing this, Adam was resolved to make sure that nothing happened to his sibling.
It was only a short time before Adam and Hoss were riding away from the ranch. Ben watched them until they disappeared from sight. He fought the desire to ride off with them, knowing full well that Joe needed the time away from him. But the fear was harder to deal with. What if Joe didn’t come back . . .
Darkness had fallen and the two men were settled for the night next to a warm and inviting campfire. Although the afternoon ride had been an easy one, Joe found himself unusually tired. Realizing that his recent inactivity had left him out of shape, he promised himself not to let Roy know how worn out he really was. Stretching out on his bedroll, Joe leaned back against his saddle and listened to the sheriff’s story. He was somewhat proud of his earlier inquiries. As usual, if asked the right questions, Roy Coffee could launch into stories that could last well into the night.
Pushing a stick into the fire, Joe watched a shower of sparks rise towards the heavens. As he looked into the darkness, he was surprised to see two forms materialize before him. Sighing deeply, he closed his eyes for a moment as the two men dismounted from their horses and moved toward the fire. “Adam. Hoss. What’re you two doing out here?”
“Evening, Roy. Just thought we’d ride along, if you don’t mind.”
Adam waited for the sheriff’s reply, but kept his eyes on his brother’s face. Joe kept his gaze trained on the fire, his expression guarded. Turning slightly, Adam nodded to Hoss as the big man began to unsaddle his horse. The brothers shared a brief look, both realizing, instantly, how much their younger brother resented their presence.
“No, boys, we don’t mind the company at all, do we, Joe?” The sheriff chuckled nervously as he waited for the young man’s reply. He knew the silence was strained, the tension between the brothers obvious, so he was relieved at the quiet reply.
“No, Roy, I guess we don’t mind.”
Sliding down on his bedroll, Joe closed his eyes, effectively shutting out the increased activity around the fire. As the new arrivals settled in and prepared their dinner, the object of their concern drifted off to sleep.
It was mid-afternoon before the long ride caused its first problem. The morning had been relatively quiet. The men rode in silence for the most part, each of them acutely aware of the strain their youngest member was feeling. Not only was the ride a tiring one, Joe was placing extra stress on himself by trying to pick up the pace. They knew that he was just trying to prove that he was capable of handling the trip, but the doctor’s warnings continued to ring in their ears.
Adam was the first to notice the change in Joe’s behavior. Where moments before the young man had rode with confidence and bravado, he now sat almost slumped in the saddle, his head hanging down and hands loose on the reins. Kicking Sport into a trot, Adam rode up to his brother’s side just in time to catch the young man as he slid from the saddle. ”Hoss. Quick, help me get him down.”
Within seconds, Hoss and Roy were beside him, hands reaching up to take Joe from his arms. Hoss carried his brother to the side of the road and eased him to the ground under the shade of a large pine tree. Pulling his handkerchief from around his neck, Adam dampened it from the canteen Roy handed him, then carefully bathed his brother’s face. It was only a moment before a low moan was heard; followed by frantic movements as Joe first tried to sit up, then push his well-meaning brothers away.
Struggling for control, Joe held his head in his hands as the blinding pain overtook him. It took several minutes before he was able to escape the agony. The throbbing that was left behind was painful, but not as devastating as the initial episode. Looking up, he met the worried gazes of his brothers. “I’m okay. Quit fussin’ over me.”
Sitting back on his haunches, Hoss was the first to answer. “We weren’t fussin’ over ya, little brother. And ya better be thankin’ Adam. If he hadn’t caught ya, you’d be having more than just a headache this afternoon.”
Joe’s expression was hard to read, but his brothers knew how hard it was for him to admit when he was wrong. Even now, with the pain obviously still unbearable, Joe spoke haltingly to his brother. “Thanks, Adam.”
That being said, the young man finally relaxed within his brother’s grasp. He leaned against the strong chest and tried to focus on the lingering pain. This was the first headache he’d experienced in several days; unfortunately, it was also one of the worst. He struggled to control his reactions. There was no way he would be sent back to the ranch now, not after he’d practically defied his father.
Watching their brother attempt to gain control, Adam and Hoss stared at each other briefly over Joe’s head, their eyes communicating their concern. Turning to face Roy, they were surprised to see that he had been watching the whole exchange.
“If you don’t mind, Roy, we’d like to take a little rest here. Looks like Joe might need a some time out of the saddle.”
“Sure, Adam, I think you’re right. We’ve been making pretty good time, and we should be to the army post by late tomorrow morning. Why don’t we just camp here for the night.”
Working quickly to set up camp, the men soon had a fire started. Joe had spent most of the time resting against the tree where Hoss had set him, but now he got up and wandered over to the camp. Squatting in front of the fire, he gazed into the brightly burning embers, his thoughts far away from the activity of the camp. Unsaddling the horses, Hoss glanced at his youngest brother frequently, his obvious concern not lost on his oldest sibling. Finally finished with the task, he moved over to rest next to Joe. The two shared a companionable silence; one that Adam was unwilling to interrupt. If anyone could get through to Little Joe, it would be Hoss.
After several minutes of uncertainty, Adam gathered a few items from his saddlebag and walked off toward the river. Joining Roy for an hour of fishing seemed like the best plan, and he hoped his time away from camp would give Hoss a chance to really talk to Joe, and maybe talk some sense into the boy.
The men rose early the next morning, and as Adam saddled his horse, he watched for an opportunity to ask Hoss about the previous evening. Joe seemed to be in better spirits, the headache having passed after a long night’s sleep. But Hoss was busy about the camp and working close to Joe, it was several hours later before the older brothers spoke in private.
“Joe say anything last night?”
“About what Pa and him were arguing about?”
“No. Nothing specific. I think it’s just what we guessed, though. Pa’s tryin’ to hold on too tight; Joe’s resenting it. He’ll come around.”
“I hope so. You know how hard this is on Pa.”
“I know. But I don’t think we should push Little Joe too hard. Sure don’t want to set him off and havin’ him refuse to go home with us.”
Nodding in agreement, Adam almost chuckled. Joe’s quick temper had worked against him more than once; now wasn’t the time to ignite that flame. The brothers rode on in silence, neither aware of the angry looks they’d instigated behind them.
The trail through the mountains was narrow and steep; the horses winded after their exertion, the men tired from their nights spent outdoors. So it was a sense of relief when they looked down upon the army camp. Riding toward the makeshift post, the men were heartened to see the care that had been taken in keeping the area neat and tidy.
Reining in their horses, the four men dismounted just as Colonel Jenkins stepped out of his tent to greet them. The pleasantries lasted for only a moment before Joe interrupted. “Colonel. Could you tell us about the men you wired about?”
“Yes, Joe, I can. Both of these men are privates, just recently joined up. I believe they were mining over near Sutter’s creek a few years ago, but their luck wasn’t good. From what they tell me, they figured Army life would be easier.”
The men exchanged glances of disbelief as the Colonel continued.
“These two have already been in the stockade several times. I’m sorry I couldn’t send you more information, Sheriff, but as you know, it’s a two hour ride to the nearest telegraph station from here, so the wires I sent you contained just the basic facts.”
“I understand, Colonel. I’m just glad you found ‘em so quickly. We were running out of suspects back in Virginia City.”
“Well, they’re the ones who made it easy. They tend to use their passes to town as an excuse to get drunk. Once they’d lost a little too much money at the poker tables, and bragged a little too often about being able to replace their losses, some of the other men got suspicious. From there, it was just a matter of separating them and asking the right questions. Neither of them is too bright, and they didn’t even try to hide the evidence. Part of the money was still in their possession.”
Although it had been another long day on the trail, Joe was anxious to confront the men who’d ambushed him. Ever since he’d come to at the ranch, he’d agonized over the loss of memory he’d experienced. His father has assured him that there was nothing he could’ve done; yet Joe felt guilty over the loss of five thousand dollars. It was his responsibility to return that payment to his father, but he’d failed. And now he hoped for the chance to rectify the situation. Sure would help if I could remember something.
As the men filed into the makeshift guardhouse, Joe held back as the others stopped in front of the two suspects who were chained to their bunks. The colonel gathered up the saddlebags, along with several personal items found along with the money, and held them up for inspection. Adam and Hoss nodded as they recognized the gear as belonging to their brother, then turned to see what reaction he might have.
Watching Joe closely, Adam realized his brother wasn’t aware of the questions being asked of him. Standing stiffly to the side, the youngest Cartwright was staring intently at the two men, his face a mixture of pain and confusion. Without warning, he turned and fled, Adam close on his heels. Looking over back over his shoulder, Adam motioned for Hoss to stay with the others, hoping that maybe this time, he’d have a chance to talk to Joe alone.
With faltering steps, Joe attempted to escape the situation, but the pain followed him. As he struggled to decide where to go, he was suddenly aware of a strong arm supporting him.
“Come on, Joe, let’s sit down over here.” Leading his brother to a fallen log, Adam eased him to its rough surface. Sitting carefully beside Joe, he let his arm remain about the boy’s shoulder, as he watched him closely. Waiting patiently for Joe to regain control, Adam sat, quietly, unaware that he was a source of strength and encouragement to his brother.
The sounds of the camp were muffled from their location, just inside the tree line. The sound of birds chirping mingled with the muted noise of soldiers going about their daily routine. As he listened, Adam realized that his brother’s breathing had taken on a more quiet tone, even and relaxed. Looking up, he was startled to meet the questioning look in Joe’s hazel eyes.
“Adam, am I ever going to get well?”
“Yes, Joe, I think you will.”
Dropping his head back in his hands, Joe moved his head carefully in uncertainty.
“I don’t think so. Pa was right. I can’t do anything but sit in a rocker on the porch. I’m just foolin’ myself; thinkin’ that I can take off on my own. I wouldn’t last a week. Heck, I probably wouldn’t last a day.”
“Joe. Joe, listen to me.”
Lifting his head, the young man was surprised to see his brother pull a small black book from his pocket. Leafing carefully through its narrow pages, Adam found the page he was searching for and held it out for inspection.
“Look, I’ve been keeping track of your headaches.”
“What d’ya mean, keeping track of them?”
“I wrote down when they happened and what you’d been doing just before.”
Reaching out to take the book, Joe was struck with the realization of how concerned his brother must have been, to take the time to do this. He studied the pages carefully, nodding occasionally as he recalled each incident and his activities just prior to it.
“See, Joe, last week you were chopping wood when you had that real bad one, then yesterday you were riding hard when that bad one hit.”
”Yeah, but what about today? I wasn’t doing anything but standing there looking at a couple men.”
“That’s true, but look how worked up you were. You were pretty upset when this last headache came on, maybe that has the same affect on your body as working hard. I don’t know, I’m not a doctor. I just thought that if we could find some pattern, it could help you deal with this.”
“But Adam, knowing this, well, it just means that Pa was right. I can’t do anything, anymore.”
“No, kid, that’s not what it has to mean. Look, Joe, you rode most of the first day without any headache, right?”
“Okay. And today, you didn’t suffer any headaches, even though we rode most of the day getting here.”
“Yeah, but I had one just now.”
“Yes, you did, but not until later, after we’d arrived. Don’t you see, Joe? The headaches only come on when you’re pushing yourself too hard. When you’re overdoing it.”
Joe rubbed his chin thoughtfully, as he considered Adam’s conclusions. “Alright, Adam, but how does that help me out?”
The question hung between them briefly as Adam carefully weighed his answer. “What’s the first sign that you’re getting one of these headaches?”
“Well, sometimes there’s a roaring in my ears, and sometimes I see flashes of light. Usually my vision changes some, like I can’t see clear or can’t see things off to the side. Then I get lightheaded when the pain gets real bad.”
“But the first symptoms, the roaring in your ears or flashes of light; that happens a few minutes before the pain.”
“Okay. And what do you do when that happens.”
“Nothing. Just keep doing whatever I’m doing.”
Adam looked up excitedly.
“Maybe that’s the key, Joe. When you get those first symptoms, that’s when you gotta act. If you’re chopping wood, stop and take a rest. If you’re riding a horse, dismount. Pay attention to the signs, and when you see them, take precautions.”
“But Pa would never go for that.”
“Sure he would. Look, the main thing that Pa’s worried about is you getting hurt again. So, show him that you’re being careful so that you won’t get hurt. Just be a little more cautious and be prepared, so that when the pain gets too bad, you’re in a safe place.”
“You make it sound so simple, Adam.”
“Well, it is, in a way, if you’re careful. But it all depends on you.”
The brothers sat together, silently deliberating on Adam’s proposal. Joe thought about his father and the ranch. More than anything else, he wanted to return to his home. Being here with his brothers had shown him how much he needed his family, and the life he’d always known was on the Ponderosa. He knew his father was just reacting out of love and concern, but sometimes that concern overwhelmed the young man. But, still, he had no desire to leave the man who’d always been his source of strength and love.
“Will you help me talk to Pa? I want to go home, but I can’t go back and sit in that house one more day.”
“Sure, kid, I’ll talk to Pa with you.”
Clapping his brother on the shoulder, Adam rose and offered his hand in assistance. Joe was still a bit shaky, but his color was returning and his eyes had lost that glassy look. The two men realized that Hoss was making his way toward them, and they slowly moved to meet him.
“You alright, Little Joe?”
“Yeah, Hoss, I’m alright now. Let’s go home.”
Despite the offer to stay overnight at the post, the Cartwrights agreed that they’d prefer to leave immediately. The sheriff stayed on to work out the legal details regarding the robbery, and then he planned to ride east to Carson City. As they prepared to mount, Joe was surprised to find Roy Coffee at his side.
“Go easy on your Pa, son. I know you two haven’t been seein’ eye to eye lately, but he’s awful worried about ya.”
“I know, Roy. And thanks.”
Nodding his head, the sheriff stood back as Joe mounted his horse. “Have a safe ride, boys.”
The three brothers answered in unison. “You too, Roy.”
Turning towards home, Joe found himself relieved to be heading in that direction.
Ben sat up as he heard the horses enter the yard. His first reaction was one of excitement, but he quickly buried the feeling as he relaxed in his chair. There had been many trips to the door the past week. Every time a hand rode up to the barn, Ben had hurried to the door, breathless with anticipation. But each time, he’d turned away as he realized his sons were not there.
Dropping his head into his hands, the man sent up another silent prayer for the safety of his youngest. He knew he’d pushed the boy too far, but every time he thought of letting Joe mount a horse, or return to work, he remembered the night they’d found him. Ben decided he’d do anything to protect his youngest. But now he had to accept the fact that he might not have the chance to shield his son any longer. If Joe didn’t come back, Ben was sure he’d have lost the boy forever.
The sound of boots on the porch followed by a burst of laughter, brought Pa’s head up with a start. Before he could move from his chair, the door was being thrown open and Hoss was calling out in his familiar booming voice, “Pa. Pa, where are ya?”
“I’m here, son.”
Ben was almost afraid to greet his sons. What if Joe wasn’t with them? What if the boy had ridden on, never to return to his father? Yet, Hoss sounded so happy. Would he be returning in such high spirits if his brother had ridden out of their lives? Frozen in place, Ben found he couldn’t make himself step forward, until another sound reached his ears. The unmistakable giggle was like music to his ears. Only Joe could laugh in this light- hearted manner, and suddenly Ben’s heart was full as he found himself pulled towards the doorway.
The two stopped and the room grew silent as they stared at each other. Only a moment passed before the boy stepped into his father’s embrace. With moist eyes and trembling voice, Ben broke the silence.
“Welcome home, son.”
Doc Martin stopped his buggy alongside the corral and stepped down as his friend moved to greet him.
“Hello, Paul. What brings you to the Ponderosa?”
“Ben. I was out to the Henry place and figured I’d stop by and say hello.”
“Well, I’m glad you did. It’s been awhile since we’ve seen you.”
“Yes, and I take that as a good sign.”
“You’re right, Paul, it is. Joe’s been feeling fine, hasn’t had a headache for months now.”
Ben stepped up next to his friend as the two turned towards the commotion before them. Inside the corral, a group of men stood back as they released the horse and rider from their grasp. The roan stallion twisted and bucked as he struggled to free himself from the determined rider clinging to his back.
“Keep his head up, boy.”
“Ride ‘im, Joe.”
The excited voices from the fence line were shouting in enthusiastic chorus as the man on the horse ignored them and focused on the animal. It was several minutes before the stallion’s determination faltered, and his bucking turned to an occasional kick. Joe grinned at his audience as he maneuvered the tired animal around the corral, and finally to a halt in front of his brothers.
“Good ride, kid.”
“Yeah, Joe, that was some nice ridin’.”
His grin widened as Joe slipped from the saddle, and handed the reins to one of the ranch hands. Walking over to the fence, he slapped his brother’s knee as he scrambled up on the fence next to Hoss. “Okay, brother, it’s your turn.”
The loud guffaw followed by Joe’s infectious laughter caused the older men to join in the merriment. Glancing briefly at each other, it was with a sense of relief. Each knew the other was silently grateful for the recovery of the young man before them. It had been a long and difficult journey since that fateful night, but Ben knew he’d learned a lot about his son in that time.
Joe was no longer a boy, but a man, and he’d proved that by the way he handled himself during the past months. Not only had he followed the doctor’s orders and respected his father’s wishes, but he’d proved that he could handle himself without being watched over. His return to the normal routine of ranch life had been slow, but he had shown his father, with Adam’s help, that he could be trusted to use caution and good judgment. Looking back, Ben realized that he’d grown as a father too. He’d learned that in order to keep his son close, he had to let him go.
“Well, if you two are just going to sit around laughing all day, I guess I’ll have to show you how it’s supposed to be done.” Adams crawled from his perch, and moved toward the next maverick, now saddled and waiting.
“Yeah, older brother, you take the starch out of him, and I’ll polish him off.”
The laughter erupted again as Adam turned to give his brother a low bow. But Ben realized as his son mounted the horse, that a private wink had been shared between his oldest and youngest sons. He realized with a start, that maybe he wasn’t aware of all that had been learned.
“Come on, Adam, you can ride better than that.”
The teasing in Joe’s voice was obvious as it rang out over the corral. Feeling a hand on his shoulder, Ben realized Paul Martin had stepped up along the fence line next to him. The two men shared a warm handshake, before the doctor turned to leave. “Good to see you, Ben.”
“You, too, Paul. And thank-you.”
No one heard the silent prayer that followed, but it was said with the strength and conviction that anyone could recognize as only a father’s love.