Word Count: 9800
Joe’s head throbbed; he was hot, tired, hungry, and thoroughly exasperated. Instead of spending the day catching up on neglected chores, he had wasted it arguing with and riding herd on a very wily and determined fourteen-year-old boy.
Jared Zale was the son of, long time Cartwright friend, Tobias Zale. Tobias had left Jared in Joe’s care while he attended to some business in Sacramento. At the time, it seemed like a perfect solution to Tobias’ childcare troubles. Now, Joe was sorry he had ever volunteered his services. How one boy could stir up so much ruckus was beyond Joe’s understanding. Jared seemed to enjoy having mischief follow him around like a shadow.
Jared was not a bad kid; in fact, he and Joe had always been good buddies. Joe had taught Jared to rope and ride, and under Joe’s watchful eye, he was on his way to becoming a fair breaker. Joe had even presented the boy with his prized brown and white pinto, Diablo.
It was beginning to look as though these close ties were heading towards an abrupt end. “Jared, where ever you are, you best get back on that pony of yours and head for home,” Joe called out. “I have had more than enough of your games for one day. Get home before I tan your hide.”
Jared rode slowly out of a wash with a defiant grin plastered across his sweaty face. “Joe, Joe, Joe. What are you getting so bent out of shape for? I was just having some fun. And let’s keep things straight, there ain’t no way you are ever gonna tan my hide.”
Joe had to admit the boy was probably right. At fourteen, Jared was taller and considerably outweighed him. “Just get home, Jared, without another argument, please.”
Jared urged Diablo into a gallop. Knocking Joe’s hat off as he passed, Jared taunted, “Gotcha! Last one home is a dirty rat!”
“Dadburn your ornery hide, Jared!” Joe exclaimed as he vaulted back on to Cochise. His competitive nature would rarely let him walk away from a challenge, even if he knew he would regret it later. Easily passing the younger rider, Joe had a feeling this would be one of those “regretting times,” but it didn’t slow his pace.
With the house in sight, Joe shot a fast glance back over his shoulder. Jared and Diablo were gaining ground quickly, but not quickly enough for Cochise. Reaching the yard well ahead of his opponent, Joe dismounted and casually leaned against the hitching post.
Joe’s oldest brother, Adam, witnessed this show of childish bravado, and was not in the least bit amused. “Joe you know how Pa hates for you to come flying into the yard like that. I would think you, more than anyone else, would be more considerate. Isn’t it high time you grew up and started taking responsibility for your actions? Where’s the kid?”
Before Joe could answer, Jared and Diablo came racing around the barn, nearly trampling Adam. Adam threw up his arms to wave Diablo away. Diablo’s reaction sent Jared flying over the horse’s head. With a sickening thud, he landed in a heap near the water trough.
“Jared! Are you all right boy?” Adam cried as he rushed to the boy’s side. The alarm in Adam’s voice brought Hoss and Ben out of the house. They brushed past Joe who stood frozen.
“Shh boy, take it easy. Let me check you over. Don’t try to get up just yet,” Ben said gently.
Jared sat up and cleared his head. “I’m fine Mr. Cartwright. No need to make a fuss. Just let me walk it off.” Hoss helped the shaken youngster to his feet. “I said I didn’t need no fuss. I not a baby, so just leave me alone,” Jared spat as he walked to the house.
Once Jared had disappeared inside the house, Ben turned to face Joe. “Joseph, do you mind telling me what happened out here? I thought you went to bring the boy home for dinner.”
Little Joe stood staring at his father, unable to trust anything that might come out of his mouth. His emotions were swirling out of control inside of him like a thunderhead over Lake Tahoe. When the cloud burst, Ben caught the worst of it. “It’s my fault, OK? It’s all my fault, it always is! Adam is so right; I have no business taking on the responsibility of somebody else when I can’t even take care of myself!” With that, Joe turned on his heel and stormed in the house.
A very perplexed Ben stared at Adam in hopes of receiving an explanation. Adam slowly let out his breath and shook his head. “It seems your son, and his young charge were engaged in an impromptu horse race. I had just gotten on Joe for his behavior when Jared came tearing around the barn, about running me over. The horse shied and tossed Jared over his head. I think it scared Joe to see how fast these things could turn ugly. You know Joe; nothing is ever simple for that boy.”
“Well I wish you’d try to be a little more understanding when you see these things happening. It’s hard on him, you know,” Ben reprimanded. “Anyway, it’s over now and no one is the worse for wear, I guess.”
Joe was the picture of frustration as he leaned wearily against his bedroom door. Closing his eyes, he tried to make sense of what had just transpired. He had not intended for Jared to get hurt, and he certainly had never intended to go off like a loaded six-gun on his father. “Adam is right, I never think about what can happen until it’s too late.” Joe muttered miserably. Act first, apologize later was quickly becoming his most unfortunate motto. With a deep sigh, Joe squared his shoulders and headed back downstairs to see his father. Seeing Ben in his favorite chair, Joe approached, “Um-m Pa? Do you have a minute?”
Ben looked up from his book and smiled at his youngest and most unpredictable son. “I was hoping you would come down. Care to talk about what’s troubling you?”
Poking restlessly at a dying ember in the fireplace, Joe answered. “I think you have that one figured out already, but here goes… I am so sorry for what just happened. When I saw Jared take that fall, everything inside me screamed it was my fault. I was scared, mad and so dang-blasted frustrated with Jared and myself, I couldn’t see straight! When I saw he was ok, all those emotions came spewing out all over you. I had no right to let that happened. I am truly sorry.”
Ben could not help but chuckle at this sincere, but very familiar apology. “Apology accepted son, but I do wish you would rein in that temper of yours before you run into someone less forgiving.
“I try Pa, I really do. Just when I think I have everything under control, something happens to send it all out the window.”
“Like Jared?” Ben interjected.
“Like Jared,” agreed Joe. “What am I doing wrong? Jared and I have always gotten along just fine. That is why I agreed to watch him in the first place. Now it seems he goes out of his way just to spite me. He’s been ditchin’ school, getting into fights and using every trick in the book to get out of doing his fair share of chores around here. I realize he is just fourteen, but come on, is that really an excuse?”
As Joe vented his frustrations, Ben recalled having the same conversation with Adam. Was it really six years ago? Struggling to keep a straight face, Ben answered, “Yes and no. Experience has taught me that fourteen-year-old boys are at the very center of their own universe. Everything they say, think, or do revolves around how they are feeling at that particular instant.”
“No foolin’,” Joe agreed. “I have never seen a kid whose mood changes so fast or so often. He plum wears me out!”
“I seem to remember a boy, several years back, who did the same thing to me. Come to think on it, he still does,” Ben grinned. “Just give Jared his head, Joe, but be there to rein up before he finds too much trouble,” Ben advised.
“I guess that’s the trick, isn’t it?” Joe mused aloud.
“I think you are catching on this business after all. You best be checking on the boy. Take him something to eat. Another lesson I’ve learned over the years is fourteen year old boys are always hungry.”
“Thanks, Pa. And I really am sorry. I don’t know what gets into me sometimes,” Joe said as he headed off towards the kitchen.
Jared’s door was opened a crack. Joe cautiously poked his head in; unsure of the welcome he would receive. The room lay strewn with dirty clothes, schoolbooks, and other trappings of young adulthood. Jared sat motionless at the foot of his unmade bed, staring morosely out the window. “What do you want?” he growled.
“A truce,” answered Joe, showing him the piece of cake. “I thought you might be hungry.”
“Well, you thought wrong. Just go away, I’m busy,” Jared grumbled.
“Yeah, I can see that. Jared, look at me. I’m trying to make this arrangement work, if you would just give me a chance. Tell me what is going on with you,” Joe said with slow and deliberate patience.
“With me? What about you? Since when do you tell me what I can or cannot do? You are not my pa – you have no right…”
“So that’s it then. You don’t like me telling you what to do,” Little Joe concluded.
“I don’t like anybody telling me what to do, but especially you! I thought we were friends. I was really looking forward to spending time out here with you and your family. Heck, I could have had this much fun stayin’ with my grandmother. She doesn’t let me do anything either,” Jared turned away so Joe could not see the escaping tear. “Ever since I got here, you have been jumping down my throat. I can’t do anything thing right! I am not some runny-nosed kid who needs a nanny watchin’ out for him. I am near full-grown. Heck! I’m bigger than you are already, so just stay out of my way!” With that, Jared roughly pushed past Joe.
Snagging the angry boy’s arm Joe tried to calm him down. “Jared, stop. Let’s talk this out.”
“I said, stay out of my way!” the infuriated boy raged. Swinging around suddenly, he landed a solid blow to the side of Joe’s head. The unexpected cuff sent Joe staggering. He tried to catch himself on the washstand, but missed and hit his head on its sharp, marble corner. Seeing Joe fall, and the blood running from his forehead sent Jared into a panic. He bolted out of the room, down the stairs, and into the yard. Not heeding where he was going, he ran headlong into Adam.
“Whoa! I think this is where I came in. Would you please slow down and watch…” then seeing the fear on Jared’s tearstained face he stopped. “What’s wrong? Did you and little brother have another set to?”
Jared‘s brain did not even register Adam’s presence.
“It’s like having another little brother around. God help me,” Adam groaned as the boy galloped away. Strolling casually into the house he looked around for Joe or Ben. “Pa, what happened with Joe and Jared? Jared just went flying from here like a bat outta hell.”
“We seem to be asking each other that same question a lot today, don’t we? I have no idea what happened. Joe went up to try to straighten things out, but from what you said, I guess his success was rather limited.”
“You could say that,” answered Adam dryly. “Let me get Joe down here, I‘d love to hear what he has to say.”
“Now Adam, don’t go stirring the pot. Just ask him down here,” Ben directed.
“Who me?” asked Adam with a sly grin. Adam climbed the stairs to Joe’s room, but seeing no one, ambled down the hall to the guest bedroom. “Joe, Pa wants your guidance on a question of childrearing,” he added sarcastically. The grin disappeared in an instant when he saw Joe lying motionless on the floor. “My God, Joe!” he gasped rushing to his brother’s side. There was a bloody gash on his forehead, but the youngest Cartwright was beginning to come around. “Easy does it, buddy. Let me help you up to the bed. I’ll get you some water.” Adam guided his younger brother to the bed. “You just stay put. I’ll get Pa.”
Joe lifted a heavy hand to his forehead. He winced at the sizeable knot forming beneath the gash. “That encounter certainly went well,” he muttered to himself in disgust. He was not sure which made him feel worse, the head injury, or the fact that he had lost all connection with Jared.
In a few minutes, Adam returned with Ben. “I’m fine, Pa. Jared and I just had a little umm… misunderstanding,” Joe said with effort. “I think this was just an accident. We sort of got tangled up in each other, that’s all.”
“Well, that boy will have no problem understanding me, when I catch up to him!” thundered Ben.
Joe cut him off, “When you catch up with him? Isn’t he here?”
“He lit out of here about fifteen minutes ago,” Adam replied.
“And you just let him go. Thanks a lot Adam, you’re a big help,” Joe snapped. He was feeling very light headed and the turn of the conversation was not helping.
Adam lost the hold he had on his temper, “Don’t take my head off. I didn’t know any of this was happening. Besides, that boy is your respons—“
Ben interjected, “Joseph, I am sure the boy is fine. You settle back and your brother will bring Jared back home. Won’t you Adam?” Adam was smart enough to know that his father was not requesting his help; he was demanding it. “So Joe, you just wait here and I will bring back some cold compresses for that knot on your head. That should help with the swelling. Adam, come with me.” Adam mutely followed his father out of the room. “Must you constantly pick at your brother? You could plainly see that Joe was hurt, but you had to throw in that last remark, didn’t you? What is it with you two?” Ben demanded in exasperation.
“I don’t know. I really don’t mean to hurt him, but sometimes that boy frustrates the life out of me. The kid has so much potential, if he would just realize it.”
“Adam, he is not a boy and he is not a kid. He is your twenty-year-old brother and he deserves a whole lot more respect than you care to credit him. Give him time. Joe can’t mature on anyone’s schedule but his own. Now take this up to him, and remember he is your brother!” directed Ben as he handed Adam a pitcher of water and several cloths. Heading for the stairs, both men were surprised to hear a horse galloping away from the yard. From the opened door, they caught a quick glimpse of a black and white pony racing away.
“Well Pa, looks like your son has done it again. You want me to go after him?”
With a weary sigh, Ben looked out the door at the empty yard. “No, he knows what he has to do. Leave him be.”
Jared had no idea where he was going when he left the ranch. Shame and anger drove him on. He had never really hit anyone in anger before, and the result terrified him. For all he knew, Joe was dead. His head had hit the corner of the dresser hard and then there was all that blood. “Oh God, what have I done?” he whimpered softly. Jared knew what was expected of him. He knew what he should do. But, did owning up to your mistakes cover things like killing your best friend?
The frightened boy stopped his pony and gazed around through tear-filled eyes. He half expected to hear the sound of a posse thundering down the road. Talking quietly to Diablo, he constructed a plan. “Once it gets dark, I can sneak back to my house. I’ll leave you tied up in the trees out back, so no one will see you. My window latch is undone so I can sneak inside for supplies. We’ll be back on the road in no time. I guess we can hide out somewhere until the posse gives up, then head for Arizona.” As the immensity of his plans caught up with him, he bawled like a toddler. Once his tears were spent Jared nudged his pony forward.
Joe’s head pounded with Cochise’s gait. The cut had stopped bleeding, finally, but there was a rivulet of dried blood meandering from his forehead to his neck and down across his shirt collar. He had been riding for nearly two hours when his vision began to blur. “Whoa, boy. I need to stop for a few minutes, before I run us off a cliff or something.” Cochise came to halt and Joe carefully got down. Taking the canteen, he slowly made his way to a well-shaded area, ankle deep in soft pine needles. As Joe massaged his aching temples, his mind began to play back the scenes of the day.
The day had definitely started badly and proceeded down hill from there. Joe sighed remembering Round One of the day’s Featured Fight. Jared had been out quite late with his friends and was not happy when Joe hauled him out of bed at 5:00 AM. Breakfast was a quiet affair with Jared glaring at him over the eggs and bacon. Round Two began shortly after breakfast when he suggested to Jared that the stalls needed mucking out. Joe still wasn’t sure of some of the words the boy muttered under his breath as he stormed out the door. A request for Jared to spend some quality time on a homework assignment signaled the start of Round Three. Round Four, the Knock Out Round, had just played out in Jared’s room.
“Why can’t he see, that I am only doing what I have to do. I don’t like bossing him around. I promised I would look after him, and his pa trusts me to do just that. I am just trying to look after him, like Adam did for me.” Then a thought hit him like a lightning bolt. “Like Adam does for me,” he corrected.
Suddenly, Joe knew, all too well, the feelings of resentment Jared was now experiencing towards him. Adam still had a knack for making Joe feel like a six year old, and it infuriated him!
How could he have forgotten what life was like as a fourteen-year-old? There are those rare, wonderful moments when you are on top of the world. Strangers smile at you. Your parents express their pride in you. Everyone treats you with respect. You are treated like a man. Then out of nowhere, you are dry-gulched. It could be catching your girl with your best friend, a taunt by a jealous classmate, or a word of “helpful advice” from an older brother, whatever the form, the result is the same. You long to spend the rest of the day hiding under your covers, crying like a two year old.
“Oh boy,” Joe said miserably. “I have been treating Jared just like Adam treats me. No wonder he slugged me and took off.” Easing up from his resting place, Joe made his way to where Cochise was grazing. “Come on friend, I have some serious fence mending to do.”
Darkness had just closed in as Jared approached the Zale home. Making certain no one was around, the boy made his way along the shadows towards his bedroom window. Jared had learned to appreciate the convenience of an unlatched window last summer, and it had proved extremely useful on more than one occasion. Shinnying into his bedroom with a practiced skill, Jared dropped silently onto the floor. “I might never be able to come back home again,” the boy sniffled as he proceeded to gather up a few articles of clothing and his most precious possessions. The last thing Jared grabbed was the old revolver his father had allowed him to keep. “Just in case,” he told himself. From the bedroom, Jared made his way carefully to the big desk in the parlor. His pa had hidden the revolver’s cartridges in its secret drawer, but Jared had discovered this secret months ago. Loading the gun in the dark took some time, but Jared finally accomplished his task and moved to the pantry. There was not much to choose from, since the family had been away for a while, but he made do with what he could find. Then, with a heavy heart, Jared made his way back to the open window, and eased himself out.
Riding alone in the dark scared Jared more than he ever believed possible. He was thoroughly exhausted and his weary senses played cruel tricks on his mind. With false bravery he announced to Diablo, “I bet you’re played out, boy. Let’s call it a night. This looks like as good a place as any.” An owl’s innocent reply nearly made the frightened boy jump back in the saddle and head for home.
Sleep was not to come easily. Every sound and shadow took on an ominous meaning. Clutching the revolver to his chest, Jared resigned himself to simply waiting out the night.
Little Joe tracked the young runaway to his home. Using the key given to him by Tobias, Joe let himself in. “Well, he was here,” he mumbled to the night air. It was getting late and Joe’s day was catching up with him. The screaming pain in his head had subsided, but in its place was a dull pounding that left him feeling groggy and sluggish. Seeing no reason to leave the warm confines of the Zale’s home, he lay down on the settee and was soon oblivious to the world.
The incessant chiming of the grandfather clock woke Joe at 6 AM. With a groan, he sat up and looked around. “So yesterday wasn’t just a bad dream,” he said wryly. As he helped himself to some breakfast, Joe thought about Jared. A night alone on the trail could be spooky for any man, let alone a fourteen-year-old kid who was spooked to start with.
A last look around for clues to Jared’s whereabouts revealed nothing. “Looks like another wasted day in the saddle, old boy,” Joe complained to Cochise as he threw on the saddle blanket. “Maybe he’s cooled off by now. I bet he’s down at the table eating my breakfast, actin’ like nothing happened,” Cochise nickered in a soft reply. “You don’t believe that either, do you boy. Well, I had better go check in anyway. Pa’s gotta be madder than a wet hen with the way I kind of disappeared yesterday.”
Joe rode for about an hour before catching sight of another living thing. In the distance, he spotted a familiar rider, so he stopped and waited for the rider to catch up. The look on his oldest brother’s face made Joe wish he had turned Cochise around and ridden hard in the other direction while he still had a chance.
“YOU! Do you have any idea how worried Pa has been? Do you even care? Do you ever think about any one but yourself? You just don’t get it do you? Jared must have figured he’d be better off on his own too! No wonder the kid slugged you and took off. I’m tempted to do the same thing myself. ”
Joe’s throat was tight and his eyes were burning. He nearly blasted Adam with words in his defense, but thought better of it and choked down the fury. Slumping in the saddle, Joe rode towards home in silence. After a few painfully tense miles, Joe ventured, “Adam, when did Jared get back to the house?”
“You mean you didn’t catch up with him? Where were you all night?”
“No, I haven’t seen him since our argument yesterday. I tracked him back to his house, but he already left. He took some clothes and food and lit out again, I guess. It was late, and my head was ready to explode. I was just going to lie down on the settee for a minute, but I guess I passed out because it was 6 o’clock before I woke up. I hit the road right after that. I swear I never meant to stay out all night! Can’t you ride back and explain things to Pa? I gotta find him, Adam.”
“Joe, how do you keep getting into these scrapes? You couldn’t find more trouble if you tried,” Adam asked with a hint of warmth for his unlucky little brother.
With his green eyes bright with tears, Joe sighed. “Adam, you have to know I don’t do it on purpose. I would never hurt you, Pa, or Hoss intentionally. I swear there are times I start to think I’ll never be able to do anything on my own. Everything blows up in my face, and, before I turn around, you all hurry in to clean me up. You don’t know how frustrating that is!”
“I don’t help much in that area, do I?” mumbled Adam in a half- apology.
“It’s not your fault, older brother. “You can’t know what a big shadow you throw.”
Following another few miles of silence, Adam turned to Joe, “You go on ahead and find Jared. I’ll smooth things over with Pa and tell him you are OK. If you’d like, I can catch up with you later and help you look for the kid.”
“Yeah, I think I’d like that fine. We can cover more ground that way. And Adam? …Thanks.”
Jared opened his eyes to a new day. He wasn’t sure when he finally fell asleep, but he was glad he had. The dark and threatening night was replaced with warm sunlight filtering through the giant pine trees. Looking down, he noticed his hand securely wrapped around his revolver. His fingers cramped and tingled as he slowly flexed them to bring back the circulation. Getting up, the boy rummaged through his supply poke for breakfast. “Hmm, this food sure looked a lot better last night,” Jared lamented. “Here Diablo, you take this apple, I’ll save the bread and cheese for dinner.” Jared’s empty belly grumbled in protest as he set off through the forest.
It wasn’t long before Jared heard the distinctive clip-clop of a horse’s hooves. Panic mounted in his throat as he glanced anxiously around for a place to hide. Urging Diablo into a gallop, Jared left the forest, and headed for the rocky base of Mount Hendon. “I know there’s a cave around here somewhere. If I can find it, we’ll be in good shape” After a frantic search behind several large boulders, Jared hit pay dirt. He tried urging Diablo into the cave’s mouth, but the pinto wanted nothing to do with it. He pawed the ground and snorted wildly, but refused to enter. “Oh, come on boy, it will only be for a few minutes, until whoever is following us goes away. Just get in there,” Jared pleaded as he yanked on the bridle.
Jared soon discovered what Diablo had known all along. The cave floor was littered with animal bones, and wreaked of feline urine. This cave was home to a mountain lion.
“Shh, boy, he’s not here now and we’ll only be in here a minute,” the youngster said to calm himself, as well as the horse. After a while, when the rider had not shown, Jared stepped timidly out into the bright sunlight. Keeping a sharp eye out for the cougar and the rider, he spied the rider first. The man seemed to know the area and headed straight for their hideout. “He knows we’re here; we gotta go!”
In the next instant, a blood-curdling scream split the air. Jared bolted out of the cave to see what would make such a horrific noise, and what he saw made his blood run cold. Springing from out of nowhere was an eight foot, two hundred pound blur of muscle, and teeth. The cougar pounced on the hapless rider knocking him completely out of the saddle. The horse, now free of cat and rider took off in sheer panic. “Cochise!” Jared shouted. “Oh, God, no. JOE!!” he gasped in horror. Looking towards where the rider went down, he saw the puma slashing at the back of its victim. “Fight back, Joe. Don’t just lay there. Fight back!” he choked. In a blind fury, Jared grabbed his revolver and charged towards the cougar. The sound of Jared’s approach distracted the cat long enough for Joe to roll out from under it. This reprieve was only momentary, and in the blink of an eye, the cat was back on Joe.
“Get it off! Somebody, please…” Joe begged. The puma flipped Joe over on his back and continued to claw and tear at his unlucky prey. Joe’s green jacket was torn to shreds, as he sacrificed his arms to protect his face and throat.
Jared had never seen such terror in a man’s eyes as Joe slowly lost his battle with the cougar. Sensing the end was near for his friend, Jared knew he had to act. Inching closer, the boy took careful aim and fired his pistol. The ferocious yowl of the injured cat turned Jared’s backbone to jelly, but he knew he could not run. “Hold on Joe, I’ll get him this time,” He fired twice more before the enraged animal collapsed. Then, with every ounce of adrenaline-spiked strength he could muster, Jared pulled the dead puma off his gravely injured friend.
“Get it off! Please…oh God it hurts,” Joe screamed as he began to flail about.
“Joe, stop! Hold still. The cougar is dead. Just hold still! It makes the bleeding worse. Stop!” Jared begged. Jared took a fearful look at his friend and ran to find Diablo. After a couple whistles, the brown and white pinto trotted to his owner’s side. Jared grabbed his canteen and the shirts he had packed the night before. Tearing his shirts into bandage strips, he fixed Joe up as best he could.
Jared had no idea how he would get Joe back to the Ponderosa. His friend was out of his mind with pain, so riding back would be out of the question, even if he could find Cochise. “A travois!” he thought hopefully. He had seen Joe construct one before, to move an injured cowhand. “Just let me remember how,” he prayed aloud. Before too long, Jared had rigged up his version of a travois. “It ain’t great to look at, but it should do the job,” he mused proudly. Getting Joe loaded onto the travois took some doing. Every movement sent new spasms of pain through Joe’s body. Jared hated to cause Joe any more anguish, but there was no other choice.
Finally, they were ready to go. Jared urged Diablo forward, anxious to see if his handiwork would hold together. Rather than riding, Jared decided to walk, keeping a look out for rocks or ruts.
From the sun’s position, Jared reckoned they had been on the trail for nearly two hours. He stopped again to give Joe another mouthful of water. Checking the bandages, he was alarmed to find them completely saturated with blood. With nothing else to do, the party continued towards the Ponderosa.
At first, Jared thought his eyes were playing tricks. He had been begging for help since this whole nightmare began, now, he could discern a rider headed in their direction. “Adam?” he gasped.
“Jared? My God boy, we’ve been…” he stopped mid-sentence. “What happened? JOE!” Leaping from Sport’s back, he flew to Joe’s side.
“It-it-it was a cougar,” Jared stammered. “I killed it, but it was too late. I am so sorry.”
“We have to get him home. Here take my canteen and keep going. I’ll get Doc Martin,” Adam instructed.
The next hour passed more slowly than Jared believed possible. Each foot seemed a mile as Joe’s cries filled Jared’s ears. With no one else to turn to, the boy began to pray, “I know You don’t see me in church as often as You’d like, but please listen to me. Joe is hurting so bad. I’ve done all I can, but it’s not near enough. Without Your help, he won’t make it. Don’t let him die to punish me. Do something to me, I won’t mind. Do what ever you want to me. Just let Joe live.” Jared was so pre-occupied he didn’t notice how close he was to the Cartwright homestead.
A relieved look crossed Ben’s face as he viewed Jared’s return from a distance. “It’s about time that youngster brought himself home. Hoss, it looks like Diablo might be hurt. Jared’s walking. They seem to be going awful slow.”
“I’ll check the pony over. Wonder what’s keeping Joe? He’ll be hoppin’ mad to have chased Jared all night for nuthin,” Hoss mused walking out to the yard.
Seeing Hoss’ kind face melted Jared’s last ounce of resolve, and he began to sob uncontrollably. “Whoa, little buddy, what’s going on here?” Hoss asked.
“Joe,” was all Jared could manage, as he jerked his thumb toward the travois. Hoss hurried to get a better view of the travois’ burden. His face went ashen as he took in the site of his deathly still younger brother.
“P-Pa, get out here,” Hoss stuttered.
“What’s wrong? Jared?” Ben asked with mounting concern.
“Pa, its Joe, I think he’s …,” Hoss could not say the word that stabbed at his heart. He numbly followed Ben and stared down at his brother.
Ben forced his gaze from Joe to Jared, “How did this happen?”
“C-c-cougar… jumped him… dead?” Jared tried to make sense, but incoherent words just fell from his mouth.
“Hoss, help me move Joe inside,” Ben rasped. “Gently, oh God, be gentle.” Ben need not have worried on that account. With tenderness no one could have ever envisioned, Hoss lifted his unconscious brother off the travois and he headed towards the house.
Pain filtered through the darkness of Joe’s mind and he opened his eyes a slit. “Hoss?”
The sound startled Hoss, and he nearly stumbled. “Joe, I am so sorry to be hurting you like this. Just hang on while I get you to your room, little brother.”
“Cougar jumped me. Jared shot …”
“Shhh- boy,” Ben hushed. “Plenty of time for talk later,” Ben followed this with a silent prayer in hopes that would indeed be the case. “Come on Jared, let’s go inside. Are you hurt boy?” Ben put his arm around the sobbing boy and guided him towards the house.
“Mr. Cartwright, this is all my fault. If I hadn’t run away, Joe wouldn’t have been out looking for me. I am so sorry, this happened because of me acting like a spoiled brat.”
“Jared, not now. We need a doctor! Get a horse and go for Doc Martin,” Ben replied with waning patience.
“The Doc is already on his way. Adam found us on the trail a while ago and he went on into Virginia City.”
“That’s something in Joe’s favor, anyway,” Ben sighed as he hurried to catch up with Hoss. “Jared, come on up with us. I need to know how this happened.”
“Uhh, yes sir. I’ll be up in just a minute. I am feeling a little dizzy,” Jared stalled. With the Cartwright’s upstairs, Jared peered nervously out the door. His thoughts on the day dissolved into air at Adam’s arrival. “Good! I told your Pa that you’d gone for the Doc. Where is he?”
“He’ll be right along. How is Little Joe?” The crestfallen look on the boy’s face told him more than he wanted to know. Adam disappeared into the house, and Jared was left alone with his thoughts once more.
“How bad is he?” Adam inquired cautiously.
“Real bad, Adam. There’s a lot of damage to both his arms. Infection has taken hold too. He is burning up,” Ben choked.
“What about his back? From what I saw on the road, that took the brunt of the attack,” Adam asked with increasing concern.
“We haven’t even gotten that far,” sighed Hoss. “I’ll get his shirt off.
Joe let out a sharp cry as his brother began to unbutton what was left of his shirt.
“The shirt is stuck to the cuts, Pa. The dried blood is like glue. I can’t hurt him anymore.” Ben made a move towards Hoss, “No Pa, I can’t let you hurt him either. We’ll wait for the Doc.”
“Hoss, the shirt has to come off. I don’t want to hurt him either, but we don’t have a choice. We have to get a look at his back,” but even Ben’s resolve failed when Joe began to cry out in excruciating pain. “Adam, where is the doctor?” Ben demanded.
With his eyes glued to the bloody mess that was Joe’s back, Adam answered distractedly, “Uh- soon. He was right behind me. Jared is waiting for him downstairs. Joe has to hang on. He’s a tough ki— He’s tough.”
“Pa, I got an idea. We could try to get his shirt damp, maybe that’ll help. It could soften the dried blood up,” Hoss offered.
“That could work. We certainly have to try something,” Ben agreed.
The sound of an approaching carriage momentarily distracted the men’s attention. They heard Jared greet the doctor and send him up the stairs. One look at Ben’s care-drawn face told the doctor Adam’s alarm was not overstated.
“Paul, he’s really done it this time,” Ben whispered.
“My God, Ben, what got a hold of him?” Paul gasped.
“A cougar. That’s all I could get from Jared or Joe.”
“Adam, get Jared,” Ben directed. “I have to know what happened.”
Adam left the room to find Jared. Not paying attention, he nearly tripped over the boy sitting on the landing. Adam sat down next to despondent youngster and dropped his arm around Jared’s shoulders. “We got the doctor here fairly quickly. It may take a long while, but Joe will recover. He’s too ornery to keep down for long. Want to tell me what happened?”
“All of it?” Jared asked shame – faced. “I took off because of what I did to Joe.”
“The incident in the bedroom?” Adam prompted.
“Yeah. Anyway, I was hiding in that cave at the foot of Mount Hendon. I heard a rider coming, but before I even saw who it was, I heard this bloodcurdling noise. I ran out to see what it was, and saw the cat knock the rider off his horse and just lay into him. About that time, I recognized Cochise as he shot past me. Up until then I didn’t even know it was Joe. Joe tried to fight the puma off, but I could tell he was losing. I didn’t know what to do. My best friend was fighting for his life and I just stood there.”
“You didn’t just stand there, you saved his life,” Adam reminded gently.
“You don’t understand. It was my fault Joe was out there. I acted like such a baby this week, when all Joe was trying to do was be a good big brother to me, like you are to him, I guess. Now because of me, he might die. It’s my fault again.”
Adam was confused, “What do you mean, ‘again’?“
“That’s why I ran off in the first place. When we tangled in my room, I hit him a lot harder than I thought I could hit anybody. He stumbled and his head on the corner of the washstand. There was so much blood, and when he didn’t move I panicked. I was down the stairs and out the door before I even knew what I was doing. It’s not an excuse, it’s just what happened. I know all you Cartwrights must hate me,” Jared spoke quietly with his face buried in his hands.
“Is that why you didn’t come upstairs when Pa asked you?
“Well, yeah. You all don’t need me up there. I would just be in the way,” the boy added sullenly.
“If you would quit feeling sorry for yourself, you’d see that your only enemy here is you. We don’t hate you, and I know Joe doesn’t hate you. He is too full of life to hate anybody. That is why I know that even after all that has happened to him he’s going to be okay. However, young man, he’s going to need all of our help. You think about that. I’ll be with Joe. Come on in when you are ready.”
“Well, Ben,” the doctor began, “Joe took a heck of a wallop this time for sure, but if we can get rid of the infection, he should pull through. We’ll know more once I get the worst of these cuts sewn up and his fever down. He has lost a lot of blood and that worries me. Ideally, I would sedate him before I cleaned the wounds and stitched him up, but given his current condition, it would be too risky.
The boy showed good sense keeping his arms up to protect his face and throat. Arms are a lot easier to repair than faces and necks.
Now you and the boys go on downstairs. I’ll call you when I have finished.”
Cleaning the debris out of Joe’s wounds was a tedious process. The fact that it caused Joe so much pain did not help the situation for doctor or patient. Deciding he needed help, Doctor Martin called downstairs, “Ben, could you come up here? I really could use an extra set of hands.”
“Is everything alright?” Ben asked with trepidation. Upon entering the room, his knees fairly buckled when he saw Joe’s exposed back. “My God, Adam told us it was bad, but I never expected this.”
“I need you to talk to Joe. Keep him calm and as motionless as possible while I clean out these lacerations. It has to be excruciating for him, but…”
“I’ll hold him still, Doc. Let’s just do it,” Ben said stoically.
Even the usually calming presence of his Pa could not stop Joe’s pitiful cries and whimpers. Each cry of pain and despair tore a new hole in Ben’s heart. Just outside the door, Hoss and Adam stared in grimly at the heart-wrenching scene. A soft squeak on the stairs alerted the brothers that someone was joining their vigil. “Hey Jared, come wait here with us. I know it will mean a lot to Joe,” Adam said softly.
Finally, the doctor emerged and the brother’s were allowed in Joe’s room.
“What’s the doc say?” Hoss inquired.
“Little Joe’s not out of the woods yet, but thanks to Jared, he at least has a fighting chance. Your quick thinking may have saved Joe’s life. We can’t begin to thank you.” Ben praised. “Paul closed the worst of the gashes; the rest should heal by themselves. He left some medicine to fight the infection. That’s the real problem he is facing right now. We’ll just have to wait and see…and pray.
You boys go on and get something to eat. I’ll take the first shift.” Turning back to Joe, Ben noticed his eyes were opened. “Well, are you back with us for a while?”
Joe tried to flash a smile to his father, but the pain would not allow it. “Pa, it hurts so bad.” He swallowed hard then whispered, “Water?”
Spooning a small amount of sugar-laced water into Joe’s mouth, Ben tried to console his youngest, with words of hope. “I know son, but you will get better. Each day will hurt a little less, I promise. Despite how you feel now, you are a very lucky young man.
“Don’t feel lucky, feel tired,” Joe mumbled as closed his eyes and went back to a fitful sleep.
“Shh, Joe. Sleep son, sleep,” Ben hushed as he brushed back a lock of hair from Joe’s bruised face.
“Mr. Cartwright?” Jared whispered. “Sir?” he tried a little louder. “May I stay with Joe for a while? You could get something to eat.”
“Jared. Umm, I must have dozed off. Is everything okay?” Ben stood, slowly rolling his shoulders and neck to work out the cricks.
“Yes sir, I guess. I was just wondering if I could stay here with Joe for a little while.”
“Well, certainly. I know Joe would like to see you. He owes you a great deal. We all do. Just holler if you need anything.” Ben agreed.
The room was dark and peaceful, but Jared was restless and he began to pace. He rehearsed what he wanted to say to Joe a thousand times, but it never came out sounding as it should. A weak voice broke him out of his trance, “Could you stop? You’re wearing me out. The Doc says I need to rest.”
“Oh, Joe! I’m so sorry, did I wake you up? Are you ok? Do you need something? Can I get your Pa? What do you want?” Jared gushed nervously.
No, I’m fine. Well, not fine, but I don’t need anything. Just some water.” With the care one would give a newborn infant, Jared spoon-fed Joe some water. “Little Joe? I’m sorry this happened,” but Joe was already sound asleep.
“Ohh, Joe, I really have to talk with you,” Jared said softly. “I have to try to explain.”
A quiet knock interrupted Jared’s thoughts. “Like some company?” Adam asked. “How’s Joe?”
“He was awake for a minute. I think I was bothering him.”
“I was kind of pacing around the room, waiting for him to wake up. Those floor boards in his room are pretty squeaky,” Jared explained.
“Were you pacing for business or pleasure?”
“What?” The boy asked. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
Adam smiled. “I mean is there something you would like to talk about or were you just bored.”
“Mostly bored. I had a lot of time just to look at him, I know that sounds weird, but he looks so… so…”
“So young? So helpless,” Adam volunteered.
“Yeah, both of those I guess. I mean I’ve seen Joe break the hardest bronc. I’ve even seen him face down a hired gun without blinking an eye. But, lying there in bed he doesn’t look any older than me. I guess it made me think about how much growing up I have left to do,” Jared tried to explain.
“My turn. What is that supposed to mean?” Adam was taken aback.
“Well, I mean Joe is everything I want to be. He’s brave. He’s as loyal a friend as a fella can find. He won’t ask anybody to do anything that he wouldn’t do himself. If he tells you he’ll do something, you can bet money that he’ll do it. And, he is real easy to talk to. I can tell him just about anything, and I know he won’t make fun of me. But you know all of this; after all you are his brother.”
“You would think that wouldn’t you,” Adam mused quietly. “Maybe I am just a little too close to see things like they are. Did you know that Joe is my half- brother? My pa married Joe’s ma when I was about eleven. I kind of helped raise him after his ma died. He was too much for just one person to handle I guess. Anyway, I promised his mother that I would look out for him and try to keep him out of trouble. It hasn’t always been an easy promise and sometimes I wonder if I push him too hard.”
“Joe never told me about his ma, but he sure has told me some stories about you! He sees you as his second pa, big brother, and best friend all rolled into one person.”
“He does?” Adam asked in complete surprise.
“Well sure. He’s told me lots of times how much he would like to be like you. It makes him really mad when he does something kind of dumb, ‘cause he knows you probably wouldn’t make the same kind of mistake. He really worries about being the kind of person you would be proud of.”
Adam slowly exhaled, “Joe told you all of that? He worries about what I think?”
“Gee Adam, don’t you ever talk to him? Well, if it’s okay with you, I’m gonna go get something to eat. All that pacing made me hungry,” Jared added with a grin.
With Jared gone, it was Adam’s turn to pace.
“We have got to get those floor boards fixed if I’m ever expected to get well around here,” Joe quipped. “Oh, older brother. I thought you were Jared.”
Adam rushed to Joe’s side, “How you feeling, little buddy? Water?”
“Yeah, a little please. I have had better days. My back feels like its on fire.”
“I’ll bet it does. That puma really got a hold of you. The Doc says you’ll be back to your usual pesky self in a few weeks though, if you do as you are told. Here, he left some of this medicine for you.”
“I’ll take it in a while, it makes me so tired. I have some fence mending to do first. I best start with you.” Fighting pain and exhaustion Joe looked straight into Adam’s eyes and began, “I know my ways aren’t yours. It must drive you crazy to see me mess up all the time, but you have never once turned your back on me. Stick with me brother. I’ll make you proud of me yet.”
“Little Joe, I am the one who should be mending those fences. I must have had blinders on not to see all the ways in which you have grown. We may have chosen different paths to reach manhood, but from what I hear, your scenic detours made the trip that much more valuable. I should have stopped to take a few more detours along the way. I never thought there was time.”
“My detours are never exactly planned and they usually pop up when I need them the least. Your direct route is much safer and more reliable to the people that count. You see what needs to be done and you do it. You don’t waste half your life apologizing for what you have done in the other half. That’s why Pa treats us so different. He knows you can be counted on when push comes to shove. I want to be like that! I want to be the kind off person you and Pa can look up to and count on.” Joe’s emotional speech had taken a toll on his weakened body. His pale face wore a sheen of perspiration and his bandaged hands trembled.
“Sshh, Joe,” Adam hushed as he soothed his overwrought brother. “Take your medicine. There now, try to go to sleep. I’ll be right here.” Although Joe had turned his head away, Adam could tell his younger brother was crying. “I might be the one with all the college education, little brother, but you have learned more about what makes life worth living than I ever could. I’m kind of surprised to admit that it took a fourteen-year-old to open my eyes to that.”
“ ‘s ok Adam,” mumbled Joe. “You are always busy with more important things. I’m gonna sleep now. I’m real tired all the sudden.”
“Somehow, you did it again, little brother,” thought Adam in amazement. Joe’s uncanny knack of delivering a killer dose of guilt was a complete mystery to him.
Adam continued his bedside vigil. The hours passed quickly as he thought about his conversations with Jared and Joe. It had never really occurred to him that anyone could see more in Joe than an over-exuberant kid, with a big heart, a flash temper, and a talent for getting in trouble. Yet, Jared saw a role model in him. Jared saw many qualities in Joe for which Adam had never given him credit. What else had he missed? “How could I be so dense?” Adam wondered aloud.
“It’s easy for a New England granite head.” A sleepy Joe piped up. “And I wouldn’t want it any other way.”
“How long have you been awake, young man?” Adam asked warmly.
“Not long. What are you still doing up here? Did you pull the short straw?”
“Nah, I wanted to stay with you for a while. What you said earlier got me to thinking. Being here with you really helped me put some things into focus,” explained Adam.
“Don’t go getting all sentimental on me older brother,” quipped Joe.
“We don’t want to upset the natural balance of things around here.”
“Yeah, well I can always deny it. By the way, Jared has been up here quite a bit too. He wants to talk things over with you when you feel up to it.”
“That should be interesting. I don’t think I am one of his favorite people at the moment.”
“Don’t sell Jared or yourself short, Joe. You young whippersnappers make a lot of sense when someone takes the time to listen to you.”
Joe tried to muffle a yawn. “I can’t seem to stay awake for more than five minutes. That medicine the Doc left really knocks me out. Sorry, Adam.”
“Nothing to be sorry about. You just close your eyes and sleep. I’ll be here in the morning and so will Jared, Pa and Hoss.”
“Me too,” mumbled a weary Little Joe.
“Thank God for that little buddy,” Adam whispered as he settled into his chair for the remainder of the night.
“You awake, Joe?” Jared asked quietly as he crept into Joe’s sunlit room. “Your pa sent me up with some breakfast.” Jared carefully put down the tray and sat down in the chair by Joe’s bed.
The smell of fresh coffee slowly brought Joe back to the real world. He tried to shift to a more comfortable position, but his movement was met with a barrage of searing pain. Opening his eyes, Joe attempted to focus on the person sitting near him. “I won’t be trying that again real soon.” He muttered through clenched teeth. “Jared?”
“Morning, Joe. Yeah, Doc says you best not be moving about for a while. You have a lot of stitches and cuts that need to heal. Want to try something to eat?”
“No, I really don’t think I could handle anything on my stomach right now. That medicine is deadly. Can you just get me some more water?”
“Here you go. Let me help you.” Jared offered and held the glass to Joe’s lips.
“Jared, thanks for saving my life. That cougar had just about won the battle. I didn’t have any more fight left in me. It had been a rough couple days for me.”
Jared hung his head in shame. “Yeah, I know, and I am so sorry. You would have never been out there if I hadn’t been behaving like a two year old. I can’t believe that I hit you like that and then just ran off. I won’t blame you if you never want to see me again.”
“What are you talking about? Yeah, I was looking for you, but just to try to square things between us. I was so set on showing my family how well I could handle your father’s trust, I forgot about you might feel. I am the one who needs to be apologizing,” Joe stopped and closed his eyes. “That’s all I seem capable of doing these days.” He added quietly.
“I know that feeling, and it stinks!” Jared added earnestly. “Joe? You’re about the best man I know. Why were you trying to prove something to your family?”
“It seems to me that I’ve let my family down all my life. Adam is the smart and reliable one, Hoss is the kind one with the heart as big as Lake Tahoe, and I’m the careless one they constantly have to clean up after. I thought taking care of you might show them I could handle responsibility like a Cartwright. Guess I’ll have to try something else.”
“I never thought of you that way Little Joe. Maybe you only mess up around them, because you are trying too hard. My pa wouldn’t have let me stay with you if he didn’t think you could handle me. And he didn’t leave me with Adam or Hoss, he asked you. I think it was a good choice.”
“So do I,” Adam broke in. “Joe, if you were as smart as Jared when you were fourteen, and I now suspect you were, I really should have paid more attention. I won’t make that mistake in the future.
Oh, I forgot, there’s someone downstairs to see you. I’ll take over with our patient,” Adam added as he checked Joe’s bandages.
Jared left the room and ran down the stairs. “PA! You are back early!” The powerfully built Tobias Zane was nearly knocked flat by his son’s enthusiastic bear hug.
“Son, I’m so glad to be home. How fast can you get your things together?” Tobias inquired. “Did Joe keep you out of trouble?”
“Sure Pa, let me get my stuff and I’ll be right down.”
A few minutes later Jared and Tobias had the luggage tied securely to the carriage and they were on their way.
“How did things go with the Cartwrights? What did you do to wile away the hours until your old man got back home?”
“Nothin’ Pa,” Jared replied. “Nothing special.”