Humble Pie (by Territell)

Summary:  One brother jumping to conclusions and another helping out puts one of the Cartwrights in danger.
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  18,825


 

“Okay big brother you asked for it,” Joe growled as he confronted Adam just outside the barn.

Hoss, ever the peacemaker, tried to intervene. From past experience, he didn’t see the point in trying to calm down Little Joe; his hackles were up and the red mist had descended, so he turned to his elder brother and began coaxing. “Leave him to cool off, Adam; you know he don’t mean half the things he says.”

Adam was in no mind to be persuaded. With legs spread akimbo and arms folded across his chest, he smirked at the youngest Cartwright opposite him. “No Hoss, the kid’s been asking for it.” Then goading his adversary even more he added, “If he thinks he’s man enough to take me on, that is.”

“Aw Adam, you can’t do this, he’s only a kid. Leave Pa to deal with him.”

“You keep out of this, Hoss. This is between me and older brother here,” Joe shouted, trying hard, but not succeeding to push his middle brother out of the way.

Seeing as he was unable to stop the inevitable, Hoss moved to one side and resigned himself to picking up the pieces of his younger brother after Adam had finished with him.

This whole episode had all started the Wednesday before…

*****

Adam had had a frustrating morning. He had been sitting with their family lawyer, Hiram Wood, for almost three hours; proofreading a timber contract to make sure there were no loopholes in the agreement. On a previous occasion, the Cartwrights’ had lost out financially when Ben had signed a contract in good faith, which turned out to have an onerous clause attached to it with regard to timing deadlines. Since then, both Hiram and Adam made a point of evaluating each contract, word by word, to ensure that everything was in order.

As his aching head started to throb even more, Adam stood up to stretch his cramped legs and grab another cup of coffee. Glancing through the window to the other side of the street, he was surprised to see Little Joe nonchalantly make his way past the hotel and stores and disappear into the Bucket of Blood saloon. Already on a short fuse that morning, his temper rose immediately because Little Joe should have been working in the South pasture with Hoss, and he had no reason to be in town.

At the first opportunity Adam took his leave. “Hiram I’ll be back in a few minutes; there’s just a little ‘irritation’ I need to deal with!” he called over his shoulder as he made his way out of the office and across the street. He was furious with Joe and was just in the right mood to let him know exactly what he thought of him. Stopping at the saloon door, Adam’s eyes scanned the room until they fell upon his brother. Joe was sat at a table, leaning back with his chair balanced precariously on two legs, drinking the last dregs of his beer. Smacking his lips together and wiping the back of his hand across his mouth, Joe let the chair fall to rest on four legs once more, before rising slowly and sauntering over to the bar.

“Think I’ll have time for another one,” he called to Sam, unaware of his eldest brother glaring at him from just a few feet away.

Placing the empty glass on the counter in front of him, Joe almost jumped out of his skin, when Adam’s low snarl spat out at him. “What do you think you’re doing here?”

Joe’s face flushed guilty as he turned towards his eldest brother and stammered, “A-A-Adam, phew, you almost scared the living daylights out of me.” The smile that started to spread across Joe’s lips stopped before it began when Adam grabbed his brother by the arm and pulled him outside.

“When I give you an order, I expect you to obey me. Why aren’t you in the South pasture with Hoss?”

Joe extricated himself from his brother’s vice like grip and rubbed the top of his arm. From past experience, he would no doubt have bruises; such was Adam’s strength when he worked himself up. “If you’ll just let me explain,” Joe whined. “We ran out of wood and I volunteered to come into town and get what we needed.”

“Oh, I just bet you did,” Adam sneered, leaning back and placing his hands on his hips. “And since when did collecting supplies also include a trip to the saloon?”

“That’s what I’m trying to tell you,” Joe retaliated, his voice rising to match that of his brother.

“Don’t you raise your voice to me, boy,” Adam said menacingly, poking Little Joe in the chest. “I suggest you get the supplies loaded onto the buckboard and get back to the job you get paid for. If you were one of the hands, I would have fired you long before now!”

Joe’s face was a mask of anger, but on seeing the number of curious glances turned in his direction, he bit back his angry retort and let the sparks shooting from his eyes and his flaring nostrils say it all.

“I’ll be speaking to you about this tonight,” Adam added, making sure he had the last word.

“Oh you can bet on that one, elder brother,” Joe hissed under his breath as he walked away.

Taking a moment to calm himself down, Adam looked pointedly round at the gawping faces. “Shows over, folks!” he said, whereupon a few of the townsfolk had the good grace to look embarrassed while others just laughed and turned away.

With a heavy sigh, Adam returned to Hiram’s office to complete his business. “Little Joe doesn’t know how lucky he is,” Adam bemoaned to himself as he entered the dingy office once more. “That kid never has to take responsibility for the business side of the ranch and I can’t even trust him to put up fences. When is he ever going to grow up?”

It was almost 2pm when Adam finally left Hiram’s office and set off for home. As he passed the timber yard on the outskirts of town, Jake the owner shouted out to him. “How you doing, Adam?”

Leaning over and resting his elbows on the front of his saddle Adam called back, “I’ve had better days, Jake. How about you?”

“Business is doing really well at the moment, so I mustn’t complain.”

“Yeah,” Adam scowled. “Gather you had my little brother in here earlier.”

Jake began to chuckle, “That’s right. Boy he’s as lively as a jackrabbit that one.”

Adam raised an eyebrow, but didn’t comment. He was willing to bet Joe was just about ‘hopping’ when he left town.

Unaware of the brothers’ earlier confrontation, Jake didn’t pick up on Adam’s countenance. “The boy came riding in here so fast I thought he’d never stop that team of his before it hit the shed. Gave me quite a turn, I can tell you, seeing as I was inside the shed at the time.” As if remembering the event, Jake raised his arm and, using his sleeve, wiped the sweat from his brow.

“I shouted at him, but that young fellow just takes no notice,” Jake continued with a shake of his head. “He jumps down off the wagon as if nothing happened and starts hollering that he has work to do and needs wood cutting straight away so he can get back to his job. But like I told him, just because he’s a Cartwright, doesn’t mean he can jump the queue. Told him to go and get himself a couple of beers and come back after I finished cutting the wood for Mr. Jessup; after all, he got here first. Joe was going to make a fuss but he must have thought better of it ‘cause he went in the end.” Jake winked in Adam’s direction. “I never thought I would see the day when Little Joe was in a hurry to get back to work!”

Adam raised a weary hand to his aching head. Closing his eyes and biting on his top lip, he castigated himself for jumping to the wrong conclusion.

“You all right Adam?” Jake asked, looking at Adam with concern. “You look a little peaky.”

“Just an upset stomach,” Adam replied.

“What you been eating?”

“Oh it’s not what I’ve eaten, more like what I’m going to eat,” Adam groaned thinking about all that ‘humble pie’ he would soon have to consume.

Jake looked at him in confusion and shook his head. “And he’s supposed to be the bright one!” he mumbled as he walked away.

*****

When Little Joe and Hoss returned to the Ponderosa that evening, Joe was still smarting from the injustice of Adam’s angry words to him that morning. Poor Hoss had been forced to listen to his little brother ranting all afternoon and was looking to find a way to get away from him.

As they stabled their horses, Joe kept on and on until Hoss lost patience. “Give it a rest Joe!”

“But you have to admit Hoss, that older brother of ours is a real pain in the …..”

“No, little brother, I don’t have to admit anything,” Hoss retaliated. “I’m sick and tired of being caught in the middle between you two. In future keep your arguments to yourselves, ‘cause frankly I don’t want to know.”

Joe was almost knocked off his feet as Hoss pushed past him and strode into the house. As Hoss entered, Adam was just leaving to go and find his little brother, but his timing couldn’t have been worse! Adam entered the barn, his hand outstretched towards Joe in a conciliatory manner; he was taken aback however by his brother’s reaction.

“Come to have another go, have we, big brother?” Joe growled, choosing to ignore Adam’s gesture. “Well guess what, you’ve nothing to say that I want to hear.”

“Actually Joe, I came here to….”

“To what? To remind me how just how shiftless and lazy I am and if I wasn’t your brother you would fire me!” Not giving Adam a chance to respond he added. “Don’t let us being brothers worry you in future, Adam; from now on as far as I’m concerned you’re no brother of mine.”

Adam stood open mouthed, completely at a loss for words, as Joe walked away without even giving him a second glance. Choosing to ignore the fact that his brother’s behavior was very similar to his own that morning, Adam muttered away to himself “Well, have it your own way, kid. If you want to be childish, you can stew for all I care!”

Supper was a somber affair and Ben could sense that something was wrong between his sons. Adam and Joe were barely civil to one another and Hoss ignored the pair of them completely.

Not one to suffer disharmony in the home, Ben demanded to know what was going on, but Adam and Joe refused to comment and Hoss stuck to his earlier resolution that in future he would have no part of his brothers’ arguments.

As soon as the meal was over, Joe excused himself and went to his room. Adam breathed a sigh of relief. Granted he had been at fault, but he had tried to make amends and he wasn’t to blame if Joe chose to be petulant. After all, Adam reasoned, he may have been wrong about Joe that morning, but how many times in the past had the kid got away with doing just the thing that Adam had accused him of? In the scheme of things, the balance probably erred in Joe’s favor.

It was only 8 pm and Hoss was bored. It was a Wednesday night and normally he would be having a game of checkers with Joe before going to bed. Adam as usual sat with his nose in a book and made no attempt to have any conversation with his middle brother. Hoss had half-heartedly asked him if he wanted a game but Adam had shaken his head without even looking up. Ben sat dozing in his chair, his now cold pipe lying forgotten in his lap.

Hoss paced the floor, occasionally stopping to tap his fingers on the table. He thought about reading a book, but dismissed the idea and finally gave up and, with a last look in Adam’s direction, he climbed the stairs and went to bed.

Shortly afterwards, Ben opened his eyes and looked round. “Hoss gone to bed?” he asked, putting down his pipe and standing up to stretch his legs.

With effort, Adam tore himself away from his book and scanned the room. “Yes, I guess he must have,” he replied, burying his head once more.

Leaving his eldest son on his own, Ben called a weary, “Goodnight,” and headed up the stairs himself.

It was quite late when Adam finally put his book down and extinguished the lights in the great room in preparation for bed. As he walked along the landing, he felt a pang of guilt with regards to his little brother. Adam wondered if Joe was still awake and, if he was, whether he would be more receptive to his apology. Quietly opening the bedroom door, he just allowed enough light from the lamp he was holding to chase the shadows from the room. It took a moment for it to register, but there was no mistake, Joe’s bed was empty.

Adam’s lips pulled tight in anger. He had no doubt that Little Joe had only pretended to go to bed when in actual fact he planned to go into town. Glad that he hadn’t apologized to his brother after all, Adam stomped off to his own room and with great restraint managed to close his own bedroom door without slamming it off its hinges.

*****

The following morning Little Joe was last down to breakfast, but that wasn’t unusual. Adam eyed his brother over the top of his coffee cup. Joe certainly looked tired; there were dark circles under his eyes and judging by the amount of breakfast he ‘didn’t’ eat, Adam was pretty certain that his stomach was feeling a little queasy.

Rather than give Joe away to his father, Adam decided he would keep quiet. Maybe there was a better way to make Joe suffer for his deceit, and if there was, Adam was determined to find it.

“What have you got planned for today, Adam?” Ben asked as he finished his second coffee of the morning. Most days he left it to Adam to plan the work roster for the day to day running of the ranch, but he still liked to be kept abreast as to how things were progressing.

“I thought Joe and I would start breaking those new horses, Pa,” Adam responded, trying hard to keep the smirk from his face.

Joe’s head shot up and he glared at his older brother. Trying to appear unconcerned, Joe commented. “Thought we were riding fence today? There’s still a lot to do.”

“Oh I’m sure Hoss and Charlie can finish off the fencing Joe. You and I need to get those horses ready for the army before the end of the month, so why not make an early start?”

Joe just shrugged his shoulders but inside he was groaning. His trip to town last night had seemed like a good idea at the time but now he was well and truly paying for it. He had been so angry with Adam the day before that he decided if he was going to be branded lazy and shiftless and only interested in enjoying himself, he might as well play the part and have some fun.

His intention had been to ride into town, see if any friends were around, have a couple of beers and head home. Unfortunately things hadn’t quite worked out that way.

It was almost 9:30 pm when Joe had entered the Bucket of Blood saloon, the place nearly empty for not many people made the trip into town on a Wednesday evening. Feeling unusually tipsy after his third beer, he decided to ride home; he really didn’t like drinking alone. Just as he stood up, three men entered the bar, laughing and joking, having obviously partaken of a few drinks already. Ordering a bottle of whisky, they sat down and called to Sam, the bartender, to bring the cards for a game of poker.

Joe eyed the men longingly, for it seemed like months since he had let his hair down and had fun and these young men certainly seemed a lively bunch. One of them caught Joe’s eye as he stood there and with a smile on his face he invited, “Want to join us in a game of poker mister?”

“Don’t mind if I do!” Joe replied, confident that a couple of games wouldn’t hurt. Joe took an instant liking to the man; he hadn’t called him ‘kid’ or ‘boy’, unlike most of the local men to anyone under the age of twenty.

The man introduced himself as Duke Lane; he and his companions were in Virginia City to do business the following week, an had arrived early to take a few days out and relax. All three men were in their mid to late twenties and as they teased and bantered with each other, Joe recognized kindred spirits, and he bonded with them immediately.

It was almost 1am in the morning before Joe realized the time and decided to head home. The night had been a success in more ways than one, for not only had Joe won at poker, but he had also made some new friends. As he rode back, trying hard not to slide from his saddle, Joe was happy and content, blissfully unaware of the sore head and upset stomach that would come with the morning. They were still a long way off.

“Joe? Are you listening to me?” Adam asked for the third time.

“Er, what was that Adam?” Joe responded half-heartedly. His head was now pounding and the little breakfast he had eaten was threatening to resurface.

“I said the black is ready for you, little brother. Come on, look lively, we haven’t got all day.”

Joe gave his brother a withering look before climbing into the corral and slowly making his way over to the skittish colt. Although not yet nineteen, Joe was an expert rider and most of the men on the ranch deferred to his knowledge when it came to horses.

Never one to rush things when it came to breaking in a new mount, Joe reached out with his hand and allowed the black to come to him. Horses were strongly influenced by their sense of smell and Joe wanted it to become re-accustomed with his own aroma once more before he tried to mount the saddle. At first, some of the more experienced horse breakers had laughed at the amount of time Joe spent preparing a horse before actually trying to ride it, but their jibes had been silenced over the last year when they witnessed for themselves the results that came with Joe’s methods.

Adam noticed Joe’s pallor as he passed by and just for an instant he was tempted to let him off the hook, but then his brother’s deceit of the night before came to mind and any misgivings he had were soon forgotten.

Joe took his time but eventually he very gingerly climbed onto the horse’s back and instructed Matt Dawson to release the bridle. Every move a rider makes must be synchronized with the movement of the horse, but Joe didn’t need to be reminded, for when he sat upon a horse it was as if it became part of his very soul. His mind closed to everything else and his whole body reacted automatically to the thrashing beast below him.

Even Adam stood back and watched his brother’s riding with admiration. Joe may be slight of stature but that belied the great strength he possessed, for to sit a bucking bronco the way he did would have beaten many a lesser man.

Several times it looked as if the black would get the better of its rider as it kicked his rear legs high into the air, but each time Joe pressed his knees in tightly and leaned back just enough not to be unseated. After several unsuccessful attempts, the black then tried a different tactic and Joe had to use every bit of his skill to outsmart it.

It was just crossing Adam’s mind that maybe the horse had had enough and they should give it a rest for that day, when the animal became subdued and stopped dead in the center of the corral. Matt quickly rushed over and took hold of the bridle allowing Joe to slide smoothly from the saddle.

The strain of the exhausting ride showed on Joe’s face as he slowly walked back to where his brother was leaning on the fence. Adam had to admit, “Great ride, Joe; thought he had you for a moment.”

Without a word, Joe just nodded to his brother, climbed out of the corral and headed towards the back of the barn. After a few minutes, Adam followed, but he actually heard his brother before he saw him. The vigorous ride had been too much for Joe’s tender stomach and the beers that went down so coolly the night before now burnt like acid in his throat as they resurrected.

Adam shook his head as he walked away, silently musing why Joe always had to learn the hard way. Ten minutes later, still visibly pale, Joe rejoined his brother and they carried on as if nothing had happened

*****

That night Joe was hardly able to stay awake long enough to eat his supper. As he left the table, he looked up to see his eldest brother trying to hide the smirk on his face and in that moment Joe realized Adam was aware of his late night escapade and had deliberately chosen to bring the horse breaking forward because of it. This only hardened Joe’s resolve not to conform to Adam’s rules and regulations.

*****

It was Saturday night before Joe had the opportunity to go into Virginia City and meet with his new friends once more. As he was getting ready, his father appeared at the bedroom door.

“Joe I would rather you waited for your brothers before going into town.”

Joe bristled at the inference but held his tongue in check. “I’m ready now, Pa. The way they are dallying about, it’ll be time to come home before we even leave.” As the scowl deepened on Ben’s face, Joe added reassuringly, “I won’t get in any trouble, Pa, so what difference will an hour or so make?”

Ben still thought about insisting Joe wait for Hoss and Adam, but then decided against it. Joe was a grown man and he couldn’t keep treating him as a child. Seeing his father’s resolve soften, Joe was quick to sweep past him and down the stairs, grabbing his gun belt, hat and jacket and hastily making his way out of the door and across to the barn.

Adam and Hoss were still busy grooming their horses when Joe arrived.

“Well lookie here, Adam,” Hoss teased. “Little brother is all dressed up to the nines and spruced up like a peacock.”

“Yeah,” Adam replied, giving Joe the once over. “He’s certainly out to woo the female population this evening.”

“One of us has to make an effort,” Joe declared, turning up his nose at the unwashed men in front of him and starting to saddle his horse, the differences between him and Adam forgotten; family squabbles never lasted long.

“How come you’re going into town so early, young un’?” Hoss queried. “Dance doesn’t start until 8 o’clock?”

“Oh I just made arrangements to meet with some friends first. I’ll see you two later.”

Before Adam could raise any objections, Joe leapt onto Cochise’s back and with a parting grin at his brothers, he rode out of the yard and headed towards town.

Just as prearranged, Duke and his friends were sitting in the Bucket of Blood when Joe arrived. Duke shouted over to Joe to come and join them and instructed one of the saloon girls to bring over a bottle of whisky and another glass.

“Just make mine a beer please, Molly,” Joe instructed as he went to take his seat.

As he sat down, Joe noted that his companions were already quite drunk, their words slurred and they were loud and rambunctious. When first meeting them on Wednesday night, he had not been sober himself and now in the cold light of day, he found their behavior a little embarrassing and their treatment of the girls in the saloon to be offensive.

Joe stayed and had a couple of beers but really he couldn’t wait to get away and join his brothers and his latest romantic attraction; he only hoped Duke and his cronies weren’t planning to go to the dance.

At a far table in the corner sat a lonely unkempt man, sipping his way through a bottle of whisky. Dirk Maitland had arrived in Virginia City two months previously and taken up residence in a dilapidated homestead a few miles out of town. He had become a regular and unwelcome figure, usually drunk, and more often than not a bottle of gut rot in his hands.

Just as Joe was preparing to take his leave, Maitland rose from his seat and on unsteady legs made for the door. As he passed by Joe’s table, he stumbled and fell onto Duke Lane’s lap, and in the process, spilled the remains of his whisky down the young man’s clothes.

Duke was furious. Pushing the drunk to the floor, he drew back his foot and kicked the elderly man several times, egged on viciously by his friends. Joe was quick to intervene and tried to pull Duke away from the helpless man on the floor.

“Come on, Duke, leave the man alone; he’s drunk and he didn’t know what he was doing.”

Much to Joe’s surprise, Duke and his friends turned their angry attention on him. As the other two men grabbed hold of Joe’s arms, Duke had no compunction about punching Joe in the stomach several times. As Joe fell to his knees, they all started laughing and Duke raised his foot to kick Joe to the ground.

They had obviously thought Joe was an easy target, but they were very wrong! From the time he could walk, Adam and Hoss had schooled him well in the art of fighting and he was a quick learner. Growing up, he had been small for his age and many a school bully had tried to intimidate him. Countless were the nights he arrived home with a black eye or a bloody nose, but no one bullied Little Joe Cartwright; big or small; he fought them all with tenacity. Joe may not have been big enough to win by sheer brute strength but with the same tenacious spirit, every time he was knocked down he got back up and continued fighting.

Duke’s foot didn’t reach its target. Joe’s hand shot out and grabbing hold of the other man’s leg; he pushed it high into the air causing Duke to fall backwards over the table. Pandemonium broke out and it wasn’t long before Sheriff Coffee arrived on the scene. By that time, one of Duke’s henchmen was knocked out cold and the other sat dazed on the floor. Duke himself was not unscathed but in the fracas, he had managed to land a hefty punch on Joe’s nose.

Roy Coffee quickly broke up the melee and demanded an explanation. Sam the barman was quick to jump to Joe’s defense and pointed to Duke as the instigator.

The Sheriff shook his head and pondered what to do; the night was still young and if he started locking people up now, his cells would be full to overflowing by Sunday morning.

Grabbing Dirk Maitland by the arm, he pulled the inebriated man to his feet and then grabbed hold of Little Joe. Turning to Duke and his friends he warned, “You three better sober up and quick. If I have any more trouble out of you this evening, you will find yourselves behind bars.”

With that, he led Maitland and Little Joe out of the saloon and towards the jailhouse.

“Hey, what’s going on?” Joe demanded. “That wasn’t my fault.”

“No ones saying it was, Little Joe,” Roy placated, “but you need to let that temper of yours cool down and you also need to rest up with a cold compress and see if we can get that nose of yours to stop bleeding. And Maitland here needs to sleep off some of that whisky.”

The blood was still gushing from Joe’s nose and he grudgingly had to see the logic of the Sheriff’s words. From a small child, Joe’s nose was apt to bleed profusely with the least provocation and the only chance of stopping it would be to stay as still as possible for at least an hour or so. There had been many occasions when Roy Coffee had carried the small schoolboy into his office and laid him on a cell bunk to recover, bloody noses and black eyes being Little Joe Cartwright’s trademark as a child.

Deputy Clem Foster was sat at the desk and looked on with resignation as Sheriff Coffee escorted Joe and Maitland into the Sheriff’s office. “Cartwright kid has been fighting again,” he thought, “nothing new there then.”

“Would you mind getting an ice pack for Little Joe’s nose, Clem?” Roy asked as he helped Joe and Maitland into one of the cells. As Clem left the office, the Sheriff laid Maitland on one of the bunks and Joe sat down on the other. Returning to his office, he came back a few seconds later with a bowl of water and a cloth. With a gentle hand, he proceeded to clean up Joe’s face just as he had done so many times before. By the time Clem returned with the ice pack, Joe was fast asleep and, once Roy was satisfied that the bleeding to Joe’s nose had stopped, he decided to let the boy slumber. “Let him sleep it off, Clem; he can go when he wakes up.”

Clem nodded, mistakenly thinking Roy meant the alcohol and not the nosebleed.

Without feeling the need to give Clem any further explanation as to what had happened, Roy left the jailhouse and continued with his rounds. He would return in a couple of hours to check on Joe. If the boy woke up sooner, the cell door was not locked and Joe could leave whenever he wanted.

*****

Shortly after 8:30 pm, Adam and Hoss arrived in town and headed to the dance. The brothers had hardly set foot inside the door before a young lady by the name of Jayne Willows accosted them.

“Where’s Little Joe?” she asked accusingly. “He was supposed to meet me here before 8 o’clock and I haven’t seen hide or hair of him.”

Alarm bells rang in Adam’s ears. There was no way Little Joe would miss the dance, especially if he had this pretty little girl waiting for him. Turning to Hoss he whispered under his breath, “Look after little Jayne whatshername; I’m going to find out where our younger brother is.”

Momentarily wondering where Joe would most likely be, Adam headed directly to the Bucket of Blood, and, as he entered, Sam the bartender called out a welcome.

“Have you seen Little Joe?” Adam asked, not wanting to hang around any longer than he needed to.

“There was a bit of an upset,” Sam began, “and the Sheriff took Joe over to the jailhouse.” Sam had intended filling Adam in on the circumstances surrounding the skirmish, but the saloon doors were already swinging closed as Adam turned on one heel and made his way across the street.

Clem was sat dozing in the chair when the jailhouse door opened with a bang. He sprang awake and looked up to see Adam towering over him.

“Where is he?” Adam asked simply. Clem didn’t need an explanation.

Pointing towards the cells, Clem couldn’t help his lips from twitching upwards. Adam looked fit to burst; Little Joe had more than a bloody nose to worry about.

Joe had just awoken and was sitting on the edge of the bunk, running his hand through his hair.

Adam took in his brother’s unkempt clothes, bloody nose and dazed look.

“Hi Adam,” Joe called out, “I suppose Sheriff Coffee told you what happened.”

“I really don’t need to hear it Joe. Quite frankly I’ve heard it all before.”

“But Adam, you don’t understand.”

“Yes Joe, I do understand,” Adam responded in exasperation. “I understand perfectly. But the way I see it, you’ve made your bed, so you can lie on it. I’m not about to let you spoil the evening for Hoss and me.” With that, Adam turned his back and walked away.

Joe was dumbfounded; as usual, Adam had tried and convicted him without a hearing. Lying back down on the bunk, he closed his eyes and counted to ten. He really did need to get his temper under control for fear he might do something he would regret later. But he could always dream, and as his imagination conjured up his fist making contact with Adam’s chin, a slow smile spread across his face.

Later that evening Roy arrived back at the jail and was surprised to see Joe still in the cell.

“Thought you would have high tailed it off home by now, Little Joe,” Roy chided.

“Guess I might as well,” Joe replied forlornly, looking at his bloody shirt and jacket. “I can hardly go to the dance looking like this.”

Just as he was about to leave, Dirk Maitland woke up on the bunk opposite and groaned out his pain as he wrapped his arms round his bruised ribs.

“Now what am I going to do with you?” Roy moaned. “I don’t have time to play nursemaid to the town drunk.”

“I’ll see he gets home if you like,” Joe offered. “It’s on my way.”

“I’d appreciate that, Joe,” Roy responded. “These cells are likely to be bursting at the seams before the night is out. One less to look after is always a bonus.”

Joe went outside and retrieved Maitland’s and his own horse from outside the saloon. Without too much effort, he had the man mounted and they were on their way. Keeping the horses at a slow gait, Joe took his time in getting to the derelict cabin where Maitland was living.

The man didn’t put up much protest as Joe pulled him from his horse and escorted him into his home. Upon entering the cabin, Joe could hardly believe his eyes. It may have looked dilapidated from the outside but inside it was even worse. The man was living in complete squalor.

Joe just wanted to get out of the place as soon as possible, but his conscience wouldn’t let him abandon the man is such dire circumstances. He helped Maitland over to the filthy bed and laid him down, then taking off his own jacket he threw it over the nearest chair. Rolling up his sleeves he prepared to start work. With a fleeting thought of pretty Jayne Willows waiting for him at the dance, Joe smiled sardonically at the way his evening had turned out.

Two hours later, Joe rolled his sleeves back down and donned his jacket. Looking round the room he was satisfied to see that he had made a small but significant dent in the chaos. At least it was now possible to use the stove and water pump that had previously been swamped with rubbish. The table in the middle of the floor was now clean and could be used to eat off for probably for the first time in weeks.

Joe had found some coffee in one of the cupboards, but other than that, there was nothing in the cabin to either eat or drink. Looking over at Maitland, who was now snoring softly in the corner, Joe reasoned that the man would probably sleep until morning, by which time Joe could hopefully return with some provisions.

As he was about to leave, Joe took one last look at Maitland lying on the bed. As he looked down at him, the man regained consciousness and gazed at Joe with unseeing eyes.

“Is that you Freddie?” the man cried in an anguished voice. “Your Mama’s dead, Freddie. It’s all my fault, and I should have saved her. I should have saved her.”

Maitland fell back into a troubled sleep and Joe was left wondering. Who was Freddie and what had happened to his mother?

“I’ll come back in the morning,” Joe promised, as he picked up his hat and left.

*****

Adam’s bad mood had not lasted long and he and Hoss had spent a very pleasant evening at the dance. As they prepared to leave, Jayne Willows stepped up to them and said,

“You can tell that brother of yours not to bother coming calling for me ever again.” And with that, she turned her back and flounced off arm in arm with Mitch Devlin.

Hoss chuckled, “Little Joe’s not gonna be too pleased when he realizes that young Mitch there has stolen his gal.”

Adam had no sympathy. “Maybe it will teach our little brother to keep his fists to himself in future. But somehow I doubt it,” he added mordantly.

“The young’uns just high spirited, Adam. A few more years on him will cure that,” Hoss declared, always ready to jump to Joe’s defense. As they moved out into the street, Hoss looked over towards the jailhouse. “We gonna pick the kid up now? It’ll save one of us coming back for him in the morning.”

“I’m inclined to leave him to stew,” Adam responded. “But if it’s okay with Roy, I suppose we might as well take him. Wouldn’t want to be in his boots when Pa gets hold of him.”

The two brothers were laughing and joking as they entered the jail and Roy looked up in surprise when they appeared in front of his desk.

“Wondered if it was possible to take Little Joe home tonight, Roy?” Adam asked.

“Joe went home hours ago Adam,” Roy replied. “It was just a nosebleed; he weren’t hurt that bad,” he added, thinking they had come to escort an injured Joe.

“You mean you just let him out? You’re not charging him or anything?” Hoss asked in puzzlement, knowing Roy usually set a high bail price for the youngest Cartwright, in the hope of deterring him from getting into more trouble.

“Why would I charge him?” Roy declared with a shrug of his shoulders. “The boy ain’t in any trouble. He stopped three fellows from beating up on Dirk Maitland and I just thought it would be better if he cooled off a little over here at the jailhouse while his nose stopped bleeding.”

All eyes turned on Adam as a low groan escaped his lips.

“Something wrong, Adam?” Hoss asked.

Adam just shook his head, his upset stomach was back. Humble pie was again on the menu.

*****

It was quite late when Joe finally made it home. He entered the house as quietly as he could, but he need not have bothered. Ben Cartwright was sitting in his red leather chair in front of the fire enjoying a glass of brandy and a good book, a look of puzzlement on his face at his youngest sons earlier than expected return.

Joe sheepishly took off his hat, gun belt and jacket and with an air of resignation made his way over to sit opposite his father and prepare himself for the inevitable inquisition.

Ben could not help but take in the disheveled appearance of his young son, nor the bloody shirt and bruised cheek, but he knew from experience that it was best not to jump to conclusions. Picking his words carefully he asked, “Something happen in town, son?”

Joe raised his eyes and met those of his father. He was relieved to see that his Pa was at least prepared to listen to his side of the story and not condemn him outright, unlike another member of his family.

“Do you know Dirk Maitland, Pa?”

Ben thought for a moment and then replied. “Isn’t he the man who moved into the old Carter homestead on the outskirts of town?”

“Yeah, that’s him.”

“Has he got something to do with what happened?” Ben prompted.

“In a way, yes. I was in the saloon with three friends I met the other night.” Joe almost bit his tongue off. His father was not aware of his trip to town on Wednesday and would be sure to ask just ‘when and where’ he had met these new friends. When the questions didn’t immediately come, Joe continued. “We were having a drink when Mr. Maitland got up to leave. He’d had a few too many and he fell on top of Duke. He’s one of the men I was with. Well, Duke got real angry and starting kicking into Mr. Maitland when he was on the ground. I tried to get him to stop and that’s when the other two joined in.”

Ben had not failed to pick up on Joe’s reference to the Wednesday evening, but he decided he would save that conversation for another time.

“So how did it all turn out?” Ben asked, although just looking at the state of the boy, he knew Joe hadn’t faired well.

“Roy….. Sorry, Sheriff Coffee arrived and broke it up. He told Duke and his friends to sober up and stay out of trouble. Mr. Maitland and me went over to the jailhouse. He needed to sleep off the whisky and the Sheriff insisted I lie down until my nose stopped bleeding.”

“Is that where you’ve been until now?”

“No sir, I made sure Mr. Maitland got home okay first.”

Ben didn’t need to question his son further; he had no doubt that Joe was telling the truth. He didn’t like the sound of Joe’s new acquaintances, but rightly deduced that tonight’s events would put an end to any budding friendships.

Joe half expected his Pa to want further explanation and when it didn’t come he breathed a sigh of relief. Rising from his chair he made his way towards the stairs. “I’m quite tired, Pa; I think I’ll head up to bed.”

“Goodnight, son.”

Joe was halfway up the stairs when he stopped and turned around. “Pa?” he began. “Do you know anything about Mr. Maitland’s background?”

Ben thought hard about the man in question. Maitland had only been in Virginia City a couple of months and in that time Ben didn’t think he had seen him sober. “Don’t think anyone’s ever mentioned where he comes from Joe. Why do you ask?”

“Oh just something he said. Night, Pa.” And before Ben could say anymore, Joe sprinted up the rest of the stairs and into his room.

*****

The following morning, Joe was up bright and early for once and sneaked down the stairs hoping not to disturb the rest of the family. He made his way into the kitchen, and after locating an empty box in the corner; he proceeded to fill it with supplies.

Joe’s hand was stuck firmly in the cookie jar when he felt a hard swat on his posterior. Yelping with surprise, he turned to find Hop Sing standing behind him brandishing a wooden spoon and getting ready to strike again.

“What boy doing in Hop Sing’s kitchen?” Hop Sing demanded.

“Just getting a few supplies,” Joe whispered, hoping to calm the little Chinaman down before he woke up the whole household.

“Why Little Joe steal cookies? He not going anywhere,” Hop Sing asked suspiciously.

“There’s this man lives just outside Virginia City, Hop Sing. He got beaten up and I took him back to his cabin last night. You wouldn’t believe the state of it — made my skin crawl just being in there. He didn’t have a thing in his cupboards to eat, so I thought I would take him some supplies.”

Hop Sing listened intently. To outsiders, he always appeared loud and angry, but to the Cartwrights, he was one of the family. And to Little Joe, he was another surrogate father figure, and one on which he had depended and trusted all of his life.

“Why he live like that?” Hop Sing asked.

“I don’t know, Hop Sing, but there’s something real sad about him.”

Hop Sing continued to complain, but all the time he did so, he filled the box until it was full and then handed it to Little Joe.

“If boy wants to find out what wrong with man, then boy needs to listen. Little Joe talk too much. Chatter, chatter all time. Perhaps Hop Sing should put powder in box for when man has headache.”

Joe laughed and lifted the box onto his shoulder. “Don’t worry, Hop Sing, I’ll be a good boy and hardly say a word.” And with a mischievous glint in his eye, he reached over and stole another of Hop Sing’s cookies.

Hop Sing lifted his wooden spoon once more and Joe quickly made his getaway, stifling his giggles and almost choking as he stuffed the whole cookie into his mouth.

Joe and Cochise had hardly left the yard before the rest of the family made their way downstairs for breakfast.

“Was that Joe I heard leaving?” Adam queried as he walked over to the table.

“Hop Sing says Joe had business to attend to, but you know Hop Sing; he ain’t prepared to say anything more,” Hoss responded as he dug his fork into a plate of freshly made pancakes.

Adam scowled. “I wanted to speak to him about last night.”

Ben was unaware of any incident between the brothers the night before. “What was it you wanted to speak to him about Adam?” He asked curiously.

Adam looked away from him father’s probing eyes. “Oh, it’ll keep until later, Pa.”

Truth be known, the humble pie wasn’t resting easy on his stomach.

*****

There was no sign of life when Joe arrived at the Maitland cabin. With the box still in his hand, he dismounted from his horse and slowly walked up to the front door and prepared to knock. He had only just raised his hand when the door swung open and Dirk Maitland was stood there, dressed only in his pants, his gun cocked and ready to fire.

“Who are you? What do you want?” he demanded.

“I-I-It’s me, Joe Cartwright,” Joe stammered.

“I don’t know you, boy,” Maitland replied guardedly.

“I brought you home last night,” Joe quickly explained, still feeling more than a little nervous with a Colt 45 being waved in front of his face.

Dirk Maitland dropped the gun to his side and ran his other hand wearily through his hair.

Joe breathed a sigh of relief and let the breath that he was holding slowly expel from his lungs. As he took in the man’s appearance for the first time, he was shocked to see that Maitland’s upper torso was covered in horrific burn scars.

“You looking at something?” Maitland growled, staring right back at him.

“N-N-No Sir,” Joe hastily replied, his face flushing with embarrassment.

Maitland continued to stare and Joe squirmed miserably. In the hope of breaking the awkward situation, Joe held up the box in his hand. “I’ve brought you some supplies; thought you could use them.”

“Now why would you want to do that? I ain’t no charity case,” the man responded angrily, and without waiting for an answer he turned and walked back into the cabin.

Not quite knowing what else to do, Joe followed him and put the supplies down on the table.

There was a few minutes silence before Maitland spoke again. “I suppose it was you who cleaned up in here?”

Joe just nodded his head, unsure whether Maitland was angry or not.

Maitland begrudgingly looked inside the box on the table and with a sniff of his nose and a shrug of his shoulders announced. “Can’t eat bacon and eggs raw. Make yourself useful boy and get that stove fired up. I could sure use a cup of coffee.”

“Yes sir,” Joe smiled and rushed outside. His brothers would have been amazed if they could have witnessed how eagerly he chopped wood so early in the morning.

Joe didn’t return home until late that afternoon by which time Adam and Hoss had been left to do his chores as well as their own. The apology that Adam felt he owed Joe from the night before was left unsaid. As far as Adam was concerned, the reprimand he didn’t give Joe with regards to the forgotten chores had wiped the slate clean.

*****

On Monday morning, the brothers started their working day early. As the younger pair prepared to leave, they looked over at a particularly smartly dressed Adam and Hoss remarked, “You got a day off, Adam? Don’t look as if you are about to chase cows this morning.”

“I’m meeting business associates in Virginia City this morning,” Adam replied dryly, ignoring his brother’s sarcasm.

“Yeah, like I said, you got a day off,” Hoss chuckled and made quick his exit before Adam could respond.

Hoss was working in the low pasture for most of the day, while Joe was assigned to go out to the lumber camp and assess how things were progressing. Joe worked diligently up until lunchtime but his thoughts were far away; Dirk Maitland was on his mind. The man puzzled him. Where had he received those horrific burns and who was Freddie?

Even though Joe was well aware his eldest brother would be furious if he found out, Joe decided to leave the lumber camp and go and check on Maitland. After all, he had most of the information that was needed for his father and eldest brother to assess how much timber was needed for the contracts they had in hand. His brother was in town and the men at the lumber camp were hardly likely to see Adam in the coming days to mention Joe’s absence.

Maitland was surprised to see the Cartwright boy turn up that afternoon on a buckboard laden with wood. Joe himself was pleased to see that the man was sober and he was also impressed to note that Maitland had made a start to try and put his house in order.

Pushing his brother to the back of his mind, Joe rolled up his sleeves and taking hammer and nails from the back of the wagon, he offered to help repair the roof on the ramshackle homestead.

Maitland was glad to accept the offer of help, and for the rest of the afternoon, the two men worked together in companionable silence, but unbeknownst to Joe, fate was working against him.

Adam had met his three business associates in town and as Joe repaired Maitland’s roof, Adam and the men headed towards the lumber camp. The businessmen were headed up by Duke Lane, but Adam was unaware of the man’s run in with his younger brother. Duke’s father was a famous architect, a man that Adam very much admired, and the Lane business had contracts to build bridges all over the West. Lane Senior had sent his son to meet with the Cartwrights to negotiate a deal for their timber.

When they arrived at the lumber camp, Adam proudly showed the three men the operations and haggled over prices. It was only when he was about to leave that he pulled the foreman, Benny, over to one side and asked. “Where’s my little brother Benny? I haven’t seen him around and he was supposed to be here.”

Benny tried to be evasive, “He was here earlier.”

Adam nodded his head. “But where is he now?”

“Ain’t he around?”

“No, Benny, he isn’t. Now suppose you tell me where he is.”

Benny shrugged his shoulders. He couldn’t lie to the Boss, but at the same time, he didn’t want to get the kid into trouble.

Adam turned away in exasperation. Why was it, when it came to his youngest brother, people were always more than willing to protect his butt? Ever since the kid could talk, or even before that, he had smiled his way out of some mischief or other. Well he wouldn’t get away with this one, Adam would see to that.

That evening Adam and Hoss were in the barn doing the evening chores when Joe finally returned. As they heard Joe ride into the yard, Hoss put a restraining hand on Adam’s shoulder, “Let’s hear what he has to say first.” But Adam was in no mood to play softly and as Joe prepared to dismount, he laid into him.

“Where have you been all afternoon, little brother? Sneak off into town again like you did last Wednesday?”

Joe was at a loss to know how Adam had found out about his latest misdemeanor, but instead of being contrite, he felt his own temper start to rise.

“You should know all about being sneaky, Adam. Ever since we were kids, you have stuck your big nose in where it don’t belong. Always tittle-tattling to Pa, always trying to be mister goody two shoes. You complain about me. When was the last time you got your hands dirty and did a decent days work?”

Adam could hardly believe his ears. “Why, you little good for nothing! I’ve been carrying you since the day you were born. Someone needs to teach you some manners, boy, and I’m just the man to do it.”

“Okay big brother you asked for it,” Joe growled as he confronted Adam just outside the barn.

Hoss, ever the peacemaker, tried to intervene. From experience he didn’t see the point in trying to calm down Little Joe, his hackles were up and the red mist had descended, so he turned to his elder brother and began coaxing, “Leave him to cool off, Adam; you know he don’t mean half the things he says.”

Adam was in no mind to be persuaded. With legs spread akimbo and arms folded across his chest, he smirked at the youngest Cartwright opposite him, “No Hoss, the kid’s been asking for it.” Then goading his adversary even more he added, “If he thinks he’s man enough to take me on, that is!”

“Aw Adam, you can’t do this, he’s only a kid. Leave Pa to deal with him.”

“You keep out of this, Hoss. This is between me and older brother here,” Joe shouted, trying hard, but not succeeding to push his middle brother out of the way.

Seeing as he was unable to stop the inevitable, Hoss moved to one side and resigned himself to picking up the pieces of his younger brother once Adam had finished with him.

As soon as Hoss was out of the way, Joe lunged at his older brother, but Adam was on his guard and side-stepped, causing Joe to almost lose his balance. As Joe fought to keep his feet, Adam landed a heavy blow to his chin. Joe fell backwards momentarily, but righted himself again before Adam had time to pull back his fist for a second time.

Rushing forward, Joe head butted Adam in the stomach and followed through with a left-handed punch to Adam’s face.

Adam’s cool demeanor began to wane; the gloves were off. He had intended to give Joe a sharp lesson in respecting his elders, but for once the kid was going to feel the full force of his anger. Joe caught the changing look in his brother’s eyes and just for a second, a wave of fear ran over him; he had never fought Adam on equal terms before. But Joe was never one to run from a challenge and he squared up to his brother with a grim determination. Adam may have the bulk and additional strength, but Joe was fast on his feet and he knew that one lucky punch was all it would take to win the day.

The brothers traded punch for punch and Hoss was quite enjoying the spectacle. Little Joe sure had a lot of grit and Hoss was filled with pride at just how much his little brother’s fighting skills had honed over the past year. Adam was not finding him the pushover he thought he would.

The lucky punch came, but it wasn’t from Little Joe. Adam landed a heavy one- two to his brother’s jaw and Joe fell backwards to the ground and lay still.

When Joe didn’t move a muscle, a surge of guilt washed over the eldest Cartwright. Joe was just eighteen years old and his baby brother. What sort of man was he to beat up on a kid, even if he did ask for it?

Adam and Hoss quickly made their way over to Joe’s prone body to make sure he was all right. As Adam leaned over to inspect the damage, Joe’s fist shot out without warning and caught Adam squarely between the eyes.

Adam fell back heavily and sat down in the dirt, a dazed look on his face. Joe jumped to his feet and chuckled to himself as he made a hasty retreat towards the house.

Hoss couldn’t help smiling as he bent down and offered his older brother a helping hand. Adam looked up at him and grimaced. “I blame you for this,” he admonished.

“Me! Why me?” Hoss asked bewildered.

“Wasn’t it you who said “Little Joe’s gonna have to learn to fight a lot dirtier than that” when he got knocked out by Jean Millain last year. Well from what I can see, the kid must have been listening.”

As Hoss pulled his big brother to his feet, the two men started laughing together at Adam’s words; Joe really had matured in some ways over the last year. A departing Little Joe heard the banter and the laughing and he smiled as he entered the house, all anger now forgotten. He would have stayed and joined in the fun, but he wasn’t quite willing to live that dangerously.

At supper, everything was back to normal but Ben couldn’t help but notice two of his sons’ battered faces. “Do we have a problem, boys?” he asked looking at each of them in turn.

Joe bit on his bottom lip and raised his eyes to look at his eldest brother; his Pa didn’t look favorably upon them fighting and he would look even less favorably at Joe’s part in the proceedings. With a sly wink in Joe’s direction, Adam looked over at Ben and replied, “No, no problem at all, Pa. Everything’s fine.”

Ben looked at his sons for a few moments more, but decided to let the matter drop. If his sons had resolved their differences, there was no reason for him to rake over the problem again. “Well let’s eat boys. No point letting good food go to waste.”

“Now you’re talking” Hoss enthused, reaching over with his long arm to grab hold of the plate containing the potatoes before his younger brother could get a look in.

*****

Late the following morning, Joe was at the corral with the new string of horses when he saw Adam and his visitors ride up to the house. Joe scowled when he recognized Duke Lane and his buddies. What business did they have with Adam?

An hour later, Adam decided to show the three men the Ponderosa’s horse breaking operation and he led them towards the corral.

At this point in time, Little Joe was in full swing with a particularly frisky sorrel and he didn’t see their approach.

Duke recognized Joe immediately and turning to Adam he said, “The boy on the horse, has he worked for you long?”

Adam smiled, “Joe? He’s been with us quite a while. Bit of a handful but he gets the job done.”

“The boy’s trouble. I would get rid of him if I were you,” Duke advised. He was still smarting over the Maitland episode and he felt he still had a score to settle with Joe.

Adam looked at Duke thoughtfully and then cast his eyes in Joe’s direction. There was something going on between these two and he was going to get to the bottom of it.

As soon as Joe had finished with the horse, Adam called him over to the fence. Indicating towards Duke, Adam introduced them. “Joe, I’d like you to meet Duke Lane. Mr. Lane and I are negotiating a timber contract.”

“Mr. Lane and I have already met,” Joe responded folding his arms and making no attempt to shake hands with Adam’s visitors.

Duke was confused to why Cartwright had brought Joe over to meet them. It was the last thing he had expected.

“That’s what I figured. You see, Mr. Lane thinks I should fire you,” stated Adam, giving his brother a quick wink.

Joe looked at Adam and smiled and Adam smiled back.

“What’s going on here?” Duke asked, his temper beginning to flare.

“I’m sorry, maybe I should redo the introductions,” Adam apologized. “Mr. Lane I would like you to meet my little brother Joe. Perhaps someone would care to enlighten me as to where you two have met previously?”

Joe was happy to oblige. “Mr. Lane and his two cronies are the ones that beat up on Dirk Maitland, Adam.”

“Oh, I see,” said Adam stroking his chin as he thought about the dilemma. “In that case, I’m sorry Mr. Lane, but my family and I are unable to do business with you.”

Duke was furious, but there was nothing he could do; business may be business, but when the chips were down, blood was thicker than water and the brothers were united.

Adam took the three men back to the house and they prepared to take their leave. As they were riding from the yard, Joe was just entering. Duke rode up to him and bending forward, he threatened Joe under his breath, making sure that no one else could hear. “I’ll not forget about this, kid. Just don’t go riding out on your own if you know what’s good for you. Wouldn’t want you to have an accident!”

As they rode away, Adam came to stand next to his brother. “Better give them a wide berth until they leave town, Joe. I don’t think Duke seems too happy about my decision.”

Joe smiled happily in Adam’s direction and Adam raised an eyebrow in question. “What’s so funny?” he asked.

“Oh nothing, big brother, nothing at all,” Joe replied. But he couldn’t get over the irony of Adam being so concerned about his welfare, when less than twenty-four hours ago his big brother had wanted to ‘murder’ him himself.

*****

Over the next week, a strange friendship developed between Joe and Dirk Maitland. Maitland was still a little reluctant to accept Joe’s help, but Joe was quietly persistent and the young man’s natural charm and likeable personality worked their magic on the older man’s hardened heart.

Maitland didn’t talk about his past and Joe didn’t ask him; the fact that the man was no longer viewing life in a drunken stupor was good enough for Joe. It wasn’t that Maitland had given up drinking altogether, but over the last few days, he had eaten at regular times and kept himself busy. It was only when evening came that he found solace at the bottom of a whisky bottle.

Joe did not confide to his family about the amount of time he was spending at the Maitland cabin.

When Joe had broached the subject of helping the man, Adam had been quick to give his opinion. “You would do well to keep away from him, Joe; he’s already been the cause of one bloody nose and the loss of a timber contract. If the man wants to drink himself to death, that’s his business, but don’t let him drag you down with him.”

So Joe had made a point of visiting with Maitland during the day when he was supposed to be riding fence. It wasn’t that he was lazy; in fact, he had never worked so hard, but he knew he wasn’t pulling his fair share on the Ponderosa and if Adam found out, he would have his hide.

With Joe’s coaxing, Maitland was taking an interest in his home and day by day the little cabin was being transformed into a habitable residence. A lick of paint here and an odd nail there made all the difference and Joe even found himself kneeling down by the creek scrubbing until his hands bled in an attempt to get some of the dirt from the filthy bedding.

On one particular day, Joe turned up about lunchtime to find Dirk sitting outside with a whisky bottle in his hand and a glazed look in his eyes. Joe sighed to himself, and supposed that things had been going too good for Maitland not to have a relapse.

Dismounting from his horse, Joe pushed his hat far back on his head, and with grim determination walked over to where Maitland was sat. He was all set to do battle to get the whisky bottle away from him, when he was shocked to see that Maitland was crying.

Squatting down in the dirt next to him, Joe quietly asked, “What’s wrong? What’s happened?”

Maitland began to quietly sob, “It’s her birthday. Today would have been her birthday.”

“Who’s birthday?” Joe asked kindly, recognizing that this wasn’t the self pitied cry of an unhappy drunk, but of a man in the depths of despair.

“Martha. She would have been three years old. I try to stop thinking about them, but I can’t.” On the last word, the man sobbed uncontrollably and Joe found his own eyes watering in sympathy.

“What happened to her?” Joe asked as gently as he could.

Wiping his running nose across his sleeve, Maitland turned tear filled eyes in Joe’s direction.

“My wife and daughter. There was a fire. I-I-I couldn’t get to them, I couldn’t save them.”

Joe was at a loss for words, and he didn’t know how to ease the man’s torment. He wished his Pa was there with them for Ben was no stranger to grief and Joe was sure his Pa would be able to bring some comfort to the bereaved man. He sat and waited for the man’s sobs to ease, feeling young and inexperienced.

While Maitland’s back was turned, Joe kicked over the whisky bottle lying at his feet and with a relieved sigh watched the remainder of the contents sink into the dirt. With a bit of coaxing, Joe helped the grieving man into the cabin and prepared to make some strong coffee in an effort to sober him up. Joe offered to make something to eat but Maitland had no appetite.

The minutes ticked by and the two men sat looking at nothing in particular, each wrapped in their own thoughts. At last Joe broke the silence. “What about Freddie?”

Maitland’s head shot up. “How do you know about Freddie?” he asked, his eyes narrowing to no more than slits.

“You mentioned his name,” Joe replied. “That first night I brought you home.”

Maitland’s eyes clouded over once more. “Freddie is my little boy. He’s six years old.”

“But where is? Why isn’t he here with you?”

The older man’s head fell to his chest in shame. “The night of the fire I carried Freddie out and went back to get his mother and sister, but the whole of the upstairs was in flames. I tried, but I was too late and the building fell down around me.”

It was several moments before the man could continue. “It’s all my fault. I should have protected them. I should have made sure they were okay. Because of me, my little boy has lost his mother.”

“What happened to Freddie?” Joe asked once more, almost afraid to hear the answer.

Maitland lifted his head. “He’s with my brother and his wife back in California. A little boy needs a stable background. They’ll love him like their own.”

“But you’re his father,” Joe shot out accusingly not thinking of the hurt he caused.

The older man was confused at how vehemently Joe had spoken. Surely he could understand that a little boy of six needed a woman to take care of him and his brother’s wife would make an excellent mother.

“Joe, you have to understand. I’m not fit to look after a little boy; he’s better off with them. He’ll have a mother and a father who love him.”

Joe’s own eyes were filling with tears, “But it’s you he’ll want. His Mama is dead and now you’ve deserted him.”

Maitland couldn’t comprehend Joe’s upset. “I’ve done what’s best for him, Joe. When you’re older and a father yourself, you’ll understand. Sometimes you have to make sacrifices…..”

Joe cut him off. His voice was rising in pitch as he fought to stem the tears that threatened to flow. “But I do understand; I understand better than anyone. He needs you, you’re his father. Right now he needs you more than anyone.”

Dirk Maitland didn’t know what had triggered Joe’s emotional state and in a role reversal he tried to calm him down. “Sit down, Joe. Come on sit down and get yourself together, lad. Here, I’ll make us both another cup of coffee.”

Joe was embarrassed by his outburst and struggled to gain control of himself. Talking about Freddie had resurrected so many of the feelings he kept buried deep inside from the time of his own mother’s untimely death.

“I’m sorry,” Joe apologized. “I had no call to say the things I did, but I wish you would talk to my Pa, and then you would understand.”

“That’s all right, lad, and maybe I will talk to your Pa. Here have this coffee and then I need to get back to work; I’ve wasted half a day already.”

“Yeah and I need to get back to riding fence, otherwise I’ll be in trouble.”

Maitland stopped what he was doing and looked hard at Joe. “Your Pa does know you’re coming out here helping me, doesn’t he? I wouldn’t want you to neglect your work.”

Joe squirmed under the man’s scrutiny. “My Pa knows I’ve been here,” he replied evasively.

“That’s not what I asked you, Joe.” Maitland recognized the avoidance of the truth for what it was; after all, he was a father himself.

When Joe just hung his head, Maitland exploded. “You mean to tell me you’ve been coming out here each day without permission?”

That got Joe’s hackles up. “I’m not a little kid; I don’t need permission.”

“That’s not what I meant, Joe, and you know it. You have a job to do for your father on his ranch and you have no business leaving that job without asking. You’re taking advantage of the fact that you’re the boss’ son.”

Joe would have liked to refute the allegation, but he couldn’t. He knew that Maitland was right. “Okay I’m sorry. I’ll speak to my Pa tonight and I’ll come back tomorrow and help you finish the roof.”

Once the air was cleared Joe and Maitland walked outside and were surprised to see they had company.

Duke Lane and his cronies were leaning against the fence smiling.

“Would you believe it?” Duke began. “Two birds with one stone. When we came here looking for Maitland, we didn’t expect to get Little Joe Cartwright as well, did we boys?”

“What do you want Duke?” Joe asked angrily, annoyed with himself for being taken unawares.

“What do I want? Let me think. First of all I want to pay Maitland back for spilling whisky over my good clothes, and then I think you owe me for that punch to the jaw. But most of all I want to claim from your hide every dollar my Pa’s lost by having to go to another timber company to do business.”

Joe was just debating what to do when one of Duke’s henchmen called out. “Throw your gun on the ground Cartwright.”

Joe had no choice but to do so. As the three men moved towards him, Joe decided the best form of defense was attack, and with a whoop and a holler, he launched himself at Duke.

For all of a few minutes it looked as if Joe might get the better of them. Maitland tried to help out, but it was obvious to all, he was not a fighting man and after the first round of punches, he was sprawled on the ground unconscious.

It seemed only a heartbeat before Joe was face down in the dirt, his body sprawled over that of Duke, a nasty gash in his head and his right arm twisted unnaturally away from his body. Duke Lane pushed the unconscious figure away from him and stood up. Wiping the blood from his own face, Duke asked nervously, “What did you hit him with? I think you may have killed him.”

His equally nervous friend replied, “One of those planks of wood. I had to get him off you. What are we gonna do?”

Duke paced up and down. Things had gone too far, but there was no turning back.

“Get them in the cabin and we’ll set fire to it,” he said at last. “By the time anyone gets here, there won’t be anything left to identify. Best set Cartwright’s horse free in case anyone comes looking for him.”

Between them the men carried the two bodies into the cabin and laid them on the floor. They didn’t even bother checking if Joe was still alive; after all, there didn’t seem much point.

Duke lit a match and set fire to the bed before running outside and climbing on his horse. With hardly a backward glance, the three men rode off, heading away from the Maitland place and away from Virginia City.

*****

That evening, Hoss returned to the ranch in a bit of a quandary. He had finished his work and had decided to ride over out to help Joe. When he arrived where Joe should be, not only was Joe missing, it didn’t look as if he had been around much at all for the last few days. The fencing had been started but Hoss could see that only half as much as should have been done had been done. His dilemma was whether to tell Adam or whether to talk to Joe first. He hated being put in this position and Joe would certainly know how much he hated it before the day was out!

It was nearing suppertime and Joe had still not returned. Ben was beginning to worry and Hoss had no choice but to spill the beans.

“I went over to where Joe was working this afternoon, Pa. Joe wasn’t there and…” Hoss hesitated, unwilling to get his little brother into trouble.

“And what?” Adam prompted, knowing there was more to come.

“Well it don’t look like Little Joe’s been there much over the last few days. He’s started the fence but that’s all.”

Adam sucked in his breath. He should have known. That boy needed a keeper for he couldn’t be trusted to work on his own.

Ben looked at his eldest son and knew what he was thinking. “Let’s not jump to conclusions, Adam. Joe may well have a perfectly good explanation.”

“Come off it, Pa. If Joe had a reason to leave the job unfinished, why didn’t he mention it yesterday or even the day before?”

“I still want to hear it from Joe first,” Ben persisted, feeling irritated, more because he knew Adam was right.

Before a row could break out between the two men, there was a sharp knock at the door. Hoss went to open it, grateful for the interruption.

Mike Swan, one of the ranch hands was stood there. “Sorry about this, Mr Cartwright,” he said addressing Hoss. “But one of the men just found Little Joe’s horse wandering about on its own. He looked around but there was no sign of Joe so he thought he’d better bring it back to the ranch.”

The previous argument was forgotten as the three Cartwright men rushed into the yard to inspect the horse. There was no sign of blood or injury and no indication as to where Joe could be.

“What we gonna do, Pa? Joe may be hurt,” Hoss asked, his worry beginning to show.

“Saddle up, boys, and I’ll get a few things together. We need to find him before it gets dark.”

Ben rushed back to the house to get his gun, jacket and medical supplies, just in case they were needed. As he entered, Hoss Sing came to meet him.

“What happen? Supper get all cold.”

“I’m sorry, Hop Sing,” Ben placated. “Joe’s horse has turned up without him. We need to look for him while there’s still light.” Then with a heavy heart he added, “I just wish I knew where to start looking.”

Hop Sing was unsure whether he should break Joe’s confidence, but on reflection when Joe’s safety was at risk, he had no choice.

“Little Joe visit with Mr Maitland,” he informed Ben. “He goes to help man with his cabin.”

Rejoining his sons, Ben quickly mounted his horse and headed towards the Maitland place.

“Hop Sing has just informed me Joe has been helping Dirk Maitland,” Ben said soberly. He couldn’t help but feel annoyance at Joe’s deception and, providing they found him well and unhurt, he would be making his feelings very clear to the boy.

“Now isn’t that just like our young brother,” Adam added. “All the work to be done on the Ponderosa and he spends his days with the town drunk. He really knows how to pick his friends.”

“He may have good reason, Adam,” Hoss interjected; he was always ready to go to his baby brother’s defense.

“Yeah, I’ll bet he does,” Adam spat back at him. “A new drinking partner, away from town and the saloons, so none of us find out.”

“That’s unfair, Adam,” Hoss shouted back. “Since when has Little Joe returned home drunk this week?”

Before Adam could reply, Ben cut in. “Just ride, boys. There will be plenty time for questions and answers later.”

Silence reigned until they were approaching the Maitland cabin and then the smoke rising into the night sky alerted them to the fact that something was wrong.

*****

A couple of hours earlier

The smell of smoke was what brought Dirk Maitland back to consciousness. Terror filled his very being as the acrid smell filled his nostrils and all he could think about was getting away from it as quickly as possible.

The recurrent nightmare he had been having since the loss of his family was once again reality, and as he rolled over onto his stomach, he gasped for breath and began crawling towards the cabin door. He was only a few feet from safety when a new panic infiltrated his brain. “Where was Joe?”

Much as he wanted to get out of the door and away from the fire that was threatening to burn him alive, he couldn’t go without Joe. Turning his body round, he bravely crawled back to the middle of the room. He tried to call Joe’s name but his throat was burning and his efforts only resulted in a coughing fit.

Maitland spread his arms all around him, feeling the floor for any sign of Joe. Just as he was about to give up, his fingers touched a boot and he grabbed hold as tightly as he could. With superhuman effort, he raised himself from the ground and on unsteady feet, he dragged the unconscious man towards the door. Fire burned all around them and he screamed out in pain as the flames licked his already scorched flesh.

Bursting through the cabin door, Maitland hauled Joe behind him and dragged him as far from the rising flames as he could. Taking but a few moments to gather his breath, Maitland wiped the smoke from his streaming eyes and tried to focus on the lifeless body on the ground.

It didn’t take a doctor to tell Maitland that Joe was badly hurt. The gash to his head was deep and still bleeding and his fire damaged jacket revealed scorched flesh beneath. Joe’s breathing was shallow and labored and Maitland knew he would have to do something quick if he was to save the boy’s life.

Oblivious to his own injuries, Maitland lifted Joe into his arms and headed towards the creek that ran at the back of the cabin. He thought to lower Joe into the water to help his burn wounds and he also needed to clean the injury to Joe’s head before infection set in. Maitland only made it to the top of the embankment before his knees gave way and he and Joe rolled to the bottom of the hill. On the way down, their bodies were scratched unmercifully on the thick bushes growing everywhere and when they arrived at the bottom, they were both in a sorrier state than they were only a few moments ago, if that were possible.

Maitland used the last of his strength to pull Joe into the creek and allow the cool water to flow over Joe’s scorched body and his own. With gentle hands, he did his best to wash the blood from Joe’s head and as he was doing so he noticed for the first time the swelling and unnatural bend in Joe’s right arm.

Dirk Maitland sat on the embankment cradling Joe in his lap, crying softly to himself. What was he to do? Joe needed urgent medical attention, but his own body had given up and he couldn’t force himself to stand let alone ride into Virginia City. In a last effort, he laid Joe tenderly on the rough earth and tried to rise, but his head spun out of control and the blackness had descended upon him before his head hit the ground.

Over an hour passed before Dirk Maitland awoke to find himself lying half in and half out of the water. His body shivered uncontrollably and it took him several minutes to recall what had happened. Looking to his side, he winced as he took in the desperate state of the boy lying next to him. Joe’s face was ashen, dried blood stuck to his hair, and his body showed no sign of life. With trembling hands, Maitland reached over and felt for a pulse in the young man’s neck. It was there, but only just. Maitland knew he could not put off any longer; he must go for help.

There was nothing more he could do for Joe, and so once he had made him as comfortable as possible, he retraced his way back up the embankment and over to the cabin. Looking back he would never remember how he managed to saddle his horse, let alone ride into Virginia City.

*****

Ben, Hoss and Adam rode up to the Maitland homestead to find it nothing more than a smoldering heap of timber. The fire had almost burned itself out and there was no sign of life.

The heat from the burning embers was still too great for them to get close to the cabin itself and they had to satisfy themselves with searching the surrounding area for any sign of Maitland or Little Joe.

Finally Hoss put into words what they were all not daring to think. “Pa, you don’t think Little Joe and Maitland were in there do you?” he asked, gesturing towards the cabin.

Ben shook his head. “I hope not, son, I sincerely hope not.”

“Why don’t we head into town, Pa?” Adam asked. “Maitland’s horse isn’t here, so you never know, him and Joe may be in town. It’s getting pretty dark and there’s no sign of them here.”

Knowing there was nothing more they could do until first light, Ben agreed. As quickly as they could in the semidarkness, the three men rode towards town with worry, but hope in their hearts. They were not prepared to write off the youngest member of the family that easily.

The Cartwrights rode into town and straight to the Sheriff’s office. Clem was just leaving to go on his rounds as they dismounted from their horses.

“Is Roy around?” Ben asked.

“He’s over at the doc’s place,” Clem called back. “Seems there’s been some trouble at the Maitland place.”

Not waiting for Clem to continue, the men turned and walked across the street to Paul Martin’s surgery. As they approached, they could hear Dirk Maitland’s voice raised in anguish.

When they entered the building Doc Martin was trying, with the help of Roy Coffee, to calm an injured and overwrought Maitland.

“Let me give you something to ease the pain,” Paul Martin coaxed. “Then I can tend to those burns.”

Maitland pushed the hands away from him as he struggled to remain conscious. He needed to let them know about Joe before it was too late. “Forget about me, I’ll be alright. We’ve got to get help to the Cartwright boy. He’s hurt bad, real bad.”

Ben rushed to the man’s side. “What about Joe? Where is he?”

Dirk Maitland looked at the man before him and relief washed over him. Now someone would take notice.

“He’s back at my place, Mr Cartwright. Three men beat up on us and tried to burn us alive. I managed to get Joe out but he’s in a bad way.”

Ben started to take charge immediately. “Adam, get over to the stables and get a buckboard; if Joe’s injured, we’ll need something to carry him in. Hoss we’re going to need lanterns; its pitch black out there.” Then turning his attention to Doc Martin he instructed. “Paul, please get together what you need.”

Paul Martin didn’t need to be told twice; he was already pushing bandages and medicines into his black bag. Roy Coffee also did not remain idle. He gathered blankets and provisions for the short trip back to the cabin.

“I’m coming with you, Mr Cartwright,” Maitland declared, pulling himself up onto his feet once more.

“Thanks, but you’ll slow us down,” Ben replied. He had enough on his plate without having to think about another injured man.

“But you’ll never find him without me and I can travel in the buckboard.”

Much as he would have liked to say ‘no’ as he really didn’t need the extra encumbrance, Ben knew he needed Maitland’s help and he nodded his head in acceptance.

In less than an hour, they were back at the smoldering cabin. Paul Martin had sat in the buckboard with Dirk Maitland and had spent his time bandaging the injured man’s burns as best he could.

Maitland had been right; they would never have found Little Joe without his help. In the dark, his still form was hidden in the undergrowth and would have gone unnoticed until morning, by which time it would have been too late.

Led by Maitland the six men slipped and slided down the embankment at the back of the cabin. The lanterns swayed from side to side as they tried unsuccessfully to keep their footing and several times a curse could be heard as unseen bushes scratched their faces and arms relentlessly.

When they reached the bottom, Maitland took a moment to get his bearings before moving off to his left and towards the creek. “Careful,” he called, “he should be just around here somewhere.” Then with a relieved cry, he pointed to a dark mound ten feet in front of him.

As the light from the lantern flickered over his youngest son’s battered body, Ben Cartwright cried out in distress. Rushing forward, he gently gathered Joe into his arms and cradled him as he would a baby.

Seeing the deathly pallor of the young man’s face, Paul Martin had no time for niceties. “Out of my way, Ben,” he ordered, squatting down next to his friend and taking Joe’s seemingly lifeless body from him and laying it once more on the mud-covered ground.

Before their Pa could put up any form of protest, Adam and Hoss pulled him to one side to let the doctor do his work. Roy Coffee held the lantern as steady as he could, but he didn’t like what he saw. At that precise moment in time, he wouldn’t give a nickel for Joe Cartwright’s survival and a lump caught in his throat as he thought of the mischievous young boy he had watched growing into a man.

As Paul Martin’s hands and eyes checked over Joe’s body, he hardly knew where to begin. All that was in Joe’s favor was the fact he had a pulse, albeit not a strong one, but a pulse nevertheless. He had a severe gash to his head, burns down both sides of his body, a broken right arm, cuts and scrapes everywhere and to top it all he had lain exposed and injured in filthy mud and water for several hours. Even if he survived, which was doubtful, infection was bound to set in.

Ben looked on helplessly as the doctor cleaned and bandaged Joe’s head as best he could. When Paul came to strap Joe’s injured arm to his body, the men around winced in sympathy at the pain it would inflict, but Little Joe remained unconscious and oblivious. Throughout the doctor’s administrations, he showed no sign of life, lying still and compliant, with not even a murmur escaping his lips to give the men around him some hope.

The journey down the embankment had been quick, but the return journey, with Joe fastened tightly to a stretcher, was laborious and slow. Their feet sank into the mud with every step and the thick bushes that had scratched them on the way down, once again scratched and hampered them on the way up.

Finally reaching the buckboard, Ben and Paul Martin climbed into the back with Joe set between them.

“Do you want to take him back to the Ponderosa?” Paul Martin asked.

Ben was taken aback. “Wouldn’t it be quicker to take him into town?”

Paul was careful how he worded his reply. He had done all he could for Joe at this point in time and it he didn’t think it would be enough. If the boy wasn’t going to make it, it would be better for Ben and his sons if Joe died in his own bed. An extra hour or so in the buckboard wasn’t going to make much difference to the outcome.

“I think he’ll get the best care in his own home, Ben. You and the boys and Hop Sing are what he needs right now.”

Ben nodded his head. He didn’t need for Paul to spell out what he was thinking, for one look at Little Joe told him all he needed to know.

*****

In the early hours of the next morning, Ben was sat next to Joe’s bed, his large hand clasped gently round his son’s smaller one. The rising and falling of Joe’s chest was the only comfort he had. The last few hours had been a nightmare for them all and he knew with the dawning of the day the nightmare wouldn’t end. Joe’s struggle was just beginning.

Paul Martin had finally gone to bed just a few hours ago. He had painstakingly cleansed and treated every cut and scratch on Joe’s body. The gash on Joe’s head had been stitched, his broken arm set and his burns bandaged, but he knew with inevitable foreboding that Joe’s fight for survival had only just started. Even before the good doctor retired with exhaustion, Joe’s temperature had started to rise as infection ravaged his already battered body.

Ben gazed out the window at the rising of the sun and breathed a sigh of relief. He thanked God for small mercies; his son may be desperately ill, but he was still breathing. As the saying goes, ‘while there’s life, there’s hope’ and Ben clung to that thought like a drowning man with a straw and he wouldn’t let go.

Turning back to the bed, he once again dipped the cloth he was holding into the clean tepid water he kept ready on the nightstand. Wringing out the excess water, he folded the cloth in his hand and dabbed it gently on Joe’s burning brow and face. Pulling back the bedclothes, he continued his administrations over and down his son’s sweat soaked body.

Deep in thought, Ben hardly heard the door to the bedroom open and he was startled when he heard a man cough. Dirk Maitland stood hesitantly in the doorway.

“I just wondered how he was?” he asked apologetically, averting his eyes from Joe’s naked body. “I’m sorry; I didn’t mean to disturb you.”

Ben pulled the covers up to Joe waist and beckoned the man into the room. “No need to apologize. Please come in.”

Maitland entered and closed the door quietly behind him. Walking over to the bed, his heart tightened as he watched the father continue to bathe his son’s head and chest with the cool water. Thoughts of his own son were never far from his mind.

Under different circumstances, Ben would have been curious about the stranger in front of him. The night before when Paul Martin had been tending to Joe, he had also insisted on redressing Maitland’s wounds. Dirk Maitland had sat in the chair next to Joe’s bed and removed his shirt and the men around him had flinched in pity on seeing the man’s scarred torso.

Maitland’s flesh was still in the healing process from his previous burns and the scars that covered his chest and back were red and painful to observe. Doctor Martin didn’t feel the time was right to be asking questions; he had more pressing matters to attend to, and so he did what he could for the injured man before returning his attention to Joe.

“Is he going to make it?” Maitland asked, breaking into Ben’s thoughts.

Swallowing hard and coughing to clear his throat, Ben’s eyebrows pulled together in distress. “With God’s help. He’s a strong boy and he won’t give up.” What he didn’t add was that Joe couldn’t give up, he wouldn’t let him, and he wasn’t ready to let him die. “Hop Sing tells me that Joseph has been helping you repair your home.”

“That’s right,” Maitland replied. “I thought you knew, but Joe did promise he would tell you when he got home. He’s a good lad, Mr Cartwright.”

“Yes he is,” Ben confirmed, “he is a good boy”. Reaching forward, he ran his hand through Joe’s singed hair. “We’ll have to cut it all off,” he said sadly.

“I’m sorry,” Maitland responded, not understanding.

“Joe’s hair,” Ben explained. “He hates having his hair cut, but it’s been burnt in the fire, so it’ll need to be cut really short.” Ben’s voice began to falter, “I know it’s silly, but he’ll probably be more upset about that than anything. He does so like his hair long.” Running his hand through Joe’s curls once more, Ben lifted his other hand and tried to mask the unshed tears that filled his eyes.

“I suppose you have been wondering about the burn scars I have?” Maitland began haltingly. When Ben didn’t comment, he continued. “My wife and daughter died in a fire a few months ago. Joe said I should talk to you about it.”

Ben sat down next to the distressed man and nodded sympathetically. “I’m really sorry about your family. It’s so hard to lose your partner. I have lost three wives, which is probably why Joe thinks I would understand.”

“Does it get easier with time?” Maitland queried. “Never a moment goes by when I don’t think about them.”

“I can honestly say the pain is not lessened by experience. I felt just as devastated and alone when my third wife died as I did with my first. But time does have a way of healing, and…” he added without thinking, “I had my boys and they needed me.”

Maitland dropped his head in his hands.

“I’m sorry,” Ben admonished himself, thinking of the man’s daughter. “I can’t think what it must be like to lose a child.” Gripping hold of Joe’s hand and wishing his own strength could be passed to that of his son, Ben whispered, “and I hope I never will.”

Looking up at Ben with tear filled eyes, Maitland confessed. “I too have a son; he’s six years old. After my wife and daughter died, I left Freddie with my brother and his wife. A small child needs a mother.”

“In an ideal world, yes that’s true, but a boy needs his father as well,” Ben declared with feeling.

“That’s just what Joe said; he was so upset at me leaving Freddie.”

Ben winced at Maitland’s words; he hated to think Joe’s feelings were still raw with regard to that time so long ago. Well, if he could help, one other small boy wouldn’t be further traumatized unduly.

“Joseph had every right to be upset Mr Maitland. When Joe’s mother died, I felt unable to cope with life. I went away and left him, and my other sons, to cope on their own. Quite honestly at the time, I didn’t know whether I would ever come back. Joe was well looked after, he had Hop Sing and his brothers, but I don’t know if I’ll ever repair the damage I did to him. The look in his eyes when I finally returned will stay with me forever. No child that young should ever have to feel such pain.”

“But I failed Freddie,” Maitland explained. “I should have saved his mother and sister. How can I ever face him?”

Ben’s pain filled eyes locked onto that of the grieving father and he added with fervor. “Accidents happen and no matter how much we try, we can’t change that. Go home to your son, Mr Maitland. If you don’t, you will regret it for the rest of your life.”

Maitland nodded his head and began to weep. It was as if a gigantic load had been lifted from his shoulders and there was hope in his heart once more.

*****

At daybreak Roy Coffee headed out after the men who had committed this heinous crime, knowing they wouldn’t be hard to find, as he knew their identities and where they lived.

Throughout the day, Joe’s condition did not improve. Not once did he give any sign of regaining consciousness, and his temperature continued to rise steadily. By late evening, Doctor Martin was beginning to think they should prepare themselves for the worst, as Joe’s body was showing signs of closing down and he didn’t think he could last much longer.

Adam and Hoss finally persuaded their father to go downstairs and have something to eat. Ben had not left Joe’s side since they had found him next to the creek and the exhaustion was taking its toll.

Left on their own, the siblings quickly stripped Joe’s soiled sheets from the bed and with ease lifted and replaced Joe in a clean environment. Even though the evening was quite cool Joe’s skin still felt hot with fever and Hoss decided to open the bedroom window and let in more of the cold night air. A cool breeze flowed round the room and back out of the window, taking with it the pungent smell of sickness that permutated the room.

Earlier that day Adam had assigned himself the job of cutting off Joe’s singed hair. Ben couldn’t bring himself to do it and Hoss had professed that he was much too clumsy for such a task. As it turned out, his father had been right to excuse himself, as the undertaking had not been an easy one. All his life Joe had had an aversion to having his hair cut; it was if the shedding of his curls would sap his strength, much as it had done with Sampson in biblical times.

Looking down at his brother’s shorn locks, Adam’s eyes shone with tears. Joe looked so impossibly young and helpless without the usual curls framing his face. Adam berated himself for his over sentimentality; after all, Joe’s hair would soon grow back and those untamable curls would be dropping down over his brow before long.

“At least, I hope so,” Adam whispered softly to his sibling, while Hoss was out of the room. “Come on, Buddy, it’s time to open your eyes and come back to us.”

Joe lay unmoving and Adam tried again. “Pa told me about Dirk Maitland, Joe. You were right to help him; he’s been through so much.” Just for a second Adam thought he saw Joe’s eyelids flicker. “That’s right, Joe, come on it’s time to wake up. After all, you wouldn’t want to miss seeing your older brother eat humble pie would you?”

The dark tunnel seemed never-ending and Joe wondered if he would ever get to the end. His brother was calling him, but he was so, so tired; he just wanted to lie down and rest. A warm feeling encircled him and he began to drift off to sleep for perhaps the last time. Adam’s voice interrupted his dreams and Joe felt a moment’s anger. Why couldn’t old bossy boots let him sleep? Why did he have to be in an all fired hurry to get things done? Now Adam was talking about watching him eat pie. Joe didn’t want pie; he wanted to sleep.

Adam was stood at the bedroom door. “Pa, Pa. Doc Martin. Come quick. I think Joe just moved his eyes.”

Seconds later, Ben, Paul and Hoss rushed into the room and over to the bed. Paul Martin felt Joe’s head and body and breathed a sigh of relief. Turning towards three anxious faces, he said, “The fevers broken. He’s not out of the woods, but it’s a good sign.”

Ben felt his heart lighten, Joe was going to get well, he just had to. “Come on, son, open your eyes. It’s time to wake up.”

Joe was aggravated; his Pa was now calling to him. That left him no choice. His Pa wouldn’t stand for insubordination; he would have to open his eyes. With great effort, Joe tried to clear his head, he felt as if he had being kicked by a mule. What did he have to drink last night?

As he came closer and closer to consciousness, Joe began to feel the pain that had so far eluded him. A low groan emitted from his lips as his eyes flickered open and he tried to focus on his father. “P-P-Pa what happened?”

“Shh, don’t worry about that now, son,” Ben soothed, running his hand gently down the side of Joe’s face. “Everything’s going to be all right.”

Joe didn’t stay awake for very long; just long enough to take a few mouthfuls of Hop Sing’s soup and a cool drink of water. But this time when he slept, it was a natural sleep and not one they needed to worry about. Ben settled himself down in the chair next to the bed and once again clasped Joe’s hand in his own, and noted with satisfaction that the skin was no longer clammy and hot but cool to the touch.

*****

It was still another 24 hours before Joe was conscious enough to hold a proper conversation. Ben sat on the side of the bed and gently explained to him what Duke Lane and his cronies had tried to do. When he finished, Joe was quiet for quite a while.

“How is Dirk Maitland, Pa? Was he badly hurt? It must have been so awful for him. His family died in a fire you know,” he asked finally.

Ben nodded in understanding. “Yes, he told me about that. He was very brave, Joe; if it hadn’t been for him, you wouldn’t be alive.”

“Where is he? Can I see him?”

“He’s here at the Ponderosa. I’ll send him in to see you, but only for a few minutes. It’s time you got some rest.”

Joe waited anxiously and was soon rewarded by the opening of the door and Dirk Maitland walking slowly into the room.

Maitland was relieved to see just how much Joe’s condition had improved from the last time he saw him and he smiled warmly at him. “How you doing, lad?”

“Great, thanks to you. From what Pa told me, you saved my life.”

Maitland thought for a moment and then replied. “I got you out of the fire, Joe, but in actual fact, it was you who saved my life.”

“Me! What do you mean?”

“I’m going home, Joe. You were right about your father; he did understand. So I’m going back to California to be with Freddie.”

Joe was overjoyed. “That’s great; Freddie needs you.”

“So you see, Joe, in the end it was you who saved me. I haven’t had a life these last few months, just an existence. But that’s all about to change. I’ll be a good Pa to Freddie; I’ll make it up to him for these past few months, and I just hope he can forgive me.”

Ben was just about to enter the room when he heard Maitland’s last comment. He stopped in his tracks not wanting to intrude. He didn’t mean to eavesdrop but Joe’s response filled his heart with joy.

“You won’t have to make it up to him; Freddie will be overjoyed to have his Pa back. As for forgiveness, what’s there to forgive? I know you’ll be the best Pa in the world to Freddie, just like mine is to me.”

Ben waited another moment before entering. As he walked across the room, his moist eyes locked with those of his son and he rejoiced at the love he saw in the depth of those green orbs, a far cry from the frightened little boy he had returned to all those years ago.

*****

The next week or so was a test of strength – Joe against his family. As Joe healed, his impatience to be up and active began to tell on them all. They tried to keep him in bed and rested but he fought them at every turn. Joe hated to be dependent on anyone and he didn’t mind who knew it. Allowances were made for his condition, but even Hoss was ready to pull Joe’s bag of bones across his lap and give him a few well-earned swats. If Joe had been a few years younger, it may even have happened.

By the second week Joe decided to take matters into his own hands. As suppertime approached and he heard his brothers return to the house, he threw back his bedclothes, swung his body to the side and stood up on shaky and unsteady legs. His head swam dizzily and he needed a moment for the room to stop spinning. Taking a deep breath, he wondered for a minute if he was doing the right thing, but dismissed the thought from his brain. He could do this; he just needed to take his time.

Ten minutes later, he sat down on the bed, tired but triumphant. His nightshirt may have lain crumpled on the floor, but he had managed to don his pants and shirt. With only one hand the buttons to his shirt were left undone and his pants would struggle to stay up with only one button fastened, but he felt satisfied with his efforts. Now to make it downstairs before they discovered his little escapade.

Familiar voices carried up to him as he slowly and carefully made his way step by step down the staircase. Deep in conversation at the supper table, his presence was not discovered until he reached the creaky stair three from the bottom.

As three pairs of eyes looked towards him, Joe almost wished he hadn’t been so reckless. His father’s face turned red with anger and Adam shook his head in exasperation.

“What on earth do you think you are doing, young man?” Ben’s voice boomed out, making the china on the dinner table rattle with nervousness.

“I-I-I’ve decided to join you for supper,” Joe explained, keeping his head down as he struggled to walk the last few steps to the table.

“Oh no you don’t!” Ben corrected, moving forward and grabbing Joe by his good arm. “You are going right back to bed and you will stay there until I say you can get up.”

Adam couldn’t believe Joe had thought he would ever get away with it and he went to help his father return his errant sibling to bed. As he stood away from the table, he glanced at his brother’s face and immediately relented; Joe looked as if he was about to cry. Much as he was the hard-headed member of the family, he had to acknowledge that Joe must be pretty desperate to be out of his room to incur his father’s wrath the way he had.

“Hey Pa, let the kid stay down and have his supper. He’s made it this far; there doesn’t seem much point in making him go all the way back upstairs before he gets his breath back.”

Joe sent Adam a look of gratitude and Adam winked in return. Ben blustered for a few more seconds, but nevertheless he helped Joe to his chair and sat him down. Hoss was glad to see harmony returned and tucked in with gusto to his meal.

Ben had to acknowledge to himself that maybe allowing Joe to stay was a good idea, because the boy ate more than he had eaten all week. He decided he might even let Joe lie on the settee for a while before insisting that he return to his bed.

Hop Sing bustled into the room happily carrying a large apple pie — Joe’s favorite.

Smacking his lips together Hoss reached over and helped himself to a large slice.

“This pie sure smells good, Hop Sing,” Hoss praised. “Ain’t you having any Joe?”

Ben raised his eyebrows in Joe’s direction and Joe made a valiant effort. “Guess I could eat a little; after all, if it tastes as good as it smells, it must be good.”

“How about you, big brother?” Hoss asked, eyeing the last piece of pie left on the plate.

Adam squirmed in his seat and declined. “No thanks, Hoss. I’ve had about as much pie as I can stomach lately.”

Hoss thought for a second before replying. “What pie you on about, Adam? Hop Sing ain’t made pie for dessert all week.”

“Oh the pie I’m thinking of is the type that sticks in your throat and upsets your stomach,” Adam replied casting a glance in his younger brother’s direction.

Hoss sat puzzled for a moment and then gave up. If Adam wanted to talk in riddles, that was up to him, but that last piece of pie beckoned and who was he to refuse it.

As Hoss tucked into his second helping, Adam raised his eyes to find Joe’s twinkling eyes looking back at him full of mischief. He wondered fleetingly if Joe had heard his apology to him while he had been so ill and had therefore understood his veiled meaning with regards to the pie. Joe seemed to delight in Adam’s pondering and a grin started to spread across his face. Adam’s own mouth began to twitch and it wasn’t long before his dimples were prominent in his cheeks.

“Touché!” he thought. “You can have the last laugh, little brother; I don’t mind. Just to see your smiling face is a small price to pay for eating ‘humble pie’”.

***The End***

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