My Brother’s Keeper (by Puchi Ann)

Summary:  WHI (What Happened Instead for the episode “My Brother’s Keeper.”)  With deep appreciation to Seeleg Lester, who wrote the original episode we all love so much.  Much of the plot and dialog in this story is his or derived from his, and the only character created exclusively by me is that of Casey Porter, who assists Hoss in replacing the Reardons.
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  31.500


For Lillian, whose timely introduction of a discussion of this
episode inspired this alternate adaptation.

Two horses, as different as the men who sat them, clattered down the sun-baked road.  The wolf that Adam and Joe Cartwright had tracked for two days yowled enticingly, and their rifles spontaneously responded to the temptation to shoot.  Out of range, the wolf escaped.  “He went through that ravine,” Little Joe said, pointing.

Adam’s enervated eyes did not follow his brother’s gesture.  He knew where the wolf had headed, but the discouragement of two days’ fruitless tracking had dampened his enthusiasm for the chase.  “Let’s call it off,” he said.

“What do you mean ‘call it off’?” Little Joe demanded.  “Now that we’ve got a chance to get him?”

“He’s in the next county by now,” Adam contended.  “Let’s get on home.”

“Come on.  How many more calves do you want to lose to that wolf?” Joe argued, his voice sharp with his characteristic intensity.

None, Adam had to admit, though he didn’t answer his brother directly.  “You sure don’t give up easy, do you?” he responded, with admiration that was heartfelt, though exhaustion diminished its enthusiasm.

“Come on, let’s go,” Joe said, riding toward the ravine.  Adam sighed in resignation and followed his more determined brother.

Determination died hard in one as young and energetic as Joe, but as the brothers rested in camp later, his face reflected the discouragement his older brother had felt for hours.  “Thanks,” he murmured, barely glancing up as Adam handed him a cup of coffee.

“After we rest here for a while, we’ll head back,” Adam stated, and a chuckle of worn-down indulgence lifted his voice as he added, “whether you like it or not.  We’re not gonna get home ‘til tomorrow morning as it is.”

“I sure wish I could’ve gotten him in my sights just once,” Little Joe said.  The echoing howl of the wolf only strengthened his desire. “You know, he doesn’t sound too far off.”  He dropped the tin cup and strode toward his pinto.

“Oh, where’re you going?” Adam queried with half-hearted protest.  Was there no end to this kid’s drive?  Did he never expend more energy than a few sips of coffee would restore?  Don’t dare share those thoughts, Adam decided, or I’ll no doubt be favored with a few choice remarks about my advanced age.  He had no intention of giving Joe that satisfaction!

“Just gonna have a look-see.  You take it easy,” Joe called as he swung onto his horse and took off.

Adam exhaled a gust made up of almost equal parts of disbelief, amusement and frustration, a response he recognized as all-too-familiar in his dealings with his youngest brother.  He supposed he really should go with the kid; it was always wiser to hunt in pairs, but he’d done that all day—for two days, in fact, and whether it was due to the dozen extra years he had on Joe or not, he was too tired for any more wild goose chases.  He could almost hear Joe’s high-pitched teasing, something like “We’re not chasing geese, older brother.  No wonder you haven’t spotted that wolf; you’ve had your eyes on the clouds!”  He smiled.  Yes, that was just the kind of jest Joe would have made, had he called this hunt what it was.  Better not to have given him the opportunity.

I shouldn’t have let him go, though, Adam chided himself.  Should have laid down the law, made him see reason.  He shook his head.  Joe listen to reason—yeah, sure.  Never an easy task and when a fellow was dead tired before he started, well nigh impossible.  With that boundless energy, Joe would just keep coming at you ‘til he wore down both reason and resolve.  Still, I shouldn’t have let him go alone.  Anything could happen.  He silenced that thought by pouring himself another cup of coffee and savoring the aroma as he lifted it to his lips.  Life was unpredictable out here, but his brother—both of them, for that matter—had been raised to handle the unexpected.  He’d played a significant part in that training himself, and on that subject, if rarely on others, the kid had always been an apt pupil.  Joe can take care of himself, better than most men twice his age.  He chuckled.  So what am I worried about?  It isn’t as if the wolf could shoot back!  Not like some of the two-legged predators the kid has faced.

Adam walked aimlessly around the camp as he sipped his coffee, determined not to follow the foolish example of his energy-to-burn brother.  Then he laughed at himself.  What was he doing here but burning energy with this constant, restless movement?  He deliberately seated himself on a dead log and willed himself to savor his coffee in leisure of mind and body.  A duet of siren voices periodically challenged that resolve, however: the yowl of a wolf, interspersed with the crack of a rifle.  Fool kid’s gonna waste all his ammunition, he mused as he sipped his brew.  One shot is all it should take to bring down that wolf . . . so long as the aim is true.

The very number of shots he heard told him that Joe wasn’t taking sufficient time to sight his rifle or, perhaps, just wasn’t getting close enough before he fired.  Not that he’d set the kid much of an example in that regard the last couple of days.  They were both overeager to bring down the wolf, and they’d both made mistakes that had kept them from doing that.  Even when they’d done everything right, the wolf had still managed to elude them.  “That’s one crafty critter, as our other brother might say,” Adam chuckled, “and we’ve wasted enough time and ammunition on him.”

When the siren voices beckoned again, Adam’s will weakened.  Well, he might need some help, he rationalized, pouring out the rest of the coffee from his cup and the pot to drown the fire.  Mounting his horse, he answered the siren’s call.  One last try at that crafty critter and then we’re headed home, if I have to drag Joe, kicking and screaming, every inch of the way!

The siren voices seemed to separate, to sing to each other across a wider gulf.  Then they fell silent.  Joe’s lost him, Adam concluded, his emotions torn between disappointment and relief.  He wanted the wolf just as much as his younger brother, but he was ready to concede this round and get home.  Hoss was probably fed up to his ears, doing his brothers’ chores, and ready for a break from routine.  Maybe he’d like to have a go at the crafty critter himself.  Goodness only knew, he was the best tracker of the three, as well as the one most attuned to the ways of animals.  And if Joe was still so eager for the hunt, he could turn right around and head out with Hoss.

Adam grinned.  Hoss might not thank him for that suggestion, but home without Joe for a few days . . . sounded downright peaceful, just what he needed and—there!  A dark gray flash against the sun-baked brown of the landscape.  Finally, a chance to end this thing!  But the wolf saw him, too, turned tail and ran around a curve in the trail.  Eagerly, Adam urged Sport forward, around a boulder of dusty red sandstone.  No time to lose.  Waste a second and the wolf will be out of range.  Got to get him now!  Just as he came out of the boulder’s shadow, he saw that flash of gray again, raised his rifle and fired.  Got him!

But Adam’s brief moment of exultation was abruptly cut short.  In the split second between exhilaration and horror, he saw the wolf—still alive, still upright and uninjured—wheel around and fall upon a figure crumpled on the ground.  “Oh, my God,” he gasped in shocked recognition.  But shock didn’t hinder his ability to respond.  Adam Cartwright had always been a man who could push emotion aside during a crisis, and he instinctively did now, when Joe’s life depended on instant action.  He couldn’t risk firing.  Gray fur and taupe raiment were too tangled, their positions changing too frenetically, as the man held the animal’s fangs away from his throat. He had to separate them—now—before Joe’s arms weakened and the fangs sank into his flesh.

He spurred Sport forward, covering the intervening space in seconds.  He vaulted off his horse, and with both hands firmly gripping the stock of his gun, rushed forward until he was standing directly over the grisly battle.  Making a lightning assessment of the positions of the combatants, he swung the barrel of the rifle forcefully and knocked the wolf away from his brother.  He swung the weapon up into position and cranked the lever twice in rapid succession.  This time, mercifully, the wolf dropped to earth, motionless.

Squatting beside his brother, Adam laid the rifle on the ground and reached toward the blood-stained shirt.  “Joe—Joe, I didn’t mean it.  I didn’t see you.”

Little Joe didn’t seem to notice the plea for understanding in his brother’s voice.  Stretching one arm toward the wolf, he murmured weakly, “You got him, Adam.”

“Yeah, I got him,” Adam said, self-reproach the sole emotion in his words as he started to unbutton Joe’s earth-colored shirt.  Next time we go hunting, little brother, I’m dressing you, head-to-toe, in red, something that won’t blend in with the rocks, something I can see!  Next time . . . oh, God, let there be a next time.

He unfastened the buttons and opened the shirt to reveal a gaping wound in his brother’s shoulder, put there by his own bullet.  My own stupidity, he chided himself, my own

“I’m shot, Adam,” Joe whispered, sounding surprised.

“I know, Joe.  I’m sorry.”  Had the kid just now noticed?  How could he not . . . it had happened fast, though, and the boy had been fighting for his life every second since.  Joe’s oversight was understandable, his own less easily excused.  But there was no time now for self-recrimination, no time for explanations, time only to do what needed doing to save his brother’s life.  He cupped Joe’s left jaw and gently turned his gaze away from the wound.  “You’ll be all right, boy,” he promised.

He stood and walked back to his horse.  From the saddlebag he took a clean white handkerchief, grabbed his canteen off the horn and hurried back to Joe’s side.  Dampening the cloth, he pressed it to the oozing wound in Joe’s left shoulder.

Joe moaned, then bit down on his lower lip to stifle the sound.

“Sorry,” Adam said.  Joe nodded, tight-lipped, and Adam smiled encouragingly back at him.  Once the bleeding stopped, he pulled away the cloth, and his mouth set in a grim line.  Teeth marks surrounded the ragged wound, and he could see torn threads from Joe’s shirt embedded in it, as well.  It would need to be cleaned out, at the very least, and that would only increase his brother’s pain.  Not here, though.  He needed a fire to sterilize his knife, hot water.  “Let’s get you back to camp,” he said.  He looked around, suddenly aware of a missing member of the party.  “Where’d you leave Cochise, Joe?”

As Joe tried to lift his left arm, to point toward the opening in the rocks behind Adam, he cried out in pain, and his arm fell.

Adam had seen enough.  “Back there?  Okay, rest here, boy; I’ll get him.”  He stood and pointed an authoritative finger at Joe.  “You stay put, don’t try to move.”  As soon as he’d seen Joe’s nod of acquiescence, he moved through the opening and trotted down the gravelly path.  When he reached lower ground, where his brother would have left the pinto before climbing up after the wolf, he scanned the area in all directions.  No Cochise.  Joe must have been so set on getting the wolf that he hadn’t tethered the horse, at least not firmly enough.  Looks like you need a few more lessons in safety in the wild, little brother.

Adam slammed a fist into the palm of his other hand.  Joe wasn’t the only one who needed a review of that lesson.  He’d been so intent on getting to his brother that he hadn’t secured Sport, either then or after the initial crisis had passed, and while they could get by easily with one horse, since Joe wasn’t fit to ride, anyway, they’d be lost if they didn’t have that one.  Adam hurried back up the path to remedy his own mistake.

Fortunately, Sport was still standing where Adam had left him.  With long strides Adam crossed the ground to the animal and gathered up the trailing reins.  “Good, steady boy,” he said as he patted Sport’s neck.  “Should have known I could count on you.”  He led the horse back to Joe and again squatted beside his brother.  “I couldn’t find Cooch, Joe; I’m sorry.  I’m gonna take you up on Sport.”

Joe didn’t even nod this time, just closed his eyes in trust that his older brother would take care of him, as he always had.  Adam’ll know what to do, his drifting mind assured him; Adam . . . always knows . . . what to do.

*****

The silence was overpowering and, combined with the darkness, oppressive.  The only sound was the soft, slow clip-clop of Sport’s hooves along the dirt road.  Little Joe, too weak for conversation, slumped against Adam, his chin dipping toward his breastbone.  The external silence, however, only left a vacuum to be filled with the accusations roaring inside Adam’s head.  Though the words had never been spoken, he’d charged Joe with reckless waste of ammunition and failure to aim true.  Yet what more reckless waste of ammunition could there be than planting a slug in your own brother!  I didn’t mean it; I didn’t see you.  He wanted to say the words again and again, until his bleary-eyed brother understood, but Joe was too far gone now to listen, and Adam wouldn’t have burdened the boy with his guilt or worry, anyway.  Both would have shown in his voice had he tried to speak.  No, silence was better—harder, but better.

With a shiver Adam felt the wind snake down his neck and instinctively pulled the collar of his custard-yellow coat up around Joe’s neck.  Joe’s green jacket, unneeded during the heat of the day, had been tied behind Cochise and had galloped off into the sunset with the pinto, so Adam had buttoned his own coat loosely around his brother when they left camp.  It was the most he could for the boy’s comfort until they reached home, and he counted his own goose-pimpled flesh no great sacrifice.  Thankfully, the weather was moderate tonight, and not until now had he felt more than slightly chilled.  Better him than Joe, though; he, at least, didn’t have a bullet in his shoulder.

Adam grimaced.  Another failure to add to the tally.  Once he’d gotten Joe back to camp, he’d heated some water in the coffee pot and sterilized his knife by holding it in the fire until it glowed.  Then he’d made a try for the bullet.  It hadn’t taken long, however, for him to realize that the attempt was futile.  The bullet was lodged tightly under Joe’s collarbone.  Removing it would require tedious, painstaking surgery, and a trailside camp made a sorry operating room for anything other than a quick, straightforward excision of the lead.  The light had been fading fast, too, and as the sun slid toward the horizon, Adam had admitted the inevitable: the bullet would have to remain inside until he got his brother home.

*****

Ben Cartwright accepted the reins of his big buckskin from the lanky, freckle-faced young man extending them.  “Thanks, Casey.  Appreciate you saddling Buck for me; I’m running a little late this morning.”

“More than happy to, Mr. Cartwright,” Casey Porter said, and he meant every word. Ben Cartwright had been good to him, offering him a job, unasked, when his own ranch went bankrupt.  More than that, Mr. Ben had bought the place, picked it up cheap for back taxes, and promised Casey it would be his again whenever he saved enough money to buy it back at the same low price.  Casey figured it would take him another year, but he was determined to do it, to honor the memory of his deceased parents.  He was making good use of his time here at the Ponderosa, learning a lot about how to make the Rocking P successful, once the deed was back in his name.

It wasn’t just Mr. Cartwright he owed a debt of gratitude, though.  He’d worked under each of the three sons and had found them all to be fair, honest and willing to work right alongside him at the dirtiest jobs on the ranch.  Even though he was an employee, they’d treated him like an equal . . . like what he was, a fellow rancher fallen on hard times, and they’d each encouraged him to believe he could work his way back to that solid standing.  He fell between Hoss and Joe in age and considered both of them friends, especially Joe, who was only a couple of years younger.  He didn’t share quite the same camaraderie with Adam, maybe because he was so much older or maybe because he felt intimidated by a college-educated man, but he respected the oldest Cartwright son, almost as much as Mr. Ben himself.

The door from the kitchen swung open and Hoss Cartwright came through it, heading straight for the buckboard, whose team Casey had also hitched.  Leading Buck, Ben walked over.  “Got Hop Sing’s list?” he asked.

Hoss patted his front shirt pocket.  “Right here.  Sure is a long one, too, so I’m right glad Casey here volunteered to ride in with me and help load the supplies.”

Casey grinned as he climbed the opposite side of the buckboard from where Hoss now sat.  “Second pair of hands always makes the chores go quicker.”

Hoss’s face scrunched in a half-hearted grimace.  “Yeah, I can think of a couple pair of hands I’d like to see makin’ the chores go quicker.”

Ben chuckled.  “They’ll be back soon, son.  Your brothers know they’ll have you to answer to if they’re not, and neither one of them wants you riled up against him.”

Hoss, who wouldn’t have hurt a fly if he could avoid it, scowled fiercely as he nodded.  “Best they remember that and get on home right soon.”  He broke into a grin then.  “Knowing them two, they’ll milk every minute they can away from barn chores.  I just hope they make it back before you do!”

“If they don’t, they’ll have me to answer to,” Ben said with a significant arch of one eyebrow.  “I should be back in three or four days, unless negotiations hit a snag, and your brothers know better than to waste that much time chasing a wolf.”

“Joe don’t,” Hoss chortled.

Ben smiled.  “But Adam does, and he’s in charge.  You’ll be heading straight out to the branding camp after you get the supplies?”

Hoss shook his head.  “Got to stop by here first, drop off what ain’t needed out there.”

“Well, don’t dawdle,” Ben advised as he put his foot in the stirrup and swung into the saddle, “or Hop Sing will have your hide.”

“Naw, he don’t relish meat that tough,” Casey teased.  “He’ll just threaten to run off to China.”  He had worked for the Cartwrights long enough to have heard the standard threat innumerable times and felt comfortable enough, even with Mr. Ben, to risk cracking a joke.  The Cartwrights could take a mite of joshing, even seemed to welcome it.

Ben led out, and for several miles the buckboard followed him.  Then their paths diverged, the buckboard rolling towardVirginia City, while Ben took the road to Placerville.

*****

Shortly after dawn the two erstwhile wolf hunters came to a lake.  Adam welcomed the opportunity to wash out his brother’s wound more carefully and to refill his dwindling canteen.  He slid off Sport’s rump, still supporting his slumbering brother, and attempted to ease Joe from the saddle without waking him.  Chalk up another failure, Adam thought as he heard his brother moan and saw his eyelids crack open.

“We . . . home?” Joe asked.

The setting looked nothing like the yard at the Ponderosa, but Adam answered the question calmly, as if it made perfect sense, as perhaps it did to senses blurred by fever and pain.  “Not yet.  Soon,” he promised.  He helped Joe over to a level spot close to the lake and lowered him to the ground.  “Just taking a breather,” he explained to the questioning eyes.  “Rest easy, now.”  He took the folded cloth from beneath Joe’s shirt, walked down to the lake and washed the blood and pus from it.  Returning, he opened Joe’s shirt and gently cleaned the area once again.

Joe flinched when his shoulder was touched.  Then, seeing the concern etched on his brother’s face, he murmured weakly, “I’m all right, Adam.”  His words would have been more convincing without the involuntary moan that had preceded them.

 “Sure you are,” Adam agreed, his tone designed to encourage his brother.  “I don’t know what got into me yesterday.  Saw that wolf and just let go.  Never stopped to think if you were around anywhere.”  It was the closest he could come to an apology, since he still felt obliged to keep conversations brief and matter-of-fact in Joe’s current condition.  “Well, we gotta get you to a doc.”  Helping Joe into the saddle, Adam pointed his horse toward home.

The sun rose in the sky, and sweat began to trickle down Adam’s back.  He had no need of his coat now and wondered if Joe did.  He couldn’t ask, though, for Joe was only semi-conscious, and he wouldn’t risk removing it.  Fever tended to chill a man, little sense as that made, and he could feel the warmth emanating from his brother.  Joe had started coughing occasionally, too, making Adam fear that his lung had been affected by the impact of the bullet.  It hadn’t pierced the organ, he knew that, but Dr. Martin had told him that sometimes a bruised lung could cause almost as much trouble as a punctured one.  The damage just took longer to develop.

How much farther? he pondered.  No, “farther” wasn’t the right word.  He knew how far he was from home, but how long until they got there?  That was the question.  Little Joe was weakening; he needed a bed and a doctor now, but Adam had been forced to hold Sport to a slow walk, to keep from jarring his brother and possibly reopening his wound.  Finally, they came to the top of a hill that sloped gently down to a road.    “Virginia City road, Joe,” Adam said.

Joe only responded with a couple of dry coughs, which added to Adam’s concern, but the next moment he caught sight of something that lifted all his cares.  “And you won’t believe who’s coming,” he said with a relieved smile.  Clucking to Sport, he treaded his way carefully down the slope to the road below and stopped dead center in the path of the oncoming buckboard.

“Hey, Hoss,” Casey said, pointing ahead.  “Ain’t that Mr. Adam’s horse?”

Hoss leaned forward over the reins.  “Yeah, that’s Adam, sure ‘nough.  What you reckon—”

“But where’s Joe?” Casey asked.  He squinted his eyes and then murmured, “Oh, no.”

In the same instant Hoss had seen Joe slumped in the saddle in front of Adam, and he urged the horses forward at a faster pace.  When the team was nose to nose with Sport, he tossed the reins to Casey, jumped off the wagon seat and hurried forward.

Adam had dismounted, and when Hoss saw him reach for Joe, he automatically helped support their younger brother.

“Watch that left shoulder,” Adam urged as Joe moaned in pain.

“What happened to him?” Hoss asked.  He all but carried Joe to the buckboard.

“He’s hurt.”

“What happened?” Hoss pressed.

Adam bit his lip.  “I shot him,” he said bluntly, the words weighed down by a ton of guilt.

“Shot him?”  Hoss’s voice rose in pitch from sheer incredulity.

“I’ll explain later,” Adam muttered.  “Let’s get him home.”

“He’s a sight more than just shot, Adam,” Hoss remonstrated, taking in the scratches on Joe’s face and the shirt sleeve hanging in tatters.  “He looks like he’s been in a terrible fight.”

“Yeah . . . wolf,” Adam said laconically.

“A wolf!” Casey cried, eyes wide with alarm.  No one had to tell a man raised in Nevada just how dangerous an opponent a wolf could be.  He reached down to help Hoss lift Joe up to the wagon seat as Adam walked back toward Sport and gathered up his reins. Casey steadied his young friend until Hoss had climbed up and then stepped down, not sure what to do with himself.  There wasn’t room for more than Hoss and Joe on the seat of the buckboard, and even if there had been, surely Mr. Adam would claim that spot himself.

Adam walked up to the young ranch hand.  “Casey, you think you could ride Sport?”

For a moment Casey looked unsure of himself, for Sport had a reputation on the ranch of being virtually a one-man horse; then he squared his shoulders.  If Mr. Adam had confidence in him, he wouldn’t fall short of earning it.  “Yes, sir.  If need be, I reckon I can.”

Adam handed him the reins.  “Well, need be, Casey; need definitely be.  Ride back into Virginia City and get Doc Martin.  Tell him that apart from being clawed by that wolf, that bullet’s in deep, way down deep.  Get him here fast.”

“I sure will, Mr. Adam!”  Casey settled into the saddle on the tall chestnut and took off at a gallop.

Adam climbed into the back of the buckboard, among the supplies.  He reached across the back of the seat to steady Joe, who was folding up with another fit of coughing.  “Get going,” he urged Hoss.  “Fast as you can without jostling him.”

“Sure thing.”  Hoss whipped up the horses and headed them down the road at a steady trot.  He looked back over his shoulder.  “Gonna take a spell to get to the house, older brother.  Reckon as how you got time to do that ‘splainin’ now.”

Adam nodded grimly and began his story.  “It was an accident,” he said when he finished.

Hoss cut an astonished look over his shoulder.  “I know that, Adam.  I knew the minute you said you’d shot him, it couldn’t be nothin’ else.”

“Still my fault,” Adam said, almost inaudibly.

Hoss frowned, but judged that Adam wasn’t yet ready to listen to anything but his own fault-finding heart.  He had too many worries crowding out common sense and wouldn’t hear it, no matter how plain it was spoke to him.  Joe moaning and coughing the way he was only made it worse, deepened the guilt in their oldest brother, Hoss sensed.  To distract Adam from those dark depths, he asked a purely factual question.  “When’d this happen, Adam?”

Adam sighed.  “Late yesterday afternoon at Montpelier Gorge.”

“You brought him all the way in from Montpelier like this?”  Hoss couldn’t disguise his concern at the thought of that much time and distance between his brother’s injury and the help he needed.  Better part of a day—more than enough time for infection to set in, especially with that wolf slavering over the wound.

“Yeah.”  The way Adam said the single word indicated that he was sharing the exact same worry.

The fear was like an ominous cloud, hovering over the brothers as they made their way back to the Ponderosa.  Neither Hoss nor Adam made much attempt at dialogue during the remainder of that drive, and what attempt they did make fell flat, lost in concern for the brother who could no longer make any contribution to conversation.  When Hoss at last pulled up to the house, both he and Adam sprang into concerted action.  Adam led the way, opening the front door, while Hoss scooped Little Joe up in his arms and carried him through.

The silence of the house surprised Adam.  “Where’s Pa?”

“He’s in Placerville,” Hoss explained as he carried Joe up the stairs.  “He left this morning.  Meeting with that cattle buyer been writin’ to him.  Got a wire yesterday, invitin’ him, and he had me wire this morning that he was on his way.”

Following Hoss up the stairs, Adam sighed.  He’d seen the correspondence with that cattle buyer, of course, but no set time for meeting him had been established when he and Joe left on the wolf hunt.  Why did it have to be now, when Joe needed Pa so much?  When I need him so much, Adam admitted.  His brow furrowed as a further meaning of the silent house sank in.  “Hop Sing’s gone, too?”

At the top of the stairs, Hoss turned to face his brother.  “He’s out at the branding camp with the hands.  Wasn’t gonna be anyone here at the house, so we figured to have him do the cookin’ out there, be a treat for the men.  Sorry.”

Adam dragged his hand wearily down his face.  “No way you could have known.”

Hoss made his way down the hall, turned into Joe’s room and eased him onto his bed; then while Adam fumbled at the buttons of Joe’s shirt, he unbuckled his younger brother’s gun belt, slid it out from beneath him and handed it to Adam.  As he placed a solicitous hand against the boy’s cheek, his brow wrinkled.  “He’s spikin’ a fever, Adam, pretty smart one.”

Laying the gun belt on the bedside table, Adam nodded soberly.  “I know.  It’s been climbing all night.”  He sat down on the bed next to Little Joe and continued to unfasten shirt buttons.

Hoss pursed his lips.  “That bullet needs to come out, sooner the better.”

Adam nodded again, the enervated manner in which he did it indicating that he, too, had recognized the inevitable and dreaded it.  “I tried to get it out on the trail, but it’s lodged under a bone.  You’re right, though; it’s got to come out; we really can’t wait for Doc.”  He glanced at Hoss.  “You up for it?”

“Me?”  Hoss looked genuinely shocked.  “I ain’t no good at doctorin’.”

Adam uttered a short chuckle.  “Don’t sell yourself short.  You’re one of the best I know.”

Hoss shook his head rapidly.  “You’re talkin’ about critters; I’m good with critters.  This is Joe.”

Adam’s head rose sharply.  “He’s my brother, too.”

Hoss placed a supportive hand against his older brother’s back.  “I know he is, Adam, and I know it ain’t easy for you, either, but you’re steadier than I am in a tight pinch.  If you don’t know that, I do.  I’ll give you all the help I can, but it needs to be you cuttin’ out that bullet.”  And not just ‘cause you’re steadier, older brother; ‘cause it’s your bullet in there, and I reckon it might ease that load you’re carryin’ some if’n you’re the one takes it out.

Again Adam bowed to the inevitable responsibilities of being the eldest brother.  Exhaling loudly, he stood.  “All right.  You get him ready, make sure there’s plenty of oil in that lamp; I’ll boil some water, gather up the things we’ll need.”

Hoss gave him a hearty clap on the back and set to work.  First he removed Joe’s boots and stripped off his clothing, down to his drawers, taking special care when moving his upper body.  Fingering the ripped sleeve of the tan shirt, he shook his head at the deep scratches and bite marks along his brother’s arm and side.  “That ole wolf sure did a job on you, didn’t he, little brother?”

Joe moaned, as if in agreement, and his glittering eyes opened briefly, seeking Hoss’s face.

Hoss ran a comforting hand through the boy’s straggling chestnut locks.  “Don’t you fret none, buddy; ole wolf may’ve done a job, sure ‘nough, but ole Adam’ll do a better one, get you fixed up right as rain before you know it.”  Joe’s smile was weak, fleeting, but it sent a ray of hope surging through Hoss’s heart, and he grinned wide in response.  Everything would be all right; everything had to be all right.

Downstairs, Adam set a pot of water on to boil and then began to scrounge through the kitchen drawers in search of operating instruments.  Cutlery, he snorted, as he picked through an assortment of paring knives.  Better suited to carving a hunk of beefsteak than delicate surgery.  But they were all he had.  Next time, he told himself, next time he wears red, head-to-toe, and I have a set of decent scalpels and probes on hand.  Doc Martin can help me pick—he winced.  Doc Martin.  If only Doc Martin were here; if only any doctor were here!  Back East, a man never had to wait like this for medical attention, never had to trust his family to do what they had no training to do.  Adam cracked a dry laugh.  Of course, back East there weren’t many wolves prowling the canyons between tall buildings, either.  The whole sorry scenario would never have happened if they’d lived back East.

Adam shook himself.  He had no time for such mental meanderings.  He selected two knives and a pair of long, narrow tongs and dropped them into the boiling water.  Then he took a small, flat silver tray from the cupboard and covered it with a snowy white napkin, ready to receive the instruments after they’d been sterilized.  He blessed his lucky stars that the family doctor was one who knew and preached the benediction of cleanliness in everything that touched an open wound.  Not many so-called doctors out here realized the importance of that in fighting infection.  He pursed his lips and closed his eyes in painful thought.  There hadn’t been much of that benediction along the trail.  He’d done his best to give it to Joe, but judging by the rising fever, it hadn’t been enough.  And Joe is paying the price, in pain and discomfort . . . and deadly danger . . . the price of my mistake.

Adam squared his shoulders.  No time for self-reproach now, either; time enough for that later, when the surgery was over . . . when he knew just how high a price his brother might pay for the foolishness both of them had shown.

Hoss came into the kitchen.  “Got Joe ready to go.  You need any help?”

“Yes,” Adam said, again with that harsh, dry laugh that made him sound sarcastic.  “I need a qualified surgeon.  Do we have one stocked in the pantry?”

Hoss’s face scrunched up in sympathy.  “Not last I looked, but I reckon we got the next best thing.”

Adam scowled.  “Our dear country doctor would be the next best thing, and we don’t even have that.”

“He’ll be here, Adam,” Hoss assured him.  “Not in time to spare you this, I know, but—”

“Not in time to spare Joe this,” Adam corrected with a tinge of bitterness.  To forestall any more of Hoss’s well-intentioned praise for his dubious abilities to handle difficult situations, Adam suggested that he get some bandages and get back up to Joe.  “I don’t like for him to be alone when he’s less than fully alert.”

“Or fully asleep,” Hoss responded with a slight grin.  “He’ll be okay, Adam.”

He meant far more by those words than just that Joe would be okay alone for a few minutes and Adam knew it.  “I hope so,” he murmured.

Soon all was in readiness.  Adam had gathered his courage downstairs and wanted nothing more than to start the job before he lost his grip on that valuable commodity, but as he sat on his brother’s bed, he paused long enough to have a word with Joe, though he wasn’t sure how much the boy could understand.  He briefly explained what he was going to do and added, “This is going to hurt, buddy, but I need you to keep as still as possible.  Hoss will hold you, so—”

Joe grunted, and his head lolled from side to side on the pillow.  Clearly, he didn’t like the idea of being pinned down.

Adam looked up at Hoss for an opinion.

“Give it a try,” Hoss said.  “He’s a tough kid . . . and I’m here if you need me.”

Adam nodded, words beyond him now as he took a deep breath to cleanse out the remains of his fear.  Folding a napkin into a compact pad, he slipped the cloth bit into Joe’s mouth, picked up a knife and made his first cut.

Joe moaned, biting down on the cloth to suppress even that soft sound.  Pain pierced through Adam, as if the knife had cut his own flesh.  My fault, my fault the boy’s enduring this pain.  Stop it!  Can’t think about that now.  Just cut . . . cut again . . . probe deep . . . now deeper.  Joe’s moans intensified into groans, his face contorting in agony.  Sorry, kid.  So sorry, little buddy.  Has to be done.  Focused as he was on the task at hand, Adam still noticed, with admiration, that although Joe’s head moved in reaction to each cut of the blade, his body remained, as requested, still.  Plucky kid, but then he never did lack courage . . .

*****

Rearing on his hind legs, the powerful black stallion pawed the clouds.  At least, that was how it seemed to ten-year-old Joseph Cartwright, standing on the bottom rail of the corral.  He’d never seen a horse so big or one with such wild beauty.  “Can I ride him, Adam, huh, can I?” he begged.

“No!” his older brother said sharply and firmly.

“But, Adam—”

“I don’t want to hear ‘but’ from you, little buddy,” Adam said, snatching his little brother up under his arms and lifting him bodily from the fence.  He spun Joe around in his arms and held him at eye level.  “And I’d better not see your scrawny butt on the back of that stallion, either, or it’ll be too sore to sit anywhere for a week!”  He set his brother down and planted a light, painless swat on that part of his anatomy as a promise of things to come, should his injunction be disobeyed.

Joe rubbed his posterior with marked offense, although only his dignity had felt the weight of Adam’s palm.  “I could ride him,” he insisted with outthrust lip.  “I’m good.”

Arching an eyebrow, Adam raised a warning palm, and Joe took off in a huff, to lay his case before Pa.  Adam followed him in, prepared to plead his own case, if necessary.  It wasn’t necessary; Joe’s appeal met the altogether predictable decision from the final arbiter of all fraternal conflicts.  “You always side with Adam,” Joe whined.

Ben barely restrained the temptation to laugh out loud.  “I always take the side of reason,” he told his red-faced young son, “and your older brother tends to hold forth on that side more often than you, Joseph.”  He took Little Joe by the elbows and drew him close.  “Stay away from the horse, son.  He’s too big for you, and he could hurt you badly.  That’s the side I’m coming down on, the side of keeping you safe, and I’m taking that side because I love you.”  He gave Joe a hug and sent him out to finish his chores.

“Thanks, Pa,” Adam said.

Ben couldn’t resist chuckling this time.  “Son, did you for one minute doubt where I’d stand on that issue?”

Adam shrugged as a lopsided grin raised one corner of his mouth.  “Maybe one,” he admitted.  “The kid does have pronounced finger-wrapping proclivities.”

Ben’s brows came together in a mock scowl.  “If you’re going to start throwing twenty-dollar words around, young man, maybe it’s time you reestablish connection with your roots.”  He jerked a thumb toward the front door.  “Your little brother could use some help with those barn chores.”

Adam grinned and left immediately for the barn.

There was no grin on his face a few days later, when he rode into the yard and saw his little brother swinging one leg over the back of that huge black . . . bareback, no less!  That Joe hadn’t been killed that afternoon—by either the horse or his oldest brother—had to be the combined work of every guardian angel on the place. . . .

*****

No, Joe never lacked courage, Adam thought as he continued to probe for the bullet, though foolhardiness might state the case more—

“Thank God,” Hoss said gruffly, emotion choking his words.

Adam looked up from his surgery and saw that his patient had lost consciousness.  He’d been so lost in his reverie that he hadn’t noticed, but like Hoss, he was grateful that his inept carving could no longer cause his brother pain.  With neither ether nor chloroform available, unconsciousness was the only anesthetic left, and Adam prayed that that anesthetic would not wear off until he’d done what had to be done.  “Hold that lamp closer,” he told Hoss.  “I think I see it.”

Hoss lowered the lamp he’d been holding throughout the operation and leaned in, his eyes also searching the wound for the threatening piece of lead.

“That’s it,” Adam said with controlled excitement.  As he held the knife blade beneath the bullet, he reached for the tongs and grasped it.  Slowly, carefully, he pulled it out and dropped it, tongs and all, onto the silver tray.  He leaned back, sighing with relief.

“You gonna stitch him up?” Hoss asked.

Eyes closed, Adam nodded.  “Just give me a minute.”

“Sure.  Take all the time you need.”

Adam laughed harshly.  “Can’t.  The anesthetic’ll wear off.”

Hoss cocked his head quizzically, not sure what Adam meant, but he could read the weariness in every line of his brother’s face.  His fingers closed on Adam’s shoulder with a powerful squeeze of encouragement.  “You done good, Adam; I knew you would.”

Adam glanced up, and his smile, though weak, was appreciative.  “Thanks,” he said simply.  Taking another deep breath, he reached for needle and thread and, with a steady hand, he pulled together the ragged edges of his brother’s flesh and stitched as neatly as a seamstress sewing a finely tailored garment.  When he’d finished, he held out his hand, palm up.  “Bandages.”

“No,” Hoss said.  “You’re about done in, Adam.  I reckon I can take it from here.  Go downstairs; get yourself some rest.”

Adam stood and stretched some of the tension from his back muscles.  “All right,” he agreed readily.  “You’ll probably do a better job, anyway.”

“Always easier when you can keep your eyes open,” Hoss jibed and was rewarded with a wry chuckle from his older brother.  After Adam left Hoss quickly bandaged the wound with deft and gentle hands; then he drew the quilt up and covered Joe tenderly, brushing back unruly curls from his flushed face.  His strong hand rested on his baby brother’s forehead for a moment, and he frowned as the hot flesh burned against his palm.  “You’re causing us a lot of worry, you know that?” he asked an unresponsive Little Joe.  He smiled warmly down at his little brother.  “‘Course that ain’t nothin’ new for you.  You been causin’ worry since the day you hoisted yourself up by your diapers and took to trottin’—straight for trouble.  This time, though, little brother, how’s about gettin’ well real fast out of consideration for your big brothers, huh?  Ole Adam’s frettin’ somethin’ fierce, and I’m—well, that don’t matter as much; I ain’t got as big a load to carry.  You just get better right quick for ole Adam, okay?  And—and for ole Hoss, too, you hear?  You—you mind what I say, boy.”  Choking down the lump in his throat, he tousled Joe’s hair and headed for the door.

Sitting on the stone hearth, wishing the fire that baked the chill from his bones could sear it from his heart, Adam looked up at the sound of Hoss’s heavy tread on the stairs.  “Is he all right?”

“Still out,” Hoss said as he came down the final five steps from the landing.  “Reckon he will be for some spell.”

Adam massaged the back of his neck.  “Yeah.  Probably for the best.  He needs rest.”

He ain’t the only one, Hoss thought.  Open-palmed, he thumped his hand on top of the blue chair’s back.  “I’m gonna put some coffee on to boil.  You want a cup?”

“Yeah, I could use some.  It’s gonna be a long night.”  Adam rested his elbows on his knees and cupped his jaw line with both hands.

Hoss frowned as he went into the kitchen.  A long night.  Yeah, it was bound to be.  For Adam, the second one in a row.  Older brother was in need of sleep, just about as much as younger, but knowing Adam, he wouldn’t get none ‘til he saw how things was gonna go with Little Joe.  Older brother was an awful lot like Pa, when it came to that.  Reckon we all take a lot after Pa at times like this, Hoss admitted, recognizing that he, too, wanted to be nowhere except right at Joe’s side.

He puttered around the kitchen while the coffee was brewing.  In the larder he found some bread and cold beef and, slicing both, made a quartet of sandwiches, spread with mustard.  The coffee smelled like it was ready, so he poured a cup and took a sip to taste it.  He scowled.  Didn’t compare to Hop Sing’s best, but it would have to do.  He poured a second cup and carried it in to Adam.  “Better taste it,” he suggested as he handed it to his older brother.  “Might’ve made it a mite strong.”

Adam absently took a sip.  “It’s very good.  Hop Sing couldn’t have done better.”

Hoss outright gawked at him.  “Now I know you’re dead on your feet.”

Adam impatiently clattered his cup on the hearth as he bolted to his feet.  “Where’s Casey with that doctor?”

Hoss settled on the settee with his own coffee.  “They’ll get here.”  He said it mostly to encourage Adam, for a glance at the dining room window showed the sun low in the sky.  It was getting late.

“I hope so.”  Adam turned to face with Hoss brooding eyes.  “Why didn’t I stop Joe?  I should’ve laid down the law.”

Hoss snorted.  “Sometimes that’s pretty hard to do . . . especially with Joe.”

The lines in Adam’s face hardened.  “The truth is I wanted that wolf killed just as much as he did,” he accused himself, his tone bitter, “and I used just about as much common sense as he did.  I should’ve known he’d’ve been around somewhere.”

“Aw, come on, Adam,” Hoss argued, setting his cup on the table and leaning intently toward his brother with his forearms on his knees.  “Man can’t think of everything, every minute; just got to do what he thinks is right at the time.  And you’re right more often than most.”

“Yeah, sure” Adam muttered.  He moved toward the stairs.

“Hey, I made some sandwiches,” Hoss called, pointing toward the kitchen with his thumb.  “Let me get you one.”

“No, thanks,” Adam said.  “I’d better go up and stay with Joe.  He shouldn’t be alone when he comes to.”  He paused at the foot of the stairs and half-turned toward his brother.  “It’s not that I don’t appreciate it, Hoss.”

Hoss’s alpine eyes filled with compassion.  “Aw, Adam, don’t much matter whether you do or don’t, but I wish you’d eat something.  I’m guessing you ain’t had nothin’ since before this happened.”

“Noon yesterday,” Adam admitted, rubbing the newel post, “but I couldn’t eat right now.”

“Maybe later,” Hoss suggested hopefully.  “After the doc comes, huh?”

“Maybe.”  Adam turned and walked up the stairs.  Entering Joe’s room, he gazed with concern at the still form of his brother.  Asleep?  Unconscious?  Some place between the two states?  No way to know.  The boy seemed to be resting quietly enough, but Adam worried anyway, knowing that it was weakness and loss of blood keeping Joe quiet.  Fever still high, he noted, laying his hand on his brother’s forehead.  Adam shrugged.  He’d had no reason to expect any change this soon.  Just hope.

“What’s keeping that doctor?” he muttered.  He wandered over to Joe’s desk and thumbed idly through the pages of a copy of Harper’s Weekly lying there.  Never able to let his mind lie idle, he sat in the mate’s chair by the desk and began to read, beginning with the first page, one article after the other.  The slightest moan, coming from the bed, was enough to break his concentration, but each time he looked up, Joe seemed to settle back into his pillow and Adam would return to his reading.

He was scowling at the words on the page when Hoss came in sometime later.  “Got the stock all bedded down for the night,” the big man said, “and I brought you another cup of coffee.”

Adam tossed the periodical to the desk, with a disdain he rarely showed for printed material, and reached for the cup Hoss was extending.  “Thanks.”

Noting the careless way Adam had handled the periodical, Hoss asked, his nose crinkling, “News not to your liking?”

A sneer curled Adam’s lips.  “It wasn’t news.  I was reading a travel commentary about the glories of our fair part of the world.  The author, like so many others back East, is very enthusiastic about the West.”

“Yeah?”  Hoss, being enthusiastic about the West himself, eyed the issue of Harper’s with some interest.

“Oh, you know, the typical claptrap.”  With a grandiose gesture toward the ceiling, Adam amplified.  “The giant mountains, vast deserts, dazzling sunsets—a matchless paradise under the canopy of stars.  All the usual phrases.”

Hoss eased into a tufted, gold-upholstered chair near Adam.  “Guess I don’t read enough to know all the usual phrases,” he admitted.

“You’re not missing anything,” Adam said dryly.  He raised the coffee cup to his lips.

“But we do got all those things out here, Adam,” Hoss observed.  “I ain’t too keen on the vast deserts; kind of prefer mine narrow and far apart.”  He attempted a grin that faded when Adam did not return it.  “But the other,” he continued, “the tall mountains, paint-splashed sunsets and stars twinklin’ like diamonds above the pines—I can see how folks back East, all shut up inside tall jails of brick and granite, might crave to see sights like that.  Can’t imagine my life without ‘em.”

“I think I might be willing to trade them for a few of the amenities of the East,” Adam grunted.

Hoss’s brow furrowed with concern.  “Like a doctor close to hand?  That’s what’s got you so down in the mouth, ain’t it, Adam, the doc not bein’ here yet?”

“He should be here by now,” Adam said, acknowledging Hoss’s diagnosis.  “It’s been hours.”

Hoss nodded.  “Casey must’ve had some trouble trackin’ Doc down.  Might’ve been out on a call or somethin’, but Casey’s a steady man; he’ll keep at it ‘til he gets the job done.”

Adam emitted a long, remorseful sigh.  “I should have given him an alternative to Dr. Martin.  We don’t have all the advantages of the East, but we do have more than one doctor in town!”

Adam wasn’t responding to any comfort he was offered, so Hoss sat silent, drinking his coffee for a few minutes.  Then, both brothers leaped to their feet at the sound of shod hooves clattering into the ranch yard.  “The doctor!” Hoss cried as he charged for the door, leaving his coffee cup on the mirrored washstand beside it.

Adam set his cup on the desk so hastily that coffee splashed out onto the copy of Harper’s Weekly and left the room right behind Hoss.  Both brothers clattered down the stairs and hurried across the room to the front door.  When Hoss flung it open, an exhausted Casey Porter almost fell into his arms.  His face was grimy, but even through the streaks of soot, Hoss could see the young man’s desolate expression.  “The doc didn’t come?” he asked urgently.  Adam was standing in the doorway, peering into the yard, as if willing the doctor’s buggy to round the bend and pull up to the house.

“No, but he’ll be here . . . sometime,” Casey finished weakly.

“You look done in, boy,” Hoss said with concern.

Adam, however, spun Casey around and, holding him by his shirt front, demanded, “Where’s the doctor?”

“I saw him, Mr. Adam,” Casey gasped, “but he couldn’t come.  There’s been a terrible fire in Virginia City—couple dozen buildings burned—fifty, sixty people hurt.  Every doctor in town tied down, tending to ‘em.  He just . . . couldn’t leave . . . not with so many hurt so bad . . . said he’d try to get out soon as he could, but figured it wouldn’t be ‘til sometime tomorrow.  Sorry, Mr. Adam.”

With a sigh of exasperation, Adam let go of Casey’s shirt.

“Doggone,” Hoss said.  “Must’ve happened right after we left town.  Lucky we weren’t caught up in it ourselves.”

Casey flicked a nervous tongue over his lower lip.  “I telegraphed your pa what happened to Little Joe.  Sent it the same place we wired that cattle buyer this morning.  Hope I wasn’t oversteppin’ my bounds.”

Hoss clapped a hand to his shoulder.  “‘Course not!  You done just what you should.  Pa’d want to be told.”

“I should have told you to wire him in the first place,” Adam said, relaxing a little, now that he knew help was on the way, however slowly.  He thrust his hand into his pocket and drew out a coin.  “This should cover the expense.”

Casey waved the money away.  “No, sir, Mr. Adam.  I wasn’t lookin’ to be repaid.  That ain’t why I told you.  Just thought it might be a comfort to know Mr. Ben was on his way.  He will be, soon as he gets that wire, I know.”

“And it is a comfort,” Hoss said.  Pulling the ranch hand into a one-armed embrace, he added, as if confiding an important secret, “but you’d best take the money, Casey.  Ole Adam here’s got a powerful need to be in control of everything right now, and we just da’st not cross him.”

Looking appropriately cowed, Casey took the coin and gingerly pocketed it.  “Anything else you need me to do?”

Though Adam looked perturbed at the charge of needing to be in control, he nonetheless automatically took responsibility for directing the ranch hand.  “Just get cleaned up and get some rest.  You look like you hung around to fight that fire.”

“No, sir,” Casey responded, a touch indignant.  “I did help a couple of hurt folks to the hospital they set up.  Figured that was where I’d find the doc, so I didn’t lose no time, except what it took to find the place.”

Adam closed his eyes and breathed deeply.  “It wasn’t an accusation.  Just get some sleep.  Someone should.”

“He should,” Casey whispered to Hoss as the oldest Cartwright brother headed back upstairs.

Hoss nodded grimly.  “He’s takin’ it mighty hard, blamin’ himself, not givin’ himself a minute’s rest, body or mind.”

“How’s Joe?” Casey asked.

Hoss shook his head.  “I ain’t sure.  Adam got the bullet out, but he’s got a lot of fever.  Restin’ real quiet so far, though.”

“That’s good,” Casey said.  “Reckon I better get cleaned up, like Mr. Adam said.  Probably smell kind of ripe, between the sweat and the smoke.”

Hoss patted him on the back.  “Smell of honest work—honest loyalty, to give it its true name—don’t bother me none, but you’ll be more comfortable after you wash up.  Use the kitchen.  There’s a couple of sandwiches left on the table in there.  More’n welcome to ‘em.”

“Thanks!” Casey said with a tired grin.  “Dinner was a long ways back.”

Hoss nodded.  He’d shared that dinner with Casey back in Virginia City after loading the supplies, so he knew just how long it had been.  As Casey walked toward the kitchen, Hoss followed Adam up the stairs and went into Joe’s room.  Adam was seated on the bed at Joe’s side, checking for fever.  “Down any?” Hoss asked.

Adam shook his head.  “Higher, if anything.  I got it out too late, Hoss, too late to prevent infection.”  His chin dipped disconsolately, and his shoulders hunched with dejection.

With both hands Hoss circled one of the short posts at the foot of Joe’s bed.  “You done your best, Adam.  No man coulda done more.”

Sighing, Adam stood and walked toward the open window.  “My best is a sorry imitation of a qualified surgeon.”

Hoss walked over to stand supportively beside his brother.  “I thought you done fine—and Joe’ll say so, too, when he’s able.”

Adam smoothed his hand down the bronze mane of a rearing horse that sat on a small, marble-topped table before the window.  “I hope so.”  I hope he’s able; I won’t need the praise as long as I have that.

Hoss rubbed his palm across his brother’s slumped shoulders.  “Why don’t you get some sleep, Adam?  I can sit with Joe.”

Adam gave the bronze horse a pat and, squaring his shoulders, turned toward Hoss.  “No, you get the rest.  I need to be here when the doc comes.  He may have questions only I can answer.”

Hoss pulled his lower lip over the upper and slowly moved his head from side to side.  “I want to be here then, too, Adam, and I’ll fetch you if the doc needs—”

“No,” Adam said bluntly.

“Adam . . .”

“No.”  Adam cupped a hand around Hoss’s biceps and steered him toward the door.  “You get some rest now, and you can spell me after while.”

Hoss sighed in resignation.  As he passed Joe’s desk, his eyes fell on the coffee-stained issue of Harper’s, and he remembered how something in the periodical had set Adam off before.  “You want me to bring you somethin’ else to read?” he asked.  “Joe’s got a few books in here, but maybe one of your own would be more to your taste.”

Despite his ongoing worry, Adam managed a wry grin.  “Definitely.  Yes, please bring me something.  Anything would be better than one of Joe’s dime novels.”

Hoss’s grin was broad and genuine.  He knew—as he was sure Adam did, too—that Joe’s dime novel days were behind him, but if a joke at their baby brother’s expense lifted his older brother’s spirits, Hoss was happy to play along.  He went into Adam’s darkened room across the hall, and reaching blindly for the bookshelf, he pulled out a volume.  Having no idea what the book was, he brought it back across the hall and handed it to Adam.  “This do?”

Adam took the book and looked at the cover—Walden by Henry Thoreau.  “It’ll do,” he said.

*****

Outside, crickets chirped a serenade to the gentle country breeze, but the harmonious peace struck no responsive chord in Adam’s turbulent emotions.  Walden lay open in his lap, but he’d read less than a dozen paragraphs when he came upon a phrase that seemed to sum up exactly how he was feeling: “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.”  Desperation reigned in the heart of Adam Cartwright that silent, unending night.  So, I’m not alone? he thought.  At some point in most men’s lives, they come up against some battle they cannot win—and cannot bear to lose?

Literary truisms notwithstanding, he felt alone.  Hoss and Casey—even Doc Martin, if he ever got here—could share his concern for Little Joe, but no one could share the tormenting guilt.  The only thing that eased it was tending to his weakening brother’s needs.  Twice he’d bathed Joe’s hot, dry flesh with cool water, his hands saying, “I’m sorry” with every touch, and the way Little Joe calmed under his ministration seemed to Adam a sign of forgiveness.

“Adam . . . Adam,” Joe called, head lolling from side to side.

Setting the book in the chair, Adam moved to his brother’s side and took his hand.  “I’m here, Joe.”

Joe didn’t quiet as quickly this time.  “Adam, I’m shot!” he cried, his voice conveying the shock he must have felt at the moment of impact.

Adam squeezed his brother’s hand.  “It’s all right, Joe,” he soothed.  “You’ll be all right, boy.”  Oh, God, let that be true!  As Joe settled back into fitful sleep, Adam looked at the hand curled trustingly in his palm and lightly stroked each finger, just as he had that first time. . . .

*****

“He’s so little,” twelve-year-old Adam gasped as he stroked his newborn brother’s tiny fingers.  “Not like Hoss at all.”

“No, not like Hoss.”  Sitting on the bed beside his wife Marie, Ben chuckled.  “I can still remember your first response to Hoss, young man: ‘Look at the size of it, Pa!’”

Adam grinned.  “And you said, ‘That’s not an it; that’s your brother.’”

Though weary from the strains of giving birth within the hour, Marie rose up from her pillow and peered intently at the young man.  “This is your brother, too, Adam.  You will always remember?  You will always care for him, as you have for Hoss, oui?”

Adam heard the quaver in her voice and knew he had put it there with his early rejection of her as his mother.  Those feelings were past now, replaced with respect and honest regard; Marie knew that, but some residual pain still remained.  He desperately wanted to drive it away, to give her such a strong assurance of his feelings for this new brother that she’d never doubt again.  “Always,” he promised, and the word seemed to burst powerfully from the very depths of his heart. . . .

*****

I tried to keep that promise.  Adam sighed, looking at the ceiling as if he could see through it into heaven, where Marie now dwelt with the angels.  I haven’t always succeeded, Ma, but I’ve tried to keep him safe for you . . . for me.   Not sure trying will be enough this time, so if you’ve got any pull up there in heaven . . .  He rubbed his hand across his gritty eyes, stood and went back to the upholstered chair.  Picking up the book, he again started to read, but still couldn’t get past those troubling words about desperation.

Shortly past midnight Hoss entered the bedroom.  He frowned at the tableau he saw.  Adam, almost too weary to keep his eyes open, sat gazing anxiously at Little Joe, who was stirring uneasily beneath the covers.  Adam glanced up at the sound of Hoss’s footsteps.

“How’s he doin’?” Hoss asked.

“Getting restless,” Adam replied, “and the fever’s still rising.”

Hoss gulped and then tried, futilely, to hide his fear.  “He’ll be all right, Adam,” he assured his older brother.

“Will he?” Adam asked despondently.

“Sure, he will.”  Hoss forced himself to sound certain.  “You’re just too worn down to hope right now.  I came to relieve you.  Why don’t you get some sleep?”

Adam shook his head glumly.  “I don’t think I can.”

Hoss pulled his brother up by one arm.  “You gotta try, and that’s an order, older brother.  You ain’t doin’ Joe no good, sittin’ here half asleep.”

“I guess not,” Adam admitted, rolling his shoulders to work out some of their tightness.  “All right, I’ll try to get some sleep.  You’ll call me if . . . ?”

“Sure, I will.  Go on to bed, Adam.”

Taking his book, Adam crossed the hall to his own room and, laying it on the bedside table, stretched out on his bed, fully clothed.  Sleep, however, refused to come.  Why am I entitled to rest? he thought.  Is Little Joe resting?  More than me, maybe, he admitted with a twisted smile.  But he’s got a clear conscience.  Mine’s pretty murky at the moment.

He turned uneasily onto his side and saw the book on his bedside table.  “‘The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation,’” he muttered.  Only a murky mind would find comfort in that saying, he supposed, but reading would be better than lying awake in the dark.  He sat up, took the book and quietly made his way downstairs, not wanting Hoss to know he was disobeying orders.  As he descended into the great room, he saw a lanky figure stretched on the settee.  “We have regular beds aplenty, you know,” he whispered to the sleeping ranch hand.  To avoid waking Casey, he stepped softly to his father’s chair and, easing into it, opened the volume by Thoreau.

*****

Near dawn Hoss, his eyelids heavy, came downstairs in search of a cup of coffee.  While he was still on the stairs, he saw his brother.  “Adam,” he called, his voice disapproving.  Eyes fixed on his older brother’s haggard appearance, he missed Adam’s wave of restraint and continued down the stairs, heels thunking on every step.

“Huh?”  Casey Porter woke with such a start that he almost fell off the settee.  He sat up, blinking groggily at the two brothers.

“How’s Joe?” Adam asked Hoss.

“About the same.”  Hoss leaned his folded arms on the back of the blue chair and sent an apologetic smile in the ranch hand’s direction.  “Sorry, Casey.  Didn’t see you sleepin’ there.”

“Guess I should’ve gone out to the bunkhouse,” Casey stammered, “but I thought, maybe—”

Hoss brushed the defense aside.  “You’re fine,” he said.  “Think you’re awake enough to sit with Joe for a spell?”

Casey sprang to his feet.  “Yes, sir!  Anything you need.”  At Hoss’s nod of gratitude, he headed for the stairs.

“Casey,” Adam called.  “Next time, pick a bed—any bed.  No need to stand on form at a time like this.”

Casey smiled.  “Thanks, Mr. Adam.  I’ll—uh—do that.”  For Mr. Adam to even think about his comfort, when he was carrying such a heavy load, spoke volumes to the young ranch hand.  He went on upstairs, thinking again what good folks the Cartwrights were to work for.  Never made a man feel like he was less than they were.

Hoss didn’t like the way Adam looked.  The listless cant of his head against the back of the chair bespoke his weariness, and the dullness in his eyes bespoke more than that.  Hands in his pockets, Hoss ambled over to his brother.  “I thought you told me you were gonna try to get some sleep after I relieved you,” he chided.

“Well, I tried, but I couldn’t,” Adam replied.  “I was just reading something by Mr. Thoreau.”  His voice gave dramatic, if melancholy, interpretation to the words as he declaimed, “‘The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.  What one trusts to be truths turn into compromises.  And what is called resignation is confirmed desperation.’”

Hoss was drawn into the words by the power of Adam’s recitation, and while he was no scholar, he’d seen enough of life and human nature to understand exactly what Thoreau meant.  When Adam stopped, Hoss looked like someone had just crammed a handful of tongue-puckerin’ lemons in his mouth.  “Yeah,” he muttered, wondering how he’d managed, by chance, to pull something that gloomy off Adam’s shelf.  Then again, maybe all Adam’s books were like that, so deep they couldn’t do nothin’ but bring a man down.  Give me one of Joe’s silly old dime novels, any day!  “Pretty—pretty sour pill to have to take, ain’t it?” he said soberly, turning away from Adam, “but I guess it’s the truth.  Reckon that’s why me and books just always were in a different world.”

“Yeah, books are another world to me now, too,” Adam agreed.  His gaze seemed distant, fixed, perhaps, on some land far from the wilds of Nevada.

Hoss nodded slowly.  “I know they are, Adam,” he concurred, “and I can appreciate what they mean to you.”  He looked upward, as if he could see through the solid logs to the natural beauty beyond them.  “But this out here’s always been my world.”  He listed the things he loved best about the Ponderosa and its environs, his face growing more expressive, more radiant with each phrase.  “Smell of fresh pine, silver trout jumping in a mountain stream, old mama bear and her cubs out hunting in the woods, bacon sizzling in a frying pan.”

He suddenly realized how far afield his mind was wandering and, pulling it back, moved toward his brother.  With one foot on the hearth, he folded his arms on his bent knee and leaned forward.  “Adam, Little Joe’s gonna be alright.  Don’t you worry.”  He paused; then judging that the time had finally come to speak to the heart of his brother’s problem, he added, “You ain’t got nothing to blame yourself for.”

“I hope so,” Adam sighed.

“Go on upstairs and get some sleep,” Hoss ordered.  “I’ll call you when the doc gets here.”

“All right,” Adam said, sounding more resigned than convinced.  He closed his book and started to rise.  Just then the two brothers heard a buggy pull into the yard.  “Whoa,” a deep voice ordered.

“Finally,” Hoss said as he and Adam went to the door.

Adam opened it and acknowledged the silver-haired man.  “Dr. Martin,”

“Mornin’, Adam,” Dr. Martin greeted him.  “Hoss.”

“Doc,” Hoss, standing with one hand on the door, said.

“Sorry it took so long.”

Even the brief exchange of amenities seemed a waste of time to Adam.  “Yes.  Let’s go,” he said and led the way upstairs.  Hoss closed the front door and followed the others.

When they came into Joe’s room, Casey was dampening a cloth in the washbasin by the door, so he could continue bathing his friend’s feverish face.  Though he felt that he should probably step outside, to give the family privacy, he nonetheless remained by the washstand.  He was worried about Joe and wanted to know just how bad he was.

Dr. Martin set his bag on Little Joe’s bedside table.  “The message I got said he was also bitten by a wolf.”

“That’s right.”  Adam’s words were crisp, almost to the point of curtness.

“Did you clean the wound out as soon as you could?” the doctor asked.

“As best I could on the trail.”  He hurried the words, not wanting his brother’s medical attention to be delayed by so much as a second.

“Any sign of rabies in that wolf?”

“No.”

Dr. Martin moved aside the bandage covering the wound, but though his touch was gentle, Little Joe moaned and tried to pull away.  “Easy now, easy does it; easy does it,” the doctor murmured.  He checked Joe’s pulse, frowned and then listened to his heart and lungs through a stethoscope.  “Well, you got the bullet out all right,” he said to Adam when he’d finished his examination.  “Those wolf fangs didn’t help any.”

Adam exhaled with impatient irritation.  “I know all that.  How is he?”

Shaking a vial he’d taken from his bag, the doctor muttered, “I guess I’m out.”

Adam seemed to think the doctor was avoiding his question.  More firmly, he said, “I asked you how he was.”

“He’s a pretty sick boy.” Dr. Martin reacted to Adam’s accusatory tone with a defensive brusqueness of his own.  “It’s unfortunate I couldn’t come sooner.”

“Unfortunate,” Adam muttered bitterly.

The doctor noted the tone, but ignored it as he took a notepad from his coat pocket and scribbled medical hieroglyphics across a blank sheet.  “Hoss, you’ll have to go into Virginia City to get this medicine.”  He handed Hoss the written prescription.

“Yes, sir, Doc.  I’ll ride fast,” Hoss replied.  With long strides he moved toward the door.

Casey stopped him with an outstretched arm.  “I can get this,” he said, reaching for the script in Hoss’s hand.  “You should stay with Joe.”

Hoss handed over the prescription and gave Casey a single clap on the shoulder.  “Thanks.”  He lowered his voice.  “Fast as you can, Casey; he needs it bad.”

“Yes, sir, I know.”  Casey took no time to say more, but left at once.  Even the brief time he’d spent with Joe had been enough to show just how sick the youngest Cartwright was.  The doc said the medicine was important, so he’d do all he could to get it here quickly; not even the Pony riders who carried the U. S. Mail would cover ground any faster.

“Keep cold compresses on him,” Dr. Martin told Adam.  “When that medicine gets here, just follow the instructions.  I’ll try and get back tonight.”

“Tonight?” Adam protested, his voice taking on a hint of righteous indignation.  “You mean you’re not staying?  You’re walking out?  You’re gonna leave him here all day?”

“Adam, I do have other patients, several of them just as seriously ill as Little Joe,” Dr. Martin said a bit testily.  It had been a long day, and he was in no mood to deal with an irate Adam Cartwright at its end.  He’d lost two patients, burned beyond hope of recovery, and had a dozen others back in town as much in need of his attention as young Joseph Cartwright.  Some days there’s just not enough of me to go around, especially when my patients live so far apart.

“Well, tell me, just how sick is my brother?” Adam demanded.

“All right, I’ll tell you, Adam.  He’s pretty bad off—real bad off,” the doctor admitted.  “I’m counting on his constitution and that medicine to save him—maybe a little help from God.”

“And there’s nothing you can do?” Adam asked bitterly.

Dr. Martin’s response was blunt.  “Nothing at the moment,” he said.  “If there were, I’d stay.  You heard about the fire?”

Adam nodded.

“I have patients back in Virginia City who aren’t likely to last the night, others who won’t survive without careful tending,” the doctor explained.  “Now, you tell me what I should do.”

Adam didn’t answer.  He knew what the right answer was, knew what Joe himself would say if the question were put to him, but he didn’t like that answer and refused to utter words he didn’t want to hear.

Dr. Martin pressed a sympathetic hand to the young man’s arm as he passed.  He understood Adam’s worry and knew better than Adam how justified it was, but could think of nothing he might do to remove its cause.  And when the patient was the son of a close personal friend, that hurt more than he knew how to express.

Hoss followed the doctor out into the hall, where he extended his hand.  “Thanks for comin’, Doc,” he said.  “Don’t mind Adam; he’s so dead on his feet he don’t much know what he’s sayin’ tonight.”

Dr. Martin grasped the big man’s warm hand.  “I could tell.  No offense taken.  See if you can’t talk him into getting some rest, Hoss.  Joe shouldn’t be left alone, but if you two don’t spell each other off, I’ll have two more patients, and frankly, I’m spread too thin as it is.”  He gave Hoss’s brawny arm a couple of thumps with his doubled fist.  “I’ll see myself out.”

“Yes, sir.  Thanks again.”  He went back into Joe’s room.

Adam was standing by the bed, staring down at Little Joe, and though his face was a mask of studied immobility, Hoss knew his brother well enough to see the underlying emotion.  “Try not to be upset, Adam,” he urged.

“Don’t be ridiculous.  I’m not upset,” Adam muttered, his acid tone demonstrating just how upset he really was.  “After all, we still have those lovely sunsets.”  He moved to the washbasin and started to wring out the cloth Casey had left in the water.

Hoss took it from him.  “You promised me you was gonna get some sleep.  The doc’s been and gone, and you ain’t got no more excuse, older brother.  Go to bed.  Now.”

Adam glanced at his injured brother and then at the determined set of Hoss’s jaw.  Without a word he stalked out of the room and down the hall to his own.  He flung himself on the bed, but he was too angry to sleep: angry with himself, Dr. Martin, eastern periodicals, and the entire, brother-endangering West.

*****

“Adam . . . Adam.”  Little Joe writhed in pain as he called his brother’s name.

“Shh . . . shh,” Hoss soothed, laying aside the cold compress to try to quiet the troubled boy.  “Adam’s sleepin’—leastways, I hope he is—but he’ll come runnin’ if he hears you takin’ on like this, Shortshanks.”

“Adam . . . I’m shot,” Joe gasped.

“Hush now,” Hoss cooed.  “Adam knows that; I know that.”  He smiled fondly.  “You’re the only one seems surprised ‘bout it . . . over and over again.”  How many times had Joe said those same words over the last couple of hours since Adam had been gone?  Six?  Eight?  A dozen?  Hoss shook his head; he’d lost track.  Each time, though, he’d just keep running his hands over Joe’s feverish flesh until the boy quieted down.  So far, it had always worked, and Hoss didn’t expect different . . . now or ever.  Beat anything he’d ever seen, the way Little Joe responded to bein’ touched, opened right up to it . . . like that time he’d hid himself away in the harness room. . . .

*****

The minute he walked in, to hang up a bridle one of the hands had carelessly slung over the planks of a stall, Hoss knew someone was inside the small room.  He wasn’t sure how he knew; he just sensed the presence of someone else, even though he couldn’t see clearly in the unlit room with a single window at the front.  “Who’s there?” he asked.

There was no answer, just a deepening silence, as if whoever was there was holding his breath, trying to be quieter than ever.

“I know you’re there,” Hoss said.  “Best come out and show yourself.”  No one responded, though he did hear someone take a hitched breath.  Suddenly Hoss knew who had drawn it.  A ranch hand, wanting to keep his job, would have come out when ordered; an intruder wouldn’t have sounded hurt or scared, the way that uneasy breath had.  “Little Joe?” he called.  “That you, boy?”

There was no answer but a soft snuffle, and Hoss knew for sure then.  It was Joe hidden in those shadows . . . and he was crying.  Moving slowly, Hoss approached the corner from which the sound had come.  “I know you’re in here, Shortshanks.”  He kept his voice gentle, like he would with any hurt critter.  “Come on out and tell your big brother what’s wrong, buddy.”

No response, so Hoss just kept walking slowly toward the sound of those hitched breaths until he reached the far back corner.  He squatted down in front of Little Joe and tapped his knee.  “What you doin’, hidin’ back here in the dark, huh, Shortshanks?  You in trouble?”

“No,” Little Joe croaked hoarsely.  His arms were wrapped around his torso.

All huddled in on himself, Hoss noted, like he’s tryin’ to hold somethin’ in that wants in the worst way to come bustin’ out.  With both hands he reached out to pull Little Joe toward him and then just held him, without saying a word.  Joe started to tremble, and Hoss held him tighter.  “It’s all right,” he soothed.  “Just let it come, Punkin.”  Joe’d long since made it plain that he was too big—twelve now—for that pet name, but at times like this, when the boy was hurtin’ bad, it just leaked out.  Hoss couldn’t stop it, and sometimes, to be honest, Joe seemed to need the extra tenderness that came with it.

“He—he’s dead!” Joe cried.

That was the last thing Hoss had expected.  “Who, buddy?  Who’s dead?” he asked with concern.

“Petey Whitshaw,” Joe sobbed, “and it’s all my fault, Hoss.”

Hoss sat down on the floor of the harness room and brought Little Joe into his lap.  “That can’t be, Punkin,” he said, surrounding his little brother with the comfort of one strong arm.  “You tell me exactly what happened.”

“We played hooky—my idea . . . all my idea,” Joe said with a quaver.  “Well, not real hooky; we was gonna come back; just wanted some candy from the store, but we ain’t supposed to leave the schoolyard, you know?”

“I know.”  Normally, Hoss would have warned his little brother of the consequences of flouting that rule, but it appeared this time that the consequences had been far worse than a britches’ tanning.  “What happened to Petey?” he asked.

“They shot him.”  Joe swiped tears from his cheeks.  “Well, one of ‘em shot him.  Don’t know which.”

Hoss took both damp cheeks in his hands and turned Joe’s face up to him.  “Tell me what happened,” he said, slowly and firmly.

Tears again filled Joe’s expressive eyes and trickled down onto Hoss’s fingers.  “Just a couple of drunks, shootin’ it out on C Street, when we came out of Mr. Cass’s store.  They weren’t aimin’ for Petey, just shootin’ wild.  One minute he was right next to me and then . . . then—”

Hoss pulled Little Joe in to his breast and cradled him as he had when his brother was just a little thing.  He felt the boy calm in his embrace, but his own spirit needed soothing as much as Joe’s did.  Inches.  That’s probably all that had separated those two boys out on a lark at recess time.  Four, maybe five inches to the right or left—depending on which side of Petey Joe had been standing on—and it wouldn’t be a living boy he held in his arms.  Only the need to comfort Little Joe had kept him from shaking like a willow in the wind. . . .

*****

Inches.  This time, too, only inches had separated where a bullet landed from where it had been meant to.  Four, maybe five inches to the right or left, and the bullet would have hit the wolf, but this time Joe had been on the wrong side of those few inches.  Now he was fighting for his life, the victim of a misaimed bullet.

“Adam . . . I’m shot.”

The tortured voice ripped at Hoss’s heart; he wanted to lift his brother up in his arms and comfort him as he had back then, as he had more times than he could count, but he wouldn’t risk causing the boy more pain by touching that injured shoulder.  Instead, he bent over and tenderly took his brother’s feverish cheeks between his hands.  “It’s all right, Punkin,” he whispered into the boy’s ear.  “You’re gonna be all right, you hear?  Settle down now.”  Again Joe responded to gentle touch and soothing words and quieted . . . until the next time the torment reached out to take him.

*****

Casey didn’t slow down until he reached C Street.  Then he had to, for the main street of Virginia City was always too crowded for a fast gallop down its center to be safe.  Today, if anything, the street was busier than ever.  The tang of smoke still hung in the air, but at least the fire was out, and all around people were hard at work, clearing up the rubble, salvaging what they could to make a new beginning.  Casey unconsciously took all that in, but it had little effect on him as he made a beeline for the mercantile, which also housed the apothecary favored by the Cartwrights.  He paid as little attention to the fine suit coat, hats and fancy gaiters displayed on the counter, though such things normally caught his eye.  Today, he went straight to the back of the store, where a sign declared, “Prescriptions Carefully Filled.”

Casey pulled a slip of paper from his vest pocket.  “Mr. Perkins,” he called.

A slight, gray-haired man with a pencil resting above his ear looked up.  “Good morning, son.”  He recognized the young man as someone who worked on the Ponderosa, but didn’t know him by name.

“I got a prescription here from the doc,” Casey said, pulling the paper from his pocket.  “He wants it filled in a hurry!”

Vince Perkins took the script from the ranch hand and frowned at the formula written there.  “Hmm.  I don’t know,” he mumbled as he moved toward the row of bottles on shelves at the side of the store.  “I don’t know.”  He checked one tall brown bottle, which appeared almost empty, and then fumbled with some smaller ones on a lower shelf.

Three men walked into the store.  Casey gave them a brief glance, enough to recognize them, by their clothing, as men who worked the land, instead of in the mines, but no more.

Shaking his head, Vince Perkins came from behind the counter to stand next to the young man.  “These—uh—chemicals, son; I’m all out of ‘em.”

“Mr. Perkins, I gotta have that stuff.”  Casey pointed at the prescription in the druggist’s hand.  “Little Joe’s hurt bad.”

“Well, I’m sorry, son,” the apothecary said, in a pacifying tone.  “I had this stuff on order; I expected it in from Genoa yesterday, but it didn’t arrive.  Wouldn’t normally let it run so low, but with so many folks hurt in the fire, there’s been a big call for medicine, and this here’s one of Doc Martin’s favorite concoctions, for infection and such.”

“Mr. Perkins.”  Casey’s face grew frantic.  “I gotta have that stuff.  Little Joe’s sick!”

Perkins tapped the young man’s vest.  “Now, easy, son.  I’ll get over to the telegraph office and check out the wholesaler in Genoa.  Maybe it’s on today’s stage.  Wait here.”  As he made his way past the other three customers, he said to a pot-bellied man in a plaid shirt and dusty brown vest and pants, “Sorry.  You fellows’ll have to wait.”

“No hurry,” said the gravel-voiced man as he slouched over to Casey.  “Too bad about your kin.”

Casey shook his head.  “Not kin.  Joe’s my—well, I work for the Cartwrights.”

Something glittered in the man’s eye as he heard and recognized that name.  “Cartwright, huh?  What happened to him?”

“He got wolf bit.”  Shot, too, Casey thought, but he didn’t figure that to be the business of a total stranger.  Last thing Mr. Adam needed was for word to get around town that he’d shot his own brother.  Most folks would understand it was an accident and sympathize, but there were always those few, jealous of the Cartwrights’ prestige, who would snap up a tasty morsel of gossip like that and give it a little extra flavor as they passed it on.

“Could be this boss of yours was up to the Montpelier Gorge section,” the man suggested.  “Know where that is?”

Casey’s interest perked up.  “Why, yeah, sure I do.  As a matter of fact, that’s where he was, him and his older brother Adam.”  He reached out to shake the man’s hand.

The man gave the hand a perfunctory pump.  “Yeah, yeah.  We’re trying to build up a little spread there.  Been at it for three years now.”

“You’ll make it,” Casey said earnestly.  “That’s real good country up there.”

The man seemed unimpressed by the compliment to his part of the territory.  “We found that wolf,” he said gruffly.  “He was dead.  We also found a horse running around loose up there.  He has the same brand we spotted on your critter when you rode in.”  With his head he gestured toward the door.  “Come here.”  He walked toward the open door, standing aside so Casey could see through the entry, and asked, “Know that pinto over there?”

At the word “pinto” Casey’s eyes started to sparkle.  Cochise—it had to be Cochise!  There weren’t many pintos around in the first place, and only one with the Ponderosa brand.  He looked across the street, and a wide grin split his face.  “Yeah!  That’s Little Joe Cartwright’s horse.  Thank you fellows for bringin’ him in.”  He paused for a moment, not sure he had the authority to say what he was thinking.  In his heart, though, he knew what the Cartwrights would want, so he plunged ahead.  “His folks’ll be happy to give you a reward.”

Oddly enough, for the man didn’t seem particularly altruistic, he showed no interest in a reward.  “We wanted to bring him in,” he said, almost growling.  “We had to find out who panicked a herd of wild horses we just rounded up.  Busted through our fences, scattered through our land, stampeded our cattle.”

Discerning the man’s barely disguised anger, Casey sobered quickly.  “Yeah.  I reckon that would’ve happened when Mr. Adam fired at that wolf.  I’m sorry; it was an accident.”  It wasn’t his place to be apologizing for the Cartwrights, but Casey figured he represented the ranch in this situation, and he was sure that any one of them would have offered an apology, had they been here.

The man had no more interest in apologies than rewards.  “Seems reckless and inconsiderate to us.”

Casey nodded slowly, both to defuse the man’s anger and to give himself time to think.  “Yeah, I reckon you do have a grievance, at that.  How much you figure it’ll cost to fix it up?”  Overstepping his bounds again, he feared, but at least he could pass the information on to Mr. Adam, maybe prepare him for dealing with these men, who, frankly, looked like they’d be tough to deal with.

“Well, since it was a Cartwright done the damage . . . a thousand dollars.”

Casey’s eyes narrowed suspiciously.  Something wasn’t right here.  The cost of damage didn’t go up, depending on who’d done it, not if it was legitimate damage.  “That’s quite a bit,” he said.  As a mere ranch hand, he had no authority to say what the Cartwrights would or would not pay and figured the man knew it.  “You better talk to Mr. Adam out at the Ponderosa; he’ll know how much damage he done.”

Vince strode briskly back into the store, stopping just inside the door by a display of colorful yard goods.  “Son, that medicine’s still in Genoa.”

“Where in Genoa?” Casey asked urgently.

“Simon Watson’s, the wholesaler’s.”

“Gimme that,” Casey demanded.  He took the prescription from the apothecary, folded it and put it into his vest pocket.

“Now, look, boy, that’s a long ride,” Vince protested.  “Twenty-one miles to Genoa—and twenty-one miles back.”

“I got no choice, Mr. Perkins,” the ranch hand declared.  The doc had said he was counting on that medicine to pull Little Joe through, and Casey owed the Cartwrights—Joe, in particular—more than whatever a forty-two mile ride would cost him in time and energy.  Only one duty remained.  He turned toward the man from Montpelier.  “Mister, you’re goin’ out to the Ponderosa.  Do me a favor.  Will you give this message to Adam Cartwright?  Tell him that I had to go to Genoa to get the medicine for Little Joe, and tell him I’ll ride fast.”  With a pat on the man’s chest, Casey took off.

The man from Montpelier wasn’t handsome to begin with, but his face hardened until he was downright ugly.  “Guess we’ll just deliver that message,” he said, and anyone with ears to hear would have detected a menacing note in his words.

*****

“Adam . . . Adam.”

Hoss held a cool cloth to his little brother’s forehead.  “Hush now,” he soothed.  “Rest easy, Joseph.”

Little Joe groaned, his back arching as he twisted away from Hoss’s touch.  “Adam . . . Adam!” he cried.  “Get him off me!”

Hoss tossed the cloth onto the bedside table and with both hands pressed Joe to the bed.  “Joseph, that ole wolf’s dead and gone now.  Ain’t nothin’ here to hurt you; I wouldn’t let nothin’ hurt you.  Now, settle down for your big brother, okay?”

“I’m shot; I’m shot,” Little Joe babbled.  Then he cried out loudly, “Adam!”

Behind Hoss a voice demanded hotly, “How long has this been going on?”

Still holding Joe down, Hoss turned to look over his shoulder.  “The fever?  You know that better’n me; you was with him when it started.”

Adam’s face, already glowering, darkened.  “Not the fever—this!”  His hand flashed toward the writhing figure on the bed.  “How long has he been calling for me without you deeming it necessary to let me know?” he asked tersely.

Pursing his lips, Hoss stood up.  He gestured toward the bed.  “Be my guest, older brother.”

Adam scowled at him as he took the vacated place at Joe’s side and reached out to hold the boy still.  Joe fought him for a minute and then collapsed in exhaustion.  Adam continued to gently stroke his arm.

“That ain’t no different from what I was doin’ for him,” Hoss said bluntly.

Adam glanced up and for the first time noticed that Hoss looked hurt.  “I know that,” he said quietly, “but it’s me he’s asking for, Hoss.”

Hoss sighed.  “Only ‘cause he’s relivin’ what happened and you was the one there.”  He gripped Adam’s shoulder and, feeling its tension, started to knead the taut muscle.  “Adam, he don’t know who’s with him.  He’s too locked in that fever’s grip to know who’s here.”  He moved around behind Adam and began to work on both shoulders.

Under his brother’s soothing massage, Adam started to relax.  “We need that medicine,” he said.

“And a little help from God, the doc said,” Hoss reminded him.  “I’m thinkin’ that’ll do more good than the medicine.”  Easier to get, too.

“Yeah, maybe.”  About all we have left, Adam mused morosely.  The doctor had mentioned three things needed for Joe’s recovery: the kid’s constitution, that medicine and the help of God.  The medicine isn’t here, and the kid’s constitution won’t hold up against this torture much longer.  So what does that leave? A miracle?  I’ll believe for one, if that’s what it takes, but I’d feel a lot easier if all three parts of the doc’s prescription were in place.  “You know, if we were back East,” he said, rolling his head back to gaze up at his brother, “the apothecary would be right down the street, instead of a twenty-mile ride from home.”

“Yeah, I reckon, but”—Hoss stopped short as the sound of the front door slamming resounded up the stairs.  “Casey,” he murmured and ran into the hall.

“The medicine!”  Adam sprang to his feet and rushed after Hoss.

Both of them charged down the stairs, but Adam stopped on the lower landing and gripped the railing, not sure whether to laugh or cry.  Standing just inside the front door, flinging meaningless words at a frantic pace, was not Casey, but a highly irate Hop Sing.  “Why you not bring supplies to camp?” the Cantonese cook demanded, finally giving way to his broken English.  “How Hop Sing ‘sposed cook fo’ men with no beans, no bacon, no flour?”  With his feet set shoulder-length apart, he folded his arms and glared at his two bosses.

Hoss planted one wide hand on each of the cook’s slight shoulders.  “We run into some trouble, Hop Sing.”

“Always do.”  The diminutive cook looked not the slightest bit appeased.

Lips set together, Hoss nodded.  “Yeah, but bad trouble this time.  Little Joe’s hurt—real bad.”

The cook’s countenance immediately changed, and every trace of irritation fled away.  “Little Joe hurt?  Why you not send fo’ Hop Sing?”

Adam laughed gruffly.  “For the same reason you didn’t get the supplies: we’ve been too busy dealing with the situation to spare anyone for a ride to the upper pasture.”

Hop Sing recognized Adam’s sarcasm as an expression of exhaustion.  “All light, all light, no need get dander up.  Hop Sing here now; he help.”  He climbed the five steps to the landing.  “Please to step aside, Mr. Adam, so can go to Number Three Son.”

Adam stepped to one side, tapping the cook’s arm with the back of his knuckles as he passed.  “Thanks.  We can use the help.”  Hop Sing might not be part of the doctor’s three-pronged prescription, but for the first time since he’d fired that shot back at Montpelier, Adam felt a ray of hope.

*****

Hop Sing bustled around the kitchen:  seasoning, stirring, paring and chopping.  He had steaks sizzling in a pan, a huge pot of beef, potatoes and carrots stewing on a back burner and a smaller kettle of broth simmering on the front one.  It had taken him only a few minutes to realize that no one in the household was eating properly, and after his initial visit to Little Joe’s side, he had gone to work to rectify that calamity.  The steaks were for immediate consumption and the stew for Number One and Number Two sons for the next couple of days, while he was away.  Much as Hop Sing rued the necessity, he would have to return to the branding camp with replenished supplies or the Ponderosa crew would be most displeased, perhaps enough to walk off the job when the honorable Cartwrights needed help most.  Food important, Hop Sing silently chided his Cartwrights, all of whom had obviously forgotten that vital truth.  Important for make well and keep well.  He sighed as he again stirred the broth intended for Number Three Son and inhaled its tempting aroma.  With all his heart he hoped that Little Joe would soon rouse from his fever and profit from this most excellent broth.  How Mr. Ben go on without Little Joe? he asked himself.  How Hop Sing?

He heard a horse whinny and at first grinned wide in relief.  Then the grin faded and he shook his head.  Too many hooves I hear.  Casey ride only one horse.  Too many, even if he bring back doctor.  Knowing that both Hoss and Adam were upstairs with Little Joe, he slipped out the side door to meet the visitors.  Three men, covered with trail dust, rode into the yard, the one in front leading—Cochise!  Hop Sing felt a surge of joy as he recognized the pinto.  Little Joe would be so happy when he heard that his beloved horse had been found.  Perhaps that news, whispered in his ear, would make him want to return to them from the kingdom where fever reigned.  Then, taking a closer look at the three men, the cook frowned.  All of them, especially the one in the lead, had a hard look that made him uneasy.  Men not to be trusted.  Warily, he moved toward them.

“Adam Cartwright here?” the one in the plaid shirt demanded.

“He here,” Hop Sing said.  “What you want with Mr. Adam?”

The man leaned over his saddle horn to glare at the cook.  “None of your business, yeller.  Just go fetch the boss man.”

“Chop chop,” snarled the man in the middle, his blue gray shirt and brown pants as dust-covered as the first man’s clothes.  The third man, younger than the others, said nothing, but glared at Hop Sing to punctuate the unspoken threat.

“All light; I fetch,” Hop Sing agreed.  “Please to wait here.”  He scurried through the front door and up the stairs to Little Joe’s room.  “Mr. Adam,” he said breathlessly.  “Three men come, ask for you.”

Adam wrung the excess water from the cloth he had just dampened in the basin by the bedroom door.  “Anyone we know?”

Hop Sing shook his head frantically.  “Not know them; not want to know them.”

“What now?” Adam muttered.  He dropped the cloth back into the water and headed out the door.

Hop Sing moved across the room and stood in front of Hoss.  “Hop Sing not trust men,” he said.

That was enough to propel Hoss toward the door.  Hop Sing could be a mite excitable at times, but he was a good judge of character, and if he felt the men downstairs were not to be trusted, Hoss wasn’t about to let his older brother face them alone.  He left the room, descended the stairs and walked out the front door, only steps behind Adam.

Adam crossed the yard and took Cochise by the bridle.  “Where’d you find the pinto?” he asked.

“You Adam Cartwright?” the man in plaid asked in his gravelly voice.

“That’s right.”

Both hands on the horn, the man leaned forward in the saddle.  “My name’s Dowd.  Me and my friends here got a little spread goin’ up in Montpelier Gorge, where we found your sick brother’s horse.  You were doin’ some wild shootin’ up there a couple of days ago.”

Adam cast a quick glance at the man’s companions and sized them up as insignificant.  This man, however, bore watching.  “Where’d you hear this?” he asked cautiously.

“We met some feller works for you in town; he told us,” Dowd explained.  By the way, he said to tell you he was gonna ride up to Genoa to get some of that medicine you needed.”

All too aware of the delay the extra miles to—and from—Genoa would entail, Adam looked away, but only a brief sigh escaped his guard before he managed to compose himself.  “Thank you for the message.”  Though Dowd said nothing, his business here clearly was not finished.  “Well, what can I do for you?” Adam asked.

“You can pay me for some damage you done,” Dowd growled.  “That shooting of yours panicked some wild horses we had penned up, ruined our land and stampeded some valuable cattle.”

Adam had been in enough negotiations to see where this was heading.  “How much?” he asked flatly.

Dowd settled back in his saddle with the ease of a man who felt he had his opponent over a barrel.  “Three thousand dollars.”

Adam looked at the ground, his suspicion growing, and then up at the other man.  “Three thousand for what?” he asked bluntly.

“Do I have to itemize?”  Dowd sounded indignant.

“For three thousand dollars you do,” Adam stated in a business-like manner.  “How many cattle did you lose?”

“A hundred fifty head,” Dowd snarled.  “They’re scattered all over the district.  Do you wanna round ‘em up?”

In the background Hoss shook his head.  If that was true, why were these men here?  Why weren’t they out beating the sagebrush for those stray cattle?  That’s what any decent cattleman would do, he concluded, which only served to confirm his suspicion that these so-called ranchers weren’t on the up-and-up.  And if I can see through ‘em, you can be dad-blamed sure Adam does!  Resting a hand on the exterior wall, he settled back to watch his older brother make hash of those yahoos; he figured it would be downright entertaining.

Adam ran a quick calculation in his head.  “Well, now, one hundred fifty cattle at four dollars a head is only six hundred dollars.”

“Fifteen dollars a head,” Dowd insisted.

“Where?” Adam demanded, a note of sarcasm creeping into his voice.  “Chicago?  Kansas City?”  Only an eastern market would pay the kind of price this idiot was asking.  Adam was sure Dowd knew that, which meant that this was, as he’d suspected almost from the beginning, a shakedown and nothing less.

Dowd leaned over his saddle to eye Adam with contempt.  “I say they’re worth fifteen dollars a head to us.  Now, that’s more than two thousand dollars right there.  Then the buildings that got trampled—say, five to six hundred dollars.  I think three thousand is real conservative, Cartwright.”

Conservative.  That a man as rough-looking as Dowd even knew a word like “conservative” meant he wasn’t as stupid as he looked, but Adam was used to dealing with tougher business adversaries than this.  “Well, I think you’re about twenty-four hundred dollars over,” he said easily and confidently.

Dowd lost his temper, something Adam never permitted himself to do in a business negotiation.  “That’s all right for you to say,” he snapped.  “You’re a rich man!  But all we’ve got to show is three years of wasted effort, trying to build up a spread that you destroyed!”

“Well, I’m sorry,” Adam said, sounding calm, even conciliatory, despite what Hoss knew he must really be feeling, “but it’ll have to wait.”

“Wait for what?” Dowd demanded.

“Until I can get over to your place and take a look at the damage for myself.”

Hoss nodded slowly.  A reasonable proposition, one any reasonable man would accept.  After all, a man didn’t pay for a pig in a poke ‘til he was sure there was one in there.  Dowd had already shown himself to be short on reason, though, and while Hoss wasn’t as adept at business transactions as Adam, he’d already pegged the man from Montpelier as a crook.  Maybe not the kind that would rob a bank, but the kind, for sure, to stretch the truth if it was to his advantage.

As Hoss had fully expected, Dowd flared up.  “Ain’t gonna be no waitin’, Cartwright.  We want that three thousand dollars right now.”

“Well, I’m afraid that’s how it’s gonna have to be,” Adam said.  He still sounded calm, but Hoss could sense the anger rising inside his brother, so he wasn’t the least surprised when Adam added, “And I’ll give you about ten seconds to get off my place.”

The man in the middle of the three from Montpelier let his hand slide toward his holster.  Seeing that, Hoss stood up and took a step back toward the door, though he knew he’d never have time to reach his gun before the man could fire.  Fortunately, the man hesitated, and when Dowd looked toward him, he eased his hand away from the gun.

Hoss breathed a sigh of relief, but it caught in his throat as he heard Dowd say, “All right, Cartwright; we’ll go.”  His voice rose in an ominous threat.  “But you’ll pay!”

As the three men turned and rode away, Adam stood stroking Cochise’s nose.  He heard Hoss come up behind him.  “Nice neighbors we have out here,” he said dryly.

Hoss recognized a recurring theme over the last twenty-four hours.  “The East’s full of men like that, too,” he argued.

“Hoss, I’m in no mood,” Adam warned, “and you don’t know what you’re talking about.  You’ve never been back East.”

“I know people’s people,” Hoss said, “and that it ain’t places that make ‘em good or bad.”

“I’m not so sure I agree.  There’s a wildness out here that gets in men’s souls and”—suddenly, Adam spun around, eyes flashing.  “Who’s with Joe?”

Hoss’s mouth skewed  to one side.  “Hop Sing . . . maybe.”  He knew the cook had been in the room when he left; he wasn’t sure he’d stayed.

“He wasn’t to be left alone,” Adam snapped.  “You heard the doctor say that, so why did you leave him?”  Not waiting for an answer, he started toward the house.

Hoss grabbed his arm.  “Maybe because I had another brother I was worried about.  Hop Sing said them men wasn’t to be trusted . . . and they wasn’t.”

“No, they ‘wasn’t,’” Adam said, caustically emphasizing Hoss’s wrong grammatical choice as he shook free of his grip, “but I handled them, didn’t I?”

Hoss had intended to compliment his older brother on just how well he’d handled those men from Montpelier, but Adam’s steadily disintegrating attitude singed the edges of that good intention.  “Oh, that’s right, older brother,” he snorted.  “You can handle everything all by yourself, can’t you?”

“Evidently, I have to.”  Adam spun on his heel and stalked back into the house.

“Adam!” Hoss called, but his brother kept walking.  Feeling Cochise nuzzle his arm, he turned toward the horse.  “Handled that real well, didn’t I, Cooch?”  The pinto’s head rose and fell, as if in agreement.  “Yeah, that’s what I thought,” Hoss sighed.  “Well, let’s get you groomed and fed, huh, boy?”  The horse whickered, and Hoss grinned at the appropriate timing, though he knew the horse hadn’t really understood him, despite what Joe always claimed.  “I know someone who’s gonna be real glad to see you, boy,” he said.  As he led the pinto toward the barn, however, his expression sobered.  Would Joe ever see this horse again?  Or Pa?  Or . . . anything?

*****

Hoss paused in the doorway to Joe’s room and gazed sorrowfully at the bowed head of his older brother, who was sitting on the bed, gently washing their baby brother’s bare torso.  At the rate this was going, he was going to lose two brothers to that accident at Montpelier Gorge, one to a bullet and the other to guilt.  And now he’d gone and made things worse.  Slowly, he walked in and took hold of the post at the foot of the bed.  “I’m sorry, Adam.  I had no call to talk to you like that.”

“You had call, Hoss,” Adam replied, his voice so low Hoss could barely hear it.

Hoss shook his head.  “No, you were right: I shouldn’t have left Joe alone.”

Adam turned to face the big man behind him.  “You didn’t.  Hop Sing stayed with him”—he smiled ruefully—“I should have known he would.”

“Boy means a lot to him,” Hoss agreed, stepping closer, “but I didn’t really give it a thought then.  Just feared I had another brother headed into trouble and wanted to be there for you.  Turned out you didn’t need me; you handled things just fine, real fine.”  He moved another step closer to lay a supportive hand on Adam’s shoulder.  “I know it came out all wrong out there, but what I was trying to say was that you don’t have to handle it all alone, Adam.”

With his left hand Adam reached across his chest to clasp the hand on his right shoulder.  “I appreciate it, Hoss . . . but the trouble is, it really does have to be me.  I know you don’t understand, but—”

“Yeah, I do.”  Hoss tried a different approach.  “Boy seems to be restin’ some easier.”

Adam released a short, sputtering laugh as he turned back to Joe.  “Oh, yeah.  Been at least three minutes since he begged me to get that wolf off him.”

Not that again.  Hoss closed his eyes in commiseration.  “Doggone.  Wish Casey’d get here with that medicine.”

Eyes focused forlornly on Little Joe’s suffering face, Adam shook his head.  “Long way to Genoa.  It’ll be dark before Casey can get back.”

*****

The sky had grown dusky, and because of the diminished light Casey could no longer ride at a full-out gallop as he had before the sun set.  He’d changed horses at a livery in Genoa and pushed the fresh mount as hard as he could, for as long as he could.  He’d made good time, but he was still aware that Little Joe had been waiting all day for the medicine he so desperately needed.  Vince Perkins, back in Virginia City, hadn’t understood his willingness to ride so far for a bottle of medicine, especially for someone who wasn’t kin; Simon Watson, the wholesaler in Genoa, had expressed the same incredulity.  “You can’t make the Ponderosa before dark, young fellow,” Watson had said.  “Why not take a room here in town and get a fresh start in the morning?”

Casey hadn’t bothered to explain.  Didn’t they understand that a man’s life was on the line?  Then honesty compelled him to admit that he might have been less willing to put himself to this much trouble for just anyone, even if his life was at stake.  This wasn’t just anyone, though; this was Joe—much more than boss; more, even, than friend;  Joe was someone to whom Casey owed his own life. . . .

*****

He and Joe were tracking strays down a narrow ravine when they heard the warning roar.  Little Joe instantly recognized what it portended.  “Flash flood!” he yelled and spurred his horse toward the end of the ravine, where the slopes weren’t as steep.  He made it up to higher ground and looked back in time to see a wall of water knock Casey, who had sat riveted with shock for a few critical seconds, clean out of the saddle and send him careening along with the rest of the debris picked up by the stream.  “Casey!” Joe screamed.  He wheeled Cochise around and galloped back along the upper ridge of the ravine.

Leaping from his horse, he tied one end of a rope around his saddle horn and expertly twirled a lasso around his head and sent it flying down into the ravine.  He missed his target the first time, but on a second effort dropped the loop over Casey’s shoulders and tightened it.  Casey was too weak to swim out, even with the help of the lifeline, so with the aid of the rope, Joe climbed down the loose gravel sides of the crevice.

“Joe, no,” Casey protested weakly when his young friend was close enough to hear him over the howl of the rushing water.  “Too risky.”

“Risky’s my middle name,” Joe shouted back with an impish grin.  “Just ask Pa!”  When the length of rope between him and Casey was short enough to manage, he began to reel his friend in, hand over hand.  Then each young man helped the other clamber up until they reached a ledge wide enough to support them both, where they collapsed against each other and laughed out their relief as the water churned below them.

“Thought your middle name was Francis,” Casey gasped.

Joe scowled.  “I’ll take ‘Risky’ over that, any day!  In fact, as middle names go, that one’s probably a lot less risky than Francis ever was.  Boy, did I take a lot of guff over that one when I was in school!”

His breath slowly stabilizing, Casey chuckled.  “Well, by whatever name . . . thanks, Joe.”  He extended his hand.

Joe gave it a warm pump, but deprecated his heroic deed.  “You’d have done the same for me.” . . .

*****

Casey hadn’t been so sure he would have risked his life as readily as Joe had, but the least he could do was return the favor by getting this medicine to his friend tonight.  He only prayed he’d be in time.

He was still making good time as he rounded a curve in the road, but he pulled up short when he saw three men standing in his path, their horses behind them.  Even in the dim light he recognized them as the three men he’d met in the store in Virginia City, the men from Montpelier who’d wanted damage money from Adam Cartwright.  But what were they doing here and what did they want with him?

“Get off your horse,” Dowd ordered.

Casey was slow to comply.  “What’s this all about?”

“Get his gun,” Dowd directed one of his subordinates.

Feeling he had no choice, with the odds three to one, Casey dismounted, and the youngest of the three men came up and pulled his gun from its holster.  Dowd moved behind them and pawed through Casey’s saddlebags.  What was going on?  Surely, the man didn’t think he had money in there; he was only a cowhand.  Then Casey saw the man carelessly bouncing a dark bottle in his hand.  “Be careful with that medicine, Mister,” he said tautly.  “My boss’s boy needs that bad.”

“Sure he does, boy, sure he does,” Dowd said with a smirk as he looked at the bottle.  “We need our damage money bad.  You tell Adam Cartwright that.”

“Mister, a man’s life depends on that; you give it to me.”  Casey’s voice had as hard an edge as his visage.

“You can have it”—he held up the bottle—“for three thousand dollars.”

Casey saw red.  “You give me that medicine.”  Without thought for his own peril, he lunged at the man, grasping the bottle protectively with both hands, lest it fall and shatter in their struggle over it.  One of the other men came up behind him and hit him over the head with the butt of his gun.  Casey fell to the ground and lay spread-eagled on his back.

“Aw, you stupid . . .” Dowd growled his displeasure at his cohort.  “Now we gotta wait that much longer.”

“Aw, I didn’t hit him very hard,” the man drawled defensively.

“Anyway,” Dowd said, chuckling as he looked down at the motionless ranch hand, “now his boss is gonna discover the cost of medicine has gone up in Nevada.”

The other man grinned and tossed the reins of the rented horse onto the chest of the man sprawled in the dusty road.

*****

Porcelain pitcher in hand, Hoss came into the sick room.  “Just drew this from the well,” he said.  “It’s nice and cold.”  He poured water from the pitcher into the washbasin beside the door.

“Thanks,” Adam said, barely glancing up from his youngest brother, whose face was twisted in agony, as it had been for hours.

“Fever down any?”

Adam shook his head.  “It’s higher.”

“Adam . . . Adam . . . get him off me,” Little Joe pleaded.

Hoss winced.  “Oh, no, not that again.”

“Yeah, again . . . and again . . . and again.”  Adam sighed as he sat down beside his brother and attempted, once again, to calm him.  He couldn’t count the number of times he’d held this futile conversation with his brother.  No matter how often he assured Joe that the wolf was dead, Joe evidently still saw the fangs coming at him . . . still felt the impact of the bullet, as well.

“I’m shot, Adam . . . I’m shot.”  Joe writhed in pain, one hand clutching the pillow, while the other groped for Adam’s shirt.  “Help me . . . help me.”

Adam had barely gotten Joe settled down again when he heard Hop Sing shout his name from the floor below.  The cook sounded frantic, so he rose at once and responded to the call.

Torn again between the needs of his two brothers, Hoss took a quick look at Joe.  Quiet for now.  Maybe he could be left long enough to see whether Adam needed his help.  He headed downstairs, but stopped on the lower landing, ready to run either up or down, depending on which brother needed him most.

“Someone ride into barn, Mr. Adam,” Hop Sing announced.  “Not see who.”

The same thought flashed through the minds of all three.  Maybe, hopefully, it was Casey with the medicine, but after the confrontational visit that afternoon, it might just as easily be Dowd and his buddies from Montpelier, back to press their demand for damage money once again.

Adam moved to the door and opened it.

Casey Porter almost fell through the open doorway.

At first relieved to see him, Hoss hurried down the stairs when he saw Casey rubbing the back of his head with his right hand, while the left held his hat.  “Mr. Adam, they took Little Joe’s medicine,” Casey reported, his voice filled with regret.  “They hijacked me and got it.”

Hoss steered the ranch hand into a chair near the door.  “Are you hurt?”

Casey shook his head, which proved to be a mistake.  “No, not bad—little bit of a headache.”

“Who took the medicine?” Adam asked grimly, although a suspicion was already forming in his mind.

Casey confirmed it.  “Those three fellows from Montpelier.  They want three thousand dollars.”

Hop Sing turned the ranch hand’s head to one side, to examine the lump rising there.  “They hold Little Joe medicine for ransom?” he asked, incredulous.

“Aw, Adam, how could they do a thing like that?”  Hoss had seen some rattlesnake-mean deeds in his life, but he couldn’t fathom anyone sinking low enough to use a sick man’s medicine as leverage.

“How?”  Adam’s eyes burned with grim fury.  “I tried to tell you, but you wouldn’t listen.  Because out here it’s—it’s a jungle—for animals, savages—where one tries to destroy the other.”

Hoss grimaced.  That stuff again, that same old tune about the East bein’ better than it was out here.  He was as tired of that as Adam had to be of Joe’s pleas to get that wolf off him.  “Adam, ease up a bit,” he advised.

“Ease up?” Adam repeated bitterly.  “Yeah, I’ll ease up.  When this is all over, I’m going away someplace where a man can live like a decent, human being.”  He emphasized the final three words with a significant pause between each one.  “But first I’ve got something to do.”  He moved purposefully to the gun rack by the stairs and took two rifles.  “Come on, we’re gonna find them.”

Casey stood up, despite Hop Sing’s attempt to restrain him.

“Sure you’re up to it, Casey?” Hoss asked.

“I’m sure,” Casey said with determination.  He’d lost that medicine, and he intended do all he could to help get it back, headache notwithstanding.

Hop Sing looked to Adam for direction.  “Take care of Little Joe,” Adam said simply, and Hop Sing moved toward the stairs.  They were just passing one another when a rock shattered the window glass in the dining room.

“How ‘bout it, Cartwright,” shouted a gravelly voice that everyone recognized at once.

Adam handed Hoss one of the rifles he was holding, ducked and positioned himself behind the blue chair near the gun rack, where Hop Sing was already crouching.  Hoss handed the rifle off to Casey, saying, “Post yourself over by that window and stay down.”  Then he moved quickly back to the gun rack, grabbed another rifle and hurried to hold down the front window.

From outside came the sound of gunfire and shattering glass as a bullet hit the lamp over the porch.  Hoss broke out a pane of glass in the window above his father’s desk and fired.  Casey did the same in the dining room.

Dowd again hollered out his demand.  “Three thousand dollars, Cartwright!  We want it now!”

Adam touched Hop Sing’s sleeve.  “Get upstairs and take care of Little Joe,” he said.  “Get ready to run—now!”

Hop Sing took off, taking the steps up to the landing on all fours.  Then he rose into a crouch and scurried up the rest of the stairs, down the hall and into Little Joe’s room.  Evidently, his shadow as he came into the bedroom must have shown against the window, for the glass there was immediately broken by a bullet, which ricocheted and hit the wall, knocking a picture to the floor.  Hop Sing draped his body protectively over Little Joe, to shield him from any other bullets, even at the cost of his own life.  Fortunately, few flew that direction, for the men seemed to be concentrating their fire on the lower floor of the house.

Downstairs, Adam had moved to the front door.  He eased it open and fired.  The bullet nicked a man hiding behind the massive post supporting the roof by the kitchen door, but failed to disable him.  Adam fired twice more, neither bullet finding its target, and then he shut the door and moved to its side.  Gunfire erupted and splintered the wood of that door, but did no more harm to those inside than any of them had been able to inflict on the intruders outside.

“What’sa matter, Cartwright?” Dowd taunted.  “Ain’t your brother worth it?”

Hoss fired again, again futilely, through the alcove window.  “Adam!” he hollered.  “Adam!”

Responding to the urgency in his brother’s voice, Adam rounded the corner and, keeping his head low, crouched by the bookcase between him and Hoss.

“They mean to have that money,” Hoss said.

“Well, there’s nowhere near that much in the house,” Adam said, “but they’d never believe me.”

Hoss’s eyes glinted like blue diamonds, a reflection of his determination.  To save Joe’s life, he’d have gladly paid the money at this point, unjust as that was—and knew that Adam would have, too—but they couldn’t give what they didn’t have.  They’d have to fight.

“Cartwright, we want that money now,” Dowd bellowed again.  “You wanna let your brother die?”

Nothing could have pierced Adam’s heart more cruelly than that jeer.  He could hear the doctor’s words echoing through his soul: “I’m counting on his constitution and that medicine to save him—maybe a little help from God.”  Dowd’s question didn’t merit an answer.  Of course, he didn’t want to let his brother die, and he didn’t want him to wait any longer for that medicine, when every minute of delay might make the difference.  It was time for action.  “I’m going out the side door,” he told Hoss.  Cover me.”  He moved past the bullet-riddled front door and, not wanting to be slowed down by its bulk, laid his rifle on the credenza.  For close-up work his revolver would do.  He slipped through the dining room and into the kitchen.

His movement must have been seen by the man outside that dining room window, for a bullet sliced through to shatter a vase of flowers on the table.  To cover Adam, Casey poured rifle fire through the window in return, and from the alcove window Hoss did the same.

Outside, Dowd spoke to one of his henchmen.  “Looks like they ain’t gonna buy it.  We’ll have to split up.  I’ll go around back.”  He crossed the yard to the youngest of the three partners.  “Get up on that porch roof, through the bedroom window,” he ordered.  The man ran to the end of the porch and boosted himself up onto the roof.  Then he crept toward the window, behind which Hop Sing struggled to hold down a flailing and thrashing Little Joe.

Adam got out the side door unseen and softly came up behind the one man still at the front of the house.  Prodding the man in the back with his revolver, he warned, “One word and I’ll splinter your backbone.  Now, drop your gun.”  The man did.

At that moment the man on the roof noticed Adam and fired.  He missed, and Adam instantly returned fire.  He hit his target, dead center, and watched with satisfaction as the man rolled off the roof, away from his baby brother’s window, and crashed to the ground.  Again Adam prodded his prisoner with the gun barrel.  “Move fast,” he hissed, pushing the man toward the door.

Cursing Cartwright for besting two of his men, Dowd slunk along the front of the house to the wall that jutted out beside the front door.  He jimmied the window and quietly eased first one leg and then the other over the sill.

Inside, Adam closed the door behind him.  “Here’s one of them,” he said.  “The other one’s dead.”  Hoss came out from his alcove and Casey from the dining room window.

“Where’s that medicine?” Hoss growled.

“Dowd’s got it,” the man from Montpelier said.

Hoss scowled his contempt for any man who would hold another’s medicine for ransom.  “I oughta bash your skull in.”

Unseen, the door of the guest room, which led into the dining room, opened.  Dowd came out behind Casey, pointed his six-shooter at the ranch hand’s head and grabbed the rifle he was holding.  “Gimme that.”  He tossed the rifle across to the room, toward the fireplace.  “Drop those guns,” he told the others.

Adam immediately tossed his gun to the floor, and his former prisoner took Hoss’s rifle, turning it on them.

“I want the money, Cartwright,” Dowd said.  “No talk, just the money.  Get it up or you know what’s gonna happen to this fellow.”

Adam had no doubt whatsoever that Dowd was ruthless enough to carry out his threat against Casey, who but for his loyalty wouldn’t even be mixed up in this mess.  “Be reasonable, Dowd,” he pleaded.  “I’ll give you every cent we’ve got in the house.”

“Three thousand dollars,” Dowd snarled.

“We’ve got lots of silverware, lots of other things,” Adam offered.  He’d have stood by and let the two ruffians loot the house, strip it clean, as long as they let Casey go and turned over that bottle of medicine for Little Joe.

But Dowd, clearly the possessor of a one-track mind, would accept nothing but the money, and every decent man in the room knew it—including Casey Porter.  “Just a moment, Adam,” he said.  He turned toward Dowd.

“Shut up, you!” Dowd ordered.  “Turn around.”  He lowered his gun to chest level as Casey started to turn back around.

Suddenly, Casey swiveled back to face Dowd and with a forceful, downward chop knocked the gun from the assailant’s hand.  It fell to the floor, and Casey quickly kicked it away.

Hoss and Adam both sprang into action with Casey’s first move against Dowd.  Hoss punched the man holding him at gunpoint, grabbing his rifle back and pointing it at the man.  Adam, meanwhile, dived for the gun he’d been forced to drop.  Cocking it, he ordered with cool authority, “Hold it!”

Dowd froze.

“Where’s the medicine?”

“In my pocket,” Dowd admitted, defeat painted plain on his craggy features.

“Casey . . .”

Casey needed no more specific invitation to paw through Dowd’s pockets.  He found the bottle of medicine and handed it over to Adam.

Adam’s hand tightened on the bottle as if it were a treasure more precious than the silver that had made the Comstock rich.  Staring directly at Dowd, he said, complete conviction in his voice, “If this doesn’t save my brother’s life, I’m going to kill you.  Hoss, lock him up in the bunkhouse.”

Sober-faced, Hoss nodded.

“Get goin’,” Adam ordered Dowd.

“Come on,” Hoss said, and when Dowd didn’t move fast enough to suit him, ordered again, more loudly, “Come on!”  Dowd and his partner, both looking remarkably docile without their guns to give them courage, walked out of the house in front of Hoss.

Casey started to follow them out, but Adam stopped him with a hand on his arm.  “Casey, I don’t know when I’ve seen such presence of mind and courage.”

“Courage?”  Casey all but hooted at the idea.  “Mr. Adam, I was quaking in my boots.”  He swallowed hard.  “But Little Joe had to have that medicine, and since I was the one lost it . . .”

“No blame there,” Adam assured him.

“No,” Casey agreed, for he knew where the true blame for this horrible night lay, “but I had to, Mr. Adam, ‘cause Joe’s—well, he’s Joe—special, you know?  And he’d have done it for me.”

Adam nodded, pleased that the other man could see and recognize his brother’s worth.  “Yeah, he would.”

Casey pointed toward the medicine with his chin.  “You better get that up to him, and maybe I oughta help Hoss with those men.”

“Yeah—and thanks, Casey.”

Casey shrugged and headed out the door, while Adam went up the stairs.  He passed Hop Sing on his way down.  “Shooting all over?” the cook asked.

“All over,” Adam said.  “I’m afraid we left quite a mess for you to clean up.”

“Always do,” Hop Sing grunted, but there was no displeasure in his tone.  The bad men were gone, and Mr. Adam had the medicine for Little Joe.  For that, he would clean a dozen dirty houses.

*****

Ben Cartwright rode as fast as the shadowy night would permit.  He’d been riding that way since he’d first received that telegram from Casey Porter, telling him that his youngest son had been both shot and attacked by a wolf.  How did those two things even go together?  Some sort of hunting accident, he supposed, but without more facts he couldn’t fully understand.  Not much farther to go now, at least.  Soon he’d be home, and there he’d find the answers he needed, the most pressing being whether his beloved Joseph was now alive or dead.

He could have throttled that fool clerk in Dawson’s office, the one who had refused to interrupt the “important” meeting with the cattle buyer to deliver a mere telegram.  He’d lost two hours because of that delay.  Didn’t the idiot know that telegrams, by their very nature—not to mention expense—tended to be urgent?  Did the dolt think for one minute that any business transaction came before his sons?  Thankfully, Dawson, a father himself, had been more understanding and had promptly cancelled the meeting scheduled for the next day.  In fact, he’d said that he would prefer to continue their negotiations at the Ponderosa in a couple of weeks, so he could see for himself that the Cartwrights’ cattle were as prime as they were reported to be.

A couple of miles from the house, Ben reined his buckskin to an abrupt halt.  Was that a shot he heard?  Again the sharp crack of a rifle split the air—and then again, coming from the direction of the house!  What on earth . . . ?  He kicked his heels against Buck’s flank and urged him forward at top speed.

Since sound traveled faster than horses, he kept hearing the alarming crack of dueling bullets.  At least, he assumed they were dueling, had to be dueling for there to be that many of them.  Besides, it was a ridiculous time of the night for target practice!  Even for Joseph, unpredictable as that boy could be.  But it couldn’t be Joseph this time.  Joseph was ill, already struck down by a stray bullet.  Stray?  He’d assumed that, but maybe it hadn’t been; maybe it had been a concerted attack, like the one now assaulting the home where his boy lay fighting for his life.  Fighting for his life while men were firing bullets toward him . . . at him . . . at all his sons?  Frantic in his need to get home—now!—Ben kicked Buck again.

He was about half a mile from home when the night suddenly fell silent.  No gunshots, not even the chirp of a cricket.  Not sure what sort of situation he was riding into, Ben slowed the horse.  Time for caution now, not some wild charge into the yard.  On the final approach to the house, he dismounted and walked Buck quietly past the barn.  He saw a trio of unfamiliar horses milling about the yard and noticed a light on in the bunkhouse, when all the hands should have been out at the branding camp.  Lights on all over the house, too, though.  Then he caught sight of the bullet-riddled front door and let caution fly to the wind.

Drawing his revolver, he moved stealthily to the door, but then flung it open and pointed the gun at the man inside—a man with a broom, sweeping broken glass from the floor of the dining room.  “What in tarnation is going on!” Ben bellowed.  Not giving Hop Sing a chance to answer, he called anxiously, “Joseph?  Joseph!”

A voice he recognized as that of his oldest son echoed down the stairs.  “He’s up here, Pa.”

Hop Sing smiled and bobbed his head encouragingly.

Ben suddenly realized he was still holding a gun on the little cook and, feeling foolish, fumbled it back into his holster.  Everything looked—well, normal, perfectly normal—except for the signs that it quite recently hadn’t been.  Totally confused, Ben mounted the stairs.  Joseph was up there, needing him, as well as Adam, who could provide all the answers, he was sure.  And that was where he needed to be, too.

As Ben came into the room, Adam was tightening the cap on a brown bottle, which he set on the bedside table.  He stood to greet his father.  “Pa,” he sighed, and the relief was evident in both his voice and his face.  “I don’t know when I’ve been happier to see you.”

At first, Ben barely noticed Adam, as he went straight to Little Joe’s side.  Joe was thrashing about the bed and moaning in obvious distress.  Ben automatically smoothed soothing hands over the boy’s heaving chest and bare shoulders and brushed back straggling hair from his febrile forehead.  “He’s burning up.  How long has he been like this?”

“Feverish almost from the beginning,” Adam reported.  “Delirious since yesterday.”

Little Joe seemed to be quieting under his father’s ministering hands, and Ben’s anxious eyes were still fixed on his youngest son, as he asked, “What does the doctor say?”

“Not much,” Adam grunted.

The bitterness in his tone made Ben look up, and for the first time he noticed the haggard gauntness of his oldest son’s face.  He stood at once and pulled Adam into an embrace and then held him at arms’ length.  He didn’t like what he saw, but this was the boy with the answers, and though Adam looked as though he should be bundled off to bed, Ben had to have those answers.  He asked again, “What did the doctor say about your brother?”

“He’s bad off, dangerously bad off,” Adam replied with blunt forthrightness.  “I just gave him the first dose of the medicine the doctor prescribed.  Maybe it’ll help.  I hope so.”  His voice trailed off weakly.

“First dose?” Ben asked.  “But the accident was day before—it was an accident, wasn’t it?”

“Yes!”  Adam stared at his father in disbelief.  “Surely, you don’t think I shot him on purpose.”

“You shot him?”  Ben reached out to support his oldest son, who had staggered slightly.

Adam shook his head, trying to clear it.  “You knew that.  Casey wired you.”

Ben nodded.  “That Joe had been shot and bitten by a wolf—that’s all, no details.  I wasn’t sure whether it was your bullet or Joe’s in some freak fashion.  Then, when I heard those shots as I rode up to the house, I started to wonder if it might have been someone else’s, might have been something other than an accident.”

Adam massaged his aching temple.  “No, it was mine—and it was an accident, a stupid, thoughtless accident, and I”—seeing his father’s brow knit with concern, he broke off abruptly.  This wasn’t about him, and he wouldn’t allow his father’s focus to be on him when it should rightfully remain on Joe.  He scrubbed his hand down his stubbly face.  “I can understand your confusion, though.  It’s been quite a day, Pa.”

“I can see that,” Ben said, his velvet eyes troubled.  He moved across the room and dragged the gold-upholstered chair close to the bed.  “Sit down before you fall down, son,” he suggested, guiding Adam into the chair.  Then he sat on the bed and took Little Joe’s hand.  Instinctively circling its back with his thumb, he turned toward Adam.  “Tell me about it.”

Adam wet his lips.  He didn’t really want to talk about it, but Pa had every right to know.  Just stick to the facts, he told himself.  How you feel about them doesn’t matter.  Maybe there’ll be time for that later, but not now.  Stick to the facts.  He began at the beginning, with Joe’s eagerness for one last try at the wolf.  He spared no detail as he told how he’d missed his aim and hit Joe, instead of the wolf; how he’d tried—and failed—to get the bullet out along the trail; how relieved he’d felt when he met Hoss on the road and thought that all their troubles were over.  “But they were only starting,” he said wearily, unable to keep the submerged emotions from rising as he told of his frustration with the slowness of the doctor’s arrival, then the delay in getting Joe’s medicine from Genoa, and, finally, the despair of realizing that three ruthless men were holding it for ransom.

“That’s why you said you’d just given him his first dose,” Ben observed.  “I started to ask you why it was only the first, when I knew the accident had taken place a couple of days ago . . . but I got sidetracked.  Sorry, son.”

Adam exhaled a gust of almost comical incredulity.  “Pa, you have nothing to apologize for.  We’ve laid down nothing but sidetracks the last couple of days.  How could you possibly have found the main line?”

Ben arched an eyebrow.  For Adam to find that analogy amusing, he had to be exhausted.  He started to suggest an immediate trip to bed, but then someone else came into the room.

“Hey, Pa!” Hoss cried.  “Saw Buck outside and then Hop Sing told me you was home.  Sure is good to have you back!”

Ben stood and exchanged a bear hug with his big son.  “Good to be back, son.”

Hoss looked down at Little Joe.  “He doin’ okay?”

“So far,” Adam said.  “Resting more quietly, at least.  Probably some sedative in that medicine.”

“Probably,” Ben agreed, thinking that Adam could use a dose of that himself.  “Did you see to Buck?” he asked Hoss.  He was sure he knew the answer, but felt responsible to check on the welfare of his mount, as he’d always taught his boys to do.

“Sure.  Casey and me got all the horses tended to,” Hoss assured him.  He saw the broken glass on the floor by Joe’s window.  “Doggone.  Looks like we got some more cleanin’ up to do.  They shot up here, too?”  Why? he wondered.  Nobody up here was shootin’ at them.  Just pure, cussed meanness?  Only a lowdown dirty dog would shoot at a man in his sickbed!

“Oh, yeah,” Adam grunted bitterly.  “That man I killed was standing on the roof, right outside that window, when I got him.”

“Self defense, pure and simple,” Hoss pronounced firmly.

“That’s right, son,” Ben agreed.

“I know that,” Adam said tersely.  “Shooting him didn’t bother me.”  His dark, brooding gaze fell on the face of his youngest brother.  He didn’t have to tell either Ben or Hoss which shooting did bother him.  Neither, however, knew what to say to assuage Adam’s self-incrimination; both sensed it would take Joe to do that . . . if he ever had the chance.

Adam gathered himself and looked up again.  “Did you take care of the other animals?” he asked Hoss.

“Huh?”  Hoss cocked his head quizzically.

“Dowd and that other beast from Montpelier,” Adam amplified.

Hoss snorted in derision.  Adam had it pegged exactly right: those fellows were animals.  No, come to think of it, that was an insult to animals.  “Yeah, me and Casey got ‘em tied up tight—tight enough to keep ‘em from sleepin’ comfortable, I might add—and locked in the bunkhouse.  Casey’s standin’ guard now.”

“Good.”

Ben slapped his oldest son on the shoulder.  “And now, young man, it’s time you got some sleep.”

Mouth set in a straight line, Hoss bobbed his head in vigorous agreement, but Adam shook his head and said, “No, I want to stay with Joe.”

“No,” Ben said with concise authority.

“With all due respect, Pa—”

“With all due respect, Adam,” Ben said.  “I am the boy’s father . . . and you are not in charge here any longer.”  Seeing Adam’s face fall, Ben immediately knew his son had misinterpreted his dismissal as disapproval of the way he’d handled things.  Ben draped a consoling arm over the young man’s slumped shoulders.  “No, son,” he said gently.  “It’s not that I don’t trust you to care for your brother—or manage any other crisis that might arise.  You’ve already proven yourself above and beyond reproach in handling responsibility.  But you’ve forgotten one thing.”

Dark eyes questioning, Adam peered up at him.

Ben smiled tenderly.  “You’ve forgotten that I’m your father, as well as Joseph’s, and I’m just as concerned about your state of exhaustion as”—he chuckled at the height of Adam’s arched eyebrow.  “Well, almost,” he admitted and watched, with gratification, the eyebrow lower.  They both knew that he was more concerned about Joseph, whose life was at risk, than Adam, who would be all right, at least physically, once he’d had sufficient rest.  Nothing but complete honesty had ever worked with Adam.

And it worked now.  That honest appraisal of his father’s concern, both for him and for Joe, drained the argument right out of Adam.  “All right,” he said, “but if he calls for me . . .”

“Then I’ll call for you,” Ben promised.

“Now, get to bed,” Hoss ordered, “or I’ll wrestle you down the hall myself.”

Adam laughed and raised his hands in surrender.  “Anything but that.  I’ll go peaceably.”

As Adam left, Hoss grinned at his father; then his expression softened to a troubled smile.  He moved to Little Joe’s side and laid his palm across the boy’s forehead.  “Still high,” he sighed.

“Too soon for any change, son,” Ben reminded him.

“Yeah.”  Hoss settled into the gold chair that Adam had vacated as Ben sat down on the bed again.

“Hoss, shouldn’t you be in bed, too?” Ben suggested.

“Shouldn’t you?” Hoss asked, a wry grin lifting one corner of his mouth.  “You’ve had a long, hard ride, Pa.”

“Oh, I think you and Adam have had it a little tougher,” Ben said with a lilt, “but I know better than to try to wrestle youdown the hall.”

“I’ll go peaceable,” Hoss chuckled and after a pause added, “in a bit.  Just gotta settle myself a mite first.”

“Still reeling a little, are you?”  Ben smiled with understanding.

“Yeah,” Hoss admitted.  “It’s been just one thing after another, Pa, since yesterday afternoon.  Harder on Adam than me, I reckon.”

“I reckon not,” Ben said, patting his big son’s muscular thigh.  “You had two brothers you were worried about, Hoss.”

Hoss nodded slowly, touched, as always, by how his pa could see right into his soul—right into all their souls, for that matter.  “I am worried about Joe,” he said, “but that’s in God’s hands now and I trust Him.  I think I’m more worried about Adam, Pa.  He—he says he’s gonna leave, go some place a man can live like a decent human being.  You know, where there’s doctors and drugs right around the corner and no money-crazed yahoos to hold a man’s medicine for ransom.  Maybe it was just the worry talkin’, but he sure sounded serious.”

“I’m sure he was at the time,” Ben said gravely.  “He must have been frantic with worry.”

“And guilt,” Hoss added.  “You know he blames himself for what happened to Little Joe?”

“Doesn’t take a mind reader to see that,” Ben replied.  “I’ll tend to him.”  He gave Hoss’s thigh another pat.  “Think you could sleep now?”

“Yeah,” Hoss said with a relieved sigh.  Talking to Pa had helped him unwind, as it almost always did.  “I’ll get some sleep and relieve Casey later.”

They both stood and  embraced.

As Hoss headed down the hall to his own room, Ben sat down beside Joe again.  “Now, as for you, young man,” he said softly, “you just follow your big brothers’ example and sleep away all the pain and fever.  Is that understood?”

Little Joe, of course, made no response, but as he reached out to touch the boy, Ben felt an odd sensation that his son was sinking into a deeper, more restful sleep.  Odd, that is, except that he’d many times before seen his youngest boy respond that way to the touch of his father’s hand.  Stroking up and down his son’s arm, Ben sent a prayer heavenward.  “Keep close tonight,” he whispered.

*****

Outside the bedroom window rosy fingertips of light inched upward from the horizon and interlaced with the feathery fringe of the verdant pines to herald a new day.  Would it be a day of hopes fulfilled or one of defeat and despair?  As Ben stroked his son’s cheek with the backs of his fingers, he couldn’t be sure.  The fever seemed lower, but perhaps his yearning heart was sending messages to his senses.  Hard to trust a source that prejudiced.

Though the door stood open, Hop Sing knocked respectfully and only entered when Ben motioned him forward.  “Boy still sleep?” he asked.

Ben nodded.  “Through the night.”  Joe had grown restless at one point, raving something about the wolf, but Ben had given him another dose of medicine and then held his son in his arms until the sedative again took effect.

“That good,” Hop Sing said.  “Just what he need.”

“Yes, I think so,” Ben agreed.  He noticed the broom and dust pan in Hop Sing’s hands.  “You want to sweep up in here?”

“If not bother boy.”

“It won’t bother him.”  Ben smiled.  No one could be as quiet as Hop Sing, when he wanted to—and no one could make as much noise when he didn’t.  “In fact, I’d appreciate you getting that glass off the floor.”

“Hot breakfast on table,” Hop Sing said.  “Mr. Hoss there now.  You eat, too.  Hop Sing stay with Little Joe.”

Ben stood from the gold chair that still sat by Joe’s bed.  He stretched this way and that, working the stiffness from his muscles, put there by a day in the saddle and a night in that chair.  “Thanks,” he said.  “Adam up yet?”

Hop Sing hesitated a moment.  “No,” he said finally.  “Not zackly.”

Not exactly?  What on earth did that mean?  Ben shrugged.  Sometimes Hop Sing could be inscrutable—not because he was Chinese, though Orientals were often described that way by Americans, but just because he was Hop Sing.  At the moment he didn’t have the energy to solve that mystery, and fortunately, he didn’t have to.  While he was still on the stairs, he caught sight of Adam, sprawled on the settee, dead to the world—up, but not exactly up, just as Hop Sing as hinted.  Ben moved softly past him to the dining room and sat at the table around the corner from his middle son.

“Mornin’, Pa,” Hoss said, keeping his voice low.  “How’s Joe?  I peeked in when I first got up and seemed like he was restin’ easy.  You was, too,” he added with a grin.  “Didn’t come in ‘cause I didn’t want to disturb you none.”

“Good morning, Hoss,” his father said.  “I did doze off for a while, and, yes, Joe is resting nicely.  Did your other brother sleep at all last night?”

Hoss glanced at the figure on the settee.  “Well, I know he started off in his own bed, but he was right there when I got up to relieve Casey.  I checked our prisoners right before I came in, and they were still tied up snug as bugs.”  He grinned.  “Figured they couldn’t work themselves free in the time it’d take to have a decent meal.”

“Not likely,” Ben agreed as he slid two fried eggs from the platter onto his plate.

The door to the downstairs guest room opened, and Casey Porter came out, stretching and yawning.  “Hey, something smells good,” he said.

“Help yourself,” Ben said, “but keep your voice down.”  With his head he indicated the area before the fireplace.

Casey turned that way and saw Adam, sleeping.  “Oh, sorry,” he said more softly as he took the seat to Ben’s right.  “Didn’t see him.”

Hoss handed the platter of bacon across the table.  “No problem.  You sleep good after I relieved you?”

“Oh, yeah, that’s a fine, soft bed,” Casey said.  He glanced somewhat uncomfortably at Ben Cartwright.  “Hope it was all right, me usin’ the guest room.  Company in the bunkhouse wasn’t really to my taste, and Mr. Adam had said I could have any bed in the house.”  He glanced toward the settee.  “Don’t look like he followed his own advice, though.”

“That one don’t never follow his own advice,” Hoss scoffed.

“Adam was in charge,” Ben reminded them with an amused smile, “and he said exactly what I would have, had I been here.”  He offered the ranch hand the platter of eggs.  “We sincerely appreciate all your help in this situation, Casey, especially what you did last night to get that medicine back.  A decent bed is the least we owe you.”

Casey tried to shrug it off, but the flush in his face showed just how much praise from Ben Cartwright meant to him.  “Anything else I can do?  I know we need to get those men in to the sheriff, and there’s still that load of supplies to take out to the branding camp.  Hoss told me Hop Sing had planned to drive out there this morning, but we only got the one buckboard.  Can’t go both directions with it.”

“Dump that scum from Montpelier in the back of the surrey,” Hoss snorted.  “I’ll give ‘em a right fancy ride to the hoosegow.”

Casey and Ben both chuckled at that; then Ben said, “All right.  We’ll get that load ready to go first, boys, and then, Casey, you can hitch the spare team to the buckboard and drive Hop Sing and the supplies out to the branding camp.”

Satisfied with the plan for the day, all three men tucked into their breakfasts and went outside as soon as they’d finished.  After hitching the surrey they brought out the two prisoners, hands securely tied behind their backs and hobbled so tightly about the ankles that they could barely walk.  “Don’t we get no breakfast?” Dowd growled.

“For three thousand dollars, you do,” Hoss retorted.

Casey grinned at the sour expressions on Dowd’s face and that of his partner.  “I don’t think they got the price of a meal, Hoss.”

“Tough luck.”  Hoss, normally so tender-hearted that he hated to see an ant go hungry at a picnic, had no such sympathy for the men who had attacked his family and held his little brother’s medicine hostage.  “Reckon they’ll have to eat on the county—once they get to the jail.”  With that, he unceremoniously dumped the men into the back of the surrey.

“Hoss, come here,” Ben called.  Feeling like he was about to get a lecture, Hoss walked over to his father, but all Ben said was, “No more retribution, all right?”

“Yes, sir,” Hoss said readily, adding with a little quirk of his lip, “I think I got it out of my system, Pa.”

Ben restrained the urge to laugh, but Hoss saw the twinkle in his brown eyes.  “They had that much coming,” Ben conceded, “but no more, son.  Leave it to the law.”

“I will.  I promise, Pa.”

Ben smiled and clapped his big boy on one brawny shoulder.  “Take care.”

“Yes, sir; I promise that, too.”  With a grin Hoss headed toward the surrey.

“Should I hitch the buckboard now, Mr. Cartwright,” Casey asked, “or wait to see when Hop Sing wants to leave?”

“I’ll think he’ll be ready soon, but I’ll ask,” Ben said and walked into the house.  As he came in, he saw Adam starting to stir and changed his direction to go around the dining room side of the settee.

Seeing his father from the corner of his eye, Adam sat up.  “What time is it?” he asked groggily.

Ben stood with both hands resting lightly on his hips, looking down at his son with eyes filled with concern.  “Almost six.  Why don’t you go up to bed?”

Adam looked like that was exactly what he needed, but he said, “I’ve gotta go out and relieve Hoss—or maybe it’s Casey again now—guarding those men.”

“I just sent Hoss to the sheriff’s office with them.”

“Alone?”

“Well, they were tied up in the surrey.”  Ben chuckled.  “It’s all right.  He can handle it.”  Seeing Adam still sitting there, too tired even to comment, he offered, “Let me get you some coffee.”

As Ben turned toward the kitchen, Hop Sing came a couple of steps down from the top landing.  “Mr. Adam, it Little Joe,” he said.  “He call for you.”

The young man who had been listlessly slumped on the settee sprang up and with renewed energy took the stairs two at a time.  Though Ben couldn’t quite do that at his age, he was right on his son’s heels as he entered Joe’s bedroom.

Little Joe’s shoulders were propped against two pillows, and though he looked drained by his fight with the fever, his iridescent eyes sparkled.  “Hey, brother,” he called.  Then he caught sight of his father, moving behind Adam, and his face lit up like the polished globe of a coal oil lamp.  “Hey, Pa!” he cried, giving a little kick of delight beneath the covers.  That burst of exuberance sapped his slim supply of air, but he took a shallow breath and reached toward Adam, the same way he had during his delirium.  “Pa, Adam really clobbered him,” he said.  Breath spent, he gasped for air again.  “He really clobbered that wolf.  He’s not gonna—he’s not gonna touch our cattle anymore.”   By the time he finished, almost every word required a fresh intake of air.

All the time Joe had been speaking, Ben had been brushing the boy’s hair from his forehead.  He finally let his hand rest there long enough to see if his hopes had been realized.  “I think his fever’s broken,” he told Adam, and the relief was evident in his voice.

Adam looked hopeful, but hesitant to believe.  “Is he gonna be all right?”

Ben beamed more broadly.  “Well, I’m no doctor, but I think he’ll be all right.”

Little Joe was too tired to say more, but he smiled serenely at his older brother.  Clearly, all was right with his world.

Adam couldn’t quite return the smile—the worry, or more importantly the guilt, still hovered too close for that—but his lips softened, and for a moment just gazing into the clear, lucid eyes of his brother was all the happiness he wanted on earth.  Then he took a deep breath and said, “Joe, I . . .”

“Adam.”

Adam looked over in response to his father’s voice and saw him mouthing the word “no.”

“I think we need to let this young man get a little more rest, Adam,” Ben said, keeping his tone cheerful, though his eyes, as they looked at his oldest son, were sober.

Adam glanced back at Joe and saw that his brother’s eyelids were already drooping.  The boy was clearly exhausted.  “Yes,” he said, though with some reluctance.  “We . . . should . . . do that.”

Little Joe didn’t argue, and that in itself was an indication of how enervated he was.  Ben wiped beaded sweat from the boy’s glistening torso, bare but for the bandage around his shoulder, and then tucked the covers close under his chin.  “Sleep for a while, son,” he said softly.  “I’ll be checking on you from time to time.”

“‘Kay, Pa,” Joe murmured.  He stirred uneasily and looked up at his father, his eyes vaguely troubled.  “Hoss?”

“He had to go into town for a little while; you’ll see him later,” Ben answered, his voice soothing.  “Sleep now, son.”

Joe’s eyes closed this time, and his breathing soon showed that he had drifted off.

Ben motioned for Adam to follow him out.  When they reached the hall, he pulled the door soundlessly shut.  Touching Adam’s elbow, he said, “I know what you wanted to say to your brother, son, and that conversation does need to take place, but not yet.  Joseph is too weak, too tired to handle the stress.”

“Stress?”  Adam drew himself up stiffly.  “I wasn’t aware that hearing an apology would be stressful.”

“Not if he felt he was owed one,” Ben said quietly.

“You don’t think he is?  I shot him, Pa,” Adam hissed, so his voice wouldn’t carry through the door.

Ben pulled him down the hall toward his own room, where they could speak more freely.  At the door he turned and looked directly at his son.  “I think the apology is for your benefit, not his, Adam,” he said soberly, “and for him to have to hear it now would only burden him with your guilt when he isn’t strong enough to bear it.”

Adam sighed and leaned his head back against the wall.  Exactly what he himself had decided when Joe was first hurt, but holding in his need to unburden himself had become so painful that he had leapt at the first sign that his brother was well enough to listen.  “I suppose so,” he admitted.  His eyes burned intensely as he looked at his father.  “I wouldn’t want to hurt him more, not for anything, not even my own absolution.”

Ben smiled wryly.  “Absolution.  For mercy’s sake, Adam, did you even listen to your brother?  He gave you far more than absolution; he gave you accolades.”

Adam shook his head.  “I don’t know what you mean.”

“‘He really clobbered him, Pa; Adam really clobbered that wolf,’” Ben recited.

Adam blew out a disparaging gust of air.  “Oh, the wolf.  Joe’s head’s been full of nothing else for a week now.  Yeah, I killed the wolf.  Big deal.”

Ben’s eyes narrowed.  “It was to him!  Think about it, Adam.  After all your brother’s been through the last few days, that was the one thing uppermost in his mind: how his wonderful big brother destroyed that predator of our cattle.  He had to gasp for air to get it out, and that he was willing to spend his precious breath that way is a true gauge of how important it was to him.  He’s proud of you, Adam, not angry or fearful or any of the other reactions you dread . . . just proud.  And if you didn’t hear that, it’s only because the guilt was roaring so loudly in your ears that you couldn’t hear anything else!”

“Maybe.”  Adam closed his eyes.  “I wish . . . I wish I could silence that roar, Pa.  It’s . . . tormenting.”

“I know, son; I know.”  Ben clasped the boy’s shoulder and began making those soothing circular motions with his thumb that always worked such magic with Little Joe.  They didn’t have quite as powerful an effect on Adam, but Ben could feel some of the tension fade away.  “The roar is always loudest when you’re exhausted, son,” he said, “and I speak from some experience.  You won’t be able to silence it completely until you have that talk with Joseph, but you might be surprised how a good, long nap would diminish its volume.”

“A nap?”  Adam chuckled at that ritual of childhood.  “You might be surprised at how good that sounds!”

“Go on, get yourself some rest; you’ve earned it,” Ben said, stepping back and gesturing toward Adam’s open door.

“I think I can now.”  Adam looked down the hall, toward Little Joe’s room.  “Now that I know he’s gonna be all right, I really think I can.

*****

Ben held the spoonful of beef broth temptingly to his son’s mouth, but Little Joe shook his head.  “You sure?” Ben asked.  “You haven’t eaten much, Joe.”

Little Joe smiled wanly.  “More tired than hungry, I guess.”

Ben set the bowl aside.  “Promise me you’ll eat more later, and I won’t fuss too much.”

Joe shrugged his good shoulder.  “I promise I’ll try.”

Ben threw him a mock scowl and then laughed.  “Well, I guess that’s as much as I could ask for, anyway.  You want to sleep some more now?”

Joe gave his father a sheepish grin.  “Not sure I can keep from it.”

Ben took one of the pillows from behind Joe’s back and eased him down.  “Don’t try.  Rest is what you need.”  His ear then caught the sound of someone arriving in the yard.  Who could that be?  Too soon for Hoss to be back.  Curiosity sent him to the window, and a broad smile transfused his face when he saw whose buggy was pulling up.  “Don’t go to sleep yet,” he told his son.  “It’s Dr. Martin.”

Joe moaned.  “I’d a heap rather it was a pretty girl.”

At the door Ben turned and grinned.  “Now I know you’re feeling better!”  He wagged a playful finger at his son.  “Behave yourself, young man.”  He hurried downstairs in time to answer the door at the doctor’s first knock.  “Paul, good to see you,” he said to the silver-haired man as he entered.

“Ben!  Glad to see you’re home . . . and I know Joe is,” Paul Martin said.  He sobered.  “I met Hoss on the road, and he said the fever’s still up.”

“No, it broke shortly after Hoss left,” Ben said, his warm brown eyes shining as he made that welcome report.  “Joe’s tired, weak, in some pain, but otherwise he looks pretty good.”

“Oh, that’s good news,” the doctor said, relief evident in his worn features, “and I can use some.”

“Rough night?” Ben asked his friend.  “Adam told me about the fire, that you couldn’t stay here with Joe because you had a number of other patients in jeopardy.”

“I lost two more last night,” Paul said with a sigh, “and there are at least three others who probably won’t make it.  Then several who’ll be disfigured for life.  Medicine just hasn’t developed an adequate treatment for severe burns, Ben.”

“I’m sorry,” Ben said with genuine sympathy.  “Can I offer you a cup of coffee?”

Paul smiled.  “After I’ve examined Little Joe, yes.”  He paused.  “Ben, I can’t tell you how much it bothered me to leave that boy yesterday, and then to hear from Hoss about the delay in getting his medicine.  Terrible.”  He shook his head in dismay at the cruelty residing in the hearts of some so-called human beings.

“Yeah.  Rough night all around.”

“Adam was furious with me for leaving,” Paul said ruefully, “but it really couldn’t be helped.”

“Adam was exhausted, worried to death about his brother,” Ben explained.

“Well, of course, he was,” Paul replied.  “Perfectly natural.  And, looking back on it now that I’ve had a chance to rest, I think I was probably a little short with him.”

Ben cocked his head.  “Now, that’s a confrontation I’d have paid money to see: two Yankee granite heads, butting horns.”

“Save your money,” Paul retorted.  “Just look in a mirror the next time you and Adam go at it!”  He paused and said more soberly, “Hope he’s getting some well-deserved rest?”

Ben nodded.  “He is—and likely to sleep around the clock, if I read his condition correctly.  Joe’s awake, though . . . or was when I came down.  He was drowsy.”

“Let’s quit dawdling, then,” Paul said with a smile, “and get up and see how that boy of yours is.”  He hefted his bag from the credenza, where he had placed it when he came in, and followed Ben up the stairs.  “Well, young fellow,” he called cheerily as he came into the bedroom.  “You certainly look more chipper than the last time I saw you.”  He set the bag on the bedside table, opened it and took out his stethoscope.  “How are you feeling, Joe?”

“I’m doin’ fine,” Joe replied.

“Uh-huh.”  Dr. Martin chuckled.  “Why do I ask?”

“To hear . . . the sound . . . of your . . . own voice,” Joe suggested saucily, although the thrust of the joke was tempered by its breathless delivery.

“I’ll have you know, young fellow, that some of my patients find it quite soothing,” the doctor quipped as he held the bell of the stethoscope to Joe’s left chest.

“The deaf ones,” Joe teased back.  His attempt at a grin turned into a wince as the listening device pressed a tender area.

“Some pain is to be expected at this stage, Joe,” Dr. Martin said with a sympathetic look.  “The medicine will help with that, but I can prescribe a stronger sedative if—”

“No,” Joe said emphatically, though the effort expended all the air he had.

Ben, on the opposite side of the bed from the doctor, bent with worried frown over his son.  “He’s been short of breath since he woke up this morning.”

“And before that,” Paul observed.  “I picked up some shallow breathing when I examined him yesterday.  The lung was probably bruised by the impact of the bullet, but I don’t think there’s going to be any major problem from that.  Just keep him quiet—and in bed.”  The final three words were stated firmly and directly to Little Joe, who scowled, but didn’t object otherwise.

Ben and Paul chuckled at this particular patient’s uncommon compliancy.  “It won’t last,” Paul whispered to Ben as soon as they were outside the door.

“And when he starts balking at orders, that’s when I’ll know he’s really on the mend,” Ben said with a fond look at the closed door.

“He’s on the mend now,” Paul said, “but, yes, that’ll be a sure sign he’s better—and he will be better, Ben—soon.  Now, how about that coffee?”

*****

Ben knew, by the firmness with which the front door was slammed, exactly who had come in, but considering all they’d been through the last few days, he had no heart to rebuke his son for the lapse of consideration for the hardware.  Besides, the door was going to have to be replaced, anyway.  “Hoss,” he called from his desk below the front window.

“Comin’, Pa.”  Hoss laid his gun and holster on the credenza and hung his hat on the peg by the door before rounding the corner to the alcove.  “Hey, Pa.”

Ben smiled and motioned his son forward.  “Hey, yourself.  Did you get those men delivered to the sheriff?”

Hoss grinned.  “Shucks, Pa, you didn’t think those yahoos’d give me any trouble, did you?”

“No, son, not for a minute.”

Hoss rested one hip on the corner of his father’s desk.  “Got ‘em delivered, saw ‘em locked up and made a statement to Roy ‘bout everything that happened.  He wants one from Adam, too, but said there weren’t no rush.  Mine was enough to charge ‘em.  I stopped by the mercantile and picked up enough windowpanes to replace what got broke or shot out last night.”

Ben eased back in his chair and surveyed his middle son with pride.  “Sounds like you thought of everything.  You hungry?  There’s still stew in the kitchen.  Only needs heating up.”

“Naw.  I stopped in at Miss Daisy’s.”  Hoss gave his stomach a contented pat.  “Chicken ‘n dumplings and apple pie.”

“Stop it now,” Ben laughed, “or you’ll have me riding into town for supper.  That stew’s not likely to last ‘til Hop Sing gets back.”

“Well, I reckon I could hold the fort if’n you wanted to,” Hoss chuckled.  His gaze strayed toward the stairs.  “How’s Joe?  Fever down any?”

Ben was beaming as he related the good news.  “It broke, not long after you left.”

Hoss’s eyes shone brighter than the light of any candle.  “That’s great news!  I guess the doc made it out?”

Ben leaned forward, resting his forearms on the desk.  “Yeah, he was here, and he thinks Joe will be just fine, in time.  Still weak and tired, of course, but the doctor didn’t anticipate any major setbacks.”

“Sure glad to hear that,” Hoss said, patting his palm on the desk top.  “That youngun had me plumb worried yesterday.”  He stood up.  “I think I’m gonna go up and see him.”

“Hoss,” Ben called as his son headed toward the staircase, “go up real quiet.  Adam’s sleeping up there, and Joe was, too, the last time I checked.”

“I’ll tread soft,” Hoss said with a grin and, true to his word, climbed the steps almost soundlessly.  He peeped into Joe’s room from the doorway and, seeing his brother’s eyes closed, kept his steps quiet as he approached the bed.  Not that he didn’t trust Pa, but he just had to feel for himself that the fever was gone.  As he laid his hand gently across his brother’s cool forehead, however, Joe’s eyes opened.  “Doggone.  I didn’t mean to wake you,” Hoss said with a self-chiding tone.

“I wasn’t . . . asleep.”  Joe sounded groggy enough to belie his statement.

“Coulda fooled me.”  With a grin Hoss sat on his brother’s bed.  “How you doin’, youngun?”

“I’m good, Hoss . . . real good.”

“Glad to hear it,” Hoss said, though he wasn’t sure he believed it.  “You sure gave us a scare, Shortshanks.”

“Can I have . . . some water?”

“Sure.  ‘Course, you can.”  Hoss took a glass from the bedside table and went to the washstand by the door to pour water from the pitcher.  He brought it back to Joe and supported his brother while he drained the glass.  “Want more?”

“No . . . thanks.”  Little Joe lay wearily against the pillow.

Hoss set the glass aside.  “You had anything to eat yet?”

“Yeah . . . some—some broth.”

“Be glad to fetch you some more.”

“Later,” Joe said, his voice weaker.

Hoss ruffled his brother’s already sleep-tousled chestnut curls.  “You sound tired.  I reckon I oughta let you get back to sleep.”

Joe offered him a wry smile.  “Been doin’ . . . nothin’ but . . . sleep.”

Hoss gave his brother’s cheek a pat.  “Yeah, but you ain’t up to carryin’ on much of a conversation, either, Shortshanks,” he said.

For a moment Joe’s face filled with glum acceptance, but then with a beguiling smile he reached toward his brother.  “Stay awhile?”

No one could have missed the pleading in his voice—least of all, Hoss.  He sat down on the bed again and took his brother’s hand.  “Sure, buddy,” he said softly.  “Long as you want.”

*****

As he leaned against the rough bark of a towering tree along the shoreline, Adam let his eyes travel across the massive expanse of sapphire blue water.  The brisk wind was blowing white-capped waves toward him, and it also brought the pungent scent of pine to his nostrils.  Adam breathed deeply of the heady fragrance of home.  This land required a lot of a man—in courage, fortitude and plain hard work—but oh, how much it gave in return!  How could I have ever thought of leaving?

Yet for almost three days he had contemplated precisely that.  With his brother’s life in jeopardy, it had seemed so easy to assume that back East all problems would be readily solved.  When Joe’s fever had broken, however, so had that fanciful dream of a place of perfect protection from the perils that so often seemed part and parcel of life out here.  There was no such place, Adam realized now.  Hoss had tried to tell him, but in the end it had been Joe who convinced him—just by waking up lucid and animated, flowing with the juice of life.  From that moment, though he had not realized it until later, Adam had known that he would not be leaving the Ponderosa.

That momentous morning had been a week ago, and Little Joe was now well on his way to recovery, chafing against the enforced bed rest and driving them all to distraction with his pleas for release from the doctor’s dictates.  Adam pushed away from the tree and walked over to the water’s edge, letting the ebbing waves tickle the toes of his boots as he ambled along the shore.  He was dawdling, he acknowledged.  In fact, the entire trip up here had been a considerable detour from the closest way home from Virginia City.  He’d needed, however, to let the peace and solitude of Lake Tahoe sink deep in his soul before facing the conversation he’d delayed for a week now.

There was nothing to dread.  He knew that.  Over the past week he’d heeded his father’s words and started really listening to his baby brother and intently watching his face for each nuance of emotion.  Every word, every expression spoke of love and pride and admiration, without a single hint of blame.  Pa was right: the apology is for my sake, not Joe’s.  He couldn’t just forget it, though.  For his soul to find rest, the words needed to be said.  Oh, he’d said them a dozen times over—if not literally, at least in his heart—but he needed to say them just once when he knew Little Joe was alert enough to understand and coherent enough to make any response he chose.

He turned away from the lake and walked toward a small grove of pines nearby.  One more stop and then he’d be ready for that overdue conversation with his brother.  He knelt on one knee beside the granite headstone and folded his arms over the other bent leg.  “I’m sorry, Ma,” he whispered.  “I made you a promise a long time ago, to take care of your boy, and I haven’t been doing much of a job of keeping it.”  He pulled an encroaching weed from the grassy mound over her grave.  “I don’t mean the shooting.  Much as I regret that, it was an accident; he understands and I know you would, too.”  He looked directly at her name, etched on the headstone.  “What I’m really sorry for, Ma, is that I even for one minute considered leaving here.”

He smiled ruefully as he imagined what Marie would have had to say about that, had she been here before him in the flesh.  “That would have been walking away from the promise I made you, wouldn’t it?  I guess that’s why I feel the need to be here today, to reaffirm what I promised you then.  No more talk of leaving.  Oh, I’d like to travel someday, but I promise you, Ma, that I’ll be here for him for as long as he needs me—‘til he’s all grown up and mature enough to handle whatever life slings at him, the good and the bad.”  He laughed abruptly.  “In Joe’s case, that may mean I’ll still be here in my sixties, but if that’s the way it is, so be it.  A man could find a lot worse places to spend his life than the Ponderosa.”

He stood to his feet and smiled.  “Like to stay longer, Ma, but I think it’s time to go talk with your boy.”  He walked to where he’d left his chestnut gelding, unhitched the reins from the branches of a manzanita bush and mounted.  After a last fond look at the lake and the tranquil grave beside it, he turned Sport toward home.

*****

“That you, Adam?” Ben called when he heard the front door open.

“Yeah, Pa,” Adam called back.  After depositing his gun and hat by the door, he made his way toward his father’s desk and handed him a thick envelope.

“I expected you much sooner,” Ben said with a slight arch of his eyebrow.

“I didn’t know there was any hurry,” Adam responded.  He dipped his chin toward the envelope in his father’s hand.  “You don’t need that ‘til this evening, do you?”

“No,” Ben agreed, laying the envelope aside.  He eyed with curiosity the package wrapped in brown paper, which Adam had set on the desk.  “Took time to do a little shopping, did you?”

“And for a ride to the lake,” Adam admitted, shrugging one shoulder.  He lifted the package and bounced it in his hand.  “Little get-well gift,” he explained.

A smile twitched Ben’s lips.  “He’ll love it, but you didn’t really need that to pave your way, son.”

Cocking his head, Adam pursed his lips.  “You’re too good a guesser.  Always were.”

Ben’s smile widened.  “A father’s prerogative.”  He propped his elbow on the desk and rested his jaw between his thumb and forefinger.  “It’s time, son,” he said with a significant glance at the stairs.  “‘Once more unto the breach,’ as you’re so fond of saying,” he added with a chuckle.

“There’s no breach between us,” Adam stated with assurance.  “You were right, Pa: the apology’s solely for my sake.”

“Reason enough,” Ben said, his voice warm with tender regard.  “Get to it, boy.”

Adam laughed.  There’d been a time when he would have bristled at being called “boy;” now it just sounded . . . loving.  Tucking the package beneath his arm, he climbed the stairs.

Little Joe was sitting up in bed with a book lying open, but unheeded, in his lap.

“You’ll never finish it that way,” Adam teased as he entered the room.

Joe’s face immediately brightened at the prospect of company.  “It ain’t like I got any lack of spare time,” he groused good-naturedly.

“True,” Adam said, stroking his chin, “but I have a whole shelf full of books you’ve never so much as opened: philosophy, science, Greek tragedy—oh, and a dandy little volume all about the mass of men leading lives of quiet desperation.”

A sour grimace puckered Joe’s mouth.  “Are you tryin’ to make me sick?” he demanded.

“Not at all,” Adam assured him with a saucy grin.  “Just trying to expand your vistas.”  He laughed as Joe’s scowl deepened.  “Maybe this will go further toward making you feel better.”  He took the package from under his arm and tossed it at Little Joe.

As he caught it, Joe was all smiles again.  “A present for me?  Hey, thanks, brother.”

“You’re welcome.”  Mouth twitching, he shook his head.  Just like Joe.  Never mind what the gift was; just getting one was enough to excite him.  “Well, go on; open it.”

Eyes alive with anticipation, Little Joe recklessly tore the wrapping away and stared at the new shirt.  “Red?”  He didn’t really have anything against the color.  In fact, he’d seen Adam wear a red shirt before and thought it looked quite good on him, but he normally wore more subdued colors himself.

“Yeah,” Adam said.  “Sorry, but they evidently don’t make britches to match.”

Joe’s jaw dropped.  “Red britches?  Adam, have you lost your mind?”

“Certainly not,” Adam said, and he sounded completely serious.  “I think it would make an ideal hunting outfit for you . . . wouldn’t blend in with sand and sage like your usual garb.”

With sudden insight into what this was actually about, Joe let the shirt fall into his lap.  “Adam, it was an accident.  I know that,” he said, gazing kindly at his brother.

“I know you know,” Adam said quickly, “but bear with me a minute.”  He took a breath and said simply, “I’m sorry, Joe.  I made a critical mistake, and it could have cost you your life.  I should have been more careful.”

Joe nodded.  “I should have, too.”  He held up the red shirt.  “But this is carryin’ careful all the way to crazy.”

“Maybe,” Adam admitted with a chuckle, “but you will wear it the next time I take you hunting, little buddy.”

Little Joe fingered the material and grinned at his brother with fond affection.  “Yeah, might be a good idea, at that.  Might be the next fellow who took a pot shot at me wouldn’t be as good at patchin’ me up as you, big brother.”  He reached forward, and Adam took his hand.  “Thanks,” Joe said.  “That needs sayin’ more than you sayin’ sorry.  ‘Cause you saved my life, Adam.  For a cattle puncher, you make one terrific doctor.”  He laughed and added with a naughty twinkle in his eye, “And after the tidy way you stitched me up, I’d be willin’ to give you a reference to Miss Mimi, down to the dressmaker’s shop, if you ever want a change of career.  Bet she’d snap up a dandy seamstress like you right quick!”

Adam favored him with a smile of forbearing patience.  “Don’t do me any favors.”

“That’s gratitude for you,” Joe quipped.  Then he grew unaccustomedly serious.  “Gratitude . . . for you.  Yeah, that’s what I’m taking out of this, big brother, but let’s not do it again any time soon, okay?”

Adam squeezed his brother’s hand tightly.  “Let’s not do it again—ever!”

“It’s a deal,” Joe said and gave the hand in his a hearty pump.  He winced at the sudden, sharp pain in his shoulder.

“Well, that was a mistake, wasn’t it?” Adam suggested with cool, chiding appraisal.

“Yeah, but not a critical one.  Those I leave to you,” Joe said smugly.  Sinking down into the pillow, he pulled the covers over his face for protection.

*****

Casey Porter held his hat with both hands as he stood before Ben Cartwright’s desk.  “You wanted to see me, Mr. Cartwright?”  Hoss had told him that as soon as they came in from work that evening.

“Sure do,” Ben said.  “I have something here for you, son.”  He opened the middle drawer to his desk and removed the envelope that Adam had earlier brought from the lawyer’s office in town.  “I want you to have this.”

Casey took the envelope, which looked just like the one he received each week, except it was thicker.  He held it awkwardly.  “It’s not payday yet,” he said.  “Are—are you letting me go, Mr. Cartwright?”

“Good gracious, no!  Not in the way you mean.”  Ben smiled warmly at the ranch hand.  “Just open it, son.”

Casey set his hat on the desk, to free up his hands, and carefully pried open the flap of the envelope.  Inside he found a document and drew it out.  He unfolded it and stared, wide-eyed and wide-mouthed.

“I know I’ve already thanked you for what you did to get Little Joe’s medicine back,” Ben said, “but I thought you deserved a little more tangible token of my appreciation.”

“Oh, no, sir, not this,” Casey protested, waving the legal document.  “I didn’t do enough to deserve this.”

Ben came around the desk to lay his hand on the young man’s shoulder.  “Casey, you risked your life so my son could have that medicine, and for all I know, your quick thinking may have saved the lives of all three of my sons.  Who’s to say whether Dowd and his partner would have left any witnesses to what they’d done?  You secured for me something I could never replace, and I assure you that’s worth infinitely more to me that a little piece of land.”

“But the deed to my place,” Casey sputtered.  “All—all I have left from my folks.  It means the world to me, Mr. Cartwright, but you paid a lot of money in back taxes for it.”  He flushed and stammered hastily, “Well, I know it wasn’t all that much; I know you picked it up cheap, but when you ain’t got it, even cheap’s a fortune.  Might be chicken feed to you, but you deserve to be repaid.”

Ben tightened his grip on Casey’s shoulder.  “I’ve been repaid,” he said firmly, “in something of greater value to me than all the silver in the Virginia City mines.  Now, you will take this, young man, and you will build the Rocking P back into the finest spread of its size this side of the Sierras.  That’s an order.”

Casey’s brown eyes grew misty, and he wiped his drippy nose with the back of his hand.  “Yes, sir, I—I will—and thanks!”

Ben clapped the young man on the shoulder and stepped back around to his desk chair.  “I am sure going to miss having you here on the ranch, though, son.  You’ll be a hard man to replace.”

Casey raised his head and looked steadfastly at Ben.  “You won’t have to replace me just yet, sir.”  He waved the deed in the air.  “If I’m going to do justice to this gift, I’ll need to earn some more cash, for cattle and repairs and improvements.  If you’re willing, I’d like to stay on—part-time, at least—‘til I’ve set aside what I need to make the Rocking P just what you said.”

Ben reached across the desk to shake Casey’s hand.  “I’m more than willing, Casey.  In fact, I’m thrilled.  I think that shows the kind of maturity and wisdom that will help you make a success of your place and make me proud to call you neighbor.”

*****

That night, for the first time, Little Joe joined his family at the dinner table.  Along with the deed to Casey’s ranch and that vivid red shirt, Adam had brought another gift for Little Joe, the doctor’s permission to get out of bed, at least for meals.  He’d also put in an order, with the doctor’s help, for a small kit of scalpels and probes, to be kept at the ranch, but that was his own private secret.  He hoped he’d never need it.

Before leaving that morning, Adam had dropped a hint to Hop Sing about his intention to speak to the doctor on Joe’s behalf, and the cook had outdone himself with a feast to rival the spread he usually laid out for Thanksgiving Day.  To Ben, that seemed entirely appropriate, for never in his life had he felt more thankful.

***The End***

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