Love Will Tear Us Apart (by Claire)

Summary:  For my sister Rona – the love of a family knows no bounds.
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:


 

Crossing the yard, Joe Cartwright was halted in his tracks by a tearing sound, then several loud thumps, followed by a loud and painful scream of agony. Galvanized into action, he sped towards the barn, where he discovered his eldest brother, Adam, lying prostrate on the earthen floor and groaning piteously. Behind him lay the source of his misery: two of the rungs on the ladder leading to the hayloft had given way, plummeting Adam to the ground.

“Lie still! Don’t try to move!” Joe counseled, falling to his knees beside his brother, anxiously examining him for injuries.

Despite his obvious pain, Adam managed a feeble joke. “I wasn’t planning on going anywhere right now!” but his skin was an unpleasant pasty color and he bit his bottom lip in attempt to prevent any further outward expressions of his distress.

Looking over his shoulder, Joe was relieved to see several of the hands peering in anxiously through the door. “Fred! Ride into town and get Doc Martin! Charlie – can you find some boards? We’re gonna have to be real gentle.” Despite their care, transferring Adam onto the improvised stretcher and then into the house was a painful and laborious business. Several groans escaped from the injured man before he finally passed out. Unwilling to inflict any more pain on his brother, Joe instructed the men to take Adam into straight into the downstairs bedroom, where he sat at his brother’s side, awaiting the arrival of the doctor.

“Sure wish you were here right now, Pa,” he thought, carefully running a cool cloth over Adam’s high forehead. It felt strange to be the one providing care and succor, rather than to be receiving these ministrations. In fact, Joe felt a little uncomfortable to be tending to his brother so intimately, as Adam was normally a fiercely self-reliant and independent man. Somehow, it did not seem right to see him lying back and meekly submitting to his brother’s care. But with Ben and Hoss Cartwright currently traveling towards Sacramento on business, Adam and Joe were in sole charge of the ranch.

Another involuntary moan forced its way past Adam’s tightly compressed lips, and automatically Joe murmured words of comfort, instinctively using a low, calming voice. How many times had the situations been reversed? he mused, smiling wryly at the memory of the multitude of accidents that had laid him low. “At least my maims are just a bit more inventive and dramatic, big brother!” he thought, allowing himself a slight chuckle. Adam’s brow wrinkled, but was it in pain or annoyance? Joe decided to return to the familiar soothing words of comfort, assuring his brother that he would be fine, that the doctor was on his way. It was unclear if Adam took much of this in, but it kept Joe from worrying too much.

Paul Martin knew the road to the Ponderosa well, sometimes a little too well, he thought. While he counted the Cartwrights among his closest friends, t more often than not his visits to the ranch were on professional business. It was a standing joke among the Cartwrights that Paul should really be given his bedroom, for this would save considerably on his traveling time. At least, on this occasion, his patient had not suffered any major or lasting damage.

“You’re a very lucky man, Adam,” Paul stated on completing his examination.

Adam looked exceptionally dubious at this statement. “Really?” he said sardonically, disbelief evident in every syllable.

Paul was not noticeably discomfited and just continued washing his hands. “It could have been a whole lot worse. There are no bones broken, which is quite remarkable. However, you’ve badly strained the muscles in your back and they’ll take time to heal. And the only way you can do that is to lie quite flat, right here. Any unnecessary movement could seriously compromise your chances of recovery.”

“He will be alright though, won’t he?” Joe could not avoid anxiety coloring his words and Paul smiled reassuringly at the young man. After all, it was a relatively new experience for Joe to be the healthy, ambulatory person in a sickroom

“Given time, Adam will be as good as new. But it will take time! And he’ll need looking after. Like I said, as little movement as possible until the muscles have recovered.”

“No problem!” Joe assured the doctor, with his normal, boundless confidence. He was soon to discover just how misplaced this was. Used to rude health, Adam did not take easily to enforced bed rest and that evening he resisted every suggestion Joe offered to make his sojourn more comfortable, before eventually realizing that his little brother did actually knew what he was talking about. Joe rigged up a book rest that allowed Adam to read with relative ease and brought down some books of poetry helped to pass the long, lonely hours that lay ahead.

That evening, as he sat by his brother’s bed, watching him sleep uneasily, Joe realized that he would have to assume the full responsibility of running the ranch. He was aghast to realize the magnitude of the job that lay ahead, the range and diversity of tasks requiring his attention, and the number of important decisions he had to make on a daily basis. However, this was a challenge and there was Joe he enjoyed more than that! Unless, of course, you included playing poker, or charming young ladies or… No! he thought determinedly. That was the old Joe Cartwright. Now he had the entire Ponderosa and all its employees relying on his leadership and Joe was determined not to let them, or his family down.

From the beginning, it was a steep learning curve. To the accompaniment of Adam’s soft snores and the occasional groan, Joe spent the nest few hours pouring over the ledgers and contracts, trying to place all the numerous interlocking pieces of life on the Ponderosa into a coherent context. It was immediately apparent to him that it was simply impossible for one man to oversee everything successfully. There was no way he could hope to manage all the diverse and varied strands on his own.

Joe concentrated on the timber operations first of all, for they posed no great problem. At this time of year, only a skeleton crew was required to carry out in routine maintenance and replanting. Likewise, the mines could continue under the guidance of their pit-boss, Stefan. So far, so good, Joe thought, turning to the thornier problems of the cattle and horse operations.

There was a big cattle-run coming up, and it was essential the stock was driven to Sacramento in time for the lucrative market, where Ben and Hoss were already involved in pre-negotiations for new breeding stock, as well as informing would-be buyers of the fine quality of Ponderosa beef. In addition to this, there were several strings of horses on the ranch that had to be saddle-broken and trained in order to fulfill an important army contract.

Leaning back in his chair and raking his hands through his hair, Joe knew it was impossible for him to be in two places at once. He would have to delegate one job – but which one? He looked at Adam, who was now sleeping soundly, thanks to a sleeping draught left by Paul Martin, and knew that in all honesty there was no question at all.

Charlie had been foreman at the Ponderosa for as long as Joe could remember. A weathered man, respected by the rest of the hands, he was more than capable of leading the cattle drive. In fact, he was delighted to be given the task and Joe thought the man seemed at least a couple of inches taller as he strode across the yard and gathered his men together. There was a faint cheer as Charlie announced that Hop Sing would be in charge of the chuck wagon, for this was a guarantee of continued good food, no matter where the men pitched camp for the night.

Hop Sing was not quite so sanguine. “How you manage?” he asked anxiously and Joe sought to reassure his friend that he had learned than enough more general cooking skills to keep himself and Adam well fed for a few weeks.

“Mister Adam be fed up with beef stew and dumplings in one week!” Hop Sing said, with mock acerbity. “You be good boy. No work too hard!”

Joe gave his friend an old-fashioned look and then burst out laughing. “We’ll be just fine!” he said, mentally crossing his fingers and knowing that the greatest challenge lay just ahead. “I had some great teachers and I’m an apt pupil!” Hop Sing snorted contemptuously, but as the wagon drew out of the yard he turned back and waved at Joe until both he and the house were hidden from sight by the surrounding trees.

Joe knew that completing the army contract and delivering a string of horses, not only broken to saddle, but obedient to command and willing to learn more was no small task. At times, the enormity of the project seemed almost overwhelming. Although he had Fred, an experienced hand and a skilful rider with animals to help him, time was short and they had already lost valuable days, due to Adam’s unfortunate accident. Knowing he had to make up the lost time somewhere, Joe had devised a plan out of sheer desperation, reasoning that at this stage he had little to lose. Just keeping all the various business enterprises running smoothly was a major undertaking for one man, but when the additional duties of tending to his bed-ridden brother were factored in, Joe seriously began to doubt if there were enough hours in the day.

He had figured out a couple of ways to keep Adam from fretting too badly about his enforced bed-rest. Joe knew from experience how slowly the days dragged when you were alone and in pain, so he was delighted when Angus Jeffries, a retired banker, volunteered to come to play chess with his brother. With a mind like a steel trap, Angus was a worthy opponent for Adam and the two men spent long hours, happily waging war across the chessboard, forming a firm friendship in the process. Adam spent the remaining hours redrafting the mine contracts and studying the schematic and geographical surveys of the mines, comparing them with assays and debating where new tunnels might be most profitably excavated. In the evenings, he was eager to discuss his new theories with Joe and scarcely seemed to notice when his brother merely nodded agreement and seemed to have trouble concentrating on the conversation.

In truth, Joe could never remember when he had ever been so tired. Each day continued in the same pattern: checking on Adam and seeing to his needs, then preparing breakfast. Next, he would go to the corral and work with the horses until lunchtime, when he returned to the house and made lunch for his brother. More work with the horses and a hasty supper, then Joe held evening meetings with the various foremen, before snatching a few precious hours with Adam. His final chore of the day was completing the bookwork, a necessary, but tedious task. Joe scarcely had time to think from one moment to the next and the prospect of riding into Virginia City for a few beers had never seemed less attractive. At the end of the day, Joe was only too grateful to drag himself upstairs and collapse into bed.

After ten days of hectic, constant work, Joe felt he was moving almost mechanically, just going through the motions. He worried that Adam would feel neglected and depressed, but was relieved when his brother announced he was convinced he had identified a new seam of ore, which he thought would reap rich rewards. Previously, Joe would have been incredibly excited at such news, plying his brother with questions, but now he was just grateful that this was providing Adam with a purpose that stopped him from becoming depressed and dispirited.

Yet, despite all the travails, Joe was quietly gratified to discover that his new scheme for breaking the horses to saddle was working – and working beautifully! It was the first time he had ever had the opportunity to devise and implement such a plan entirely on his own, without recourse to his father or brothers, and it was incredibly satisfying to see it through to fulfillment. He was convinced the well-schooled animals would command a premium price and he could hardly wait to see the looks of pride on the faces of his father and brothers when he could announce the concluded deal.

*****

Ben Cartwright always felt a sense of relief when he returned to the Ponderosa and identified with Robert Browning’s statement: “God’s in his Heaven – All’s right with the world!” Each homecoming was an affirmation that this was his land; it was where he was meant to be and where, with the help of his sons, he would continue to prosper.

At his side, Hoss sat on his horse with the unmistakable air of a supremely contented man. The trip to Sacramento had been a valuable time for father and son to spend time alone together, away from the myriad of small chores that inevitably colored their daily lives and which tended to subsume the opportunities for sharing time, thoughts and experiences with one another. Hoss always felt valued and cherished within his family but, on occasion, outsiders would overlook the contribution he had to give, being either beguiled by Joe’s abundant charm or over-awed by Adam’s obvious knowledge. This trip allowed him to demonstrate his knowledge of bloodstock and Hoss was somewhat taken aback when several other ranchers had deferred to his quiet assessment and followed his advice.

Ben smiled contentedly to see the new confidence in his normally reserved son. He just hoped that Adam and Joe had managed to work together and were not now totally estranged from one another. While all three of his boys were devoted to one another, the relationship between oldest and youngest had not been without its trials and at times could only be described as volatile. Both were stubborn to a fault and could not acknowledge that, for all their many differences, they were incredibly alike, in their dedication to both the Ponderosa and to the family.

“I’ll go an’ put the horses in the barn, Pa,” Hoss said. “Reckon they’ll be ready for a long rest and some good vitals.”

The yearning quality in his voice did not escape his father. “I’m sure Hop Sing has prepared a suitable meal for our return!” he joked, suppressing a laugh as Hoss’ eyes grew wide with delight.

The barn was cool and dark and it took a few moments for his eyes to adjust from the brightness outside. Leading Buck and Chubb, Hoss saw a figure in the shadowy recesses.

“Punkin? That you?”

Joe stood up, his belt dangling from one hand, while the other grabbed frantically at the waistband of his trousers. “Hoss?” he said hesitantly. The past few days had been so hectic that Joe had lost track of dates and was unaware his father and brother were due to return that afternoon. Then realization hit. “Hoss!” Joe yelled joyfully and propelled himself across the barn into his brother’s arms.

“I missed you too!” Hoss laughed, hugging Joe back. Something felt very wrong: Joe had always been slender, but now he could clearly feel each vertebra on Joe’s spine. He held the younger man at arms length, studying him closely and ignoring the squirming fit Joe promptly indulged in. “You never had much meat on your bones, little brother, but now you’re jist plum puny. An’ what’re you doin’ with that awl?”

Joe reddened. “Like you say, I lost a little weight and thought I’d better make another hole in belt. Don’t want my pants falling down on me!” He tried to make a joke of it, but the look of concern in Hoss’ eyes did not diminish noticeably.

“Adam ain’t been workin’ you too hard, has he?”

“No! Nothing like that!” Joe averred. Once he was certain that Adam’s injuries were relatively minor, Joe decided not wanted to worry his father and brother unnecessarily, so neither man was aware of the accident. As they groomed the horses and then settled them into their stall for the night, Joe updated Hoss on all that had happened in the previous few weeks.

*****

Ben was rather shocked to enter the house and find Adam seated before the fire, looking slightly washed out and with a rug over his knees.

“Joe’s idea!” Adam remarked, essaying a small smile. “He’s been fussing over me like a mother hen. It was almost like having you at home.” The look of bewilderment on his father’s face told him immediately that Joe had not informed the elder Cartwright’s of his accident and Adam began to wonder grimly what other little nuggets of information Joe had successfully kept from him.

Rest and recuperation had worked wonders and the muscles in Adam’s back were healing well, allowing him to move around relatively freely, although he was not exactly welcoming the prospect of mounting a horse again. The greatest shock to Adam had been the realization that company meant so much to him, so it was a great joy to be able to sit at the table with his father and brothers that evening and enjoy a fine meal and good conversation.

“Nothing like pork chops, mashed potatoes, green beans and apple sauce!” Hoss announced happily, helping himself to large portions of each. “I don’t suppose there’d be cherry pie for pudding?”

Hop Sing bobbed his head and disappeared back into the kitchen, wreathed in smiles. No one could beat Hoss for sheer appreciation of his culinary skills.

“Makes a change from stew, soup and sandwiches!” Adam said jovially.

Joe flinched. “I did my best,” he mumbled, pushing his food around the plate disinterestedly.

“Can’t be too easy, drinkin’ soup lying on yer back,” Hoss remarked, not noticing Joe’s head sink a little lower.

Adam chortled, recalling his first attempt to do just that. The pillowslips would never be the same again… “You and I can see that brother, but it seemed to escape Joe’s notice!”

Ben was anxious to have one meal without discord and sought to find a neutral topic. “How did you get on with those horses for the army contract, Joe? They were pretty green and wild when we left. I hope you didn’t have too much trouble?” He looked at Joe and thought the young man looked pretty wrung out: pale, drawn and gaunt.

“We got all the horses broken – and ahead of schedule!” Joe said proudly. He was still rather amazed that his plan had worked so well. “We made a good profit on that contract.”

Adam tried very hard not to show his disbelief. Joe had a tendency on occasions to be slightly economical with the truth and he wondered how much embroidery this tale was being subjected to. “You managed to break those horses in record time, with a skeleton crew and make a profit, while single-handedly running the Ponderosa – and all at the same time? You must let me into your secret, little brother!”

Joe favored his brother with a hurt look, then stalked across to the office and selected a leather bound ledger, laying it before his father as he pointed out the figures that verified his words. Ben couldn’t help noticing how thin his son’s wrists were, how the flesh seemed to have melted from his bones. Joe appeared to be on the verge of exhaustion; his eyes were heavy with exhaustion and the bright spots of anger flaring high on his cheeks were the only color in an otherwise gaunt face.

“You’ve done a remarkable job!” Ben said, with evident admiration. “How on earth do you do all this?”

Joe sat back down at the table. “We spent the first couple of days getting to know the horses and letting them get used to us. No riding, just talking to them, and letting them approach us when they felt ready. The next day, I divided the men into two groups. While one group was working the horses, the other stayed with the horses, so they were as calm as possible. And after they were rough broken, we continued to give them lots of attention and care. Those horses were so eager to learn! We had them saddle broke in no time at all. And I got $20 a head more than the original agreement.”

“Well done! I’m proud of you son!” Few words had ever sounded sweeter to Joe than his father’s heartfelt praise and he realized that all the hard work had been worthwhile.

“You done us all proud,” Hoss stated emphatically, emphasizing his words with a resounding thump that almost knocked the breath out of his brother’s body.

“It wasn’t just me!” Joe added honestly. “We all worked together and I knew I could rely on Fred to keep things going when I had to go to check on the timber or mine crews.”

Adam looked at his brother with new regard, impressed that Joe had willingly delegated responsibilities and had not been tempted to try to oversee everything on his own. It showed a degree of pragmatism and humility he did not usually associate with Joe. And this new way of working with the horses certainly seemed worth while trying.

“I might just try your method when I’m back breaking broncs!” he mused out loud and was surprised to see Joe’s face drop. “What’s the matter? Not willing to share the glory?”

“I was kind of hoping Pa might let me continue with the horse breaking for a bit. Maybe even take over the running of it,” Joe confessed, his voice tailing off as he finally put a long cherished dream into words. He’d never quite had either the confidence or courage to speak about this before, fearing his request would be turned down.

“I hardly think one trial experiment qualifies you to take over one of the most profitable operations on the ranch. You simply don’t have the experience,” Adam remarked calmly, impervious to the black looks Ben shot across the table at him. “Perhaps you could work with me for a bit, let me show you the ropes?”

Joe took a deep breath and willed his voice to stay steady. “How can I ever learn to run things unless I get some experience? I’m the same age as you were when you came back from college and Pa trusted you with plenty of responsibility. Sure, I’ll make some mistakes – we all do! But they’ll be my mistakes and I hope I’ll learn from them. Be fair Adam – you’ve got to let me grow me up sometime.”

“Fact is, he’s got you on two counts,” Hoss added calmly. “First, Joe’s the best rider hereabouts an’ he’s got a natural affinity with horses. Ain’t no doubt Joe can get ‘em to do things for him the rest of us can only dream about! And second, Joe’s proved himself right fine. He’s earned that chance fair and square, even if he’s near run himself ragged in the process. Pa trusted both of us and now I reckon we’ve got to do the same for Joe.”

Joe beamed happily. Hoss might be a man of few words, but when he made a speech, everyone listened.

This was not exactly the happy homecoming meal Ben had envisaged and he found himself with little appetite for the cherry pie Hop Sing proudly placed on the table. He was keenly aware that three sets of eyes were upon him, awaiting his decision.

Talk about the judgment of Solomon! No matter what he decided, one son would feel hurt and aggrieved. Adam had eased confidently into managing many of the day-to-day activities of the Ponderosa and he was a stalwart right hand to his father. But, if he were totally honest, Ben knew that Adam found it difficult to walk in another man’s shoes and experience his hopes and fears. At times, his eldest son could be a lone wolf, relying on his own experience and skills and reluctant to cede responsibility. A lot of that was connected to the fact that he had assumed the role of a surrogate parent to both his brothers at an early age. Ben knew that Adam wanted to help Joe find his feet and ease his passage into manhood. But keeping too firm a hand on the reins could be as unproductive with Joe as it was with a spirited horse – sooner or later, there would be rebellion.

Ben had fight down all his own protective instincts on this matter. Joe was his youngest child –and he was literally chaffing at the bit to be allowed to prove himself, not only in the eyes of his family but to the hands on the ranch and also to the wider world. Ben sometimes found it difficult to acknowledge his little boy was now a man, but he was gratified that all his sons valued his opinions and still sought his advice and guidance. Only why did Joe have to choose the most dangerous occupation on the ranch?

Of course, Joe had never taken the easy route through life. Quite the reverse in fact. From the moment of his traumatic birth, Joe had always viewed life as an adventure, grabbing each new opportunity and challenge with eager hands, but seldom stopping to think. Small wonder the boy had suffered more broken bones and illnesses than the rest of the family put together. You only had to tell Joe that something was not possible and he would be out there, determined to prove that it wasn’t.

Looking at things logically, Ben knew that Joe was the natural son to take charge of the horse operations. Adam had run these solidly, but he did not have Joe’s instinctive love and understanding of the animals. You simply could not imagine Adam sharing a cup of coffee with Sport, the way Joe did with Cochise! And Hoss was right – Joe was the best horseman in the family.

Then again, Adam had consistently provided a sterling example for both his brothers. He had an excellent head for business and had introduced many new innovations to the mining operations. It must be a little overwhelming at times to have such a paragon as your elder brother and Ben realized that it was important for Joe to be able to prove himself against the standard Adam had set. He squared his shoulders and looked at the three faces regarding him expectantly.

“I think that Joseph has proven himself admirably, not only with the horses, but in overseeing the whole ranch. It takes a mature man to realize he cannot do everything by himself. In choosing to delegate responsibility to reliable, experienced men, Joe was able to concentrate on the area of his own expertise, with positive results for everyone. The mining operations are expanding far beyond our original expectations now Adam, so I’d like you to concentrate on those right now. And I think it’s only fair that Joe have the chance to run the horse operations from now on.”

Adam stood up slowly and deliberately, crumpling his napkin and depositing it on the tablecloth, where it lay like a mute challenge. “One swallow hardly makes a summer! Joe is too young and too irresponsible…”

Joe interrupted angrily. “How can I ever become responsible with you standing behind me and correcting me? I did a good job and I’ll do my best to make sure I continue to do so.”

Adam gave a hollow laugh. “Because I know you, Joe. Sure, right now you’re all fired up and full of enthusiasm. But sooner or later – next week, or next month, or even next year, you’ll go off on one of your wild tangents or another of your mad schemes. And then all the hard work I’ve poured into this ranch will wash away, like so much dirt in the rain.” He turned beseechingly to his father. “Do all my years of work count for so little? Are you trying to push me away?”

A few weeks ago, Joe probably would have flown at his brother. But this was too important to be thrown away on an angry impulse. His dream was finally coming true; it was almost within his reach. After years of being the youngest Cartwright, being looked after and protected by his entire family, Joe was finally being given a chance to show that he too could play a useful role and be a valuable part of life on the Ponderosa. And that mattered more than anything.

He met his brother’s eyes steadily and spoke in a low voice that shook with barely suppressed emotion. “You are my brother, Adam, and I will always love you and respect you. But I just wish you could give me the same respect back. I’ve spent my life running after you and Hoss, trying desperately to catch up. Finally, there’s something I can do better than anyone else and I thought you would be proud of me I’m just sorry I was so wrong.”

Joe walked slowly out of the house, stopping for a brief moment on the porch, before drawing a deep, ragged breath and sprinting over to the barn.

“You really shouldn’t have said those things,” Hoss remarked sadly. “It’s only fair Joe gets his change, same way you and me did. He was so proud to be given the horse breakin’ and now you’ve taken all the shine of it for him. No-one’s trying to push you away, but you’re sure doin’ a good job of pushing Joe away from you.”

A thunder of hoof beats indicated that Joe and Cochise had left the yard at full pelt.

*****

The battle lines drawn that night remained firmly in place. Adam and Joe were icily polite to one another, while Ben and Hoss found themselves in the uncomfortable limbo of no-man’s land.

“I wish those boys would see how alike they are!” Ben confided to Hoss, as they rode along the tree line, grateful to escape the rather oppressive atmosphere of the house. “Adam looks at things logically, while Joe is more emotionally involved, but they care about the same things, they want the same things. I’ve always celebrated the fact that all my sons were different – each with his own gifts to bring, but now…” He sighed sadly.

Hoss thought carefully before responding. “Seems to me that things are tearing apart. You and I can’t do nothin’ about it. Adam an’ Joe have to work things out for themselves and we’ve gotta trust them to do that. Ain’t nothin’ more we can do or say, Pa. It’s up to them now.”

The rest of their journey was completed in silence, as both men contemplated the challenges that lay ahead.

*****

Joe stormed into the house, obviously in a tearing temper. “Just wait till I get my hands on Adam!” he fumed. Ben and Hoss exchanged resigned looks.

“What’s happened?” Ben asked, rather dreading the answer.

Everything about Joe betrayed his mood. He glared at both men, his hands planted on his hips and his chin thrust out belligerently. “Just taken my entire crew, that’s all! Without so much as a word to me. How am I supposed to get that new Army contract filled on time?” He was obviously not expecting an answer.

“Why’d Adam do something like that?” Hoss enquired. “Must’ve had a good reason.”

“He told Fred something about the new tunnel in the mine needing shoring up,” Joe admitted reluctantly, his temper subsiding.

“That could be dangerous, unless done promptly,” Ben remarked evenly. “”We don’t place men’s lives at risk unnecessarily.”

Joe grimaced. “He should have spoken to me about it,” he mumbled, with a hint of petulance. The words had hardly left his mouth when he realized how childish and petty he sounded.

“And would you have listened?” his father asked.

“Maybe. Probably not,” Joe admitted, regarding his feet with great interest. Things spun into startling clarity with dizzying speed. Ben had always stressed the importance of family working together and supporting one another, but now Joe realized that recently he and Adam had been working against one another. It was hardly a constructive or mature approach.

Swallowing his pride, Joe gave a small, uncertain smile. “How about I ride up there and see how he’s doing?”

As he rode out of the yard, Ben and Hoss sat back in their chairs and relaxed for the first time in weeks.

*****

“Hey, Adam!” Joe called, for the mine appeared deserted and silent. He dismounted and strode towards the entrance, just as his brother appeared, wiping his hands on his jeans. Adam looked hot, harried and preoccupied.

“I hope you’ve not come to complain,” he started and all Joe’s good intentions started to dissipate.

“Not exactly,” he returned shortly, just managing to keep hold of the fraying ends of his temper.

Adam gave a small snort. “It’ll not do you any good. Fact is, the tunnel shoring started to buckle and I needed all the hands I could get.” He shrugged, and somehow the gesture encapsulated all the terror he had felt when he realized the imminent danger. For a moment, Adam looked quite vulnerable and Joe felt immensely proud of his brother – a trained engineer, Adam was the one man who knew exactly how to make the tunnel safe

“Fair enough. Glad you were able to spot the trouble and get it fixed. Anything I can do to help?” Joe offered, holding out his canteen. Adam gratefully accepted it and took a long draught of water, savoring the coolness after the hot and cramped conditions in the mine.

“We’ve got things under control now. I’ll send your men back in next hour or so.”

“Keep them as long as you like,” Joe offered, still horrified to think of what the possible consequences might have been.

“Your men worked well as a team and their help made all the difference – I was terrified that tunnel would bring down the entire workings, but we’ve got the main shaft propped up and it’s safe now. We’ll get the side-spur secured tomorrow – but it’s a new excavation and we’ve not gone too far.” Adam looked at Joe directly, for the first time in their brief conversation. “Thanks for coming, Joe. And for understanding.”

Joe nodded, relieved that this seemed to be the end of their disagreement. Then both men became aware of a low, rumbling noise, that grew steadily in intensity and was accompanied by ominous groans from the earth. Beneath their feet, the ground shook and vibrated violently and a flock of birds flew out of the surrounding trees, squawking in terror. As they looked at one another, wild-eyed with amazement, there was a series of loud crashes and behind them, a cloud of choking dust poured out of the mine entrance.

“Cave in!” Adam yelled and began to run, even as a steady stream of men appeared and started to pour out of the mine. They were covered in dust and debris, they were coughing and gasping, but they were alive.

“Is everyone here? Did everyone get out alive?” Adam demanded, frantically scanning the faces before him, trying to recognize familiar features in faces obscured by grime.

“We’re all here, boss,” one of the men said, between hacking coughs. “We’d just finished shoring up the entrance leading down to the side-spur. We were half-way back up the main tunnel when the spur collapsed.”

“The main shaft’s fine,” another man added. “The props we put in held up steady and strong.”

“Good call, Adam.” Obvious pride and admiration colored Joe’s voice and Adam shot him a warm and appreciative smile. He realized he valued Joe’s opinion greatly and that praise and recognition from his little brother was especially sweet. Was this feeling reciprocated? Were his views equally important to Joe? Adam was ashamed to remember the scant and grudging credit he had paid Joe for his successful innovations with the horse breaking.

*****

It was obvious that no more work could be done that afternoon. The men were unhurt, but obviously shaken and gratefully accepted the offer of an afternoon off. Once the dust settled, the brothers ventured cautiously into the mine, where they surveyed the scene and were reassured to see the main shaft workings were safe and secure.

“How about I ride on home and get some new props and shoring organized for that side-spur?” Joe offered. “That way, things would ready for you tomorrow morning.”

“Good idea.” Adam smiled wryly, remembering an incident from long ago, when he was a young man, anxious to demonstrate his competence and independence. “Did Pa ever give you the “strength through unity” talk?” His mind flew back across the years and once more he was breaking the single stick with ease, then struggling with the bundle of kindling, before finally admitting defeat.

Joe laughed. “He sure did! The Cartwrights against the world! I remember wondering if he ever tried the same thing with Hoss! Might have backfired on him!” He swung up into the saddle and grinned happily. “Steadfast and united – that’s us! See you at supper!” As he rode towards home, Joe burst into song, feeling happier than he had in days. Riding out of the trees, Cochise picked up on his master’s mood and lengthened his stride as they sped across the flower-strewn meadows that led to home.

Chuckling to himself, Adam surveyed the area around the mine with an experienced eye, searching for any new developments. To the east, he saw a fissure newly opened up in the sandy soil, revealing the living rock beneath the surface. Crouching down, Adam peered carefully and then stifled an expression of surprise. Was it possible that the cave in had revealed a new vein of lode-bearing ore? Throwing his normal caution to the winds, Adam clambered into the opening and pulled a candle stump out of his pocket. Striking a match, he gazed at the uneven rock walls with growing excitement, stifling back a cry of delight when he spotted a particularly promising outcrop.

It took only a few moments to chisel the rock away and then Adam climbed back up to the surface. Once in the sunlight, he studied the lump of rock carefully – the size of a large potato, it bore all the promising signs of a new and profitable vein of silver.

“Just what I thought!” he whispered in awe, almost unable to believe that his good fortune. There was now no need to continue tunneling the side-spur – the collapse had opened a new entrance that would save time and energy. He strode over to Sport and carefully stowed the rock in his saddlebags, planning to ride to the Assay Office in the morning and longing to share this news with his family. Mining was an expensive and labor-intensive operation and so far they had seen little return. Adam was sure this discovery would change all that.

A voice broke into his reverie. “Seems like you’ve got something real interesting there. Planning on sharing it?”

Adam turned around to find himself facing a rifle, leveled squarely at his stomach and Evan Daniels, a miner recently arrived from Pennsylvania, showed his teeth in a smile that had no warmth but held considerable menace.

“I reckon you weren’t,” Daniels continued. “We do the work and you take the glory. Don’t seem fair, somehow.”

“You get paid a fair wage!” Adam said, fighting against the feeling of powerlessness.

“But I want more! You’ve got plenty, Cartwright. You’ll never miss that one bit of ore, but it’ll keep me for a year. It’s only fair I should share in that wealth!” His voice was mocking and insolent.

Adam shook his head, fighting to stay calm. Daniels gestured contemptuously with his head.

“Maybe this’ll help change your mind. See, me and my buddies, we’ve got ourselves a little insurance policy here, in the shape of your brother.”

Three other men came forward, propelling their captive before them, his head flung back at an uncomfortable angle, gulping against pressure of a revolver barrel pressed into cruelly into his jawbone. Adam closed his eyes for a second, hating this feeling of impotence. He realized that there was no way these men were about to leave two live witnesses to their crime.

“Sorry, Adam. Just wanted to make sure everything was alright.”

Nodding his acquiescence, Adam thought furiously, desperately searching for the solution that would get them out of here. Nothing, absolutely nothing came to mind. How could two men realistically overcome four men holding weapons? Leaving his companions restraining their captive, the third man strolled across to Sport and removed the lode bearing rock. Tossing it from nonchalantly from hand to hand, he strolled across to stand by Daniels. They were totally outnumbered and Adam knew there was absolutely nothing he could do.

With a large and audible gulp, Hoss shrugged his shoulders apologetically and smiled resignedly. He looked up at the sky and rejoiced in the pure, pine-scented air, then squared his shoulders and looked steadfastly at Daniels, almost daring him to fire his weapon. A shaft of late-afternoon sunlight broke through the overhanging canopy of tree boughs, illuminating the scene. Out of the corner of his eye, Hoss could see a squirrel scamper over the pine needles that carpeted the sandy ground, unconcerned and impervious of the drama just feet away. The enormity of the heavens and the inconsequential minutiae of living reverberated against one another and mere existence had never seemed quite so precious. The blood pounded in his veins and his skin tingled. Every inch of his body seemed alive and expectant. Surreptitiously, Hoss glanced at Adam and raised his eyebrows in query. The look on brother’s face spoke volumes. Resignation. Acceptance. Resistance.

Almost contemptuously, Adam turned his head and stared at Evan Daniels. Unblinking and unforgiving, his steady regard was profoundly disturbing. Discomfited, Daniel dropped his gaze.

“The readiness is all,” Adam quoted in an undertone, as the silence was suddenly and irrevocably shattered as a horse came charging out of the dappled undergrowth, with a man crouched low over his neck, a rifle held out straight and unshakeable.

“No!!” Adam’s cry echoed through the trees, as Daniels brought the rifle up to his shoulder in a smooth, swift motion and released a shot, missing Joe by inches. Just as the recoil shuddered through his body, a bright spot blossomed in the centre of Daniels’ forehead and he staggered backwards and collapsed onto the ground, twitching almost imperceptibly.

“You always were a good shot, little brother,” Adam thought. His limbs refused to obey him, even as his mind raced ahead wildly and he could only watch as Hoss swatted away the gun away from his jawbone and, with one punch, knocked his captor clean off his feet. Meanwhile, the other man pirouetted around, brought his gun up and fired at the man charging through the trees.

Joe grunted as the bullet ripped into his shoulder and tore its way through flesh, bone and ligament, before exiting in a spurt of blood. The impact jolted him violently and the rifle fell from his grasp. Momentarily unbalanced, he flung his feet free of the stirrups, pulled his gun free from the holster and used the forward momentum to launch himself out of the saddle.

The forest echoed to a fusillade of gunfire and as Joe tumbled to the ground, shots rang out around him. At the last moment, he tucked his head and shoulder in, somersaulted and came up, onto one knee, leveled his gun and loosed off two shots in quick succession, before he felt a fierce, hot pain furrowing along the side of his head.

It was like watching a scene on stage. Involved and yet detached, Adam saw the blood welling from Joe’s head and watched as bright crimson drops began to color the brown curls and then to flow unrestricted, soaking into his shirt. Then there was another shot, this one singing past Adam’s ear, so close that his hair was ruffled by its passage. In horror, he watched as it found its mark and Joe flew backwards, landing in a soft pile of dirt. Suddenly wrenched out of his immobility, Adam pulled his own gun out and dispatched the last gunman with one lethal bullet.

Joe lay on the ground, his head resting amidst yellowing pine needles, his eyes wide open and with a puzzled expression on his face. Drawing a deep, shuddering breath, he tentatively essayed a small smile.

“Thought I’d just check everything was alright. Got the shock of my life when I saw those guys.” His breath was becoming uneven. “Did you get ‘em, Adam?”

“We got them,” Adam assured, using his hands to try to staunch the bleeding. There was so much blood. Joe’s fingertips were cold to the touch and his lips were pale.

“Knew you would.” Joe’s breathing was fast and shallow. “Good man.” He closed his eyes and Adam felt his self-control shatter, his iron-resolve fly out of the window. A sob tore its way out his throat and his cheeks burnt as bitter tears coursed down.

A large hand closed over Adam’s fingers, pressing down on the shoulder wound, hard and inexorable. “You lie still and everything will be fine. Just fine. We’ll get you home and you’ll be fine.” Hoss kept repeating this, over and over again, as he checked out the wounds, pulling off his bandana to use as an impromptu bandage. His touch was infinitely tender as he probed the bullet wound that had gouged out a track along the side of Joe’s head and tried to staunch the bleeding from his shoulder and hip.

“That’s just a scratch,” he reassured, trying not to let his voice shake too much. Already his hands were coated in blood. A casual observer would have thought Hoss was wearing scarlet gloves. “Nothing to worry about. Nothing at all.”

The ghost of a smile flitted across Joe’s face. “Hurts a bit. Take me home?” he implored, in a voice so faint that Hoss had to bend down to catch it as it whispered like a leaf dancing tenuously on a breeze.

“We’re all going home,” Adam reassured, wondering how his voice could sound so contained and assured. There was no need for further words as the brothers worked silently to get Joe ready for the journey: down through the tree-shadowed hillside, emerging into the bright sunshine of the green meadows that lead home.

Adam rode ahead, while Hoss continued at a slow, steady pace, one arm around his brother, who back lay limp and uncomplaining against his brother. Hoss kept his palm flat against Joe’s chest, finding some reassurance in the slow, steady heartbeat.

Ben was relaxing on the porch when Adam rode in. One look at his eldest son’s set expression was all it took.

“What’s happened? Another cave-in at the mine? Is everyone alright?”

During the ride home, Adam had searched desperately for the right words, but they had stubbornly remained elusive. How did you give this news to a father? Then he looked into Ben’s eyes and saw that the man knew, with the instinctive love and understanding of a parent.

“Joseph?” Ben’s hand rested on Adam’s shoulder, drawing him close. “Is he … is he still alive?”

Not trusting his voice, Adam nodded and then turned around, burrowing his head in his father’s shoulder, finding some small degree of solace. Ben hugged him close, then mounted and rode out to bring his youngest son home.

*****

The sun was dipping behind the house when they arrived home and the horses cast long-legged shadows on the ground. Joe sagged in the saddle in front of Hoss, barely conscious and scarcely aware of his surroundings. The wounds in his shoulder and hip stabbed unmercifully, and even the smallest movement made him feel sick. Determined to get back to the Ponderosa, Joe fought against the period darkness that threatened to push him over into unconsciousness.

“Home now. We’ll soon have you in you own bed.” His father’s voice seemed very far away, as if he were standing at the far end of a long tunnel. Joe felt an immense sense of relief that he had made it this far and began to submit to the overwhelming pain.

Eased gently down into waiting arms, Joe opened his eyes briefly at each and then sighed one word contentedly. “Home.” And then his head fell back, stretching the chords in his neck and his body went limp and unresisting. A few drops of bright blood stained the dirt of the yard as they carried him into the house.

Hoss remained immobile on Chub, watching as they bore Joe into the house. He looked down at his shirt and shuddered as he saw the rust-colored stains. The metallic stench of blood rose up, filling his nostrils and he hastily dismounted, went behind the barn and wretched uncontrollably.

Ben and Adam worked silently, carefully removing Joe’s boots and then easing his pants off, revealing the wound at his hip: swollen and inflamed.

“Bullet’s still in there,” Adam commented briefly. “His shoulder’s a different matter – went straight through and tore everything up.”

Ben held his breath as they eased off the jacket and shirt, both saturated and sticky with blood. The large exit wound was looked raw and painful, with the exposed muscle and bone torn and shattered. He gently pressed a wad of cotton sheeting to the wound to try to staunch the bleeding and eased Joe back onto the pillows. Pulling up a chair, Ben sat at the bedside, holding Joe’s hand. There really didn’t seem to be anything else to do, except wait for Paul Martin.

“Doc’s coming’!” A cry floated up from the yard and Adam hurried out of the room, just as Joe’s eyes flickered open.

“Sorry, Pa,” he whispered. His eyes were incredibly green against the pallor of his face.

Ben patted his hand. “You’ve nothing to be sorry for, Joseph. Nothing at all. Just lie quiet.”

Paul bustled into the room, have been thoroughly briefed by Adam and Hoss. “Well, young man, you’ve been in the wars again, I see,” he said briskly, knowing how Joe detested any undue fuss. He removed his jacket and began to thoroughly examine his young patient. The room was silent, except for Joe’s halting breaths and the occasional question from the doctor, as he assessed the injuries.

It was obvious that Paul would be working late into the night, so Adam rose to collect lamps from the other rooms to provide him with as much light as possible. Hop Sing entered with jugs of boiling water and a pile of the cloths he always seemed to have ready for emergencies. An array of scalpels, tweezers and surgical needles lay waiting on the dresser, while Paul prepared the anesthesia.

“Ben? We’re ready to begin now. You and the boys wait downstairs. Hop Sing will assist me.”

“I’ll just stay with Joe until he’s under.” Immoveable, Ben watched silently as drop after drop of ether soak into the absorbent cotton mask held over Joe’s nose and mouth. He kept hold of Joe’s hand until it went limp, then raised it to his lips, kissed the palm softly and then folded the fingers gently inwards, before forcing himself to walk out of the room.

Adam and Hoss were waiting outside in the hallway. They flanked their father protectively, as they walked slowly down the stairs, with their arms looped companionably around his shoulders.

*****

There was a full moon that evening: Ben sat on the porch, surveying the skies, noting how the stars seemed just a little paler than normal in comparison with its luminescence. Beside him, Adam and Hoss sat silently, each lost in his own thoughts.

“Sure is takin’ a long time,” Hoss said eventually. He walked a few steps and peered upwards at Joe’s bedroom window.

Roy Coffee rode up and hitched his horse by the house. “Came over to see how Joe’s doing’. Any news yet?”

“Paul Martin’s still tending to him,” Ben answered.

“The men brought Daniels and his mates into town. Turns out they made a habit of claim jumping, beating’ up miners and such like. Got a whole stack of wanted posters with their likenesses on them back in town.”

“Thanks for letting us know,” Adam said. It all seemed very unimportant right now.

One of the ranch hands came over, looking nervous. “I found this in your saddle bag and thought it might be important,” he stated nervously, holding out the lump of rock, veined with ore. Adam nodded his thanks, taking the rock gingerly and depositing it on the table.

Roy stayed for a short while, and then left the three men to their thoughts. The lump of rock was left on the table when the chill night air finally forced the three men indoors.

Hoss bent down and stirred the fire into life. “How about I make some coffee?” he offered, anxious to do something.

“Good idea, son. Could be a long night.” Just as Hoss started towards the kitchen, Hop Sing appeared at the top of the stairs and called down to the waiting men.

“All finished. Boy sleeping now.”

Paul was holding Joe’s wrist, taking his pulse. “Weak, but steady,” he announced and allowed himself the luxury of a smile. “He came through the operation well.”

“Course he did,” Hoss said. “Joe’s a born fighter and he’s strong. Real strong.”

Joe lay still, white and unmoving in the bed, looking fragile and vulnerable, as Paul pulled the covers close around his neck. “His body’s been under put through a lot and we’ll need to watch him closely for the next few days. Luckily, his hip wasn’t broken: the bullet lodged just under the pelvic bone, but there was a fair degree of damage to the soft tissues. His shoulder was a mess, and I’m not sure if I got all the splinters of bones out. All we can do now is watch and wait.”

“And pray,” Ben said in lowered tones, pulling up a chair, sitting as close to Joe as possible, gently touching the wan cheek with his forefinger. “You boys go get some rest,” he murmured, his eyes never leaving the ashen face. Adam and Hoss knew that Ben would remain at Joe’s side until morning.

Thereafter, time passed in a blur for Joe, as he existed in a world where the only reality was pain: searing agony, stabbing aches in his shoulder and hip that made the slightest movement torture and a pounding headache, accompanied by double vision and nausea. Barely conscious, Joe longed for the moments when the pain became too much to bear. It was like standing at the entrance to a long, dark tunnel, then slowly walking down into its depths. Voices faded gradually, his surroundings retreated and Joe felt sheltered and protected from the world.

Occasionally, he roused enough to be conscious of his surroundings, to take a sip of water. Always, whenever he woke, there was someone by his side: his father, Adam, Hoss. It was some comfort to realize he was not alone.

“Lie still, Joseph,” Ben counseled, trying not to let his distress convey itself to his son. It was frightening to see Joe look so ill, when just days before he had been racing around, tiring his family with his boundless energy. Now, Joe was struggling just to stay alive.

“So tired,” Joe whispered, for even his voice seemed to be disappearing.

“Sleep son. Go to sleep. I’ll be here when you wake.”

In a world of uncertainty and anguish, this was one anchor he could hold onto. Joe let the peaceful tones of his father’s voice sink deep into his soul and released his fragile grasp on consciousness, slipping into blissful, pain-free oblivion.

Paul Martin was dispirited to see his patient grow steadily worse. Something was obviously not right – the healing process should have begun by now, yet the pain in Joe’s shoulder showed no sign of decreasing and he was running a fever. With Ben’s help, the doctor gently rolled Joe onto his side and removed the dressings that shrouded the ugly wound on his shoulder. The problem was immediately apparent: the injury site was red and inflamed, heat radiate out and the sutures were strained almost to breaking point.

“It’s infected,” he said bluntly. “I’m going to have to operate again.”

Ben nodded, one hand lightly caressing the smooth skin of Joe’s uninjured shoulder. “Do whatever you have to. But do everything you can.” He looked up at Paul imploringly, and although he could not say any more, the expression in his eyes spoke volumes to the Doctor, his love more eloquent and more telling than mere words ever could express.

“I will do everything in my power to help Joe. But I have to be honest with you, Ben. He’s a very sick young man. In fact, he’s so weak, I don’t dare risk using any pain relief – it could put too great a strain on his system. This won’t be pleasant.”

Ben looked at his son and knew that there was no choice to be made, no matter what pain it caused, to both Joe and himself. He gave Paul permission and prayed to God that he had made the right decision.

*****

Despite Joe’s illness, daily life on the Ponderosa had to continue: there were still jobs to be done, stock to tend to, men to supervise. In many ways, the everyday nature of the work was a blessed relief, providing a few moments where sheer routine provided an escape from the sense of dread that hovered over the house like a storm cloud. Adam and Hoss worked steadily, but stayed as close to the ranch house as possible, sharing an unspoken sense that this time the unsquashable, irrepressible Joe Cartwright was finally crushed beyond repair.

A sharp, fierce cry howled across the yard, causing all the men to stop and look up. It continued on and on, piercing the hearts of all who heard it. Hoss stifled an exclamation of fury and belted towards the house, with an amazing turn of speed for such a large man. Adam hurtled after him, ignoring the nagging ache in his back.

“Hoss! Stop right there!”

“They’re hurtin’ him, Adam. They’re hurtin’ Joe!”

The tears stood out in his eyes. Unabashed, Hoss let them fall, not caring that half the employees of the Ponderosa were around to see him weep. He had always adored Joe and to actually hear his brother suffering so greatly was more than he could bear.

Another cry of anguish ripped out and Adam clenched his hands tight, the nails digging fiercely into his palms, the knuckles outlining themselves hard against the skin. “Stop being so stubborn, kid!” he pleaded in a whisper. “For once in you life, give in! For pity’s sake, let go!”

The scream suddenly stopped. The silence that followed seemed even worse. Desperate to relieve the tension, Adam gasped “Well done, little brother. Finally took my advice!”

Hoss regarded him quizzically. “Adam – can’t you see that Joe looks up to you? Allus has done, since the day he was born. Plus, he listens to what you say. Don’t mean he’s too keen on following your advice, but he values your opinion. Still, he’s got to try his own ideas too. Wouldn’t be a Cartwright if he didn’t want to follow his dreams.”

For some reason, Adam found himself remembering the very first piece of furniture he had ever designed and made: the moment of disbelief, followed by awe and wonder when the two halves of a dovetail joint fitted perfectly into one another. He realized how the different qualities of his brothers complimented his own personality and how the whole was so much more than the sum of its parts.

“Sometimes, Hoss, I think you’re the wisest man I know.” He patted his brother lightly on the shoulder and they waited, secure in mutual support and understanding.

*****

“There’s the problem,” Paul Martin announced with satisfaction, holding up a small fragment of bullet. “This had broken off and was hidden behind the scapula. Now it’s removed and I’ve cleaned out the infection, Joe should start to get better.” Relief shone in the faces of father and son.

“Go to sleep, Joseph. Rest now and I’ll be here when you wake. I’ll be right here.” Ben’s voice held all the comfort a soul could crave. Exhausted by the pain, Joe smiled weakly and closed his eyes with relief.

Brushing his eyes, Ben walked across the room and leant on the windowsill, gazing out across the trees to the far horizon, where snow still lay on the mountain summit. “Thank you,” he said, heartfelt tones, as the setting sun set the sky aflame with jewel tones of amethyst, garnet and topaz. But Ben Cartwright had a prize far beyond rubies, greater than all the silver in the Comstock Lode; he had his sons.

*****

“I feel fine and I don’t see why I can’t get up!” Joe claimed, propping himself up on his elbows. Ben pushed back down onto the pillows.

“You really are the most dreadful patient,” Adam observed dispassionately. He bent his head, ostensibly to fit a new string to his guitar, and smirked silently. For all the practice Joe had gained over the years, he was still not reconciled recuperation and hated to spend a moment longer in bed than he had to, except when it came to getting up in the mornings. That was a completely different matter…

“I don’t want to hear any more about that subject, Joseph,” Ben stated. “You’ll get up when Doctor Martin says you can, and that’s an end to it. Remember how dizzy you were when you tried to sit up yesterday? You’ve got a nasty head wound there.”

Joe caught sight of himself in the pier glass and shuddered: his hair was sticking up all around the bandage, in absurd curls and whorls. “Bet Paul shaved my hair off too!” he mumbled.

“Aw, it’ll grow back in!” Hoss said. “Sides, coulda saved your life. Good protection, all those thick curls.”

“Thick head, more like,” Adam said, in low but perfectly audible tones.

“If I wasn’t so ill, I’d throw this pillow at you,” Joe said, in a suitably weak and martyred tone.

Ben’s heart lifted at the banter: things were finally getting back to normal. “Seeing you’re feeling so much better, Joseph, how about we hitch up the wagon and take you into town?”

Joe struggled to make sense of this. Despite all his earlier protestations, he knew he was nowhere near ready to go outside, far less travel into Virginia City. “I don’t I’m quite ready for that yet, Pa,” he said sadly, wondering what was behind this sudden change of heart.

“What a pity,” Ben said blandly, caught up in the joke and missing the plaintive edge to Joe’s voice. “It would have been a good chance to get the rest of your hair cut nice and short to match the shorn side.”

Joe looked faintly stunned. “He almost had you there!” Hoss was spluttering with laughter.

“Your face!” Adam hooted in appreciation, then muffled a curse as he gave over tightened the guitar string, which snapped and sprang free.

“Very funny!” Joe said, suddenly exhausted. “All gang up on me, why don’t you?” Despite himself, Joe could hear the grumpiness in his voice and just wished everyone would leave, so that he could go to sleep. His eyelids were so heavy that it was a struggle to keep them open and his mind was filled with the swirling fog of sleep. Not having the strength to fight against this, Joe closed his eyes and surrendered himself to sleep.

When he awoke, the window shade was drawn and Adam was sitting at the desk, engrossed in paperwork. Joe gave a small yawn and stretched cautiously, careful not to pull the stitches in his shoulder or hip.

“Feeling better?” Instantly alert, Adam loped over to the bedside.

“A bit,” Joe agreed. “I just get so tired. Guess I’ve still got some ground to make up yet.”

Adam allowed himself the luxury of patting Joe’s tousled curls. “Don’t sell yourself short, kid,” he advised. “You’ve been proving yourself since the day you drew breath. Now you’ve grown into a fine man and I’m proud to call my brother.”

“That means a lot, especially coming from you.” It was difficult for either man to say any more. Adam cleared his throat loudly and turned away for a second.

“Yes, well, if you could just learn to think before you act. And take some advice from your older and wiser brother – never draw your gun before you dive headfirst of a horse! I was terrified you’d blow your head off!”

*****

Two days later, Ben finally agreed to allow Joe to leave his room for a few hours. He supported his son carefully as Joe limped painfully along the hall corridor and then descended the staircase with great care, one step at a time. Despite the help, Joe felt weak and shaky by the time he finally reached the fireside and carefully lowered himself into the blue velvet chair. Ben reached out and pulled the oak table closer, carefully placing a cushion on its surface and then assisting Joe to prop his injured leg on it.

“Thanks, Pa,” Joe said gratefully. “Could I have a glass of water?” As Ben hurried into the kitchen, Joe shot a look of pure triumph at his brothers: for the first time in living memory Ben was actually encouraging someone to put their feet on the furniture. Joe intended to savor the moment.

“Remember that afternoon up at the mine, Adam?” Joe asked.

“I can assure you it’s engraved on my memory. Which particular part were you referring to?”

“Pa’s demonstration with the sticks. We never did ask Hoss if he experienced it too!”

Ben struggled to keep a broad smile of his face. “Tell them about it, Hoss,” he urged, handing Joe the glass.

All eyes were on Hoss as he began the tale. “At first, I thought I was plum loosin’ my strength. No matter how hard I tried, I jist couldn’t break them sticks.”

You couldn’t break them either?” Adam was suitably awestruck.

A slow smile crept across Hoss’ face. “Nope, I sure couldn’t. Kinda humbled me. An ’it took me years to figure it out. Then, one day it came to me in a flash …”

Ben took up the story. “There just happened to be a few iron bars in the middle of that bundle of kindling. I can’t think how they got there!” Raising three boys, he’d learnt a lot: when to keep ahead of the game, when to intervene and when to sit back and let things sort themselves out. He counted himself very lucky to have three sons who he not only loved but also trusted.

Adam moved over to perch on the arm of Joe’s chair. “Sometimes the end result is worth it, no matter how you get there.”

As the fire crackled and the sounds of laughter filled the room, Ben knew that no man could have a greater legacy than he had in his boys.

***End***

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