The Beltane Fires (by Claire)

Summary:   Gaelic in origin, the Beltane (“bright”) fire is a celebration usually held on the eve of May 1 to mark the beginning of summer.
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  9741


 

If there was ever a boring job, it was checking line shacks, thought Joe. He’d been riding around the eastern boundary of the Ponderosa all day, checking the shelters were wind and water tight and taking an inventory of stores. It was not a particularly demanding job and Joe suspected that he had been delegated this task to keep him out of trouble. For some reason, his father and brothers insisted on treating him like a child, despite the fact he was sixteen and would leave school in a few months time.

Although he enjoyed occasional periods of solitude, Joe was gregarious by nature and enjoyed a challenge. The routine nature of this job and the lack of company was rather depressing and consequently, he was delighted to close up the last shack and begin to head for home. Singing softly under his breath to alleviate his boredom, he leapt lightly onto Cochise’s back and began to ride westwards, looking forward to a hot meal. Joe’s culinary skills were rudimentary, to say the least and two days of his own cooking was more than enough.

Debating on the various merits of roast beef versus fried chicken, he began to make his way down the thickly wooded ridge. Overhead, the thick canopy of pine trees excluded most of the sky, so he did not notice the storm clouds forming in the east. Joe only realised that bad weather was on its way when rain began fall in large droplets, quickly soaking the forest floor and making the deep layer of pine needles slippery and treacherous underfoot.

Joe had been full of good intentions for this trip and had fully intended to pack carefully. However, a late night in Virginia City, combined with a bad habit of lying in bed until the very last possible moment, had effectively put paid to that notion. He had only time to grab a meager breakfast and to pick up the bare essentials before riding out at full speed. He could visualise his oiled riding coat hanging on a peg in the stables and wished he had brought it with him. Vowing to be a little more prepared next time, Joe turned up his jacket collar and surveyed the scene ahead.

The next part of trail was fairly steep and he dismounted, reasoning that it would easier if man and horse tackled this section under their own power. Holding the reins loosely in his left hand, Joe was picking his way gingerly down the slope, when his feet slipped out from underneath him. For a moment he teetered, waving his arms wildly in an attempt to keep his balance and then gravity took over and he began to slide down the slope. Joe tried to slow down his progress by digging his boot heels into the ground, but the pine needles made any sort of purchase impossible. All he succeeded in doing was to crash down painfully onto his butt and career down the slope at ever increasing speed. At last, Joe reached the bottom of the slope, which unfortunately terminated in a small, fast flowing creek. He landed in the water with a loud splash and a disgusted expression on his face.

“This has been a really great trip” he thought. “So far I’ve been bored, lonely and hungry. Now I’m cold, wet and covered in mud. Excellent.”

He stood up slowly, wincing slightly and tenderly rubbing his backside. With his luck, it would be black and blue tomorrow. His hat had come off at some point during his mad slide and was nowhere to be seen. Looking at his pants, Joe saw the seat was almost out of them and the legs were pretty well shredded. Oh well, at least he wasn’t likely to meet anyone else out here.

The one positive thing was that Cochise had made it down safely down off the ridge, picking his way with considerably more success than his master. Joe was delighted to see his horse was safe, but he did not relish the prospect of a long ride home. It would probably be best not to try anything faster than a walk, he thought.

The elder Cartwrights were busy checking the timber stands nearest the ranch house when they noticed signs of an impending storm. They decided to ride for home at once and arrived just as the storm began. Safely indoors, Ben looked anxiously out of the window, watching the rain bounce off the ground.

“I hope Joseph won’t be too long. It’s no weather to be out in. Still, he’s got that new oiled coat, which should keep out most of the rain.”

Privately, Hoss thought back to Joe running out of the house in his normal heedless fashion. He thought it was extremely unlikely that Joe would have remembered to take the coat. However, it was best not to say anything, he thought. Pa worried enough about Joe as it was and there was no sense in adding to his concerns.

*****

It was dusk when a bedraggled Joe rode wearily into the yard. He was slumped forward on Cochise, his hair plastered to his head, soaked to the skin and aching all over. The lamps were already lit inside the house and the cast a welcome glow on the yard. Joe was beginning to slowly dismount when the door opened and Hoss came running out to meet him.

“I’ll put Cochise away for you, Little Joe,” Hoss said, helpfully dragging Joe down off the horse and setting him on his rather unsteady feet. “You go on into the house and get dried up before Pa sees you.”

Joe gave a rather pale imitation of his normal grin and walked stiffly into the warmth of the house. Adam was sitting cosily by the fire and looked up as his brother squelched soggily across the polished wood floor.

“Take your boots off!” he called and then surveyed his Joe more closely. “Don’t tell me. You had another unfortunate accident?”

The sarcastic query riled Joe, but he was really too tired to be bothered with a quarrel, so he merely replied “You could say that,” and limped towards the stairs.

Adam felt a bit guilty; the kid was shivering and obviously had taken a bad tumble somewhere along the line, so he caught Joe gently by the arm as he walked past and asked

 “What happened? Are you all right?”

“Yeah, I’m fine. I just lost my footing and slid down into Stone Creek Gully on my butt and landed in the creek. Cochise is fine though.”

“Right down the Gully? On your butt? Poor kid, I wonder you can walk at all!” Adam started to laugh at the mental picture this conjured up. “You’d better let me check you out,” he gasped between sniggers.

“It’s not funny! And if you think I’m letting you look at my butt, you’ve got another think coming, so let go of me!” Joe retorted heatedly and tried to pull  away from his aggravating elder brother.

Adam began to get annoyed. “Stop behaving like a silly brat! You might have really hurt yourself and I just want to make sure you’re all right. Anyway, it’s nothing new. I’ve seen it all before, remember! Don’t forget who changed your diapers and gave you baths, little brother.”

If there was one thing Joe hated, it was being reminded that he was the youngest and smallest of the Cartwright’s. He could not hear the genuine concern in Adam’s voice, and viewed the exchange as yet another example of Adam playing “I’m the eldest and I know best”.

“Well, that was a long time ago, when I was too young to know any better. So let go off me right now or I’ll …”

“Or you’ll what?” Adam’s voice was low and silky smooth with repressed anger. It had been a long day and he was in no mood for one of Joe’s moods. He tightened his hold on Joe’s arm, pursed his lips into a thin line and said menacingly “Don’t threaten me, baby brother. You’ll regret it if you do.” Almost as soon as the words had left his mouth, Adam regretted them, realising they would stoke the fires of Joe’s already precarious temper.

Joe’s eyes flashed with anger, effectively signaling his next move and allowing Adam to duck safely under a rather wild punch. He leapt to his feet and grabbed Joe by his jacket lapels, dragging him uncomfortably close.

”I’ve warned you already, Joe. Don’t you ever threaten me again. Just go and get into some dry clothes.” Then, for some inexplicable reason, he added “Go on, get changed like a good little boy.”

Joe sprang into action, pulling free and launching into a wild attack, fists and feet flying. At first, Adam tried to fend him off, but he soon realised he had goaded his brother beyond reasonable thought. He had to stop this nonsense before someone was seriously hurt. Adam was considerably larger and taller than his brother and was planning to deliver a carefully judged blow to Joe’s shoulder, when the boy lunged forward again.

Adam tried to pull his punch, but it was too late. It was almost as if time slowed down, as if he was watching someone else’s fist connect solidly with Joe’s chin. The force of the blow jerked Joe’s head back sharply, propelling him back backwards, until his feet stumbled against the hearth and his head cracked audibly off the rough-hewn stone fireplace.

For a moment, Joe seemed to stand to lean against the fireplace. He stood upright, his hands relaxed, by his sides and looked as almost as if he was resting before rejoining the fight. Then Joe’s knees began to buckle and he slid slowly down until he was sitting on the hearth, resting his bowed head on his knees. Joe sat so still and unmoving that at first Adam thought he was pretending, until he saw the patch of dark blood running slowly and stickily from a sharp lump of stone that protruded from the fireplace.

“What in the name of tarnation is going on down there?” boomed a familiar voice, as Ben Cartwright appeared at the top of the staircase. He paused for a second, taking in the scene below him: his one son stood nursing the knuckles of his right hand, looking up at him in shock, while the other sat still and unmoving in a sodden, crumpled heap on the hearth.

Swallowing an another exclamation, Ben ran quickly down the stairs and knelt down before Joe. He cupped his hand under Joe’s chin and gently raised his head. A pair of rather dazed green eyes opened slowly and looked back at him, trying desperately to focus. The attempt was not entirely successful and Joe squinted slightly, then gave up the effort and shut his eyes again.

“Are you all right Joe?” Ben asked, slightly concerned at the bemused expression on his son’s face.

“Mmmm,” came an abstracted reply. “Head hurts a bit.” Joe gave his head a slight shake, sending drops of water flying and causing him to yelp as pain shot through his skull. Using his hands to lever himself up, Joe rose slowly, only to stagger as the room tilted violently around him. Ben grabbed him by the elbow.

“Joe?” The voice seemed far away, as if the speaker was down a tunnel. The voice seemed familiar, but for some reason, Joe couldn’t quite place it. He felt himself slipping peacefully away from the voice that was now calling his name insistently. Ben stopped trying to get Joe’s attention and watched in fascination as the colour drained out of his face and he pitched gently forwards onto the floor.

Hoss had taken Cochise into the stable, rubbed him down, settled him in his stall and prepared a hot mash before returning to the house. He walked in, shaking the rain from his hair, only to be greeted by the sight of his younger brother lying sprawled inelegantly on the floor, while his Ben and Adam knelt beside him.

“What’s happened to Little Joe?” he demanded, crossing the room with long strides, not noticing the guilty expression that crept across Adam’s face. Without waiting for a reply, Hoss bent down, picked up Joe and gently placed him upon the couch. Carefully arranging his brother’s head upon a cushion, he withdrew his hand and exclaimed when he saw the blood on his palm.

“He’s hurt! Who’s done this to him?”

Ben pushed him aside unceremoniously and began to run his hands through Joe’s still wet curls. When he encountered the sticky, swollen wound on the back of his skull there was a howl and Joe’s eyes flew open. “You’re multiplying” he said enigmatically and tried to sit up. A firm hand on his chest pushed him back down and his father peered closely at him.

“Just lie still, Joseph. You’ve had a nasty bump on the head and I think you’re a bit confused.”

“No I’m not!” Joe protested, managing to prop himself up on an elbow. “First there was just Pa, now I’ve got all three at you staring at me. I’m fine, honestly. Just let me go and get changed.” His voice grew more agitated as he continued “I can manage just fine by myself. I’m all right.”

“Course you can, Shortshanks,” Hoss replied soothingly. Joe seemed close to tears. “But seeing as how I’m worried about you, why don’t you put my mind at ease and let me help you?”

By this time, Joe had wriggled into a sitting position and was slightly alarmed at how giddy he felt. He agreed with only a minimum amount of bad grace, and went upstairs slowly, grateful for Hoss’s strong arm around his waist. Ben waited until he heard the bedroom door close and then turned to face Adam.

“Would you like to tell me exactly what happened here?” It wasn’t a request. Adam sighed, realising that this particular tale did not reflect particularly well upon him. He was correct. As he related the events, Ben let out a series of increasingly agitated exclamations, culminating in a vehement

“And you call Joe immature! For goodness sake Adam, you’re a grown man and you’ve just knocked a 16 year old boy out cold! Your own brother! And in my living room!”

There really wasn’t much you could say in response to that, Adam mused and decided it was probably in his best interests to remain silent.

Having relieved his feelings slightly, Ben decided to see how his youngest was faring. He found Joe sitting up meekly in bed, submitting to Hoss’s tender ministrations with a resigned expression. He let out a small squeak of pain as Hoss began to dry his hair with a towel and went unerringly to the still bleeding wound.

“Let me”, Ben took the towel from Hoss and looked carefully at Joe.

By this time, Joe was feeling a lot better and he gave his father a fairly convincing version of his normal disarming smile. Slightly reassured, Ben began a fatherly interrogation, during which Joe admitted that yes, his head hurt a bit; yes, he did know who he was and where he was; and no, he didn’t feel particularly hungry, although a nap would be quite nice. Satisfied that the head wound was clean and free from infection and didn’t appear to need stitching, Ben agreed this was a good idea and ushered Hoss out of the room

Once downstairs, Hoss went straight to Adam, demanding,

“What’s wrong with you? You punch the living daylights out of Little Joe when he’s already sore and wet and tired and then you just sit here reading!”

It was unusual for Hoss to loose his temper, but the results were usually spectacular. Adam said earnestly “It was a stupid accident, Hoss. We both said some things we shouldn’t have, but you know I would never deliberately hurt Joe.”

Hoss looked at him for a long moment, before replying. “Wouldn’t you Adam? I’m not so sure about that anymore. You’ve been winding him up like a watch for weeks now. What did you think would happen?”

Without waiting for a reply, he went back to check on Joe. After a couple of hours, he came back down to report that Joe seemed fine and went off to bed without so much as looking at Adam.

Doing his normal nightly check, Ben discovered Joe lying on his stomach, with the bed covers dangling onto the floor. Everything was pretty much as normal then. He couldn’t resist checking on the boy’s injuries: there was a large, painful looking lump on his head, but it had clotted nicely and there was still no sign of infection. Pulling up the nightshirt gently, he almost winced out loud as he saw the extent of the bruises on Joe’s backside and fully understood why the boy had been so short tempered.

*****

Waking up next morning, Joe was surprised to see light it was. “They must have let me sleep in,” he thought and started to roll over onto his back, only to be stopped by a sharp throb in the back of head and a corresponding dull ache in his butt. Hobbling over to the mirror, he screwed his head round uncomfortably, pulled up his nightshirt and surveyed the constellation of bruises across his backside with dismay. No way he was going to be sitting comfortably for at least a week. Running his fingers carefully through his hair, Joe found a matted clump of hair and decided to kill two birds with one stone. A bath would help ease the bruising and he could wash the blood out of his hair at the same time.

There was obviously no point in getting dressed, so Joe padded downstairs in his bare feet and was surprised to see his father sitting at his desk. Then again, it wasn’t really surprising, he thought. Typical of Pa to stay behind to make sure he was all right. He mumbled a greeting and sat down cautiously at the table.

“Good morning Joseph. How are you feeling today?”

Joe mumbled non-committally and started to butter a roll.

“Where’s your robe and slippers, son?”

Joe pondered this question briefly. He had owned a robe at one point, he recalled, but it seemed to have disappeared from his room, along with his slippers. Then again, they might be somewhere in his closet, but there was an awful lot of stuff in there. He should probably sort it out one day. “I’m just going to have a this roll and then go for a bath.”

Ben recognised an oblique reply when he heard one, but under the circumstances, he decided to let it go. “It’s probably best if you take things easy today. That was a nasty knock you took yesterday. In fact, it might be a good idea to get Paul Martin to check you over.”

Joe grimaced and said quickly “Oh, no need for that, Pa. I’ve got a bit of a headache and I’m a bit stiff, but that’s all. I really don’t need to see the doctor. You worry too much, you know. I mean, we see Paul so often we practically qualify for a Cartwright family discount.”

He shoved the rest of the roll into his mouth and shuffled off to have a bath before his father could say anything else. Ben leaned back in his chair and laughed with relief. There didn’t seem to be too much wrong with Joe after all.

The bath did help to ease the pain in his butt, but after sitting in the steamy heat for a while, Joe began to feel dizzy again. The water was probably a bit too hot, he thought and decided he’d soaked for long enough. Getting out of the tub proved to be a bit tricky and there was a nasty moment where he almost slipped and had to make a wild lunge to grab the towel rail for support. He’d just managed to wrap a towel around his waist when his father walked in, carrying a pile of clean clothes.

“Thanks Pa,” Joe said and started to dress quickly, before Ben had a chance to start exclaiming over his bruises. Turning to leave the washroom, he was stooped by a hand on his shoulder.

“Let me just check that cut on your head, Joseph.” From the tone of voice, it was obvious that Ben would brook no nonsense, so Joe obediently bent his head forward and let his father examine the injury. Ben tutted a couple of times, but conceded that it seemed to be healing nicely.

“Great! I thought I might go fishing down at the lake.” After all a day without chores wasn’t to be passed up lightly and Joe intended to make the most of it. Besides, fishing was a nice relaxing pastime, and he’d be sitting, so it wouldn’t matter if he felt dizzy again.

Ben looked at Joe carefully and decided there could be no real harm in this. “Perhaps you could go after lunch? Adam’s coming back then and I know he wants to talk to you.”

A nice little chat with Adam was precisely the last thing Joe wanted. He had absolutely no intention of letting his older brother lord it over him again, or listening to him asserting his physical and moral superiority. For once he had the sense not to blurt this out to his father, although Ben recognised the stubborn look on Joe’s face and listened with interest as the boy started to prevaricate. Joe was glad that his father accepted his excuse, grabbed his fishing rod and beat a hasty retreat down to the lake.

*****

Adam had spent a rather uncomfortable morning, checking the lower pastures with a clearly annoyed Hoss. After a couple of hours, he could not stand the pointed silence any longer.

“I thought I’d go back home at lunchtime to apologise to Joe. I didn’t sleep at all well last night, you know. I kept thinking about how I could have killed him and how it was all just a stupid argument about nothing.” Adam looked and sounded genuinely repentant.

Ever the peacemaker, Hoss was ready to forgive and forget. He only hoped Joe would feel the same way. “Well, I’m sure Little Joe wasn’t entirely blameless himself” he said reassuringly and urged Chubb into a canter. “Let’s go home!”

The ride home was an excellent opportunity to prepare his apology and Adam entered the house, eager to make amends. He had fully expected to see Joe lying on the sofa, being fussed over by his attentive parent and was taken aback to see only Ben in the living room.

“Where’s Joe? He’s not … he’s not feeling bad again, is he?” His eyes were drawn to the stone fireplace, but the telltale blood stain had been carefully cleaned away and no obvious trace of the previous night’s fight remained.

Ben’s sympathised with his son’s obvious anguish.

“No, no, nothing like that. Your brother’s still a bit pale and wan and he’s still feeling rather sorry for himself, but there’s nothing to worry about. He slept until nearly 11 o’clock and then went out fishing. Apart from that badly bruised butt of his, I’d say Joe’s just fine.”

Hoss beamed happily: his family were at peace once again and, even better, Hop Sing was bringing through a delicious looking lunch.

*****

It was a warm day, with an almost cloudless sky, but the brightness hurt Joe’s eyes and started a dull, thumping ache in his head. Sitting on the hard earth was proving rather painful and he soon gave up all pretense of fishing. Lying on his stomach, Joe cradled his head on his hands and quickly fell asleep.

He was rudely awoken by a hand shaking his shoulder and a voice calling his name. Joe sat up with a start and gazed reproachfully up at the figure standing before him.

“Whadd’ya do tha’ for?” He must be still half-asleep, as his tongue didn’t seem to be working properly and it was difficult to form his words clearly.

Donald Henderson smiled down at the sleepy figure. A few years older than Joe, they had known one another at school, although the age difference had effectively ruled out any close friendship. Like Joe, Donald was the youngest of three boys, but there the similarities ended. The Henderson boys were close in age, with almost identical shocks of sandy hair, freckles and blue eyes. Recently, there had been stories going around town that Malcolm, the eldest son, was very ill. Looking at Donald, Joe thought the tales might be true, for the older boy had a worried expression on his face and he looked as if he had been crying.

“I thought I’d better wake you up. It’s going to start pouring down any moment now and you’d better get off home.”

Joe looked up and saw the large anvil-shaped clouds that preceded a rainstorm and realised he must have slept longer than he’d thought.

“Thanks Donald. The Ponderosa’s nearer than your place, so you could come home with me to wait out the storm if you want.”

“No, that’s all right, thanks. I’d better get home or my folks will worry. I’ll come with you as far as the turnoff though and then cut on over the bluff.”

Donald reached out a hand, helped Joe up and they began to jog back towards the Ponderosa, hoping to get home before the rain began. After 10 minutes, Joe began to feel seriously unwell. Every step seemed to increase the pounding in his head. The continuous pain was beginning to make him feel nauseous. His steps began to slow down and then to falter. The pain was now so bad that he could hardly see and, adding to his discomfort, his stomach was churning violently. Joe kept going for as long as he could, pushing on with dogged determination, but was eventually he simply had to stop.

Reaching the turnoff, Donald realised Joe was no longer in sight. Turning to look back, he saw Joe standing in the middle of the track. As Donald started back towards him, Joe bent over and was extremely sick. So sick that he collapsed onto his hands and knees on the track, still retching uncontrollably. Joe finally stopped vomiting and sat carefully down on the road, breathing hard and trying to compose himself. Donald stood helplessly at his side, unsure what to do or say. After a long pause, Joe looked up at him.

“Gosh, I’m sorry about that, Donald. Just felt sick all of a sudden. I’m fine now. You go on home.”

Donald gave Joe a skeptical look and decided to ignore this remarkable statement. He could clearly remember Joe falling off his pony as a child, breaking his collar bone and insisting he was fine, even as his arm hung useless. It seemed that some things never changed. Donald reached into his pocket and pulled out a flat metal container, unscrewed the top and handed it across.

“Here, take a slug of this. It’ll help settle your stomach.”

Joe took the hip flask and swallowed gratefully, choking and spluttering as the brandy hit his throat. It tasted foul! Still, it did seem to help a bit though, so he took another sip, spilling a little on his shirt in the process.

“Thanks Donald. You’re a useful guy to have around.”

They walked slowly towards the turnoff, where Joe finally persuaded Donald to go home. The colour had returned to his face and the worrying green tinge was gone, so Donald thought it was probably safe to let the younger boy go on alone. “See you around, Joe.” He waved and started to climb up the bluff, looking back occasionally to check on the small figure trudging doggedly along the path that led to the ranch house.

After walking for a mile, Joe was feeling hot, tired and dizzy. He found it increasingly difficult to place one foot in front of the other when his head kept spinning uncontrollably. He’d just sat down for a brief rest, when there was the sound of horse hooves behind him and a voice calling “Want a ride home, Little Joe?”

“Oh brilliant”, he thought, “It’s Adam.” A ride home sounded good, even with his sore butt, but why couldn’t it have been Hoss?

Adam drew Sport to a stop and looked down at Joe, who was perched gingerly on a rock. The kid looked a mess, with uncombed, disheveled curls surrounding a pale face. With his eyes closed, Joe looked unaccountably fragile all of a sudden. Adam dismounted and went over to the rock, and hunkered down in front of Joe.

“Are you all right Joe?” Taking  hold of his shoulders, Adam gently pulled the boy towards him and Joe’s head flopped forward onto his chest. Worried by this, Adam bent down to check his brother more closely fumes were unmistakable. All the concern in his voice disappeared, replaced by cold fury. “No, you’re not all right, are you? You’ve been drinking brandy and you’re drunk aren’t you? Honestly, I despair of ever getting any sense into that thick head of yours!”

He jumped up, pulling Joe roughly with him. The sudden movement made Joe’s head spin violently again and it was all he could do not to cry out with the pain building behind his forehead. Adam thrust him roughly up onto the horse, mounted behind and set off at a smart trot. Ignoring the boy’s weak protests, he continued lecturing him all the way home. By the time they reached the ranch, Joe didn’t know which was worse: the pain in his head, or the pain in his butt. He was very grateful when Adam slid off Sport and pulled him down onto the ground.

Watching from the window, Ben was pleased to see his sons ride in together and was hopeful that they had made amends, but his fond illusions were shattered when he saw Adam reach out and spin Joe around to face him. Ben hurried outside, hoping to avert another quarrel and arrived just in time to see Joe look up at Adam with a confused, uncomprehending expression on his face before throwing up all over Adam’s boots.

This was the last straw. Adam had spent an extremely uncomfortable night worrying over his actions and had gone out of his way to find Joe in order to apologise, only to find the reprobate had been enjoying an illicit drinking session. And now he had ruined his boots. Enough was enough! Adam threw Joe bodily over his shoulder, strode across the yard and tossed him unceremoniously into the horse trough.

“I give up! There’s no point in even talking to you Joe! You want to be treated like a man? Well, start behaving like a man instead of a silly little boy!”

Ben sighed. It looked like it was going to be another long and rather unpleasant evening. He helped Joe out of the trough and propelled him towards the porch, where Adam was removing his soiled boots.

“Joseph! Go upstairs and get changed into some dry clothes. Adam, you go and find a clean pair of boots. I’ll want to see both of you in my study in fifteen minutes.”

*****

From the barn Hoss could hear the raised voices and decided that this was an ideal opportunity to give his tack an extra-thorough clean. When he was finished, he returned cautiously to the house, entered by the kitchen door. He looked enquiringly at Hop Sing, who merely shook his head mutely and returned to chopping up vegetables. It definitely seemed safest to stay in the kitchen for a while.

“That is enough!” An unmistakable voice boomed out and there was a sound of hands slamming down upon the desktop. “I will not have brother set against brother  and certainly not under my roof. Adam, Joseph: I expect you both to shake hands and we will hear no more about this. Absolutely no more. Do I make myself clear?”

The question was clearly rhetorical. Hoss decided his presence might be helpful and walked out of the kitchen. He sighed as he surveyed an all-too familiar scene: Ben was standing glaring wildly at his recalcitrant sons; Adam was glowering, with his lips drawn into a thin line; Joe was looking rather dejected and had dropped his head down. Aware of his father’s forceful gaze, Joe extended a hand and said softly “Sorry brother. Shake?”

Adam forced himself to touch Joe’s fingertips briefly, dropping his hand abruptly, as if it were deeply repugnant to him. The kid had done it again! Joe had wrapped his father right around his little finger the day he was born. No matter what he did, Ben would defend Joe to the hilt. Adam’s bitter musings were interrupted by another proclamation.

“Joseph, I am deeply, deeply disappointed in you. I have expressly forbidden you to drink to drink strong liquor, have I not?”

“Yes, Pa, but …”

“But me no buts!” His voice was rising again and Ben tried to control his fury. “You deliberately disobeyed me and then nearly ruined your brother’s boots. You’ll clean and polish them for him and then you can go to bed and reflect on your disgusting behaviour. Maybe that’ll knock some sense into that thick head of yours!”

“It’s not fair!” Joe whined automatically, and then bit back any further words, suddenly aware of how childish he sounded. But it wasn’t fair! No one would listen to his point of view.

“Go on then, get going” Ben gave Joe a not entirely gentle slap on the backside as he passed by. He felt slightly guilty as his Joe winced  audibly and walked slowly over to the door, dejection evident in every muscle of his body. Hoss smiled sympathetically as he passed, and gave him a gentle pat on his shoulder.

“And would everyone please stop clapping and patting me as if I were a dog or a horse or … or something! I wish you’d all just leave me alone!”

 Luckily, Joe could not see the highly amused looks his fathers and brothers exchanged at this indignant outburst and he went out to the porch, feeling sorely abused. Looking at the soiled boots in disgust, he started on the thoroughly unpleasant task. For a family that was always nagging him to eat more, they sure did know how to put a person off his dinner.

*****

Over breakfast the next morning, Ben delegated the chores for the day. Joe was relieved to find that he and Hoss were to bring some colts down to a lower field, while Adam and Ben went into town on business. Although it would still be uncomfortable to ride, he positively welcomed the opportunity to escape from the reproachful gaze of his father.

“Little Joe, I clear forgot to ask how the fishing was yesterday? Did you catch much?” Hoss enquired, hoping to break the stony silence that threatened to put him off his meal.

Ben welcomed the change of topic. “Yes, how did you get on? I don’t recall seeing your fishing rod when you got back yesterday.”

Joe looked puzzled. What on earth were they talking about? Fishing? He hadn’t been fishing for a couple of weeks, had he? He stared down at his plate in confusion.

“Oh stop sulking and finish your breakfast. Some of us have got work to do!”

“I think I’ve had enough, thanks.” Joe was anxious to get away before any more awkward questions were asked, so he ignored Adam’s ascerbic comment.

Hoss was an ideal companion on a day like this. He talked about the scenery and wildlife and was content to leave the subject of last night’s row alone. The way he figured, Little Joe would speak when he was ready. They rode up to the high meadow where the colts were corralled and prepared to start herding them to the lower grazings. After a few weeks there, the best would be retained, eventually to be broken to saddle while the remainder would be sold at auction.

The animals were skittish and Joe groaned inwardly at the thought of trying to control them on the ride home. Hoss rubbed his hands together with glee: this was the sort of work he enjoyed above all. A quick snack and then he’d be ready for the task ahead.

“You want some sandwiches, Shortshanks? Or maybe a piece of pie?”

Joe wasn’t really feeling hungry, but he thought he’d better eat something, so he grabbed an apple and started to munch it. After a couple of bites, his stomach started to rebel, so he threw it away and watched in awe as Hoss demolished a lunch prepared for two.

“You sure you’ve had enough to eat?”

 “Come on now Little Joe, you don’t want me passing out from hunger on the way home! Puny thing like you would never get me back on ol’ Chubb here!”

“Ain’t that the truth, brother!”

*****

In town, Ben and Adam had completed their business at the bank and were enjoying a beer in the saloon before riding home when Donald Henderson and his father Ian walked in.

“Good morning, Ben, Adam,” Ian Henderson greeted them pleasantly. “We saw your horses outside and thought we’d ask how Joe is feeling today. Donald was quite concerned about him yesterday.”

Ben looked the Henderson’s quizzically. “Joseph didn’t mention meeting you yesterday, Donald. Were you fishing together or ….?”

“Or drinking together perhaps?” interjected Adam. Ben glared at him and he subsided.

“No, sir, it wasn’t like that at all. When I met Joe, I thought he was ill and I’d better help him home. He was real pale and unsteady on his feet and then he just seemed to keel right over and was sick. I gave him some brandy from my hip flask and that seemed to help a bit …” Donald’s voice petered out as he saw the looks Adam and Ben exchanged.

“I hope your boy’s feeling better today, Ben?”

“Well, he seemed fine this morning, I think. Maybe a little distracted and he certainly hasn’t been eating much over the past couple of days. Perhaps I’ll have a word with Doc Martin before we ride home.”

“We’ll walk over with you. Malcolm’s there at the moment.”

“How is Malcolm? I’d heard he hadn’t been too well recently. Nothing serious, I hope?”

The look of despair on Ian and Donald’s faces was heartbreaking. In a low, unemotional voice, Ian Henderson explained that Malcolm had consumption, that he had fought long and hard but to no avail. Malcolm, the eldest of Ian Henderson’s three sons, was dying. His life was ebbing slowly and inexorably away and there was nothing anyone could do to help him. “That’s why Donald had the brandy with him, you see. It helps Malcolm when the coughing gets bad.”

For a moment, Ben could think of nothing to say. He could not imagine facing up to the death of one of his sons with such dignity and grace. Then he took Ian’s hand in his and clasped it firmly. “Ian, our thoughts are with you all. I hope that you will call on us if you ever need any help or assistance.”

“There is one favour I would like to ask. We were hoping to build the Beltane Fires next week and I’d be grateful for any wood you could let me have “

“Gladly, Ian, gladly. I don’t think I’m familiar with Beltane Fires though. What are they?”

Donald stepped forward. “You build two fires for May Day, with a path between them. It’s a celebration of the coming summer and of renewal, a time to look forward to the everything growing and flourishing. You walk between the two fires to bring good luck for the coming year. Beltane’s a really old celebration and not many people celebrate it these days, but Malcolm’s always loved it and we want to make this one really special for him.”

When they reached Paul Martin’s surgery, Ben was shocked in the change in Malcolm. He was thin to the point of emaciation, with the skin drawn tight across the bones of his face, giving him an almost skeletal look. He stood stooped over like an old man and even his hair seemed dull and lifeless. However, his eyes blazed with an energy that denied his condition and he greeted the Cartwrights cheerfully.

Ben and Adam left Virginia City, haunted by the look of eager anticipation on Malcolm’s face.

“It’s a dreadful disease, Adam, just dreadful. I don’t know how the Henderson family are coping with this. To see a young man like Malcolm fighting so bravely and loosing the fight little by little, day by day. I just thank God that my sons are all healthy.” Ben shook his head sadly and they rode on in silence for a while.

Adam realised they had not spoken to the Doctor, but then the shock of Ian Henderson’s news and then actually seeing Malcolm had all other thoughts out of their heads.

“I think I’ll ride on out and give Hoss and Joe a hand with the colts, if that’s all right?”

“Sounds like a good idea to me.” Ben hoped that a little joint work might pull his sons back together. “Son, I know you can get frustrated by Joseph and I know he’s too impetuous at times, but give him a chance. He’s got a good heart and he’s still just a boy with a lot of growing up to do.”

Adam smiled. “I know, Pa. I know. With any luck, my patience won’t run out before he drives me distraction! Was I ever that heedless?”

“No, but you were ten times more stubborn – and you still are!”

*****

The colts were proving as uncontrollable as Joe had feared. They had their work cut out to keep them under control. Joe was happy to let Hoss take control and to followed his brother’s instructions. He was carefully herding the colts away from a narrow gorge when things started to go badly wrong. Something startled Cochise and the horse began to dance skittishly around. Joe struggled to bring the pinto under control and began to feel a familiar pounding in his skull. As the pressure inside his head mounted it became more and more difficult to see clearly. Things were moving in swirling, unfocused patterns and nothing seemed particularly real. Joe dropped the reins and put his hands to his head, trying to steady the pandemonium around him. In the distance, Hoss was astounded to see Joe just sitting on Cochise, making no effort to keep the colts away from the gorge. He began shouting at the top of his voice, but even this didn’t seem to have an effect. What on earth was Joe up to now? Hoss pondered the situation: Staying in position, he could keep most of the colts in some kind of order, but risked losing one or two into the gorge. On the other hand, going over to shake Joe out of his daydream could result in the rest of the herd running wild and having to be rounded up from scratch. The answer, in the shape of Adam, came riding over the ridge.

“Good timing brother! Joe’s supposed to be riding point over by that gully but he’s just sitting there. Go on over and wake him up, will ya?”

“No problem. Oh, and Hoss, you don’t need to yell quite so loudly when I’m right next to you!”

Joe heard a familiar voice calling his name, but couldn’t have looked up for a hundred dollars. The thumping in his head was so intense that he thought his skull would explode. He thrust his knuckles hard into his temples in a vain attempt to make the pain stop. Cochise was standing still, but it took all Joe’s remaining energy just to stay in the saddle. Still calling out his brother’s name, Adam was beginning to get seriously worried when Joe did not react at all. As he got closer, he could see that something was obviously wrong.

“Joe?” He was close enough to gather up Cochise’s reins. “Joe?” He placed a hand on Joe’s knee.

Joe was enveloped in pain and was conscious only of the agony inside his skull. The shock of Adam’s touch made him jerk upright, jarring his head and making the pain even worse. He screamed briefly, gave a small gasp and fell forward onto the pinto’s neck.

Reaching out, Adam grabbed his brother’s belt and pulled him bodily off the Cochise and onto his own horse. He held Joe in his arms, wondering if he was unconscious and was relieved when the long lashes flickered and then opened. “Joe? Can you hear me? Are you all right?” He was shocked when Joe finally opened his eyes and stared up at him: the pupils were so expanded that barely any of the green iris was visible.

“My head really hurts, Adam. It won’t stop. I don’t feel so good.”

“You don’t look so good either, buddy. How about we get you settled more comfortably and I’ll take you home?”

Joe’s eyes drifted closed again and Adam was unsure how much he had heard or understood. Hoss rode up at a gallop, exclaiming loudly.

“What’s happened? Is Little Joe all right?”

“There’s definitely something wrong with him, but I don’t know what it is. He’s pretty bad though. Give me a hand with him, will you? He seems to be out for the count.”

They rode back towards the ranch, leaving the colts to their own devices. Adam held Joe firmly in front of him, while Hoss lead Cochise and listened carefully as he related Donald Henderson’s version of the previous day’s events.

“And then he was sick over my boots yesterday too.”

Hoss considered this carefully. “At breakfast, it was almost as if he didn’t remember going fishing yesterday.”

Joe sat so still and his breathing was scarcely susceptible. Every so often Adam would duck his head down to check his brother was still alive. It was strange and rather disconcerting for Joe not to be bouncing around, full of energy and mischief.

There was a movement in the saddle and Joe drawled “Sick …. I’m gonna be sick” in a slurred voice.

For a big man, Hoss could move with an economy of motion and show a dazzling turn of speed. He acted instantly, jumping off his horse to grab Joe and hold him securely as he wretched violently, over and over again. By the time Joe had finished, his exhaustion and misery were evident.

They lifted Joe back onto Sport and set off home again. Joe was shivering and shaking, so Adam pulled off his jacket and wrapped it around him, hugging the boy against his chest. He wasn’t sure if Joe was aware of his actions, but the closeness gave him a little comfort.

*****

Hoss rode on ahead into Virginia City to bring Paul Martin out to the Ponderosa while Adam pushed on home. He started telling stories out loud, relating long-forgotten instances form childhood and every so often gave Joe a little shake, grateful to get a mumble or any other sound out of him. After what seemed an eternity, he rode into the yard, dismounted carefully, took Joe into his arms and rushed into the house.

Ben was working busily at his desk and didn’t look up.

“Glad you’re home, son. Busy day?”

“Pa! Am I glad to see you! There’s something wrong with Joe ….”

The words were hardly out of his mouth when Ben sprang up and rushed over, taking Joe’s limp body into his arms with infinite tenderness and carrying him over to the couch.

“Joseph! What’s happened to you son?”

There was no response. Joe lay pale and unresponsive and Adam began to explain what had happened.

“I think …” It was difficult to vocalise, but Adam knew he had to say it. ”I think it’s that bang on the head he got when I walloped him the other night.” His voice quavered and he looked down at the floor, unable to continue.

Ben tore his eyes away from Joe and looked up at Adam. “Well, you could be right. Then again, perhaps I should have insisted he stay home today, or I could have listened more carefully to Joe’s side of the story yesterday. If we hadn’t been so upset at seeing poor Malcolm Henderson, maybe we would have remembered to talk to Paul. Martin. But nothing’s ever simple in life, is it? There are so many things we wish we could do differently.”

“But it was me that punched him!”

“Yes, but I seem to remember that Joe threw the first punch. Adam, you hit him in anger, but you didn’t do it deliberately. Don’t punish yourself over this, son. Right now, the best thing you can do for brother is to help me get him upstairs and into bed. Hoss and Paul should be here soon and I want to get him settled.”

*****

Brought fully up to date on Joe’s latest mishap, Doctor Paul Martin drew his buggy up in front of the house. He had come to regard the Ponderosa as his home away from home, due to the frequent calls he made to the Cartwrights. Mainly, his visits were on a professional basis, but over the years he had got to know the family very well and enjoyed a rewarding friendship with them. Joe was especially accident-prone and the moment Hoss had burst into his surgery, uttering the all-too-familiar, but nevertheless dramatic words “We need you out at the Ponderosa real fast Doc! Little Joe’s real sick!”, Paul had begun to gather together a formidable array of bandages, splints and opiates. It was always best to be well-prepared where Joe Cartwright was concerned.

If there was one thing which Paul had learnt through long years of association with the family, it was that Joe Cartwright could be relied upon to be unpredictable. This latest ailment was certainly something new for a boy who had previously taken several hard knocks to his head with no discernible effects. However, there was a first time for everything, he ruminated and went up the familiar staircase.

Joe was semi-conscious, lying quietly in bed with his eyes shut. It was easier that way, for whenever he opened his eyes, it caused the room to start whirling around in an alarming fashion, making him feel sick again. Ben and Adam sat on either side of the bed, murmuring quietly to Joe and getting an occasional, monosyllabic response.

“Good afternoon gentlemen. I believe Joe is feeling slightly under the weather?” Without waiting for a reply, Paul continued, “Perhaps you could arrange for a cup of tea for me Adam? The drive has made me rather thirsty. And Hoss, could you see to my horse for me? Thank you.” With that, he ushered them swiftly out of the room. Dealing with one injured Cartwright, plus an anxious parent was bad enough, but even Paul Martin had his limits. The prospect of Ben, Adam and Hoss hovering around and fussing would drive a saint to temptation.

He bent over Joe, concern showing in his face and touched the boy’s cheek gently.

“Joe? It’s Doctor Martin here. I understand you’re not feeling too bright just now. Can you open your eyes for a moment?”

Joe obeyed groggily and Paul began to examine him carefully. He noted the unfocused, rather glassy stare, and general disorientation. He bent Joe’s head forward and examined the scalp wound carefully, noticing how tender and swollen it still was. Joe winced sharply when Paul probed a little too hard and struggled to hold back another bout of nausea. The colour drained rapidly out of his face, and recognising the signs, Paul quickly grabbed a bowl from the dresser.

After Ben had cleaned Joe up and lain him back against the pillows, Paul continued his examination. Joe was very tired now and his answers became shorter and more grumpy. When the doctor enquired innocently “Any pain elsewhere?” he snapped back.

“Just my butt and I’m not showing that to anyone!”

Paul and Ben exchanged amused glances, although Ben was quick to say “Joseph!” in a reproachful tone of voice. By this time though, Joe had fallen into an exhausted sleep. Paul motioned Ben towards the door and they went downstairs, where Adam, Hoss and Hop Sing waited anxiously.

“Ah, tea! How wonderful.” Paul sat down and poured himself a cup, before setting their minds at ease.

“There’s nothing seriously wrong with Joe that time and few quiet days in bed won’t cure.” He took a long, luxurious swallow, savouring the delicate fragrance and nodded his appreciation to Hop Sing. “That knock to the head was pretty nasty and it probably caused a small fracture to Joe’s skull. It certainly gave him a nasty concussion. That would account for the headaches, nausea and general disorientation he’s been experiencing. What he needs now is to be kept still and quiet, with no more moving about than is absolutely necessary.”

The Cartwrights looked worried. It was all very well for Paul to say that, but actually keeping Joe in bed was an almost impossible task.

Paul almost laughed outloud when he saw the dismayed expressions on their  faces. “Don’t worry! Joe’s still feeling pretty rotten and he’ll probably sleep a lot for next few days, so it shouldn’t be too bad.”

Adam stood up and shook Paul’s had. “Thanks, Doctor. We’ve all been rather concerned. I’ll just go up and sit with him for a while, if that’s all right?” Paul nodded his agreement and returned to his cup of tea.

Adam sat down at the side of the bed and studied the sleeping boy carefully. What was it about Joe that affected so deeply? The boy could make him so angry and yet he could draw up the very emotions that Adam tried so hard to keep hidden. He reached out and took Joe’s hand, noticing that it was still smaller than his own and feeling strangely protective.

“Hi Adam.” Joe’s voice was clearer now and he smiled weakly up at his brother. “Glad you’re here. Just wanted to thank you.”

“Thank me? Whatever for? Joe, I need apologise to you. I never meant to hurt you. You do know that, don’t you?”

“I know, It’s okay Adam, really. And I wanted to thank you …” His voice trailed off slightly as a wave of tiredness swept over him. Joe struggled valiantly and he said “Thank you for bringing me home” in a small, tired voice before sleep finally overcame him. Adam remained at the bedside for a long time, holding Joe’s hand and watching him sleep.

*****

A few days later, Joe was back to his normal rambunctious self, bemoaning the fact that he was confined to bed, begging to be allowed up and generally driving his loving family to distraction. Finally, he crept downstairs one afternoon, figuring that everyone was busy with chores, only to be chased back to his room by Hop Sing, who proved surprisingly accurate with a wooden spoon. Rubbing his butt ruefully, Joe inspected the damage in his mirror and decided that if was ever going to ride Cochise with any degree of comfort, he’d better stay in his room.

Running the Ponderosa was a full-time job, but Ben did not forget his promise to Ian Henderson and arranged for two enormous Beltane fires to be built on the sandy shores of Lake Tahoe, well away from the tree line.

The evening of May Day was fair and clear, with only a light wind in the air. Dusk was beginning to fall as they rode down to the lakeside. Joe had persuaded his father that he was well enough to ride and had swung up into the saddle with only a slight wince of pain.

Ian Henderson lit two torches and passed one to Ben. They walked in step towards the bonfires and thrust the torches into the kindling placed around the perimeter of each fire. Within seconds, the tinder-dry wood was ablaze, lighting up the darkness and sending sparks and smoke high into the night air. Even at a distance the heat reached the onlookers, who stood mesmerised by the primal beauty and power. Adam looked down at Joe’s eager face and smiled to himself. Once again the kid had bounced back and was enjoying life to the full.

To his left, Malcolm Henderson stood, supported by his father and brothers. The flames cast a false glow of health on his thin face, but like Joe, he was invigorated by the majesty of the fires. Malcolm was very frail now and this would probably be his last excursion out of the house, but he was enjoying the occasion with all his heart.

There was a path between the fires, ten feet wide and covered with dampened earth. Ian Henderson stepped forward and held out his hand to his wife, Agnes. Slowly and solemnly, they walked between the rising flames. Ben followed next, amazed at the heat which reached out to him. He joined Ian and Agnes at the far side and linked arms with them.

Malcolm, Hugh and Donald came through next, walking slowly but purposefully, savouring the moment. They stood, staring back through the flames as Adam, Hoss and Joe stepped forward.

With one accord, Adam and Hoss pushed Joe in between them, instinctively acting like older brothers and protecting their younger sibling. Joe’s eyes danced with mischief as he realised what they were doing, but for once he didn’t object. He put his arms around their waists and together the brothers walked along the path between the flames, feeling the power of the Beltane fires and sharing in a sense of renewal and hope.

***End***

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