The Joke (by Sherri)

Summary:
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  13,000

“Psst. Billy.”

Hearing his name being whispered from the other side of the stable, a young boy scampered over to where the other voice came floating from. “What?”

“You got the horse?”

 “Yeah, I got him tied up behind the stable, and I got the brand and other stuff taken care of.” Scratching the top of his nose, he wiped some flecks of dried paint off as he questioned, “Are you sure you want to do this?”

 “Heck yeah, I think it would be fun to see if he’d notice a change in horses,” the voice from the shadow replied. Stepping out from the dark corner, a teenage boy walked through a ray of sunlight as he laughed. Looking down the street, he pushed his dark hair away from his face as he slid his hat on before speaking again, “You know how everyone talks about how that horse is so easy to recognize. Let’s see if he can tell a difference.”

 “You betting, Frank?”

 “Yeah, I bet… shhhh.” Quickly making a motion of silence, Frank peeked around the corner to take a quick look down the street. “Let’s do this betting later; we gotta make an exchange now. No one is around, and he just went into the saloon. He’ll be in there for awhile, I bet you.”

 “There you go betting again Frank,” complained the younger boy.

 “Just a matter of speech, Billy boy.”

 Pushing the younger boy out in front of him, he led the way behind the barn and to where Billy had hidden horse, whistling when he saw it. “Oh boy, Billy. I couldn’t even tell the difference. Keep him here, and I’ll go get the other horse. Then we can swap out the saddle and stuff, and make the switch.” Chuckling to himself as he said that, he slunk around the corner of the stable and quickly sauntered down the sidewalk to where the other horse stood. Grabbing its reins, he quickly untied it from the post, suddenly feeling a little nervous about their plans. They were his plans actually. It started ever since he’d seen a horse at his uncle’s place, and one thing led to another, which became this early afternoon tryst.

*****

“Come on, Joe, let’s go check out those horses at the Matheson place.”

 Turning from the bar, Joe saw that his oldest brother had just entered the saloon and was casually leaning against the bar. Taking one more swallow of his beer, Joe wiped his mouth before turning around to face him, setting the glass back down on the bar. “Yeah, I’m ready.” Grabbing his hat he slid it on his head as he followed Adam out the door, looking around for his other brother. “Where’s Hoss?” Joe asked, as he continued to peer down the street.

 “I met up with him and Pa as I came down the street, and they said they’ll meet up with us later at the International Hotel for supper.” Moving over to his horse, Adam tossed the reins over his horse’s head before stepping into the stirrups and throwing his leg over. Sitting on his horse, he shook his head as he watched his brother leap into the seat without use of the stirrups. “One day you are going to be in for a surprise when that horse moves on you, little brother.”

 Smiling Joe shook his head, as he answered, “Cochise won’t do that to me.” Patting his horse on the neck, he laughed as he led the way out of town and towards the Matheson ranch. It was a beautiful fall day, the sun was out and even though there was a slight chill in the air, it felt great as it whipped through the edges of his hair not covered by his hat. It looked to be the type of the day in which nothing could go wrong. Throwing a look over his shoulder, he was about to call out to Adam about the way Cochise was galloping, when he saw his brother’s horse step into a chuckhole. Throwing Adam’s body out of rhythm with its gait, Joe watched in horror as his brother’s head rammed into the horse’s head before bouncing back into the saddle as the horse righted itself and got its feet back in stride. Slowing his horse down, Joe trotted along until Adam pulled up beside him. Seeing blood streaming from his nose, Joe started feeling in his pockets for a handkerchief as he asked, “You okay, Adam? Your nose is bleeding.”

 Raising his hand up to his nose, Adam carefully touched it before he pulled his hand away with a cry of pain. Wiping the blood from his hand onto his pants, he reached over and accepted Joe’s cloth and became dabbing at the blood on his face. Hearing his brother ask him again how he was, he looked up. “Not sure. My nose is killing me.”

“Do you want to return to town and see the doc?”

“No, I’m fine,” Adam replied, as he held Joe’s handkerchief with as much pressure as he could next to his nose. “I think it will be okay once this bleeding stops. And…” as he pulled the blood soaked cloth away, “it looks like it has almost stopped.”

 Looking at the bloodied nose of his brother, Joe could already see the signs of bruising on his face, quickly showing the black and blue marks from where Adam’s nose clunked against the horse’s head. Grimacing slightly, Joe didn’t want to even imagine what it must have felt like, having experienced it numerous times before while breaking horses. “Well, if you’re sure. You know the hillside hasn’t been cleared off well as we approach Matheson’s place; it will be a bit rough in places.”

 “Can’t be any rougher than this ride I’m having now.”

 Shaking his head, Joe turned his mount around and kicked him in the ribs. “Come on, Cochise,” he urged as he wondered silently the lack of power that usually flowed through the horse. Riding for another mile, the brothers rode along in silence when they saw the turnoff to the Matheson ranch. Grumbling to himself, Joe had to wonder how in the world Clark Matheson was able to bring supplies to his ranch. The road was terrible. The recent rains had dug ruts into the road in addition the overhanging branches and limbs were tricky to maneuver under. Not being familiar with the road, Joe was a little unsure of the condition of the road on up so he pulled on the reins to slow his horse down, hoping that a surprise limb wouldn’t knock him off. Riding a ways, he saw a small clearing ahead. Turning in the saddle, Joe turned to ask Adam a question, waiting for his brother to catch up with him, “Say Adam, did Matheson catch a stallion? I heard someone mention in town that at the last roundup they captured that stallion we saw last year leading those mares across the range. I look forward to seeing him up close.”

 Grabbing onto his hat as his horse led the way beneath a low branch, Adam uttered a low oath, before carefully sitting back up in the saddle, “Yeah, heard about that too. If so, he’d be great stud for some of our mares.” Muttering under his breath, Adam struggled with the reins as he felt his horse try to slide up against Joe’s horse. Watching as Joe pulled his horse away, Sport ended up walking so close to a tree, that he rubbed his rider’s arm against a tree. “You fool horse!” Frustrated, Adam turned to speak to Joe. “I don’t know what the heck is wrong with Sport today!”

 Glancing over at his brother, Joe couldn’t help but cringe at the dark look that Adam was shooting at his horse, suddenly glad the look was not directed at him. Hearing noises in the distance, he could hear the sound of horses, then the mixed sounds of men talking. Kicking his horse in the ribs, he spurned ahead anxious to check out the horses, leaving his brother behind to catch up. As he cleared the last of the low branches, Joe was relieved to see that the rest of the road was clear of any debris and obstacles as he guided his horse towards the corral. Seeing the crowd of men already grouped around the wooden fence, Joe glanced around but didn’t see any place he could stand and still be able to see the horses. Choosing to stay seated on his mount, a noise next to him made him turn. Seeing his brother ride up to him, Joe couldn’t help but ask, “How’s Sport doing?”

“Better, once I slowed him down,” Adam replied, as he slid his hat further down his head, trying to hide the glaring black nose that had developed during the ride.

 “How’s your nose?”

 “Throbbing.” Then waving away any more of Joe’s questions, Adam pointedly turned towards the horses.

 Looking away from Adam, Joe turned his attention back towards the corral of horses. The auction had already started before they arrived, so with the bidding starting on a new horse, Joe tried to focus his attention on the bidding information. Except his thoughts kept distracting him. Ever since Joe got on his horse that morning, he had the feeling that something wasn’t quite right. Turning towards the corral, he listened a little about the current horse up for bid, but decided that it wasn’t worth wasting his time on. Slipping his feet out of the stirrups, he slid to the ground and began feeling his horse’s leg’s then flank before moving over to its head. Prying the horse’s mouth open, he began checking its teeth.

 Noticing Joe’s actions, Adam asked, “What are you doing Joe?”

 “Cochise isn’t acting right,” Joe replied as he looked into the horse’s mouth. Staring at the horse, he let go of its teeth as he muttered to himself. Standing up, he muttered a low oath before he looked up at Adam, “This… this isn’t Cochise.”

Sliding off his own horse, Adam tied the reins around a post as he came over to where Joe stood next to the paint. “What do you mean?”

“This isn’t Cochise. I knew something was up when we left town, but thought maybe it was his eagerness to run. But, still the way he ran, something didn’t quite add up. And…” as Joe held up his hands, “this horse has had paint on it, made up to look like my horse. This horse isa paint, but it isn’t my horse!” Turning to look at Adam, Joe slapped off the flaky paint on his hands against his pant legs, “Then the odd way your horse was acting — it was in reaction to this horse.”

 Hearing the excitement in Joe’s voice, Adam tried calming his brother down, as he slid off his horse to look the pinto over. Walking behind the horse, its tail suddenly flew up hitting him in the face but as he shoved it aside, he gasped just as he turned to yell, “Joe! Get this horse out of here, she’s in heat.”

Vaguely Joe heard what his brother was saying, but by the time Adam yelled his attention had been caught by the distant sound of a stallion squealing. Pinned away from the other horses, the stallion was in a separate corral kicking it hooves up into the air and squealing; the noise seemed to be focused only on him. It was that sound which grabbed Joe’s attention as he turned around to see the stallion, its eyes focused on his horse. Grabbing hold of the paint’s reins, Joe slung himself onto the top of the horse and was in the process of slipping his feet into the stirrups to get it out of the area when he heard the sharp cracking sound of wood breaking. Glancing towards the corral, Joe’s eyes widened as he struggled with his words to yell, “ADAM! The stallion’s loose!” Feeling the blood in his veins grow cold, Joe watched the stallion as it ran directly to where he and his horse danced. Tensing up with anticipation, he was thrown off guard as the stallion ran full force into the horse that Joe was on, rocking him in his seat.

 Struggling to stay his seat in the saddle, Joe could feel the horse beneath him shudder off balance before regaining its step. Yanking hard on the reins, Joe tried desperately to turn the horse around, away from the stallion. Feeling the strength of the horse beneath him, Joe could feel the pinto fighting at the reins. No matter how hard Joe pulled, he could feel the fierce determination of the horse beneath him in its urge to follow the stallion. With a jump one direction and then the next, Joe couldn’t help but watch in fascination yet fear as the stallion danced before him throwing its head up in the air, beckoning the horse Joe was on to follow along. Already he could feel the lack of control with the reins he held in his hand, making the only thing Joe could do now was to hold on, and to hold on with dear life. With his feet barely in the stirrups, Joe felt a sudden jerk forward as his horse took off, his hat flying off in the process. Swinging his head down low next to the horse’s neck, he could feel the adrenaline pump through its body as they swung through the trees away from the yard. Going in the direction opposite from where he had just arrived, Joe could hear the commotion in the yard behind him. Not daring to look behind him, he could vaguely make out the sound of men hollering and could only hope that they were jumping on their horses to follow behind.

Ducking as the low branches of the trees flew past, at one point he lifted his head and was rewarded with a sharp slap to the face with an overhanging branch. Feeling the sting of the branch, Joe dared not reach up and feel it. Already he could feel the development of a welt as the stinging sensation spread across his face. Dropping his head level with the horse’s head, he was careful to move at the same movements as the horse to prevent a broken nose, or a bloodied one like his brother’s. With his attention focused on the speed of the stallion just ahead, Joe couldn’t help but notice the branches that continued to swoop past him when he dared to peek around. Glancing ahead, Joe could see the magnificent animal ahead of them. The long black mane flowing across its massive back as its hooves beat steadily across the ground; it would have been beautiful to watch, had he not been on the back of a runaway. In and out of the trees they went, Joe and his horse, following the stallion through the maze of trees. Feeling exhaustion seep through his body from the desperate struggle to hold on, Joe thought back to what he heard Adam shout just as his horse took off for the stallion. “Get off that mare!” If only he could, Joe thought.

 Seeing the edge of the trees clearing ahead, Joe let out a deep breath hoping that the run was almost finished, ducking one last time as a branch swung out from nowhere. Tugging hard at the reins, Joe was desperate to slow this horse down but as he rode along, clinging to the reins, he realized deep down in his heart that it was a useless cause. This horse was desperate to get to the stallion, nearly as desperate as the stallion was to get the mare to himself.

Watching the scenery fly past, Joe could feel the power within the horse beneath him weaken some when he heard the sound of water above the sound of the horses. Looking ahead, Joe could see the clear rippling water of a stream directly in their path. Not even slowing down, the stallion ran full steam ahead as it splashed through the water, its pounding hooves tossing up a water spray as he crossed the wide stream. Climbing its way up the rocky slope with sure steps on the other side of the hill, Joe was able to catch a glimpse of its flying mane as he disappeared out of sight. Turning his attention to the horse he was riding, he tried to concentrate on hanging on as she crossed down the embankment into the water, her sides heaving as she stumbled on the rocks hidden beneath the water. With the legs of his pants getting soaked, he could feel the wind blowing across the water as it hit his wet clothing. Shivering slightly, he let out a sigh of relief when he realized the horse had made safely to the other side.

Heaving from the exertion of the run, the horse didn’t slow down as she carried her rider up the rocky slope. Joe again began to have the uncomfortable feeling of being out of control, as the horse raced up the hill. Never really having control in the first place, the sensation he felt was different, as though something wasn’t quite right. Trying to regain some sort control of the horse before it was too late, Joe had just about put the thought into action when he felt a misstep in the horse’s stride as it stepped on a loose rock. Rocking in his seat, Joe glanced down and saw the rock as it went rolling down the hill. Hearing the sounds of the rock hitting other rocks, Joe knew he was in trouble when he felt the horse waver as it struggled to balance itself.

 Feeling the uncertain movement of the horse beneath him, Joe kicked his feet from the stirrups and threw himself out of the saddle, landing free of the horse. Feeling the rocks grind into his body as he landed, Joe couldn’t find anything to grab onto as he rolled swiftly down the hill. All the rocks and broken limbs dug into his body before he made an ungraceful plunge back into the water they had just crossed. The cold water took his breath away; the cuts on his body became numb from the chill. Sliding to a stop next to a boulder, Joe lay unmoving in the water, briefly disoriented from his trip downhill. Hearing a scream, Joe looked up in time to see the horse he was just on come plunging down the hill. Gasping, Joe struggled to get out of the way. Feeling like he was moving in slow motion with his cold, waterlogged clothing that clung to his body, he barely was able to stumble away on the slippery rocks beneath the water. The force in which the horse hit the water threw up a wall of water before its legs tumbled over Joe, who leaned back paralyzed, unable to miss one hoof as it sliced him across his chest. Tumbling backwards, he cried out in pain as his feet tripped over a moss-covered rock hidden under the water twisting his body as he fell face down into the frigid water.

 Stunned, Joe lay in the knee-deep water struggling to push his face up out of the water. Flinging his head back, he could feel water spray through the air as it loosened its hold on his hair, then gasped for breath. Sliding his body into a sitting position, he surveyed the scene before him. The horse he had been riding had broken its neck somewhere along the way as its plunge into the water. Hearing the disturbing sounds of pain coming from the horse, Joe automatically checked for his gun. Feeling it in his holster, he belatedly realized that the waterlogged gun would be of no use. As he sat in the frigid water, Joe looked up into the treetops where he could see the limbs moving from a breeze that blew through. Slowly, the wind filtered its way down to Joe’s level, striking his body unkindly as the feeling of intense chills took over his body. Shaking in the water, Joe felt chilled to the bone as he struggled to push his body out of the water; he felt a sharp pain ricocheted through his chest when he leaned against a boulder. Gasping out in pain, he looked own to see blood splashed across his chest. Looking at it almost in awe, he gently pushed on his shirt before crying out in pain yet again. The pain was intense. Breathing heavily, Joe carefully pried apart his sliced shirt to take a look at his chest. What he saw didn’t make him feel any better. From his right shoulder down to the waist on his left side, he saw a cut from where the horse’s hoof had sliced into him.

Trying to hold onto his burning chest, yet wanting to keep the wet cold fabric away from his body, Joe shook his head in frustration. Gritting his teeth, he pulled his right arm close to his chest before leaning forward as he pushed off from the boulder with his other hand. Carefully sloshing through the water, Joe stumbled once more in the water before he safely made it to the other side of the stream. Shaking from head to toe, he could feel his teeth chattering as he looked up towards the sky. There was an area of sunshine peeking through the clouds, prompting Joe to move over towards an open area where the rays of sunlight were making its way to the ground. In pain, cold, exhausted and just plain miserable, Joe stood there trying to figure out what to do next. He was miles from anywhere, and with the condition that he was in now, there was no guarantee he could even make it twelve feet. Feeling a wave of nausea Joe felt his body slump forward as his head crashed to the ground, just missing a large boulder by inches. He felt nothing else as darkness took over where pain once ruled.

 *****

 “Joe, wake up Joe.”

Hearing a voice, Joe struggled to open his eyes, but only ended up groaning in the effort. Feeling his body tugged and pulled, he tried to lift his arm to push them away, but all it did was cause more pain to go rippling through his body. He almost wished the darkness that he sunk into would return to take him away from this horizon of pain. He heard a voice again, this one sounding familiar and concerned, as Joe tried again to open his eyes.

 “Joe, buddy, come on now, you can do it.” Cradling his brother’s body in his arms, Adam distractedly watched as some men tugged off Joe’s gear off the dead horse in the water. Having wrapped his little brother in his coat, Adam could feel the light breeze as it wafted past him, shivering slightly when he thought of how it must feel on Joe, soaked through and through as he was from his fall in the water. Feeling movement in his arms, he turned his attention back down at his brother, coaxing him as he sensed that he was coming back around, “Joe, can you hear me?”

Moaning, Joe was barely able to let out the name “Adam” before he cringed in pain. Only feeling a cool breeze that whipped around his legs, he suddenly noticed how his arms and chest were shielded from the air. Curious as to the reason why, he let out a sigh as he opened his eyes to see his brother’s coat wrapped around his body. Breathing heavily, he couldn’t help but ask, “Aren’t you cold?”

Glad to hear his brother’s voice, Adam wanted to just hug him but stopped when he remembered his brother’s injuries. Nodding his head at Joe’s question, Adam instead pulled the coat closer around his brother’s body. “I’m fine, Joe. You’re the one who got soaked,” he replied as he again noticed the shivers that shook Joe’s body. Turning to look at one of the men hovering near him, he asked, “Do you have my horse around? I need to get my brother here to the doctor quick.”

“Yes Mr. Cartwright, we got him here.” The tall lanky fellow grabbed the reins to Adam’s horse, then led him over to where the Cartwrights sat on the ground. Holding on to the horse, the man watched as Adam carefully pulled himself from the ground and looked towards him.

 “Jebediah?” asked Adam. “I may need your help here.”

 “Yes sir, I’ll be glad to help you out.”

 Leaning over his brother, Adam carefully reached his arms underneath his brother’s body, coaxing him into a sitting position. Hearing Joe’s low moan, he somehow pulled him into a standing position before he stooped over to lift him into his arms.

 “No, Adam,” Joe whispered, “I can walk now. Just help me, and I can do it.”

Surprised, Adam looked down into the green eyes of his brother. Water continued to drip from Joe’s hair onto the coat, but despite the pain that seemed to be hazing his brother’s eyes, he sensed his determination to walk. Nodding slightly, Adam wrapped his arms securely around his brother’s waist and slowly they walked the few feet to where Jebediah held the horse.

Pushing slightly away from his brother, Joe reached up, and with a cry, grabbed hold of the reins of the horse. Sagging against the horse, Joe tried to catch his breath as he felt his foot being lifted and placed in the stirrup. With an energy he didn’t realize he had, Joe swung his other leg over the horse’s back and sank into the saddle. His body quickly bowed over in response to the pain and he felt his head touching the saddle horn; he could vaguely hear the voices of Adam and several other men. With a determination he didn’t realize he had, Joe remained sitting on the horse until he felt the movement of the animal as Adam carefully got on the back of the horse. Feeling the comforting presence of his brother as he leaned him against him, Joe let out a deep sigh as he once again he felt himself slide into darkness.

*****

 “Hey Frank,” whispered Billy as he tugged on the other boy’s arm. “Did you see that?”

Shaking off the hand, the teen tossed another pebble into a water trough, before muttering, “Huh?”

 “Did you see what just happened?”

 “No, what?”

 “Adam Cartwright just brought in his brother, and he didn’t look too good.”

 “WHAT?” Tossing the rest of the pebbles into the water trough, Frank grabbed Billy by the shoulders. “Where did they go?”

 “I think they were headed down to the doctors.”

 “Did they have the horse with them?”

 “I didn’t see it.”

 “Oh no, my uncle is going to kill me if I don’t get that horse back to him.”

 Surprise on his face, Billy just stared at him, “And how were we going to get him back in the first place?”

 “I don’t know,” answered the older boy, “I figured we would admit that it was a joke and then get it from Joe.” Moaning to himself Frank looked around for the horse, “Oh gosh, I don’t know what I’m going to do about that horse.” Looking over at Billy, he grabbed him by the arm. “Come on, we’re going to go to the doctor’s office.”

 “I don’t wanna go there!”

Tugging on the younger boy’s arm, Frank insisted, “Come on, we gotta go find out what happened.”

 Unwilling, but equally curious, Billy followed the older boy as he cut across town. Within minutes, they found themselves just outside the doctor’s office. Walking towards the steps, both boys stopped and huddled next to a post when they saw the figures of the rest of the Cartwright family hurrying down the sidewalk. Hearing the door open to the doctor’s office, the boys looked up to see Adam Cartwright exiting the building.

“Adam!” Hoss called out as they approached.

 “What happened to you, son?” Ben asked as he studied his son’s black and blue nose.

 “My horse’s head and I collided. But that’s not why I sent for you,” Adam replied, as he glanced back up at the building. “Joe’s been hurt.”

“Hurt! What happened?”

 “Joe’s horse, well… let me clarify, it wasn’t Joe’s horse. Someone switched horses on him and gave him a mare.”

“A mare! Weren’t the two of you supposed to be at the horse auction?” Pausing for a moment, Ben seemed to realize something, “Wasn’t Matheson selling a stallion?”

“Not anymore. The stallion crashed through the fence and went after the horse that Joe was on. Surrounded by men, noise and everything, both horses took off, with Joe still on top. It was just before all this happened that he realized it wasn’t Cochise. He apparently had questions about it himself, saying that his horse was acting strange, and was about to take the horse out of there, when the mess began.”

“What happened to Joe?”

 “We found him down by Indian Creek, and the horse that he was riding, was dead.”

 Hearing that, both boys who were overtly listening pushed away and took off running.

“Did you hear that? The horse is dead! My uncle is gonna kill me!” exclaimed Frank.

 “Wait a second — what about Joe?”

“I don’t care right now; I’m more worried about my hide.” Stopping in his tracks, Frank glanced off towards the stable. “Come on, I’m gonna take this other horse to my uncle.”

“You can’t do that!”

 “Why not?”

 “Because, that wouldn’t be right.”

 “Then why don’t you go tell the Cartwright’s what happened?”

 Glancing back down the street, both boys could see that Mr. Cartwright had gone into the doctor’s office, leaving the two brothers outside. From where they stood, they could easily see the anger on their faces. “Um, I don’t know,” Billy replied uncertainly.

 “While you think about it, I’m getting Joe’s horse out of the corral and taking him to my uncle’s. You joining me or not?”

 “Frank, I…” Billy answered with a whine to his voice.

 “That’s fine, stay here, I’ll do it myself.”

 “But…” Nothing more was said as Billy watched the teenager slip away towards the stables. Sighing to himself, he dropped his shoulders as he followed the same path as his so-called friend.

*****

 “Here you go, young man,” said the doctor as he handed Joe his shirt. “You came out lucky this time, and I really don’t know how. In any other instance, you would have had several broken ribs from that tumble you took down the hill. How you escaped more serious injury from the horse, I don’t know. God was surely looking after you.” Turning to where Ben stood, he gave instructions. “Make sure he stays off his horse for a few weeks. The cut on his chest wasn’t as bad as I feared but he needs to let his chest heal. The cuts and bruises on the rest of his body should heal up fairly quickly.”

 Hearing a sound behind him, the men turned to see Joe make a face, “Ride my horse? Yeah right, first I need to find out what happened to my horse!” Hopping off the table, Joe cringed as he remembered belatedly why he was on the table in the first place. Holding his arms gingerly against his chest, he carefully removed them so that he could finish buttoning up his shirt. Leaving his shirttails tucked out of his pants, he took off for the door.

“Not so fast young man,” Ben replied, “You are riding back home with me on a buckboard. Your brothers will find out what happened to your horse.”

Almost ready to speak up, Joe changed his mind and just nodded.

Watching as the door closed behind Joe, the doctor continued to speak with Ben. “I’m also worried about how cold and wet he got while he was out there. I want you to make sure when he gets home that he stays indoors and in front of the fire. He needs to stay warm. If he develops a cold, please send someone into town for me. Also,” as the doctor continued, “please send Adam to see me. That nose of his looked rather painful and I want to make sure nothing is broken.”

“Will do, and, doc, thanks,” Ben replied. Grabbing his hat, he stuffed it on top of his head as he went out the door. Seeing his youngest leaning against the wall, Ben walked over and patted him on the shoulder. “Shall we go home?”

“Yeah,” Joe answered a bit disgruntled. Already he missed his horse, and now someone’s stupid idea of a joke had left him hobbled, unable to go search for Cochise. Hearing his pa talking, he turned to listen.

 Noticing the lack of attention his son gave him, Ben asked, “Did you hear me, son?”

 “Sorry, Pa, no. What did you say?”

 “I need to run down to the bank and finish with my deposit, then go find your brother Adam. I want you to go down to the stables and see if they have a buckboard we can rent, and then have them hook it up for us.”

 Nodding, Joe sighed as he watched Ben walk off towards the bank before he slowly limped in the opposite direction towards the stables. His chest was aching where the doctor had stitched it up so he carefully held his right arm against it, hoping that would slow down the ache. He greeted a few people, some of whom had already heard of his misfortune that afternoon and shared their sympathy. Finally arriving at the stables, Joe pushed the door open and walked across the hay strewn floor looking for the stable hand. “Hello? Hello?”

 Hearing a noise coming from outside the stable, Joe glanced around and saw that there was a door to the back of the stables opened slightly. Slowly moving that direction, he reached over and carefully pushed open the door, then looked out into the corral. Gasping out in surprise, he couldn’t help but cry out, “COCHISE!”

 Pushing the door open, Joe had taken a few steps towards the horse when he suddenly felt a blow to his shoulders. Feeling his body fall towards the ground, he reached out and caught hold of the legs of someone rushing past him. Hearing a voice yell from the captured body, he could vaguely make out the cry, “GO, FRANK, GO!” Looking down at his captive, Joe grabbed hold of the struggling body next to him, ignoring the pain that went shooting through his chest as the boy kicked at him. Finally, he somehow was able to maneuver his body on to the top of the fighting form; he had him straddled and found himself looking down into the eyes of a boy from town who he vaguely recognized as Billy Parker. Angry, Joe held his arms still as he demanded an answer, “What did you do with my horse?”

 The look in Joe’s eye’s scared him, and the young boy began to stutter out excuses, “I… we… it was a joke. It was only to be a joke!”

“Where is he taking my horse?”

 “He’s…” stuttered the boy as he stopped struggling. “He’s taking him back to his uncle’s in Carson City.”

 “Who’s his uncle?”

 “Nathaniel Clemmons.”

 Lifting his hand in anger, he swung at the boy, missing him by inches as he sunk his fist into the ground, groaning slightly at the pain that shot through his knuckles. He wanted to thrash the boy in front of him for what he did, but instead Joe carefully pushed himself up from the ground away from the now inert body. Leaning against a bale of hay, Joe pressed his hand against his chest as he looked around the corral for a horse. Seeing a loose horse standing at the opposite side of the corral, he turned to the boy, “Go saddle that horse, and make it quick.”

“Yes, Mr. Cartwright.”

 Sighing, Joe looked towards where Cochise had stood just moments before and shook his head. The foolishness of these boys… But at least he knew his horse was well and alive. As the boy threw the saddle on, various methods of punishment went through Joe’s head, but finally all those were dashed away when the boy came stumbling back to him. “I’m sorry, Mr. Cartwright; it was only supposed to be a joke. Nobody was supposed to get hurt.”

Waving away the boy’s apology, Joe went over to the horse and tried stepping into the stirrup. Feeling a wave of pain come over him, he gritted his teeth as he grabbed hold of the reins with both hands and flung his other leg over the horse before turning around to face the young boy. Breathing deeply for moment, Joe bent over in pain as he tried to regain control of his breathing. With one hand on the reins, his other he wrapped around his chest, Joe glanced over at the boy, telling him breathlessly, “When my pa comes in here, you tell him everything you know. Understand?” Watching as the boy briskly nodded his head, Joe kicked the horse in the ribs and nudged the horse out of the corral.

Once free from the corral, Joe guided the horse of the yard and on out of town. As he rode, he could feel every stitch on his body tear at his skin as they sent shivers of pain to other points in his body. Gasping as he rode, Joe had one thing on his mind and that was to get Cochise back; any pain he went through was worth it in his mind. Uneasily he sat upon the horse’s back, feeling the bumps and the uneasy gait of the horse as it raced along. Finally, unable to tolerate the pain any longer, Joe slowed the horse to a stop and he sat trying to breathe. Loosely hanging onto the reins, he felt his head drop forward as the pain in his chest seemed to spread across his body with a crescendo of agony. Taking a deep breath, he glanced up briefly. There in the distance, not too far away, he could distinctly make out a flurry of dust. Suddenly inspired by the possibility of Cochise being just ahead, Joe gritted his teeth with determination and kicked his horse in the ribs, feeling as it took off like a bullet down the road.

Mile after mile passed. As he felt himself get closer to the dust bomb down the road, Joe concentrated on the pounding of the hooves on the road, instead of the pain in his body. The closer that Joe came to the rider and horse, the easier it was for him to make out the shape of the horse. It was Cochise. Joe realized that, if it came down to a race between him and the boy, he would have to bow out. His strength was nearly gone; he was spurned on only by the knowledge that he had almost caught the scoundrel who had stolen his horse. Chewing the bottom of his lip, Joe looked off to the west and eyed a small rise that would possibly put him on the road ahead of the boy. Taking the chance, Joe tried to keep the faintness he was feeling at bay as the horse ran up the hill, riding along an unmarked path to the other side.

*****

Leisurely riding along, Frank had no worries. Whistling a tune to himself, he was pleased, although when he originally left the stable in Virginia City and saw Joe come stumbling into the corral, it had scared him. But he was sure that Joe was back at the stables, probably still grilling Billy about what happened, and was certain the kid would quickly spill his guts about what he knew. That was fine; he was on Cochise and taking this horse back as a replacement for the one he stolen from his uncle. Then he planned on disappearing from the area for a while. Let Joe try and argue with his uncle in getting his horse back.

Lost in his thoughts, Frank never even saw the man and horse before him until it was too late. Recognizing the rider, his eyes widened as he saw the green-jacketed figure of Joe Cartwright sagging on a horse in front of him. Kicking the paint in the ribs, the only thought going through Frank’s head was to get away; then he heard a whistling sound come from the other direction. Apparently the horse recognized it, because suddenly all demands from Frank were ignored as it took off for the horse and rider on the road. Pulling on the reins, Frank desperately fought with the horse, trying to stop it from turning around, yanking on the bit in its mouth and ferociously kicking it into the ribs. It was all to no avail. Watching as Joe slid from the other horse and whistled again, Frank gave up his efforts as the horse galloped to where Joe stood, before pulling to a stop and nuzzling its face against Joe’s chest. Hearing laughter coming from the other man, Frank felt rage build up within him at being caught. Throwing himself from the saddle, he fell to the ground but immediately jumped up and rammed his body into Joe.

 Caught off guard by the assault, Joe found himself tumbling to the ground, throwing out his arms in a desperate attempt to break his fall. Sprawled out on the ground, he could feel the warmth of blood on his chest, groaning to himself with what his pa was going to say when he saw him. Pressing his hand against his chest, Joe tried pushing the teenager off him with his other hand as he felt the onslaught of blows come to his body. The punching to his stomach caused him to gasp in pain; he felt the stitches break loose and spill blood. “Get off me, Frank, unless you want to make this worse for you!” Joe demanded, out of anger and sudden fear. The fear of bleeding to death out here on the road became a reality as he looked down at his shirt and saw it saturated in blood. The red dripped on down to his pants, creating crimson stains down the front of them.

Rolling on the ground, both man and boy fought for control of the situation, when Joe felt a hand slide against his left side and grasp hold of his gun. Stunned, he froze. Feeling the weight lift off his stomach, he looked up into the half-crazy eyes of Frank as the boy stood there with his hand wavering, pointing the gun at Joe. Hearing the cocking of the gun, Joe slowly pulled himself into a sitting position as he tried to reason with the boy.

“Come on, you don’t want to do this,” Joe pleaded. “Just drop the gun, and we’ll figure this all out in town.”

 “You shut up!” Frank shouted. “You shouldn’t have followed me, Joe! Everything would have been okay if you hadn’t followed me. My uncle would have got a horse back, and no one would have known.”

 “I would have found my horse, Frank,” Joe replied, his eye on the gun. “Just drop the gun, and let’s talk about it.” Slowing standing up, he grimaced as he bent slightly over, his body involuntarily lurching forward. From the edge of his vision he watched as Frank took this move as a threat, watching in slow motion as the teen squeezed the trigger.

Ignoring the pain that was already shooting down his body, Joe threw himself face first away from the boy, and with a sense of surrealism, Joe could feel the bullet make a pathway through his body, as he spiraled to the ground. Feeling nothing more, his body landed with a thump, burying his face into the dust and rocks of the roadway.

 Looking down at the body lying motionless on the ground, Frank tossed the gun next to Joe before turning around to the horses in front of him. Looking at Cochise, the source of his trouble that day, he shoved the animal aside with a curse and pulled the reins of the horse that Joe had ridden on. Stuffing his feet into the stirrups, with one last glance at the body on roadway, Frank kicked the horse in the ribs as they shot off together towards Carson City.

*****

Less than a mile down the road, another man heard the sound of the gunshot in the distance. A thread of fear went coursing through his veins as he looked over at the other two riders. Ben noted that their eyes reflected the same feeling. Urging his horse on faster, he could hear the beating of his sons’ horses right behind him as they came around the corner of the road and looked ahead of them. Reins hanging down on the ground, Cochise stood still, standing guard over his young master, the green jacket giving an indication of the victim.

 “JOE!” Ben cried out, barely waiting for his horse to stop before he slid off. Stumbling, he dashed over to where the inert figure lay. Reaching down, he lifted his son’s body and rolled him over, carefully holding on to his head as his body flopped over. He couldn’t help but gasp at the amount of blood that had pooled beneath him on the ground. Sinking his knees to the ground, Ben pulled Joe’s head into his lap, noticing the lack of movement from his son. Reaching down, he sought to feel for a pulse. Nothing. Desperately, he felt for a pulse on his neck, but again he felt nothing. Grasping hold of his son, he clung to his body and rocked him back and forth in his arms as he cried out in emotional agony, “Not now! Don’t take my son now!”

 Hearing the anguish in their father’s cry, Adam and Hoss slid off their horses and rushed to where Ben sat in the middle of the road. Concerned, they watched his rocking motion as he clung desperately to their younger brother, tears running down the full length of their pa’s face.

“Pa!”

 Prying Ben’s arms from Joe’s body, they pulled their brother from Ben’s clasp and looked into Joe’s face. Fear tore through their hearts, as they both saw the peaceful look on his face. Pushing aside Ben, who was desperately fighting with his living sons to hold onto his son, Adam slipped in next to Joe, as Hoss helped Ben up from the ground and held him back in his strong arms. Seeing the blood that was splashed across his brother’s body, Adam had concern for the true health of their brother. Breathing to himself, he silently chanted, come on Joe. Hang in there. Leaning over, he quickly ripped away the soiled cloth as he pressed his ear against his chest, motioning for the others to be quiet as he listened.

 Adam pulled his head away, sweat dropping from his forehead and pooling on the edge of his brother’s shirt as he exhaled heavily. Turning to Ben and Hoss, he nodded briefly, as he carefully picked up his brother’s head, dusting the dirt and debris from his face.

Taking Adam’s nod to acknowledge that Joe was dead, Ben went silent. His son was dead. His young son — Marie’s son — was dead. Speechless, he watched as Adam ripped off a part of his own shirt and tore it into strips, wrapping around his younger brother’s body, trying to staunch the flow of blood that still dribbled from it.

Taking another look at the wound, Adam was relieved to note that it wasn’t as bad as it appeared, although the loss of blood had to have been immense. Looking at Joe’s ashen face, Adam shook his head slightly as he tucked his brother’s torn shirt back around his body.

Ben continued to watch in a daze as Hoss bent down, and with a strong lift of his arms, pulled his brother’s body in his arms, cradling him carefully. Watching as Adam shrugged off his coat so he could then wrapped it around his young brother, Ben couldn’t help but stare in shock.

“Pa, what’s wrong?” Adam asked, as he turned to see Ben staring at him.

 “Joe.”

 “Pa,” Adam replied with a soothing tone, “he’s okay. Joe’s alive, Pa.”

With tears in his eyes, Ben turned to look at his oldest son, disbelief written across his face. “He’s alive? But I thought…”

 “He’s alive.”

 That’s all it took. Breaking down, the tears that were caught in his eyes came flowing out with fury as Ben grabbed Adam and sobbed. Relief came over him as the stress and trauma of the thought of losing his son like this was released.

Holding onto Ben, Adam tried to comfort his father as he looked over at Hoss who was still holding their injured brother in his arms. Talking softly, he tried to get Ben out of his stupor. “Pa, Joe’s alive. It looks like he hit his head on his way down, which must have knocked him out and slowed his breathing, which is why you couldn’t feel a pulse. He’s got a bullet hole in his side, but it looks like it went straight through him. But we still need to get him to the doctor with amount of blood that he has lost.”

 Gasping for control of his tears, Ben nodded as he turned to face his middle son holding his youngest. Tears still coursed down his face, but now it was with joy. His son was alive. With a crack in his voice, Ben turned his face back around to Adam with a semblance of control. Nodding his head, he suggested, “Why don’t you ride to town and get the doctor. Being as we are closer to the Ponderosa than either town, we’ll take Joe back to the ranch.”

 With one more glance at Hoss and Joe, Adam quickly grabbed the reins to his horse and spurned his horse towards Virginia City.

Watching as Adam rode away, Hoss turned towards Ben, and asked, “How are we going to get Joe home, Pa? He busted some of his stitches and he’s bleeding something bad. Our brother here seems to be attracted to trouble, and today he got his money’s worth.”

 Taking a few steps, Ben reached over and grabbed Hoss’ arm before reaching over to cup his hand on Joe’s face. As though suddenly realizing the graveness of the situation, Ben stood back up. “Let me go get the horses, son, so we can get a move on back to the Ponderosa.” In two long strides, he reached the horses, then grabbed their reins and brought them over to where Hoss stood holding onto Joe. Swinging onto his horse, Ben quickly slid back in the saddle to sit behind it, before making his request, “Hand him to me, son.”

Not bothering to protest, Hoss slowly walked across the dusty road to where Ben sat. With a grunt, he lifted Joe as his pa reached down to grab him. No moans came from Joe’s mouth as they tried to make the transition gentle, yet still it was a rough trade-off. Concerned from the lack of motion from his son, Ben quickly pulled him against his body and felt for a heartbeat. It was there — soft, but there. Grasping tightly to the bandages that still clung to Joe’s body, he then pulled Adam’s coat tighter around Joe as he reached down and gathered the reins in his hand. Waiting for Hoss to get on his horse, Ben watched as his son tied Cochise’s reins around his own saddle horn before turning back around. Ben nodded that he was ready to go. Then with Hoss in the lead, both men guided their horses towards home.

*****

Riding carefully yet with urgency, it took less than an hour before Ben and Hoss were able to see the outline of the house as they rode in from the northeast. Feeling the chills that shuddered through his son’s body, Ben was relieved to hear Hoss hollering as they rode into the yard. Sliding off his horse, Hoss didn’t bother loosening Cochise from the saddle horn, so strong his intent on getting his brother inside and upstairs. Running into Hop Sing as the cook came running out of the house, Hoss shouted out directions to warm up some heating pans for Joe’s bed. The temperature outdoors had dropped noticeably, especially since the evening sun had dropped below the horizon. Moving over to where Ben still sat atop his horse, Hoss reached up and pulled his younger brother off and into his arms, noting the lack of movement from Joe’s body other than the shaking from the chills. Feeling the shudder of chills, Hoss quickly glanced over towards Ben to ask with concern etched in his voice, “How long has he been shivering?”

“For about half an hour,” Ben answered with a sigh to his voice. “Tried wrapping my arms around him, hoping that perhaps my coat would lend a layer of warmth around him, but it didn’t seem to make a difference.”

 Speedily Hoss moved away from Ben, not even noticing the stiff-legged walk his pa had as he climbed down from his horse. Pushing the door open with his boot, Hoss increased his stride as he approached the staircase, where carefully, yet quickly, he went up the stairs with his long stride until he made it to the top. Disappearing into Joe’s room, Hoss had just finished slipping off Adam’s coat and laying his brother on the bed when Ben entered the room.

Swiftly moving over to where his son lay unmoving, Ben went over and began tugging off Joe’s boots, barely hearing as they plopped on the floor while he turned his attention to removing his son’s pants. Sliding the cloth off, he couldn’t help but notice the army of chill bumps that seemed to invade his son’s legs. Reaching down at the edge of the bed, Ben gripped the bedcovers and tucked them around his son’s bare legs, then up around his waist.

Watching as Ben undressed his brother, Hoss stood aside with another blanket in hand, but quickly laid it down when Ben turned to Joe’s shirt. Looking at the splash of blood that was sprayed across it, Ben felt slightly nauseous to think that this was his son’s blood. Turning around, he grabbed a chair and pulled it over to the bed, sitting in it as he carefully tugged on the shirt. He stopped as he realized that the blood had dried encrusted against Joe’s skin. Fearing that tugging on the shirt to remove it would cause an avalanche of blood to pour out, he stopped.

 Seeing Ben’s actions, Hoss reached over and grabbed the blanket he had laid aside. “You want to cover him, Pa? ‘Til the doctor gets here?” Seeing Ben’s nod, Hoss shook the folds loose in the air before spreading it across his brother’s body. Tucking it gently around his brother, Hoss wished he could do something more, anything. Hearing a noise at the door, Hoss turned to see Hop Sing scuttle into the room.

 “Heat for leetle Joe,” Hop Sing said as he went to the end of the bed. Lifting up the bed covers from the mattress, Hop Sing tucked the two pans wrapped in towels under the sheets and blankets. Tucking the ends back into the bed, he spoke, “Leetle Joe feel better now. Hop Sing go fix coffee for Meester Cartwrights.”

 Sagging into the chair, Ben felt helpless as he hovered close to his injured son, while Hoss stood near the window waiting for the sound of a buggy. Half an hour later, the sound they had been waiting for came riding into the yard.

 “Pa! The doc’s here with Adam!” called Hoss.

 Running out the room, Hoss clomped down the stairs just as Adam entered the house.

“How’s Joe doing?” Adam asked as he held the door open for the doctor.

“Not too good. He’s been out since we got home. Actually, I think since we found him on the roadside,” Hoss explained as he took the doctor’s coat and hat. Laying it aside on the back of the settee, he motioned up the stairs. “Pa is up there right now.”

 Nodding, the doctor had a grim look on his face as he took the stairs, a path he knew all too well. Pushing open the door into Joe’s room, Doc Martin noted the young man’s ashen appearance. Bundled up with blankets, Joe’s face glistened with sweat while his body shook with chills. Walking over to the bed, Paul could feel the heat radiating up from his body. Turning around, he saw Ben hovering close to him. “How long has he been running a fever?”

 Walking over to his son’s bedside, Ben sat down on the edge and brushed a stray hair aside before answering. “For awhile. I could feel him shivering as we were getting close to the house, even though I could feel the heat radiating from him earlier in the ride.”

 Nodding his head, Paul reached down and began to carefully pull apart the already ripped and bloodied shirt from Joe’s skin; he shook his head at his now torn stitches. Grabbing a clean cloth from the table next to the bed, the doctor dipped it in some water and began dabbing away the blood that had clotted against Joe’s skin. With the blood cleared away, Paul could see easily the damage that was done. Probing the bullet hole, he was pleased to note that the bullet had gone straight through, for once a clean shot, if there ever really was such. All bullets made a mess as they went into the body, but this one at least just required stitching to keep the skin pulled together.

Turning towards Ben, Paul motioned for his medical bag, then as he pulled it from Ben’s grasp, dug inside and pulled out a bottle of alcohol. Reaching for another clean cloth, the doctor poured some of the liquid on the cloth then began dabbing at the wounds on Joe’s chest. At the first touch of alcohol touching the raw, bloodied cut, Joe stirred and tried to cry out as the stinging sent shock waves through his body. Swiftly Paul sent the swab of cloth back and forth across Joe’s chest as he carefully watched the young man return back to them. The fluttering of the eyes beneath his eyelids soon broke open to show the shining green eyes staring at the doctor. Despite the alertness, the doctor could tell that his young patient was running a fever with the glaze that had settled in across his eyes. Taking another feel of Joe’s forehead, Paul again reached into his bag this time pulling out a thermometer. Easing it in between Joe’s lips, he watched as the young man barely even flinched when the hard instrument was pushed between his teeth. Glancing over, the doctor saw that Ben had already started wiping his son’s forehead with a cool cloth, holding the cloth down on the bump that protruded from his forehead.

 “This bullet went straight through him,” the doctor said as he turned to face his friend. “It should heal up nicely, although I’m a little more concerned with the cut across his chest. It’s already been stitched up once, and now most of the stitches have broken loose.” Taking one more swipe with the cloth across Joe’s chest, he continued, “Plus some dirt made its way into the skin when he ended up lying face down on the ground. But I think I got most of it out. I just wanted to make you are aware, Ben, of the chance that an infection may develop.”

 Nodding, Ben gritted his teeth as he listened to the doctor’s diagnosis before he asked a question of his own. “What about this fever?”

 Digging into his bag the doctor began pulling out some thread and a needle, then he carefully threaded the needle. Sitting down on the edge of the bed, he looked up at Ben. “We need to watch out for it to spike. I’m hoping that it is just a reaction to everything he has gone through today. You need to remember, he started off his day with a dunking in the cold stream up in the hills, then being cut by that horse’s hoof. That hoof contained just enough infection to concern me. He’s going to have a bad headache once he wakes, with that knot on his head. My advice: just watch him carefully. After I stitch him up here, I’ll leave you some medication and instructions for him.” Swabbing a spot on Joe’s chest, Paul looked down in the young man’s face and was happy to note that Joe had again drifted back to sleep.

 Sighing, Ben couldn’t help but shake his head. His son again was in trouble, and this time it was caused by the foolishness of two boys who should have known better. Adam had told him about the younger boy Billy, and what he had told Hoss and Adam their plans for the horse, how then everything went haywire once they saw Adam bring Joe into town. Well, Ben thought, at least Billy showed himself as being the bigger of the two by coming forward. Frank, on the other hand, would have a lot of questions to answer once he was found. Hearing a moan, Ben turned around to see Joe struggling to wake up.

“Pa? Pa? Where are you, Pa?”

 Grabbing one of the hands that were flailing around, Ben held onto it as he answered in a soothing voice, “I’m right here, son.”

 Hearing his pa’s voice, Joe’s struggle to escape the pinching feeling that surrounded his chest slowly faded. The strength of Ben’s hand translated calmness to Joe’s hand, as he clutched on to it desperate to get away from the pain that invaded his body. Waves of heat went rolling across his body as he fought the desire to pull up his covers then to toss them off. Hearing the plink of metal hitting another object, Joe felt his body relax as the tight, prickly feeling that had invaded his chest slipped away. Sighing, he took a deep breath and swallowed the moisture that coated his throat. He felt a heavy blanket being tossed upon his bed; the warmth that erupted from it kept him toasty warm as he slipped back to sleep.

“I think he’s asleep,” Ben whispered as he watched the hand around his go slack. Gently lying it down onto the bed, Ben carefully pulled up the blanket that the doctor had tossed on so that it covered Joe’s hand.

Picking up his supplies, the doctor then looked around the room to make sure he had everything back into his bag. Turning to face Ben, Paul nodded as the other man led the way out of the room.

Pulling out a couple of bottles, the doctor handed them to Ben and gave instructions to their use. “Here is the medication; please give him a dose every other hour. This is to help fight the infection that is growing in his body, and I’m hoping it will fight off what I fear most, pneumonia. This other one,” Doc Martin explained as he shook the bottle, “is what I need you to put on his stitches every day. Basically it is alcohol, and it will sting as it is applied. But it will kill the infection, so I want this used every day.”

Taking the two bottles from the doctor, Ben led the way down the stairs. As they progressed down to the main floor, he turned to Doc Martin. “Did you want a cup of coffee before you leave, Paul?”

“You know, that would taste good,” the doctor replied as he set his bag down. “The evenings are getting cooler and I’ll need something warm for my ride back to Virginia City.” Walking over to the door, Paul glanced over a Ben as he opened the door. “Let me first put these items in the buggy, and then I’ll be back in for that cup of coffee.”

 Nodding, Ben moved over to the table and pulled over two cups as he heard the front door close. Sagging against the table, he again felt the emotions sink through his body as he thought of his son. He thought he was dead out there; he really and truly thought he was dead. But no, here he was upstairs alive, and doggone it, he was going to make sure that nothing was going to happen to prevent his son from getting up and being his old self again. Barely hearing the door open, he had just finished pouring a cup of coffee when he felt the hand of the doctor on his shoulder.

 “Ben, why don’t you have a seat?”

 “I’m fine, really, I’m fine.”

 Shaking his head, Paul couldn’t help but smile, “I know you’re fine, but you also had a very emotionally tiring day.” Looking up in Ben’s shocked face, Paul explained, “Yes, Adam told me of how you thought Joe was dead and how you broke down out there on the road.”

 Feeling a tear slide down his cheek, Ben didn’t want to look up into the face of his friend. As the teardrop fell, making a puddle on the table, he couldn’t help but speak. “I thought he was dead, Paul. He was lying there in the middle of the road, his body not moving.” Pausing, Ben couldn’t help the images came flashing across his mind. His voice shaking, he continued, “I bent down and picked him up, and the look on his face was one of utter peace. It was when I couldn’t find his pulse that I couldn’t feel anything else. It was like all emotion had left my body, and someone else was looking down at his body. The next thing I knew was Adam shaking me on the shoulder, telling me he was alive.” Feeling the tears course down his cheeks even now, Ben relived the feeling of Adam’s touch on his arm, telling him that Joe was alive. Sighing deeply, he regained control of his emotions as he looked up into the eyes of Paul. “He’s alive, Paul. That boy has had so many near-death experiences that I’m afraid that one of them is going to actually follow through. I wish I could forbid him to carry a gun, to ride a horse, or to go into town, but to do that would be putting a death sentence on him. My son loves life, and to be chained to the house for more than a week would kill him.”

“Ben,” Paul said as he reached over and squeezed his friend’s shoulder, “having a young son of my own, I can relate. Seeing all the things I see, I don’t want him to go anywhere, which is part of the reason I was so happy to hear that he wanted to go off to school in the East. There’s just as much danger out there, but on a different scale. At least the people are a little more civilized and aren’t carrying around guns, ready to shoot each other without hesitation.”

Hearing the door open, Ben picked up his now cooled cup of coffee and took a sip as his two sons walked into the living room.

“Hi, Pa!” Hoss greeted as he threw off his hat. Shivering slightly he couldn’t help but comment, “It’s getting cool out there. I bet we have some frost tonight.” Walking over to the fireplace, he fiddled with the logs as he lit a match, tossing it into the fireplace. “How’s Joe doing?”

“He’ll be fine after a lot of rest, and time to allow his injuries to heal,” replied the doctor. Setting down his cooled cup of coffee, he pushed himself away from the table and stood up to leave. “Adam, how is your nose doing?”

Throwing off the doctor’s concern, Adam replied as he tugged his hat further down across his eyes, “Fine; throbs some, but it’s fine.”

Grinning, Paul looked over at Ben as he explained, “Adam has a bad sprain on his nose, but in about a week the swelling ought to go down.”

 Seeing that Paul was ready to leave, Adam went over to the edge of the settee and grabbed the doctor’s coat and hat, holding it out to him as the doctor laid down his bag to shrug into his coat. Slipping the hat onto his head, Paul took another sip of coffee, then walked out with Adam to the buggy after sharing his good-byes with the rest of the family.

*****

 Sitting next to the window, Joe could feel the warm heat from the fire intermingling with the coolness from his window. Having spent weeks in bed trying to recover from all his injuries, he had finally convinced his Pa to let him sit up for awhile. After promising not to go anywhere, he found his legs weak as he crawled from his bed and slipped on his slippers before wearily walking over to his chair by the window, feeling the exhaustion take claim to his body. Shaking his head, he couldn’t help but wonder how long it was going to take for him to get back to normal. Lost in his musings, Joe rested his head against the window frame as he looked outside at the activity. His attention was caught on a young kid out running around the horses, while his brother Hoss stood leaning against the corral laughing. Slightly grinning, Joe turned when he heard a sound behind him.

 “Afternoon, Joe,” Ben greeted as he walked over to the window. Leaning against the wall, he looked down at his son, pleased to see how well he looked. Even so, he could see the tinges of exhaustion lining his face no matter how hard he tried to look lively. “How are you doing?”

Fiddling with a blanket that was slung over the side of the chair, Joe stretched as he replied, “Feeling pretty good. It feels great to get out of that bed for awhile.” Then looking slyly up at Ben, he added, “I think I’m well enough to make it downstairs for a family meal.”

Ben laughed at his son’s obvious plea. Nodding his head, he agreed with him, “You know, I think you are right.”

 “Really?”

 Laughing again at the surprise in his voice, Ben had a feeling that his son had already mapped out an argument, and here he had spoiled it all. “Well, unless you don’t think you are ready,” suggested Ben.

 “Oh no, Pa, I’m ready.”

 Jumping up from the chair, Joe swayed slightly from the speed at which he went up. Grabbing onto the wall, he steadied himself as he felt his pa reach his arm around his waist. Looking down at his garb, he realized that perhaps going down in a nightshirt was inappropriate. “Uh, let me change into something else.”

“What you have on, son, is fine.” Grabbing a robe from a notch on the wall, Ben handed it to his son. “Unless you’d feel more comfortable with a robe on.”

 “Thanks pa.”

 Sliding on the robe, Joe staggered towards his door; Ben moved over to help him out of his room and down the stairs. Joe made it down the staircase and into the living room before he motioned to stop near the settee. Settling down on it, he leaned his head back as he breathed deeply. “I didn’t know I was going to be this exhausted,” Joe complained.

“Just rest here, son, and I’ll see if Hop Sing has supper ready yet.”

Nodding his head, Joe watched as Ben disappeared from view. Rubbing his chest, he was glad the stitches were long gone. They had itched immensely while they had held his skin together, until slowly some fell out on their own and the rest Doc Martin had finally removed. A scar had taken the place of the stitches, but he was promised that over  time even that would fade. Leaning his head back into the settee, Joe closed his eyes and listened to the noises around him. Hearing the front door open, he could hear the clatter of footsteps as someone entered into the room. The voices quickly gave it away that it was his brothers. Feigning sleep, he could hear as they stood next to the front door talking about various duties on the ranch.

“Yeah and then we have our little brother Joe, who can’t…”

 Hearing his name, Joe’s attention was caught as he tried to hear what else was about to be said. But there was silence. Nothing. Wondering where they went off to without him hearing, he opened his eyes and looked up. Standing in from of him grinning him were his two brothers, their arms crossed in front of them as they looked down at him.

 “You were right, Adam,” Hoss piped up, “he wasn’t asleep.”

 Crossing his arms, Joe gave a look of disgust on his face as his two brothers roared with laughter. Hearing Ben’s voice, the brothers turned to see him walking over to them.

“Supper is almost ready,” Ben announced. Stopping next to Hoss, he asked, “How is Billy doing?”

“He’s turning out to be a good helper, Pa. Not the best, but he knows a lot more than he did when he first came out.”

Nodding, Adam agreed, “Yep, and he definitely knows the difference between a gelding and a mare, and the danger of having a mare near a stallion when she is in heat.”

“How long is Billy going to be working for us?” Joe asked as he carefully stretched his arms. Feeling a crick in his side, he quickly lowered them crossing them across his chest as he waited for an answer.

Turning to Adam, Ben had a look of question on his face as he replied, “Today’s his last day isn’t it?”

“Yeah, I think he is actually ready to return to town. Say,” Adam asked as he turned to face Ben, “have you heard anything about Frank Clemmons?”

Shaking his head, Ben threw his hands up in the air, “No, and they aren’t sure where he is. He never went by his uncle’s place, so he has a charge of horse stealing under his belt. Instead of running, if he had admitted to his joke like Billy, he would have been a whole lot better off. Didn’t admit his mistake like a man, just ran. So, now it is up to the law.”

Hearing a knock at the door, Hoss strode towards it and opened it, admitting Billy who stood on the other side.

 “Evening Mr. Hoss, Mr. Adam, Mr. Ben,” Billy said. Walking over to the settee, he glanced down and saw Joe. Stopping in his steps, his words became jumbled up as he spoke, “I… uh… yeah, Mr. Cartwright… sorry…”

Reaching out with one hand, Joe leaned forward and grabbed hold of Billy’s arm. “Slow down, Billy,” Joe suggested. “What are you trying to say?”

“Mr. Cartwright, I’m really sorry about everything. Your brothers are being real kind to me to show the ranch and the workings of the horses and all. I feel plumb terrible for what I did. Can you forgive me?”

Looking into Billy’s face, Joe could sense the fear and trepidation he had waiting for his answer. Smiling at the youngster, he patted him on the arm. “Billy, I forgave you a long time ago. You didn’t know better, but I’m glad to hear that now you do.”

Hearing that, Billy let a great big smile covered his face as he let out a yell. “YEEHA! Thank you Mr. Cartwright, thank you so much!” Then bumping into the other Cartwrights, he quickly walked out the door then quickly closed it behind him.

“That was kind of you, Joe,” Ben remarked.

 “Yeah, well. I know that it was a joke, an innocent joke by a kid who didn’t know any better. And the fact that he admitted it…” Then grinning, Joe continued, “I have a feeling that if I wasn’t raised on a ranch, that could have been me pulling that joke.”

 Rolling his eyes, Ben shook his head. “I would have hoped I had raised you better than that!” Then as his son lifted himself from the settee, he couldn’t help but add, “Unfortunately, I can see you doing that too.”

Laughing, Joe stood before the settee before wrapping his arms around his pa’s waist for support, then joined his family as they walked to the dining room for dinner.

***The End***

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