The Price You Pay (by Linda B)

Summary:
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  17,500


 

“You.” He snarled, menacingly pointing the gun directly at Little Joe’s stomach. The metal gleamed maliciously in the sunlight.

“Me?”

“Yeah you boy. You’ll do. The little boy with the smart mouth. You can help the Doc take care of Ellroy.”

“No way, I’m not gonna touch your brother Corbett.” Joe stood defiantly in front of the older man; his hands were clenched on his hips.

“Joe, do what he says.” urged Adam, from where he was sitting on the ground. Adam looked up imploringly at his little brother’s face and saw the anger flashing in the green eyes and on his face at being called a little boy. He’d seen that look plenty of times in the past and it meant trouble.

Glancing quickly at Adam then back to Corbett, Joe snapped back, “Adam I’m not, why should I? I’m not afraid of him.”

“Well you should be because he’s the one holding a gun on us. Just shut up and listen to him will you and do exactly what he says okay?”

Adam insisted between his clenched teeth, frustrated at his apparently useless effort of trying to make Little Joe understand that they were in serious danger. He could see Rhett Corbett becoming angrier by the minute, with every refusal of Joe’s. He hastily continued.

“Joe, I agree with Corbett. Your fingers are smaller than mine are and you’d be a better choice to help get my bullet out. You know I’m the better shot and I’m sure it was my bullet that got him.”

Corbett’s face was red; his eyes flashed with hate between Joe and Adam. With his hands tied behind his back, there was little Adam could do except use words to convince his young brother to listen to Corbett and do exactly what he said. If his hands had been free maybe he could shake Joe into listening to him and control his anger, but they weren’t.

If they weren’t careful someone was going to be shot, if Joe didn’t hurry up and do what he was told. Adam noticed the way Corbett’s eyes kept flicking back to him and knew it wasn’t going to be Joe who would be shot. Corbett had made his decision and wanted Joe alive to help care for Ellroy, his injured brother. He knew Adam would be looking for a chance to escape or overpower him and his partner and the young boy would be easier to control with fear and therefore less a threat.

Joe glared at Corbett, a sneer on his young face. “Why should I help the Doc save your brother when one of us just shot him? He deserved it, he was shooting at us and going to rob us too.”

Adam felt a fleeting burst of amusement as Joe continued to stand defiantly in front of Corbett. His stance of hands on hips exactly the way their father stood when he was angry. He bit his lip to stop his smile, for now was not the time for one.

“Because you’re gonna have to do the same.” Corbett screamed at Joe, spittle flecking his lips as he spoke.

“What do you mean?” Both Adam and the Doctor could hear the confusion in the young man’s voice as his eyebrows knit together to form a frown on his forehead. Joe was unsure of himself. He’d never seen the expression on Corbett’s face before but unfortunately Adam had and it was pure evil.

Adam knew Joe was mystified by Corbett and when he considered that Joe had seen very little of the outside world from the Ponderosa, it wasn’t too hard to imagine why. Joe warily glanced at Adam out of the corner of his eye, hoping to get some idea from his brother as to what was occurring.

Instead his brother had his eyes set squarely on Corbett and ignored him. Joe could see the sweat beading on his face and his complexion pale, but no emotion was visible. Inside Adam was scared because he’d crossed paths with men like Corbett before, unpredictable like a cornered bear, but predictable when they felt that they held all the aces. Adam knew that this was one of those times that Corbett held all four aces clenched tightly in his hand and a king as well. He felt an annoying trickle of sweat slide down his back and he longed to reach around and brush it away.

After a quick cold deliberation within himself, Adam calmly made his choice to get Corbett to leave Joe alone and shoot him instead. He knew he wouldn’t be able to live with himself if Joe was the one shot; not after promising his father that he would ensure nothing happened to Little Joe on this trip. Stubbornly he cast aside any thoughts he had on what would go through Joe’s young mind when he saw his brother shot. Joe would have to deal with whatever happened and it was possible Corbett would play with him, probably wound him enough to cause pain, but not immediate death.

Suddenly Adam saw what was about to happen for the anger on Corbett’s face had gone and been replaced with a cruel sneer. He knew then he’d succeeded and that he was the one about to be shot, but tied up the way he was he could do nothing to prevent it. He’d tried his damnedest with Joe, but failed to keep them both out of danger for a while longer. At least Joe’s temper hadn’t gotten him in trouble. Adam gave himself a wry grin; only his older brother’s words helped him there again. If only he’d been able to reach Joe and warn him of what was going to happen.

Adam steeled himself; his stomach tightened into a thick knot and he felt like he wanted to be sick. If it was his time, he just hoped it would be quick….

Joe slumped his shoulders down in defeat and reluctantly decided he’d better do what Adam and Corbett wanted.

As he opened his mouth to voice his agreement, Corbett calmly shifted his aim directly at Adam and pulled the trigger.

The sound of the shot echoed loudly in the woods as Joe watched in horror as the bullet caught Adam in the chest, forcing his body to crash back against the hard ground.

“NO” screamed Joe, horrified at what he’d just caused. “Oh God No….” He stepped forward towards Adam.

“Stay right where you are boy. Don’t even think of moving any further or I’ll plug you too.”

Joe’s mouth hung open. He couldn’t believe that Adam had been shot so callously in cold blood. He stood shaking on the spot, staring at Adam.

“Oh God….Adam…” Tears welled in Joe’s eyes and rolled down his cheeks as he lifted his hands to his mouth in disbelief.

Adam felt the bullet hit him high in the left side of his chest as the force knocked him flat on his back. He lay on the hard ground, staring up at the clouds and blue sky.

For some reason he thought the clouds looked like galloping horses, their manes flying in the air. That’s what he wished he was doing right now, riding Sport, the wind whipping Sport’s mane into his face and stinging his eyes because he was crouched over his neck.

‘Why doesn’t it hurt?’ he wondered, ‘He shot me, I know he did but it’s not hurting.’

Joe’s voice floated over him. He sounded at long, way away.

“Joe.” Said Adam, his voice echoing in his own ears.

“Oh God Adam, I’m sorry. I didn’t think…”

Adam didn’t hear the last of the sentence as the full fury of the agony swept over him. He couldn’t fight off the darkness as it engulfed him.

“Joe…”

Joe spun around to face Corbett, his fists clenched by his side, tears streaking down his dusty face.

“You didn’t have to do that. You didn’t have to shoot him. I was gonna do what you asked. You didn’t even give him a chance.”

Corbett swung the gun back to Joe, his voice hard and menacing. Without his brother to control him, Corbett could see the panic in the young boy’s eyes getting the better of him.

“I gave you long enough, now get over there and help the Doc take care of my brother. You were too slow makin’ your mind up and I done warned you. One more word out of you now and you’ll get the same as your brother.”

“But what about Adam?” Joe could see blood starting to spread across Adam’s black shirt, glistening in the sun as it wet the cloth.

“He’s just gonna have to wait his turn, ain’t he.” Said Corbett, smiling.

Joe looked at the Doctor, who shrugged his shoulders.

“We’d better do as he says Joe. The sooner we finish here the sooner we can help your brother.”

Looking back at Adam, Joe pleaded with Corbett. “At least let me try to stop the bleeding.”

“No.”

“Let the boy put a blanket over him to keep him warm while we work on your brother. The shock may still kill him, if the loss of blood doesn’t.”

“No.”

Joe swallowed back his tears, wiping away those already on his cheeks. He was horrified by what had happened, what he’d caused. How could Adam ever forgive him? It never entered his mind that Adam would be shot, let alone possibly die. How would Pa forgive him?

*****

Joe had been the one to insist on traveling with Adam. Complaining loudly to his father that he never got to have fun in San Francisco like Adam did. He remembered Adam smiling at him as he managed to convince their father that Joe was old enough to travel with him and have that promised fun with him on this trip. Adam had emphasized the word fun and Joe couldn’t understand why his oldest brother and father had burst out laughing. Hoss shook his head and rolled his eyes at Little Joe.

“Trust me Joe.” Hoss said. “You really don’t wanna go with Adam.”

“Yes I do.”

Ben pretended to be thinking hard over his decision before he finally agreed with the request.

“Why of course you can go with Adam, Joseph. I know Adam will ensure you have wonderful time son.” Ben gave Adam a knowing look.

He’d been quietly informed by Hoss about the trouble Adam and Little Joe were having in their relationship, since Adam’s return from college. Adam couldn’t relate to Joe being so grown up in the 4 years he’d been away. He still remembered him as the little curly-haired boy who was always getting into trouble and relying on his big brother to help him out.

“Just remember to do exactly what Adam says and no arguments. Do you understand me Joseph?” Ben instructed his young, willful son. Knowing Joe like he did, he knew Adam was going to have his work cut out for himself keeping him under control.

“Oh Pa, you know I’ll do exactly what Adam wants, like I always have.” Joe smirked at his oldest brother, while Hoss attempted to cover his laughter in his hands. Adam gave Joe a nod, a little smile just beginning on his lips.

“Pa?”

“Yes Joseph.”

“Can I wear my gun while I’m away? It’s a long way to San Francisco and you never know I might need it.”

“What do you think Adam? It’s your decision to make.”

“Well I tend to agree with Joe that it’s a long trip. I’ll let him wear it on the stagecoach part of the journey only and pack it away in his belongings when we arrive in Sacramento. Then he can do the same on the way back home.”

“I allowed Adam to give you that gun for your last birthday only under the instructions that he teaches you how to use and respect it properly. Have you done so Joe? I don’t want you walking around the countryside wearing a gun if you think it’s only a toy.”

“No Pa…I mean Yes Pa…I think.”

“Adam?”

“He’s accurate at shooting Pa.” Adam replied in an even tone. He knew he was deliberately avoiding his father’s question.

“That’s not what I asked Adam and you know it.” Glared Ben.

“Joe, I’ll tell you once more what I told Adam and Hoss when I gave them their first gun. You only fire a gun to save a life, not to take a life. I hope you understand what that means.”

“Sure I do Pa.” Replied Joe quickly.

Although Adam had told him the same words often enough, he didn’t really understand.

Fortunately his family had sheltered him from the gunfights which occurred occasionally in Virginia City and under Sheriff Coffee’s careful watch, they occurred even less.

Adam knew that one day Joe would outdraw all of them with his pistol, but for now Joe thought it was a game and didn’t fully realize the implications of what shooting at someone who was firing back meant. He hoped that when Joe was forced to learn the lesson, he’d remember their Pa’s words.

“Alright you two, you’d best be getting ready to leave. Hoss and I’ll see you off at the stage depot.”

*****

Insisting he make good use of his time in San Francisco, Adam made Joe attend all the meetings that had been scheduled for them. What Joe had thought was Adam enjoying the sights of San Francisco turned out to be an intense business trip for their father. He found out that they always were. Adam informed him that their father couldn’t spare anyone to go wandering off whenever they wanted from the ranch. What surprised Joe most was how much Adam knew about the Ponderosa and what plans their father made for it. Up until then, he thought his father made all the decisions.

Adam was involved in nearly every financial decision made and their father had given Adam free rein to use his judgment for the benefit of the Ponderosa. Another surprise to Joe was that their father had given Adam Power of Attorney. Joe came away from the meetings surprised and aware of how much Adam contributed to the planning of the ranch and how reliant Ben was on his eldest son; in fact how reliant they all were. Joe also found out that Adam’s study choices in college were architecture and engineering but that he also undertook business management in his spare time.

Although Ben hadn’t said outright to Adam that he was to become his father’s right-hand man, being the eldest Adam took it upon himself to be as much help as possible to his father on his return. Adam had delighted his father with his additional degree in business management.

Ben had slowly let Adam make decisions on behalf of him and once he knew that Adam used his head and thought hard about every available option, he gave him more and more authority. The purpose of every visit Adam made to San Francisco was always business; never any need to enjoy the city life, as he’d known in Boston. Although he made the most of any spare time he had between meetings.

“Having fun yet Joe?” asked Adam dryly as they walked down the steps, finally finished with their last meeting for that day. He grinned at his young brother and threw his arm across Joe’s shoulders as they strolled along the street. As Adam smiled and tipped his hat at some pretty young ladies passing by, Joe gave his older brother a closer look. Adam was dressed in his Sunday best pants and coat; his white shirt and black string tie offset by his smartly polished boots and black leather belt. Joe looked back over his shoulder at the younger of the two ladies who giggled at him and put her hand daintily to her mouth. He returned her smile and was glared at by the older of the two who in turn demurely lifted her eyes quickly at Adam before she blushed and looked away. She quickly hurried her younger companion on.

“No, but I sure am learning a lot big brother.” Returned Joe, with a smile to match Adam’s. “I’m never gonna think you’re having it easy by doing business for Pa in the big city ever again. Anyway, what’s next on the agenda for today?” He’d heard the word agenda mentioned so many times, it had become part of his vocabulary, at least for now.

“Business is finished.” Replied Adam. “So let’s go have some of that fun you were looking for. Come on and help me find the nearest saloon, because I’m thirsty after all that business talk.”

“Yahoo!” yelled Little Joe, glad to get away from paperwork and meetings. He couldn’t understand why Adam enjoyed them so much. He’d rather be back at the ranch working with the horses and joking with Hoss. Although it was tough and tiring work with the horses, he felt he’d achieved more than shuffling papers around a desk.

“Yahoo!” yelled Adam, grinning widely as they headed down the street. Each young man enjoying the other’s company for once. It had been a while since Joe and Adam had felt comfortable alone with each other.

Adam’s promise to Joe’s mother, Marie to look after him had been foregone for the four years he’d been away. Joe had enjoyed the feeling of being in charge of himself and upon Adam’s return had resented his attempts to make his decisions for him.

From the moment of Adam’s return, their arguments had increased, along with the tension and only Hoss knew how to keep the pair from annoying each other. With this visit to San Francisco, Adam and Joe had slipped back into their old familiar relationship of big brother looking out for the little brother. Joe was content to let Adam lead him around the strange city and business dealings.

They’d had two days to spend together, enjoying the sights with Adam showing Joe his favorite places in the city. On the final afternoon, Adam took Joe to the docks at sunset. They stood shoulder to shoulder as the big ships cast long shadows on the water and Adam turned and spoke wistfully to Joe.

“I’ve always enjoyed the sight of these ships and the salty smell of the sea. Maybe it reminds me of Boston or maybe the stories Pa used to tell me as a young boy. I don’t know. Maybe one day I’ll get the chance to sail the world like Pa did when he was young.”

His smiling face was lit by the final golden rays of the sunset. Joe looked up at his brother and imagined him on a ship, sailing off into the sunset.

“You’d leave us and the ranch Adam? But you haven’t been back home all that long and you’re thinking of going away again? Why do you want to go away? I don’t want you to go away again and neither do Hoss or Pa. Besides you can’t because Pa relies on you a lot doesn’t he? I heard him saying to Hoss how much he was looking forward to having all his sons home again under the one roof.”

Joe rushed his questions, wondering how serious Adam was about leaving.

Sensing Joe’s anxiety, Adam turned and gave his brother a slap on the back.

“Don’t worry Joe, I’m not going anywhere, except home…and home is the Ponderosa. Who knows what’s going to happen in the future? Let’s worry about it when it happens.”

Later that evening the Cartwright men walked back to their lodgings. One arm slung across the other’s shoulder as they loudly sang sea shanty songs, which no doubt their father would have been surprised to learn that they knew.

“Now look what’s happened” Joe thought unhappily as he stared back at Adam’s still form. “And it’s all because of me.”

*****

Three mornings before, Adam and Joe boarded the stagecoach with the only other passenger being a Doctor headed for Salt Lake City. After their introductions, they found that the reason the Doctor was wearing his right arm in a sling was for a sprained wrist. He’s slipped on the wet cobblestones outside the hospital he’d been visiting and injured the wrist.

“You know I didn’t have to go far to get help for once.” He told them humorously.

“Hope we won’t need your services on this journey Doc, you won’t be a lot of help to anyone with that sore wrist.” Said Joe, giving him his cheeky grin.

“Son, it was uneventful on the way here, so I expect it to be just as uneventful on the way back.”

Adam laughed as he leant back against the seat and closed his eyes. ” I sure hope so. I’m all tuckered out and could use the rest. It’s been a busy two weeks, especially the last two days in San Francisco.”

Joining his brother’s laugh with one of his own, Joe gave Adam an understanding grin.

Joe had asked Adam to take him sightseeing all over the city and Adam’s feet were sore from the walking. For a 15-year-old Joe had plenty of energy, while Adam at 27 wasn’t used to walking quite so much.

While he’d been at college Adam had been used to walking around all the time but now that he was back home, his horse had become the preferable form of transport. He’d wished for his horse many a time as he trudged around the streets while Joe bounced along, excited by all the new and wonderful sights.

In the short time he’d known the two brothers, Doctor Glen MacDonald could see how fond they were of each other. The whole journey, so far, had been of Joe relating tales of what they’d done in San Francisco and their life on the Ponderosa. Adam had quietly leant back against the seat and folded his arms across his chest and dozed, content for Joe to have center stage. He joined in the laughter and corrected a few minor points among the stories but for the majority of time, looked on in amusement. The Doctor noticed that when Adam did join the conversation and laughed, his face lost it’s serious demeanor and the humor carried over to his eyes. Having seen much of the world and what it held for children, he surmised that Adam’d had a difficult life as either a child or younger man. He learnt that Adam had been away for four years at college in Boston. Joseph, known as Little Joe to his brothers, was enjoying his first journey to
San Francisco without his ever- watchful father.

*****

The constant motion of the stagecoach was making them all doze off on the last day on the final part of their journey from Placerville, when suddenly shots were heard. Adam could hear the anxious voice of the driver as he hurried the team along and the return fire from the guard. Before Adam could warn him of the danger, Joe impetuously poked his head out the side window. He looked around quickly before turning and ducking his head back inside.

Adam could see the excitement flash in Joe’s eyes. To him this seemed like some excitement to an otherwise boring trip but Adam knew it was very serious. The only people who fired guns at a stagecoach were robbers.

“Four riders with bandannas over their faces are chasing us Adam.” Joe said excitedly as he drew his gun. While they were in the city, Adam had kept his word and had both the guns safely tucked away in their carpetbags. Only allowing Joe to wear his once they’d boarded the stage from Sacramento and were on their way back home.

“They’re coming up pretty fast too. Must’ve hit one of the men up top because I can’t hear them shooting back at all.”

“I knew the peace wouldn’t last.” Adam sighed, drawing his gun and checking the chamber before sliding into position by the rear side window.

He quickly glanced towards the Doctor. “You shoot, Doc?”

“No Adam, I just mend them.”

“Never mind.” Grinned Adam amused by the reply. “We could’ve used another gun. Keep your head down low and we should be okay. There’re three of us, including whoever’s left up top, to deal with them.”

Adam changed positions to the opposite seat and quickly shoved the Doctor to the floor. The Doctor grunted as he landed hard on the floor.

“Sorry about that, Doc, but you should be safe down there.”

Adam peered cautiously out the window and could see three riders gaining on them. Carefully he took aim at the nearest one and pulled the trigger. The rider gave a yell then fell from the horse in a crumpled heap, a plume of dust quickly covered his fallen body from their sight. At the same time Joe fired into the two remaining men but both kept riding.

Adam was worried; he couldn’t locate the fourth rider. That meant more trouble, if he managed to get around behind them. He could only hope that the driver or guard could deal with him.

“Did you get him or me Adam?” Grinning, Joe gave his brother a hurried glance.

“Don’t worry about who got him Joe, just be careful. Pa won’t be happy with me if you come home shot. He’ll never let you out of his sight again or trust me with you.”

“Aw come on Adam, this is exciting, I’ve never been shot at before.”

Adam gave Joe a worried shake of his head. He could think of better words than exciting to describe their situation.

More shots were heard from the robbers. One of the horses squealed out in pain and they felt the coach lurch awkwardly.

Joe cried out, “Adam, they’re going for the horses. They’re shooting the horses. I don’t believe it. This is one mean bunch of outlaws.”

Adam could tell by the sudden change in Joe’s tone of voice, that he was beginning to sense the men outside were dangerous.

Adam had heard of gangs of outlaws, recently preying on the stage lines to Virginia City. Ben had called into Sheriff Coffee’s office, with Adam, to discuss their safety on the coming journey.

“I’ll admit there’s been an alarming increase in holdups along the stage-line between here and Placerville Ben.” Roy stated. “The Placerville Sheriff and I’ve had posses out looking for the gang but can’t find nary a trace of them.

As far as we can make out the gang appears to be the Corbett Brothers, Ellroy and Rhett. They’re a viscous pair and will do anything they can to stop a stagecoach, even shooting the team if they have to. I hope you don’t run into them Adam, but if’n you do shoot straight.”

Ben fidgeted uneasily in his chair and Adam could see he was regretting his decision to allowing them to go to San Francisco.

“Don’t worry Pa, I’m sure we’ll avoid any trouble. Besides I have to make this trip, the business can’t wait any longer and Joe’ll never give you a moment’s peace if you don’t let him come along with me,” assured Adam.

“Okay, you’ve convinced me Adam, but that won’t stop me from worrying.”

“Didn’t think it would Pa. Has anything ever stopped you from worrying about any of us when we’re away without you?”

“NO!” Smiled Ben reluctantly, as he gave Roy a questioning look.

Roy shrugged. “We’ll just have to wait and see Ben. As much as I’d like to, I can’t put extra guards on every stagecoach.”

Before they left the office, Adam made a point of studying the Corbett’s wanted posters, which Roy had nailed up on the wall.

Adam felt the movement of the stage stagecoach slowing down. Again Joe stuck his head out the window, this time towards the front.

“They’ve picked off one of the second pair, the body’s dragging in the harness Adam.”

“Damn, we’re in trouble.” Cursed Adam. Thinking quickly, he realized that the driver was next, if he wasn’t already wounded.

“They’ll be going after whoever’s up top next Joe. Quick come over here.” he said, indicating with his head the seat opposite him. “Let’s see if we can’t even the odds back in our favor but make sure you keep your head down.”

Little Joe dived across the seat as bullets hailed through the windows. Both aimed out the window and fired, another of the robbers went down.

“You get him Adam?” Joe was proud of his shooting skills.

“For the last time quit worrying over who shot him Joe. I don’t know, but the odds are getting better all the time.”

He swung a quick look over his arm at the Doctor crouched on the floor.

“You Okay Doc?”

“Yes so far Adam, I’m fine.”

“They’ve stopped firing Adam. I can’t see them.”

The stagecoach lurched to a stop, the remaining horses unable to drag the downed horse any further. Cautiously Adam peered over the windowsill. He didn’t like the situation at all; it was too quiet.

“They’re trying to outflank us. It’s the only reason I can think of for the silence. The guard and driver must have been hit because I can’t hear them. Joe, keep a lookout behind us, they could be trying to circle around the other side.”

“Smart, but too late.” A gruff voice sounded behind them. All three looked over their shoulder to find one of the outlaws with his gun pointed into the stagecoach.

“Drop them guns or I’ll shoot the kid.”

Joe and Adam froze, a quick look passed between them, until Adam nodded.

“Do as he says Joe.” Adam uncocked his gun and dropped it out the window. Reluctantly Joe did the same. Adam could see Joe didn’t want to loose his new gun and wanted to make a fight of it. He’d have to watch him closely in case he wanted to try something foolish.

As Adam could see it, neither of them had a chance at the moment. By the time they’d swung their guns around, he would’ve shot all three. Hopefully there’d be a chance later to escape.

“You, on the floor, drop your gun too.”

“I’m not wearing a gun.”

“Get outside, all of you.” the robber snarled at them. “And keep them hands high.”

Yelling past them he said. “Charlie, they’re comin out, there’s three of them, keep your gun on them.”

Adam could hear only one horse moving up along side the stagecoach. That made only two left alive. The odds were better than he’d first thought, but he couldn’t hear the driver or guard and assumed they must’ve been shot.

While Adam, Joe and the Doctor opened the door and stepped down, the other bandit circled the stagecoach. As he came around the side, he bent down picked up the two guns and stuffed them in the top of his jeans.

“Where’s Ellroy?” said the outlaw, as he glanced around. Concerned the robber became edgy; his eyes darted around as he tried to locate the other riders.

When Charlie shrugged his shoulders, the bandit swung his gun menacingly into Adam and Joe’s faces.

“Who shot him? Did you or was it you?” he screamed at Adam and Joe, his face mottled with anger, his voice climbing higher with each word.

“If you mean the last man well I think I shot him. He’s back there a bit.” Adam said nodding in the direction with his head. He studied the man’s face, watching the expressions change from one of anger to something else he couldn’t quite pick. The man’s eyes darted between him and Joe, the finger tightening on the trigger. ‘He’s crazy.’ Thought Adam as he glanced at the other man who was guarding them, trying to make a quick judgment as to what he was like.

“Watch them real close Charlie, especially the big one, I don’t trust him. I’m gonna see where Ellroy is…if he’s dead…” He didn’t finish the threat but they all knew what he’d do to them. Adam gave Joe a glance and he returned it, a slight smile appearing on his face. That wasn’t the response Adam was hoping for. He didn’t want Joe trying anything funny, not yet anyway.

“Rhett, I’ll be real careful.” Charlie said, as he leveled his gun at Adam’s body.

Adam cast another glance at Joe, hoping he wouldn’t do anything foolish to get them shot. While there was only one man guarding them it was a perfect chance to escape but when Adam met Joe’s eye he shook his head gently and frowned. Joe glared at him but said nothing. He could see Joe wanted to rush the remaining bandit but he’d forgotten that they had only one gun and horse between three men; they didn’t stand a chance.

Adam carefully moved closer to Joe. Softly out of the corner of his mouth he whispered. “Joe, be careful with the other one, I think he’s crazy.” Without waiting for Joe to reply, he raised his voice louder and turned to the Doctor. “You okay, Doc?”

“Yes Adam, I’m fine. A little shocked but fine.”

Corbett came back to them at the gallop and reined the horse in a cloud of dust in front of them. He threw himself off the horse and at the prisoners, whipping out his gun as he did.

“You bastards. I’m gonna kill you.” He cried hysterically.

“Is he dead Rhett?” asked Charlie.

“No, but he may as well be.” Snarled Corbett and he turned the gun on Adam. “He’s hurt mighty bad. Which one of you shot him?”

“We don’t know.” replied Adam “We were both firing when your brother went down but I think it was me because I’m the better shot.”

Adam added the last part on. While he was the best shot, by saying it meant drawing Corbett’s attention away from Joe. He didn’t want Joe being the one in danger anymore than he could manage and if it meant putting himself in the danger, then so be it.

Corbett waved the gun between Adam and Joe. “I’m gonna kill whoever it was and maybe the other one just for good measure. Makes no difference to me who goes first.”

Adam could see madness glistening in Corbett’s eyes. He thought quickly, calmly.

“Did you say he was still alive?”

“Yeah what about it? Don’t make no difference no how, you’re as good as dead.”

Adam pointed to MacDonald. “He’s a Doctor, maybe he can help.”

Keeping his gun and eyes fixed on Adam, Corbett spoke to MacDonald.

“Is that true? You a Doctor?”

“Yes as a matter of fact I am.” Replied MacDonald, holding himself upright in front of Corbett.

“Alright give me a minute to think.” Corbett paced in front of Adam but the gun never lost its aim at his stomach.

“You two, come with me. Seein’ as how you shot him, you can carry him back here. Charlie, get the Doc and his bag and find somewhere for us to lie Ellroy down.” Pointing with his left hand to indicate the direction he meant Corbett said. “Try those trees over yonder. It’ll give us shelter and hide us from anyone coming along the road and finding the stagecoach.”

Charlie glanced in the direction Rhett was pointing and nodded to him. Doctor MacDonald watched Corbett herd Adam and Joe back down the road towards his injured brother, while Charlie clambered aboard the stagecoach and located his bag.

“Come on Doc, let’s go find you your bag and get over there before Rhett comes back a shooting. I wouldn’t wanna be either of them two boys if Ellroy’s already dead.” Charlie said as he threw the bag onto the ground beside the Doctor. “He’ll been afixin to kill someone if he is. Stay out of his way Doc, if you know what’s good for you.”

*****

“Pa…”

“Pa!”

Ben shook himself and lifted his head towards Hoss. “Yes?”

“Will you quit worryin’ about Joe and Adam. They should be on the stage from Placerville by now.” Hoss glanced at the grandfather clock beside the front door then resumed eating his breakfast.

“I know Hoss, that’s what’s worrying me.”

“Now Pa, you know danged well that Adam won’t let nothin’ happen to Little Joe. You know it and I know it.”

“That doesn’t stop me from worrying about your little brother. I should have sent Adam on alone and kept Joe home with us.”

“Aw Adam’ll do everythin’ he can to stop Joe from getting’ himself hurt. He promised ya he’d look after him and he won’t let ya down.”

Hoss paused, waiting to see if his words had any effect on his father. As he expected they didn’t.

“How about we take a short ride into Virginia City after I’ve done taken care of all the mornin’ chores? I’ve had enough of doin’ both their chores as well as mine and I’d like to see them home soon too. This way you can talk to Sheriff Coffee and stop by the stage depot and see if’n there’s been any word from Adam.”

Ben ran his hands across his tired face. Had Hoss been able to read his expression that easily?

“Thanks Hoss.” Nodded Ben. “We’ll do that and get those supplies of grain a few days earlier than planned.”

Hoss grinned at his father. Always thinking about the ranch but then always

Concerned for his sons whenever they were away from home without him.

“In fact how about I help you with the chores and that way we can get into town a bit earlier?”

“Okay Pa.”

*****

With Adam holding the upper body and Joe the feet, they struggled back along with road with Ellroy Corbett. They staggered into the grove where they found the Doctor and Charlie had laid a blanket on the ground.

Ellroy Corbett was as big as Hoss, if not heavier, and the effort to carry him to the grove had them gasping for breath. Gently they lowered him onto the blanket and stepped back to allow the Doctor to examine him.

Adam lent over, his hands resting on his knees, sucking in deep breaths of air. While he had his head lowered, he slowly took in the scene around him.

Rhett Corbett was standing by the Doctor, watching every move as he examined his older brother. His gun was still gripped in his hand, at the ready. As Adam glanced up, Corbett at the same time sensed the movement, turned his head and looked directly at Adam. He pointed the gun straight at Adam.

With a deadly voice Corbett said. “Try me…. I’m itching to shoot me someone over this and it might as well be you.”

Adam straightened up, raised his hands to shoulder level, and gave Corbett a calm look. “I’m not doing anything but I think the Doctor’s going to need another hand.” He gave a soft laugh at his own joke.

Corbett shifted his eyes across to the Doctor and back to Adam.

“How is he?”

“I’ll need to operate to get the bullet out but with this arm the way it is, I’ll have to have one of these boys help me out.”

Adam watched as various emotions flickered across Corbett’s face.

He could see Corbett wasn’t impressed about the way everything was turning around. First the failed robbery, they hadn’t found any strong box. Second his brother was shot and needed the bullet removed by a Doctor. Thirdly he had a Doctor but he couldn’t operate because he had a sore wrist. Fourth he held two men prisoners and one of them had shot his brother.

“Which one of these do you want?” Corbett questioned the Doctor as he waggled the gun between Adam and Little Joe.

Quickly Adam answered. “Joe’ll do it, he’s got smaller hands.”

“You stay out of this big man. I’ll do the decidin’.”

Adam kept quiet; hoping Joe would too, as Corbett studied them both. Joe had stepped closer to Adam for comfort and support in the unnerving situation. He was becoming scared and he couldn’t figure out why Corbett was acting the way he was. They were standing together, barely a foot apart, with their arms nearly touching. Corbett regarded them, noticing the closeness of their stances.

“Do you two know each other? You seem mighty friendly to be strangers.”

Joe shot Adam an apprehensive look, which Corbett saw.

Corbett stepped menacingly close to Joe and pushed the gun barrel into his ribs. Smiling without humor, he stared into Joe’s eyes. He enjoyed watching his prisoners squirm in fear before him. This kid was no exception, but the other older one needed careful watching. He wasn’t going to intimidate him as easily as the boy.

“Who is he?” asked Corbett, nodding his head towards Adam who was balanced on his toes, ready to lunge at Corbett if he threatened Joe any further. “Answer me NOW.” He finished the sentence in a hysterical shout as he forced the gun harder into Joe’s ribs, causing him to grunt in pain.

“He’s…he’s my brother Adam.” Joe mumbled hesitatingly.

“Adam and Joe who?”

“Cartwright” answered Adam, hoping to shift Corbett’s focus off Joe and give Joe a chance to recover.

“Well, well Charlie lookie here, the high and mighty Cartwrights, two of them anyways. I’ve heard about you. You’ve got a big spread near Virginia City ain’t you?”

“Yeah, that’s right. Our father’s ranch, the Ponderosa.”

Adam answered again, before Joe could open his mouth to speak. Corbett’s gun was still pressed firmly into his ribs. Adam could see from Joe’s face how frightened he was of Corbett. Adam wondered how the situation was affecting him.

Too scared to pay attention to Corbett’s face, Joe was staring at Charlie when Adam said who they were. Charlie wasn’t so pleased about who they held as prisoners. Joe saw him give a start and bite his lip with concern.

“Rhett, there’ll be hell to pay if’n we hurt either one. Old man Cartwright don’t take to kindly to folks messing with his boys.”

“I don’t care Charlie. Get some rope and tie this one up. The little boy can help the Doc.”

Adam sighed silently with relief to himself. Joe on the other hand, bristled with anger.  “Who you calling little boy?” He hated that term and wasn’t wise enough to have the sense not to confront
Corbett about it.

Corbett laughed and motioned Joe to go to the Doctor who’d been watching the confrontation from where he’d knelt beside Ellroy.

“Shut up Joe.” Hissed Adam from between clenched teeth. He was furious with Joe for irritating Corbett again; just when it looked like he’d calmed down.

Charlie walked over to Adam with a short rope he’d taken from his saddlebag and proceeded to tie Adam’s hands tightly behind his back. Adam winced as the rope stung his wrists. He said nothing, not giving either of the outlaws the satisfaction of knowing the ropes had hurt him.

“Joe, just do what they say.” Adam said and finished the sentence in his mind. ‘And hopefully we’ll all get out of here alive.’

As Joe moved over and knelt beside the Doctor, Corbett stalked over to Adam. He hit hard Adam on the shoulder with the gun, causing him to spin off balance to one side. Corbett reached over and checked the tightness of the ropes. Satisfied with Charlie’s effort he pushed Adam harder, this time knocking him onto the ground. Adam rolled over and sat up a fast as he could so he could watch Joe.

“Now you just stay there and be a good boy and no one will get shot.” He giggled hysterically. Adam’s skin crawled as he heard the laugh. One moment Corbett sounded sane, the next moment insane.

He knew Corbett couldn’t be trusted to keep his word about not shooting them. It wouldn’t take much to send Corbett into a rage and start shooting.

*****

Joe was jolted back to the present by the sound of Doctor MacDonald’s voice. He couldn’t help but stare at his brother, lying shot on the ground. “He’s bleeding to death Doc and I can’t help him,” he whispered in anguish.

“Look Joe, to help Adam you’ve got to help me dig the bullet out of this man. The sooner we do that, the sooner we can help Adam. I’ve told you that already. Listen to me.” MacDonald urged, trying to have Joe concentrate on Ellroy Corbett instead of Adam.

Joe didn’t answer; he couldn’t take his mind and eyes off Adam.

“Are you listening to me?” Doctor MacDonald nudged Joe with his shoulder. The boy had gone into shock, which was to be expected under the circumstances. He had to bring him out of it and soon, if he was going to be of any help to his brother.

Reluctantly Joe answered. “Yeah, I heard you Doc.” He gave Adam one last look to make sure he was still breathing, then turned to the Doctor and injured man lying in front of him.

“Good. Open my bag for me and let’s get started. We’ve got a lot to do and there’s not going to be much light left before too long.”

Later, when telling to his father what had happened, Joe said he couldn’t remember anything he did for the Doctor.

As he was instructed, he used whatever instruments and the procedure indicated, but didn’t take any notice of what it was he was doing. He could see Ellory Corbett lying in front of him but all he could hear was Adam. Adam’s ragged breath was loud in his ears, tearing into his soul with each breath.

Joe knew it was his fault Adam had been shot. Adam had tried to warn him of the danger, like he always seemed to do. Tried to tell him that they were in trouble but he’d chosen to ignore his wiser, older brother.

Now Adam was paying for his stupid mistake. His pride had gotten him into trouble in the past and Adam had come and wrested him out of the jam. This time it was Adam who’d suffered. Joe couldn’t contain his grief. Guilt ate at him; gnawed at his gut. ‘What will Pa say when he hears how this happened? What’ll Hoss say?’ Joe thought, as his eyes clouded over with tears.

As if he’d heard Joe’s thoughts, Adam moaned.

Charlie, who’d been standing guard over Joe and the Doctor nearby heard him too and knelt beside Adam. He squinted quickly to see if Rhett was around, noticing he wasn’t,
turned back to the wounded man’s face. Adam’s eyes were open but he said nothing, his dark brown eyes dulled with pain, his face shiny with perspiration.

“Cartwright, look I’m sorry you got shot. I don’t like we’re holding you prisoners but I ain’t goin’ against Rhett, he’ll kill me quicker than you think. He only cares about Ellroy.”

Adam swallowed hard before he spoke in a voice barely above a whisper.

“Get Joe a gun. He may be young but he knows how to shoot…. he’ll help you take Corbett.” His voice came out thick with agony.

*****

“What you doing Charlie?” yelled Corbett, as he walked back into the camp after checking on the horses. He didn’t like the way Charlie was leaning so close to the older Cartwright. Wounded and bleeding, he was still dangerous; he could still talk.

“Move out of the way, I’ll take over standing guard.”

“Okay Rhett, I wasn’t doing nuthin, just makin’ sure he’s still alive.” Charlie said and scrambled back to his feet. He stared down at Adam for a few seconds, then walked over to his saddle and sat down, leaning back against it.

“I said watch them, not talk to them.” Corbett barked, clearly annoyed at Charlie. He stomped over to Adam and stood over him.

“You still alive Cartwright? I’da thought that with all that blood lying around everywhere you’d be gone.” With that he placed his foot against Adam’s side and rolled him over, making sure Adam was leaning on his left side. Adam grunted in pain and gasped hard for breath. Corbett laughed as he knelt beside Adam and checked the ropes around his wrists.

Adam tried to hold back a groan of pain but couldn’t. Satisfied the bindings were still tight Corbett laughed, and rolled him back again, only this time he gave Adam a hard hit with the gun barrel on the wound. Adam cried out from the increased pain and passed out.

“Sadist” yelled Joe, who’d watched the whole scene. Adam had been right, thought Joe, he’s mad, Corbett is crazy.

Rhett Corbett slowly turned away from the injured Adam and stood glaring at Joe.

“You want me to put another bullet in him? Keep your mouth shut smart boy or I will. Just get along and help the Doc, alright.” To prove the point home, he aimed his gun towards Adam and pulled the trigger. Joe flinched as the gun fired; the bullet was close enough to kick dust over Adam’s face but missed him.

“Next time I won’t miss, I’m that good.” Gloated Corbett as he swung the gun around quickly to Joe.

As he clenched his fists in frustration, Joe could hear the menace in Corbett’s voice. If only he had a gun, he’d take him on. He knew he wasn’t very fast on the draw yet, but he knew in his heart that he would be one day with more practice.

Through half closed eyes Joe watched Corbett swagger over to his partner. He knew Corbett was testing him, hoping he’d take a chance at escaping. But where would he go and he could never leave Adam behind in Corbett’s clutches.

“Joe…” the Doctor said quietly.

After a few moments Joe answered “Yeah Doc?” He sat and leant his back against the nearest tree, not taking his eyes off Adam. Joe’s young face was drawn, his eyes haunted.

“Joe, reach into my bag and get me the stethoscope.”

Raising his head, Joe gave the Doctor a quizzical look before answering.

“The what?”

“Stethoscope, it had three metal ends. One for each ear and a flat metal piece on the long third end. You’ll know what I mean when you look in the bag. Come on Joe, hurry up, please.”

Joe reached into the bag and brought out what he thought was a stethoscope. He passed it across to the Doctor’s good hand.

“Never seen Doc Martin with one of these things. What does it do?” Joe was curious.

With a little laugh, Doc MacDonald struggled to place the earpieces in his ears before listening to Ellroy Corbett’s heartbeat.

“I’m not surprised. It’s only just been invented. That was why I was in San Francisco, to see them used and to decide whether to buy one or not.”

“It makes it easier for us Doctors to listen for heartbeats, amongst other things.” He decided not to tell Joe that it would also tell him, if given the chance to use it, whether Adam was shot in the lung. As far as he could tell there was no blood on Adam’s lips to indicate to him that he was.

After carefully checking all the sections of Corbett’s chest, he lowered the stethoscope. Looking towards Rhett Corbett as he stood up the Doctor said. “Mr Corbett?”

Rhett Corbett quickly looked up from the fire that Charlie had been starting. He’d wandered over to the fire but not too far from Joe and the Doctor.

“Yeah what?”

“I’ve finished with your brother. I’d like to attend to Adam.”

Corbett rushed over the short distance and motioned Joe aside. He knelt down beside his brother; the gun still pointed towards Joe.

“How’s Ellroy doin’? Can he ride?”

The Doctor shifted his glance from Corbett to Little Joe and then back again.

“He’s sleeping for now, but he won’t be able to ride for at least a few days. The wound needs time to mend. Riding of any kind, is out of the question, not unless you want to kill him and somehow I don’t think you want that.”

“Damn it.” swore Corbett as he ran his hand over his face. He knew there was bound to be a search party or posse looking for the stagecoach, once it was realized is was overdue.

He’d have to think a bit more on how to get out of this mess. The idea to rob the stagecoach had seemed so simple to begin with but now was becoming complicated by the hour.

*****

“I’d like to tend to Adam, before it’s too late.” Asked the Doctor as he noticed how pale Adam was becoming and he could also see his body shaking, shock had set in. If he wasn’t allowed to give him assistance now, it was going to be too late to save him; maybe it was already too late. He’d make that diagnosis as soon as he examined Adam.

Still thinking of how to get the three of them out of their mess, Corbett muttered grudgingly to the Doctor.

“Hmmm, yeah alright. Just don’t try anything funny, either of you.”

Doctor MacDonald motioned to Joe to join him.

“Joe, get my bag as you come please.”

“No, he stays right where he is.” Shouted Corbett.

“I’ll need his help again, this time for Adam.” MacDonald said as he held up his sling. “I’d also like to cut Adam’s hands free. He won’t be going anywhere, not in his condition.”

Glaring with undisguised hatred, he finally nodded to Joe. “Remember, nothin’ funny.”

“No, I won’t. I’ll do exactly as you say.” said Joe as he scrambled over to Adam and the Doctor’s side.

“Quickly Joe, cut the ropes then reach into my bag and get the biggest piece of cloth you can find.”

Joe took the scalpel and cut away the tight ropes from Adam’s wrists. He could see where they had dug cruelly into his wrists and drawn blood. He rolled Adam gently onto his back and placed his arms by his sides. Then Joe opened the bag again and began to search inside for the cloth the Doctor wanted.

Impatiently MacDonald waited until Joe’s hand came out of the bag holding the cloth he’d asked for.

“Right, bunch it up tightly and press it against the wound, hard but not too hard. We’ve got to stop the bleeding immediately. He can’t take any more blood loss.”

Joe settled into a comfortable position beside Adam and with one hand holding the cloth firmly to Adam’s wound, reached out with the other to brush the damp hair off Adam’s forehead. As he did so he found Adam’s forehead was hot and sweaty. His brother’s face was very pale, his long eyelashes even darker as they nestled softly on his cheeks.

With Joe looking on intensely, Doc MacDonald put the stethoscope in his ears and examined Adam. Shortly he sat back on his heels and with a pensive sigh gave Joe a steady look. For a 15-year-old, Joe Cartwright had to learn, the hard way, about lawlessness in the West.

Adam’s lessons on gun handling were exciting but seeing the results of bullet wounds firsthand, and in his older brother, were extremely difficult for him to comprehend. He’d felt detached while helping remove Ellroy Corbett’s bullet and stitching up the wound, but looking down at Adam’s blood-soaked shirt made him nauseous.

Joe slowly lifted his head, his eyes flickering to the Doctor’s as he swallowed back his fear. He needed to know the details of the examination by the Doctor and yet didn’t. Using the Doctor’s hesitation as an indication of bad news, he glanced at Adam then back to the Doctor.

“Tell me the whole truth Doc, don’t hold anything back.” He bit down on his lip hard while he waited for the reply.

“Joe…he’s in bad shape. He’s lost so much blood that I don’t know whether he’s going to survive the procedure to get the bullet out.”

Joe clenched his free hand in fury and squeezed his eyes shut, fighting against the tears. Why hadn’t he listened to Adam? Why hadn’t he just kept his mouth shut and waited for Adam’s lead?

“Adam.” He sobbed, his voice full of anguish. The tears rolled down his cheeks, and then splashed silently onto his shirt. He ran his hand angrily through his tousled hair and raised his head to the Doctor, stubbornly determined to hear everything. “Go on… there’s more isn’t there?”

“If we don’t get the bullet out he’ll die anyway Joe. There is one blessing and that is he’s not lung shot. I thought he might have been, but fortunately not.”

Joe breathed a small sigh of relief. At least there was one piece of good news out of the mess.

“You understand that you’ve got to dig the bullet out yourself don’t you Joe? Just like you did a little while ago to Corbett.”

Joe stared at the Doctor, horrified at what he was being asked to do. Cut into his own brother. He slowly shook his head; his face paling even further, as the information sank into him.

“First I get him shot, now I’ve got to cut the bullet out. What next will I do to him? No… I can’t. Doc, I can’t, he’s my brother.” More tears started to roll down Joe’s face. He couldn’t face using a knife on Adam; it was too horrifying to consider. No the Doctor would have to do it, somehow.

“Joe…” whispered Adam, he’d come around in time to hear Joe’s refusal to get the bullet out. With a shaking hand Adam reached out, grabbed hold of Joe’s shirt, near his forearm and squeezed as hard as he could to get his full attention. Startled, Joe looked at his brother’s face. He saw Adam’s pain filled eyes, struggle to remain focused on him.

“Joe… Joe, you’ve got to do this…for me. I know its gonna to be hard… the worst thing I’ve ever asked you to do. I need you to get the bullet out Joe. The Doc will help you. Joe, listen to me. I’ll die if you don’t. I’ve seen wounds like this before and know what will happen to me. I know it’s going to hurt; hurt both of us. Do it for me…please…”

Adam’s grip on Joe’s arm slowly lessened. He was fighting hard to keep the blackness at bay until he’d convinced his little brother of what he had to do, but he lost.

With intense fascination, Joe watched Adam’s hand slide to the ground from where it’d held his arm. He’d never seen his brothers or father with a gunshot wound before and to know he’d caused this one to his brother…. With only a small hesitation, Joe nodded his agreement. “What do I have to do?’

While the Doctor wiped away what little blood flowed, Joe used the instruments handed to him to dig the bullet out. He’d stopped crying, but his face was red and puffed. Joe was determined to help his brother to the best of his ability. When he took the probe in his hand, he knew that he would get the bullet out as quickly as he could. Fifteen years old Joe had embraced his punishment with open arms. He’d caused Adam to be shot, as if he’d pulled the trigger himself. Adam had asked him to get the bullet out, to help him, and help him he would. Even if it made him sick to the stomach, which it did, he would do as the Doctor instructed.

Mercifully Adam remained unconscious during the operation, for both their sakes. Joe didn’t think he could have dug the bullet out if Adam had been conscious and looking at him. To see Adam’s dark eyes brimming with agony looking up at him; watching him would have been unbearable.

Joe swallowed hard and rubbed the back of his hand across his face. Unknowingly, he smeared a streak of blood across his cheek as he did so. The red blood gleamed vividly against his pale skin.

With as much skill as he could manage, Joe followed the Doctor’s instructions on how to remove the bullet and stitch the wound. Finally Doctor MacDonald announced the operation was over. Joe threw the bloody instruments onto the small pile already on the ground and stared at his brother’s blood on his hands. He felt a shiver run up his spine but it wasn’t from the temperature.

“Here Joe,” said MacDonald as he handed a canteen to him. “Use the water to wash away the blood, you’ll need clean hands again. The next thing is to get the wound covered with a clean bandage, which you’ll find in my bag.” “When your hands are clean get out the biggest you can find, he’s going to need it.”

Grimacing, Joe washed and scrubbed his hands in the water, until the canteen was empty.

Awkwardly, but carefully, the Doctor and Joe raised Adam upright to a sitting position between them and wrapped the bandage tightly around the wound and shoulder. Adam’s head rolled back over the Doctor’s arm and he gave a soft groan. His face was pale but relaxed.

Once the bandage was secured in place and with one hand supporting Adam’s head, Joe carefully lowered him back onto the blanket he’d managed to place under him. Joe reached out and soothingly wiped the sweat from Adam’s forehead again. He felt the rough stubble on Adam’s cheek as he affectionately continued down the side of his face with his hand. Joe smiled to himself. Adam always insisted on shaving daily and yet within a few hours he would have a dark beard shadow. He, on the other hand,
could go a couple of days and no one would notice the difference, unless they peered closely. What little fuzz he’d started to grow on his face was lightly colored and barely noticeable. He was surprised how a small detail as that would suddenly cross his mind and at an inappropriate time like this. He loved his brother he realized, with a protective fierceness he’d never known before, or understood. It took a serious incident as this to get an inkling of what Adam was always trying to do for him.

Doc MacDonald watched the tender affection Joe gave his brother. He waited until Joe made sure Adam was comfortable before starting to collect the used instruments with his good hand. Then, while bent over, he regarded Joe, making sure the young man wasn’t too traumatized by the operation.

“Well Doc, what do you think his chances are now that the bullet’s out?”

He shook his head as he replied, his eyes still on his task. “Joe…son… it’s too early to tell. Loss of blood, shock, infection from un-sterilized instruments, lack of food…..” He ticked them off his fingers. “If he does survive, and I sincerely hope he does, he’s going to need weeks of convalescing and constant care.”

“He’ll get that. Don’t you worry about it at all.” Said Joe, with conviction. “Me, Pa, Hoss and Hop Sing, our housekeeper’ll see to that.”

“I’m being realistic Joe, don’t get your hopes up too high because, unless we get out of here and get him some proper care soon, he will die. I’m sorry to say that I have no doubt about that fact. I’ve seen too many patients amaze me by surviving an operation performed under difficult conditions, only to have them die on me in post care. I’ll try to prevent that happening but I won’t promise anything. “

Joe leaned his back against the tree, closely observing his brother’s unconscious form.

“What will I do Adam? What am I to do to get us out of this mess?” He sat leaning against the tree until dusk, before an idea came to him. Joe glanced around and noticed the Doc had dozed off. Adam was also still asleep or unconscious, he wasn’t sure which. In the fading light he could just make out the steady rise and fall of his chest.

Corbett had left them alone all afternoon while they operated on Adam. Joe could think of only one reason why he’d done that. He needed them both to keep Ellroy Corbett alive. After that well…….

*****

Roy Coffee glanced at his watch for the third time in ten minutes. The stage-run was late. He looked up as he heard the door to his office crash back against the wall. The look on Ben and Hoss Cartwright’s faces meant that they’d come to the same conclusion. Apprehensively Roy rubbed his fingers along his moustache.

“It’s too late to begin searching now Ben. I’ll organize a posse and we’ll leave at first light in the morning.”

“First light? But that may be too late to help Little Joe and Adam. Why not leave now while there’s still a little daylight left?” Demanded Ben.

“By the time I roundup enough men for a posse, it’ll be too dark and I don’t want us trampling any tracks and men stumbling around in the dark. Surest way I know to get my posse shot at.”

“Come on Pa, the Sheriff’s right and you knows it. Why don’t we get somethin’ to eat and have a good nights sleep, then leave with the posse at daybreak, like he said.”

Reluctantly Ben stopped pacing the floor in front of Roy and nodded his agreement.

“I’ll wire the Placerville Sheriff and have him mount a posse too. This way we can cover more ground and meet in the middle. We don’t know that anything bad has happened Ben. The coach may have broken a wheel or a horse could be down. Don’t worry Ben, we’ll find them.”

*****

Charlie could see Joe Cartwright looking around. He knew Rhett was feigning sleep, just waiting for the younger Cartwright to make his move. He was expecting him to try something, anything just to have a reason to shoot him. ‘But then’ thought Charlie, ‘Rhett never needed a reason in the past to shoot anyone who stood in the way of what he wanted. The only way I can get out of this mess is to get Rhett.’ Charlie continued to ponder his predicament. ‘Joe Cartwright can stand up at my trial and say that I didn’t shoot no one and that I helped them escape.’

Charlie stood up and stretched. He drew his gun from the holster and holding it behind his leg, wandered casually over to Rhett by the small fire.

“Any food left Rhett?” asked Charlie as he squatted down by the fire, his gun lined up on Rhett but hidden in the shadow of his thigh.

“Shut up you fool and get out of the way. I’m watching Cartwright; he’s planning something. Looks like I’m going to have some more shooting to do before the day is done.”

Charlie quickly cocked his gun and aimed it at Corbett. He knew he had to take the first chance and kill him outright, otherwise he himself was the one dead.

“Sorry Rhett, we’ve been together for quite a ways but I’m not going up again them Cartwrights. Not if the older one dies. They’ll follow us to hell and back to get even. I’m sick of runnin’ now and that’s only from the law. I’ll take my chances with them.”

“Don’t be a fool Charlie, they’ll kill you anyways, just because you’re one of us.”

Rhett could see his words had unsettled Charlie; making him unsure, he pressed the point harder.

“Don’t you think old man Cartwright will want to get you and hang you on the nearest tree, just because I shot one of his sons.” He nodded towards the Cartwrights. “You’re part of this gang, my gang, and that means you ain’t worth spittin’ on.”

Maybe Rhett was right, could he trust Joe Cartwright to keep him from hanging. Charlie fearfully glanced towards Joe Cartwright. Rhett was waiting for such a move, saw his chance and drew his gun. As Corbett cleared the holster and shot, Charlie spun back and fired. Both men went down.

As the firing started, Joe hit the ground crouched low. He’d been looking for an opportunity and he took it. Joe ran towards Charlie first and could see that he was dead. He swallowed hard to hold back the nausea that rose inside him at the sight of what had been a face. Joe scooped up the fallen gun in one swift, smooth motion.

Corbett was rolling on the ground in pain, clutching the upper area of his gun arm. He saw Joe coming towards him and raised his gun to fire, struggling as he did to cock the gun. Joe fired off a quick shot. It struck the outlaw in the chest with a dull thud. Corbett fell back, the gun falling free of his limp hand.

Joe sank to his knees in the dust, the gun slipped free from his numb fingers. He felt his body shake as shock overtook him and he fell forward onto his hands.

“Adam…” Cried Joe as he curled his fingers into the dirt while his stomach began to spasm. His tears and what had been in his stomach, mingled in the dust between his hands.

It took Joe a few minutes to get himself under control and when he managed to get his unsteady legs to hold him he staggered to his feet. He reached into his coat pocket, drew out a bandanna and wiped his face and mouth clean.

Sadly he glanced once more at the dead men and slowly shook his head in disgust at the scene of death. In the distance he could hear his name being called.

“You okay Joe?” Yelled Doc MacDonald again. He couldn’t see what was going on in the faint light of the fire and the smoke from the guns.

“Yeah Doc, I’m fine but they’re both dead.”

Unsteadily Joe made his way to Adam and the Doctor.

“It’s nearly dark Doc. I think we’re going to have to stay here tonight and leave in the morning. Do you think he’ll make it?” Joe nodded in the direction of Ellroy Corbett.

“I’ll check him. It’s about time I checked them both.”

Doc Macdonald picked up his stethoscope and placed it on Corbett’s chest. His expression was pensive. As he moved the stethoscope around the chest he slowly shook his head.

“Well I guess that solves one problem Joe.”

“What’s that Doc?”

“He’s dead.”

“Adam…” Gasped Joe as he spun around and dashed to Adam’s side. “Please let him be alive, please.”

The Doctor stood up and walked to Adam. Kneeling beside him he placed the stethoscope on Adam’s chest, carefully checking the entire area. On both knees as if in prayer, Joe knelt beside the Doctor, holding Adam’s right hand firmly in his hands as he watched in silence. The Doctor looked up at Joe and smiled.

“Faint heartbeat Joe but still going. He’s still in danger but we can only hope he’s strong enough. At least there’s no danger of him being shot anymore.”

“Do you think we should we stay here tonight like I suggested or start for home straight away Doc?”

“As I see it Joe, we don’t have much choice other than stay. It’s too dark and I’d like Adam to remain in relative comfort for a while longer. The movement of traveling to the nearest help will be very painful for him and he needs rest to help him recover.”

Still kneeling beside Adam, Joe reached out and placed his hand on Adam’s chest. He could just feel Adam breathing. Joe lowered his head. To see his dear brother all bandaged up and hurt cut though his resolve like a hot branding iron. That and the shock of having shot and killed a man crashed down on him. He felt tears welling in his eyes. He wiped them away in an angry gesture with the back of his hand. No, he needed to be strong, for both of them. Adam stirred and groaned.

“Doc, should he be comin’ round yet?” Joe gave the Doctor a worried look, his eyes widened with concern.

In the faint light Doctor MacDonald could see a frightened but determined young man. He’d had to grow up very quickly in the past few hours, but then didn’t all youngsters have to in this age of the gun.

Doc MacDonald shrugged. “He’s strong, maybe he might. Everyone is different Joe and you never can tell. It all depends on the patient’s constitution and determination.”

Joe watched Adam’s face. Strong emotions played over both the young men’s faces. Adam groaned again and his eyes suddenly flickered open. Joe saw that they were dull and filled with pain, not Adam’s usual bright piercing brown.

“Adam….” Whispered Joe, regret thick in his voice. “I’m sorry you’re hurt. It’s…its all my fault.”

Adam bought his eyes around to focus on Joe’s face and it shook him to see how pale he looked. The young, innocent face of his brother would never be the same after today.

“Joe…don’t worry. I’ll be alright.” Adam tried to reassure his little brother.

“Adam…I killed Corbett. When I had my gun pointed at him I wanted so badly to kill him because of what he did to you. In the end I had no choice because he was going to kill me if I didn’t get him first. When I saw him lying there dead, I was sick. I think I understand now what you were trying to teach me. I think I also know what Pa meant by his advice about using my gun only to save a life. In the end it was my life, yours and the Doctors I had to save, but it doesn’t seem right.”

Adam could hear the sadness and horror in Joe’s voice. He knew it was the first time Joe’d killed, even if it was in self-defense and he was too young to have had to kill a man. Adam remembered how he felt when he’d had to do the same thing to save himself. You were never quite the same after you’d taken the life of a person, regardless of whether they were trying to kill you.

“You’ll remember his death for the rest of your life Joe. It never gets any easier killing a person, but you have to put that behind you, you have no choice.” Adam took a few deep breaths before he continued. “You’re Okay Joe? You didn’t get hurt?”

With a soft laugh Joe shook his head and answered his brother. “Nah, I’m Okay Adam.” ‘Funny,’ he thought ‘Adam should be concerned about me, when he’s the one lying on the ground with a bullet
wound in his chest.’

“Good Joe, it’s over.” Adam continued gently. “He was gonna shoot one of us anyway. It just happened to be me.”

“But Adam you forced him to shoot you. You made him choose you to shoot. You must hate me because I wouldn’t listen to you. I…”

“No…listen Joe. I don’t hate you; I could never hate you. You’re my brother and I love you, nothing willever change that. It could so easily have been you who were shot. Pa would have tanned my hide for not looking after you. He gave me a long enough lecture about keeping you out of trouble before we left.” He tried to smile but winced instead.

“Thanks Adam, I know what you’re trying to say but..”

Adam cut his sentence off.

“No regrets… about my shooting Joe. It’s over and done with. I read something somewhere… the needs of the many out-weigh the needs of one. Just get me home Joe…I want to be home.”

Adam slowly blinked his eyes, clearly worn out by the effort of talking. He could only hope that what he’d said would sink into Joe and give him some comfort while they tried to get home.

“Adam, I’ll get you home, that’s a promise. I’ll take care of you, just like you promised Ma you’d take care of me.” With a grateful smile at his younger brother, Adam slowly closed his eyes.

“I know you will, Buddy.”

The Doctor silently watched the brothers giving solace and reassurance to each other. He placed his hand on Joe’s shoulder when he saw how much the effort to speak had cost Adam.

“Son, let him rest now. He’s going to need all the help he can to get by tomorrow. You’d better get some sleep too.”

Joe glanced towards the two bodies lying where they’d fallen.

“Do you think I should bury them Doc?”

“Well son, I don’t see how you can. Unless there is a shovel in the stagecoach, which I doubt, you’re not going to be able to anyway. No, leave them where they are for the time being and we’ll decide what to do in the morning. I want you to get some rest. I think we all could do with a sleep.”

Watching Adam closely, Joe could see he’d finally gone to sleep. The Doctor had been right when he said the effort of talking had used the last of Adam’s energy. With reluctance to leave Adam but knowing the Doctor was right, Joe collected the saddles and blankets from beside the now cold fire. Dragging them across the short distance, he made up two beds, one either side of Adam.

He scratched a small fire together then lay down on the right side of Adam and pulled the blanket up to his chin. Adam’s labored breathing was a small comfort to him. It was just like when he was little and their father had taken them out hunting Joe recalled. His bed would always be between Adam’s and Hoss’. His brothers were always there to protect him, only this time it was different. Joe was protecting Adam. He  snorted to himself. Fine mess he’d made of everything for Adam.

As he lay beside his brother, sleep was the furthermost thing from his mind. How was he going to get Adam home without causing him more pain? They had two horses but with Adam injured it would take a half day’s ride before they arrived at the Ponderosa.

The Doctor’s occasional snore from the other side of Adam was the last thing he remembered hearing as sleep finally claimed his tired, aching body.

*****

“Mount up men.” Ordered Roy Coffee to his posse. He’d had no difficulty in finding enough men to form the posse. Ben and Hoss woke him an hour before dawn.

Neither men looked as though they’d slept much, but then neither had he. By the time the rest of his men had eaten breakfast and met outside the jail it was dawn.

“Our plan is follow the exact route that the stagecoach driver would have taken. We’ll spread out and look for any evidence of the coach or tracks to say its been turned off the road. Keep your guns at the ready at all times. I don’t want any chances taken. Alright lets ride.”

Roy led the way out of town. On either side of him rode Ben and Hoss. Their faces as grim as Roy’s in the pale light. Ben knew that there had been on word from the stage and possibly nothing serious had delayed them. Even so he couldn’t put aside his gut feeling that something was terribly wrong and his sons were in the middle of it.

*****

“Joe, wake up. Joe.” Hissed Doc MacDonald urgently as he shook Joe’s shoulder.

“What?” Joe replied half-heartedly, as he tried to clear the fuzziness from his eyes and brain. How he hated to wake up early, especially when there was a chill in the morning air. He pulled at the thin blanket and lifted it back over his body.

“Joe, I can hear horses coming.” Whispered Doc MacDonald, not wanting his voice to carry in the early morning stillness.

Joe struggled to wake, sitting up to rub his eyes. It had taken him a long time before finally falling asleep last night.

He lost count of the times he’d reached over and touched Adam to reassure himself that he was still breathing.

Flinging the last cobwebs of sleep from his mind Joe picked up his gun and moved into cover behind the bushes. He positioned himself so that he could see out and hopefully observe the riders without being seen. He wasn’t sure whether there were other members of the gang around or not.

‘Better safe then sorry’ he thought. Suddenly he realized that he’d just used one of Adam’s favorite sayings. ‘Must be rubbing off.’ He mused.

As the horses came closer he squinted, struggling to recognize any of the horses and riders. He studied the second horse closely. It was a buckskin horse with a large man riding it. The rider of the horse beside him was even larger than the first; a large white stetson shaded his face from view.

Joe rushed out of the bushes waving his arms wildly to attract their attention.

“Pa, Hoss.” He yelled. “Over here.” And continued waving. He resisted firing off a shot, just in case the riders’ thought they were being fired upon by whoever robbed the stage.

With a yell of his own, his father saw him and urged Buck on. The posse reined up in front of Joe, the dust raised from the horse’s hooves swirled madly in the rays of sunlight as it filtered through the trees.

“Joseph, you alright son?” He said as he dismounted. Ben looked at him intently, noticed the change in him, and then hugged him closely to his chest. “We were worried. What happened? Where’s Adam?” He
asked as his eyes moved around in an attempt to locate his eldest son.

Joe couldn’t look his father in the eyes, he felt ashamed. “He’s hurt Pa, real bad. I’m sorry it’s all my fault.”

“Never mind now whose fault it was son. Where is he? Are you Okay?” Ben said checking Joe all over before giving him another hug.

Ben felt a stab of guilt pass through him. He’d been more worried about Little Joe than Adam. Now it was Adam who was injured. He glanced about trying to locate his eldest son.

“Yeah, I’m fine Pa.” Joe replied sarcastically. “Just dandy.”

“Good to see you little brother.” said Hoss as he gave his brother a hug and pat on the back. He glanced at his father and a look of concern passed between them as they followed Joe through the bushes and into the clearing.

Ben stopped up short. “Adam.” He gasped in horror as he took his first look at him. His eldest son was lying on a makeshift bed on the ground. His chest heavily bandaged, unbuttoned black shirt covered in a large patch of dried blood.

He ran to Adam, closely followed by Hoss. Joe uneasily hung back, unsure of what his father and brother would say to him.

“Son…Adam.” Ben was on both knees, his hands hovering over Adam’s body. He wanted to pick him up and hold him close in his arms, his young face so colorless and drawn.

“He’s unconscious Mr Cartwright.” Said Doc MacDonald. He’d instantly recognized Adam and Joe’s father from their descriptions of him in their conversations on the stagecoach. Besides a stranger wouldn’t be so concerned as this man obviously was.

Ben eyed the stranger with his arm in a sling.

“Who are you? Did you do this to him?” he asked sternly.

“In a way, Yes.”

With a growl Hoss drew his gun, ready to exact revenge for Adam.

Doc MacDonald held his hand up in front of him. Clearly realizing they’d misunderstood him.

“No wait, I’m a Doctor.” MacDonald said quickly, fear rising in him. “You’ve taken what I said the wrong way.”

Slowly Hoss holstered his gun. “That’s alright then. I was fixin to shoot ya.”

“So I could see.” Doc MacDonald replied with a shaky laugh.

“How is he Doctor? Will he recover?” Ben’s concerned gaze didn’t move from Adam’s face.

“Mr Cartwright he’s seriously injured. He’s lost a lot of blood and needs to be made warm and comfortable as soon as possible to raise his chances of survival. Just get him home as quickly as
possible.”

To see Adam injured so severely cut deeply into Ben. At a quick guess it would take them 5 hours to ride to the ranch, which was the closest. There was a strong possibility he could loose his eldest son to the trauma of moving him home.

“How can we get him home quickly and as gently as possible? I can’t think of anything other than a travois. Boys.. any suggestions?”

Joe spoke up as he walked over to his father. “Pa, I’ve been thinking about that for most of the night. Why don’t we use the stagecoach? All we’ll need to do is hitch some of the posse’s horses up. Adam can ride inside and the Doctor can be with him too. At least it’ll be more comfortable than on horseback or a travois.”

Ben gave Joe’s idea a quick thought. He wanted Adam on his way home with a minimum of discomfort.

“Good idea Joseph. How about it Doctor? Do you think it will be safe and comfortable enough for Adam?”

“It’s about the best we can offer him under the circumstances Mr Cartwright. It’ll have to do.”

“Ben?”

“Yes Roy?”

“I’ll send a man to meet the Placerville posse and tell them to end the search. I’ll have my men round up whatever horses they can find and load the bodies onto them. You see that Adam gets home as soon as you can. I’ll call by later today or tomorrow and get everyone’s statements about the incident. I’m very sorry what’s happened to Adam Ben, you know that.”

“Thanks Roy. You couldn’t have known that they’d go after Adam and Joe’s stagecoach. Lets leave it at that.”

Roy affectionately squeezed his friend’s shoulder and took one final look at Adam before he turned to organize his men.

“Hoss, help Roy will you?”

“Sure Pa, consider it done.” Replied Hoss as he began to follow the Sheriff out of the grove. He wanted to stay by his brother’s side too, but knew his father was relying on him to help get Adam home as soon as possible.

*****

Joe cradled Adam’s head in his arms for the remainder of the journey home. Ben and Hoss tried, numerous times, to change places with him, but he refused every attempt to make him leave Adam’s side. Whenever he was asked, he told them it was his fault Adam was shot and he’d stay with him and take care of him. He’d promised Adam he would see him home and he was determined to keep the promise. The Doctor kept a close watch on Adam’s condition and also on Joe, who’d become withdrawn, speaking only when it was necessary.

Adam lapsed in and out of consciousness. He could see Joe’s face bending over him, his voice comforting him, then the pain would come again and so would the welcome blackness. Voices floated around him. He was sure he’d heard Hoss and his father’s voices as well, which he thought meant that he was home or they’d found them. But he couldn’t tell; he wasn’t sure of anything except how hurt he felt. He felt every bump and jolt of the ride when he was awake and he cried out in discomfort. Every time he did, Joe’s face would wince as though he’d felt the suffering of his brother.

Adam woke to find himself in his own familiar room. He tried to move and make himself more comfortable but as he did his chest hurt and he cried out in distress.

At the first sound of Adam’s voice, Ben flung himself out of the chair from beside the bed to lean over him. With the palm of his hand he felt Adam’s forehead for any sign of the fever.

“Lie back son and try not to move.” Said Ben firmly. Relief washed over Ben; his eldest son had finally woken.

It was 5 arduous days since the shooting. Adam had remained unconscious all that time. Delirious with fever Adam, had clung to life with a determination which had surprised the Doctor. Between the four of them they’d taken turns tending to Adam, watching the battle for his life rage in his body and mind. It wasn’t until very early that same morning that the fever had peaked and Adam was finally able to rest comfortably.

Concerned about Joe, the Doctor resorted yesterday morning to giving him a sedative to make him sleep. Joe’d tried to stay with Adam the whole time but was in danger of harming himself through lack of sleep that Ben had insisted he leave. Not wanting to leave Adam’s room, let alone sleep, Doctor MacDonald eventually slipped a sedative into Joe’s coffee and Hoss gently picked him up and carried him to his room. After stripping off his boots and coat Hoss covered Joe with the bedding and blew out the lamp.

“Pa, how’d I get home?”

“Long story son but before I go into that the Doctor wants to examine you. He left instructions that he was to be called as soon as you were awake.”

Ben gave Adam a reassuring pat on the arm then stood quickly and strode to the door.

“Doctor, he’s awake.” Yelled Ben from the doorway, reluctant to leave Adam now that he was awake. Although Adam’s voice was strong, Ben could see he was struggling with the effort to talk.

There was a commotion as doors slammed open and feet were heard running heavily up the hallway. Little Joe came charging through the door, his face bright with a smile Ben hadn’t seen for days. His hair was mussed and his face still showed the effects of lack of sleep.

As he came to a sliding halt beside the bed, the smile changed dramatically to one of remorse as he looked closely at his brother. Hoss wasn’t far behind Joe in running into the room.

“Adam, I’m sorry…” Joe began immediately.

Doctor MacDonald, who had followed Joe into the room, put a restraining hand on Joe’s shoulder. “Not now Joe, I need to examine Adam. What you want to talk about will have to wait a few more minutes. Let me tend to Adam, then I’ll call you when he’s ready.”

Little Joe looked from Doctor to patient; there was much he wanted to say, needed to say to his eldest brother.

“Joe, let the Doc do what he has to, then come back in. I need to talk to you too.” Adam could clearly see from Joe’s expression that he was still blaming himself for what had happened.

“Pa, please stay here with the Doc.” Adam wanted to explain what had happened to his father. He wasn’t sure what Joe had said but whatever it was Adam wanted to tell his side too. He wanted to tell his father that it was going to be either Joe or himself shot and that Joe shouldn’t blame himself.

Adam wanted his father to understand that he’d made Corbett shoot him and not Joe. Adam knew his father wouldn’t be able to live with the death of Joe. There were too many memories wrapped up in a parcel called Joseph Cartwright for him to loose.

“Alright Adam, if that’s what you want. Joe, please wait outside or better still why don’t you go downstairs and get something to eat. It’s been a while since you had anything decent to eat. Will you have Hop Sing prepare a plate for Adam? I think he’ll be wanting something to eat after all this time.”

Grudgingly Joe left the room. Quietly he admitted to himself that his father was right, as usual. He was feeling lightheaded from hunger and had nearly overbalanced and fallen onto Adam when he first ran into the room.

He followed Hoss downstairs to the dining table, and began to tuck ravenously into a large plate of hot food and a steaming cup coffee. Both kept their silence as they ate, neither wanting to be the first to mention the circumstances of how Adam was shot. Occasionally Joe would lift his head to look up the staircase, a frown on his young face.

Ever aware of Joe and his moods, Hoss attempted to help his little brother. “Don’t you go frettin’ about Adam.” That Doctor sure knows what he’s doin’ don’t he Joe? Adam was mighty lucky he was on the stagecoach. I’d hate to think what would have happened if’n he hadn’t been…”

“Thanks Hoss, but it doesn’t make it any easier. I know what happened to Adam, and why.”

The two older men waited for Joe to leave the room and his steps to be heard receding down the stairs before, as one, they turned back to the patient. “Alright Adam.” Said Doctor MacDonald as he started to fold the bedding off Adam’s upper body. “Let’s have a look at you. It’s time I changed the dressing as well. How do you feel?”

“Hungry and thirsty.” Adam said smiling. “How long have I been out for?” He asked curiously, after he’d taken a sip of water from the glass Ben handed to him.

“Five days Adam, we nearly lost you to fever caused by an infection but you managed to fight it somehow.” Replied Ben.

“Feels like I got kicked by a horse and rolled on Doc.”

“Close Adam. Do you remember what happened?”

Adam frowned while he sorted out the pieces of his memory. He couldn’t decide what had been in his dreams or real. Ben raised his eyebrows in a question at the Doctor as he watched Adam struggle with his thoughts. Doc MacDonald silently mouthed an Okay to Ben as he continued to examine Adam.

“Oh yeah, it’s coming back to me now. The Corbetts… What happened to the them?” Said Adam after a long spell.

Doctor MacDonald continued his examination of Adam as he spoke. He was concerned with his findings but refrained from speaking until he was finished.

“After your brother removed the bullet from you, there was a fight between Corbett and his partner. They both shot each other. Unfortunately in the following gunfight, Joe had to shoot Corbett. It was either Joe or Corbett. I’m afraid Ellroy Corbett died from his wound; I couldn’t save him.”

Doc MacDonald regretted loosing patients, even if they were outlaws. When it came to medicine and the care of his patients, he never discriminated between anyone.

Ben continued the story. “The next morning we came riding up with the posse Roy had organized, looking for you and that’s how we came to find you.”

“How’d you get me home?”

“On the floor of the stagecoach. Joe made a bed for you out of blankets and stayed beside you the whole time, until we arrived home. He’s been with you, in this room, ever since.”

“Now I know why I’m so stiff and sore. Those seats are uncomfortable enough without being on the floor.” Adam said with a little laugh.

He winced as the movement caused his chest to complain. Ben laughed too with relief.

Doctor MacDonald stood back up, his examination finished. He no longer had his arm in a sling but the wrist wasn’t completely healed. It still gave him a twinge whenever he turned the wrist too quickly.

“Well Adam, the wounds healing, but too slowly for my liking. I’d advise you against getting out of bed for another 3 days. Any sudden movement will cause the stitching to come undone and create more bleeding. You’ll feel lightheaded too from the loss of blood and you’re bound to feel faint if you get out of bed too soon. I’d like you to eat up, to regain your strength, before you have any thoughts of getting out of bed.”

“Hop Sing will like that hey Pa? You finished now Doc?”

“Yes Adam.”

“Pa, stay a while will you? I need to tell you what happened.”

“Adam, Joe’s already explained it to me.”

“No Pa, there’s more you should know. You have to know the whole story, not just Joe’s side. I don’t know what Joe’s told you but I need to talk to you. I can see just by looking at him that he’s still blaming himself for what happened to me and he doesn’t have to.”

“Okay Adam, whatever you think.”

“Well I think I’ll go downstairs have some of that wonderful food Hop Sing cooks. I know you’ve got a lot to discuss but don’t talk too long Adam. I want you to eat something as soon as possible.”

“Sure Doc, this won’t take long. Before you go, I’d like to thank you for saving my life.” Said Adam as he reached out his hand towards the Doctor. “I don’t know what would have happened if you hadn’t been on the stage and helped Joe.”

As he shook Adam’s hand the Doctor smiled at his patient.

“I’m just grateful that we managed to get out of the situation with all of us alive. As for you young man, I’ll be happier when I know you’ve improved a whole lot more. Just take it slow and easy and let nature do the rest.”

“I will Doc and thanks again.”

Ben saw the Doctor to the door and then closed it. With an understanding smile, he walked back to Adam and sat on the edge of the bed, waiting for Adam to start. Joe had told him his version of what had happened but Ben couldn’t help the feeling that Joe hadn’t told him the full story.

Adam nervously cleared his throat and hesitatingly began to tell his story.

*****

Three days later Ben and the Doctor were talking at the dining table when Joe came bounding down the stairs in his usual manner. He balanced a tray precariously in his hands.

“Well Joseph, did he eat it all?” asked Doctor MacDonald.

Joe grinned at them both. “Sure did Doc. He’s asked for more and a glass of milk.”

“That’s certainly very good news Ben. I’ll check his bandages now but I think I’ll be able to continue my journey today. Now that he’s eating he’s making an excellent recovery but just don’t let him do too much when I let him out of bed. He may suffer a relapse and that would set him back. I know he’s been giving everyone a difficult time being shut away in his room but it is for the best intentions.”

Joe, who’d heard the conversation as he came back out of the kitchen with another plate of food and the milk, replied before his father could.

“I won’t let him do too much Doc, you can bet on that. I’ll just take this tray back up to him now. He’s eating nearly as much as Hoss.” He said grinning at the comparison between his two older brothers.

He never thought he’d ever say that about Adam’s eating habits. But then Adam was still making up for 5 days without food.

Ben and the Doctor watched Joe run up the stairs, two at a time, neatly balancing the plate in one hand.

Quietly the Doctor spoke to Ben.

“Has he told you what happened?” He said as he nodded towards Joe on the stairs.

“Yes, it took a while to get it out of him but he finally told me.”

Doc MacDonald hesitated for a moment before placing his hand on Ben’s forearm.

“Don’t let Joe take the blame Ben. Corbett was evil. I think he enjoyed killing. The way he just up and shot Adam, it’s a wonder any of us survived. I’m quite sure he was insane. Adam told Joe he wasn’t to blame but I need to be sure Joe’s made peace with himself before I leave.”

“Adam and Joseph have spent hours together since the shooting. I think between them they’ve sorted Joseph out.” Ben smiled at the Doctor.

“I haven’t thanked you Doctor for saving Adam’s life.” Said Ben, holding his hand out for the Doctor to shake.

“Ben, the experience was horrible, to say the least, but I’ve come away with some good friends.” He shook Ben’s hand hard. “Very good friends.”

“You can be proud of your sons. I know Adam wasn’t being noble or anything like that when he took on Corbett. I think he wanted to protect his young brother. I’m sure watching Adam being shot, then having to shoot Corbett with a long-lasting effect on Joe. Help him Ben, help both of them.”

“Thanks Doctor and I will.”

Joe walked into Adam’s room with the plate still balanced in his left hand. Adam was propped up in bed with pillows behind him, his injured shoulder supported by his arm in a sling. He still looked pale and drawn but he smiled as Joe brought the plate to him. Adam put the book he was reading on the bed and reached for the plate.

As Joe positioned himself on the edge of the bed, watching Adam tuck into the food, he tried to think of a way to bring up what he wanted to say. So far they’d spoken at length but not everything had been discussed. Adam noticed Joe’s miserable expression.

“Out with it Joe.” He said as he put another forkful of meat into his mouth. Hop Sing’s roast beef had never tasted so good.

Joe raised his eyes to meet his brother’s.

Adam put the fork down and quickly finished the mouthful of food. He waited patiently for Joe to start.

“Taking the bullet out of you, I hope I never have to do anything like that again. I…” Joe couldn’t finish the sentence.

Placing his hand reassuringly on Joe’s knee, Adam began quietly.

“Joe, you’d do the same for Pa or Hoss, if they were in the same situation. As you get older you’ll realize that there isn’t anything you wouldn’t go through or do for your family. If it comes down to a choice of putting your life on the line for each other, well… It’s the price you pay for loving your family. I’d do the same for you again, or Pa or Hoss, but I hope that I never have to. The same goes for getting a bullet out or if someone was hurt bad. Out here you have no choice. You either get on with what needs to be done as best you can or they die, it’s as simple as that.”

“NO it isn’t Adam.” Joe replied, anguish in his voice.

“Yes, it is Joe. There’s only one thing you have to remember.”

“What’s that Adam?” Meeting Adam’s eyes he waited for the reply.

“Next time your big brother tells you to shut up, how about you do it instead of arguing about it.” Adam said with a quick laugh and a wink, his dark eyes twinkling with humor.

“Yes Sir Adam, whatever you say Sir.” Joe gave him a mock bow and returned the laugh. Then he leant over and gave Adam the hug he’d wanted to give him ever since he’d woken up. With his eyes brimming with tears, Adam returned the hug. There’d been a time when he thought he’d never get the chance to hold his little brother close again.

Ben stopped outside Adam’s door. He smiled to himself as he heard the laughter. His sons were home; his family was together again.

***The End***

Author’s Note:  Thanks again to all those who helped me with this story – Margie Johnson, Michelle Killie, and Valerie Martin-Arvelo for without their assistance this story would not be out of my head and in print.

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