After The Last Viking (by Susan)

Synopsis:  A what happened next story for the episode, The Last Viking.

Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Drama
Rating:  PG
Word Count:  13,730


 

As Gunnar Borgstrom lay dying in his nephew’s arms, his last words to Hoss Cartwright reinforced the paradoxical nature of the man. With his last breaths, Gunnar both declared that he had no regrets for his life and asked for Hoss’ forgiveness. As his uncle’s life ebbed away, Hoss felt that, for a moment at least, he could understand the war between good and evil that Gunnar had waged in his soul for most of his life.

A short distance away, Joe Cartwright and Carrie McClain lowered their heads in silent prayer as Gunnar Borgstrom died. The two had been captured by Gunnar’s band of outlaws but then given the means of escape by Gunnar. Joe also felt a conflict in his soul as Gunnar died. He felt regret for the death of a man who was his brother’s uncle and who had enabled them to escape from the potential horrors of being captives of the Commancheros. At the same time, Joe felt a sense of almost satisfaction that a man who had caused two people to be shot at the McClain ranch and whose actions ultimately led to Joe being shot had paid the price for his sins.

Laying the body of his dead uncle on the ground, Hoss gently crossed the man’s hands over his chest in the classic death pose. Hoss lowered his head and briefly said a prayer for his uncle. Then he rose and walked quickly over to Joe and Carrie. Despite his regret over his uncle, Hoss knew the concerns of the living took precedent over mourning the dead.

Crouching next to Joe, Hoss put his hand gently on his brother’s head. “We’d better get out of here,” urged Hoss. “Those shots are liable to attract them other outlaws.”

Nodding, Joe winced as a stab of pain from the bullet wound in his shoulder seemed to cascade through him. Joe closed his eyes for a moment, letting the pain take its course. Then he looked up at Hoss. “You can’t just leave him here,” said Joe in a weak voice. “We…we owe him our lives.”

“He wouldn’t want us to worry about him,” declared Hoss firmly. “He’d tell us to go if he could.”

“At least move him up to the rocks, where the animals…where he’ll be protected,” insisted Joe. “We owe him that.”

Unsure, Hoss looked back to the body on the ground. Somehow he knew Gunnar wouldn’t care what happened to him now. But Hoss knew he cared, and Joe cared. “All right,” agreed Hoss reluctantly as he got to his feet. “But you keep your eyes peeled. You see anything or anybody coming through those woods, you holler.”

Walking rapidly, Hoss returned to his uncle, and scooped the body off the ground. Gunnar Borgstrom had been a big man, but Hoss’ strength was equal to the task of carrying him. Hoss carried the body a few feet to some tall rocks.

A fissure in the rocks created a small ledge at about the height of Hoss’ shoulders. Hoss lifted his uncle and placed the body on the ledge. He crossed the hands once more on the now still chest, and gave the hands a pat. Then he hurried back to Joe and Carrie.

“All right,” said Hoss, crouching next to his brother again. “We’re getting out of here. Can you walk?”

“I don’t know,” admitted Joe, looking up at Hoss. “I hurt my ankle.” He tried unsuccessfully to hide a wince of pain.

Biting his lip, Hoss tried to decide what to do. He looked over at Carrie, sitting next to Joe with her arm around the wounded man. She looked pale and shaken, a state that was not surprising given the horrors she had witnessed during the past few hours. But Hoss knew she wasn’t physically injured. Carrying Joe for any great distance would be difficult for Hoss. He was reluctant to admit it, but the fight with his uncle had taken a lot out of him. Hoss decided that, with Carrie’s help, maybe the two of them could get Joe back to where Hoss had left his horse.

Reaching down, Hoss grabbed Joe under the arms and pulled his brother to his feet. Joe grunted with pain, and swayed drunkenly as he tried to stand.

Slipping Joe’s left arm over his shoulders, Hoss turned to Carrie. “Give me a hand,” Hoss ordered the girl.

Nodding, Carrie scrambled to her feet. She wrapped her arm around Joe’s waist and let his shoulder rest against her.

“We’ll take it slow, Joe,” Hoss promised his brother. “It ain’t that far to where I left my horse. Once we get you there, you can ride.”

The trio began shuffling slowly through the woods. Joe leaned heavily on Hoss, using his brother’s strong body to support him. He tried to keep his weight off his injured ankle, wanting to avoid the jolt of pain that any pressure on his left leg seemed to cause. But he found he didn’t have the strength to keep his left foot off the ground or to manage the hop-step with his right. As he walked, Joe pressed the toes of his left foot to the ground, the best he could do to lessen the weight on his ankle. As a result, each step caused Joe to wince and give out a small grunt of pain.

The horse was waiting patiently about 100 yards from where Hoss had met up with his uncle. To the three people moving at a snail’s pace through the woods, the distance seemed more like 100 miles. Hoss gave a short sigh of relief when he finally saw the dark figure of Chubb, his horse, standing near some rocks. He knew each step his brother had taken had hurt Joe. Now, at last, Hoss felt he could do something to help him.

“Let’s get him over to those rocks,” Hoss declared, jerking his head toward the small boulders near his horse. Carrie nodded her agreement and she pushed Joe gently in the back to steer him in the right direction.

When they reached the boulders, Hoss slipped Joe’s arm from around his shoulder and eased his brother to the ground, resting Joe’s back against the rocks. Carrie sank to the ground next to Joe.

The full moon lit the night sky, but the branches of the tall trees created a canopy over the three people on the ground. Only a few shafts of the pale moonlight managed to find its way through the trees to light the area. But even in the dim light, Hoss could see Joe was breathing hard, and that his brother’s face was pale, almost as white as the shirt Joe was wearing. Hoss could see the beads of sweat on Joe’s face, created by both pain and exertion. And he could see the dark red circle of blood on Joe’s shirt was growing.

“I’ll get some water,” Hoss offered, and without waiting for a reply, he walked rapidly to his horse and grabbed a canteen hanging from the saddle. Hoss gently patted the neck of the horse, murmuring words of approval and thanks to the animal for staying in place. Then he turned back to the rocks. Hoss uncorked the canteen as he hurried back to the two people resting against the rocks.

“Here,” said Hoss, putting the canteen to Joe’s lips.

Lifting his head slightly, Joe began to drink. He grabbed the canteen with his left hand and pushed it up, forcing more of the soothing water into his mouth.

Joe drank eagerly, not caring that some of the water was trickling out of his mouth and down his chin. For a minute, he couldn’t seem to get enough of the tepid liquid from the canteen.

Finally, though, Joe had drunk his fill. He took a deep breath and shoved the canteen in Carrie’s direction. Carrie took the container from Joe and began to drink greedily. After a moment, she too had had enough and she handed the canteen back to Hoss.

Setting the container on the ground, Hoss began to unbutton Joe’s shirt. “Let me take a look at that wound,” he stated as he pulled the cloth covering open.

Hoss winced a bit as he looked at Joe’ shoulder. Even in the dim moonlight, he could tell the bullet had gone deep into his brother’s body. A jagged hole, dark with blood, showed where the bullet had torn Joe’s shoulder near the collar bone. Hoss pulled a white handkerchief out of his back pocket. He left the cloth folded in a thick square as he picked up the canteen and soaked the handkerchief with water. Joe moaned as Hoss pressed the wet cloth against the wound.

“This will help some,” advised Hoss as began pulling Joe’s shirt together tightly to hold the make-shift bandage in place. “It should do until we can get up on the ridge to meet Pa and Adam. We’ll decide what to do then.”

As Hoss buttoned his shirt, Joe looked at his brother curiously. He was trying to pay attention to Hoss, while attempting to ignore the sickening pain from both his shoulder and his ankle. “Meet Pa?” repeated Joe in a soft voice. “What’s he doing up here?”

“He and Adam and me been looking for you,” explained Hoss as he finished buttoning Joe’s shirt. “We figured we could cover more ground if we separated.”

Shaking his head, Joe tried to think clearly. “How…how did you know to come looking for us?” he asked.

“Mr. McClain showed up at the ranch,” Hoss answered. “He was shot up pretty bad. While the doc worked on him, Adam and I rode over to the McClain place. We saw how tore up it was, and found the McClain’s hand dead. But we couldn’t find any sign of you and Carrie. So we figured whoever done this had taken you with them. It took awhile for Mr. McClain to come around enough to tell us what happened.” Hoss looked away, the memory of McClain’s description of his uncle as the leader of the raiders still painful. “He told us Uncle Gunnar was with them. So Pa, Adam and I decided to follow the trail to see what we could find. We figured the three of us would be better than a big posse. No telling what could have happened if a posse met up with those Commancheros, and we didn’t want you and Carrie caught in the middle.”

Suddenly, Carrie reached out and grabbed Hoss’ arm. For the first time, her face showed hope rather than despair. “Hoss?” she said in a trembling voice. “Uncle Abe is still alive?”

“Yes ma’am,” asserted Hoss with a nod. “He’s hurt pretty bad, but the doc thinks he’s going to make it.”

“Oh, Joe,” Carrie cried with joy as she turned back to Joe. She gave him a quick hug. “Did you hear? Uncle Abe is alive. He’s alive!”

“I heard,” replied Joe, giving Carrie a small smile. “I’m glad, real glad for you.”

“I thought for sure he was dead,” Carrie went on, tears forming in her eyes. “I thought those awful men had killed him.” Suddenly realizing that Hoss’ uncle was one of those ‘awful men’, Carrie looked down. “I’m sorry, Hoss. I didn’t mean…”

“It’s all right,” Hoss quickly interrupted. He moved a bit and started feeling Joe’s ankle. “Do you think it’s broken, Joe?”

“I don’t think so,” answered Joe as he leaned back against the rocks. “It doesn’t feel like it.”

“Well, it’s best if we just leave your boot on,” advised Hoss. “If I take it off, that ankle is liable to swell up. The boot will help keep the swelling down.”

Nodding his agreement, Joe closed his eyes. The burning pain from his shoulder seemed to be intensifying, and he was feeling weak. His head was beginning to ache and his stomach seemed to be churning. Joe swallowed hard, trying to keep the bile in his throat from rising. He winced as another wave of pain shook him.

Seeing Joe’s eye squinting with pain, Hoss decided it was time to get his brother on the horse. He wanted to get Joe up on the ridge, where his Pa could decide what to do next. Hoss felt sure his father would know best how to get Joe home. Besides, Hoss felt they were still uncomfortably close to the outlaws’ camp.

“Joe, it’s time to go,” stated Hoss. “You’re going to have to sit that horse. I know you’re hurting, but you have to hang on. Once we meet up with Pa and Adam, we’ll figure a way to get you home.”

Opening his eyes, Joe looked at Hoss. “I don’t know…if I can get on,” admitted Joe in a feeble voice.

“I’ll get you on,” Hoss said confidently.

Once more, Hoss reached down and grabbed Joe under the arms, and once more he pulled his brother to his feet. Joe moaned at the movement, but tried to stand. He leaned heavily against Hoss but stayed on his feet.

This time, Hoss didn’t ask for Carrie’s help. He simply put Joe’s arm around his shoulders and dragged Joe the few feet to his horse.

“Grab the saddle horn,” Hoss instructed his brother as they stood next to the patiently waiting Chubb. “And bend your left leg a little.”

Following Hoss’ orders, Joe reached up with his left hand and gripped the saddle horn as tightly as he could. He lifted his leg and bent it at the knee. Almost immediately, he felt two large hands on his shin. Joe felt himself being pushed up to the saddle. By instinct, he threw his right leg over the saddle; he landed on the leather seat with a soft plop.

Carrie had come up behind Hoss, and now he turned to the girl. “I’ll help you up behind Joe,” Hoss said.

“It’s all right,” replied Carrie. “I can walk, Hoss.”

“No, I want you up behind Joe,” insisted Hoss. He looked to Joe, who was leaning forward in the saddle and weaving slightly. Joe’s left hand still gripped the saddle horn, but his right arm hung uselessly at his side. Joe’s legs were resting loosely against the sides of the big horse.

Hoss turned back to Carrie and looked at her, his eyes sending a message. “I want you to get up behind Joe,” he said again. “You hold on to him real tight. You understand, Carrie? Real tight.”

Nodding, Carrie answered, “I understand, Hoss.”

Grabbing Carrie around the waist, Hoss lifted her up onto the back of the horse. Carrie sat astride the rump of the animal, just behind the saddle. Her dress was pulled up a bit, showing her ankle and part of her leg. Under other circumstances, such a position would have been considered scandalous. But neither Hoss nor Carrie cared about such trivial matters now. Carrie reached forward and put her arms firmly around Joe’s waist.

“All set?” asked Hoss. When Carrie nodded her agreement, he started to grab the reins. Suddenly, Hoss remembered the canteen. He dropped the reins and walked back quickly to the rocks. Snatching the canteen from the ground, he hurried back to the horse. “Joe, lift your hand a minute,” Hoss ordered as he returned to the side of the stallion.

Joe looked at Hoss with dull eyes. The pain in his ankle was getting worse, not helped by the fact that his foot was simply dangling in the air. His shoulder ached and burned. He heard Hoss but he couldn’t seem to do what his brother wanted.

“Lift your hand,” repeated Hoss as he grabbed Joe’s wrist and pulled at it. Joe released the saddle horn as Hoss pulled his hand away. Hoss looped the strap of the canteen over the horn and then replaced Joe’s hand on the hard mound of leather. “You hold on, Joe,” Hoss told his brother in a firm voice. “I’ll walk Chubb slow.” Joe’s answer was a small nod, a barely visible bob of his head.

Hoss picked up the reins and pulled gently on them. “C’mon, boy,” he said softly to the horse, “Nice and easy, now”. The animal started forward at a slow walk.

The moonlight filtered through the trees, lighting the ground just enough for Hoss to see. He walked slowly, leading the horse from one mottled patch of light to another. Hoss resisted the temptation to walk faster. He knew each step brought them closer to the ridge they had to cross in order to reach the Ponderosa, and further away from the outlaw camp. He wanted to hurry for both reasons. But he knew the slow walk over the uneven ground was what he had to do. He couldn’t take a chance that a faster gait would jar Joe on the horse, or even cause the animal to stumble in the dark.

The three people moved in silence through the woods, each lost in their own thoughts. Hoss’ mind drifted to his uncle and he began to wonder what had brought the man to lead such a rebellious life. He wished Gunnar Borgstrom had never come to the Ponderosa. Then he would still have the idealized picture of his uncle, and he wouldn’t be worrying about his younger brother.

But even as the wish crossed his mind, Hoss knew that meeting Gunnar had been important to him. Despite its tragic outcome, the meeting had ended a curiosity about the man that Hoss would have always had.

Carrie’s thoughts were much simpler. She wanted only to feel safe again, to be able to see her uncle and Joe well, and to put her life back in order. She wondered if any of those things would ever happen.

For Joe, thoughts were hard to come by. The pain and misery he was feeling drove almost everything from his mind. He gritted his teeth and concentrated on staying in the saddle.

After what seemed a long time, Hoss began to lead the horse out of the woods and on to a trail that sloped upwards. Now that they were away from the trees, the light was brighter and the ground easier to see. Hoss glanced back at the horse, and saw that Joe was slumped even lower in the saddle than before. Carrie was hanging on to him with grim determination. Hoss studied the trail before them and decided he could walk faster. The moonlight lit the trail and the ground was smooth. The sooner he could get to the ridge, the better Hoss would feel.

Pulling on the reins, Hoss began to walk faster. He followed the ridge trail easily, and reached the top with almost surprising speed. After the slow progress through the woods, the walk up the trail felt almost like a run.

As the trio reached the top of the ridge, Hoss looked around. He couldn’t see any other riders, which didn’t surprise him. Although the Cartwrights had promised to meet each other in an hour, Hoss knew his Pa and Adam would continue their fruitless search for the outlaw camp for longer than that. Neither one of them would have wanted to give up without making sure the camp wasn’t in their area.

Seeing a patch of ground brightly lit by the moonlight, Hoss led the horse over toward it. Some scraggly bushes and a few trees surrounded the lighted area. Hoss led the horse through the bushes and stopped it next to a tree.

“We can rest here for a bit,” announced Hoss, turning back to the riders behind him.

Joe didn’t answer. He simply sat slumped on the horse.

Reaching up, Hoss pulled Joe off the horse. He didn’t bother to try to help his brother to walk. Hoss put his arms under Joe’s shoulders and legs and carried his brother to the tree. He laid Joe gently on the ground, resting his back against the tree. Carrie slid off the horse and walked over to the Cartwright brothers; she softly plopped onto the ground next to Joe, holding the canteen firmly in her hands.

“Hoss,” said Carrie in a tentative voice. She glanced at the barely conscious man sitting beside her before continuing. “He’s getting worse.”

“I know, Carrie,” answered Hoss grimly. “Pa and Adam ought to be here soon. We’ll figure out what to do then.” He took the canteen from Carrie, and uncorking it, brought it to Joe’s lips. Joe’s mouth worked slightly, and Hoss slowly poured some water into his brother. This time, Joe drank only a little before he pulled his head away. Hoss offered the canteen to Carrie, who took a small drink. As he corked the canteen, Hoss looked around. The only sounds he heard were the crickets chirping in the night. “Hurry up, Pa,” Hoss pleaded in a soft voice as his eyes searched the empty land.

*****

Hoss didn’t see the two riders coming up the ridge from opposite sides. Neither man could make out the identity of the rider coming at him in the shadows, and both had their hands on their guns as they rode toward each other. Each thought he knew who the other rider was, but kept his hand on his gun – just in case.

When Ben and Adam Cartwright got close enough to recognize each other, they both relaxed.

“Did you find anything?” asked Ben anxiously.

“No,” answered Adam with a shake of his head. “Did you?”

“No,” admitted Ben. He looked around. “Maybe Hoss found something. Do you see him?”

Adam saw a horse standing in the distance; the bushes around the animal hid the people on the ground beside it. “That looks like Chub,” replied Adam, pointing to the horse. He turned his mount and started to ride toward the animal in the distance. Ben kicked his horse lightly and followed his oldest son.

Hoss’ horse smelled the other animals and snorted softly. Hoss had been kneeling next to Joe, but he stood quickly when he heard Chub’s grunt. He pulled his gun and looked into the night. He could see the silhouettes of two riders coming toward him.

“Stay here with Joe,” Hoss ordered Carrie. He started moving toward the bushes before the girl had a chance to reply. Hoss crouched behind the shrubs, gun ready, waiting for the riders to come closer.

Neither Ben nor Adam saw Hoss until the big man stood up from behind the bushes. Both reined their horses quickly to a stop as they recognized the familiar figure.

“Hoss!” cried Ben in both surprise and relief. “Did you find anything?”

“I found ‘em, Pa,” answered Hoss as he holstered his gun.

“Where are they?” asked Adam anxiously.

“Joe and Carrie are over there,” confirmed Hoss, tilting his head toward the tree.

“I thought we had agreed that we would wait until we all figured out how to free them,” said Ben with a slight frown.

“I didn’t do anything,” explained Hoss. “Joe and Carrie got free on their own. Well, actually, with a little help from Uncle Gunnar.” Hoss winced at the thought of his uncle. “Uncle Gunnar is dead,” continued Hoss. “One of his own men shot him.”

Ben looked down for a moment, his thoughts on his wayward brother-in-law. Then he looked up at Hoss. “Are Joe and Carrie all right?”

“Carrie is fine, but Joe’s been shot,” answered Hoss. His face grew grim. “He’s hurt pretty bad.”

Instantly, Adam and Ben slid from their horses. They both rushed through the bushes, with Hoss following slowly behind. A knot of fear formed in Ben’s stomach as he moved through the undergrowth, and that knot seemed to grow when he saw the figure sitting on the ground in front of him.

Joe was slumped against the tree, eyes closed and breathing hard. The bloodstain on his shirt was rusty brown, and seemed to cover most of the right side of the cloth. The sweat covered his face and neck with a fine sheen.

Carrie sat next to Joe, stroking his arm with a comforting gesture. She looked up in alarm at the sound of the men coming through the brush, then smiled with relief as she recognized the Cartwrights.

Moving closer to his son, Ben wasn’t sure which emotion was growing fastest in him – worry about his youngest son or anger at the men who had tried to kill him. He stopped near Joe, and took a deep breath, trying to bring his emotions under control. Letting the worry and anger erupt wouldn’t help Joe.

Hearing the footsteps behind him, Ben glanced over his shoulder. “Who did this?” he asked in a voice soft as the night wind but twice as cold. “Gunnar?”

“No,” replied Hoss, shaking his head. “One of them Commancheros. Uncle Gunnar, he helped Joe and Carrie get away, like I said.” Hoss looked down for a moment, not willing to talk about how he had falsely accused his uncle of the shooting. “Uncle Gunnar got killed saving all of us.”

Ben nodded his understanding, unwilling to spend any more time thinking about his brother-in-law right now. He had other concerns, and they centered around his youngest son. Ben took another step toward the tree, and knelt next to Joe.

Putting his hand on his son’s head, Ben stroked it gently. “Joe!” said Ben softly but with a sense of urgency. “Joe, can you hear me?”

The sound of the familiar voice rallied Joe. He opened his eyes and looked up. “Hi, Pa,” he replied in a barely audible voice.

“Hi, yourself,” returned Ben, forcing his face to show a smile he didn’t feel. “How are you doing?”

“I’m all right,” answered Joe. A brief smile also crossed Joe’s face. “I guess…you just can’t…let me go…anywhere on my own.” Joe’s words were slow and his voice was thick. He winced as he finished speaking.

“Everything is going to be all right, son,” Ben said soothingly. “We’ll get you home and you’ll be just fine.” Ben looked over his shoulder to where Hoss and Adam were standing. “How bad is it?” Ben asked softly.

“He’s got a bullet in his shoulder,” explained Hoss. “It’s in there real deep. He hurt his ankle, too.”

Nodding, Ben turned back to Joe. Joe’s eyes were closed again, and his breathing was labored. Ben could see the pain etched on his youngest son’s face. Pulling open Joe’s shirt, Ben could see the now bloody cloth covering the wound. He lifted the cloth a bit and winced at the jagged hole in Joe’s shoulder. The bleeding had slowed to a trickle, but the absence of blood only made the wound look more painful and ugly. Ben knew the bullet was a long way from Joe’s heart and had probably missed the lung, but that didn’t keep the knot in his stomach from tightening. He had seen enough bullet wounds in his life to know that infection, shock and loss of blood were the potentially lethal consequences of any such wound. Ben quickly replaced the cloth and pulled Joe’s shirt closed. His son’s only reaction was a soft grunt.

Turning back to Adam and Hoss, Ben began giving orders. “Hoss, go get my horse. Adam, you ride back to the ranch. Send one of the men into town for the doctor and have him wait for us at the Ponderosa. Then get a wagon. Load it up with mattresses, blankets, everything we’ll need. By the time you get back, we’ll have worked our way down off the ridge. We’ll meet you in the meadow near Fulton’s Creek.” Adam and Hoss both nodded and hurried off into the night.

Once more, Ben turned back to Joe and began to stroke his head. “Hang on, Joe,” he said softly. “We’ll have you home soon.” He couldn’t tell if Joe heard him.

Looking past Joe, Ben gazed at Carrie. “Are you all right?” he asked the girl.

Carrie felt exhausted. Her arms ached from holding Joe, and the ordeal seemed to have drained her energy. But she gave Ben a brave smile.  I’m all right,” she replied in a weary voice. She stared at Ben for a minute, then added, “Hoss said Uncle Abe was still alive. Is that true?”

“It’s true,” answered Ben. “He’s hurt pretty bad, but the doctor thinks he’ll be all right. He’ll need a lot of care, though.”

“I’ll take care of him,” declared Carrie. She looked away. “He’s done so much for me, taking me in after my folks died.” She looked back at Ben, her face determined. “I’ll make sure he gets better.”

“I’m sure you will,” agreed Ben. He reached over and gave Carrie’s arm a soft squeeze.

The sound of movement behind him made Ben turn back toward the bushes. Hoss was leading his father’s buckskin horse toward the tree.

“Help me get Joe on my horse,” Ben said to Hoss. “Carrie can ride with you.”

Dropping the reins from his hand, Hoss walked over to the tree. Carrie stood and backed away, giving Hoss some room. Putting their arms behind Joe’s shoulders and knees, Ben and Hoss lifted Joe from the ground and carried him the few feet to Ben’s horse. The two men literally dumped Joe onto the saddle. Ben quickly climbed up behind his son and pulled Joe back against him. Hoss handed the reins up to Ben.

“Carrie, you ride with me,” said Hoss to the girl standing by the tree. Carrie nodded and walked over to Hoss’ horse. She grabbed the saddle horn and began to climb into the saddle. Hoss put his hands around her waist and helped Carrie into the saddle, then climbed up behind her. For a minute, Carrie sat stiffly on the seat in front of Hoss, her back straight. But her fatigue was greater than her sense of propriety. Carrie leaned back and rested against Hoss’ broad chest. For the first time since the raid, Carrie felt safe and protected.

The two horses began to move through the night, their gait no faster than a walk. Both horses were slowed by darkness in front of them as well as by the fact that each carried two riders. On top of each animal, a rider sat almost rigidly erect behind the saddle while the figure in front slumped against him.

Leaning against Hoss, Carrie’s eyes were fluttering closed. She quickly was losing her feeble fight to keep the sleep away. Hoss’ massive arms were stretched on either side of her, forming a fleshy railing that would keep her from falling out of the saddle.

Slumped against his father, Joe’s eyes were already closed. Ben’s right arm was extended a bit, holding the reins. But Ben’s left arm was wrapped tightly around the middle of his son. The grip was only partially intended to hold Joe in the saddle. Ben needed to feel the steady movement of his son’s breathing as a continual assurance that Joe was alive.

The riders let the horses pick their own way through the night, only guiding the horses to be sure that they were moving in the right direction — down the ridge and toward the meadow. Both Ben and Hoss knew their mounts well enough to be confident the animals would find the safest and easiest trail. They were more concerned about the young people resting against them.

After what seemed like hours, the ground in front of the riders started to flatten. The bright moon shone on the meadow, bathing it with a dim light.

Ben frowned as he peered at the grass flatland. As far as he could see, there was no one there. No Adam, no wagon, and no help for his injured son.

The sound of harness jingling and a distant voice broke the stillness of the night. A dark shape was moving rapidly toward the riders from the far end of the meadow. Ben smiled wryly, telling himself that he should of known better than to doubt his oldest son. He kicked his horse lightly, urging the animal to a faster pace.

“I got here as fast as I could, Pa,” called Adam from the driver’s seat when the riders and wagon finally met and stopped in the meadow.

“I know you did,” answered Ben with a nod.

“How’s Joe doing?” asked Adam anxiously.

Ben glanced at his youngest son. Joe was leaning against Ben, his head tilted back a bit as it rested on Ben’s shoulder. Joe’s eyes were still closed, and his breathing, though steady, was labored. The sheen of sweat on Joe’s face and neck seemed to glisten in the moonlight, and Ben could feel the heat of fever from his son’s body. “Not too good,” admitted Ben without looking at Adam. Ben pushed a stray lock of hair from Joe’s forehead.

“I sent Pete into town to get the doctor,” said Adam. “I told him to find the deputy, too, and tell him what happened.” Adam shook his head briefly. “I wish Roy Coffee were around. But at least the deputy can organize a posse. Pete is supposed to tell them to stop by the house first, so Hoss can tell them where to look.”

“I’ll show them,” declared Hoss from his horse. He looked down for a minute then back to Adam. “I want to bring Uncle Gunnar back to the Ponderosa.”

Maybe it was the voices around him, or perhaps it was that the horses had stopped. But for whatever reason, Joe shifted his weight and seemed to be trying to wake. Ben felt the movement and knew even that slight action caused Joe pain. He saw the twitch in Joe’s face and heard the soft moan.

“Adam, help me get Joe into the wagon,” ordered Ben abruptly.

Jumping down from the wagon, Adam moved next to Ben’s horse and lifted his arms toward his brother. Ben gently slid Joe to his left and into Adam’s arms. As Adam pulled Joe from the horse, Ben quickly dismounted. Joe’s feet had barely brushed the ground before Ben picked them up.

Hoss sat watching Adam and Ben carrying Joe to the wagon for a minute. Then he put a hand on Carrie’s shoulder. He shook the girl a bit and said quietly, “Carrie, come on, honey. Time to wake up.”

Obeying Hoss, Carrie began to sway a bit. She yawned and blinked her eyes, then looked around as if confused about where she was. Carrie’s body suddenly stiffened as the memory of why she was sitting on a horse in the middle of the night came flooding back.

“Adam’s got the wagon here,” Hoss reassured the girl. “I thought you’d be more comfortable sitting in the seat with him than on my horse.”

“Thank you, Hoss,” acknowledged Carrie in a small voice. Hoss wasn’t sure if she was thanking him for the ride or for the chance to move to the wagon, but he decided it didn’t matter. He held Carrie’s arm to steady her as she swung her leg over the saddle and slid to the ground.

Following Carrie’s example, Hoss also dismounted. He saw the girl walk to the wagon, then stop as she came to the side of it. He hurried to stand next to Carrie and looked into the wagon also.

Inside the wagon, Joe was laying on top of a thin mattress, his head resting on a pillow. Ben had already pulled Joe’s shirt open and he was removing the bloody cloth that had covered Joe’s wound. Ben’s fingers probed the area around the bullet hole as gently as possible but still Joe grunted and moaned.

“That bullet is in there deep, very deep,” stated Ben with a frown as he looked over his shoulder toward Adam. Adam was standing at the end of the wagon, unfolding a blanket.

“Joe was jumping at the man when he shot,” explained Carrie from the side of the wagon. “I saw it,” she finished in a trembling voice.

“If Joe was coming toward the man as he fired, the bullet would bury itself deep in his shoulder,” observed Adam. “Did it break any bones?”

“I don’t think so,” replied Ben as he continued to feel Joe’s collarbone and shoulder. “I think it hit the fleshy part of his shoulder.” Ben’s probing caused a new trickle of blood to seep from the wound. He quickly reached and grabbed a white cloth from a small pile of bandages near the pillow. Putting the cloth over the wound, Ben pressed down, trying to stop the bleeding. Joe moaned a bit louder.

“Let’s get him home,” said Ben quickly. He turned and grabbed the blanket that Adam was handing into the wagon. As Ben covered Joe with the blanket, Adam hurried toward the driver’s seat of the wagon. Carrie climbed into the seat next to Adam while Hoss turned back toward the horses.

Almost two hours passed before Adam guided the wagon into the yard in front of the Ponderosa ranch house. He had driven slowly, not wanting to cause his injured brother any more discomfort by bouncing him round in the wagon. Carrie was sitting in the seat next to Adam, her chin on her chest, dozing again.

The warmth of the blanket and liberal doses of water from the canteen had revived Joe. During the journey home, Joe had told the story of the raid, their capture, escape and Gunnar’s death. Carrie had added some bits to the story, calling over her shoulder from the wagon seat. Ben’s hands clenched into a fist as he heard Carrie relate the rough treatment the outlaws had given Joe.

As he drove the wagon, Adam had listened, and then wondered about Gunnar. Hoss’ uncle had been a complex man, Adam decided. He had been warm and friendly at the Ponderosa, then led the raid on the McClain ranch without a second thought. Gunnar had killed without remorse, but given his life to save Hoss, Joe, and Carrie. Adam shook his head as he pondered the oddities of human nature.

Riding in the back with Joe, Ben couldn’t remember when he was so glad to be home. He had listened to Joe’s story, told in starts and stops. As the ride continued, there were more stops than starts. Joe’s comments had become increasing incoherent, and in the last mile, had deteriorated into meaningless mumbles. Ben could tell his son’s fever was going up, and the pain was getting worse. And there was so little Ben could do for his son until they got him home.

As Hoss trailed the wagon, riding his horse and leading his father’s, his face was grim. He was beginning to feel guilty about what had happened to Joe and the McClains, somehow feeling he had been the cause of all this misery. Hoss wasn’t quite able to work out exactly how it had been his fault. But he knew that his Uncle Gunnar had come to the Ponderosa to see him, and the fact that he had welcomed and encouraged Gunnar somehow made the tragedy of the raid his doing.

Adam pulled hard on the reins as the wagon neared the front the house, wincing as it bounced to a stop. He hadn’t meant to bring the wagon to a halt quite that abruptly. The jolt wakened Carrie. She looked up and saw the house in front of her. Like a bolt of lightning, she jumped from the wagon and ran to the house.

Inside the house, a young ranch hand named Jim was sitting in the red leather chair by the fireplace, keeping an eye on the sleeping figure on the sofa. He looked up as the front door was flung open with a crash, and was startled to see the figure of a girl racing across the room. The girl ran to the sofa then stopped. She looked at the sleeping figure almost as if she were seeing a ghost. “How is he?” she asked without looking up.

“About the same, I guess,” answered Jim. “He’s been sleeping the whole time.”

Nodding, Carrie eased herself down on the edge of the sofa. “Uncle Abe?” she said softly. The man on the sofa laid still. Carrie couldn’t contain herself any longer. She threw her arms around the man’s neck and cried out, “Uncle Abe!” Then she began weeping.

The man on the sofa stirred, then moaned softly. Carrie immediately sat back, horrified that she may have caused her uncle harm. Abe McClain grunted, then opened his eyes. He looked at the girl and a small smile crossed his face. “Carrie,” he whispered. He reached out his hand slowly and patted her arm.

Watching the scene on the sofa, Jim didn’t see the other men coming toward the house until they entered the room. His eyes widened in surprise as he saw the three older Cartwrights carrying Joe into the house. Joe was on a blanket, his shirt stained with blood and his hair matted with sweat. Adam had a firm grip on the bottom of the blanket while Hoss held the top. Ben supported his son in the middle.

“Where’s the doctor?” demanded Ben as the men moved with Joe across the room.

“He’s…he’s not here,” answered Jim in a nervous voice. “Pete rode in a little while ago and said the doc was out on a call. He said to tell you he was going to try to find him.”

“Go put some water on to boil,” ordered Ben as the Cartwrights started up the stairs. “And be quick about it.”

“Yes sir,” answered Jim. He watched for a minute as the Cartwrights disappeared up the stairs, then turned to the sofa. The girl and the man on the couch were simply sitting there, holding hands and looking at each other. They seemed oblivious to what going on around them. Shaking his head in confusion, Jim walked toward the kitchen. He couldn’t quite figure out what had happened but he knew now wasn’t the time to ask questions.

Upstairs, Ben flung back the covers from Joe’s bed, then stood aside as Adam and Hoss placed Joe softly on the mattress. Adam pulled the blanket from underneath Joe, then turned to his father expectantly.

Bending over Joe, Ben put his hand lightly on Joe’s forehead. Frowning, Ben pulled Joe’s shirt open, and lifted the cloth. As he looked at the bullet wound in his youngest son, Ben’s frown deepened. “Adam, go down and get the medical kit. Bring up some hot water, too. And a sharp knife.”

“What are you going to do?” asked Adam, somewhat alarmed.

“I’m gong to get that bullet out,” answered Ben grimly.

“Don’t you think you ought to wait for the doc?” suggested Hoss, who stood at the end of Joe’s bed.

Shaking his head, Ben said, “No. That wound is starting to look bad, and his fever is going up. There’s no telling when the doctor is going to get here. The longer we wait, the worse Joe is going to get. I’m going to try to get that bullet out now.”

Biting his lip, Adam looked at the figure on the bed. Joe was moving restlessly on the sheets, obviously in pain. His face was pale and the sweat covering his face seemed thicker. Adam took a deep breath. “I’ll get the bag and the water.” He turned and hurried out of the room.

“Hoss, get his boots off,” ordered Ben as he started to unbutton Joe’s shirt. “Check his ankle and see if you can tell how bad it is.”

With a quick nod, Hoss reached down and tugged off Joe’s right boot and sock, dropping them to the floor. He grasped the heel of left boot and pulled that one slowly, trying to ease it off rather than yanking it as he had the right one. Despite his efforts to be gentle, Hoss could hear Joe groaning as he removed the leather covering.

Hoss could see Joe’s ankle was swollen a bit. The boot had restricted how much the tissue in the ankle could swell, but Hoss knew it wouldn’t take long for the ankle to balloon now that the boot was gone. Hoss began to roll down the sock covering Joe’s ankle and foot.

The skin around the ankle had turned a deep purple streaked with red. Hoss felt the joint, probing his fingers into the swollen tissue and feeling the bones.

Joe groaned a bit louder.

“I don’t think his ankle is broken,” declared Hoss as he felt the lower part of his brother’s leg. “I can’t feel no bones out of place. But it looks like he sprained it pretty good. ”

Near the top of the bed, Ben stood with Joe’s bloody shirt in his hands, having removed the cloth from his son. He dropped the shirt into a heap on the floor, then turned to Hoss. “When Adam gets back up here, wrap the ankle with some bandages from the medical kit. Better go get a pillow to prop it up on, too.”

Hoss nodded and left the room. Ben turned back to the bed, and slowly began to finish undressing his son.

As Adam descended the stairs, he stopped for a moment on the landing. He saw Carrie sitting on the edge of the sofa, still holding her uncle’s hand. Shaking his head, Adam realized that they had forgotten about the McClains almost as soon as they had begun carrying Joe toward the house. He walked down the remaining steps and over to the sofa. “Carrie,” he said in a quiet voice. “Why don’t you get some rest. You’ve been through a lot today.”

“I’m all right,” answered Carrie, not looking at Adam.

“He’s right,” rasped Abe McClain from the sofa. “You look tired.” McClain’s voice was weak, and the few words seemed to sap his strength.

“Your uncle needs some rest, too,” added Adam.

“I don’t want to leave him,” insisted Carrie stubbornly.

“The doctor is on his way back, and Jim will keep an eye on him,” replied Adam in a practical tone of voice. He put his hand lightly on Carrie’s shoulder. “We’ve got enough on our hands right now without you collapsing on us.”

Carrie looked over her shoulder at Adam. Her eyes were red from crying, and had deep circles around them from fatigue. The thought of sleep and the escape it would bring from her memories of the day seemed suddenly appealing. “All right,” she agreed. “But you wake me if…when the doctor gets here.”

“We’ll wake you if we need you,” agreed Adam.

Getting slowly to her feet, Carrie looked down at her uncle. “What about Uncle Abe? Shouldn’t we put him to bed?”

“The doctor said it would be best if we didn’t move him until morning,” explained Adam. “He’ll be comfortable enough on the sofa.”

“You go on, Carrie,” whispered McClain from the sofa.

Nodding, Carrie looked at Adam. “Where…where should I go?” she asked hesitantly.

Frowning, Adam thought for a minute. He knew that the scene in Joe’s bedroom could get grim, and he decided Carrie didn’t need to hear what might come out of that room. “We’ve got a spare bedroom over here,” said Adam, guiding Carrie by the arm away from the sofa. He pushed open the door to a room between the living room and dining room.

The bedroom was furnished with a neatly made bed, table, lamp and other necessities. Adam didn’t think it wise to tell Carrie that Gunnar Borgstrom had been the last person to use this room. Carrie walked across the room and sat on the bed, her shoulders slumped with fatigue.

“Jim will be right out here,” Adam assured the girl as he stood in the doorway. “Just call if you need anything.” He pulled the door closed behind him as he left the room.

Taking a deep breath, Adam hurried to the kitchen, his mind already moving to the unpleasant task that was going to happen next.

Just inside the doorway of the kitchen was a tall cupboard. Adam pulled it open and reached to a high shelf. A small wooden box sat on the shelf, surrounded by several jars filled with dried leaves and grounded herbs. Hop Sing’s apothecary, thought Adam as he pulled the box off the shelf. He wished the cook was back from visiting his cousin in Sacramento. He had a feeling there were some things in those jars which would help Joe. Unfortunately, Hop Sing kept the secrets about the herbs to himself.

Box in hand, Adam turned toward the main part of the kitchen. He saw Jim, the young hand, standing near the stove watching him. The man had an uncertain look on his face, as if he weren’t sure he should be there.

“I put the water on,” advised Jim, cocking his head toward the stove. A kettle was sitting on a burner, and a light steam was visible from the spout. “I wasn’t sure how much you needed.”

“That should do,” replied Adam, as he put the medical kit on the table. He looked around the kitchen and saw a shallow pan hanging on the wall near the fireplace. Adam pulled the pan off the wall and sat it on the table next to the box. Taking a deep breath, Adam walked over to a counter that had several drawers underneath it. Pulling open one of the top drawers, Adam began sorting through the knives lying inside.

“What are you looking for?” asked Jim.

“Joe’s got a bullet in him,” answered Adam in a grim voice. “We’ve got to get it out.”

“Ain’t you going to wait for the doc?” asked Jim, his eyes widening in surprise.

“Can’t,” replied Adam briefly. He selected two knives, then turned to the cowboy. “Do me a favor and fill that pan with the hot water.” As Jim turned to the stove, Adam pulled open another drawer. This one was filled with clean towels. Adam grabbed a handful.

Jim was filling the pan with the hot water as Adam turned back toward the table. Steam was rising from the water, indicating the heat of the liquid. Adam dropped the knives into the water.

“Anything I can do to help?” asked Jim as he put the kettle back on the stove.

Nodding, Adam said, “Yes. Take the medical box up to Joe’s room. Top of the stairs, at the end of the hall. Tell Pa that I’ll be up in a minute with the water.”

Without a word, Jim grabbed the box and hurried out of the room.

Looking around the kitchen, Adam tried to think if there were anything else they might need. He knew he was just delaying going upstairs. Although he knew getting that bullet out of Joe was necessary, it was something that Adam didn’t relish watching. And he knew it was a task that was going to be twice as hard for his father to actually do.

Sighing, Adam divided the cloths in two stacks and picked them up. Using the cloths to hold the sides of the pan, Adam started slowly from the kitchen.

Jim was coming down the stairs as Adam neared them.

“Your Pa says to tell you to hurry with the water,” said Jim. He looked down. “Joe don’t look so good.”

“Stay with Mr. McClain,” ordered Adam, ignoring Jim’s comment. He walked past the ranch hand and went slowly up the stairs, careful not to spill any of the water as he climbed to the top.

Outside Joe’s room, Adam stopped for a moment and looked in. Joe was lying on the bed, with covers pulled up to his chest. His left leg protruded from the covers and rested on a large pillow. Hoss was wrapping some white bandages around Joe’s ankle while Ben was sitting on the edge of the bed, wiping Joe’s face and neck with a cloth. Adam couldn’t see Joe’s face clearly.

Adam watched the activity in the room for a few seconds more, then walked in. “Here’s the water, Pa,” he announced as he approached the bed.

“Put it on the table,” answered Ben as he continued to blot Joe’s face. Adam did as instructed, then turned to the bed. He could see Joe’s eyes were open, and that his brother’s jaws were clenched as Joe tried to stoically endure the pain.

“Any sign of the doctor?” asked Ben softly. He knew the answer but needed to be told that what he planned to do was absolutely necessary.

“Not yet,” replied Adam. “Are you sure you don’t want to wait?”

“I want to, but I can’t,” admitted Ben. He put the cloth aside and gently placed his hand on Joe’s jaw, turning his son’s head toward him. “Joe, listen to me,” said Ben. “We have to get that bullet out. We can’t wait for the doctor. Do you understand?”

Two hazel eyes stared back at Ben for a long minute. Then Joe nodded slowly. “Yes,” he whispered.

Joe closed his eyes, both gathering and praying for strength. When he opened them, he tried to convey the trust he felt to his father. “Let’s get it over with,” he told Ben in a barely audible voice.

Giving Joe a reassuring smile, Ben stroked his son’s arm. Then he turned to Adam. “There’s some laudanum in the medicine box. I want to give Joe a dose.”

Adam turned to the open box on the table near the pan of water. He could see two tightly wrapped rolls of bandages and a space where a third must of have been. A large wad of cotton filled in the rest of the box. What looked like a small scissors and the handle of a spoon jutted out from under the cotton and were visible in the empty space. On the inside lid of the box were several small vials, held in place tightly by a leather strap. Almost all the vials were clear, and held various amounts of clear or dark liquid. The last bottle had a familiar blue tint and looked about three quarters full.

Adam had forgotten what was in the medicine box, if he ever knew. Thankfully, it was not something that he had had to use very often. He realized that he shouldn’t have been surprised that Hop Sing and his father kept the box prepared.

Pulling the blue vial and spoon out of the box, Adam turned back to his father. “How much should I give him?”

Ben hesitated before answering. He had to get the dose right. Too little and the laudanum wouldn’t dull the pain enough. Too much and the medicine would stop his son’s heart. Ben looked at the pale figure on the bed and decided to err on the side of caution. “About half a spoonful,” he replied.

As Adam opened the vial behind him, Ben turned Joe’s face toward him once more. He pushed the hair gently from Joe’s forehead. “Joe, we’re going to give you some laudanum,” said Ben in what he hoped was a normal voice. “It’s going to make you sleepy. Don’t try to fight it. Just go to sleep. When you wake up, the bullet will be out and you’ll feel much better.” Ben hoped the words he spoke with such confidence to his son would actually be true.

Once more, Joe tried to convey his trust in his father with his eyes. He nodded his head, and obediently opened his mouth as Adam leaned forward with a spoon. Joe took the liquid from the spoon into his mouth, then immediately made a face as he tasted and swallowed the bitter medicine. Adam and Ben laughed a bit at the face Joe made.

“Let’s give it a minute to work,” Ben advised softly. He stood and walked over to the pan of water. He could see the two knives in the bottom of the water, and shuddered just a bit as he thought about what he had to do with them. Ben put his hands into the water, both to gather the knives and to clean his hands. The water had cooled but was still very warm. Ben sloshed the water over his hands and wrists, then pulled them out. In one hand, he held two knives. He picked up one of the towels sitting next to the pan and began drying the both the knives and his hands.

As Ben dried his hands, his thoughts strayed to Gunnar Borgstrom, and he could feel his anger and resentment toward the man building again. Because of Gunnar, Ben was going to have to cut into his own son, a prospect that made Ben feel almost physically ill. He thought briefly of Inger, Hoss’ mother and Gunnar’s sister. He knew how Gunnar had worried Inger. As a boy and young man, Gunnar had been irresponsible, caring only for his own needs. He had almost wrecked the growing love that Inger and Ben had felt for each other. Even after Ben had married Inger and taken her West, he knew she continued to worry about her brother. She was anxious that Gunnar would become even more undisciplined and unruly without her steadying hand to guide and control him. Unfortunately, it seemed Inger had been right.

When Gunnar had showed up at the Ponderosa, Ben had welcomed the man. He had forgotten his concerns about Gunnar, happy only to have a tangible connection to his beloved Inger again. Now Ben fervently wished Gunnar Borgstrom had never come within a thousand miles of the Ponderosa.

“Pa, he’s drifted off,” said Adam, interrupting Ben’s thoughts.

Taking a deep breath, Ben picked up one of the knives. He grabbed a handful of cotton from the medicine box, then picked up one of the towels that laid neatly folded on the table. He turned to his older sons. “Adam, you hold the lamp. Get it as close as you can. I want as much light as possible.” Ben turned to where Hoss was standing near the end of the bed. Joe’s ankle was wrapped and covered again with the blankets. “Hoss, I want you to hold him, just in case. I don’t know if that laudanum is going to keep him from feeling…is going to work.”

Quickly, Adam and Hoss moved to their tasks, almost too quickly for Ben’s state of mind. In a minute, both were ready and Ben knew it was his turn to act. He knew what he was going to do was necessary but never had he faced such a loathsome chore.

As Adam stood near the bed with the lamp and Hoss sat on the edge of the bed pressing lightly on Joe’s left shoulder and chest, they both turned expectantly to Ben. Ben gave them what he hoped was a confident look, then eased on to the bed next to Joe. He took a deep breath. Then he plunged the knife into his son’s shoulder.

Afterwards, Ben tried never to think of those moments. He didn’t want to remember them. But when the memories did force their way to the surface, the images were mostly a blur. Ben remembered Joe twitching and moaning softly on the bed, as if he were having a bad dream. Hoss’ massive hands had held him as still as possible. Ben remembered the blood, lots of blood – more than he had anticipated. He recalled Adam snatching up some towels from the table and wiping the blood away from his brother’s body. And finally, Ben remembered the intense feeling of relief when he pulled the small piece of lead from Joe’s shoulder.

*****

An owl hooted from somewhere outside the house as Ben sat in his son’s dimly lit room. The owl and the sound of Joe’s breathing were the only noises which broke the stillness of the night.

Ben wasn’t exactly sure when he had insisted that Adam and Hoss go get some sleep. He only knew that he had, and that the two had gone reluctantly.

Hoss seemed to linger in the doorway for several minutes before he left. At first, Ben had attributed that to Hoss’ close bond with his younger brother. But now, sitting by Joe’s bed, his thoughts turned to his own feelings about Gunnar Borgstrom, and he realized Hoss must be feeling as confused and guilty as he did. Ben resolved to have a conversation with his middle son. Maybe Ben couldn’t ease his own feelings of guilt, but he would do his best to erase Hoss’.

Sometime during the night, Ben decided he no longer wanted to think. He simply sat by Joe’s bed, watching his son sleep, and waited.

The pale light of early dawn was beginning to brighten the bedroom when Ben heard the first sounds of the commotion below. Maybe it was the pre-dawn stillness that enabled him to hear the noise, or maybe it was simply his ears were straining for it. But for whatever the reason, Ben heard the soft jingle of harness and the plod of horses’ hooves from outside the house; a few moments later, he heard the front door open.

The next sounds surprised Ben. He heard voices. A first, the voices were just a low rumble, but then they became louder and more strident. Ben couldn’t make out the words, only the tone. And the tone wasn’t a happy one.

Waiting patiently, Ben sat by Joe’s bed. His son was sleeping easy, the steady rise and fall of his chest visible beneath the covers. He felt Joe’s forehead. It was warmer than it should be but not burning. Joe was in no immediate danger, so Ben could afford to wait.

About ten minutes passed before Ben heard the footsteps on the stairs. He turned expectantly to the door, and saw the familiar figure of Doctor Martin striding through it.

“Good morning, Ben,” said the doctor in a slightly exasperated voice. “Sorry it took so long to get here. Mrs. Johnson was having twins, and that second baby took his time about making his appearance.”

“Good morning, Paul,” Ben greeted the doctor with a tired voice. He watched as Martin put his medical bag on the edge of the bed. “What was going on downstairs?”

The doctor reddened a bit. “There was a…well, let’s call it a discussion on which of my patients I should see first.” Martin shook his head. “Lord, that Carrie McClain can be stubborn as a mule sometimes.”

“How is Abe?” asked Ben, remembering the injured man downstairs for the first time in many hours.

“Doing as well as he should be,” answered the doctor. He slid the covers back from his sleeping patient and began to check Joe’s breathing and pulse. Nodding his satisfaction, the doctor put his hand on Joe’s forehead as Ben had done earlier. “He’s got a fever, but it’s not too high,” announced Martin, confirming Ben’s own thoughts. “He seems to be sleeping all right.”

“We gave him some laudanum last night,” explained Ben.

“How much?” asked Martin with a slight frown.

“About half a spoonful,” replied Ben.

“That should have been about right,” agreed the doctor with a brief nod of his head. “As much blood as he’s lost, that should have kept Joe asleep all night.”

“He should be waking soon, right?” asked Ben a bit anxiously.

“Any time now,” said Martin. “But knowing Joe, he won’t wake up a second before he’s good and ready to do so.”

It wasn’t until the doctor pulled back the bandages and finished checking the wound in his shoulder that Joe began to stir. He moved slightly on the pillows, and his mouth worked a bit. His eyelids began to flutter. Both Ben and the doctor waited, wanting Joe to wake naturally.

Finally, Joe’s eyes opened, and he looked around the room. He saw the two men standing near the bed. A small smile came over Joe’s face. “Morning,” he said in a thick voice.

“Good morning, Joseph,” replied Doctor Martin. “And what have you done to yourself this time?”

The smile on Joe’s face widened a bit. “Guess I zigged when I should have zagged,” he answered.

“I guess so,” agreed the doctor. “Well, luckily, that bullet missed anything vital, and your Pa got it out soon enough to avoid any infection. You’re going to be sore for a while, but you’ll live.”

Looking up at his father, Joe’s eyes conveyed his gratitude. “You’d make a pretty good doc, Pa. I didn’t feel a thing.”

Ben simply nodded, unwilling to trust his voice.

Moving to the end of the bed, the doctor pulled back the covers over Joe’s leg. “Hoss tells me you sprained your ankle pretty bad,” said Martin as he began to unwrap Joe’s leg.

“Tripped over a root or something,” admitted Joe. He winced as the doctor started probing the swollen skin.

“This ankle is going to keep you in bed longer than that gunshot wound,” mused the doctor as began to re-wrap the joint. “It’s going to be a while before you’re going to be able to put any weight on it. I’d say it’s going to be nip and tuck who gets out of bed first – you or Abe McClain.”

“How is Mr. McClain?” asked Joe with concern. “I thought sure they had killed him.”

“The bullet missed his heart by inches,” replied the doctor, shaking his head in amazement. “Somehow it found the one place in his chest where it wouldn’t hit any vital organs. He’s a lucky man.”

“Is Carrie all right?” Joe asked, still concerned.

The doctor gave a wry smile. “She’s more than all right,” he answered. “She’s downstairs giving orders to everybody – including me.” The doctor pulled a small bottle out of his bag and handed it to Ben. “Give him a spoonful of this every four hours. If the pain gets too bad, give him another dose of laudanum, about half a spoonful as before. Put some cold compresses on the ankle to keep the swelling down, and keep his foot elevated.” The doctor snapped his bag shut. “And now, I’m going home to get some sleep.”

Following the doctor to the door, Ben stopped Martin. “Thank you for coming, Paul,” he said softly.

“You’re welcome, Ben,” replied the doctor. “But I really wasn’t needed. You did fine.”

Ben looked down. “It was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do,” he admitted. “Cutting into Joe like that. I wasn’t sure I could do it.”

“I know,” acknowledged the doctor, putting his hand on Ben’s shoulder. “But you did it. Because you knew you had to. If that bullet had stayed in him all night, there’s no telling how bad the infection might be. You and I both know that.” Ben nodded in agreement.

Looking past Ben, Doctor Martin called to Joe, “Get plenty of rest. I’ll stop back tomorrow to check on you. And Abe McClain.” The doctor rolled his eyes. “I just hope Carrie lets me out of the house.”

Walking back to the bed, Ben smiled at his youngest son. “Well, young man, you gave us quite a time. Next time you go to fix fences, try to stay out of trouble.”

Joe smiled briefly, but then his face turned serious. “How is Hoss taking this? I mean, about his uncle and all.”

Frowning, Ben answered honestly. “I don’t really know. We’re so busy taking care of you that I haven’t had a chance to talk with him. But I will.”

“Tell Hoss I want to see him,” declared Joe.

“Later,” replied Ben pulling the covers up to Joe’s chin. “You get some rest now. You can talk with Hoss after you’ve had some sleep.”

Joe started to protest, but he realized how tired he felt. A few hours sleep sounded like a good idea. He wanted to be clear-headed when he talked with Hoss. “All right,” grumbled Joe as he pushed himself down under the covers. “But don’t forget.”

“I won’t forget,” Ben promised. “I won’t forget anything,” he added in a soft voice. Ben watched for a minute, making sure Joe was drifting off to sleep. Then he turned and left the bedroom.

Ben was surprised to see Adam was the only one in the living room when he descended the stairs. “Where is everyone?” he asked his oldest son.

“Hoss and I carried Mr. McClain upstairs to one of the spare bedrooms,” answered Adam. “Then Hoss rode out to catch up with the posse. Carrie is in the kitchen making breakfast.”

“I’m going to skip breakfast,” Ben replied. “I need some sleep.”

“I wouldn’t do that, if I were you,” warned Adam. “Carrie is insisting we all eat something. And she is a very strong-minded young lady, I’ve found.”

“So I’ve heard,” said Ben with a laugh, remembering the doctor’s words.

*****

Two days passed before Joe got a chance to talk with Hoss. It had taken almost a full day before Ben finally found an opportunity to have a conversation with his middle son. Hoss had ridden out with the posse and pointed them in the direction of the Commenchero’s camp. Then he had left them, riding off in the direction of the rocks where he had found Joe the evening before. Hoss had brought an extra horse with him, a big black stallion. He thought Uncle Gunnar would have liked being brought back to the Ponderosa on such a fine animal.

Gunnar Borgstrom was buried by a small lake on the Ponderosa, with only Ben, Adam, and Hoss in attendance. Somehow, none of them felt Gunnar would have wanted a preacher to say words over him. But in deference to what he knew would have been Inger’s wishes, Ben read a few words from the Bible over the grave. Then he silently prayed that Gunnar and Inger would be together again.

When Ben and Hoss talked later by the small lake, Ben was surprised at how understanding Hoss was about his uncle. Hoss was sure, as Ben was, that Gunnar wouldn’t have wanted them to grieve over him. Ben’s concerns had been centered on the living. He had done his best to reassure Hoss that he had not been responsible for the misery his uncle had caused in connection with his visit to the Ponderosa. Ben had talked and Hoss had listened. But Ben wasn’t sure Hoss was convinced.

The conversation between Joe and Hoss the next day was supposedly private. But Ben couldn’t resist standing in the hall and listening. He only caught snatches, but he could hear Joe’s strident voice insisting that “it wasn’t your fault” and “he saved our lives”. Ben smiled as he heard his youngest son insisting that “we can’t be blamed for our relatives. Look at me. I’m stuck with you.” Ben left the hall before the conversation was finished, but the relieved look on Hoss’ face when he came down the stairs told Ben that Joe had been successful in eliminating Hoss’ sense of guilt.

Ben’s own sense of guilt was erased once he talked with Abe McClain. He tried to apologize to the man for Gunnar’s actions, but McClain wouldn’t hear it. Like Joe, McClain insisted Ben couldn’t be blamed for something in which he played no part and which he couldn’t have known would happen.

Two weeks passed before either Abe McClain or Joe managed to get out of bed. It was two weeks in which Carrie seemed to enjoy playing nursemaid. She went between the two bedrooms, checking on patients, insisting they taking their medicine, and generally fussing over the two men. Both her uncle and Joe grumbled about the fussing, but she suspected that they both enjoyed it, so she ignored their complaints. Carrie would have denied it if asked but secretly she relished giving orders to the two men like a drill sergeant. Joe and Carrie’s uncle endured her taking charge of them because they really had no choice. But despite what Carrie believed, Joe found all her tender care to be a bit tiresome.

The third week after the raid had almost passed when Abe McClain declared himself fit enough to go home.

“I thank you for you kindness, Ben,” said McClain as he sat on the sofa in the living room, “but I don’t want to overstay my welcome. Besides, I’ve got a hankering to sleep in my own house. Or what’s left of it.”

“Abe, don’t you think you should wait a while longer?” asked Ben.

“Nope,” insisted McClain. “I feel well enough to go home. And Carrie will look after me.” McClain laughed. “Although I think she’s going to be disappointed to have only one fellow to fuss over instead of two.”

“She does seem to be enjoying herself,” agreed Ben with a grin.

“Another reason we should leave,” said McClain. “I think she’s starting to get on Joe’s nerves a bit. Yesterday, when he was trying to walk with that cane, she stood in the hallway and ordered him back to his room. It was touch and go there for awhile whether he was going to go back or hit her with the cane!”

“Well, today’s Thursday,” mused Ben, obviously thinking. “Why don’t we wait until Sunday? You can go home on Sunday.”

“Sunday it is,” agreed McClain. He grinned. “That is, if Joe and Carrie don’t kill each other first.”

The news that the McClains were leaving on Sunday seemed to ease any tension that had been building between Joe and Carrie. Joe started making some attempts to tease Carrie and treat her with same tenderness as he done before the raid. For her part, Carrie began acting more like the young girl who had been so pleased when Joe came to stay at her uncle’s ranch. Both were trying very hard to pretend that the raid hadn’t changed them. And neither were willing to admit that their efforts weren’t having much success.

Ben shook his head as he watched Joe and Carrie. He wondered if they realized what the true impact of what had happened would mean to their relationship. He had seen the expression on Carrie’s face every time someone mentioned the raid, a look of horror and disgust. He had seen the sadness in Joe’s eyes when she didn’t realize he was watching her. Ben knew both were trying hard to re-capture the feelings they had before the raid. And he knew that, deep down, both knew things would never be the same between them.

As Joe and Carrie sat in front of the house on Sunday morning, their fingers were intertwined. Joe’s right arm was in a sling, and a cane rest against his chair. Carrie sat in a chair to Joe’s left, and she stared up at him with soulful eyes. She deliberately kept her eyes on his face, and tried not to see Joe’s visible reminders of their ordeal.

Joe brought Carrie’s hand to his lips and kissed it softly. “I’m going to miss you,” he said.

“I’ll miss you,” replied Carrie almost tearfully. “You’ll come over and visit, won’t you?”

“Sure,” agreed Joe. “I still have to finish that fence.” Joe looked down for a minute, then back to Carrie. “I never did say how sorry I am for what happened.”

“It wasn’t your fault, Joe,” insisted Carrie. “It wasn’t anyone’s fault, except for those awful men.” She shuddered slightly at the thought of the Commancheros.

Joe looked at Carrie sadly. He liked the girl, liked her a lot. But he knew whatever budding romance they might have had was gone. The outlaws had killed it as surely as they had killed the McClains’ hired hand. Carrie would think of the Commancheros every time she saw Joe. There was no way she could avoid it. And such an unpleasant memory was nothing on which to build a relationship.

“As soon as I’m fit, I’ll come over and finish that fence,” Joe promised.

“And I’ll make sure I have an apple pie all ready when you get there,” replied Carrie.

They both sat silently, holding hands. Neither seriously believed that Joe would finish the fence or Carrie would bake him a pie. But both were eager to keep up the pretense that their attitude toward each other hadn’t changed.

Joe and Carrie were almost relieved when Hoss drove the surrey up to the house. Neither had known what to say, except maybe good-bye. And good-bye was a sentiment too painful for either Joe or Carrie to express.

“You ready to go, Carrie?” asked Hoss as he jumped down from the surrey.

“Soon as I get my things,” Carrie answered, getting to her feet quickly. She stopped. “Hoss, did I remember to thank your father for buying Uncle Abe and me all those clothes?”

“Aw, shucks,” declared Hoss with a grin. “It weren’t much. We was happy to do it.”

“It’s a lot when you don’t have anything,” insisted Carrie. She stood for a minute, as if unsure what she should say next. With a shrug, she turned to walk into the house. “I’ll get Uncle Abe.”

Balancing himself carefully, Joe stood up. He grabbed the cane with his left hand and leaned on it heavily for a minute. Then he started slowly toward the surrey.

“You need a hand getting in, little brother?” asked Hoss as he watched Joe’s slow progress.

“Yeah, I guess I do,” admitted Joe. He grinned at Hoss. “Everything ready at the McClain’s?”

Glancing over his shoulder to be sure Carrie hadn’t returned, Hoss answered, “Everything’s ready. Now get in that surrey before you give away the surprise.”

It took some time to get Joe and Abe McClain into the surrey. Both men were far from fully recovered. Carrie stood anxiously as she watched Hoss ease her uncle onto the seat, then hurried to cover his legs with a blanket. Joe laughed as McClain looked up and rolled his eyes. Hoss tied two small suitcases to the back of the surrey while Carrie stood by, looking thoughtful.

“You ready to go, Carrie?” asked Hoss once the suitcases were secure.

Carrie looked around as if she were making sure she hadn’t forgotten something. “I suppose. Where’s Adam and Mr. Cartwright? I wanted to say good-bye.”

“They, um, er, they’re going to meet us over at your place,” Hoss explained quickly. “They had some chores to take care of.” He suddenly seemed ill at ease, turning his face to look away from the girl. “Come on, Carrie, get in. We’ve got to go,” added Hoss abruptly.

Hoss hurried to the front of the surrey, pointedly ignoring the look of exasperation Joe was giving him. Carrie climbed into the front of the surrey next to Hoss. “I’m ready, Hoss,” she announced, puzzled by the evasive expression on Hoss’ face.

“Right,” said Hoss, without looking at Carrie. He snapped the reins. “Let’s go.”

The horses started forward at a rapid walk.

As the surrey neared the McClain’s ranch a short time later, Carrie exclaimed, “Look, Uncle Abe! The barn and the house are all cleaned up!” Her head swiveled from side to side as the surrey rolled on. “It looks even better than it did before…it looks like new,” she reported.

“You do this, Hoss?” asked McClain from the back of the surrey.

“Well, me and Adam and Pa,” admitted Hoss. “We thought it was the least we could do.”

“It wasn’t necessary,” replied McClain. “I told your Pa that.” He looked around the neat yard, and freshly painted house and barn. “But thank you, son.”

After pulling the surrey to a stop in front of the house, Hoss quickly climbed down and went around the carriage to help McClain out. Carrie stood by, anxiously watching. When McClain was finally out of the surrey, she looped her arm through her uncle’s. The two started walking slowly toward the house while Hoss watched with a grin.

“Help me out of here!” exclaimed Joe as he leaned out of the surrey. “We’re going to miss it.”

Reaching up, Hoss helped Joe out of the carriage. He put his arm on Joe’s back to steady him, but Joe shrugged the arm away. “Come on,” Joe urged his brother. The two moved followed the McClains to the house.

Carrie and Abe McClain opened their front door, then stopped. Their faces showed astonishment as a crowd of people inside the house shouted “Surprise!”

“What’s this?” asked McClain, obviously confused.

Walking forward, Ben gestured the McClains into the house. “Abe, we know what those outlaws did to your ranch,” he said. “And your friends didn’t think it was right that you would come home to a wrecked house. So we tried to make things right for you. Anything that was broken has been repaired or replaced. We couldn’t be entirely sure what was stolen, but we’ve tried to replace everything that was taken. The ladies have been cooking and baking for days, so you have a kitchen full of food. Abe, Carrie, welcome home!”

Joe and Hoss stood in the doorway, grinning from ear to ear, as the crowd surged forward to envelope the McClains. Joe was so intent on watching the happy scene that he didn’t notice Doctor Martin standing next to him until the doctor spoke.

“Joe, remember what I told,” cautioned Martin. “You sit down and take the weight off that ankle as much as possible. And if you’re feeling tired, you head for home.”

“Don’t worry, doc,” replied Joe. “I’m fine.

“I’ll keep any eye on him,” promised Hoss. “I’ll make sure he don’t overdo it.”

“See that you do,” ordered the doctor sternly. Then he smiled at Hoss. “I know you’ll take care of him.”

Looking down at Joe, Hoss nodded. “I always do,” he said softly.

Joe smiled back at Hoss. “You know, we might not have the greatest relatives in the world. But I have to admit that there’s at least one that I’m kind of glad to have around.”

“Me, too, little brother,” agreed Hoss, throwing his arm around Joe. “Me, too.”

*****End*****

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