Girls, Guns, and Getting Grown Part 2 (by DJK)

Summary:   Conclusion
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rating:  PG
Word Count:  29,020


 

Part 2

Little Joe Cartwright saw the horse standing in the road and scanned the area for its rider. Seeing no one, he rode over and dismounted. Then he noticed the sidesaddle. The horse’s rider was a woman. He looked for a brand on the horse’s rump, but found none. Holding the reigns of both horses in his right hand, he held his left above the pistol on his hip and slowly searched the open area between the road and the forest. Suddenly a figure emerged from the trees. She came toward him at a dead run.

“Joe!”

He recognized Helen McNally just as he saw a second figure step from the cover of the pines.

“Helen! Get down!” Joe shouted as he drew and aimed. Helen continued to run; Joe caught the girl with his right hand, slinging her behind him as he distinguished the flash of a gun in the hand of the man who had followed Helen from the woods. He fired, but the shot went wild as he was grabbed from behind. He glanced down at the frightened girl who clung to him, and when he looked up again, the man was gone.

In all his sixteen years, Joe had never felt so at a loss as to what to do next. His eyes scanned the area for any further sign of danger. His left hand kept his pistol ready while his right arm cradled the weeping girl who clung to him. When he managed to distinguished Helen’s garbled, “Take me home”, he decided that was exactly what he needed to do. Holstering his pistol, he attempted to free himself from Helen’s grasp. Suddenly he felt her go limp against him. He lowered her gently to the ground. For the first time, he realized that Helen was bleeding. Blood soaked the front of her pink blouse from a rent low on her right shoulder. He fought the panic that filled him. Then her eyes fluttered open as Helen regained consciousness.

“Helen? What happened? I… everything will be fine, Helen. You’ll be just fine.”

Helen’s voice was weak as she pleaded, “Take me home, Joe. I want my papa. Take me home.”

“Sure, Helen, sure. Everything will be fine,” Joe assured her. Needing something to help stop the bleeding, he removed his shirt, and folding it into a pad, placed it against the tear in her blouse. “Can you hold it there, Helen? You need to hold it there and press down. You have to, Helen.” Lifting the girl to her feet, he continued to support her with his arm around her waist. Whistling for Cochise, he continued, “I think you better ride with me. Cooch will get us there in a jiffy. Everything will be fine, just fine.” Joe managed to get Helen and himself mounted on Cochise. He raced Cochise as swiftly as he safely could with Helen cradled in front of him. Riding into the McNally yard, he searched for some member of her family. During the ride Helen had stopped crying and seemed to regain some of her normal composure. He and Helen dismounted awkwardly and stood for a moment.

Paul McNally had heard a horse entering the yard and walked out of the barn to greet whoever had arrived. Seeing a shirtless Joe Cartwright with his arms wrapped around his sister, he crossed the distance between them in a bound. Grabbing Joe’s shoulder, he spun the boy around and delivered a solid uppercut to Joe’s jaw.

Helen screamed and flung herself at her brother, “Paul! No!”

Joe sat in the dirt where he had landed without the energy to even become angry.

Paul turned catching his sister by the arms. Then he noticed her blood-soaked clothes. “My God! Helen, my God, what happened?”

Joe scrambled to his feet. “She’s been hurt. Someone hurt her. She needs a doctor.”

Paul caught his sister in his arms. “I want Papa!” he heard her mutter. He was in total agreement with her desire.

“I’ll go for the doc,” Joe began.

Paul interrupted, “My papa and brothers are just over in Collin’s meadow. It’s on the way. Go to them, Joe.”

The idea of Ephraim McNally taking over appealed to Joe almost as much as the thought of his own father being in charge. He remounted Cochise and galloped off.

Reaching the meadow, he spotted the McNallys and raced to them shouting, “MR. MCNALLY! MR. MCNALLY!”

“Joe, boy, what’s wrong?” Ephraim McNally reached out one hand to gentle Cochise as the horse came up beside him, and the other he placed on Joe’s leg.

Alex McNally was the first to notice the blood smeared on Joe’s hands and chest, “Joe, what happened?” His voice was more demanding.

“Who’s hurt, Joe?” Jeff McNally asked softly fearing the answer.

Struggling to gain enough breath, Joe stared down into the faces of Helen’s family and managed to speak. “Helen. Helen’s hurt. She needs a doctor. Paul’s with her, but she needs a doctor.” He paused and then looked into Ephraim McNally’s eyes, “She needs you, Mr. McNally.”

“Where?”

“At your house. I’ll go…”

“NO.” Ephraim took charge. “No, boy, Cochise is spent.” “So are you,” he thought. “Alex, go for the doctor.” Alex McNally was mounted before his father finished speaking. Ephraim turned to Jeff. “See the boy gets back to the house; I’m going to your sister.” Ephraim McNally was on Thor and galloping toward home in seconds.

Jeff mounted, and he and Joe took off at only a slightly slower pace.

*****

Joe sat at the McNally dining table with his hand around a cup of cold coffee, trying not to think about the girl upstairs. Alex had arrived with the doctor in less time than Joe would have thought possible, but it had still seemed like forever. When he and Jeff had first arrived, Jeff had made Joe sit down and had put the then hot coffee into his hand. Paul had come downstairs still wearing a shirt stained with Helen’s blood, and sat down beside Joe. Paul had mumbled an apology for punching him. Realizing that he had forgotten Paul’s reaction, Joe had shrugged and accepted the apology. Jeff had brought a clean shirt for Joe, and the boy had automatically put it on. Then the three off them had waited in silence until the doctor arrived. With the doctor and Ephraim McNally caring for Helen, Joe and the McNally brothers continued to wait.

A knock on the door startled them all, and a full minute passed before Alex rose and went to open it. Standing in the doorway was Adam Cartwright with an irritated frown on his face. The frown deepened as he caught sight of his brother sitting at the McNally table. “I’ve been hunting for my little brother, and it seems that I’ve found him.” Joe winced at the tone in his brother’s voice.

Alex McNally shook his head and reached out to place his hand on Adam’s forearm. “Adam, there’s an explanation.”

Adam’s gazed shifted from his brother to Alex’s face. He became aware of the tension in the room, and asked, “What’s happened?”

Alex drew Adam into the room as he started to explain. “Someone accosted Helen. Joe saved her and brought her home. The doctor’s upstairs with her now.”

Adam cursed himself silently for not recognizing the buggy he had seen in the McNally’s yard as belonging to Paul Martin. Striding quickly across the room, he hovered over Little Joe demanding,” Are you all right, Joe?”

“Nothing happened to me, Adam. Really, I’m fine,” Joe declared quickly, “I’m sorry you had to come looking for me, but I just couldn’t leave.”

Adam’s arm went around his brother’s shoulders in a gesture that was half reassurance and half assessment of Joe’s true condition. Satisfied that Joe was unhurt, he sat down in the chair that Alex had vacated. “Of course not, Joe.”

Just then, everyone’s attention went to the stairs as footsteps could be heard moving down them. Paul Martin appeared. Every man in the room sprang to his feet.

“Boys, she’ll be just fine. Just fine. I’ve cleaned and stitched the wound, and I don’t think there will be any infection. She lost a good bit of blood, but rest and fluids should take care of that.” The doctor watched the tension flow out of the faces before him. “Now, it’ll be your job to keep her in bed and pamper her for a few days.”

Alex McNally let out a deep sigh and then said with a rueful grin, “We have had lots of practice in pampering Helen, Doctor, so I expect we can handle that just fine.”

Paul Martin grinned back at the young man. “And no complaining about your own cooking in front of the girl. I don’t want her thinking she has to race back to the kitchen.”

Paul McNally gave his elder brother a cheeky grin. “If she has to eat Alex’s cooking, she’ll be running down to the kitchen tomorrow.”

Alex glared at his youngest brother and retorted, “Then we’ll just put you on kitchen duty, baby brother.”

Jeff McNally rolled his eyes and muttered, “From bad to worse. From bad to worse.”

Adam laughed. “Seems we’ll have to have Hop Sing send something over for Helen to eat if there’s to be any hope of a full recovery. Don’t you think, Joe?”

Joe’s eyes twinkled, “I guess we better send supper for everyone, or Helen’s won’t make it up the stairs.”

Paul Martin thanked God that this time he could leave his patient’s family with smiles on their faces. “Joe, Helen wanted to speak to you. I’ve given her something for the pain that will make her sleepy, so you best go up now.”

Suddenly nervous, Joe looked at Adam. “Go on, Joe,” Adam encouraged, “Then we’ll head home before Pa can fret up a full head of steam.”

Joe headed for the stairs and stopped as he realized he had no idea which room would be Helen’s. Recognizing the reason for Joe’s slightly puzzled expression, Jeff McNally stepped to his side and said, “I’ll show you to Helen’s room, Joe.”

Joe followed Jeff up the stairs to Helen’s door. Jeff knocked softly and then pushed open the door, motioning Joe forward. Joe entered the room and glanced around. Girlie was the word that entered his mind. The white and pink room was much more feminine than Joe had thought Helen’s room would be, but then Helen is a gal, he thought. His eyes rested on the girl in the bed. Helen looked very pale and very young. Her father sat beside her, holding her hand.

Joe walked over and stood across from Ephraim. “Helen, the doctor said you’re going to be just fine.”

“Thanks to you.” Helen reached her free hand out to Joe. He placed his hand around hers and felt her fingers cling to his. “Are you okay?”

Joe smiled down at her. “Of course I am.” Joe could see the outline of the bandages beneath the bodice of Helen’s nightgown, and a shudder ran through his body.

Ephraim saw Joe tremble and knew that the boy was starting to react to the events of the afternoon. “Helen will be just fine thanks to you, Joe.” His deep bass carried a reassuring tone.

“I’m going to be the envy of all the girls in town, you know,” Helen said smiling at the boy.

“What?” The puzzled look on Joe’s face drew a weak giggle from Helen.

“Well, Sugar, I got to have that handsome Joe Cartwright for my hero, now didn’t I?”

Joe’s blush brought a smile to Ephraim and Jeff’s faces. Hearing the soft, slurry sound in Helen’s voice and watching her eyes start to flutter, Ephraim decided it was time for her to sleep and saved Joe the trouble of an answer. “Helen needs to rest.”

Joe nodded as he watched Helen’s eyes close. Ephraim stood and escorted Joe to the hallway. Turning to Jeff, he said, “You will see Joe home.”

“But, Mr. McNally…”

“No, buts, boy. You’ll not be going home alone.” Ephraim’s tone was firm.

“Papa,” Jeff interceded, “Adam came looking for Joe. He’s downstairs now.”

“Good. Go down and see to Joe’s horse.” Ephraim put a gently restraining hand on Joe’s arm. “Joe, there’s no way I can thank you for what you did, son.”

“No need, Mr. McNally, really,” Joe quickly declared.

Ephraim McNally’s voice softened and deepened, “Joseph, you acted as a man grown when my daughter needed you today. I thank the Lord for that, but you’re not full grown, son. Let your Pa and brothers be there for you. Promise me.”

“I promise,” Joe replied softly.

Ephraim’s eyes focused on the bruise darkening Joe’s jaw, and the muscles of his own jaw tightened. Placing his hand gently under Joe’s chin, he studied the mark. “Is this courtesy of my youngest son?”

“Yes.” Joe saw Ephraim’s eyes darken. “It’s fine, Mr. McNally. Paul’s already apologized, and I’ve no hard feelings.”

“Glad to hear that, but my son should know better.”

“He thought… well, anyone might have made the same mistake,” Joe offered.

Ephraim gave Joe a slight smile. “Paul seems to keep making it where you Cartwrights are concerned.”

“Well, Helen was in Adam’s nightshirt when Paul hit him,” Joe grinned.

“So I’ve been told,” Ephraim replied. “I do feel, Joe, that it’s my duty as a father to convince Paul, if the occasion arises, to ask what’s going on before he tries hitting the remaining Cartwright brother.”

“True. Paul might catch pneumonia if Hoss dumped him in the water trough.”

Ephraim chuckled, and Joe hoped his anger at Paul was gone. “Adam’s waiting for me, Mr. McNally. Do you mind if I come by tomorrow to see how Helen’s doing?”

“You’re always welcome here, Joe. Take care now, and remember your promise.”

“Yes, sir.” Joe turned and made his way down the stairs.

*****

On the ride home, Adam kept Sport beside Cochise and a watch on his brother. He wanted to know the details of what had happened, but did not question the boy. If Joe was ready to talk, he would speak up; if not, then his own questions could wait until they reached home.

“Adam”

“What, Joe?”

“I didn’t wash her blood off. Before I put on this shirt, I forgot to wash her blood off.”

Adam wanted to grab Joe and hold him, but he simply said softly, “You can have a good, hot bath when we get to the house.” Adam heard Joe’s sigh and continued, “Helen is going to be fine, Joe. Paul was as confident of that as I’ve ever heard him be.”

“Why would someone hurt her, Adam?”

“I can’t answer that, Joe. I don’t even know what exactly happened.”

Adam waited to see if Joe would supply some answers of his own, but Joe said in a plaintive tone Adam had not heard in years, “Is Pa home, Adam? I want Pa.”

*****

Adam had taken his little brother home to their father. Joe had told his family simply and briefly about coming upon Helen’s horse and what had followed. By the end of the account, Joe had seemed so drained and exhausted that his father and brothers had not pressed him with questions. Hop Sing had seen that Joe was fed, and then Ben had hustled him off to bed.

When Ben came back to the great room, his eldest handed him a brandy.

“He’ll be fine, Pa, and Paul said Helen would be fine too,” Adam said hoping to ease the concern in his father’s eyes.

“Ephraim must be beside himself. When I think what could have happened, well, I just thank God that the two of them are safe.” Ben sank into his favorite chair.

“So do I, Pa. Those young’ns sure keep their guardian angels right busy,” Hoss stated, trying to bring a smile to his father’s face.

“Those two keep a whole battalion of guardian angels busy,” Adam interjected.

“Now, son, your brother wasn’t courting trouble this time.” Ben sighed. “At least he didn’t go charging after the man.”

“I reckon Roy will be going after the man who done it, ” Hoss observed.

“With the McNally brothers at his side, I am sure.” After a pause, Adam added, “They’ll need Joe to show them where it all happened.”

“That is all he will do!” Ben declared firmly. “The boy will not take part in the search.”

Adam and Hoss exchanged glances. “They’ll be needing me to help with the tracking, Pa,” Hoss said softly.

Ben looked at his middle son and silently cursed the boy’s uncanny ability to track anything animal or human. He really did not want any of his sons pursuing criminals, but he knew that both Hoss and Adam would insist on riding with the McNally’s. Well, they were both adults, and he would not forbid them as it was a job that needed to be done, but Little Joe was still a boy. He did not care if there were a dozen men against one, Joe would not be with them.

*****

The knock on the door sounded just as Joe came to the breakfast table. Hoss stood quickly. Going to the door, he answered it and then led Sheriff Roy Coffee to the dining table. After he was settled at the table with a cup of Hop Sing’s coffee and a plate of sweet rolls, Roy stated the purpose of his visit. “Had word about the doings yesterday. Figured I’d come out and get Joe’s story, and then he can show me where it all happened on my way to the McNally’s.”

“I really don’t know much,” Little Joe mumbled.

Roy exchanged a look with Ben and then continued, “Just tell me what happened, Joe.”

Little Joe’s story was brief and rendered in a flat voice. “I didn’t go after him. I took Helen home. She wanted to go home,” he finished.

“You did right, son,” Roy stated firmly, “Going after that man is my job. You have no idea who he was?”

Joe shook his head, “He was too far away and in the shadows. He was a pretty big man, I think. That’s all I can tell you about him.”

“And you don’t know why Helen McNally was there or what exactly happened to her?”

Joe shook his head again. “I didn’t ask. I just, well, I was thinking about getting her home and getting a doctor, and she was bleeding, and later, well, the doctor gave her something to make her sleep.”

“That’s fine, Joe. Like I said, you did the right thing getting the girl home and getting her a doctor. I’ll be talking to Helen, and she can tell me about it first-hand. Well, after you eat up, we’ll head out, and you can show me where it happened,” Roy said and then took a swig of his coffee.

“I’m finished,” Joe stated placing his napkin over his untouched plate.

Ben Cartwright reached over and removed the napkin. “You will eat some breakfast, Joe, while the rest of us finish. Then we will all head out.”

Roy turned to look at Hoss. “You’ll be helping with the tracking then?”

“I’ll do what I can, Roy,” Hoss said simply.

Adam added, “Hoss and I will be riding with you, Roy. I imagine the McNally brothers plan to do the same.”

A look of concern crossed Roy Coffee’s face as he answered, “Suppose so. Well, they got the right, but things are going to be done lawful.”

“The McNally’s are very law-abiding folk, Roy,” Ben assured.

Ben’s eyes settled on his youngest son. Joe had taken one bite of the bacon on his plate and then began pushing the remaining food around aimlessly. “Joseph, you need to eat,” he admonished softly.

Roy looked closely at the boy and then asked, “That bruise on your jaw, Joe, does it have anything to do with what happened yesterday?”

Joe squirmed and dropped his chin. “Paul misunderstood when he saw me holding Helen.”

Roy shook his head and pondered the McNally temper as he sipped his coffee.

Ben looked at his youngest son and sighed. Little Joe had hardly eaten breakfast, despite his orders, and Ben knew there would be a fight ahead when Joe heard his decision about Joe not going with the posse. Ben sighed again. It was going to be a long day.

*****

Hop Sing had made a few decisions of his own. As the Cartwrights and Sheriff Coffee mounted their horses, Hop Sing handed them several baskets and a few pronouncements. They were to take the food in the baskets to the McNally home for the immediate sustenance of the McNally clan, especially Missy Helen. He would tend to a few necessities here at the ranch, and then he would be going to the McNallys himself to set things in order and prepare dinner. Any Cartwrights not riding posse at dinnertime should be prepared to eat at the McNallys as he could not be expected to be in two places at once. By tomorrow, Hop Sing was certain the good women of Virginia City would have heard the story and started arriving at the McNally ranch bearing enough food to keep the McNally men fed decently until Helen was fully recovered.

With the care and feeding of their neighbors settled in Hop Sing’s capable hands, Joe led his family and the sheriff to where he had found Helen’s horse. Hoss went to work with the others trailing behind. They investigated the entire area from the road to a small clearing in the woods. The signs pointed to it being the place where Helen and the man had fought and she had been wounded. Hoss found tracks leading away from the site, and a fiery discussion began. Ben exerted his authority, and the group separated. Hoss and Adam would follow the tracks for a ways and then meet Roy and the McNally brothers at noon in Frenchman’s Hollow. Ben, Roy, and Joe would proceed to the McNally ranch where Roy could talk to Helen and inform her family of the measures being taken to apprehend the man who had accosted her. Joe had argued heatedly that he was not needed at the McNally’s and should go with his brothers. Ben had been adamant that Joe was coming with him. Adam and Hoss had wisely kept their opinions on the subject to themselves. The look in their father’s eyes told them unequivocally that this was a battle that Joe had already lost. When Ben had grabbed Joe by the upper arm and reminded him of the consequences of disrespect and disobedience, Adam and Hoss had quietly mounted and slipped away. Joe had then mounted Cochise and followed his father and the sheriff to the McNally house radiating his displeasure the entire time.

*****

Alex McNally opened the door and invited the three visitors to step inside. Roy asked to speak with Ephraim McNally and stated his desire to question Helen. Alex led Ben and Roy upstairs while Joe carried the food baskets into the kitchen. Paul McNally was washing dishes. Joe sniffed. The air held the scent of charred food.

“What burned?” Joe asked setting the baskets on the table.

Paul turned wiping his hands on a towel he had tucked into the waistband of his pants. “What didn’t?” he shrugged.

“Well, Hop Sing sent these,” Joe stated gesturing to the baskets, “and he will be here in time to fix dinner.”

Paul grinned and walked to the table. Taking off the checked cloth covering the contents, he exclaimed, “The answer to our prayers.” He picked up a fluffy biscuit and took a huge bite.

“You’re under orders to take a good share of that to Helen. How is Helen?” Joe asked as he rummaged in the other basket for a sugar cookie.

“Sleeping mostly,” Paul mumbled around the remains of the biscuit as he reached for a cookie of his own.

“Has she told you anything?”

Paul shook his head. “If she told Papa anything, he hasn’t said.”

Jeff McNally walked into the kitchen. Spying the baskets, he made a beeline for them. “Stand aside, young’ns, this man needs some decent food.”

“Sheriff’s upstairs with Papa and Helen,” Paul informed his brother as they both pulled Hop Sing’s cooking from the baskets.

“Good. Everything’s ready for us to go with him when he’s finished upstairs.” He had placed a slice of cold ham between two halves of a biscuit, and he ate with one hand while he continued to place dishes on the table.

Joe pointed to a covered crock. “The soup’s for Helen, and she best get it if you want Hop Sing in a good mood while he’s cooking dinner.”

“Hop Sing’s cooking dinner!’ Alex McNally exclaimed as he entered the room and proceeded to join his brothers in their impromptu meal. Relief brightened his features. “That’s the best news I’ve heard this morning.” Alex lifted the lid off of the crock and sniffed.

“That’s for Helen!” exclaimed both Joe and Paul.

“Okay! Set it on the stove to heat up, and I’ll take it up before we leave.” Alex said picking up a biscuit instead.

“How is Helen?” Joe inquired softly. Alex ran his hand through his hair and exchanged looks with his brothers.

“She’s been real quiet. Papa stayed with her all night. She’s talking to the sheriff now.” Alex bit his lip and frowned. “She asked me to leave.” Joe could hear the hurt in his voice.

“It’s probably, well, I ain’t got any sisters, mind ya, but, well, I suppose there’s some things that gals might not want to talk about around their brothers, well, just because they ain’t girls,” Joe offered.

“Your father is up there,” Alex snapped.

“Yeah, well, Pa is a pa, and that’s different.

“Joe’s right, Alexander.” Jeff patted his brother on the shoulder. “You know there’s times when you want a pa and not a brother.”

Alex grunted. “Jeff, we best saddle our horses. Shouldn’t be long before the sheriff’s ready.”

Paul took the towel from his waist and moved toward the door.

“Where you think you’re going?” Jeff stopped his younger brother by grabbing his arm.

“To saddle my horse.”

“No reason to. Papa already said you’re not going,” Alex McNally intoned in his big brother voice.

“I’m going!” Paul twisted out of his brother’s grasp and started toward the door. Jeff’s long arm caught him around the waist.

“Paul Conwell!” Everyone in the room stiffened at the sound; no one had noticed Ephraim McNally’s entrance into the room.

Everyone in the room turned to face the two fathers standing just inside the doorway.

“I should go too, Papa.” Paul’s eyes were locked on his father’s face.

“It’s settled. You will not be riding with the posse.”

Joe wondered how a voice could sound so much like granite.

Paul lifted his chin in defiance. “Why can’t I go?”

Joe expected a statement about obedience or a remark about Paul’s age and was startled when Ephraim walked over and placed his hand under Joe’s chin. Turning the bruise on Joe’s jaw to the light, Ephraim stated flatly, “That Paul Conwell McNally is why.” Then turning to the full power of his glare on his youngest son, he inquired, “Must I give you another reason?”

Paul dropped his eyes to the floor. “No, sir.”

Joe looked at his own father. Ben gave him a glower that sent a clear message to his son. The matter of his going with the posse was settled, and Joe had better not forget that. Joe realized that if Paul, who was almost two years older than Joe, would be staying he had no hope of going either and wisely remained silent.

“There are chores to do then. Get to them,” Ephraim ordered.

“Joseph,” Ben spoke for the first time. “You will be giving Paul a hand today.”

“Yes, sir.” Joe followed his friend out of the house.

The two boys worked silently, even though their anger was at their families not each other. They had heard Paul’s brothers leave with the sheriff, and Ben had come by to tell them he was going to tend to things at the ranch and return for supper.

Joe stopped working and looked at Paul. “We could saddle up and go.”

“We could fight a tribe of Shoshone barehanded. The result would be the same,” Paul answered slumping against the rails of the corral.

Joe sighed. “My pa uses my full name when he’s serious too,” he stated mostly just for something to say.

“Papa only uses our middle names when he’s angry.” Paul gave Joe a wry smile. “Actually, he doesn’t like them.”

“Your middle names?” Joe asked puzzled.

“Papa doesn’t like any of our middle names.”

“Then why?”

Paul grinned. “They were Mama’s idea. It’s a long story that has something to do with my brother Daniel’s middle name being Constantine.”

“Like the emperor?”

“Well, yeah, but it was my mama’s maiden name too.”

“Oh, that’s why Adam’s middle name is Stoddard.” Then a thought struck him. “What’s Helen’s middle name?”

Paul began furiously shaking his head. “No, I can’t tell you. Helen would kill me. Even Papa doesn’t use Helen’s middle name. If he did, well, we’d send for the undertaker. Honestly, we would.”

Joe laughed, but decided that as soon as Helen was well enough to be fair game, he would find out that middle name.

*****

“Mistel Joe!’

“Yes, Hop Sing,” Joe called out.

“You and Mistel Paul come eat sandwiches. Come now. Hop Sing have much to do. Not wait on late boys.” The small Chinese man turned and went back into the McNally kitchen.

Joe rolled his eyes at Paul. “We better get in there quick.”

“Fine by me,” Paul answered. The two boys swiftly washed up and made there way into the kitchen. Ephraim McNally was already sitting at the table eating a large sandwich.

“Papa, how’s Helen?” Paul inquired immediately.

“Your sister is doing just fine. Sit down, boys.”

Paul and Joe took their seats and filled their plates. Then Paul cleared his throat softly and dropped his eyes to his plate. “Papa, I’m…I’m sorry about this morning.”

Ephraim turned a stern face to his youngest son. “Then there will be no repeat of such behavior?”

“No, sir, there won’t.” Paul raised his eyes to his father’s.

“Then your apology is accepted, and no more will be said about it.”

Joe squirmed and then gave Paul a slight I’ve-been-there smile. Paul cleared his throat again. “Papa, just what did Helen say happened?”

Ephraim paused and studied the two intent, young faces. “Helen was riding that little bay she’s been schooling to the sidesaddle. She said she saw someone on the side of the rode and stopped to see if there was a problem. The man told her his horse had shied and thrown him and his ankle was hurt. He said he thought he could get back on his horse and head into town with a little help. Your sister went to help him, and he put a knife to her throat. He walked her into the woods. When she heard a horse on the road, she fought him. That’s how she got hurt, but she got away. She saw Joe and ran to him. You know the rest.” Ephraim’s posture had grown more rigid with each word of his tale. Joe knew that the only thing that had kept Ephraim McNally from the posse was the depth of Helen’s need for his presence.

“Did she have any idea of who he might be?” Paul’s stomach had started churning at the thought of what might have happened to his sister. He set his sandwich on his plate and fought the bile in his throat.

“No, but he knew who she was. Asked her if she wasn’t the McNally gal from the ranch over near the river.”

“Then he wasn’t just a passing stranger,” interjected Joe.

“Apparently not.” Ephraim finished his last bite of food and stood. “You boys have everything taken care of?”

“Everything’s getting done, Papa. Joe’s been a big help.”

“One more thing to thank you for, son.”

Joe quickly exclaimed, “No need, Mr. McNally! I’m glad to help. Neighbors should help neighbors.”

“Well, you Cartwrights are mighty fine neighbors and very good friends,” Ephraim said as he left the room.

“Do you think they’ll find him?” Paul asked Joe.

“Hoss is the best tracker ever. If there’s a trail to find, he can follow it.”

“I don’t think Papa told Alex and Jeff what Helen said happened,” Paul muttered.

“Why not?” Joe sounded puzzled.

“If Alex thought what I just thought, he’d kill him.”

*****

As Hop Sing had predicated, the preacher’s wife sent word that Helen was in the thoughts of all the church ladies and should stay out of the kitchen as dinner would be arriving each evening for the next week.

They had waited as long as possible to serve Hop Sing’s supper, but with Hop Sing, Ben, and Joe needing to return to the Ponderosa, it was decided that they could wait no longer. The meal had been a quiet one. No one mentioned the one thing that was on everyone’s mind.

“Paul will see to the kitchen, Hop Sing. You just get your things together for the trip home,” Ephraim announced as Hop Sing poured him a third cup of coffee. “You’ve done far too much already.”

“You think Hop Sing leave dilty kitchen to boy. Hop Sing never left dilty kitchen in life not stalt now.” The small man shook his head fiercely and exited the room.

Joe watched amazed that the diminutive Oriental was not the least bit intimidated by the granite-hewn Ephraim McNally.

“It’s no use, Ephraim. Hop Sing is never deterred. Is he, Joe?” Ben Cartwright chuckled.

“No, Mr. McNally. Nobody wins an argument with Hop Sing.”

“But, Joe,” Ben continued, “You and Paul can give Hop Sing a hand.”

Joe knew his father was giving an order not making a suggestion. He and Paul were headed toward the kitchen when the sound of riders grabbed everyone’s attention.

Ephraim was out the door in seconds followed by Ben, Joe, and Paul.

Alex and Jeff McNally rode into the yard. Ephraim was at his son’s side before Alex dismounted.

“Everyone’s fine,” Alex reassured before a word left his father’s lips.

Everyone listening relaxed slightly. Alex continued, “We caught him. Sheriff Coffee is taking the bas…taking him into jail.” He turned toward Ben. “Adam and Hoss are helping the sheriff. They insisted we come and tell you all.”

Jeff McNally spoke when his brother paused for breath. “Adam and Hoss plan to get a room at the hotel for the night. They said to tell you not to worry, and they’ll see you in the morning.”

“That’s fine, boys, just fine.”

Ephraim spoke for the first time. “Who?’

“Said his name was Jasper Pruitt. Didn’t say much else.” Alex’s tone was tense and flat.

Ephraim stared into his son’s eyes. “What condition is he in?”

Alex stared back without answering. Jeff interjected, “He has a few bruises is all. He’ll be fit for trial soon as the circuit judge gets here. Sheriff Coffee says that’ll take a few days.”

“Better get these boys to the table before Hop Sing throws the rest of that roast away,” Ben urged.

Everyone moved inside to discover that Hop Sing had already set out two dinners.

Ben and Joe stayed long enough to hear a brief account of the posse’s tracking and capture of Jasper Pruitt. Ephraim did not press for details. He planned to questions each of his sons privately. Ben held his tongue and gave Little Joe a look that had him holding his also. Ben planned on getting a detailed accounting from his own sons. When Hop Sing announced the kitchen was in shape and biscuits with ham waiting for breakfast, Ben and Joe said their goodbyes, and the three returned to the Ponderosa.

*****

Ben looked up from his ledgers when he heard the door open. Adam walked in, stopped to undo his gun belt, and then took a seat opposite his father’s desk.

“Good morning, Pa.”

“Good morning Adam. Where’s your brother?”

“Hoss is in the barn. He intends to go straight to work. I’m here to make our report.” Adam’s tone was slightly impudent.

Ben raised his eyebrow. “Then do a good job of it,” he snapped reverting to the same tone he had used long ago with cocky seamen.

“Aye, aye, sir!” Adam replied and saluted.

“Adam!”

“Sorry, Pa.” Ben’s face remained irritated, so Adam decided to quickly tell him what had happened. “Hoss tracked the man fairly easily. We caught up with him; he pulled his gun but apparently he gave having a gunfight with five opponents a second thought and never even fired. Hoss managed to keep Alex from breaking anything but his nose. We thought it best to get Alex and Jeff away from him, though. After we sent them home, Hoss and I helped Roy get him back to the jail. Really, he’s the type who picks on those weaker than he and cowers when a real man comes along. Why, when Alex came after him, he actually, well, he lost all control if you know what I mean. I think the sight of him that way kept Jeff from beating him to a pulp.”

“His name is Pruitt?” Ben relaxed against the back of his chair.

“Jasper Pruitt. Roy found paper on him. He’s wanted for accosting a girl over near Carson City.”

“Roy has sent for the circuit judge.”

“Sent a wire last night. Answer came this morning. Judge will be here in seven days, so the trial will be a week from Monday. I told Roy we’d get word to the McNallys that Hiram will be out to talk to Helen on Tuesday. Paul said that she should be up to it by then and fine for the trial barring complications. I can ride over later this afternoon.”

“I need you here, Adam. We’ll send Joe after lunch.”

There was a curt undertone still in his father’s voice, so Adam simply said, “Whatever you say, Pa.” Then he asked, “How is the boy?”

“Joe’s doing fine. We’ve talked several times.” Ben rubbed his hand over his face. “Thank the Lord that Pruitt is the coward you say his is. If he had fired at Joe…”

“Pa, Joe fine. Truth is, if Helen hadn’t spoiled his aim, Joe would probably have put a stop to him then.”

“Do you want your brother, who’s barely sixteen, dealing with the fact that he killed a man?” Ben growled.

“No, Pa, I … Pa, it’s the way things are; it’s why you let Little Joe wear that gun. We may not like it, but, well, one has to accept the bad as well as the good about your home.”

Ben gave Adam a wry look. “At least I had four years when I didn’t have to worry about you and guns. Perhaps I should send Joe to college.”

Several episodes from his college years, all of which his father knew nothing about, flashed through Adam’s mind. He cleared his throat and said, “The East has its own hazards, Pa. Grandfather was there to keep me in hand. God rest his soul. Would you really want Joe on his own thousands of miles from us?”

Ben shook his head sadly and muttered, “If only Abel could have held on for a little longer.”

“Grandfather and Joe. Now that would have been something.” Adam grinned at the mental picture of his fiery little brother trying to convince his formidable grandfather that he was man enough to do as he chose.

Ben started to laugh, and Adam joined him. They laughed until they had to wipe the tears from their eyes. Then they went to work.

*****

Joe rode into the McNally yard and spotted Ephraim McNally near the barn. He rode over and dismounted.

“Hello, Mr. McNally,” Joe greeted the older man.

“”Hello, Joe.”

“How’s Helen?” Joe asked quickly.

“Doing fine, according to the doc. He was by this morning. Sleeping now.”

“Oh, I didn’t come to bother her. Pa sent me with a message. Here, he wrote it all out,” Joe quickly explained and handed a note to Ephraim. “Hop Sing sent something too.” Joe drew a jar from his saddlebags. “He says it will build Helen up, ya know, after losing so much blood.”

Ephraim took the jar and eyed the contents warily.

“Hop Sing’s had lots of experience building up folks, what with me and my brothers and Pa even,” Joe reassured. “Doc Martin says Hop Sing’s brews are better than lots of medicines. Hop Sing says put a big spoonful in some milk and heat it up, and make Helen sip it. It don’t taste bad, so she shouldn’t mind.”

“Fine, son, we’ll do that.” Ephraim smiled at the boy.

“Hop Sing said to ask if ya’ll need him to do any cooking for ya.”

“Church ladies plan on sending so much for supper we’ll have plenty for breakfast and lunch the next day, so tell him thank you for asking but no. In fact, I’m feared all my sons are gonna end up the size of Hoss.” Ephraim winked at Joe, and the boy laughed. “Paul’s in the barn. Go say howdy while I read this and write your papa an answer.”

“Yes, sir.” Joe quickly walked into the barn. He liked Mr. McNally, but the man still made Joe slightly nervous at times.

“Hey, Paul,” Joe called out as he walked into the barn. Paul stopped working and greeted his friend. “Your pa told me to talk to you while he was writing my pa a note.”

“You playing messenger for your papa?”

“Beats fixing fence with Hoss,” Little Joe grinned.

“Well, if Papa wants me to entertain company instead of doing chores, that’s fine with me.” Paul grinned back at his friend, and they both settled themselves comfortably on some hay.

“Your brothers tell you about catching that Jason Pruitt?” Paul began.

“Not much. I ain’t had a chance to talk to them alone and ask no questions,” Joe replied. “Just know that he didn’t put up much of a fight. Don’t know why we couldn’t have been there.”

“Papa talked to Jeff privately and then to Alex. Neither of them said much to me. I do know Alex went after the guy and broke his nose. Hoss stopped him.”

“Hoss would,” Joe stated the obvious. Seeing the look that passed over Paul’s face, he added, “Hoss wouldn’t want Alex in trouble, Paul.”

“I know. Just wish I could have been there to get in a lick or two. She’s my sister, Joe.”

Little Joe was about to say he knew, but it occurred to him that since he did not have any sisters, he might not.

“He hurt some girl over to Carson. He was wanted there, but the circuit judge is trying the case here. Adam said I’ll probably have to testify.” Joe fiddled with a piece of hay. “You ever had to testify?”

Paul shook his head. “Saw lots of people do it, though. I used to go watch Daniel in court.”

Joe had not thought about the fact that Helen’s oldest brother was a lawyer in Virginia. Maybe testifying wouldn’t make Helen that nervous if she had been to court and watched trials. “Pa says to just tell the truth and not worry about it.”

“Your papa’s right, Joe,” Paul replied in a cheerful tone that sounded forced.

“Don’t do me that way, Paul.”

Paul looked at Joe. Joe was his friend, but sometimes the fact that Joe was just his little sister’s age made Paul feel protective. “It’s just… it’s nothing.”

“Paul!’

Paul bit his lip. “It’s just that lawyers, good ones anyways, can, well, they can twist things and ask questions that are hard to answer and kind of make a person wish they was somewhere else is all.”

“Can your brother do that?”

Paul gave Joe a wide grin. “Daniel has a tongue you wouldn’t believe. He can get the truth out of a liar and make the truth sound like a lie. Papa said he knew Daniel better be a lawyer by the time he was three.”

Joe chewed his lip nervously.

“Don’t worry, Joe. It’s what Helen has to say that’s going to count.”

“Yeah, I really didn’t see the guy.”

“Your testimony just makes it so that some lawyer can’t try to make out Helen’s some crazy who cut herself and made up a story.”

Joe jerked up indignantly. “Nobody would try to do that, Paul. Would they?”

“Naw,” Paul shrugged.

“Boys.” Ephraim’s voice carried throughout the barn.

“Just keeping Joe company, Papa.” Paul jumped to his feet as it occurred to him that his father might have expected him to talk and work at the same time. Joe scrambled to his feet also for it occurred to him his pa would have wanted him to at least offer to help Paul with what he was doing.

Ephraim sent his youngest son a stern look, but simply said, “Here’s a note for your father, Joe. You boys have a good talk then?”

Joe took the note and placed it in his pocket. “Yes, sir, Mr. McNally. Does this need to go straight to Pa?”

Ephraim answered with a question, “If it doesn’t?”

“I’ll be heading out to help Hoss with some fencing.”

“I’m sure Hoss will be glad for the help. The note can wait until you return for supper.”

Joe realized he had been dismissed. “I’ll see he gets it, sir. Good to talk with you, Paul. Would you both give Helen my best?”

“Certainly, Joseph. Thank Hop Sing and your family for us.”

“Sure thing, Mr. McNally.” Joe exited the barn and vaulted onto Cochise. Paul and Mr. McNally had followed Joe. He watched Helen’s father enter the house and rode over to Paul.

“Don’t think Papa’s been away from Helen for more than thirty minutes at a time,” Paul observed as much to himself as to Joe.

“Well, she is his baby girl,” Joe said nonchalantly, but he bit his lip and wondered just how Helen was doing. “I best get to that fencing.”

“Why ever did you ask Papa about the note? You should have just assumed you needed to ride home and deliver it right away. Your father might have decided it wasn’t even worth you going out that late to help Hoss.”

Joe gave a wry grin. “I should have thought of that. I guess your pa just muddles my thinking sometimes.”

Paul laughed. “Papa always has had an effect on people. Mama said he could intimidate most people by the time he was ten.” Paul reached out and put a hand on Joe’s arm. “Don’t worry about testifying, Joe. You’re not bad with your mouth yourself, you know.”

“Can’t argue with that,” Joe declared as he tipped his hat and touched his heels to Cochise’s flanks.

*****

Adam and Hoss saw Alex and Jeff McNally approaching and waited outside the doors to the Silver Dollar for the brothers to join them. When the four entered, Adam went to the bar for the drinks. If it had been only Alex and himself, he would have ordered a bottle, but since Hoss and Jeff were there, he told Sam to send over four beers. The men exchanged pleasantries while waiting for their drinks. By the time Adam had taken his first long sip, he had decided to have a serious conversation.

Adam fixed his eyes on Alex. “So how is Helen really?”

Alex set down his beer and studied Hoss and Adam’s faces. “Physically, the doctor says she’s doing better than could be expected. Papa says Hop Sing’s tonic must be as good as Joe said.” Adam raised an eyebrow, and Alex continued, “She doesn’t want papa out of her sight, doesn’t really want to see anyone else, and answers with a word or two.”

“The little gal’s not talking.” Hoss shook his head and exchanged a worried glance with Adam.

Jeff added softly, “Papa’s worried about her and worried that one of us, ” he shot a look at his older brother, ” is going to come into town and beat that fellow to death or tangle with the sheriff trying. Papa gets kind of irritable when he’s worried.”

“Papa’s afraid he’ll kill the man when he actually sees him,” Alex declared with a look at his brother.

“We could take bets on who actually starts a brawl in the courtroom,” Adam drawled sardonically. “Of course, there might not be anyone willing to fight you about it. Joe’s having nightmares, so Hoss and I wouldn’t mind taking a piece out of Pruitt’s hide.”

“I heard the girl’s family over in Carson don’t want her testifying in no trial, but her brothers plan to be here for this one,” Hoss stated.

“Where…” Adam started to ask.

“Talked to Roy when I was picking up the mail.”

Adam looked at Alex. “How does your father feel about Helen testifying?”

“Doesn’t like that she has to. My older brother’s a lawyer, Adam. Helen will testify.”

Adam leaned his chair back on two legs. “All Hiram needs to do is ask Helen what happened and then get out of her way. That girl can …”

“That’s one of the problems, Adam. Right now you have to ask Helen three questions to get enough words out of her to make a sentence.”

“The little gal ain’t had much time to get over it yet,” Hoss ventured. “Maybe after the trial and all, she’ll feel better about it.”

“I’m not so sure.” Alex looked across the table at Adam. “Helen, well, now she knows we can’t protect her from everything.” Alex reached for his beer and downed half of it in one swigJeff followed suit.

Adam heard himself warning Joe that Helen had three very protective brothers. She had grown up knowing she had four big brothers and a father few people would choose to cross. Adam reached for his own drink and sipped it slowly. He knew some of Little Joe’s impetuosity resulted from the knowledge that people thought twice before taking on the Cartwrights.

“No one can be protected from everything, Alex,” Adam commented to his friend

Alex gave Adam an ironic smile. “Guess what Papa has instructed me to do as soon as Helen’s up and about?”

Adam raised an eyebrow but did not guess.

Alex continued anyway, “I’m to teach Helen to shoot. Seems I’ve gotten my way on that one.”

Adam’s rueful smile matched the one Alex had given him, “Make sure your pa doesn’t notice how quickly Helen’s learning.

Hoss suddenly had the feeling everyone else at the table knew something he did not. “What do ya mean by that, Adam?”

Adam looked at both of the McNally brothers and registered their almost imperceptible nods.

“Well, it’s a secret, Hoss, but Joe already taught Helen to shoot. Her pa had forbidden it, but Joe didn’t know.”

“Little gal snookered him, did she?”

“Slick as a whistle,” Adam replied with a grin. Hoss shuffled a few things in his mind and knew exactly when this had all occurred.

“None of ya told me.” Hoss sounded hurt.

Alex spoke up quickly. “I made them promise, Hoss. Our papa can’t know. Not ever.”

“Won’t hear nothing from me,” declared Hoss. He sighed. “This next couple of weeks is gonna be hard on them young’ns. We just got to be there for ’em and give ’em some time to heal.”

“Hoss is right,” Jeff declared softly, “Takes time to put some things to rights. Those two just worry things to death especially about the babies.”

Alex glared at his brother and then sighed. “It would be easier if they had remained babies. If they still hadn’t learned to walk, we might stand a chance when it comes to keeping them out of trouble.”

Adam shook his head wearily and laughed. The rest of the table joined him.

*****

Little Joe tugged at his string tie and looked over at the girl waiting with him. Helen wore her Sunday dress and hat and a nervous expression. They had been told they could not be in the courtroom until they testified, so they had been placed together in a small room in the courthouse. Both Ben and Ephraim had tried to stay with them but had been sent out by the deputy. This was the first time Little Joe had seen Helen since the night of her being attacked. He had tried several times to start a conversation, but Helen had been uncharacteristically monosyllabic in her responses. Joe himself did not want to talk about their upcoming testimony or the events that had brought about the trial. He searched his mind for something to distract them both.

“Helen, how come ya never told me?”

“What?” Helen responded without looking at Joe.

“About your pa and Thor. Lord, girl, you’re always going on about how Paul can ride, but if your pa had raced Thor on Founder’s Day, we would have been eating his dust the whole time. I’ve never seen anybody ride a horse that way.”

Helen looked straight at Little Joe for the first time that day. “Papa doesn’t race.”

“Not ever?”

Helen shook her head. “He only rides that way when there’s a need. He just won’t race.”

“How come?” Joe asked sure there must be a story behind Ephraim’s decision.

“Papa won’t say. If you ask, you get a look that tells you it’s not your business. Mama always said that he had his reasons and to leave it be.”

“But Lordy, Helen, he was like, well, like them Greek things Adam read about to me that are half man and half horse,” Joe declared in sincere appreciation of Ephraim McNally’s riding ability. He had never seen a man and horse move so impressively as when Ephraim was riding to Helen’s side.

Helen smiled. “Papa is something when he and Thor go full out. Of course, Thor’s has something to do with that.”

“I should of told you we’d ride Thor when we raced instead of Sport,” declared Joe. The desire to ride Ephraim’s stallion had been growing in Little Joe since watching that ride. He figured he felt about it the way Helen had felt about riding Sport before she had tricked him into borrowing his brother’s horse for a private race.

Helen shook her head. “Even if you’d said Thor, we couldn’t have ridden him. Nobody rides Thor but Papa. I just wanted you to think riding Sport was your choice.”

“I know the whole purpose of that racing was for you to ride Sport, but, Helen, riding Thor would really have been something. It would have been worth whatever your pa did to us.”

“Joe, you aren’t listening to me. Nobody rides Thor but Papa. That’s not Papa’s decision; it’s Thor’s.” Helen’s flat demeanor was gone. Both she and Joe had forgotten to be nervous.

“Thor’s? Are you telling me you haven’t even tried to ride that horse?”

“Joe, Thor doesn’t let anyone but Papa ride him. All the boys have tried, and all it’s got them is bruises from Thor and a thrashing from Papa.”

“Bet I could ride him,” Little Joe declared with confidence.

“You don’t mean that do you, Sugar? I thought your papa didn’t let you bet.” A certain sparkle had entered Helen’s eyes.

Joe saw it and grinned. “Your pa won’t race, but he doesn’t mind if you and your brothers do?”

“He minds. We’re not allowed until we’re of age, actually.”

“Helen! You race all the time.” Joe had thought Helen had gotten in trouble on Founder’s Day only because she had disguised herself as a boy and raced without telling her father.

“And I pay the consequences when I get caught.” Helen bit her lip and looked at Joe through her lashes. “So does Paul, and that’s why Jeff never races.”

Little Joe silently digested what Helen had told him.

“Sugar, I said I wouldn’t get you in trouble anymore,” Helen said softly.

Joe chewed his lower lip and then said, “You never said you wouldn’t help me if I decided to get myself in trouble.” Joe gave Helen a wry grin, “If you get in trouble too, well, I wouldn’t have to feel too bad ’cause we’d just be even.”

“I don’t know, Joe. You could get hurt.” A worried look had come over Helen’s face.

“Did your brothers?”

“Not really. Alex sprained an ankle, Paul broke his wrist, and Jeff cracked a rib.” Helen frowned as she realized the extent of the list she had recited.

“See, nothing that ain’t happened to me before.”

“You haven’t been caught disobeying my papa before. He’d see that you answered to him as well as your pa.” Helen’s tone was serious. “Better think about that, Joe.”

“I think this dance would be worth paying two pipers,” Joe replied his eyes glowing.

Before either one could say anymore, they were startled by the deputy’s entrance. It was time for Little Joe to testify.

*****

Little Joe kept his eyes on Hiram Woods, whom he had known for years. He answered the prosecutor’s questions truthfully and clearly. Then Hiram sat down and was replaced by the round, balding fellow with a moustache who Pruitt had hired as his lawyer.

“Well, boy, let’s just go over a few things,” the defense lawyer began.

Little Joe bristled at the word boy and leaned forwarded in his seat.

“You saw a horse beside the road, is that right?”

“Yes.” Joe left off the sir he had used when answering Hiram Woods.

“You did not recognize that horse?”

“No.”

“But you stopped. Weren’t you afraid, boy, out there alone?” The lawyer emphasized the words boy and afraid.

“No! I wasn’t afraid,” Joe declared adamantly.

“I see; you were not afraid because you did not think there was anything to fear. Now, you saw a girl come out of the woods and run toward you, correct?”

“Helen ran to me, yes,” Joe answered.

“Helen? Miss McNally is a friend of yours, is she?”

“Yeah, we’re friends.”

“Are just you and Miss McNally friends, boy?”

Hiram’s voice rang out in objection. He had watched Joe’s reaction each time Hugh Banton had addressed Joe as boy and wanted it to stop. “The defense counsel should address the witness with more respect.”

Banton’s hand fluttered in dismissal. “Of course, of course, well, Master Cartwright, are just you and the young lady friends?”

“No. My family’s friends with her family.”

“You’re friendly with her father and brothers then, is that correct?”

“We’re all friends,” Joe snapped, irritated at the lawyer’s tone and not sure where the questions were leading.

“Then Miss McNally would have reason to believe that her family might learn from you of any, shall we say, incidents she was involved in that you became aware of?” Banton asked.

Joe scowled not willing to admit that he had not really understood the point of what the lawyer was asking.

Not waiting for Joe’s answer, the lawyer proceeded, “Now you say you drew and aimed at the man who followed Miss McNally from the woods. Are you a good shot, Master Cartwright?” The lawyer’s tone was condescending.

Joe chaffed. Master Cartwright was no better than boy. “Yes. Yes, I hit what I shoot at.”

“But you did not hit the man you saw that day when you fired. Why is that, Master Cartwright?”

“My aim was jostled.”

“How?”

“Helen grabbed on to me.”

“So Miss McNally grabbed you and prevented you from harming the man who supposedly harmed her?”

“He did hurt her! She was cut. She was bleeding all over.” Joe was half out of his seat when he caught his father’s eye and forced himself back down.

“What did she tell you then?” Right then.” The lawyer fired the question at Little Joe.”

“That she wanted to go home.” Joe’s response was automatic and flat.

“Did she tell you about the attack?”

“No.”

“No,” Banton turned his back and started to walk away from Little Joe, “because there wasn’t an attack just a girl discovered alone with a man.”

Joe was on his feet, and the curse that flew from his lips echoed across the courtroom. Ephraim McNally and each of his sons jumped to their feet and surged forward. Ben, Adam, and Hoss Cartwright managed to stop the surge as the judge banged his gavel, and the sheriff roared for order.

When everyone was seated once again, the judge stared down at Little Joe. “Joseph Cartwright, are you aware of the inappropriateness of those words in this courtroom and in front of the ladies present?”

“Yes, sir,” Joe replied softly and dropped his chin to his chest.

“Do you frequently speak that way, young man?”

“No, sir, my pa wouldn’t allow that.” Joe’s voice was so soft that many in the room could not make out what he had said.

“I do not allow such behavior in my courtroom, son, and if it happens again…”

Joe did not stop to think that he was interrupting the judge, “It won’t, sir. I’m sorry. It won’t happen again.”

“Very well,” the judge looked over at Ben Cartwright, “I shall leave your punishment in your father’s hands this time.” The look he gave Ben demanded that there be a punishment. “If it happens again, I will not be so lenient. Mr. Banton, do you have more questions for this witness?”

“No, your Honor.”

“Any redirect, Mr. Woods?”

“If you please, your Honor.” Hiram rose and decided to meet the insinuation head on. “Joseph, you know Helen quite well, do you not?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Is she the kind of girl that goes with men into the woods?”

“No, sir.” Joe’s answer was clear and adamant.

“Is she the kind of girl that lies to cover her actions?”

“No. If Helen gets caught doing something, she owns up to it.”

“One last question, Joseph. Is Helen afraid enough of her father or brothers to accuse an innocent man of wrongdoing to protect herself?”

A smiled came to Joe’s face. “Helen, afraid of her pa? Mr. Woods, Helen’s probably the person least afraid of her pa in the whole territory. And her brothers…” Joe shrugged his shoulders and shook his head. “No, sir, Helen’s not afraid of her brothers.”

“Thank you, Joseph.” Hiram Woods dismissed his witness with a smile. Joe went and sat next to his father as Helen walked into the courtroom.

Hiram gently drew Helen’s story from her question by question. She lacked her usual loquaciousness but answered clearly, keeping her eyes focused on her father who was sitting in the first row.

“My dear, why did you grab Joe Cartwright when he was firing at the man?” Hiram had decided to address the defense’s insinuations head on with Helen also.

Helen gave the prosecutor a puzzled look. “I, I was scared and Joe, well, he’s like one of my brothers almost. I didn’t think about what he was doing. I just, I was scared.”

Hiram knew Helen had not been in the courtroom and did not know what the defense lawyer had tried to imply.

“So Joe Cartwright is a very good friend of yours. Tell me, young lady, would he tattle on you?”

Helen shook her head. “Little Joe doesn’t tattle.”

“So if Little Joe saw you doing something your father would not approve of, you would not be worried that he would tell on you?’

“No,” Helen said as she looked at Little Joe questioningly.

“Your witness,” Hiram Woods said and took his seat.

Hugh Banton frowned. Adam caught Alex McNally’s eye and a look passed between them. Adam stiffened. Alex’s words about Ephraim McNally not forgiving Helen if she let herself be dishonored by a boy went through Adam’s mind. If Banton asked the right questions, he could damage belief in Helen’s testimony. Adam looked at the sheriff. Roy Coffee’s focus was clearly on the McNallys. Well, at least he would be ready if trouble erupted.

Hugh Banton began, “I’m sure if I asked about the same things Mr. Woods did, you would give me the same answers, Miss McNally, so let’s inquire about something else.”

Helen drew in a shallow breath and found herself looking at Little Joe.

“Your father’s name is Ephraim, is it not?”

“Yes.”

“And your brothers are Alexander, Jeffery, and Paul?” Each of Helen’s brothers stiffened as his name was called.

“Yes.”

“Then could you tell us, Miss Helen McNally, who Hal McNally is?”

Two spots of color rose on Helen’s cheeks. “Hal?”

“Yes, who is Hal McNally?” Banton took a step closer to Helen.

“Me.”

“Yes, you, Miss McNally when you deceived a whole town into thinking you were a boy. Very successfully, I might add. You’re good at lying and deceiving, aren’t you, Miss McNally?”

Helen sucked in her breath and then dropped her head without answering. Tears slid down her cheeks. Paul McNally sprang to his feet, and for the second time Hugh Banton was the object of a vehement curse. Ephraim McNally grabbed Paul by his waist and thrust him at Alex.

“Get him outside and keep him there!” Ephraim commanded. Alex wrapped his arms around his youngest brother and did as ordered.

The judge’s gavel banged repeatedly. When everyone quieted, the judge threatened to clear the courtroom if there was one more disruption. Then he fined Paul McNally for contempt of court.

Banton dismissed Helen from the stand. She stood, took two steps forward, and fainted. Ephraim McNally, Jeff, and Paul Martin reached Helen simultaneously. Ephraim scooped up his daughter, looked at the judge, and carried her out. The judge declared a thirty-minute recess.

The Cartwrights walked outside.

“Ephraim will have taken her to Paul’s office. I’ll go check on them,” Ben said. Then he turned to his sons, “Joseph, stay with your brothers. Do you hear me?”

“Yes, sir.” Joe watched his father walk down the street and then turned to his elder brother. “Adam, the jury ain’t going to believe Helen’s lying, are they?”

Adam’s eyes were focused on two stranger’s talking just outside the door to the courthouse. “Everything will be fine, Little Buddy,” he reassured his brother automatically. “Hoss, see to Joe. There’s someone I need to talk to.” Adam strode over to the two men.

“You know who those men are, Hoss?” Joe asked as the two brothers watched Adam talking.

“No, Short Shanks, I don’t.” Hoss had been wondering the same thing. He put his arm around his younger brother’s shoulders, as he watched Adam walk back into the courthouse with the two strangers.

Court reconvened without any of the McNallys in attendance. Ben had returned and told his sons that the doctor had said that Helen would be fine just before the court was called to order.

Hiram Woods called one more witness. Hoss watched one of the men with whom Adam had been talking take the stand and looked inquiring at his brother.

Over the course of the next five minutes, Hiram led Judd Parker through the story of his discovering his sister being assaulted.

“The man who you saw assaulting your sister managed to escape,” Hiram asked his witness.

“Yes.” Judd hissed.

“Is that man in the courtroom today?”

Judd Parker stood and glared at the defense table. He pointed his finger at Jasper Pruitt. “Right there, and if you don’t send him to prison, I sure enough will send him to the devil.”

Hiram quickly tendered the witness. Banton’s face registered defeat even as he rose to question Judd. The only witness Banton called was Jasper Pruitt. His denials fell on deaf ears as it took the jury only fifteen minutes to bring in a guilty verdict.

*****

Hoss walked over to Adam. “Well, that’s done. Won’t nobody have to worry about that varmint for the next twenty-five years.”

“Very few men make it through twenty-five years in any prison,” Adam observed as much to himself as to his brother.

“Good thing that Judd Parker decided to testify,” Hoss said giving Adam a sideways glance.

“Yes, it was fortunate. Hiram had spoken to him earlier, but he and his brother were reluctant to bring their sister’s name into it.”

“Worried about the gossip, I suppose. Some of them old biddies can peck a body plum to death,” Hoss commented glancing at several women talking in front of the courthouse.”

“If the McNallys had felt that way, Pruitt would still be free to attack some other girl.” Adam’s glance followed his brother’s. Both men knew that Helen’s and Joe’s names were probably on those women’s lips at that very moment.

“That part of what ya told Parker to make him change his mind?”

Adam looked at his brother. “What makes you think I got him to change his mind?”

“Saw ya talking to him.” Hoss grinned. “Adam, I’ve been your brother for twenty-two years now. I know the look ya get when you’re fixing to go after a problem and the one ya get when ya done fixed it. I seen both them looks today.”

“He just needed a few things pointed out to him is all,” Adam replied dismissively. Then he grinned back at Hoss. “So you think you can read me like a book, do you, Little Brother?”

Hoss nodded, “Just like one of them dime novels of Joe’s.”

Adam winced and replied melodramatically, “You insult me, dear brother.”

Hoss laughed. Ben walked up to his sons.

‘The McNallys have left for home, and it would be best if we did the same,” he stated.

“Joe already went to start saddling the horses,” Hoss informed his father.

Adam quickly interjected, “I’ll go and give him a hand.” He immediately strode off in the direction of the livery.

Before Ben and Hoss could follow, they were snared by Mrs. Woods. It took over ten minutes for them to politely extract themselves from her clutches.

Adam entered the livery and walked over to Little Joe. The boy was standing with his head against a half-saddled Cochise. Adam placed a hand on his brother’s shoulder. “It’s all over, Little Buddy.” Little Joe shifted nervously beneath Adam’s hand. “Hiram said you did a fine job.”

“Yeah,” Joe said weakly. Then he mumbled, “The judge wasn’t too pleased.”

Adam turned his brother to face him. Joe’s eyes still focused on the floor of the livery. “Is that what’s worrying you? I don’t think Pa’s too mad about that, Joe, really, I don’t.”

“Ya know what he’s gonna do, Adam. I cussed in front of God and everybody.”

“I’ll talk to Pa for you, Little Buddy,” Adam offered.

“Won’t make no difference. You heard the judge. It was practically an order.” Joe sighed.

“Really, I don’t think it will be that bad. Come on, let’s get these horses saddled.” Adam turned Joe around and gave him a pat on the back. He stepped back and turned to saddle Sport. He looked over his shoulder at Joe and rubbed the bridge of his nose.

It was a quiet ride home. Each of the Cartwrights seemed lost in their own thoughts. When Joe offered to see to everyone’s horse, Adam followed his father into the house.

“Pa?”

“Yes, Son.”

Adam crossed his arms over his chest and unconsciously tugged at his ear. “I, uh, Joe’s strung as tight as violin string, Pa.”

“Now that the trial’s over, he should be able to relax a little.”

“Uh, right now he’s kind of worried that you’re mad with him.”

Ben raised his eyebrow inquiringly.

“About the cussing, you know.”

Ben’s eyes darkened. “Yes, we do still have that to attend to.”

“Pa, you’re not, well, you’re not planning to tan him, are you?”

“I’m not?”

“He was under a lot of pressure, and you have to admit what he said was true, ” Adam asserted with a wry grin.

“So you think I should excuse it? I don’t think the judge would agree.”

“Pa, I know with what the judge said and all that you don’t feel you can just let it slide, but you could go easy on the boy.”

Ben studied his son. If Adam was pleading Joe’s case, his eldest was concerned about more than Little Joe’s backside. “We’ll see.”

Adam knew when not to push. “I’d better go up and get changed,” he said turning and going up the stairs.

*****

Joe had slipped off after being excused from the supper table. Adam found him at the corrals leaning against the rails just staring. He took the place next to his brother and placed his folded arms on the top rail.

“I’m okay, Adam,” Joe said softly after a few minutes.

“Pa wasn’t too hard on you then?”

Joe ducked his head. “Naw.” After a moment he admitted, “He washed my mouth out with soap. Said I must of forgotten that lesson.”

“Didn’t even blister your ears?”

“No. Thanks for talking to him.”

“Did he say I talked to him?”

Joe turned his head to look at his big brother. “He didn’t have to.” A few silent minutes passed. “Adam, why do men do things like that?”

Adam recognized the change of topic and had no need to ask what things Joe meant. “Different reasons, I suppose. Mostly they never learned to feel for anyone but themselves.”

“Maybe he didn’t have no pa or anybody else to teach him.”

“Maybe not,” Adam answered, and both brothers gave silent thanks for all the people in their lives who had.

“Will prison make him better?” Joe inquired.

Adam decided to be frank with his brother. “Probably not, Joe, but no one will have to worry about him for a long while.”

“Would it have been better if I had shot him?”

“Not for you, little brother,” Adam thought to himself. “That wasn’t your responsibility, Joe.” He put his arm around Joe’s shoulders. “You did the right things, brother.” Then he lightened his tone. “You know I’d be the first to tell you if you hadn’t.”

Joe’s eyes brightened a little. “You sure would, Big Brother.”

“Let it go, Joseph.” Adam smiled down at his brother. “That’s an order.”

Joe smiled back. “Aye, aye, sir.”

As they turned to head back to the house, Adam knew banishing Joe’s demons would not be quite that easy, but perhaps they had made a start.

*****

Little Joe heard his brothers return from town. He rolled over on his stomach in the hayloft and listened to the movement and voices below. Slowly he focused on what his brothers were discussing.

“Alex and Jeff are sure enough worried about the little gal,” Hoss commented.

“They had hoped with Pruitt headed off to prison Helen would start to be more like her old self,” Adam observed, “but according to Alex she hardly leaves the ranch house and never without Ephraim.”

“Jeff says, well, he says it’s like a light’s done gone out inside her. She says she’s fine, and does all she needs to do, but, well, there ain’t no sparkle in her.” Hoss sighed.

“Well, healing the spirit often takes longer than healing the body. I don’t know what we could do to help,” Adam admitted. “We’ll just have to wait for something to come along and push it out of her mind.”

Joe bit his lip. He let his mind drift from his brothers’ voices as he considered what he had overheard. He had seen Helen a couple of times since the trial, and it was true. She didn’t really seem interested in anything, and there was a flatness where there had always been a bounce.

Joe shuffled memories until he recalled the last time he had seen Helen anywhere near her usual self. His mouth slowly turned up as he considered how he could help relight the fire inside Helen.

*****

Paul McNally watched the rider approaching and smiled when he recognized Little Joe Cartwright’s pinto. He waited for his friend to ride into the yard.

Little Joe swung down and called, “Hey, Paul! Is Helen around?”

“She’s in the house,” Paul replied as he walked over to his friend. “What are you doing here, Joe? Your pa give you the day off?”

“Not exactly,” Joe muttered his answer and studied Paul wondering if he really should bring Helen’s youngest brother in on his plan or just go it alone. “How’s Helen?”

Joe watched Paul’s face as he replied, “About the same.”

“That’s why I’m here,” Joe said lowering his voice to a conspiratorial whisper.

“What do you mean?” Paul asked recognizing the look in Joe’s eyes.

“Helen’s like a steer that’s done got herself stuck in the mud. We’ve got to pull her out, and I’ve figured out a rope,” Joe declared with a grin.

“What kind of rope?” Paul asked glancing nervously toward the house.

Joe suddenly grew serious. “One that could get us all in a heap of trouble, but, well, if it works…” Joe shrugged.

“What kind of trouble?”

“Trouble with your pa mostly. Well, I’ll be in trouble with my pa too, but you and Helen won’t.”

“You think getting Helen in trouble with Papa is going to help her feel better?” Paul gave his friend a puzzled look. He bit his lip. “Right now it would take a powerful something to get Papa mad at Helen.”

“Oh, this is going to be powerful medicine,” said Joe switching metaphors. “Are you in?”

“Tell me first,” Paul demanded.

Little Joe shook his head. “In or out is okay, but if you’re not in, ya can’t know.”

“You really think it will work?”

Joe sighed. “I think it’s worth the try and worth the risk.” A grin grew on Joe’s face. “If it works, your pa might be so happy that he’ll be real forgiving.”

“Oh, Papa’s a forgiving man, Joe; he’s just not very merciful when it comes to consequences.” A shadow entered Paul’s eyes.

Joe asked softly, “When was the last time ya saw Helen’s eyes sparkle?”

“That morning before she left.”

“I saw ’em sparkle once after that; that’s why I think it will work.”

Paul cast another look at the house and said, “I’m in.”

Little Joe clapped him on the back and drew him into the barn. Then he told Paul his plan in one rushed jumble of sentences.

“You’re crazy,” Paul shook his head. “If Thor don’t kill you, my papa will. If Helen gets hurt…” A shudder went through Paul’s entire body.

“We won’t let Helen actually get on Thor,” Little Joe stated in a voice that said that should be obvious. Actually, helping to keep Helen off Thor was what Joe needed Paul for the most. “And I’ll be fine.” Joe’s own eyes sparkled. “I think I can ride him, Paul, but even if he dumps me…” Joe shrugged, “The real point is getting Helen involved and thinking like her old self.”

Paul shuddered again. “Joe, answering to Papa is a serious thing.”

A vision of Ephraim McNally rose before Joe’s eyes, and he gulped. “Let’s dance before we worry about paying the piper,” he declared. “Helen’s really going to owe us for this!” Joe finished to himself.

“I’ve got to be getting back,” Little Joe stated suddenly aware of how much time had passed since he had ducked out of his assigned chore and headed over to the McNally’s. Paul jumped up and followed Joe out to his horse.

“When are we gonna start putting this plan of yours in motion?” Paul asked as Joe vaulted into the saddle.

“Pa’s coming by day after tomorrow; I’ll be with him. We’ll start then.” Joe chewed his lower lip.

Paul noticed and added, “Unless you can’t explain when your father starts asking where you’ve been this morning.”

“Pa’s in Carson City until tomorrow. It will be Adam doing the asking if I get caught. If I work double time, I think I’ll get by.”

“You’d better hope so,” Paul jibed. “Fact is, I better get to working double time myself.”

“If Helen noticed I’m here…” Joe had suddenly considered that complication.

“I’ll think of something to tell her. Maybe start setting the stage,” Paul assured him.

Joe nodded and sunk his heels into Cochise’s flanks.

*****

Little Joe Cartwright and Paul McNally made sure their fathers were occupied at the corrals and then made their way to the McNally house. Helen was in the kitchen preparing lunch, and the boys stationed themselves near the open door where Helen would be sure to hear them.

“Just because you couldn’t do it, doesn’t mean I can’t,” Joe declared loudly with a wink at Paul.

“Nobody but Papa can ride Thor, Joe. Just get that through your head. Didn’t Helen tell ya that?” Paul put an irritated spin on his question.

“Helen thinks McNallys are the only ones who can ride anything but a rocking horse. Just because none of the McNally brothers has done somethin’ doesn’t mean it can’t be done. ‘Sides you only tried once, and some things take more than one try. I don’t give up so easy.”

“I guess you would have just hopped right back on, broken wrist and all.” Paul’s temper was beginning to heat his words despite knowing their discussion was being staged for Helen’s benefit.

“Well, maybe not right that minute but later.”

“Obviously Ben Cartwright is no match for my papa when it comes to giving a whipping.”

Joe snorted as if Paul’s comment was ludicrous. “You’ve had years to try again unless you’re trying to tell me your backside’s still aching.”

Paul gave a snort of his own.

“If y’all keep shouting, Papa and Mr. Ben may decide to practice their whipping skills on your backsides today.” Helen’s voice was softly mocking. Joe and Paul exchanged a quick smile before turning to face Helen who had come to stand in the doorway between the sitting room and the kitchen.

“Papa may include yours if we tell him you’ve been eavesdropping,” Paul retorted.

“The whole world could be eavesdropping on the two of you. If you don’t want people to listen, lower your voices,” Helen countered smoothly. Then turning to Joe, she asked, “You’re not thinking on trying to ride Thor, now, are ya, Sugar?”

“I think I could. I bet I could!”

Helen shook her head. The small curls that had come loose from her braid bounced against her cheeks and neck. “Joe, Joe, just ’cause ya rode Sport a few seconds faster than me, well it’s not the same thing. Though you’re right about Paul giving up too easy.”

A tendril of true anger uncurled in Paul. “Some people haven’t even tried once, but then you can’t expect a girl to try something like that.”

Joe was watching Helen closely, and he saw a strange flicker in Helen’s eyes for a single moment. No, it just couldn’t be, could it?

“Could be I didn’t want to embarrass my big brothers by doing what they couldn’t. I’m far too sweet a sister to do that.” Helen’s southern drawl had thickened to molasses.

Paul made a sound that was a cross between a snort and a growl. Joe took a deep breath. Well, Helen certainly seemed more like her old self already.

“A lot of talk don’t mean anything,” Joe said dropping his volume to a conspiratorial level. “I’m ready to prove what I say.”

Helen shook her head again. “Don’t even think on it, Sugar. I told you; Thor decides who rides him, and Thor only lets Papa.”

“Well, if your pa can convince Thor to let him ride, then I bet I can too,” Joe declared.

Helen patted Joe’s arm. “You just don’t understand, Sugar. Thor owes Papa.”

Joe exchanged a look with Paul.

“She’s not crazy, Joe; she just thinks that horses are four-legged people,” Paul commented.

“Hoss does too. Of course he thinks that about most animals.” Joe shrugged and failed to admit that he thought that way about some horses especially Cochise.

Helen sat down and motioned for Joe to do the same. “Joe, the people who bred Thor tried to train him, but he wouldn’t have any of it. Papa came along the day they decided to sell him for slaughter. He’d hurt a man really bad, and they decided he was not only untrainable but dangerous. Papa bought him for five dollars.” Helen paused as Joe gasped in surprise. He knew that it was quite possible that Thor could be sold for over a thousand dollars now. Helen nodded. “Bought him, brought him home, and tended him. Renamed him Thor. Papa told him all about how Thor was a powerful god in control of thunder and lightening. Thor knows that papa saved him and respects him, so he lets Papa ride him, but nobody else, and Papa told him he doesn’t have to.”

Joe leaned toward Helen. “If Thor gets to decide who rides him, if I ride Thor it’s ’cause Thor decided, and your pa won’t mind at all.” Joe grinned at his own logic.

“What makes you think you can convince Thor to let you ride him?” Helen asked with a soft smile turning up the corners of her lips.

“Horses like me.” Joe’s grin widened. “I’ll have Cochise put in a good word for me.”

Helen’s eyes sparkled. “Might help.” She looked at her brother. “It would make Alex spit nails.”

“Helen McNally, you’re not honestly saying we should help Joe ride Thor.”

“Whoever actually rides Thor gets the title of best rider in the territory.” Helen’s eyes danced.

“Your pa rides Thor everyday.” Joe stated softly.

“But Thor owes Papa, and he doesn’t owe us.” Helen’s pronouncement hung in the air until the sound of horses drowned it.

Ben and Ephraim had arrived for lunch. Helen scurried back to the kitchen while Joe and Paul exchanged a handshake and a grin.

*****

Spotting Alex and Jeff McNally, Hoss nudged his older brother and called out to his friends. The four were soon seated at a table in the Silver Dollar sipping cold beer.

“How’s the little gal doing?” Hoss asked.

A grin spread across Jeff’s face. “Past couple of days she’s been more like her old self. Guess folks were right about just giving her some time.”

An answering smile appeared on Hoss Cartwright’s face. “Well now, ain’t that good to hear.”

Adam’s eyes were on Alex McNally’s face. “Sure is. Must be a weight off your mind, Alex.”

Alex McNally gave his friend a wry grin and deftly started a discussion about an upcoming horse auction.

When their beers were finished, the four young men walked out of the saloon together. Adam placed his hand on Alex’s arm to slow him. As their younger brothers continued out of earshot, Adam looked at his friend. “Is Helen really better?”

“There’s a sparkle back in her eyes,” Alex replied.

“So why isn’t there one in yours?” Adam prodded.

“It’s the one she gets when she’s plotting. Pa and Jeff are just too glad to see a spark there to give that fact any heed.”

“And Paul?” Adam asked noting Alex’s omission.

“Headed for trouble right with her. I’d stake a month’s pay on it.”

Adam rubbed the bridge of his nose and exchanged a look with Alex.

“Adam, I’ve no reason to think that Little Joe is involved in whatever those two are up to,” Alex stated quickly. “Do you?”

“Brotherly intuition.”

“Any chance you can get the truth out of Joe?”

“About as much chance as you have of getting it out of Helen,” Adam stated flatly.

“I’ll try Paul.”

Adam nodded. “I’ll keep an eye on Joe.”

Alex nodded back, and they hurried to rejoin their brothers.

*****

“Alex knows there’s something going on,” Paul McNally announced to Joe in a loud whisper after checking to make sure they were absolutely alone.

“He does?” Joe exclaimed his eyes widening.

“Started in on me this morning.”

“You didn’t tell him anything,”

“Course not. Got mad and had a fight with him instead.” Reading the look on Joe’s face, Paul continued, “An argument really. Papa heard the commotion and came out. Put an end to things before either of us swung.”

“Did your pa ask about…?” Joe shuddered at the thought of Ephraim McNally uncovering their plan.

“Would I be standing here if Papa had found out anything?” Paul snorted.

“But is he wondering?” Joe demanded.

“No, only Alex. We best go ahead with it fast, though.” Then Paul smiled. “Papa and Alex are going to Carson City about a horse. They leave day after tomorrow. They’ll be gone three days. Second day, we’ll do it.”

“Won’t your pa be riding Thor?” Joe inquired.

“That’s just it. The man wants two horses to stand stud, and Papa only breeds Thor with mares we own. He’s riding Thunderbolt and Alex is riding Hammer.”

“Sounds good,” Joe said nodding, “Helen know?”

Paul nodded in return. “She knows when but not about Alex.”

They jumped as they heard Paul’s name being called. Jeff McNally and Hoss Cartwright appeared in the door of the tack room.

“Paul, get your backside on your horse. We’ve got to be going.”

“Just a minute,” Paul turned back toward Joe.

“Paul Conwell, I said now. You’re on the wrong side of Papa and Alex already today, don’t push me too.”

Paul and Joe exchanged a look that expressed their view of being the youngest brother. Paul snorted, and Joe shook his head.

“I said I’m coming. See you, Joe.” Paul turned and walked out with his brother.

Hoss remained in the doorway looking at Joe. Joe felt his gaze and shifted uncomfortably before turning back to his task. Hoss shook his head and headed back to work.

*****

Joe and Paul walked out of the McNally barn where they had just stabled Cochise. Paul held Thor’s reins. Joe watched the door of the house open and startled. Hal McNally walked up. It was the first time since she had ridden Sport that Joe had seen Helen dressed as a boy.

“You never said Hal was going to ride Thor,” Joe commented.

“Thor isn’t schooled to a sidesaddle. You didn’t really think I’d try to ride him in a skirt, did you? Though I suppose any advantage you could muster would be welcome,” Helen drawled.

Joe snorted. “You can ride naked for all I care!”

“Joe!” Paul’s exclamation made Joe blush in realization; Helen just giggled.

“You probably wouldn’t, but Paul would.” she replied and then continued, “We’ll lead him up to the large corral and mount him there. You have to ride him out of the corral and around the meadow though to win.” The boys nodded, and the three led the horse as they walked to the corral.

“I’ll go first, then Joe if he still thinks there’s a point to riding Thor after I have,” Paul announced avoiding telling Helen she would not be trying to ride Thor in any event.

“Fine,” Joe sang out though he had wanted to make the first attempt. He had suddenly realized that keeping Helen off Thor might be more trouble then they had allowed.

“Wait! Who made you lord and master, Paul Conwell? We’ll draw…” Helen’s eyes had stopped sparkling and started to flame.

“No, we won’t! We’ll do it as I said.” Paul’s temper matched his sister’s. In fact, through the following argument each McNally matched every increase in temper of the other. Joe watched half worried and half amused. Then it all went wrong.

Thinking back on it later, Joe always thought of everything happening in slow motion. Each action a single picture: Helen and Paul shouting, Helen turning to mount Thor, Paul grabbing her, Helen jerking away and stumbling into Thor, Thor rearing and knocking Helen to the ground, Helen absolutely still on the grass.

At first, Paul and Joe both just called Helen’s name. Then Paul dropped down beside his sister. He lifted her and cradled her in his arms. Joe was the first to see the blood that matted her hair and stained the rock they had not noticed before.

“She hit her head on a rock,” Joe uttered almost in disbelief. “She, she needs the doc.”

Paul turned his head toward Joe. He looked a hundred years older. “I’ll take her to the house. Go for the doctor.”

Joe watched Paul lift his sister and start to carry her toward the house. Joe moved to go to the barn and Cochise when he heard Thor whiny. Joe looked at the stallion. Thor was here. Thor was saddled. Thor was fast. If he could ride the horse, Thor was the quickest way to the doctor. He turned and caught Thor’s reins. He gently placed his hand on the horse’s head and looked into his large, dark eyes. “You have to let me for Helen’s sake. He’d want you to let me,” Joe stated softly talking to Thor as he would to Cochise. Then, his decision made, he mounted.

The second after he settled into the saddle, Joe knew he could never control Thor. A second later he knew he should not try. He did not think about it or decide it; the knowledge was just suddenly there. Ephraim McNally never controlled Thor; he simply guided him. No observer could have seen the change in Joe’s body, but Thor felt and recognized it. He stilled and waited. Joe’s heels touched his sides, and he began the most desperate ride of his young life.

*****

Joe burst into the doctor’s office shouting. “Doc! Doc!”

Paul Martin came from the back room at a trot. Seeing Joe, he exclaimed, “What is it, son. Who’s hurt?”

“You’ve got to come, Doc, Helen’s hurt.” Joe was breathless and barely managed to get the words out.

“Helen McNally? Where is she?”

“Her house.”

“Who’s with her?”

“Paul. Her pa and Alex are outa town.”

“What’s wrong?”

“She fell; she hit her head, she’s bleeding. She ain’t moved, Doctor Martin, she ain’t moved. You’ve got to come,” Joe pleaded.

“Of course. Let me get my bag,” the doctor grabbed his black bag and followed Joe out the door. “Your horse must be done in, Joe,” Doctor Martian stopped speaking as he spotted Thor not Cochise standing at his rail with heaving sides. “You rode Thor here?”

“Yeah, yeah I did.”

“Well, he looks done in. We’ll leave him in town, and you can ride with me.”

Before Joe could answer, the sheriff’s deputy, Clem, strode up. “Half dozen folks are over at the jail shouting about some hooligan racing a devil horse through town,” Clem stated looking over at Little Joe.

“There’s been an accident at the McNally ranch,” replied Doc Martin. “Little Joe came to fetch me. Could you see to it that Thor is settled at the livery?”

“Sure, Doc.”

“Then send word to Ben Cartwright that Little Joe is fine, but there’s been an accident, and he is needed at the McNally ranch.”

“I’ll see to it,” Clem assured the doctor.

Little Joe and Paul Martin got into the doctor’s buggy. Joe reached for the reins knowing he would be the faster driver. Taking the reins from Joe, Paul Martin firmly stated that he would be doing the driving, and they proceeded to the McNally ranch.

*****

“She hasn’t woken at all?” Paul Martin asked looking down at Helen’s still form.

“No.” Paul McNally was as pale as his sister and spoke in a horse whisper. Joe could tell he had been crying.

The doctor did a mental calculation. It had been too long for this to be anything but a serious case. Paul Martin had gotten the details of Helen’s accident from Joe during their ride from town. He turned to Little Joe. “You and Paul need to find Jeff and bring him here while I examine Helen.”

“I’m not leaving!” Paul McNally snapped.

The doctor spoke calmly but firmly. “You can’t stay in the room while I examine your sister, and I need you to get your brother.”

“She’s my sister. It’s not like I haven’t seen, well, there’s no reason I can’t stay.”

“I need you to get your brother,” Paul Martin reiterated.

Paul McNally’s eyes grew wild. “She’s dying! Oh, God!”

“I never said that, son,” Paul Martin spoke soothingly. “You’re not of age. That’s why I need your brother, and he has a right to know.”

“I can get Jeff,” Little Joe spoke up.

“Fine,” Paul Martin agreed, “but take Paul downstairs.” The doctor was concerned that he would end up with two patients if Paul McNally did not calm down.

Just then a door banged downstairs. Jeff McNally’s voice called out for his sister. Joe saw Paul McNally’s knees start to buckle and caught his friend by the arm. The look in Paul’s eyes was one of sheer panic. As Jeff’s voice once again called out, Joe answered, “Everyone’s up here.”

Jeff McNally appeared in the doorway seconds later. He stopped short at the sight of the doctor and paled as he surveyed the room. “What’s happened?” he gasped.

“Jeff, your sister fell and hit her head. She’s unconscious at the moment. I was just about to examine her.” Paul Martin stated the facts calmly.

Jeff rushed to Helen’s bedside. He stared down at the still form and then lifted his eyes to the doctor’s face. “How bad is it?”

“I’ll know more after I examine her. Joe, take Paul downstairs now.” It was stated quietly but was an order nevertheless.

“I’m…” Paul McNally began, but when Jeff turned and fixed his eyes on his brother, Paul turned and dashed from the room.

“Joe, don’t leave him alone,” Paul Martin snapped.

“I won’t,” Joe replied quickly and followed his friend.

Paul had stopped at the foot of the stairs and was standing slumped against the wall. Joe led him to the settee and gently pushed him down.

Paul turned his face up to look at Joe. Little Joe looked down into two pools of despair.

“It’s my fault, Joe. All my fault.”

“It was an accident, Paul. Just an accident. Helen will be fine. I know she will.” Joe wanted to believe his own words but tendrils of doubt filled his mind. He sat down beside Paul.

It was my idea. The whole thing was my idea. Oh, God, please let her be all right.” Little Joe’s head dropped to his chest. The two boys sat silently staring at the floor.

Ben Cartwright opened the door and walked into the McNally home. Adam followed his father. Their eyes found the two boys sitting side by side on the settee.

“Joe,” Ben’s voice reached out to his son. Joe’s head jerked up.

“Pa, oh, Pa.” Ben had reached his son. Joe’s arms went around his father’s waist, and he buried his face in Ben’s shirt.

“I’m here, son, I’m here.” Ben pulled Little Joe to him and patted his back soothingly. Adam walked up and went to his heels in front of Paul. Looking into the boy’s blank eyes, he said softly, “Paul,” then more firmly, “Paul, tell us what happened.” He placed a hand on Paul’s shoulder and squeezed gently.

Paul just muttered, “Helen, she, she…it’s my fault. All my fault.”

Adam studied the boy’s pale complexion and the sheen on his face. He stood up and walked over to a wooden chest he knew held spare bedding. Drawing out two quilts, he handed one to his father and tucked one around Paul. Then he went to the cabinet that held Ephraim McNally’s liquor. Pouring two large shots of bourbon, he again gave one to his father and took the other to Paul. Placing one hand behind Paul’s head and the glass to his lips, he managed to get Paul to swallow most of the liquid. Ben handed his glass to Joe.

“Go on, son. Drink it down.” Joe followed his father’s instructions automatically.

The sound of footsteps caused Joe to spring to his feet. Doctor Martin came down the stairs and into the room.

“Ben. Adam. Good you’re here.” Paul Martin acknowledged the newcomers while walking over to Paul McNally.

“How is Helen?” Ben asked knowing that the doctor would have announced any good news immediately.

“Jeff is with her upstairs.” Doctor Martin deftly avoided Ben question and began assessing Paul’s condition.

Little Joe remained quiet afraid to ask for more information.

Adam watched the doctor take the boy’s pulse. “We gave him some bourbon.”

The doctor nodded. “Get me some water, please, Adam.”

Adam got the water, and Paul Martin took a vial of powder from his bag. He mixed some in the water and then went back to Paul.

“Put his feet up,” he instructed Adam. Joe stood up, and Adam complied taking the time to pull of Paul’s boots. The doctor tucked the quilt firmly around Paul and then pressed the medicine to his lips. Turning back to Adam and Ben, the doctor stated, “He’s nearly gone into shock. The medicine will keep him asleep for several hours at least. He needs to remain warm. When he wakes, we’ll get something hot into him.” Then the doctor turned his attention to Little Joe. Meeting Ben’s eyes over his youngest son’s head, the doctor silently told his friend Joe needed the same treatment. Ben sat his son down in a leather chair, and Paul Martin brought over a second dose of the sedative.

“Drink this, Joe,” Paul Martin instructed holding the glass toward the boy.

“Don’t wanna.” Joe sounded very young. He crossed his arms over his chest and dropped his chin.

Paul Martin had delivered Joe Cartwright and tended his every illness and injury since that day. He had dealt with the boy’s sulks and stubbornness many times. He leaned down and spoke directly to Joe’s face, “Nevertheless, you will, and you will do it now.”

Joe looked up through his lashes and shook his head. Ben started to speak, but Paul Martin motion for his friend to remain quiet.

“What happened the last time you tried to defy my orders, young man?” Joe’s cheeks flushed, and he bit his lower lip but did not speak. “I see you remember,” Paul continued. “I said now, Joseph.”

Little Joe took the glass and after staring into it for some seconds drank it down. The doctor straightened. “Adam, take your brother upstairs to one of the bedrooms. See he’s warmly covered and stay until he’s asleep. Then I’ll talk to you and Ben.”

Adam walked over to his brother and drew him from the chair. Putting his arm around Joe’s shoulders, he led him up the stairs to Alex McNally’s room. He sat the boy on the bed and bent to pull off Joe’s boots.

“A, A, Adam, I’m in big trouble,” Adam heard his brother softly stutter.

“Tell Brother, Joe.”

“We were gonna ride Thor. It was my idea.” Joe’s voice was barely a whisper.

So that was what the three of them were plotting. Why didn’t Alex and I…” Adam stifled a sigh. He sat on the bed and placed his arm around Joe’s shoulders, “Things will work out, Little Brother. You rest now and things will be better when you wake.” He stood, pressed his brother down against the pillows, raised his feet, and placed them on the bed. Then he unbuckled Joe’s belt and slipped it from the loops. Joe curled up on his side, and Adam tucked the quilt around him. Then Adam sat on the edge of the bed gently stroking his brother’s hair. In minutes the medicine had done its job, and Joe was asleep. Adam slipped from the room and went back downstairs.

Ben and Paul Martin sat at the dining table with freshly poured mugs of coffee. Adam joined them and picked up his own mug. “Joe’s settled.”

“What do you know about this, Paul?” Ben asked his friend.

“I got the story from Little Joe on the way here. Seems he and Paul had some idea about getting Helen’s mind off that whole business with Pruitt by getting her involved in some mischief. They decided to see who could ride that stallion of Ephraim’s.”

“Thor!” Ben’s eyes darkened.

“Helen never made it onto his back,” Paul continued calmly. “She went to mount, but that wasn’t the plan. She and Paul had a fuss. The horse shied and knocked Helen down. The girl hit her head against a rock, or we’d be talking about just bruises.” Paul Martin looked into his friend’s face. “Well, anyway, the rock was there, the force and the angle just right, and now we have a young girl with pressure increasing inside her skull.”

“It’s that bad?” Ben asked hoping against what he knew.

“Yes, Ben, it’s that bad. I don’t have to tell you; you’re heard it before. With God’s grace, she could wake up and be fine; she could wake up and,” Paul hesitated, “not be fine, or she may never wake up at all.” He shook his head solemnly, “It could be hours; it could be days. We’ll do what we can, but that’s not much really.”

Adam spoke, “Jeff knows.”

“I explained things to him. Ephraim and Alex are in Carson City. They’re expected back late tomorrow, but…”

“We have to let them know.” Ben was adamant. “If it had been Joe…” Ben shuddered. They had to let Ephraim know.

Adam rose. “I’ll send a telegram.”

Ben nodded, and Paul Martin cleared his throat. “Joe rode Thor into town to get me.”

“HE WHAT?” Ben’s deep bellow filled the room.

“Ben, he and the horse are both fine. The boy rode him; it’s that simple.” Paul Martin rose. “Adam, leave word that if there’s an emergency, I can be reached here tonight. Will you be staying, Ben?”

“Of course,” Ben replied simply.

“I’ll send the telegram, fetch Thor, and let Hoss and Hop Sing know what’s going on and where we’ll be.” Adam said as he put on his hat. Then he stopped and looked directly into his father’s eyes, “Joe’s, well, you know how he is Pa. It was his idea.”

Paul Martin added, “Both those boys are feeling guilty.”

Ben sighed and shook his head gently. “Children’s transgressions, grown up consequences,” he muttered.

Satisfied that he saw no trace of anger in his pa’s eyes, Adam left to begin his errands.

*****

Adam did the routine chores automatically while repeatedly reviewing everything he had and had not done. Once again he quoted the contents of his telegram to Ephraim McNally.

Return home immediately. stop Helen suffered accident. stop Under doctor’s care. stop Pa staying at your ranch. full stop Adam Cartwright

Had he said enough? Had he said too much? Adam shrugged mentally acknowledging that he would never know the answer for sure. His mind moved on to other thoughts. Hoss was running things at home, so there was no worry there. Hop Sing had sent food. His Pa had spent his time watching over Helen, Jeff, Paul, and Joe while simply doing what Ben Cartwright did best, being a pa. He himself had seen to what was necessary around the McNally ranch. Doc Martin had spent the night and then given Paul another dose of sedative before leaving to check on a few other patients. Adam looked over at his youngest brother. Pa had sent him out a couple of hours ago to help Adam. His usually chatterbox brother had spoken barely a dozen words in that time. Could Alex or he have prevented all of this if they had forced the truth from Paul or Joe? He had said he would keep an eye on his little brother, so why had he let Little Joe slip off to the McNally’s? A flame of anger at himself shot through Adam, and he banged the pitchfork in his hand against the barn wall. The startled horses whined, and Adam saw Joe jump at least a foot.

“Sorry,” Adam announced to the barn at large with a trace of anger still in his voice. Joe did not respond, and Adam looked more closely at the boy. Joe’s back was to Adam; his head was down, and his shoulders slumped. Joe was not making a sound, but Adam knew suddenly that his little brother was crying. Adam put down the pitchfork and went to stand behind his brother. He intended to put his hand on the boy’s shoulder, but suddenly Joe was the baby brother he had often held in his arms, so he wrapped both those arms around Little Joe and pulled him close. Little Joe instinctively turned and buried his head in his brother’s chest. For a while Adam let his arms provide the only comfort he had to offer.

Then Little Joe mumbled, “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”

Adam patted his brother’s back and led him over to a pile of fragrant hay. Easing the boy down, he took a seat in the hay facing Joe.

“Nobody’s blaming you, Little Buddy.”

“It’s all my fault. It was my idea.” Joe’s eyes were fastened on a piece of hay in his fingers.

“Did you force Helen or Paul into that corral?” Adam waited for Joe’s soft no, before asking, “Did you start the argument between Paul and Helen?”

Again Joe answered without looking up. “No.”

“It was your idea to try riding Thor. Did Helen get hurt riding Thor?”

“No.”

“Then, Joe, it can’t be all your fault,” Adam stated firmly.

“We was doing wrong, Adam.”

Adam rubbed the bridge of his nose. “The three of you were doing wrong, yes.” Then an idea came to him, and Adam asked, “Joe, you don’t think God let Helen get hurt to punish you three, do you?”

“Maybe.”

Adam reached out and placed his finger under Joe’s chin. He exerted enough pressure to raise his brother’s eyes to his. “Joe, do you really think our Heavenly Father would punish a little girl that way?” When Joe did not answer, he continued, “Would Pa or Ephraim at their angriest punish a child that way?”

“No.” This time Joe’s answer was stated quickly and firmly.

“If a human father wouldn’t, then certainly a loving God would not.”

“No, I guess he wouldn’t.”

“I’m sure of it.” Adam let his finger drop, but Joe’s eyes remained on his brother’s face. “Besides, God gave children earthly parents to do the punishing for him.” Adam’s voice held a lightly teasing tone.

“I asked Pa if he was going to punish me,” Joe said with a sigh.

“And he said?”

“He said I was mostly disobeying Mr. McNally and disrespecting him, so he’s going to talk to him about things first. I don’t guess he’ll do that ’til Helen’s better though, do you?”

“I expect not.”

“Helen’s going to be all right, Adam; she is, isn’t she?” Joe’s voice and eyes held a desperate need for reassurance.

Adam wanted to declare unequivocally that Helen would be perfectly fine, but, while not grown, Joe was too old for false assurances. “That’s what we’re all praying for, Little Brother.”

“Adam,” Joe said in a whisper so soft it barely brushed Adam’s ears, “Will Mr. McNally ever forgive me if she’s not?”

Adam’s answer was just as soft, “With God’s help, Joe, with God’s help.”

*****

Ephraim and Alex McNally arrived home in the late afternoon. Ben and Adam were alone at the dining table drinking coffee. Paul was in his bedroom still in a half-drugged sleep. Jeff was with Helen. Joe was in the barn. Everyone heard the horses ride into the yard. Ben and Adam exchanged a look and rose. Ephraim burst through the door followed by his son.

“She’s upstairs?” Ephraim asked as he saw Ben and then started to head up the stairs.

“Wait, Ephraim, let me tell you what’s happened,” Ben said starting toward the distraught father.

“Is she all right?” Alex demanded with a force the snapped the words across the room.

“She has a head injury,” Adam stated flatly. His tone told the McNallys the answer to Alex’s question was not yes.

“What happened?” Alex stared into Adam’s face.

Ben had reached Ephraim, and he placed a hand on his friend’s shoulder. “Helen fell and hit her head on a rock. She’s still unconscious. The doctor is doing what he can.” Ben saw in Ephraim’s eyes that he did not have to explain the seriousness of Helen’s condition or the possible outcomes. Ephraim turned away from Ben and dashed up the stairs. Ben followed.

Alex’s eyes were still fixed on Adam. “Jeff is with Helen?”

Adam nodded.

“Where’s Paul?” There was a hard edge to Alex’s voice.

“The doctor has him sedated.”

Alex had automatically removed his hat, and, as it was the only thing in his hand, it was the object that his anger propelled across the room. It hit the wall with a sharp slap. “How did it happen?” he demanded.

Adam motioned to the table. “Sit down, Alex, and I’ll tell you what I know.”

Alex hesitated and then went and sat down. Adam poured him a cup of coffee and took the seat across from his friend.

“It has to do with what they were plotting, doesn’t it?” Alex asked ruefully.

“In a way.” Alex’s curse sliced the air. Adam spoke calmly in the silence that followed. “The boys wanted to get Helen’s mind off what happened with Pruitt. They thought that with a little mischief to occupy her mind, well, that she’d be more like her old self. Actually, Alex, you know that part of the plan was working.”

“What mischief did they put into her mind?”

Adam tugged his left ear unconsciously, “Well, the three of them decided to see who could ride Thor.”

“Helen got thrown off THOR!” Alex exploded out of his chair.

“No, No, Helen never got on Thor,” Adam said soothingly.

“Then what?” Alex demanded remaining on his feet.

“Paul and Joe planned to try, but they never intended to let Helen. Actually, that’s what started the argument.”

“Argument?”

“Paul and Helen were arguing, and that agitated Thor. When Helen went to mount, and Paul tried to stop her, well, Thor shied and knocked Helen down. She hit her head on a rock.” Adam watched his friend fight for control. Then they heard footsteps on the stairs and turned to see Jeff McNally coming down into the sitting room.

“Is she?” both Adam and Alex asked.

“She’s the same. Papa sent me down.” Jeff answered tonelessly. “Did Adam tell you, Alex?”

“What does Paul have to say?” Alex demanded turning toward his brother.

“I haven’t talked to Paul,” Jeff replied tersely.

Adam spoke then, “Paul nearly went into shock. Doctor Martin sedated him when he arrived. Paul hasn’t been able to talk to anyone. Joe told us what happened.”

Alex looked at his brother. “Papa knows.”

Jeff nodded, and for the first time in their acquaintance Adam heard Jeff McNally curse.

Adam spoke calmly, “There’s food and coffee in the kitchen. The animals are all cared for.”

Alex McNally nodded, “Thank you. I’m going up to see Helen.” When he reached his brother, he stopped. Jeff grabbed Alex’s arms. “She could die, Alex. My Lord, she’s half dead already!”

Adam turned quickly and walked into the kitchen giving the McNally brothers the privacy he would want.

*****

Ben walked into the kitchen. “Adam, go and get Little Joe. Bring him to the sitting room,” he instructed his eldest.

“Sure, Pa.” Adam did not ask any questions. He could tell by his father’s tone what was about to happen. Adam went out the door. His little brother had not appeared in the house since Ephraim and Alex had arrived, and Adam had no illusions about the reason for his brother’s failure to greet the returning McNallys.

He found Little Joe in the barn. “Pa sent me to bring you up to the house.”

Little Joe’s eyes grew wide, and he chewed on his lower lip. Adam walked over and put his arm around his brother’s shoulders. “Come on, Little Buddy; best get it over with.” Adam propelled Joe forward and walked him back to the house.

Ephraim, Alex, Jeff, Paul McNally, and Ben Cartwright were all gathered in the sitting room. Doctor Martin had returned a half hour before and was with Helen. Adam sat Joe on the settee next to Paul and took his own seat. Ephraim rose and went to stand before the two boys. Adam could not read his impassive face.

“I want to hear it from the two of you.” It was an emotionless order.

Both boys stared at the floor incapable of speech.

Ben Cartwright’s voice whipped out, “Joseph,” and little Joe’s eye’s snapped up to focus on his father.

“I, I’m sorry, I…” Little Joe managed to force out

“It was my fault!” The words erupted from Paul, and suddenly he was on his feet before his father. “Don’t blame Joe, Papa. Helen and I were fighting. That’s why it happened. It’s my fault.”

Ephraim McNally moved not a muscle. He fixed his eyes on his youngest son and spoke quietly, “I said I wanted to hear it all. Now.”

Paul dropped his eyes once more to the floor and quietly told the whole story in one series of halting sentences. When he finished, Ephraim spoke to Joe, “What have you to add?”

Little Joe looked across the room at his father and then stood. “It was my idea, Mr. McNally. I, I’m sorry; we thought we could protect Helen.” Then he lifted his eyes and looked directly at Ephraim McNally. “Please don’t blame Paul. We were all doing wrong, and the rest was just an accident.”

Ephraim turned toward Ben. “We need to speak privately.”

The two men walked out of the house to the porch. Alex walked over and glared at his youngest brother. “How many times…” his voice crackled with anger, and he cut off his own words with a gesture of frustration.

Suddenly Jeff spoke for the first time, “As many times as he’s told Helen or you, Alexander.”

The door opened then, and the two fathers walked back inside. Ephraim studied both his elder sons before speaking. “It is at an end.” He turned and mounted the steps to sit with his daughter.

In the stunned silence that followed, Ben’s voice startled everyone. He gave his sons orders to saddle their horses and prepare to return home.

*****

It was a silent ride. When the three Cartwrights reached the yard, they dismounted and lead their horses into the barn. They were almost finished when Hoss entered. “Pa. Adam. Joe. Is Helen?”

Ben shook his head, “Ephraim and Alex are back. Helen is the same.”

“Sure is a shame,” Hoss muttered. “Things going fine here, Pa.” He began giving his father and elder brother an accounting of what had been accomplished in their absence.

With his horse’s care completed and Hoss’ report finished, Ben moved toward the door. Little Joe swallowed and spoke hesitantly, “Pa, should I wait for ya here or in my room?”

Adam and Hoss exchanged a worried glance. Ben Cartwright turned and looked at his youngest son. “Neither, Joseph; if you’re finished here, just get washed up for supper.”

“But, well, can’t we just get it over with?” There was a tremble in Little Joe’s voice, and he shifted nervously from foot to foot.

“It is over, Joe. You heard what Ephraim said.”

“But, you’re not…”

Ben walked over to Joe. “No, I’m not.” Ben placed his hand under Joe’s chin and raised his eyes from the floor. “Good very rarely comes from doing wrong. You realize that now, don’t you?”

“Y, ye, yes, Pa. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.” Ben’s arms encircled his son, and Joe buried his head in his father’s chest.

“I know, Joseph. You’re forgiven, son. You’re forgiven. As Ephraim said, it’s at an end.”

Adam rubbed the bridge of his nose as he watched his father and brother walk toward the house. He wished it could be so, but he knew that this situation was far from over.

“Adam.” Hoss’ voice turned Adam’s attention to his middle brother.

“Pa and Ephraim decided not to punish the boys,” Adam stated in answer to his brother’s unasked question.

“Both them youn’ns are feeling powerful guilty, I ‘spect.”

Adam nodded. “They both spoke up. Confessed and were ready to take the blame.”

“That’s why Pa and Ephraim decided the way they did, don’t ya think?”

“I suppose that’s most of it,” Adam concurred.

“Jeff and Alex?” Hoss queried.

“You know Alex.”

Hoss shook his head. “Best get washed up.”

The two brothers left the barn together.

*****

It had been five days. At least once each of those days Ben, Hoss, or Adam had ridden to the McNally ranch to inquire about Helen and offer any help required. The help had been politely declined, and Helen’s condition had remained the same.

Adam knocked and then entered the doctor’s office. Paul Martin came out of his examination room.

“Hello, Adam. This is a social visit, I hope.”

“No one on the Ponderosa needs your services, Paul, but I did have something I wanted to discuss with you.”

Paul motioned for Adam to be seated and sat down himself. “Helen McNally?”

“Yes.” Adam rubbed the bridge of his nose. “Is everything being done?” Then he hurried to add, “Not that I’m questioning… I know that you’re doing… Um, well, it’s just that sometimes money is a consideration,” Adam swallowed and spoke without hesitation, “In this case it need not be.”

“Do you think that Ephraim…”

“I know that Ephraim would spend his last dollar on the slightest chance that something might help Helen. I know you would hesitate to let him. If there is something more that could be done if the McNally’s financial resources were larger, I want you to see that it is done. You can leave the financial considerations to me. They need not be mentioned to any of the McNallys.”

“Actually, Adam, at this point there isn’t any way that money would make any difference. If, well, at some point in the future that might change, but not for now,” Paul Martin assured the young man.

“You will remember what I said?” It was almost more of an order than a question.

“I’ll remember.” The doctor hesitated but then continued, “Adam, I haven’t mentioned this to Ephraim, but there are some slight signs that the pressure in Helen’s brain might be lessening. It has stopped increasing at any rate.”

“Then…”

“She could still die, Adam. She can barely take nourishment, and she’s weakening each day. If she does regain consciousness, well, there is still a long row to hoe even then.”

Adam hesitated and then plowed ahead, “Paul, could a specialist, well, maybe there is something new.”

Paul gave his young friend a weak smile. “Adam, I’m not saying that this country doctor knows it all, but head injuries are fairly common around here, and I do everything I can to keep up. Actually, I’ve sent a telegram to a specialist I’ve exchanged letters with over the last few years. Everything modern medicine knows to do is being done for the girl. Be assured of that.”

Adam rose. “Paul, I meant no disparagement of you. You know the faith all the Cartwrights have in your ability. I apologize if I…”

“No need, Adam, no need at all. I understand. How is Little Joe doing?”

A shadow entered Adam’s eyes. “Pa, Hoss, and I have all talked to him. Still, he’s lost weight because he hardly eats, and the circles under his eyes, well, he’s not sleeping.”

“He’s still feeling guilty then?”

“I suppose he won’t be able to get past it until, well, until something about Helen’s condition becomes definite.”

Paul Martin sighed. “Paul McNally looks little better than his sister.” Paul shook his head slowly. The description “looking like death warmed over” fit all the McNallys at the moment. “Hopefully it won’t be much longer.”

Adam placed his hat on his head and prepared to depart. “Thank you, Paul. Pa sends his best, you know, and Hop Sing was just mentioning that he hasn’t had a chance to feed the honorable doctor in too long.”

Paul Martin smiled. “I’d like nothing better than some of Hop Sing’s cooking. Give your father my regards. Those brothers of yours too. Adam, the best thing any of you can do is just pray for the girl.”

“We’ve been doing that all along, Paul.” Adam stated and then took his leave of the doctor.

*****

“Joe.” The voice was soft and indistinguishable. Little Joe turned and was surprised to find Pail McNally standing behind him.

“Paul! Is Helen…is she?”

“She’s the same.” Paul’s voice trembled. “Joe, I need to talk to you.”

“Sure, Paul, come on into the house. Hop Sing will give…”

“No, no, I just want to talk to you. Um, you see, I’m, I’m leaving.”

“Leaving! What do you mean you’re leaving?” Joe demanded.

Paul dropped his eyes to the barn floor. “I can’t stay, Joe. I can’t. You don’t know what it’s like.”

“Tell me then, Paul.” Joe’s tone was a fair imitation of the one his brothers used with him.

Paul rubbed his hand over his face. “They take turns sitting with Helen. One after another, day and night. I haven’t even been in her room since that day. I can’t look at her, Joe.”

“Helen wouldn’t blame you, Paul. You know that.” Joe stated softly.

“They do.”

Joe did not ask who they were; he knew. “Paul, did your Pa or Alex say something?”

Paul shook his head. “We hardly speak at all.” He raised his eyes to his friend’s face, “It’s in their eyes, Joe, every time they look at me.”

Joe barely forced the next words from his throat, “Do they blame me too?”

“No!” The denial was vehement. “She’s my little sister, Joe. I’m supposed to protect her.” Paul gave Joe a rueful smile, “The one she needed protecting from was me — me and my temper.”

“You just wanted to keep her off Thor.” Joe voice sounded weak and apologetic. Paul turned his back to Joe. Joe reached out and placed a hand on his friend’s shoulder.

“Does your pa know that you’ve left?” Joe asked.

“I left a note. It won’t matter; they don’t want me there. They can’t bear looking at me.” Paul’s voice broke, and Joe knew his friend was fighting tears.

“Paul, your family loves you.”

Paul shrugged off Joe’s hand and walked away from him. He turned and addressed Little Joe in a toneless voice. “I, well, I need to know about Helen before I leave for good. I’m going to find a place to camp, and I want you to come and tell me when, well, when there’s news.”

Little Joe bit his lip and then answered, “If you don’t think your family will come after you, there’s no reason to camp out; you can stay here with us.”

Paul shook his head. “Your papa will take me back.”

Joe chewed on his lip. “Stay in one of our line shacks then. You’ll have what you need, and I’ll be able to tell you about Helen.”

After a minute’s hesitation, Paul asked, “You won’t tell anybody where I am?”

“Paul,” Little Joe considered the fact that if he did not agree Paul might simply leave and disappear. “I won’t tell.”

“Promise?”

“I promise.” Little Joe agreed and then prayed he’d have no reason to break that promise.

*****

A knock at the door broke the silence that had settled over the Cartwright’s breakfast. Little Joe kept his eyes focused on his plate. He had been waiting for a knock at the door ever since returning from the line shack where Paul McNally was now staying.

Adam set his coffee cup down and said, “I’ll get it.” He went and opened the door to find Alex McNally on the threshold. “Come in,” he said quickly.

Alex stepped inside. “Adam, have any of you seen Paul?” he asked immediately.

Adam answered as he ushered Alex toward the dining table. “I haven’t seen Paul since, well, for days.”

“Mr. Cartwright. Hoss. Joe.” Paul acknowledged each of the Cartwrights. “Have any of you seen my brother Paul?” he repeated his question.

Hoss hook his head, and Ben answered, “No, son, why are you looking for him?”

Alex turned the hat his was holding around and around in his hands. “He’s been keeping to himself since, well, lately. This morning Papa went looking for him and found a note. He’s taken off.”

Adam studied his friends face. Worry, despair, frustration, and anger were all present.

“Taken off?” Ben rose and walked over to Alex.

“Yes, sir, he said he was leaving for good. Papa sent Jeff and I out looking for him. I thought maybe…” Alex’s eyes focused on Little Joe as did Ben’s, Hoss’, and Adam’s.

“Joseph, if you know anything, you will tell us now.” Ben’s command was given in a tone his sons seldom disobeyed.

“How could I know anything, Pa?” Little Joe replied weakly.

Adam knew Joe was equivocating. He walked over to his brother. Taking Joe’s chin in his hand, he focused the boy’s eyes on his. “Good seldom comes from doing wrong, and running away is wrong, so is deceit.”

“I promised not to tell.”

Alex spoke softly, “Paul needs to come home, Joe.”

“He thinks you all don’t want him there ’cause ya blame him for Helen.”

“Helen wants him. She said his name this morning.” Alex’s voice was strained.

“She’s awake!” Joe jumped to his feet.

“Not really, not now. The doctor said the pressure’s less, and she’s started to, well, not come awake really, just a bit, a couple of times, but the last time she said Paul’s name.”

“He’s at one of the line shacks. I’ll show you.” Joe started toward the door.

Ben motioned to Adam to go with Joe and Alex. “I’m going over to see Ephraim,” he told Hoss.

“I’ll see to things here, Pa,” Hoss assured him. “Pa, ya ain’t mad at Joe about this, are ya?”

“No, son, I’m not angry,” Ben sighed and then went to his friend.

*****

Ben saw Paul Martin’s buggy in front of the McNally house as he rode up. Seconds after dismounting, the door opened, and Ephraim emerged. “Ben. I thought it might be the boys.”

“Alex is with Joe and Adam. Joe is taking them to Paul.” Ben studied his friend’s face. It looked like he had not slept in years.

“Thank God.”

“Helen?” Ben asked.

“The doctor is with her. She may be getting better.” Ephraim sounded afraid to hope.

“Alex said that she’s spoken.”

“A couple of times. Like someone talking in their sleep, and she’s moving some. We’re able to get more broth down her throat.”

“Those are good signs, Ephraim,” Ben reassured.

A moan that seemed to rise from the depths of his soul, slipped from Ephraim’s lips. “I can’t lose her, Ben, not my baby girl.”

Ben reached out and squeezed Ephraim’s shoulder.

“But you’ve come about my baby boy, haven’t you?”

“He’s hurt too,” Ben said softly. “Ephraim, do you blame the boy?”

“No!” The word was emphatic, and Ephraim’s eyes came alive with anger.

“But you’re angry with him?” Ben pressed.

Ephraim jerked away from Ben’s hand. “Not with him. Not really.”

“Are his brothers?”

“No one’s said a word about it to him, Ben.”

“He’s reading a lot into what you all are not saying, Ephraim. You have to talk to him,” Ben urged.

“I’ve use up all my words praying.” Ephraim’s voice was flat and toneless.

“Find some, Ephraim, or you’re going to lose your son.”

Ephraim’s arms drew in around his waist, and he crumpled as if he had been dealt a physical blow. Ben went down on his knees beside his friend. “Just tell him he’s loved and forgiven. You do forgive him, don’t you?”

“The only one I don’t forgive is myself.”

“Ephraim, it’s not…”

“It is. Its mine, the McNally temper.” Ephraim’s voice became almost a whisper. “He’s the most like me, Ben — too little of my Hannah in him.”

“Ephraim.” It was all Ben could say.

Ephraim started speaking softly as if addressing no one or everyone, “It was a stupid fight. He was my cousin, and it was just a race, a silly race, but we fought, and I hurt him. They thought he’d never walk. Seventeen and a cripple. It was a year, a year before he could stand on his own. A year in hell.”

For both of you,” Ben thought. “And you, Ephraim, how old were you?”

“Eighteen.”

“It’s time, Ephraim, for you to let it go. Forgive yourself, so you can show Paul how to forgive himself.” Ben put his around Ephraim’s shoulders, and together they prayed for strength.

*****

No one said much as they rode toward the line shack. Adam knew after a short time where they were headed but let Joe lead the way.

“We’d best stop here and talk about how to handle this,” Adam declared and reined in Sport. Little Joe looked at his brother and pulled Cochise to a stop also.

Alex turned and said, “What is there to talk about? We ride up there and tell my little brother to get his sorry behind home.”

Before Adam could speak, Joe’s breaking voice ventured, “He is really sorry, Alex. We’re both really, really sorry.”

Adam tensed, but Alex replied softly, “Nobody blames you, Joe.” Both Cartwrights could hear the sincerity in Alex’s tone.

“So you only blame Paul. Why is that, Alex? Paul, Joe, and Helen all made the same decision when they took Thor up to that corral?” Adam’s voice was sharp.

“Paul was the only one that let his blasted temper loose!” Alex snapped back.

“According to Joe, Helen lost her temper too.”

“You don’t know how many times we’ve told Paul if he didn’t control his temper, somebody could get hurt. Well, somebody did!”

“So you’ve never fought with Helen, never lost your temper with one of your brothers,” Adam’s voice held a sarcastic edge. He kept his eyes fixed on Alex. He could see his friend fighting to control his own McNally temper. Alex suddenly urged his horse forward and rode off, but after a few minutes he stopped short and dismounted.

Little Joe looked at his older brother.

“Wait here, Joe. Let me talk to him.” Adam rode forward, sighted Alex, dismounted, and walked over to where Alex sat on a large boulder. He sat down beside him.

“Did you ever hurt one of your brothers, Adam? Really hurt them?” Alex spoke in a low monotone.

Adam answered with a question of his own. “Which one?”

“Daniel. We were fighting, and I knocked him into a big, old mirror. It broke and sliced his arm. He bled and bled and bled. The doctor had to stitch it closed, and it took days for him to get over the blood loss. If we had lived as far from a doctor as we do here, he would have died.” Alex was staring straight ahead, and Adam could see only his profile.

“He forgave you.”

“He never blamed me. He told Papa that he slipped while we were playing. I almost told, but Daniel said Papa would blister both of us for fighting and lying, and that he couldn’t stand an aching behind along with his arm. He said to blame Grandpapa McNally because he was the one that gave us both our tempers.” Alex turned and looked Adam in the eye. “Papa still doesn’t know.”

Adam’s eyes lightened, “All brothers have brother secrets, Alex. You and Daniel are close?”

Alex lips twisted in a half-smile, “Yes. It surprises most people. We’re so different.”

“You miss him?”

“Like the devil.”

“I wondered if I should telegraph him, but it would take him so long to get here,” Adam’s words trailed off.

“Papa wrote him. We’ll telegraph if, well, if there’s good news.”

“Would Daniel blame Paul?”

“He’d blame Grandpapa McNally for both their tempers. Grandpapa wouldn’t mind; he died before Helen was born.”

“Sometimes older brothers know best.”

Alex rubbed his face with his hands. “I don’t blame the babies, not really.”

“Alex, I think we should let Joe ride in alone and talk to Paul. If he sees us, he may bolt. On a horse, that boy might give us the slip.”

Alex gave Adam a rueful glance and then smiled, “On the right horse, he could give anybody the slip except Papa on Thor, of course.”

“Then let Joe go and tell him that Helen wants him. It would be best if he came back on his own.”

“And if he doesn’t?”

“Then his big brother and Joe’s will be there to drag his sorry little behind back home.”

*****

Hoss stopped working and watched the rider approach. Jeff McNally rode up and started speaking without dismounting.

“Hoss, I hate to ask, but everyone says you’re one of the best trackers in the territory. I think I might have found some tracks of Paul’s. Alex told you, about Paul. I mean, could you…”

“Whoa, now, there ain’t no need. Joe is taking Alex and Adam to fetch Paul now.”

Jeff’s sigh seemed to deflate his whole body. “Thank the Lord.”

“Get down and have some coffee. There’s some on the fire there,” Hoss invited.

“Well, I guess a cup wouldn’t hurt before I head home.” Jeff swung his long body from his horse’s back, walked over to the fire, and poured himself some coffee. Hoss joined him.

“Now, Alex said Helen’s starting to show signs of improving.”

“If she keeps on, she could be all right, the Doc says.”

Hoss patted his friend’s back. “She will, Jeff. That little gal ain’t one to give up; you can’t neither. And ya don’t need to do no more worrying about Paul. Alex and Adam will have him home by lunch.”

“And I’ll be seeing that he stays.” Jeff’s statement was vehement. Hoss heard the anger in Jeff’s voice and spoke softly.

“Jeff, the boy thought ya was blaming him.”

“No one said a word of reproach to him. Papa didn’t raise a finger.”

“Still he was carrying a load of guilt.” Hoss looked intently at his friend. “Do ya blame the boy?”

“For Helen? No, blast it! If I had a dime for every time one of us has been knocked down by a horse, I’d be a rich man. If I had a nickel for every time two McNallys took to hollering at each other, well, I could buy the Ponderosa.”

“Then what’s got your blood boiling so?”

“What happened to Helen was an accident, but that boy decided to set his tail in that saddle and run off as if Papa didn’t have enough worry. No, the boy’s gonna think twice before he sets his tail in a saddle or anywhere else for a good while. I intend to see to that.”

“But…” Hoss knew that Jeff McNally rarely took a disciplinary role in his younger brother’s life.

“Isn’t any but in the matter except the one I’m going to blister as soon as I get my hands on Paul.”

“Your pa,” Hoss interjected.

“Papa can do has he deems best about Paul and about me. It won’t save Paul’s hide.” Jeff stated it as a simple fact.

Hoss pondered the situation as he finished his coffee. “Maybe you’re right,” he said at last.

Jeff nodded and mounted his horse.

*****

Joe found Paul chopping wood. He rode up and dismounted.

“Joe! Helen, is she…, is she?

“Helen’s a little better,” Joe responded quickly.

“A little better? What’s a little better?” Paul demanded.

“Doc says the pressure is lessening. She’s saying a few words. Not really talking, mind you, but saying a few words, and taking some broth.” Joe tried to make his tone as positive as possible while giving a true picture.

Paul relaxed a little. “That’s good.”

“Paul, she asked for you.”

“Asked for me!” Paul tensed again.

“Well, she called your name. She must want you,” Joe declared.

Paul shook his head. “That doesn’t mean she wants me.”

“Sure it does. Paul, ya need to go home. Your family needs ya to come home,” Little Joe urged.

Paul shook his head again. “No, no, I can’t, Joe! I can’t face them.”

“But they’re not blaming you, Paul. Really they’re not.”

“How would you know!” Paul snapped.

“Alex…”

“When did you talk to Alex?” Paul demanded.

“He came looking for you. Jeff’s looking for you too. Your Pa sent them looking. They want ya back.”

“NO, NO, no!” Paul’s voice echoed through the clearing; his body trembled, and then he lurched toward the lean-to where his horse was stabled.

“Yes, little brother.” Alex’s voice was calm, stern, and commanding. It stopped Paul in his tracks. He and Adam had quietly slipped into the clearing without the boys noticing them.

Paul turned and stared at his brother. “I’m not going back.”

“Yes, you are.” The tone remained even and firm.

“You can’t make me.” Paul sounded like a petulant child.

“Oh, but I can, little brother, and you know it, though I’d prefer not to have to.” Alex’s confidence kept his voice calm.

“I’ll just leave again.” Paul’s comment conceded the fact that his brother could most certainly force his return to the family home.

“Jeff has some thoughts on that point.” Alex commented with a slight grin twisting his lips.

“Jeff?”

“Oh, yes, little boy, our brother is past angry, and you know he doesn’t make idle threats anymore than Papa does.”

“Is Papa mad?” Paul’s voice was soft and hesitant.

“Papa is hurt, Paul. That’s why Jeff’s so mad.”

“Alexander.” There was a pleading tone to the utterance, and Alex moved toward his brother. Adam motioned to Joe, and they left the McNally brothers to talk without an audience.

*****

“Adam.” Alex walked toward his friend. “Everything’s settled. Paul’s going home with me.”

Adam smiled. “Good.” Then in a soft whisper, he asked, “Do you need us?”

Alex gave a slight shake of his head.

“Joe and I will see to things here and then head home.”

Joe walked over to where Paul was saddling his horse. He could see by his friend’s eyes that he had been crying. “Would it help if we came with ya?” he inquired gently.

“No,” Paul shook his head.

“I’m sorry, Paul, for starting this all.” Joe offered.

“Paul sighed, “Too many people spending too much energy being sorry, Joe. Nobody blames you. There isn’t anything to be done about what’s past.” He turned and looked at his friend. “Alex said that my brother Daniel would figure my grandfather was to blame.”

“Your grandfather?” A puzzled look settled on Little Joe’s face.

“Yea, Ethan McNally. Everybody knew that he had the worst temper in the whole state of Virginia, and he just had to go and hand it down it his grandchildren.” Paul gave Joe a weak smile. “At least I don’t have to face Grandpapa McNally.”

Joe smiled back. “Paul, Helen is going to be all right. I just know she will; I’ve got a feeling.”

Paul bit his lip, “Hope to God you’re right, Joe.”

After a moment’s hesitation, “Paul, you’re not mad about… I didn’t want to break my promise, but…”

“It’s okay, Joe. I’m not mad about that.” A real smile settled momentarily on Paul’s face. “You’re a good friend, Joe. I’m glad your mine.”

Joe smiled back. Then Adam and Alex walked up, and the McNallys finished saddling their horses and departed for home.

Adam and Joe went about the task of closing up the line shack and checking what supplies needed replacing. They said very little until they were giving the horses a drink in preparation for leaving.

“Adam, did you and Hoss ever fight? I mean, for real fighting, with punching and such?”

“A few times.” Adam tried to read his little brother’s face.

“Ya never let me fight ya, neither one of you. I mean, I’ve come at you two, but you just pin me some way.”

“Or throw you in the horse trough.” Adam grinned at the thought of Hoss’ method of cooling their little brother’s temper.

Joe gave Adam a rueful grin, “Yeah.” Then his face grew serious again, “You won’t fight me ’cause ya know you could really hurt me.”

“Neither one of us can bear seeing you hurt, Joe. If we were the ones responsible, well, neither one of us could stand that.”

Joe grinned wickedly, “How come you can stand setting my backside aching? You don’t have to do something that makes ya suffer so, big brother.”

Adam’s smirk was even more wicked. “I assure you, little brother, in those circumstances I mange to bear up under the strain.”

Joe shrugged as if to say that it was worth a try. Then he veered back to his main inquiry, “But, Adam, you fought Hoss.”

“Hoss was younger, but the times we fought, he wasn’t much smaller. It was more of an even match, and the only real damage that ever resulted was to our backsides when Pa found out,” Adam replied.

“That’s why Pa is so strict about not fighting ’cause people can get more hurt than you think.”

“That’s why.”

“You said once he was hardest on Hoss about his temper. That’s because it would be so easy for Hoss to really hurt a person.”

“It’s the bad side of being as strong as our brother.” Adam watched his little brother think.

“Hoss is afraid of that, isn’t he, Adam? Afraid he’ll accidentally hurt someone real bad.”

“Yes. Easy place on your bones for landing is a water trough.”

“Yeah.”

Adam reached out and placed his arm around Little Joe’s shoulders, “Best head home, little buddy, daylight’s wasting.”

*****

Dinner that night was a quiet meal. Each of the Cartwrights seemed lost in his own thoughts. Adam and Joe had shared a short version of what had happened at the line shack. Ben had simply said that he and Ephraim had talked, and that Ephraim was not blaming Paul or Little Joe.

Little Joe placed his napkin on the table and asked to be excused. When Ben gave him permission, Joe stated tonelessly that he needed to tend to something in the barn and slipped quickly from the room. Ben watched Adam and Hoss exchange glances.

“Neither of you…” he stated. Both of his sons quickly focused their attention on their father. “Neither of you will be following Joe. I intend to speak with him.”

Adam and Hoss nodded in acknowledgement as Ben rose. They watched him until the door closed behind him.

Ben entered the barn. Little Joe turned, saw his father, and waited nervously for him to approach.

“Let’s talk,” Ben said studying his son’s face.

“Pa, I, I, well, I have to tell you the truth, Pa; I ain’t sorry.” Joe dropped his eyes to the floor.

“You’re not?”

“I’ve thought about it, Pa, really I have, and if being sorry means you wouldn’t do it again, then I’m not sorry, not about what happened with Paul.” He looked at his father from under his lashes. “I know you think it was deceiving, and you don’t abide deceiving, but I… I’m sorry I can’t be sorry, Pa.”

“I’m not angry with you, Joseph.”

Little Joe looked directly into his father’s eyes and saw that it was so.

“You told the truth when you needed to. Sometimes, son, we just do the best we can at the time.” Ben took his son’s chin in his hand. “I didn’t come out here to lecture you or anything more, Joe.” Ben saw the relief that came into his son’s eyes. “Which does not mean that lies by omission or deceit of any kind will be tolerated in the future.”

“I know, Pa. Things came out right, so maybe what I did wasn’t so wrong.”

“There are other things you might have done, but since you are not fully grown, I will cut you some slack.” Ben chucked Joe under the chin as he released it.

“You been doing more of that lately then I ever thought you would,” Joe muttered softly.

Ben eyes grew serious. “You think I should have punished you for the incident with Thor?”

Joe’s chin dropped to his chest. He swallowed and licked his lips. His answer was barely audible, “Yes, sir.” Having said it, he raised his eyes. “Not for what happened to Helen, but for what we were doing with Thor.” Then his eyes dropped again, and his whole body trembled. “Pa, I, well, I did want…but really I wanted, the real reason…” He shuddered again. “Mostly I just wanted to ride Thor.” There, he had said it; now his father knew.

Ben placed his hand on Joe’s shoulder and squeezed gently, “Joe, Ephraim and I did not refrain from punishing you because we thought your intentions were pure. I know you, son.”

“Then why, Pa?”

Ben sighed, “It was Ephraim’s decision. I agreed because, well, for a number of reasons. Ephraim’s reasons had more to do with Paul then you. Perhaps, it was a mistake for me to agree. It might have been easier on you if I had given you the punishment you felt you deserved.”

“Part of me is awful glad you didn’t, but…”

“A tanning would have put paid to it all, is that it, Joseph?”

“I guess, yeah, Pa, that’s it.”

“When you’re an adult, Joseph, the payment for wrong is not as simple as taking a tanning or serving a restriction. Ephraim felt it was time Paul understood that. Perhaps you’re still young enough that I should not have agreed.” Ben touched Joe’s cheek. Placing his hand behind his son’s head, he drew the boy to him. For a few minutes, Ben allowed touch to communicate what words could not. Then he stepped back and took Joe’s face in his hands. “Because your hide survived unscathed this time, don’t get the notion that I think you’ve out grown any form of discipline, son.” Ben’s tone was half-teasing while still remaining totally serious.

“When will I be, Pa?” Joe’s tone was light for the first time that evening.

“The day you turn twenty-one, boy. The law says you’re an adult, so I’ll be able to lay that burden down.”

A glint came into Little Joe’s eyes. “Really, Pa? You mean if I mess up really bad the day after I turn twenty-one, my hide is safe.”

An answering glint lit Ben’s eyes. “In a manner of speaking, young man. I do have other ways of keeping my sons in line.”

“You do?” Joe asked with exaggerated innocence.

“Ask your brothers, Joseph.”

“Yeah, I guess you must, Pa, ’cause Hoss and even Adam still think twice about minding you.”

Ben raised his eyebrow, “And why is that do you suppose?”

Joe’s voice lost its mischievous note as he answered, “Adam says it’s because they love and respect you so much.”

Ben’s smile reached far deeper than his eyes. “Until you have a child of your own, Joe, you’ll never know just how much I love the three of you.” “There’s many ways to show love, son. I hope you understand the ways I show mine for you.”

“I do, Pa, even the ones I don’t like at the time.” Joe gave his father a cheeky grin.

Ben reached out and drew his son to him once more. “My grandfather use to say that some times the only thing to do is to learn from something and then let go. So mind me now, Joseph. What happened is over; it’s time to learn and let go.”

“Yes, sir, Pa.”

Ben kept his arm around his son as they walked back to the house.

*****

Ben opened the door to find Paul Martin. The doctor smiled and invited himself into his friend’s home.

“Paul, is there something…” Ben began with concern in his voice.

“No, no, Ben, actually I thought if I came bearing news, I might manage to be invited for some of Hop Sing’s cooking.” Paul Martin had been told countless times that he had a standing invitation at the Ponderosa dining table.

“Of course, Paul, you’d be a most welcome dinner guest,” Ben said with affability.

Doctor Martin seeing that Hop Sing had come out from the kitchen said quickly, “Only if it’s no trouble, Hop Sing. A cup of your coffee and some of your cookies would be well worth the ride.”

“Cookies! Humph! Honelable Doctol stay, have decent meal. Think Hop Sing let go with empty stomach. Humph! Hop Sing cook plenty always. Dinnel in fifteen minutes.” The cook returned to his kitchen muttering angrily to make a few quick additions to the menu, so the doctor could indulge in some of his favorite things.

“You’d better make a good showing at the table, Paul,” Adam said setting down the Territorial Enterprise he had been reading.

“Oh, I intend give Hoss a run for his money, ” the good doctor replied.

At that moment Hoss came in from the washroom followed by Little Joe. Both greeted the doctor enthusiastically.

“What brought you out this way, Paul?” Ben inquired, “None of our neighbors are ailing, I hope.”

“I’ve been out to the McNallys checking on Helen.”

“Is she still improving?” Adam asked quickly. The Cartwrights knew that Helen had regained full conscious a few days before but no more than that.

“A little more each day. In fact, occasional brief visits from good friends will start being beneficial in a few days.”

“So the little gal’s gonna be fine, is she? Now if that don’t beat all!” Hoss exclaimed.

“Well, there will be one residual effect,” Paul said cautiously.

“And what is that, Paul,” Adam asked leaning forward.

“The pressure apparently did damage to the optic nerve.”

“She’s BLIND!” Little Joe’s shout ricocheted around the room.

“No, no, Joe, settle down, boy,” the doctor spoke in his most calming tone. “Helen is most definitely not blind, but her vision was affected. Helen will need to wear glasses from now on.

Other than that, she should make a full, if slow, recovery.”

“Alex said her sight in her right eye was weak before, “Adam murmured.

“Shucks, glasses ain’t nothing; lots of folks wears um,” Hoss interjected.

“It most certainly is nothing compared to what might have happened. And since Hendrick Brugger opened his shop, she’ll be able to get them right here in Virginia City without delay,” Ben observed.

“If anyone calls her four-eyes,” Joe muttered under his breath.

“Paul, how are Ephraim and the boys?” Ben ventured.

“Frankly, there’s been a lot of improvement there too. I’ll admit for a while I was worried that the tension in that house would have an effect on Helen’s recovery or create a new set of patients for me, but since Paul returned to the fold, well, things are much better.”

Adam’s lips turned up, and he exchanged a smile with Little Joe.

“Has Helen said, well, has she said anything about what happened?” Joe’s voice was very soft and hesitant.

“Actually, Helen doesn’t remember that day or the one before it and probably never will. That’s quite common with head injuries though.”

“Perhaps it’s even for the best,” Ben mused.

“Would have been better if she could have forgotten that day with Jasper Pruitt.” Paul spoke automatically. Adam raised a questioning eyebrow, and Paul continued, “She’s still haunted by that, though not to the degree that she was. No doubt she needs more time to talk it out.”

“Or maybe she still needs to talk it out.” Adam rubbed the bridge of his nose. “I mean who do you suppose she talked it out with?”

“Ephraim was there,” Ben began.

“I imagine there are some things a girl would be reluctant to discuss with her pa at the best of times, or her brothers either.” Adam cursed so softly no one heard him.

“It is a pity that Helen has no mother to see here through these times, but I’ve never seen a father care more gently for his child than Ephraim has,” Paul commented. “Though I know she said very little to any of her family about what happened. I think she was…, well, I’m sure she had her reasons.”

Hoss suddenly spoke with calm surety, “She was afraid to tell ’em. Afraid of what they might do. Paul went after Adam with Helen shouting no.”

“But she wouldn’t, well, she wouldn’t care what happened to…” Little Joe’s voice was puzzled.

“Not Pruitt, Joe. If her father or brothers, well, if they broke the law, they could be the ones in prison.” Adam’s hands curled into fists.

At that moment Hops Sing announced that everyone was to come to the table, or he would be leaving for China, and the diners wisely did as they were told.

*****

Over the next week Ben, Adam, and Hoss all visited Helen bearing flowers, books, and tempting treats from Hop Sing’s kitchen. Only Little Joe found reason after reason to avoid the McNally ranch.

Hoss was nearly finished stabling Chubb when Little Joe entered the barn. Hearing his younger brother, Hoss turned to face him. “Joe, I need to talk to ya, boy.”

Startled Little Joe jerked to a stop. Hoss’ tone was one he very seldom heard from his middle brother.

“Something wrong, Big Brother?” Joe responded flashing his brother an appeasing smile.

“Yeah, there’s something wrong, and I wanna know when you’re gonna be setting it right!”

Little Joe shrugged, “Haven’t got the faintest notion of what you’re talking about.”

“I’m talking about you letting that little gal lie there wondering why you don’t think she’s fit to set eyes on. That’s what I’m talking about! Heard ya say under oath that she was your friend. Is this how ya treat a friend, Joseph? I’m ashamed of ya, boy.”

His brother’s words hit Little Joe like a slap in the face. “Hoss, I, I, I…” he stuttered.

“I’ll tell ya what you’re gonna do: bright and early tomorrow you’re gonna get your tail on Cochise and go visit Helen, and if ya don’t, you’re gonna answer to me.”

“But, but what if she doesn’t want to see me?” Little Joe dropped his head and dug the toe of his boot nervously into the dirt floor.

Hoss walked over and lifted Little Joe’s chin. “Short Shanks, would I be railing at ya if I hadn’t seen her hurting ’cause she wants ya to come and ya don’t?”

“I don’t know what to say to her, Hoss.” Joe’s voice had a pleading tone.

“She ain’t looking for no true confession, Joe. She just wants to know that everything ain’t changed, that her friends are still her friends.” Hoss put his arm around his little brother, “You don’t have to make no speeches, just say howdy and go from there.”

“But…” Joe murmured.

“No buts, or I’ll be tending to yours. I mean it, Joe. At supper tomorrow you better be telling about the nice visit you had, or you’ll be eating on your feet.”

Joe gave his brother a wry look. “You wouldn’t.”

“You plan to try me, boy?” Hoss fixed Joe with a glare borrowed from their father.

“No,” Joe answered softly, “but will you ride over with me?”

Hoss smiled. “Course I will. Now get to them chores.” The light swat he landed on Little Joe’s behind was borrowed from their father too.

*****

Little Joe and Hoss rode into the McNally yard to be greeted by Paul and Jeff. As they dismounted, Little Joe studied his friend closely.

“You looking for something special, Joe?” Paul asked teasingly.

“Looking to see where your pa took that chunk out of your hide,” Joe answered back.

“Well, you can quit ’cause he left my hide in one piece.”

“What about those brothers of yours?”

“Well,” Paul drawled, “They kept the damage to a minimum.”

“So, ya let the boy of easy, did ya?” Hoss addressed his remark to Jeff.

Jeff gave a snort. “He won’t be repeating that mistake, I can tell you.”

Little Joe had heard Jeff’s big-brother tone often enough in his own brothers’ mouths to know that things were set right between Jeff and Paul. His curiosity burned to know exactly what had occurred, but he knew that when it came to family business a body should never pry, so he let the topic go.

“You were here yesterday, Hoss. Is there something…”

“That was pleasure, Jeff. Today is business. That mare we were talking about. Joe, though, came to pay Helen a call.”

“Jeff can show you the mare.” Ephraim’s voice captured all their attention. “I’ll show you up, Joe, but first I want to talk with you. Paul, you have chores to do.”

Little Joe and Paul exchanged glances while Jeff and Hoss did the same.

“Yes, sir,” Joe replied following Ephraim into the house.

Joe turned to face Helen’s father and stood before him nervously. He had not seen Ephraim McNally since he had confessed his part in the accident. He dropped his eyes to the floor and turned the brim of his hat around in his fingers. “Mr. McNally, I…I just, I want you to know,” Joe’s voice dropped to a whisper, “I just wanted to ride Thor.”

“I wanted to ride Thor from the moment I saw him.” Ephraim’s statement was the last thing Little Joe had expected to hear. His eyes jerked to Ephraim’s face. “Anyone who knows horses would, but I didn’t hear you asking my permission.” Joe’s chin dropped to his chest, but Ephraim reached out and raised it with his fingers. “A man wants something, he speaks up and asks. Little boys sneak behind the adults’ backs to do what they think will be forbidden.”

“I know. I’m sorry, really sorry,” Joe swallowed hard, but forced the next words out, “If you’ve decided to punish me yourself, well, I know Pa would agree, and uh, well, I’d know I deserved it.”

Ephraim reached out, placed his hand on Joe’s shoulder, and spoke gently, “I forgive you, Joe.”

Joe looked directly into Ephraim’s eyes for the first time and saw more than forgiveness there. “Thank you, sir.”

Then Ephraim’s tone became stern. “Understand this, Joe Cartwright. I’ve burned the seat of a number of naughty boys and if you ever engage in wrongdoing with any of my children again, I shall cause the same damage to your backside as I do to theirs, regardless of your father’s actions.” Then, almost before Joe realized what was happening, Ephraim had turned him around, land a stinging swat to Joes’s behind, and turned him back again. “That, Joseph, was to make sure you understand what I meant.”

Joe gave him a sheepish grin, “Your message was real clear, Mr. McNally. And I know Pa would agree.”

“I intend to tell your father that he is extended the same privilege.”

Joe’s grinned broadened. “Pa might bust Paul’s tail, Mr. McNally. He probably would have on Founder’s Day if he had known you then, but Helen’s different. I don’t know if Pa could tan a girl, especially if she started crying and pleading.”

“I hope there will be no occasion to warrant testing your father’s resolve or mine.” Ephraim’s lips tilted slightly upward.

“I sure don’t plan on testing yours,” Joe replied shaking his head. Then he turned toward the stairs.

“Joe, you rode Thor to get the doctor?”

Joe stopped and turned back toward Ephraim. “Yes, sir.”

Ephraim gave him a questioning look.

Joe answered hesitantly, “I, I told him you’d want him to let me for Helen’s sake, and well, he didn’t give me no trouble at all.”

Ephraim gave Joe a knowing smile.

“Mr. McNally, Paul, uhmm, he’s a really good rider.”

“Like you?”

“Well, not to brag but yes, sir. You, you don’t really think it was because I asked?”

“Joe, you and Paul are both natural riders. Paul tried to ride Thor when he was thirteen and out to prove himself. Thor simply proved his point instead.” Then Ephraim’s eyes twinkled, “And the whipping he got for it may well have had his backside aching until quite recently.”

Joe heard the teasing tone in Ephraim’s voice, and his thoughts flashed back to his taunting of Paul about not trying more than once to ride Thor.

His eye’s widening, Joe asked, “How did you know about that?”

“My sons will tell you that when Helen tells a story, she often includes details they’d rather leave out.”

“Helen’s going on like regular again?”

Ephraim’s smile deepened. “Very much like regular.” He motioned toward the stairs. “Go see for yourself, son.”

Joe bit his lip and then headed upstairs.

*****

Little Joe knocked on Helen’s bedroom door and called, “Helen. It’s me, Joe.”

“Joe! Come in!” It was Helen’s voice, and it sounded welcoming.

Joe opened the door and stepped in starting toward the bed. His eyes settled on the figure there, and he stopped short staring.

“Joe, I’m so glad,” Helen’s voice faltered as she saw the look on his face. “You’ll get use to them, Joe, I have to.” Helen fiddled with the glasses that were perched on her nose.

“No. It’s not the glasses; really it’s not. It’s just, I didn’t know.” He reached up and touched his own curls.

“No one told you they had to cut my hair.” Helen’s eyes dropped, and she fingered the short wisps of hair that now circled her face. “It’s shorter than Paul’s,” she muttered nervously.

Joe hurried over and sat in the chair beside Helen. “It was just that it was a surprise, Helen. That’s all. I mean, Hoss, Pa, even Adam didn’t think enough about it to mention it to me.”

She raised her head. With her short hair and glasses, Helen’s eyes seemed to take over her whole face. Well, everyone said the McNally eyes were beautiful.

“At least,” Helen gave Joe a weak smile, “my hair will grow back eventually.”

Joe bit his lip and mentally chided himself for hurting Helen’s feelings. “Really, it’s not that you look bad, ’cause ya don’t. In fact, ya look sweet. Only, well,” Joe flashed a cheeky grin, “it’s kind of like seeing Hal in a pink nightgown.”

This time Helen’s smile brightened her eyes. “Well, if I’d known you were coming, I’d have worn blue.” Helen frowned at Joe. “I’d about given up on you.”

Joe shifted nervously and then told the truth, “I, I thought you might…they told you about what happened, didn’t they?” Helen nodded. “I thought ya might be blaming me.”

“Blaming you! No, oh no, Joe. Never.”

Joe took a deep breath. “Well, if you did, I wouldn’t blame you. I’m sorry, Helen. Forgive me, please.”

“You forgave me,” Helen’s lips curled into a wry smile, “More than once. I forgive you, Joseph Francis Cartwright, for planning to ride Thor and not even let me try.”

“Helen! I’m serious.”

“So am I, Joe. There’s nothing else to forgive you for.”

“So we’re still friends?” Joe asked softly.

“Forever, Joe. I said under oath that you were like another brother.” Helen rolled her eyes, “Even if I had plenty before I met you.”

Joe hesitated, bit his lip, and then asked, “You’re not blaming Paul either?”

Helen shook her head in exasperation. “No. I’m not blaming anybody, even if Alex says it’s Grandpapa McNally’s fault. Joe, we’ve all settled things; you let them be settled too.”

For the first time in weeks the knot in Joe’s stomach relaxed into nothing. “Sure. It’s settled.” He extended his hand, and Helen slipped hers into his. Then they shook on it.

Helen settled back against the pillows. Smoothing the coverlet, she cocked her head and gave Joe an appraising look. “Paul told me you rode Thor to get Doctor Martin. What was that like?”

Joe leaned back and stretched out his legs. “You know, don’t you?”

“Whatever do you mean?”

“I mean I’m not the only one who’s ridden Thor. When did you ride him, Helen?”

Helen widened her eyes. “Now, Sugar, if I had ever ridden Thor, I certainly wouldn’t tell Papa, Alex, and maybe not even Jeff, but do you honestly think that I could keep from telling Paul? Really, you know me better than that.”

Joe knew Helen well enough to have no hope of getting her to admit anything she did not intend be known. Besides, she had called him sugar, and that was enough of an admission.

Joe put a pout on his face. “You told your pa what I said about his tanning Paul. Sometimes, Helen, your mouth just rattles on.”

“You talked to Papa? Did he tell you what he decided?”

“You mean that if we get in trouble again, I’ll be able to tell who tans harder, him or Pa?” Joe shoved his lower lip out further.

“Well, don’t act like you’re the only one who’ll be in that position.”

Joe snorted. “Even if Pa did spank you, he’d never give you the same tanning he’d give Paul and me.”

Helen rolled her eyes, “That’s what my brothers always say.” Then she gave him a self-satisfied smirk. “It may even be true, Sugar.”

“Pa said you’re getting up some each day. Doc says you’re getting stronger faster than he figured. I told him he just didn’t know how stubborn and willful you are,” Joe said changing the subject. Helen was pale and looked like she had been sick, but in some ways she looked brighter than she had since Jasper Pruitt.

“The McNallys have very strong constitutions, and I am almost as stubborn as a Cartwright. Doc Martin says I’m a better patient than you, though.”

“That doesn’t mean much. Doc thinks Cartwrights make the worst patients, and I’m the worst of the worst. I should make a bet with him about when you’ll be riding all over creation again. I’d be sure to win.” Joe chuckled, but then the thought that Helen hadn’t been riding all over creation even before the accident cut off his laughter. “You will be riding about again, won’t you?” he asked gently.

Helen nodded. “That’s better too, Joe, really. Adam, well, he sent somebody to talk with me. Talking to her, well, it helped a lot.” An odd shine came into Helen’s eyes. “She’s a real nice person, but I think she had to buy a new dress just to make the visit. She didn’t mention to Papa were she worked.”

“Adam sent a, well a…”

“He sent a lady to talk to me about things, and I’m real grateful he did,” Helen said adamantly. Then she gave Joe a shy smile, “Sometimes, sometimes I miss talking to another woman.”

Joe decided on a playful snort. “Another woman. You’re not a woman, Helen.”

“Close enough, Little Joe!” she retorted.

Joe straightened to his fullest and looked down at Helen, “Not nearly close enough for a man like me.”

Helen’s eyes flared, but then she dissolved into giggles. When they subsided, she curled up against the pillows and put on a pitiful look. “Be nice, Joseph, or I’ll tell your Pa you were being mean to me,” she teased.

“Tattletale.”

Helen straightened. “See. There you go name-calling.” Helen threw Joe a speculative look. “Of course, if you promise to pay a penance, I could be persuaded…”

“You mean bribed,” Joe interjected.

Helen shrugged, “Bribed into not telling.”

“What’s your price?”

“You have to dance at least a dozen dances with me at the next social, even if it is like dancing with Hal. I don’t intend to be a wallflower that only dances with her brothers.”

Joe heard the serious worry under Helen’s light tone. “That’s an awfully high price, girl. Would you consider accepting half a dozen? I wouldn’t want to disappoint too many other girls.”

“I’m a better horse trader that, Sugar. It’s a dozen, or I tell.”

“Okay. It’s a deal.” Joe stuck out his hand, and they shook again. “You know, Helen, while your hair is short, you could play Hal and even take your hat off. Think of what that would have saved you on Founder’s Day.”

A smirk came to Helen’s lips, and after a few seconds she replied, “I’d rather think about what I could do as Hal that I can’t do as Helen. I mean, some places even a cowhand takes off his hat.”

Joe’s heartbeat increased. “Now, Helen, I didn’t mean, don’t you go…Helen, you ain’t even out of bed yet.”

“Don’t worry, Sugar, I don’t intend to get caught misbehaving anytime soon. Not when things are just getting right after last time.” Helen’s eyes held their old sparkle. Joe saw it and smiled relieved that the whole thing really was over. With her new glasses, it would have taken Alex to tell him that the sparkle in Helen’s eyes was the one she got only when she was plotting.

***The End***

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