Emergence From The Shadow (by Doreen)

Summary:  (A Missing Scene from Season 11’s ‘A Darker Shadow’)
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  7400


The story so far  . . .

Joe’s friend Wade Turner develops a brain tumor which causes his sight to deteriorate and for him to act uncharacteristically violent when subjected to bright light. 

Wade is told by the doctor that his condition requires a dangerous operation which could kill him, but without it, he could also die or go totally blind. However, Wade is unwilling to undergo the required surgery, and though he is soon to be married to Sarah, decides to end their engagement for her sake and abruptly leaves his job and takes off into the mountains. 

Wade’s co-worker at the mercantile is Clyde, who is not only jealous of Wade just being made manager above him but also his relationship with Sarah. Clyde uses Wade’s medical distraction to trick the usually meticulous bookkeeper out of $5000 from the business accounts, leaving Wade to be falsely accused of stealing the money in his absence. 

Joe persuades the Sheriff to give him a couple of days to find Wade and bring him back to answer what he believes is a false accusation before a posse is formed. However, Clyde finds out Joe’s plan and follows him with the intention of killing both Wade and Joe in an attempt to cover his own deception and theft. 

Joe finds Wade and finally convinces him to return home to clear his name and have the operation, but they are ambushed by Clyde, who shoots Joe in the shoulder. Joe falls off his horse and lies unconscious as Clyde boasts to Wade about what he’s done then tries to kill him. They fight but although he is hindered by his poor vision, Wade manages to knock Clyde out just as Joe staggers into view…..

*****

“Wade?”

Joe’s voice was weak and edged with confusion as he focused his eyes on his friend. And then, with his gun hanging limply from his right hand, he fell headlong onto the forest floor.

Wade rushed across and gently eased him into a sitting position. Looking over Wade’s shoulder, Joe stared with a mixed expression of bewilderment and curiosity as his eyes focused towards the man who’d tried to kill them both and who was now lying motionless on the ground.

“It was Clyde,” Wade told him, answering his silent question as he followed Joe’s gaze and noted his puzzled expression. “I’ll tell you about it on the way back.” Then he motioned with his hand towards the blood-stained bullet hole showing up so clearly on Joe’s coat. “You gonna make it?” he smiled softly with concern. “Or are you feeling pretty sorry for yourself?”

Joe narrowed his eyes for a moment in confusion before giving out a grin of remembrance, for those had been his exact words to Wade hours before. “I think between the two of us we can make it,” he answered truthfully.

Wade helped him up and they both walked towards the prone figure of Clyde. “Is he dead?” Joe asked.

There was a faint swelling appearing above Wade’s left eye as he shook his head and tenderly rubbed his right hand. “Nope,” he answered, prodding Clyde with his boot. The man uttered a faint moan. “My sight might not be at its best but it ain’t hampered my ability to fist fight. I managed to knock him out well and good.”

Joe exhaled with relief and sank back down onto the floor. He could feel a slight burning sensation in his shoulder and he winced with discomfort. “You think you can tie him on his horse before he comes round and tries to get away? Don’t want no posse or some hot-headed deputy shooting you dead before he’s had the chance to admit to the Sheriff what he did.”

Wade could see Joe’s injury was bothering him slightly and he’d be of no help, so he nodded. “Sure I can. It’ll be my pleasure,” he answered and made his way towards Clyde’s horse which stood quietly grazing a few yards away. Soon he returned carrying a length of rope, and minutes later, after much physical exertion on Wade’s part, the would-be killer was hog-tied across his horse’s back.

Wade returned to sit by Joe’s side and stared absently at the floor for a few moments as he caught his breath. Joe watched him closely and frowned. “Wade? Something on your mind?”

Wade glanced sideways towards Clyde. “Tell me true, Joe. Didn’t you ever consider I was guilty of taking the money?”

Joe shook his head. “Of course not, you big galoot,” he teased in a friendly banter. “We’ve been good friends a long time. I knew you’d never do anything like that.”

Touched by Joe’s utter belief in him, Wade was stunned into silence for a few moments. “I owe you Joe.”

“You owe me nothing. That’s what friends are for,” Joe responded quickly, then wishing to change the subject, gently poked Wade in the chest. “Any chance you could get me a drink? Throat’s mighty dry all of a sudden.”

Wade nodded in silence and made his way to Clyde’s horse where he unfastened a canteen from the saddle and handed it over. Joe took a long gulp of the refreshing water and Wade’s eyes focused once again on the blood stained bullet-hole. He made a pointed gesture towards it. “You sure you’ve got the strength to go back down the mountain today? That looks pretty bad.”

Joe brushed a hand across his moistened lips then pulled back his shirt a small way and glanced quickly at his chest. “I’ll be fine. It’s just a flesh wound and I’ve been shot worse,” he joked. “But I don’t fancy having to walk all that way. Do you think you can find something for me to ride?”

Wade squinted cautiously against the bright sunlight and picked up his hat that had fallen off during his fight with Clyde. He dusted it against his thigh and after placing it back on his head he looked around. Even with his limited and blurred vision he could soon make out three familiar looking silhouettes on the skyline a short distance away and pointed his hand vaguely towards them.

“All the horses are up there so it shouldn’t take long to round them up and then we can get going,” Wade said as a look of frustration crossed his face. “The sooner I see Sarah and explain about everything the better. I bet she’s been worried sick about me over the past few days.”

Joe watched as Wade began to slowly make his way towards their mounts and with the intention of helping tried to stand. But immediately he fell back onto the ground, breathing hard. For what had been during the last few minutes the numbing shock of the bullet blasting into him had suddenly changed into pure undiluted agony throbbing through his entire shoulder.

Feeling a fresh surge of warm blood begin to trickle down his chest, Joe pulled out a kerchief from his pocket and soaked it with water from the canteen. Then he gritted his teeth and grimaced with pain as he pushed the sodden material between his shirt and the bleeding wound, holding it tight in an attempt to stem the flow.

For a few minutes Joe remained in that position, hardly daring to move in case he made things worse, keen not to add extra delay or place more worry on Wade’s shoulders.

As Wade returned with all their mounts, he was immediately distracted by Clyde who’d regained consciousness and turned his head angrily towards his former work colleague, maddened to be in such an uncomfortable and undignified position across his horse’s back.

“Hey Wade…what’s going on? You can’t keep me tied up like this all the way back to Virginia City!”

“Wanna bet!” Wade replied with a chuckle as he dismounted.

“But it’s over half a day’s ride!”

“I’m quite aware of how long it’s gonna take Clyde, and if you don’t stop your hollerin’, you’ll have a gag on you all the way as well!”

There was the sound of a loud expletive from Clyde then silence as Wade turned his attention back onto Joe. “Found your hat. Been flattened a mite but I’ve beaten out the creases as best I could.”

Joe gave a quick nod of thanks as he took it from his hand. “Good as new,” he declared with forced brightness and pushed it firmly down on his head.

Wade gave him a quick glance and noticed his face had paled somewhat but refrained from comment, keen to make a move. “You ready to go, Joe? I want to get this mess sorted out as quickly as possible, and if we start now there’s a good chance we’ll be back in town by nightfall and then the doc can see to patching you up.”

Joe nodded and suppressed a groan as Wade pulled him to his feet and held Cochise steady as he heaved himself one handed onto his back. Then moments later as Joe lead the way and Wade followed with the reins of the pack horse and Clyde’s mount tied around the pommel of his saddle, they began their long and slow descent down the mountainside towards Virginia City.

However, a couple of hours had barely gone by when it soon became apparent to the pair of them that their journey was going to take a lot longer than planned.

The first indication came when the blue sky of summer slowly began to cover over with ominously grey clouds and a loud rolling of thunder occasionally bellowed in the distance. Not long after the rain began to fall — gently at first, then harder and more persistent as the unpredictable storm grew in its intensity.

As they continued on their trek, progress grew painfully slow on the sodden ground and the horses became more jittery by the minute, made dangerously nervous as bright flashes of lightening lit up the sky and they slipped and slithered on the uneven and rocky terrain. Suddenly Joe reined up and waited for Wade to join him. He pointed into the distance where he could see the trail ahead had disappeared to be replaced by a huge deposit of mud, rocks and uprooted trees.

“Looks like there’s been a landslide. We’re gonna have to retrace our steps and go down the other side of the mountain,” he cried out in the noisy downpour. “But it’s far too dangerous to try in these conditions. We need to find shelter for a while till the storm moves on.”

Wade reluctantly grunted in agreement. “Follow the track to the right, Joe. Seem to remember there’s an old line shack just over that ridge.”

Joe nodded and quickly followed Wade’s instructions, and to his intense relief, minutes later a small cabin came into view. Practically falling from the saddle, Joe somehow managed to secure Cochise in the lean-to at the side before stumbling clumsily into the long abandoned shack.

Cold and close to a state of exhaustion, Joe leaned for a moment in the doorway as he looked inside. His only wish was to rest on any old straw filled mattress until the rain ceased but then he gave a disappointed sigh, for though he noticed the only window was still intact and a small stove dominated a corner of the room, there was just enough light for him to see the cabin was completely devoid of furniture of any kind.

Weakened from the loss of blood and now in constant pain from his shoulder wound, Joe threw his hat down then sank onto the dirt floor. Without strength to even remove his soaking wet jacket, he laid down and turned his face to the wall, huddling into a ball in a vain attempt to keep warm. And as he closed his eyes, somewhere in the distant folds of his brain Joe listened to a cursing Clyde being dragged into the shack, could hear Wade call his name, heard a door slam shut. Then slowly all went quiet as consciousness slipped away and Joe was swept on the crest of a wave to a world of blessed pain-free oblivion.

*****

There was unexpected but joyous warmth in the air and the smell of wood smoke from a lighted stove permeating every nook and cranny of the one-roomed shack when Joe finally came round. A couple of blankets had been draped around him but his sodden clothes, though dryer, still clung uncomfortably to his body, and blinking his eyes open, Joe shifted stiffly with discomfort.

In the feeble light of a single candle set down in the middle of the floor, Joe focused his gaze on a damp looking Clyde sitting in the far corner of the room. His hands and feet were tied and he held a mug of coffee in his fingers while staring absently at the ceiling with a thoughtful expression on his deeply bruised face.

Joe then noticed Wade was adding extra kindling to the stove’s fire, and so with a slight groan, he pushed himself up and rested his back on the wall of the shack.

Hearing him, Wade looked over quickly with concern. “You had me worried there, Joe. Thought you were never gonna wake up,” he admitted with a visible sigh of relief.

“How long have I been out?”

Wade shook his head. “Can’t say for sure but I’m a guessing four or five hours. The storm’s passed but its dark now, so it looks like we’re stuck here till the morning. You want something to eat? Got some beans left.”

Joe stared over at a pan of unappetizing looking leftovers warming on top of the stove. Instantly feeling nauseous at the sight, he swallowed hard and shook his head.

“How about a drink then?”

Conscious of how parched his throat was, Joe nodded and watched as Wade rummaged a while in his saddlebag and brought out another mug, then poured hot black liquid from a well-used coffee pot into it. With a shaking hand, Joe took the drink offered and downed half of it in one gulp.

Wade studied him carefully and now noticed his pallor was even paler than before and his face was covered in sweat. “You don’t look too good, Joe. You got much pain from that shoulder?”

Joe hesitated for a brief moment, unwilling to meet his friend’s penetrating gaze. “Oh…er, not too much,” he mumbled reassuringly, and in an attempt to allay Wade’s fears, he patted it with his right hand. “Like I said before, it wasn’t much more than a graze and there’s nothing to worry about.”

However, Wade viewed him skeptically, and to Joe’s dismay, gently leaned forward and opened his jacket. Carefully, he pulled out the kerchief covered in congealed blood from beneath Joe’s shirt and stared at it for a moment in surprise. And as he diverted his gaze back to the dried crimson stain spread across his chest, Wade could see there was now visible reddening and tenderness around the wound.

“Joe! Why didn’t you tell me it was this bad?” Wade snapped as he examined the inflamed area. “It’s a lot more than a mere scratch, and by the looks of it, that bullet needed removing hours ago!”

“Maybe it did but what you proposing, Wade? That you’d have taken it out?” Joe suggested wryly. “We both know you can hardly see your own hand in front of your face at the moment, let alone a half inch slug in my shoulder!”

Wade shook his head sadly and pulled out his own kerchief from his pocket. “Damn you, Joe. You wouldn’t be in this mess if you’d done as I asked and minded your own business,” he grumbled fearfully as he covered up the exposed hole.

Joe winced slightly at his touch then gave a chuckle. “My Pa told me the self same thing the other night, but truth is, I never was much for taking advice; good or bad.”

Wade then balled his fists angrily. “This is all my fault. If only I’d swallowed my pride and admitted what was happening with my eyes weeks ago, none of this would have happened. Sarah wouldn’t be alone and broken- hearted, Clyde wouldn’t have managed to trick me into giving him that $5000 and you…you wouldn’t be here shot…”

“Wade, what’s done is done so stop beating yourself up about it,” Joe interrupted, wiping his face dry with his sleeve. “Soon as we get to town, Doc Martin can stitch me up again and I’ll be as good as new. After all, he’s had enough practice over the years!”

Joe smiled reassuringly and was about to swallow back the remainder of his drink when he suddenly began to shake so hard the coffee splashed out of the mug. Wade quickly took it from his hand, and after a few moments, Joe stilled.

“Looks like your body’s going into shock,” Wade told him anxiously. “Maybe you should put your head down for a while and rest.”

Joe gave a weak nod. “Good idea,” he mumbled meekly and lay back down again with pain lingering in his eyes.

Wade watched Joe closely till he dozed off, then a voice suddenly sounded out in the gloom. “I reckon by the look of it, Cartwright could well be a corpse within a day.”

Wade turned his head and stared over towards the far side of the room. He’d all but forgotten their prisoner. “Shut up, Clyde!” he ordered gruffly. “You don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“I’m telling you, Wade. If that bullet stays in much longer, then it’ll be too late to do anything.”

Even with his poor vision, Wade could make out the cold expression of certainty on the other man’s battered face in the flickering light of the candle. However, he refused to believe such a fatal scenario. “Joe will be fine. Like he said, all we have to do is get him to Virginia City in the morning and Doc Martin will be able to sort him out.”

Clyde’s voice rose with exasperation. “Wade, listen to me! With that trail blocked, it’s gonna take another full days ride at least to get to Virginia City but it wouldn’t do you any good any way. I saw Doc Martin leave town on the early stage yesterday for a week’s visit to Sacramento. However I could do it…” Clyde’s voice trailed off.

Wade pushed himself up and stared over. “You could do what?”

“I could take out the bullet in Cartwright’s shoulder before it’s too late.”

Wade stared at him for a long moment, his expression a mix of surprise and suspicion. “And why would you do that, seeing as you’re the one who put it there in the first place?”

“Stands to reason, Wade,” Clyde answered, his dark eyes darting towards the sleeping Joe. “The position I’m in, even an idiot could work out it’s in my best interests to keep Cartwright alive now. If he dies, I’m sure you’ll make certain I’ll be up in court accused of first-degree murder. So I’d rather do five years in prison on a lesser charge than wear a noose around my neck and go on a one-way journey courtesy of the hangman.”

“But what makes you so sure you could save him?”

“I was a Union private during the war,” Clyde told him without emotion. “Ended up helping out in field hospitals at Richmond, Elkin’s Ferry, Sayer’s Creek to name but a few. So there weren’t any shortage of patients, North or South, as you can imagine.”

Suddenly there was a loud cry as a fresh searing pain made Joe double up and clutch at his shoulder.

“Joe?” Wade’s voice was low and husky as he knelt back down by his side and wiped his face dry with a corner of the blanket. “Joe, you’re hotting up something fierce. You can’t afford to wait till we get to town to have that bullet out.”

Joe opened his eyes now clouded dull with realization. “I…I know, Wade,” he answered hesitatingly in a fevered reply. “I…know.”

“Clyde said he’ll take it out. You willing to let him?”

It took a time for Joe to respond as a lump of fear constricted his throat. “Do you trust him?”

Wade looked back over to the man once considered a friend sitting on the floor feet away. “Not much. But he’s your only hope.”

“Looks like I ain’t got much choice in the matter then,” Joe murmured. “Let…let him do it, Wade. Just….just make sure he does it right.”

Wade nodded. “You have my word, Joe.” Then he stood up and moved forward, sinking down in front of Clyde with a glowering stare. “You sure you’re up to this?”

Clyde inhaled deeply and gave a solemn nod. “Like I said Wade, I don’t want no murder charge hanging over me.”

Still, Wade stared over with a disbelieving expression. After working alongside him for two years, Wade thought he knew Clyde inside out but now…..

“Look, Wade. Don’t worry about me trying to do anything stupid like escaping,” Clyde announced as if reading his thoughts. “We’ve been friends a while, and though I know I can’t undo what I’ve done, please give me a chance to make it up to you….to Cartwright. Let me prove myself to you again.”

Wade gave Clyde one last thoughtful stare, then pulled him to his feet and began to undo the ropes that secured his wrists and feet together. “Very well, but I’m warning you, don’t try nothing.”

As he rubbed the circulation back into his hands, Clyde’s eyes were fixed on the gun now pointing directly at him. “You figuring on using that on me at some point?”

Wade shrugged his shoulders. “Only if I have to.”

Clyde nodded and took a deep breath. “Fair enough. You got any whiskey to disinfect?”

Wade shook his head.

“In that case, I’ll need boiling water for sterilizing and plenty of clean bandages if you want me to do this right.”

“I’ll boil up water in the coffee pot in a minute and there’s a knife and a couple of shirts in my pack that you can use,” Wade said, and then with a motion of his hand indicated for Clyde to move outside.

As Clyde opened the door, both men could see the persistent rain had now stopped, and in the sky the faint glow of a moon half hidden by clouds penetrated through the trees.

At the side under the lean-to, Clyde began to unbuckle the large sack still tied tight on the pack-horse’s back. Once loosened, he carried it towards Wade, who was standing feet away by the door, watching him closely with his gun pointed at his chest. At this point, Joe let out another loud groan of pain, and as Wade instinctively looked over, Clyde made his move.

Too fast to get an immediate reaction from Wade, he threw the sack at him, sending Wade flying backwards and his handgun falling from his grasp. Then quickly pulling out a rifle still attached to one of the saddles, Clyde began running into the darkness to make his escape, unaware of Wade’s initial loss of firepower.

Unable to see clearly due to his failing eyesight, Wade crawled around, feeling for his firearm in the darkness as Clyde glanced behind then stopped and turned, unable to believe his luck. He drew his rifle to his chin and took deliberate aim on the now defenseless man.

Wade heard the roar of Clyde’s weapon as the bullet exploded into the wall of the shack inches from his face, splattering his body with splinters of wood. But though he knew he was a sitting duck, he refused to give up trying to locate his gun.

“You’re a dead man, Wade, and a fool,” Clyde shouted with a cry of triumph as once more he focused him in his sights and aimed directly towards him.

There was the sound of gunshot, then another and another. Wade froze, expecting to feel the burn of bullets tearing into his body, but to his astonishment, he felt nothing. Then he gulped with disbelief as the clouds above suddenly dispersed and left the full moon to clearly show Clyde sinking to his knees and with a loud moan slowly crumble forward…dead.

Joe was leaning crookedly in the door frame, his face soaked with sweat, blood seeping through his shirt and his left arm hanging uselessly by his side. But his gun was smoking in his right hand, and as his legs gave way beneath him, he fell sideways onto the mud packed floor.

Wade scrambled over and gently pulled Joe into the relative warmth of the cabin. He pulled out the sodden kerchief and threw it away, then rushed outside and retrieved one of his shirts, and using it to make a thick pad, he held it over the bleeding wound, fastening Joe’s jacket and keeping the makeshift bandage securely in place by the tight fit of his coat.

“Did I get him? Is Clyde dead?” Joe asked feverishly when he’d finished.

Wade sat back and drew a hand through his hair. “Yeah, Joe. You got him.”

Joe grunted. “Wasn’t sure I’d hit him considering…”

“Considering what Joe?”

“Never could aim as well with the right.”

Wade sighed. “Well, you did good, old friend, though it wasn’t the best of moves, bearing in mind your predicament. Not a wise move to kill the only man who can save your life. Not a wise move at all.”

For a moment, Joe digested Wade’s statement. Then slowly enlightenment dawned. “Guess not,” he quietly answered with a weak ironic chuckle.

Tired beyond belief, Wade closed his eyes for a few minutes rest in the eerie silence as Joe lay still by his side, until eventually Wade forced himself awake and looked down. He placed a hand on Joe’s cheek; it was cold and clammy and for a brief moment, Wade thought the worse as panic and apprehension flooded over him. Unconsciously holding his breath, Wade felt for a pulse at Joe’s neck. It was there, faint, but there. Wade blew out his cheeks with relief. Joe was still alive…but only just.

Failing to remember ever having felt so useless, at that moment Wade watched as the sweat poured from Joe’s sleeping face, a true indication of the dangerous fever that now racked his friend’s body.

Wade shook his head with helplessness and his eyes pricked with tears of guilt. What to do now?

*****

Joe had no idea how long he’d been asleep but in the twilight world between blissful dreams and feverish waking he could sense something wasn’t quite right.

Instead of the aroma of unmistakable wood smoke that had filled his nostrils in the cabin, the air smelt clear and fresh and there was warmth from a dawn sun as it climbed higher in a morning sky. Strong but gentle hands held him tight, and even in his confusion Joe knew with certainty he was on the back of a horse, its familiar gait slowed to an uneven walking pace with the extra man it carried.

He tried to concentrate as a distant memory tugged at his brain; so similar, almost parallel…..

The same pain from a gunshot in his shoulder; the loving embrace of an elder brother holding him safe and secure while taking him home to safety.

“Adam? Watch out for the wolf, Adam,” Joe heard himself murmur aloud in his delirium.

“Shhh…Joe. There’s no wolf,” a familiar voice whispered in his ear.

Joe struggled against the arms enfolding him. “Are you sure? Where are we going, Adam?”

“I’m taking you home, Joe,” the voice soothed and reassured.

“Home?”

“Yes, so don’t you dare die on me, you hear?”

A soft smile touched Joe’s mouth. “No, Adam. I won’t die on you. I promise.”

“That’s good, Joe. Now you just go back to sleep,” the voice instructed.

“Yes Adam….go back to sleep….if that’s what you want me to do.”

“Yes Joe…that’s all I want you to do.”

*****

Ben Cartwright opened the front door and stepped out into the yard. He looked anxiously into the far distance to see if there was any indication of the violent storm of yesterday still lingering over the mountains. But to his relief, all he could see was wall to wall blue sky and not a cloud in sight. He took in a deep breath of the fresh morning air to clear his thoughts.

After being told by Hoss and Candy that Joe had hightailed off into the high country to search for Wade Turner the previous day, they’d decided to return to Virginia City for the night in case a posse was formed and they were needed. So, not for the first time, the anxious father was left to spend a lonely evening worrying about his youngest son.

‘Joseph! Why, oh why do you keep giving me cause for concern?’ Ben silently questioned, though at the same time furnishing a wry smile. ‘Have a feeling it’s never going to change, though.”

He began to turn back towards the house when he caught a movement out the corner of his eye. As Ben focused his gaze, he could see a horse walking slowly around the side of the barn carrying two figures on its back, one held tightly in the other’s arms.

Ben moved forward and frowned then recognition dawned. “Wade Turner? Is that you?”

“Yes, Mr. Cartwright. I’ve got Joe…he’s been shot and is in a bad way.”

Straightaway panic propelled him into action and Ben rushed forward, taking the unconscious Joe into his arms as Wade threw off the blanket that covered him and carefully lowered him down. “Help me get him into the house,” Ben cried, and swiftly between the two of them, they carried Joe into the downstairs bedroom and laid him on the bed.

Throwing Joe’s hat onto the floor, Ben gently eased his son out of his jacket, and as he pulled out the blood-saturated padding and inspected the swollen and reddened bullet-hole, Joe let out a moan. His eyes flicked open for a brief moment and he took in his father’s worried expression through fevered eyes. “I stayed asleep, Pa. Just like what Adam told me,” he murmured then passed out again.

Ben looked quizzically towards Wade, who just shook his head. “He came to at one point on the trail and started rambling about some wolf and calling me Adam, so I told him to go back to sleep. It just didn’t make sense.”

Ben’s eyes misted at the memory of the day years before when he’d nearly lost his son at Montpelier Gorge. “It made sense to Joe,” he said softly without elaborating. Then he focused again on the bullet hole. “Who shot him?”

“Clyde.”

Ben frowned in puzzlement. “Clyde from the mercantile? Why?”

“It’s a long story, Mr. Cartwright. But don’t worry. Clyde’s dead now….Joe managed to kill him before he killed me. But I had to leave his body and the rest of the horses at a line shack up on Three Peaks Mountain.”

“Don’t worry about that now, Wade. I’ll get one of the men to go collect them later. But I don’t understand. Why couldn’t you have taken Joe straight to the Doctor instead of coming here?”

“Well, with Doc Martin being away from town for a week, there didn’t seem no point trailing all the way there. And as I couldn’t take the bullet out due to the state my eyes are in, I didn’t aim to sit up on that mountain and watch Joe die in front of me. So I thought his best chance was to bring him back to the Ponderosa as quick as I could, even though it meant taking a risk by starting off during the night.”

“But I saw Doc Martin yesterday. He wasn’t going anywhere.”

Both men held each other’s gaze for a long moment. “Damn! Looks like Clyde figured out a way to escape and fooled me real good,” Wade finally gasped. “Mr. Cartwright, if you let me borrow a horse, I’ll go and fetch the Doctor right away.”

“We haven’t time. The bullet needs to come out now,” Ben replied grimly.

“But who can do it?” Wade asked, narrowing his eyes questioningly. “I’d offer, but the way my sight is…”

Ben sighed. “I know, Wade. I don’t expect you to,” he interrupted and took a deep breath, swallowing back the lump that rose in his throat. “I’ll have to do it.”

Ben felt Wade’s hand squeeze his arm. “But what if Joe doesn’t make it, Mr. Cartwright? I mean, you’d never forgive yourself. I was thinking maybe you should get one of the ranch hands. After all, they have nothing to lose if something went wrong.”

Ben shook his head, absently wiping a hand across Joe’s clammy forehead and continuing to stare down at his son for a few moments, his weathered face set hard at what he had to do and his mind obviously made up. “That’s why I have to do it, Wade. Each one of my sons means more to me than life itself. I’d have everything to lose.”

Wade gave a deep sigh of understanding. “I can see now where Joe gets his stubborn streak from,” he finally admitted with a sad smile. “What can I do to help?”

Ben raised his gaze and nodded thankfully over. “Go tell Hop Sing to boil up some water….and get him to give you a bottle of whiskey,” he instructed as Wade flew out of the door in the direction of the kitchen.

Ben stared down at his hands which had suddenly begun to shake wildly. ‘Get a grip,’ he silently ordered then began to unbutton and remove his son’s blood splattered shirt.

The following minutes seemed to disappear in a blur of organized confusion

Wade quickly returned with the whiskey and poured some into a bowl as Ben rolled up his sleeves and then washed his hands in the golden colored liquid to sanitize them as best he could. Hop Sing raced in, handing over a large clean sheet which Wade began to pull apart to make make-shift bandages.

And as the old cook looked anxiously down at Joe then back at his boss, Ben gave a slight smile of understanding. “He’s gonna be fine, Hop Sing,” Ben assured in a soothing voice, and with that,  Hop Sing disappeared back towards the kitchen, appearing minutes later with the sharpest of sterilized knives.

Praying Joe wouldn’t come too at this point, Ben pursed his lips hard. “You better hold him down,” he told Wade as he took hold of the whiskey bottle. “This is going to sting and I can’t risk him coming to and moving about too much once I start.”

Wade walked to the top of the bed and placed his hands gently on each of Joe’s shoulders then nodded towards Ben that he was ready. With his stomach churning uneasily, Ben poured most of the remainder of the whiskey over Joe’s wound to both cleanse and wash away the blood, and to his intense relief Joe hardly moved, just flinching slightly and letting out a quiet groan.

Ben then leaned closer towards the bed and lovingly stroked his son’s fiery hot cheek. “Joseph,” he said very softly, even though he wasn’t expecting his words to be heard. “I’m sorry boy, but this is going to hurt pretty bad. Try not to move.”

Then taking hold of the knife and with a final quick glance at Joe’s pale but sweat covered face, Ben began to probe for the bullet.

Though it had missed the bone, it was bedded deep within Joe’s shoulder, making it harder to retrieve than Ben had expected. Joe began to cry out and whimper with the pain, but thankfully didn’t wake to full consciousness as his head rolled from side to side. Wade did his best to keep his body still, instinctively murmuring words of reassurance and comfort as Joe tried to twist and turn beneath his firm grip.

It broke his heart to hear his son’s tortured cries, but biting his lip hard, Ben refused to stop, knowing every second counted as he dug deeper with the knife. Finally the bullet was located, and with a triumphant yell, he pulled it out then dropped it from his bloodied fingers into the bowl.

Watching nervously in the doorway, Hop Sing flew back into the kitchen and then immediately returned, carrying a second basin of hot water which Ben used to clean up the wound. He paused for a moment, wondering if he should risk stitching up the hole, but decided against it. Without the proper instrument or expertise, he feared he would only make things worse; he would rely on time to be the great healer and knit the skin together. So instead, Ben carefully dressed it with part of the torn sheet and tied it securely in place around Joe’s chest.

There was then a strange quiet in the room as Joe slept and Ben closed his eyes and exhaled deeply, swallowing hard to down the taste of nervous bile that had settled in his throat.

“What do we do now, Mr. Cartwright?” Wade eventually asked with a slight degree of trepidation as he looked between father and son.

Stroking his fingers softly across Joe’s growth of stubble, Ben’s gaze never left his son’s face. “Nothing. We just wait,” he said when suddenly the adrenaline rush that had kept him calm and composed faded away and a shiver of realization passed over Ben.

Weak kneed, dizzy and reeling from shock at what he’d just done, Ben took a step backward and sank down into a chair. And feeling awkward and not a little uncomfortable, Wade then watched without comment as tears unashamedly ran down Ben’s cheeks as he placed his head in his hands and silently prayed.

*****

It was early evening when Joe finally came to, but he felt so weak, he couldn’t find the strength to even open his eyes at first, so spent a while listening to the sounds around him and trying to figure out where he was.

There were murmured voices, two men talking in whispered tones. Wade and Clyde? Joe strained to hear their conversation but without success.

Then the feel of a soft mattress under him was the first clear indication he wasn’t in the cabin any more. Joe’s mind whirled in confusion. Where was he?

At the third attempt, he finally managed to crack his eyes open, narrowing them from the subdued light of two oil lamps as he tried to focus his gaze. Suddenly he heard the scraping of a chair across a wooden floor.

“It’s about time you showed some sign of waking up,” a familiar voice lovingly taunted as Joe felt a cool hand on his forehead. “Fever’s gone at last, thank goodness.”

Joe turned his head slowly and looked up into his father’s smiling face; Ben’s expression one of pure unadulterated relief. “Good to have you back with us, son.”

“Pa? Where am I?” Joe whispered croakily.

“You’re home, Joe. Back on the Ponderosa.”

Tired green eyes flashed in confusion. “How did I get here?”

“Wade brought you down from the mountain this morning,” Ben replied as he picked up a glass of water and offered it to Joe who gratefully took a few sips.

“He did? I don’t remember. Is he still here?” Joe then asked as Ben placed the glass back on the dresser.

“Yep, I’m right here, Joe,” Wade answered as he appeared by Ben’s side, grinning wildly. “You had us scared there a while, old friend. How are you feeling?”

Joe took a few seconds before answering as he tentatively ran a hand over his bandaged shoulder. There was no pain and he gave a faint nod. “Pretty good,” he replied in a shaky voice. “Surprisingly good, in fact. Guess I’ll have to thank Clyde next time I see him.”

There was a short silence. “But Clyde didn’t do it Joe. Don’t you remember what happened up at the cabin?” Wade asked, throwing him a puzzled look.

Joe shut his eyes, trying to make sense of jumbled memories that didn’t make sense. He slowly rubbed his temple as if his head hurt with the effort but after a few moments was left as puzzled as ever. “Last thing I remember was you telling me Clyde was willing to take the bullet out, and even that detail’s a little fuzzy.”

He paused for a moment as a thought struck him and he eyed Wade uneasily. “So if it wasn’t Clyde who took the bullet out, who did? You?”

Wade smiled and shook his head then looked over towards Ben, who took Joe’s hand and covered it with his own. “I did it, son.”

Joe’s eyes flew open, staring at his father in stunned surprise and quickly realizing the agonizing he must have gone through when operating on his own flesh and blood. “Just saying thanks don’t seem adequate enough considering what you’ve done,” he finally acknowledged in a quiet voice, giving his father a grateful and tender smile as his eyes watered with emotion. “But I’ll say it, anyway. Thanks Pa.”

Ben nodded and squeezed his hand before letting it go. “It wasn’t just down to me, Joe. If Wade hadn’t brought you back when he did…well, I hate to think how this would have turned out.”

Joe nodded soberly as he furrowed his brow. “But why didn’t Clyde operate on me? And how did I end up back here?”

Ben patted his arm. “All in good time, Joe. You need plenty of rest first and I’ll explain everything to you in the morning.”

Wade cleared his throat. “And now I know you’re going to be okay, I need to get into town and see Sarah and explain to the Sheriff what’s been going on,” he added turning towards the door, but was stopped as Joe called after him.

“Wade?”

He looked back. “Yeah, Joe?”

“Thanks for everything….”

“That’s what friends are for,” Wade smiled, cutting him off in mid sentence. “Besides, Sarah would never forgive me if anything had happened to my best man-to-be. So just you concentrate on getting yourself better, Joe. I aim to leave for that operation in a week and I want to see your smiling face waving me off from town….you hear?”

“You got a deal,” Joe agreed as Wade gave a farewell wave and disappeared out of the room.

“One week?” Ben stated aloud as he pulled up the quilt around Joe’s neck and tucked him in tight. “You think you’ll be up and about in one week?”

Joe smiled. “Pa, with you fussing around me like a mother hen for the next seven days, I’m sure I’ll make the deadline.”

Ben laughed. “Less of your cheek, young man,” he ordered as he turned down the oil lamp. Then as he looked down at his son a look of unease covered his face. “Don’t think I’ve ever been as scared in my whole life as I was when I had to dig that knife into you, Joe. You could have so easily died by my hand.”

Joe held his troubled gaze for a long moment. “But I didn’t die, Pa. Because of you, I’ve got another chance to live. Because of you, I’ve got a future and for that I’ll be eternally grateful.”

Ben sniffed and wiped a hand across his moistened eyes. “I love you, Joseph,” he whispered softly. “Goodnight, son.”

Joe didn’t hesitate with his response. “Good night,  Pa” he answered then gave a deep sigh of contentment as he sank his head down into the softness of the pillow and closed his eyes before murmuring softly as Ben made to leave the room. “I love you too.”

***The End***

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