Clay (by Rona)

Summary: A sequel to the episode First Born.   A chance meeting in an hotel reunites Joe with his brother Clay. But is Clay’s past about to catch up with him again?

Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  T
Word Count:  10,515


 

Tired, hot and dirty, Adam, Hoss and Joe Cartwright entered the hotel and crossed to the desk. The clerk on duty came to greet them with a smile which didn’t quite disguise the fact that he thought these cowboys should be looking for rooms elsewhere. “Gentlemen,” he said.

“Three rooms, please,” Adam said.

“Certainly. That will be a dollar a day, per room.” The clerk looked them up and down, clearly implying that they didn’t have the money.

“We’ll take them for two nights,” Adam said, and pulled a roll of money from his vest. “ The name’s Cartwright. Can we get hot water for baths, too?”

“Of course, Sir,” the clerk said, suddenly obsequious. “ Baths cost extra.” Adam paid the extra money. “Rooms three, four and five, just at the top of the stairs. “

Hefting their saddlebags, the brothers trudged upstairs and found their rooms. They were airy and comfortable, but most important to the tired men were the soft beds. They had been three weeks on the trail, on the annual cattle drive to Sacramento. It had been three hard weeks, as the weather had taken a bad turn, and most nights they had tried to sleep with rain pouring down on them.

The hot water for their baths arrived quickly, and after washing and shaving, they felt almost human again. It was Hoss, of course, who rounded up his brothers for a meal, and they ate in companionable silence.

Leaning back in his chair, Joe, the youngest, broke the silence. “Sure beats your cooking, Hoss,” he joked.

Still eating, Hoss cast Joe a dirty look. “Didn’t notice you offerin’ to cook,” he retorted.

“Oh, please,” Adam groaned. “Joe’s cooking is worse than yours!”

Hoss and Joe exchanged incredulous glances. “Of course, you are such a stupendous cook, big brother, that we were all queuing up to eat what you made!” Joe laughed.

“Your cooking is worse than mine,” Adam replied, calmly, cleaning his plate.

“I’ve had fewer years to practice,” Joe replied, and giggled. “What’s your excuse?”

A movement behind Joe caught Adam’s attention as he smiled at his brother. A man stood outlined against the door of the hotel, and he seemed familiar somehow. But before Adam could place him, the man went out of the door, without looking round. Adam drew his attention back to Joe. “I can’t be good at everything,” he said.

That set Joe off again, and he giggled helplessly. Hoss and Adam exchanged quizzical smiles, but Joe’s laugh was so infectious that they were soon laughing along with him, even though they weren’t sure what they were laughing at. “I never thought I’d hear the day, Adam,” Joe spluttered, “when you admitted you weren’t good at everything!” He went off into gales of laughter again at the look on his oldest brother’s face.

“Hey, a little more respect, if you please,” Adam said, mock seriously, which only made Joe laugh harder.

They lingered for a while over coffee, but exhaustion was quickly catching them up, and finally they paid for their meal, and went back to their rooms. “Don’t waken me in the morning,” Joe warned Adam.

Adam simply cocked an eyebrow and said nothing. Bidding one another goodnight, they all headed for bed.

 

*****

It was well past 10 am before any of the Cartwrights woke the next day. The sun was shining brightly, and they were all glad to see it, after the dark, wet weather they had endured recently. Adam roused Joe at last, and they all headed out for breakfast. Hoss and Adam ate heartily, but Joe merely picked at his food. “I told you not to wake me,” he grouched.

“I heard you,” Adam agreed. “But I didn’t say that I wouldn’t wake you.”

“There are times,” Joe commented sourly, “that I wonder if we are related. How can you be so cheerful in the morning?”

“Its nearly lunchtime,” Hoss contributed, which started both his brothers to laughing. Hoss could always be relied on to make peace between his brothers. “’Sides, we got some things to take care of today. Then we can head back for home tomorrow.”

“Well, let’s get started then,” Joe said, watching as Hoss continued to put away food like he’d been starved for weeks. Well, Joe reflected, I suppose he has! And he began to laugh to himself again.

Adam gave Joe a disgusted look. “Hoss, is this shrieking hyena with you?”

“Nope,” Hoss said. “I figured he was with you.”

It was impossible for either of them to keep a straight face as Joe whooped with laughter at his brothers’ kidding.

*****

After they had finished eating, they split up to deal with the various jobs they had to do before they headed back to Nevada. Adam went to put the money in the bank. Joe telegraphed their father of their safe arrival and successful sale. Hoss went to check out the horses, and arrange for their shoes to be checked before they left next day. After that, they took their dirty trail clothes to a Chinese laundry, and went to buy themselves a change of clothes. Despite Hop Sing’s renowned packing abilities, the only clean (ish) clothes they had were they ones they were wearing, and they weren’t all that clean.

Changed, and feeling fresh, they headed to the saloon for a couple of beers. Hoss leant up against the bar, passing the time of day with the barman. Joe and Adam sat at a table, and were soon joined by a couple of saloon girls. The girls were pretty, and the Cartwrights willingly bought them drinks.

So the time ambled away, and the saloon became busier. Hoss joined his brothers and they sat making idle conversation. It was obvious a card game was in progress in the back room, but none of the Cartwrights was drawn to it. Joe was notoriously the worst poker player in the family, Hoss had no real interest, and Adam liked to keep his money where it was – in his pocket.

But the noise level grew and grew, with cheers and shouts. Joe was the first one to be attracted by the growing clamour. “Let’s go have a look,” he suggested, and rose from his chair. Adam rolled his eyes at Hoss, but got up, too. There was always potential for a fight at a card game, and Joe was always up for a fight. The last thing Adam wanted was Joe spending the night in the cells.

There was quite a crowd around the card table, and the room was thick with smoke. Joe was having problems finding somewhere to stand, so that he could see. Adam, with the height advantage, steered Joe around the edge of the crowd, to where there was a space. He kept his hand on Joe’s shoulder, partly out of affection, and partly to keep control of him, should things get out of hand. He felt Hoss standing behind them.

The card table was stacked high with money. A couple of the players were sitting back, with their arms folded, obviously out of this hand. Three others were still playing, and Adam drew in his breath when he recognised one of them. It was Clay Stafford, Joe’s half brother!

*****

It was obvious that Clay had been winning heavily, judging by the pile of money in front of him. Adam was concerned. Clay didn’t have a great reputation at cards. Twice that Adam knew of, he’d been accused of cheating, and both times had had to kill his opponent. It had happened in Virginia City, and the miners, whose mate had been killed, took their anger out on Joe, and beat him up. Clay had left that very night, and none of the brothers had seen him since. Joe had been very cut up about it, and hadn’t mentioned Clay’s name again. Adam couldn’t even remember how many years ago it had been.

Turning to Hoss, Adam tried to catch his brother’s attention, but failed. He tightened his grip on Joe’s shoulder, hoping that the younger man would look at him, but Joe was too caught up in watching the pile of money grow. He hadn’t as yet looked at the players.

“Joe!” Adam said loudly, and Joe finally looked round.

“What?” Joe’s attention was still half on the game, and he was turning back without waiting to see what Adam wanted.

Whirling Joe round with unnecessary force, Adam shook him. “Joe, let’s go.”

For a moment, there was no reaction, then Joe shook his head. He looked back at the players at the same moment that Clay looked up. Though not looking at directly at Joe, his brother stared at him, disbelieving. He eyed the card sharp closely. Clay didn’t look much different. He was older, and his face was more lined, but he still had the neat little moustache, and was as slim as Joe. Joe’s heart swelled. Clay had hurt him badly when he left, but Joe had never given up hope that this little known brother of his would return one day to the Ponderosa. “Clay!” The word barely reached Adam’s ears.

Oblivious, as usual, to the tension in both his brothers, Hoss was also staring at Clay, and belatedly realised who he was. He glanced at Joe and Adam, and saw what he expected. Joe’s feelings were clear for all to see. Adam was as poker faced as usual, but Hoss knew that he was watching Joe, ready to step in and protect him if need be. Hoss sidled closer. “Is that who I think it is?” he asked Adam.

“Uh-huh,” Adam replied tersely.

Half starting to smile, for they had all liked Clay, Hoss realised that neither brother was smiling, or even looking pleased to find Clay. The only person who knew what had passed between Joe and Clay that last night was their father, and he had kept Joe’s confidences to himself. But Hoss knew that Adam hadn’t forgiven Clay for hurting Joe so much. Joe had taken a beating for Clay, and although Adam understood why Clay hadn’t stayed around, he had expected him to wait until Joe was better.

The card game was over, and Clay was lifting the pile of money from the table. He had a cigar clenched between his teeth, and his eyes stayed on his opponents, until he was sure there was going to be no trouble. When he did finally look away, he became aware of someone standing looking at him. Lifting his eyes, half expecting trouble, he stared disbelievingly at his younger, half brother. “Joe?” he said.

For Clay, it was like being hit in the stomach. He had often thought of Joe. He thought of him every time he looked at the picture of their mother that Joe had given him. He had wondered what he would say if they ever met again. It had hurt Clay, leaving Joe like that, but he hadn’t wanted to be burdened with Joe’s emotional dependence, like Adam and Hoss were. Life had been too hard for Clay to understand that it wasn’t a burden for Joe’s other brothers. He just knew that he couldn’t live up to Joe’s expectations, and so had left.

Clay took a step towards Joe, feeling heat flushing his face. “Joe,” he said again, and a smile tugged at the corners of his mouth.

As though freed by Clay’s movement, Joe took a step closer; then another and another, till he and Clay stood close enough to touch. They looked at each other as if over a vast distance, then Joe took the final step and he and Clay were hugging.

Standing watching, Hoss turned to Adam with a smile on his face. But Adam’s face was closed and expressionless. Hoss’s genial smile faded to a frown, and he touched Adam’s shoulder. After a second, Adam looked at Hoss, and something glittered in his eyes, and then was gone, so quickly that Hoss wasn’t sure what he’d seen.

“Adam. Hoss.” Clay released Joe, and stepped towards them, offering his hand. After a pause, Adam clasped it. Hoss, in his turn, pumped Clay’s hand enthusiastically. “How are you all?” Clay asked. “How’s your father?”

“Pa’s fine, thank you,” Adam said, curtly. Joe shot him a look, which Adam pretended not to see.

Not at all disconcerted by Adam’s rudeness, Clay draped his arm round Joe’s shoulder. “What are you doing here?” he asked

“We just sold our herd,” Joe replied. “What are you doing here? How long have you been here?”

“Cattle, of course,” Clay nodded, smiling at Joe’s enthusiasm. “I’ve been here for a couple of days. I’m staying at the hotel across the street.”

“So you haven’t settled anywhere?” Hoss asked, eyeing Adam with growing unease. It wasn’t like Adam to be quite as quiet as this.

“No,” Clay responded. “I don’t expect to be here longer than another day or so.” He glanced back at the card table, with an expression that Joe couldn’t fathom. “This is how I make my living.”

Following his brother’s gaze, Joe looked troubled. “Is that why you don’t stay anyplace for long?”

Clay shrugged. “Partly. Once you get known in a place, its hard to get anyone to play with you.” Clay tipped his hat back slightly. “Let’s get a drink.” He led the way over to the bar.

Sitting together at a table, it was soon obvious that Adam hadn’t forgiven Clay for hurting Joe. The oldest Cartwright was silent, ignoring all attempts to include him in the conversation, yet he wouldn’t leave.

His attitude made an awkward occasion even stickier. Joe and Clay caught up as best they could, but there was constraint between them. Joe felt he had done very little in the intervening years, although he was in charge of the horses at the Ponderosa. It all seemed very mundane, compared to the exciting life his brother appeared to live. Clay, on the other hand, was reluctant to say too much about his doings. He had been run out of several towns, and had been forced to kill a number of men. The slip gun, which Hoss had admired all those years ago, had saved his life several times. It wasn’t a past he was particularly proud of.

It was, typically, Hoss, who moved to dispel the tension. “How about we get some chow?” he proposed. “I could eat a horse!”

Both Clay and Joe reacted with enthusiasm, and Adam simply followed them to the restaurant. His bad manners had him uncomfortable; he had been brought up to know better. But he just couldn’t find it in himself to be polite. He choked down his food anyhow, and was later unable to remember what they had eaten. It all tasted like sawdust to him.

“When do you head back?” Clay asked, over coffee.

“Tomorrow,” Adam said, the only word he’d managed all evening.

“Too bad,” Clay said, casually, determined not to be driven away by Adam’s hostility.

“Why don’t you come back with us?” Joe said. He glanced round at his three brothers, and accurately read each expression. Hoss pleased, Adam against it, and Clay uncertain. “Why not?” he added, rushing on before anyone could speak. “Pa would make you welcome, Clay.”

“He surely would,” Hoss assured him, acting to support Joe, since Adam appeared to have abdicated from the family.

“Well,” Clay began, clearly surprised by the offer.

“Please, Clay,” Joe begged.

“We’re leaving in the morning,” Adam said. “You can let us know then.”

Shooting Adam a searching look, Clay nodded slowly. “I’ll think about it, he said, knowing that Adam wanted him to say no, but not knowing what he wanted himself.

*****

The only one of the brothers, Clay included, to get a good night’s sleep was Hoss. Joe was on edge, hoping against hope that Clay would come back to the Ponderosa. He knew that if Clay said he was staying, he would stay, too. He knew, too, that Adam would be unhappy if he did. Joe was perplexed by Adam’s behaviour, but didn’t know what to do about it.

In the next room, Adam was wrestling with an unfamiliar demon of his own – jealousy. The offer Joe had made to Clay was typical Joe, all impulse and no thought behind it. He had no doubt that Ben would make Clay welcome, not just for Joe’s sake, but also for Marie’s sake. Adam wasn’t sure he could follow his father’s example.

Ever since Joe was born, Adam had looked out for him. He’d helped Joe through the dark days after his mother’s tragic death, had helped him with his schoolwork, taught him to ride, nursed him through illness and injury. He knew every side of Joe. Now, though he knew it wasn’t worthy of him, he feared the loss of his privileged status as Joe’s oldest brother. He and Clay were much of an age, and Adam hated the thought of Joe turning to Clay, not to him.

All that long night, Adam paced the floor. He knew, deep in his heart, that Joe would always love him, whether Clay was around or not. But there were times when Joe could be easily influenced, and Adam didn’t want Joe following Clay into a shady, dangerous life. Knowing Joe’s stubbornness, a wrong word at the wrong time could push him into doing just that.

And Clay? He sat staring into the darkness, his hand clutched tightly around the picture of Marie that Joe had given him at their last meeting. His feelings were hopelessly mixed. He liked Joe  – maybe even loved him – and liked the rest of the family, too. But he wasn’t sure he wanted to go back to the Ponderosa. That kind of life wasn’t for him any more, if it ever had been. If he did go, it would only be for a while. But would Joe understand that it wasn’t forever?

*****

The Cartwrights were eating a mostly silent breakfast the next morning when Clay appeared. He hesitated in the doorway for a second before crossing to their table and sitting down. “I’ll come,” he said, without any preamble.

Joe’s face split into a wide grin, and he clapped Clay on the shoulder. “All right!”

*****

They left a little over an hour later. Clay seemed as anxious to leave as Adam. Joe, restored to his usual high spirits, chattered away to Clay like a child. Hoss watched Adam closely, but his brother seemed to be his normal, calm, controlled self.

The raw-boned bay gelding which Clay rode wasn’t as fit as Sport, Chubb and Cochise, and the Cartwrights had to slow their usual pace to accommodate it. So it was, that they were caught up on the trail by a group of five men.

*****

When Clay first saw the men behind them, he paled. Adam, seeing him look over his shoulder for the dozenth time, followed his gaze, and spotted the men behind them. “Who are they, Clay?” he asked.

“I don’t know, Adam,” Clay replied. “But I’m always wary of someone behind me.” He gave a cynical smile. “Wouldn’t you be, in my line of work?”

“No doubt,” Adam said, dryly. “Well, no reason to panic.”

The other riders drew closer and closer. Adam pulled Sport off the trail, turning him, so that he was facing the on-coming riders, but leaving room for them to pass. The others followed his example. The riders nodded and passed by.

“Let’s eat,” Adam proposed, to allow the men time to get further ahead of them, and swung down from the saddle.

*****

They saw no one else all that day. As dusk drew down, they made camp, and Hoss made the meal while the others tended to the horses. They settled comfortably around the fire, glad for the warmth, for the night wind had a chill edge.

“Who were those men, Clay?” Adam asked, as they ate the bacon and beans Hoss had made.

For a second, Clay’s spoon hesitated on the way to his mouth, then he smoothly finished the action, giving himself a few more seconds before he had to respond.

But Joe jumped into the breach. “What makes you think Clay knows them?” he demanded, hotly.

“Instinct,” Adam answered, his cool, level gaze fixed on Clay.

“I don’t know for sure,” Clay said, slowly, over-riding Joe’s further protests. “But about a month ago, I left San Francisco under a cloud. I expect that Cromwell has sent men after me.”

“Do you owe him money?” Adam asked, drawing another furious glare from Joe.

Clay took another bite of his meal, keeping his gaze on Adam, wondering how much to admit to. He finally decided to tell the truth. “Not exactly,” he admitted. “I killed his son.”

*****

The response Clay’s casual announcement received was all he hoped for. Adam’s black brows drew down, Hoss’s genial face was dark, and Joe’s mouth hung open, all his protective bluster gone. Clay smiled slightly.

“Its not as bad as it sounds,” he said, and told them the story. Clay had taken Cromwell Junior for quite a bit of money. There had been no question of cheating, but Cromwell had been furious at losing so much money. As Clay left the saloon later that evening, Cromwell had jumped him. After a fistfight, Cromwell drew his gun. Clay had no choice but to shoot him. It hadn’t appeared to be a serious wound, but Cromwell had a bad heart, and died of his injuries later that night. There had been plenty of witnesses, and Clay had been cleared of any charges, but he thought it prudent to clear out of ‘Frisco as soon as possible.

“So,” he concluded, “I wouldn’t be surprised if there was someone after me, but I don’t know for sure. I don’t stay in one place for very long.”

Looking around uneasily, Hoss put his hand on his rifle. “Is that why you decided to come with us?” he asked, in an unhappy tone.

“Partly,” Clay admitted. “But mostly because I wanted to spend some time with you.” He tried a smile at Joe, who was too troubled to respond.

“Well, at least you’re being honest,” Adam allowed. “Joe, its your turn to wash up.”

“Adam!” Joe protested, but shortly found himself at the stream washing up.

While he was so occupied, Adam crossed to Clay’s side. “If harm comes to Joe because of you,” Adam warned quietly, “you’ll be sorry.”

Clay didn’t look away. “Why should harm come to Joe?” he countered. “Its me they want.”

“If they find out that Joe is your brother, they may well try and hurt him,” Adam said. “They would assume that would hurt you. Would it?” he added, pointedly.

“Of course it would,” Clay protested. Then he subsided slightly. “But I don’t know for sure that anyone is after me,” he said, unable to refute what Adam’s point. Then the defiance returned. “Anyway, Joe’s old enough to look after himself.”

The scornful look Adam gave Clay spoke volumes. No one knew better than Adam that Joe could look after himself. And no one knew better than Adam that Joe attracted trouble like flowers attracted bees. “I’ll take the first watch,” Adam said, rising. “I’ll wake you next.”

*****

The night passed uneventfully. Joe, yawning, brewed the coffee and roused his brothers. They didn’t talk much over breakfast, and were soon on the trail again.

Despite Adam’s vigilance, the ambush caught them almost unawares. At the last moment, they saw movement in the rocks beside the trail ahead, but it was too late to make a run for it.

Pulling his gun, Adam opened fire. Clay and Joe swiftly copied him. They urged their horses into a gallop, and ducked to try and avoid the bullets flying round their ears.

It seemed to take forever until they broke out into more open country. Miraculously, they had all escaped unscathed. They galloped on, but Clay’s gelding was already labouring, and when Clay was forced to slow, Joe slowed Cochise and turned back.

Behind them, the bushwhackers were mounted, and pursuing them. “Go on, Joe!” Clay shouted. “Its me they want! Go on!”

Clay flung himself from his horse, and slapped its rump. He threw himself down behind a few rocks, which offered some meagre cover. Joe followed suit.

Belatedly, Hoss and Adam realised what was happening. They rode back and took what shelter they could.

It was a straight shooting match. Joe, who was deadly accurate with his gun, picked off one. Adam and Clay each got another. Popping his head up for another shot, Joe was just in time to get a faceful of rock splinters, as a bullet gouged a chunk off the top of the boulder in front of him. He instinctively shielded his face with his arm, even though it was too late, but he didn’t duck back down.

Lifting his head, Hoss saw Joe’s danger and picked off the man aiming at his little brother. It was a perfect shot. Clay, meanwhile, hauled Joe back into cover.

Out numbered, their last opponent discovered that discretion was the better part of valour, and turned tail and fled. Disgusted with the killing, Adam got to his feet and hurried across to Joe, Hoss on his heels.

“Are you all right, Joe?” he asked, anxiously.

Joe squinted up at him, his face flecked with blood. “Yes, I’m okay,” he assured them. “It just stings a bit.”

Kneeling next to Joe, Adam grasped both Joe’s arms. “Don’t rub your face,” he warned. “Its covered in rock fragments. Hoss, can you get me a canteen?”

Looking round, with no horses in sight, Hoss gave a piercing whistle. Within a few moments, the Ponderosa horses all appeared, with Clay’s bay tagging along behind. Hoss went to catch them, and gave Adam one of the canteens.

While Adam gently cleaned Joe’s face, Hoss and Clay checked the bodies. “All dead,” Hoss reported, when they came back. He looked at Joe. “How’re you doin’, Shortshanks?”

“I’m fine, Hoss,” Joe assured him, irritably, although his face was quite sore. He could feel the skin starting to tighten with bruises. Hoss just nodded, knowing Joe would say he was fine on his deathbed, most likely.

“Let’s get going,” Adam said. He hooked Joe with an ‘older brother’ look. “Don’t poke at your face,” he warned.

“I won’t, Adam,” Joe said, in a long-suffering tone. “I’m not a child!” He mounted Cochise in one fluid leap and fought down the hand, which threatened to rise to rub his face.

*****

They kept watch again on their second night on the trail, but all was quiet. It was a grey, cool morning; a reminder that fall was on its way. They passed through a small town early in the afternoon, but they didn’t stop. As dusk fell, they made camp in a sheltered spot at the foot of a rocky outcropping. Adam estimated that they would have at least one more night on the trail before they reached home.

*****

The second attack came as dawn broke. Hoss was on watch, and barely had time to rouse the others before the first shot was fired. They scrambled for cover, and peeped warily out to see what was happening.

“Stafford! Mr Cromwell wants to talk to you!”

Exchanging glances with the others Clay eased himself closer to his adversaries. “I said all I had to say to Cromwell,” he called back.

“He only wants you, Stafford,” the man shouted. “We’re not interested in these others.”

Nudging Adam, Joe whispered, “I’ll go round and flank them.”

“Stay where you are!” Adam ordered, also in a whisper.

But Joe was already moving. Adam cursed under his breath. Joe was ideally suited to the flanking manoeuvre, being light on his feet, and quick. Adam had a bad feeling about this set up, and would have preferred to have everyone under his watchful eye.

Resolutely, Adam set off after Joe, signalling to Hoss to back up Clay. As he slithered through the rocks, he caught a glimpse of Joe’s green jacket ahead of him. Almost at the same instant, he spotted movement from above Joe, and he glanced up in time to see a man aiming a gun at his brother. “Joe!” Adam yelled, too late.

A shot was fired, and Joe tumbled to the ground, more exposed than before. Adam opened fire, and got the man who’d shot Joe.

From all around, it seemed, there came gunfire. Adam ignored it, scrambling to Joe’s side. There was blood on Joe’s jacket, but the bullet had gone clean through his shoulder. Joe was struggling to get to his feet. Adam pushed him back down, covering him with his own body.

As Adam helped Joe, he became aware that the firing had stopped. He looked round as Hoss yelled, ”Adam! Joe! Where are you?”

“Here!” Adam called. He looked up as Hoss and Clay came into sight. “Are you all right?” Adam asked, but the question was aimed mainly at Hoss.

“We’re fine,” Hoss assured him. “How’s Joe?”

“I’m okay,” Joe protested, but he was very pale, and his voice wasn’t quite as strong as usual.

Working together, Adam, Hoss and Clay took Joe back to their camp, where Adam sacrificed a shirt to make bandages. Luckily, it was Joe’s right shoulder, so he was at least able to do a lot of things for himself. Joe rested while the others packed up their camp, and got the horses ready.

It was well into the morning before they got underway. The bodies were just left lying. This time, there was no one alive to gather reinforcements.

*****

Three days later, they reached the Ponderosa. They were several days overdue, mostly due to Joe’s weakened condition. Joe had kept pace well with the others, but Adam had stopped often, knowing that Joe would push himself too far, just to keep up. Ben appeared at the door of the house when he heard the hooves, a smile of pure relief lighting up his face.

For a moment, he didn’t recognise Clay, but his surprised greeting died as Joe’s condition impinged on his consciousness. Without being aware of how he got there, Ben was at Joe’s side, as his youngest son gave him a shaky grin from a white face.

“What happened?” he asked, as he helped Joe get down from Cochise.

“I’m fine, Pa,” Joe said, impatiently, and untruthfully. To deflect his father’s attention he said, ”Look, Pa, we found Clay.”

Still supporting Joe, Ben turned to smile at Clay. His arrival in their midst a few years before had come as a shock to them all. Ben had known that Marie, his third wife, had been married before, and had had a child. But Marie had believed her child was dead, but Clay had proved that he was Marie’s child, and still very much alive. “Welcome home, Clay,” Ben said, and earned a sunlit smile from Joe, who couldn’t resist an ‘I told you so’ look at Adam.

*****

It didn’t escape Ben’s notice that Adam was ignoring Clay. All through that evening, as Ben was told the story of their time away, and as Dr. Paul Martin treated Joe’s injured shoulder, Adam spoke and acted almost normally. But he behaved as if Clay wasn’t there. He didn’t interrupt Clay when he was talking, he just didn’t react to anything that Clay said. Ben was unable to get a chance to speak to Adam alone, so wasn’t able to solve the mystery of Adam’s odd behaviour.

“How is Joe, Doc?” Clay asked, as Ben and Paul came downstairs.

Casting a glance at Ben, Paul said, “He’s fine. The wound is clean and already healing. You did exactly the right things, Adam.”

“Thanks, Paul,” Adam said, casually. He rose. “Well, good night.” Without pausing, Adam headed upstairs.

Perplexed, Ben could only watch Adam, go. He took care of his guests automatically, showing Clay to his room, and giving Paul a drink before he left. Hoss, too, went early to bed. Ben couldn’t imagine what was bothering Adam.

*****

It was to prove frustrating to Ben for a while. Adam continued to behave as if Clay were either there accidentally, or not at all. Ben’s gentle probing got him nowhere. Adam acted as though he had no idea what his father was talking about.

Meanwhile, despite Adam’s hostility, Clay settled into the routine of the ranch, as though he’d never been gone. He worked hard, without being asked, and was unfailingly cheerful. He kept out of town altogether. He seemed determined to show that he could behave himself, and that trouble didn’t always follow him, as he had told Ben it did, on his last stay.

Joe’s shoulder healed quickly, and he was soon back at work. Clay seemed to enjoy watching Joe busting broncos, and was often found at the corral. However, he refused all offers to try bronco busting himself.

On the surface, everything appeared normal. But Ben was aware of the undercurrents swirling around. When the mail was collected, Clay seemed tense, but when there was nothing for him, he gradually relaxed again. When Ben asked if he was expecting mail, Clay just said no. Joe asked, too, but Clay deflected his curiosity with laughter. Adam remained tight-lipped over what was wrong between he and Clay, and Hoss, usually the confidante of both his brothers, couldn’t tell Ben what was wrong.

*****

“I’m going to collect the mail and supplies,” Joe said to Clay, as he hitched the team to the buckboard. “Want to come?”

Clay hesitated. “Yeah, okay, but no card games,” he grinned. He hopped up onto the seat, and Joe started the team.

Virginia City had grown since Clay had last seen it, but he recognised Sheriff Roy Coffee, who came over to greet them. Joe introduced them, but Roy’s memory was as good as Clay’s, and he recalled him straight away. “No trouble this time?” he suggested, in a light tone, but neither Joe nor Clay doubted that they’d been given a warning.

“No, Sheriff, no trouble,” Clay promised. “I have no intention of going near a card table.”

They loaded the supplies quickly and Joe went to collect the mail. Clay leant against the buckboard and watched the world go by. He didn’t recognise any faces, for which he was truly grateful. He looked relaxed, but was actually whipcord taut.

It had been over a month since he had come back to the Ponderosa, and he was bored to death. It was time to move on, but Clay didn’t know how to tell Joe. He had become very fond of his little brother – it was difficult not to like Joe – and he liked the rest of the family well enough. But it wasn’t his kind of life. He needed more excitement. Joe got his excitement risking his life on bucking broncos. Clay got his from risking his life against other human beings.

The other thing that concerned Clay was if Cromwell was still looking for him. The prospect of looking over his shoulder for the rest of his life was depressing.

“Penny for ‘em,” Joe said, startling Clay, who hadn’t seen him coming. “Here, there’s a letter for you.”

“Me?” Clay said, and took it reluctantly. He gazed at the handwriting, as Joe continued to leaf through the rest of the mail.

“I don’t think it’ll bite,” Joe said, grinning, noticing Clay staring at the letter.

“What? Oh, no.” Clay opened the letter slowly, and tried to keep his face impassive as he read the bad news. The letter was from his lawyer in New Orleans, whom he had cabled before leaving Sacramento. It warned Clay that Cromwell had checked the records in City Hall, and had found out about the Ponderosa. Cromwell was almost certainly heading that way.

“Clay? Clay, what’s wrong?” Joe was staring at Clay with concern. His brother had gone pale.

Dragging his eyes from the letter, Clay focused with difficulty on Joe’s face. “Just – well, let’s say its not the best news I ever had. I’m all right.”

“Let’s get a beer,” Joe suggested, and led the way to the Bucket of Blood saloon.

The saloon was quiet that early in the afternoon, but Clay found it impossible to relax. He made an effort to behave normally, but Joe was very sensitive to other’s emotions, and knew that something was badly wrong. However, he was also sensitive enough not to probe too hard.

As they travelled home, Clay had to work hard to sit still. They were no signs of anyone on the road, but Clay’s hand never strayed very far from his gun.

Aware of Clay’s tension, Joe racked his brains to think of a way to persuade Clay to open up to him. He couldn’t – chiefly because he himself hated to be pushed into confidences when he wasn’t ready to share. Every day, Joe feared he would waken and find Clay gone. He knew that ranch life wasn’t for Clay, and he knew, too, that Clay’s nomadic wandering wouldn’t suit him. But he loved Clay, as he loved Adam and Hoss, and the thought of Clay leaving caused him pain. It was all the more painful, because he couldn’t tell anyone.

The days sped past, as the Ponderosa made its preparations for winter. Clay stayed on, accepting the wages that Ben paid him, fitting more easily into the family unit. Each day, Clay told himself he would leave, and each day, he stayed on. Adam’s hostility hadn’t lessened, but they had come to an armed neutrality, which passed for peace under a casual glance.

When there was an early snow flurry, everyone set off to bring the last of the cattle in from the high pastures. It was to be a job that lasted for a couple of days, including an overnight stop. The Cartwright boys separated, Adam and Hoss keeping the herd going, and Joe scouting off looking for strays.

Darkness fell, and Joe made his camp for the night, and began to prepare a meal. He was disgusted at the thought of eating his own cooking, but consoled himself that it was only for one night. Tomorrow, he would be back eating Hop Sing’s fabulous food. He heard a horse approaching, and a voice called “Hey, Joe! Any room at the fire?” It was Clay.

They made desultory conversation, mostly about the strays they had found. Clay cracked a joke about Joe’s dreadful cooking, and Joe threatened to cook Clay. After they had eaten, they tidied up the camp, such as it was, and settled for the night.

The early snow wasn’t lying, but there was a decided chill in the air. The brothers snuggled down under their bedrolls, sleepy after their long day. Then Joe sat up. “Do you hear that?”

“What?” Clay asked, then nodded. “Horses!”

They swiftly slipped on their boots and began to strap on their holsters. A shot erupted out of the darkness, and pinged off the ground by Joe’s feet. “Drop the guns!” a voice ordered.

Exchanging glances, Joe and Clay realised that they had no choice. They couldn’t see more than indistinct dark shapes beyond the firelight. Slowly, they unbuckled their gunbelts and let them fall to the ground.

Eight horses appeared out of the darkness, and the riders dismounted. Clay stiffened. Joe shot him a glance, but Clay’s attention was fixed on an older man, seemingly the leader of the band. Joe wondered what they wanted.

“Stafford,” the man said, and there was hatred in his voice. Joe’s unease grew.

“Mr Cromwell,” Clay returned. Joe’s gaze sharpened on him, remembering that Clay had killed this man’s son.

“Its taken a while to find you,” Cromwell said, conversationally. A shiver ran up Joe’s spine at the tone. “But I knew I’d catch up with you eventually.”

“Look, Mr Cromwell, I was cleared of killing your son. It was self defence.”

“I’m not interested in what a court said,” Cromwell snarled. “You murdered my son, and I’m going to make you pay!”

*****

Surrounded by Cromwell’s men, Joe couldn’t see how they would get out of this alive. He kept silent, having caught Clay’s warning glance.

“Your quarrel is with me,” Clay said. “Let him go.”

Clay couldn’t have said anything that was more designed to inflame Joe’s temper. He opened his mouth to protest that he wasn’t going anywhere, but Cromwell beat him to it. “Good try, but I want your brother here.” Cromwell nodded, and two men grabbed Joe’s arms and twisted them painfully up his back. “Did you think I didn’t know about him?” Cromwell continued. “I knew it was him just by looking. There is a resemblance, you know.”

It was a scenario that Clay had dreaded since he’d discovered that Cromwell knew where he was. For all his boredom with the repetitive chores, Clay had enjoyed being part of a loving family. He had always planned to move on, but had been unable to tear himself away. Because Clay had been unable to make the move from the Ponderosa, Joe was in danger. Clay regretted it with all his might.

Two more of Cromwell’s men grabbed Clay, and he was forced to watch as yet another man began to punch Joe, over and over. Clay struggled uselessly against the grip on his arms.

“Enough.” Cromwell had been watching Clay’s face, revelling in his distress. Now, he turned his interested gaze on Joe.

At Cromwell’s nod, the men released Joe’s arms, and he fell to his knees, bleeding from various places on his face, and doubled over from the pain in his chest and stomach. He tried to bring his arms round to cradle his sore ribs, but was unable to do it.

“Cromwell, you bastard!” Clay was panting, his eyes fixed on Joe, Adam’s warning ringing in his ears – if harm comes to Joe, you’ll be sorry. This wasn’t what Adam had meant, Clay knew, but he was definitely sorry.

*****

As dawn broke, Adam tightened his cinch and swung into his saddle. Hoss was already mounted. He had no real idea why Adam was so concerned about Joe, but he was willing to go along with his older brother. They didn’t expect Joe back until later on that day, but Adam had wakened Hoss early, and insisted that Joe was in trouble.

Adam’s intuition was proven correct shortly after they set off, when Cochise, wearing only a halter, came into view. He came to Adam’s call without hesitation. There was no sign of injury, and Cochise wasn’t lathered. Nor was he the kind of horse that would run away. He would follow Joe without benefit of a lead rope. Adam slipped the end of his lariat into the halter, and took Cochise along with them. Hoss immediately began to follow Cochise’s tracks.

*****

As the night wore on, Cromwell tormented Joe and Clay over and over. The beatings were no longer confined to Joe, although he had borne the brunt of them. As the sky began to lighten, Cromwell’s men let the horses loose. Joe was no longer able to stand. Blood flecked his lips, and his breath came in painful groans. His left eye was swollen shut, and the right eye was following swiftly behind. He knew that he had broken ribs, and his hands were uselessly painful due to severe swelling in both wrists. Joe lay on his right side, and knew that time was running out for them both.

Nearby, Clay was thinking the same thing. He, too, was in bad shape, with broken ribs, a broken nose, and a couple of broken fingers. His face was lumpy with swelling and bruising. His thinking was clouded with pain.

So it took him a second or so to see that Cromwell had drawn his gun and was aiming at Joe. Clay heard the click as the hammer drew back, and he threw his abused body in front of his helpless brother.

The bullets bit into Clay so fast that his body couldn’t process the pain. He was aware of being pushed back by the force of the bullets entering his body, and he heard a voice calling out in pain. A great regret seized Clay; regret that his life hadn’t amounted to more than this, and regret that Joe had suffered for a sin not his own. Then Clay knew no more.

*****

Thundering towards the echoing gunshots, both Adam and Hoss knew they were too late. Further up the valley, they saw a number of riders galloping off. Neither spared much time for them, beyond checking they were actually leaving. Pulling up their horses, they ran towards the bloodstained bodies on the ground.

Clay lay on top of Joe, and blood poured out from five bullet wounds in his chest. Adam felt for a pulse, sure it was hopeless, but he felt a faint thready beat under his fingers. “Help me lift him off Joe,” Adam said, and together they lifted the injured man. His eyelids fluttered open.

“Adam,” breathed Clay. “Sorry. Didn’t…mean….it…..to….happen. Sorry.”

Swallowing against the tightness in his throat, Adam tried to speak, but Hoss was closing the sightless eyes, and Adam knew that Clay was gone. It was too soon for Adam to forgive Clay, despite the evidence that Clay had protected Joe with his own body. But Adam had no time to think further about Clay, as Joe needed him.

For a horrible moment, they thought Joe had followed Clay into the next life. But then Adam found his pulse, and he looked at Hoss with tears in his eyes. “Joe’s alive. We’d better make a travois to take him home. Its quicker to head for the house from here, than take him to town.”

“I’ll make ‘em,” Hoss said. “You look after Joe.”

Kneeling beside Joe, Adam looked him over, checking out the injuries. He was horrified at the beating Joe had taken, seeing the bruises, feeling the broken ribs, the damage to his wrists, and finally finding the bullet hole in the thigh, just above the knee. He gently tucked Joe’s bedroll round him, then added Clay’s, too, as Joe felt cold to the touch. The bullet wound hadn’t bled much, but the slug was still in there.

As Joe warmed up, he began to come around. “Pa?” he whispered. Adam touched his cheek gently, wishing that their father were there.

“No, Joe, its Adam,” he said, as steadily as he could.

“Adam?” Joe’s voice could hardly be heard. “Where’s Clay?”

“Clay’s right here,” Adam said, unable to tell Joe that Clay had died. He suddenly realised that he hadn’t been angry with Clay for a while, for he’d had enough sense to see that Joe treated him just the same way as he had always done. And in that moment, Adam forgave Clay. “Just rest, Joe, we’ll get you home.”

“Home,” Joe muttered. He took a deep breath, and winced. “Adam, I hurt.”

“I know, buddy,” Adam said, softly. “I know.”

*****

It didn’t take Hoss long to make up a couple of travois. Clay’s horse had come back to camp, and Adam soon had it and Cochise saddled up, ready to pull the travois. They put Joe carefully on one, and put Clay’s body on the other.

Mounting Sport, Adam took the leads from the other horses and exchanged a concerned look with Hoss. “Will you be all right, Adam?” Hoss worried.

“Yes, I’m sure I’ll be fine. Anyway, you need to get the doctor.” Adam cast a glance over his shoulder to where Joe lay bundled on the travois. He had drifted in and out of consciousness, and Adam was more concerned than he would admit. “I’ll see you back at the house, Hoss.”

Briefly, the brothers clasped hands, and then set off on their journeys.

*****

Hoss, Paul Martin and Roy Coffee arrived at the house at almost the same moment as Adam and Joe. There were plenty of willing hands to carry Joe carefully into the house. Hoss took a minute to organise some hands into caring for the horses, and laying Clay’s body out in the spare room.

Upstairs, Ben and Adam helped Paul to strip off Joe’s bloodstained clothes. Paul was too professional to show his shock at the extent of Joe’s injuries, but Ben couldn’t contain a gasp. There was barely an inch of unbruised skin to be seen. Both of Joe’s eyes had swelled closed and were startlingly bruised. His lip was split and there were several gashes on his face.

Working carefully, Paul bound up the broken ribs, estimating that there were three broken on one side, and four on the other. Joe’s temperature was climbing steadily, and Paul sent Ben for cold cloths for Joe’s head. Both of Joe’s wrists were broken, and Paul knew he would have to set them soon, judging by the swelling. But the thing that required immediate attention was the bullet in Joe’s leg. Its presence in the body was the cause of Joe’s temperature. If it remained there for too long, Joe could develop blood poisoning.

Joe roused slightly as Ben bathed his head with cool water. “Pa?” he said, panic in his voice. “Why can’t I see?”

“Easy, Joe, easy,” Ben soothed. “Your eyes are badly swollen, but you’ll be fine. Just lie still, and let Paul take care of you.”

Moving fractionally, Joe caught his breath at the pain. “Where’s Clay?”

“Downstairs,” Ben replied, truthfully. He looked at Paul to see if he should say more, but Paul shook his head. Joe faced an operation to remove the bullet from his leg, and it would be soon enough to tell Joe about his brother’s death after he had survived the operation. “Joe, just rest.”

“Joe,” Paul said, “I’m going to give you some ether to make you sleep. I must get the bullet out of your leg. You’ll be fine, all right?”

There was a sigh from Joe, and a slight nod. The talking had worn him out. Paul looked at Ben. “I’m going to need something to make splints from, for both his wrists. I also need any bandages you have. Ask Hop Sing to boil some water to sterilise my instruments.”

“All right,” Ben said. He stroked Joe’s hair, and the young man turned his head slightly towards his father’s hand.

“And, Ben?” Paul added. “I’ll get Roy to help me during the operation. Go downstairs and rest. You’ll have a lot of looking after to do later.”

For a moment, Paul thought Ben was going to argue about it, but he saw something in Paul’s face, which persuaded him that Paul was not going to let him help. He nodded, and went downstairs. Adam and Hoss immediately leapt to their feet.

“Paul’s going to operate,” he reported. “We need wood for splints, and boiling water. Roy, Paul wants you to help him.”

“Of course,” Roy replied, and headed upstairs. Ben went to the kitchen, and soon Hop Sing was bustling about, finding the necessary rags and bandages, and boiling copious quantities of water, muttering in Chinese under his breath the whole time.

Meanwhile, Adam told Ben what he knew about what had happened to Joe and Clay. Ben listened in silence, then rose and went to see Clay’s body. He was shocked by the bullet holes, and the marks of the beatings. With tears in his eyes, Ben prayed for Clay’s soul. “Marie,” he whispered, after he had finished, “you have one of your sons with you now. Help us keep the other one here.”

*****

The waiting continued. Time seemed to stand still. If they hadn’t been able to hear the ticking of the French clock, they might have thought it had stopped. Hop Sing bustled up and down stairs, avoiding all questions. Hoss made coffee, and they all pretended to drink it, but their minds were fixed on the room above, where Joe battled for his life.

After two hours, Paul and Roy finally came down, shoulders slumped in exhaustion. All the Cartwrights were on their feet. With a sigh, Paul sat down. “It was a tricky operation,” he said. “The bullet was lodged behind an artery. But we got it out. I’ve set Joe’s wrists. His temperature is quite high. There could be some infection from that bullet. I cleaned out the leg as best I could. We’ll just have to see. Joe is going to be pretty much helpless for quite a long time. I don’t want him out of bed for more than a few minutes at a time. With so many broken ribs, the dangers of a punctured lung are high. Someone will need to be with him at all times.”

“Thank you, Paul,” Ben said. “I appreciate all you’ve done for Joe. Thank you, too, Roy.” He turned away and climbed the stairs.

It was left to Adam to play the host, and make sure Paul and Roy got some coffee and something to eat. Once they were settled, he went up to Joe’s room. Ben was sitting by the bed, watching Joe sleep. His broken, splinted wrists lay on top of the covers, just his fingertips peeking out of the bandages. The swelling was going from his eyes, although the bruising was still strongly coloured. Joe’s face was pale.

“Pa?” Adam whispered.

Looking up, Ben smiled. “He opened his eyes slightly,” Ben whispered. “I think he’ll be all right.”

Closing his eyes, Adam said a prayer of thanksgiving. When he opened his eyes again, he saw Ben smiling lovingly at him, sharing the emotions Adam was feeling. A hand touched Adam’s shoulder, and he wasn’t surprised to see it was Hoss.

So it was, when Joe wakened up briefly a short while later, his family were there, watching him, and lending him strength, with the depth of their love.

*****

It was several days before Joe was strong enough to stay awake for long. His temperature had gone up and down, before finally settling. Paul came every day to check on him, and declared that there was no infection from the bullet. Only then, would he allow Ben to tell Joe of Clay’s death.

When Joe next wakened, Ben sat gently on the edge of the bed. “How do you feel, son?” he asked, dreading the moments ahead of him.

“Fine,” Joe replied, and gave a small grin. “Pa, when can I see Clay?” He had asked about Clay every time he was awake, and they had fobbed him off each time. Joe had been too ill to pursue the matter.

Swallowing, Ben put his hand gently on one of Joe’s. “Joe, Clay died.”

For a moment, Ben’s words had no meaning, then tears drowned Joe’s emerald eyes. “When?” he sobbed. “How?”

As gently as he could, Ben told Joe what Adam had told him. “Clay saved your life,” he concluded.

The sobs that shook Joe were causing him physical pain, but he was unable to control his grief. He had feared that Clay was dead, simply because no one would tell him anything, but with the optimism that came naturally to him, he hadn’t allowed himself to believe it. When his tears finally stopped, Joe was exhausted. He lay quietly as Ben washed his face, washing away the tear tracks, showing his love in the only way he could. Joe was too badly injured for Ben to gather him into his arms.

“Where… Have… When….?” Joe tried to speak, but couldn’t force the words out.

“He died when Adam found you both,” Ben said, guessing correctly what Joe wanted to know. “We buried him yesterday, next to your mother.” Ben felt in his vest pocket. “He was carrying this.” He held up the photo of Marie that Joe had given Clay on his first visit.

Tears filled Joe’s eyes again, but he didn’t have enough strength to cry any more. “Have they caught Cromwell?” he asked, his voice hoarse.

“Cromwell?” Ben asked, sharply. “Who’s Cromwell?”

“Cromwell,” Joe repeated. “The man who’s son Clay killed in San Francisco. He was the one who did this to us.”

“Are you sure, Joe?” Ben asked.

With a weary sigh, Joe nodded. “Clay called him by name,” Joe explained, although his voice was reflecting his tiredness. “Cromwell’s men did the beating, and held us down, but Cromwell pulled the trigger himself.”

Rising to his feet, Ben smiled at Joe. “You rest now, Joe,” he said. “I’ll get Roy Coffee out here, and you can tell him this.”

*****

Roy Coffee acted with great dispatch after getting Joe’s statement. He sent telegraphs to the whole territory, and within a few hours had had a reply. Cromwell had been caught in a small town on the edge of Nevada territory, and Roy headed off to get him with an arrest warrant and a posse.

Cromwell was a powerful man, and tried hard to intimidate Roy, but Roy was standing no nonsense.  Cromwell was brought back to Virginia City in chains. The circuit judge arrived the following week. Joe was barely mobile, but he was brought into town in the back of the buckboard the day before he was due to testify, and was able to repeat his story in court.

It was telling testimony. Joe was still pale, his wrists in casts, his broken ribs slowly healing, and the fading bruises still evident on his face. Cromwell had made no secret of his desire to kill Clay, and one of his hired hands had given evidence, in return for a lenient sentence. Cromwell was sentenced to hang.

*****

After the court case, Joe’s recovery continued in fits and starts. His ribs were slow to heal, and the broken wrists reduced Joe to the level of a baby again, as he could do nothing for himself. His temper was short, and he was often on the verge of tears. He was a little concerned, too, as Adam seemed to be uneasy in his presence, avoiding him when possible, and Joe couldn’t figure out why. All in all, it made for a very uncomfortable fall for the Cartwrights.

The first true snowfall of the winter found Joe still imprisoned in the house. He spent the morning in his room, and finally made it downstairs after lunch. Adam was working on the books, and he hesitated when he saw Joe appear. “Adam, you must talk to me,” Joe pleaded. “I don’t understand why you’re avoiding me.”

Getting slowly to his feet, Adam studied Joe, seeing the weight he’d lost, the paleness of his face, the troubled look. “Joe, I don’t know what to say to you,” he admitted.

“Why not?” Joe asked, perplexed. “What happened to us was none of your doing.”

“Perhaps not,” Adam agreed, “but I was pretty hard on Clay, for no good reason.” He helped Joe to sit down, then took the seat opposite. “Its very hard to say this, Joe, but I was jealous of Clay.”

“You?” Joe blurted. “But why?”

Avoiding Joe’s eyes, Adam looked inside himself. “You were so pleased to see him, and I was afraid that you would want to go off after him, like you did the last time. And I was scared that something bad would happen because of Clay. I thought that Clay was only playing at being your brother, and that he would hurt you again.” Adam lifted his eyes, and met Joe’s gaze. “I was scared that you would prefer him to me.”

“Adam,” Joe began, bewildered. “How could you think that? You’re my brother; I’ll always love you. Just like I’ll always love Hoss. I don’t understand how you could have thought that.”

“I don’t understand it myself,” Adam admitted. “But I did feel it. I’m sorry. I just wish I could tell Clay that, too.” Tiredly, Adam rubbed the bridge of his nose.

Slowly, because Joe still hadn’t thought it through entirely, he said, “Adam, I loved Clay. But I always knew that he wouldn’t stay here. I guess I couldn’t believe it when he showed no signs of wanting to leave. I suppose I did spend more time with him than with you. But, you see,” Joe had to pause to clear his throat. “I knew that you would never go away, and not get in touch. I knew that if you left the Ponderosa, you’d write, like you did when you were at college. Clay never wrote, even though he knew where I was.” Joe dashed away a tear. “Clay was my brother, but he acted like he was just my friend.” Joe sniffed, and wiped his nose on his shirtsleeve. “Adam, nobody could take the place of you or Hoss. Don’t you know that?”

By this time, Adam was having trouble controlling the tears welling in his eyes. He moved to sit next to Joe, and put his arms round his little brother. There were times when Adam could cheerfully murder Joe, but there were times like now, when Joe’s love reminded him that he was so lucky. “I guess I do know that, now, Joe,” he said, huskily.

“Adam, I love you,” Joe said, simply. “I’ll miss Clay, but I know that he wasn’t as lucky as us, because he never learned how to be a real brother.”

“Amen,” said Ben’s deep voice from behind them, and they turned to see their father and brother standing in the doorway. “We tried to teach that lesson to Clay both times he was with us.” Ben smiled down at Joe, and touched his cheek gently. “But I don’t think he failed the lesson altogether. After all, he sacrificed himself for you. How many times have you, or Adam or Hoss put yourselves in danger for each other?” He looked at his sons, so different, yet bound with the strongest ties known to man. “Clay loved you like a brother, Joe. He showed that by what he did at the end. He just didn’t know how to show it any other time.”

Thoughtfully, Joe wiped his nose on his sleeve again. His father made a disgusted noise, but as Joe had little other choice, he didn’t make too much fuss. “I hadn’t thought of that, Pa,” Joe replied. “But you’re right.”

“I’m always right, young man,” Ben scolded, smiling at his boys.

From that night on, Joe’s recovery picked up speed, because his mind was at last healed, which allowed his body to heal, too. Despite everything they said to one another that night, Joe and Adam soon resumed their bickering. Ben just ignored it, for the most part, stepping in only if blood looked likely to be shed.

We all show our love in different ways.

*****End*****

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