A Blank Space (by Rona)

Summary:  Joe is found badly beaten on the road.   He doesn’t know how he got there. Can the Cartwrights find out in time before tragedy strikes?

Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rating:  K+
Word Count:  10,800


“And where is your brother this time?” demanded Ben Cartwright, as Adam and Hoss came into the house, clearly minus Little Joe, the youngest son. “Can that boy never be on time for a meal?”

Exchanging wary glances, the brothers wondered what was annoying their father this evening. Joe’s lateness was commonplace, but since supper wasn’t due for another 15 minutes, he could hardly be classed as late quite yet. “I ain’t seen Little Joe all day, Pa,” Hoss said. “But he ain’t late yet, is he?”

Glaring at Hoss, Ben realised that, indeed, Joe was not yet late. “No, he isn’t,” Ben admitted shortly, and went back to sit behind his desk, picking up some papers, and scanning them with a ferocious frown.

After a further exchange of glances, Adam found he’d been elected spokesman. “Is there something wrong, Pa?” he asked, cautiously.

“Wrong?” repeated Ben, as though he’d never heard the word before. “What makes you think there is something wrong?”

“Well,” hedged his oldest son, “you seem annoyed. We just wondered why, that was all.”

Ben ‘harrumphed’, and gave Adam a long look. “It’s these timber contracts. It looks like the mines might not be able honour them. I’ve been checking out the small print, and I have Hiram doing the same. It would be a disaster if they couldn’t pay for the timber.”

It was a matter of grave concern, Adam acknowledged. It would make the coming winter much harder if the mines backed out of this contract. “I see,” said Adam. “Is there anything I can do?”

“No, thank you, son,” Ben said, in a softer tone. “I’m sorry I took my mood out on you. Why don’t you get washed up? Supper will be ready soon.”

The family sat down to supper 15 minutes later. Joe had not appeared. As the meal went on, and there was still no sign of him, Ben’s dark brows drew down, and both Adam and Hoss knew that Joe would catch a lecture when he did finally show his face. Conversation was scarce, as there appeared to be too many risky topics.

But as the evening wore on, Ben’s angry scowl became one of concern. Joe was very late, even if he had decided to go to Virginia City without telling anyone. The long summer day had faded, and it was dark outside.

Finally, Adam and Hoss went to bed, but they knew Ben would stay up, pacing the floor until Joe got back. “I’ll tan his hide myself,” Adam commented to Hoss as they went upstairs. “He knows how Pa worries about him.”

“I hope nothin’s happened to him,” Hoss responded, and Adam gave him a look compounded in equal parts of amusement and annoyance. Hoss always stuck up for Joe, no matter what.

“The only thing that’s happened to Joe is that he’s got stuck inside a bottle of whiskey!” And with that tart comment, Adam took himself to bed.

*****

Next morning, with no sign of Joe, Adam began to regret his harsh words the previous night. Ben was obviously deeply worried; Hoss, too, and he felt a twinge of concern. Perhaps something bad had happened to Joe. It might be nothing more serious than his pony going lame, but something was wrong.

They set out immediately after breakfast. Only Hoss had eaten a noticeable amount, but for him, it barely counted. They headed for the south pasture, where Joe had been working the previous day. There was no small talk as they rode out.

About a mile before the south pasture, they spotted Cochise, Joe’s pinto pony, standing by the side of the road. A huddled figure close by could only be Joe. Urging the horses to greater speed, they swiftly closed the distance to where Joe lay.

Sliding down from Buck’s back, Ben rushed to Joe’s side. Joe lay face down on the road, and with fear and trepidation, Ben gently turned him over.

A huge, bloody gash ran diagonally from Joe’s hairline to the outside of his right eyebrow. The skin around it was bruised and swollen. A ragged gasp tore from Ben’s lips. He felt frantically for Joe’s pulse, and was relieved to find it there, slow, but steady. “Joe?” he said. “Can you hear me?”

There was no response. Joe was pale, and Ben checked him over for other injuries. Apart from a lot of bruises, the only other thing he found was a displaced shoulder. Praying that there were no bones broken, Ben looked up at Adam and Hoss. “We need to get him home and seen by a doctor.” He looked at the pinto. “How’s the pony?”

“He’s got a bullet crease along his haunch,” Adam said. “He’s a little lame, but not much.”

“How’s Joe?” Hoss asked. Concern furrowed his forehead. “He ain’t hurt bad is he, Pa?”

“I don’t know,” Ben replied. “I’ll take him in front of me. Hoss, you go for the doctor. Adam, bring Cochise along. Help me.”

“Pa,” Adam said, as he bent over his supine brother. “Joe’s gun is missing.”

They had a quick look round for it, but there was no sign of it. “We don’t have time for this,” Ben said, and they abandoned the search.

Between them, they got Joe onto Buck and Ben mounted behind him. Hoss set out at a gallop to get the doctor, and Ben and Adam began the long ride home.

*****

By the time they got back to the ranch, Joe was groaning steadily. Neither Ben nor Adam was sure if this was a positive sign or not. They got him into the house and into bed before Paul Martin, the doctor and friend of the family, arrived. Paul was quite used to dealing with Joe’s injuries. He had a decided knack for getting hurt.

The examination didn’t take long. “No broken bones,” Paul confirmed, which was a relief to Ben. “I’ll set his shoulder, and then stitch up his head. It won’t leave a mark as long as its done now. If we leave it, he’ll be left with a bad scar.”

With Ben’s help, Paul put Joe’s left shoulder back into place, and bound up his arm firmly. As the shoulder popped back into position, Joe let of a cry, and his eyes flew open. There was no recognition in the green depths, and after a moment, they closed again. “I’d better work fast,” Paul commented. “He must be on his way up if he felt that. Hold his head still, Ben.”

Moving with a sureness of touch, Paul swiftly cleaned the gash and began to take stitches in it. Joe began to mumble, and flailed an arm around. Adam was summoned, and held down Joe’s arms, as Ben held his head still. Finally, it was done, and Paul bandaged his handiwork. “All right, let’s get him awake,” he said, and got out the smelling salts.

The pungent smell soon had Joe coughing, and shortly after that, his eyes opened again. They were dull and dazed with pain, but it was clear that Joe knew where he was. “Pa?” he said. “How’d I get here?”

“Good enough,” Paul said. “He knows you, and knows where he is. That was a bad bump, Ben, so don’t expect too much from him. Keep him quiet, and in bed for a few days. You know the drill.”

“Thanks, Paul,” Ben said, gratefully, as Paul let himself out of the room. He turned his attention back to Joe. “Just stay quiet, son. We found you lying on the road. You’ve had a nasty bang on the head.”

“What road?” Joe asked, plainly confused. “I haven’t been near a road all day.” He tried to move his left hand to touch Ben, and winced in pained surprise. “What happened? I’ve been in the house all day.”

Glancing at Adam, Ben gave himself time to think of what to say. Joe had apparently no memory of the previous day at all. The day he’d been all day at the house had been two days ago. “Joe, don’t worry about it, son,” Ben soothed. “You’ve just forgotten what happened because of the bump on your head. You’ve hurt your shoulder, too, that’s why your arm is bound up.”

“I got an awful headache,” Joe mumbled, and from that statement alone, Ben knew that Joe wasn’t entirely himself. He denied illness at every turn.

“Drink this,” Ben said, and helped him drink down a powder Paul had left for him. A little while later, Joe fell asleep again.

*****

Over the next few days, Joe slept quite a lot between bouts of devastating nausea. Paul called regularly to check on his young patient. However, after that, Joe began to recover, and was soon up and about, moving gingerly to a chair by the window. After a week, Paul removed the stitches from Joe’s head, which was a nasty process. Joe was quite pale after it was over. By then, his shoulder was healing nicely, and Paul said he could leave off the bandages, as Joe was complaining more than usual, as he was naturally left handed, and hated having to ask for help to do simple every day tasks. The complaints were a sign that Joe was well on the road to recovery. The only stumbling block was his lack of memory of the day he was injured.

“Joe, Paul told you that your memory might never come back,” Ben repeated, patiently one evening. “Don’t worry about it, son. You might wake up tomorrow, and remember everything.”

“I might,” Joe agreed, so gloomily that Ben found it hard not to laugh. “But, Pa, you don’t know what its like. I have a – a blank space in my mind. Like going to the bookcase for a book, putting your hand out for it, and its gone. I know that day happened, but I don’t know what happened in it!”

“It must be very frustrating for you,” sympathised Ben. “You’re right; I don’t know what its like. I wish it had happened to me, and not you.”

Looking across to where Ben sat in his favourite red leather chair, Joe shook his head. “What?” he said. He moved to put his feet up on the table, but caught the warning look in time. “You want to be hit on the head, have a displaced shoulder and your pony shot? Pa, are you mad?”

Smiling, Ben shook his head. He poured Joe some more coffee, and watched as the youth aborted another move to put his feet on the table. It was a habit Ben deplored, but all his sons seemed to want to do it. Adam and Hoss were out, and Ben was glad of the chance to have a private chat with Joe. “It’s the curse of all parents,” Ben explained, sipping thoughtfully at his own cup. “We want to protect out children from harm, and we can’t. You three boys are all grown up now, and have to live your own lives. But all parents would rather that they got hurt, than that their children did.”

Seeing Joe frowning as he thought it through, Ben added, “Look at the way you and your brothers protect each other. It’s the same instinct.”

“I see where you’re coming from,” Joe said. “But I wouldn’t wish this on my worst enemy. Its horrible. I’d hate if it had happened to you, Pa.”

They sat in silence for a while, Ben absorbed in thinking about his three boys, and Joe gazing into the fire as though mesmerised. It was Joe who broke the silence. “Pa, have you found out anything I did that day?”

“A little,” Ben admitted, and took another sip of coffee to allow himself thinking time. “We know that you saw Doug Waters about lunch time, and spoke to him briefly. We know that you had mended all the fences in the south pasture. But more than that, no. It’s like you were invisible for the rest of the day.”

“Did I go into town?” Joe asked, hesitantly. He knew that his illicit afternoons off made his father furious, but he just couldn’t help himself sometimes.

“No,” Ben responded, dryly, and Joe blushed. “Just for once, you didn’t.” He continued to eye Joe, and the young man squirmed uncomfortably under his father’s gaze. But then Ben couldn’t hold the frown any longer, and laughed. “No, Joe, I’m afraid that we have no real idea what you did that day.”

“What did I want with Doug Waters?” Joe asked, trying hard to disguise the disgust in his voice, and not quite succeeding.

“You apparently asked how he was getting on, and then rode off.” Ben had been well aware of the undercurrents in Joe’s tone, and he was interested to see if Joe would volunteer anything.

“Oh,” grunted Joe. “I did kind of wonder what I would talk to him about other than that.”

Blandly, Ben lifted an eyebrow in an unspoken query. He continued to eye Joe over the rim of his coffee cup, although the coffee was actually now finished.

Shifting position uneasily, Joe seemed to be searching for the right words. “There’s something a bit odd about Doug,” he finally offered. “I don’t know what it is, but I don’t really like him. I can’t talk to him, somehow. He’s always watching me when he’s around.”

This wasn’t news to Ben. Adam and Hoss had also commented on Doug’s apparent fascination with Joe. There was a similarity of build and colouring between the two men. Doug was a few years older, somewhere between Joe and Hoss in age. He had recently come to work wearing similar clothing to Joe and had begun to talk in a similar way. To Ben, it seemed odd that a man of his age should be indulging in adolescent hero-worship, but he knew that imitation could be the sincerest form of flattery, even if Joe wasn’t flattered.

“Well, it must be hard for him,” Ben said, judiciously. “After all, it must be very difficult to go from being boss on your own place to being an employee on someone else’s.” Waters had inherited his father’s ranch, but he wasn’t anything like the businessman his father had been, and soon the ranch was in financial trouble, and the only way to salvage anything had been to sell up.

“I know that, Pa,” Joe said, irritably. “I just don’t like him, that’s all. I can’t be expected to like everyone.”

“I guess not, son,” agreed Ben, sagely. “Now, how about an early night, since you’re due back at work tomorrow?”

“What are you trying to say here, Pa?” Joe asked, jokingly. “That I can’t get up in the morning?”

“Would I say a thing like that?” Ben protested, innocently.

“You would!” Joe attested, and beat a hasty retreat upstairs. “Night, Pa.”

“Good night, Joseph,” replied Ben, softly.

*****

As usual, Ben was right. Early night or not, Joe could not get up on his first calling that morning. Part of it was habit. While he’d been ill, he hadn’t been wakening early. He sat at the table and forced some food down his throat, although he was feeling too sleepy to be really hungry.

Mindful that Joe had been ill, Ben had thought of placing him on light duties, but as soon as he said the word horses, Joe lit up like a Christmas tree, and Ben hadn’t the heart to tell him he’d originally earmarked Adam to do the breaking. So he put them both onto it. From the amused look on Adam’s face, Ben knew that his oldest son was aware of what had happened.

When they arrived back that evening, dusty and stiff, Joe looked more like himself than he’d done for a long time. The blank space in his memory wasn’t troubling him as much, now that he was busy again.

And so the pattern continued over the next week or two. Joe seemed to have put his fretting behind him, although he was no nearer regaining his memory. He even appeared to have made his peace with Doug Waters, as he made more of an effort to get along with him.

*****

About a month later, Joe found himself looking for strays with Waters. It was, on Joe’s behalf, an unfortunate pairing. Waters was definitely becoming stranger in his behaviour. Everyone had noticed how he went to great lengths to look like Joe. Joe had tried hard to be flattered, but he wasn’t. Waters was just an irritant.

There weren’t many strays. Pausing for a drink, Joe eyed Waters as he rode up. “I think I’ll go up there and have a quick look,” Waters said. “Its pretty steep from this side, but there’s a real nice meadow at the top, and there’s an easy route up from the other side of the hill.”

“All right,” Joe agreed. “Better be careful though. The shale on this slope is pretty loose.”

“I’ll be fine,” Waters said, with a grin. He jumped down off his pony, and began to climb up on foot.

Taking the rein of Waters’ pony, Joe rode a little way and dismounted, tying both horses to the branch of a tree. He patted Cochise, and walked back to watch Waters’ progress. Far away down the valley, he saw two tiny figures riding in his direction. They were really too far away to identify, but Joe was sure they were Adam and Hoss.

Turning, Joe watched as Waters scrambled up the slope. The cowboy was agile, he admitted. No sooner had the thought crossed his mind than Waters’ foot slipped, and a stream of small rocks raced down the slope. “Hey, be careful!” Joe called. He started to climb up, then stopped to see what was happening.

Glancing over his shoulder, Waters raised a hand in acknowledgement. He moved along a bit further, and then a boulder rolled out from under his grasp. Within seconds, Waters was sliding down the slope in an avalanche of shale.

The landslide swept down and engulfed Joe, too, and he found himself racing down the hill, unable to stop.

*****

“Hey, Adam,” Hoss said. “Look at that! There’s a landslide! Ain’t that where we just saw Joe?”

Frowning at the cloud of dust ahead, Adam nodded. “Yeah, it sure is! Let’s go!” He urged sport into a gallop, and Hoss quickly followed.

They thundered along, and arrived there a few minutes later. The dust was settling. At the far side of the landslip, they could see Cochise and another horse still tethered, although very agitated. Of Joe and Waters, there was no immediate sign. “Joe!” Hoss shouted. “Joe!”

No answer. “We’ll never find them by shouting alone,” Adam said. “Be careful, and let’s get out there.”

Warily, they moved onto the mass of displaced earth and rocks. “Here’s Waters,” Hoss exclaimed, and bent down to examine the unconscious cowboy more closely. Adam cocked an eye at Hoss and continued the search for Joe.

A flash of green caught his eye, and he looked closer. Half buried under the debris, Joe lay unconscious, a large boulder pinning him down. “Hoss, over here!” Adam crouched by Joe and felt for a pulse. It was there, and reassuringly steady.

Creeping carefully over the loose debris, Hoss arrived at Adam’s side. They tried valiantly to move the boulder, but had no luck. Waters regained consciousness, and came over to help, but they still had no luck. By now, Joe was awake, too, and in pain. He bit his lip to stop himself from crying out.

“This is no good,” Adam said, finally, wiping the sweat from his brow. “We need more men, and some tools. Waters, you get back to the ranch and ask pa to send out some men with crowbars and ropes. Hoss, you go into town and get the doc. I’ll stay here with Joe. And hurry!”

Adam went over to Sport and took his canteen and bedroll from the saddle. He made his careful way back to Joe, and tucked the blanket round him. “Here,” he said, and offered Joe a drink, supporting his head.

*****

It was fully dark, and had been for several hours, before the buckboard carrying the injured Little Joe returned to the house. The hands had laboured long and hard to free him, and a huge cheer had gone up when he was finally hauled to safety. The hands had set off back to the bunkhouse in a party mood, but the family were more sombre. Waters had escaped lightly, with only scrapes, bruises and a mild concussion. Joe, having been further down the slope, had come off worst, but still surprisingly lightly.

The boulder had done very little damage. Luckily for Joe, most of the weight of it was not leaning on him. If it had been, Joe would have died instantly. As it was, he had broken ribs, innumerable abrasions, a broken collarbone and a bump on the head. Paul Martin had stayed with Joe all through his ordeal, and travelled back to the house with the family. Joe dosed throughout the journey, doped up with one of Paul’s pain medications.

It was only after he was home that the real treatment of his injuries could begin. His abrasions were cleaned with alcohol, the ribs taped up, and the collarbone set. Paul put his right arm in a sling to ease the discomfort as much as possible. After that, he left for home. It was nearly midnight by then.

Exhausted, Ben sat by Joe’s bedside as his son slept. Adam and Hoss both came in to see Joe before they headed for bed. All three of them, Ben, Adam and Hoss, were covered in cuts and scrapes, courtesy of their battle to free Joe. “Wake me later on, Pa,” Adam said. “You need to rest, too.”

“Thank you, son,” Ben said. “I’ll wake you if I need to.” He smiled at Adam, who frowned at him. “All right, I’ll waken you later. Now, you two get off to bed. Its been quite a day.”

It wasn’t long before the house was silent. Joe moved restlessly in his sleep, throwing the covers off. Ben anxiously felt his forehead, but it was reassuringly cool. He tucked Joe back in again, taking care not to hurt him. Joe slept on. Shortly after 2 am, the bedroom door opened, and Adam came in. Ben had been dozing, and woke with a jerk, checking Joe immediately. He still slumbered on, and there was no fever.

“Go to bed, Pa,” Adam whispered. “I’ll sit with him. Don’t worry, I’ll wake you if anything happens.”

Reluctantly, Ben took himself off to bed. The sheets were cool, and he sighed deeply as he lay down. It didn’t see any time at all since Joe had been last laid up. They could manage the chores around the ranch without him, but it did create more work all round. Ben stretched out in his bed and was asleep in seconds.

*****

Next morning, Joe was understandably subdued. He was a mass of bruises, and was appalled to see that his family had suffered small injuries during his rescue. Being confined to bed for the second time in ten weeks was proved rather too much for Joe’s temper. The pain and his own helplessness caused him to snap at the very people who had laboured so hard to rescue him. Knowing that he was taking out his temper on them unjustly caused Joe to become even snappier. Finally, to stop any more outbursts, he lapsed into a sullen silence.

Even Ben’s understanding was strained by Joe’s behaviour. Adam had abandoned him after the first snarling answer to a perfectly ordinary question, and Hoss had thrown in the towel by mid-afternoon. Hop Sing went around muttering fiercely under his breath. As Joe slept, Ben sat wearily by the fire. He understood Joe’s frustration, but they were all under pressure, and one more ungoverned outburst, and Ben thought he might give Joe the hiding of his life.

Into this came Waters. “I came to see how Little Joe is,” he explained, holding his hat respectfully in his hands. “I feel so bad about what happened.”

“It was an accident,” Ben replied, although he resented the intrusion into his peace. “Joseph will be fine. Thank you for coming. He’s asleep right now.” Ben eyed Waters closely, seeing that the hat in his hand was the identical twin to Joe’s one, which hung behind the door. The colouring and style of his clothes was very like Joe’s. “How are you settling in here?” he asked, suddenly curious.

“Oh, fine, thanks, Mr Cartwright. I like it real well.” Waters nodded, as though agreeing with himself.

“Good,” Ben smiled, knowing that he couldn’t mention Waters’ seeming pre-occupation with looking like Joe. “Well, I’ll tell Joe you called.” Ben ushered the man out, and resumed his seat by the fire. There was paperwork on his desk requiring his attention, but he couldn’t summon the will to look at it. He was still sitting there when Adam and Hoss came home.

“Pa?” Adam said, as he spotted his father. “Is everything all right?” He instinctively glanced towards the stairs.

“Yes,” Ben responded. “I guess I’m just tired. Are you boys all right?” He rose and walked over to them, his hands thrust into his pants pockets.

“We’re fine,” Adam answered for them both. “How is Grumpy this afternoon?”

“Asleep the last time I looked,” said Ben. “I haven’t been up for a while. I thought he could do with some peace.”

Exchanging glances with Adam, Hoss said, “Are you sure you’re all right, Pa?”

“Meaning?” Ben demanded.

“Usually when one of us is ill in bed, we can’t pry you away,” commented Adam, dryly. “I know Joe was impossibly rude and ungrateful this morning, but he can’t have been that bad, surely?”

“Oh, he could,” Hoss interjected, surprising both the others. Hoss was Joe’s unfailing advocate. The realisation that even Hoss had had enough of the tantrums caused Adam and Ben to smile at one another. “I ain’t never seen him so bad,” he continued, oblivious to the interaction between father and brother. “I coulda plumb turned him over my knee!”

Somehow, Hoss’ admission had lightened the gloomy atmosphere. “Well, I suppose he’s really too big for that now,” Ben laughed. “But I felt much the same way myself. Why don’t I go up and see how he is, and then we can eat supper and get an early night. Yesterday took a lot out of all of us.”

In the end, they all three went up, and found Joe awake and penitent. “I’m sorry,” he said, as soon as the door opened. “I shouldn’t have been so rude to you. I know its not your fault that I’m here, and you were only trying to help.”

“Do you suppose that this is the same brother we left here this morning, or have the fairies been in and done a swap?” Adam enquired. His dry tones covered the relief he felt that Joe had come to his senses. Of all the moods he found most difficult to handle, Joe’s ungoverned anger led the way.

Laughing rather shame-facedly, Joe had the grace to blush. “I am sorry.”

“We know you are, son,” Ben said, sitting down beside him. “How do you feel?”

“Fine, I guess,” he replied, totally untruthfully, for he ached all over. “But I could do with some help.” He screwed up his face, and the others laughed at his strained expression. “I need to go,” he explained, and blushed even harder. Laughing, Adam and Hoss left as Ben retrieved the chamber pot from under the bed.

*****

Time passed, and Joe returned to work. His enforced inactivity had driven nearly all the family mad. It was quite a relief for them all when he was able to ride again, and soon they fell back into the familiar pattern of ranch life. Waters’ odd behaviour seemed to have stabilised, although he still dressed like Joe. Once or twice, Adam had spotted him from behind, and been momentarily unsure who he was looking at. It was a choice topic of ranch gossip among the hands. One or two had teased Waters about it, but he appeared not to understand what they were talking about.

The mining contract Ben had been so worried about sorted itself out with no loss of money on either side. The felling of the required timber was well under way. Ben and Adam spent quite a lot of time supervising the timber operation, leaving Joe and Hoss to deal with the rest of the work.

One morning, Ben was later leaving to go to the felling site. Adam was already gone, but Ben had had some papers to look at first. Waters happened to be in the yard when Ben went out, and he hastened to saddle Buck for Ben.

He led the horse out, and held his head while Ben prepared to mount. “Mr Cartwright, can I ask you a question?” he ventured.

Settling himself into the saddle, Ben smiled. “Of course,” he replied. “What is it?”

“You were real friendly with my parents, weren’t you? Especially with my Ma. Did you know them a real long time?”

“Yes, I knew them both well,” Ben replied. “I did what I could to help them settle in when they arrived in Nevada. Why?”

“Do you remember when I was born?” Waters enquired.

Puzzled, wondering what on earth Waters wanted, Ben shook his head. “No, Doug, you were about 2 when you got here. Why?”

“I thought my Ma said I was born after we got here. She said Pa wasn’t my real father. She suggested that someone else was.” Waters tilted his head up, and gave Ben a hard glance. “Someone round here, she said. I wondered if you knew who if was.”

Nonplussed, Ben stared at him for several seconds. “Doug, I have no idea what your mother meant when she said that. As I say, you were a toddler when you came here. Sorry, I can’t help you. Now, I’ve got work to do.” Ben tugged the bridle from Waters’ hand, and turned to leave. He had the nasty feeling he’d just been accused of being Waters’ supposed father.

*****

The strange conversation stayed with Ben all that day. He wondered what Waters’ mother had said. She had died a few years previously, and Ben had liked her very much. She reminded him of Marie, Joe’s mother. They were the same type, lively and fun to be with. She had livened up many a party that the Cartwrights had attended. When Marie died, she had done what she could to help out the family, offering to take the boys to stay over for a time, but Ben had needed the reassurance of having his sons close by, and had refused. Ben had been grateful for the help she had given him at that time, and had done his best to help her when he could. He had mourned her passing, but she had never been more than a friend – a married friend at that. Ben wondered where on earth Waters got his crackpot ideas from.

Although he had noticed his father’s pre-occupation, Adam hadn’t had the chance to ask him about it all day. So it wasn’t until they were riding home in the soft dusk that he had the chance to question him. “Do you want to talk about what’s on your mind?” he asked.

“Yes, I do,” Ben replied, and proceeded to tell Adam the story. Adam listened, and by the end, agreed that it sounded as though Waters thought Ben was his father.

“What are you going to do?” Adam wanted to know.

“What can I do?” countered Ben. “I can’t say more to dispute the facts. I have no idea if John Waters was Doug’s father or not. I know I’m not! But you know how it can be with ideas. Once you get something into your head, it can be very difficult to shift, despite facts. I think we just have to act as though Doug never spoke.” Ben shrugged his shoulders. “I haven’t been directly accused, and I can hardly sack him for dressing like one of my sons. I think we just need to keep an eye on him.”

“I wonder what put that idea into his head?” Adam shook his own dark head. “Is it just because he looks a bit like Joe?”

“I really don’t know,” Ben said. “But, Adam, I don’t think we should tell Joe about this. You know what he’s like. He’d be out there beating Waters to a pulp, demanding answers.”

“Good thinking,” agreed Adam. “After what happened with Clay, I don’t think Joe would be very receptive about having another half-brother.”

Shooting Adam a sharp look, Ben frowned. “At least we knew that Clay was Joe’s brother,” he said, reprovingly. “And we know Waters isn’t!”

“I’m sorry, Pa, I didn’t mean to wound like I was doubting you. Of course I’m not. I remember Doug when he arrived here. Its nonsense to suggest he’s your son.” Adam gave his father a smile. “But I’ll keep this to myself.”

*****

It began to seem to Ben that Doug Waters was always under his feet. The timber contracts were fulfilled, and the cutting crews were laid off. The denuded hillside was re-planted, in accordance with Ben’s philosophy. Waters seemed to always be in the crew that Ben had helping him out.

Then another small crisis took Ben’s attention from Waters. One of the mines Ben had shares in had a flood, and he and the boys had joined the rescuers. It was a dirty, dangerous job, but none of them shirked their responsibilities. Only two miners were drowned.

However, they needed the mine back working again, and the decision was made to blast through the collapsed tunnel to free the water, and open up the workings again. Normally, either Ben or Adam tried to be around when there was blasting to do, but on this occasion, Hoss decided to go along, too. Joe elected to stay at home. It was no secret that Joe didn’t like the dark all that much, and felt mildly claustrophobic in the mines.

Having spent the afternoon mending some broken tack, Joe was just saddling Cochise to go for a ride when Waters came galloping into the yard. “Joe, come quick!” he panted. “The blasting has gone wrong. Your Pa and brothers are all trapped in the mine!”

Paling, Joe leapt onto Cochise, and raced out of the yard after Waters. He tried to convince himself that his family would be all right, that the miners would have got them out by the time he got there, but fear shortened his breath. “Please, God, let them be all right,” he prayed.

All was quiet at the mine when they arrived. The Cartwright family’s horses were tethered over by the wooden shack, which passed for an office. “Where is everyone?” Joe demanded. He slid off Cochise, and looked around.

“They must be in the mine shaft,” Waters offered. He watched as Joe ran across to the entrance to the mine, hesitated momentarily, then plunged in. Casually, he walked the horses further away from the entrance, and drew out his pocket watch. The explosives were due to go off any time now, and Joe would finally be gone.

A few moments later, Joe re-appeared from the tunnel, and looked around. He spotted Waters, and began to walk towards him. It was apparent that Joe was furious. He had seen instantly that nothing had changed from the last time he had been in the mine, and he was wondering what Waters was playing at. It was a pretty nasty trick, if it was meant as a joke. If it wasn’t… Joe didn’t let the thought go any further.

There was a sudden tremendous explosion behind Joe. A blast of hot air, laden with dust and debris, erupted from the mouth of the tunnel. The concussion from the explosion and the blast of air lifted Joe from his feet, and threw him about 10 feet through the air. He landed hard, and skidded along the ground before finally coming to rest.

From his vantage point, Waters dropped Cochise’s rein, and calmly mounted his horse. He rode away, not waiting to see the men spilling from the safety of another shaft further away.

*****

“Mr Cartwright, look!” exclaimed the foreman, Bill. “There’s somebody lying there. It looks like…” His voice trailed off.

Following the pointing finger, Ben saw why Bill had stopped so suddenly. It looked like Joe! His heart missed a beat, and then Ben was running towards to prone figure on the ground. After a heartbeat’s hesitation, Adam and Hoss were on his heels.

Carefully turning Joe over, they were relieved not to see any obvious injuries, apart from skinned hands and face. Willing hands lifted the unconscious youth and carried him to the office, where Ben soaked his neckerchief and used it to bathe the dust and dirt from Joe’s face. After a few minutes, Joe groaned, and his eyelids fluttered. “Joe? Are you all right, son?”

A few more seconds passed before Joe’s eyes opened fully. He looked blankly at Ben for a moment, then his hand drifted up to clutch his temple. “My head,” he groaned. His gaze sharpened on Ben. “Pa! You’re all right!”

“I’m fine,“ Ben assured him, wondering why on earth Joe was concerned about him. “How do you feel?”

Frowning, Joe said, “What did you say?” His hand went to his ear, and pressed. The gesture seemed to be painful. He gazed intently at Ben, fright in his green eyes.

“Joe? Can you hear me?” Ben asked, concerned. Even before he had finished speaking, Joe was talking.

“I can’t hear anything. My ears are ringing. They hurt.” Joe’s face screwed up, and he bit his lip. “Oh, Pa, it hurts.” Tears welled in his eyes.

“Easy, son, easy,” Ben soothed, even knowing that Joe couldn’t hear him. He gathered the distraught youth into his arms, and looked over his shoulder at the shocked faces of his other 2 sons. “We need the doctor,” he said. “I’ll get Joe back to the ranch. Is his horse here?”

“Right outside,” Adam replied. “Want a hand?”

“I might.” Ben leaned back, and tilted Joe’s face up to his. “Let’s get you home,” he said, mouthing each word clearly. Joe nodded, although it obviously hurt him. Ben put his arm under Joe’s and helped him to stand. Joe was understandably shaky for the first few moments, but as he took a few steps, he became steadier. He accepted help to mount, and they rode slowly for home.

*****

“There’s an improvement already, Ben,” Paul said. “Its only been a couple of hours, yet he can hear better than he could when I got here. I’m convinced the damage isn’t permanent. His balance is good, and if there is severe injury to the ears, the person also has problems with their balance. I think Joe just needs time. It may be a few days before he’s back to normal. If there’s no big improvement in a week, then bring him in to see me. You don’t need to keep him in bed.”

“That’s a relief,” Adam commented.

Grinning, Paul agreed. “I’m sure! But he will be rather more vulnerable than usual. Its very disconcerting not to be able to hear properly. A warning shout would pass him by right now.”

“Thank you very much,” Ben said, and rose to see the doctor out. Closing the door behind Paul, Ben turned thoughtfully to his other sons. “I wonder what Joe was doing there,” he said. “Its not like him to be interested in the blasting. Nothing seems to have happened here that needed my attention.”

“We’re unlikely to get information out of him tonight,” Adam noted.

Sighing, Ben agreed. “You’re right. I’m going up to sit with him. Ask Hop Sing to bring up a tray for Joe. He must eat something.”

*****

Lying with his eyes shut, trying to outlast his throbbing headache, Joe flinched when Ben touched his arm. His eyes snapped open, and he looked terrified. When he saw it was just Ben, he relaxed. “Pa,” he said. He tried a smile, but it wasn’t very convincing.

“Paul says you’ll be fine,” Ben said, loudly.

“I’m going to be fine?” Joe repeated, unsure if he’d understood properly. The ringing in his ears was dying down, but it still blocked most of the sound going in. When Ben nodded, Joe’s eyes filled with tears of relief. It was horribly disorienting to only hear ringing. Normal, everyday sounds, which he had taken for granted, had disappeared. Wiping a slightly shaky hand over his face, Joe said, “Pa?”

Looking at Joe, Ben mouthed, “What?”

“Why did Waters tell me you were trapped?” Joe was unsure how loudly he was speaking, and watched his father intently to see his reaction.

React Ben certainly did. He straightened up, and frowned at Joe for a long moment. Then his head went up, and a look of revelation crossed his face. His mouth moved, but Joe couldn’t hear any of the sounds coming from it. He hadn’t expected such a reaction, and was rather surprised by it. “Pa?” he said, touching Ben’s arm, to be sure he was noticed.

Catching Joe’s hand, Ben nodded. He held up a finger, and turned away. Vaguely, Joe understood that his father was shouting for the other members of the family. He was totally perplexed. He wished fiercely that his family had learned more than the very basics of the sign language he had taught Ann Croft. If they had, he could at least communicate with them.

The confusion seemed to make his headache worse, and he closed his eyes again for a moment. When he opened them, Adam and Hoss were there.

There was a long discussion, with Adam looking resigned and nodding a lot, and Hoss asking several questions, frowning and looking unhappy. Ben did most of the talking, gesturing to Joe every now and then. It was all very frustrating. Joe tried to follow what was going on, but failed. He began to feel tired, and his eyelids drooped as he gave up the battle to understand what was going on.

A cool hand touched his arm, and he jumped, opening his eyes. The hand belonged to Adam. He held a notebook in his other hand. Did Waters tell you we were in trouble? he wrote.

Nodding, Joe frowned. “Yes, he did. Why?”

Writing furiously, Adam finally showed Joe the pad again. Joe pushed himself up on the pillows, and took the pad. His jaw dropped. Adam had written Waters thinks Pa is his father. Of course, its not true. But he seems to have this idea set in stone. We were concerned by his odd behaviour. It seems he was trying to kill you. He knew when the charges were due to go off. We now wonder if he deliberately climbed that slope to start a landslip, or if it just gave him an idea or two. Joe, we’re going looking for him. Don’t worry, you’ll be safe. Hop Sing is here, and we’ll leave someone on guard outside. You rest, we’ll be back soon.

Wide-eyed, Joe looked frantically at his family. “Be careful,” he begged them.

We will, Adam wrote. You rest and you’ll feel better soon.

Patting Joe on the shoulder, Hoss smiled at him before leaving. Adam squeezed his shoulder, and Ben caressed his curls before kissing his forehead. Joe watched them go, his heart beating wildly. He looked again at what Adam had written, and he feared for his family. For a long time, he sat stiffly in bed, trying to hear past the noise in his ears, but finally, exhaustion conquered him, and he slid deeper into the pillows and fell asleep.

*****

There was no sign of Waters anywhere. He seemed to have disappeared into thin air. Hoss went into town to apprise Roy Coffee of the situation, and he rode out to the ranch to discuss it further with the family. Joe was up and about, but Roy was surprised to find him sitting huddled in Adam’s blue velvet chair, rather than sitting on the settee, as was his want. He soon discovered that it was because Joe could see everyone coming in and out of the house. Joe seemed distracted, and Roy left him in peace, rather than try and shout his questions.

Indeed, Joe was distracted. Ever since he wakened that morning, he had a nagging feeling that there was something he ought to tell Ben, but he couldn’t think what it was. Combining that with his ringing ears and throbbing head, he really wasn’t in the mood for company. It was a relief that Roy didn’t seem to want to talk to him.

Handing Joe a cup of coffee, Ben sat down to talk to Roy, watching Joe from the corner of his eye. “I told Waters that there was no way I could be his father,” Ben said, concluding his story. “But he didn’t believe me.”

“Mighty strange,” Roy agreed. He, too, cast a glance at Joe, who now had his eyes shut. “But why is he just picking on Little Joe? What about Hoss and Adam?”

“I wondered about that, too,” Ben admitted. “But then Adam pointed out that Waters is a little older than Joe, but younger than both Hoss and Adam. Perhaps Waters got it into his head that I’d abandoned his mother when Joe was born. Maybe that’s why he started dressing and acting like Joe.”

“Could be,” agreed Roy. “We’ll keep a lookout for him. How’s Joe doing anyway? What did the doc say?”

“His hearing should come back with time,” Ben told his friend. “It has improved a good bit already.”

“Its not like Joe to sit over there. I thought that chair was Adam’s territory.”

Smiling, Ben said, “Well, and so it is. But Joe can see everything from there, and as long as he’s awake, we can’t surprise him. That boy’s had more shocks in the last 24 hours than he’s had all his life!”

“I guess it would be a might uncomfortable at that,” Roy said. “I never really thought about it before.”

“Nor me,” agreed Ben. He gave Joe a fond look. It was apparent that he was asleep. He was talking under his breath, as he often did. Ben hoped he wouldn’t waken into a full-scale, screaming nightmare, as he had done the previous night. The youth was exhausted.

Showing Roy to the door, both men were halted in their tracks when Joe yelled, “Cochise!” Pausing, they looked round. Joe’s head was rolling against the back of the seat. Ben frowned, and started towards him. “What the hell…” Joe went on, and Ben’s frown deepened. He didn’t approve of bad language. But Joe was still asleep. “Waters, no! No!” With a scream, Joe bolted upright, his eyes wide and staring.

“Easy, son, easy,” Ben said, forgetting Joe’s transgression in the face of his obvious distress.

“Pa,” Joe said, and he was panting. “Waters! He bushwhacked me! He shot at Cochise! He hit me! He said he wanted to kill me! He said I stole you from him!”

“Joe! Joe! Slow down!” Ben shook his son, remembering that Joe couldn’t hear him.

After a moment, Joe’s body relaxed, but he still was wide eyed. “I remember, Pa,” he said, clutching his father’s sleeve. “I heard the shot, and Coochie bolted. But he pulled up lame, nearly fell, in fact, and I came off. That was when I knocked my shoulder out. I turned to see who had fired at us. There was Waters. I was so mad! And he rode up to me, and I asked what he thought he was doing.” Joe stopped and swallowed, and Ben guessed that was where the profanity came in. “ He told me you were his father, and I’d stolen you from him, and he was going to kill me! And he swung his rifle at me. It hit me, and I fell, but I wasn’t quite out, because I saw him get down off his horse, and he came towards me and kicked me.” With a gulp, Joe ran out of story and air at the same time.

“Conclusive proof,” Roy said. “I’ll make out a warrant for his arrest right now, Ben. I’ll let you know when we find him. Meantime, be careful.”

“Thanks, Roy,” Ben said, and let his friend see himself out, as he remained kneeling protectively by his son. Joe’s eyes were tearless, but his skin was cold and clammy as the delayed shock hit him.

“Why, Pa?” Joe asked at last.

Shaking his head, Ben extracted himself from Joe’s grip and fetched the notebook. I don’t know, Joe. Waters has got it into his head that I am his father. Its not true, but he believes it. I think he might be jealous of you, and that might be why he was copying you.

“You don’t know where he is, do you?” Worried green eyes stayed focused on Ben as he shook his head. “I see.” Looking down, Joe knew how vulnerable he was right then. He didn’t remember feeling like this ever before. He never wanted to feel like that again.

Ben touched his knee, and Joe looked up again to find his father proffering the pad of paper once more. Joe, I want you to stay indoors until Waters is caught. We don’t want anything to happen to you.

“All right, Pa,” Joe agreed, listlessly. He knew what Ben asked made sense, but he hated to be cooped up.

*****

Over the next few days, Joe began to notice an improvement in his hearing. The throbbing headache had gone, and that seemed to help immensely. The family were now holding conversations again, albeit they were still shouting at Joe. On the down side, however, there was still no sign of Waters. Reluctantly, Ben began to allow Joe to go out of the house to the barn. They had posted a guard near the house.

At first, Joe felt better about staying close to home when he wasn’t confined solely to the house, but soon the restriction of the yard began to chafe, too. Joe liked his own company, and although he relished the companionship of his family, he needed time alone, like everyone else. The constant presence of an armed guard around the house and barn wore on his nerves.

However, the day came when, sooner than expected, Joe managed to slip his guard, and cross to the barn unnoticed. He took the brush and began to groom Cochise. The pinto had seldom been groomed as often, even by Joe’s exacting standards. Both man and horse enjoyed the company, and Joe whispered away to the horse as though Cochise could understand him. Perhaps he could.

As Joe’s hearing returned, little sounds often seemed louder to him. Now, the hissing of the brush across Cochise’s glossy coat sounded very loud to Joe, and he didn’t notice the sound of footsteps entering the barn. When the shadow fell on him, Joe had only a fraction of a second to look up and see Waters before the cowboys upraised arm began to fall, bringing a gun down on Joe’s unprotected head. But Joe used that fraction of a second. “PA!” he screamed. Then he knew no more.

*****

Inside the house, Ben lifted his head, frowning. Had he heard Joe shout? Or was it just his over-active imagination? He listened, but there was no further sound. Uneasy, Ben put down his pen and rose to his feet. He decided he would check on Joe, just to be on the safe side.

As he opened the door, Ben noticed movement in the barn. Smiling, chiding himself for being overly concerned, he almost shouted to Joe, then remembered that Joe wouldn’t hear him. Shaking his head, Ben began to walk to the barn. After only a few steps, he realised that he couldn’t see Fred, who was on guard duty. Ben paused, and looked around. The uneasy feeling came back full force, and he turned on his heel and went back into the house for his gun.

The house seemed very quiet, and Ben wished that Adam and Hoss were there. Going to the kitchen, Ben found Hop Sing in the midst of plucking a chicken. “Hop Sing, could you go quietly and see if you can find my sons, please? I’m not sure, but I think something is wrong. Fred seems to have disappeared, and Joe is in the barn alone.”

For an instant, Hop Sing just looked at Ben, then he dropped the half-plucked chicken on the table and nodded. “I get sons, Mr Catlight,” he assured his employer. “You go see number three son okay. I be very quick.”

“Thanks, Hop Sing,” Ben said, gratefully, and went back into the main room. He was very uneasy now, and he strode swiftly to the door, and went back out into the yard. There, leaning against the edge of the house, was Fred. He was clutching his head, and blood ran between his fingers.

Adrenalin charge through Ben’s body. He went over to Fred, and touched his shoulder. Fred looked up. “Boss,” he said. “I never saw nobody.”

“All right, Fred, you sit down and rest,” Ben ordered. “I’ll get the doctor as soon as I can.” Cautiously, Ben walked across the yard to the barn.

The barn door was partly closed. Ben drew his gun, and gently pushed the door open. At first glance, the barn seemed deserted, apart from Cochise and Buck, who were both in their stalls. Then, further back, at the edge of Sport’s stall, he spotted Joe lying on the floor. For one dreadful moment, Ben thought he was dead.

From the shadows, Waters watched, and then stepped out to confront Ben. “Hello, Pa,” he said.

“I’m not your father, Doug,” Ben said, as evenly as he could.

“You are,” insisted Waters. “My Ma always said I looked like Joe. She said we were so alike we could be brothers. I reckon that makes you my Pa.”

Looking at the troubled young man, Ben’s heart was heavy. There had been a joke among the four of them one evening – he and Marie, and John and Martha Waters – he remembered, that their sons looked alike, and could be brothers. But it was only that – a joke. Waters must have overheard, and put two and two together and made five. “It was a joke,” he said, knowing words would be useless.

“It wasn’t a joke!” Waters insisted. “I’m your son! This misbegotten whelp took my place.” He kicked Joe, who groaned.

Taking a step or two further into the barn, Ben could now see Joe clearly. His hands were tightly bound behind his back, and there was a rope around his neck. Appalled, Ben realised that it was a choke chain, and if Joe struggled, he could end up choking himself. Swallowing against the nausea that rose in his throat, Ben tried once more to talk sense into Waters. “If I was your father, that would make Joe your brother. Why do you want to kill him?”

“He stole you from me,” Waters said. “You would’ve stayed with my Ma if he hadn’t come along.”

There was no point in denying it any more, Ben saw. Waters wouldn’t believe anything he said. Somehow, he had to get Joe to safety. “Doug, please let Joe go.”

“No, Pa, I can’t do that. I’ve got to kill him. If he’s alive, you’ll love him, not me! I’ve got to kill him.” Waters kicked Joe again.

By now, Joe was conscious. He struggled against the restraint on his hands, and immediately, began to choke. Opening his eyes, Joe saw Ben standing near the barn door. “Pa,” he said, desperately.

“He’s not your Pa, he’s mine!” screamed Waters, yanking Joe up by the collar and shaking him. “Mine, do you hear! Mine!”

Ben took several steps forward, but stopped as Waters swung his pistol to rest against Joe’s head. “Stay back, Pa,” he warned. “Stay back.” Ben, looking at him in horror, suddenly realise that the pistol he held was the one that had gone missing when Joe was attacked, all those weeks ago. Ben had since replaced it for him.

“Doug, if you kill him I’ll never love you,” Ben warned, willing to try anything to save his son. “How could I love a son who killed one of his brothers?”

For an instant, Ben thought he had got through to him, but he was wrong. Waters let out a wail of anguish, and turned on Joe. “He’ll never love me! Its all your fault!” And he dropped Joe to the ground, and began to kick and hit him, punching and clubbing him with his pistol.

In two giant strides, Ben reached the cowboy’s side, and grabbed him away. He punched Waters in the face, saw him go down, and turned to free Joe. With strength born of desperation, he yanked the rope from his son’s neck, and untied the knots. Joe was conscious, although blood streamed down his face. “Joe! Are you all right?” he asked, pulling the youth towards him.

Looking over Ben’s shoulder, Joe saw Waters getting to his feet, his gun still in his hand. “PA!” Joe yelled, and tried to get to his feet. His legs wouldn’t support him. He only got as far as his knees before Waters’ gun crashed down on Ben’s head, and he fell to the floor, unconscious.

“Now its just us, brother,” Waters said, menacingly.

Frantically, Joe scrambled for Ben’s gun, got hold of it, and whipped it up. He was too slow, his reactions dulled by the blows to the head he had received. Waters snatched up an axe handle and smashed it along Joe’s arm. The heavy handle broke Joe’s wrist and hand. Ben’s gun fell to the hay-strewn floor with a dull thud. Joe screamed with pain.

“I’ve been looking forward to this for a long time,” Waters said, circling round his two victims, until he was between them and the door. “I’m going to kill you, brother.”

“I’m not your brother,” Joe husked. He set his jaw against the pain, and glared at Waters. “My Pa is an honourable man. If he had fathered you, he wouldn’t have left your mother. We may look a little alike, but I’m not your brother.”

“It doesn’t matter what you think,” Waters said. “You’ll be dead soon, and I’ll have Pa all to myself.”

“Not quite,” said a hard voice from behind Waters. “Had you forgotten about Hoss and I?”

Stunned, Waters turned to look at Adam. Joe took his chance and threw himself at Waters’ legs. Taken by surprise, Waters crashed to the floor, his gun discharging harmlessly into the roof. Adam dashed across the barn and yanked Waters to his feet, ploughing his fist into his face two or three times. Waters went down and out.

For a moment, Adam stood over Waters looking at him with anger and contempt. Then his attention shifted to Joe and Pa. “Are you all right?” he asked, and Joe, overcome by relief, slumped to the ground, as close to fainting as he had been in a long time.

Dimly, Joe was aware of Hoss’ arrival at the barn, and of Adam gently rousing Pa. It was only as Ben began to talk, assuring Adam that he was fine, that Joe realised that he had heard everything said in the barn quite clearly. The knowledge was a revelation, and for a second, Joe couldn’t breathe. He opened his eyes, and looked up into his father’s concerned face. “Pa, I can hear again,” Joe said. “I can hear!”

“Joe, that’s wonderful,” Ben said, reaching to pull him close. His hand only grazed the outside of Joe’s left hand, but it was more than enough. Joe let out a scream of pain, and Ben hastily withdrew his hand. “Sorry, son,” Ben breathed. He looked up at his two older boys, and winced at the pain in his head. “I think we need the doctor,” he said, and was glad to let his sons take over.

*****

There was quite a lot for Paul Martin to do at the Ponderosa that night. Ben and Fred both needed a couple of stitches in their head wounds. Joe needed his broken hand and wrist set, and his various cuts and bruises tended. Finally, Paul was able to leave, and had Roy Coffee’s company back to town. Roy had needed Paul to look over Waters before he was locked up. As he left, his parting words to Ben were, “And you get some rest!”

“Paul’s right, Pa,” Adam said. “You need to get some rest.”

“I’m fine,” Ben protested. “I’ll go up and see Joe, and then maybe I’ll rest.”

Giving an exasperated sigh, Adam accompanied his father up to Joe’s room, where Hoss kept his younger brother company. Hoss looked up and smiled at welcome at his father. Joe stirred, and opened his eyes. “Pa. Are you all right?” he asked.

“I’m just fine, son,” Ben said, softly, and sat down on the edge of the bed to stroke Joe’s curls gently. “How are you?”

Sighing, Joe closed his eyes briefly. “I’m okay,” he said, but he sounded anything but convincing. His face was stiff and tight with bruising, and Paul had put a plaster cast on Joe’s arm, so that only the very tips of his fingers were poking out. “I was worried about you,” he said, opening his eyes and looking at Ben. “I thought Waters had killed you. I was so relieved to hear your voice. I’m so relieved to hear everyone’s voices. Are you sure you’re okay?”

Smiling and nodding, Ben found that his throat was too tight for words.

“Hey, Adam, thanks for the rescue,” Joe said, turning his head to smile at his oldest brother. “I’m glad you were there.”

“So am I,” Adam said. “Think of all the extra chores I’d have to do if you weren’t around.”

“Thanks,” Joe said, but he couldn’t help laughing. He winced as he moved slightly. Ben immediately looked concerned, but as he leant over Joe, he couldn’t help a wince himself. Fathomless green eyes expressed their concern, and Joe put out his hand to touch Ben’s arm. “Pa, you should be in bed,” he chided, and then it dawned on him what he had said. “Hey,” he grinned, “I sound just like you!”

“And at the risk of sounding like an echo” Adam interjected, “I think you should be in bed, too. Come on, Pa, let’s go.”

Grumbling half-heartedly, Ben allowed himself to be persuaded to his feet. He gave Joe’s head a last caress. “I love you, son,” he said.

As they walked along to his room, Ben said, “I must thank you, too, Adam. If you hadn’t arrived when you did, both Joe and I could be dead.”

“I’m glad I did,” Adam said. “Poor Waters. Imagine living all that time, and not believing that his Pa was really his father.”

Sitting heavily on the edge of his bed, Ben allowed Adam to help him off with his boots. “I think Doug did know, once, that his father really was John Waters. But after his dad died, and he lost their place, his mind began to play tricks on him. Coming to work here, and being reminded all the time about how alike he and Joe are, well, it must have disturbed the balance of his mind. He must have blanked out his love for his father. A bit like that blank space Joe said he had in his mind when he had lost his memory.”

“I think you’re right,” agreed Adam. “But rest assured, Pa, we all know who fathered us. Now, get some rest! Good night.”

“Good night, son,” Ben said. He lay back, and thought of his three sons – so different, yet so alike. Through the wall, he heard Joe’s laugh, then Adam and Hoss bidding Joe good night. Then came the shout that delighted his heart. “Good night, Pa,” shouted Joe.

“Good night, Joe, Hoss,” he called back. He closed his eyes and said a prayer of gratitude that they were all safe together under one roof. Waters hadn’t appreciated his family while they were alive, and his longing to have what the Cartwrights had had made him turn to murder. Ben was grateful his sons appreciated each other.

“Good night, boys,” he said, and fell asleep.

*****End*****

Return to Rona’s Bonanza Home Page

Return to Library

Return to WWB Author Index

 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.