A Sacrifice of Love (by Rona)

Summary: When a man from Ben’s past returns, the Cartwrights are plagued by accidents. After Adam is badly injured, Ben decides to do something about it. But the worst is yet to come.

Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rating: T
Word Count:  9,840


Looking out over the swing door of the saloon, the young man pulled his hat down a little lower over his eyes. Not that it would make any difference if his father happened to glance in his direction. His father would recognise him anywhere, and he would be angry that the young man had disobeyed a direct order, and come into town. Still, the young man couldn’t have stayed away. He knew that his father was going to the sheriff to report the harassment they had been suffering. He feared that something would happen to his father, and he had sneaked into town, so he was on hand should anything occur.

A furtive movement from across the street attracted the young man’s attention, and he looked that way. A man, tall and thin, stepped from another saloon’s doorway, and strolled into the middle of the street. His gaze was fixed on Ben Cartwright’s back as he walked down Main Street. He took up the stance, and with a gasp, Joe realised that Fleming was willing to gun his father down in broad daylight!

There was no time to shout a warning. Joe dived out of the saloon, his gun drawn, and ran to the middle of the street. He fired at Fleming, even as the man shot at Ben. Fleming went down, clutching his leg. Joe stood there, looking at him, amazed that he couldn’t feel any pain. It seemed Fleming had missed him.

Fleming lifted the gun again, but by now, Ben had been alerted, and had turned, drawing his own weapon. “Joe!” he yelled, horrified by the scene which met his eyes. “Get down!” He sidestepped, so he had a clearer view of the downed man.

Lifting his gun, Fleming fired again, but Ben was prepared, and the bullet went wide. Joe still stood there, and Fleming decided that Joe was a better target than Ben, and aimed at him. “Joe!” Ben cried again, but still Joe didn’t move. As Fleming cocked his gun, Ben shot him in the arm. The revolver fell to the ground with a thud.

By now, Roy Coffee, the sheriff of Virginia City, had appeared on the scene and hurried up the street. Ben ignored him, heading towards his youngest son, who was standing as if frozen. “Joe!” he said, his concern evident in his voice.

Turning his head slightly, Joe looked at Ben. “Pa, you’re all right. Thank goodness!” He coughed, and a streak of red appeared on his lips, and he fell silently into his father’s arms. He looked up at the concerned face above him, and spoke once more. “As long as you’re all right, it doesn’t matter.” Then his green eyes closed, and he became a dead weight in Ben’s arms.

Terrified, Ben raised his head and shouted, “Get a doctor!”

*****

Limping slowly into the house, Joe Cartwright shut the door quietly behind him, and hung his tan hat onto a peg. He bent over, untying his holster from his leg, and then unbuckled the gun belt. He laid it on the credenza with unwarranted care, and slid carefully out of his jacket, taking the mail from an inner pocket. Reaching to hang the jacket up, he couldn’t stifle a wince.

“Where have you been?” asked a voice from behind him, and Joe turned carefully to see his father standing behind him, holding a cup of coffee.

“I went to get the mail,” Joe answered, a hint of impatience in his voice. “You sent me, Pa.”

Putting down the cup and saucer on the credenza, Ben watched closely as Joe turned around. “That was several hours ago, Joe,” Ben said, looking at him intently. “I didn’t think it would take you this long.”

“I haven’t been in the saloon, if that’s what you think,” Joe retorted, angrily.

“I wasn’t aware I had accused you, young man,” Ben said, stiffly, and Joe had the grace to blush.

“I’m sorry, Pa, “ he said. “Here’s the mail.” He handed the letters to his father, hoping they would distract Ben’s attention.

Taking the letters, Ben immediately put them down. His gaze was still fixed on Joe’s face, and the younger man stifled a sigh. “Is there any supper left?” he asked, hopefully. “Or has Hoss eaten everything.”

“I heard that,” came a voice from the dining area. “If’n you aren’t home in time for supper, why should I leave you anything?”

“Gee, thanks, big brother,” Joe said, suddenly feeling tired.

“Go and sit down, son,” Ben suggested. “There should still be something left.” Still, that unwavering gaze was focused on Joe’s face.

Joe smiled, and drew a deep breath. He started to walk, hoping he could hide his limp, but as soon as his left foot touched the ground, his leg began to buckle under his weight, and he caught the edge of the credenza to prevent a fall. He caught his breath. Ben was there, his arm under Joe’s, as a concerned frown furrowed his brow.

“I thought there was something wrong with you,” he said. “What happened?”

“I’m all right,” Joe said, but the paleness of his face gave him away.

“No you’re not,” Ben contradicted. “Here, lean on me.” With Ben’s help, Joe limped over to the settee, and sat down with relief.

By now, both Joe’s older brothers were on their feet, and watching. Hoss still had his fork in his hand, Joe noticed with amusement. “What did happen?” Adam asked, watching as Ben pulled Joe’s left boot off.

For a moment, the pain was too bad to allow Joe to speak, but it subsided, and he shook his head. “I met a man on the road,” he explained. “He was on the way to town with a wagon. He’s been travelling a long time to get here. He’d hit a stone, and the wheel had splintered a bit.” Ben pushed up the leg of Joe’s pants to reveal a large bruise and swelling about his ankle. “I stopped to help him with the wheel, and as we were changing it, it slipped from his hands, and I wasn’t quick enough to get out of the way. It hit my leg, and we had a bit of bother getting it off. But I’m all right. Nothing’s broken. Its just a little sore.” Joe gave his leg a tentative tug, but his father didn’t relinquish his grip on the injured limb.

“And?” Ben enquired, looking up at Joe’s face.

“And,” Joe capitulated, “we got the wheel back on, Fleming thanked me and went off to town. I got back on Cochise and came home.” Joe squirmed, trying to indicate to his father that he wanted his leg back. Ben, who was perfectly well aware of how Joe felt, ignored his unspoken signals.

“Could you get some water and bandages, Adam, please?” Ben asked. “Fleming, did you say? He must be new around here.”

“Kind of,” Joe agreed, giving up his attempts to break free. “He said he had been here once before, long ago, and had liked it so much, he’d decided to come back.” He winced as Ben’s grip tightened. “Pa, that hurts!”

“Sorry, son,” Ben said, contritely, loosening his grip. “This Fleming. Was he tall and thin? Got a wife and 2 children?”

Frowning, Joe nodded. “Yes, he was tall and thin, but he was alone.” He glanced at Hoss, who was also frowning, then looked back at his father. “Pa, do you know him?”

“I might,” Ben said. “Did you introduce yourself to him?”

“Of course I did,” Joe replied, wondering what was wrong with Ben. “It would’ve been kind of rude not to.”

Sighing, Ben looked relieved when Adam came back with the water and bandages. He busied himself bathing the injured limb and binding it up. Hoss went to the table and filled a plate for Joe, who picked at it, his appetite gone. He wondered what had got Ben so shaken up.

With Joe’s ankle bound up and resting comfortably along the settee, Ben rose to put away the things he’d been using. Adam took the basin from his hands and set it on the table. “Pa, tell us what’s on your mind,” he invited. “We can all see you’re troubled.”

Sitting down heavily, Ben looked at the floor for a moment while he composed his thoughts. “When we first came out here,” he started, “we bought what we could, and hoped for the best. The nearest neighbour we had was a man called Fleming. He and his wife and 2 children had been here for a few months longer than us, and we often helped each other out.”

“I think I remember that,” Adam said, thoughtfully. “Wasn’t the oldest child a boy, about Hoss’ age?”

“Yes, I think so,” Ben agreed. “Anyway, after that first winter, which was really hard, Fleming’s wife decided that she couldn’t take it out here. It was too much for her. They’d lost a baby during the winter, and I think it was the memories as much as the weather that drove her away. Fleming agreed they would go back, and offered me first refusal on his land. I jumped at it, naturally, as it would double the land we already had. I raised the money, and paid it to him. They left.”

“That was quite a winter,” Adam remembered. “I thought it would never be spring again.”

Nodding, Ben said, “I remember you saying that, son. A few months after Fleming left, I got a letter from him, saying they were settled back in New York, and he had been told he could have sold his ranch for much more money than I had paid him. He claimed he could have got double the amount, and demanded that I make up the difference. Well, there was no way I could afford to do that. I consulted with my lawyer, who said Fleming didn’t have a case, so I wrote back to him, saying the deal had been done, and I wouldn’t be paying him any more money.”

Looking round at his three boys, Ben’s eyes were sad. “I did get a reply. Fleming wrote me a letter, saying he would get his money, even if it took him the rest of his life, and that I’d be sorry I ever crossed him.” Ben shrugged. “I never heard from him again, but I was sorry our friendship had to end that way. But now, it seems he might be back. Joe, I’m certain that broken wheel was genuine, but as soon as he heard your name, and where you lived, I think he made the decision to drop the wheel on you. It was a warning to me, I’m sure.”

“Do you really think he’d have held a grudge for all this time?” Adam asked, incredulous. “Its been over 20 years!”

“I don’t know,” Ben admitted. “But if it is Fleming, we must be prepared. He’ll be after the money he thinks is his by right.”

“What are we gonna do about this, Pa?” Hoss asked, indicating Joe.

“There’s nothing we can do,” Ben returned. “After all, we can’t prove it wasn’t an accident. It happened to Joe, and he thought it was an accident. We can’t accuse a man with no proof.”

“You know, its funny,” Joe said, thoughtfully. “When he introduced himself, he said, ‘my name’s Fleming’. Didn’t offer me his first name.”

“I never knew his first name either,” Ben said. “Even his wife called him Fleming. Those letters I got – they were simply signed ‘Fleming’.” He looked at Joe. “Let’s get you up to bed, young man,” he said. “Tomorrow, I’ll go and talk to Hiram about this, make sure that everything is still watertight. And you can stop in past Doctor Martin, while I’m there.”

The groan Joe let out made his family all laugh. Ben helped Joe to his feet, and Adam slung his arm round Joe’s waist, and Joe put his arm round Adam’s shoulders. Hoss moved in on the other side, and thus the youngest Cartwright was assisted up the stairs to bed.

*****

It was mid-morning before Ben and Joe arrived in Virginia City. Ben stopped the buckboard at the door of Doc Martin’s office, and got down to help Joe from the back. Joe’s ankle was still swollen and painful, and he had to lean heavily on Ben’s arm as he crossed the boardwalk.

Opening the door, Paul looked at them with amusement. “Well, I was just thinking it was a while since I’d seen you, Joe,” he said. “What is it this time? Run down by a wild horse? Fall off a bronco? Annoyed Hoss and Adam once to often?”

“Ha ha,” Joe said, humourlessly. “I had a wagon wheel dropped on my ankle, if you must know.”

“Joseph!” Ben remonstrated.

“Its all right, Ben,” Paul said, laughing. “Come along, young man, and let me see.”

It didn’t take long for Paul to examine Joe’s ankle. “No, its not broken, but it’ll be a week or two before you’re walking normally on it again. Keep it strapped up, put ice on it, and keep it up. Stay off it as much as possible.”

“Thanks, Paul,” Ben said, and helped Joe hobble back to the buckboard. He was just getting Joe settled when a voice spoke from behind him.

“Hello, Ben.”

Turning, Ben wasn’t surprised to see Fleming. “Fleming,” he returned. “Its been a long time.”

“Nearly 30 years,” agreed the man, pleasantly. “I take it this is your lad? We met yesterday on the trail.”

“Yes, Joe told me,” Ben said. “Are you going to settle round here again? How’s the family?”

“The family?” Fleming repeated. “Oh, my family? They died in the typhoid outbreak a few years ago.”

“I’m sorry to hear that,” Ben said, sincerely.

“They died because I didn’t have enough money for the doctor,” Fleming went on. “If you’d paid me my due, they might have lived.”

Unsure what to say, Ben said nothing. He looked at Joe. “All right, son?” he asked, and collected a short nod.

Looking at Joe, and smiling, Fleming said, “You must have married again then? Three sons. Well well.”

“Yes,” Ben agreed, confused by the man’s sudden changes of mood.

“So how does your wife like it out here?” Fleming asked. “Or did you meet her out here.”

“My wife died in a riding accident several years ago,” Ben said, tightly. His glance strayed to Joe. “She liked it out here very much.”

“Too bad,” Fleming said, flatly. He, too, looked at Joe. Joe squirmed under the intensity of his gaze. “Sorry about your foot, Joe,” he apologised. “It was just an accident. Too bad you didn’t have your ma to fix it up.”

Flushing, Joe snapped, “Pa did it just fine.” He flushed even deeper, knowing that he’d given himself away in those defensive words. Joe could barely remember his mother, but he missed her. However, it was Pa he called for now when he was ill.

Putting a hand on Joe’s arm, Ben gave it a reassuring squeeze. He knew how Joe felt. He still missed Marie, too. “If you’ll excuse us, Fleming,” he said. “I have an appointment.”

“Ben,” Fleming said, as Ben got into the buckboard. The pleasant tone was gone. “I want my money. You can afford it now.”

Looking down at his former friend, Ben said, “Fleming, we had this out years ago. I paid you a fair price for your land. I’m not giving you one red cent more. Understand?”

“I understand, but this is not over. I’ll get that money somehow. Be warned.” Fleming turned on his heel and walked away.

With a flick of the reins, Ben started the buckboard. “Pa?” Joe said, as they jolted down the street. “Are you going to tell Roy?”

“No,” Ben said, pulling up once more, outside the offices of his lawyer. “He’ll see he’s not going to get anything, and he’ll go away.” Ben jumped down from the seat, and came round to Joe’s side. “Will you be all right here?” he asked.

“I’ll be fine,” Joe assured him, smiling. “But, Pa, what if Fleming doesn’t go away?”

“I don’t know,” Ben admitted. “I just don’t know.”

*****

“So the deal is watertight,” Adam repeated. “That’s good. Perhaps you should ask Hiram to talk to Fleming.”

“Perhaps,” Ben said, his tone implying that it would do no good. He and Adam sat by the desk in the main room. Joe was upstairs, sleeping after his trip to town. Hoss was in the barn, doing Joe’s chores. “Adam, at the moment, Fleming only knows Joe by sight. I think it would be best if you and Hoss stayed away from town. I don’t want him to do anything to you two.”

“If that’s what you think is best,” Adam agreed, reluctantly. “But its going to be awkward. We’ll have to send a hand in for the mail and supplies.”

“Joe and I could do it,” Ben said. “Whoever we sent couldn’t go alone anyway. This way, Joe will get off the ranch while he’s still laid up, and I get company into town.”

“I still think you should tell Roy,” Adam said, looking away. He knew how Ben felt about dealing with his own problems.

“We have no proof that he meant it, Adam, “ Ben protested. “And anyway, what could Roy do? Ask him nicely not to bother us? I can’t think of anything more likely to annoy him, and perhaps make him follow up on his threat.”

Adam looked unconvinced by the argument, but he said no more. The front door opened to admit Hoss, and Ben beckoned him over to join them. Quickly, he outlined what he had said to Adam. By the end, Hoss was frowning. “All right, Pa, if that’s what you want,” Hoss said. “But ain’t Shortshanks supposed to be restin’ that foot? How can he do that bumpin’ about in the buckboard?”

Glaring at his middle son for picking up on the weak point in his argument, Ben said, “Hoss, you know as well as I do that if Joe is cooped up for too long, he’s liable to do anything. Surely its better for him to get about a bit, than to get all wound up sitting here all day?” Ben sighed. “Anyway, that’s the way its going to be!” Rising, Ben walked over to the stairs and mounted them.

Watching him, Adam and Hoss stayed where they were. As soon as Ben was out of sight, Hoss looked at Adam. “What’s all that about Joe?” he asked.

“Pa told you,” Adam said. “This thing with Joe is so I didn’t have to tell Pa not to go to town alone. But let’s be truthful, Hoss, just between you and me. Which of the three of us is Fleming most likely to decide to pick on?”

Pursing his mouth up, Hoss looked unhappy. “Yeah,” he said, finally. “I see what you mean. Joe.”

Nodding, and looking back at the stairs where his father had just gone, Adam said, “You got it!”

*****

And so it began. Adam and Hoss were confined to the ranch, and while this wasn’t a terrible hardship for them, it was a nuisance. Ben and Joe made the trip to town whenever necessary, and this did indeed relieve Joe’s frustrations at not being able to walk. However, nothing happened. Fleming was still in town, for they saw him each trip, but he didn’t talk to them, and as far as they were aware, he made no moves against the ranch.

After three weeks, Joe’s foot was healed, and Ben couldn’t prevent him going out on horseback again. Reluctant to expose anyone else to the possible danger, Ben continued to co-opt Joe for the trips to town. Completely well again, Joe found the trips irritating, as they were strictly business – no trips to the saloon when Ben wasn’t watching. Joe found it impossible to get out from under his father’s watchful eye.

Another three weeks passed, and still there was no sign of Fleming doing anything. Ben decided he’d been unnecessarily paranoid, and allowed Adam and Hoss their full freedom again. His timing couldn’t have been better, from the boys’ point of view. There was a dance at the hotel on Saturday evening, and they had had dates for it for months. Come Saturday, the three boys mounted up, and headed into town.

The room was full when the Cartwrights arrived. The women were clad in jewel coloured gowns, and the men wore their dress shirts and pants. There was chatter and laughter and the music was good. The brothers separated, and met up with their dates. It wasn’t until well into the evening that Joe met Adam by the punch bowl.

“That’s Fleming, leaning on the wall over there,” Joe said, tipping his head minutely in that direction.

Taking a sip from his glass, Adam glanced over. “He hasn’t changed much,” he commented. “I think I would’ve recognised him.”

“Well, he sure knows who you are now,” Joe commented. “He’s coming over.”

“Oh damn!” Adam swore, and put his glass down. But he wasn’t quick enough. Fleming eeled his way through the crowd, and appeared at Joe’s side, clasping the young man’s shoulder as though they were good friends.

“Joe!” Fleming smiled at him, and then looked at Adam, including him. “So this is your brother, is it? Adam, I’m sure. I remember Hoss as being very fair.”

Under Fleming’s hand, Joe was as taut as a wire. He wanted to shrug off the hand, but decided against antagonising Fleming. Adam flicked a glance at Joe, conveying understanding of how his younger brother felt, then smiled back at Fleming. “Yes, I’m Adam. I’m sure you’d already discovered that for yourself, Mr Fleming.”

“So you do remember me!” Fleming exclaimed, heartily. “You were such an intense child, Adam, it doesn’t surprise me. So, are you married? Lots of children?”

“No,” Adam said, blandly. “To both questions. If you’ll excuse us?” He took Joe’s arm and started to draw his brother away. Fleming tightened his grip on Joe’s shoulder. Joe winced. Fleming’s fingers were now digging into Joe’s flesh, and they were as hard as iron.

“Why so quick to flee, boys?” Fleming asked. His pleasant expression had gone. “Don’t you want to talk to your old friend?”

“We must get back to our dates,” Adam said, wondering how far Fleming would be willing to push the confrontation. “It would be rude to leave them alone any longer.” Over Fleming’s head, Adam could see Hoss coming towards them. Several people were now looking at them curiously. He pulled more firmly on Joe’s arm. “Excuse us, Mr Fleming.”

For a moment, it looked as though Fleming meant to provoke some sort or response from Adam, but he glanced over his shoulder, and saw the people looking at them. He smiled, but it made Joe uncomfortable. “Well, off you go then,” he said, dismissively. “I’m sure we’ll have the opportunity to catch up later.” Giving Joe’s shoulder one last squeeze, he turned and left.

Pulling Joe into a corner, Adam jerked his head to get Hoss to join them. “Fleming?” Hoss asked, as he drew close.

“Fleming,” Joe confirmed. He raised his hand to rub his shoulder. “And he’s got strong hands!”

“I think we still need to be wary of him,” Adam said. “I don’t think he’ll just go away. Meantime, let’s get back to our dates before we provoke any more gossip.” He led the way, with Hoss and Joe following on obediently.

*****

Despite Adam’s prediction, Fleming still made no move against them, and gradually, the defensiveness that the Cartwrights had built up died away. Once more, they worked or rode into town alone, and nothing happened.

It was then, as their guard was relaxed, that the incidents began. Riding back from town one afternoon, somebody shot at Joe and Hoss from the trees. Neither of them was hurt, and though they looked long and hard for the sniper, they found no one. The next week, the herd was stampeded when there was a landslip. One of the hands was hurt. There was no evidence that it was anything other than an act of God, but the Cartwrights were suspicious.

Wary, the Cartwrights once more began to go around in pairs. Ben was still against going to Roy. After all, they had seen no one after either incident, and the landslip might have been an accident. The work of the ranch had to go on, and so they resigned themselves to it, but they all chafed under the restrictions, Joe especially.

Round up time began, and with it the constant hard work, sleeping on the ground, and eating dust all day every day. The herd was huge that year, and they had gathered a lot of extra hands to help. Feeding them all was a constant job, and the supply wagon made the trip to town several times every week.

It was Adam’s turn that afternoon, and he set off in reasonably good spirits. It made a pleasant change from searching for strays, and the sun was warm on his shoulders. Once in town, Adam gave his list to the storekeeper, and went across to the saloon for a quick beer while his order was made up. From the saloon, he collected the mail, before finally heading back to the wagon.

“All loaded for you too, Adam,” said Johnston, the storekeeper. “Boy, you Cartwrights sure feed your hands good!”

“The hands?” Adam joked. “Naw, this lot is just for Hoss!” Leaving Johnston laughing, Adam shook up the horses and head for home.

Singing quietly under his breath, Adam found himself working out just how many more days they would be on round up. Perhaps another week, he figured. It was going well. They had a good lot of hands this year, and he hoped one or two of them might be persuaded to stay on full time. Ranch hands were generally a nomadic lot, going from one place to another, and settling nowhere. It made good hands who stayed put all the more valuable.

One of the wagon wheels hit a particularly deep rut, and there was an ominous crack from the chassis. Adam pulled the horses to a walk, but there were no more odd noises, so he put them back into a trot. He was keen to get this trip over with now.

It was on the next downhill slope that trouble appeared. Adam applied the break to help the horses control the weight of the wagon, and the brake failed. One horse slipped slightly, and the other broke into an anxious trot. “Whoa,” Adam called, pulling on the reins. The wagon lurched to the left, and the horses both began to trot. “Whoa,” Adam repeated, not concerned yet, just irritated.

With a crash, the back end of the wagon suddenly collapsed. Adam rocked backwards, caught completely by surprise. The reins slipped through his fingers, and he barely managed to catch hold of the end of them. The horses let out startled neighs, and began to panic in earnest. They broke into a canter. The wagon, deprived of its back wheels, was dragged along the ground, the supplies scattering as the wagon bed seesawed back and forth across the road.

Desperately, Adam clung onto the reins, trying to calm his runaway team. He had no success. The team gathered speed, and they raced along the bumpy road. Adam wondered how on earth he would get out of this. The team crested a rise, the wagon bumped fiercely off the top, and up-ended, catapulting Adam from the seat, and sending him flying.

The team raced on, but they didn’t get very far. The remains of the wagon, now upside down, caught in some underbrush, and the horses were yanked to a halt. The wheels turned lazily in the air, slowing gradually until they came to a stop.

Adam lay unmoving.

*****

“Shouldn’t Adam be back by now?” Hoss asked, pulling Chubb to a halt beside Buck, and looking askance at his father.

“Isn’t he here?” Ben replied, looking round as though he expected Adam to appear out of thin air. “I expected him back ages ago.”

“I’ll go and have a look for him, Pa,” Hoss volunteered, turning Chubb.

“Take Joe with you,” Ben directed. “Its probably nothing. But just check.”

Soon, the brothers were galloping along the road. The sun was slowly sinking behind the mountains, and Adam was definitely overdue. They hadn’t gone more than a couple of miles when they saw the team in the distance. “There!” Joe said, and pointed.

“Adam!” they exclaimed in horrified unison, as they drew closer. Joe flung himself from his horse and was kneeling by his oldest brother in a heartbeat, feeling anxiously for a pulse.

“Is he alive?” Hoss asked, leaning over Joe to gaze at the still features of his older brother.

“Yes,” Joe answered, tersely. “Adam, can you hear me?” He patted his brother’s cheek gently, but there was no response. “We need the doctor,” Joe said. He glanced up at Hoss.

“We can’t leave him alone,” Hoss said. “It looks like he’s broken his leg.” Joe looked down at his brother’s leg, which lay at an unnatural angle. “I’ll ride back to the round up and get Pa,” Hoss went on. “You stay here. Pa can send a couple of hands for the doc.”

“All right,” Joe agreed. “Hoss,” he added, putting his hand on his brother’s arm, “you don’t think Fleming was at the back of this, do you?”

“I don’t know, Shortshanks,” Hoss replied, his face grim. “But you keep your wits about you while I’m gone!” He mounted Chubb, and sent him galloping back the way they had come. Joe was left alone with Adam.

*****

How long Adam had been unconscious, none of them knew, but they were deeply concerned. Paul Martin had been with Adam for what seemed like hours, as he set the broken leg, and dealt with Adam’s other injuries. Ben was helping him, and Joe and Hoss paced up and down in front of the fire. Neither of them had eaten, despite Hop Sing’s best efforts, and Joe still had Adam’s blood on his pants leg.

Finally, footsteps sounded on the stairs, and Ben and Paul came wearily down. “Well?” Joe demanded, more keyed up than he could ever remember being before.

“Adam’s leg is badly broken, as you know,” Paul said, sitting down, and hoping the family would copy him. Only Ben did. “He has a bad head wound, and several broken fingers on his left hand. Some broken ribs. He’ll be all right, given time.”

“A bad head wound,” Joe repeated. His hand strayed to the blood on his pants. He sat down abruptly on the fireside. “How bad, Paul?”

“Bad enough,” Paul said. “He hasn’t fractured his skull, and that’s a plus. But he lost quite a lot of blood, and was unconscious for some considerable time. I did manage to bring him round, but he was very confused. Don’t worry, Joe, he’ll be all right.”

Jumping to his feet again, Joe’s fists were clenched. “If I get my hands on who did this to him,” he muttered.

“That’s enough, Joseph,” Ben said, sternly. “We’ll have no talk like that!”

“But, Pa!” Joe protested, swinging round to face his father, his green eyes snapping with anger. “We all know who was at the back of this!”

“No we don’t,” Ben said. “We have no proof this wasn’t just an accident. And at the moment, our main concern is for Adam. I don’t want to hear any more of this from you! Is that clear?”

The rebellious set to Joe’s mouth was all the answer Ben needed, but he didn’t want to let this go. Joe would go off half-cocked, and likely end up hurt, too. “Joseph, I mean this! You heed me!”

“Yes, sir,” Joe said, dropping his gaze, although his mouth was still pinched and tight.

Listening interestedly, Paul said, “Do you think you might know who is at the back of this? It seems to me that you’ve had a run of bad luck lately.”

“We don’t know for sure,” Ben said, and told Paul the story.

“I think you need to be careful,” Paul said. “And, Ben, tell Roy. Maybe there isn’t anything he can do, but Adam might have died out there today.”

“Yes, you’re right,” Ben agreed, reluctantly. “Thanks for coming, Paul.”

“Any cause for concern, call me at once,” Paul said, and took his leave.

Closing the door behind his friend, Ben looked at his two sons. Hoss was sitting on the edge of the fire, his head in his hands. Joe still stood tautly by Adam’s favourite chair. Ben sighed. Joe’s tension filled the room, and Ben was too tired to want to deal with it tonight. But he knew he had to. “Joe,” he said, gently. “Joe.”

“Yes?” Joe said, and there was hostility in his tone. He glared at his father, frustrated at being unable to do anything, and desperately needing to hit out at someone – anyone.

“I understand how you feel,” Ben said, crossing to stand by him. He lifted his hand to massage the back of Joe’s neck, but Joe sensed his intentions, and stepped away, not wanting to be soothed.

“You understand how I feel, yet you stopped me going looking for Fleming?” Joe flung the words at Ben.

“What good would it do?” Ben said. “Then I would have both you and Adam hurt. Fleming is bound to have an alibi for this afternoon. I don’t want you rushing into anything. If you attacked him in the street, you could end up in jail.”

“I don’t care!” Joe cried, and Ben took a step closer and laid his hand on Joe’s shoulder.

“But I care,” Ben said, softly. “Joe, please. There’s enough to deal with here, without having to worry about you, too.”

For a minute, the shoulder under Ben’s hand remained taut, but then it slumped, and Joe turned to face Ben, tears in his eyes. “I feel so helpless,” he whispered.

“I know,” Ben said, and gathered Joe into a comforting embrace. After a moment, Hoss joined them, and the three stood hugging each other, drawing comfort from the embrace. “Let’s go and see how Adam is,” Ben proposed, and they made their way upstairs. For Joe, the storm was over.

*****

For several days, Adam was very ill. He had been badly concussed, and had lain for nearly an hour before being found. He developed a high temperature, and his leg gave him quite a bit of pain for the first few days. Paul came several times to check the leg, and declared himself satisfied. Thanks to the nursing from brothers and father, Adam began to recover.

Through it all, the round up continued, with none of the Cartwrights sleeping much, between supervising the men and nursing Adam. Finally, they were ready to drive the herd to market, and that required all of them. Reluctantly, for Adam was still a long way from being well, they left him to Hop Sing’s tender mercies, and rode away.

For the three weeks they were absent, they fretted about Adam’s health and safety. Ben had not had a chance to go into town and speak to Roy, and he had forbidden Joe to go, much to Joe’s annoyance. Every opportunity that arose, Ben telegraphed Virginia City, and received up dates on Adam’s progress. All was well, which satisfied them all for a few more days.

So it was with great relief that they rode into the yard three weeks later. They were dirty and tired, but the sale had gone well, and they had made a good profit on the herd. The money was banked, and they were home.

Sliding from their weary horses, they heard the front door open, and Adam crutched himself out onto the porch. “Adam!” Joe cried, and ran across to embrace his brother, nearly knocking the older man off his feet.

“Hey, careful, buddy,” Adam warned, but he hugged Joe back. He had been lonely while they had been away. “Phew, Joe, when did you last have a bath?”

Laughing, Joe untangled himself. “Probably the last time you saw me,” he joked. “Why do you ask?”

Rolling his eyes, Adam slapped Hoss on the back, and hugged his father. “You all smell alike,” he joked. “Eau de cattle.”

“I thought that was your favourite scent,” Hoss responded. “You mean you’ve changed your mind?” He screwed up his face into an unconvincing frown. “Dadburnit, Adam, and we bought lots of it!”

Laughing, they made their way indoors, relieved to see Adam looking so well. Ben, Hoss and Joe all bathed and changed their clothes before joining Adam at the table for supper. For a while, all was laughter and joking as they told tales of the cattle drive. Coffee was served, and they moved to sit in front of the fire. Adam was beginning to look tired to Ben’s fatherly eye, but he said nothing. “So what’s been happening here?” he asked.

“Ah,” Adam said, and the laughter drained from his face. “Well, we haven’t been idle, that’s for sure.”

The seriousness of his tone came as a shock to the others. “So all those wires telling us you were okay were all lies?” Joe said, concern etching itself upon his tired face.

“No,” Adam said, composedly. “I have been okay, thank you. But there have been several incidents. There was a fire in the haystacks. Fortunately, we hadn’t begun stacking the new hay yet, so it was only the old hay which burned, and we caught it in time to stop it spreading.” Adam avoided his father’s eyes, so he wouldn’t see the question in them. For the answer was yes – he had been out there supervising the fire fighting. The smell of the burning hay had lingered for days in his hair and clothes, no matter how he had washed. In his dreams, he still heard the ominous crackling. “Then we found a pile of stuff blocking the road, and it took half a day to get it clear again. Last week, someone shot at Fred as he collected supplies. And yesterday, we found the carcass of a heifer stuffed into the South 40 waterhole. It had been shot.”

Lifting his head and looking round the family, Adam saw what he expected. Joe’s mouth was tight, and his green eyes sparked with anger. He looked like he wanted to hit somebody. Hoss was frowning, bewildered by the nastiness of all the acts of vandalism. Ben looked tired and sad. “I’m sorry you’ve had to deal with all this, son,” Ben sighed. “In the morning, I’ll go into town and speak to Roy. This has gone on for far too long. I should have done something long ago.”

“I’ll go with you, Pa,” Joe said, a dreadful eagerness in his voice.

“No, Joseph, you’ll stay here,” Ben directed. “I’m not going to stir up trouble, and the mood you’re in, that’s what will happen.”

“Pa,” Joe began, trying out the ‘puppy dog eyes’ that were his most effective weapon. It was a pity he was still angry, because that spoiled the effect of his look totally.

“No, Joe, my mind is made up. You’re all staying here.” Ben rose. “I suggest we get an early night. Its been a long few weeks.” There was no arguing with his tone, so all three sons headed up to bed.

*****

Morning came, and Ben had barely slept. Still, the day had to be faced, and he began by going to see if Adam needed help getting dressed. However, the oldest son was managing perfectly well, so Ben went to rouse Joe. To his surprise, Joe was already awake, and even had his legs out of bed – an almost unheard of occurrence. Unfortunately, his morning greeting was marred by the sulky set to his mouth. Ben ignored his son’s signs of displeasure. Hoss, as ever, was first at the breakfast table.

Over breakfast, Ben outlined his plans for the day, and pretended he didn’t see his sons’ concern for his safety. He was determined to keep all of them, Joe especially, away from any potential trouble. So he gave them tasks that would keep them busy all day long. Shortly after breakfast, Ben saddled Buck and rode off.

Furious that he had been excluded, Joe rode off, supposedly to his appointed task, but in reality, he was determined to get to town before his father. Joe was fiercely protective of Ben, as he was of his brothers, too. It frightened him that Ben was facing potential danger alone, and he was determined to be there to protect his father, should the need arise.

When he arrived in Virginia City, Joe hid Cochise at the back of the saloon. His pinto was far too distinctive to leave in the livery stable. Ben would recognise him instantly, should he decide to leave Buck there. Joe made his way cautiously into the saloon, and positioned himself so he could see out the window. There was no sign of Fleming anywhere, and that alone concerned Joe. Suppose he was watching the road from the Ponderosa? He might decide to bushwhack Ben en-route. Frowning, Joe wondered if he ought to retrace his steps. But before he could decide, Ben rode into view.

Watching, Joe thought it took an age for Ben to make his way to the sheriff’s office. Everyone seemed to want to talk to him, and a good half hour passed before Ben finally dismounted in front of Roy’s office. Roy wasn’t there. Covertly, Joe watched Ben stop a few passers-by to ask if they had seen Roy. Finally, somebody pointed down the street, Ben nodded his thanks, and set off.

Looking out over the swing door of the saloon, Joe pulled his hat down a little further. Not that it would make any difference if his father happened to glance in his direction. His father would recognise him anywhere and would be angry that he had come.

A furtive movement from across the street attracted Joe’s attention, and he looked that way. A man, tall and thin, stepped from another saloon’s doorway, and strolled into the middle of the street. His gaze was fixed on Ben Cartwright’s back as he walked down the street. Fleming took up a stance, and with a gasp, Joe realised that he meant to gun Ben down in broad daylight!

There was no time to shout a warning. Joe dived out of the saloon, his gun drawn and threw his body between Fleming and his father. He fired at almost the same moment as Fleming, who went down clutching his leg. Joe stood there, looking at him, amazed that Fleming had seemed to miss. He felt no pain.

“Joe!” Ben shouted, turning. “Get down!” He saw Fleming raising his gun again, and sidestepped, so he had a clearer view of the downed man. Joe still stood there.

Lifting his gun, Fleming fired at Ben again, and missed. He realised that Joe was still standing there, and aimed at him. Ben fired, and hit Fleming in the arm. “Joe!” Ben called again, rushing to his son’s side.

From further down the street, Roy Coffee appeared, but Ben ignored him. Joe turned his head, and looked at Ben. “Pa, you’re all right. Thank goodness.” Joe coughed, and a streak of red appeared on his lips, and he fell silently into his father’s arms. “As long as you’re all right, that’s all that matters,” he breathed. Then his green eyes closed, and he became a dead weight in his father’s arms.

Terrified, Ben shouted, “Get a doctor!”

*****

It seemed an age before Paul appeared, but in reality it was less than a minute. Joe lay motionless in Ben’s arms, and Ben could feel the blood pumping out of his son’s back. “Joe,” he whispered, stricken. “Hang on, son. Please, hang on.”

“Out of the way!” Paul shouted, as he pushed through the crowd. “Ben? Oh Lord, Joe!” He knelt down, and gently eased Joe from Ben’s arms. He made a cursory examination. “Help me get him to my office! Gently!”

Stumbling to his feet, Ben followed numbly as Paul supervised the men carrying his wounded son. Someone was talking to him, but the words made no sense, and Ben shook his head. After a few more steps, Ben realised that the hand under his arm hadn’t gone away, and he looked round into the concerned face of Roy Coffee. “Easy, Ben,” Roy said. “Just let me help you.”

Once into the doctor’s office, Ben sat numbly in a chair, as Paul prepared Joe for immediate surgery. Roy sat with Ben, leaving him only briefly to speak to Clem, his deputy. Fleming had been locked up in the jail. He would need Paul’s attention, too, but at the moment, neither lawman cared if he died. Roy asked Clem to send someone to the Ponderosa, to tell Hoss and Adam what had happened. Satisfied that everything was under control for the moment, Roy returned to Ben’s side.

Sitting with his eyes shut, Ben had been praying. Now, he opened them, and looked at Roy. In a low voice, full of pain, Ben told Roy the whole story, from Joe’s meeting with Fleming, and the injury he sustained, to Adam’s brush with death in the wagon accident. Roy listened gravely, knowing that Ben had to get it off his chest, but also knowing that he had to have the facts before he could deal with Fleming. “I told Joe to stay at home,” Ben concluded, his anguished eyes drawn to the closed door of the surgery. “I didn’t know he was there. Fleming was going to kill me, and my son took the bullet for me.” Tears hovered on Ben’s lashes before breaking free and cascading down his face. Rough sobs shook him. “Why?” Ben sobbed. “Why did he do it?”

“He loves you,” Roy replied. “He loves you very much, Ben.”

Almost an hour passed before Paul appeared. He looked drawn and tired, and he was drying his hands on a towel. Ben was on his feet without being aware of it, his eyes fixed on his friend’s face. “Paul?” he asked, tremulously.

“He’s still alive,” Paul said, and winced as he saw the hope rampage across Ben’s face. “I won’t lie to you, Ben. He lost a lot of blood, and there was a lot of internal damage. I don’t think he’s going to pull through this one.”

“Damage?” Ben repeated.

“One of his lungs was nicked by the bullet. It missed his heart by some miracle, but it bounced off a rib before exiting through his back. There was air in Joe’s chest, and I had to put in a chest drain, to let it out and allow his lung to re-inflate. Combine that with the blood loss, and we’re looking at a very sick boy. If infection sets in, I don’t know if he’ll have the resources to fight it off.” Paul shook his head. “I’m sorry, Ben.”

“He must be all right,” Ben said, and he pushed past Paul to go to Joe’s side.

For a moment, Paul and Roy looked after him, then their gazes met. “Joe took that bullet for Ben,” Roy explained. “If he dies, Ben will never get over it.”

“Oh dear God,” Paul whispered, and it was both a prayer and an expression of despair.

*****

The buckboard rattled to a stop outside Paul’s office, and Hoss jumped down from the seat to help Adam slither out of the back. Clem was in the waiting room, and he greeted the brothers soberly. “Where’s Joe?” Adam asked. He was exhausted. Riding the back of the buckboard wasn’t the most comfortable mode of transportation.

“In there,” Clem said, inclining his head in the general direction.

“Thanks,” Hoss said, and opened the door for Adam, who crutched slowly through.

They found Joe and Ben in the downstairs room, with Paul listening to Joe’s heart. Joe was unmoving, his chest barely seeming to rise and fall with each breath. They had never seen anyone so pale. “Pa?” Adam said, and was horrified by the face Ben turned to him.

“What happened?” Hoss demanded, and Ben haltingly told them the story. “He will be all right, won’t he?” asked Hoss, in a small voice.

“I don’t know,” Paul replied. “His temperature is beginning to rise. I don’t know if he can fight the infection. Only time will tell.” His voice told its own story though. Defeat was clear in his voice.

*****

Morning dragged into afternoon, and afternoon gave way to evening, and still Joe’s temperature rose. Ben refused to move from Joe’s side, and bathed his son’s head with cool water constantly. Hoss did everything he could to help, and Adam suffered agonies of frustration that he couldn’t get near enough to do anything. Paul came and went regularly, and dosed Joe with every concoction he could think of.

As dusk fell, Joe’s temperature spiked alarmingly, and Paul instructed them to place wet cloths on all Joe’s pulse points. It concerned him greatly that the injured youth didn’t once groan or cry out when he was moved. However, the wet cloths did their job, and his temperature came down a little. Hoss was sent to get some ice, so they would be prepared for the next battle. Paul listened to Joe’s heart again, and was relieved that it sounded no worse than before. He was relieved to hear that Joe’s damaged lung had fully re-inflated itself.

So the pattern was set for the night. Paul went to get some sleep. Adam dozed in his chair. Hoss fetched and carried for Ben, who spoke to Joe almost non stop, telling him stories of his mother, or of when he was a child, reminding him of the daft and dangerous escapades he had got up to.

The darkest hour is always before dawn. Hoss was asleep, worn out by the constant battle to keep Joe’s temperature down. Ben, grainy eyed from lack of sleep, and hoarse from all the talking, was feeling more and more exhausted. “Joe, why did you step in front of that bullet?” he whispered. “I wish you hadn’t done it. It should be me lying there, not you. My life is coming to an end. Yours is just beginning. Please, Joe, don’t die. I couldn’t bear it if you died!” Overcome, Ben dropped his head onto the bed, and wept.

In his chair, Adam blinked back tears, and swallowed against the tightness in his throat. He wished there was something he could do, but all that was left was prayer, and Adam knew that sometimes the answer to a prayer is ‘no’. Easing round to try and comfort his father, Adam looked at Joe. He saw the tiniest twitch on the youth’s face. Frozen in place, hoping against hope that he hadn’t imagined it, Adam stared at Joe. He was rewarded with a sigh – the first deep breath Joe had taken since he was shot. “Pa,” Adam said, softly. “Pa, I think he might be wakening up.”

Lifting his head, Ben wiped away the tears, and peered fiercely at Joe. “Joe? Son? Can you hear me?”

Another sigh, and this time it had a petulant edge to it. Exchanging glances, Ben and Adam tried desperately to contain their hope. Adam lifted his crutch and poked Hoss, who woke instantly. “Get Paul,” Adam instructed. “Quickly.”

“Joe?” Ben persisted, gently. “Joe? Can you open your eyes?”

It seemed to Joe that he was at the bottom of a warm, dark tunnel. Somebody was pushing him to leave, but he was comfortable, and didn’t want to go. Far away, he could hear voices, and he tried to listen more carefully, to see if he could hear what they were saying. Straining, he caught his name. It sounded like Pa, and he sounded tired. It was so hard to listen, and he was so tired.

For a while, he drifted again, but the voices wouldn’t leave him alone, and he sighed, petulantly. It couldn’t be time to get up already, surely? Go away, he thought. Leave me alone. But then he became frightened. Suppose they did leave him alone, and never came back? Suddenly terrified that they were going away without him, Joe fought his way to the surface. “Pa!” he cried, but it came out as only a breathy whisper.

“I’m here, Joe,” Ben said, clutching Joe’s hand and squeezing. “Can you open your eyes for me, son?”

Its so hard, Joe thought wearily. So hard. He took a deep breath and pain stabbed along his chest and back. Why do I hurt? he wondered, and as he took another breath, he remembered, and for a horrible moment, he thought both he and Ben must be dead. The panic this thought engendered spurred Joe to open his eyes.

Faces swam into focus before his tired eyes. Ben, Adam, Hoss and Paul. “Pa,” Joe breathed, single-mindedly intent on making sure his father wasn’t dead. “Pa. All…. Right?”

“Yes, Joe, I’m fine,” Ben soothed, tears standing in his eyes. “You’re going to be all right, son. Paul will take care of you.”

“Hurt….bad?” Joe asked. Pain was walloping him from all over. The effort of keeping his eyes open was too much, and he let them close again. Ben’s hand tightened on his, and he returned the pressure as best he could.

“Yes, Joe, you were hurt badly,” Paul said. “But I think, given time, you will recover. I’ll give you something for the pain, and you go back to sleep. There’ll be someone with you all the time. All right?” He gave Joe an injection of morphine.

“Mm,” Joe agreed, and licked his lips. Ben quickly soaked a cloth in cool water and wiped it over Joe’s mouth a few times. Joe licked his lips again, and smiled slightly. His eyes were stayed closed, and he fell asleep almost at once.

“Paul?” Ben said, and Paul looked at the three faces in front of him.

“Well,” he said. “This has to be the closest one yet.”

*****

The major battle might have been won, but the war was not quite over for Joe. For several days, he hovered in the black tunnel, resenting the times when he was wakened. He was in a great deal of pain, and Paul soon began to worry about the amount of morphine he needed every day. Gradually, he began to give less, and Joe began to stay awake longer. The black tunnel disappeared. Nearly a week after his brush with death, Joe managed his first mouthful of broth. His injured lung had caused fewer problems than Paul had expected, and after a few days, he carefully removed the chest drain. When the lung stayed inflated, Paul stitched up Joe’s side, where the drain had been.

It was a further week after that before the complaints began. By then, Joe was sitting up and eating more solid food, and he wanted to be at home, not stuck in Paul’s office. Paul had finally taken the stitches out of his chest and back a few days before. Joe was still in pain, and Paul warned that it might be quite a while before it settled completely. However, he gave in to Joe’s pleading and Ben was allowed to take him home.

The buckboard was padded with every mattress and pillow Ben could find, and they drove very slowly home, avoiding the ruts wherever possible. Still, by the time they got there, Joe was worn out. Hoss carefully carried him up to his bed, and Joe feel into a deep sleep immediately.

Later, after he woke, Ben went to sit with him. “Pa,” Joe said, after a while. “What happened to Fleming?”

“He’s in jail, waiting for the circuit judge to come. I believe it’ll be next month some time before the trial is. Roy found out that Fleming had had a break down after his family died. It was then that he began to go on about the money he thought I owed him.” After a pause, Ben smiled at Joe. “Joe, I never got the chance to thank you for what you did.”

“I couldn’t let him shoot you, Pa,” Joe protested. “I had to save you.”

“But you nearly sacrificed your life for mine,” Ben said. “Joe, I… I don’t know what to say.”

“Pa, I couldn’t let him hurt you,” Joe said. “It wasn’t a sacrifice at all. I didn’t know I’d been hit until you appeared. I thought he’d missed me. But it wouldn’t have mattered if I’d died, as long as you were safe.”

Blinking back tears, Ben stroked the chestnut curls. “Your life is more important to me than mine,” he said. “What you did was – magnificent. A gift of the highest calibre. I don’t know if I deserve such a gift.”

Those green eyes were also drowning in tears. “I love you, Pa,” Joe said. “I’d do anything to keep you safe.”

Silence fell, as both men had a lot to think about. Joe knew he would willingly sacrifice his life for Ben, as he knew Ben would give up his life for any one of his sons. Ben was shaken anew by the knowledge that his sons loved him immensely – enough to make a sacrifice of love. The atmosphere was heavy with unspoken emotion.

It was Joe who moved to dispel the tension. “Does this mean you forgive me for disobeying you?” he asked, impishly, and Ben couldn’t hide his smile.

“No, it does not!” he insisted, but there was laughter in his voice, not anger. “I ought to tan your hide, young man!”

Laughing, too, Joe said, “I think you might have to wait a week or two, Pa.” His meek tone set them both off again.

“Is this a private party or can anyone join in?” asked Adam’s cool tones from the doorway, and Ben and Joe looked over to see Adam and Hoss standing just into the room.

“You’d better bring the food then,” Joe said, and smiled at them.

“Food?” Hoss said, brightening. He stuck his head out of the door. “Hop Sing!” he bellowed, and the others laughed.

*****End*****

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