Better Left Unsaid (by Rona)

Summary: When Ben is not feeling well, he decides to tell only Adam. But Joe senses something is wrong, and he ends up fighting with Adam. Unable to face going home, he runs into trouble.

Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rating: T
Word Count:  8,280


“That was quite a display you put on in there,” Adam said, sarcastically, to his youngest brother, Joe, as he entered the barn. “I thought you told Pa you were a grown man. Well, it didn’t look like that to me a minute ago.”

“Nobody asked you,” Joe retorted, angrily. He knew he’d just behaved like a child. He didn’t need Adam rubbing it in. “I can’t even talk to Pa without everyone in the house commenting on it!” He lifted his saddle and laid it carefully on his pinto’s back. Cochise was restive, reacting to the anger in Joe’s voice.

“Well, if you’d just been talking,” observed Adam, dryly, “perhaps you might have managed that. But I’m sure they could hear you shouting in Virginia City.”

“Damn it, Adam, it has nothing to do with you!” Joe yelled. He dropped the cinch and turned to face his oldest brother. “You always have to butt in, don’t you? You can’t bear not to know everything that’s going on, can you? Well, this has nothing to do with you, so keep your nose out!”

By now, Adam was beginning to be annoyed. “Look here, Joe,” he started. “Pa doesn’t deserve to have you talk to him like that.”

“And he’s quite capable of telling me that himself!” Joe bellowed. “I’m sure you heard him say that! Now leave me alone!” Turning, Joe snatched up the cinch, fastened it, and led Cochise out of the barn. He mounted in an easy leap and galloped out of the yard.

With a sigh, Adam picked up his own saddle, and began to tack Sport, his chestnut. “Adam,” said Ben’s voice from the door, and Adam knew instantly that Ben had heard the shouting. As he’d commented to Joe, it probably had heard in Virginia City. Slowly, Adam turned. “Adam, Joe was right. The row was nothing to do with you. You’ve just made things worse.”

“But, Pa,” protested Adam. “You aren’t well, you don’t need the grief from Joe behaving like a child.”

“And don’t you know why Joe is behaving like that?” Ben asked, gently. “Its because he knows something is wrong, but doesn’t know what. You know how sensitive he is to atmosphere. Joe is behaving badly because he’s scared.”

“I’m worried, too,” Adam defended himself, “but you don’t see me acting like that.”

That forced a chuckle from Ben. “Adam, you never acted like that! But let’s be truthful here, son,” he went on, more soberly. “You know that I’m not well, but Joe and Hoss don’t. We agreed not to tell them, until we know what’s wrong. But Hoss knows something is up too. We won’t be able to keep this a secret much longer.”

“I still think you’re excusing him,” Adam muttered. He untied Sport, and led him out of the stall. “You see Doc Martin again today, don’t you?”

“Yes, I’m leaving shortly.” Ben put his arm round Adam’s shoulder. “Try not to worry, son. I’m sure everything will be fine.” Adam nodded, and mounted. Ben stroked the horse’s neck. “And when you see Joe, apologise for getting at him. For me.”

“All right, Pa,” replied Adam, and because he loved his father and his brother, he gave the promise ungrudgingly.

*****

Standing in the yard, watching Adam ride off, Ben felt weary. He heard the front door close, and turned to smile at Hoss. “Hey, Pa,” Hoss said. “Adam and Joe gone already?”

“Yes, Hoss,” Ben replied. He pretended not to notice Hoss eyeing him worriedly.

“Better get goin’,” Hoss commented. “Pa, are you okay?”

“I’m fine, son,” Ben said, soothingly. “Just tired from all these meetings.”

Hoss looked unconvinced, but Ben kept his gaze steady, and his big son finally nodded and ambled into the barn. Ben strolled back across to the house, went in and sank down into a chair. The thought of riding into town exhausted him, but he knew he had to do it. For a couple of weeks now, Ben Cartwright had been feeling under the weather. Nothing too bad, but tired all the time, lacking energy. He was sleeping more, and finding it hard to rise in the morning. He’d finally consulted Paul Martin a few days before, and Paul had been running some tests. Ben was to get the results that morning. With more effort than he knew the movement warranted, Ben got to his feet, put on his gun and hat, and went to saddle his horse.

*****

It was late in the afternoon before Adam’s path finally crossed Joe’s. He thought his brother had been deliberately avoiding him. Joe had been out looking for strays all day, and the hands said he’d found none. Adam suspected he’d been out brooding all day.

He wasn’t far wrong. Joe had seen his father riding towards town, and the biting anxiety he’d been feeling for days now returned full force. Joe knew something was wrong, but every time he broached the subject, his father deflected the comment with a joke, or said he was fine. Joe had an exhaustive first hand knowledge of the untrue definitions of ‘fine’ and without being consciously aware of it, had realised his father wasn’t fine. He didn’t define it to himself, but Joe was terrified his father was sick – sick enough to die. His fear made him angry, and he found his behaviour deteriorating. It was beyond his control at the moment, because he hadn’t admitted his fears to anyone.

That was typical Joe behaviour. He kept things bottled up for too long, and then his feelings would explode in a burst of ungoverned anger, mostly directed at himself, or his family. High spirited, generous, loving, Joe didn’t realise how transparent his feelings were to most people. His mercurial changes of temperament were indicators that something was bothering Joe. Unfortunately, Joe could be as moody over a love affair as he could over a harsh exchange of words with one of his brothers. There was often no telling which was which.

That day, Joe had gone through the motions of looking for strays, but he wouldn’t have seen the whole herd, had it decided to cross his path. Joe’s gaze was locked on an internal vista of fear. With his overly vivid imagination working overtime, Joe had already got Ben to the point of death. However, he couldn’t imagine beyond that. Ben was Joe’s rock, and he feared his father’s death.

It was more than just losing his father. Joe had a disquieting fear that if Ben wasn’t there, he, Joe, couldn’t manage to function. He would suddenly find that he wasn’t a grown-up after all. Panic caught in Joe’s throat, shortening his breath for a moment. It wasn’t a new fear. Joe had felt the same way all his life. Rationally, he knew that, one day, Ben would die, but he couldn’t visualise life for himself beyond that point. Who would he turn to, when Ben was no longer there? Would his own strength and experience be enough to let him function properly? Resolutely, Joe thrust those stark imaginings from his mind. He’d had a lot of practice at doing it.

The fear was still there when Adam caught up with Joe. Joe was standing beside Cochise as the horse drank from the edge of a stream. Joe had a canteen tilted to his own mouth, and as Adam watched, he leant forward and poured some water over his head. Adam smiled slightly. Joe had done that all his life, winter and summer. How he never caught a chill, his family could never work out. “Joe!” he hailed.

Turning, Joe watched Adam ride up. His stomach clenched. He said nothing as Adam dismounted. Sport moved to drink from the stream, too. The brothers looked at each other. “Joe,” Adam said, “I’m sorry about this morning. You were right, it was none of my business.”

“All right,” Joe said, huskily. He turned away, putting his canteen back on the saddle.

“Is that it?” Adam said, not sure quite what he expected Joe to say, but not happy with the response he’d received.

“What more do you want?” Joe asked, edgily. “Absolution?”

“No,” said Adam, his voice hard. “But an apology back would have been nice.” He was irked at Joe’s manner.

“Sorry,” Joe said, shortly, in a tone that implied he wasn’t in the least sorry for anything.

Normally, Adam would have let it go. But Adam was worried, too, and in no mood for his brother’s tantrums. “Dammit, Joe, couldn’t you for once meet someone half way?” he demanded. “We were both in the wrong this morning, and you know it. I apologised like a man, why can’t you?”

Like a spark thrown on dry straw, Joe’s temper flared. “Are you saying I’m not a man?”

“No, I… Well, you sure aren’t behaving like one!” Adam flared back. “You’re behaving like the spoiled baby of the family again, and I for one am heartily sick of it! When are you going to grow up?”

“You don’t give me a chance to grow up!” Joe retorted. “You’re always looking over my shoulder! Always picking fault! I can’t do anything right in your eyes!” Feeling tears pricking at the back of his eyes, Joe turned away, so Adam wouldn’t see him cry.

Not realising, Adam decide that Joe was about to walk away, and he grabbed his brother’s shoulder, and swung him about. “Don’t turn your back on me, boy!” he warned.

That was the last straw for Joe, and he bunched his fist and swung it into Adam’s mid-riff. Caught by surprise, Adam lost his grip on Joe’s shoulder as the air whooshed from his mouth. Savage satisfaction rampaged through Joe as he saw his brother’s distress.

The satisfaction didn’t last long, as Adam recovered and swung at Joe. For several minutes, they battled back and forth, each pummelling the other for all they were worth. Adam’s temper was cooling off rapidly, with the physical exertion, and he backed off, suddenly realising what he was doing. Joe was still furious, his temper sharpened, not blunted, by the violence. He kept coming, oblivious to the blood running from his nose, and a gash on his eyebrow. Coldly, Adam realised he would have to stop Joe.

So the fight went on. Joe was getting by far the worst of it, weaving groggily on his feet, while Adam coolly judged each blow. Finally, Joe was laid out on the grass, not unconscious, but done.

Wearily, Adam rubbed hand over his face, wincing at the sore spots. He knelt by the stream, and splashed water on his bruises. He ached all over. Rising, he caught the horses, and led them back to where Joe still lay. Unhooking a canteen, he splashed water all over Joe. Apart from catching his breath, there was no response. “Get up, Joe,” Adam said, tiredly. “Let’s go home.”

That got a response. Joe rolled over, and made it onto all fours. “Get lost, Adam,” he mumbled, through split and bleeding lips. “I’m going nowhere with you!”

“You little brat,” Adam swore, and, reaching down, yanked Joe to his feet. “I don’t have the patience for you to play martyr,” he growled. “Its going to be bad enough that we go in looking like this, without you still being mad! Think of someone other than yourself for a change, Joe. How do you think Pa will feel, knowing that we’ve been fighting?”

For a moment, Adam thought Joe would faint. The younger man’s green eyes were glazed and for a heartbeat, Adam thought he stopped breathing. Concerned, he shook Joe slightly. “Joe? Are you all right?”

Closing his eyes, Joe nodded dumbly. He shook off Adam’s hand, and sank back to the grass. “Pa’s ill, isn’t he?” he whispered, so low that Adam could barely hear him.

Hesitating, Adam suddenly realised that he’d fuelled Joe’s fears. “He hasn’t been feeling too good,” Adam admitted, reluctantly.

Tears washed down Joe’s face. He said nothing, just sat there and cried. Adam stood and watched, not sure if Joe would welcome any comfort he would offer. Finally, he said, “Come home, Joe.”

Wiping his face on his sleeve, Joe nodded. “In a while, Adam. I’ll be back in a while.”

Looking at Joe for a moment longer, Adam caught Sport’s rein and mounted. “Don’t be too long,” he said, and rode off, leaving Joe sitting there.

After a while, Joe went to the stream and washed his face in the cold water. He mounted Cochise and set off – in the opposite direction to home.

*****

It was only as darkness began to fall that Adam became concerned. Ben had greeted Adam, as he came into the house, with raised eyebrows. Adam had explained that he and Joe had had a fight, but had made up again. “He’ll be along in a bit, Pa,” Adam said. To deflect his father’s questions, he asked, “What did Doc Martin say?”

There was relief in Ben’s tone. “He said I’m anaemic. He’s given me a tonic, and says I should be back to normal in a week or so.”

“Good news,” Adam said, genuinely pleased. He felt relieved, too. “So does the tonic taste bad?”

Ben made a face. “Bad? Its not nearly as pleasant as that, son. It tastes dreadful!”

Laughing, Adam said, “So its not just us that Paul tortures with awful medicine.”

The door opened, and Hoss came in. He looked quizzically at his father and brother. “What’s goin’ on?” he asked. “Adam, what happened to you?”

“Ah, nothing much,” deflected Adam.

“No, we’ve had a little good news,” Ben said. He told Hoss the story in a few simple words, and soon the largest of the Cartwright sons was beaming happily.

“That is good news!” he exclaimed. “I sure was worried about ya, Pa. I knew there was somethin’ up with ya.”

Exchanging glances with Adam, Ben laughed. “You can’t keep a secret round here, can you?” he commented. “Go and wash up, boys, supper’s nearly ready. Then, Adam, I want to hear the true story about how you got those bruises!”

By the time he and Hoss had washed up, darkness was falling. Fall was fast giving way to winter, and the light faded early. Adam wondered where Joe had got to. He sat at the table, and avoided looking at Joe’s empty seat. However, the absence of his youngest son hadn’t escaped Ben’s notice.

“Where’s Joe?” he asked. “I thought you said he wouldn’t be long?”

“That’s what he told me,” Adam replied, shrugging.

“I think you’d better tell me about this fight you two had,” Ben said, grimly, and his food sat, untouched, as Adam talked. “I see,” he said, as Adam concluded. “So instead of making sure your brother was coming, you left him alone there.”

“What was I supposed to do, Pa?” Adam asked. “He’d just accused me of not treating him like an adult. Was I supposed to reinforce that image by standing over him until he decided to come home?”

“I suppose not,” acceded Ben. “But I am concerned. You know what Joe is like. I hope he didn’t read too much into what you said.”

“I just said you weren’t feeling too good,” Adam protested. “How much could he read into that?”

Applying himself to his cooling meal, Ben said nothing. But Joe was quite capable of making mountains out of molehills. Ben knew that Joe was afraid that he, Ben, would die, and Joe would be unable to cope. It was nonsense, but Ben couldn’t think of a way to tackle the subject. Joe had lots of strength, and his very nature made him extremely adaptable to situations. Joe just didn’t believe it.

The evening wore on, and there was no sign of Joe. Finally, Ben decided to go to bed. He was exhausted, and could barely keep his eyes open. There was no point trying to find Joe in the dark. His son was an adult, and could take care of himself. Joe would come home again, in time. Ben just hoped it didn’t take too much time.

*****

Dawn found Joe lying awake, having spent a sleepless night. The news that Ben was unwell had shaken Joe to his core, and the thoughtlessness of his fight with Adam had made him decide not to go home at once. Somehow, Joe had to be able to greet his Pa with a smiling face. Or at least a calm face. He had to be able to apologise to Adam, and sound like he meant it. He was sorry he’d fought with his brother. But at the moment, he couldn’t forgive Adam for not telling him about Ben.

Sitting up, Joe threw back his bedroll and slipped his boots on. He stirred up the small fire he’d made, and heated up the remains of the coffee from last night. The rabbit he’d caught was still there, and he forced himself to eat it. From force of habit, he gave Cochise the last of the coffee, amused as always when the pinto drank it. Slowly, he washed up his gear, and put out the fire. He stroked Cochise for several minutes before saddling up. He had no idea what he was going to do. Go home, or not? He didn’t know if he was ready to go back, even though he knew Ben would be worrying.

Jumping onto Cochise, Joe turned the horse vaguely homewards, but kept him to a walk. He thought he might stop at his mother’s grave. He always found comfort there, pouring his thoughts out to the mother he barely remembered. At times like this, he wondered how she would have been. Calm and cool? Or slamming doors, like he did? Joe had too few memories of Marie to decide.

Cochise pricked his ears, and Joe, alerted, looked to see what Cochise had noticed. Three riders, stopped on the track below Joe. Curious, Joe pulled up. From his vantage point, he could hear their voices as they talked.

“So what do you mean to do?” asked one, mounted on a dark bay.

“We’re gonna go to the north stand of trees and cut the ones we want. If Cartwright or any of his whelps comes near, we’ll kill them! I need those trees for struts for my mine, and I’m gonna have them, Ben Cartwright or no Ben Cartwright!”

Joe recognised the speaker as much by his horse as by his voice. He was mounted on a pale grey gelding, very distinctive. His name was Ezra Filmer, and he had recently opened a mine on the other side of Virginia City. He had approached Ben about getting timber for supports for the mine, but hadn’t been willing to pay the price. Now, it sounded like he was going to take those trees, regardless. Joe knew he had to get back to the Ponderosa and warn Ben, so they could get some men up there. He urged Cochise to move, turning him towards some brush further up the hill, which concealed a track that led to the house.

At that moment, Filmer looked round and saw Joe. “There’s one of them now!” he shouted. “Stop him!”

“Yah!” Joe yelled, driving his heels into Cochise’s side. He glanced over his shoulder, and saw one of the riders aiming at him. Joe ducked his head, trying to urge the gelding to greater speed.

The bullet struck Joe high in the back of his right shoulder. It was a lucky shot; a pure fluke. The bullet went through his shoulder and lodged against Joe’s collarbone. The force knocked him clear out of the saddle. He tumbled to the ground and rolled over. The combination of the shock and the fall rendered him unconscious. Cochise galloped on.

Riding up to the fallen man, Filmer looked at Joe coldly. “Is he dead?” asked one of his partners.

“If he’s not, he will be soon,” Filmer noted. “Let’s go.”

They rode away, leaving Joe bleeding on the ground.

*****

When he woke that same morning, Ben felt terrible. His anxiety over Joe had kept him awake for part of the night, and now he felt as though he hadn’t slept at all. Habit had wakened him just as dawn was breaking. Lying there, looking out at the lake, Ben wondered why he’d thought he could keep his ill health from Joe. Or why he’d thought he should. Joe was an adult. It was easy to say he’d wanted to save Joe the worry, but he’d actually done the opposite.

Wearily rising, Ben dressed and made his way downstairs. Adam and Hoss were both at the table. Adam’s face was lumpy with dark bruises, and he moved carefully. Ben made no comment. “Morning, boys,” he said.

“Morning, Pa,” they chorused. “Ain’t no sign of Joe,” Hoss added. “Adam and me, we thought we’d go out after him soon as breakfast is over.”

“That’s a kind thought,” Ben said, “but I want to look for him myself. I need to talk to him.” Ben sat down and placed his napkin on his lap. “You boys do whatever it was you had planned for today. I’ll bring Joe back.”

“Are you sure, Pa?” Adam asked. “You look a little tired.”

“I am tired,” Ben admitted, “but I want to look for Joe. I’ll be fine, Adam.”

The meal was silent thereafter, and Adam and Hoss left a short while later. Ben sat on, nursing another cup of coffee, hoping that he would find extra energy from somewhere. Hop Sing began to clear the table around him, strangely silent for such an opinionated person, but conveying what he wanted to say nonetheless. Sighing, Ben put his cup down and left the table. He would start looking for Joe at his mother’s grave. Always when he was troubled, Joe ended up there.

Ben went to saddle his horse.

*****

Warm, soft lips travelled over Joe’s face, drawing him from the dark void where he’d been. Slowly, Joe became aware of his surroundings again. Cochise snuffled over Joe’s face again, and Joe raised his right hand to brush the horse away, but the pain that flashed though his shoulder and back made him gasp, and his hand fell limply to the ground. For several moments, Joe fought to remain conscious. Finally, the pain eased slightly, and Joe cautiously moved his head, experimenting to see if anything else hurt. He decided that the rest of him was fine.

The effort required to sit up shocked Joe. His shoulder blossomed into agony at every movement. As he finally completed the manoeuvre, his head spun violently. He fought desperately to control his stomach, and eventually won, but he was concerned at how weak he felt.

Glancing down at his shoulder, Joe was surprised by the amount of blood soaking into his jacket. His arm was numb, his fingers useless. Joe touched his shoulder, and nearly blacked out from the pain. Controlling his spinning head, Joe tucked his useless hand inside his jacket as a makeshift sling. Supported, his arm wasn’t quite such a dead weight.

The bleeding didn’t seem to be slowing much, but it was difficult to tell. Joe knew that he would have to get himself to help, rather than wait for help to find him. He had no idea where Filmer had gone, but he had to tell Ben about Filmer’s plans. “Cooch,” he coaxed, for the gelding had wandered a few steps away while grazing.

The obliging pinto came back to Joe’s side, and Joe used the stirrup to pull himself to his feet. Once there, Joe’s light-headedness returned, and this time he lost the battle with his stomach. He clung to the saddle horn, knowing that if he fell, he wouldn’t get back up again.

Mounting Cochise proved almost beyond Joe’s capabilities. He had several attempts before he finally manage to pull himself into the saddle. “Let’s go, Coochie,” Joe urged, and began the long trek home.

*****

Chewing on a piece of jerky that passed for lunch, Hoss said, “What d’ya think?”

“About what?” Adam replied, in his most infuriatingly oblique manner.

“Dadburnit, Adam, don’t play those games with me!” Hoss protested. “You know right plain what I mean. Do we go after Pa or don’t we?”

“You heard him this morning,” Adam said. “He wants to talk to Joe. He doesn’t need us there when he does that.”

“True enough,” Hoss agreed. “But what if Pa don’t feel too good?”

“Pa has been feeling like this for the last few weeks,” Adam pointed out. “So I would just let him be. He’ll manage. Besides, he might not find Joe straight away.”

“Adam, I surely thought last night that Pa was going to give you one o’ them ‘necessary little talks’,” Hoss chortled. “I’d sure have liked to’ve seen that!”

“Oh would you now?” Adam laughed. “Thanks a bunch, brother!” He shook his head. “I wonder if brother Joe will get a ‘necessary little talk’ when Pa catches up to him.”

“Adam, you were a might hard on Joe,” Hoss protested, as Adam had known he would. “He can’t help bein’ the way he is. ‘Sides, you didn’t ought’ve told him about Pa like that.”

“I know,” Adam admitted, “but I wasn’t thinking straight. I’ll say I’m sorry again when I see him.” He patted Sport, and wondered where his youngest brother was.

*****

There was no one at the grave. Ben paused there, looking at the resting place of Joe’s mother, and wishing, as he always did, that Marie was still with them. He wondered where else to look. Joe might have gone anywhere. Somehow, Ben didn’t think his wayward son had gone into town. The kind of problem Joe felt he had would require solitude, so he could shed tears if the need arose. Joe was never ashamed of his tears, but there were times when he cried alone. This, Ben felt, was one of those times.

Turning Buck, Ben headed along the lakeside. The air was cool, despite the fall sunshine, and Ben felt a little livelier than he had done earlier, and suddenly optimistic that Joe was already on his way home.

But an hour later, Ben was starting to feel the effects of his ride, and wondered if he ought to consider turning back. He had seen no sign that Joe had passed that way, and didn’t know where to look next. He got down from Buck, and had a drink from his canteen.

From further along the road, he heard the sound of hooves, and frowned. Three riders came into view, and Ben’s scowl deepened when he saw the grey horse of Julius Filmer. Ben had come close to striking the man at their last meeting, when Filmer had accused Ben of profiteering. Ben had put on his hat and left, and hadn’t seen Filmer since. It was a state of affairs that suited Ben down to the ground.

Still, he’d been seen now, and could hardly mount up and ride off, pretending he hadn’t been seen. A prickle of unease ran down Ben’s back at the thought of dealing with this man today. As the horses slowed to a walk, Ben found a smile. “Filmer. What are you doing on the Ponderosa? I wasn’t expecting you.”

“Good,” Filmer replied, and Ben suddenly found himself covered by 2 guns.

“What is this?” he asked, angrily.

“Shall I kill him, boss?” queried one man, cocking his gun.

“No, not yet,” Filmer said. “I’ve changed my mind about killing him right now. He might be more use alive for the moment. Anyway, we got one of the sons. The dead kid and the old man a hostage should make the other two work harder to supply our timber.”

The world moved sideways as the meaning of Filmer’s words sank into Ben’s brain. Joe, dead? He gritted his teeth against the pain in his heart. His beloved youngest, never to laugh that glorious high pitched giggle again? And they had parted with harsh words spoken on both sides. Ben knew that Joe loved him, and thought Joe knew that he loved him, but it didn’t ease his guilt, that his last words should be angry ones.

A great cry of anguish broke from Ben’s lips as he hurled himself at Filmer. His movement caught them all unawares, and Filmer was knocked from his horse before his partners made any move to save him. With a savagery normally alien to his nature, Ben pummelled Filmer, trying to ease his heartbreak with physical violence.

Jones, the man mounted on the bay, jumped down and dragged Ben off. He punched Ben in the face and stomach, and finished off with a blow to the neck. Ben crumpled unconscious to the ground. Filmer sat up. “Tie his hands,” he said, wiping blood from his mouth.

*****

“Hey, Adam!” Hoss shouted. “Adam! Who’s that?” He pointed to the stranger on the bay horse.

Steering Sport over beside Chubb, Adam dismounted. “I don’t know,” he replied. The brothers watched as the man rode over to them and stopped. There was something about his stance that Hoss didn’t like.

“You the Cartwrights?” he asked.

“That’s right,” Adam replied. “Who are you?”

“Never mind that,” the stranger replied. “I have a message for you from Ezra Filmer. If you want to see your father alive again, you’d better start supplying the timber Mr Filmer needs for his mine.”

“Now, wait a minute,” Adam began, but the stranger interrupted.

“No, you wait a minute. Your father is alive right now, but he won’t stay that way unless Mr Filmer gets what he wants. If you don’t believe me, better ride out to the wood on the ridge yonder, and look at your brother’s body. Any nonsense, and your father gets it!” With a final, hard look, the stranger turned and rode calmly away.

After a moment, Adam turned his head to look at Hoss, and saw the same horror and disbelief mirrored on his brother’s face. “What are we gonna do?” Hoss whispered.

Swallowing hard, Adam fought to control his voice. “First, we go and find Joe’s… body. Perhaps he was bluffing.” A haze of hot burning tears blurred the landscape around him, as he realised that his last meeting with his brother had been so awful.

“Sure thing,” Hoss agreed, and they mounted up and rode out together.

It took them nearly an hour to reach the ridge, and they searched thoroughly without finding a trace of Joe. It was Hoss, not surprisingly, who found the bloodstains on the ground. Together, they looked. “It’s a few hours old,” Hoss commented. “D’you think its Joe’s?”

Shrugging wearily, Adam said, “I don’t know. Let’s go back to the house, and see what we can find about how much timber this man Filmer needs. Then we can decide what we’re going to do.”

“That’s quite a lot of blood,” said Hoss. “Whoever it is could be hurt real bad.”

“But there’s nobody here,” Adam pointed out. “If they were able to ride or walk away, they weren’t hurt that badly. Come on, time’s wasting.”

*****

Coming round, Ben Cartwright found that it hadn’t been a nightmare, that he really was a prisoner of Filmer. He twisted uselessly against the ropes that bound his wrists. Giving up for the moment, Ben looked around. He was lying on the ground in a stand of trees further along the road from where he’d been bushwhacked. Filmer and one of his partners were standing at the edge of the trees. Like a physical blow, Ben remembered that Joe was dead.

For several minutes, Ben fought his grief. It seemed incredibly unfair to him that Joe’s life should have been cut short, and it was very hard to bear the knowledge that he’d lost yet another loved one. Ben wondered for a moment how he could go on living. He knew he had to. He knew he had to help Adam and Hoss deal with their grief. It didn’t make it any easier.

After a time, Filmer’s voice cut through Ben’s feelings, and he began to listen. “We can get all the timber we need and pay not a penny for it,” Filmer was saying. “Then, once its done, we kill the old man and the boys. No point leaving any witnesses. We can get them all in the house, and burn it down. Make it look like an accident.”

Anger flared anew through Ben’s soul. He had to protect his sons! He pushed awkwardly to his feet, trying to ignore his exhaustion. Somehow, he had to stop Filmer before anything happened to his boys!

Looking round, Filmer saw Ben, and sneered. “Cartwright. So you’re awake.”

“Filmer, you won’t get away with this!” Ben vowed. “I’ll find a way to stop you!”

“Yeah, yeah,” Filmer responded, indifferently. “You’re all hot air, old man.”

“But I’m not!” said another voice, in a deadly quiet tone.

All three men looked to the source of the voice, all disbelieving. “Joe!” Ben breathed, barely able to believe his eyes. Joe looked pale, his right arm tucked into his jacket, his shoulder drenched in blood. But he held his gun in his left hand, and the gun was completely steady. He flicked a glance at his father.

“Are you all right, Pa?” he asked, fixing his eyes back on Filmer and his partner.

“Yes, I’m fine,” Ben assured him.

“You,” Joe said, looking at the partner, a man called Curry. “Untie my father.”

Hesitating, Curry looked to Filmer for guidance. Joe cocked his gun. The click sounded surprisingly loud in the still air. “Now,” he insisted, his voice still cold. There was no mistaking the air of menace exuding from the young man.

As Curry took a step slowly towards Ben, Joe spoke. “Drop your gun first,” Joe ordered, suddenly seeing the danger. Jones scowled, but did as he was told.

Glaring at the youngest Cartwright, who he had thought was too badly injured to recover, Filmer wondered what he was going to do. The boy was wary, alert for any movement, and had come silently from behind the trees. He thought frantically, but couldn’t see any way out. Then something moved in the corner of his eye, and Filmer glanced that way. It was his other partner, the man on the bay horse – Jones. Filmer suddenly thought he had a chance.

But Ben had seen the movement, too, and reacted instantly. “Joe! Look out behind you!” he cried.

Joe whirled, catching his breath at the pain the movement caused him, and saw the bay horse thundering down on him. He fired, but missed. Jones had his gun drawn, and bullets kicked dirt at Joe’s feet. He danced sideways, changing his stance to try and keep Filer and Curry covered too. He saw Curry going for his gun, and fired. This time he didn’t miss. Curry went down for good.

Again, Joe fired at Jones, and again missed. He could feel the sweat beading on his forehead. “Run, Pa!” he shouted. Jones fired again, and Joe realised that Jones was no longer aiming at him. The bullet hit Ben in the thigh, as Ben dodged away.

Angry now, Joe fired a third time at Jones, and this time his aim was dead on. Jones fell from the horse, which squealed, and veered away. Joe swung his gun back to cover Filmer, but he was at a loss. He was injured; Ben was injured. How was he going to get away from Filmer without killing him, too? Joe felt suddenly sick, his injury catching up with him again.

Then Joe heard hooves, and his heart sank. He couldn’t deal with anything else, and certainly not more henchmen. Still keeping his gun on Filmer, Joe eased round to see the newcomers.

He knew them all. Frank, Dave and Jeb, all long time ranch hands on the Ponderosa. The relief was nearly too much. The three hands pulled up, and jumped down from their horses. “Someone untie my father, and get him on Buck,” Joe ordered. “Tie up Filmer and take him to the sheriff, and get Doc Martin. Get Cochise from the other side of the trees.”

It was bliss to watch as Filmer was tied up, and Ben freed. Frank helped Ben to mount. Dave collected Cochise. Joe was beginning to feel quite lightheaded. He smiled at Ben as his father made it into the saddle. “Are you okay, Pa?” he asked.

“Don’t worry about me,” Ben said, looking searchingly at his son. “I’m going to be fine. But, Joe, what about you?”

“I’m all right,” Joe responded. “Pa, are you really all right? I mean…” Joe stopped, not wanting to say anything in front of the hands.

“Joe, Paul says I’m fine. Honestly.” Ben felt anything but fine, but he had to reassure Joe.

“Frank, take Pa home, I’ll be along in a few minutes.” He smiled his beautiful smile at his father, and Ben saw peace in his son’s eyes, and knew he understood. “And I mean it this time,” Joe added, softly.

Jeb was already on his way to the sheriff and doctor. Dave was leading Cochise out from the trees, and Joe knew he had to try and mount again. It had taken nearly all he had to get down from Cochise, and make his way through the trees, but Ben’s life had been at stake, and Joe hadn’t hesitated. Chance had brought him by as Filmer had been discussing his plans, and Joe had taken the opportunity presented to him. But now the adrenalin had drained from his body, and Joe was finding it hard to remain on his feet.

With slow movements, Joe holstered his gun. Dave brought Cochise to Joe’s side and looked at him. “You don’t look too good, Little Joe,” he commented.

“I’ll be all right,” Joe assured him. “Just give me a hand to mount, will you?”

“I’m coming back with you,” Dave insisted, and in truth, Joe was glad of his company. He had to keep Cochise to a walk, and his head swam constantly. Dave kept his horse right beside Joe, watching his young boss all the time, but thankfully saying nothing.

It seemed to Joe that a long time passed before they reached the house. Frank’s horse was already gone, and Doc Martin’s buggy stood in the yard. Dave eased Joe down from Cochise. “You go on into the house,” Dave said. “I’ll see to your pony.”

“Thanks, Dave,” Joe said, and walked the short distance to the door.

Inside, Adam and Hoss were sitting tensely by the fire. They both jumped to their feet when Joe came in. “Dadburnit, Joe, I’m glad to see ya,” Hoss said.

“You’re hurt,” Adam commented. He took Joe’s uninjured arm and helped him sit down.

“I’m okay,” Joe insisted. “How’s Pa?” He sat on the settee, and looked worriedly up into his brothers’ faces.

“Paul’s with him,” said Adam, unnecessarily. “Pa’s lost quite a lot of blood, but Paul thinks he’ll be fine.”

“What’s wrong with Pa?” Joe asked. “He told me he would be fine, but what’s wrong with him?” The anxiety was clear in Joe’s voice. Although he believed Ben’s assurances, he needed confirmation from someone else.

“He’s anaemic,” Hoss told him. “But don’t worry none, Shortshanks, Paul done give him a tonic that’ll fix him up in no time.”

The lifting of the final burden that Joe had been carrying caused tears to glitter in his eyes. Neither of his brothers spoke, but their smiles said it all. Joe took comfort from being back with his family. “Adam, I’m sorry about the fight,” he said.

“So am I,” Adam replied. “I shouldn’t have told you about Pa like that. I didn’t mean to.”

Footsteps sounded on the stairs, and Paul Martin came down. All three boys were on their feet. “He’s asleep now,” Paul said. “He’ll be fine. The bullet went straight through. He’ll need to be in bed for several days, and we’ll hope there’s no infection.”

“Thanks, Paul,” Adam said, and his words were punctuated by a thud. Looking round, Adam discovered that Joe had fainted.

*****

An air of gloom hung over Hoss as he sat by Ben’s bed. Paul had operated on Joe at once, horrified by the severity of the injury. The bullet had been awkwardly placed, and Paul had dug for it for quite a while before managing to remove it. Joe had lost a lot of blood and had gone into shock. Paul had fought hard for the youngest Cartwright’s life, and the battle had finally been won. Unfortunately, he feared that the war wasn’t over.

Now, Joe lay in his bed, paper white from loss of blood, and running a high fever. Paul was amazed that he’d managed to get himself home, never mind save Ben en-route! However, it was too soon to say if Joe would survive the fever. He was incredibly weak, and hadn’t yet regained consciousness after the surgery. Adam and Paul were with Joe, doing everything they could to keep his fever down.

“Hoss?” Ben said, quietly.

Dragging his eyes from his internal vision of hell, Hoss focused on his father. “How’d you feel, Pa?” he asked.

“I’m all right,” Ben replied. “I’m thirsty.” He sat up gingerly as Hoss handed him some water. “Did Joe come home?” he asked, and at the look on Hoss’s face, decided that he hadn’t. “Please, tell me he did,” he added, in a stricken whisper.

“He did,” Hoss said, hastily, “but, Pa, he’s been hurt real bad. Paul and Adam are with him right now.”

Immediately, Ben tried to climb out of bed. Hoss restrained him gently. “Pa, no! Paul said you had to stay there.”

“Joe needs me,” Ben insisted. “I must see him!”

Knowing how ill Joe was, Hoss didn’t have the heart to refuse. He helped Ben into his robe, and then offered his arm for his father to limp along to Joe’s room.

As the door opened, Paul turned. “Ben! You should be in bed.”

Ignoring his friend, Ben’s heart leaped to his throat as he saw the still, unmoving form of his youngest son. Joe’s face was so white, the bandages seemed to have more colour. His slow breathing barely caused his chest to rise and fall, and Ben registered the extent of the bandaging with horror. “I have to be here,” he said, and Paul protested no more. Joe was so weak, Paul no longer thought he would make it through the night.

All through that night, and into the next day, Ben sat by Joe. The boy never stirred. His fever climbed steadily. Paul did everything he could, reluctant to pack Joe in ice, in case his heart couldn’t stand the shock. But by noon, Paul had no choice. The fever was consuming Joe from the inside out, and the it had to be brought down.

While Paul, Adam and Hoss fetched the ice, Ben sat holding Joe’s unresponsive hand, talking quietly to the boy, as he had for the past hours. Ben didn’t feel any pain from his injured leg, because the pain in his heart was so much worse. “Joe, wake up, son,” he repeated, over and over, hoping against hope that Joe could hear him.

As the ice was packed around him, Joe let out his first sound – a cry of anguish as the freezing cold ice hit his burning hot flesh. Paul had his stethoscope out in an instant, checking Joe’s heart. After a moment, he stepped back. “All right, keep going,” he ordered, and the shaken Cartwrights resumed their task.

At first, it seemed as though it was too late. Joe’s temperature continued to climb. Paul feared he would go into convulsions and die, but slowly – oh so slowly – his temperature began to fall. By late afternoon, his fever was at a more manageable level.

When darkness fell, Paul ordered Ben to get some rest, and gave him a powder, to ensure his obedience. Ben was a little feverish, too, and Paul didn’t want him getting any worse. Caring for Joe was taking all his time. Adam and Hoss were trading off on resting, and Adam had just got up from a nap. He helped Ben back to his room, and sat with him for a few minutes.

They didn’t talk much. “Joe and I made up,” Adam said. “Right before he collapsed.”

“Good,” Ben replied, distractedly. “Adam, if anything happens….”

“I’ll wake you at once,” Adam agreed. “I’d better go back.”

Lying back on the bed, Ben fell asleep at once, thanks to the powder. But his dreams were populated with dark shadows, and his sleep wasn’t restful.

*****

Dawn broke in spectacular fashion that morning, but none of the inhabitants of the Ponderosa ranch house noticed. Joe still clung to life, and his fever was slowly reducing. Paul slept in a chair in Joe’s room, worn out by his fight to keep Joe alive. Hoss sat by the bed, holding Joe’s hand. Adam had gone to bed a short while before.

Limping into the open doorway, Ben looked at Joe. His son was still pale, but his rest seemed more like sleep than unconsciousness. He crossed to the bed, and Hoss silently yielded the chair to his father. “Joe,” Ben whispered. “Joe? Can you hear me?”

No response. Joe’s hand was definitely cooler. Ben ran his fingers through the tousled curls, and found them dry. His hand lingered on a bruise on Joe’s cheek, then ran down to his son’s shoulder. He reached for the cool cloth Hoss was handing him, and draped it on Joe’s forehead.

“Pa,” Hoss whispered. “I’ll get ya some coffee.” He tiptoed across the room, his lightness of foot unremarked for once.

“Mhmmm,” Joe sighed, and moved his head.

“Joe?” Ben said. He squeezed Joe’s hand. “Joe? Wake up, son.”

“Hmm?” Joe muttered. “Pa?” His voice was barely audible, but it sent shivers of delight through Ben’s body.

“Yes, its me, wake up, son.” Behind him, Paul stirred, then sat up.

“Tired,” Joe murmured, his eyes still closed. He returned the pressure of his father’s hand, but the squeeze was very weak.

“Joe, look at me,” Ben ordered, gently.

With a visible effort, Joe turned his head and opened his eyes. It was the most beautiful sight Ben had ever seen. “Is it time to get up?” Joe slurred. “Pa, you okay?”

“I’m fine,” Ben assured him, smiling through his tears. He continued to smile at Joe as Paul gave him an examination. Joe’s eyelids drooped, and he fell asleep again.

“Ben, he’s going to be all right,” Paul said, relief in his voice.

*****

It was almost a week before Joe could stay awake for more than a few minutes at a time. His normal powers of recuperation had deserted him, and he remained weak for much longer than expected. Three weeks passed before he was able to get up and sit in a chair for an hour or so each day, and over a month before he was able to tackle the stairs.

Also confined to the upstairs for a while, Ben spent every minute he could beside Joe. At first, he read a lot, but as Joe was awake for longer and longer, they talked, but not about anything important. Joe’s concentration wasn’t up to that.

Finally, there came a day when both Ben and Joe were allowed out to sit on the porch. Ben was completely back to his usual robust good health, thanks to Paul’s tonic. Joe was just beginning to regain his colour, and was well bundled up.

“Joe,” Ben began. “I’ve been meaning to thank you.”

“What for?” asked Joe, puzzled.

“For saving my life that day.” Ben patted Joe’s shoulder. “If you hadn’t come along, I don’t what would have happened. I can’t tell you how grateful I am, especially as you were injured, too.”

Joe looked at his lap. “I have an apology to make,” he admitted. “I shouldn’t have run off like that, and I shouldn’t have fought with Adam. You would never have got into that mess if you hadn’t been out looking for me. Its all my fault.”

With a sigh, Ben shook his head. “If we’re dealing out blame here,” he said, sounding amused, “you should probably start with me.”

Shooting Ben a startled glance, Joe said, “You?” in an incredulous tone.

“Yes,” admitted Ben, wryly. “If I hadn’t decided that some things were better left unsaid, you wouldn’t have got the wrong idea about my illness, and gone off like that. I shouldn’t have shut you and Hoss out. I didn’t mean to, son. I just wanted to spare you both worry. Forgive me.”

Cracking a smile, Joe said, “I’ll forgive you if you forgive me?”

Reaching across, Ben drew Joe to him in a warm hug. “Done!”

*****End*****

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