Word Count: 11,834
Joe turned from his father and brothers, disgust written all over his handsome young face. “Joe, wait up, please,” begged Hoss as he turned to follow after his younger brother.
“I’m sorry short shanks, really,” Hoss blurted out.
Joe spun around on his heels and glared at his brother. “Sure you are; take his side against me, some brother you are!” shouted Little Joe as he pivoted around and left Hoss staring at his retreating back.
Hoss watched as his little brother mounted his pinto and rode off, leaving him feeling like a louse. Hoss took a deep breath and sighed, he hated it when Little Joe was angry with him. Joe was his best friend, his pal, his little buddy and he hated this rift that had become a wedge in their relationship.
“I…I’m…sorry Hoss, really.”
Hoss turned to face his new friend, Halvar. “It’s okay Hal; don’t worry yourself none about it. My brother will get over it, he always does,” Hoss explained, silently hoping that his words would prove to be correct.
Halvar shrugged his massive shoulders and fell into step behind Hoss. Hoss glanced over his shoulder at the giant of a man and for a brief moment, wondered if his kid brother’s assessment of the strange man could be correct. Hoss shook his head, no; Halvar was not, as Joe suggested, violent, just strange, that’s all concluded Hoss.
“Why don’t ya go finish unloading the wagon Hal? I’ll be along shortly,” stated Hoss.
Hal bobbed his head up and down, grinning sideways at Hoss. “Sure ‘nough Hoss, anythin’ ya say, Boss.”
Hoss watched as Hal lumbered across the yard to the wagon and began hoisting the large heavy posts out of the back. The poles, cut from large Ponderosa pines were heavy, even for Hoss whose own strength surpassed most men’s, but to Halvar they were like Little Joe picking up branches that had fallen from the trees in the yard.
More than once while he worked, Hal cast his dark eyes at Hoss and smiled. The guy was pretty close to being simple-minded some said, which only added to Hoss’ intrigue about the man. In some small way, Hoss associated himself to the man. Halvar was a misfit, just as Joe had claimed, but at times, Hoss had felt the same way about himself, therefore he understood the man’s sensitivity about his size, his feelings, his… everything.
“Son, maybe you should rethink this idea you have of that man working here, on the ranch,” Ben said, his tone careful not to show the concern he felt at having the stalwart man working so closely with the other ranch hands.
“Aw Pa, Hal ain’t doin’ no wrong. Jist lookit him, he does the work of four men. We need him, and ‘sides, he ain’t got no where else to go,” Hoss proclaimed in defense of his new friend.
Adam, who had been propped against the trunk of a tree, straightened his back and folded his arms across his chest. “Hoss, what about Little Joe?”
“What about him? Jist ‘cause the boy don’t like Hal, that ain’t no call to fire the man!” snorted Hoss, his usual good temper beginning to wear thin.
“No, it’s not, I agree, but you have to admit, the man seems to dislike our younger brother,” rebuked Adam.
“Well, what do you expect, Joe ain’t done nuthin’ but harass the man since he came to work here…Joe has found fault with nearly everythin’ Hal has tried to do and ain’t said one nice word to the poor ole boy either…why he’s….”
“Hoss, that’s enough,” Ben broke in. “I have to agree with Adam, at least where your brother is concerned, Joe is only trying to make sure that Hal does his job and that he does it properly, same as any other hand around here. I assigned this particular job to Joe and he’s doing his best to see that it is done right…”
“But Pa…” started Hoss.
“No buts, young man. I think the best thing for everyone is for you to take Hal with you, up to the lumber camp tomorrow when you go to check the progress there. That way there will be little chance of that giant and your little brother, butting horns. Understood?” ordered Ben as he placed his hand across his middle son’s broad shoulders and squeezed gently in a warm way that told his gentle spirited son that he was not really angry with him.
Hoss glanced at his father and smiled, “does that mean that you are willin’ to give Hal a chance to prove himself?”
Ben returned the smile; “I suppose so. You just make sure that you keep him away from Joe.” Ben turned serious. “Joe doesn’t know when to walk away from a situation, and if that man were to ever hit the boy…well Hoss, think about the outcome.”
“Yeah big brother, your friend over there could do some serious damage to someone Joe’s size,” added Adam, falling into step with his father as Ben turned and headed for the house.
Hoss remained where he was, thoughtful of the picture his father and brother had painted of Joe and Hal. Hoss, thinking with his heart rather than his brain, smiled. “Sorta like David and Goliath,” he muttered under his breath.
Hoss had found his new friend sitting by the wayside. Halvar had told him that he had been kicked off the stage, had tried to explain that the passengers had started making jokes about him and laughing. The driver had stopped the stage when the ruckus broke out between the big man and two of the male passengers and had demanded that Halvar leave the stage and walk the rest of the way into town. After some yelling about what was fair and what was not, Halvar, when faced with the guard’s rifle pointed at his middle, did as requested and disembarked. The stage then continued on its way, leaving the Swedish giant standing alone in the middle of the road. By the time that Hoss had happened upon the man, Halvar was hot and thirsty and Hoss had not the heart to leave the indisposed man by himself, thus he had offered a job to the destitute man and brought him home to the Ponderosa.
Joe rode for a long time. His thoughts were on the situation at home, and on the giant of a man that his brother had hired several days ago. Joe shook his head in wonderment, where on earth did his brother Hoss manage to find these misfits, these social outcasts and these derelicts that he always seemed to be bringing home with him and taking under his wing?
Joe reined in his mount and studied the horizon, below the cattle was beginning to lower themselves for the night. The sun had disappeared behind the mountain peaks and Joe pulled the collar of his jacket up around his neck. The sun had taken the warmth from the air and the night chill had begun to set in. He watched for another few moments, the men in charge of the herd had already begun their watches for the night, and Joe, assuring himself that all was well, kicked gently at his mount’s sides and turned toward home.
He would apologize to Hoss for losing his temper earlier. Maybe he had misjudged his brother’s friend, he told himself. There must be some good in the man, if Hoss thought so, he reasoned. Joe smiled, but on the other hand, Hoss rarely found anything in anyone that could not be considered ‘good’.
Joe wouldn’t admit it to anyone; he troubled himself with admitting it to even himself, but something about the strange man put Joe’s nerves on end. Joe had felt the fine hairs on the back of his neck stand up when the man had looked at him with those beady dark eyes that appeared too small and out of proportion in contrast to the size of the man’s face. Joe had glanced at Halvar’s fists when his eyes had turned dark, and Joe knew enough to change the tone of his voice, for the man’s fists were massive even in comparison with his brother, Hoss’. Joe felt his body shudder, an uncommon sense of dread washed over him and he caught himself glancing around to be sure that he was alone on the trail.
It was after dark by the time that Joe entered the barn. The sense of dread that he had felt earlier had lingered and followed him home, in spite of the fact that Joe had tried to cast it aside. As Joe pulled back the door and led his horse into the barn, he was startled when he felt the pressure of a hand on his shoulder. Twirling around, his hand made a grab for his pistol but stopped short at the familiar sound of his brother’s laughter.
“Hey Joe, I knew ya was mad at me…but ya really ain’t gonna shoot me, are ya?” laughed Hoss.
“Dang you, you big ape, you scared the life outta me! Whatcha mean sneaking up on a man like that anyhow?” growled Joe, slipping the gun back into the holster and leading Cochise into his stall.
Hoss tossed back his head and laughed again. “Joe, what’s got ya so jumpy?”
“You! That’s what!” Joe continued to grumble as he began removing his saddle and tending to his mount.
“Aw Joe, I was just funnin’ with ya.” Hoss propped his large frame against the railing, dropping his head momentarily.
“I was waitin’ fur ya to come home. I wanted to tell ya I was sorry about…well…about today,” stammered the big man.
Joe stopped, brush in hand, and glanced up at his brother. “I was aiming on telling you the same thing. I didn’t mean what I said, I’m sorry too, Hoss.”
Hoss’ lips were pressed tightly together, forming a thin line across his face. He cut his eyes at Joe and nodded his head. “I didn’t mean to make ya look bad, not in front of the men and Pa, it’s just that ole Hal, didn’t know no better. He don’t think like a normal man, Joe, he’s…he’s…well, different, that’s all.”
Joe laughed a mocking little laugh. “Oh, he’s different all right, big brother. In fact, the man gives me the creeps. He’s dangerous Hoss, remember that. One of these days he’s going off the deep end and hurt somebody. And when he does, it’s gonna be bad, and it will be on your conscience, not mine, I already told ya I’d get rid of him before it’s too late.”
“Dadburnit Joe, don’t start that again…I don’t wanna hear it,” groaned Hoss, turning from his brother.
“Okay, okay, I’m sorry Hoss, I don’t wanna argue with you either. Let’s just forget it for now.”
Hoss turned back to his brother and smiled. “Hey, I’m hungry…let’s so raid Hop Sing’s kitchen. We ain’t done that in a long time and I ain’t ate since suppertime.”
Joe had to laugh; Hoss was rubbing his hands together in anticipation and looked like an over grown kid standing there in front of him. Suddenly Joe’s gloom seemed to vanish and he was happy that he had made amends with his brother.
“Okay, but if we get caught, I’m tellin’ Pa it was your idea!” giggled Little Joe as he closed the barn door and followed Hoss into the house.
Hoss and Hal were mounting up as Little Joe ventured into the yard. Ben was talking to the pair, giving Hoss instructions as to what he needed to tend to up at the lumber camp. Joe tossed a hasty good morning up at his brother and then cast his eyes at Halvar and felt his body shudder in an unexpected response. Halvar was watching the younger man; his eyes had turned a shade darker than normal, but no one seemed to notice, except for Joe. Joe turned his back and continued toward the barn but was stopped when Halvar placed his horse between Joe and the barn door. Joe tried to step aside, but Hal eased his mount up a step, preventing Joe from entering.
When Joe glanced up into the man’s face, Halvar was smiling. Something in the way that the man looked at him caused the fine hairs on the back of Joe’s neck to rise suddenly and once again, the same feeling of dread as the night before assaulted him.
He swallowed, “you want something?” Joe asked, glaring at the man.
“Nope, just wanted to see the look on your face, that’s all,” answered Hal, smiling.
Joe noted the expression on Hal’s face and wondered what he was thinking. He voiced his thoughts, in a tone that he hoped would not hint at his sudden unease.
“Why would you want to see the look on my face?” questioned Joe, staring up at the man who towered over him.
Hal’s smile broadened and he leaned down so that Hoss and Ben, who were still deep into conversation, could not hear his words. “I just wanted to see the fear in your eyes.”
Joe’s mouth dropped opened and he glanced over his shoulder at his father and brother, who seemed not to notice the situation, he was in. Joe’s eyes turned back to Hal’s face, his mouth drawn up tight, forcing his lips into a fine straight line.
“Fear? Fear of what?” demanded Joe not realizing that he had balled his hands into tight fists.
Hal laughed softly, “Me kid, you are afraid of me, I can smell the fear seeping from every pore in your puny little body.”
Joe opened his mouth to make a comment but was silenced when Hal suddenly jerked his horse around, forcing Joe to step out of the way. Hoss had turned to leave and as he galloped from the yard, he shouted at Hal to join him. Without another word to Little Joe, Hal moved his horse in behind Joe’s brother.
Joe stood silent and watched as Hal turned in the saddle and lightly tipped his hand to his hat, bidding Joe farewell. Joe noted the way in which Hal’s lips twisted into a sly little smile.
“Son? Are you all right?” asked Ben who had moved to stand beside of his youngest son.
Ben watched briefly, the expression on his youngest son’s face before speaking again.
“Joseph?” Ben said again and placed his hand on Joe’s arm, surprised to feel the slight tremors that coursed beneath the flesh of his son’s arm.
Joe cut his eyes up at his father, “what?”
Ben smiled, “I asked if you were feeling all right? You look pale.”
Joe dropped his head, shaken by the man’s words, for in his heart, Joe knew that Hal had been correct in his assumption of himself, he did fear the man, and Joe did not know why.
“I’m fine, I got work to do,” he said as he entered the barn leaving his father to wonder at his strange mood.
Joe spent the morning repairing the fence in the north section. His thoughts stayed glued to the mysterious man that Hoss had befriended. Joe tried to put together ideas that would explain to himself, why he felt so uneasy around Halvar. His size was something to ponder, though Joe was used to being around Hoss, who was much larger than he, himself was. No, reasoned Joe, there was something else that bothered him about the man.
Joe felt frustrated, the feeling of dread encased its self around his heart and though he tried to shake the feeling, it refused to be chased away. When his father suddenly came into mind, Joe stopped working and glanced around him. He was troubled, he had all of a sudden an urge to rush home; it was as if his father was beckoning for him. Joe tried to brush aside the sudden anxiety, but after several minutes, tossed down his tools and sprang onto Cochise’s back and raced for home.
Joe slowed his horse as he entered the yard. It was deserted and seemed strangely quiet and still, unnatural for this time of day when the yard would normally be bursting with activity. Joe slid from his mount and casting wary eyes all about him, slowly made his way to the house, where he eased the door opened and stepped inside.
Shock must have been the total expression on the young man’s face for the house was in a shambles. Chairs had been knocked over, his father’s treasured items were scattered on the floor, and even the shelves from his father’s bookcase, next to Ben’s desk had been emptied of the volumes of books housed there. Joe, his hand on his pistol, made his way into the kitchen.
“Pa?” he called out softly as he stepped inside. Joe was surprised at the kitchen; pots and pans lay on the floor, sacks of sugar and flour had been ripped to shreds and covered the wooden boards looking as if a light snow had fallen.
Hop Sing was no where to been found; Joe had checked the cook’s private quarters off the kitchen, but it appeared that the family servant had vanished from the face of the earth.
Joe quickly ran from the kitchen, panic beginning to fill his heart as the search of the house produced no one. “Pa!” Joe shouted as he ran from room to room in searched of his beloved father. Ben, as well as Hop Sing, was no where to be found.
Joe raced down the stairs and out the door. Hopefully he had missed his father and would find Ben in the barn. Jerking open the heavy door, Joe froze in his footsteps, as the sight before him took away his breath. Joe’s mouth dropped opened in disbelief.
Ben and Hop Sing hung by their arms from the rafters, their feet barely touching the ground as they swayed slightly. Hop Sing’s eyes were shut, Ben’s were slightly opened, he was dazed, but he was able to raise his head and watch his son entering the barn.
Joe never knew what hit him. He crumbled to the floor, groaning from the pain in his broken collarbone as he slipped into unconsciousness.
Halvar’s deep laughter split the silence of the old barn. He glared at Ben, then, using the back of his hand, walloped Ben across the cheek. Ben’s head reeled backward from the blow, stars danced before his eyes as he struggled to remain conscious. He could still hear the giant’s laughter as he watched in horror as the big man kicked at his son, who lay sprawled in the dust at his feet.
Ben cringed as Joe’s unconscious cries reached his ears. “Stop!” yelled Ben in an attempt to draw the crazy man’s attention to himself and away from his son.
Halvar kicked one more time at Joe’s sides and then turned to face Ben. Halvar delivered a fisted blow to Ben’s midsection, causing the wind to expel from his lungs. Ben groaned in pain and gasped for air.
“Say good-bye to your boy, old man. When you see him again, there won’t be enough of him left for you to bury,” laughed Halvar.
“Why…why…are you…doing this…to him?” panted Ben as he spun about by the ropes around his wrists that held him upright.
“You don’t know?’ sneered the giant.
“No,” declared Ben.
Halvar’s face was inches from Ben’s and Ben could smell the man’s breath as Hal vented his anger. “You tell that fat ape of a son of yours, Hoss, that this is his fault. He kilt my kid brother, and I aim to do the same…I aim on that boy there dying, ‘cepting I’m gonna be takin’ my time killin’ him…ya tell Hoss that, ya got it?”
“But how…who was your brother? How did my son kill him?” pleaded Ben, fear taking root in his heart as Hal stooped and gathered Joe into his arms, flinging the boy across his shoulder as if he had weighed nothing at all.
Halvar stopped as he reached the door and turned back to Ben, “Arnie was my brother, you might better remember him as the Ape…that’s what all of you called him,” glared Halvar.
“Arnie?” Ben muttered to himself. “Wait…Hoss didn’t kill him, he was a friend, Hoss only tried to help him, Arnie killed a girl, a saloon girl…Hoss didn’t….”
“I don’t care!” shouted Halvar; “it was Hoss’ fault…now he has to pay!” With that, Halvar rushed from the barn, Joe bouncing on the broad shoulders of the man who carried him.
Ben yanked and pulled on his ropes, desperately trying to free himself. The ropes were tied much too tightly and burned his wrists as he fought to pull them loose. His heart was in his throat as his thoughts remained with his youngest son. He knew that Joe would suffer unmercifully at the hands of the deranged man; Joe was no match for the bigger man’s strength. Ben had to get help; he had to alert Hoss and Adam to their brother’s danger, before…before…it was too late.
Joe was just beginning to wake up when Halvar stopped the horse in front of the old abandon shack. As Halvar dismounted, he pulled Joe from the saddle and carried him into the shack where he tossed Joe to the floor. Joe cried out in pain as his shoulder hit the hard boards; his cries brought laughter to Halvar who watched the boy writhing in agony.
“This is going to be fun,” laughed the big man, “ya ain’t got much of a tolerance for pain, have ya kid?”
Joe cut his eyes up at Halvar, his suffering plainly etched onto his face. “Go to hell, you big ape,” cursed Joe.
Halvar’s smile disappeared as he stretched out his leg, kicking Joe in the side. Joe screamed as the toe of Hal’s boot connected with his flesh. Joe felt the ribs crack as he tried in vain to roll away from the offending boot. Again and again, Halvar lashed out at the boy, until Joe’s back was forced up against the wall and he could no longer escape. Hal’s laughter filled the room, Joe had passed out.
Hours later, Joe tried to open his eyes. They seemed weighted down, his sides throbbed with pain, and breathing was nearly impossible. He forced his eyes opened at last and looked around him, afraid that Hal was close by. He was surprised to find that he had been moved to another room. It was darker here than in the other room, and cooler too. Joe shivered slightly and tried to get to his feet, but his limbs would not follow his silent commands. Frightened, Joe tried to move his arms, then his legs and found they were bound tightly. Fear seeped into the core of his heart as he realized that he was unable to move freely. He hated the dark, he hated being confined and worse, he feared the huge man who held him captive.
Joe took several deep breaths to calm himself and looked around him. There was no window in the room, no means of escape. Suddenly he felt tears sting his eyes. ‘Pa!’ his heart cried, ‘help me!’
His thoughts went back to the barn and the sight of his father hanging by his arms with ropes binding them to the rafters over his head. Joe had just barely heard his father’s warning. Thank goodness, thought Joe, at least his father was still alive…at least then he was. Joe wondered how long he had been unconscious; it must have been a good while, he reasoned, as nightfall had begun to claim the day’s light. Had it been long enough for the crazed man to hurt, or worse, kill his father and Hop Sing? A new kind of fear inched its way into Joe’s heart, a dread so awful that it caused Joe’s heart to begin thumping rapidly, his breath came is short, shallow gasps as he struggle against his bounds.
Joe began screaming for his father, for Adam and Hoss, for anyone who might help him. He stopped as the door squeaked opened. A tall dark shadow filled the doorway, the bright light behind the shadow disallowing him to see the face before him in the darkened room.
Joe felt his body shudder in fear, the form was massive and he had no need to ask, Halvar stood over him. Suddenly Joe felt his body lifted from the floor. His hands, tied behind his back, Joe was dragged from his spot and make to sit in a straight back chair. His shoulder ached, his sides throbbed, and his heart was in his throat. Never in all of his twenty years had he feared anyone, until now.
“I see you finally woke up from your little nap,” Hal snickered, menacingly, his face just inches from Joe’s.
“Who are you? I mean really?” Joe asked, turning his head slightly to avoid the man’s spittle. “And why are you doing this?”
Halvar stared at Joe, his eyes appeared glazed to the young man held against his will. Halvar seemed to be looking right through him and Joe shivered, the man scared him.
“I have a promise to keep,” said Hal, blinking away the fog from his eyes. “I’m gonna kill you,” he said flatly.
Joe gulped, “but why? What did I ever do to you?” Joe listened to his voice and even to his ears, it sounded shaky, and Joe swallowed again, removing the lump that had grown in his throat.
“I never even knew you before my brother brought you out to the ranch. Why do you want to kill me?” Joe asked again.
Halvar laughed in Joe’s face…”Cause, that big lug Hoss, kilt my little brother, now I’m gonna kill his.”
Halvar doubled up his fist and slammed it into the side of Joe’s head, rendering him unconscious again. Joe slumped forward in his chair, caught by Halvar’s strong hands. The giant continued to laugh as he grabbed a rope with his free hand and tossed one end over the rafters. As he held Joe’s slack body against him, Hal formed a noose out of one end of the rope and quickly untying Joe’s hands from behind his back, slipped the noose around Joe’s wrists and pulled it tightly, forming a strong knot between Joe’s hands. Placing Joe back into the chair, Hal looped the opposite end of the rope around a pole that served as a brace and pulled down on the rope. Joe’s weight pulled at his upper arms as Hal hoisted Joe up into the air, leaving him to dangle inches off the floor. Hal could hear the boy whimper from the pain in his shoulder and ribs as he tied the rope securely around the brace. The piteous sounds rang as music to the derelict’s ears, and Hal smiled in satisfaction.
Adam’s horse skidded to a stop in front of the porch. Quickly the anxious young man slid to the ground and ran for the door, throwing it opened. He stopped suddenly as he spied the disarray that met his eyes. His home had been ransacked; things were tossed about as if someone had been searching for something. Glancing up toward the steps, Adam drew his gun from his holster.
“PA? JOE?” shouted Adam as he backed up to peek into the kitchen. He wasn’t at all surprised to find the kitchen in as big a mess as the rest of the house.
Adam began to ascend the stairs when he heard a voice calling out his name. Immediately he ran outside and listened. “PA?” he called out.
“Adam, in here son!” Ben managed to call.
Adam ran for the barn, his heart pumping in fear of what he might find. His shock at seeing his father and the family servant dangling in mid air stopped him momentarily in his tracks.
“Hurry Adam, cut us down,” muttered Ben.
“IN HERE HOSS, HURRY!” Adam called to his brother who had just rode into the yard in search of Halvar who had been sent back to the ranch for more supplies but had failed to return. Hoss had become worried that perhaps the big man and Joe might have run into one another and locked horns.
“Gosh dang, what in blazes is going on?” declared Hoss as he helped Adam free his father and Hop Sing.
“It was your friend, Halvar…” began Ben, rubbing his wrist where the rope had made burn marks on his flesh.
“Halvar?” stammered Hoss, a look of worry washing over his features.
Hop Sing began ranting and raving in his own language, interrupting what Ben was trying to tell his sons. “Please Hop Sing, stop shouting!” yelled Ben loud enough to be heard over the excited servant.
Hop Sing scowled at Ben and marched from the barn into the yard where the men who had returned to the ranch with Hoss, waited to find out what was going on.
“Pa, where’s Joe? His horse is outside and he’s not in the house?” asked Adam as he helped Ben to sit down on a bale of hay.
“Gone…where?” Hoss questioned, suddenly worried that David and Goliath had indeed ran into each other.
“He took him…said you killed his brother, now he’s going to kill yours.” Ben jumped to his feet, swaying slightly as he rose. “We have to hurry and find him,” stated Ben.
“Pa…wait…who took Joe, Halvar?” asked Adam. Adam watched his father swayed a second time and quickly grabbed his arm to steady him.
“Yes!” shouted Ben, growing angry. “He said that Hoss killed his kid brother, now he was going to kill Joe to get even with Hoss…oh…my head,” muttered Ben holding to the side of his head.
“Let’s get you inside Pa. You’re in no condition to ride,” stated Adam, motioning for Hoss to help him get their father to the house.
Once settled on the settee, a brandy in his hand, Ben glanced up at his sons. “Hoss you remember Arnie Gurne, don’t you?”
“Sure Pa, how could I forget him?” smirked Hoss as he recalled the big man whom he had tried so hard to help but who had ended up killing a young woman and being killed himself.
“Well son, Arnie was Halvar’s younger brother and he blames you for Arnie’s death. That’s why he came here in the first place…to befriend you so that he could get to Joe. Now he has Joe, somewhere, and Joe is hurt,” explained Ben.
“Good lord,” exclaimed Hoss as fear for his younger brother squeezed his pounding heart. “Joe was right, I’m sorry Pa…Hal was trouble. Joe said so right from the beginning…he said that, that man would hurt someone one day and when it happened, it would be my fault for not getting rid of him…” Hoss gulped and turned his head away from his father and Adam.
“Hoss, Joe didn’t have any idea that it would be himself,” began Adam, seeing the tears that welled in Hoss’ eyes.
“Adam’s right son…hmm…Adam,” Ben called softly.
“Are you all right Pa?” Adam moved to his father’s side and seeing the paleness of his father’s face, glanced up at Hoss. “I’m putting Pa to bed; Hoss send one of the men for the doctor.”
Hoss glanced at his father; Ben didn’t look too well. “He hurt you too, didn’t he Pa?” asked Hoss in a voice thick with emotion.
“He hit me a couple of times, son, nothing more. I caught him ransacking the house and he got the drop on me and Hop Sing…don’t worry about me, just find your bother, I’m more concerned for Joe’s welfare than my own,” Ben said as he slowly climbed the stairs. Adam was by his father’s side making sure that Ben did not pass out or stumble.
“I’ll be back down in a few minutes Hoss, just as soon as I make Pa comfortable. You wait on me, you got that?” ordered Adam. Adam had noticed the look that Hoss wore on his face and knew that the big man was about to loose his normal calm approach to matters.
“I mean it Hoss,” Adam threw in for good measure.
Hoss said nothing, just stood staring into the fire, his hands crammed into his pockets. His thoughts turned to his little brother, his heart broke at the images that flashed before his mind’s eye at what that monster of a man could do to Little Joe. Hoss scrunched up his face, balled his fists and taking a deep breath slammed one massive fist into the stone fireplace. Tears welled within the crystal blue depths of his eyes, and without so much as a word to Adam, ran from the house.
Adam heard the hooves pounding on the hard packed earth and hurried to the window, just in time to see his brother round the corner of the barn. “Damn!” he swore softly.
“What’s wrong son?” Ben called from the bed where Adam had just settled his father.
“Nothing Pa, nothing,” Adam told him.
“Don’t try to fool me, Adam…its Hoss, isn’t it? He’s left without you,” Ben surmised.
Adam turned back to the bed, Ben really looked beat, his face had a good size bruise on it and Adam was sure that the force, with which his father had been struck, had left him a throbbing headache.
“You rest Pa; Hank’s gone for the doctor, I saw him ride out a few minutes ago. I’ll catch up with Hoss after the doc gets here,” Adam said in a calmer voice that belied the anger that raged just beneath the surface of his false, calm appearance.
Joe opened his eyes slowly; the pain in his arms and shoulder added to the agony in his ribs making him to moan loudly. He felt the cool night air that whistled in through cracks in the boards and he shivered. The room was void of light, making it hard for him to distinguish anything about his surroundings. Joe tried to hold his head upright, but it was next to impossible. He felt the sudden rush of tears fill his eyes and forced himself not to cry out and draw attention to himself. Briefly he wondered where his tormentor had gone. It was late he reasoned, perhaps Halvar had fallen to sleep.
Joe stretched his toes outward, trying to make contact with the floor beneath him, but found that the mad man had made sure that he could only brush the surface of the floor. Joe winced slightly as he tried to spin his body around to see what was behind him. His ankles were knotted tightly together, making any movement excruciating as he twisted his body.
Taking deep breaths, Joe tried to fill his lungs. His upper torso throbbed and Joe felt as if he were suffocating. “Pa! PA!” he heard himself scream. Joe bit down on his lips to keep from voicing his fear a second time. A loud banging on the opposite side of the door told Joe that his captor had heard him and silently he cursed himself for his stupidity.
The door crashed against the wall as Halvar entered the room carrying a lantern in one hand and a rolled up whip in the other. Joe gulped; fear squeezed its fingers about his throat as he watched Hal place the lantern on the table.
“It’s about time you woke up kid.” Hal smiled, the gleam in his eyes was nerve shattering, and Joe shivered as much from the cold as from the fear he felt when the big man snapped the whip in the air.
“Ever feel one of these across your back, boy?” taunted the big man, popping the whip within inches of Joe’s face.
Joe’s head rolled to the side as the whip snapped and popped about his head. The man was toying with him, unnerving him. Joe heard the man’s evil laughter as he snapped the whip again, this time making the tip to sting Joe on the side of his upper body.
Joe clenched his teeth tightly, refusing to allow this man to hear his cries. Again and again, Hal snapped the whip about Joe’s ribs until tiny beads of red could be seen where blood oozed from the welts. Joe still refused to sing out his pain, determined that if he was going to die, he would not give this crazed man the pleasure of hearing him beg for his life.
“Hurts, don’t it Cartwright?” Hal smirked. “DON’T IT” he screamed in Joe’s ear.
Joe tossed his head back, the man’s screams ringing in his head. Hal grabbed a handful of Joe’s hair and yanked his head backwards. “Answer me!” the mad man demanded.
Joe refused to acknowledge the man. Hal yanked harder, making Joe’s neck to bend backward until Joe felt as if it would break.
“Y…yes…” Joe cried in a strained voice.
Hal released his hold on Joe’s hair. Joe gasped for air, sucking in mouthfuls to fill his deflated lungs. Halvar laughed and then doubling up his fist he punched Joe under the arm, just above the first rib.
Joe screamed in pain, his body arched against his restraints as he spun around and around in the air. Hal grabbed Joe’s arm, bringing his body around so that he could face the boy.
“How does that feel?” he spat at Joe.
“Hu…rts,” mumbled Joe. It was a game, he realized. Every time that Hal did something to him, he was forced into admitting that it hurt. Joe felt the tears sting his eyes; the man was destroying both his body and his dignity at the same time.
“Why? Just tell me why?” Joe asked, his voice trembling.
“I dun told ya, I made a promise to get even with your brother. He kilt my little brother, I gotta kill you,” growled Hal as he spun Joe around several times.
Joe fought to keep from crying out. The rope twisted tighter and tighter, cutting the blood flow off at his wrists. His hands had long since gone numb and now with the ropes tighter, they had begun to sting as well. Joe’s head ached and the constant spinning was causing his stomach to react to the twirling motion as well. Hot bile boiled up into Joe’s mouth and he swallowed several times to keep from spewing it out onto his tormentor boots.
The rotary motion suddenly stopped. Joe had closed his eyes but now slowly opened them. Hal was standing inches from his face; his breath reeked with the smell of stale whiskey and tobacco. Joe gagged, no longer able to hold the bile in his mouth. The hot liquid spewed outward and sprayed onto the front of Halvar’s shirt, dripping down onto the man’s boots and into the floor.
Halvar roared in anger at the unexpected reaction and with the palm of his hand slapped Joe across his face. Joe’s body spiraled slinging the hot bile that now mixed with blood from the split in Joe’s lip, around, along the walls as he spun in a circle. Enraged beyond his limit, Halvar snapped the whip to stretch its full length and sliced it across the back of his victim.
The material of Joe’s shirt ripped opened, revealing the huge red welt across the center of his back. Before Joe could catch his breath, the sting of the whip crisscrossed the already swollen first mark. Joe screamed tossing his head backward and as the whip seared a third welt on top of the first two, Joe succumbed to the blackness that sought to drag him from his world of torment.
Hoss rode as hard as he could. He had spent over an hour searching for signs that would tell him which way Halvar had taken his brother. Love pushed him onward; fear drove him. His conscience repeated his brother’s words over and over until Hoss thought that he would scream from the sheer sound of his inner self, proclaiming his guilt.
He had finally found the trail and followed it steadily, refusing to give up hope that he would find his brother alive. He feared what the big man could do to his brother. Even his father who was a good-sized man, had confessed to having been only punched by Hal, had suffered pain and disorientation from two blows. Hoss knew that if the man punched Joe, with any force at all, Joe’s body would break as easily as if it had been made of China. Hoss cringed at the thought and nudged Chubb on faster.
It was nearly dark by the time that Hoss pulled his mount to a stop among a small stand of trees. He slid to the ground, wrapping Chubb’s reins around the limb of a bush. With the prowess equal to that of a puma on the prowl, Hoss inched his way toward the old shack. His eyes found the run down stable where Hal had sheltered his horse. Moving with grace that seemed unnatural for a man his size, Hoss slowly and quietly made his way to the front of the shack. He silently peeked through the dust-covered window in hopes of finding his brother. Hoss scanned the room with his eyes, seeking to find Joe among the clutter that littered the front room of the old shack. His heart pounded loudly, as disappointment shattered his hopes.
Suddenly a door opened and Hoss watched as Halvar moved into the light. In his hand, the man carried a whip and was coiling it up as he moved to sit in the only chair visible. Hoss’ heart moved to his throat, his temper soared at the thoughts of that whip ripping the tender flesh of his brother’s back. Hoss bit the inside of his mouth to prevent himself from screaming out his rage and forced himself to remain calm until he had located Joe.
Easing himself off the porch, Hoss moved to the back of the shack. His frustration grew as soon as he realized that there were no windows in the back of the building. Hoss pressed his ears against the aged old boards, listening for any sound that might tell him that Joe was being held inside. He could hear nothing at first, but just as he started to move away, soft mewing sounds could faintly be heard from the opposite side.
“Joe?” whispered Hoss.
The soft moaning stopped. Hoss took a deep breath and silently prayed that it was not Halvar on the other side of the wall returning to the room.
“Joe?” Hoss said a little louder. He pressed his ear against the board. He could almost swear that he heard soft mumbling coming from within.
“Is that you, boy?” muttered Hoss.
“Pa?” sounded the weak reply.
Hoss’ heart began to beat rapidly. “It’s me Joe, Hoss. Ya hang on boy, I’ll get ya outta there,” whispered Hoss, a smile spreading across his face.
“Pa…help me!” Joe cried out louder.
“Shh…” began Hoss.
A crashing sound inside told Hoss that Halvar had heard Joe’s pleas and reacted to his calls. Halvar’s loud voice rang hollow in Hoss’ ears.
“Who ya talkin’ to kid?” the big man shouted.
Joe screamed in pain as the whip lashed out and wrapped itself around his already abused body. Hoss snapped to attention, recognizing the sound that the whip made. Joe screamed a second time. Hoss sprung into action and ran around the shack and busted through the door, tearing it from its hinges.
Halvar, alerted by the breaking of wood, had just time enough to turn and whirl the whip in Hoss’ direction. The whip snapped and wrapped its coils about Hoss’ huge frame. Hoss made a grab at the offending scourge but missed. Seconds later, the coil buzzed through the air towards him. This time, Hoss was able to grab the strap and once he felt the leather within the palm of his hand, Hoss jerked as hard as he could.
Halvar who was unprepared and caught off guard, staggered forward until he stood face to face with Hoss. Hoss threw back his fist and then delivered a power-packed blow to the end of Hal’s chin that sent the bigger man staggering backward into the wall. Hoss advanced on the man, but Halvar, though dazed, jumped to his feet and met his foe halfway. He was ready for Hoss when Hoss threw his second punch. Halvar grabbed Hoss’ wrist in his strong hand and twisted it; Hoss fought like an enraged mountain cat against the man who stood between him and his little brother.
The fight continued, each man taking and giving as much as they were forced into. Hoss was bloody and large dark bruises began to appear on his face, and one eye was already beginning to swell shut. Halvar had not fared much better, his lip was dripping blood and he had lost one tooth from the front of his mouth, but the battle waged on.
Both men where tiring; Hoss was huffing and puffing but driven by determination and the need to protect Little Joe at all cost. Hoss never slacked in his battle to free his brother. Halvar bounced off the wall where Hoss had knocked him, and slid to the floor. Hoss, stooped, rested his hands on his knees, trying desperately to suck in large gulps of air to fill his heaving lungs.
Hearing a moan behind him, Hoss turned his attention to his brother. Quickly Hoss moved to untie the rope that held Joe dangling in the air. Hoss was slow, weakened from his extended brawl with the bigger, more powerful man. So intent was he to free Joe that he was not aware that Halvar had approached from behind carrying a long sharp knife in his hand.
Joe stirred, his eyes half opened, watched in horror as Halvar raised his arm high. “Look out…Hoss!” Joe somehow forced the words to surface just in time to prevent his brother from being stabbed in the back.
Hoss twirled around, his arm flew into the air, breaking the blow. His cry of pain could be heard from outside of the shack, where Adam had just dismounted his horse. The knife had sliced through the flesh of Hoss’ arm and blood had spewed everywhere, yet Hoss continued to fight for his life and that of his brother’s who could do nothing to help other than to watch.
From the corner of his eye, Joe spied his oldest brother as Adam slipped unnoticed into the front room of the shack. His pistol drawn, Adam yelled out his warning as Halvar regained control of the knife.
“DROP IT!” shouted the oldest Cartwright brother.
Halvar paused, his hand in mid-air and spun around, shocked at seeing yet a third man in his hideout. Halvar drew back his arm, ready to fling the knife at the intruder. Adam had seen the man’s daring attempt to throw the knife in his direction and fired his pistol in his own defense. Halvar dropped the knife and staggered backward but refused to fall. He roared out in anger and made a dive at Adam who had not moved. Adam raised his gun again and fired a second shot, and then a third at the giant who refused to stop. When the third bullet pierced the man’s heart, Halvar suddenly halted his steps, paused momentarily and finally dropped to the floor. The giant was dead.
Adam and Hoss’ eyes locked, Hoss was breathing heavily and Adam rushed toward his middle brother. “Are you all right?” he asked, surveying the damage to the injured arm where the knife had ripped open his flesh.
“Yeah, I’ll live. Thank God you got here when you did,” stammered Hoss weakly and then remembering his youngest brother, turned.
Joe was swaying and had a sick look on his face. He was flushed; tears ran from the corner of his pain filled eyes as both brothers worked to free him of the ropes that had held him. As he was lowered to the floor, Joe moaned, the pain nearly unbearable for his weakened condition.
Joe slumped forward as the ropes released the pressure on his broken body. His cry of pain pierced his brother’s hearts as Adam gently lowered his younger brother to the floor. Quickly, Adam ran his hands over Joe’s body to determine the damage. Giving Hoss, who squatted next to him, an anxious look, Adam gently lifted Joe into his arms.
“He’s hurt badly, Hoss. We need to get him home. Think you can walk by yourself?” asked Adam as he stood to his feet, his precious cargo held safely within his strong arms.
“I’ll be okay,” Hoss answered, moving to Joe’s side. “Hey Pal…I’m…sorry Joe, really sorry,” Hoss all but sobbed, feeling guilty about what had happened to his brother, all because he had not listened to Joe’s warning.
Joe turned his face from Hoss and buried himself into the comfort of his oldest brother’s chest. Adam could feel the tremors that surged through Joe’s body and heard the soft whimpers that were muffled by his clothing. Adam glanced up at Hoss and noted the tears that had filled the blue eyes and knew instantly that one brother held the blame while the other felt the guilt.
“We better hurry. Hey, don’t worry, Hoss, Joe’s just out of it, and he’s hurting…he doesn’t really blame you,” Adam whispered as he carried Joe from the shack.
Hoss followed behind, his large shoulders drooping as he helped Adam place Joe onto his horse in front of him. He tried not to listen to his brother’s pitiful cries of pain, but his heart shattered into a million pieces when Joe’s eyes found his and demanded that he leave him alone. Tears welling in his eyes, Hoss backed off and mounted his horse. It would be a long ride back to the ranch what with having to carry the weight of his broken heart.
It was as Hoss predicted, a long ride home. It took the trio most of the night before reaching the ranch, having to stop several times to give Joe time to catch his breath. Hoss had tried to approach his injured brother on these occasions, but Joe would have nothing to do with his middle brother. His cries to drive off his rescuer, caused him more pain, his body writhed in anguish as he struggled to remove himself from Hoss’ presence. At last, Hoss gave up trying; it was useless, for it seemed certain now to the overgrown young man, that Joe held him entirely at fault for what had happened to him.
The sun was just cresting the mountaintops when Hoss and Adam finally pulled their weary horses to a stop. Doc Martin rushed from the house, having remained the night with Ben, he was quick to give his aide to both young men. Joe had finally succumbed to his injuries and had long since slipped into unconsciousness.
It wasn’t long before the physician had Joe resting comfortably in his own bed. Doc ran his hands gently over Joe’s body, feeling the breaks and cracks in the busted ribs. With Adam’s help, he was able to bind Joe’s chest, set what bones needed his attention, apply what salve and medication to the whip marks that were needed and finally gave Joe something that would dull his pain and allow him to rest. Nothing was left now, but to wait.
“Paul?” Ben called from the doorway.
Paul Martin turned to find his first patient standing behind him dressed in his nightshirt and covered with his robe. “Ben, what the blazes are you doing out of bed?” he demanded.
“I have to see my son!” Ben whispered as he moved to the side of the bed. “Dear God,” he cried when his eyes saw the bruises that covered the side of Joe’s face. He sat carefully down on the edge of the bed and gently stroked Joe’s battered cheek. Ben fought the tears that threatened to spill over and glanced up at the doctor.
“Is he going to be all right, Paul? He looks so pale,” Ben stated.
Paul stepped up to Ben and rested his hand on his friend’s shoulder. “I’m not going to lie to you Ben; he’s been hurt badly. I don’t know about his insides; we can only pray that there are no internal injuries that I don’t know about. As for right now Ben, I’ve done all I can for him, it’s up to Joseph to do the rest.”
Ben stood to his feet, shock registering on his worn face. “You don’t think he’s actually going to….”
“Ben, I said it was up to Joe. Come on; let’s allow him to rest. That’s what his body needs most right now. Adam, you sit with him for awhile, Ben you come with me. I need to take a look at Hoss’ arm; I think it needs some stitching.” Paul led Ben from the room and out into the hallway.
“Ben, Hoss needs you the most right now. Did you know that he thinks Joe holds him responsible for what happened to him?”
“What? Why, that’s crazy, this wasn’t Hoss’ fault!” Ben almost shouted.
“I know that, and you know that, but Hoss sees it differently. And from what Adam has told me, I think perhaps, Hoss is right. Joe does blame his brother. Now, I don’t know if Joe’s thinking is as it should be, it’s possible that in his confusion, he thinks Hoss is responsible, but once the confusion is gone, he will see it differently,” explained the doctor.
“Where is Hoss?” asked Ben.
“In his room, come on, let me help you.” Paul slipped his arm under Ben’s arm and allowed the worried father to lean against him as the moved down the hall toward Hoss’ room.
Just before opening the door, Ben pulled away from the physician and straightened to his full height. Giving the doctor a knowing glance, Ben entered the room. He was shocked to find Hoss in almost as bad shape as his youngest son.
“Hoss,” Ben whispered as he lowered himself onto the side of the bed.
Hoss slowly opened his eyes. They appeared slightly clouded from the pain medication that Paul had given to him earlier.
“Pa…I’m…sorry,” whimpered the most tender hearted of Ben’s three sons.
Ben brushed at the lone tear that escaped from the corner of Hoss’ eye. “Shh…it’s going to be okay, son,” Ben reassured the boy.
Hoss tossed his head from side to side, no longer caring that the pools of unshed tears slipped from his eyes. “You don’t understand…it was my…fault,” wept Hoss.
“No…Hoss…no, it wasn’t your fault, it was that man’s fault,” Ben tried to comfort his son.
“No…Joe warned me…but I wouldn’t listen…he said…this would happen…and it did, Pa…it did!” Hoss turned his head to the side and buried his face into the pillow.
Ben gently caressed the big man’s heaving shoulders, offering what comfort that he could. Hoss cried for several minutes before turning back to face his father. He wiped the tears from his face and took a deep breath.
“I would have died for him…before I would have let that monster…hurt him anymore. Oh Pa…I’m sorry…I know how much you…love that boy…I didn’t mean….”
“Hush, Hoss, right now!” Ben demanded in a deep though loving voice. “No one blames you…and as for loving that boy…we all do, not just me…but you and Adam as well. You’ve proved yourself earlier, look at you…you’re half beat to death yourself! Son, please, don’t think for one minute that I love Joe any more than I love you, or Adam.”
Ben watched as Hoss swiped his hands across his face and noted the pain and sadness that filled the crystal blue of his middle son’s eyes.
“I don’t want you to blame yourself Hoss, once Joe is better, you’ll see, he won’t blame you either. Hoss, Paul has to tend to your arm. You rest son and I’ll be back when the doctor is finished.” Ben stood to his feet and brushed the back of his hand across the bruises on his son’s face. “I love you, Hoss,” whispered Ben as the blue eyes closed. Ben spied the last teardrop as it rolled freely down his son’s face. Taking a deep breath, Ben left Paul alone with Hoss to tend to his son’s wounds.
After several days in bed, Hoss made various attempts to see Joe, but each time that he came near the sick room, Joe would yell at him to get out. Hoss’ heart was broken and it showed on his face, in his eyes and in the way that he brooded. If he had thought that his little brother had been mad at him before, he knew without any doubts that Joe was mad now.
Late one evening, while his father was working on the books and Adam napped, Hoss tiptoed down the hall and into Joe’s room. Joe was tossing and turning about in his bed. Beads of sweat dotted his brow, and the low moaning sounds that filter through the air, tugged at Hoss’ troubled heart. Joe looked so young, his face still blackened by the bruises that marred his good looks, his arm strapped tightly against his body to prevent movement of the shoulder that might cause further injury, all brought tears to the blue eyes that watched. Hoss gulped, feeling guiltier than ever for his brother’s suffering.
Hoss dampened a cloth in cool water and gently wiped the sweat from his brother’s brow. Joe stirred and slowly opened his eyes. The eyes seemed glazed to Hoss, as if Joe was looking beyond him into the face of another. Hoss was expecting Joe to start yelling at him to get out or to leave him alone. He was surprised when instead Joe reached out his uninjured hand and groped the air for a handhold. Hoss took his brother’s hand into his larger one and held it tightly for several moments, savoring the time before Joe found his voice and began muttering. Only one word was distinguishable enough for Hoss to understand.
“Hurts…” muttered Joe and closed his eyes.
“I know Short Shanks…and I’m sorry,” whispered Hoss, turning to wet the cloth again.
“Hoss, is he awake, son?” Ben said softly as he approached the bed to stand behind his middle son.
“No, just whimpering some. I couldn’t sleep so when I heard him I thought…well…I just wanted to see if he needed anything…” explained Hoss as he glanced up at his father.
Ben noted the sadness that had stolen the sparkle from his son’s eyes. “Hoss…” said Ben placing his hand on Hoss’ shoulder. “Give him time…he’ll come around son, you’ll see.”
Hoss gulped, “I sure ‘nough hope so Pa. I cain’t stand this rift between us, it’s killin’ me…inside.”
“I know it is son. I’ll talk to Joe, maybe explain things to him. You know Hoss, he still isn’t his old self…give…”
“I know Pa…give it time…but tell me…how much time will it take, before my kid brother forgives me? A day…a week…maybe a month or a year? What happens if he never forgives me? What then. Pa?” Hoss all but sobbed.
Hoss stood to his feet and turned leaving Ben to watch his retreat as he left Joe in his father’s care. Ben’s heart had grown heavy with worry, for both of his sons. Having been witness to the friction that had developed between his two youngest boys, Ben was at a loss as what to say or do to help either of them. Silently, as Joe slept, Ben prayed for Hoss and Joe and the needs that had developed in their lives. Ben prayed for guidance for himself and the right words to give comfort to each, wisdom to direct them, and enough love to support both.
His chance came two days later. Ben was surprised to see Joe trying to pull himself into a sitting position when he entered the room.
“Joe, let me help you,” smiled Ben as he pulled the pillows behind Joe’s back.
“Thanks Pa…I was getting sore just laying here,” Joe explained.
“How’s that, son, better?”
“Yeah, thanks…say, where is everyone?” questioned Joe as he snuggled back against the soft pile of pillows. He would not admit it to his father, but he had begun to get lonely and had even begun to think that perhaps his family was trying to avoid him.
“Adam’s working the fence line in the north pasture, Hoss went into town. I think he was getting cabin fever, so I let him go, he’s due back just any time.” Ben explained, watching Joe’s reaction at the news. “He’s not been too far from this room since they brought you home.”
Joe glanced up at his father, the smile gone from his face. “He didn’t have to hang around, not on my account.”
Ben made himself comfortable and watched as Joe struggled with his inner most feelings. He was hurting, not just on the outside where his wounds still showed evidence to his abuse, but inside, where no one could see the emotional pain that tore at his heart and soul.
“He stayed Joseph, because he wanted to, not because he had too. He wanted to be near you…he was worried sick about you,” said Ben softly. “He…”
Joe glared at his father, “well, he should have been worried, if he had listened to me in the first place, I wouldn’t be lying here now!”
Ben heard the catch in the boy’s voice and he leaned closer to his son. “Joseph, tell me something,” began Ben.
“What?” growled Joe, wallowing in his own self-pity at his misfortune.
“Have you always listened to everything I’ve ever told you, or everything that one of your brothers have warned you about?” questioned Ben.
Joe stared at his father, “Sure…I mean…I’ve listened,” he stammered.
“Listened…yes…but have you always heeded my advice, or Adam’s for that matter? I mean Joseph, always?” Ben pushed on.
Joe dropped his head, lost in thought. “No sir, I don’t reckon so…but that doesn’t mean…
“Mean what, son? That Hoss is the exception? That just because he is older, he should have known better? Well, it doesn’t work that way young man. Hoss is big and strong, but inside, well…some times your brother is very much a little boy. His heart is as large as Texas and more times as not, he thinks with it instead of with his brain,” continued Ben.
Ben moved to sit on the edge of the bed and took Joe’s hand into his.
“Joseph, listen to me son, you can’t blame Hoss for what happened to you. That’s foolish thinking…don’t you know that your brother nearly died trying to save you!” Ben asked with exasperation sounding in his voice.
Joe turned his head back to face his father, surprise registering on his battered face. “What do you mean?” he questioned.
Ben saw that he now had his son’s attention and quickly picked up where he left off.
“Joseph, when Hoss found out that you were missing, he took off after Halvar. He found you up at the old abandoned mining shack. Halvar had you tied up, hanging from the rafters like you found Hop Sing and I. He had beaten you nearly to death and then used a whip on you. Hoss had to break the door down to get to you, and once inside he had to fight for…not only your life…but his as well. He was determined that, that man would not lay his hands on you again. You were practically unconscious when Hoss arrived, so you didn’t know all that was going on, but Hoss was almost killed by that monster. If Adam had not arrived when he did, I might have lost two sons that night,” Ben explained and then watched as tears began to fill Joe’s hazel eyes.
“I…I didn’t know…” wept Joe, instantly ashamed of himself for the way in which he had been treating his brother.
Ben’s anger left him as he watched his son’s hurt and disappointment in his brother change to love and gratitude for what Hoss had attempted to do. Gently, Ben raised the quivering chin.
“He put his life on the line for you Joe. You know son, the bible says that, ‘Greater love hath no man than this, than a man lay down his life for his friends.’ Well son, I think in this case, it was referring to your brother. Hoss is your friend, right?” smiled Ben.
Joe nodded his head yes in response to his father’s question.
“You’ve always claimed that he was your very best friend not just your brother. Hoss was willing to die to protect you Joseph. He would have fought for you until his last breath and never given a second thought to his own welfare and safety, yet you blamed him for your troubles…”
Ben stopped; Joe had begun to weep. “I’m so…sorry Pa. I…I…didn’t mean to hurt…him, honest…”
Ben gently brushed away the tears and smiled at his son, “Joe, you need to be telling your brother this, not me. I know you didn’t mean it, I know how much you care for your brother, but I also know how much Hoss loves you as well.”
Ben stood to his feet, ready to leave Joe alone with his thoughts. Just as Joe turned to his father, he spied Hoss pass his doorway.
“HOSS!” Joe called out and then gave his father a tiny smile.
In seconds, Hoss’ large frame stood in the doorway. He looked reluctantly at his brother and then glanced at his father. Ben removed himself from the room, giving a pat on the back to Hoss as he slipped passed.
“Hoss…” began Joe weakly, unexpectedly at a loss for words.
Hoss stood just inside the room and looked like he was ready to run if Joe began ranting and raving at him again. His chin rested nearly on his chest, his long thick fingers were plunged deeply into the pockets of his trousers and his toe dug at a spot on the rug beneath his feet.
“Hoss…I…” Joe could do nothing to stop his voice from quivering as he spoke, the tears slipped silently down the sides of his face and his hand shook as he motioned for his brother to come nearer.
“How ya feelin?” Hoss asked at last more than slightly embarrassed by his brother’s tears.
Joe started to giggle, which surprised the bigger brother. Joe met his brother’s gaze and smiled, “I’m fine.”
Hoss, confused by Joe’s sudden change in character, scratched his head and plopped his heavy frame into the chair that had been pulled close to the bed.
“What’s so funny?” Hoss inquired after a long few moments of silence.
“I don’t know. Nothing really, I guess. I was just thinking…that’s all,” replied Joe as he sobered.
“Us…you and me,” Joe said in a near whispered voice, choked with emotion.
Hoss’ eyes met Joe’s and he saw that the sparkle had begun to return and he could not help but smile at the boy who watched him so intently.
“We are a pair, aren’t we?” Hoss smiled, showing the gap between his teeth.
“A couple of ruffians, that’s what Pa always called us,” giggled Joe.
“Yeah, he does, don’t he?” agreed Hoss.
“Wonder why?” Joe wanted to know.
“Ain’t got no idey, less’n cause it’s all the trouble we used to get into,” smiled Hoss.
Joe giggled louder this time. “Use too? Take a good look at our faces, big brother and you might want to rephrase that.”
Hoss laughed and then just a quickly sobered. “Little Joe…” he began.
“I’m sorry I didn’t listen to ya.”
Joe had become serious as well. “It’s okay Hoss…really. I mean…what’s a few broken ribs, half a dozen or so bruises and a pair of black eyes?”
Hoss snickered, “And a few whip lashes?”
“Yeah, those too.”
“Hoss,” paused Joe, his eyes filling with tears once more.
“I’m glad it’s not just me anymore, or just you…know what I mean?” whispered Joe.
Hoss pinched his lips together and nodded, “I know Short Shanks; neither of us ain’t much without the other, are we?”
“Nope, guess that’s why it will always be just us, heh?” smiled Joe through his tears.
“Yep, you and me, kid, you and me!”
“Thanks Hoss, for everything, but most of all…for putting up with me,” Joe laughed.
“Anytime kid, just promise me one thing.”
“Anything big brother, just name it,” replied Joe, happy to have at last made amends with his best friend.
“Next time I bring home a two-legged stray…remind me of how much this cracked jaw hurts right now. I don’t think I’ll be able to eat for a week!” complained Hoss, rubbing at the soreness in his jaw.
Joe started giggling, the infamous sound ringing throughout the house and bringing Ben and Adam quickly to the room to see what the ruckus was about.
“What’s this all about?” questioned Ben. Seeing the looks on his son’s faces, Ben smiled in relief, it was evident that the crisis had passed.
“Nothing Pa…just tell Hop Sing that I’m hungry…I want a steak, one this big,” Joe held his good hand apart from his bandaged hand and continued, “and I’ll take some mashed potatoes, lots of them, peas, corn, oh, I like it on the cob, make it about three, some biscuits, and a whole apple pie. Oh, and tell Hop Sing that Hoss won’t be eating supper tonight, or tomorrow night, or the next night, or….”
Everyone stopped and turned inquisitive eyes toward Hoss, who had started groaning loudly and rubbing the side of his jaw. “Aw…dadburnitalltoblazes, not soup again!”