One Lucky Man (by Debbie B.)

Summary:

Rated:  PG
Word Count:  19,856


 

 

“That’s it Joe, I’m finished with you.  Get to the house!”

“I said I didn’t do nuthin’ to be sorry for! Why can’t you just believe me for once?” shouted Joe, angrily.

“I want you in the house, now!” Adam returned, just as angry.  He pointed toward the house.  “March!  Unless you want me to drag you inside myself?” demanded Adam, ignoring his brother’s plea of innocence.

Joe stomped his foot and glared at his oldest brother, “You wouldn’t dare!”

Adam’s eyes grew dark and he reached out, grabbing Joe around the arm and gripping tightly, pulled the resisting boy along with him toward the house.  “Wouldn’t I?”

“Let go of my arm,” growled Joe, struggling to wrench free of the vise like grip that Adam’s strong fingers held his arm in.

Adam continued to the house, ignoring the wails of his youngest sibling.  Hoss dropped his head, and slowly followed behind, dreading the confrontation he knew would be taking place in a matter of moments.  He thought about returning to the corrals, but then thought better of it; Adam had demanded that he come along to face his father with him and Joe.  Adam expected him to back up his story about how Joe had carelessly allowed a man to be injured.  Hoss took a deep breath and sighed, would the boy ever learn how dangerous some of his practical jokes could really be?

Ben was just coming from the kitchen when he heard the ruckus on the front porch.  As his hand reached for the door, it was suddenly flung opened, nearly knocking his cup of hot coffee from his other hand.  Quickly, Ben stepped back as Joe was literally forced into the room.

“What, in the world is this all about?” demanded Ben, seeing the angry glares on all three faces of his sons.

Adam looked at his brother; Joe was holding his head down, making it impossible for Adam to look at his face.  “Well?” Snapped Adam, glancing at his father.  “Are you going to own up to it, or do I have to tell him?”

Joe’s eyes swept upward to his older brother’s face and then quickly glanced in his father’s direction.  “I don’t have anything to ‘own up to’, as you called it.”

“Oh for Heaven’s sake’s Joe, don’t add lying to your crime!” snarled Adam, his hands resting on his hips.

Joe’s head pivoted around to face Adam, “I’m not lying, I didn’t do it!”

“All right, boys, let’s stop this arguing and someone just tell me what in blazes is going on!”  Ben demanded in a deep voice.

When all three Cartwright brothers started talking at once, Ben scrunched up his face and shook his head in disgust.  “ENOUGH!” he bellowed at the top of his lungs so that he could be heard above the racket that Adam, Hoss and Joe were all making.  Silence immediately followed.

“Thank you, that’s much better.  Adam,” said Ben, looking at his oldest, “why don’t you begin.”

Adam took a deep breath, glanced at Joe and instantly noted his little brother’s sad eyes and quivering chin.  ‘I hate doing this to you pal, but this time you went too far,’ thought Adam, his temper cooling somewhat.

“Pa, I’m not tattling, but this is something that needs to be addressed.”  Adam cleared his throat and glanced at Joe a second time.

“Go on, please Adam,” encouraged Ben, following Adam’s gaze directed at Joe’s face.

Ben’s heart lurched, the boy looked so pitiful; Ben sighed and rested his hand on Joe’s shoulder.  Joe looked up at his father, his eyes filling with tears, his chin quivering.

“Joe was playing another one of his infernal practical jokes, aimed at me, but instead of his little trick working on me, Seth Rawlins, got the blunt of it…”

“The new boy I hired a couple weeks ago?” Ben interrupted.

“That’s right, well, he got thrown from my horse and now has a badly sprained ankle, compliments of your youngest son,” Adam explained, watching the dark anger mold itself into his father’s features.

Ben turned his attention to Joe, who stood silently, waiting for the barrage of words he knew would be aimed at him.  Ben took a deep breath, and turned back to Adam.  “How did the boy get hurt, I mean, why was he riding Sport in the first place?”

“I sent him back to the barn to get some more bridles from the tack room, Sport was right there and I told him to just take my horse.  Sport started bucking the minute that Seth mounted.  When he got thrown, someone said that they saw Joe messing with the saddle, so while Hoss here took care of Seth, I checked…” Adam paused, glancing at his brothers. “There was a burr under the saddle…and it wasn’t there before, I had only been down at the corrals about ten or fifteen minutes when I told Seth to ride Sport.”

“I didn’t do it, Pa…honest I didn’t,” Joe said before his father had even spoken to him.

“Joseph…”

“Honest Pa, why can’t any of you believe me…I didn’t do it!”  Joe’s eyes filled with tears and he quickly wiped them away before they had a chance to escape and roll down his face.

“Pa,” said Adam, “three men saw Joe messing around with my saddle, right before this happened.”

“Hoss, what do you know about this?” Ben asked, and watched as his middle son’s eyes swept the room.  “Son?”

“Dadburnit,” he muttered, looking at Joe.  “I’m sorry short shanks, but I was one of those who spied him.  I cain’t say for sure what he was adoin’ Pa, but he sure ‘nough was messing with Adam’s saddle, Hank and Ray saw him first and called my attention to him.”

Ben turned angry eyes on his youngest, “Well, young man, what do you have to say for yourself, and please Joseph, do as your older brother suggested and don’t add lying to your crimes?” Ben demanded.

Joe stood silent, his chin drooping as his fingers fidgeted with the button on his shirt.  When he refused to answer or look up at them, Ben grasped Joe’s chin in the palm of his hand and tilted his face upward.

“I asked you a question, young man, don’t make me repeat it!” growled Ben.

“What’s the use of trying to explain?  You always take his word for everything anyway!” grumbled Joe, wrenching his chin free.

“Don’t take that tone of voice with me!  Now answer my question and do it now!” ordered Ben, his eyes growing dark.

“I dun told ya, I didn’t do it, I noticed when Adam rode in that his cinch was twisted and while he was talking to Seth and the others, I just went over to Sport and untwisted it, that’s all, honest Pa, I didn’t put nuthin’ under Adam’s saddle.  And I sure didn’t make Seth get hurt.  It ain’t my fault if he can’t ride a horse!” snapped Joe, his eyes filling with tears once again.

“Oh, don’t use that excuse Joe, you’ve been after Seth ever since Pa hired him, and I don’t know why, he’s a good kid,” Adam stated, shaking his head in disgust.

“Me?  Seth has done nothing but try to run over me!  He deserved what he got!” Joe fired back at his brother.  “He’s a smart aleck and I…”

“THAT’S ENOUGH!” bellowed Ben.  Turning to Joe, he grasped the boy’s arm.  “Young man, I am totally shocked at you.  I cannot believe what you have done…

“But Pa…”

“HUSH!  Do not interrupt me when I am speaking, do you understand?”

“Yes sir, but Pa…”

“JOSEPH!  I mean what I say.”  Ben turned to Adam and Hoss, “Has someone seen to Seth?”

“Yessir, Hank went for Doc Martin.  It’s only a sprain, Pa,” muttered Hoss softly, glancing at Joe, who was fighting back tears.  “It ain’t broke or nuthin’, I checked him real good.”

Ben, still grasping Joe’s arm, returned his attention to the sullen boy.  “When Paul is finished with tending to Seth, you and I are going to make a trip to the bunkhouse.  You will apologize to Seth and to everyone else that saw what happened, is that clear?”

Joe could not control his tears any longer and they slipped humbly past the long lashes and down his face.  “Yes sir, but I still didn’t to it.”

Adam rolled his eyes, not daring to look at Hoss, whom he suspected was almost as upset as their younger brother was.  Ben took a deep breath and sighed.  “Joseph, for how ever long that Seth is laid up, you will do his work, plus your own.  You are restricted to the yard and house only, except when doing Seth’s chores, and you are forbidden to go near the corrals, understood?”

Joe, his voice thick with emotion, only nodded his head.

“Good, now go to your room,” Ben pointed toward the stairs and released his hold on Joe’s arm.

Joe walked a few paces and then stop and turned back, facing both of his brothers.  “I don’t know what you thought you saw Hoss, but you didn’t see me put a burr under Adam’s saddle.  And Adam, you’re a liar and I hate you!”

Adam’s anger reached the boiling point and he made a grab for his kid brother, nearly catching him.  Joe saw the sudden movement and dashed quickly for the steps, taking them two at a time.  Adam started up after him, but was halted by his father’s bellowing voice demanding that he go no further.

“Pa, I don’t know what’s got into that kid, but I would like to turn him over my knee, he needs a good busting!” retorted Adam, his eyes dark with discernment.

“Aw Adam…”

Adam turned his wrath on Hoss, “don’t ‘aw Adam’ me, stop taking up for him, don’t you understand that what he did could have gotten a man badly hurt, or even worse?”

Ben put both of his hands up to stop the argument.  “Enough,” he said calmly.  “Adam’s right Hoss, what your brother did was wrong, and he has to suffer the consequences of his actions.  Seth might have been injured much worse than just a sprained ankle.  And what if it had been Adam that had gotten thrown?  No, Joseph was in the wrong.”

Ben started for the door but stopped and turned back to face Adam and Hoss.  “What bothers me, is why he denies it.”

“Reckon he was tellin’ the truth?  Maybe he didn’t really do it?” pondered Hoss aloud.

“Oh come on Hoss, don’t start that again.  Of course he did it, you saw him, so did Hank and Ray.  He’s lying to cover his butt!” Adam said, following his father outside.  Hoss trudged along behind, scratching his head in thought.

“I don’t know, Adam,” said Ben as they walked together to the bunkhouse.  “It isn’t like Joe to just out and out lie to me, not when he knows he’s caught red handed like this.”

“Just ask Hank and Ray, they’ll tell you the same thing Hoss told you.”

“I intend too son, I intend too.”

Ben opened the door to the bunkhouse and stepped inside, Adam behind him and Hoss following a bit slower after his brother.

“Boys,” greeted Ben, making his way to Seth’s bunk.  Seth was resting his head on the pillow, his eyes shut.  “Seth,” Ben said quietly.

The young man opened his eyes and immediately tried to sit up.

“No, stay where you are,” ordered Ben, gently pushing the young man back down.  “How are you feeling?”

“I’m all right, Mr. Cartwright; it don’t hurt, much,” he tried to smile.

Ben stepped to the foot of the bed and examined Seth’s ankle.  “Pretty bad sprain.  You were lucky.”  Ben pursed his lips tightly and moved to pull a chair close to the bunk.

The men stood in awkward silence not sure what to say or do as their boss made himself comfortable.

“Seth, I’m sorry for what happened.  It was a senseless accident and I assure you that my son will be punished for his actions.  Don’t worry about your work; Joseph will be doing that for as long as you are laid up.”  Ben stood to his feet and glanced around the room, then back at Seth.  “If you need anything, anything at all, you let one of us know.  Oh, and don’t worry about the doctor’s bill, I’ll see to that.  You rest now, Paul should be here shortly.”

“Thank you, Mr. Cartwright.  I’m sorry that Little Joe got in trouble.  Please don’t be too hard on him, he’s just a kid, and…well, it ain’t been that long ago, I was his age,” smiled Seth.

“How old are you anyway?” asked Ben, curiously.

“Almost nineteen, sir, come July.”

“I suppose that’s not too far from fifteen,” pondered Ben.  “Thanks for being such a good sport about all of this.  You take it easy, and don’t get out of that bed, until the doctor says you can!”  Ben smiled down at the young man; the boy was sincere as best he could judge.

“Don’t you men have work to do?” Ben asked.  The room suddenly came to life as men began filing out.  “Hank, Ray, can I have a word with both of you?  Hoss, you stay with Seth until the doctor comes, and, Adam, check back down at the corrals and see how things are going there.”

“Sure, Pa, see you later.”

******

An hour later, Joe still paced his room.  The waiting was far worse than what he knew was coming.  Sometimes he thought his father made him wait on purpose, as part of the punishment.  Joe walked to the window and pulled back the sheers.  Ben was headed back to the house and Joe knew that in minutes he would be forced into facing his father a second time.  He sighed and turned away. ‘Why won’t ya believe me?’ he muttered softly to himself, his whispered words directed to his father.

Joe heard the clicking of his father’s boots as Ben climbed the stairs.  By the time that the gentle knock sounded on the thick door, Joe stood, facing his father as Ben entered the room.  He noted that the anger had left his father’s face and the knowledge allowed him to breathe easier.

“Joseph,” greeted Ben, watching his son’s face and noting the worried expression that crossed the youthful features.  “Sit down, please.”  Ben pointed to his son’s bed, where Joe did as instructed.  Ben pulled the chair close, where he was facing his son and watched the mixture of emotions that played across the young face.

“Son, I have just come from the bunkhouse…”

Joe’s eyes sought his father’s.  “Is Seth okay?” he inquired meekly.

“Yes, he’s going to be laid up for a few days, but it was just a sprain.”  Ben paused and watched as Joe swallowed, knowing that his son was fighting to control the tears that he could see gathering in the wells of the hazel eyes.

“I’m glad,” he muttered, wiping away the dampness.

“Son, I want more than anything to believe what you say.  But under the circumstances I have to…”

Ben stopped.  Joe had raised his head and the look that he wore tore at his father’s heart.

“I know; I understand what you’re going to say. You think I’m guilty, just like Adam and Hoss and the others.”  Joe stood to his feet and walked to the window, his back to his father.  “And you think I lied.”  Joe spun around, the tears rolling down his cheeks.  “I can’t convince you otherwise, I see that, so if you’re gonna wallop me, just do it…I don’t care, do what you have too, but I’m telling you, I didn’t do it!”

Joe’s chin quivered, he sniffed his nose and ran his sleeve underneath to wipe the moisture away.  Joe chanced a glance at his father and saw that Ben had dropped his head and appeared to be thinking.  Several moments he remained as such before turning his attention back to his son.

“Sit down, please,” Ben pointed to the edge of the bed where Joe had been sitting before.  Ben waited until his son had sat down.  “I’m not sure what to believe, had there been no witnesses, I might have believed you, son.  But three different men, your own brother included, all told me the same thing.  They have no reason to lie about what they saw.  What am I to think?”

Joe shook his head sadly.  “I would think that you would believe your own son,” he whispered.

Ben raised Joe’s chin, “Joe, Hoss wouldn’t tell me a lie about this…”

Joe pulled back from his father’s gentle hold, “but I would, is that what you’re saying?  That you believe Hoss and not me?  I should have known you would take his and Adam’s word over mine!  So what else is new?”  Joe knew that he was pushing his luck but he figured that at this point he had nothing to lose.

Ben stood to his feet, his anger returning once more.  “That will be enough young man.  You will march down stairs right this minute and go straight to the bunkhouse and do some apologizing!  Now go!” Ben pressed his opened hand against Joe’s back and gave a gently push.  “March!”

Joe had no other alternative but to do as directed.  Slowly, trying to prolong the enviable, he descended the stairs.  He could sense his father behind him and chanced a quick glance at Ben’s face.  His father was mad, it was plain to tell and Joe looked away.

When they had reached the bunkhouse door, Joe stopped, hesitating.  “Do I have to do this? Ain’t doing his chores punishment enough?” he asked quietly.

Ben saw the near timid look and his heart softened somewhat.  “Joseph, I didn’t ask you to do this, I told you to do it.  You owe the boy that much, wouldn’t you think?”

“I don’t owe him nuthin’.  I didn’t do anything to him,” Joe pushed opened the door and went inside.

Several of the men had finished with their work and sat around the table playing cards.  The doctor had come and gone, assuring all of them that Seth’s ankle was just sprained and that the young man would be fine in a few days.  All heads turned at once to see who had just entered.  When they spied their boss and his youngest son, the room became deathly quiet.

“Go on,” Ben urged in a soft voice.

Joe gave his father a sickened look and approached Seth’s cot.  Seth, his eyes turning to Ben and then back to Joe, straightened himself up, bracing the weight of his body on his elbow as he waited for his apology.

Joe took a deep breath and held it.  “I’m…sorry you got hurt,” he stammered and then quickly turned away and started toward the door.

Ben’s hand found his son’s upper arm with a firm grip, stopping the fleeing boy in his tracks.  “That wasn’t much of an apology, young man,” muttered Ben, his eyes lit with anger.

“I said I was sorry he got hurt what else….”

“You didn’t apology for what you did…” began Ben.

“I did what ya said Pa,” groaned Joe, not caring that he had an audience.  “I ain’t gonna say I’m sorry for something I didn’t do.”  With that, Joe broke free of his father’s restraining hand and ran from the building.  Once outside, the tears that he had been fighting to control found their way down his face.

Ben stood in shock at his son’s words and actions.  He became aware of the restless stirring of the men in the room and without a word, followed after his son.  Ben found Joe leaning against the fence railing and moved to stand behind him.  In the fading light, Ben could see the trembling shoulders and heard the soft whimpers that his son made. He placed each of his large hands on each of the slender shoulders turning Joe around to face him.  With one hand, he cupped the quivering chin and tipped the curly head upward.  He saw the sadness in the depths of Joe’s eyes, the doubt that lay behind the sadness and his heart melted.  Tenderly, he pulled Joe into an embrace and wrapped his arms about his son.

Joe only resisted slightly, giving in to his frustrations he welded his body to his father’s.  Ben felt Joe’s body shudder and felt Joe press his head against his chest as Joe wrapped his arms about his father’s waist.

“I’m sorry…Pa…but…but…” Joe’s words were drowned out by his sobs.

Ben held his son while Joe struggled to regain control. The weeping stopped at last, but Joe refused to move from his father’s arms.  “Joseph,” whispered Ben and felt Joe move slightly.  His hand caressed the back of his son’s neck tenderly.  “It’s over, its behind us now, let’s just move on.  Come on son, let’s go inside.”

Joe pulled back and looked up at his father sadly.  “It’s not over Pa, not until I can convince you that I didn’t do anything.”  Joe turned and ran toward the house, slamming the door as he closed it behind him, and leaving his father to walk alone to the house.

*****

For the following week, Joe worked hard.  His day began at dawn and ended long after the sun had set.  His heart was heavy with despair; he had yet to convince his family of his innocence.  It seemed to Joe that Adam and Hoss avoided him, but when he confronted his father about it, Ben assured him that was not the case.

“Pa, it’s been nearly a week, and neither one of them have given me the time of day,” Joe explained one day when Ben had joined his son while Joe was mucking out the stalls.

“Son, I’ve explained it to you, your brothers have just been busy, that’s all.  They haven’t ignored you on purpose, they only…”

Joe stopped mucking and turned to his father.  “Pa, don’t make excuses for them, I’m not blind, they barely even speak to me…the only one they say hello to is Seth, they’ve gotten real friendly with him.”

Joe began raking out the stall again, working swiftly to ward off his hurt.  “Maybe they would have been happier if he had been their brother instead of me!”

Ben rested his hand on the back of his son’s neck and eased the boy around to face him.  “That’s nonsense, and you know it.”

Joe started to speak but stopped when he noticed his brothers ride into the yard.  “Here they come now, you watch, I’ll prove it to you.”

The words were no more out of his mouth when Adam and Hoss entered the barn together.  They were in deep conversation, laughing at something that had happened earlier.  The instant they spied their father and younger brother, the older brothers sobered quickly.

“Hi Pa, Joe,” said Hoss as he led Chubb into his stall.

“Pa,” greeted Adam, smiling and then turning to his younger brother, only nodded his head.

Ben watched with slowly building ire.  Joseph had been correct, his brothers were purposely slighting him.  “Joseph, go to the house please,” Ben said in a calm voice, giving the youngest of his sons an encouraging smile.

Joe opened his mouth to say something but seeing the irritated look on his father’s face and the way in which Ben was watching his brothers, he changed his mind.  Joe set the rake aside and hurried from the barn giving a quick glance at his brothers before pulling the door almost closed behind him.

“Where’s he going?  He hasn’t even finished with his chores yet,” grumbled Adam, casting his eyes over his shoulder at Joe.

“I sent him to the house,” Ben said as he moved closer to the stalls where Adam and Hoss were just finishing with their horses.

“I wanted to have a word with both of you, without Joe,” stated Ben.

“Oh?” questioned Hoss, “he in trouble again, so soon?” he flashed Adam a knowing look and then looked at his father.  The scowl that he saw on Ben’s face caused his smile to die instantly.

“No, he is not.”  Ben had his fingertips tucked into the pockets of his trousers and he swayed gently back and forth.

Adam cut his eyes over to Hoss and met his gaze.  Hoss had his head lowered and suddenly looked nervous.  With the toe of his boot, he kicked at the dirt floor and then gulped.

“We ain’t in trouble, are we, Pa?” he asked meekly.

Both young men studied their father’s face.  Ben seemed to be pondering his son’s question and the length of time that he took before finally speaking had made his middle son to start fidgeting.  Adam stood silent, studying his father, knowing that Ben had something important on his mind and was sorting out just how to say what he intended for them to know.

“Pa…”

“When I’m ready, Adam,” Ben said sharply, turning from them and moving to close the barn door completely.

Hoss glanced again at his older brother and shrugged his shoulders, his eyebrows raising slightly.  Adam just shook his head, not knowing why their father had them cornered in the barn.  Trapped thought Adam to himself, wondering what he and Hoss might have done to anger their father.

“Adam, Hoss…” Ben started, returning to stand in front of his sons.  “Do you boys believe in forgiveness?”

Hoss’ blue eyes widened, and he scrunched up his nose.

“Depends on what you’re talking about,” said Adam, wondering what his father was leading up too.

“Yeah Pa, some things are easier to forgive than others…why?” questioned Hoss.

“I’m talking about your younger brother,” snapped Ben.

“Joe?”  Hoss seemed surprised.

“Do you have more than one younger brother?”

“Aw Pa, you know I don’t, but what’s with Joe?” smiled Hoss.

“Has he been moping around, complaining again?” Adam ventured.  “Cause if he has he…”

“No, he isn’t complaining, he has however brought to my attention the way that both of you have been ignoring him, and he feels….”

“Jealous…that’s what he is.  Little Joe is jealous of our friendship with Seth.  Well, I happen to like the boy, he’s a hard worker and a good sport, and after what Joe did to him, I just…”

“Adam, stop right there!  Maybe Joe is a little jealous, maybe he feels just a little bit left out.  You’ve taken a liking to one of the hired men, you treat him better than you treat your own brother, or so it appears from Joe’s point of view.  Look at it from his way of seeing things, Joe did something wrong, he’s making his penitence, but both of you have been acting like Joe committed a crime or something.  Just a few minutes ago, both of you came in here laughing and talking a blue streak, until you saw your brother, then you clamed up.  You barely even acknowledged that he was here and I want to know why?  Are you still mad at him?”

Hoss shuffled his feet, shaking his head back and forth.  “Naw…I ain’t mad at him, just a little put out with him, that’s all,” muttered Hoss.

“Why?”

“Aw Pa, it’s just…well…you tell’em Adam, you’re better with words than I am,” Hoss stammered, giving Adam a pleading look.

“Okay Adam why are you still mad at him?”

Adam took a deep breath and let it out slowly.  “Pa…the kid just needs to grow up.  Can’t we have friends without him always making us look like we’re the bad guys?  We’re not little boys, we’re grown men and we like to do grown up things, with grown up friends, more our age.  Why does he have to be the center of everything?  We have our own lives, he has his and we’re just tired of Little Joe always wanting all the attention from everyone, including us.  We don’t tag along with him when he does things with his pals, and we don’t want him tagging along with us every time we want to be with our friends.”

Ben’s lips had made a fine straight line across his face and he eyed each of his sons.  “Is that right?” he said softly.  “Well just let me tell you something…” he began.

“That boy worships both of you.  He admires and respects you Adam, and you Hoss, he considers you, his very best friend.  And you will hardly give him the time of day.  So he’s still a boy, he acts and thinks like a boy, like a boy’s supposed too.  In one breath, you tell him to grow up and in the next breath, you talk down to him, if you even speak to him at all.”  Ben was angry; he was shaking his finger at both of his sons.

“I want it understood right this minute, there will be no more!  Do you hear me?  I expect you to treat him with the proper respect, and don’t you dare forget that he IS your brother, like it or not!” Ben shouted.

“I haven’t forgotten that, Pa.  But when you demand that we treat him with respect, you should demand that he give us the same respect in return.  I’m tired of hearing his whining and watching him mope around like he’s lost his best friend or something and I’m tired of the dirty looks I get every time that I so much as look his way.  And his smart mouth, if he were my son, I’d…” Adam suddenly realized what he was saying and that he had raised his voice to an uncommon high.  “I’m sorry Pa,” he added quickly, “but I think Hoss and I need a break from our little brother.”

“Well, that’s not going to happen, not for a couple of weeks anyway.  I have to go to Genoa for several days.  I want both of you to see after your brother, but I want it understood that you are to discontinue the way that you have been treating him.  Do I make myself clear?” Ben ordered.

“Yessir,” Hoss muttered in a humble voice.

Adam’s anger was still very near the surface and he shot Ben a dark look.  “Fine, great, just what I need…a whole week to run after my baby brother.  Well, all I can say, is, he better behave himself, or…”

“Or what?  Or nothing, young man.  You will treat him with respect and you will be pleasant to him.  I will speak to him about his actions as well.  I trust that both of you will be fair in your dealings with him.”

It was not a request, it was an order, and both Adam and Hoss were very much aware of the fact.  Both watched as their father turned and left them to ponder his words.

Neither Hoss nor Adam said anything for quite sometime, but returned to their duties.  Hoss broke the silence.

“I suppose we ain’t been too nice to him lately,” he said.

“Hoss…oh, what’s the use!  The boy wins every time.”  Adam leaned his arm against the post and glared at Hoss.  “He manages every time to wrap our father around his little finger.  I don’t know how he does it, but he does.  I don’t understand why Pa can’t see through his little charades, it’s like he’s blinded to every thing that Joe does.  And, to make matters worse, we’re going to be stuck at home baby-sitting for better than a week.”

“Yeah, I nearly forgot.  Doc said Seth could get up some if he was careful and we were going to take him into town Saturday night.  Dadburnit, I promised Seth I’d buy him a couple’a beers at the Bucket of Blood.  He’s about gone steer-crazy havin’ ta stay cooped up,” groaned Hoss.

“What are we gonna do Adam?”

“Beats me, but I’ll think of something,” answered Adam, his mind already conjuring up how they could slip away to town and not be bothered with their youngest brother.

*****

Ben found Joe lying across his bed and thought that at first, the boy might have fallen to sleep.  “Joseph?” he called in a quiet voice.

Joe was instantly on his feet.  “I’m sorry Pa; I didn’t hear you come in.”

Ben smiled and placed a hand on Joe’s shoulder.  “Joseph, I’ve just come from having a talk with your brothers.  I let them know that I did not like the way in which they have been treating you.  I think you will find that things will be much better from now on, at least I hope so.”

“Did they say why they were still mad at me?  I bet it’s because I won’t admit to having put that burr under Adam’s saddle.”  Joe turned his back to his father and walked to the window.  Down below, he could see Adam and Hoss talking with some of the men, and groaned inwardly when he spied Seth join the group.  He cringed and felt the sting of tears when Hoss slipped his arm about the limping man’s shoulders in a brotherly manner.  “Well, I’ll never admit it, cause I didn’t do it,” he said, letting the curtains fall back into place and blocking, from his vision, the scene down below in the yard.

“I have to go away for a few days, son,” Ben said, without commenting on his son’s statement, he had been hearing the same words for a week now and had begun to think that perhaps Joe had been telling the truth in the first place.  “I’m leaving Adam in charge, and I want you to behave yourself while I’m gone.”

Joe spun around, shock etched into every line on his face.  “Going away?” he uttered, suddenly feeling as if his whole world was crumbling at his feet.

“That’s right son, I have to go to Genoa on business; I’ll be gone about a week, maybe even a little longer.”  Ben was surprised when he saw the expression on Joe’s face turn to one of total dismay.

“No…please Pa…can’t Adam…or Hoss go instead?” stammered Joe, feeling very alone.  “I don’t want you to go!” The tone of his voice had risen slightly and he feared he would be sick to his stomach.

Ben stepped nearer and placed a reassuring arm around his son’s shoulder.  He was surprised to feel the tiny tremors that coursed through the boy’s body.  “Joe, why are you so upset?  Your brothers will be here…”

“My brothers?  Oh, that’s just great, you saw the way they treated me…please Pa, don’t go, or better yet, let me go with you!  Please Pa…please.”  Joe flung his self into his father’s arms, no longer able to hold back his tears and not caring one iota that he was begging and acting very much like the little boy that his brothers claimed him to be.

“Joseph…please calm down,” whispered Ben, his hand gently rubbing up and down Joe’s back.  The action only seemed to give the boy more reason to press himself against his father’s body.

“Pa, they hate me…they’re mad at me…please, please don’t leave me here alone…please Pa, let me go with you,” cried Joe, clinging tightly to Ben.

“Joe, I’ll be busy with meetings and all, I won’t have time….”

“Oh, Pa, I’ll be good…honest, I’ll do everything you say.  If I have to sit in the hotel all day long while you go to those meetings…I won’t even complain…I promise…I just don’t want to stay here…with them.  Please Pa…I…I need to be with you!  I don’t wanna stay with them,” his words broken as he sobbed and pleaded with his father.

Joe couldn’t stop his tears, his body trembled and when he turned his head upward to look at his father, Ben’s heart melted. He understood his son’s unhappiness, had he not been witness to the scene in he barn, he might have thought that his youngest son was exaggerating. But the forlorn look in the sad hazel eyes, told of his son’s misery.  Ben brushed back the wild curls from his son’s brow and smiled down at him.

“You know, Joe, I think you and I do need to spend some time together, just the two of us.  What do you think about us taking a couple of days to do some fishing, after I finish my business?  We could pick up some supplies in Genoa before heading back and camp out along the way, I happen to know of a perfect spot.  How about it?” smiled Ben.

“Really Pa?  You mean it?  I can go with you?  Honest?  Oh golly, Pa, thanks.”  Joe hugged his father tightly, his head pressed against Ben’s chest.  “Thank you, Pa…I…I love you.”

Ben smiled to himself, pleased that he had agreed; Joe needed time away from his brothers, and his older sons needed their time away from their younger brother as well.  It was perfect, for all of them and Ben hoped that by the time he and Joe returned things would have gotten back to normal.

“You best get your things ready, that is, if you still want to go?” laughed Ben.

“Do I?  You better believe I do,” Joe grinned, wiping away the tears from his face.  “Thanks, Pa, I know we’ll have fun.”

“Just as long as you understand Joseph, that it’s ‘business before pleasure’.”

“Oh, I understand Pa, honest,” smiled Joe as he turned to his dresser and began pulling out shirts and pants and tossing them in a pile on the bed.  Ben laughed, glad to see his son smiling again.  It had been a hard week, not only for Joe, but also for all of them.  Adam and Hoss’ attitude toward their younger brother bothered Ben and he knew it troubled Joe.

“As soon as you’re finished packing, get to bed.  We have a long day ahead of us tomorrow,” Ben said as he walked to the door.  “Good night son.”

Joe barely glanced up at his father, so intent was he to finish tossing his clothes into the satchel.  “Night Pa,” he called as he shoved the drawer closed.

Ben watched for another moment and then slipped out the door.  As he started down the hall, he wondered what Adam would say when he was informed that Joe was to accompany him on his business trip.  Somehow, Ben felt as if Adam and Hoss would be relieved to be free of the burden of tending to their brother.  Their presumed lingering animosity at Joe, worried Ben, it wasn’t like either of them to hold a grudge, but that was what he had seen taking place.  He would try once more to rectify the problem before leaving in the morning.  He hoped to restore harmony to his home.

*****

“That’s all I have to say on the matter, he’s going with me.”

Hoss and Adam stared at each other, unable to voice their thoughts to their father.  Ben had been adamant about taking Joe with him on his business trip and had told them so in no uncertain terms.

Ben moved from the fireplace to his desk where he sat down, glancing at his two older sons.  It saddened him to see the looks of relief that the two young men had tried so hard to conceal when he had made his announcement.  It upset him that both of them seemed to still be at odds with their younger brother.  Joe had made good his punishment, but even now Ben worried that it had been unjust, for gnawing in the back of his mind was doubts as to the boy’s guilt.  But who, if not Joseph, had put the burr under Adam’s saddle, and why?  Ben wondered if he would ever know the truth, but his heart felt certain that Joe had been telling him the truth and allowing the boy to accompany him to Genoa was in some small way, a token of his faith in his son.  Ben sighed deeply and leaned back in his chair.

“Adam,” he called.

“Sir?” replied Adam, glancing at Hoss and then moving to stand in front of his father’s large oak desk.

“I know that you, and Hoss,” Ben’s eyes sought his middle son’s face.  “Do not approve of my taking Joe with me…no, don’t deny it…I know that both of you think he should be made to stay here and finish out his punishment, and under different circumstances, I would agree.  But I have been having doubts as to his guilt…something tells me that Joseph has been telling me the truth all along.”

“Oh Pa…why can’t you see…” started Adam but hushed when his father held up his hand.

“Adam, he has been adamant about the fact that he did not do it.  I, personally, now believe that he was telling the truth…”

“But if’n Joe didn’t do it, who did and why?” questioned Hoss, joining his father and brother.

“I don’t know, I thought maybe Adam could answer that,” stated Ben.

“Me?  How would I know?”

“Maybe one of the men holds a grudge against you for something and wanted to pay you back.  But then when it backfired, they were afraid to come forward,” Ben said, searching his mind for reasons that might make someone do such a stupid thing and take a chance on a man getting seriously injured.

Hoss scratched his head in thought.  “Ya know, I hadn’t thought about that.”

“But it was Joe who the others saw messing with my saddle, there wasn’t time for anyone else to do it, Joe’s guilty Pa, face the facts.  And as for you taking him with you, I hope you know what you’re doing, ’cause he’s a trouble magnet.”  Adam turned away and started for the stairs.  Halfway there, he paused and turned around to face his father.  “Mark my words, something will go wrong, it always does with Joe around.”

Ben shook his head and rubbed the weariness from his eyes.  Hoss scrunched up his face and sat down in the chair in the corner.  “Pa…I want to believe Joe as much as you do, but…aw…doggoneit Pa…I don’t know what to think anymore.  Hearin’ ya tell it, makes me believe Joe wasn’t lyin’, but when Adam explains it, well…dangit…it sounds like Joe is lyin’.”

Ben gave Hoss a small smile.  “I know son, I’ve wrestled with the same doubts for days now.  I know that Adam is convinced that Joe is guilty, and that’s part of the reason I agreed to let Joe go with me.  He’s unhappy…and he’s hurt Hoss.  He thinks neither of you cares anything about him, and he’s somewhat jealous of the fact that the two of you seemed to have taken Seth under your wing.  Joe thinks you care more about Seth than you do about him, and it hurts his feelings…I know what you’re going to say son, that it isn’t so, but to your younger brother, that’s the way he sees it and that’s the way he feels.”

“But Pa, it ain’t true…Joe’s just…just…” stammered Hoss, searching his thoughts for the right word.

“A boy, Hoss…he’s just a boy, and he thinks like a boy, he has feelings like a boy that are easily hurt.  And he cries like a boy,” Ben paused, remembering how Joe had cried and begged not to be left behind.

“Cried?  Joe’s been cryin’?” asked Hoss, surprised at this bit of information.

“Yes, and his reasons for it broke my heart.”  Ben stood to his feet, facing Hoss.  He wasn’t angry, just regretful.  “He didn’t want to stay here…with you or Adam…because he was afraid of the way he would be treated.  And after what I witnessed earlier in the barn, I can’t say that I blame him.  I’m disappointed in you and your older brother.”

Hoss hung his head, fighting to control the unstable emotions that had threatened to surface.  “I’m sorry Pa…I never meant to hurt the boy.”

Ben heard Hoss sniff and knew that the largest of his three sons had spoken the truth.  “I hope not, son.  The boy worships the ground you walk on, you surely must realize that.”

Hoss finally looked up and met his father’s gaze.  “Yessir, I know…I reckon I jist forgot fur a while.  I’ll apologize to him in the mornin’ and I’ll tell him I ain’t put-out with him anymore.”

“Thank you son, I know it will make him feel better.  Joe can be sort of pesky at times, but he isn’t malicious enough to hurt someone on purpose.  He just doesn’t think things through before he acts, that’s all. Hoss, it’s all part of being a boy, someday…and I hope not anytime soon, that little boy will be gone and we’ll wonder where the time went and what happened to him.  I happen to love the little scamp just the way he is, and I hope that little boy in him stays around for a long time, cause once he’s gone, that’s it…he’s gone for good.”

Hoss stood to his feet, “Yeah, it would be sorta quiet around here without him,” he smiled.  “Night, Pa.”

“Good night son, sleep well.”  Ben watched as Hoss climbed the stairs.  He wished that Adam had been as understanding, but then Adam was always the most bullheaded of all three of his sons.  Ben blew out the lamps and muttered to himself, ‘wonder where he gets it?’

*****

Hoss was true to his word.  Standing idle at the foot of the steps, he waited until Joe emerged from his room.  When Joe spied Hoss, he paused, unsure of why his brother seemed to be waiting for him.

“Morning,” smiled Joe when he had reached the foot of the steps.

“Mornin’ Short Shanks,” Hoss returned.  “Joe…um…could I talk to ya for a minute?” he stammered, his head bent low while his fingers twisted a tread on his vest.

Joe, who had passed by his brother, stopped and turned around.  “You want to talk to me?  Why, why now?  What do you have to say to me all of a sudden?  Ain’t Seth speaking to you?”

Hoss’ lips twisted into a grimace.  “Aw…cut it out Joe.  I jist wanna tell ya that…I’m sorry Joe, for the way I been atreatin’ ya.”  Hoss raised his head just enough to look at his brother’s face.  He saw the deep frown that wrinkled his little brother’s brow and he took a deep breath and continued.  “I didn’t mean ta hurt ya feelin’s or nuthin’.”

“Oh…is that why you’ve ignored me for a whole week, and is that why you’ve taken up with Seth?  Did Pa make you apologize?  Well, did he?” Joe yelled.

“Not exactly, he did say ya had you’re feelin’s hurt and suggested that….”

“That’s what I thought, well thanks for nothing, big brother.  I don’t need your apology! In fact, I don’t need you!”  Joe was fighting back his tears and quickly turned, leaving his brother to stare at his back and wonder what he had said to earn Joe’s wrath.

“Dadburnit, Little Joe, get your ornery butt back here.  All I was adoin’ was tryin’ ta tell ya I was sorry, that’s all,” shouted Hoss as he stomped across the room after the boy.

He caught up with him at the door and grabbed Joe’s arm, spinning him around.  “Now ya stand still and hear what I gotta say.”

Joe tried to wrench his arm free.  “Let me go, you big ox.  I don’t care what you have to say.  I don’t want to listen to you. Why don’t you just go find Seth and say it to him; he’s all you care about anyway.  You and Adam don’t give a damn about me!”

Joe finally freed his arm from Hoss’ tight grip and rushed out the door, his tears nearly blinding him as he ran toward the barn to saddle his horse.  He stopped at the door and wiped away the dampness from his face before entering.

“Oh, morning, son,” smiled Ben when he spied his youngest son.  “I’ve got the horses saddled, are you ready to leave?”

Joe forced his face into a smile.  “I sure am, Pa.  I can’t wait to get started.  Can we leave now?”

Ben laughed at his son’s eagerness.  “In just a minute.  I want to say goodbye to your brothers first.  Come on.”  Ben handed Joe the reins to his horse and taking Buck’s, led the way from the barn and into the morning sun.

Adam and Hoss stood together propped against the hitching rail and watched as their father and Joe walked slowly across the yard to where they stood.  Joe purposely avoided looking at Hoss.  He glanced at Adam, but his older brother was listening to what their father was saying.  For the lack of anything better to do, Joe mounted up and waited for Ben to do the same.  Joe tried to hide his sad expression from his middle brother; his insides were twisting and fluttering, tying his stomach in knots as he fought with his emotions.  He caught Hoss’ eye, and quickly turned his head to keep from seeing the sorrow in the blue eyes that stared at him.  Joe swallowed and wiped away the tears that threatened to spill forth.

“So, with any luck, I’ll be in and out of there in, hmm…no more than four or five days.  After that, your brother and I are going to do some fishing.  We should be home in about ten days at the most,” explained Ben.

“Good luck with the contract, Pa.  Be careful,” he added, glancing at his youngest brother, who was not paying any attention.

Ben followed Adam’s eyes and the insinuation rubbed him the wrong way.  “I think I can handle whatever trouble might come along, if it does.”

Adam’s eyes sought his father’s face and instantly realized that his father understood his implication.  “I didn’t mean…” he stammered.

“I know perfectly well what you meant,” snapped Ben.  “I’ll see you boys in a few days.  Let’s ride, Joe.”

Joe nudged his mount into step beside Ben’s horse.  As they rounded the corner of the barn, Joe glanced over his shoulder at his brothers.  Both Hoss and Adam had already turned around and were headed back to the house.  Joe took a deep breath and let it out slowly, he was glad for the chance to get away for awhile, but deep, deep down, he knew he would miss his two brothers.  He felt detached from his family, and he unexpectedly wished that he had not been so unkind to Hoss, who had at least tried to make amends with him.

Hoss stopped just short of the doorway and glanced over his shoulder and watched as Joe rounded the barn following behind their father.  He hated to see his brother leave with hard feelings between them.  He had wanted to make up with the boy, his father’s words last night had struck a soft cord in his heart and he had wanted to make sure that Joe knew he was truly sorry for his words and actions.  Hoss sighed; he couldn’t really blame Joe for not wanting to hear what he had, had to say.  Hoss realized that both Adam and him self had been acting unjustly and though Adam had tried to cover it up, Hoss knew that deep down inside, his older brother had wanted to make amends with the boy as well.  Now it was too late, Joe would be gone for several days and Hoss knew that at this time he would do nothing but stew about the situation until the boy returned.

“You going to stand outside all morning, or are you going to go to work?” laughed Adam, who had been watching his brother.  “What’s wrong?  You aren’t going to tell me that you are actually going to miss the little pest, are you?” he said, resting his hand on Hoss’ massive shoulder.

Hoss wrinkled up his face and gave Adam a tiny smile, “Well, ta be honest, I suppose I will miss him, some.  I tried to make up with him, but he wouldn’t have none of it.  Cain’t say I blame him; we’ve been sorta hard on the boy.”

Adam sobered a bit and turned away from his brother.  “I suppose.”  He started toward his father’s desk, but stopped and turned back to face Hoss.  “Look Hoss, I don’t mean to be so hard on Joe, but it galls me that he gets away with so much, especially with Pa.  I know Joe’s not a bad kid; he’s really good compared to some of the other young boys hereabouts.  It’s just…just that his pranks get a little out of hand at times, and he’s…he’s…”

“Just a boy?” smiled Hoss.  “That’s the way Pa explained it to me last night, Adam.  Joe’s still a kid; he doesn’t realize that what he does can get folks hurt or mad or the like.  He’s a boy, that’s all.”

Adam pressed his lips tightly together and raised his head just enough to smile at his brother.  “You’re right Hoss, Joe is just a boy.  I guess I shouldn’t have treated him so poorly.  I’ll make it up to him when he gets home, maybe I’ll even take him to San Francisco with me when I go…that is, if Pa will let me.”

“Fat chance…Pa probably won’t ever trust us alone with that scamp again.” Hoss laughed and slung his arm across his brother’s shoulder.  “We both know that Pa loves that boy more than he loves his own life, or us…sometimes.”  Hoss tossed his head, “I love the boy too Adam and ya know ya feel the same way about him!”

“Don’t remind me!” Adam groaned good-naturedly.  “Now get out of here, I have work to do and so do you!”

“See ya later, big brother!”  Hoss slapped Adam’s back and headed out the door.

*****

“Joe, we made it just in time for my first meeting.  Why don’t you go on over to the hotel and get us a room,” smiled Ben, digging in his pocket for some money.  He counted out several dollars and handed the bills to his son.  “Sign us in and tell the clerk that we will be staying the rest of the week.  And then get some rest, I shouldn’t be too long and when I’m finished, we’ll get a bite of supper.”

Joe flashed his father a happy smile.  “Sure Pa, I could use some sleep, and a bath,” he laughed.  “Too bad we got caught in that down pour this morning.”

“Well, I could certainly use a nice hot bath, but it’ll just have to wait until I finish with today’s business.  I’ll see you later, son,” Ben dismounted from his horse and handed the reins to his son.  “Would you see to the horses?  Tell the man at the livery that I’ll be by later to pay him, make sure they get extra rations while you’re at it.”

“I will, Pa, if I have too, I’ll stable them myself to be sure it’s done right,” Joe said in a serious voice.

Ben caught the gleam in his son’s eyes and smiled.  It had been a glorious two days, having Joe along with him and Ben had not regretted his decision in the least at bringing his son.  Joe appeared to have begun relaxing and before long had started talking non-stop.  Ben chuckled; his son was a joy to be with and Ben felt as if their relationship had become stronger by the bonding.

“Thank you Joseph, I knew I could count on you.  I’ll see you in a little while.”

“Bye, Pa, I’ll meet you at the hotel,” Joe grinned and led the horses toward the livery.

*****

By the time that Ben had finished with his meeting and made his way to the hotel, he was bone weary and more than ready for that hot bath.  As he entered the lobby, he was surprised to see his son slowly making his way down the stairs.

Joe smiled broadly when he spied his father.  “Oh, hi Pa.  I was just coming down to order you some bath water.  I figured it was about time for you to get done.”

Ben slipped his arm about Joe’s shoulders and returned the gesture.  “Thanks son, I appreciate that.”  Ben turned to the clerk but before he could utter a word, the clerk replied.

“We will have the wash room ready for you in just a few minutes, Mr. Cartwright.  I’ll have the bell boy let you know when it’s available.”

“Thank you, my son and I will be in our room. Come on Joe.”  Ben turned back to his son and followed the boy up the stairs.

“How’d your meeting go, Pa?” asked Joe once he and his father were inside their room.

Ben tossed his hat on the bed and began to untie his gunbelt.  “It went very well.  I think Mr. Carlson will agree to everything in the contract, at least he seemed pleased with it so far.  How about you, did you take care of the horses for me?”

“I sure did, I rubbed them down myself and made sure that they had extra rations, just like you told me,” smiled Joe.

“That’s a good boy, Joe; I knew I could count on you.”  Ben was just about to say something else when the bellboy knocked on the door.  “Guess my bath is ready.  I’ll be back shortly, you get yourself ready and we’ll go down to the dining room as soon as I get back.”

Ben gathered his clean clothes and opened the door, startled to find Mr. Carlson standing before him.  “Oh, Edward,” laughed Ben, “I thought you were the bellboy, do come in.”  Ben stepped aside and allowed the elderly gentleman to enter the room.

“This is my son, Joseph,” Ben introduced, “Joseph, Mr. Carlson, the gentleman I am working with on the new timber contract.”

“Sir,” greeted Joe, extending his hand.

Mr. Carlson grasped Joe’s hand in his and shook it vigorously.  “Hello, son, please to meet you,” he smiled.  Mr. Carlson turned to Ben.  “Well, Ben, I knew you had three sons, but you didn’t tell me they were so young and good looking, I might add.”

Joe felt his face reddening and glanced at his father.  Ben was smiling his approval.  “I think all three of my sons are rather good looking.  Joseph is my youngest son and takes after his mother more than he does myself.”

“She must be a fine looking woman.  You are a lucky man, Ben,” Edward said and smiled again at Joe.  “I’d like to meet your wife sometime.”

“My mother’s dead, sir,” Joe said before Ben had a chance to explain.  “She died when I was very young.”

“Oh, I’m sorry to hear that, I apologize.  I can only imagine how proud she would have been had she been around to see what a handsome fellow her son has become.”

“Thank you, sir,” muttered Joe, casting his eyes at his father.  Ben was smiling at him and Joe felt himself relax.

“What brings you to see me, Edward?” Ben inquired.

“Oh yes, I’m sorry, I do tend to get sidetracked at times.  Jerome, William and myself are having dinner at the Emerald Palace tonight and wondered if you would care to join us?” Edward said, glancing at Joe who had moved to gaze out of the window.

Joe heard his father hesitate.  Quickly he turned and faced his father.  “Why don’t you go ahead, Pa?  I can eat in the dining room, I don’t mind, really,” Joe offered; though he had been hoping to spend the evening alone with his father.

“Um…I don’t know,” stammered Ben, glancing from Joe’s face to the face of the man whom he hoped to have sign his document.  Ben turned to Mr. Carlson.  “I’ll tell you what Edward.  I would love to join you and the others, maybe later, after supper.  We could have a couple of drinks.  I did promise my son I would have supper with him.  Besides, I’m not sure I’d want to turn a fifteen-year old loose on his own at this late hour.  Surely you understand?”

“Yes, of course I understand.  You and the boy have supper and then you can join us later.  How does nine o’clock sound?” Edward offered.

“Sounds fine to me, Joe, you don’t mind, do you son?”  Ben had turned to Joe just in time to see his son’s face brighten.

“No, that’s fine with me.  I was planning on turning in early anyway.”

Ben held the door as Edward started to leave.  “I’ll see you gentlemen around nine, then.”

“I’ll look forward to it Benjamin, good night Joseph.”  Mr. Carlson placed his hat on his head and tipped it at Joe.

“Good night, sir,” Joe called as Ben shut the door.

Almost instantly a sharp rap sounded on the other side of the door.  Ben pulled it opened.

“Mr. Cartwright, your bath is ready,” the bellhop informed the senior Cartwright.

“Thank you, I’ll be right there.”  Ben turned to Joe, shaking his head, “Whew…this certainly has been a long day.  I’ll be back in just a little while, son.”

“Take your time, Pa, I did.  Oh, don’t let them put any of that Lilac stuff in your water.  I didn’t know what it was and I dumped half a bottle in my bath.  Boy, did I ever get some funny looks when I got finished and went downstairs, especially from the ladies,” Joe grinned.

Ben’s laughter could be heard all the way down the hall, and Joe smiled.   He loved the sound of his father’s deep rich voice, especially when he laughed.  Joe walked to the window and pulled back the drapes, watching the activity on the street below.  Joe caught a glimpse of a big man who had just exited the saloon and Joe had to look twice, for the man favored his middle brother.  The vision suddenly took Joe’s thoughts home and to his brothers.  He wondered how Adam and Hoss were faring and if they missed him.  Probably not, he reasoned, they had Seth to keep them company.  Joe allowed the drapes to fall from his hand as he turned and settled himself down in the middle of the bed.

What was it about Seth that disturbed him so much?  The young man had not really done anything to him, but something about the stranger had rubbed him the wrong way ever since he had come to work for them.  Joe sighed and shut his eyes.

“Joe…Joseph, wake up son,” Ben urged as he gently nudged his son.

Joe rubbed his eyes and pulled himself up onto the side of the bed.  “Sorry, Pa, guess I was more tired than I thought.  I didn’t mean to fall asleep,” he said as he stood up and crammed his shirttail into the waist of his pants.  “You ready to go eat?”

“If you are,” smiled Ben, slipping his arm about Joe’s shoulder as they walked out the door together.

*****

Ben and Joe made their way to the dining room and quickly found a seat.  Ben had to smother a laugh when Joe ordered his supper, which consisted of a large steak, potatoes, bread and apple pie.

“If you keep eating like that son,” laughed Ben as Joe chewed on a huge bite, “you’ll be as big as Hoss in no time.”

Joe cast his eyes at his father, a smile creeping onto his face.  “No way, I’ll never be able to match his size,” laughed Joe.

“Please son, don’t talk with food in your mouth,” Ben gently reprimanded.

“Oh sorry,” said Joe, his fork halfway to his mouth.

“I’ll not be long tonight son.  I’m beat and want to get in bed fairly early.  I wouldn’t even bother going to meet the others except that I think it would be good for business.  Are you sure you don’t mind staying alone for just a little while?” Ben asked his son.

Joe shook his head, swallowing what was in his mouth before speaking.  “Naw, I don’t mind, Pa.  You do whatever it takes to win that contract; I know what it means to you.  I plan on turning in early anyway,” smiled Joe.

“Thanks son.  I’ll probably be gone in the morning before you wake up I have some early morning meetings over at the lawyer’s office.  Sleep for as long as you like and then get yourself some breakfast; just have it put on our tab.  Afterwards you are free to do what you wish…as long as you stay out of trouble and the saloon, do you understand?” Ben gently ordered in a voice that told Joe that his father meant every word he said.  “If I find out that you disobeyed me, we’ll go straight home after I finish my business and forget our little fishing expedition.”  Ben stared into his son’s face, waiting expectantly.

Joe saw the seriousness in his father’s expression and gave his father one of his most angelic smiles.  “Don’t worry Pa, I promise, I’ll not get into trouble, I won’t go near the saloon cause I’m looking forward to just you and me getting to do some fishing.  You can count on me, honest.  I heard some fellas talking earlier today that some guy is bringing in some new mustangs down at the corrals.  I thought I’d just mosey on down there and watch, that is, if it’s okay with you?”

Ben returned the smile; he couldn’t help but smile at the boy’s enthusiasm.  “Just stay out of the way, Joseph.”

“I will, Pa.  Hey, are you going to eat the rest of your pie?” he asked watching his father set his fork to the side of his plate.

Ben’s voice filled the room with laughter, “Go ahead, help yourself, Little Hoss!”

“Aw Pa,” laughed Joe.

Ben’s happy laughter joined in with his son’s.  When Ben glanced up, he was surprised to see several sets of eyes watching them, but he didn’t mind, he was proud of the fact the he and his son were able to laugh together.  He turned and watched as Joe shoveled the last bite of apple pie into his mouth.

“Joe, I just want you to know how glad I am that you convinced me to bring you along.  I’ve enjoyed your company, son, tremendously,” smiled Ben.

“Thanks Pa, I have too, enjoyed being with you, I mean.”  The smile suddenly left Joe’s face and he dropped his chin.

“Joseph?” Ben said softly, “what’s wrong?”

Joe, his lips pressed tightly together, lifted his head and looked at his father.  “I just wish…I mean…I wish it could be like this all the time…you know…just you and me,” he stated in a quivering voice.

Ben studied his son’s young face and then placed his hand gently on Joe’s arm.  “What about Adam and Hoss?”

Joe’s chin fell to his chest.  “They don’t care nothing about me, least ways, Adam don’t.”  Joe looked into his father’s dark eyes, “he hates me…and I don’t understand why…I know…”

“You don’t know anything, young man,” Ben said, his voice filled with compassion.  “Your older brother does not hate you…he happens to care very deeply for you.  Adam is just so…so Adam,” smiled Ben.  “He’s so much older in his ways than what he should be son, and I suppose most of that is my fault.  But he means well, he wants the best there is for you, and in so doing, I suppose that he expects too much from a boy your age.  You have to understand Joe, what it was like for your brother when he was boy, growing up in a man’s world.  His childhood was so different than yours was. Adam never had all the advantages that you enjoy, therefore he thinks and does things differently than you do.  But hate you?  No, never, your brother loves you like you were his own son, and sometimes that has caused problems between myself and your brother,” Ben explained, and then smiled at the memories his words brought to mind.

Joe seemed lost in thought as he pondered his father’s words.  After several moments, he smiled at his father.  “You best get going Pa, it’s almost nine.”

Ben realized that Joe had closed the subject of his brother’s feelings about himself.  Not wanting to put a damper on the evening, Ben smiled and pushed back his chair.  “I’ll walk with you to the room and then I’ll go.”

Joe also pushed back his chair, giving his father a frown.  “I don’t need you to do that Pa, I’m not a baby.  You go ahead; I’ll go straight to our room.”

Ben nodded in agreement.  “Okay son, I’ll see you in a little while.”  Ben wiped his mouth and picked up his hat.  “Good night, Joe, sleep well.”

“Thanks Pa, I will.  Have fun,” he called as Ben started for the door.

Joe pushed in his chair, glanced around the dining room, caught a pretty girl’s eye, and smiled, nodding his head at her at the same time he winked his eye.  The girl blushed and quickly lowered her lashes.  Joe laughed lightly and started up the steps.  He was totally lost in thought and had no idea that his father had stuck his head around the door and watched, being sure that his son had made it safely to his room.  When Ben heard the door open and close, he sighed in relief and went about his way.

*****

Ben returned much later than he had intended.  He was bone weary from the long day, but deeply satisfied in his mind that all was going his way with gaining the contract.  Mr. Carlson, William Bradford and Jerome Stillburg were admirable men and Ben enjoyed doing business with them.

Joe stirred slightly as Ben closed the door and began undressing in the dim light that filtered in from the street below.  He tossed back the covers and crawled in next to his son, who snored softly.  Ben smiled to himself, thinking of the numerous times that he had slept side by side with his youngest son, and how the boy usually thrashed from one end of the bed to the other. He smothered a soft laugh; they had arrived so late in the afternoon that only one room had been available and in that room was only one bed.  Ben sighed, hoping that he would be able to get a few much needed hours of sleep.  Closing his eyes, it was only minutes before the eldest Cartwright was fast asleep.

“NO!”

Ben was jolted from his sleep by fraying arms that struck him in the chest.  He bolted upright trying to gather his senses.

“I DIDN’T DO IT!”

Ben’s eyes sought his son’s face in the early morning light, just before dawn.  The boy obviously was in turmoil as he fought with his demons.  Quickly, Ben grabbed the arms that threatened to strike out a second time at him.

“Joseph…Joseph,” Ben called in a calm voice.  “Wake up, son…Joe, come on sweetheart, wake up.  That’s it, that’s it,” Ben encouraged.

Joe’s eyes struggled to open as he sought the comforting sound of his father’s voice.  “Pa?” he cried, the tears overflowing at last.

“I’m here son, you were dreaming,” Ben whispered as he gathered the trembling body of his son into his arms.  “Are you all right now?”

Joe allowed himself to be held for several moments by his father before pulling back and looking into his father’s face.  He sniffed his nose and wiped his eyes dry.

“I’m okay, now,” he muttered and returned his head to his pillow.  “I was having a nightmare, I guess.”

“Want to tell me about it?” Ben asked as he replaced the covers around Joe and laid back down next to his son.

“No…it wasn’t nothing.  I’m sorry I woke you, Pa,” Joe said, turning to his father.

Ben offered a tiny smile, “its all right son.  Why don’t you turn over and try to go back to sleep, we still have a couple of hours before daybreak.”

Joe did as he father suggested and turned his back to Ben and snuggled down into the warm blankets.  “Night, Pa,” whispered Joe.

Ben turned toward Joe, placed his arm protectively across the still form and whispered his own good night.  Ben, though he tried, had just begun to drift off when the sound of his son’s soft crying, brought him back to the present.

“I really didn’t do it,” Joe whispered incoherently as he slept.

Ben raised himself up, just enough to see his son’s face and to know that the boy was indeed talking in his sleep.  Ben settled back down, his arm still embracing his son, and thought about the words that had been whispered.  For a long time, Ben held his son, unable to go back to sleep as the haunting words tore at his heart.  Joe was still troubled by what had happened days ago, that much Ben was sure of.  Even in his sleep, the boy was proclaiming his innocence.  Ben groaned softly, Joe had been telling them the truth all along, of that his father was now certain.  Promising himself that he would have a talk with the boy soon, Ben fell into a troubled slumber, waking just as the sun was beginning to peek over the tops of the far distance mountains.

Ben tossed back the covers, glancing to assure himself that Joe was still sleeping.  As quickly and quietly as he could, so as not to wake his son, Ben dressed and hurried from his room.  He would meet with the others, hopefully signing the contract by early afternoon, make his stop at the bank and then gather their things so that he and Joe could be on their way.  Ben smiled; everything was going according to schedule and with any luck, by this same time tomorrow, he and Joe would be enjoying some fishing along the banks of the Carson River.

Ben smiled to himself; he was a lucky man.  Edward Carlson had reminded him more than once of that the night before.  Seems as if the older gentleman had been quite taken with Joseph, Ben recalled, thinking on the man’s words.

‘A fine son, you have there Cartwright,’ Carlson had told him.  ‘Mighty fine.  If my son had lived, he would be about the same age as your boy, or thereabouts.  Yes sir, you are a lucky man, Cartwright, I hope you know that.’

Ben had smiled, ‘Yes, I assure you, I am well aware of the fact.  Joseph is a good boy, and I am very proud of him, in fact, I’m very proud of all three of my sons.’

‘As well you should be.  It’s plain to see that you have raised the boy right.  He’s very respectful and…I might add, it’s quite obvious that the boy has great respect and admiration for his father,’ Carlson had commented.  ‘Yes sir, if I’ve said it once, I’ll say it again, you’re one lucky man, Cartwright.’

*****

Ben finished his breakfast and hurried down the street, greeting early morning shoppers as he passed them.  He was first to enter the lawyer’s office but only had to wait minutes before being joined by his fellow business associates, Mr. Stillburg, Mr. Bradford and Edward Carlson.

“Good morning, Benjamin,” smiled Carlson, “Jerome, William,” he greeted the others.  “Shall we go inside and conclude our business?”

Carlson held the door opened and allowed the others to enter first.  Once inside, formalities were taken to wind up the last lingering wordings to the contract.  Each man took his turn to sign his name to the document, sealing the deal.  Mr. Carlson smiled at each of them, his eyes lingering on Ben’s face.

“Well, Ben, I am happy that we have come to terms and I am most pleased to be able to do business with you,” he stood to his feet and shook Ben’s hand.  “Welcome aboard.”

Ben clasped the man’s hand in his and returned his smile.  “Thank you sir, I know we will get along just fine.”

“What now, Cartwright?  I mean, are you planning on staying around Genoa for a while?” Carlson inquired, “Cause if you are…”

Ben was quick to answer, “No, no, I promised my son that we would take a couple of days and do some fishing before heading back to the Ponderosa.  I aim on keeping my promise to the boy,” laughed Ben.

“Good.  A father should always keep his promise to his son.  Shows the boy that you are a man of your word.  I like that, Cartwright!”  Edward turned to the others.  “Well, men, if you will meet me at the bank in about…say…half an hour, we will finish our business and then you will be free to be on your way,” he smiled, watching Ben’s face.  “I wouldn’t want you to keep that boy of yours waiting.”

Ben nodded his head, “Speaking of which, I’d better go find him and give him the news.  Thank you again, Edward, for everything.”  Ben extended his hand and waited for Edward to do the same.  Both men clasped the other’s hand in their own and shook it.

Ben stepped out into the warm sun and stood, giving his eyes time to adjust to its brightness.  He glanced up one side of the street and then the other, studying his surroundings.  As his eyes became accustomed to the light, he started up the south side of the street heading for the corrals.  As he made his way into the street, he was suddenly and unexpectedly forced to jump back as four riders galloped carelessly down the center of the main street.

Ben glanced up into the face of the nearest rider, catching the man’s eye as horse and rider galloped past.  The man was tall and gangly, his clothes covered with dirt and dust and Ben, noting the evil smirk on the man’s face, decided to let the incident pass without commenting.

As Ben stepped up onto the walkway, he glanced again over his shoulder at the four men and watched as they entered the saloon on the opposite side of the street.  The man, whom had nearly knocked Ben to his feet, turned and caught Ben watching him.  He paused and then smiled, tipping the brim of his hat at Ben.  Ben turned, ignoring the man’s gesture and moved on toward the corrals, where he knew Joe would be watching the men bringing in the new mustangs.

Ben found his young son straddling the fence, watching with excited eyes as the men herded the group of wild horses into the corral.  When Joe spotted his father, the boy waved his hand in the air as Ben hurried to join his son.

“Hi ya, Pa,” beamed Joe.  “Aren’t they something?” he asked, the excitement causing his voice to be high pitched.

Ben pulled himself up to sit on the top railing, next to his son and smiled warmly at Joe.  “They sure are.  Look at that one.”  Ben pointed to a pretty black and white pinto that seemed to stand out from the others.

“He sure is a fine looking animal,” commented Joe, studying the horse as he paced nervously about the corral with the other animals.  “Someday, I’m gonna have me a pinto, just like that one, maybe even better,” smiled Joe, looking up into his father’s face.

Ben couldn’t help but notice the happy twinkle and the longing in his son’s hazel eyes.  “I bet you will son,” Ben laughed and turned his attention back to the horses.

“Hey Pa, I almost forgot, how’d it go this morning?” Joe asked.

“Very well, very well indeed.  We got the contract,” Ben said proudly.

“That’s great Pa, I knew you would do it,” he flashed a smile in his father’s direction.  “Does that mean we can leave now? I wanna get to those fish.”

Ben slapped his son’s back gently.  “All I have to do is meet with Carlson at the bank in about half and hour.  Why don’t you go back to the hotel and collect our things?  I’ll be along shortly to settle our bill and then we can pick up what we need at the mercantile and then be on our way.”

Joe jumped down from the railing and dusted the back of his trousers off.  “All right, I’ll wait for you out front.  But Pa…hurry, okay?”

“Yes Joseph, I promise, I won’t take any longer than absolutely necessary,” Ben chuckled as he parted company with his son.

Joe rushed back to the hotel and gathered their things, carrying them down to the lobby.  After informing the desk clerk that his father would return in a little while to settle up, Joe hurried to the livery stable and readied their horses.  As he led their mounts across the street to the hotel, he glanced down toward the bank, noting the four peculiar looking characters that lingered outside of the bank’s doorway.  Joe paused, watching as one man spoke to the others and then led the way inside, followed by two of the men.  One man remained on the walkway, glancing nervously about him.  Joe shrugged his shoulders, and continued back to the hotel where he tethered the horses to the hitching post.

Joe made himself comfortable in one of the available rocking chairs that were placed on the porch outside of the hotel’s lobby.  After what seemed like hours to the anxious boy, Joe rose and strolled leisurely down the boardwalk toward the bank.  It was taking his father an awfully long time thought the boy who was yearning to be on his way.  Joe knew his father had told him to wait at the hotel, but Joe was becoming concerned, for he had been watching the front of the bank and it appeared that no one had come out in the last several moments.

As he neared the entrance, the man who had been standing in front of the establishment glared at him, causing Joe to pause briefly.

“I wouldn’t go in there just yet, if’n I was you, kid,” snarled the obnoxious man.

“I’ll go where I please,” snapped Joe, stepping around the man and grabbing the doorknob.

Joe pushed the door opened and stepped inside.  Everything and everybody within the boy’s view seemed to freeze as all eyes turned in his direction.  Suddenly and to Joe’s surprise, he felt his body shoved to the side, falling in his attempt to remain on his feet.  A blast ripped the air, shattering the silence of the room as a body staggered and fell at his feet, blood spraying onto his clothing.

Joe’s eyes frantically searched for his father’s face, finding it looking up at him from where Ben laid at his son’s feet.

“PA!” screeched Joe, realizing that it had been his father who had shoved him out of harm’s way and who had taken the bullet meant for him.  Joe screamed again, as he groped for his father’s body turning the pain filled eyes away from the ruckus.

Around him, bullets where flying, people were screaming and shouting and Joe was hardly aware of the body which covered his own, protecting him from the skirmish that was taking place in the bank.

Minutes later, it was over, the robbers having scattered, had managed to make off with most of the bank’s money.  Only one man lay dying in the floor, held tightly against the pounding heart of his weeping son, Ben Cartwright, who had sacrificed his life for that of his son’s.

“Oh Pa, please…please…” wept Joe as he rocked back and forth, his beloved father clinging desperately to life.  Joe glanced at the hole in the middle of his father’s chest, the blood oozed slowly, draining the man of the precious liquid of life.

“Pa…I’m sorry…I’m so sorry…” sobbed the boy uncontrollably.

“Someone get this man to the doctor,” shouted a voice from behind Joe.  Joe barely felt the tender hands that grasped his shoulders and gently pulled him to his feet as several men gathered around Ben and lifted his body carefully from the floor.

“PA!” bellowed Joe, resisting the hands that restrained him.  Tenderly he felt his body turned from the sight of his father being carried from the bank.  The hands pressed his head against the chest of the man who held him and wrapped themselves about his body in a protective manner.

“Shh…take it easy now, son, everything will be all right,” said a deep voice that spoke in a calm that belied the anxiety rippling throughout the man’s body.

Joe finally turned his head upward and peered into the blue eyes of his father’s new associate, Edward Carlson.  “You try to calm down, Joseph, isn’t it?”

Joe nodded his head, “My Pa…I…gotta go…with my Pa…please…oh please let me go…with him….” Sobbed Joe.

“All right, I’ll take you over to the doctor’s office, but first Joseph, calm down,” encouraged Edward, slipping his arm about the shoulders that trembled and leading the boy from the bloody scene inside of the building.

It was all the elder man could do to keep up with the terrified youth.  Joe all but ran the distance from the bank to the where his father had been taken.  As Joe shoved opened the office door, he caught a glimpse of his father lying on the table in the back room.  The doctor was ripping away what had remained of the shirt Ben wore and was barking out orders to the nurse who aided him. When he glanced up, Joe was standing in the doorway his eyes wide with fear, his face damp with tears that had overflowed and his body shook.

“Come away from the door,” Mr. Carlson ordered gently as he guided Joe to a chair.  “I’m sure the good doctor will allow you to see your father later, but right now he has a lot of work to do.”

Joe merely glanced at Edward, allowing himself to be lowered into the chair that Mr. Carlson had pulled out for him.  “You pull yourself together now young man, your father is going to need you very soon.  You hear me?”

Joe was struggling to control his sobs as he continued to focus his eyes on the door that separated him from his father.  It seemed like hours before that door finally was opened and the doctor stepped into the waiting room.

“How’s my Pa?” Joe asked the minute the doctor shut the door.  “Is he gonna be all right, when can I see him?” he demanded as he stood to his feet.

The doctor placed a calming hand on Joe’s arm and glanced at Edward Carlson and turned back to Joe.  “Your father is in very serious condition, son.  I’m afraid it doesn’t look good.  Are there other family members that we should notify?”

Joe’s eyes instantly filled with tears and when he blinked they rolled timidly down his upturned face.  “What are you saying?” he all but shouted.  “My Pa ain’t dying is he?” wailed Joe.

Again the doctor sought the other man’s face and sadly the physician shook his head.  “I’m sorry, son; it would take a miracle now to save your father.”

“NO!  NO!  NOT MY PA!  NOT PA!” bellowed Joe, wrenching his arms free from the doctor’s gentle hold.  Joe cast wild, frightened eyes around the room and ran for the door that barred him from seeing his father.

Joe tore into the dimly lit room where Ben lay motionless on the narrow bed where the doctor had placed him after removing the bullet that threatened to end his life.  Joe, his face ashen in color, approached the bed cautiously until he stood over his father’s body.

Joe gasped at the sight of his father’s face.  Ben’s features were void of any color.  His lips appeared slightly blue and when Joe reached for his father’s hand, the flesh was anything but warm and soft.

Joe sank to his knees, weeping.  “Oh Papa,” he cried, laying his head against his father’s and his lips brushing against Ben’s ear.  “Please Papa…you can’t leave me…I’m sorry Pa…honest…I’m so sorry,” he sobbed.  “I love you Pa…I love you so much…please, please…you can’t die!”

Time passed slowly for the grieving boy as he watched his father struggling to cling to life.  Joe refused to budge from his spot next to Ben’s bed.  The boy had fallen to sleep several times during the long hours that he maintained his vigil at the bedside. Each time, that he dozed, his arm was carefully laid across his father’s upper torso, placed close enough that his fingers could brush the clammy flesh of his father’s face and gently, lovingly, finger the fragments of silver hair that clung to Ben’s brow.  Joe’s lips stayed pressed to his father’s ear, hoping, praying that his words would somehow pull his father from the depths of his unconscious state and return to him.  Joe cried for hours, his guilt of not obeying his father’s order to wait for him at the hotel, eating away at his heart.  Joe blamed no man for his father’s injury but himself and his inner hate was destroying the boy whom his father had given his life for.

“Papa, please…you gotta wake up now…you hear me?” whispered Joe in broken sobs that wracked his body.  Joe leaned down and covered his father’s face with kisses as his tears dripped onto Ben’s cheeks.  “Please Pa…don’t leave me like…this.  I ain’t got… anyone else…don’t you understand…” cried Joe, “Adam and Hoss…they’ll hate me…for sure…when they find…out what…I’ve done…this time…Oh Pa…please don’t leave me all alone…please…please…please…come back…to me…” Joe’s voice faded to a near inaudible moan as the words were wrenched from his heart.

*****

“How long has the boy been like this?” asked Edward Carlson, pulling the door softly to and turning to face the doctor.

“Ever since Mr. Cartwright was brought in.  The boy’s not eaten a thing in nearly three days and he hasn’t left his father’s side but for just moments.  The only time I’ve seen him sleeping is when he’s just been too exhausted to stay awake, and even then he lays his head next to his father’s.  I’ve tried to get him to eat and lay down, but he refuses.”  The physician crossed the room to his desk and picked up a chart, studying it for a brief second.

“Mr. Cartwright isn’t getting any better Ed.  In fact, I don’t know what’s keeping the man alive even now.  Any other man would have died right away, what with an injury such as he’s got.”

Edward Carlson sighed deeply.  “Ben is a strong man, determined to beat all odds.  If anyone can survive this, he can, and will.  His other sons should be here any time.  I sent them a wire explaining that their father had been wounded and that they were needed here as soon as they could arrange it.  Watch out for the boy until they arrive, will you?  If he needs anything, anything at all, just send for me.  I like the kid, he reminds me of Luke.”  The old man’s lips twisted into a hint of a smile, and just for a fraction of a second, the doctor saw a twinkle in his friend’s eyes.

He patted the man on the back. “Luke was a good boy, Ed, a good boy.”

Edward nodded his head; the sad look returning to the eyes and drowning out the spark that had flickered, however briefly.  “That he was.”  Taking a deep breath and letting it out slowly, he started toward the door.  “I’ll let you know as soon as Cartwright’s sons arrive.”

*****

Adam and Hoss arrived within the hour, and headed straight for the doctor’s office.  Their worry and fear showed in the expressions that their faces bore as they pushed opened the door to the doctor’s waiting room.  The little bell attached to the door’s frame tinkled softly, alerting the physician to the fact that someone needed him.

As he entered the waiting room, Edward pushed his way into the office and turned to face the strangers.  “Are you Ben Cartwright’s sons?” he asked.

Adam removed his hat and glanced from the doctor to the other man, a question showing on his weary face.  “Yes, I’m Adam Cartwright, and this is my brother, Hoss, and you are?”

“I’m sorry; my name is Edward Carlson, a friend of your father’s.  I was the one, who sent you the telegram,” said Edward, offering his hand first to Adam and then to Hoss.

“You father is in here, Mr. Cartwright,” the physician explained, his hand resting on the door handle.

“How is Pa?” asked Hoss anxiously.

“I better explain a few things before I allow you to see your father.  Mr. Cartwright suffered a gunshot wound to the upper chest.  I’m afraid it is very serious.  As of right now, he has not regained consciousness and sadly, does not appear to be improving.  I’ve done all I can do at this point.  The rest is up to your father.  The good thing is, he hasn’t gotten any worse either.  So we wait, I can keep him comfortable, lessen the pain all I can, but other than that, there is nothing more that I can do, I’m sorry.”

“I understand, thank you.  What about our younger brother? He was suppose to be with our father?” questioned Adam.

“Joseph?” Edward interrupted.  “Your little brother is beside himself.  He is devastated, you see, Mr. Cartwright, Adam, the boy blames himself for what happened to your father.  It wasn’t his fault honestly; it was just a case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.  You see, that bullet was meant for your brother, not your father.”

Hoss and Adam swapped puzzled looks. “What do ya mean, meant for our brother?  How so?” asked Hoss.

“The boy wandered into the bank during the holdup, the thieves panicked, seeing as how someone walked in on their job, and when one man aimed his gun at your brother, your father shoved him to the floor and took the bullet instead,” Edward continued to explain.

“It tore the boy apart, seeing his father gunned down the way he was.  He’s not left your father’s side since it happened.’

“The boy’s going to be sick himself, if he doesn’t let me help him,” the doctor told both brothers.  “Come on, I’ll show you,” he said as he led the way to Ben’s room.

The physician quietly eased the door open, allowing both Adam and Hoss to witness the scene inside the dimly lit room.

Joe lay slumped over his father’s body, as he had been for three days.  The sound of his weeping could be heard in the near empty room.  The sobs were broken and filled each brother with heart-wrenching compassion for the young boy who cried out to their father.

“Papa…please…open your eyes.  I need ya…Pa…I ain’t got no one else.  I promise…I’ll be good…please Pa…you can’t die.  Did I tell ya…Pa…I didn’t put that burr under Adam’s saddle…honest…I didn’t…do it?  Pa…Adam and Hoss…they don’t want…me any more…OH PA!  Please…don’t leave me…you…can’t die…Pa…I need ya…” Joe’s sobs caused his body to shake, his breathing was labored and he was totally unaware that his brothers now stood behind him, each fighting their own tears as his words sliced their hearts in two.

Adam, noting the term Joe had reverted to and had often used for his father when the boy had been much younger, ripped at the older brother’s heart.  When he could no longer endure his little brother’s insistent pleas, Adam at last reached down, placing both of his strong hands gently on Joe’s arms and pulled the boy to his feet.  Adam turned Joe around, the tormented look in his little brother’s eyes caused his breath to expel sharply from his lungs.

“Joe,” Adam whispered in a choked voice, stoking the boy’s face with one hand.

Joe tilted his head slightly upward, seeing for the first time his brother’s face.  Instantly his arms wrapped around Adam’s middle and he buried his face as deeply into his brother’s chest as was possible.

“Oh Adam, Adam, please don’t…let Papa die, please…Adam, he’ll…listen to you…he always does…” cried out Little Joe.  “Do something…Adam…hurry…hurry…OH PA,” screamed Joe at the top of his lungs, “Tell…him Adam…tell him…that he can’t…die…”

Joe’s knees buckled beneath him and he slumped against his brother’s breast.  Adam quickly gathered the frail body into his arms, turning toward the doctor.  “Do you have some place where I can lay him down?”

The good-hearted physician quickly opened another door to a room that sided with the one where Ben was being cared for.  “In here, there’s a bed.  Thank God you got here when you did,” he said, stepping clear so that Adam could place Joe on the bed.

Hoss followed Adam into the room and quickly pulled back the blankets, allowing Adam to place Joe down carefully.  Joe had drifted into a semi-unconscious state, much to his brothers and the doctor’s relief.  Quickly, Adam pulled the boy’s boots from his feet and covered him with the blanket.

“I’ll stay with Joe,” instructed Adam, “you stay with Pa.  I’ll be right there once I’m sure Joe will sleep for awhile,” he instructed Hoss.

“Sure ‘nough,” agreed Hoss, taking one last look at his little brother.

“I’ll give the boy an injection. This will help him rest,” said the doctor, as he tapped the end of a long needle, sending a tiny spray of liquid into the air.  “He wouldn’t let me come close enough to him before to inject him with this,” smiled the doctor to Adam.  “He fought me like a little bear cub the first time I tried; after that, I didn’t bother the boy again. I figured it best to let him be.”  The doctor pulled the syringe from Joe’s arm and patted Adam’s back.  “If you need me, I’ll be out front; I have other patients to see.”

“Thank you, for everything,” Adam said, brushing his face with his hands as soon as the doctor was out of sight.

Adam glanced down at Joe as his eyes unexpectedly filled with tears.  He brushed back locks of brown curls that had plastered themselves to his brother’s brow.  Adam leaned down, placing his lips to the dampened cheek and tenderly kissed the soft flesh.

“I’m sorry little buddy, for doubting you, and for making your life a living hell, and for putting you through this,” whispered Adam.  Adam’s hand caressed his brother’s arm, feeling the warmth of Joe’s skin against his.  “I love you pal…I’m sorry that you think otherwise, and I’m sorry for making you feel like I didn’t care.”  A sob caught in Adam’s throat and he had to swallow several times to remove it.

*****

Joe slept for several hours.  More than once Adam left his father’s bedside to check on his younger brother.  Each time, he knelt beside Joe’s bed and each time, he placed a kiss to the warm cheek or brushed back wayward curls from Joe’s brow; and each time his throat became thickened with raw emotion that threatened to spill forth.

The hours had past slowly; dawn was just beginning to break.  Adam and Hoss dozed in their chairs, Joe lay sleeping and Ben still clung to life.

“PA!”

The scream jarred Adam from his fitful dreams as he fought to rub the sleep from his eyes.  It was quiet in the room.  Adam glanced at his father but saw no change in Ben’s condition.  Across the room, Hoss still dozed snoring lightly and Adam relaxed back in his chair.

‘Must have been dreaming,’ he told himself.

“PAPA!  PLEASE!”

Adam jumped to his feet and hurried into the adjoining room where Joe slept.  As his eyes became focused by the soft glow of the lamp, Adam could see Joe struggling to free himself from the tangle of blankets.  Tears coursed their way down the boy’s face as Adam hurried to gather the frightened boy into his arms.  Joe fought against the loving arms that had clasped themselves around him.

“No…no…I have to go to him…Pa…I gotta help him…” cried Joe through his nightmare.

“Shh…take it easy Little Buddy.  It’s okay, now,” soothed Adam.  “I’m here Joe, can you wake up for me, pal?”

“Pa…Pa…he…can’t die…” whined Joe.

“Joe…Joe…come on buddy, open your eyes,” encouraged Adam, rubbing his hand up and down the middle of his little brother’s back.

“That’s it, wake up.”  Adam smiled down into the tear stained face.  “Take it easy, Joe, you were just dreaming.”

Joe’s eyes sought his brother’s face.  “Adam…Adam…Pa…is he…?”

Adam gently pressed Joe’s face against his chest.  Looking at the sorrow in the hazel eyes broke the older boy’s heart, making it next to impossible for Adam to look directly at his brother.

“Pa’s hanging on Joe, that’s about all,” Adam said truthfully.  He heard the sob catch in his brother’s throat and squeezed the boy a little tighter.

“He can’t die…not Pa…” whispered Little Joe, his words broken by his crying.  “Please, I wanna see him…please Adam.”  Joe turned his head upward so that he could see his brother’s face.  “Please?  All I wanna do is look at him and…be close to him…Adam?”

Adam, his heart in his throat could only nod his head and motioned for Joe to follow him.  Joe climbed from the bed and fell into step behind his brother.  As Joe neared the bed where Ben lay, he felt his tears once again as they filled his eyes and blinded his vision.  Joe stopped near the head of the bed and knelt down beside of his father.

“Pa?” he whispered softly.

The room was wrapped in colossal silence as if each person expected an answer from the bed-ridden man.  No one stirred; the air was thick with expectancy, as man and boy waited.

“Joe…”

All eyes, even Hoss who had awakened, stared wide-eyed at Ben, whose eyes had, without warning, flickered opened.

“Joseph…” the mumbled name sounded again.  Ben’s fingers began moving, urging the boy to come close.

“Papa?” cried Joe softly as he pressed his dampened cheek next to his father’s.  “Papa,” he said a little louder.

Ben’s long slender fingers wrapped themselves in the mass of dark curls and the weakened father forced his head to turn just enough so that his lips pressed against his son’s face.

“I heard…you calling…but I couldn’t…answer you,” muttered Ben.

“Pa,” smiled Adam as he knelt down next to Joe and took his father’s free hand into his own.  “How do you feel?”

Ben forced his lips into a smile.  “Not…so good, son.”

“Howdy, Pa,” beamed Hoss who had moved to the other side of the bed.

Ben’s eyes closed briefly and then flickered opened.  The whole time, his fingers were caressing his youngest son’s head.  “Shh…don’t cry, sweetheart,” whispered Ben, turning so that he could see Joe’s face.  “Papa’s not going…to leave you.”

“Oh Pa…I’m so sorry…I didn’t mean…”

“Shh…I know son…I know.  You…didn’t do anything…wrong.”  Ben’s eyes closed a second time, this time they stayed closed.

Joe turned frightened eyes up at Adam and then back to his father.  “PA!”

Adam quickly placed his hand against Joe’s back.  “He’s sleeping buddy, that’s all.  Come on, you need to get back in the bed as well.”  Adam helped his brother to his feet and tossed his arm around the quivering shoulders.

“Are you sure, Adam…that he’s just sleeping?”

“Positive, now, let’s get you back to bed.”  Adam smiled and gently guided the younger boy back to the other room.  “Into bed,” he ordered gently holding the covers up until Joe had made himself comfortable.  Adam placed the blankets around his brother and then sat down next to him on the side of the bed.

“Joe, you saved Pa’s life,” smiled the older brother.

“How?  He really saved mine, ’cause that guy in the bank was going to shoot me,” explained Joe.

“Yes, I know, but didn’t you hear what Pa said?  He said that he heard you calling to him.  Joe don’t you see, if you hadn’t been here with him, begging him not to leave you, he might not have had the will to live. Thanks Joe,” Adam gently allowed his fingers to brush away the lone tear that trickled down the side of his brother’s cheek.

“Thanks, for what Adam?  I was scared to death; I just knew Pa was going to die and that I’d be left here all alone and…”

Adam cupped his brother’s chin with his hand, “Alone Joe?”

Joe could not free his face from his brother’s strong fingers, so rather than look into the dark eyes that scrutinized his face, Joe closed his eyes, swallowing the lump in his throat.

“Did you really feel that way, little buddy?” asked Adam softly.

Joe nodded his head up and down unable to open his eyes and face his brother.  The tears slipped from beneath the thick lashes and rolled unceremoniously down his face.  Adam tenderly pulled his brother up into a sitting position and gathered the remorseful boy into his arms.  Adam’s chin rested atop the thick mane of hair.

“I’m sorry Joe, for hurting you.  Can you ever forgive me?” whispered Adam in a choked voice.

“I didn’t do it Adam, put that burr under your saddle, I mean…I didn’t do it,” muttered Joe.

“I know you didn’t.  I’m sorry Joe for not believing you.  I was wrong and I apologize,” said Adam.

“Hey, is this a private conversation?  Or can anyone come in?” Hoss asked from the doorway.

Joe raised his head and gave a smile to his middle brother.  “You can come in.”

“Thanks, I got some good news.  The doc just took a look at Pa and said it might take a while, but it looked like Pa was gonna be all right in time,” Hoss brushed his massive hands across his round face.  “It sure ‘nough was a miracle, doc said.  And he gives Joe the credit too, ’cause Joe never left Pa’s side the whole time.  He just sat there and talked Pa back from death’s door, sure’nough,” beamed Hoss, as he repeated the phrase.

Hoss lowered himself on the opposite side of the bed and smiled broadly.  “Short Shanks, what’d we ever do without ya?”  Hoss tousled the top of Joe’s head, causing the boy to giggle.

Suddenly, Joe felt his body pushed down, against the bed and held there.  Twenty fingers began tickling his body until Joe began giggling loudly.  He squirmed and tossed about, trying desperately to free his body of the gentle torture.

“Stop, stop…oh please…don’t…you’re gonna make me pee!” Squealed the youngest of the Cartwright brothers, happily.

“That’s enough, Hoss, let him up.  I think he’s too old to be having an accident,” laughed Adam as he helped Joe straighten himself in the bed.

“Get some rest squirt, I’ll see you in the morning,” smiled Adam as he followed Hoss from the room.

“Night Punkin,” laughed Hoss.

“Night Adam, night Hoss…hey…I love ya, both of you!” called Joe, watching his brothers as they stopped and turned around to look at him.

“We love you too, you little scamp, now get to sleep!”

Adam shut the door, glancing at Hoss who was watching him, a hint of a smile on his corpulent face.  “Well, it’s the truth, I do, you know.”

Hoss gripped Adam by the top of the shoulder.  “I know it, so does everyone else.”

*****

“Ben Cartwright, you’re one lucky man.  I know I’ve said it a million times, but it’s true.  You’ve got to be about the luckiest son of a gun that ever walked the face of the earth.  Why just look at you, sitting up in that bed the way you’re doing.  Why who’d have guessed it, most men would have just given up and died,” exclaimed Edward Carlson who had stopped by the little clinic to visit his new business partner.

Ben smiled and nodded his head, turning slightly to study his youngest son’s face, briefly.  He turned to his company, “I know I’m lucky.  You see, I had all the reasons in the world to want to live.”  Ben motioned for Joe to come sit next to him on the bed.

“I promised to take this young man fishing, and I aim to do just that.”  Ben turned and smiled at Joe, slipping his arm about the boy.  “Just as soon as the doctor tells me I’m well enough to travel, Joseph and I are going fishing, aren’t we son?”

“We sure are Pa,” laughed Joe, leaning back on Ben’s pillows and placing his head on his father’s shoulder.

“Hey, what about us?” Hoss asked with a certain amount of anxiety.  “We like to fish, too ya know.”

Ben glanced at Joe and together they started laughing.  “Not this time Hoss. Sorry, but I owe this trip exclusively to your little brother.”

“Aw shucks,” Hoss groaned, but the light in his eyes belied the mock frown on his face.

“That’s okay brother, there’s lots of work to do back home, plus there’s a dance coming up in a week or so, and I happen to know a tall, handsome blond, blue-eyed woman who is still waiting for you to ask her to that dance.”  Adam winked at Joe.

“Bessie?  Oh lordy, Adam I plum forgot!  Oh no, that little filly’ll have my head for sure.  Come on,” Hoss jumped up from the bed and started toward the door.

Adam rose from his chair, an odd expression on his face.  “Where are we going, Hoss?” he said, glancing around at the faces in the room.

“Home…that’s where, home, if’n I don’t get home and ask Bessie Sue to that dance, why…well…I’d sure hate to see what she’d do to me.  Well, ya comin’ or not?” shouted Hoss as he began flinging his things into his valise.  “Did Mary Ann say yes, when ya asked her?”

“Mary who?  Oh, you mean Mary Ann…Mary Ann…OH NO!  Hoss, I forgot to invite her!  Come on, quit wasting time, Pa, we gotta get home.  Joe you take care now and make sure Pa doesn’t over do it.  HOSS, come on boy, aren’t you ready to go yet?” shouted Adam, flinging open the door.

“I’m comin’, I’m comin’” yelled Hoss as he rushed from the room.

The room erupted into laughter as his family and Edward watched Hoss in his frenzy to pack and catch up with Adam.  The door banged shut, jarring everything in the room.

“Yep Cartwright, you’re one lucky man!” laughed Carlson.

*****

Epilogue

Several days later, a very rested Ben and Joe returned home. They were greeted happily by Adam and Hoss which each gave their younger brother a much-deserved hug.

Good ta have ya home, Short Shanks,” smiled Hoss as he glanced at his father.  “And you too, Pa,” he added.

“Great to be home, isn’t it son?” Ben said, slipping his arm around Joe and pulling him close.  “In fact, it’s good to be alive!”

“It’s good to have you both home, that’s for sure,” laughed Adam.

“Does that mean you missed me?” giggled Little Joe.

Adam turned, giving Joe a mock frown, and then started laughing, “Yeah kid, I missed you,” he said truthfully.

“Honest”” Joe seemed surprised.

“Honest,” admitted Adam.  “Hey, Joe, there’s a letter for you; it’s on Pa’s desk.”

“A letter?  For me?” he asked as he hurried toward the house.

Joe ran to his father’s desk and quickly searched for the letter addressed to him.  He shuffled through the small stack of mail before finding it and then studied the return address for several minutes before ripping open the envelope.

“Who’s it from son?” questioned Ben as he peeked over his son’s shoulder.

Joe turned and looked first at his brothers and then his father.  “Seth Rawlins.”

“Seth?  But I thought…” started Ben.

“He quit Pa.  Hank said he left the day after we got the wire about you getting shot.  Didn’t give Hank a reason, just said that it was time for him to move on,” explained Adam.

Ben scratched his chin and sat down in his desk chair.  “Hmm…that’s strange.  I thought the boy liked working for us.”  Ben then turned to study Joe’s face; the boy seemed upset with the contents of the letter.

“Joe, is something wrong?” Ben questioned.

“No, not really, maybe you better read this,” he said and handed the letter to his father.

Ben glanced at the heading, scanned the faces of his sons, and turned his attention to the words scribbled on the paper as he began to read aloud.

 

Dear Little Joe,

I was sorry to hear about ya ‘re Pa.  I hope by now he is better and that the two of ya have arrived back home.  As ya can see, I ain’t workin’ for ya Pa no more.  I thought that after what I dun, I’d best be on my way and gone fore ya got back home.  What I’m tryin’ ta tell ya is, it was me that put that burr under ya brother’s saddle.  I dun it just as I was mountin’ up.  I don’t know ‘xcatly why I dun it, I guess I was just jealous, cause ya seemed to have it all and I ain’t got nothin’.  Meanin’ family and the like.  You’re Pa sure is one lucky man, and ya’re one lucky kid, to have a father like ya got and two brothers what’s always lookin’ out for ya and all.  I hope ya know that. 

I’m sorry, kid, for causin’ ya so much misery.  I hope ya can forgive me someday, I didn’t mean fur ya’re brothers to get so mad at ya and all, tell’ em for me, that I was the one what did it, especially Adam, cause he was the maddest at ya. 

I’m goin’ back to Texas.  I got my Pa and my little sister down there, and I gots some I’m sorries ta say ta them as well.  Hope they’re as understandin’ as ya family is, cause I see now that I miss ’em a bunch. 

Maybe we’ll meet up again someday, if’n we do, I’ll let ya take a punch at me for what I dun to ya.  See ya ‘round Little Joe. 

Seth Rawlins

 

Ben folded the paper up and handed it back to Joe.  For several moments he studied his youngest son’s face, unable to find the right words to express his feelings.

“Seems like we’ve all made some mistakes,” he uttered softly.

Adam and Hoss nodded their heads as well, both watching Little Joe.  Joe suddenly stood to his feet, cramming the letter into his shirt pocket.  He turned so that he could see all three faces of his family.

“I just want all of you to know, I guess sometimes I can really mess up pretty badly.  But I would never do anything to hurt any one of you, ever, leastwise not on purpose.  You’ve all I’ve got, even though for a while I was afraid I didn’t have anyone, but I was wrong.  I know now, that no matter what I do, no matter how badly I mess up, I’ve always got family that will still care about me and love me, I hope,” laughed Joe lightly.

He sniffed his nose and smiled at each of them, “In the words of our father,” Joe gave a slight bow at his father, “It’s over, it’s finished, and it’s in the past, now let’s move on!”

Adam shook his head, laughing, “You know kid, listening to you just now, assures me that Pa and I have done a right good job at raising you.”

“What’s with this, Pa and I, thing?” laughed Ben, rising and drawing Joe into the folds of his arms, “He’s my son, not yours!” he laughed, “I get the credit for him turning out so well.”

“Oh gee, thanks, does that mean that every time he messes up, I get the credit?”

“Credit, blame, call it what you will…”

“And what about Hoss?”

“Hey, leave me out of this one…he’s my kid brother, and I’m happy with just that.  Come on, I’m hungry, beat ya to the table,” laughed Hoss.

Ben, Joe and Hoss raced to the table, leaving Adam to ponder the words of his father.

‘Blame…great…just what I need…now if he had said credit…’ Adam ceased his mumbling as he slid into his place at the table.  He glanced around at his family, his eyes fixing on his younger brother.  “Joe,” he said, taking everyone by surprise, “so that you’ll always know, if I ever have a son of my own, I want him to be just like you.”

“Pa,” smiled Adam, “You’re one lucky man, I hope I’m as lucky!”

“Luck has nothing to do with it son, it’s in the breeding,” smiled Ben.

“It’s in the what?” asked Joe, his face a puzzle of different expressions.

“Never you mind, boy; just eat your vegetables!”

***End***

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