An Eye for an Eye (by Rona)

Summary: What Happened Next for “The Quest”

Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  T
Word Count:  10,310


 

The log slid down the flume and splashed into the Truckee River far below, and Joe Cartwright couldn’t stop the broad grin from breaking forth. “That’s the last one!” he called. “The job’s finished!”

A cheer rose from the men round about, and Joe felt a flush of warmth. At one point, he had thought he wouldn’t manage to fulfill his contract with the Sun Mountain Mining Company, but thanks to the help he had received from his family, he had done it. He shot a glance at his father, who smiled back proudly.

The men began to break up, heading back to the encampment to pack their gear and move out. Joe spoke to each one, just a few words, but enough to make his appreciation felt. The men had liked working for Joe. He never asked anyone to do what he wouldn’t do himself, and they respected him. Many expressed the hope that they would work for him again some day.

Finally, it was just the family left, and they walked wearily down to the camp. Joe felt a certain reluctance to leave. He was unsure what to do about the flume. Should he leave it, in the hope that it might be useful one day, or should he tear it down? He was still musing over this as he helped pack the last of the supplies into the wagon.

“Coming, Joe?” Ben asked, as he climbed onto the seat.

“In a minute, Pa,” Joe answered. “I’m just going to have one last look around.”

“See you at home,” Ben said, cheerfully. He urged the team into a walk and they moved off. Hoss mounted Chubb and followed. Adam hesitated.

“Could you use some company?” he asked, tentatively.

“Sure, thanks,” Joe replied, and they led their horses over to the trees and tethered them there.

They walked in silence up to the now bare meadow. Joe had done as he had been taught, and Buckhorn meadow was already replanted with saplings, one for every tree he had cut down. Adam stopped to look at the view, and Joe wandered over to the flume and leaned on it. He was reluctant to knock it down, but it was out of place in the clearing. He glanced at the saplings planted around, and knew that it would have to be dismantled.

“It’s a pity to take it down, isn’t it?” Adam said, and Joe startled.

“I didn’t hear you,” he said. “Yes, it’s a pity. Should we make a start today?”

“Nah, just leave it,” Adam advised. “We’ll send a crew up here next time we’re short of things for them to do.” Adam rested his hand on Joe’s shoulder, the way Ben so often did. “Are you proud of yourself, buddy?” he asked.

“Yes,” Joe answered. “But I couldn’t have done it without you.” He shook his head. “I sure underestimated Will Povey. I hope he goes to jail, along with Dave Donovan and Crawford.”

“Well, we’ll just have to wait and see,” said Adam. “Roy should have picked him up by now.”

They stood for several minutes longer, neither one speaking. Joe was suddenly realizing how tired he was. Adam was thinking about how Joe had matured over the last few weeks. He was no longer the lad who had been hell-raising in town.

“Let’s go,” Adam said, finally. He turned to walk away.

A shot rang out, and they both instinctively ducked for cover on the far side of the flume. “Where did that come from?” Joe gasped.

“I don’t know,” Adam responded. “Let’s get out of here. We’ve got cover.” He gave Joe a push. They scurried along a few more yards, but another shot bit into the flume just in front of Joe’s face. He skidded to a halt, and Adam bumped into him.

“Cartwright!” shouted a voice, and they looked up. High above them on the flume stood a man.

“That’s Will Povey!” Joe exclaimed. “I thought Roy would’ve picked him up by now.”

“Never mind that!” said Adam, exasperated. “Just keep moving!” He gave Joe another shove. Before either of them took more than a step, another bullet bit into the flume.

Both brothers had their guns drawn, and Adam cocked his, preparing to fire. Povey jumped down, out of sight. “Now’s our chance,” Adam said. “Run!”

They jumped to their feet, and rounded the end of the flume. They had no idea what Povey was up to, but they didn’t intend to hang around and find out. They hadn’t taken more than a few steps when there was a tremendous explosion. As one, they whirled, watching as bits of the flume flew into the air in all directions. To Joe, it was a scene all too reminiscent of just a few weeks ago, when Donovan had blown up part of the flume.

The massive logs began to move slowly, then ever faster. The brothers felt the ground under their feet quiver. “Move!” Adam ordered, but he didn’t need to say anything. Instinct already had Joe on the move.

With a sudden ‘whump’, the flume collapsed, and logs began slide down the hill towards the Cartwrights. They kept running, not risking looking back. But it didn’t matter. The collapsing flume overtook them, and they were swept away.

*****

“What was that?” Hoss asked, looking over his shoulder. A muffled sound had reached his ears.

“I didn’t hear anything,” Ben admitted. The noise of the wagon wheels tended to drown out most other things. “But it was probably Joe and Adam knocking down that flume. That was what was at the back of Joe not coming down with us.”

“It coulda bin at that,” Hoss agreed, and they rode on in companionable silence. “I can hardly wait to get home to Hop Sing’s cookin’,” Hoss said. “I’m plumb staved.”

“Son, you’re always plumb starved,” Ben said, affectionately, and smiled. “I feel a might hungry myself.”

*****

Lying on his back, Joe felt pulped. He didn’t know if he’d been knocked out or not, but he felt incapable of movement. For a while, he just lay there and drifted. But then he remembered what had happened, and raised his head to look round for his brother.

Pain hammered through Joe’s head, and down his right arm. He swallowed against the nausea that rose in his throat, and breathed shallowly until the sickness passed. Slowly, he sat up, and took stock. His right wrist was clearly broken, the hand dangling at a peculiar angle. His right knee was sore, too, and when he attempted to stand, it wouldn’t take his weight.

“Adam?” Joe called, becoming increasingly concerned for his brother’s safety. “Adam!”

“Over here!” Adam called, and Joe scrambled across the ground as best he could, until he came to the pile of debris from the flume. His heart was in his mouth, unsure of how he would find Adam. But whatever he had imagined, the reality was totally different.

When the logs had come down, they had carried all sorts of soil and debris with them. By some freak, Adam had ended up on top of a log, and so had escaped injury. However, when the log had come to rest, he was trapped underneath it. None of the weight of the log was bearing down on him, but there simply wasn’t space for him to pull his legs free. Joe gazed at him for several long seconds, taking in his brother’s predicament.

“Are you all right?” Adam asked, seeing the blood on Joe’s head.

“I’m fine,” Joe answered, automatically. “Are you?”

“I’m just stuck,” Adam replied, sounding frustrated. “Can you get me out of here?”

“Sure,” responded Joe, in a confident tone, although he wasn’t at all sure he could help. He carefully made sure that Adam didn’t see his broken arm, and slithered down, out of sight.

Luck was on Joe’s side, for he saw that he need only pull clear a smaller log beneath the one trapping Adam and his brother would be free. Dangling from that log was the frayed remains of a rope that had once anchored the logs together. “Hang on!” Joe called, and pulled the rope to a small tree. He wound the rope round, to give himself extra leverage, and braced himself as best he could. “Ready?” he called.

“Ready,” came the response.

It seemed for several heart-breaking moments that Joe wouldn’t have enough leverage, or strength, to move the smaller log. He twisted the rope round his left forearm, and prayed that nothing untoward would happen. Straining every sinew, he pulled.

The rope snapped, but it didn’t matter. Joe toppled flat on his back, but he heard the roar as the logs rushed off further down the hill. He lay there, gasping for breath, seeing spots before his eyes. When his vision cleared, he looked up to see Adam kneeling beside him, worry etched on his face. “Joe, are you all right?”

Ignoring the question, Joe found a smile, relieved to see that Adam was indeed unharmed, apart from some cuts and grazes. He allowed himself to relax, knowing that Adam could take charge now. “Big brother, I’m real glad to see you.”

By now, Adam was cataloguing Joe’s injuries for himself. The broken wrists, and head injury were the obvious ones. He felt down Joe’s legs, and Joe flinched when Adam touched his sore knee. “We’ve got to get out of here,” Adam said. “Joe, I’ll get the horses. Sorry, buddy, but you’ll have to ride. There’s no other way.”

“I’ll manage,” Joe assured him. Now that Adam was safe, the adrenalin had cleared Joe’s system, and he felt exhausted. He lay back and closed his eyes as Adam went to fetch the horses.

*****

“Gone?” Joe echoed, blankly. He swallowed, realizing what this meant. They would have to walk out.

“They didn’t snap their reins,” Adam said, explaining, although he knew the information was useless to them. “Povey must have untied them.” He looked thoughtfully at Joe, assessing the younger man’s condition, and knowing that they couldn’t afford to spend the night on the mountain. “We have to walk out of here, but it’s going to be difficult,” he went on. “We don’t have any water, and I don’t know when we’ll reach shelter, or even meet someone up here.” Pinching the bridge of his nose, Adam went on, “It’s going to be difficult for you.”

“I’ll be all right,” Joe declared. He was furious with Povey for leaving them in such a predicament. “We don’t have any choice.”

“Let me fix you up a bit first,” Adam suggested. “If I splint your wrist, that should help some.” He went off, and came back a little while later with some branches that would do as a splint, and held them on with the rope Joe had used to free him. It was a makeshift, but it would prevent the hand moving and causing Joe as much pain. Gently, he tucked the hand into Joe’s jacket. “Ready?” he asked, quietly.

“Ready,” Joe confirmed, and took a deep breath as Adam pulled him to his feet.

For an instant, his head swam alarmingly. He drew in deep gulps of air while waiting for it to settle. Once it did, he looped his arm round Adam’s shoulder, and Adam slipped an arm round Joe’s waist. In that fashion, they began to make their halting way towards safety.

*****

“I wonder where Joe and Adam have got to?” Ben said, as he came back from the barn. Hoss, sitting gazing idly into the fire, glanced at him.

“I dunno,” he said. “Perhaps they decided to camp for the night.”

“They don’t have any gear with them,” Ben objected. “And it’s just starting to rain.”

Getting to his feet, Hoss stretched before ambling over to the door to peer out at the storm crossing the mountains. The rain was just starting and was quite gentle, but Hoss could see that it would soon turn into a very unpleasant night. “They’ll be home afore that hits,” Hoss said, confidently. “Likely they jist went into town.”

“I’ll give them what for if they did,” Ben growled. “Leaving us to unload that wagon?” His twinkling eyes belied his gruff tone. “Wait’ll they get home!”

*****

“I think we should stop here for the night,” Adam suggested. He estimated that they had traveled a couple of miles, but it had been hard going for every step of the way. Even once they were back on the road, Joe had found it very difficult to walk, despite Adam supporting a good part of his weight, and they had to stop and rest often. Each time, Joe had found it harder to summon the resolve necessary to get to his feet. His head ached and pain throbbed from his wrist. His knee was now totally numb, and had swelled dramatically.

The lack of water had been almost the hardest part, but they had at last come to a stream, where both had greedily drunk their fill. It was then that Adam suggested stopping for the night. There was enough deadfall to fashion a rough shelter from and Adam had seen the storm cloud coming.

“Whatever,” Joe allowed, to weary to care where they stopped, just so long as they stopped moving for a long time. His eyes drifted shut.

Summoning what was left of his energy, Adam quickly made them a shelter. It was crude, and if the wind changed even slightly, they would get wet, but it was the best he could do with no tools. He found a match lurking deep in the corner of one of his coat pockets, and collected some firewood, too. He had been keeping his eyes open for game, but nothing presented itself. After foraging, Adam found some berries, and he brought those back to camp in his hat.

After lighting the fire, Adam roused Joe, and moved him into the shelter. “Come on, Joe, eat some of these,” Adam coaxed. The rain was just starting, pattering gently on the twigs above their heads.

“I’m not hungry,” Joe protested. He saw the look on Adam’s face, and made an effort to force down a few of the juicy fruits. Then he closed his eyes again, and went back to sleep.

Despite the fire, it was cold, and the wind picked up quickly. Adam gazed sightlessly at the flames, as he thought about Will Povey. Adam believed in law and order, but if he had had Povey there, he’d have beaten him into a pulp, for the suffering he had caused Joe. Adam knew his brother was in severe pain, but apart from one or two groans and winces, Joe hadn’t complained at all as they journeyed down the mountain.

Looking at their situation honestly, Adam didn’t think they would be able to travel on again in the morning. He didn’t know what kind of damage had been done to Joe’s knee, but it was too much. Joe needed to rest and regain some of his strength. A gust of wind blew some rain into their shelter, and Joe moaned in his sleep. Adam soothed his brother, barely aware that he was doing it. After a moment, it impinged on his consciousness that Joe was very warm. Alert now, Adam placed his hand on Joe’s forehead, and realized that Joe was running a fever, the coldness of Adam’s hand not withstanding.

As the night wore on, the weather deteriorated further. The wind whipped in every direction, and their makeshift shelter was soon in pieces. Adam and Joe huddled together under Adam’s big coat as best they could, but long before morning, they were soaked to the skin, and thoroughly chilled. Their fire didn’t survive the deluge of rain. Joe’s fever climbed steadily.

As the dawn broke, the storm finally abated. Adam had had vague intentions of walking out for help, leaving Joe where he was, but after the night they had just passed, he knew that that idea was out of the question. He had barely closed his eyes, and Joe was ill. There was no way he could leave him alone. Besides, when they failed to return the previous night, Ben would have been alerted that there was something wrong, and he and Hoss would be out looking for them. Adam knew that the best thing he could do was stay where he was, and take care of Joe as best he could.

*****

“The wagon’s ready,” Hoss said, coming into the house. “I’ve put some blankets in the back.”

“I’ve got some food,” said Ben, swinging the saddlebags onto his shoulder. “Let’s go.” He picked up the rain slickers and took them along, too. There were clouds over the mountains again.

They traveled in silence. It had been a long night for both Ben and Hoss, as they realized that Adam and Joe weren’t coming home. They had no idea what kind of trouble had found the missing men, but they feared the worst.

It was a journey of several hours to Buckhorn meadow, and the sun was nearing noon as they neared. The clouds loomed ever closer over the mountains. Ben kept a close eye on the weather, as Hoss drove the wagon.

“Hey! Over here!” a voice shouted, and Ben recognized it as Adam’s with a burst of relief. Hard on the heels of that came worry. Where was Joe? What had happened to them, that they had only come such a short distance? He jumped down from the wagon as Hoss pulled it to a stop, and hurried over to Adam.

“Are you all right?” he demanded, hugging his son close. “What happened? Where’s Joe?”

“I’m fine,” Adam replied, although he was still wet, and shivering. “Joe’s over here. He’s been hurt. It’s a long story, Pa, and I’ll tell you once we get going. Joe needs medical attention.” He led Ben over to where Joe lay.

“Joe?” Ben said gently, and was rewarded when Joe’s green eyes opened, and he smiled.

“Hi, Pa,” he whispered. He was shivering violently, and sweat beaded his brow and upper lip. Ben was about to stroke Joe’s head when he saw the wound there. Alerted, he saw the splinted wrist, and saw where Adam had split Joe’s pants leg to allow the knee room to swell.

“We’ve brought blankets,” Ben said, taking charge. “Strip off those wet things, and wrap yourselves in the blankets.” He began to help Joe, seeing that Adam was quite able to help himself.

Before too long, the brothers were warmly wrapped in the blankets, and they were headed for home. Ben was cursing the fact that they hadn’t bought a horse with them, so they would have to wait to send for the doctor. He sat in the back of the wagon with Adam and Joe, supporting Joe’s head. Joe dozed, wakening often from the bumpy ride, but he voiced no complaint. Adam told Ben and Hoss what had happened to them.

Naturally, Ben and Hoss were upset and angry when they heard the story. However, there was nothing they could do, until they got a message sent into town. Adam, warm at last, relaxed and leant against Ben. He fell asleep in an instant, despite the jolting of the wagon.

About three quarters of the way home, they met a bunch of hands, and sent Fred off into town for the doctor and the sheriff. Adam roused slightly at this, but seeing they weren’t home, allowed himself to go back to sleep, still leaning on Ben’s strong shoulder. Joe was now awake, and groaning steadily. He could feel every jolt and bump shoot through his abused body. One minute, he was shivering, the next he was too hot. He felt dreadful, and wondered if he could bear this jolting journey any longer. Each time this thought crossed his mind, he would open his eyes and look at Ben. Somehow, every time, Ben would be looking at him, and would say something calming and soothing, and Joe would close his eyes again, determined that he would make it home without complaining.

There was never a more welcome sight than the ranch house that afternoon. The rain had, thankfully, held off, but it was starting to spit as Hoss pulled the team to a stop. Adam opened his eyes, and squinted round blearily. He still felt exhausted, but he was hungry, now, too. It seemed an age since he had eaten the sandwiches that Ben had brought them.

“We’ll take Joe in first, then come back for you, Adam,” Ben suggested.

“I can manage,” Adam said, and quite easily completed the end of his journey. Ben and Hoss carried Joe in between them. It didn’t take long to settle them into bed, and Adam fell asleep again almost at once. Ben checked that he was warm enough, but not hot, then left quietly, shutting the door gently behind him.

It seemed to Ben that Paul took an inordinate amount of time to arrive at the ranch, and Fred had actually had to go looking for him. Joe was fretful, burning up with fever, and in obvious pain. Ben removed the splint Adam had put on, for Joe’s hand was a bit swollen, and bathed his son’s head with cool water, while urging him to drink whenever possible.

The first thing Paul did was reduce the fracture in Joe’s wrist, then he checked him over. “Ice for that knee, and no more walking on it. I suspect he’s torn a ligament, and there’s no cure for that but time. Once the swelling is down, bandage it up tightly, but no walking! The bump on the head isn’t serious. It looks worse than it is. Apart from that, he’s suffering from mild exposure. He should be all right in a few days.” Paul set about fashioning a plaster cast for Joe’s wrist, grateful that he was able to get the supplies to make casts, for they were so much better for broken bones than splints ever were. A short time later, he was finished, the cast was hardening, and he had given Joe some morphine for the pain.

“Would you like to tell me the story?” Paul asked, sitting down to enjoy the coffee Hop Sing served them downstairs.

Before Ben could answer, there were hooves in the yard, and Roy Coffee came into the house. “Got your message, Ben,” he said, by way of greeting. “What’s this all about?”

“Sit down,” Ben said, dryly, for Roy had plunked himself down on the settee beside Paul.

Ben’s coffee grew cold as he told his guests the story Adam had related to him. There was horror in his voice as he related the flume’s collapse, as seen from Adam’s perspective, and pride when he told of how Joe, though gravely injured, had selflessly worked to rescue his brother. Then he told of how Adam had found the horses gone – stolen – and he and Joe set out to walk. Briefly, he mentioned them spending the night out in the storm, with no food, no shelter and precious little water. He completed the telling by relating how he and Hoss had found them and brought them safely home.

“I’ve been looking for Povey,” Roy said. He frowned. “I’ll get a posse organized in the morning, Ben and we’ll get him, never fear.”

“Thank you, Roy,” Ben said, gratefully. He didn’t mention the likelihood of Povey never being found. “What about Crawford?” he asked.

“Both he and Donovan are locked up tight down my jailhouse,” Roy replied. “We’re just waiting for the circuit judge to arrive in about three weeks.” He rose. “I’ll circulate the descriptions of the horses. Good thing both animals are quite distinctive, isn’t it? I’ll keep you posted, Ben.”

“Thanks, Roy,” Ben said, although he privately thought that Roy had no chance of finding either Povey or his sons’ horses.

*****

Ben dozed by Joe’s bed all that night, waking often to tend to his son. Joe continued to run a fever, but it broke by morning. At dawn, Hoss came through, and Ben went to check on Adam. His oldest son was just waking, and had a real bad dose of the cold. Ben felt slightly anxious at this, as Adam had a tendency towards a weak chest, but he kept his worries hidden. Satisfied that both his boys would be all right for a few hours without him, he went off to bed to sleep.

It was early afternoon before Ben was up again, and he went straight to look in on Adam. Not much to his surprise, Adam’s bed was empty and neatly made. Shaking his head affectionately, Ben went along to Joe’s room, and there found all three of his boys.

“Pa,” Joe said, and began to cough. Adam gave his father a watery smile, and wiped his nose again. It was bright red, and looked sore and raw.

“I don’t need to ask how you boys are then,” Ben commented wryly, and went in. Hoss relinquished his chair for Ben, and went to get some fresh coffee, as the pot they had been sharing was cold now.

“I’m fine apart from this cold,” Adam said, nasally. He wiped his nose again, and grimaced. Joe was still coughing monotonously.

Although he hated to see his sons with anything wrong with them, Ben was aware that it could have been so much worse for them. Joe had a broken wrist, and would be off his feet until his knee healed, and they both had a cold, but basically, they had come out of the ordeal unscathed. They could easily have died up there in Buckhorn meadow, and it was only by the grace of God that they hadn’t. Ben helped Joe take a sip of water, and his cough subsided.

“I’ll go and see what I can find in the kitchen to help you boys out,” he suggested.

“Hop Sing has already taken care of that,” Adam replied, hoarsely. “Honey and lemon drinks for sore throats and tickly coughs, and some goose grease for my nose.” He wiped again, reflectively. “It worked, while it lasted,” he admitted, sounding faintly surprised. “I might use it again.”

“It can’t do any harm,” Ben agreed, hiding a smile. He had often applied goose grease to his nose when he had a cold, and it certainly seemed to protect the skin a bit.

When Hoss came back with the coffee, they sat quietly, enjoying the warmth. Finally, Ben asked, “Hoss, has Roy been out today?”

Both Joe and Adam perked up at this, but Hoss shook his head. “I ain’t seen him, Pa,” he said. “And there ain’t nobody come out from town, neither.”

“Is Roy looking for Povey?” Adam asked.

“Yes,” nodded Ben. “He was out here last night, in response to that message I sent in by Fred. He’s been looking for Povey, but hadn’t found him.”

“I never guessed that Povey would still be running around free,” Joe said, in a subdued tone. “I thought Roy would’ve got him long ago. It’s been a couple of weeks since I turned Donovan over to him.”

“I thought so, too,” Ben said. “I can’t understand why Roy didn’t say anything to us but then, we were all together up at Buckhorn meadow, with all those men. What chance did Povey have to do anything? Very little.”

“And so I offered it to him by going back for one last look round,” Joe said, bitterly. “Sorry, Adam.”

“I don’t know why you’re apologizing to me,” Adam said. “It wasn’t your fault, and if you hadn’t been there, I might be lying up there yet.” Adam gave a tremendous sneeze. “And if either of us had been along, we would probably have died.”

“I’m very proud of you both,” Ben said. “And of you, Hoss. You kept me calm, even though you weren’t feeling any better than I was.” Ben patted his big son on the shoulder. “You were a tower of strength, and I thank you for it.”

Hoss blushed, and blustered something that no one caught. Seeing his brother’s discomfiture, Adam decided to take the spotlight away from him. “Joe’s the hero of our adventure,” he said, generously and honestly. “He ignored his own injuries to help me, and thank goodness he did.”

Now it was Joe’s turn to blush. “Aw, Adam, I didn’t do anything you wouldn’t have done,” he protested. “Besides, I’d never have got out of the meadow, but for you.”

Deciding that things had gone far enough, Ben said, “Well, this is a lovely mutual admiration society we have going here.” His sons laughed. “As I said, I’m proud of you all. However, I think that we have a little work to attend to, Hoss. We’ll leave these two invalids to amuse each other.”

Ignoring the protests from Adam and Joe, Ben and Hoss went to catch up with some work.

*****

Later that evening, Roy Coffee appeared at the ranch, bringing Sport and Cochise with him. They were still saddled, and looked to be in good condition. Hoss went to greet the sheriff, and took the horses from him. He gave them a quick check over before turning their care over to one of the hands. He hastened back inside, in time to see Ben and Roy mounting the stairs. He joined them.

In Joe’s room, he told how he had found the horses tethered in a meadow about 10 miles from Buckhorn. One member of the posse had taken the animals back to town, while the rest headed off to try and find some tracks. There was nothing. Povey appeared to have vanished without a trace.

“We won’t give up,” Roy assured the family. “I have a sneaking suspicion that he’s still around here somewhere. We’ll keep looking.”

“Thanks, Roy,” Ben said, and showed the sheriff out. When he came back, it appeared that there had been some serious talking going on. The boys fell silent as Ben appeared, but he wasn’t deterred. “Tell me what you’re thinking,” he offered.

“If Povey’s still around,” Adam said, “he could still be watching us. He might well know that we’re back here at the ranch. What’s to stop him trying again?”

“I have men on watch,” Ben offered, casually. “Roy suggested it to me, although I had considered the idea, too. Go on.”

“We know its me he wants,” Joe spoke up quietly. “But if he can’t get me, will he go after any of you?”

“We just don’t know the answer to that,” Ben said. “We must take some precautions, but we can’t live the rest of our lives as though Povey might turn up any minute. You and Adam are safe while you aren’t well, and Hoss and I will be careful. More than that, we can’t do.”

Watching his sons, Ben saw how each of them took the news. Hoss was frowning. Of them all, he had the hardest time understanding man’s inhumanity to man. Hoss had never been able to hold a grudge in his entire life, and he would never contemplate doing someone deliberate, unprovoked harm.

Adam looked quite calm and thoughtful, filing away this information, and making mental adjustments to his thinking. It was sometimes difficult to see emotions in Adam. Ben blamed this on his hard upbringing on the journey to the West, but Ben knew that he had unseen depths to his emotions.

As for Joe, his every emotion could usually be read on his face. His handsome face was grim as he thought about the strictures that would be put on his life because of Povey. It was seeing his son like this that sometimes gave Ben pause to wonder if Joe one day would lose control of himself. But then, Joe’s face relaxed, and he shook his head, sighing. And Ben once more sent up a prayer of thanks that this was a time when Joe proved again that he had control of himself.

“Guess I’ll get back to work, Pa,” Hoss suggested, and promptly did just that. Adam bent over the checkers board lying on Joe’s bed, but the pieces were lying every which way, and with a martyred sigh, he set them out to start a new game.

“Have fun,” he offered, laconically.

Smiling, Ben followed Hoss, and as he left, he heard Adam said, “No cheating this time!”

*****

Another week passed with no sign of Povey, and the posse disbanded. By then, Adam was over his cold, and was back to work. Joe was allowed to get out of bed and test out his knee, and when it seemed to be all right, he was told he could go around a little, but not too much, provided his knee was still bandaged. Paul would come back and check on it again in another week.

At first, this seemed great to Joe, after being confined to his bed for 10 days. However, he was soon fed up of being stuck indoors, because the tight bandage prevented him from walking about easily, and made the stairs almost impossible. The hacking cough he’d developed with his cold took a long time to go away completely, and exertion often brought on a coughing fit. Joe had drunk so much honey and lemon tea that he hoped he’d never see the stuff again!

On the plus side, Joe was spending some good quality time with Ben, as they both worked on the books. Joe hated paperwork, but he persevered at it to help Ben out, and they often found themselves chatting in the late afternoon, setting the world to rights. It was a time both of them cherished, and would look back on with great fondness.

By the following week, Povey was just another face on the wanted posters. Roy had stopped riding out every few days to up date them on the lack of progress. Povey had vanished completely, and Roy now doubted if he would ever surface again. Perhaps he had gone north, to Canada, or south to Mexico. They would never know. Ben discontinued the armed guard round the house, and he and the boys began to settle back into their normal routine.

At last, Joe’s knee was healed, and then the cast came off his wrist and he was back at work. There was a new maturity about Joe that everyone noticed. He carried himself slightly differently than he had before, and Joe felt different. The restlessness that had marked the weeks before the Buckhorn timber contract was gone, and he wondered now how he could have borne to have gone around with Dave Donovan. Joe was still up for fun, but he was willing to pull his weight on the ranch, too.

The trial of Dave Donovan and Crawford came and went, and they were both sent to prison. Joe found it painful to look at his former friend, but he kept his head up as Donovan was led away. For several days afterwards, Joe was quite subdued, but he soon rallied, and was back to his usual cheeky, infuriating self.

Fall had come, and the ranch was gearing down. The round up was past, and the herd was much smaller. The line shacks were inspected and re-supplied; the fences were checked and repaired. Life began to take on the slower rhythm of approaching winter. Povey was all but forgotten.

*****

“There’s someone at the door, Joe,” Adam said, not looking up from his book. Ben was hidden behind his newspaper, and Joe and Hoss were playing checkers on the table in front of the fire.

“I’ve got ears,” Joe returned, shortly.

“Answer the door?” Adam suggested, still not looking up.

“Why do I have to do it?” Joe protested. “Can’t anyone else answer a door round here?”

“Answer the door, Joseph,” his father said, and Joe heaved a sigh and went to answer the door.

“Evenin’, Little Joe,” Roy said, and came in, taking his hat off. “Ben, Adam, Hoss.”

“This is a surprise, Roy,” Ben said, putting his paper down, and rising. “Sit down. Coffee?”

“No, thanks, Ben,” Roy said, sitting on the edge of the settee. “This ain’t exactly a social visit.”

As Joe resumed his seat on the edge of the table, Adam shot him a speculative look, which Joe saw. “I haven’t done anything!” he protested, and Adam grinned.

“This does concern you, Joe,” Roy said, gravely, and Joe wondered what he could have done. “I’ve had a report that Povey has been spotted in this area.”

*****

For a second, time stood still, and Roy’s words had no meaning. Then Joe felt a rush of apprehension. Povey was back, and he might still be out for revenge. Donovan and Crawford had testified about Povey’s involvement, and there was another warrant out for his arrest. Joe wondered if Povey knew about the trial, and reasoned that he probably did. It had been carried in quite a few papers throughout Nevada.

Looking up, Joe saw his father’s dark eyes fixed on him, filled with anxiety. A glance at both brothers showed the same; Hoss’ blue eyes brimming with apprehension; Adam’s with concern. Joe swallowed, and tried to think of something to ask; something that would show he wasn’t as shaken by this news as he appeared to be. But no helpful question presented itself, and Joe continued to sit there and look at his family, temporarily struck dumb.

“Where was he seen?” Ben asked, filling the void. Joe sent his father a grateful look.

“Close by the Virginia City road,” Roy answered. He had seldom seen Joe so visibly shaken, and hoped he never would again. “I’m taking a posse out in the morning.”

“I’m going,” Joe said, and his voice was overlapped by both Adam and Hoss’, saying the exact same words.

“Joe, you can’t go,” Roy said, before Ben could object. “You’re the one who reported this, and it was you he was tryin’ to kill. No, boy, you stay here, where you’re safe.”

“Then we’re going,” Adam insisted.

“Not both of you,” Ben protested. His sons looked at him, and they all saw the reason behind his protest in his eyes. He feared he might lose them all.

“I’m the better tracker,” Hoss said, quietly, but he was already accepting that Adam was the one most likely to go. He wanted to be close to Joe, to look after him, as he’d done for years. “You go, Adam,” he said. “I think it’ll be better if’n you do.”

Now that he had won, Adam wondered if he really wanted to go as much as he’d first thought. Hoss sat on the settee, with his shoulders slumped, and Adam realized he was being selfish. He opened his mouth to say something, but Hoss beat him to it. “I reckon I’ll stay with old Shortshanks here, and see if’n I cain’t catch him cheatin’ at checkers.”

“All right,” Roy said. “Adam, we leave at dawn, so we’ll meet you on the road. Good night, Ben, boys.”

“Good night, Roy,” they chorused, and Ben went to see him out.

“I reckon I’m for bed,” Hoss announced, and stood up. “See ya in the mornin’.”

“Hoss, thanks,” Adam said, briefly, unable to articulate his feelings any further.

“You jist catch him, big brother,” Hoss answered. “Jist catch him.” He went on up the stairs.

Joe still sat, silently, on the table, and Adam went over to sit next to him. He put his hand on Joe’s shoulder, and felt the tension there. Joe’s head was ducked, and he gazed sightlessly at the abandoned game in front of him. “Are you all right buddy?” Adam asked.

“I don’t know,” Joe replied. “I thought Povey had gone for good. I didn’t think he would come back again. He must want revenge really badly.”

“You bested him, Joe, twice,” Adam said. “That must rankle with somebody like Povey. I must admit, I’d hoped he wouldn’t come back, too, but perhaps we were both naive to think like that. But we’ll do everything we can to keep you safe.”

“I know that,” Joe replied, his voice low. “But it’s not possible to keep me safe all the time, is it?”

“I guess not,” Adam admitted. They sat like that for a while longer, until Ben came in. Then Adam went up to bed, leaving Joe with Ben.

“I’ll be careful, Pa,” Joe said, before Ben could say anything. “I promise I’ll stay in the yard, and mostly in the house. I promise.” His voice was barely audible.

Unable to find any words, Ben gathered his son into a tight embrace. They stood there, hugging each other, until Joe gently broke away. “Good night, Pa,” he said, and smiled. It wasn’t Joe’s usual smile; it was full of a melancholy that caught at Ben’s heart.

“Joe,” he said, but Joe didn’t stop or turn back. He walked resolutely upstairs, his head up, defying the fates to do their worst.

*****

Every day over the next week, Adam or Hoss rode out with the posse. Povey had been sighted several times, but no one had been able to catch up with him, and Roy was privately beginning to wonder if he was chasing a ghost. Joe was left behind, and whichever brother was with him that day did their best to keep him occupied, so he had less time to brood.

They weren’t entirely successful. The tension was getting to all the family, and an early flurry of snow simply added to their worries. The snow didn’t lie, but Ben felt the need to bring the herd down to a lower pasture slightly earlier than he had intended. Early snow was often the sign of a hard winter to come, and Ben didn’t want to be caught out.

It was Adam’s turn to ride with the posse that day. Ben decided to go and check on the herd for himself, and Hoss was busying himself with repairing some harness for the wagon team. The team had been turned out for the winter, leaving only the family’s’ saddle horses, and the buggy team in the corral by the house. Joe was mooching around aimlessly. He had chopped enough logs to keep the fires burning in the house for several days, and had cleaned saddles until he could scream. He didn’t often regret giving his father his promise not to leave the yard, but he was beginning to feel a little claustrophobic.

About mid-morning, a few flakes of snow began to fall. Joe could seldom resist the lure of falling snow, and he didn’t even try this time. He was soon out by the corral, petting Cochise, and enjoying the feeling of the snow in the air. He didn’t know why he loved it so much, but there was something so peaceful about snow that he just had to get out in it. Of course, there was the chance of throwing the first snowball of the year, too!

“It’s getting’ cold,” Hoss observed, as he crossed the yard to go into the house for something he needed. “Looks like Pa might be right. Winter might be early this year.”

“We’re ready for it,” Joe said, dismissively. He looked over to the mountains, and saw that the tops were shrouded in cloud. He was going to draw Hoss’ attention to it, for that meant that serious snow was on the way, but Hoss had already gone inside. Joe smiled, and took another few steps, lost in the child-like wonder of the winter weather.

So the attack, when it came, caught him completely unaware. He heard footsteps behind him, and started to turn when something solid hit him around the waist, and carried him to the ground. Joe automatically began to fight back, but he had landed awkwardly, and his hands were trapped under him. He took a couple of painful blows to the head before he freed one arm. As soon as his arm was free, he jabbed his elbow into the face of his attacker, and as the person fell away, Joe scrambled free, and made it to his feet.

It was no surprise to see that his attacker was Will Povey; he’d have been surprised if it had been anyone else. “Povey,” he said, as a kind of acknowledgement. “I wondered how long it would take you to find me.”

“I’m gonna kill you, Cartwright,” Povey said. “You took it all away from me, so I’m going to take everything away from you!”

“You brought yourself down, Povey,” Joe stated. “You hired Dave Donovan to stop me, and he was quick to tell everyone. You and Crawford thought you’d get my $5000 bond, and the contract, too. And when I showed I could fill the contract, you had Donovan come after me. I took nothing from you, Povey. You took it from yourself!”

There was little else Joe could have said that would have enraged Povey more. He lunged at Joe, who sidestepped the charge, and turned to throw a blow at Povey. But the older man was an experienced brawler, and soon they were wrestling on the ground. Joe, pinned under Povey’s weight, getting the worst of it.

Yet he didn’t give up. He threw as many punches as he could, and some of them hit their mark. But more of Povey’s got under his guard, and Joe was soon in a bad way. He couldn’t seem to see properly, and there was an odd roaring in his ears. He wished Hoss would come out of the house, but it didn’t occur to him to shout for Hoss.

After too long, Joe had reached a point where he could fight no more. He wasn’t unconscious, but the world had an oddly ashen tint to it, and the pain was almost unbearable. Povey hauled him up by his shirtfront and leaned close to be sure Joe heard him. “The Good Book says an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, Cartwright. This is where I get my eye for an eye. You’re going to die!”

He dragged Joe across the yard to the barn, threw him to the floor, and tied Joe up with the rope he found hanging there. Once convinced that his captive was secure, Povey walked round the barn, admiring the equipment he found there. The barn was comparatively empty, since there weren’t many horses being kept in, and the saddles were too big to steal.

“I’m gonna kill you, Cartwright,” Povey said, and he sounded odd to Joe’s ears. He kicked his helpless victim, and Joe couldn’t surpass a groan. The world was doing strange things, and Joe closed his eyes. There was another kick, and a cry broke from his lips. His ribs were agony, and he hurt all over.

There was a sudden crackle from close by, and Joe thought he felt heat. Then, the familiar smell of smoke reached him, and he forced his eyes to open. Even through the strange sepia-toned vision he had, Joe recognized fire. Povey had set the barn alight, and he, Joe was trapped in it.

Adrenalin surged through Joe’s system, and he began to fight the ropes that bound him. He couldn’t even roll to get away, as Povey had hog-tied him. He twisted and turned, but the knots defied his efforts. The smoke was getting thicker, and the flames were crackling all around. Joe knew he was going to die.

*****

Coming out of the house, Hoss was astounded to see Will Povey backing out of the barn. Joe was nowhere in sight, but Hoss didn’t waste a second looking for his younger brother. If Povey had come from the barn, then that was where Joe was. Hoss knew that he had to stop Povey, and he raced across the yard at a speed that belied his size.

Povey stood no chance. Not only had he already had quite a fight with Joe, but Hoss was taller, heavier, and had the element of surprise. But still, Povey put up a spirited defense, until Hoss got in a blow that all but knocked Posey’s head from his shoulders, and Povey went down and out.

Panting, Hoss looked down at Povey in disgust. It was only then that the noise and smell of the fire impinged on his consciousness. “Hop Sing!” he bellowed. “Fire! Ring the bell!”

The ‘bell’ was a large iron triangle that hung near the kitchen door. Hop Sing grabbed up the nearest implement – a wooden spoon – and began to bang it frantically around the three sides of the bell. The men working near by would hear it and respond at once.

Meanwhile, the flames were licking through the barn at a great rate, and Hoss hesitated no longer. He plunged into the reeking interior, peering through the smoke for Joe. Visibility was poor, and Hoss had to rely on his memory of the barn to keep track of his own location. “Joe!” he shouted, but inhaled a huge amount of smoke, and began to cough. Tears streamed down his cheeks, and he tripped on something, and almost fell.

It took a second before Hoss realized that he had tripped over Joe. Stooping, he found that the air was slightly clearer near the floor. He had one glimpse of Joe’s bloodied and battered face before it was shrouded again in smoke. He quickly pulled Joe into his arms, and turned round to stagger to the door.

That was a trip easier said than done. Hoss wasn’t sure he was heading for the door. Joe, although slight, seemed to have gained weight since Hoss had last picked him up. It was awkward carrying him, because of the way he was tied up, but Hoss had no time to free Joe from his bonds. He had to get his brother out of there!

The barn was an inferno by now, but by some miracle, the path to the door was still relatively clear. Hoss, guided by instinct alone, went along the path where there were no flames, and staggered out into the fresh air. He took a few tottering steps before falling to his knees, coughing uncontrollably. Joe fell from his arms, but there was nothing Hoss could do to stop him.

By now, hands were pouring in from round about, and several went to help move Hoss and Joe further away from the fire. Then they joined the chain from the well to the barn, and began to feed buckets of water along it.

It was too late to save the barn. Ben came galloping into the yard, and saw with horror his two sons lying on the ground. Joe was still bound. Further over, Povey lay. He was conscious, but under guard by Hop Sing, who was pointing a shotgun at him. Ben slid from Buck’s back, and raced to his sons. Hoss waved him away weakly, so Ben knelt by Joe, slicing through the rope that bound him, and looking at the damage done to his face.

The fresh air began to revive Joe and he started to cough violently. He was streaked with blood and soot, and Ben hurried across the water trough to soak his bandanna, which he then used to wipe Joe’s face gently. Joe opened his eyes as far as he could. “Pa?” he gasped, but his voice was almost inaudible.

“It’s all right, Joe,” Ben assured him. “You’re safe.” He glanced over his shoulder at Hoss, who was still on his knees, coughing. “Hoss, are you all right?”

Unable to speak, Hoss simply nodded. Ben looked back at Joe, who was writhing in pain as he coughed the soot from his lungs. Ben gently took Joe into his arms, and supported him while he struggled to breathe.

It seemed to Joe that the world had taken on nightmare-ish proportions. The noise from the fire assaulted his ears, and the shouts from the men as they chivvied each other along seemed to echo oddly. His chest hurt, his head hurt, his face hurt. Leaning against Ben, Joe fought for each breath before the next bout of coughing struck him. He felt pulped by the effort, and could hear himself wheeze. One hand tightened convulsively on Ben’s shirt.

“Easy, Joe,” Ben soothed. “I’ve got you, you’re safe now.” He looked over his shoulder at the burning remains of his barn. Only the skeleton framework was left, and as he watched, it crashed to the ground.

There was a sudden clatter of hooves, and the posse, led by Adam appeared in the yard. Adam flung himself from Sport and raced across to where Ben was cradling Joe. “Is he all right?” he asked, kneeling down and turning Joe’s face slightly towards him.

“We need the doctor,” Ben said. “Joe was in the barn. Check on Hoss, will you? He went in to get Joe out.”

Nodding, Adam checked on Hoss, who was beginning to look better. Roy had dismounted, and was checking on Joe, when he realized that the man he’d been hunting was there in the yard. The posse had been attracted by the smoke, and had ridden over to see if they could help. And help they did. One man set off for town to get the doctor. The others pitched in to fight the fire, and it was soon under control. Adam helped Ben carry Joe into the house, where the air was cleaner, although the stench of smoke was still on the air. Then he went back to help Hoss inside.

*****

By the time Paul arrived, Ben was worried sick. Joe had drifted in and out of consciousness. His lips were faintly blue, and he struggled to breathe. The bruising on Joe’s face was nothing to the bruising that was revealed when Ben stripped Joe’s clothes off. Hop Sing brought water and Ben washed the soot off. Once that was done, Hop Sing brought more water, and told Ben he had put arnica in it. The little Chinaman swore by arnica for bruises, and it certainly couldn’t do any harm.

Examining Joe, Paul diagnosed broken ribs. He listened to Joe’s chest for some time before becoming convinced that there wasn’t a punctured lung there as well. Once that question was answered, he bound up Joe’s ribs, then moved on. Joe’s nose was broken, too, and Paul felt sure there was a fracture of one cheekbone, too. He set the broken nose while Joe was unconscious, but decided not to pack it full of cotton in the meantime. Joe was having enough trouble breathing without that added complication.

The thing that most concerned Paul was the amount of smoke Joe had inhaled. Fortunately, because he’s been lying on the floor, he hadn’t suffered as much as he might have done, but Joe was still very ill. He was obviously in shock, with cold, clammy skin and very little color. Paul wrapped him in blankets, and ordered Hop Sing to make some hot, sweet coffee, knowing that Joe wouldn’t drink tea under any circumstances. One the beverage was ready, Ben fed it to Joe in small sips, and gradually, his color improved, and he began to warm up. He stopped shivering, and his hold on consciousness was better.

“You’ll need to watch him closely,” Paul instructed Ben. “Any change in his condition, come for me. But I hope that he’ll stop coughing up soot as the night goes on, and when his cough eases, his ribs should give him less bother. Don’t expect him to say much, though. And try and stop him moving his head too much. I don’t want that cheekbone moving. With any luck, his nose will heal without me having to touch it any further. Now I’m going to look at Hoss.”

Leaving Joe in Adam’s care, Ben went with Roy to see to his middle son. They found him sitting up in bed, coughing deeply into a rag. He greeted them with a cheerful smile, nonetheless. “How’s Little Joe?” he asked.

“He’s going to be fine, thanks to you, son,” Ben replied. He sat on the edge of the bed as Paul listened to Hoss’ chest. Now that the danger was over, reaction was threatening to catch up with Ben, and he blinked back tears once or twice. He had come close to losing two of his sons that day, and he defied any man to take such a threat equably.

“Hoss is fine,” Paul said. “His lungs are sounding not too bad. Once this cough has died away, he can get back to normal.”

“Thanks, doc,” Hoss said. “I reckon I’ll try to get me some forty winks right now, and get back to normal tomorrow.”

“You sleep as long as you like,” Ben said, softly, the tears threatening again. He rubbed his face, and realized how tired he felt.

“I’ll see myself out,” Paul said, as they went back into the hallway. “If Joe needs me, don’t hesitate to send for me. But I think he should be all right. I’ve left something for pain for him for later. I don’t want to give him anything right now, but when the cough settles a bit, give him this, and it’ll help him sleep.”

“Thanks, Paul,” Ben said, and went back to Joe’s room.

*****

It was a long night for Ben. He did have a few hours of sleep, due solely to Adam’s insistence, but he never fell into a deep sleep, and finally rose again about 2 am, feeling as though he hadn’t been to bed at all. Joe’s cough had settled, and Adam had given him the pain medicine Paul had left. This soon settled him into sleep, and Adam had dosed in the chair by the bed. When Ben came in, Adam went to bed willingly enough. He’d been in the saddle for a good bit of the previous day, and when he had come home, he’d walked straight into the middle of a crisis. The barn had burned to the ground, and all that was left of it was a pile of burnt timber. But even now, nature was softening the harsh outlines with a covering of new snow. While he sat with Joe, Adam had constructed a new barn in his mind, and thought he might get onto in the morning.

About 6, Joe woke again. Some of the swelling had gone down slightly round his eyes, and he was able to see more clearly. The world had regained its color. “Pa?” he croaked, and Ben smiled at him, relieved to see him awake.

“Would you like a drink?” he asked, and helped Joe to sit up slightly.

“What happened?” Joe asked, after he was lying down again. “Where’s Povey?”

Quietly, Ben told Joe how Hoss had found Povey, with the barn alight, and Joe trapped inside. “Hoss went in to rescue you, son,” he said, and Joe’s eyes filled with tears. “Povey’s in Roy’s jail now, waiting for trial.”

“Is Hoss all right?” Joe wanted to know.

“Hoss is just fine,” Ben assured him. “Do you want me to open the door so you can hear him snoring?” he teased, and Joe managed a slight smile.

“My face hurts,” Joe complained, and put one hand up. Ben caught his wrist.

“Don’t touch,” he warned. “Your nose is broken, and maybe a cheekbone, too. Just lie still and rest.”

“Povey said he wanted an eye for an eye,” Joe said, after a while. Ben had thought he had fallen asleep again. “He wanted to pay me back for taking that contract from him, and for filling the contract.” Joe sighed, a deep sigh that caused him to wince. “I hoped he’d just gone away, but we should’ve realized that he hadn’t.”

“I wish I’d been here for you, Joe,” Ben said.

“I’m glad you weren’t,” Joe said, which startled Ben.

“What do you mean?” he asked, slightly apprehensively.

“If you had been here, Povey might have hurt you,” Joe said, as simply as a child. He coughed slightly, and caught his breath at the pain. Ben offered him some medicine, and Joe took it without complaint, although he made a moue at the taste. “If you had been here, Pa, you’d have come into the barn for me. It was bad enough that Hoss took that risk. He could have died in there.”

“I know that,” Ben said, soberly. “But it’s a risk I would have taken willingly, Joe, for you, or Adam or Hoss. You are all so precious to me.”

The medicine was starting to work now, and Joe’s brain felt a little fuzzy around the edge. “Povey quoted the Bible at me,” he said, sleepily. “But he picked the wrong verse. Not ‘an eye for an eye’, but ‘three things are constant, faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love’.”

Snuggling down into the warmth of the bed, Joe closed his eyes and fell asleep. Ben sat there, holding his hand, and thought how right Joe was. Povey’s eye for an eye hadn’t come off, because love, the greatest thing of all, had blunted the edge of Povey’s revenge, and prevented a tragedy.

In the days that followed, as Joe recovered, Ben was to think often on his son’s perceptive observation, and to realize how true it was for them all as a family.

The greatest of these is love.

*****End*****

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