Blame (by Rona)

Summary:  An inexplicable attack upon Adam and Joe leaves Joe grappling with fear and blaming himself. Joe sets out to hunt down their attacker, but will he live to tell the tale?

Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rating: T
Word Count: 12,325


 

“I’m sorry, Ben, but I don’t think he’s going to pull through this time,” Paul Martin said, sadly. He saw the shock on his old friend’s face, and put his hand out to steady him. “If he had received medical treatment sooner, then perhaps I could be more optimistic, but right now, it looks pretty bleak.”

There was movement from behind Ben, and the outer door slammed shut. Turning, Ben stared at Hoss, his middle son. Hoss had tears in his eyes, but he was staring after his other brother, who had just rushed out of the room.

Frowning, Paul said, “I’m sorry, I didn’t realize he’d take it so badly.”

“It’s not your fault, Paul,” Ben said, wretchedly. “But you see, he blames himself.”

“It weren’t his fault, Pa,” Hoss said. “We don’t think it was.”

“I didn’t realize he blamed himself, but I should’ve guessed that. Someone should go after him,” Paul said. “With that head injury, he should be lying down resting, not wandering around alone!” Paul sighed. “I’ll send Mrs. Baxter to tell Roy to look out for him. We don’t want him drinking until he’s been thoroughly examined. Ben, do you want to go in and sit with…?”

“Yes,” Ben interrupted, and went past Paul. Hoss followed close on his heels. Paul looked to the outer door for a second, concerned about his other patient, but he didn’t have the time to spare to go looking for him at that moment. He beckoned to Mrs. Baxter, and said, “Go and ask Sheriff Coffee to look for Little Joe and bring him back at once. He needs medical attention, too.”

“Yes, doctor,” she said, and went out. With a sigh, Paul went back in to see how Adam was getting on. He was almost certain that Adam would die.

*****

Outside, Joe leaned against on of the porch pillars and tried to catch his breath. Adam was near death! Joe could hardly believe that. Adam had always seemed so invulnerable to Joe, courtesy of the 12 sometimes-discordant years that separated them. And if Adam did die, it would be his fault for not getting him to the doctor soon enough.

That thought caused so much pain that Joe ran from it, his steps stumbling and faltering. He headed instinctively for the Silver Dollar saloon, which spilled light and sound out onto the boardwalk. He lurched in the door, and leaned against the bar, trying to get his breath. He didn’t understand why he found it so difficult. “Whiskey,” he panted, and dropped a coin on the bar. He was unaware of the sudden hush around about as everyone gazed at him in disbelief.

“Do you think you ought to, Joe?” asked Sam. “Looks like you need the doc to me.”

“Just give me a whiskey,” Joe snarled. “I’m all right!”

“All right,” Sam said, and poured. Joe grabbed the glass and threw the spirit down his throat. As he clunked the glass back on the bar, ready to call for another, he caught a glimpse of himself in the mirror behind the bar, and gaped in shock.

He was covered in blood!

*****

Gradually, he realized that someone was talking to him and he looked into Roy Coffee’s face. “Roy?” he said. “What is it?”

“Gotta come with me, Little Joe,” Roy said, guiding him gently out of the saloon. Clem, his deputy, was on Joe’s other side, ready to intervene if necessary. Joe looked dreadful, his face, neck and shirt streaked with dried blood from the gash along his hairline. His face was bruised, too.

“Where’re we going?” Joe slurred.

“Just back to the doc’s to see how your brother is doin’,” Roy said, in that same soothing tone.

Wrenching his arm from Roy’s grasp, Joe attempted to turn back to the saloon. Clem caught him, and Roy re-asserted his grip. “I’m not going!” Joe stated, struggling. Clem and Roy kept going inexorably. “No!” Joe yelled, and dug in his heels. It made no difference. His heels just scraped little furrows along the dirt street. Panting, desperate to get away, Joe tugged his arms free, and spun around. But the whiskey he had consumed had gone straight to his head, and Joe’s balance, already affected by the head injury, let him down, and he crashed to the ground. Once down, it seemed easier to Joe just to stay there. He felt hands on his arms, but he let go and fell into darkness.

*****

At dawn that day, Joe had been roused from a sound slumber by Adam, who even had breakfast almost ready. “Come on, sleepyhead, up and at ‘em,” Adam said, cheerily.

With a fearsome groan that worked hard to convince Adam that the groaner was at death’s door, Joe opened one eye. “What time is it?” he mumbled.

“Time to get up,” Adam replied, with that infuriating logic that drove Joe to distraction first thing in the morning.

“Go ‘way!” Joe muttered, and pulled the bedroll over his head again.

But Adam wasn’t having that. He pulled the cover away. “Come on, Joe, get up. Breakfast is almost ready, and we have a lot to do today. If we get though it quickly, we might even get home tonight.”

Rubbing his face, Joe accepted defeat, and rolled out from the warmth of the covers. He dressed quickly for the early morning air was brisk, and crouched by the fire to get a cup of coffee and some bacon. With the hot food inside him, Joe soon began to warm up and as the coffee began to circulate round his system, he began to feel more awake.

Crouched on the other side of the fire, Adam watched this process with a hidden smile. He was quite used to seeing Joe transform from a grouch to a human being each morning. Some mornings, it annoyed him, but today he was amused. This had been a good trip for the brothers, with none of the discord that sometimes marred their relationship.

“Why don’t we tidy up the camp, so we can leave for home once we’re done?” Adam suggested.

“Good idea,” Joe agreed, and before long, they were rolling up bedrolls, and packing up cooking gear. Soon, everything was stowed away in their saddlebags, and the fire was put out. Joe swung himself onto Cochise and looked at Adam. “Where do we start?” he asked.

Mentally reviewing what was still left to do, Adam made a decision. “Why don’t I go and mark off those trees along Wild Horse Ridge, and you go and check that last shack on the boundary? I’ll meet you at Wild Horse Ridge, this end, later? That way we’ll definitely finish in time to get home tonight.”

“I like your thinking, big brother,” Joe said, and flipped Adam a wave as he rode off.

Grinning, Adam mounted Sport, and rode off in the opposite direction. He knew that Joe was longing to get home after almost 3 weeks of tree marking and line shack checking, with a bit of fence fixing thrown in for variety. With a grin, Adam had to admit to himself that he was quite keen to get home, too! Three weeks of sleeping on the ground most nights was more than enough.

Wild Horse Ridge was thick with trees, and Adam knew that Ben was right to earmark this bit for thinning out. He tethered Sport on a loose rein and headed off to work. The day was warming up nicely, but it was an Indian summer warmth, with a touch of the coming winter in the breeze. Several times Adam found himself shivering when he was out of the sun. Still, he could think of worse things to be doing – much worse! – and he whistled slightly as he worked.

Riding in the opposite direction, Joe arrived at the line shack about an hour after setting out. He hitched Cochise to the rail outside, and went in to assess the condition of the shack. At first glance, it appeared to be fine, but a closer inspection showed that rats had been making a nest in one corner with the shredded remains of what looked like a food sack. Joe heard scampering noises indicating that the rodents were still in situ, and set about getting rid of them.

The rats had caused a lot of damage amongst the stored foodstuffs, and Joe spent an age scrubbing and sorting out the food cupboard. He replaced the faulty catch that had allowed access to the food, and repaired the holes he found in the walls. It all took much longer than he had expected, and he ate a strip of jerky for lunch as he rode back to meet Adam at Wild Horse Ridge.

The afternoon was well on when Joe arrived, and he feared they might not get home that night as they had intended. It wouldn’t be a tragedy, but Joe knew that he would be very disappointed if that happened. He wanted to sleep in his own bed again, and to eat Hop Sing’s cooking, not his own or Adam’s!

Pulling Cochise up beside Sport, Joe tethered his horse. He had expected Adam to be waiting for him, since he was so much later than intended. “Adam?” he called. Silence. “Hey, Adam!” Joe whistled piercingly, but there was no answering shout or whistle. Perplexed, Joe set off to look for him.

One of the reasons Adam had sent Joe up to the line shack was that Wild Horse Ridge had some precipitous drops, and Adam knew that Joe wasn’t comfortable with heights. There were places along the ridge where the trail seemed to be clinging to the edge of the mountain by its fingernails, and Adam often felt a moment of disquiet walking along there, and he didn’t mind heights.

Coming to one of these places, Joe grabbed the nearest tree until his vertigo settled. He drew in several deep breaths before shouting once more. “Adam!” Still nothing, and Joe gritted his teeth and edged his way past the dizzying drop. Once more in the trees, Joe had to stop for a moment to catch his breath. He was beginning to feel anxious about Adam. Where was he, and why wasn’t he calling back to Joe?

All along the trail, Joe could see where Adam had marked trees, and he followed these marks quite easily. He wished Adam were as easy to find. Every now and then, he called and whistled, but there was never any answer.

Just ahead, the trail opened to the mountainside again, and Joe hesitated while steeling himself to go onto the exposed ridge. Suddenly, his gaze sharpened on something lying on the trail, and he forgot about his nerves as he stepped forward for a closer look. He gasped.

It was Adam’s axe!

*****

For a second, Joe stood frozen, then let out a piercing whistle. He assumed Adam was close. He rushed forwards, expecting to see Adam step from behind a tree with that infuriating grin he wore when he had succeeded in winding Joe up – again! But there was no sign of his brother, and no answer. Joe’s anxiety increased.

He halted uncertainly at the edge of the tree line, and something jumped on him from the branches above his head. Joe tumbled to the ground, catching himself barely inches from the edge! He twisted desperately, and threw a punch at the man looming down on him. The punch wasn’t very effective, but it forced the man back for a moment, long enough for Joe to get a look at him. He was tall and cadaverous, unshaven and dirty. Joe had never seen him before.

He had no more time to think on it, because the man launched himself at Joe again, and Joe rolled away. But it had just been a feint, and when Joe rolled to his feet, he found that his opponent had a long branch held in his hands in a manner that suggested he meant business with it, and knew how to use it.

Panting, Joe tried to keep an eye on both the man and the edge of the mountain. But since eyes work best when they work together, Joe was bound to fail in this endeavor. He took his attention from the man for a precious second as he gauged his distance from the edge, saw a shadow in his peripheral vision and felt a blinding pain in his head. He toppled to the ground, no longer caring if he was near the edge or not. He was unconscious before he hit.

*****

How much time passed before Joe roused he was never sure. For a few seconds, he didn’t know who he was or where he was, but awareness returned and he tried to sit up. Pain hammered through his head, knocking him flat again. He lay there, groaning, until a sudden thought drove everything else from his mind. Adam! Where was Adam?

This time, Joe made it to his feet, although the sunlight seemed very bright. Shading his eyes, Joe looked around. There was still no sign of Adam, and Joe really didn’t know where to look. Spying his hat lying close to the edge of the mountain, Joe staggered over to pick it up, and decided that it would be safest to do so if he was on his knees. It was a fortuitous decision, because as he leaned carefully over to retrieve it, his eye fell further down the mountain, and he saw Adam’s broken body lying on a ledge about 10 feet below the trail.

*****

“Adam! Adam!” Joe screamed, but his brother didn’t stir. Clinging on to the edge, Joe saw that there were no handholds to be seen on the cliff face, and he would need a rope to rescue him. Joe swallowed. The thought of going down to that ledge made his head swim. He set his jaw. Adam needed him, and now wasn’t the time to give in to his fear of heights. Joe staggered to his feet again. “I’ll be back soon,” he called, hoping against hope that Adam might hear him.

It took Joe a moment to orient himself again, but he set off determinedly. Pictures of the drop to the ledge kept intruding on his mind, and he finally had to stop and throw up behind a tree. Joe thought it was just his fear of heights that made him nauseous, not realizing that he was bleeding copiously from a gash along his hairline.

He hurried, terrified that Adam would die, but as he neared the place where the horses had been tethered, a new fear crossed his mind. What if the horses were gone? He bit his lip, something he’d been doing a lot, and hurried even more. Crossing the last open space before he reached the horses, Joe was extra careful. A fall now would spell death for both brothers. By the time he reached the clearing where he had left the horses, Joe was sobbing.

The horses were there. Cochise greeted his master with a snort. Joe barely had time to pat his friend as he snatched the ropes from both saddles. He took a step away, then turned back for the canteens. He gulped a few mouthfuls from one, feeling slightly better for a moment or two. He drew a deep breath as he started back along the trail. His vision was funny, but Joe blamed the sweat dripping into his eyes. He wiped it away with a shaking hand, not noticing the blood.

It didn’t seem as though Adam had moved at all. Joe called down to him, but got no answer. He swiftly tied the ropes together, and knotted one end securely round the nearest tree. He slid out of his jacket and laid it on the edge of the cliff, under the rope. The last thing he needed was the rope fraying! Tugging his gloves out of his pockets, Joe slipped them on, slung a canteen round his neck, and stopped. For a terrifying second, his fear paralyzed him.

“Adam will die!” he hissed to himself. “You’ve got to save him!” Not allowing himself another moment to think, Joe grabbed the rope, tied the end of it round his waist, and slid gingerly over the edge.

Slowly, hand over hand, Joe eased himself down the cliff. He kept his eyes on the rock face in front of him. The single glance he had taken to see how far he had to go had almost made him freeze. When his feet finally touched the rough surface of the ledge, Joe was all but crying as he tried to keep calm.

Adam lay unconscious, and Joe anxiously felt him over for broken bones. It seemed that Adam had a broken leg, and probably at least one broken arm, but there didn’t seem to be a head injury, probably because Adam’s head had landed on one out-flung arm.

Carefully lifting Adam’s head, Joe trickled some water into his brother’s mouth. After a minute or so, Adam began to drink, and Joe felt relieved. His brother wasn’t too deep in unconsciousness if he could do that. However, that set Joe to thinking, and he realized that it would be easier on Adam if he could get him up the cliff while he was still out.

It was a daunting thought. However he looked at it, Joe realized that he would have to pull Adam up while climbing up himself, so he could protect his brother from further injury. Joe didn’t know if he had the physical strength to do it.

After a lot of thought and a false start or two, Joe finally managed to get Adam onto his back, and tied on with the loose end of the rope. Joe was glad he had tied both ropes together. Joe took a drink from the canteen before he started, and hung it round his neck. Adam was a warm, dead weight on his back, and Joe prayed that he would find the strength to get them both up the sheer face in front of him.

It took Joe almost an hour to traverse the cliff. By the time he dragged himself over the edge on his stomach, Adam was mumbling his way back to consciousness. Joe dragged them over to the trees before allowing himself to relax and believe that he had finally got Adam to safety. He was exhausted, and lay flat out for several minutes trying to regain his strength. He shed more than a few tears.

However, practicality was soon asserting itself again. Joe untied the rope, and eased Adam carefully onto his back. He took a deep drink from the canteen, and gave some more to Adam. His brother’s eyes opened and he looked briefly at Joe, but he didn’t speak, and his eyes soon drifted closed again. It was then that it occurred to Joe that he only had Adam part way to safety. He still had to get home from Wild Horse Ridge, and to do that, he had to get Adam back to the horses.

The new effort he would have to make was staggering, but Joe didn’t even think of shirking it. Adam needed help, that was obvious. Whatever was wrong with him was serious, beyond the broken arm and leg. Joe didn’t have the time to ride home and get help. He couldn’t leave Adam. Wearily, Joe rose and set about making a travois.

By the time Joe was loading his brother onto the completed travois, the sun was beginning to go down. He gave Adam some more water, and then looped the ropes around his own slim shoulders and began to pull the travois along the trail.

It was incredibly hard going, and Joe had already had a strenuous climb up the cliff bearing Adam’s weight. He was forced to stop and rest frequently, and each time he rose again, it took more and more effort to get started. The sun was below the edge of the mountain when Joe finally reached the clearing where the horses waited patiently.

From there, Joe’s task was easier, once he had the travois hitched to Sport’s saddle. It was getting cooler, and Joe shivered. He wished he’d stopped to pick up his jacket, but it hadn’t been a priority. But with his sweat-soaked shirt cooling rapidly in the chilly breeze, Joe was sorry he had left it behind. He took Adam’s bedroll from his saddle and tucked it carefully around him. Adam had opened his eyes several times, but said nothing. Taking Sport’s rein, Joe mounted Cochise, and set off for home.

*****

Later, Joe wasn’t sure when he decided to head for town, rather than the ranch. As far as distance went, they were about the same, but Joe reasoned that he was going to get medical help for Adam more quickly in town. It was fully dark and had been for a couple of hours when Joe rode into town. He was drooping in the saddle, barely able to stay upright, such was his exhaustion. But his determination was no less, and he was going to get Adam to the doctor if it was the last thing he did.

As he pulled up outside Paul Martin’s office, Roy Coffee, the sheriff came out of his office on the other side of the street. He recognized Joe at once and hurried across. “Joe! What’s happened, boy?” he asked, catching the youth as he all but fell from the saddle.

Fighting Roy off, Joe opened the door to the doctor’s office. “Adam’s hurt,” he announced. “Quick!”

Taking one appalled look at Joe, Paul hurried out to the travois, and blanched. “Roy, help me get Adam inside. Joe, sit down. Roy, could you get Mrs. Baxter, I’ll need her, and send someone across to the Silver Dollar for Ben and Hoss.”

“Are you sure they’re there?” Roy gasped, as he helped Paul carry Adam.

“Yes, I saw them going in not half an hour ago.” Paul grabbed his stethoscope and listened to Adam’s heart. Straightening, he saw Joe leaning against the doorpost. “Sit down, Joe, I’ll get to you soon,” he ordered.

“I’m fine,” Joe said, and Paul noticed he was slurring his words. The youth was filthy and he bore numerous small scrapes, as well as the gash along his head. It had clearly bled a lot, and although Paul knew how easily a small knock on the head could bleed, he was concerned that this injury was more serious. “Adam fell off a cliff,” Joe reported. His voice didn’t sound like his. Joe blinked, trying to concentrate. “I don’t know how. I had to get him up. He hasn’t spoken since I found him, this afternoon.”

“Joe?” said his father’s horrified voice from behind him. Joe started to turn, but his system had just had enough. He passed out into Ben’s loving arms.

Catching Joe, Ben hoisted him easily in his arms. “Paul, what is it? Oh, my God, Adam!”

“Lay Joe down I’ll get to him when I can. Don’t let him move about too much. That looks a nasty injury. Ben, I’m afraid Adam’s condition is critical, and I’m going to have to operate. Do I have your permission.” Paul wasn’t asking.

“Yes, of course, but what do you think is wrong?” Ben stepped aside to let Mrs. Baxter through.

“I think he’s bleeding internally,” Paul said, and closed the door in Ben’s stunned face.

*****

They roused Joe from his faint with some brandy. Ben and Hoss listened intently as Joe told them what had happened to him. He couldn’t say exactly what had happened to Adam, but he speculated that the man who had attacked him had attacked Adam, too, and somehow forced him off the cliff. “If only I’d got there sooner,” he said. “If I’d only managed to get him back here quicker. But I kept having to rest. I didn’t mean to take so much time, Pa, honest!” Ben hastened to tell him it wasn’t his fault, but Joe didn’t appear to be listening. When Joe’s weary voice had fallen silent, he had appeared to doze. Ben sat by his side, deeply concerned by the head injury, and terrified that Adam was dying on the operating table.

They waited for better than an hour before Paul Martin appeared again. He looked tired and discouraged. Ben’s heart sank. He left Joe’s side and went over. “Well?” he asked.

“I’m sorry, Ben, but I don’t think he’s going to pull through this time,” Paul Martin said, sadly. He saw the shock on his old friend’s face, and put his hand out to steady him. “If he had received medical treatment sooner, then perhaps I could be more optimistic, but right now, it looks pretty bleak.”

There was movement from behind Ben, and the outer door slammed shut. Turning, Ben stared at Hoss, his middle son. Hoss had tears in his eyes, but he was staring after Joe, who had just rushed out of the room, evading Hoss’ clutching hand.

Frowning, Paul said, “I’m sorry, I didn’t realize he’d take it so badly.”

“It’s not your fault, Paul,” Ben said, wretchedly. “But you see, he blames himself.”

“It weren’t his fault, Pa,” Hoss said. “We don’t think it was.”

“I didn’t realize he blamed himself, but I should’ve guessed that. Someone should go after him,” Paul said. “With that head injury, he should be lying down resting, not wandering around alone!” Paul sighed. “I’ll send Mrs. Baxter to tell Roy to look out for him. We don’t want him drinking until he’s been thoroughly examined. Ben, do you want to go in and sit with…?”

“Yes,” Ben interrupted, and went past Paul. Hoss followed close on his heels. Paul looked to the outer door for a second, concerned about his other patient, but he didn’t have the time to spare to go looking for him at that moment. He beckoned to Mrs. Baxter, and said, “Go and ask Sheriff Coffee to look for Little Joe and bring him back at once. He needs medical attention, too.”

“Yes, doctor,” she said, and went out. With a sigh, Paul went back in to see how Adam was getting on. He was almost certain that Adam would die.

*****

Picking up Joe between them, Roy and Clem carried the unconscious youth back to Paul’s office. The news about Adam was grim, and they feared what they might learn when they took Joe back. “Is Adam …?” Roy asked, as Paul appeared from the inner office.

“Hanging on,” Paul said. “I can’t say more than that right now.” He gestured to the couch where Joe had been lying earlier. “Put him down there, thanks. Where was he?”

“In the saloon. He’d downed one whiskey, but we stopped him before he could buy another.” Roy looked down at Joe anxiously. He had known the boy all his life.

“I’m grateful to you, Roy. With an injury like this, alcohol is about the worst thing he could have.” Paul began to clean up the wound. It was deep, and there were signs of infection. Ben had related Joe’s tale to Paul, and he now up dated Roy.

“But why would anyone do such a thing?” Roy demanded, clearly perplexed.

“Well, that’s your job, Roy, I’m thankful to say,” Paul responded, with an attempt at levity. “I have enough to do with my own job right now.” He poured some alcohol onto the injury, and was gratified that Joe responded with mumbling and winces. Quickly, he bandaged Joe’s head, and then revived him completely. He spent some time peering into Joe’s eyes and asking questions, and finally was satisfied that Joe didn’t have a fractured skull. However, he knew that Joe was badly concussed, exhausted, dehydrated and in mild shock. He needed someone watching him, but naturally, all eyes would be on Adam. In fact, Paul knew he had to get back to Adam right then.

“Joe, do you want to see Adam?” he asked. He felt a little guilty for asking that, but if Joe was in the same room as his older brother, Paul could keep half an eye on him at the same time he was watching Adam.

“No,” Joe said, ducking his head. “No.”

“But, Joe,” Roy protested, but Joe cut over the top of him.

“It’s my fault Adam is dying,” he cried. “My fault, Roy! I didn’t get him here fast enough!”

At Joe’s outcry, Ben appeared in the doorway of the inner room, concern etched deep on his face. However, Paul didn’t allow him the chance to speak. It was his comment that had reinforced Joe’s idea that he was to blame for Adam’s condition, and he must try to undo the damage. “Joe, from what your Pa told me, I think it’s a miracle that you got Adam here at all.” He shook Joe’s shoulder, then forced his chin up, so Joe met his eyes. “Listen to me, boy! Anyone would have had trouble getting Adam up a cliff like that, never mind someone who had just received a serious head injury! But you did get him up, Joe, and all alone! If you had come back to town for help, Adam would certainly have died.” There were tears in Joe’s eyes now, but he was listening. “I’m not sure if Adam will pull through or not, but I never count a Cartwright down. And if you hadn’t done what you did, he would be dead! You have nothing to blame yourself for, do you understand!”

“Paul,” Ben said, fearing that the doctor had been too hard on Joe, but Joe shook his head.

“It’s all right, Pa,” he said, and Ben saw that Paul’s brutality had succeeded where his own gentle understanding hadn’t. Joe might not have been entirely convinced by Paul’s argument – he was really too concussed for that – but he went a long way to shedding the load of unwarranted guilt he was toting.

Rising, Paul looked at Roy. “You can question Joe tomorrow,” he said, and Roy understood that come morning, they would know if Adam was going to live or die. “He might be a bit more with it then,” Paul added. He reached down and slid an arm under Joe’s. “Come on, hero; let’s get you lying down next door.”

*****

For all that Joe intended to watch over Adam like Ben and Hoss were doing, he just couldn’t keep his eyes open. Joe had run a gamut of emotions that day, and he was physically exhausted, as well as concussed. His body simply wouldn’t allow him to stay away any longer, and he fell asleep almost at once on the cot across the room from where Adam lay.

All night, Ben watched over both his sons. Joe was as restless as ever, and he murmured in his sleep, although the words weren’t intelligible. Ben could only hope that he wasn’t relieving the nightmare of the previous afternoon. He could still barely credit that Joe had managed to rescue Adam while injured himself. It didn’t surprise him that Joe should do so, but that he should do so under such adverse circumstances impressed him no end. First, there was the head injury, and Paul hadn’t underplayed the seriousness of that to Ben. Then there was his fear of heights, and of all the places on the ranch to face those fears, Wild Horse Ridge wasn’t the place Ben would have chosen. It was an act of incredible courage and determination.

And then there was Adam. His oldest son lay so still and pale on the bed; his chest and stomach heavily bandaged, his left leg in a cast, as were both his arms. Paul said it was a miracle that he hadn’t broken his neck or back, or fractured his skull. But there had been some internal bleeding, and Paul had had to operate to stop it. They had been lucky. It wasn’t an artery, or Adam would have died before Joe ever found him, nor was the bleeding vein attached to any major organ. None of Adam’s internal organs appeared to be damaged as far as Paul could see.

But Adam was still desperately ill. He had lost a lot of blood, and only time would make it good again. He hadn’t regained consciousness properly since Joe had found him earlier that afternoon, and Paul was seriously worried. Was there some hidden head trauma? Some other little bleed that he hadn’t found? Adam was far too weak for him to consider any further surgery. Paul simply had to trust that Adam’s own constitution would pull him through. That – and the love of his family.

In that dark hour before dawn, Adam made his first movement. Paul was dozing in a chair in the corner. Ben was soothing Joe, who had been crying in his sleep. Hoss was the only person in the room watching Adam, and he had been staring at his older brother for so long that he thought he was imagining it when Adam’s fingers twitched. Sitting up slightly straighter, Hoss peered more intently, and was rewarded with another twitch. “Pa,” he said, low, but it was enough. Ben was at his side in seconds.

“What is it?” he asked, also keeping his voice low.

“Adam moved,” Hoss whispered. “He moved his fingers.”

“Are you sure?” Ben asked, fighting down the hope which had risen in his heart. But before Hoss could answer, it happened again. “Adam?” Ben said, leaning close. “Adam, can you open your eyes for me?”

After a pause that lasted so long Ben thought nothing was going to happen, Adam’s eyelids fluttered, and cracked open. Two bleary brown eyes met Ben’s and he could see the recognition in them. “Stay awake, son,” Ben urged, and Hoss leaned over to shake Paul, who came awake immediately, and rushed to Adam’s side.

“Adam?” Paul said, and Adam slowly looked over. “You’ve had an accident,” Paul went on. “Please try and stay awake for a while, all right?” There was a slight nod in response. Paul shared a quick look with Ben before he began to examine Adam, asking questions which he could answer with a nod or shake of the head. Finally, he was satisfied that Adam wasn’t bleeding internally any more, and would gradually become more alert as he made good the blood loss. “Adam, I’m just going to give you something for pain, and to help you sleep. All right?”

Adam’s lips moved, and Paul leaned in close to hear. The single word that Adam said came as no surprise to Paul and he smiled. “Over there,” he said, and urged Ben to step aside so that Adam could see the object of his concern sleeping restlessly on the cot. Following Paul’s pointing finger, Adam saw Joe, and sighed deeply. His eyes drifted closed again, and Paul was convinced that he was asleep even before the needle containing the morphine pierced his thigh.

*****

By mid-morning, Paul was convinced that Adam would live. He had wakened up briefly, and Paul had been able to get some soup into him, along with more water. By then, Paul was almost out on his feet, and he left Adam in Mrs. Baxter’s capable hands while he went to catch some sleep. He ordered the Cartwrights to do the same, for Adam had a long road to recovery in front of him, and it would help no one if the other family members collapsed through exhaustion.

Reluctantly, Ben and Hoss repaired to the hotel. Joe was still at Paul’s office, as he had been stricken with recurring bouts of nausea, as a result of the concussion he had suffered. He was still physically exhausted, and Paul didn’t want him moved quite yet. Head injuries were always tricky, and with Joe, anything was possible.

Father and son ate quickly, then headed for their room. They barely took the time to shed their clothes, before dropping onto the beds and falling into a deep slumber. When Ben wakened, he could tell by the cast of the shadows that it was almost sunset. For a moment his heart contracted painfully. Were Adam and Joe still all right? Then common sense prevailed and he realized that if anything had happened, Paul would have sent for them at once. Sitting up stiffly, he could see that Hoss was still asleep. Ben rose from the bed, and started to dress. He tried to be quiet, but some small noise, or the movement, woke Hoss, and so they went to get a meal together before they headed back over to the doctor’s office.

The office was quiet when they entered, and Ben softly opened the door to the inner room. Adam still lay asleep on the bed, and Ben doubted if he’d moved at all since they left earlier. Joe was lying down, but as soon as the door opened, his green eyes glanced over, and he attempted a smile. It wasn’t very successful, as he clearly still felt ill. Ben checked on Adam, feeling his forehead lightly to check for fever, which was absent, and then went over to Joe.

“How do you feel, son?” he asked, taking in the youth’s pallor, and the huge bruise that showed under the edge of the bandage.

“I’m all right,” Joe replied, listlessly. He made an effort to sit up, but the sudden feeling of nausea drove him back down before Ben could urge him to lie still. “How’s Adam?”

“Sleeping,” Ben replied, glancing over his shoulder. “But Paul says he’s going to be all right.”

“I thought he was dead,” Joe said, and tears suddenly streaked his face. Ben gathered Joe in his arms, murmuring soothing sounds. “When I spotted him lying there on that ledge, I thought he was dead!” Joe sniffed. “All the time I was climbing that cliff, I thought of what would happen if I couldn’t get him up. And then, I had to get him to the horses, and back here. Pa, I thought he would die! I thought it would be my fault if he died!” Joe was working himself up into a fit of hysteria. Ben didn’t doubt he was entitled to it, but he felt it would be better if Joe was kept fairly quiet.

“That’s enough, Joe,” Ben said, sternly. “Adam didn’t die,” Ben softened his voice, “and it’s all thanks to you! You risked your own life to save him, and I’m so proud of you I could burst! Don’t blame yourself for anything. You just rest and get better, and don’t worry about a thing.” He cradled Joe in his arms, as he had done when his son was just a small child. He could feel Joe relaxing in his embrace. After a few minutes, he realized that Joe was asleep, and eased him back onto the pillows.

“Pa,” Hoss said. “Adam’s awake.”

Those appeared to be magic words. They were hardly out of Hoss’ mouth when the door opened, and Paul Martin came in. He was carrying a steaming plate of soup. “Oh, good, awake I see,” he said, cheerfully. “Hello, Ben, Hoss. Have a good sleep? Good. You’re just in time to help me feed Adam.”

“Hello, son,” Ben said, gently lifting Adam’s head.

“Pa,” Adam whispered, but Ben was delighted. It was the first thing he had heard Adam say. “Joe?”

“Sleeping,” Ben said. “He’s all right. Got a bang on the head, but he’ll be fine.”

Accepting the first mouthful of soup, Adam swallowed dutifully, then looked back at Ben. “Don’t remember,” he said.

“Joe brought you here, son, after he carried you up that cliff you fell over.” Ben tried to make a joke out of it, but he failed dismally.

His son’s eyes widened. “Joe?” he croaked. He still managed to sound incredulous. “A cliff? Oh.” From the look in his eyes, Ben guessed that Adam did indeed remember at least part of the previous afternoon, and it was a part he’d really rather not be recalling.

“It’s all right, Adam, you’re safe here,” he said. “Don’t worry about a thing. Just do as the doctor says, and you’ll be well in no time.”

As Paul continued to spoon the soup into Adam, the oldest Cartwright looked around the room. He smiled briefly at Hoss, and his eyes rested on Joe’s slumbering form for a second, but something was clearly on his mind. It was Paul’s gaze he finally snagged. “Hurt bad?” he asked.

“Yes, Adam, you are hurt badly,” Paul replied, matter of factly. “Your left leg is broken, and so are both your arms. You were bleeding internally, and I had to operate to stop it. You’re going to be here for at least a week, if not longer, then we’ll think about letting you go home. But you won’t be walking about much even if you do!” He smiled. “But you’ll be fine in time.”

“Tired,” Adam said, and closed his eyes. Paul didn’t object. Adam had eaten a lot more than he had expected, and he was quite satisfied with his progress.

“You sleep then,” Paul said, and smiled as Ben eased Adam’s head to the pillow, and carefully tucked him in.

*****

Three days later, Joe rode slowly back to the ranch with Hoss. Ben was staying in town to be near Adam, who was gaining strength every day. Joe was still feeling the effects of the concussion he’d suffered, but the gash on his head was healing cleanly, and he was mostly over the dreadful nausea. His head still ached relentlessly, but he fancied that being out in the fresh air was making a difference to it. He felt as weak as a newborn kitten, for until that day, he had only left the doctor’s office to walk to the hotel. Lack of exercise was taking its toll.

“You all right, Shortshanks?” Hoss asked. “You’re awful quiet. You ain’t plannin’ some mischief are ya?”

“No, I’m not planning anything,” Joe replied. “I’m all right, Hoss, I was just thinking.”

“’Bout Adam, I don’t doubt,” Hoss said, wisely, for he knew it rankled with Joe that he hadn’t had the chance to speak to Adam properly before he left for home. But Adam still slept most of the time, and when he was awake, Ben was with him.

“Yeah, about Adam, and about Roy,” Joe agreed. He had given Roy as full a description of his attacker as he could, but tall, thin, dirty and unshaven covered literally hundreds of people in the territory. Joe couldn’t even make a good guess at the color of the man’s hair or eyes. “He’s never going to find the guy that attacked us, is he?”

“It don’t seem likely,” Hoss allowed, doubtfully. “But, Joe, we don’t even know for sure that the fella that attacked you attacked Adam first.”

“How likely is it that Adam just fell over that cliff?” Joe demanded. “They were fighting, and you know that as well as I do!” Joe shuddered as the picture of Adam lying on the ledge imprinted itself upon his vision. “But what we don’t know is why, and we won’t know until Paul says that Adam is strong enough to talk about it.”

“True ‘nough,” Hoss agreed. “But frettin’ about its not gonna do Adam any good, is it?”

“No,” Joe answered shortly, but he couldn’t tear his mind away from his thoughts. He rode the rest of the way home in silence.

*****

It was good to be home at last. Joe had been away for a month, and he allowed Hop Sing to fuss over him for a while, before gently showing that he’d had enough. That night, secure in his own bed, Joe slept better than he had for the last few days. For the next few days, he allowed that peace and security to soothe his troubled mind as he gradually overcame the last lingering effects of the concussion, and resumed his usual workload.

They had had regular updates about Adam, and 10 days after the incident, Paul judged Adam fit enough to move back to the ranch. Ben brought him slowly home in the back of the wagon, and once there, he and Hoss helped him up to bed. Adam would be confined to his room for many weeks to come as his broken limbs slowly healed. He needed help to do everything, and Ben delegated himself nursemaid. It was tiring and time consuming, but Ben didn’t find it a chore. However, it meant that he was very tired come night, and more often than not went to bed early. Joe and Hoss took on the brunt of running the ranch. They didn’t mind this, but Joe found that he still hadn’t had the chance to talk to Adam, for his brother still slept a good deal, and seldom seemed to be awake when Joe was around.

“Is Adam awake?” Joe asked, a few mornings after Adam had returned home. They were having breakfast.

“Yes, but he’s pretty tired, son. I think you should leave him alone so he can get some sleep,” Ben replied, absently. “Hoss, are you ready to move the herd to winter grazing?”

Before Hoss had the chance to do more than open his mouth, Joe’s temper flared and he snapped, “Are you telling me that I can’t see my own brother? What is this? Why can’t I talk to him? Is it because you think I’ll be upsetting him?”

“That’s enough!” Ben said, reprovingly. “You certainly will upset him if you go barging in with your temper blazing like that! Adam has been very ill, and has a long recovery in front of him.”

“I know he’s been ill!” Joe shouted. “And I know it’s my fault! You don’t have to rub it in by banning me from seeing him! How can I apologies to him if you won’t let me see him?”

“Now, Joe, Pa didn’t say it was your fault,” Hoss protested, as Ben sat there, stunned. “None o’ this is your fault. We done told you!”

“Hoss is right,” Ben said. “This isn’t your fault, Joe. I didn’t mean to make you think it was. I thought we had this all sorted out while you were still at Paul’s.”

Biting his lip, trying to control both his temper and the tears that threatened to well up in his eyes, Joe said, “I don’t remember too much about being at Paul’s.“

Reaching out, Ben squeezed Joe’s arm. He was mentally berating himself for forgetting that Joe had been hurt, too. Plus he had had the shock of finding Adam, and the strain, physical and mental, of getting his brother to safety. “I’m sorry, Joe. I guess I haven’t had the chance to spend much time with either you or Hoss lately. I didn’t realize that you still blamed yourself. But, Joe, don’t you see, you saved Adam’s life. Paul says that if you had come back here for help, Adam would have died. Joe, you’re a hero!” He squeezed his son’s arm again, and Joe lifted his head. His eyes were drowned in tears. “Go and talk to Adam,” he suggested.

For a paralyzing instant, Joe wasn’t sure he wanted to see Adam. But then he found himself on his feet, walking steadily towards the stairs. He could feel Ben and Hoss looking at him, but he didn’t look back, he just kept on walking. Up the stairs, along the hallway, until he was standing outside Adam’s door. He paused, and knocked tentatively. “Come in,” said a strong voice from inside.

Opening the door, Joe went in, shocked for a moment by the vulnerable look on Adam’s face. It was gone in a second, to be replaced by a welcoming smile. “Joe! It’s good to see you, buddy! Come on in. I was beginning to think Pa was bound and determined to keep me isolated here.”

Going over, Joe sat in the chair by the bed. Adam’s bad leg was propped up on a pillow, and his broken arms each rested on another. “I’m sorry I wasn’t there for you sooner, Adam,” Joe said, ducking his head. Adam looked much thinner to Joe, and he felt guilty all over again.

“Joe.” Adam’s voice was filled with frustration. Joe looked up. Adam was gazing at him intently. “Joe, from what Pa says, you saved my life. If that’s not being there for me, I don’t know what is! You saved me, so why are you sorry? Are you sorry you saved me?”

A tiny smile crept onto Joe’s face. “Of course not!”

“Well, stop apologizing, and let me thank you. Joe, I know you don’t like heights, and perhaps I haven’t always been as understanding as I might have been about that. But I can imagine how difficult it must have been for you to climb down to me. Thank you.” He made a tiny frustrated movement. “Words just don’t seem enough,” he said. “Thank you seems such a small thing in comparison with what you did for me. I have my life, thanks to you.”

“Thanks is enough for me,” Joe said, softly. He was smiling, the tears running down his face. Adam’s absolution was what he needed; he wasn’t carrying blame about with him any more. He reached over and hugged Adam carefully.

They sat quietly for a moment. “What happened, Adam?” Joe asked. “I came looking for you, and was jumped from the trees. It was a tall, thin, dirty, unshaven man who jumped me. We fought, and he knocked me out with a tree branch. When I came to, he was gone.”

“You’re the first person to ask me that,” Adam said, soberly. “Pa won’t let me talk about it in case it gets me agitated. But I’ll be glad to get it out. I was marking the trees, and was just finishing up when someone shouted at me. For an instant, I thought it was you, and turned, and there was the man you described. He was waving his arms around and shouting. I didn’t know what he was talking about. He came up close, and I realized that he was angry because I was marking the trees. I tried to explain what I was doing, but he wasn’t listening. He grabbed the axe from my hand and dropped it. I was getting a bit annoyed, so I decided it would be best it ignore him. I stooped to pick the axe up, and he pushed me. I remember going over the edge, and falling….” Adam’s voice trailed off, and he blanched. Joe’s active imagination followed Adam over the edge of the cliff; he could feel himself falling, and landing with a crunch on the ledge, pain shooting through his body.

“Joe!” Adam said, sharply. He had come from his own, mercifully brief, remembrances, to see Joe sitting there, eyes gazing into the distance, his face chalk white. With a start, Joe came back to the present. “That’s all, just falling. That’s all I remember, until I woke up in Paul’s office.”

Sliding to the floor, Joe laid his head on Adam’s thigh. Adam was able to touch Joe’s head with his fingertips. They sat like that for quite some time. Adam knew that Joe was crying, not for himself, but for Adam. Tears stood in his eyes, too but he felt lighter.

The door opened quietly and Ben looked in. for an instant, he thought both boys were asleep, but then they both looked round as a whisper of air reached them. “All right?” Ben asked, unsure which of them he was directing the question at.

“We’re fine,” Adam answered. “I think we were both needing this.” He smiled as Joe got to his feet, and Ben came into the room.

“Do you want me to talk to Roy?” Joe asked Adam. “I don’t suppose there’s much he can do now, but you never know.”

“Good idea,” Adam replied. “I can talk to him, if he wants a statement.”

“Adam, I’m not sure that’s a good idea,” Ben began, but Adam stopped him.

“Pa, it happened, you can’t keep running away from it. Joe’s right. Roy needs to be told. I’m fine, honestly.” Adam looked down ruefully at his casts. “Well, I will be,” he added. Joe laughed, so did Adam, and Ben smiled.

“I suppose you’re right,” Ben admitted. “All right, son, off you go and tell Roy.”

“Thanks, Pa,” Joe said. “See you later, big brother, and don’t do anything I wouldn’t.”

“That leaves me plenty of scope,” Adam commented, dryly, as Joe went out of the door, dodging to avoid the mock blow Ben sent his way.

*****

It was the first time any of the Cartwrights had been in town in almost 2 weeks, and Joe was stopped frequently as people asked after his health and Adam’s. He answered patiently, and was genuinely surprised by the number of people who asked. He hadn’t realized that they had so many friends.

At length, Joe pulled up Cochise outside Roy’s office and dismounted. He hitched his horse to the rail and went inside. Roy was sitting at his desk, sorting through paperwork. He glanced up as Joe came in, and smiled. “Howdy, Little Joe. How’re you feelin’? How’s Adam?”

“He’s getting better, thanks, Roy,” Joe answered. He casually hitched one hip onto the edge of the desk. “He wanted me to let you know that he was attacked by the same man as me.”

“I see. Does he mind if I take a statement?” Roy asked. “Don’t know what good it’ll do, Joe, but…” He broke off, suddenly becoming aware of Joe’s unnatural stillness. “Joe?” he said, suddenly worried. “Joe?”

The youth’s eyes were fixed on Roy’s desk, and his breath came in gasps. “Joe, what is it, boy?” Roy asked, shaking his shoulder.

“Him,” Joe breathed, pointing. “It was him!”

Following Joe’s pointing finger, Roy looked at a wanted poster that had arrived a day or so before. He picked it up and re-read the information to refresh his memory. “Clarence Hawkins,” Roy said. “Escaped from a lunatic asylum back east a few weeks or so ago. Killed a guard on the way out. You sure, boy?”

“I’m not likely to forget that face,” Joe said, closing his eyes as a vision of Hawkins wielding the branch rushed through his brain. “I see it every night in my dreams.” He shuddered.

“Well, it ain’t likely he’s still round here,” Roy said, doubtfully, “but I’ll get a posse together and go look for him.” He patted Joe on the shoulder. “Guess I will come out and see Adam after all.”

*****

They rode out to the ranch together, but Joe was essentially silent on the way. He was thinking about Hawkins. The man had killed a guard and escaped from a lunatic asylum. He and Adam had been incredibly lucky to escape with their lives.

At the ranch, Roy filled them in on the rest of the story. Hawkins had been a minister, until his wife and young family had been killed in a riot. He had been badly hurt, and had lost his reason. His family had done what they could to care for him, but his parents were elderly, and his brothers all had young families of their own. Finally, they had been forced to have him put away. He had been in the asylum for several years when he managed to break out, killing a guard on the way.

“Tragic,” Ben said, shaking his head.

“Sure is,” Roy agreed. “But he’s dangerous. He’s killed once, and attacked both your boys. I’ll start lookin’ for him tomorrow, Ben. You don’t mind if I start on the Ponderosa, do you?”

“No, of course not,” Ben agreed. “I’m just sorry that I can’t spare anyone to help you look.” He shrugged. “But with Adam laid up, someone has to be here with him.”

At that, Joe’s head went up, and he stared at Ben, who deliberately ignored him. He didn’t want to risk either of his sons meeting this man. Before Joe could make any kind of protest, Roy said, “I quite understand, Ben.” He rose, and took his leave.

“I wanted to go on the posse, Pa,” Joe said, belligerently, after Roy was gone.

“I know,” Ben said. “But I don’t want you anywhere near him again.”

“He could have been watching this house for the past few weeks,” Joe said, trying to hold on to his temper. “He could be outside right now!”

“The answer is still no, Joseph,” Ben said, sternly.

For a moment, Joe just stared at Ben, then he rushed upstairs and slammed his bedroom door behind him.

*****

When Ben looked in on Joe many hours later, Joe was sound asleep. He had thrown himself down on the bed in a fit of temper, and snarled out his anger into his pillow. Gradually, the tensions of the day caught him up, and his eyes closed, and he slept. Ben smiled, and gently tugged the quilt out from under his slumbering son, and covered him against the chill night air. The first snow had fallen high up the mountains that day. He knew how disappointed and angry Joe was, but he was determined that Joe was not going on the posse. He was sure Joe would see things his way come morning.

*****

It was still dark as Joe tugged on his warm coat and went out to the barn. He had wakened with the absolute certainty that he knew where to find Hawkins – Wild Horse Ridge. His heart quaked at the thought of going back there, but he was sure that that was where Hawkins was to be found. Joe hoped he would run into Roy and the posse on the way, but he was still determined to go, even if he didn’t meet them.

He had left a note for Ben up in his room, where it might take his father a little longer to find it, once he discovered Joe’s absence. Joe had no doubts that Ben would be angry with him, and rightly so, but that didn’t stop Joe. He saddled Cochise, mounted and left.

However, Joe hadn’t been as quiet as he thought he’d been. Hoss had heard him moving about, but hadn’t got up until he heard the front door close. Dragging on his clothes, Hoss peered out of his window, and saw Joe ride off. In the hallway, he met Ben, who had also heard the door close. “Hoss? Who was that who went out?”

“Just who you think it was, Pa,” Hoss replied. “I reckon he’s goin’ after Hawkins, in spite of what you said to him yesterday. But don’t worry none, Pa; I’ll get him back for ya.”

“Thanks, son. But be careful.” Ben shivered, and thought he might as well get up and get the house warmed up. It looked like it was going to be a cold day. “I’ll murder that young man when he gets home.”

“I’ll try an’ leave a piece of him intact for ya,” Hoss said, with grim humor. He went downstairs and got ready to follow Joe.

*****

The frost was thick on the ground, and the sky was filled with slate-grey clouds. Joe knew there would be snow that day, and he hurried Cochise along. The last place he wanted to be caught when it was snowing was Wild Horse Ridge. Likely there would be some snow up there already.

It was nearing noon when Joe arrived at Wild Horse Ridge. He had seen no sign of the posse. He tethered Cochise, and drew a deep breath before heading off towards the ridge proper. There was a thin covering of snow on the ground, and Joe took a good look around, but there was no sign of footprints in the meadow.

The going was slightly easier in the trees, as there was less snow there. However, Joe went cautiously, checking for signs of life all round, unwilling to be caught out, as he had been the last time. Just as he reached the first area where the trail hugged the edge of the mountain, Joe saw a footprint.

Glancing all round, Joe knelt to examine it closely. It was bigger than a print he would make, and narrower than Adam’s, he thought. Rising slowly, Joe stood for a minute, just listening. Still satisfied that there was nothing near by to trouble him, he looked round for more prints, and soon found them. They led away from the edge of the cliff, for which Joe was truly thankful, deeper into the forest. Cautiously, he followed them. Before long, he was rewarded, as he saw the makeshift shelter in a small clearing.

Drawing his gun, Joe stepped out into the clearing. A branch crashed down onto his arm, and Joe’s gun fell form his nerveless fingers. Joe didn’t wait for the follow-up blow to the head. He dived forward, and rolled away, coming back to his feet and whirling round to face his attacker. His left arm hung numbly by his side. “Hawkins,” he said, softly.

At the sound of his name, the cadaverous man halted, peering at Joe curiously. “The trees haven’t hurt you,” he said. “Don’t hurt them.”

This was totally incomprehensible to Joe, who just ignored the statement. He continued to watch the man warily as he lifted the tree branch again. He glanced at his gun, which lay near Hawkins’ feet. He hoped the crazed man wouldn’t take it into his head to lift it.

“You cut the trees,” Hawkins said. “But I will protect them from you! I won’t let you hurt the trees! The dryads will die if you hurt the trees.”

“It’s all right,” Joe said, soothingly. “I’m not here to hurt the trees.” He saw a movement behind Hawkins and wondered for an instant if it was a bear.

“That’s far enough, mister,” said a familiar voice, and Hoss stepped into view. He had his gun drawn, too.

“Look out, Hoss!” Joe cried, as Hawkins whirled and hurled the branch at Hoss.

For a blind pitch, it was remarkably accurate. Hoss dodged, but not far enough. The branch hit him a glancing blow on the head; it wasn’t enough to knock Hoss out, but it was enough to daze him. He dropped his gun. Hawkins lunged at Hoss, forgetting all about Joe, it seemed. Joe darted forward, but Hawkins seemed to have eyes in the back of his head, for he swung his arm round in a sweeping blow, and caught Joe on the throat, knocking him to the ground. Without missing a beat, Hawkins threw himself onto Hoss.

Normally, Hoss would have had no problem keeping Hawkins off. But the blow on the head had dazed him, and he went down under the assault. Hawkins seemed to have much more strength than his thin frame suggested, and Hoss was soon getting the worst of it.

Struggling to his feet, fighting a desire to throw up, Joe saw that his brother was having trouble, and lunged onto Hawkins back. His attack didn’t seem to faze the man at all. Hawkins simply jabbed an elbow in Joe’s stomach, dislodging the youth. Joe fell to the ground again. Hoss used the chance Joe had given him to throw a punch at the man, but it seemed to have no impact at all. Hawkins kept trying to strangle the life out of Hoss.

Once more, Joe attacked, launching himself at Hawkins, and driving the man over sideways, clear of Hoss, who began to cough as he fought to get back his breath. Joe pummeled the man, hoping that he would be able to knock him out, or at least wear him down. It didn’t work. Hawkins was scrabbling about with one hand, and Joe didn’t pay any attention to what he was doing. He was far too busy trying to dodge the blows the man’s other hand was raining on him.

With a mighty swing, Hawkins brought his discarded tree branch round in an arc, crashing into Joe’s side, and knocking him over. Pain rocketed through Joe’s body, and he landed awkwardly on his still sore left arm. The wrist snapped audibly, and Joe let out a cry of pain.

He was allowed no respite, though. Hawkins threw himself onto the injured youth, trapping his hands by his sides, and reaching down to choke Joe. The world began to go dark, as the man’s fingers tightened. Joe gasped for breath. He couldn’t get any, and he knew he was going to die.

Then the pressure was gone, and Joe shook his head to force his eyes to focus. Hoss had knocked Hawkins away from Joe, and was going after him again. But Hoss’ head was bleeding, and he was no match for the ex-minister. Hawkins once more found his branch, and clubbed Hoss heavily with it. Hoss crumpled to the ground without a sound. Hawkins looked round for Joe, and headed back towards him.

Still gasping for breath, Joe threw himself across the clearing to where his gun lay. He snatched it up in his right hand and aimed at Hawkins. Clicking the safety off, he warmed, “Don’t move!”

Hawkins took no notice, and continued to advance on Joe. “You’ll hurt the trees!” the man shrieked, and lunged at Joe.

In that instant, Joe knew he had no choice. He and Hoss were both injured. Hawkins was out of control. Joe pulled the trigger. His first shot had little effect, and he fired again, trying to scrabble away. Hawkins fell, and landed on Joe. For an instant, their eyes met. “The trees,” Hawkins gasped, and died.

Pushing the man away, Joe staggered to his feet and went over to where Hoss lay. He all but collapsed at his brother’s side, and checked his pulse. Hoss was still breathing. Joe slumped in relief, leaning against Hoss’ comforting bulk, too exhausted to move.

He was still sitting there when the posse arrived a short time later.

*****

Hearing the horses in the yard, Ben rose from his desk, where he had been pretending to do some paperwork, and hurried into the yard. Whatever else he had been expecting to see, Joe, Hoss and a dead man with the posse hadn’t been it.

Hurrying across the yard, Ben could see at once that both his sons had been injured. Hoss’ face was still marked by dried blood, and there was a gash and bruise on his head. “What happened?” he asked, generally.

“Little Joe here found Hawkins,” Roy said, getting down from his horse. He gestured to the dead man. “Hawkins attacked him an’ Hoss, an’ Joe had to shoot him. We heard the shots, an’ went to see what it was. Found Hoss just comin’ round, an’ Joe sittin’ next to him. I sent one of the boys to town for the doc, Ben. It looks like they both need to see him.”

“It does indeed,” Ben said. He went to Hoss’ side, and helped ease his son from his horse.

“I’m all right, Pa,” Hoss said, in a strong voice. “Just a bit of a headache.” He produced a grimace that passed for a smile. “Little Joe saved my life, Pa.”

Seeing that Hoss was indeed quite steady on his feet, Ben went to help Joe. His youngest son was chalk-white, and couldn’t meet his father’s eyes. “And as for you, young man,” Ben said, tartly, “if you hadn’t gone off against my wishes, none of this would have happened, would it?” He softened the sting slightly with a smile.

Raising his head, Joe looked at Ben for a long moment. “I’m sorry, Pa,” he said. The pain he was feeling was evident in his voice. “It’s my fault.”

“You’re very quick to take the blame for everything, aren’t you, son?” Ben said, helping Joe down. “Yes, you disobeyed me, but we’ll worry about that after we’ve got you better.”

“We’ll be gettin’ back to town now, Ben,” Roy said, mounting up again. “I’m right glad Little Joe found this fella. I heard some more about him last night. He thought his mission was to protect the trees, an’ he seems to have killed a few men who were cuttin’ down trees. Very strong for his size, they said. Last night, they changed the warrant to wanted dead, not dead or alive. There’ll be reward money comin’ to Joe for this.”

Escorting his sons into the house, Ben wasn’t sure how to take that bit of news. He didn’t know if it made things better or worse. However, he now had three invalids to look after, and with Hop Sing’s help, set about preparing for the doctor’s arrival.

*****

Later, Ben told Adam all about the excitement. “So are they both all right?” Adam asked, after Ben was finished.

“Hoss is concussed, and has a huge bruise. Paul thinks he’ll be fine in a few days. Joe has broken his left wrist and some ribs. He’s covered in bruises, as is Hoss. Hawkins tried to strangle them both.” Ben shook his head.

“And you feel some sympathy with that, don’t you?” Adam commented. “You’d quite like to strangle them both, too, wouldn’t you?”

Giving his son a wry look, Ben nodded. “You’re right there, son,” he said. “Especially Joseph. What was he thinking of, going off on his own like that when I’d told him not to?”

Glancing down at the casts on his arm, Adam said, “I think he might have been trying to expiate some of the guilt he still feels about my accident.” As Ben frowned, Adam said, “Don’t get me wrong, Pa, I don’t think he consciously feels any blame. But for a long time he believed that he had taken too long to rescue me. That kind of sub-conscious thinking takes a little longer to silence. Try not to be too hard on him.”

“That’s a turn up for the books,” Ben said. “Usually, you say I’m not hard enough.”

“I know,” Adam agreed. “I must be getting soft as I get older. But we both know that Joe went hunting for Hawkins to keep me from further harm – and you and Hoss, too.”

“I know,” Ben said, softly. “Good night, Adam.”

“Good night, Pa,” Adam answered, and smiled vividly. “Go on, go and see Joe, and get this settled, or none of us will sleep well tonight.” He paused and cocked his head. “Apart from Hoss, of course,” he went on, as a particularly raucous snore ripped the quiet night air.

Across the landing, Ben looked in on Hoss for a moment, but his middle son was asleep, as he had had been for most of the evening. Smiling, Ben went to Joe’s room.

It wasn’t a surprise to find Joe awake. Ben knew the discomfort he was in, and not just physical. “Hi, Pa,” he ventured. “How’s Hoss?”

“Asleep,” Ben answered. He sat down by Joe’s bed, and unbidden, his hand strayed out to push the tangled curls from Joe’s forehead. “How do you feel, Joe?”

“Sore,” Joe admitted. He wasn’t meeting Ben’s eyes any more. “I’m sorry I disobeyed you, Pa, but I had to.”

“I know that, son,” Ben said, steadily. “I’m not happy about it, but I know why you did it. I’m just grateful to have you and Hoss back alive.”

“You know why I did it?” Joe said, looking up.

“Yes, I know.” Ben smiled. “I know you, Joe, and Adam pointed it out to me, too. You went out there to get Hawkins so he couldn’t hurt your family anymore. I’m not happy you did it, but I do understand.”

“Thank you,” Joe said, so softly, Ben barely heard him. “I didn’t know that was why I did it, Pa. I really didn’t – not until you said it. I’m sorry Hoss got hurt because of me.”

“Joe, both times you encountered Hawkins, you saved your brother’s life, despite being injured yourself. Perhaps Hoss wouldn’t have been hurt if he hadn’t followed you, but you would have died. You had nothing to do with Adam’s accident, except save his life. I think, on balance, the blame is far outweighed by your courage.” Ben leaned forward to hug Joe. “Please, son, next time I tell you something, listen to me.”

“I will, Pa, I promise,” Joe said. He looked more at peace now, ready for sleep. He slid down the bed, wincing at the pain in his ribs. Ben helped him place his cast comfortably on the pillow that supported it.

“Between you and Adam, we have no pillows left,” he grumbled, gently.

Smiling up at him, Joe said, “Better no pillows than no sons, Pa.”

“You cheeky scamp!” Ben said. “Good night, Joe.”

“Good night, Pa.” Joe said. He closed his eyes and relaxed as far as he could. He was glad the day was over. There was no need to worry about Hawkins any longer.

*****End*****

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