Growing Up (by Rona)

Summary:  Joe has grown away from a group of friends, who resent this, and set out to make his life a misery. But when Ben gets injured, can Joe save him?

Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated: T
Word Count: 10,400


 

“Hey, Joe!” A voice hailed, and Joe Cartwright turned, squinting slightly against the sun to see the person who had called to him.

“Hi, Pete,” he returned, looking up at the young man on the flashy bay horse.

“Long time no see, Cartwright,” Pete said, not dismounting.

“Yeah, well, I’ve been busy,” Joe said, shortly. “I’m in kind of a hurry, Pete. See you another time?” Without waiting for a response, Joe continued walking along the boardwalk to the mail office. He was aware of Pete following him on the horse, and was vaguely annoyed. He went to the window of the mail office, and greeted the clerk. Pete dismounted, and hitched his horse to the rail.

“You’ve been busy for some time,” Pete said, as Joe turned back, tucking the mail into his inner jacket pocket. “You haven’t come out racing with us for months. What’s wrong? Your rich daddy told you you gotta stay at home and be a good boy?”

“Back off, Pete,” Joe said. “I don’t want to race any more, okay? I have other things on my mind.”

“What things?” Pete asked, grabbing Joe’s arm as he tried to walk away. “Are you getting responsible in your old age? You don’t have to work, Joey. You’ve got a rich daddy to keep you in cash.”

“If I don’t work, I don’t earn,” Joe said, seriously annoyed now. He shook his arm, and Pete took the hint. “And maybe I am getting responsible. I do have a lot on my plate right now, and play is the last thing on my mind. Now back off!” He turned on his heel, and left Pete standing.

Retrieving Cochise, his pinto horse, from the livery stable, Joe mounted up and set off for home. He did have a lot on his plate right then. He was shouldering all the responsibility for the breaking of the horses, and the day before, the most promising horse out of the bunch he was currently working with had caught its hoof in the corral rails and snapped a leg. It had been destroyed, but the accident had cast a pall over the operation. Joe, who had been riding the horse, had been thrown clear, and had suffered no more than a few bruises. But his heart ached for the beautiful animal that had died.

About a year previously, Joe had fallen in with Pete Devlin and his pals, who were all about Joe’s age. They were all sons of rich ranchers, and most of them spent their time loafing around, drinking in the saloons and raising trouble. People smiled indulgently at their antics, which were generally pretty harmless. Their favorite sport was racing their horses, and Joe had thoroughly enjoyed that. However, over the last few months, he suddenly found the company of these idle young men was giving him no pleasure, and he had stopped meeting up with them. Joe couldn’t explain why, even to himself, hence his shortness with Pete. He didn’t realize that it was because he had matured, and grown away from them.

Normally, Joe would have stopped at the Silver Dollar for a drink, but the mail he had collected had an important letter in it for Ben, his father, and Joe knew how anxious Ben was to get it. He headed straight for home, and didn’t even feel a pang of regret for the missed opportunity to slope off work for a while.

He wasn’t sure when he became aware that he was being followed. Looking back, he spotted Pete’s bay, and Dave’s liver chestnut. Joe kicked Cochise into a faster pace, but he had put in a full morning’s work, and his pursuers’ horses were fresh.

The distance between them diminished, and finally, Pete and Dave were riding one on either side of Joe. Joe slowed Cochise to a walk, but the horse pranced nervously. “What do you want?” Joe asked.

“That ain’t very nice,” Pete said. “Is that nice, Dave?”

“No, its not nice,” Dave said. Joe gave him a disgusted look. It was Joe’s private opinion that Dave Barker had no more brains than a sheep, and he went along with anything Pete said.

While Joe was looking at Dave, Pete grabbed Joe’s rein. In a flash, Joe had his gun drawn, and aimed at Pete, who looked startled. Dave, forgotten about, leaned over and grabbed Joe, pulling him backwards from the horse.

It wasn’t much of a fall, but Joe landed flat on his back, and was slightly winded. Before he could regain his feet, Pete and Dave were there, pummeling him with verve. Joe fought back, and scrambled to his feet, but although Dave wasn’t much of a fighter, Pete was vicious and dirty. Joe was getting a real pounding. He stepped back to avoid a nasty kick in the groin, and stumbled on a loose rock. Joe’s ankle twisted under him, and he lost his balance. Pete was on him in a moment, and Joe crashed to the ground. Within seconds, Dave was sitting on Joe’s legs, and Pete was bashing his head off the ground. Joe fought desperately, but there was one knock too many, and he surrendered his hold on consciousness.

Panting, Pete and Dave scrambled to their feet. Dave looked frightened. “What are we going to do with him?” he asked.

Wiping blood from his nose, Pete spat on his unconscious ‘friend’. “We’ll tie him to his horse,” Pete decided. “He’ll think twice before he talks to me like that again.”

They dragged Joe over to Cochise, and threw him up into the saddle somehow. It took Pete only moments to tie Joe’s wrists to the saddle horn, tightening the rope cruelly. He dropped Joe’s hat onto his head, and gave Cochise a thump. The pinto started off towards home, with Joe, still unconscious, on his back.

Watching, Pete and Dave laughed, because they had managed to get one over on a Cartwright.

*****

“Yes, I get the same total,” Adam said to Ben, passing the ledger back across the desk.

“Good,” Ben said, sounding pleased. “Its nice to get it right the first time, isn’t it?” He smiled at Adam, who smiled back. Hearing hooves in the yard, he said, “That’ll be Joseph. It’s a change for him to get back early with the mail.”

They waited for the rush of feet on the porch, but none came. Still smiling, Ben rose, and looked out of the office window. He saw Cochise standing in the yard, with Joe slumped along his neck. “Something’s wrong,” he said to Adam, as the smile faded from his face. He hurried outside.

Hearing the footsteps, Joe lifted his head slightly. He was afraid to move too much, as the world had developed an alarming habit of tilting when he did so. He had seldom been as pleased to see anyone, as he was to see his father and oldest brother.

“Joe!” Ben exclaimed, and reached for his son, seeing the signs of a beating.

“No,” Joe whispered, and moved slightly.

Puzzled, Ben put his hand up again, then his eye fell on the rope binding Joe’s wrists. “Who did this to you?” he asked, as Adam produced a knife and began to hack at the rough hemp.

“Pete and Dave,” Joe replied, as he was assisted down from his saddle. The world spun even faster, and Joe turned quite green for a few moments until he regained at least some of his equilibrium. Ben supported Joe on one side, and Adam took the other arm.

“Come on,” Ben said, gently, and they helped Joe as he limped painfully across to the house.

“I got the mail,” Joe said, as they eased him gently down onto the settee. “Your letter’s there, Pa.” He spoke with some difficulty, as his lower lip was badly split.

“Never mind that now,” Ben scolded, gently, as he ran a hand over Joe’s head. Joe winced. Adam came from the kitchen with a basin of water, and Ben gently cleaned the blood from Joe’s face, as Joe told them the story.

The door opened, and Hoss entered the house like a gust of wind. “I done tied up yer pony, Shortshanks,” he said, as he threw his hat on the credenza, and began to unbuckle his gun belt. “Pity you didn’t think to do it.”

“Thanks,” Joe said, thickly, and Hoss came across to gaze at Joe in horror.

“Who done this to ya, boy?” he asked, and Ben repeated the story. He had decided that Joe hadn’t suffered any serious injury, although they would need to watch him closely in case of concussion.

“Why don’t you have a little lunch?” he asked Joe, and was relieved as the youth nodded. It was when Joe stood up that they realized that they had missed one injury – his sprained ankle. It folded under his weight, and Joe would have fallen if Adam hadn’t been there to catch him.

When they finally reached the table, Adam eyed Joe as they ate. “Are you going to report this to the sheriff?” he asked. Joe’s fork hesitated on its way to his mouth, then resumed course. Joe said nothing.

“I might have a word with their parents,” Ben said. He glanced at Joe, who’s face was set like stone. “We can’t just let this go by, Joe. You could’ve been badly hurt. If there had been nobody in the house, who knows how long you’d have had to sit on your horse?”

“I guess,” Joe said, reluctantly. He would have preferred to deal with it himself, and meet his so-called friends alone, and teach them a lesson, but he knew that he had no chance of that happening for a while. He could feel color rising in his face as he thought about the humiliation he’d felt when he woke, and realized he was helpless.

Watching Joe, Ben decided to change the subject, and opened his letter. “Good,” he said. “We’ve got that timber contract I was bidding on. After lunch, Adam, I want you to go and mark the trees we’ll be needing, and then get the crew organized to begin felling in the morning. There’s a tight deadline on this one.” He tossed the letter down the table for Adam to read.

“All right,” Adam replied, starting to read. “Hoss, that means you’ll have to go up and check the stream on the North Forks road. One of the hands said he thought it might be dammed a little further up, because it was running quite low.”

“Gotcha,” Hoss grunted.

“I’ll crack on with these books,” Ben concluded. “If I get them done today, I’ll be on hand to go out to the lumber camp if I’m needed.”

“Or just so you can see what is going on, eh, Pa?” Adam asked, and they all laughed except Joe.

“All right, son?” Ben asked, quietly, and Joe smiled at him.

“I’m fine, Pa,” he answered, although he ached all over. “Don’t worry about me.”

“I think you might be twenty-some years too late with that advice,” Ben joked, and Joe gave a small laugh. “I went grey worrying about you.” He patted Joe’s arm, and when they were finished eating, helped Joe back to the settee, where he advised his son to rest his foot.

Silence reigned in the big house for a while, and Ben forgot Joe was there as he became more engrossed in his task. Joe dozed for a short time, then read a book, but he was restless. Both his brothers were out dealing with their work, and he was confined to the house. Joe wasn’t the only person working on the horse breaking, but he was by far the best bronc buster they had.

He glanced at Ben, who, at that moment, rose and crossed to the stairs. “Need anything?” he asked, as he headed up to look for a receipt he thought might be in the pocket of his warm coat. “I won’t be long, I hope.”

“I’m fine, Pa,” Joe said, and as soon as Ben was out of sight, Joe limped across to the door, and slipped out. It didn’t take him long to saddle Cochise and he was riding out of the yard as Ben came down stairs again.

Seeing Joe’s absence, and hearing the hooves, Ben put two and two together and came up with four. He shook his head, wondering where on earth Joe was going, and hoping fervently that he hadn’t decided to go and have ‘words’ with Pete and Dave. For a moment, Ben debated going after his errant son, but finally went back to the books. But he would have a few choice words to say to Joe when he got back.

*****

Riding home, Adam went past the corral to see how the men were getting on without Joe. He frowned as he saw a familiar black and white horse hitched to the rail, and grew even more annoyed to draw closer and find Joe lowering himself carefully onto the back of one of the broncos. Dismounting, Adam climbed onto the rails to watch as the wild horse threw itself around the corral in a frenzy of bucking. From the animal’s actions, Adam could see that this wasn’t the first time there had been a cowboy on its back, and as he watched, the animal slowed, and gradually came to a stop. Joe prodded it into a walk, and then the outriders came and caught its headcollar, allowing Joe to slide to the ground.

“That should do it for that one, Jeb,” Joe called. He had yet to see Adam. “We’ll call it a day there, and I’ll see you all in the morning.”

The hands all began to move away. The now docile mustang trotted beside its new stable mate. Joe watched it go, then belatedly became aware of the black-clad figure watching him from the rails. He pushed his hat back, and wiped his forehead before carefully placing his injured foot before he took a step.

Watching, Adam allowed Joe to take 3 hopping steps before he jumped down and went over to help. “What are you playing at?” he demanded, angrily. “You’re in no fit state to bust broncs.”

“No?” Joe returned. “How come I managed to get three done this afternoon?”

“You might have a concussion,” Adam said. “What if you’d been knocked out?”

“Yeah, well, I wasn’t,” retorted Joe, who knew the risk he’d been taking. “And somebody had to get on with this contract. The timber isn’t the only thing that’s got a deadline around here.”

“This isn’t as important,” chided Adam, as he helped Joe to mount.

“Maybe not in terms of money,” Joe agreed, “ but in terms of my reputation it is. If I miss this deadline, I can kiss any more army contracts goodbye, and there aren’t as many of them now as there were.”

This was an undeniable truth, but Adam wasn’t mollified by Joe’s answer. He was still angry at what he viewed as his brother’s impulsive, unthinking behavior. “And how did you get past Pa?” he asked.

“He went upstairs and I left while he was there,” Joe answered, sullenly.

“Oh, boy, are you in for it,” muttered Adam, and shook his head.

There was silence for the rest of the way home. Joe’s mouth was tight, and his handsome face bore a ferocious scowl. Beside him, Adam looked little different. He couldn’t believe Joe had done this, although it conveniently slipped his mind that he had taken risks in the past to get things done to a deadline.

When they arrived home, Adam made no offer to help Joe with his horse, but Joe hadn’t expected him to. They unsaddled and groomed in total, suffocating silence. Joe could barely walk, as he had stiffened up on the ride home, and his ankle was throbbing painfully, but he had known he would have to pay for what he had done, and so didn’t complain.

It was only when they headed towards the house that Adam called a truce by putting his hand under Joe’s arm to help. Joe glanced up gratefully. He knew he was going to get a roasting when they went in. “Thanks,” he said, briefly and Adam grunted.

Opening the door, Joe tensed when he saw Ben standing in front of the fireplace. He looked across and for a moment, relief was imprinted quite clearly on his face. Then, the momentary expression was gone, and Ben looked as angry as Joe had ever seen him. “Joseph!” he thundered. “Where have you been?”

“Busting broncs,” Joe said, defiantly. He threw his head up. Adam took the opportunity to removed Joe’s hat. He still had his youngest brother by the arm, and he began to tug Joe’s dusty jacket off his shoulders. His attention totally focused on Ben, Joe allowed him to do it.

“Busting Broncs?!” Ben bellowed. “Have you lost your mind? You were attacked and knocked unconscious this morning! You’ve got a sprained ankle and can barely walk, and you were busting BRONCS?”

“I have a deadline to meet, too,” Joe said, quietly. “My reputation stands on this contract.”

“Do you have any idea what might have happened to you?” Ben went on.

“Yes, sir, I do know what might have happened to me,” Joe said, still quietly. “But I thought it was a risk worth taking.”

“You thought?” Ben said, sarcastically. “No, Joseph, I don’t think that you thought at all!”

That was the last straw for Joe’s temper. “No, you’re right – I don’t think! I’m too young and too stupid to think! I have to wait for my elders and betters to do my thinking for me!” He blinked back angry tears. “Well, you’re wrong, Pa! I did think!” He jerked his arm from Adam’s hand and turned away to dash back out the door. His ankle gave the moment he put his weight on it, and Joe crashed full length to the floor. He couldn’t bite back a cry of pain, for the fall had wrenched his joint afresh.

“Joe!” Ben cried and ran to kneel by his son. “Joe, are you all right?”

“What does it matter?” Joe sobbed, totally over-wrought. “You’ve already told me I was wrong, so what does it matter if I’m all right now?”

“That’s enough!” Ben said, sternly, but he couldn’t stay angry as he saw the exhaustion and misery on Joe’s face. “Help me, Adam,” he said, and they assisted Joe to his feet, and over to the settee.

After a few minutes, Joe had regained control of his temper, and was feeling thoroughly ashamed of himself. He had been trying so hard to show that he was an adult, and had then thrown one of his worst tantrums in ages. Ben hadn’t said anything to him, just tended to his injury in silence. With the offending foot firmly bandaged up, he looked at Joe.

“I’m sorry, son,” he said. “You’re right, your reputation does rest on this contract. I shouldn’t have belittled that. But I was angry and concerned when I realized you were gone. I didn’t know where you were heading. I thought perhaps you were going to find Dave and Pete, and when you didn’t come back, I wondered if something had happened to you.”

“I’m sorry, too,” Joe said. “I shouldn’t have lost my temper. But I did think this through, Pa. This contract may not be worth as much as the beef and the timber, but its still part of the Ponderosa.” He swallowed, feeling the tears threatening again. “Its my responsibility to get this contract out on time.”

“I understand,” Ben said, for he did. Where would they be now, if he hadn’t taken a few risks from time to time? “But I can’t help worrying over you,” he went on. “Its not something that I’ll get over.”

Giving him a watery smile, Joe said,” I guess I should know that by now.” Ben ruffled his hair, and Joe knew that everything was all right between them again.

Sitting in the blue velvet chair, Adam shook his head. He never could figure out how Joe could go from uncontrollable bad temper to smiles in such a short period of time. Observing his father and brother together, Adam realized that he had felt the same feelings as Ben when he saw Joe on the bronc. He had been angry because he was afraid for Joe’s safety, just as Ben had. He smiled. Joe sometimes accused him of acting like a second father, and Adam could see his point. However, he would never admit that to Joe… He winked briefly at his youngest brother as Joe glanced across at him, and he got that lovely smile in return.

*****

Next day, Joe was back at the breaking corral, but he didn’t attempt to do any breaking himself. However, with his help the previous afternoon, they had got ahead of themselves, and Joe thought that they would finish on time. He hadn’t liked to admit to how stiff he was that day, or how much his ankle still hurt. He had agreed to go in the buggy, as he couldn’t get a boot on his bad foot. Joe got very little pleasure from just supervising, but he knew this was as essential a part of the job as the actual breaking itself.

This became the pattern over the next few days. Adam rode off at dawn, or just before, to go to the lumber camps. The wagons holding the logs were now starting to rumble off down to the river, where they were floated down to a point nearer to the railhead, where they were stacked, ready to be loaded onto trains to go to their destination. Ben quite often went along, and Hoss took charge of the herd.

A couple of days after Joe had been attacked, Ben went into Virginia City, without telling Joe, to talk to the sheriff. He found Roy in his office, and told him the story. “D’you want to press charges?” Roy asked, drawing a form towards him.

“I don’t know,” Ben admitted. “I think I ought to talk to their parents first. It could be that Pete and Dave didn’t mean to hurt Joe so much. You know how easily pranks can go wrong. They’re just young, Roy.”

“Well, its your decision, Ben,” allowed Roy, but his tone made it clear that he thought Ben was wrong. Roy didn’t have a high opinion of any of the lads that rode with Pete and Dave. He had been rather surprised when he saw Joe with them sometimes, but he had observed that Joe no longer rode with them, and hadn’t for several months now. “Want me to come along?”

“No, thanks all the same,” Ben replied, knowing that Roy’s presence would take away any chance of him having a friendly chat with the boys’ parents. “I just thought I’d tell you what was going on.”

As Ben had expected, telling the Barkers and the Devlins hadn’t been easy, and he had left, wondering if he had spoiled friendships. He knew how he would feel if someone came to him and told him something about one of his boys. But he knew that he would rather be told, and hopefully stop further trouble.

Unfortunately, it didn’t work that way. Pete and Dave met in the Silver Dollar, along with Frankie Sterling, Johnny Munroe, Steve Potter and Jim McLean. Pete was fit to be tied, and he spent most of the evening glaring into his beer. “That Joe Cartwright!” he muttered. “He had to go and tell his daddy!” He sketched in the story for his mates, conveniently forgetting to tell them that he had tied Joe to the horse, after knocking him out. Those pertinent details he kept to himself. “We’re going to get Joe for that!” he vowed.

“How?” Dave asked, in a scared voice.

“We gotta be careful,” Pete admitted. “We don’t want the law catching us. So we gotta catch him where the old sheriff won’t see us. Be nice to him in town, but harass him if we see him out in the open.” An idea struck Pete, and he glanced all round before leaning forward to whisper, “We could pay someone to start a brawl with him. Someone big, so Cartwright comes off the worst!”

The others were just drunk enough that this sounded like a good plan to them. They began to propose and reject names, and when they all staggered home that night, they had picked Jake Harding, one of the hands on Pete’ father’s place. He was big and tough, with a reputation for fighting, and it was well known that he didn’t like the Cartwrights. Jake would do anything for a few dollars, and Pete was confident that Jake would agree.

*****

It was a few weeks before Joe’s ankle was healed enough to make a trip to town sound good, and by then, the horse breaking was over, and he had delivered on his contract. The timber cutting was going well, even if there had been a few hold-ups along the line. Now that he was back working again, Joe often rode out with Adam and Ben to help out. Extra hands never went amiss, and the boys had been thoroughly grounded in all aspects of running the ranch.

At breakfast one morning, Ben said, “Joe, I want you to go and collect the supplies today. Hop Sing was reminding me that we’ve been so busy lately, nobody has been to town, and we’re running short of several things. Get the post, too. You can have one beer in the saloon,” he said, his eyes twinkling, “but that’s all.”

“Sure thing, Pa,” Joe replied, laughing as well. Both he and Ben knew that he usually stopped off for one beer, even when he was coming ‘straight back.’

The list Hop Sing gave Joe was long, and Joe knew he’d be a while at the general store. However, he relished the chance to get off the ranch for a couple of hours, and he sang quietly to himself on the way in. He was a good half hour or more at the store, then another while packing the buckboard. Once that was done, he collected the mail and headed for the saloon.

The Silver Dollar was quiet at that point, and Joe was almost alone. He saw Jake Harding sitting at the back, and wondered if he had been sacked again. He had once worked on the Ponderosa, but he had been a thief and a bully, and Ben had sacked him. Since then, Jake had drifted from job to job. Lately he had been working for Pete Devlin’s father, Joe knew, and he seemed to have finally settled there.

“Hey, Cartwright,” Jake called. He sounded drunk. Joe ignored him. “Cartwright! I’m talkin’ to you!” There were heavy footsteps from behind Joe, and a meaty hand slammed onto his shoulder and swung him around. Sam, the barman, began to look nervous.

“I don’t want any trouble, Jake,” Joe warned, quietly. “I came in here for a beer before I go back home, and that’s what I’m going to do.” He shook the hand from his shoulder, and turned back to the bar.

“You cocky little kid!” Jake snarled. “You Cartwrights, you think you’re so high and mighty, don’t you?” He swung Joe around again, and without waiting, punched him.

But Joe had been ready, and ducked and the blow went harmlessly over his head. It was just about the worst thing he could have done. Jake was infuriated, and swung for Joe again. Once more, Joe ducked. He fingered his gun for a moment, but Jake was so drunk, he doubted if even the gun would stop him, and Joe didn’t want trouble.

It was amazing how quickly a fight drew a crowd, Joe reflected, as he dodged another blow. The people were pouring in through the swing doors, but none of them happened to be the sheriff, the only person Joe wanted to see right about then. He didn’t dodge quite quick enough that time, and Jake’s punch knocked him down. He fell in a clatter of arms, legs and chair, wincing as the solid oak chair crashed down on top of him.

This gave Jake an idea, and he picked up the nearest chair and hurled it at Joe. Joe barely avoided it. But Jake’s aim was true, and a chair struck Joe on the arm, the leg narrowly missing his eye as it scratched his face. Joe tried to grope for his gun, but his fingers were strangely numb. His head rang, and he wished someone would step in and help him out.

“All right!” came an authoritative voice, and at last, Roy Coffee had arrived. Clem Foster, his deputy was there too. They quickly got Jake under control, and Sam blurted out that Jake had started it, and Joe hadn’t even fought back.

Leaving Jake to Clem’s tender mercies, Roy made his way over to where Joe was standing. “Are you all right, Little Joe?” he asked, noticing the scratch and bruise on the young man’s face.

“I think so, Roy,” Joe answered. He was beginning to get the feeling back in his fingers, although his arm was now aching so much that he wondered if feeling his fingers was worth the pain. He gingerly rubbed his arm.

“I think you should see the doc, anyway,” Roy insisted, and led the bemused youth over to the doc’s office. Paul Martin was in, and took a quick look at Joe.

“Its not broken,” he said, moving the arm. “But that bruise spreads all the way over to your shoulder here.” He pinpointed the end of the bruise, which was changing color, even as he watched. “I think you should be careful for the next few days. The muscle is bruised, too, and your arm may well feel a bit odd sometimes. If the arm gives you a lot of trouble, you could wear a sling.”

“Yes, sir,” Joe said, but Paul knew that Joe wouldn’t wear a sling unless forced, and he smiled.

“All right, young man, you may go,” he said, and Joe smiled and thanked him.

Driving home, Joe wondered what on earth had set Jake Harding off like that. Was it still the old resentment about being sacked? Joe ached all over once more, and wished that he could stay out of trouble, just for a change. He could almost hear the comments the family would make, and his imaginings caused him to smile. Whatever they said would only be hiding their genuine concern for his well-being.

He had no idea how long he had been driving for when he became aware that he was being shadowed. The horsemen didn’t draw near, but they rode along the ridge among the trees for most of the way back to the Ponderosa. It was only when he reached the boundary that they turned back. Joe was relieved. He was in no fit state for another fight! He slowed the team and looked back. He was pretty sure he knew who the riders were, and when a stone skipped off the back of the buckboard, Joe became certain. Pete, Dave and their pals. Giving the reins a slap, Joe headed on for home.

If Joe had had any hopes of hiding his sore arm from the family, they were dashed immediately when he realized that he wouldn’t be able to unload the supplies. Driving had been hard enough, and Joe’s arm no longer lifted higher than his waist. Reluctantly, he went in enlist help with the unloading.

*****

It didn’t take long for Joe’s arm to heal, but he was uncomfortable for several days. He endured the jibes of his brothers as best he could, but he was glad when he was able to get back to work. The timber cutting was nearing its end, and Ben was beginning to relax about the deadline. Still, the family often found themselves out at the lumber camp, helping out.

Wherever he went, Joe was aware that he was being watched. He seldom saw anyone, but he could feel eyes on his back constantly. If he was alone, there were frequently hails of stones thrown at him, and once, a bullet ricocheted off the road in front of him. Joe wasn’t sure what to do. He knew that Ben had talked to Pete and Dave’s parents, and he suspected that Pete and Dave resented being told off like kids, and were out to make Joe’s life a misery for a while. However, Joe reasoned that they would soon get tired of the harassment, if he simply ignored it.

It was easier said than done to ignore it, though. When he went to town, Pete and Dave followed him around, making loud comments to each other. Joe’s temper burned hotter and hotter, and on a number of occasions, it was only the presence of other people that prevented him grabbing Pete and smashing his fist into the other’s face.

Despite his pre-occupation with the timber contract, Ben watched Joe with a concerned eye. His son seemed to be very tightly coiled, even for Joe, and he frequently came home looking angry. Casual questions were met with the standard response, of “I’m fine,” which told Ben nothing. Adam and Hoss had also noticed Joe’s behavior, but had no idea what was at the back of it. The only time Joe wasn’t harassed was when he was with other people, and so they hadn’t noticed anything out of the ordinary. It was a mystery.

*****

“The last of the timber should be delivered to the railhead this morning, and it’ll be shipped out this afternoon,” Ben said one morning at breakfast. “Adam, if you make sure it gets there, please. Joe, you hitch the buggy, and you can drive me into town this morning to the offices of the mining company. They’ll have to know that the timber has been delivered, and get the draft ready for the bank today.”

“All right, Pa,” Joe said, although Ben thought he looked a bit tense all of a sudden.

“Are you all right, son?” Ben asked.

Looking up, Joe nodded. “Yes, I’m fine, Pa,” he said, sounding surprised. He was barely aware of the tension he felt anymore. It had become part and parcel of his life. He thought his neck muscles felt a bit tight this morning, but put it down to sleeping in a funny position. “Why?”

“Oh, no reason. I just thought you looked a little tense.” Ben knew how carefully you had to tread with Joe sometimes.

“I’m fine,” Joe repeated. “I’ll go and hitch the buggy.” He threw his napkin down on the plate and went out.

“Is it my imagination,” Adam began, dryly, “or does younger brother appear to be not eating much at the moment?”

Lifting the napkin, Ben surveyed the remnants on Joe’s plate. Sure enough, he had barely touched his breakfast. Ben made a face. “Well, perhaps I’ll have the chance to find out what wrong with him today as we go into town. Something’s been bothering him for weeks now, but he won’t say what it is.”

“Good luck,” Adam said. “You may need it.”

*****

After Ben had changed, he went out to join Joe in the buggy. It was a lovely day. Joe kept his wilder urges in check, and they bowled along in companionable silence. Ben wondered if he should ask Joe what was wrong on the way to town, or the way back. He had almost made up his mind to do it on the way back when there was a burst of wild yelling from the trees along side the road.

“What?” Ben muttered, turning to look over his shoulder. Six riders emerged from the trees and began to race towards the buggy, firing at it wildly. Joe didn’t even look, he simply snapped the reins on the horse’s back and set it to a dead run. “Who are they?” Ben gasped, looking at Joe’s set face.

“Dave, Pete, Frankie, Steve, Johnny, and Jim,” Joe replied. He snapped the reins again, but the horse was already doing its best.

Clinging to the buggy seat, Ben glanced over his shoulder again. He drew his gun and fired a warning shot, but it didn’t deter any of the riders. They were gaining on the buggy fast. Ben looked forward again, searching the landscape to see if there was anywhere they could go to defend themselves, but apart from the trees, there was nowhere. Joe kept urging the horse on, but he knew it was hopeless. Less than a minute later, one of the riders – a quick glance told Joe it was Pete – was alongside the buggy.

With a reckless abandon, Pete rode down the buggy horse, forcing it to turn aside, which it did, in a sudden panicky turn. The buggy was suddenly off the road, and tearing down the grassy hillside. Joe pulled frantically on the reins, but the horse had the bit between its teeth. Next instant, the wheel struck something in the grass, and they were in the air, flying helplessly. Joe heard Ben calling his name before everything went black.

*****

Pulling his horse up, Pete looked at his friends and laughed. “That’ll teach them Cartwrights!” he exclaimed.

The others exchanged glances. They were all nearly as drunk as Pete, but they didn’t think this would teach the Cartwrights. They all had the terrifying certainty that this would get them caught. Harassing Joe was one thing; running the buggy off the road was another.

“Let’s go,” Pete ordered, turning his horse.

“But they might be hurt,” Dave protested, weakly.

“So what?” Pete demanded. “We owe them, and this is how they pay!” he glared at Dave, who quailed. “Come on,” he said, and rode away. Slowly, the others followed.

Down the slope, the buggy wheels turned lazily round and round.

*****

Something tickled Joe’s face, and he moved his hand to wipe it away. Pain exploded through his shoulder and arm, bringing him to full consciousness. He groaned, and moved slowly, letting his body tell him where it hurt.

All over was the answer, but the worst of the pain was in his head and his shoulder. Gradually, Joe opened his eyes, and looked at the grass all round him. For an instant, he couldn’t remember how he got there, but as he turned his head to look around, he saw the over-turned buggy, and memory rushed back. “Pa?” he said, then shouted, “PA?”

There was no answer. Joe struggled to his knees, where he had to rest, panting, until his head stopped spinning. His left arm was draggingly sore, and Joe, probing gently, guessed that his shoulder was dislocated, and he might have broken his arm, too. He tucked his arm inside his jacket, catching his breath at the pain. “Pa?” he called again.

Joe felt real fear as he struggled to his feet, and began to hunt for Ben. “Pa!” he called, but there was still no answer. The first thing he saw was the buggy horse. It had fallen, and broken its neck, still in the traces. Sickened, Joe turned away, looking for Ben. Joe finally found him, trapped under the buggy.

Falling to his knees, Joe felt for Ben’s pulse, and was relieved that it was there. Ben had a head injury, and was still unconscious. Joe felt his arms anxiously, but they seemed to be all right. The buggy lay over Ben’s legs, and Joe knew he had to try and get it moved. He didn’t think he could do it, but Ben groaned, and Joe knew that it would be better for Ben if Joe did this before he woke up. The thought lent him strength, and he heaved with his uninjured arm.

If the buggy had landed any other way but the way it had, Joe would never have moved it one-handed. But it was resting on the front rail, which was badly damaged, and when Joe put his weight against it, the rail broke, and the buggy flipped over, and fell clear of Bens’ legs.

Caught by surprise by the unexpected movement, Joe tumbled all his length in the grass, jarring his injured shoulder. For several moments, the world swam in and out of focus. Finally, Joe managed to sit up. He could feel sweat trickling down his face, and wiped it away, wondering vaguely where the blood on his hand had come from.

Crawling back through the grass to Ben, Joe checked his pulse again. His father was groaning steadily, and Joe gently felt his legs. He thought the right one might be broken. Once more, he wiped the sweat away. “Pa?” Joe said, gently.

Finally, Ben was fully conscious, although he was obviously dazed. “Joe?” he said, as he focused on his son’s face. “Are you all right?”

“I’m okay,” Joe lied. “Pa, are you all right? Are your legs all right?”

Moving his legs, Ben caught his breath. “I think my leg is broken, Joe.” He looked at Joe, and saw the blood streaming from the head wound, and the awkward way Joe held his body. “You are hurt,” he said, and briefly closed his eyes as a wave of dizziness swept over him.

“I’ve got to get help,” Joe said, looking round. He wished they had water with them, but they hadn’t any. “Pa, I’ve got to leave you here, but I’ll be back as soon as I can.”

“No, Joe,” Ben said. “You can’t go, you’re hurt.”

“We need help,” Joe insisted. “I’ll be as quick as I can. Don’t try to move. I’ll be quick.”

“Be careful,” Ben urged him, not for his own sake, but out of worry for his son.

“I will,” Joe said. “I love you, Pa.”

“I love you, too, Joe,” Ben said, his throat tight, and he watched as Joe got to his feet and walked away. He looked for as long as he could see Joe, then he lay back and closed his eyes against the pain, and waited.

*****

To start with, Joe walked quite strongly. The ‘sweat’ constantly trickling down his face annoyed him, but he fell into the habit of wiping it away without really noticing. The sun beat down on his unprotected head, and Joe wished that he’d taken a moment to pick up his hat. He concentrated on putting one foot in front of the other.

It was quite some distance back to the ranch. Joe walked mechanically, stumbling often. He headed back to the road, but he was on Ponderosa property by now, and knew that, unless someone was going out to visit, he was unlikely to meet anyone.

The pain in his shoulder and arm was constant, sapping his strength and concentration. Joe leaned up against a tree to rest, and woke from a momentary doze as his knees struck the earth. He barely managed to avoid falling flat on his face.

Resolutely, Joe pushed himself back onto his feet, and began to walk. He knew he was weak, but the thought of Ben lying injured behind him spurred him on. He had to get help to Pa.

*****

He had no idea how long he’d been walking, but coherent thought was almost beyond him. Joe thought that he was walking in a straight line, but in reality, he was staggering about all over the road. He was beginning to run a slight temperature, and the pain was increasing.

Ahead, Joe saw the barn, and beyond, the house. He tripped and fell his full length, letting out a cry of anguish as his arm and shoulder were knocked. He lay there for several minutes before he could get back to his feet, and he felt horribly weak. At last, he reached the barn, and leant on the side of it, disappointment ripping through him as he saw that there was no horse in the yard. He didn’t know if he could move another step.

There was a sound from the barn, and Joe turned his head in time to see Hoss coming out with his horse. “Hoss,” Joe croaked, but his brother didn’t hear him. “Hoss,” he said, a bit louder, and Hoss was at his side in an instant.

“Joe!” he exclaimed. “What happened to you? Where’s Pa?”

“Buggy crash. Virginia City road. Pa’s hurt. His leg’s broken,” Joe panted. He could barely see now, his vision was blurring in and out of focus. “Help him.” Joe made a gargantuan effort to stand up, and toppled forward in a dead faint.

Catching Joe easily, Hoss hurried towards the house. “Adam! Hop Sing!” he shouted. He shouldered open the door, and took Joe across to the settee, and laid him down carefully. Adam came downstairs as Hop Sing came out of the kitchen.

Seeing his unconscious brother, Adam hurried over. “What happened to Joe?” he asked. “Where’s Pa?” He bent over Joe, seeing the blood caked down the right side of his head.

“He says there was a buggy crash on the road, and Pa’s hurt. Got a broken leg,” Hoss reported, discovering Joe’s dislocated shoulder. “Adam, he’s hurt bad, too.”

Taking charge, Adam soon had hands readying the buckboard, and another going for the doctor. Hop Sing brought water, and Hoss gently bathed Joe’s head, until his younger brother roused. “Well done, Joe,” Adam said, leaning over and smiling down at the younger man. Joe looked exhausted, and about 16. “Hoss, you stay here with him. Get him up to bed, he’ll be more comfortable.” He smiled at Joe again. “I’m going to rescue Pa.”

“Hurry,” Joe said. He watched as Adam headed out of the door, his heart in his eyes.

“Let’s get you to bed, Punkin,” Hoss said, kindly, and gently picked Joe up.

*****

Leaving the hands to follow on behind him with the wagon, Adam galloped off on Sport, and within half an hour had spotted the up-turned buggy. He rode over, and slid from Sport’s back, snatching up the canteen. “Pa?” he said, touching his father’s shoulder gently.

Slowly, Ben’s eyes opened. He looked dazed, and Adam smiled at him, although he was horrified by his father’s appearance. He wondered for the first time how long it had taken Joe to walk home. “Here, Pa, have a drink,” Adam said, and supported Ben’s shoulders.

“Joe?” Ben asked, when he had finished. Adam was wetting his bandanna, and wiping Ben’s face. The cool water felt wonderful.

“Joe got back to the house,” he said, continuing his ministrations. “He’s a bit beaten about, but I’m sure he’ll be fine.”

Ben appeared to doze as they waited for the buckboard. When it came, Adam got the hands to bring a blanket down, and they eased Ben onto it, and used it as a stretcher. He was transferred to the buckboard, and Adam hitched Sport to the back, and traveled with Ben. It was a bumpy journey back, and Adam wished there was something he could do to ease Ben’s suffering, but there wasn’t.

By the time they got back to the ranch, Doc Martin’s buggy was already there. Adam supervised Ben’s moving, and then sighed with relief. He gave Ben some more water, and then, at his father’s urging, went to see how Joe was getting on.

They looked up as he went in. Joe looked more comfortable. His head was bandaged, as was his shoulder. His arm was in a cast, and a sling. His bare chest was covered in bruises. As Adam drew nearer, he could see that Joe had had something for pain, as his eyes weren’t quite focused. “How is he, Doc?” he asked, running his thumb down Joe’s cheek.

“Pretty good, considering,” Paul replied. “Hoss, will you stay with Joe while I see to your father?” The big man nodded, and Paul headed to the door.

“I’ll be back soon,” Adam said, to Joe, but the younger man’s eyes were closing, and Adam wasn’t sure if he’d heard or not. He caught up with Paul in the hallway.

“Hello, Ben,” Paul said, heartily, as he went over to the bed. “Lucky for you that Joe was there. That boy probably saved your life, walking home as he did.”

“I know that,” Ben agreed. “How is he, Paul?”

“Very sore, and exhausted,” Paul answered. “But he’s going to be just fine, Ben. He’ll be on his feet before you, I don’t doubt! His shoulder is going to take a while, because of the falls he took on the way home, but don’t worry, he’ll be as right as rain in no time.”

While he set Ben’s leg, Paul continued to fill them in on the story he’d got from Joe. “The buggy was lying on your legs, Ben,” he said. “Joe was able to push it over, so its weight wasn’t on you.”

“What time is it?” Ben asked.

“About 3,” answered Adam, looking at the big clock on his father’s dresser. “You were out there for quite a spell alone, Pa.” He realized how long it had taken Joe to walk that distance back, and silently saluted his brother’s courage and determination.

“It was Joe I was worried about,” Ben said. He had endured the setting of his leg without making a sound. Paul turned his attention to the head injury, and soon had it bandaged. “His head was bleeding.”

“Yes, it was quite a stubborn cut,” Paul said. “Joe thought it was just sweat trickling down his face. He had wondered where all the blood on his hand had come from, but he’s a bit concussed, like you, so it didn’t occur to him that his head was bleeding.” Finishing his ministrations, Paul gave Ben something mild for pain, and advised Adam to keep an eye on him. “Get some sleep,” he instructed, but saw at once that it was a waste of breath, as Ben was already asleep.

Downstairs, Paul shook Adam’s hand. “You’ll have a lot of nursing to do,” he warned. “Joe’s going to be fine, but he lost a lot of blood, and by the time he got back here, he was dehydrated, too. He used up an awful lot of his strength getting here, so don’t be too concerned if he sleeps a lot.”

“Joe might not have made it home, might he?” Adam asked, soberly. “He might have fallen out there and never been found.”

“Yes, but it didn’t happen,” Paul said. “One thing, though. It might be an idea to find out what caused the buggy to crash. Joe didn’t say; he was in no fit state.”

“Thank you,” Adam said, for it hadn’t yet occurred to him to wonder why the buggy had crashed. His brow was furled with thought as he went back upstairs.

*****

It was another 24 hours before Adam got the answers he sought. Joe slept almost constantly. They roused him every few hours and gave him some water and some broth, and then he would go straight back to sleep. He was too weak to even hold his head up, so Adam supported him while Hoss fed him.

After a good 8 hours sleep, Ben had wakened, fairly bright and alert. He was troubled with a bad headache, and some blurred vision, but he could remember the accident, and he told Adam what had happened. “Those boys were friends of Joe’s,” Ben finished. “I don’t know why they did this.”

“I’m going to the sheriff,” Adam insisted. “Pa, they almost killed you. If Joe hadn’t got here, I don’t know when we’d have found you.”

“Do what you think best,” Ben agreed. “Perhaps I should’ve gone to the sheriff the first time.”

As it happened, Adam didn’t have to make the trip to town, as Roy came out, having run into Paul in town, and heard the story. Roy was more than just the sheriff; he was a family friend, too. “How are they, Adam?” he asked.

“Pa’s all right,” Adam said. “Joe’s still pretty weak, but he’ll be all right.”

“How did it happen?” Roy demanded, and Adam slowly told him the story. Roy listened intently. “That Pete Devlin is a nasty piece of work,” Roy commented when Adam had finished. “That Jake Harding works for his father, you know. The one who beat Joe up the other week.”

“Do you think that’s connected?” Adam asked. The incident with Jake had pretty much been forgotten about, as they put it down to him being drunk. He’d been fined, and then released.

“Seems mighty suspicious,” Roy replied, “given this. I’d better get those boys in for questioning.”

“Why don’t you go up and see Pa first?” Adam suggested. “He’ll enjoy that. Make a change from me or Hoss.”

Grinning, Roy did just that, and also stuck his head round Joe’s door, but Joe was asleep.

*****

Two days later, Paul came out to the ranch with a pair of crutches for Ben. “You can use them to visit Joe,” he said. “But you aren’t to go downstairs. Clear?”

“Clear,” Ben agreed. He allowed Adam to help him slid over the bed and put his dressing gown on. It took him a couple of steps to really get used to the crutches, and he hopped slowly along to Joe’s room.

His youngest son was now able to stay awake for much longer as his body replaced the fluid it had lost. He was sitting propped on the pillows, scratching at the bandage round his head, when the door opened to reveal Ben. “Pa!” he exclaimed, in delight. “Are you all right?”

“I’m fine,” Ben panted, sitting heavily in a chair. “How are you, son?” He leant forward and patted Joe’s arm.

“Tired,” Joe admitted. “But I’m getting better.” He felt a lot better for just seeing Ben. Although he believed what his brothers were telling him about Ben, he had wanted to see for himself. Adam and Hoss quietly let themselves out of the room.

For a time, they just sat quietly. “Do you remember what happened?” Joe asked, at last.

“Most if it,” Ben said. “I don’t remember the crash itself. But I remember who caused it.” He stroked Joe’s arm. “Why did they do it?”

“I’m not sure,” Joe said, at last. “I fell out with Pete that day the timber contract came. He wanted me to go racing with them again, but I said no, I was too busy. I was busy, Pa, with the army contract, but that wasn’t the only reason I didn’t want to go. I just wasn’t enjoying racing about aimlessly any more. And they came after me, and beat me up, and tied me to my horse.” Ben nodded. He knew this. “But I didn’t tell you, because you had enough to worry about, but after I got beaten up by Jake Harding, I was followed home, and stones were thrown at me. Every time I went into town, I was followed. Once, they shot at me. Whenever I was in town, they followed me around, making comments about me, hoping I’d be goaded into fighting with them.”

“Why didn’t you say anything, Joe?” Ben asked, knowing, now, why his son had been so tense all summer.

“Its was my problem, pa,” Joe said. “And you had so much to think about, with that contract and all. I thought that if I just ignored them, they would eventually leave me alone. I’m so sorry they came after you.”

“Its hardly your fault,” Ben said. His hand continued its rhythmic stroking, and Joe gradually began to relax. He laid his head back on the pillows. “You said you weren’t enjoying racing about aimlessly any more. Why not?”

“I don’t know,” Joe said and he sounded tired. “It just seemed like such a waste of time, and they seemed so young. So I just stopped going with them. I didn’t miss it, so I guessed that meant I really hadn’t been enjoying it.”

“You’re growing up,” Ben said. He put his hand up to stop Joe’s automatic protest that he was a man. “I mean you’re maturing again, Joe. I knew that, but I haven’t had the chance to say anything. I was so proud of the way you handled that army contract. And I was so proud of the risk you took, walking back here to get help the other day.”

“You needed help,” Joe said. “Anyone would have done that.”

“Not many people would have done that when injured as badly as you,” Ben said. “And I hear that you pushed the buggy off my legs, too. Thank you, son.”

“Its no more than you would’ve done for me,” Joe protested. “I just whish I could’ve got here quicker, that’s all.”

The door opened and Adam came in with a tray. “Lunch time,” he announced. “Pa, Hoss is taking yours to your room. We thought you might be more comfortable sitting in bed for it?”

“Adam, I can take a hint,” Ben replied, smiling. “I guess its time I went back to bed. Rest, Joe. You’ll be up in no time.”

Setting the tray on Joe’s legs, Adam handed him the fork. “Can you manage?” he asked. “You’re looking a bit tired.”

“I think I can manage,” Joe said. He had graduated onto soft foods, and the scrambled eggs on his plate looked good. He forked them slowly to his mouth, and chewed with obvious enjoyment. Towards the end, Adam helped him with the last few, difficult pieces, then handed Joe the cup of coffee.

“You look more cheerful,” Adam commented, as he removed the tray. “Seeing Pa helped, huh?”

“I was so worried when I left him there,” Joe said. “If Pete and Dave had come back, he would’ve been helpless. And then I wondered what I would do if I met them. I couldn’t use my gun.” Joe gestured to his arm. “And then, I could hardly think at all. I hurt all over, Adam, and when I reached the barn, I thought that there was nobody at home, because there weren’t any horses in the yard. I didn’t know what I would do.” Joe sighed. “I wanted someone else to coma long and be the adult.”

“We all want that, sometimes,” Adam assured him. “I don’t think it matters how old you are, Joe. There are always times you want someone else to come along and help you out. But if there isn’t anyone there, you just knuckle down and get on with it.” He smiled, and grazed his thumb down Joe’s cheek. “You look like you could do with a sleep. But I’ll tell you one thing, Joe.”

“What’s that?” Joe asked. He slid down the pillows, and Adam tucked him in.

“If I’m ever in trouble, I hope you’ll be around to help me out.” Adam smiled and went out, before Joe could regain the use of his tongue.

*****

Within a few days, Joe was up and around again. Roy came out to the ranch to tell them that he had arrested Pete and his gang. Dave had been so terrified by the thought of going to jail, that he had told all, and it looked as though Pete might be going to jail for a long time. The Devlins, shocked and embarrassed by their son’s actions, had cut him off, not realizing that they had helped cause the problem in the first place by spoiling him. Ben and Joe would be told when the trial was going to be, and both would be expected to give evidence.

After Roy left, Ben sat quietly in his chair, looking at Joe, whose head was down. It was a typical pose for Joe when he was distressed in any way. “Joe?” he said, finally. “Do you want to talk about it?”

“I don’t know,” Joe admitted. Then he rushed on. “I’m sorry for Pete. I thought I’d hate him for what he tried to do, but I don’t hate him. I pity him.”

“Another sign of maturity,” Ben said, making a wry face. “You know, Joe, once that maturity bug bites you, it’s real hard to get rid of.”

“I don’t feel any different,” Joe protested. “Inside, I mean. I still feel like me.”

The door opened and Adam and Hoss came in. Joe flicked them a glance, but most of his attention was on Ben. “You mean you still feel young,” Ben said. “Well, and so you are. And no matter how old your body gets, your spirit will always feel young. And some days, you feel 17, and others you feel 117! But it happens to everyone, Joe. Some people fight it; some people become old before they’ve had a chance to be young. Others do as you have done, and just accept it, without allowing it to change them.”

“Don’t worry about it,” Adam said, sitting down. “I’m sure there’ll be times when your maturity deserts you and you have a major tantrum.”

“I’m not that bad!” Joe said, indignantly. He looked round for something to throw at Adam, but the only thing within reach was one of Ben’s crutches, and besides, his aim was lousy with his right arm. “Wait until I’m better,” he threatened. “I’ll get you for that!”

Rising, Adam smiled at him. “What did I say?” he countered. “A tantrum. You sure are growing up, little brother.”

He ducked as Joe made a grab for the crutch.

*****End*****

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