Sting of Death (by Debbie B.)

Summary:

Rated:  PG
Word Count:  12,976


 

Ben paced the floor in front of the massive fireplace, his fingertips shoved deeply into the depths of the pockets on his trousers as he waited for the family physician to come down stairs.  Every so often, Adam, who sat in the red leather chair facing the stairway, saw his nervous father glance upward in the direction of the second floor and watched the worried expressions that flickered across the older gentleman’s face.

“Take it easy. Pa,” spoke Adam softly as his father continued his pacing.

Ben paused in front of his son’s chair, glanced quickly down into the dark eyes that stared back at him and then glanced at his middle son Hoss, who had settled his large frame comfortably on the settee before turning to face his oldest son once again.

“I can’t take it easy; Joseph is lying up there probably dying, and the two of you sit here acting as if nothing happened and you tell me to take it easy?” snapped Ben harshly.

“Pa, I know you’re worried; we all are. But I honestly don’t think Joe is going to die.  He may be hurt but not enough for him to die of his injuries.”  Adam shifted uncomfortably in his seat, noting his father’s apparent anger at his seemingly unconcern for his wounded brother he hurried to finish his statement.

“Joe didn’t appear to have any broken bones, no cuts or gashes, and no bleeding when we found him, just that goose egg on the back of his head.  Really Pa, I think…”

“Why don’t you stop thinking so much, Adam?  Don’t you even care?  Rachael Livingston is dead, her family devastated and your own brother lying upstairs with a head injury that could possibly kill him,” Ben all but shouted at Adam who rose from his chair and faced his father.

“Of course I care!  Do you really believe me so cold and callus that I have no feeling whatsoever for either of them, especially my own brother?  Come on Pa, give me more credit than that,” shouted Adam, his own anger reaching the boiling point that stemmed not from his irate father but from the fact that his nerves as well were frayed from worry.

Hoss stood to his feet, his hands crammed into his pockets as he moved to step between his father and brother in an attempt to cool the boiling tempers.  Hoss knew that worry, stress and doubt fueled the flame that had sparked the argument.

“Pa, Adam, take it easy.  Looky, Little Joe is going to need us when he wakes up.  He ain’t got no idey about Miss Rachael’s dyin’ and when he finds out, well…he’s gonna need all of us to help him get over the girl’s death.  Cain’t ya both save the arguin’ till some other time?” asked Hoss in a calm voice, though inside, Hoss had his own fears and doubts and what scared him most was whether or not his little brother had disregarded their father’s warning.  Joe, being the rambunctious kid that he was, Hoss feared that perhaps the boy had in fact been responsible for the young girl’s tragic and untimely death and the notion scared him.

Ben took a deep breath and placed a hand on Adam’s shoulder.  “Hoss is right, I’m sorry Adam, I didn’t mean to snap at you and I certain didn’t mean to question your concern about your brother.  It’s just that I am so worried about that boy…”

“I know Pa, we all are honest, even me.  Sometimes, such as now, I often question myself about my desire to become a father…I tremble to think I could produce sons such as you have sired.”  Adam cast his eyes in his father’s direction to check for a reaction and smiled when Ben’s stern expression softened and the tension between them immediately dissipated

Ben squeezed his oldest son’s shoulder.  “I have no regrets, I have fine sons and I’m proud of all of them.  Joseph does however tend to give me more worry than either you or Hoss but then on the other hand he is more…”

Ben’s sentence was cut short as the sound of the upstairs bedroom door could be heard closing.  The two brothers joined Ben at the bottom of the steps and waited until Doctor Paul Martin made his descent down the stairs.

“Well?” asked Ben, hardly giving the doctor time to set his foot on the last step.  “How bad is it?”

Paul placed his hand on the worried father’s arm and smiled.  “He’s going to be fine, Ben.  He has a God-awful bump on the back of his head, but even that should be fine, sore, but fine.  I want him to stay in the bed for a couple of days though, otherwise, he should be up and about in no time.”

Ben and his sons smiled at one another.  “That’s good Paul, that’s good,” muttered Ben whose relief was evident to all of them.

“There’s just on thing Ben,” began Paul.

All eyes turned to face the doctor, Hoss stopped where he was, on the third step upward where he had been heading to his younger brother’s bedside.

“Joe is awake now Ben, but he has no memory of what happened other than being with Rachael out for a drive.  He doesn’t recall the accident, why or what caused it and he does not know about Rachael’s death,” Paul explained to the worried family.

“Nothin’?” asked Hoss, stunned at the news.

“I’m afraid not, Hoss.  He even asked me how he came to have the bump on his head.  I just told him he hit his head on a rock and not to worry right now about how it happened.  I thought perhaps you might want to be the one to explain things to him, Ben.”

Ben nodded his head in agreement that he, as Joseph’s father, should be the one.  “I suppose he ought to know, I’m sure he will ask me.  Paul, do you think I should tell him everything, right away?  I mean about the girl’s death, or…no, he needs to hear it and it needs to me that he hears it from.”

“I agree Ben.  He will have questions; all you can do is to be honest with him.  I can stay for a while longer if you like, just in case he should need something to calm him down enough to allow him to sleep.  I’ve already given him something for the pain, but once he knows about the girl…well, he just might need something a mite stronger,” offered the physician.

“I appreciate that Paul.  Hoss, if you don’t mind waiting, I think I’d better go to Joe by myself right now.”  Ben saw the painful expression that crossed his middle son’s face and knew that Hoss was as worried as the rest of them were.  “You can talk to him a little later, afterwards.  He will need you more then son.”

Hoss nodded his head, “I understand Pa…it’s just that I thought maybe if we all were with him when he found out, it might make it more bearable if he knew all of us were there for him.”

Ben thought about what Hoss had said and giving his son a small smile, agreed.  “I think your probably right son.  Joseph does need to know that all three of us will be there if he wants us to be.  Adam?”

“I agree too.  Come on, let’s go see just how much the boy actually does remember.”  Adam followed his father and brother to Joe’s room and Ben eased the door opened enough to allow the three to enter quietly.

Joe lay propped against several pillows, his face pale, his eyes closed tightly and for just a brief moment, Ben thought that Joe was sleeping.  Ben halted his steps as Hop Sing turned toward the family of men who gathered at  Joe’s bedside.

“Come,” motioned the faithful servant, “boy not sleep, only resting.”  Hop Sing stepped aside and allowed Ben to approach the bed.

Ben felt his heart skip a beat as he gazed into the face of his son noting for the first time the small bruises that had appeared beneath the whitish skin tone of the boy’s face, and giving in to the urge, Ben bent down and kissed his son’s brow.  Instantly Joe’s eyes opened.

“Pa,” came the weak plea.

“I’m here son.  How does your head feel?” asked Ben, sitting on the edge of the bed.  Ben played with the edges of the cover nervously as he waited for Joe to ask the dreaded questions.

“It hurts,” grimaced Joe and closed his eyes.  “Hoss…Adam…”

Adam and Hoss moved closer to the bed.  “We’re here, little buddy,” Adam whispered.

Joe opened his eyes briefly, reached out his hand to Adam but before he could make contact, the arm dropped to the bed.  Adam squatted down beside the head of the bed and picked up his brother’s hand knowing that Joe was too weak from his accident and from the sedative to force much movement.

“Take it easy little brother, we’re all here.”  Adam gently rubbed the back of Joe’s hand.

Something stirred deeply within the older brother’s heart and quite unexpectedly, Adam felt the sting of tears to his eyes as his mind conjured up the memory of the night of Joe’s birth, when Adam only twelve at the time, had held the same hand within his.  Only then the hand had been tiny but soft and pink not the hand of a near grown boy as it was now and certainly not callused from all the hard work it had done.

“The mare…Adam…I don’t remember what…happened.  I should…have listened to…you,” Joe turned sad eyes toward his brother and as he did, the tears slipped silently downward.

“The mare’s fine, Joe; just had a nasty spill, same as you…” Adam stopped suddenly and glanced at his father.

“Spill?  What are you…talking about?” Joe asked and sought his father.

“Pa?  What’s Adam talking about?  Doc said I hit…my head.”

Ben squeezed his eyes shut tightly and sighed deeply.  “You did hit your head son…don’t you remember?”

“No.  I just remember being with…Rachael in the buggy…Rachael…Pa, where is she?  Is she okay?  How did I hit my head?” moaned Joe is a most pleading tone of voice.

Ben scooted up closer to his son and took Joe’s other hand into his larger hands.  “Joe, calm down, son.”

“Pa…what’s wrong?  Tell me…you’re scaring me.  Pa, where’s Rachael?”  A sob caught in Joe’s throat as his eyes welled with tears.  “Pa!”  Joe struggled to sit up but both Ben and Adam gently forced him to remain lying on the pillows.

“Joseph, please.  Just be still and I’ll explain everything to you.”  Ben took one quick glance at his two older sons and began what he knew would be a heart wrenching story for his youngest.

“Joe, it was like this….

*****

Joe smiled as he descended the stairs.  His brothers watched in amusement as their youngest sibling made his way into the great room and across the floor to the door.  Both Adam and Hoss rose from where they had been sitting and followed Joe outside where he had earlier hitched the mare to the buggy.  The mare was only recently broken to harness and Joe had been in hopes that today would be a good time to help the animal to adjust to her new task.  He had no doubts that he could handle the horse for he had hand selected and broken the new horse for just this job and Joe was hoping to prove to his father and Adam, who had given him permission to do the selecting, that his selection had been a good choice.

Ben waited next to the horse, rubbing the soft nose and whispering softly to the mare. Ben smiled to himself as he watched his handsome youngest son cross the yard and noted that his older brothers were following him.  Ben could not help but to see the amused looks on the faces of Joe’s followers and he laughed out loud for he knew Joe was in for some teasing.

“Well Pa, how do I look?” asked Joe as he tugged at his string tie, Adam and Hoss coming to stop just behind him.

“Why I think he looks plum purty; what’cha think Adam?” snickered Hoss.

“He sure does; hey Joe, you reckon you got on enough aftershave?” crooned Adam, his arms folded across his chest, a smile playing at the corners of his lips as he teased his brother.

“All right now boys, leave your brother alone.  You look fine Joseph; don’t pay your brothers any mind,” sympathized Ben patting Joe on the back.

Adam and Hoss laughed loudly, “Aw shucks Joe, you go ahead and have fun…I still cain’t believe that Miss Rachael’s father said ya could come acourtin’.  Why that ole bear is meaner than a mad rattler on a hot day.  And that’s just on his best days!  Ya best mind ya manners, young’on!”

“Don’t worry big brother, I’m not about to do anything to rile that man…or his sons!” laughed Little Joe.

“Take it easy with that mare too Joe.  She’s not quite ready to pull that buggy, but then that’s only my opinion.  Be careful, I don’t want her ruined.”  Joe turned to face his brother, Adam’s tone of voice catching his attention.

“Oh, you aren’t worried about me…just your horse?”  Joe teased after seeing the smile on Adam’s face.

“What makes you think I’m worried about you little brother?  Of course I’m worried about the mare,” snickered Adam.

“Gee thanks older brother, I’ll remember that.”  Joe turned to his father and smiled.  “I won’t be late Pa.”

Ben patted Joe on the shoulder and smiled.  “Please Joseph, heed your brother’s words.  Watch out for this horse, she’s still a mite skittish. And Joseph,” Ben held up his hand to halt Joe’s remark and continued, “promise me son, that you will not be racing her.  I know how you are with these horses…you are just like your mother in that respect.”

Joe laughed as he climbed into the buggy.  “And that scares you don’t it Pa?”  Joe became serious.  “I promise Pa, I won’t even let her break into a run.”

Ben sobered as well, “Yes son, to a degree, it does scare me.  And thank you Joseph, for your promise.  I trust you to keep that promise.”

Joe gave his father a nod of his head, “I will Pa.  Please try not to worry.”

“Sorry, not a chance of that happening,” laughed Ben.  “Have fun son, see you later.”

*****

Joe stirred slightly, his body ached and he fought to keep his eyes opened.  “Pa, what about Rachael?”

“I’m getting to that son; just give me a minute to finish.  You do remember what I just told you don’t you?” Ben asked worriedly, for Joseph was growing impatient.

“Yeah, I remember so far.  I even remember getting to Rachael’s and those two thugs she calls her brothers being there.  Her Pa met me at the door…….”

*****

“Afternoon, Mr. Livingston. I’m here to see Rachael?”  It was more like a question than a statement, thought Joe feeling somewhat foolish as he stood with hat in hand and waited to be invited inside.  Had the man forgotten that he had given his permission for Joe to come calling?

“I know why ya here, come inside for heaven’s sake,” grumbled the old man.   “Rachael!  Little Joe Cartwright’s here to see ya.”

Mr. Livingston turned his attention back to Joe.  “Ya best be mindin’ ya manners now young man and ya better have my daughter back afore dark,” commanded Mr. Livingston.

Rachael entered the room and her father’s attention was drawn from Joe to his beautiful daughter.  Beside her stood her equally beautiful mother and for just a swift moment, Joe wondered what the man and woman had found in common with one another.

“Now Seth, you leave these young folks alone.  Little Joe, you and Rachael have a nice afternoon, just please be careful.”  Mrs. Livingston smiled sweetly at Joe and opened the door for her daughter.

Joe stood to the side until Rachael had passed through the door and then fell into step beside of her.  She glanced up at Joe and smiled but said nothing.

As Joe took the girl’s elbow to help her into the carriage, Mr. Livingston tapped Joe on his shoulder, surprising him.  “Young man, make dang good and sure you bring my daughter back safe and sound, ya hear me?”

“Oh Papa, please,” moaned Rachael good naturedly, “we will be fine, now don’t you worry.”

“All right daughter, behave yourself, you too young man,” he warned and gave Joe a meaningful look.

Joe shuddered slightly.  “Yes sir, and I will have her home before dark, sir, I give you my word.”  Joe smiled as the girl’s father made his way back to the house.

Joe smiled at Rachael and started to pull himself into the buggy but was stopped once again, this time by Rachael’s two brothers.  “Cartwright, you better be sure our sister gets home without a scratch on her, or you will answer to Harve and me, you got that?” snarled the larger of the two who was nearly as big as Hoss.

“Yeah, I got that, now, can we just go, please?” Joe added for good measure, hoping to stay on the good side of this rather overly protective family. Geeze…and he thought his family was bad!

*****

“I remember that as well Pa, but I still can’t remember how I hit my head. Won’t you tell me what happened?”  Joe moaned as he moved his head about on the pillow.

“Son, please, don’t move around so much.  Please try to be still,” Ben rested his hand on Joe’s shoulder stopping any further movement.

“I know your head hurts, but Doc said you should try to rest, maybe we can talk about this later.”  Ben could see the pain etched on the face of his son and was hoping to alleviate some of his distress by letting him go to sleep.

Joe moved slightly so that he might better see his father’s face.  His eyelids were growing heavy and Joe knew that before long he would not be able to fight off the effects of the strong medicine that Doc Martin had given him.

“No Pa!  You’re keeping something from me, I can tell by the look on all your faces.  Is Rachael all right?  She isn’t, is she Pa?  Something’s happened to her…dear God, Pa is she dead?” sobbed Joe, his voice trembling and his chin beginning to quiver.

 Tears began to well in Joe’s eyes as he stared first at his father’s expression and then at the way in which Hoss avoided meeting his eyes and finally Adam who sat still holding on to his hand, tighter now than moments before, but he had lowered his head and Joe knew the truth.

Suddenly Joe began to weep, bringing the attention of his family back to him.  “Joseph, please son, don’t cry, it wasn’t your fault.  It was an accident,” soothed Ben brushing his hand lovingly through the mass of dark curls that adorned his son’s head.

“Pa’s right Joe, it was an accident, punkin’,” whispered Hoss, his own eyes brimming with unshed tears as he watched his brother’s strained expression.

“What was an accident?  Pa, come on, ya gotta tell me the truth…Rachael’s dead…and I killed her didn’t I?” begged Little Joe.

Ben took a deep breath, “yes, Joseph, Rachael is dead, but son, you didn’t kill her.  Somehow the harness broke and the buggy with Rachael in it crashed, killing her.  It was an accident Joe, a terrible accident.”  Ben cringed when his son’s expression changed to total misery and Joe turned from his father, attempting to hide his tears from both his father and brothers.

“Get out…GET OUT!” shouted Joe as he wrenched his hands free from those who held his.  Joe turned his head into his pillows, tossed one arm over his head to hide his face and began to sob, the piteous sounds breaking the hearts of each family member.

“Joe,” Ben whispered softly, brushing back the now dampened locks of curls.

“Go away Pa…leave me be!” Joe cried beseechingly.

Paul, who had been standing in the hallway waiting for Ben to call him, stepped uninvited into the bedroom and to the side of the bed.  The physician had already prepared the syringe of medicine and while Joe was buried beneath his blanket of misery, Paul administered the shot.  Joe barely flinched as the sharp needle penetrated his flesh.  Quietly, Paul motioned toward the door; Ben nodded his head at Adam then Hoss and together they followed Paul into the hallway.

“He will be asleep in just a few minutes Ben, then if you want, you can sit with him.  Right now, I think it best to just let him be, let him cry for now…later, well…later he will need the support of all of you,” Paul explained to the worried family.

Paul was true to his word for within minutes Joe had fallen into a deep drug induced sleep.  Ben pulled a chair to the edge of the bed and settled back, but not before arranging the covers to suit him self. Once satisfied that his youngest was comfortable and warm, Ben leaned back and shut his eyes.

Ben’s mind tossed around all that had happened, the promise that Joe had made to him in regards to not running the mare, the accident and how it happened and then to finding his son injured and unconscious and then finally to finding the beautiful young woman lying dead.  Had it truly been an accident or just foolishness caused by an overzealous young boy and the need to show off for a pretty girl?  He hoped not.  Ben covered his face with his hands, scared that perhaps his son might have been the cause of another father losing their child.

“Please God,” whispered Ben sadly hoping that something would prove his doubts wrong.

“Pa?”  Adam slipped quietly into the room and eased over to where Ben still sat in the chair, his eyes glued to his young son’s face.

“Pa,” whispered Adam a second time and placed his hand on his father’s shoulder.

Ben looked up, surprised to find Adam standing next to him.  “I’m sorry son; I didn’t hear you come in.”

“How’s he doing?” Adam watched the expressions on Joe’s face and the way in which the eyelids flicker, a sign that his brother was lost in a dream.

“He’s resting, not very well, but at least he’s sleeping and Paul says that is what he needs most right now.  Did you want something Adam?” asked Ben looking up again at his oldest son.

“Pa, Billy Cross and Chad Hawkins are downstairs, they said they needed to speak with you; they said it was important but I told them you didn’t want to be disturbed. Then they said they had some information about the accident that you would probably want to know, they wouldn’t tell me anything.  I’m sorry Pa; I know you didn’t want to leave Joe but…”

Ben held up his hand to silence Adam.  “It’s okay; I wonder what those two know about what happened?  I thought they were suppose to be working the north pasture, not the lower meadow.”

“Beats me Pa, guess they’ll tell you when you go downstairs.  I’ll sit here with Joe until you come back.”  Adam lowered his self into the chair that his father had just vacated and watched as Ben went out the door.

Adam saw the worry that had furrowed deeply into his father’s brow and knowing how his father could work himself into a ‘state’, he too worried, not just for his parent but for his younger brother as well.  He had already heard talk about town that charges might be taken against Joe for the death of Rachael Livingston but Adam had not mentioned the rumor to his father as of yet.  Adam figured that until they were positive that Joe was out of danger, it would be best to keep the information to him self.

Ben, slightly irritated at the intrusion, hurried downstairs to see what it was that the two young men thought so important about the accident that he should know.

“Billy, Chad, what can I do for you?” asked Ben immediately crossing the room.

Both young men stood to their feet; both held their hats in their hands and appeared to Ben to be rather nervous.

Ben extended his hand to one then the other, shaking hands.  Billy glanced at Chad and the nod that Chad gave to Billy did not go unnoticed by the elder Cartwright.  Hoss had entered the great room from the kitchen and moved to stand next to his father.  He greeted both boys with a nod of his head but remained silent.

“Mr. Cartwright, sir,” began Billy.  “Chad here and I thought that we might need to have a talk with ya, it’s about what happened yesterday, hmm…the accident I mean,” Billy stammered and looked to his friend for support.

Ben scratched his head, “What about the accident?  Do you know something?”

“Well…yes sir,” said Billy.  “We seen what happened.”

“You saw what happened?  You saw the crash?” demanded Ben, “and you are just now coming to tell me?”  Ben was getting angry, several hours had passed since the horrible incident and he could not understand why the two young men had waited so long to come forward with information and why had they not stayed to help his son and the young girl who died?

Billy and Chad had worked for Ben for several months.  They kept mostly to themselves and being friends since childhood, they had left home at an early age to get away from what they called overly strict parents.  Billy was the oldest by one year, Chad just a year older than Joseph.

“No sir, I didn’t mean that we saw the crash, but we did see Little Joe racing that mare.  He was running her pretty hard, but we just watched until they rounded the bend, down at the far end of the meadow.  We didn’t see it go into the crik or nothin’.  If we had of, we’d a tried to help them.”  Billy glanced again at Chad and the other boy nodded his head in agreement.

“We were in the corral yesterday getting our horses saddled when ya told Little Joe not to be running that mare.  We heard him promise ya that he wouldn’t so we was sure surprised when we saw him doing it.  But Billy and I decided not to squeal on the kid, heck, if’n I’d lied to my Pa, I know what he would’ve done to me.”  Chad finished his little speech looking sorrowful that he had then come forth and explained to Ben what he had seen.

“You calling my little brother a liar?” asked Hoss who had bristled at the boy’s statement.

“Oh, no Hoss, ere…Mr. Cartwright, it’s just that after we learned of the accident, we just thought that your pa here might need to know that Joe hadn’t done like he had promised he’d do.  Sorta makes that girl’s dying his fault don’t it?” stammered Chad.

Ben and Hoss quickly exchanged worried looks but Ben said nothing more to the two young men.  Turning to hide his anger, Ben, his lips pressed tightly together, made his way to the stairs but stopped and turned around.  “Thank you Billy, Chad, for telling me.  Now, if you still have work to do, I would suggest that you get to it.”

The pair turned quickly and headed for the door.  Hoss followed behind them, making sure that the door was closed and then turned to his father.

“Pa?” he started but stopped briefly when he spied the angry look on his father’s face. Casting caution to the wind, he ventured on, “Pa, you don’t really believe that Joe lied to ya, do ya?” Hoss knew his father was troubled and angry but he wasn’t real sure about what or at whom.

Ben stood at the bottom of the stairs; his fist tightly griping the railing, his face red and Hoss thought he saw tears in his father’s dark eyes when Ben turned to look at him.

“What am I suppose to believe Hoss?  Those two,” Ben pointed toward the closed door, “just came in here and said they saw Joe running that mare at full speed.  Joe tells me that he can’t remember anything about it, what am I suppose to believe?” demanded Ben in a loud voice.

“I told that boy not to let that horse get away from him and what does he do?  He runs her as if the devil himself were chasing them and what happens?  Answer me HOSS!!  I’ll tell you, a beautiful young girl is dead do you hear me?  DEAD!” shouted Ben.

“Pa, what’s all the shouting about?” called Adam from the top of the stairs, worried that something else might be wrong.

Ben ignored his oldest son and continued to rank and rave.  “Now because of his foolishness, your brother may end up going to jail for a very, very long time.  How do you think that makes me feel, to know that my eighteen year old son may very well be responsible for a young woman’s death and may spend the rest of his life in jail?”

Ben turned and rushed up the steps, all but shoving Adam out of the way.  As soon as Ben entered Joe’s room and closed the door, Adam made his way to Hoss’ side where Hoss spent the next several minutes explaining to his older brother what had just taken place.

*****

Ben closed the door and leaned his back against the heavy wood while he took a deep breath to calm his nerves and then eased over to the edge of the bed.  Careful so as not to wake his son, Ben gently caressed Joe’s cheek, taking notice of the bruises about his face. His heart ached for this youngest boy of his and Ben struggled to control his tears and his emotions.

“Oh Joseph, why son, why do you have to be so willful?” Ben collapsed into the chair that was still close to the bed and buried his face in the palms of his hands. There he sat, alone, frightened at what was to become of his youngest son, worried about how Joe would deal with what looked now to be his undoing, caused by his own careless disregard for his father’s authority.

Ben shook his head slowly from side to side, “Dear God, Joseph, there’s no way that I can make this easy for you.  You have certainly managed to dig yourself a mighty deep hole.”

Ben closed his eyes as the tears at last broke through the dam and rolled slowly down his face and as they did so Ben began to pray for his son, for Rachael Livingston’s family and for his own family, that God would somehow help them all get through the trying days that lay ahead for all of them.

“Pa,” came the soft plea.

Ben quickly wiped away his tears hoping that Joe had not seen them.  “I’m here son,” said Ben as he leaned closer to his son.  “How do you feel?”

“It hurts,” whispered Joe, his chin beginning to quiver.

“Your head?  I have some more pain medicine here if you…”started Ben while he began to make ready the powder that the doctor had left for him to give to Joe as needed.

Joe reached out his hand and took Ben’s arm.  “No Pa, not my head.”  Joe tapped his chest with his fingers.  “In here, my heart hurts.  It feels so heavy, so sad.  Pa, I…”

Ben heard the catch in Joe’s voice and bent down, caressing his brow, “Shh…please Joseph, don’t cry.  We’ll get through this son, I promise.”

“I can’t help it Pa…I must have been responsible…I can’t remember what happened.  Why Pa?  Why can’t I remember?” sobbed Joe, still clinging to Ben’s arm.

Ben felt the increased pressure as Joe squeezed tightly to his arm.  “Son, it takes time, even Paul said so.  Try to calm down and rest…maybe it will come back to you.”

Ben moved the covers back up over Joe’s chest and gently tucked them in about him.  “Close your eyes Joseph and please, try not to worry.”  Ben hoped to take his own advice, for he would not admit it to his son, but he was indeed worried.

“I’m sorry Pa, I didn’t mean to hurt anyone…” whispered Joe in a soft whimper as his eyelids, heavy with sleep, closed once again.

“I know you didn’t, sweetheart,” Ben said more to himself that to his sleeping son.

*****

Joe was up and around two days later, though moving slowly and a bit sluggishly.  His whole personally seemed to have changed following the unfortunate events.  No longer the happy go lucky kid he had once been, he was now sullen and withdrawn one minute, angry and vocal the next, taking to snapping at his family for no apparent cause at all. Ben took it all in stride, knowing the reasons behind his son’s sudden change in temperament, but Adam and Hoss having had their fill avoided their brother as much as possible.  Both brothers had tried several times to talk to their younger sibling but Joe had always managed to brush them off, screaming at them to leave him alone.  Finally the message had sunk in and agreeing with one another, they granted Joe what he wanted, and that was to be left alone to wallow in his self-pity.

*****

No charges had been filed against Joe.  Though by the testimony of both Chad and Billy, to the fact that Joe had indeed been racing his horse, the accident in it’s self was judged to be just that, an accident.  Ben though heartbroken for the Livingston family, felt a measure of relief in the knowledge that his youngest son would not be sent off to prison.  The Livingston family however had much different thoughts on the matter.  They now hated Joe Cartwright; Mrs. Livingston had walked away from Joe the day of the funeral when Joe had offered his heart-wrenching apology to the girl’s parents, but not without first leaving her handprint across the cheek of his son and shocking the onlookers.  Joe’s eyes had instantly misted and Ben feared that his son would break down right then and there in front of the entire group of mourners.

Harve and Dave Livingston instantly picked up where their mother had left off, confronting the stunned Joseph before he had been able to make his way to the family carriage.  Both brothers had converged on Joe with threats of doing him bodily harm should they ever find him out and about by himself.  Had it not been for his own brothers who stepped between the Livingstons and their brother, Joe might have suffered a beating right then and there.

“This is not the time nor place, Harve.  Your folks need you right now, why not see to them?”  Adam’s statement was more of an order that a request, Harve and Dave picking up on the tone of voice that Adam used and the way in which his eyes had darkened gave the brothers cause to return to the side of their parents as Adam had suggested.

“Come on little brother; let’s get you out of here.”  Adam took Joe by the elbow and headed him in the direction of the carriage.  Hoss followed closely behind keeping an eye on the Livingstons least they return and make good their threats.

Joe needed no prompting; his nerves shattered, he went willingly along with Adam and even allowed his older brother to help him into the carriage.  On the ride home, Joe remained silent, avoiding any conversation with his family.  The minute the carriage stopped in the yard, Joe sprang from his place next to Adam and hurried into the barn.

“Wonder what he’s up to?” questioned Adam looking into his father’s face.

“I don’t know, I’ll go have a talk with him,” said Ben heading for the barn while Hoss and Adam began to unhitch the team.

Ben found Joe in Cochise’s stall where he was saddling his horse.  Joe, hearing his father’s approach, turned briefly to face his father.

“Going somewhere?” asked Ben, moving closer.

“Yeah, I’m going for a ride, what of it?” snapped Joe, irritated at the intrusion.

Ben overlooked the sharp remark.  “I was just asking, no need to snap.  Will you be long?  I think Hop Sing will have lunch ready soon.”  Ben watched the play of emotions that flashed across Joe’s face and knew his son was suffering inner turmoil.

Joe suddenly stopped working and leaned his forehead against the soft leather of his saddle, obviously weary from all that had transpired.  A moment later he turned and faced his father, unshed tears shining in his eyes and when he blinked, they began to roll downward.

“I didn’t mean to snap at you Pa, it’s just that…” Joe turned his head, both hands resting on the saddle, “I can’t take much more…every time I look at one of you…all I see is doubt and disappointment…”

“Joseph…” began Ben, placing his hand on Joe’s trembling shoulder.

Joe jerked free of the tender touch and interrupted his father, “Don’t say it isn’t so Pa…I know you believe I lied to you…I know you believe Rachael’s death was my fault…and it might have been…I might have lied to you…I don’t know, I just don’t know…and it’s killing me…seeing you and Adam and Hoss looking at me like you do…I didn’t mean to lie to you…can’t you believe that…?”  Joe buried his face against the saddle, Ben, his heart in his throat stepped up to Joe and placed both hands on his son’s heaving shoulders and spoke softly with more calm than he was actually feeling at the moment.

“Joseph, son, I know you didn’t.  I know that what happened was an accident, whether you were racing that horse or not, Rachael’s death was an accident and you cannot go on blaming yourself.”  Ben dropped his hands as Joe spun around and faced him.

“Tell me something Pa, how do I stop blaming myself when everyone else, including my own family blames me?” snapped Joe.

Joe led his mount out of the stall and into the yard.  Without another word to his father or to his brothers who had just turned the team into the corral, Joe jump mounted his horse, kicked hard at the horse’s sides and galloped from the yard.

Ben, stunned at his son’s accusations, stepped silently into the yard where his older sons joined him.  “Where’s he goin’ in such a hurry?” asked Hoss, seeing the unhappy expression on his father’s face.

“Says he’s going for a ride.”  Ben stood and watched as Joe rode off into the distance.

“Want me to go after him?” Adam asked, already heading to the barn for his horse.

Ben reached out to grab Adam’s arm, stopping him from proceeding any further.

“No, leave him be, he just needs time.  Maybe the ride will do him good.  Let’s get some lunch, he’ll be back later.”  Ben motioned for Adam and Hoss to do as he had requested and giving one another a swift glance, both followed their father into the house.

*****

Joe rode for a long time, the fresh air cleansing his mind from all the mixed thoughts and emotions that had plagued him over the last few days.  Before long, Joe found himself at the lake and slowing his horse to a walk, ambled along at a leisurely pace, suddenly enjoying the peace and tranquility of his surroundings.  Without realizing he was headed in that direction, it wasn’t long before Joe found himself at his mother’s gravesite.  Dismounting slowly, Joe led Cochise to a nearby tree where he tossed the reins loosely over a branch and then made his way to his mother’s grave.

Joe squatted down and dusted the dirt from the marker, sighing deeply.  “Mama, I didn’t mean to kill Rachael, you believe me don’t you?” cried Joe softly brushing the tears from his eyes.

“Pa thinks I lied to him…about racing the horse…but I honestly don’t think I did Mama…I just can’t remember why that horse was running.  All I remember is trying to stop her and getting knocked out of the buggy, after that it’s all a blur,” continued Joe sadly.

“Why can’t I remember?  Don’t Pa, Adam and Hoss know how much they are hurting me by not believing me?  I can’t stand to see them, especially Pa, look at me the way they do.  And Pa, well it’s like he’s convinced I lied to him and like he really does think that Rachael’s death was my fault…I don’t know, it probably was since she was with me when it happened, but Mama, I can’t see myself lying to him.  I gave that up years ago, when I was just a kid.”

Joe sat for a long time, lost in his thoughts and quite unaware of the Livingston brothers who had been watching him.  Quietly the brothers made their way nearer until they had come within arms reach of where Joe was sitting lost in his own tormented world.

“Get him, Harve,” shouted Dave, taking Joe by complete surprise.

Joe had no time to brace himself for the attack, before he could even rise to his feet, Harve and Dave dove at Joe, pinning his body to the ground.  Immediately both boys began to rain their fury onto Joe’s unprotected body as punch after punch was hammered into his mid section, his ribcage and his face.  Joe was useless to defend himself, not only was he out number but the brothers were much larger and heavier than he was and Joe was no match for the pair.  Within just a matter of minutes the battle was over.  Joe lay unconscious on the ground, blood seeping from his mouth, and about his face where dark bruises were already forming over the old ones that remained from the accident.

“That should teach him,” swore Harve, dusting the dirt from his hands.

Dave wiped Joe’s blood that had splattered his fists from his hands onto the leg of his trousers.  “I still think we should kill him.  It would serve him right,” muttered Dave, giving Joe a solid kick to his lower back.  Even in the blackness that had claimed the wounded boy, Joe groaned as the pain intensified his current agony.

“Me too brother, but Pa says we can’t do that, just beat the hell out of him, he says.  Well, looks like we pretty much did what Pa said to do, ain’t enough though to my way of thinking,” complained Harve.  “Come on, let’s get outta here before someone comes looking for him.”

Harve gathered his hat, picked up Dave’s and handed it to his brother.  “It’ll be dark soon, ain’t no way the kid will make it back to his place before daylight, if he lives that long,” laughed Harve.

“Yeah,” laughed Dave, “and if he does, we’ll just beat the hell out of him again next time we catch him out and every time after that.  He’ll finally get where he won’t even leave his own house, ’cause when he does, he’ll have to contend with us.”

Dave and Harve mounted their horses and giving one final glance at their victim, turned and headed away from the Ponderosa.

*****

Ben paced the floor, a habit that he had taken to doing quite often of late.  Adam glanced over the top of his book and caught Hoss’ attention who had also been watching his father as the older Cartwright wore down the carpet in front of the fireplace.

Ben glanced at the old grandfather clock, which stood to the side of the front door.  “Where is that boy?” he all but shouted.

“You want us to go look for him, Pa?” asked Adam, sitting aside his book and folding his long arms across his chest.

“No!” yelled Ben and then turned to face his oldest son.  “I’m sorry Adam; I didn’t mean to yell at you, it’s just that I am worried about your brother.”

“I know Pa, but Joe can take care of himself.  He’ll be home soon.”  Adam tried to reassure his father, but even at this late hour, Adam had his own doubts.

“Adam’s right Pa, Joe’s probably ridden up to the lake, maybe he’s at his mama’s grave.  You know that’s were he goes when somethin’s eatin’ at’em,” added Hoss and looked to Adam for support.

“Let’s go to bed Pa, if Joe’s not back in the morning, we’ll ride out and find him.  He’s got a lot on his mind he needs to work through and you know Joe, he’ll stew about something for quite a spell before finding peace with the matter.”  Adam rose from his chair hoping that Ben would agree and get some rest.

Ben gave both sons a small smile, “You’re probably right, both of you.  But you two go ahead to bed, I think I’ll wait down here, for just a little longer.  I’d like to try to talk to the boy when he gets home.”

Hoss and Adam glanced at each other, knowing that Ben had made up his mind and once that was done, nothing that either of them could say would change their father’s mind once it was made up.

“Come on Hoss, no sense in all of us loosing a night’s sleep.  If he’s not home come daylight, we’ll all go looking for the little scamp.”

“Night Pa.  Try not to worry, Joe’ll be fine,” smiled Hoss has he patted his father’s back on his way passed.

“Good night boys, sleep well,” said Ben as he watched his sons make their way to their rooms.

Ben sighed, walked to the door and opened it for the hundredth time that evening.  As Ben stepped out onto the boarded porch, he looked upward at the stars the shone brightly and found the one he knew would be shining the brightest of all.

“Marie darling, please watch over our son.  He needs both of us this night…he thinks I don’t believe what he tells me anymore, he thinks I am ashamed of him…but you know that’s not so.  How do I convince him otherwise?  Please my dear, tell me what to say to him so that I can help him…if he doesn’t get help soon, I’m afraid he will destroy himself.”  Ben wiped the dampness from his eyes and returned to the house where he sat wearily down into his chair and waited.

*****

The pain in his body seemed to intensify as Joe struggled to regain his senses and began pulling himself up into a sitting position.  He moaned and wrapped his arm across his stomach in an effort to ward off the discomfort and yet still struggled to his feet.  Joe used his free hand and pushed against the rock next to where he had fallen and staggered to an upright position.  Stumbling along toward his horse, Joe knew that he had to somehow get into the saddle and ride home, where he was sure help awaited him.

“Easy boy,” whispered Joe as he eased up to Cochise, who eyed his master with wary eyes.  “Easy now.”  Joe unwrapped the reins from the branch of the tree and after several tries managed somehow to climb into the saddle.

Joe’s body ached from his abuse and he leaned forward into the saddle, barely able to cling to the saddle horn for support.  “Take me home boy,” muttered Joe, fighting against the pain that sought to draw him back into the world of darkness.

“Oh… take it easy Cooch, not so fast…” groaned Joe for it seemed as if with every step that his mount took, the pain would shoot throughout his body and Joe feared that he might not be able to hold on until he reached the safety of his home and family.

Just before morning, Cochise brought his long walk to a halt in the Cartwright yard.  Joe, beaten down by the long ride, and the unbearable pain was barely able to hold his head up.  Unable to maintain his grip on the saddle any longer, he slipped to the ground landing with a thud where he remained, silent and still.

*****

“Adam, be sure to check up at the lake first, before you go into town.  I hate to think that the boy might have spent the night drinking, but I wouldn’t put it passed him, not with the mood he’s been in lately,” exclaimed Ben, finishing his coffee and pushing his chair back from the table.

“Yes sir,” responded Adam, giving Hoss a worried look.  “Hopefully he didn’t get himself thrown in jail either,” Adam said and then noted the troublesome expression on his father’s face.  “Hey Pa, I was only joking, I wasn’t being serious.”

Ben gave his son a stern look, “Any other time, I would have seen the humor in such a statement, but not this time.  Hurry up son, get going, I’m going to saddle my horse and go up to the lake myself, you just head on into town and please, Adam, get back here as fast as you can.”

“I will Pa.”  Adam downed the rest of his coffee and joined his father at the door where he stopped long enough to strap on his gun belt.  “What’s Hoss going to do?”

Ben was working on putting on his own side arm as he answered Adam’s question.

 “He’s going to take a little ride over to the Livingstons, just in case Joseph might have gotten it into his head to go talk to them.”

“Whew…as angry as the old man and woman was, I hope that kid had better sense than to do a fool thing as that. And those boys, they were ready to wallop Joe; I hope he didn’t give them the opportunity.”  Adam placed his hat on his head and opened the door for his father.

Ben stepped out into the morning air and took a deep breath to fill his lungs.  “What the…Adam, look!”  Ben pointed at the prone body that lay in a heap across the yard, near the barn and took off running.

“JOE!” shouted the concerned father as he raced to his son’s side.  Ben dropped to his knees and being careful, turned Joe onto his back.  A soft groan escaped passed his split lip and the wounded boy struggled to open his eyes.

“Joseph,” Ben called out to his son.

“How bad is he, Pa?” asked Adam, concern for this brother showing in his dark eyes.

“Someone’s beat him pretty badly, and he’s shivering, help me get him into the house and send Hoss for the doctor.”  Adam helped his father gather Joe into his arms and then led the way back to the house where he opened the heavy wooden door and stood aside allowing Ben to carry his precious cargo into the room.  Not bothering to stop and place Joe on the settee, he headed straight up the stairs and into Joe’s room where he carefully placed the unconscious body of his youngest son on to the bed.

“HOP SING!” shouted Ben, “GET ME SOME WATER AND TOWELS,” he continued.

“Adam, help me get these clothes off of him.  Where’s Hoss?” demanded Ben as he worked at removing Joe’s shirt.

Hoss who had been in the kitchen and missed seeing his father carry his younger brother upstairs replied with a note of curiosity in his voice.  “I’m right here Pa, what’s all the shouting…Good heavens, what happened to him?” asked Hoss seeing for the first time his brother’s battered body.  “Do ya know who did this?” he asked, feeling the anger beginning to surface as he bent and surveyed the damage that had been done to his brother.

“My guess would be the Livingstons,” commented Adam as he pulled first one boot and then the other from Joe’s feet.

“You don’t know that for a fact young man,” snapped Ben, knowing full well that given half a chance, his two sons would make it a point to confront the Livingston brothers.

 “And until Joe can tell us for sure, I want the two of you to stay away from those boys.  Do I make myself clear?” barked Ben, giving each a stern look, leaving no doubt as to its meaning.

Adam and Hoss exchanged knowing glances but nodded their heads, accepting for now their father’s authority.  “Yes sir,” they both replied.

“Hoss, go get the doctor, please.  I can feel some busted ribs and it looks like this lip might need some stitching.”  Ben wet the towel in the basin of water that Hop Sing had supplied and began cleaning the dirt and grime from Joe’s bruised face.  Carefully he dapped at the gash over Joe’s right eye, wiping away what he could of the dried blood.

Joe tossed his head and moaned, crying out in his pain.  “Shh…Joe, take it easy son, you’re going to be fine,” Ben tried to sooth his son.  “Just be still boy, you have some cracked ribs…I know it hurts son…”

“Pa,” said Adam gently as he placed his hand on his father’s shoulder.  Ben glanced up to look at Adam.  “He can’t hear you Pa.”

Ben sighed, “I know he can’t son.  But maybe the sound of my voice will eventually sink in,” Ben stated hopefully, continuing to tend the wounds that adorned Joe’s face.

“Adam, will you have Hop Sing warm some blankets for your brother?  He’s still shaking,” Ben felt his son’s arms and scowled at how cool the skin felt.  “He must have been laying out there all night.  Hurry, please Adam.”

Adam hurried to do as his father had requested and was back within minutes with the needed blankets.  Ben gave Adam a questioning look, which earned him a smile.

“Hop Sing already had them in the warming oven Pa.  How does that man know each and every time what we need and when we need it?” asked Adam with a grin on his face.

“He’s been here since right before Joseph was born and I have asked myself that same question a million times, son,” replied Ben smiling as he placed the warm blankets next to Joe’s skin and then pulled the bed covers over those.

“Have you ever come up with an answer?” questioned Adam.

“What? Answer to what son?” Ben wrung out the dampened cloth once again and placed it on Joe’s brow.

“About Hop Sing?”

Ben looked surprised, “Oh,” grinned Ben, “No son, I still haven’t been able to figure it out.”

“Pa,” the whisper was so soft that both Ben and Adam had almost not heard the sound but when Joe moaned loudly, their attention returned to their patient.

“I’m right here son,” Ben brushed at the stray curls, noting for the first time that his youngest son’s hair was beginning to look a mite shaggy for his liking.  But Ben found that unimportant as he watched the way in which Joe’s face became distorted as he attempted to move about on the bed.

“Joe, you have to be still, son; can you hear me?” the question was more of a plea than what it was intended to be. Ben wanted Joe to open his eyes; he wanted his son to talk to him.  Joe looked pale; the flesh barely healed from the accident, the dark bruises a gruesome contrast to the lighter color skin.

“Ho…Hor…Horn…”muttered Joe, tossing his head from side to side.

Ben and Adam swapped questioning looks.  “He’s trying to tell you something Pa, but what?”

Ben shook his head then turned back to Joe.  “Joseph, what is it son?  What are you trying to tell me?”

Joe struggled against the blackness that still gripped his senses and tried again to open his eyes and speak.  “Horn…et.”  It was no use, the blackness had gained momentum and Joe slipped further away from where he wanted to be.

Hoss returned sooner than expected with the doctor.  Paul had been on another call and Hoss had been lucky enough to run into the physician as he was returning to Virginia City.

As he entered the wounded boy’s room, Ben stood to his feet and shook hands with his long time friend.

“Ben, Ben, Ben, what are we going to do with that youngest cub of yours?” Paul shook his head as he moved to the bedside.  “Hmm…looks like he didn’t make out so well this time.  What happen, does anybody know?”

“We have a pretty good idea…” started Adam, and then stopped after seeing his father’s dark scowl.

“Adam’s right Paul, we do have our suspicions but that’s all they are,” again Ben shot Adam a warning look and gave Hoss the same, just for good measure.

The exchange between his friend and his friend’s sons did not go unnoticed by the observant physician, but Paul chose to drop the subject for now and tend to the matter at hand.

“This lip is going to need a couple of stitches,” said Paul as he moved his skilled fingers along both sides of Joe’s battered face.  When he finished there, Paul moved to examine the upper torso, down the sides of the rib cage, pressing gently with his fingers as he moved along.

Joe moaned softly as the probing fingers found the cracked ribs and Paul could be seen shaking his head back and forth slowly as he continued with his examination.

“Looks to be about three ribs, Ben.  As bad as I hate to, we’re going to have to bind them.  I know Joseph isn’t going to like that,” stated Paul, already making ready the binding that he would use.

“Hoss, please, sit on this side of the bed and help your father raise Joe into a sitting position while I wrap these bandages.”

Hoss moved to do as instructed and, with Ben on the other side, they gently and carefully raised Joe upward.  “OH…” cried Joe loudly as the pain shot through his upper body.

“I’m sorry Little Joe, I know it hurts but I have to do this,” soothed the kind doctor.

Joe’s head leaned back, his jaw slack causing his mouth to open and he breathed deeply.  With each breath he took, soft whimpers could be heard as Paul hurried to finish his painful task.  Unexpectedly Joe’s eyes opened and as they did so, Joe raised his hand and grabbed at the front of Paul’s shirt.

“Horn…” stammered Joe as his eyes closed tightly.

“He must be trying to tell us something.  Did you understand what he said?” Paul asked both Hoss and then his father.  Both shook their heads as Paul continued with his wrapping.

“Ok, that should do it, ease him back down, slowly now, there.”  Paul felt Joe’s forehead for fever and smiled slightly, thankful that for now Joe’s temperature felt near normal.

“Ben he should sleep now most of the day.  I’m going to leave you these powders for pain if he needs them.  I’ll be back by this way later tonight and I’ll stop in and check on him.”  Paul began packing his instruments into his black bag and before excusing himself turned to his friend.

“Send someone to fetch me Ben, if you should need me.”

“Thank you Paul.” Ben rose and offered the physician his hand. “I will.”

“No need for you to get up boys, I think by now I can find my way out,” Paul laughed softly.

It was no secret; the physician had made many, many house calls to the Ponderosa, what with three boys there was usually always a need for a doctor.  Paul had even suggested after the birth of Ben’s third and most accident-prone son, that Ben hire a full time physician to work for him.  It had always been a private joke between the practicing medical doctor and the hard working rancher who had struggled to raise his three sons alone, without the help of a wife or mother for his sons.

“Oh…um…” came the soft whimpers from the bed where Joe laid buried beneath the mountain of blankets.

Ben leaned down and brushed back a lock of dark curly hair and smiled at the memories that had suddenly sprung forth, thinking how many times in Joe’s eighteen years had he made this same gesture?

“Pa,” moaned Joe softly, “Hornet…”

“What is it son?  I can’t understand what you are trying to say,” Ben whispered softly into Joe’s ear knowing that Joe would be unable to hear him.  Ben watched to see if Joe would open his eyes but the boy was too heavily sedated to manage the usually easy movement.

“I…I…didn’t…” the task was more than Joe could master and his voice trailed off until nothing at all could be heard.

Ben had no idea how long he had sat with his son, the hours seemed to pass slowly.  Occasionally he dosed other times he paced the room, always keeping a sharp eye trained on his son in the hopes that Joe would wake.  It worried Ben that his son was trying to tell him something and he had not been able to understand what it was that Joe wanted him to know.

*****

The morning sun shown brightly through the sheers that hung at the bedroom window as Ben stood and watched the men from the bunkhouse while they prepared for the day’s work.  Adam and Hoss had joined the small group and as the men stood about, Ben knew that his sons were giving each man their orders for the day.  Ben smiled in satisfaction knowing that he could depend on his sons to take charge when he was unable or away from the ranch.  Ben was proud of his sons, all three of them and Ben had no doubt that in time, Joseph would hone his own skills to match those of his brothers and that someday, he would be able to sit back in comfort and allow the boys to run the ranch for him.  Ben laughed out loud at the thought, him sit back and turn over control?  Not for a very, very long time he reasoned.

Ben glanced at his sleeping son, Joe had been asleep for several hours and had sometime during the night stopped his tossing and turning and had slept soundly.  Ben turned his attention back to the activity in the yard below and was surprised to see the Livingston brothers and their father ride up into the yard.  With them was Roy Coffee, the sheriff.

Ben watched as Adam and Hoss hurried to greet the men.  Seeing the looks on his older son’s faces, Ben knew that if he didn’t hurry down all hell would soon break lose, for he had not forgotten that both Adam and Hoss blamed the Livingstons for what had happened to Joe.

Giving one more glance at Joe who had not moved, Ben slipped from the room and hurried downstairs.  The front door opened just as Ben reached the bottom.  Adam and Hoss entered first followed by Roy and then the three Livingston’s.

“Pa, Roy and Mr. Livingston have something they need to tell you,” Adam said waving the men inside.

Ben noted the strange expression on his son’s face, and then turning, noted the solemn expressions on the faces of his visitors.

“Come in, please,” Ben motioned for the men to have a seat, but none choose to do so.

“Ben, the boys here, Harve and Dave have something they’d like to tell ya,” said Roy, explaining the reason for their visit.  “It has to do with Little Joe and the accident.”

Ben surveyed the expressions on each face, glanced at Adam and Hoss whose own expressions still showed signs of anger.  Ben realized that his sons were holding themselves in check for they both had been itching to even the score for what they suspected the Livingston brothers had done to their own brother.

Ben crossed his arms about his chest, cocked his head to the side, there was no smile on his face as he spoke, “Well, let’s hear it.”

Harve looked at Dave and Ben saw the second boy gulp and then cast worried eyes in his son’s directions.  “Go ahead Harve, you tell them.”

“Um…Mr. Cartwright…sir, my brother and I are the ones who beat up your boy, Little Joe.  Um…we’re really sorry sir…but we was just doing what our Pa told us to do…” stammered Harve.

Ben’s angry glare swept from the boys in front of him to the older Livingston and when Ben made a grab for the man’s throat Adam and Hoss each grabbed their father by his arms.

“Pa, ‘member what ya told us?” warned Hoss.

Ben stopped, regaining instant control over his emotions.  “Why Livingston?  What right did you have to send your boys after my son?  Good God man, your son’s nearly killed the boy, and he’s not out of danger yet!” shouted Ben as he wrenched his arms free from the strong hands that held his arms.  “Two against one, what kind of odds do you call that?”

“Ben, I know what I did was wrong, I realize that now, but my daughter is dead, and I held your boy responsible for it, even if it was an accident.  I know that sending my sons to beat the hell outta Joe could have resulted in more deaths.  I’m sorry Ben, more sorry than I can ever say, especially now, since we know the truth about what happened.  That’s why we’re here Ben, to tell ya,” explained Mr. Livingston, who had stepped back and lowered his self onto the settee.

“Roy, what is he talking about, truth about what?” asked Ben.

“Seems like the boys here,” Roy pointed at Harve and Dave, “after beating up Joe, they took themselves into town late last night.  They just happened to be in the saloon when Billy and Chad came in and started spouting off their mouths.  Seems they were pretty well liquored up by the time they got there, and with a few more beers, they began spilling the beans about what they had been up too.”  Roy tapped his fingers together and continued.

“It just so happens that both Billy and Chad had wanted to court Mr. Livingston’s daughter, but Seth didn’t like the boys, told both of them to stay away from the girl.  They didn’t like it one bit, and then when Joe was given permission to come courting, well, let’s just say that it didn’t set well with Billy and Chad.”  Roy nodded his head at Dave.  “You tell him the rest, I think you owe him that much.”

Dave hesitated briefly before picking up where the sheriff had left off.  He wasn’t sure what would happen, but he knew he had to tell Mr. Cartwright the truth, he figured that he owed the man that much being as how he and his brother had nearly killed the man’s youngest son, and then when it was too late, they found out that Joe had not been to blame for the sister’s death in the first place.  Damn thought Billy, how had things gotten so twisted around, now he and his brother were likely to be the ones in trouble, not Joe Cartwright and he had an enormous fear of going to jail.

“Well ya see, Mr. Cartwright, me and my brother was in the saloon last night, just like the sheriff done told ya and we overheard Billy and Chad bragging about what they gone and done to Little Joe.  Harve, and me we were sittin’ back in the corner and well…Billy and Chad didn’t know we were there.  They were talkin’ about how they had overheard Little Joe atellin’ ya that he wouldn’t be runnin’ that fresh broke mare of his and how they came up with a plan to get even with him for courtin’ our sister.”  Dave took a deep breath and hesitated.

Harve could not stand the brief interruption; he had seen the looks on the older Cartwright brother’s faces and figured it was just a matter of time before they did to him and his brother what had been done to the youngest Cartwright boy.

“Mr. Cartwright…” Harve said, “them two, Billy and Chad, they was laughin’ about how they hid behind that big boulder just a ways from that big oak tree down in the meadow.  They knew about the big hornet’s nest that was there and when they seen Little Joe stop just under that there nest, well…that’s when Billy pulled his sling shot outta his pocket and flung a rock at the nest.  Ain’t no secret what a good shot the boy is with that thing…well…’cordin’ to what they was laughin’ about last night, seems Billy’s aim was right on target.”

“You mean to say, that he hit that hornet’s nest with a rock?” Ben was stunned and he turned to Adam and Hoss.  “That must have been what your brother was trying to tell us, hornets!  Go on son, finish telling us what happened,” encouraged Ben, his anger now beginning to dissipate somewhat.

“Yes sir, anyways, like I was sayin’, Little Joe was busy with our sister…hmm…I think he must’ve been stealin’ a kiss…anyway…” Dave glanced at his father but continued, “he and Rachael weren’t payin’ no mind so’s when them hornet’s swarmed down and stung that mare on the rump, she bolted and took off, tweren’t Little Joe’s fault, atoll.”  Dave sighed and took a deep breath.

“We didn’t say nuthin’ to Billy and Chad, cause we was already afraid for our own hides, seein’ as how we had just come from beatin’ up your boy so bad.  We just hightailed it home and told Pa here what we heard.  He made us go straight to the sheriff and tell him everythin’.  We’re sorry Mr. Cartwright, truly sorry that we done what we done to Little Joe, he didn’t do nuthin’ and shucks, sir…Harve and me, we sorta liked the boy anyway and we know we did wrong and…well…we’s sorry, that’s all.”  Dave lowered his head, ashamed now of his actions.  He was surprised when he felt the pressure of Ben’s hand on his shoulder.

“I don’t condone what you and your brother did, it was wrong, but I understand why you did it.  My own sons have struggled with the same feelings toward the two of you that you had against Little Joe.  But I do thank you, both of you, for coming here and telling me the truth.”  Ben turned to Roy.

“Roy?  What now, what about Billy and Chad?” he asked.

Roy smiled at his friend, his fingers tapping rapidly.  “Well, Ben, it’s like this — Billy and Chad are locked safely in my jail.  I had a long talk with them this morning, after they had sobered up some.  I told them what I knew and they told me the whole story.  Billy admitted that he used his slingshot and hit the hornet’s nest, he even admitted to watching the mare take off.  Said he thought that Little Joe would be able to stop the runaway so they jumped on their horses and followed the buggy.  When Little Joe was knocked out of the buggy and the mare broke free from the harness, they watched as the buggy crashed down the side of the bank and even saw Miss Rachael being thrown out.  The boys said they rushed to her but she was already dead by the time they got to her.”

“And they just left her there?  What about Joe, didn’t they even check to see how badly he was hurt?” questioned Adam, his eyes growing dark with what Ben knew to be hatred.

Gently, Ben placed his hand on his son’s shoulder and glanced at him.  Ben was surprised at the tremors that he could feel coursing through Adam’s body.

“Roy?” prompted Ben.

“Billy and Chad said they panicked, they took off and left both Rachael and Little Joe.  Said they came up with the idey that they could make it look like it was Little Joe’s fault.  All they had to do was to tell you that they saw Joe racing the horse, they already knew that he promised you that he wouldn’t, that way it made it look as if Joe lied to you.”

Ben dropped his head, shaking it from side to side, then after a moment, glanced up at Hoss and Adam.  “And we believed them,” Ben said sadly, ashamed that he had doubted his own son’s honesty and integrity.

“Pa.”

Ben turned at the sound of his name and was shocked to see Joseph standing at the top of the stairs, clad only in his nightshirt, his arm draped across his middle.

“Joseph, son, you shouldn’t be out of bed,” Ben rushed up the stairs, leaving Adam and Hoss to take care of the group of men still standing in his living room.  Once reaching the boy’s side, Ben quickly wrapped a protective arm about his son.

Joe, though weak, smiled up at his father.  “I remembered, Pa.  After those two worked me over, I remembered.  It was hornets that spooked the mare…Pa…” Joe’s voice began to quiver and Ben could feel what little strength Joe maintained, begin to melt away.

“Let’s get you back to bed son.”  Ben gently guided Joe back toward his room where he helped the exhausted boy back to bed.

Joe permitted himself to be led, leaning heavily on his father and put up no argument when Ben tossed back the blankets and helped him into bed.  As Joe lowered his head into the pillows, Ben saw the tears that shone in his son’s eyes.  Tenderly Ben caressed Joe’s face.

“Don’t cry son, it’s over…it’s all over now…” began Ben.

“It wasn’t my fault, Pa,” stammered Joe; the tears of relief sliding slowly down his face.  “I didn’t lie to you either,” added Joe.

Ben swallowed the lump in his throat, shame filling him that his son knew he had believed him to be lying in spite of the fact that Joe had claimed he could not remember what had caused the horse to be running.

“I know that son.  Harve and Dave told us what happened.   I’ll explain all of that to you later, after you have rested.  Right now I want you to stay in this bed, do you hear me?” smiled Ben brushing back the same lock of hair that seemed to always be out of place.

Joe returned the smile and nodded his head.  As Ben rose from the bed, Joe reached for his father’s hand, stopping Ben in his tracks.  Joe’s smile had suddenly vanished.

“It’s okay. Pa,” whispered Joe in a choked voice.

Ben stared at his son and lowered himself onto the side of the bed.  “What’s okay Joseph?”

“I know that you, Adam and Hoss had doubts about what happened…” began Joe.

“Son.”

“No Pa, please, let me finish.  I know you had doubts, but so did I.  I couldn’t remember much about what happened.  As far as I knew, I might have really lied to you.  I couldn’t see myself actually doing it, I haven’t lied to you in years, avoided the truth maybe, but not actually lying to you,” Joe gave his father a big grin then sobered just as quickly.

“I don’t blame you any, Pa. I just want to know that; I just want you to know that I understand and its okay.”

Ben, the tears glistening, brought Joe’s hand up to his lips and placed a kiss on the backside of it.

“It’s not all right son, not to me at least.  I should never have doubted you; I should have had more faith in you and I’m ashamed and sorry for not having done so.  I hope you can forgive me Joseph, I can only promise you that it will never happen again,” Ben, his emotion clearly showing in his expression, bent forward and placed a kiss on his son’s brow.

Quickly, Joe slipped his arms about his father’s neck and hugged him tightly.  “I love ya Pa, and that’s no lie.”

Ben gently gathered his son into his arms, holding him securely in his embrace and returned the hug.   In a voice choked with emotion, Ben replied, “I love you too, Joseph; of that, I have no doubts.”

***End***

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