That Silver-Haired Daddy of Mine (by Debbie B.)

Summary:

Rated:  PG
Word Count:  12,749


 

 

In a vine-covered shack in the mountains
Bravely fighting the battle of Time
There’s a dear one who’s weathered life’s sorrow
It’s that silver-haired Daddy of mine

If I could recall all the heartaches
Dear old Daddy, I’ve caused you to bear
If I could erase those lines from your face
And bring back the gold to your hair

If God would but grant me the power
Just to turn back the pages of Time
I’d give all I own if I could but atone
To that silver-haired Daddy of mine.

By Jimmy Long and Gene Autry

 

Ben and Joe stood together and watched while Adam and Hoss finished loading the supplies into the back of the wagon.  Hop Sing buzzed around, jibber jabbering in his native tongue things that only he understood.  Joe tried not to giggle, but he could not help himself for the little man kept looking his way and Joe had an idea that his long time friend was meaning all those mixed up words for he and his father.  When Joe glanced at Ben, he wasn’t at all surprised to see his father trying to suppress his amusement as well.

“Little boy break leg just in time to avoid round-up,” jabbered Hop Sing. “Boss no better, falling over own feet and breaking arm!” Hop Sing said with a stern look in Ben’s direction.

Adam and Hoss paused in their work to cast doubtful eyes at their father and younger brother.

“I think you may be on to something, Hop Sing,” muttered Adam.  “Little Joe’s timing was just too perfect to suit me, what do you think, Hoss?”

“I agree with ya big brother, if Joe hadn’t been squabbling about havin’ to go on this particular roundup, I’d’a never thought nuthin’ about him breakin’ his leg…but…”

“Aw…come on, now you two, you don’t really think I broke this leg on purpose…do you?” Joe said in a whining voice. His expression showed the hurt he was suddenly feeling for being blamed for something he had no control over.  Joe had lowered his head, but he watched his brothers from beneath his thick lashes.

“I think you and Pa both planned it this way…”

“Now Adam!” proclaimed Ben, “you know that we did no such a thing!  Little Joe had no cause to purposely injure himself, he got thrown, that’s all…”

“Sure he did, after making his brags about how well he could ride that new horse…and then someone mentioned roundup and the next thing we knew, Joe was face down in the dirt…with a broken leg…how convenient could you get?”

“And then you tripped in your haste to get to him, only to end up with a broken arm…neither of you will convince us, that the two of you did not plan this!” Adam said with all the sternness he could muster without laughing.

It was all Adam and Hoss could do not to laugh.  The look on their younger brother’s face was priceless, not to mention the dark look in Ben’s eyes.  Suddenly, both burst out into a roaring laughter that drew the attention of the men who were also getting prepared to leave.

“We was just ajoshin’ ya, Shortshanks,” snickered Hoss who had come over and clamped his strong hand down on Joe’s shoulder.  “Don’t look so sorrowful…you can stay here and help Pa with all the chores…”

“It will more like me helping Joseph with the chores,” laughed Ben.  “He can barely get around as it is, what with that heavy cast, Doc Martin put on that leg.”

“Yeah, it does seem heavier than most he applies,” Adam surmised with a wink at Hoss.

“Maybe it’s Pa we should be feelin’ sorry for, stead of Shortshanks; at least Pa can walk,” Hoss determined with a giggle.

“There’s no need to feel sorry for either of us,” Ben concluded as he rested his arm about Joe’s shoulders.  “Your brother and I will get along just fine, won’t we son?” Ben asked, turning to smile at Little Joe.

“Sure we will; between the two of us, we can run this ranch, with or without a broken leg…or arm” Joe assured his brothers.

Finally, Joe and his father joined Adam and Hoss in laughing.  Joe still looked a bit doubtful that his brother’s had actually meant what they said, but his father knew otherwise. “Don’t take it seriously, son,” he said to Joe.

“Well, I hope they didn’t really think that I would…”

“Of course we didn’t, kid; we saw how hard you tried to stay on that bronco, I’m just glad it was your leg and not your neck,” Adam said, gently slapping Joe on the back.

“Well, Pa, guess we’re ready to move out.  You take care of the kid…and kid,” Adam said, teasing his younger brother, “you take care of the old…ere…Pa,” smiled Adam.

Joe giggled, glanced at his older brother and shook his head in agreement.  “I guess we’ll be taking care of each other,” he laughed.  “You take care, and keep an eye on that big ape over there!”

“I heard that,” Hoss said, coming around the wagon to bid his father and brother good-bye.  “Take care, both of ya,” he said, shaking hands with each one.

“You do the same, son.  Adam, be careful and we’ll see you in a couple of weeks,” Ben said as Hoss and Adam mounted up.  “God bless you both.”

“See ya Adam, take care Hoss…” Joe called as his brother motioned for the men and Hop Sing, who drove the wagon, to head out.

Ben and Joe waved to the group and once they were alone, Ben turned to smile at his youngest son. “I’d hate to admit this in front of your brothers, Joe, but I’m sort of looking forward to it being just the two of us,” Ben grinned.

“Me too, Pa.  I can’t say I’m really sorry for getting to stay home…I should be, but…hehehe…I’m not.  Come on, let’s see what Hop Sing left us to eat, I’m hungry, how about you?” giggled Joe, leading the way back to the house.

“You’re getting more like Hoss everyday, Little Joe; you just finished breakfast!” laughed Ben as he hurried to catch up.

“Breakfast?  That was two hours ago!” Joe giggled as he hobbled into the house.

*****

The unexpected terror began four days after Adam and Hoss and all the hands had left for the round up. Ben, sitting at the table having lunch, glanced up at Joe when the pounding on the front door began.  He motioned for Joe to stay seated. “I’ll get it, son; it’s easier for me with a broken arm than you with a broken leg,” he said laughingly as he hurried to answer the constant knocking.  “Someone must be in a hurry,” he jokingly remarked as he rounded the corner of the table.

Ben pulled opened the door.  The shock of having a man’s pistol jabbed into his mid-section must have shown on his face, for the man holding the pistol on him, laughed.

“Well, what do you know, Ben Cartwright,” growled the man as he forced Ben to back into the room.

“Who is it, Pa?” Joe called from the table.

“It’s your worst nightmare,” sneered the man glancing toward the dining room table.

Joe rose to his feet and hobbled over to where his father had stopped. He seemed just as surprised to see the four men push their way into the house as Ben had been.

“What’s this all about?” demanded Ben in his most commanding tone as Joe stood to Ben’s side.

The man holding the revolver laughed and then jabbed it deeply into Ben’s stomach, causing Ben’s body to fold in half.

Joe reached out to grab the barrel of the pistol, but the other man with the one who had jabbed Ben, was quicker and swung around, hitting Joe along side his head with the butt of his rifle.  Joe’s body went slack and he crumbled to the foot at his father’s feet. Ben stood in shock as the clanging of Joe’s cast banged against the hard wooden floor. He could see the expression of pain that clouded his son’s face even in Joe’s unconscious state.

The other men laughed as Ben started to bend down to see about Joe, but the first man shoved him back. “Leave him!” he ordered, pointing the gun once more at Ben.  “Now move over there,” he demanded, motioning for Ben to move toward his desk. “Blake, you keep an eye on the kid, in case he wakes up!”

“Sure thing, boss,” the one named Blake answered.

“You two keep watch; if anyone rides up, let me know.”

“Ah…cain’t I just shoot ’em, Sam?” another man asked.

“You heard what I said, now get!” Sam shouted.

Sam turned back to Ben who now stood before his desk.  Ben had been keeping an eye on Joe, fearing that he was badly hurt. “There was no need to hit him, he can’t do anything to you, not with a broken leg,” growled Ben.

“Why don’t you just shut up old man?” snapped Sam with an angry glare.

“Open the safe,” Sam issued.

“Why…there’s nothing but papers; there is no money,” Ben said, slowly moving to the safe.

Sam had a puzzled look on his face that Ben noted instantly.  He also saw Sam glance toward Blake and Joe, who was beginning to regain consciousness.  Joe glanced up, seeing the barrel of the long rifle pointed at his head, and groaning, pushed himself into a sitting position.  He looked across the room at his father and saw the man who had hit him pointing his weapon at Ben.

“Are you alright, Pa?” Joe called.

“I’m fine son, what about you?”

“Shut the chatter and get over there like I told ya and open that safe!” Sam shouted, shoving Ben. “Or the boy gets a bullet in his head!”

Ben glanced again at Joe and saw that the one called Blake had lowered his rifle and was now holding his pistol to Joe’s temple.  The sight sent shivers of fear racing through his body and quickly, Ben moved to the safe and began turning the dial.

Carefully, with his back to Sam, Ben opened the safe door.  Inside, on top of the cash box that held over $10,000 dollars, laid Ben’s pistol.  His fingers quivered just slightly as they touched the pearl handle revolver.  Behind him, Sam stood, ready to fire.  Across the room, Blake’s pistol pressed against his son’s temple. Dare he try?

One more hurried glance over his shoulder told Ben that Blake had momentarily looked off, thus giving him the advantage he needed.  Ben spun around, revolver in hand and pointed it upward at Sam.  Sam reacted by shouting out and then firing his own gun, striking Ben.  Ben’s pistol flew from his hand as he was slammed back against the safe and then sagged, bleeding profusely to the floor.

“PA!” shouted Joe as he started toward his father.

Blake stuck out his foot, tripping Joe and causing the younger Cartwright to tumble to the floor in a heap.  Angered, as Joe tried to scoot away, Blake brought up the butt of his rifle and crashed it downward, into Joe’s plaster cast.  Joe screamed in pain as twice more Blake beat the rifle butt into the cast, shattering it into pieces.

“I’ve got the money, come on, let’s get out of here!” shouted Sam as he made for the door.

Blake raised his gun and pointed it at Joe, ready to kill him, but Sam pushed his hand down

“Leave him be; he ain’t gonna go nowhere, not with his leg in that condition!” ordered Sam.  “I got what I came here for…Cartwright’s money and…his life, now let’s get goin’.”

Blake holstered his pistol and switched the rifle to his other hand.  He made a smirking smile at Joe who withered in pain on the floor at his feet. “See ya ‘round, kid,” Blake laughed with a snarl as he backed out the door, closing it with a slam.

Joe, his leg throbbing with pain, lowered his head to the floor and took a deep breath to still his trembling.  Ben moaned softly which immediately attracted Joe’s attention. “Pa!” he cried out as he dragged his body across the floor of the great room to Ben’s desk where Ben lay sprawled in the floor.

Joe’s hand fumbled with his father’s shirt trying to undo the buttons so that he could see how much damaged Sam’s bullet had done.  With his hands trembling, Joe gave up the dubious task and instead, ripped opened the front part of the shirt, thus revealing the wound made by the bullet.  Fear gripped Joe’s heart as he quickly removed Ben’s neckerchief and tried to squelch the bleeding.  When he gazed into Ben’s face, Joe saw that the color had drained from his father’s features, leaving the older man pale and sickly looking.

“Pa?” Joe whispered, trying to get a response from his father.  He knew the bullet wound was bad; the bullet, having been fired at close range had ripped the flesh open in Ben’s shoulder and traveled deeply into the muscles.

“Please, Pa…answer me!” Joe whimpered as tears formed in his hazel eyes.  “Wake up!”

Joe wasn’t sure how he had managed, but somehow, through sheer determination, he managed to half carry, half drag Ben’s body up the stairs, down the hall and into his father’s bedroom.  Once Ben was lying on the bed, Joe collapsed into the old rocker that had, for many years, graced the massive bedroom of Joe’s parents.  Joe’s breathing was ragged, sweat dotted his brow and the pain that stemmed from his partially healed leg had become almost unbearable.  For several long minutes he sat as if in a trance, but when he heard his father moan slightly, Joe snapped to attention.  Quickly he pulled himself up and favoring his leg, he limped over to the washstand, to pour cool water into a basin and then soaked a cloth, laying it across Ben’s forehead.  Opening back the torn shirt, Joe inspected the wound area again, relieved that the gap in the shoulder had almost stopped bleeding.

Using as much tenderness as he could, Joe cleaned the wound, put a light bandage over the top and made Ben as comfortable as possible.  He poured a glass of water and set it close to the edge of the nightstand, well within Ben’s reach, and then gently pulled the cover up, making sure that the blanket was tucked completely about his father’s body.

Joe’s expression was strained, for his leg was burning with pain and he knew he’d have to fashion some sort of cast to support his broken leg before making the long trek into town to fetch back Doc Martin.  But the better part of his discomfort came from seeing the agonizing expression that had embedded itself into the folds of his father’s face.  Joe was scared, frightened that he might not make it back in time with the doctor to save his beloved father’s life.  The young man glanced down at the wound again and saw that the bandage was tainted a light shade of pink, telling him that the bullet wound still seeped blood.  Joe sighed deeply, fighting an inner battle as to whether he should go for the physician or try to probe for the bullet himself.

When Ben moaned painfully, Joe’s mind was made up.  His voice quivered slightly as he spoke. “Pa, I need to go for the doctor,” Joe said, placing his lips as close to Ben’s ear as possible in order that his father might hear his words.  Joe wasn’t sure Ben did hear, but he knew that the doctor’s skillful and nimble fingers would be needed in order to remove the bullet from Ben’s shoulder. “I won’t be long, honest.  Just promise me, you won’t try to get out of bed, we can’t risk this wound starting to bleed again.  Pa…Pa…do you hear me, Pa?”

In a weak voice, Ben mumbled his reply.  Joe still wasn’t convinced that his father had understood what he’d been trying to tell him, but he felt he had no other choice.  Rising slowly from the bed, Joe made sure that the blankets were tucked securely about his father’s form and then hobbled toward the door, dragging his broken leg behind him as he clung to the furniture.

It was a painful journey, from Ben’s bedroom to the top of the stairs.  Joe’s leg ached with such intensity that he forced himself to concentrate on nothing but getting help for his father.  Descending the stairs was a nightmare in itself as Joe held the broken leg inches from the ground and clung tightly to the railing as he made his way ever so slowly downward. A fall down the stairs would be his undoing, Joe determined, treading cautiously, lest he did fall and re-break the bone.  Joe paused and briefly wished he was a young boy again, he’d slide down the banister, he thought.

At the bottom of the stairs, Joe was forced to stop and rest.  His leg wasn’t the only thing hurting, the entire side of his face where Blake had struck him with the butt of his rifle felt numb and his jaw didn’t seem to be working properly.  Joe pondered the idea that his leg might not be the only thing broken, his jaw hurt enough that it very well could have been as well.

After getting a second wind, Joe, using the furniture for support, made it to the front door.  His sidearm was gone; the intruders had taken all the guns they could find, including the rifles from the gun case at the bottom of the stairs. He glanced down at the pieces of cast that Blake had broken off his leg with the butt of a rifle.  Joe silently swore to find the man and make him pay, and that fellow named Sam, he best be hoping that Pa doesn’t die, ’cause if he does, Sam’s good as dead, swore Joe.

Joe made it to the end of the porch before he fell and heard the snapping of bone.  For several agonizing moments, he lay in the dirt, withering in pain and then swearing his revenge on the four men who had happened along and suddenly made his life a living hell.

Wiping the dirt from his face, Joe raised his head and looked toward the barn.  It seemed a million miles away for one with a broken leg and a dying man upstairs needing a doctor.  Joe had no other recourse but to crawl along in the dirt as if he’d been a snake.  His mood was growing darker and darker with every inch he was made to slither along, and by the time he reached the barn and was able to use the door to pull himself upright, Joe was ready to kill.  Using his good leg and the support of the wooden structure, Joe jumped along into the barn, grinding his teeth to keep from crying out.  Joe stopped just inside the darkened barn to let his eyes grow accustomed to the darkness.

“DAMN!” Joe shouted aloud when he was able to see.

The intruders had turned all the horses loose.  Angered beyond his limit, Joe slammed his fist into the side of the wall, and then cringed when the pain in his fist register with his brain.

When he was at last able to come to terms with the idea that if the bullet was to be removed from his father’s shoulder, it would be up to him, Joe took a deep breath to calm the tremors that surged throughout his body.  He glanced around the vacant barn, looking for something to fashion a cast for his leg so that he could move about a bit more freely.

In a corner, Joe spied some boards that had been stored for future use and with a determined scowl on his face, managed to slowly make his way across the barn to the far corner. Joe set his jaw firm as he carefully lowered himself to the ground and stuck his foot between two rails of the stall.  It would be an agonizing move, but the bone in his leg would have to be set first, before he would be of any use to his father.  Mentally, Joe counted to three and then yanked backwards, crying out as the bone moved into place.

Several moments passed before Joe could regain control of his emotions and will away the pain that sprouted upward from the fractured leg into his hip.  Joe felt the tears pool in his eyes but wiped them away with the sleeve of his shirt and then set about putting in place the boards that would serve as a makeshift cast.

After ripping up one of the old ragged towels he had found, into strips, Joe tied the lengths around the two boards he used to support his broken leg.  Assured that they would suffice, he grabbed an old broom to use for a crutch and worked his way, painstakingly back to the house.

Once inside, Joe went directly to the kitchen where he set a pan of water on to boil.  He dropped a couple of Hop Sing’s sharpest knives down into the pot and let the utensils boil along with the water.  He then placed a kettle of water on the other eye as well and while it heated, Joe went in search of the medical supplies that his father kept handy.  In the dining room, he found the brandy and a bottle of whiskey and carried them to his father’s room.

Joe paused in the doorway of the bedroom, appalled by the paleness of Ben’s face.  Ben’s head was moving from side to side and the pain was apparent on the weather-bronzed face.  Joe moved to the bedside and set the decanter of brandy and the bottle of whiskey on the nightstand and turned to Ben.

“Pa?” Joe said, bending down, over the bed.  “Hang on Pa…please…” he whispered as he gently forced Ben back down against the soft pillows. “The horses, they’re all gone…there’s no one here but you and I and I…I…I’m gonna have to probe for that bullet myself,” gulped Joe.

Ben’s eyelids fluttered and his dark eyes opened slightly.  He raised his arm, resting his hand on Joe’s arm, patting it lightly. “It’s…alright…son…just…do your…best and I’ll…understand,” murmured Ben, closing his eyes.  His hand slid from Joe’s arm, leaving Joe with a deepening dread of what he was being forced to do.

Tenderly, as Joe ran his slender fingers through the silver hair, a memory dredged up from the far corners of his mind, a time when his father had looked as close to death as he did at this moment.

He’d only been about fourteen and he’d been caught in a lie, which had resulted in his father being nearly killed by the men who had wrapped the elder Cartwright in the barbed wire fencing that Ben had started using.  The ranchers had not liked the new fencing and they had taken that dislike out on his father.

Joe sighed, lost in his memory. 

Ben had nearly died from the injuries; he himself had suffered deep gashes to his hands when he had tried to pull the barbed wire free from his father’s bloody body.  It had been a hideous sight, seeing his beloved father suffering as he had, and Joe blamed no one, other than himself.  He recalled the look of love that his father had given to him as they lay in the back of the wagon that night.  Joe called to mind the forgiveness he had received from his parent and the way that Ben had assured him that nothing had been his fault, that the men who had terrorized him had been the ones to blame.  The lie…that had been Joe’s only wrong doing, even with that, Joe had thought he was doing the right thing, protecting his family from the threats of the malicious men.  He had learned a valuable lesson in the days that followed; he learned just how much the man whose hand he now held within his own meant to him.  And he had learned that no matter what the reason might be, it never paid to lie, especially to his father.  But the greatest lesson was the lesson of love, and just how much one man’s heart could hold for a young impetuous boy who had made a near costly mistaken.

“I’m sorry Pa,” muttered Joe, leaning down and placing his lips to his father’s fevered brow.  “So sorry…”

Joe took the cloth that had slipped from Ben’s brow and dampened it and then laid it across Ben’s forehead. “I’ll be right back, Pa…I gotta get some things from the kitchen.”

*****

Joe felt as if it was he lying in the bed and his shoulder was ablaze with fire.  Ben clutched a soft cloth between his teeth, an attempt to keep from screaming out as Joe probed deeper and deeper into his father’s flesh.  Joe’s eyes kept wandering to the older man’s face, unable to fathom the amount of pain he read there.  His insides churned with fear, his hands, he willed not to tremble, for he feared that his fingers might slip and he’d wind up doing more damage to the already impaired shoulder.

When he at long last felt the bullet, he sighed deeply and glanced again at Ben’s face and noted that Ben had passed out.  Joe had been so intent on what he was doing that he had not noticed it before and could only wonder how long his father had been unconscious.

With fingers that now trembled only slightly, Joe eased the thongs slowly from the gapping hole until he had completely removed the pellet from Ben’s shoulder.  The pellet from the bullet, made a dinging sound as it was dropped into the China basin and rolled around, its destination, the bottom of the bowl.

Joe wiped the blood away from the opening.  The flesh would have to be stitched, a job that Joe dreaded more than probing for the bullet.  Picking up one of Hop Sing’s sewing needles and the strongest thread he could find, Joe began the dubious task.

His stitches, he made as neatly as possible.  He knew that the neatness of his work would depend on how well the opening healed and how well or how badly the scar would form.

“Oh Pa…I don’t know if I can do this or not,” Joe muttered.

The young man’s stomach churned and twice he had to stop what he was doing and empty the contents into the China bowl along with the pellet from the bullet.  The chore, the pained expression on his father’s face, the intruders, the entire afternoon, mixed with the heat in the bedroom, not to mention the hurting in his own leg, his pounding head, all caused Joe to become nauseous.  He washed his hands and returned to his task, feeling no better than before.

It was a short time later that the task was finally finished and Joe could let go with a long sigh of relief.  Carefully he tucked the blanket around Ben’s body, felt his father’s brow for fever and then limping profusely, carried the remnants of his accomplishment down the back stairs and into the kitchen.  Quickly disposing of the mess, Joe cleaned himself up in the kitchen.  Feeling refreshed, he glanced around at the mess that had been made in the kitchen.  He had been so intent on what needed to be done, that he had failed to notice the disarrayed room before.

The intruders had ransacked the entire kitchen taking from the shelves and panty what they would need along the trail.  Joe found only a small portion of bread that the robbers had missed and was able to make himself a sandwich of butter and jam.  In the back of the panty, Joe found a single jar of broth that Hop Sing had canned for such emergencies.  Popping the top from the jar, Joe picked up a pot from the table where it had been slung and put the broth on the stove to heat for his father, should Ben wake up and be hungry.

With a groan that he had not intended to make, Joe forced himself back up the stairs.  He was worn out, his leg pained him to no end and the fear that he might have done his father more harm than good, ate away at the core of his very being.

Silently, Joe crept into the bedroom and pulled the overstuffed chair up, close to the bed.  Before sitting down, he checked again for fever and to be sure that the wound and incision he made had stopped bleeding.  Weary to the bone, Joe lowered himself into the inviting comforts of the chair, pulled at his trousers to aid in raising his leg and carefully, ignoring the pain, lowered his broken leg onto the footstool.  Joe’s eyes closed even before his head rested on the back of the chair.

Little Joe pulled the new rifle out from where his father had hidden it and crept from the house.  The lure of the big buck enticed Ben’s youngest son to do something that he had been forbidden to do alone.  Joe had made his plans well and now that his father and brothers were away from the house, he was free to hunt the trophy buck that roamed free just along the boundary line of the Ponderosa.

Joe had hidden beneath a massive Ponderosa pine, waiting with baited breath for the buck to step into his sights.  He had set his sights, with tense fingers, Joe pulled the trigger and when the rifle discharged, the youngest Cartwright’s life changed forever.  He had somehow managed to kill their neighbor’s prize bull.

Joe’s eyes snapped opened and he sat up with a start, groaning.  The sudden movement had sent slivers of pain shooting up his leg.  His brow was dotted with tiny beads of perspiration that he quickly wiped away before they rolled into his eyes.  Joe glanced at his father and saw that Ben seemed to be resting comfortably.  Leaning back, Joe closed his eyes and drifted off to sleep.

His father’s chocolate eyes had turned as dark as coal and Joe could see Ben struggling to maintain his composure as Mr. Miller stood before him, ranting and raving about how his irresponsible son had managed to kill his prize bull.  Once Mr. Miller had gone, Ben ordered his youngest son upstairs to wait in his room. 

Joe flinched, unaware, in his sleep.

The sting of his father’s hand to his behind smarted, leaving a tingling sensation across his backside.

“I sold them,” Joe muttered in a low voice when asked what had become of his beloved Cochise and the yearling he had planned to sell at auction.

Ben was in shock, Joe could see the hairs on his father’s head turning white and he sighed.

“You what?” Ben had shouted.

“I sold him, to pay Mr. Miller back for his bull…you said I had too make restitution, and I didn’t have enough money…so…I…sold…Cochise.”

*****

“Joe?”

The soft murmur of his name called Joe from his dream and he raised up to find his father’s dark eyes watching him.  He lowered his leg and crept to the bed.

“I’m here Pa…how are you feeling?” Joe asked, testing Ben’s brow for fever.  He was warmer than what Joe would have liked, and fear’s unrelenting fingers tightened about his heart.

“Thirsty…water, please,” pleaded Ben.

Joe was quick to respond and once he held the glass to his father’s lips, Ben satisfied his thirst.

“Are you alright, son?” whispered Ben, handing the glass back to Joe.

“I’m fine, Pa.  Don’t you worry about me; you just concentrate on getting better.”

“Those men…”

“They’re gone, Pa.  It isn’t likely that they’ll be back either,” Joe tried assuring his father.

Ben’s fingers found Joe’s hand and he twisted them about Joe’s. “In my…nightstand…a pistol…keep it…close to you.  Don’t leave…the house.”

Joe reached to open the drawer and it was as his father had said. He pulled the revolver out of the drawer and glanced at his father; Ben had gone back to sleep.  His lips tight against his own pain, Joe lowered himself into the chair, tucking the revolver under the lightweight blanket he used to cover himself.  Within minutes, Joe too, was sleeping.

“Do you want to tell me about it?”

When Joe came to the part of the story where he had pulled the trigger and had shot the bull instead of the deer he thought he felt the heart skip a beat.  Joe looked up at his father’s face then and caught a glimpse of amusement there.  Resting his head against Ben’s shoulder and finding comfort in the closeness of his father’s presence, he felt his father’s arm tighten slightly.

“Joseph, I’m sorry about all of that.  I never meant to make you think I had stopped loving you.  No matter what son, I could never do that, you are very special to me.”  Ben hugged his son while placing a kiss atop Joe’s brown curls.

“I know that now, but then I was so scared and ashamed of myself,” replied Joe, meeting his father’s loving eyes. 

“I want you to know that I am very proud of you son.  It took courage to do what you did for Mr. Miller.  Not many grown men would have been as gracious as you have.”

Joe tossed about in the chair and moved his head to the other side. In his sleep, he smiled.

“Happy birthday, Son!” spoke Ben softly so that the wish was heard by Joe only.

“Cochise!” Joe shouted, glancing at his father with tear filled eyes.

His voice trembled as he spoke, “Thank you Pa,” he whispered in a low voice so only his father could hear.

*****

The striking of the clock downstairs in the great room, shattered Joe’s dream and his eyes, heavy with sleep opened at last.  His first thought was of his father as he forced himself upright and leaned over the still form.  Ben’s brow was damp with perspiration and quickly Joe dampened a cloth and cleaned away the tiny beads and then after pouring fresh water into the bowl, he placed a clean cloth on Ben’s brow.

Joe carefully peeled back the bandage that covered the wound so that he could clean the incision.  When he finished, he folded up clean bandages and replaced the soiled ones.  Ben moaned softly but failed to open his eyes or respond to his son’s soft words.

Joe sat on the edge of the bed, his fingers entwined around his father’s hand. “I had a dream last night, Pa…about us.  Remember when I sneaked your rifle out of the house and went hunting after that big buck over close to old man Miller’s ranch?”

Joe snickered softly. “I ended up killing his prize bull instead of that deer.  And remember how mad you were?  You tanned me good that time.  I sure stayed mad at you for a long time, didn’t I?  Well, Pa, looking back on that whole mess, I have to admit, I deserved that tanning, and the restriction…and a lot more for what I put you through.”

Joe’s voice was beginning to tremble as he felt his throat becoming thick with emotion.

“I don’t remember whether or not I ever said I was sorry for everything that happened, but just in case…I want you to know…I’m sorry for being such a worry to you…then and now.”

A sob caught in the back of Joe’s throat.  He leaned down close to Ben’s ear and whispered. “I love you, Pa…please…you just gotta get well.”

*****

The days that followed seemed endless, as did the ever-present pain in Joe’s leg.  He knew that the bone had not set as it should, and that if he could not get help for both he and his father soon, one of them, possibly both, would not survive the ordeal.

Ben’s temperature had risen to heights that alarmed his youngest son into imagining the worst.  At one point, Joe decided that if he were to get help, he’d have to walk to town, or to the nearest neighbor.  He had started out the door just as the black clouds that had begun to gather burst opened and dumped a heaven load of rain down on his head.  The howling wind and pelting rain had sent the youngest Cartwright scurrying back inside.

Joe returned to his father’s room where he busied him bathing Ben’s sweat drenched body in cool water.  The broth had been heated and brought up, a chore that had sent arrows of pain coursing up and down Joe’s spine from the long trek to and from the kitchen, his leg always slowing him as it dragged behind. Once Joe had made his father comfortable, he was at last able to lay down on the cot that he had pulled from the closet and set up near Ben’s bed. “I’m just going to close my eyes for a minute, Pa,” he whispered to his father.  “I’ll be right here if you need me.”

Ben, groggy from the last of the pain powders that Joe had given him from the time before when Paul Martin had left them, nodded his head. “Rest…you…rest…son,” Ben had murmured unaware that Joe’s eyes had already closed in slumber.

*****

“My mother was from New Orleans,” he said casually.

 A hush fell over the room as all eyes turned to Joe.  Joe couldn’t help but squirm a bit in his seat when he looked up and saw four pairs of eyes, of various hues starring at him.

 Joe glanced quickly around the table, pausing momentarily at his father before returning his attention to their guest.

 “Her name was Marie d’Olivier and she lived in the…”

 “Joseph!” Ben called in a voice that Joe recognized all too well.  Joe turned to his father, somewhat taken back by the harshness of his voice.

 In his sleep, Joe murmured softly.

“Good thing for you Short Shanks, that ya mama married Pa, or ya might not have been my kid brother,” heehawed Hoss.

 “What has your father done, or not done, that has you so upset?” Will asked unexpectedly, surprising himself as well as the boy, who spun around in shock.

 “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Joe said, eyeing the man.

 “You’re upset with your father, and he doesn’t seem to have noticed, but I have.  I watched you this afternoon when I arrived, the way you stood off to yourself, out of the way.  And then again during supper, you were very quiet, hardly speaking to anyone at all.  And you kept glancing at your father, as if you wanted to say something to him.  But Ben was far to busy seeing that everything was just right for his guest, and too busy issuing orders to your brothers for the morrow.  He hardly gave you the time a day, and that makes you mad…doesn’t it?”

 Joe’s head tossed from side to side and he moaned softly in his sleep.  His dream was becoming distorted as if a fog had settled over the vision, blurring the face of man who seemed to relish in his unease.

“I wish you had been my son.  I would never snub you; you would always have my full attention.  I’d never be so busy that I could not spare time for you, nor would I ever fail to listen to what you had to say.  Why, I bet even your brothers mock you and rarely ever take you seriously, am I right?”

 Joe nodded his head up and down.  “Sometimes,” he said in a small voice.

 “Ah, but he is boy…I’ve only been here one day and I can already see that my dear friend devotes more time to running this ranch than in what his son has to say.  You were trying to tell him something, were you not?”

 Joe swallowed; he felt uncomfortable with the man’s questions, but what he had said, had been the truth.  There would be no lying, for the man had already seen through him.

 “Yes sir…” stammered Joe.

 Will smiled.  “And for how many days now have you been trying to get your father’s attention and tell your father this…something?”

 Again, Joe swallowed.  “All week…but it’s been round up time and Pa’s been…”

 “Shh…no need to explain to me.”

 The despicable man entwined his long fingers amid the chestnut curls and pressed Joe’s head to his breast.  Joe tried to pull free of the restraining arms, but the gentleman held him securely. “That’s just great…I’ll be the only boy there with no father…but hey…who cares…I don’t have a mother either…not that my father would even care how I feel about that!  To hell with the dinner, I won’t even go, and to hell with my…”

 to hell with my…”

 to hell with my…”

 “PA!”

The sound of his voice joggled Joe from his nightmare as he bolted upright, shivering.  He glanced over at his father who slept soundly, letting out a long sigh as he layed back down.  For several moments Joe lay staring up at the ceiling, recounting the events that had manifested themselves through his nightmare.  It had been a hard time, then.  His father had been so busy, too busy to have time for him, Joe recollected.  Fighting to get his heavy breathing under control, Joe’s thoughts continued to wander.

He had made a deal with his father’s friend, a plan to get back at his father for ignoring him and for failing to be home when Joe thought he needed his father the most.  The plan had been to hide out, let his older brothers worry, and then when they had been unable to find him, they would send a message to their father, who had gone to Carson City for a trial.  Ben would be frantic and hurry home, which he had.  But in the mean time, things had not gone, as they should have.  Joe found himself bound tightly with ropes that cut into his flesh and alone in a cabin deep in the mountains.  He had been frightened, and so ashamed of himself, of the things he had said about his father, the thoughts that been so horrible that even now, years later, caused Joe to shiver and hang his head in shame.

Rising from the cot, Joe moved until he was sitting down on the edge of his father’s bed.  Ben was still sleeping.  His pale face had begun to retain some of the more nature coloring and Joe noted that his father seemed to be breathing easier.

“I was such a pain back then, wasn’t I?” Joe muttered, hanging his head low.  “I was a little fool, to think you didn’t care.  You’ve always cared, haven’t you?”  Joe’s lips twisted into a tiny smile.  “I suppose deep down, I always knew you cared, deeply, I was just so…mixed up…I couldn’t see it.  I couldn’t see how much misery I caused you by the dumb things I was always doing, and all the trouble I was always getting into.  I was…self-absorbed.  God Pa…no wonder your hair is so…white…it looks like silver,” Joe said as he gently brushed back a lock of the silver hair.

As Joe sat, holding tightly to his father’s hand, Will Harding’s face flashed before his eyes.  Unconsciously, Joe flinched.  The man who had once been his father’s friend had beaten him, badly.  The man, who even yet, Joe hated, had died after a plunge down the side of ravine.  Joe had fallen as well, but miraculously had survived.

Joe glanced down at Ben’s face, recalling the instant that he had known that his father had found him.  He shut his eyes, hearing again the sound of the deep voice calling to him as he struggled to return to the present, where his father waited with all the love for him that his father held in his heart, showing in Ben’s brown eyes.

“Joseph…son, your Pa’s here now…

 “Joe…I’m here son,” Ben whispered.

 And then Joe heard his own voice, “Pa…please…hold me.”

 He felt his father’s arms about him, the kiss that Ben had placed on his head, and the words…an assurance…“Joe…everything is going to be alright, I promise son.”

 And then his father’s declaration — something that to this day he had not forgotten.

“I love you son…more than life itself.”

 Joe brought his father’s hand up to his lips and gazing down, his eyes fixed on his father’s face, kissed the hand of the man whom Joe Cartwright loved equally as much as the man loved his son.

*****

By the fourth day, Joe was practically beyond going.  Ben was slowly improving and though his fever was down, he was still in no condition to get out of bed.  Joe was in the kitchen, standing by the stove attempting to fix himself a bite to eat.  He had seen to his father’s needs, listened while Ben grumbled about having nothing to eat but broth, broth and more broth. Joe had tried to keep from snickering when his father proclaimed that he hated the stuff and cursed softly, Hop Sing for having found the recipe in the first place, but his giggles had filled the room just the same.

Ben had smiled and then drifted back to sleep.  Joe noted the expressions that showed themselves on his father’s face and knew without having to ask, that Ben was suffering; that the pain he tried to hide from his son when awake, revealed itself while he slept.

*****

Joe, weary from having to care for his father while trying to tend to the chickens, and the milk cow, leaned heavily against the barn door.  He glanced across the yard at the house and wondered how on earth he would ever make it back.  It had taken every ounce of his ebbing strength to come this far, and used nearly everything else that remained just to tend to what needed to be done in the barn.

His body raged with a fever of its own.  He had said nothing to his father, hiding his own illness, for he felt that Ben was in no shape to have to worry about anything other than himself and getting well. So Joe had kept quiet.

It was growing dark, leaving Joe with no other recourse than to make the dreaded walk back to the house.  Drawing in a deep breath and standing with his weight supported by the crutch he’d found in the closet, Joe took one staggering step forward, clenching his teeth to keep from crying out, and then took a second step and then a third before stopping to catch his breath.

The world before him began to spin and Joe swayed, losing his balance and dropping the crutch under his arm.  Everything seemed to twirl around, faster and faster and Joe found himself spinning along with the trees and the house, the corral and barn and then everything within his vision went black.  With a muffled cry of agony that billowed up from deep within his throat, Joe crumbled to the ground, lost in a swirling world of nothingness.

*****

“Looky, Adam, ain’t that Doc Martin’s buggy?” questioned Hoss as he and Adam rode into the yard.

“Sure looks like it,” answered Adam as he dismounted.  “He’s probably here to check on Pa and Joe.  It’s about time for those casts to come off,” he said, tying Sport’s reins to the hitching post. He grinned at Hoss over the top of his saddle. “I still say those two planned this whole thing.  We mention roundup, Joe breaks a leg and Pa breaks an arm.  We ride home after working our butts off for nearly two weeks, to find the doc’s buggy in the yard…and I guarantee when we go inside, we’ll find them both with no casts.  Just too convenient if you ask me,” snickered Adam, though he didn’t believe for one minute that either his father, or Joe planned any such thing.

Hoss laughed and nodded his head in agreement.  “Yeah, but it sure is gonna be good to see’em again.  I sorta missed the little scamp and Pa too.”

“I did too, Hoss, but lets not tell them, I wouldn’t want Joe’s head to start to swelling,” joked Adam as he walked with Hoss toward the house.

Hoss opened the door and entered in front of his older brother.  Pausing at the credenza, he removed his hat, tossed his bedroll on the table and glanced at Adam, wearing an odd look on his face. “Awfully quiet,” he said.

“They’re probable upstairs,” Adam said after depositing his belongings.  “Come on.”

Adam led the way with Hoss following close behind.  At the top of the stairs, Adam paused, grabbing Hoss’ arm. “What…is that racket?” he asked in a whispered voice.

“Sounds like a wounded animal and it’s comin’ from Joe’s room,” answered Hoss.

Both hurried down the hall to Joe’s room, pushing the door wide without the courtesy of knocking first.  Adam and Hoss came to a halt in the doorway, their brains not quite registering what they were seeing.

Doc Martin was practically in the bed, attempting to keep Joe from getting up.  It was obvious to both that their younger brother was putting up a fight that the doctor was slowly loosing.

“Doc?” Adam called, entering the room.

Paul Martin glanced over his shoulder at the pair. “Thank God…get over here and help me!” he practically shouted.

Adam and Hoss snapped into action.  Each grabbed one of Joe’s shoulders and forced their younger brother back, down into the bed.  Joe’s struggles came to a halt at last and he drifted off into a troublesome sleep.

Hoss turned to the good doctor.  “What in the world’s goin’ on, Doc, what happened to’em?”

“He’s burning up with fever,” Adam said, pressing his hand to Joe’s forehead.

“I know, Adam.  He’s been like this for three days now…” Paul explained as he returned to the bed to check Joe’s pulse.

“What happened?  What about Pa…”

“Your father is mending fine; Joe did an excellent job of removing that bullet from Ben’s shoulder…”

“BULLET?” Hoss said loudly, glancing at Adam with a worried look.

“I’m sorry, boys; I guess I forgot that you’ve been gone.  I came by to check on Ben and Joe on…I think it was Tuesday and I found Joe unconscious, in the yard.  His cast had been broken and was no longer on his leg.  He had a fever then, just not quite as high as it is now.  I found Ben on the landing…apparently from what little he was able to tell me, he had called for Joe, but when Joe didn’t respond, I suppose Ben got worried and went looking for him.  Your father said he looked out the window and saw Joe lying on the ground, and well…you know your father…he was determined to get to the boy.  He made it as far as the landing before he passed out…”

“You said bullet…that means, Pa must have been shot…who shot him?” demanded Adam.

“Thugs looking for money.  Ben said they were robbed, about four days after you left.  They worked your brother over pretty good, busted the cast off Joe’s leg and shot Ben.  Joe tried to go for help, but they ran all the horses off and with Joe’s leg broken and Ben lying upstairs with a bullet wound to the shoulder, there was no way to go for help.  I imagine Joe did the only thing he could do, and that was to remove the bullet himself.  Poor kid, he must have been scared stiff, afraid he’d end up killing his own pa.  When I saw how badly they both were, well…I’ll tell you boys, it was just by the grace of God that I happened by when I did.”

Adam, his eyes dark, felt a growing hate festering deep down inside.  He rose from the bed where he had sat next to his brother and looked over at Hoss. “Let’s go have a talk with Pa,” he said with a tone that warned his middle brother that he was seething with unbridled anger.

Adam started toward the door, but was stopped when Paul reached out and touched his arm. “Adam, Ben’s had an extra hard day. He’s been with Joe for the most part, and naturally would not go back to bed, so I…slipped him a sleeping powder.  He’ll be madder than a wounded grizzly when he wakes up and realizes what I’ve done, but he was totally spent.  I felt I was doing the right thing and…”

Hoss grinned and slapped the doctor on the back.  “Ya did right, Doc…I know how Pa is when it comes to that cub over there.”

“I’ll just go peek in at him, Hoss why don’t you sit with Joe and Paul, you look like hell, why don’t you go downstairs and make use of that spare bedroom for awhile?” offered Adam.

“Sounds good to me,” agreed Paul.  “Hoss, Joe’s been mumbling all along…strange things…things I reckon he’s trying to tell your father.  And at times he becomes combatant, so just make sure he stays in that bed.  I’ve had to re-break his leg and set it again, it was a mess.  And it set up a slight infection, but that’s slowly getting better, his system seems to be fighting it off.”

“Sure thing…Adam’ll be here to help me, ya just get some rest,” Hoss said, pulling a chair close to the bed.

The physician turned to leave, but stopped and looked back at Hoss. “Hoss…just so you’ll know…Roy’s been informed and is doing everything he can to find those men…Ben said there were four of them.”

“Any idey who they were?”

“No…Ben just said that the one who seemed to be the leader called one of the men, Blake and this Blake fellow called him Sam.  Your father had no idea who they were, though he did say that the one called Sam, seemed to know who he was,” Paul explained.

“What’d they get, besides all the guns?” the big man asked.

“Your pa said there was $10,000 in the safe.”

“The money for the cattle drive,” Adam said from the doorway.  “Pa’s still sleeping, just like you said,” Adam informed the doctor.  “I thought you were going to get some rest?” he said to the doctor who stood in the same place as when Adam had gone to look in on his father.

“I’m going, right now.  Call me if you need me,” Paul said softly as he exited the room.

Adam moved to the edge of the bed so that he could get a better look at his youngest brother’s face.  With lips pinched tightly, he shook his head and then sat easily down on the side of the bed. “He looks awfully pale.”

“Yeah…guess the poor little thing’s had a pretty rough time of it, what with fightin’ off varmints, operatin’ on Pa, tendin’ to the what stock there is…not to mention havin’ to hobble about with a broke leg that ain’t got no cast on it,” Hoss said with a deep sigh.

Adam made a snorting sound and glanced over at Hoss.  “Those ‘varmints’, as you called them, had better keep running, cause as soon as the scamp here is well enough, I’m going looking for those men.”

Hoss noted the dark scowl on his brother’s face.  “Not without me, ya ain’t.”

******

“NO! NO PA, PLEASE…I’ll be good, I promise!” screamed Joe.

 “Well young man?  Adam tells me you’ve been fighting.  Would you like to explain yourself, again?” questioned Ben watching the inner struggle his youngest was putting himself through.

“No sir.”

 “NO?” shouted Ben as he took Joe by the arm and led him to the chair on the front side of his desk facing the great room.

“Just what kind of answer is that, young man?  Never mind, you can just sit right there until you can come up with a better explanation than that!  Don’t you dare get up from that chair until I tell you, you may.”  Ben turned his back and stomped away from Joe, leaving Joe alone and heartbroken with his fears and doubts.

Joe’s head began tossing back and forth, and he mumbled softly.  Adam rose from his chair and bent down over his brother.  Joe’s forehead still felt hot to the palm of his hand and he pressed his lips tightly together.

“Come on Joe, you have to fight this thing, Pal,” Adam whispered softly, knowing full well Joe could not hear his encouraging words.

“Is he still hot?” Ben said as he walked slowly into the room and over to the bed.

Adam glanced over his shoulder.  “Pa, you shouldn’t be out of bed; Paul said you were to stay put and rest.”

Ben, dressed in his bed jacket and slippers, one arm folded across his chest in a sling, sat down on the edge of the bed, across from Adam. “I know full well what Paul said, but Joe…needs me,” Ben said lowly as he picked up Joe’s hand and held it lovingly in his. He smiled up at Adam.  “Your kid brother saved my life,” he said.

Adam smiled as well and answered in a low voice.  “I know, Pa.”

Adam watched the play of emotions that danced across his father’s face and wondered what the elder Cartwright was thinking right at the moment, for Ben was gazing down into his youngest son’s face and wore a strange expression.  Adam saw his father’s eyes mist slightly. “Pa…Joe’s going to be alright,” he said calmly.

His father turned tear filled eyes upward to glance at him. “I know, but…I just hate to see him like this.  He must have been suffering something terrible for days before he finally collapsed in the yard.  He had so much on his shoulders, trying to care for me, taking care of the stock…no cast on his leg…he must have been in horrific pain, but he refused to give up on me, or leave me,” Ben explained to Adam. “And, he keeps trying to tell me something.  When I was out of my head, I could hear him talking, but my mind was just too boggled to understand what it was he wanted me to know.  Now, he’s all boggled up and still trying to get his message to me.  I just wish I knew what was going on inside that head of his.”

Ben brushed is fingers lightly through the thick mass of dark curls and Adam heard his father make a sniffling sound.  Giving his father time to collect himself, Adam excused himself momentarily from the room.

*****

“Supper ready, come to table now,” called Hop Sing as he placed the last serving plate onto the table.

Joe let out a long sigh, his stomach hurt from all the worry and he was hungry.  He started to rise but his father’s booming voice stopped him cold.

“Not you young man; sit!” Ben ordered, pointing to the chair that Joe had just vacated.

“Pa?” whispered Hoss shocked after eyeing Joe and the unhappy expression on his face.

“Never mind Hoss, just go eat your supper,” Ben instructed in a calm quiet voice as he glanced over his shoulder at his youngest son who squirmed uncomfortably in his chair.

Joe’s hallucination caused his body to tremble as he relived the incident through his dream.  His mind was lost somewhere in no-man’s land and the visions that flashed before his eyes pulled him backward into time to when he was younger and had lived his life in such a way that he felt his father’s wrath more than his parent’s love, which he craved.  Even in his nightmarish image, Joe blamed himself for all the worry he’d caused his father over the course of his lifetime.  No wonder Ben had wanted to send him away…or so he thought at the time.

“Joseph, are you ready to explain yourself now?” asked Ben in a calm voice.

He hated seeing his son, as he looked now, sad, forlorn and very near tears.  The sight broke his heart.

Joe refused to look at his father and turned his head to the side.  Ben gently took his son’s face in his hand and turned it upward.  He could feel the quivering chin, and see the unshed tears that threatened to overflow and his anger at this unhappy child vanished.

“Joseph…” began Ben but stopped short when Joe’s tone of voice suddenly turned nasty.

“What difference does it make?  You don’t really care why I was fighting, none of you do.  All you care about is getting rid of me, so why should I bother to explain anything to you?  I’m not going to be here much longer anyway, so what does it matter if you whip my butt?” cried Little Joe in a loud squeaky voice, his chin quivering, the tears that had filled his eyes began trickling down his cheeks.

“Joseph,” said Ben calmly.  “What in thunder are you talking about?”

“Oh come on Pa,” he ranted,  “Don’t treat me like I was a half-wit.  You know darn well what I mean, you and Adam have had it planned for days now.  You didn’t think I knew, but I over heard the two of you talking, but guess what?  I don’t give a damn.  I want to go; in fact, I can’t wait to get away from here.  Anywhere would be better than staying here with you and them,” Joe pointed to his brothers, “I don’t care, you got that?  I said I don’t care!  I could care less where you send me.  Just remember I don’t care.  I…I…Oh Pa, why?  Why are you doing this to me?” wept Joe bitterly as he slumped to his knees in tears.  “Please let me stay…don’t make me go…”

Ben sat and watched the closed eyelids flicker and then Joe seemed to come out of his retreat as he bolted up right, screaming as tears coursed their way down his face.

“No…NO…please Pa…I’m sorry, I’m sorry…I don’t want to go…I want to stay here, with you and Adam and Hoss.  Please…don’t send me away!  I don’t want to go to military school…I’m sorry, for being bad…hones; I’ll be good…PA! PA!”

Joe’s loud outburst brought Hoss and Adam running into the room.  They were startled to find Ben sitting on the bed, holding Joe in a tight embrace against his chest.  Ben was running his hand through Joe’s curls and speaking in a low, soft tone, trying to comfort the confused young man. “Shh…Joseph, Pa’s here.  I’m not sending you away, son…you’re just dreaming, that’s all,” purred Ben in his deep soothing voice. He glanced up at Adam and Hoss as they gathered around the bed, joining him. “He’s dreaming…he must be remembering the time when he overheard us talking Adam, about suggesting to Matthew Talburt’s father of sending him to military school.”

“Yeah…and Joe thought ya was talkin’ about him.  Poor kid, he sure thought he was a goner,” Hoss said, watching as Joe’s eyes slowly began to focus.

“He’s comin’ around Pa,” Hoss said, smiling.  “Hi Shortshanks.”

“Hi,” Joe said weakly.  “When…did you get…home?”

Hoss glanced at his father, unsure of just how much he should be saying.

“A couple days of go son,” Ben said, gently forcing Joe back down against the pillows.

“Pa! You’re alright!” Joe said, forcing a smile once he realized that his father was the one who had been holding him.

“I should be, you saved my life…don’t you remember?” Ben said with a smile.

“Oh…yeah…the bullet…how’s your shoulder?” Joe asked.

“Sore, but Doc Martin said you did an excellent job of operating.”  Ben snickered softly.  “He said he thinks you missed your calling, you should have been a surgeon.”

Joe closed his eyes for a minute and then re-opened them.  “Not me…I got sick and had to puke about four times,” he said with a grin.

Adam and Hoss laughed lightly.

“You can skin a deer, pluck a turkey, clean a fish, gut a bear…yet you can’t dig something as tiny as a pellet out of a man’s shoulder?  What’s wrong with you kid?” teased Adam.

“Nothing…if it were any other man but my own father.  You have no idea how scared I was!” Joe admitted truthfully.

“Well, it’s all over now and…I thank you son…I might not be here now if it weren’t for you.”

Ben smiled down at his most precious of life’s gifts and was rewarded with a returned gesture.

“I’m the one who should be saying thanks, not you,” Joe whispered in a thick voice.  “Or rather, I’m sorry…”

“Sorry?  Why, I don’t understand, Joseph?” Ben said puzzled.

“I’ve been having crazy dreams ever since all this started and they were about the times that I’ve caused you to be worried or angry because of me and all the foolish things I’ve done over the years.  I don’t know how you put up with me,” Joe smiled slightly.

“You are my son…I have to put up with you,” Ben said teasingly and then laughed softly.

“I love you Joseph…you are flesh of my flesh…you…and Adam and Hoss, are all three my life’s most treasured possessions.  You boys are my life-blood, my beginning and my end…my goals and my accomplishments…you are my destinies…my pride and my joys.  You three have made me who I am today…without you, I am nothing, I have nothing…it would have all been in vain…for nothing.”

Ben paused and smiled at all three of them.  “I wouldn’t have traded it for the world.”

“None of it?” Joe asked in a low voice.

“None…”

“Pa…so many times I’ve wanted to tell you how sorry I was for always being such a…”

“Don’t say it Joe…I’ve already told you how I feel about you.  The things you’ve done in the past, that were mistakes, have long been forgiven and forgotten.  You have no need to apologize to me for any of it…not again; you do not have to atone to me for past mistakes.  Besides, saving my life should be atonement enough, don’t you think?” laughed Ben.

Joe was finding it hard to form words, for suddenly they became stuck in the back of this throat.  He could only smile and nod his head, which he did. Minutes later Joe was sleeping, this time more peacefully and unburdened of his past sins…mistakes his father had called them.

“Looky there, Pa…Joe’s smilin’,” whispered Hoss.

“Indeed he is, come on, let’s go downstairs, we need to discuss some things,” Ben suggested.

Adam and Hoss rose and started toward the door, where they stopped and looked back at their father.  Ben was tucking the blankets around Joe and when he leaned down to place a kiss on the boy’s brow, the two older brothers swapped knowing glances.

*****

“What do you think?  Hoss and I could start looking.  Roy said the sheriff in Carson City wired him that there were four men fitting the description of the ones who robbed you and said that those four seemed to have a mighty fat payroll, considering they were drifters.  We could start there, if you’ve a mind to,” Adam explained to his father.

“I don’t know; it might be best to let Roy handle this.  Besides, you just got home from round-up, and with the cattle drive coming up, I think I’d rather have you home for awhile,” Ben explained, though he didn’t give Adam his real reasons for not wanting his two sons to leave so soon after just getting home.

He didn’t put words to his fears…about them leaving again, right away, or about he and Joe being left behind.  Not that he feared the intruders would return, but that something deep down inside of him made him want to take precautions about their safety and that of Joe’s who still had weeks to go before he’d be fully recovered, now that the doctor had to re-break and set his leg.  He needed Adam and Hoss for the cattle drive.  By the time that the cattle drive would be over, would be soon enough to concentrate on finding the ones responsible for disrupting their lives.  His sons’ welfare far exceeded the $10,000 that was stolen from his safe.  Money he could acquire, sons he could not.  And he still felt vulnerable, having come so close to dying and then having to watch his youngest son struggling to stay alive as well.  The memory of the man holding the gun to Joe’s temple flashed before his eyes and caused Ben to shiver.

Ben sighed deeply and sought to change the subject; he turned to Hoss. “Did Roy happen to mention whether or not the wire said who those particular men might be?” questioned Ben.

“Yep, Blackie Watson…” began Hoss.

“BLACKIE WATSON?” Ben all but shouted.

The thought that suddenly things had changed flickered across Ben’s thoughts. He rose to his feet and began to pace back and forth in front of the fireplace.

“No wonder he knew me…” Ben turned back to face the pair whose eyes followed him across the room.  “I didn’t recognize him, especially when the others called him Sam.”

“How…I mean, do you know this fellow?” inquired Adam.

“I knew the young man’s father.  It was a long time ago, Adam, when Blackie — his real name was Sam, but his pa always called him Blackie — but back then, Sam was just a young boy.  His father robbed a bank…story was, he needed money for Blackie’s mother. She was very sick and needed an operation; the only way he could ever raise the money to pay for the surgery was to rob the bank.” Ben shook his head. “If I’d only known, I would have been more than willing to help Chester out, but…well, anyway, Chester robbed the bank and I was one of a dozen men who went after him.  He ended up killing two men in the posse, so he had to face murder charges as well.  I was a witness at his trial to the robbery and the shootings, reluctantly, but nonetheless. Chester was found guilty and was sentenced to hang.  His wife had taken a turn for the worse and I asked the judge for a stay of execution, which was granted.  The day after Mrs. Watson was buried, Chester was hung for his crimes.  Blackie blamed me for his father’s death and even though he was only about ten at the time, he swore to me that he’d make me pay someday…guess that day came.”

Ben sat down on the wide boarded table in front of the fireplace, lost in thought.

“Then this Blackie fella really did mean to kill you…after he robbed you?” Hoss questioned.

“I suppose,” Ben muttered.

“How’d he know about the money in the safe?” Adam asked.  “Someone had to tell him.”

“Adam’s right, and besides, Pa, how did this fella know we’d be gone?  He must have had inside information,” Hoss suggested.

Adam stared at Hoss with a look of shock on his handsome face. “But who?  The only ones that knew we’d be gone are men who work for us!” added Adam.

“You’re right Hoss, but there’s something else to consider.  If what you suggest is true, then Blackie will find out that…I’m not dead!”

“And he’ll come back,” finished Hoss, rising and taking up his father’s pacing.

No one said a word for several long moments as Hoss paced back and forth, stopping in front of Adam, who sat in Ben’s red chair. “We cain’t go, Adam.  We cain’t leave Pa and Joe here alone again, not until those varmints are caught,” he said in a stern, worried voice.

“Don’t you think I know that?” Adam replied. “I wouldn’t think of leaving right now anyway, not with Joe in the shape he’s in, and Pa…even with his cast off, he’s barely able to use his arm.  They’d be sitting ducks if Blackie and his men decided to return.”

“Then we’ll stay,” confirmed Hoss.

“We’ll stay…and we’ll be ready, should they decide to try again,” vowed Adam.

“Would you two mind not talking about me as if I weren’t even here?  I, for obvious reasons cannot go on the cattle drive, I’d never leave Joe alone, but the two of you ARE going!  Joe and I will be just fine, now that we know about Blackie, I’ll keep some of the men here to help keep an eye out on things,” advised Ben.

Adam swapped glances with Hoss and then turned to their father. “And just who might they be?  How do you know that the informer might be among the men you keep here?”

“I’ll keep only those trusted employees that have worked for me for more than a year…men I know I can depend on,” Ben said. “Enough talk,” he said as he stood to his feet and stretched, “I think I’ll go check on your brother.  I don’t like to leave him alone for too long, not with those crazy dreams he’s been having.”

Ben started toward the steps and stopped, turning back. Hoss and Adam noted the smile on their father’s face and the light note to his tone. “I’m proud of your brother, for what he’s done…saving my life, taking care of me and our home while I was unable to help him.  For whatever reason, perhaps unknown to even him as to why he has been having these dreams, I find if most endearing that he has attempted to make atonement to me for his passed…misdemeanors,” smiled Ben.

“It speaks highly of his family values and his devotion,” said Ben with a touch of pride in his voice.

“Either he loves you dearly, which I know he does…or his conscious has been playing havoc with his heart,” laughed Adam lightly.

“Maybe it’s a little of both,” suggested Hoss as he watched his father’s expression. “Either way, I’m sure the scamp was scared somethin’ would happen and he’d never get the chance to set things right with ya.”

“Perhaps you’re both right…but nonetheless, I cherish the thoughts that his dreams evoked,” said Ben with a faraway look in his eye.

Ben slowly made his way up the stairs as Adam and Hoss watched.  When their father disappeared around the corner Adam turned to Hoss, grinning. “I have the distinct feeling that our silver-haired daddy would have stopped with just one child, had Joseph Francis been the first born,” he laughed good-naturedly.

Hoss, with a puzzled look on his face, scrunched up his nose, as his chubby face broke apart with a wide grin. “Ya reckon?”

Adam tossed back his head and laughed, “Yeah big guy, I reckon!”

***End***

It doesn’t end here…good has yet to overcome the bad……………

 

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