Coming Home for Christmas (by Rona)

Summary:  Christmas is fast approaching on the Ponderosa, but for the Cartwrights, it is not the season to be jolly, for Joe has been missing for two months. What has happened to him and will he ever come home?

Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  11,137


 

 

“Any word?” Ben asked anxiously, as Adam arrived home from town with the mail.

Dismounting slowly, Adam tried not to wince as he shook his head. “No, nothing, Pa,” he reported, sadly. “Roy says he’s tried everything he knows.”

Sighing, Ben looked discouraged. Adam thought how much his father had aged these last 2 months. The lines on his face were more pronounced and there were perpetual dark circles under his eyes, as though he hadn’t slept properly for a long time. And Adam knew that Ben hadn’t slept properly; neither had he and Hoss.

None of them had slept properly since Joe disappeared two months before.

*****

“That weather’s closing’ in fast,” Hoss commented as he came in later that afternoon. “I reckon there’ll be more snow afore mornin’.” He stripped off his big coat and hung it behind the door. He went over to stand in front of the fire, putting his hands out to the blaze to warm them. He diagnosed the silence surrounding his family all too easily. “Still no word, huh?”

“None,” Ben sighed. He rose from his chair to pace the floor restlessly. “Do you think we did everything we could? Is there something we haven’t thought of?”

“Pa, we done everythin’,” Hoss assured him. “There ain’t a single thing we didn’ do. I hate ta say it, but Joe’s gone.” He blinked back the tears in his eyes.

“You know we’ve done everything, Pa,” Adam added. “All we can do now is hope that Joe is all right and will come home one day.”

“I suppose so,” Ben agreed. “But if only we hadn’t parted on such bad terms…”

*****

“I know I’m taking Jonathan to the stage,” Joe snapped. “Why am I suddenly being reminded of it all the time? Was I complaining? No!”

“I’m reminding you that you have to be up on time tomorrow morning,” Adam snapped back. “You’ve missed breakfast every day this week so far.”

“Boys!” Ben interrupted. He didn’t want this argument getting out of hand. “Could we please stop shouting at each other? I guarantee Joe will be up on time tomorrow morning, Adam, because I will be wakening both he and Jonathan. Now let’s close the matter there.”

“Yes, Pa,” Joe muttered and walked off, but the black look he threw Adam told Ben all too clearly that, for Joe, the matter was not yet closed. Adam walked off the other way.

Sighing, Ben went back indoors. Adam’s friend Jonathan Millar had been staying with them for a month. He was a bit younger than Adam and had been the year below him in college. Nevertheless, he and Adam had struck up a close friendship and this was the first time that they had seen each other in several years.

Sitting down at his desk, Ben gazed blankly at the books in front of him. Joe and Jon had become friends, too, much to Adam’s chagrin. Ben wondered if Adam was jealous that his friend had also become close to his youngest brother. Adam was chary about sharing his feelings and surprisingly possessive about his friends. And when Jon had announced that he had been summoned home by his father, and showed the stage ticket that had been sent to him, the breach between Joe and Adam had widened a bit further. That was the very day that Adam had arranged an important meeting to negotiate a lumber contract. He couldn’t back out without making the Ponderosa look bad and so Joe had been elected to take Jon to the stage. Adam would have preferred that Hoss do it, but Hoss was laid up in bed with a bad cold. When Jon seemed to find this quite acceptable and showed only minimal disappointment, Adam had become ominously quiet towards his younger brother.

To further sour the mixture, Joe had been up before either Ben or Adam the next morning and couldn’t keep the triumphant grin off his face. Adam had ignored Joe all through the meal, talking almost exclusively to Jon. Joe had been quite tactful while his brother took his leave of his friend, and then had ridden away with Jon, chatting 20 to the dozen and laughing aloud. Adam had left for his appointment wearing the most ferocious scowl Ben had ever seen.

That had been the last time they had seen Joe. He and Jon had never arrived in Virginia City and Jon had never arrived back home. The alarm hadn’t been raised until the next morning, and by then, any tracks there might have been had been washed away by the torrential overnight rain. Roy Coffee had led out a posse searching for the missing men, but had found nothing. Ben and his sons had spent further days searching for Joe, but had found nothing. Wires to other towns had produced no results and despite trying every avenue they could think of, no trace of Joe or Jon was found.

Sighing deeply once more, Ben muttered, “It’s the not knowing that’s so hard. How I wish Joe was coming home for Christmas.”

Adam and Hoss exchanged glances. Very few preparations had been made for Christmas, and neither of them had liked to suggest that they buy presents or decorate a tree. They had nothing to celebrate this year. It was a dreadful thought, but they were both sure that Joe was not only not coming home for Christmas, but that he was not coming home ever again.

*****

Two months previously…

“It’s a real pity your pa wants you back home so suddenly, Jon,” Joe told him as they rode off towards town.

“Well, I’ve been here a month, Joe, so I guess he’s entitled to ask me to come home. I do work for him after all.” Jon was taller than Joe, with short blond hair and blue eyes. The ladies of Virginia City thought he was very handsome. Joe had been quite surprised to discover how much he enjoyed Jon’s company, since most of Adam’s friends had not wanted to befriend someone so much younger than them. But Jon’s light-hearted laugh had often rung out in conjunction with Joe’s and Joe was sorry to see the other man leave. “I like it round here, Joe.”

“Good,” Joe replied, pleased. He glanced around at his home, feeling the intense pleasure it always brought him to know that this land belonged to his family.  “It looks like there’s rain coming,” he commented. “I hope it’s not too bad, or it’ll make the stage trip real uncomfortable.”

“I’ve been wet before,” Jon replied, philosophically. “I don’t suppose I’ll shrink.”

“No, probably not,” Joe joked back and grinned.

They had just left the Ponderosa when a group of horsemen rode onto the road ahead. Joe tensed at once, sensing trouble, and his left handed drifted to hover near his gun. He shot a quick glance at Jon. “Be ready to ride when I tell you to,” he warned. “These guys look like trouble.”

“Oh, they’re not trouble, Joe,” Jon replied. A small derringer appeared in his hand, aimed at Joe. “These are my friends, and I’m sure they’ll become friends of yours, too, before long.” He grinned at Joe. “And just move your hand away from your gun carefully, Joe. I don’t want to have to shoot you.”

“What is this?” Joe asked, as the other men reached them.

“These are my men,” Jon replied, smiling lazily. It was clear he was finding Joe’s disbelief amusing. “That wire didn’t really come from my father, Joe. I murdered the old man a few months ago. No, I got the boys here to send the wire. I had hoped to get Adam to join me, but I saw that he was too stuffy. But you; you’ve got much more life in you, Joe and I’m sure you’ll enjoy being one of us.”

“I wouldn’t count on it,” Joe retorted. He glared at one man who had lifted his gun from its holster.

“I thought you might say that, but since I’ve just told you something incriminating, I can’t just let you go.” Jon sighed dramatically. “I guess I’ll just have to take you along, Joe.”

At those words, panic flared through Joe’s gut. He thought he knew what this would involve; a ransom note to his father. Jon had been living with them for a month; he knew that Ben would pay to get one of his sons back. Kicking Cochise, Joe attempted to break through the men in front of him, but Jon had been doing his homework and guessed that Joe would make a break for freedom. His men had been well briefed, and Joe got nowhere.

As they bound Joe’s hands behind his back, Jon looked around. He wouldn’t be back to this area; too many people knew his face. He would head down into Arizona and continue his career in crime. He was sure Joe would come round before long and be willing to help them. If not…well, there was always a ransom.

Or death.

*****

Through the long days of riding down to Arizona, Joe discovered more about Jon. The journey was hard, with torrential rains adding to Joe’s misery. But Jon seemed to enjoy telling Joe exactly why he thought the youngest Cartwright would be willing to turn to a life of crime.

“When Adam told me about that meeting, I knew this was the chance I’d been looking for. I wasn’t quite sure how to get Hoss out of the picture, but that cold was very fortunate. I made sure my men knew what I wanted, they sent the wire and the stage ticket and then laid in wait for us to pass by.” Jon looked appraisingly at Joe. “I must say, I thought you’d be more up for this, after some of the stories I was told about you.”

“In which one of those stories did I break the law?” Joe asked, acidly.

Shrugging casually, Jon answered, “None of them, I guess, but you did come pretty close a few times. Have you really not done anything to tweak the devil’s tail, Joe?”

“No, nothing,” Joe replied, truthfully. “I suppose I’ve got into a few bar fights, but that’s been it! I certainly haven’t murdered anyone and especially not my own father!”

“Perhaps telling you that was a mistake,” Jon admitted. “But, too late now. My father was a rich man when I was a child, Joe. But somehow, the money disappeared. When I discovered that I would have to work for a living, I wasn’t too pleased. I didn’t really want to be an engineer, and they don’t get paid enough to support the kind of life-style I fancy. So I told my father that I wasn’t going to work for him for just my keep and we argued. I killed him. End of story.”

“Not quite, surely,” Joe said, quietly. “The end of the story won’t come until you are hanged for his murder.”

“Good try,” Jon allowed. “But you can’t goad me into anger, Joe. Not any more. I vowed to always keep my temper under control from now on.”

“It’s an easy vow to make,” Joe replied, with the assurance of one who knows. “But it’s not so easy to keep.”

“That’s why I like you, Joe,” Jon laughed, slapping his captive on the shoulder. “You’ve got a temper, just like I have.” He rose. “You’ll change your mind, Joe, you’ll see.”

“Don’t hold your breath,” Joe advised him.

*****

After 10 days of riding, they arrived at a ramshackle old house miles from anywhere. The house was barely weatherproof, and the barn leaked like a sieve, but this appeared to be where the outlaws were going to hole up. Joe had been bound the whole time, and barely spoken to. He had kept a sharp eye on the route they took, so that he would be able to retrace his steps when he got free. For Joe never doubted that he would escape at some point. In his mind, he promised Ben every night that he would do what was necessary to survive and get home. The image of the Ponderosa and his family kept him going.

There were eight men altogether, but Joe never discovered any other names. From the time they arrived at the house, Joe barely saw the other men at all. He was secured in the cellar, fighting the whole way down, to no avail. By the time he was tied to a stout pole, he was bruised and disheveled. For two days, he saw no one; his only way of charting the passing of time was to look at the daylight coming through the dusty, broken glass high above him.

Weak from hunger and thirst, Joe did not resist when Jon came to get him. In an upstairs room, he was given a little food and a little water and was nursed back to something approaching normality. While he was too weak to try and escape, Joe was left untied, but as his strength crept back, Jon appeared with handcuffs and leg irons. Joe had balked at having them fitted and Jon lost the battle to keep his temper. It only took a few blows to get Joe down, and when the youngest Cartwright was again aware of his surroundings, he was locked into the irons.

The very next day, Joe discovered that he was to be the servant to the gang by making their meals and looking after the horses. While Jon and his gang were out robbing banks, or making plans for the next robbery, Joe was left, chained like an animal, in the cellar. He never had enough food, although his water was never restricted again.

Looking after horses was a chore Joe had done all his life, but he had never found it onerous before. Now, with his strength sapped by too little food, and his movements hampered by the chains he wore, Joe found it very hard to keep going. His wrists were raw from the chafing of the irons and he hadn’t seen his boots since his first days in the house. His bare feet were covered in cuts and bruises from working in the barn.

Joe thought he had been in the house about three weeks when Jon came down one morning to set him ‘free’ to do his chores for the day. Joe thought of refusing, but he couldn’t face the beating that he knew refusal would bring him. Jon was all too free with his fists.

“Have you changed your mind yet, Joe?” Jon asked, as he unlocked the chain that kept Joe a prisoner.

“Changed my mind about what?” Joe responded, dully. He wondered if he would get anything to eat that day. He couldn’t remember the last time he had been fed.

“About joining us, of course.” Jon sighed. “Surely you don’t like living like this? You stink, you know, Joe.”

“That’s not my doing,” Joe answered. He had done his best to keep himself clean, but since he could only wash in the horse trough, and had no way to clean his tattered clothes, he had failed. He raised his head to meet Jon’s eyes. “I would sooner live like this than join you.”

For a moment, Joe thought Jon was going to hit him after all, but the other man controlled his temper. “Adam said you were stubborn, but I didn’t think he meant this stubborn!”

“Now you know,” Joe muttered. He felt as though he had never slept, although he had fallen asleep almost before his chain had been locked the night before. Looking at Jon with revulsion, Joe wondered how on earth he had ever been friends with this man. “I’m not going to join you, Jon.”

“Some people are obviously too stupid to see the benefits,” Jon snapped, clearly annoyed.

“The benefits being getting caught, going to jail or hanging?” Joe retorted, with some of his old fire. “No thanks! I’d sooner starve!”

“That can be arranged!” Jon hissed and drove his fist into Joe’s stomach.

Caught completely by surprise, Joe folded and the next blow caught the back of his neck. Joe tumbled to the floor, where a couple of kicks sent him into oblivion.

*****

All that day, Joe lay shivering in the cellar, his chains pulled into a cruel hogtie. By evening, when Jon finally relented and allowed him his minimal freedom again, Joe’s muscles had been cramping for hours and he was in agony. Moving slowly, Joe reached for the canteen of water that had been tantalizingly close, but so far out of his reach, all day. After slaking his thirst, Joe curled into a ball to try and keep warm. There had been lashing rain and gales all day, and the rain had been driven into the cellar, with the result that Joe’s clothes were quite damp. Now, a sharp frost was setting in and the temperature plummeted.

Come morning, Joe was chilled to the bone and running a slight fever.

*****

Getting back to work was nearly a relief. Hunched over the stove, Joe was at least able to warm himself for a while. He was even allowed a single slice of bacon to eat – the first thing he’d eaten in almost a week. Mucking out the stalls and saddling the horses warmed him up, too. He made sure Cochise, also a prisoner, got some hay, for he was sure his horse would starve if it was left to the outlaws.

As he slowly fastened the last cinch, he heard hoofs on the clear, cold air. Next moment, the man who was guarding him raced into the barn, knocked Joe off his feet into one of the stalls, and jammed a bandanna in his mouth. Joe fought furiously, but he was too weak to throw the man off, and he lay, pinned to the floor, as the hoofs stopped in the yard outside.

“Well, morning, sheriff,” he heard Jon call cheerfully. “What can I do for you? Would you like a cup of coffee to help you thaw out?”

“No, but thanks for the offer. Have you fellas seen any strangers around here? Someone robbed the bank last night not far from here.”

“Can’t say that I have,” Jon replied, in a thoughtful tone. Joe struggled harder to try and break free, but only earned himself a backhander across the face. “Do you think they came this way?”

“No, not really,” the sheriff replied. “But I thought I’d mention to you folks, seeing as how you’re out here a long way from town.”

“We’ll keep our eyes open,” Jon promised. “Thanks for coming out. Are you sure I can’t tempt you into some coffee?”

“Much as I’d love to, I got work to do. See ya.” Joe heard the hoofs leaving again.

“All clear,” Jon said, from the barn door.

“That was close!” the other remarked, getting off Joe. Joe reached up and tugged the bandanna away from his mouth, drawing a deep breath. His lip and cheek stung where he had been struck, but he barely noticed. Disappointment raged through him that he had not been able to attract the sheriff’s attention to his plight.

“Did you get your hopes up there, Joe?” Jon taunted him.

Half-way to his feet, Joe threw himself at Jon, and was chagrined when the man simply stepped aside and let Joe tumble to the floor, caught up in the leg irons. But Jon didn’t allow the challenge to pass by. He pounced on Joe, yanking him to his feet and punching him several times in the stomach. This was his favorite form of punishment, although Joe had had several black eyes by then.

Lying on the floor, dazed, Joe tried to catch his breath. Jon pulled him to his feet and began to drag him back to the house. Joe could feel new stinging on his feet that meant new cuts for him to worry about. “What good would one man have been against all of us, Joe?” Jon asked, as he secured Joe in the cellar again. “We’d have killed him like that!” He snapped his fingers.

As the pain subsided, and Joe lay there, alone, he realized that Jon was right. Perhaps it was just as well he hadn’t been able to attract the sheriff’s attention.

*****

The cold and the abuse grew worse and Joe grew weaker. Jon no longer bothered to chain him up at night, secure in the knowledge that Joe would be there the next day. Realizing this, Joe played along, pretending to be too weak to work and so husbanding his strength the best he could. He had planned out his escape route and all he needed was the chance.

It just a few days later, at the start of the following week. Joe had lost track of how long he had been a captive; he knew it was weeks, rather than days, but was unable to put a number to them. He was lying in the cellar when he heard shouting and gunfire outside.

Struggling to his feet, Joe peered through the grimly glass as best he could, but he could see very little. However, one thing seemed clear; a posse had found the gang and was closing in on them. Joe’s heart leapt. He tried to climb onto a rickety old chair that was standing there, but in his haste, he neglected to allow for his chains and tumbled headlong to the floor.

Winded but unhurt, Joe scrambled to his feet again, but the battle had moved on and he couldn’t see anything. Making up his mind to take the chance, Joe made his way to the cellar stairs and climbed laboriously up them. He tried the door, but he didn’t really believe it was unlocked and so wasn’t disappointed. He tugged, pulled and pushed at the door, but it didn’t budge.

Despairing, Joe threw his entire weight against the door and when it gave unexpectedly, he lost his balance and tumbled headlong down the stairs.

*****

When Joe regained consciousness, there was silence outside. Rising shakily to his feet, he fumbled his way through the half-light to the stairs and climbed them once more.

The door lay a little open, just as it had when Joe fell. Cautiously, he crept out into the hall, trying to minimize the noise his chains made. There was a hushed air of expectancy about the house. As Joe shuffled towards the door, he gradually realized that the house was empty.

There were odd stains on the frozen dirt of the yard, and Joe guessed they were blood stains. He headed over to the barn, steeling himself to find it empty, for he thought it unlikely that Cochise would still be there. So it was with overwhelming relief and joy that Joe saw his pinto was still in its stall.

Standing by his horse, Joe could not stop himself shedding some tears. All through his ordeal, he had refused to allow the tears to come; now he could not stop them. The horse was warm and alive and Joe now had the chance to go home.

*****

Since it was already dusk, Joe knew it would be foolish to set off that night. He searched the barn and finally found the tools he was looking for – a hammer and chisel. Working carefully, he finally managed to pry the leg irons open, although not without some cost in himself as his hand slipped and struck the exposed skin of his ankles more than once. The handcuffs defeated his efforts to remove, although he was able to split the chain, so that his hands were independent of one another again. It felt distinctly odd, but very nice.

Going back into the house, Joe found a couple of canteens and a little food. In another room, he found a threadbare blanket, but given the tattered state of his clothes, it seemed like the height of luxury to the frozen young man.

Taking all the things back to the barn, Joe settled in to spend the night there beside Cochise. He could not face spending a night in that house, free or not. Cochise gave off some heat, and the straw was warm after the bare earth floor. Joe soon fell fast asleep.

*****

Next morning, Joe forced himself to eat a little food before he saddled Cochise. Then, he had to rest for a while before he could pull himself into the saddle. Ruefully, he found himself remembering the times when he had vaulted so effortlessly on board his mount.

It had been weeks since Joe had arrived here, but he had never forgotten in which direction his home lay. Turning Cochise’s head to the north, he began the long trek home.

*****

“Pa,” Adam said, in a low voice as he approached his father’s desk. “It’s going to be Christmas in a couple of days. Do you want Hoss and me to get a tree?”

Looking up lethargically, Ben shrugged. “Do whatever you think is best, son,” he replied.

There was so much pain in Ben’s voice that Adam’s heart ached for him. The house had been unusually silent for these last months. None of them had laughed since Joe vanished and Adam was beginning to think that they would never laugh again. Why had they quarreled that last day? Why had he grudged sharing his friend with Joe? Adam stifled a wince as he remembered the wire they had received, telling them that Jon’s father had been murdered. There was no one there to mourn the loss of a son. “We’ll get a tree,” he murmured.

As Adam buckled on his gun belt, he heard slow hoofs entering the yard. Wondering who it could be, for most sensible people weren’t going anywhere in the three feet of snow that was lying, Adam opened the door. What he saw caused him to freeze in place, unable to do anything except stare disbelievingly at the apparition outside.

It was only as the figure slipped from the back of the pinto to the ground that Adam was able to break the spell that held him captive. “Pa!” he cried. “Hoss! Come quick!” He raced outside, only slowing as the horse shied nervously.

Kneeling by the body in the snow, Adam gazed and gazed, unable to believe that Joe was home.

“What is it?” Ben asked, then was pushing his oldest son aside as he scrambled to gather his youngest son in his arms, crying his name over and over again, while tears poured down his face. “Joseph! Oh, Joseph!”

*****

“Send someone for the doctor!” Ben ordered, his voice anguished. After the initial joy of seeing his lost son home again, Ben had realized that the scarecrow figure in his arms was burning with fever. As he hoisted the unconscious youth in his arms, oblivious of the rank smell from his tattered clothes and body, Ben became aware of just how much weight Joe had lost. His youngest son had always been slender, but he was positively skeletal now.

The immobility that had gripped Adam disappeared and he hurried off to the bunkhouse to send one of the men on the tricky journey to town for the doctor. That accomplished, he led Joe’s horse into the barn and stripped off the saddle. Cochise was almost as thin as its master, its coat rank and staring and the bones of its hips sticking out. Adam put a rug over the horse and gave it a measure of grain before hurrying into the house.

Upstairs, Ben was removing the tattered remains of Joe’s clothes. “Hoss, get something to remove these,” Ben ordered as he allowed himself to acknowledge the chains still hanging from Joe’s thin wrists. “Oh, Joe, who did this to you?” he asked. There was no answer, for Joe was still unconscious.

Becoming aware of someone at his side, Ben looked around to see Hop Sing. The Oriental looked appalled. “Hop Sing get water for bath,” he announced, for the rank smell from Joe’s body was overpowering. Joe was caked in grime and had quite a substantial growth of beard, despite his brothers’ claims he would never be able to grow one.

It didn’t take long for the bath to arrive, and by then, Adam had arrived to help Ben carefully lower Joe into the water. Joe mumbled a bit, but didn’t regain consciousness as they carefully scrubbed the dirt from his body and washed his hair. Then, with Joe clean at last, they laid him carefully on the bed to towel him dry.

“He’s been beaten,” Ben muttered. Joe’s stomach was a pattern of differently colored bruises, although most of them were fading now. There were smudges around Joe’s eye that suggested he had had a black eye recently.

“Look at his ankles,” Adam said, in a low voice. The scabs there had barely healed over and the flesh looked red.

“It looks like he had chains on his legs, too,” Ben replied, in a despairing tone. “And, Adam, look! His feet!” For Ben had noticed the bruises and cuts. “What can have happened to him?”

“I don’t know,” Adam answered. “I just don’t know, Pa.” He glanced up as Hoss came in with a hammer, chisel and block of wood. Adam held Joe’s arms while Hoss carefully worked to remove the ugly irons. It seemed to Ben to take forever, but actually took a surprisingly short time.

After that, there was nothing to do but wait for the doctor. Joe seemed slightly cooler after his bath and Ben managed to get him to swallow some water, although his eyes never opened and he seemed no nearer the surface. Ben held Joe’s hand, and constantly urged him to wake up, but there was no movement from the skeletal figure on the bed.

The light was waning before they heard Doc Martin’s buggy in the yard. Adam rose to let him in, but Paul was an old friend and knew the way. He and Adam met on the stairs. “Is it true?” he demanded. “Is it Joe?”

“Yes,” Adam nodded, but he couldn’t return the smile that lit Paul’s face. “He’s… changed, Paul.”

Sobering, Paul looked intently into Adam’s eyes. “All right,” he replied, understanding that Adam was warning him to prepare for a shock. He followed the oldest Cartwright son into Joe’s room, speculating on the ‘changes’ he would see.

They were indeed shocking. Joe was usually deceptively slender, although impressively muscled. Now, the flesh had melted off his bones, leaving him looking like an illustration for a medical examination. His normally golden-toned skin was grey and ashen and even his hair seemed to have lost its curl and bounce. Everything about Joe told Paul that this was a boy desperately sick and although he seldom thought of Joe as a boy anymore, the adjective seemed somehow appropriate, as Joe looked no more than 16 lying there.

“Good God, Ben, what’s happened to him?” The words were out before Paul could catch them.

“Paul,” Ben replied, as way of greeting. “We don’t know. Adam saw him falling from his horse in the yard. He’s been unconscious ever since. But he’s been beaten, and he was in chains.” Ben’s voice threatened to break and he swallowed hard. “He was filthy, and so we bathed him. His clothes were in rags.”

“Let me see,” Paul requested and Ben moved slightly to let the physician in, but he didn’t relinquish his hold of Joe’s hand. Paul’s examination was thorough and when he finished, he sat back on the bed. He could feel three pairs of eyes on him. “All right,” he began. “As you can plainly see, Joe is severely mal-nourished. His feet and ankles are infected and his wrists are chafed raw. There’s some sign of infection there, too. As you said, he’s been beaten and I suspect he has some broken ribs that are partially healed. He’s clearly exhausted. I can’t detect any internal injuries, and no broken bones apart from those ribs. You’ll have to build him up very slowly. Fluids for the first while, then start him on soft foods. I’ll give him something for the fever and let’s hope it breaks soon. I think it’s just been caused by the infection, his poor condition and mild exposure. His lungs are clear, although his breathing sounds a little stuffy. I can’t even guess what has happened to him, and frankly, I don’t want to guess!”

“Will he be all right?” Ben asked, his voice a low throb in its intensity.

“I hope so,” Paul replied, hesitantly, “but I can’t give any guarantees, Ben. It could be that he’s reached a stage in his starvation where his body will reject food. We won’t know until we start to feed him. But at any rate, he’s going to be sick for a long time.” He sighed. “Joe was strong, but all his strength has gone on staying alive, and now that he’s home again, it might be that he relaxes too much and can’t regain his strength. I just don’t know at this stage.”

“Just tell us what to do,” Ben ordered. “We’ll get Joe through this.” He stroked Joe’s arm. “I promise, son, I’ll make you well again.”

Looking at Ben, Paul found there was nothing more he could say. He had seen Ben dwindling into a shadow of his former self over the last couple of months and couldn’t bring himself to say anything that would knock away the fragile hope that Ben had found in his son’s return.

*****

Snow was falling softly as Paul Martin left the Ponderosa that night. He glanced back over his shoulder as he drove away, looking at the light in the room above the door. He knew Ben would be keeping vigil over Joe until such times as the young man regained consciousness or died. He had done everything he could for Joe, dosing him with quinine until the fever abated somewhat, and bandaging up the various hurts after cleaning them thoroughly with alcohol.

It was a long, cold journey home that night, but the first thing he did after stabling his horse was call on Roy Coffee, the sheriff. “Hello, Paul,” Roy cried, as the doctor shivered his way into the warmth of the jail house. “What can I do fer ya?”

“Well, nothing, really,” Paul replied, smiling slightly. “I came to tell you that Joe Cartwright is home.”

“Joe?” Roy echoed, joyfully. “When? Where’s he been?”

“He arrived home early this afternoon, but that’s all we know, Roy,” Paul explained. “He’s sick, Roy; very sick. He’s like a skeleton and he’s running a pretty good fever. I’m not sure he’ll make it.”

Roy’s genial face was a mask of sorrow as he absorbed the news. Like Paul, he had known Joe since ‘before he was born’. “I’ll look out there come mornin’,” he muttered. “That’s real sad, Paul, real sad.”

“I know,” Paul agreed, before he headed off for his own home and bed. But it was a long time before he slept that night and both he and Roy prayed fervently for Joe to be spared.

*****

Joe slept throughout the night, barely moving at all. Ben’s eyes were burning when dawn finally broke, for he had resisted all Adam’s efforts to make him go to bed. It was as if he feared Joe would die if he was not there to keep urging his son to live. Joe’s fever had broken during the night in a drenching sweat and Ben had accepted Adam’s help to change the bedding. Cradling Joe in his arms, Ben thought how frail his son felt, his every bone threatening to poke through his paper-thin skin. When Joe was settled into fresh bedding again, he had slipped into a deeper slumber.

A huge sigh from the bed dragged Ben’s eyelids open again. Looking at Joe, he saw his son was mumbling slightly and rolling his head around. “Joe?” he asked tentatively. His voice was hoarse from the hours of talking, keeping Joe anchored to this world. “Joe, can you hear me, son?”

Another sigh shook the frail man on the bed and then Joe’s eyes opened. For a moment, he gazed at the ceiling in disbelief, then as Ben spoke his name once more, he swiveled his gaze round to his father’s face. Green eyes met brown and locked for an endless moment, when neither of them could speak. Then tears mounted in Joe’s green eyes and silently overflowed.

“Joe?” Ben questioned, feeling corresponding moisture forming in his own eyes. “Are you in pain?”

After a moment, Joe shook his head slowly. “Pa?” he whispered. He raised his hand slightly and glanced down to make sure that the hand he could feel in his was actually there. He had suffered many hallucinations on the trail home. “Is that really you, Pa?”

“It’s really me, Joe,” Ben assured him. “Oh, Joe, we thought you were dead.” The tears broke and spilled down Ben’s cheeks. “What happened to you?” A look of distress flitted across Joe’s face and Ben hurried to soothe him. “It doesn’t matter,” he comforted him. “Joe, it doesn’t matter.”

“How did I get here?” Joe asked.

“Don’t you remember?” Ben asked. “You rode into the yard yesterday afternoon, Joe. You passed out and you’ve been asleep ever since.”

“I sort of remember riding home,” Joe whispered. He looked utterly exhausted and defeated. “But I don’t remember getting here.”

“It doesn’t matter now,” Ben repeated. “You’re home at last.” A thought occurred to Ben and he asked, “Joe, what about Jon?”

A cry escaped Joe’s lips and he made an effort to move. But his body didn’t have the strength to allow that and he barely twitched. “He’s not here, is he?” Joe asked urgently. His eyes were huge in his thin face. “Pa, please, Jon’s not here, is he?”

“No, Joe, he’s not here,” Ben replied, perplexed by his son’s behavior. It was almost as though Joe was afraid of Jon, yet they had been friends. “He hasn’t been seen since you disappeared.”

Gradually, Joe’s tense muscles relaxed, but his eyes were still riveted to Ben’s. “I can’t…” Joe tore his eyes away as the memories of the past 8 weeks swept through him. “Pa, I can’t.”

“It’s all right, son,” Ben soothed. “You don’t have to tell us until you’re ready.” Nodding in relief, Joe raised a hand weakly to wipe the tears from his face. The expression when he felt the beard on his face was comical. Ben smiled. “We bathed you, Joe, but decided to leave shaving until you were awake.”

“Now, please,” Joe urged. “Pa, now!” He was quite vehement, despite the quietness of his voice.

“As soon as Hop Sing can heat the water,” Ben assured him. “It’s very early, Joe. You’ve got to give us time to get organized.” He smiled to reassure his son even more. “Now, what would you like to eat?”

“I’m allowed to eat?” Joe asked, amazement clear in his tones.

“Of course you are,” Ben avowed stoutly, denying the fear those words set up in his heart. “But I’m afraid that you’re restricted to fluids just now. So how about some broth? Hop Sing made up some beef broth for you last night.” Seeing the uncertain look on Joe’s face, Ben asked, “Were you not allowed to eat?”

Slowly, Joe fought down the memories again and shook his head. “Not often,” he replied, and the pain in his voice tore at Ben’s heart. How could anyone treat another human being like that? How could anyone treat his son like that?

Swallowing down the tears and the outrage, Ben said, “Well, you can eat what you like here, Joe. You know that.”

“All right,” Joe replied. “I’ll eat the broth.” He closed his eyes and slipped into slumber again without meaning to, his small reserve of strength already exhausted.

Looking at Joe sadly, Ben rose to organize the broth and water to shave his son. His heart ached for all that Joe had been through, even though he knew that there were more revelations to come. Somehow, Jon was all mixed up with it, although Ben could not guess how.

*****

Hoss was the person who had the honor of shaving Joe. Adam was allowed to feed him small sips of the nourishing broth Hop Sing had made the night before, while Ben had something to eat and a couple of hours sleep. By the time Joe was once more clean-shaven, he was worn out and more than ready to sleep again. Adam looked ruefully at the broth, thinking that the six small sips weren’t enough to keep a bird alive, but Paul had explained to them the night before that Joe’s stomach had shrunk quite drastically, and that he might find it very difficult to keep anything down. The fact that he had kept down that tiny amount was encouraging, Adam felt.

“Will you sit with him, Hoss?” Adam whispered.

“Sure,” Hoss agreed. He frowned slightly at Adam. “Where’re you goin’?”

Pulling Hoss away from the bed so that they didn’t disturb Joe, Adam whispered, “I’m going to get a tree. Later, when Pa is sitting with Joe again, you and I can decorate it, so that when we bring Joe down for Christmas, its there to cheer him up.”

For a moment, a smile spilt Hoss’ face, then it dimmed to a frown. “What if he ain’t up ta gittin’ up fer Christmas?”

Frowning back, Adam scolded, “Don’t go borrowing trouble! He’ll be able to sit downstairs for his presents, if nothing else.” Adam’s eyes opened wide. “Presents! We don’t have any!” For a moment, Adam’s eyes were drawn back to the still figure on the bed. “I’ll go into town, too. Will you be all right alone with him?”

“Naw,” Hoss replied, sarcastically. “I don’ think I’m able ta pick him up, Adam.”

“Ha ha!” Adam sneered back, then smiled. “I’m sorry; I’m just worried about him.”

“We’re all worried about him,” Hoss corrected him gently. “You’re feelin’ guilty ‘cos ya quarreled afore he disappeared. It weren’t none o’ yore doin’, Adam. And Joe don’ hold nothin’ agin ya.”

Blue eyes locked with brown, and love and understanding poured from one to the other. “Perhaps,” Adam murmured, breaking the eye contact. He often had the impression that Hoss could see deep into his soul, especially when he was troubled, and his younger brother often knew exactly what to say to help him feel better. “But I still want to spoil him a bit now he’s home.”

Patting Adam heavily on the shoulder, Hoss nodded his understanding. “Sometimes ya can be real stuck-up, Adam,” he teased. “An’ other times yer just plain nice!”

Grinning, Adam retorted, “Flattery will get you nowhere!”

*****

The ride to town took longer than usual, thanks to the snow, but at least the sun was shining and Adam didn’t have to fear being caught in a blizzard. As he dismounted outside the store, he was hailed from across the street. “Adam!”

Turning, Adam saw Roy Coffee coming towards him. He paused, waiting for the sheriff to negotiate the icy street. “Morning, Roy,” he replied. “Did you hear that Joe is home?”

“Sure did,” Roy answered. “Paul come by an’ tol’ me last night. How is the boy?”

“Not too good,” Adam answered truthfully. “But he was able to eat a little this morning, so we’re taking that as a good sign.”

“He say what happened to him yet?” Roy asked.

“Pa tried asking him when he wore up, but he couldn’t say, Roy.” Adam bit his lip. “He’s very weak, Roy. He can barely move without help and he’s so thin…” Adam’s voice trailed off as he envisaged his younger brother’s skeletal frame again. Shaking his head to dispel the image, he concluded, “Pa says he became very upset when he was asked what happened, so Pa decided to leave it until he’s feeling stronger.”

“I suppose that’s sensible,” Roy admitted, although his tone told a different tale. From a lawman’s point of view, Roy wanted to know now what had happened, so he could pursue the person or people who had done this to Joe and get them behind bars. “I intended ta look out this mornin’, Adam, but I was real busy. I might come out later, if that’s all right.”

“Of course,” Adam replied, politely. “But don’t expect too much of Joe, Roy. You’ll understand when you see him.” He went on into the store.

It was amazing how quickly word of Joe’s arrival home had spread through the town. A number of people stopped Adam to ask after Joe with genuine concern. Adam was touched that so many people held his brother in such affection. He was also amused at the number of young women who asked after his brother.

The supplies for Christmas dinner had already been secured, but Adam wasn’t after food, although he bought a few sweets to tempt Joe’s appetite. He bought Joe some new clothes, replacing his brother’s favorite green jacket with an identical one. A new warm dressing gown for him to wear on Christmas morning and slippers – probably too large for day to day wear, but that would slip on over the bandages on Joe’s feet. He bought a new holster and gun, since Joe’s ones were missing. To top it off, he bought a pile of dime novels. Personally, he hated them, but he knew Joe liked them, and they were light enough reading for someone who was so sick.

To conclude his shopping, he bought a new pipe and books for Ben and a coat for Hoss, who had been wearing the same old winter coat for many years. Happy with his purchases, he turned his horse for home.

*****

A couple of hours sleep had done Ben more good that morning than all the previous nights had. He went into Joe’s room with a lighter step than of late. Hoss was sitting by Joe’s bed, while the younger man slept. Pausing, Ben was struck afresh by the thinness of Joe’s face. His skin seemed to be less ashen than the previous day, but in no way could it be said that Joe’s color was good.

“How is he?” Ben whispered, crossing to the bed and stroking Joe’s curls gently.

“A mite hot,” Hoss replied, “but he ate a little bit this mornin’. He’s bin asleep ever since.”

“I’ll sit with him now,” Ben said. “Why don’t you have a break?” he urged. “Where’s Adam?”

Grinning Hoss relinquished the chair to his father. “He went into town to buy p-r-e-s-e-n-t-s for someone.” He winked massively at Ben, delighted with his ploy of spelling out the word in case Joe woke up. It had quite escaped his notice that Joe was more than able to spell.

“Oh, I see,” Ben replied, gravely, fighting not to laugh out loud. There were times when Hoss was just like a little boy and it showed especially around Christmas time. The big man just loved giving presents and he and Joe were very alike in this. Joe loved presents – giving and receiving.

“He’s gonna git the tree, too,” Hoss continued. “Him an’ me’ll decorate it later.”

“Thank you, son,” Ben replied, smiling. “We have something to celebrate this year.”

“We sure do,” Hoss agreed, huskily.

*****

When Joe stirred a couple of hours later, Ben was still by his bedside. “Pa?” Joe whispered. He tried to pull himself up slightly, but his body still wasn’t ready to allow him to do that.

“Hi there,” Ben replied, smiling. “How do you feel?” Joe’s temperature had dropped again a while before and he was currently cool to the touch.

“Tired,” Joe admitted. He frowned. “Pa, I need to go.”

“All right, son,” Ben replied, understanding his son’s embarrassment. He pulled out the chamber pot and assisted Joe in using it. Then he settled Joe back into bed, took away the pot and when he came back into the room, he saw that Joe’s eyes were still open. “Hop Sing is bringing up some broth for you,” he told Joe gently. “Dr Martin says you have to try and eat every time you’re awake.” He raised his hand to stroke Joe’s head and was horrified when Joe flinched away from him. “Joe? What’s wrong?”

“Nothing, I…” Joe looked away, embarrassed afresh. “I thought you were going to hit me,” he admitted, in a low voice.

“But, Joe, I wouldn’t!” Ben denied, appalled. He sat down on the edge of the bed and looked into his son’s face.

“I know that,” Joe replied. “But you see…” He paused to try and think how best to say this. Raising sorrowful eyes to his father’s, he blurted, “Jon used to hit me all the time.”

“Jon?” Ben echoed. “Jon beat you?”

“Yes,” Joe replied, the relief of finally telling overwhelming him. He could tell from Ben’s voice that his father believed him. He licked his dry lips, not liking to ask for water, but Ben could read the signs, and offered his son a drink, tenderly holding his head while Joe slowly sipped. “Thanks, Pa,” he whispered and closed his eyes for a minute.

It was obvious when Joe opened them again that he had fallen asleep. He could smell something delicious and turned his head slowly to see a steaming bowl of broth on the bedside table. It was about as far away as the moon at that moment, and there was no one in the room with him. For an instant, Joe panicked, remembering how he had been chained after the first few days with Jon and fearing that he had been chained while he slept. Despite finding himself still free, Joe could not quell the fear that they had gone to get chains for him again.

But just as the panic was beginning to overwhelm Joe, the door opened and Ben came in. He saw at once how distressed Joe was and hurried over to reassure him. “I’m sorry, son, I just stepped out for a minute to ask Hop Sing for something. I didn’t mean to leave you alone.”

Blinking back tears, Joe couldn’t say anything for a minute. “Can I have some of that?” he asked, gesturing to the bowl.

“Of course you can,” Ben replied. “It’s for you.” He helped Joe into a sitting position, and propped him up with lots of pillows. Then slowly, he fed Joe the broth, relieved that his son had more than the few sips Adam had reported him taking that morning, but wishing that Joe had been able to eat more than just half a bowl.

“I’m tired,” Joe complained, as he lay down again. He snagged Ben’s sleeve. “Pa, you weren’t asking Hop Sing to get…” he swallowed convulsively and tears filled his eyes.  “To get chains?”

“Of course not, Joe!” Ben declared. He gathered his son into his arms. “Joe this is your home; nothing like that will ever happen to you here, I promise. You can eat and drink what you like, and no one will chain you up. You have to try and hold on to those thoughts, son, and tell yourself you’re free.”

“I’ll try,” Joe promised. He leaned his curly head against Ben’s shoulder and was soon asleep. For a long time, Ben just sat there, holding him.

*****

As the hand reached for the chains on his wrists, Joe jerked awake to find himself safe in his own bed, drenched in a cold sweat. Adam was sitting by the bed reading, and as Joe gasped, he glanced up, immediately putting aside the book to tend to Joe’s needs. “What is it, Joe?” he asked, seeing the dilated pupils, and hearing Joe’s panting breath. “A bad dream?”

Slowly relaxing, Joe nodded. “Yes,” he panted. He glanced round the room. “Where’s Pa?”

“He’s talking to Roy Coffee and Dr Martin downstairs,” Adam replied. “He’ll be back in a minute, with something for you to eat.” Taking a cloth, he wiped the sweat from Joe’s brow. “Can I get you anything?”

“A drink, please?” Joe asked.

Since Ben had told both Adam and Hoss that Joe had been deliberately starved, Adam did not act as though there was anything odd about the way Joe asked for a drink. “You can have as much water as you like, buddy,” he assured Joe and tried not to notice the way Joe flinched as his hand went past Joe’s face. He was horrified by what had happened to Joe. After Joe was finished, Adam went to the door and called to Ben that Joe was awake.

A few minutes later, Ben and Hoss arrived with Roy and Paul. Paul went over to the bed first and began to check Joe over, asking if he had any pain and making sure the infection in his feet was dying back. The fact that Joe’s fever had broken told him that it had, but he wanted to be absolutely certain. “How do your ribs feel?” Paul asked, feeling gently.

Joe shrugged. “Like they’ve felt for ages,” he responded, dully.

“And how is that?” Paul persisted. “Sore? Sharp, stabbing pains? A grinding ache? What?”

“They ache,” Joe agreed. “But no more than they have for a long time.”

“All right,” Paul nodded. “Ben, you can feed him now. I have to say, I’m much happier about his condition than I was last night. It’s going to take a long time, but I think this lad of yours is going to get better!”

“Can I talk ta him now?” Roy asked.

“Only after he’s eaten and only if he feels up to it,” Paul cautioned. “He’s been through a lot.”

“I can see that,” Roy agreed, for the first sight of Joe had shocked him to the core.

Again, Joe ate about half a bowl of broth. Ben put aside the rest and took Joe’s hand. “Joe, Roy wants to ask you some questions. Do you think you can tell him what happened? It doesn’t matter if you can’t.”

Sighing deeply, Joe wondered if he could bring himself to tell anyone about what had happened to him .He didn’t really want to, yet the words were about bursting out of him. He felt the reassuring warmth of Ben’s hand on his arm and looked up into those compassionate brown eyes that told Joe he was loved very much. “All right,” Joe sighed.

“Hoss and I will leave,” Adam offered, but Joe shook his head.

“You might as well stay and hear it from me,” he told them. “Jon and I left to get the coach,” he began, his voice thin and frail.

Slowly, Joe told of meeting Jon’s gang, and of being held prisoner while they journeyed into Arizona. His voice faltered as he told of the deliberate starvation and the chains, but Ben’s hand tightened on his arm to remind Joe that he wasn’t alone any more, and Joe’s voice gained strength as he explained about being their servant, and then the final gun battle with the sheriff’s men.

“I knocked myself out when I fell down the stairs,” he concluded. “When I came too, there was nobody there. The posse hadn’t checked the place very well, because Cochise was still in the barn. I managed to get the leg irons off, but I couldn’t remove the handcuffs. Next morning, I got onto Cochise and rode home. I ran out of food on the way home, but it didn’t matter, because I couldn’t keep it down anyway.”

“It was overloading your stomach,” Paul explained. “That’s why you’re living on broth right now.”

“Are you sure it was a posse and not another gang?” Roy asked, as Ben unashamedly wiped the tears from his face. He would have given everything he owned to spare Joe the ordeal he had gone through.

“No, I’m not sure,” Joe admitted. “It just seemed to me that it had to be a posse.” He yawned suddenly and his eyelids dropped. “I’m tired.” The catharsis of telling his story had drained him emotionally, as well as physically and he slipped quietly into sleep.

Glancing round, Ben saw that Adam had his hand on Hoss’ shoulder and the big man was wiping away tears. Adam’s eyes were glittering unnaturally, but he wouldn’t allow the tears to fall where others could see it. He would shed his tears alone, if at all. Ben could wish it were otherwise, but there was nothing he could do about it.

“I’ll find out fer sure, Ben,” Roy whispered, patting his friend’s shoulder. “I’ll let ya know when I know.”

“Thanks,” Ben replied.  He looked back at Joe as Paul began to feel gently round his head. “What are you looking for?” he asked.

“I was just checking to make sure I didn’t miss any lumps on Joe’s head. I didn’t think I had, but with Joe saying he’d knocked himself out, I thought I’d just double check.” Apparently satisfied, he straightened. “No, he’s fine. And I meant what I said earlier. I do think he’ll be all right, but it will be months before he regains that lost weight. I think, now his feet are on the mend, that you ought to try and get him out of bed and doing a little walking as soon as possible. If he lies there too long, he’ll become bed-bound.”

“Now?” Ben asked, astonished, for Joe could still not turn himself in bed.

“No, give him another couple of days. By then, he should have gained enough strength to stay awake longer. It will be incredibly difficult for him, Ben. I don’t know how he managed to get home, despite his horse! But you’ll see an improvement in time. If there’s anything worrying you, just call me.” Paul smiled at them and left.

*****

As Adam carried on making preparations for Christmas, Ben continued to sit with Joe, making sure he had everything he wanted. Joe had said no more about his ordeal, but he was having fewer nightmares, so Ben said nothing, either. Joe soon became used to the routine. Whenever he woke, he was given something to eat, and by the end of three days, he was feeling a bit better and was able to stay awake for longer. As Ben noticed this, he enlisted Hoss’ help to get Joe onto his feet again. The first time, Joe could only take a few shuffling steps before he slumped, exhausted, between father and brother, but later he was able to try again and took a few more steps this time.

“Pa, how long was I gone?” Joe asked, as he lay thankfully back on the bed. His face glowed with triumph, for he had managed to walk all the way across his room and back, with only Hoss helping him.

“Eight weeks,” Ben replied, watching Joe closely to see his reaction.

Eight weeks?” Joe repeated, stunned. The new color drained from his face as he tried to assimilate this information. “I… I knew it had been weeks, but… I never thought that long.” Anguish filled his eyes as he looked at Ben despairingly. “You must have thought I was dead,” he whispered, stricken with the knowledge.

“We didn’t give up hope,” Ben told him. “We looked everywhere for you, Joe, you must believe that. And when we realized that you were really gone, we never gave up hoping you would somehow come back to us. We knew that you wouldn’t go off like that, with no word, even after quarrelling with Adam.”

“Did I?” Joe asked. “Oh, yes, so we did. I’d forgotten.” He raised his eyes to his father’s again. “I didn’t ask… I didn’t think… Adam. Oh, Pa, is Adam all right?”

“Yes, of course Adam is all right,” Ben replied, perplexed. “You saw him this morning, Joe.”

“Oh, I know that, but I meant…” Joe took a deep breath and put his thoughts into order. “I never thought what effect telling my story would have on Adam. Jon was his friend, Pa and I just blurted it all out. Adam must be so hurt.”

“Yes, he is,” Ben agreed. “Hurt for you, that a friend of his could do such a thing.” Ben rubbed Joe’s arm gently. This sudden concern for others was a sign, to Ben, that Joe was on the mend. He could spare time to think of others, not just his own survival. “Did you think Adam cared more for Jon than for you?”

“No, of course not,” Joe replied. “But I didn’t think of how it would make him feel when I told you. Why didn’t I think of it?”

“You were pretty sick, Joe,” Ben told him. “You still are, but you are on the mend. Then, you told us to get it off your mind and to make us go away.” He smiled at the look on Joe’s face. “I know you didn’t think of it that way, but that’s how it was. You needed rest and your sub-conscious told you that the best way to get rest was to get rid of your audience and the best way to do that,” he grinned, “was to tell the story. That’s why you didn’t think of Adam. He understands that. After all, he hasn’t been treating you any differently, has he?”

“No,” Joe admitted. “Pa, could I talk to Adam, please?”

“Of course,” Ben agreed. He had yet to say no to anything Joe really wanted. Smiling at his son again, Ben rose and went to fetch Adam.

*****

Although he had wanted to talk to Adam and clear the air between them, Joe found it surprisingly hard to begin. He suddenly couldn’t meet his brother’s eyes. “I wanted to apologies for telling you about Jon like that,” he blurted. “I didn’t mean to. I didn’t want to hurt you. I know he was your friend.”

“I thought so while he was here,” Adam agreed. “But he stopped being my friend the moment he took you prisoner, Joe.”

Looking up, Joe saw that Adam meant every word. “Really?” he asked, still unwilling to believe that absolution could come so easily. “We quarreled, although I don’t really remember too well. I thought… well, to be honest, I don’t know what I thought.” Joe immediately contradicted himself, but Adam didn’t interrupt as he could see how important this was to Joe. “I thought you might hate me for not telling you about Jon when we were alone. But I didn’t really think about that then.”

“Joe.” Adam took a deep breath. He found it difficult, always, to say what was in his heart. But this mattered too much for him to keep it private. “As long as I have my brothers, it doesn’t matter if I don’t have any other friends. A friend could never come before you, or Hoss. I…” he paused and bit his lip. Joe’s green eyes never wavered from his face. Finally, the difficult, important words came. “I love you, Joe.”

Tears spilled down Joe’s face as he reached for his brother. For no matter how they quarreled, they were still brothers and this bond mattered more than anything. Joe knew how difficult it was for Adam to tell them what was in his heart and he felt the last burden of his captivity lifting with those precious words. “Thank you,” he whispered. “And I love you, Adam.” He smiled through his tears. “You stubborn Yankee Granite head!”

*****

The next afternoon, December 24th, Christmas Eve, Roy Coffee arrived at the Ponderosa through a light dusting of snow. He gratefully accepted coffee to thaw out and told the Cartwrights his news. “That weren’t a posse Joe saw, Ben. It were another gang. Jon had moved into their area, and there was a fight. The other gang, led by someone called Big Lem, took Jon and the rest and hanged ‘em all from the nearest trees. Joe were downright lucky that they never found him.”

“He was indeed,” Ben murmured.

“Big Lem was caught the other day robbin’ a bank. He told o’ the killings afore he died from the bullet the sheriff had put in him.” He shook his head. “Well, that’s the mystery solved, Ben. How’s the boy doin’? Paul says he’s improvin’.”

“Yes, he’s doing much better,” Ben replied. “He doesn’t know this, but we’re bringing him downstairs for Christmas tomorrow.”

“That’s right good ta hear,” Roy agreed. “Merry Christmas, folks.”

“And to you,” Ben returned.

*****

Later that night, Ben told Joe what Roy had said, and Joe simply nodded. But Ben could see the last lingering doubts vanishing from Joe’s eyes.

*****

“Good morning,” Ben said, gently, as Joe wakened the next day. “Merry Christmas, son.”

“Huh?” Joe responded. “Christmas? Is it Christmas already?”

“Sure is!” caroled Hoss from behind Ben. “Here’s yer breakfast.” He plunked a tray with a scrambled egg on it onto Joe’s lap. It was the first solid food he had had since returning home. He ate it slowly, enjoying every bite. He couldn’t remember anything ever tasting so good.

“Here you go, Joe,” Adam smiled and dropped two packages onto Joe’s lap.

“For me?”

“Open them!” Adam urged and Joe did so, drawing out the dressing gown and slippers.

“Are these a joke?” Joe demanded, his eyes flashing, as he held up one large slipper. “They’d fit Hoss!”

“Sure would,” Adam agreed, cheerfully. “But they also fit over those bandages. You’re coming downstairs, so get those things on!”

Despite Joe’s protests, he was soon warmly wrapped in the dressing gown and slippers and walked out of his room before his strength began to give out. Hoss carried him downstairs, where he was tenderly tucked up on the sofa.

“The tree looks great,” Joe whispered as he looked at it with tear-filled eyes. He was suddenly overcome with emotion. He hadn’t know it was Christmas.

Presents were handed out and Joe was overwhelmed by the things he received. Looking at it all, piled on his legs, while Adam, Hoss and Ben opened their parcels from each other, he could hardly believe it. “But, I don’t have anything to give to you,” he complained. Tears were standing in his eyes again.

“We have our gift from you, Joe,” Ben replied, gently. Seeing the non-comprehension on Joe’s face he added, “All we wanted was for you to come home for Christmas. We got our gift, and we don’t need anything else.”

***End**

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