A Different Kind of Vengeance (by Rona)

Summary:  After Hoss is bushwhacked and badly injured, Joe vows to find the men who did it, even though he was injured, too.

Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  8270


 

“I didn’t mean to sleep so late,” Joe Cartwright apologized to his father as he sat down to breakfast. “I guess I was tired!”

His father, Ben Cartwright, laughed. “Joe, that’s something of an understatement, son! You were so tired last night that you almost fell asleep in your plate a few times!”

“I wasn’t that bad!” Joe protested, but he was laughing, too.

“Oh, was that someone else then?” Ben asked. “Your identical twin, perhaps?”

Joe’s green eyes sparked and his grin got wider. “Now, there’s an idea!” he exclaimed. “A twin!”

“Never mind!” Ben warned him, wagging his finger at his unrepentant son. “One of you is more than enough! I wasn’t grey until you were born.”

Another laughing glance was thrown Ben’s way as Joe stuffed scrambled eggs into his mouth. The previous day, Joe had returned from a trip to Reno, where he had been looking at some horses he was considering buying. The trip had been fraught with one delay after another and when Joe finally arrived home, he was several days over due; wet, dirty and cold; and hadn’t bought the horses.

“How’d you get on with hiring men for the round up?” Joe asked. He grimaced slightly, for he had finished one long journey where he’d had to sleep on the ground, to face another similar journey almost at once.

Making a face, Ben shrugged. “We got a few, but they’re a pretty sorry lot. I don’t know how many of them will still be around when we actually get going, or how many will still be there when we arrive in Sacramento.”

“That bad, huh?” Joe sympathized. “A lot of the men still heading to work in the mines?”

“It seems so,” Ben agreed, heavily. This was an annual problem for the Ponderosa.

“So what do you want me to do today?” Joe asked, round a mouthful of bacon.

“I’d like you to go into town and draw the wages,” Ben replied. “Hoss was going to go, but one of the cows didn’t look too good and he went down there to see it.”

Although the last thing Joe wanted to do was ride into town, he smiled cheerfully and nodded. “Sure thing, Pa,” he agreed.

Patting Joe’s arm, Ben wasn’t fooled. “I know you’re stiff from yesterday, Joe,” he said, softly.

“It’s not a problem,” Joe assured his father, giving him a loving smile. “Honest, Pa. Just let me finish this.”

“Well, I was hardly going to turn you out in the middle of your meal!” Ben objected. “Although at the rate you’re going, I might have to! I can’t feed you and Hoss if you’re both going to eat like that!”

Joe laughed so hard he choked, and Ben had to thump him on the back. Once his breathing was under control again, Joe grinned. “It’s good to be home,” he said.

*****

Walking out to the barn to saddle Cochise, Joe reflected that he really was very stiff from the long day he’d put in the day before. Having been so held up, Joe had pushed both himself and his mount to get home. He knew that the ride to town and back wouldn’t do either himself or Cochise any harm, provided that he didn’t push the pace.

The pinto had bits of straw twined in his mane and tail, telling Joe that he had been down for at least some of the night. Grooming his horse, Joe talked away to him, something he’d done all his life without being aware of it. Every good horseman spoke to his horse. Cochise’s black and white ears flickered backwards and forwards and he shook his head, or snorted occasionally. It always gave the impression that a two-way conversation was going on.

The ride into town soon loosened up both horse and rider and Joe felt like his old self when he got there. Tethering Cochise, Joe went first to check the mail, picking up a couple of letters for Adam. He glanced at the Silver Dollar as he went past, but he wasn’t in the mood for a beer right then and went straight to the bank. The sooner the money for the payroll was back at the ranch and given to the men, the better.

When he left to go home, Joe had been in town for less than an hour. He waved to Roy Coffee, the sheriff, from across the street, but didn’t stop. He hadn’t seen Roy in a while, and he didn’t want to have to tell the story of his abortive trip to Reno. No doubt, Ben would tell Roy the next time the two of them played checkers.

Riding home, Joe felt that all was right with the world. He always felt this way when he returned home. His heart lay on the mighty Ponderosa and he could never imagine wanting to leave it and live elsewhere.

Movement caught his eye and he turned his head. Frowning, Joe could hardly believe what he was seeing. Four men were beating up another man, and Joe felt his heart lurch as he recognized his brother Hoss. Without a thought for his own safety, Joe spurred his mount into a gallop and dragged his gun from his holster, firing a warning shot in the air.

 Two of the men were holding Hoss by the arms, and the other two were hitting him. When they heard Joe’s shot, one of the men turned, drew his gun and fired at Joe. It was a lucky shot for the man. The almost spent bullet ripped through Joe’s side, all but knocking him from the saddle.

Joe’s intervention allowed Hoss to recover from the pounding he’d been getting and he managed to break free from the two men who’d been holding him. However, the fourth man saw the large, enraged Cartwright coming, and sledged his gun down on Hoss’ bare head. As the big man went down, he hit Hoss again.

So angry that he barely felt the pain from the bullet wound, Joe kept coming. He shot back at the men, and saw one go down. By then, Joe was in amongst the men, and he was hauled from his saddle by the man who had shot him.

But Joe was not known as the most stubborn Cartwright for nothing! He swung furiously at the man holding him and got in a punch that practically knocked the guy over. With his gun hand again free, Joe fired three shots in the air – the Cartwright distress signal.

At that, the other three men exchanged a glance. Joe threw another punch at one, but he was reeling on his feet from the blood loss and his opponent feinted a punch at him while one of the others reversed his gun and hit Joe on the head.

As Joe toppled to the ground, he heard the men say, “And he wasn’t even carrying the payroll!” Then the world went dark.

*****

Somewhere nearby, someone was groaning. Forcing open his eyes, Joe squinted until he became used to the bright light again. He turned his head, aware only of pain thumping him from all over his body. As his gaze fell on the person lying beside him, Joe forgot all about his own pain. He rolled over and felt frantically for Hoss’ pulse. It was there, a bit slow, Joe thought, but fairly steady.

But that was the only good news Joe could find. Hoss was deeply unconscious, blood oozing steadily from twin wounds on his scalp. It ran down the sides of his head to pool on the ground. “Hoss, can you hear me?” Joe demanded, shaking his brother gently, but there was no response. Joe wondered why Hoss was no longer groaning, not realizing that the sound had come from himself.

A few feet away was the wagon Hoss had been driving. Joe fastened his eyes on it, determined to somehow get his older, taller, heavier brother into it and safely home. Pushing his body up from the ground, Joe cried out as the pain from the bullet wound ripped through him. He collapsed back to the earth, groaning and panting until the pain was under control again.

Moving carefully, Joe finally gained his feet, although his head swam alarmingly and he staggered like a drunk in a high wind. But somehow, he reached the wagon and got the team moving. Once the wagon was beside Hoss, Joe rested, still trying to figure out a way of getting Hoss into the wagon. A familiar muzzle insinuated itself into his hand and Joe absently petted Cochise while he tried to force his woolly brain to think. And then it came to him.

He would use the horse to help.

*****

By the time the wagon rolled to a stop in the yard, Joe was conscious only by sheer will power. He could feel the blood trickling down his side, and judging by the sweat that kept forming on his face; the bullet was still in the wound. Joe was shivering, and knew that infection was likely setting in. He had also strained the muscles while maneuvering Hoss into the wagon.

Licking his lips, Joe wondered if he had enough voice to shout for help. It was about lunchtime, so both Ben and Adam ought to be around, but Joe didn’t know where either of them was working that day, and for all he knew, the house might be empty.

Deciding that he might be quicker going over to the house, Joe started to climb down from the wagon seat. But he had underestimated his weakness and as he leant over, his head whirled violently and he toppled to the ground, letting out a scream of pain as he landed.

Moments later, the front door of the house opened and Ben hurried out, to stand transfixed for a second before rushing over to Joe. Adam followed on his heels.

“Joe!” Ben exclaimed, kneeling by his son. “What happened to you?”

“Pa, Hoss is…in the…wagon.” Joe stopped to swallow. “I think…he’s…badly hurt.” With his message safely imparted, Joe let go and slid into the waiting darkness.

Straightening, Adam hurried round to the back of the wagon. He wondered briefly how Joe had managed to get Hoss into it, given his injury, but, as he saw the dried blood on Hoss’ head, the thought flew out of his mind. “Pa, Joe’s right,” he called. “I’ll get some help.” He hurried off to the bunkhouse, leaving Ben kneeling on the ground, cradling his injured son.

Within a few minutes, Adam was back with some of the men. One saddled a horse and rode off for the doctor. The others helped carry Joe and Hoss inside. Ben was in a dilemma. Both his sons were injured and both needed him.

“I’ll look after Joe,” Adam told Ben. “You go and see how Hoss is. If you need me, shout.”

Nodding, Ben went into Hoss’ room. His middle son was stretched out on the bed, and someone had pulled his boots off. Hoss’ face was stained with rusty dried blood and his pulse was steady, if a bit slow. “Hoss,” Ben whispered. “Can you hear me?”

There was no response. Ben turned to go and call for Hop Sing to bring him some water, but the Chinese factotum had anticipated his request and was there with water in his hands. “Thank you, Hop Sing,” Ben muttered and took the water into the room.

Bathing away the blood allowed Ben to see the two deep wounds on Hoss’ head more clearly, and he was relieved when the water began to bring his son around. When Hoss’ eyes did finally flicker open, Ben could see he was very dazed and hurried to reassure him.

“It’s all right, son, you’re home,” he said, soothingly. “Don’t move; you’ve had a hard knock on the head.”

“Joe,” Hoss muttered. “Joe.”

“Take it easy,” Ben murmured, letting his tone do most of the talking for him. “Joe brought you home and he’s going to be just fine!” For a moment, Ben’s thoughts strayed to his youngest son, wondering how Joe was faring. All that blood… Hoss groaned and Ben retrieved his straying mind and reached out to gently catch Hoss’ hand before he could raise it to his head. “Don’t move,” he repeated.

Knowing that it could be dangerous to allow a person to sleep after a head injury, Ben kept Hoss awake by talking to him, but he didn’t ask what had happened although he was desperate to know. He prayed that Paul Martin would hurry.

*****

Across the corridor, Adam unbuttoned Joe’s shirt and lifted the fabric to peer at the wound. There was still a little blood coming from it, but now that Joe was still, his body’s natural clotting was being allowed to work. For the moment, Joe was still unconscious, so Adam rolled him onto his side and stripped off the bloody shirt. There was no exit wound, he noticed.

Taking advantage of Joe’s somnolent state, Adam removed all his soiled clothing and when Hop Sing brought some water, he began to bathe the wound on Joe’s head. The youth’s face was covered in dirt and as Adam washed it, he felt a lump on Joe’s head under his curls.

Opening his eyes, Joe groaned. “Pa, it hurts,” he whispered, and licked his dry lips.

“It’s me, Joe,” Adam replied, leaning in. “Pa’s with Hoss.” He reached for the glass of water and lifted Joe’s head to let him drink.

“Adam,” Joe acknowledged, as he lay down again. “Hoss – is he…?” He couldn’t finish the sentence.

“He’s alive,” Adam assured him. “I haven’t seen him since he was brought in, because I’ve been here keeping an eye on you.”

“They were beating him up,” Joe went on, his hoarse voice giving Adam an idea of his pain. “I fired in the air, and one of them shot at me.”

“Looks like he got you, too,” Adam commented, gently.

“I got one of them,” Joe went on, oblivious to Adam’s comment. “One of them hit Hoss and I fought with the other.” He frowned. “I must’ve got hit on the head. I heard one say something about the payroll.” Joe’s eyes suddenly opened wide and he struggled to sit up. “The payroll!” he cried, as Adam gently restrained him.

“Don’t worry about that now,” chided Adam. “Please, Joe, stay still. You’re bleeding again.” Joe’s struggles had reopened the barely clotted wound. Adam snatched up the cloth he had been using to bathe Joe’s face and pressed it against his side, trying to staunch the blood. Joe let out a fearful groan and turned several shades paler.

“Don’t!” he gasped, breathlessly. “It hurts! Adam!” He fought to push his brother’s hands away, but Adam captured both of Joe’s wrists in one hand. After a moment, Joe’s weak struggles ceased. Tears slipped sideways from his closed eyes and ran down the sides of his face into his hair.

“I’m sorry, Joe,” Adam apologized, not relinquishing his hold. Joe’s arm muscles were still taut. “But I must stop the bleeding.”

His only reply was a groan of pain. Joe’s arms relaxed. Cautiously, Adam let go. There were no more attempts to push his hands away. Joe lay still on the bed, his head turned slightly towards the door. Adam cautiously lifted the cloth and saw that the bleeding had stopped again.

Hop Sing left as silently as he had arrived.

*****

Hearing the buggy in the yard, Hop Sing went out. He had been going up and down stairs constantly, providing the things that Ben and Adam required. Now, he bowed slightly to the doctor. “Mistah Hoss get hit on head two times,” he said. “Lil Joe get shot in side.”

“Thank you, Hop Sing,” Paul replied. “I’ll see Hoss first, then Joe.”

Bowing again, Hop Sing knew that he would have a few minutes before he would have to bring the hot water he had boiling on the stove and he went out to the barn. One of the hands had put Joe’s horse away and Hop Sing went straight over to the youth’s saddle and opened the saddlebags. At once, he found the payroll money, intact, as far as he could tell. Tucking it away in the pocket of his apron, Hop Sing went back to the house and upstairs to find out what was needed.

Paul had gone to Hoss first, as he guessed he would probably be longer with Joe. However, he was very concerned when he saw Hoss, as the big man appeared very dazed, and not completely with it. He examined Hoss thoroughly and gently felt his head. Hoss winced slightly a couple of times, but Paul was concerned by his lack of reaction.

Drawing Ben aside, Paul looked at him gravely. “Ben, I think we’re dealing with a skull fracture here. It’s not depressed, for which I’m very thankful, but Hoss must keep his head absolutely still! We’re going to have to hope that he isn’t going to be stricken with too much nausea. Keep him very quiet, and on a light diet. Apart from that, he’s had a bit of a beating, but there are no broken bones.”

“How long for?” Ben asked looking anxiously at Hoss.

“A week, maybe ten days. It’ll depend largely on Hoss.” Paul looked intently at his friend. “As long as you can keep him fairly still, he should recover, Ben. Don’t worry if he doesn’t seem to know what’s going on. That’s natural and a side effect of the concussion.” Paul sighed. “I often find that putting pillows on either side of the patient’s head helps to prevent movement.” Seeing the strain on Ben’s face, Paul essayed a small joke. “Just be thankful its Hoss, and not Joe. You’d never be able to keep Joe’s head still.”

“Have you seen Joe?” Ben asked.

“I’m just going there now,” Paul replied. He went back over to Hoss. “Hoss, I want you to keep as still as you can for me. I’m going to give you something for the pain and then you can go to sleep, all right?”

“All right,” Hoss mumbled. “How’s Joe?”

“Just sleep,” Ben soothed and Hoss’ eyes drifted closed and a few moments later he began to snore gently. Ben smiled fondly at him.

“All right, let’s see about that other son of yours,” Paul whispered and they went across the corridor.

*****

Adam looked unaccountably relieved when Paul and Ben came in. Fear spiked through Ben’s gut at that look and he hurried over to the bed to look down on his youngest son. Joe’s green eyes opened as he sensed his father’s presence. “Pa,” he whispered. His hand drifted up and Ben took it. “It hurts.”

“I know, son,” Ben soothed, stroking his head. “The doctor’s here and he’s going to help you.” Turning his head, he saw Paul was already pulling the blankets back to examine the wound.

It was the first time Ben had seen the injury and he could barely contain a gasp. Joe was running a fever and as soon as Ben saw the red, swollen hole in his son’s side, he knew infection had set in. Paul motioned to Adam to help him turn Joe onto his side and Joe cried out in agony.

“I’m going to have to operate,” Paul announced, his tone grim. “That bullet’s been in there more than long enough.” He suddenly leant closer. “Bring that lamp here,” he ordered, and Adam hastily complied, lighting the lamp so that Paul had as much light as possible.

“What is it?” Ben asked.

“I can see the bullet,” Paul replied. “I might be able to get it out without cutting any further.” He began to rummage though his bag, producing several instruments. “All right. Joe, I’m going to give you something for the pain. I’m afraid this is still going to hurt, but I’ll be as quick as I can. All right?” Joe nodded. “Hop Sing, can you bring me some water and towels, please and then come and hold this lamp. Ben, hold Joe’s arms and Adam, you take his legs. Hold him still.”

As ever, Hop Sing had everything the doctor needed prepared. He laid everything out then took the lamp, holding it exactly where he was told to. Ben, reluctance all over his face, gently pinned Joe’s arms to the bed above his head. Joe groaned as the movement strained his side. Adam sat on the bed, leaning his forearm on Joe’s thighs.

After a searching look at the face of each of his helpers, Paul began. Joe immediately let out a cry of pain and began to struggle. Despite the amount of blood he had lost, his struggles were quite strong, and Adam almost lost hold of his legs for a moment. Paul hesitated as Adam used more force to pin his brother to the bed, then began to work again.

It took less than two minutes for Paul to hook the bullet and ease it out of Joe’s flesh, but it seemed like a life-time to Ben and Adam, pinning him down. Joe continued to struggle, until Paul sat back and said, “Done!” in tones of great satisfaction.

A huge clot of blood had followed the bullet out of Joe’s side, and Paul wiped it away, along with a small amount of pus. Then he swabbed the wound with alcohol, before starting to stitch. Joe’s struggles became weaker, until he finally slipped into unconsciousness.  Ben started to relax his grip, but Paul stopped him. “Don’t let go,” he warned. “He could waken just as suddenly, and we don’t want him moving too soon. Not until I’ve finished stitching.”

“All right,” Ben muttered, but he felt dreadful. However, it only took Paul another minute to finish up, and then he got Ben to help him sit Joe up and wrapped a bandage around his slim waist. Joe began to stir as they laid him carefully back down.

As Ben ministered to his youngest, Adam eyed Paul. “Was that necessary?” he demanded, belligerently.

“I know you don’t think so,” Paul replied, mildly, “but that was a lot less hard on Joe than an anesthetic would have been. When someone has lost a lot of blood, knocking them out puts them in greater danger. A few minutes work and it was over, whereas with chloroform, or ether, he would still be unconscious, and would then feel quite sick when he woke, more than an hour from now. All right, it hurt, but the morphine should be working by now, and he will hardly feel anything.”

“So you say,” Adam began, but Ben put a stop to that.

“Adam!” Ben straightened. “That’s enough. Paul knows what he’s doing, and at least Joe didn’t have to be cut.”

“It’s all right, Ben,” Paul assured his friend. He put his hand on Adam’s shoulder and squeezed gently. “Adam’s just concerned for his brother.” He also knew that Adam was reacting to his own pain and guilt from when he had accidentally shot Joe, then been forced to remove the bullet, without any kind of pain relief for Joe at all.

Still not looking convinced Adam asked, “Are you sure?”

Nodding, Paul added, “There’s always a risk with anesthetic. Yes, Joe suffered some pain there, but he would have suffered more if I’d had to cut into his flesh. Adam, really, I’m not into torturing people, despite what your brother here would have you believe.” He jerked a thumb at Joe.

“I see,” Adam apologized. “I‘m sorry.”

“I should think so!” Ben hissed, but Paul shook his head, knowing both Ben and Adam were reacting to the strain.

“It’s all right, Ben,” Paul assured him. “Adam was only voicing his concern.” He smiled at Adam, who smiled back gratefully. “Now, keep Joe in bed for a few days until we see how he does. I think we got the infection out of there, but I’ll check on him every day when I’m out to see Hoss.”

“Hoss?” Adam repeated, sharply. Paul quickly explained Hoss’ condition to him.

Turning to Hop Sing, Paul said, “I’m relying on you, Hop Sing, to make sure these two get enough rest and plenty to eat.”

“Yes, Doctah,” Hop Sing responded, bowing deeply. There was no visible change of expression on his face, but Ben had the distinct impression that he was pleased.

*****

As Paul went out, Hop Sing felt in his apron pocket and handed Ben the wad of cash. “Payroll still in Lil Joe’s saddlebags,” he explained. “Boy worried about it.”

“But Joe said those men were after the payroll,” Adam murmured, puzzled. “I thought they must have got it. After all, look at the state of both Joe and Hoss!” He frowned at the money in Ben’s hand. “I don’t understand.”

“Nor do I,” Ben agreed. “And we won’t get an explanation until either Joe or Hoss tell us.” Ben suddenly felt utterly weary. Sitting down on the sofa, he realized, with a distinct sense of shock, that it wasn’t even suppertime yet. For all that it felt like late in the evening, it was still only afternoon.

“I’ll go and pay the men,” Adam offered.

“Thank you, son,” Ben agreed. He pulled himself to his feet. “I must go and waken Hoss again.”

He headed upstairs as Adam went out.

*****

“Four of the men are missing?” Ben echoed. “Which men?”

“They’re all new men,” Adam replied. “Forbes, Hardy, Rutter and Wallace. They just disappeared this morning, one by one, and no one noticed them going.”

“I can’t even think what they look like,” Ben mused, frowning.

“Neither can I,” Adam admitted. “But they knew that today was payday, and originally, Hoss was supposed to be going into town to get it. I wonder if they hijacked him because they thought he had the money on him.”

“And Joe came along, in time to save Hoss from a worse beating, only to get shot himself.” Ben glanced at the stairs, wondering how his sons were. “They must have been scared off when Joe killed one of them, not realizing that he had the payroll in his possession.”

“Joe’s probably lucky they didn’t realize that,” Adam commented. “Both Joe and Hoss might have died, if they had realized.”

A sigh shook Ben. “I think you’re right,” he agreed. “But we won’t know for sure till we can ask your brothers.” He forced himself to take a bite of the food in front of him. Thoughts of his injured sons intruded once more and he found it difficult to eat, knowing that Hoss was up there, with pillows on either side of his head to prevent movement, and Joe was fighting infection and blood loss. Yet what good would he be to his sons, if he were to become sick himself through not eating? Glancing at Adam, he saw that his oldest son was fighting the same battle. “How much to you think we’ll have to eat to please Hop Sing?” he joked.

Giving his father a long look, Adam replied, “All of it!”

*****

Joe was awake when Ben went back in. Adam had gone to sit with Hoss, whom they were still rousing every couple of hours. “Well, hello, young man,” Ben said, warmly. “You’ve decided to wake up again, have you?”

“Hi, Pa,” Joe replied. His voice sounded breathy, and Ben stroked his forehead, feeling the heat still there, but it seemed to him that the fever was down slightly. He eagerly gulped down the water Ben offered him. “How’s Hoss?” he asked, fearfully.

“He’s going to be all right,” Ben avowed. “He’s got a fractured skull, and has to keep still, but he’ll be fine, I’m sure.”

“A fractured skull?” Joe echoed, dismayed. His eyes were wide. “I didn’t hurt him bringing him home, did I?”

“No, son, you did the right thing!” Ben hastened to assure him. “Although how you managed that while wounded is beyond me.”

“I used Cochise to help me pull Hoss into the wagon,” Joe explained. He shifted position gingerly and winced.

“Can you tell me what happened?” Ben asked.

Slowly, Joe told about seeing the men in the distance, and recognizing Hoss. “I didn’t know who those men were, Pa, but I couldn’t leave Hoss alone to face them,” he explained, earnestly. “I fired in the air, and one of them shot at me. I killed another, and one of them hit Hoss on the head, twice. I think I got hit, too. As I blacked out, I heard one of them say something about the payroll.” He looked miserably at Ben. “I’m sorry it got stolen,” he concluded.

“It didn’t get stolen,” Ben replied. “We think those men thought Hoss had the payroll, as I had originally meant him to go and get it. They didn’t check your saddlebags.” He thought for a moment. “Joe, did you recognize any of those men?”

Making a face, Joe shook his head. “I’d never seen them before,” he answered. “Why?”

“Because we think they were new hands. They wouldn’t recognize you, because you weren’t here when they were hired, which is why they didn’t check your saddlebags. They must have thought you were just some passer-by that happened along.” He smiled. “Hoss was lucky you came along.”

“How could they?” Joe cried. He was furiously angry. “Don’t worry, Pa, I’ll get those men! They’ll pay for what they did to Hoss!”

Frowning, Ben said, sternly, “I don’t want to hear you talking like that, Joe! The law will deal with those men! You aren’t in any fit state to get out of bed, far less go hunting for them!”

“But I know what they look like!” Joe protested, mutinously.

“It doesn’t matter!” Ben replied. “You’re staying in that bed until the doctor says you can get up, is that clear, young man?” He phrased it like a question, but Joe was left in no doubt it was an order.

“Yes, sir,” he muttered, sulkily.

“Then we’ll say no more,” Ben soothed, in a softer tone. He began to prepare Joe for the night.

*****

By next morning, Joe’s fever was down, and despite being as weak as a kitten, he was agitating about getting out of bed. Adam was a good deal less patient about dealing with this little foible than their parent was, and didn’t bother with any cajoling; he said a flat ‘no’! Joe promptly sulked, but Adam was indifferent to that as well and Joe began to feel very hard done by.

“I want to see Hoss!” he objected, trying once more to push the covers back.

“Not until Paul says you can!” Adam snapped. “Now, do what you’re told! Do you want to burst those stitches?”

“No,” Joe muttered, although at that point he couldn’t have cared if he did. He wanted to see Hoss for himself, and make sure that his adored older brother really was awake and all right. Joe knew how serious a fractured skull could be and he was terrified that Adam and Ben were keeping things from him because he hadn’t been well.

It was about then that Joe began to hatch his plans. To begin with, he only intended to go and visit Hoss, but when Roy Coffee, the sheriff, arrived, Joe’s plans began to change.

“I found the man that Joe shot, still layin’ where he said, Ben,” Roy informed them. “I ain’t sure which o’ them men he was. He had fair hair, blue eyes, no distinguishin’ marks, as they say.”

“Sounds like Rutter,” Adam hazarded, after a moment’s thought.

“You could be right,” Ben agreed. “The problem is, Roy, we don’t remember what they looked like.”

“I remember,” Joe responded. “I can tell you.” They all turned to look at him. “One of them had dark hair and eyes and a big moustache.”

“Forbes?” Ben guessed. Adam shrugged.

“One of them had a brown beard,” Joe went on.

“Hardy,” Adam stated, with more assurance this time.

“And the other one was very thin and tall,” Joe concluded, slightly surprised at how much detail he had absorbed.

“Must be Wallace,” Ben agreed. “He had grey hair.”

“Them descriptions ain’t much ta go on,” Roy muttered doubtfully. “Well, I’ll send ‘em out, but don’t expect anythin’ ta come o’ ‘em.”

“Aren’t you sending out a posse?” Joe wanted to know.

“Ain’t much point, Little Joe,” Roy replied. “We know which way they went, but we ain’t none o’ us seen ‘em. Real hard to arrest someone you ain’t seen.”

This was perfectly reasonable, but didn’t satisfy Joe. “But I’ve seen them,” he persisted. “And so have Pa and Adam, even if they can’t remember them.”

Shooting a glance at Ben, Roy shook his head. “It jist ain’t practical, Joe.”

Coming to his friend’s aid, Ben added, “That’s enough, Joe. Roy knows what’s best. I know it’s disappointing that we’re not going to catch them, but that’s the way it is.”

Subsiding mutinously, Joe said no more. But it didn’t stop him hatching his plans.

*****

 When his supper was brought to him that night, Joe made an effort to eat everything on the tray. Ben looked delighted when he saw the clean plate. “You must be feeling better,” he commented, although Joe still looked pale to him.

“I am,” Joe agreed, although he was still weak. “Pa, please let me see Hoss.”

“No, Joe,” Ben said, firmly.

“Why not?” Joe cried. “He is all right, isn’t he?”

“Yes, of course he is,” Ben replied, impatiently.

“Then why won’t you let me see him?” Joe demanded, almost in tears. “Pa, please.”

Looking for the first time beyond Joe’s obvious weakness, Ben saw the fear lurking deep within the green eyes. He realized that Joe had not seen Hoss since he had brought him home, unconscious, the day before. Although Ben had been refusing to let Joe see Hoss because of Joe’s injury, he realized now that Joe had misconstrued their concern. “All right,” he agreed, reluctantly. “But let me help you.”

As he rose to his feet with Ben’s help, Joe was dismayed by how weak he felt. His head swam for a moment, and he despised the way he had to hold onto Ben’s arm as he shuffled slowly over to Hoss’ room. Those few steps were exhausting, and he was glad to drop into the chair by Hoss’ bed.

The big man was awake and he rolled his eyes slowly over to Joe. “Hi, Shortshanks,” he cried, cheerfully. “I thought you was dead for sure out there.”

“And I thought you were dead,” Joe returned, tears of thankfulness in his eyes. “How’re you feelin’?”

“Ma head’s some sore,” Hoss admitted, “but apart from that I’m as right as rain. Don’t you worry none, Punkin. Jist get better.”

“I’m all right,” Joe assured him. “How long do you have to lie there?”

“A few more days,” replied Hoss sounding resigned. “Till the doc sez I can git up.”

All at once, Joe was angry again. He tried to keep it hidden from Hoss and thought he had succeeded, but as he was helped back to his own room, Ben said, “Joe, you aren’t still thinking about going after those men, are you? You know you’re not up to it.”

“Look what they did to Hoss!” Joe cried. “Tell me it doesn’t make you angry, Pa!”

“Of course it does!” Ben scolded. “But there’s nothing I can do about it, Joe. I need to be here with you and Hoss, and so does Adam. We could hunt for a long time for those men, and still never find them.” Ben swung Joe’s legs into the bed and pulled the covers up. “Joe, there’s nothing we can do about it. Don’t brood on it. You saved Hoss’ life and you kept the payroll safe. Let’s just be thankful that you boys weren’t hurt any worse than you are, and put it behind us. All right?”

Muttering something under his breath, his eyes closed, Joe thought abut those men. More than anything, he wanted them to pay for hurting his brother. He felt Ben’s hand upon his head, brushing back that errant curl, and opened his eyes again. Ben was looking at him with deep concern. Joe found a smile. “I’m all right,” he insisted. “I just want to rest.”

Smiling back, Ben left Joe in peace. But as he slipped into slumber, Joe was still thinking about those men.

*****

It wanted only a couple of hours to dawn when Joe slipped from his bed and began to dress quietly. He had slept the previous evening away and now felt wide awake. It was then that he made the decision to go hunting for the men who had bushwhacked Hoss.

By the time he was easing out of his room, his boots in his hand, Joe was exhausted and shaking. He had no idea how he was going to accomplish everything he wanted to do, but his pig-headed determination wouldn’t let him admit defeat and so he kept going. Joe knew there was going to be trouble when he got back, but he didn’t let that deter him. He was the only one who could reliably identify the men and he intended to bring them to justice.

It hadn’t escaped Joe’s notice that his father thought he was going after the men to gun them down in cold blood. Joe had been too tired to protest about that, but it had never been his intention. He wanted to find them and bring them in. Joe had learned the lesson about summary justice all too well when Hoss had been shot by Red Twilight, and Adam had prevented Joe from killing Red in a fit of anger and vengeance. But Joe was determined that he wasn’t going to allow those men to get away with attacking Hoss scot-free.

After pulling on his boots on the porch, Joe rested there in the rocker for a few minutes. It was colder than he had realized, and for a moment, he wished he had his big coat. But he couldn’t go back inside now. Dawn was beginning to lighten the eastern sky and Joe knew that he had no more than an hour before Ben would be wakening.

He didn’t know how long it took him to saddle Cochise, but his side was throbbing despite the care he had taken. Probing gently, Joe decided that he hadn’t burst any stitches. He led his horse from the barn and out of the yard before mounting and riding gently away.

*****

As it happened, Joe got more time for his getaway than he had expected. Ben had decided to let Joe sleep a little longer that morning, seeing how tired he had been after his short trip the night before. So when he went in to give Joe his breakfast, finding the empty bed came as a nasty and distinct shock.

Hurrying downstairs, Ben caught Adam before he had the chance to reach the barn. “Joe’s gone!” Ben reported, tersely.

What?” Adam gasped. “How? When?”

“I don’t know,” Ben admitted. “But I can guess where he’s going!” Ben wrung his hands. “When I get my hands on that boy…!”

“I’ll go after him, Pa,” Adam told him. “Don’t worry, I’ll bring him back.” He hurried to the barn.

“Be careful, son,” Ben called after him and went reluctantly back inside, leaving his heart with his missing son.

*****

Pain came in dizzying waves, but Joe refused to stop and rest. He knew that if he did, he probably wouldn’t get going again. In retrospect, Joe realized how foolish he had been, but he was driven to find those men. The only thing in his favor was that he was stronger than he had been the day before.

A short way along the trail he was following, Joe came across the remains of a campfire. He didn’t dare to dismount, but he didn’t need to in order to see that the fire still smoked a little. The men had traveled barely two miles from where they had attacked Hoss before they made camp, and they had felt secure enough to stay there for two nights. Hope flared in Joe’s heart. They didn’t have much of a head start on him after all.

Loosening his gun in his holster, Joe rode on.

*****

Since he was able to travel much faster than Joe, Adam found the deserted camp site only a short time after his brother had ridden on. Adam did dismount and touch the fire to confirm what his eyes told him. The ashes weren’t quite cold. Looking around, Adam could see no immediate sign of Joe, and he swiftly mounted up to follow along the tracks, praying that he found his brother before his brother found those men.

*****

A murmur of voices from ahead alerted Joe that he had found his quarry. It was almost noon and he could vaguely smell a fire on the crisp air. Joe guessed that the men had stopped for some lunch. Taking a deep breath, he slid down from Cochise and tethered the horse. Drawing his gun, Joe eased his way through the trees until he could see them clearly.

As his eye fell on the three men, Joe suddenly didn’t feel any pain at all. All he felt was anger. Boldly, he stepped into view, his gun drawn. “Put your hands up!” he ordered, coldly.

The men by the fire all froze, gazing at Joe as though they were seeing a ghost. It took a few seconds for them to recognize the young man in front of them, but when they did, they each reacted by reaching for their guns. Joe fired a warning shot into the ground.

Something about the pale young man warned them not to try for their guns again. Perhaps it was Joe’s set face; perhaps it was something in his cold green eyes. But at any rate, none of them were keen to take him on. They slowly raised their hands.

But now that he had the men, Joe was faced with a dilemma. How was he going to get them back to the sheriff? Glancing around, Joe saw the horses standing a few feet away. Still keeping his gun trained on them, Joe edged round to the nearest horse and lifted the rope from the saddle.

A look was exchanged among the men. Joe saw it. He threw the rope at the nearest man. “Tie the others’ hands behind their backs,” he ordered. “Good and tight.”

For an instant, rebellion was on his face, but Joe simply lifted his gun a fraction higher. “Do it!” he ordered.

Unraveling the rope, the man walked slowly over to his friend, the one with the beard. Hardy was his name, Joe thought. And the man who was doing the tying was Forbes, leaving the other individual as Wallace.

But the momentary distraction would cost him dear. Forbes saw the youth’s mind stray and threw the end of the rope into Joe’s face. Joe’s gun jerked up and went off harmlessly into the air as Forbes threw himself at Joe.

There was no way he was going to win this fight, Joe knew. He had barely been able to stand upright, and his shaking hand had been of considerable concern to him. But Joe kept his head. He brought up the hand with the gun in it and struck Forbes alongside his head. The blow was nowhere near as hard as Joe would have liked, but it did the job. Forbes slid off Joe to the ground.

But it still wouldn’t have been enough if Adam hadn’t been so close. When he heard the first shot fired, he hurried Sport and quickly closed the gap between them. He dived into the clearing as Joe knocked Forbes out.

Hardy and Wallace were both on their feet, but Adam’s sudden appearance, standing over Joe, brought them to a halt. “Cartwright!” Hardy hissed.

“Put up your hands,” Adam ordered. He kept his eyes and his gun fixed on the men. “Joe, are you all right?”

“Yes,” Joe replied, but his voice sounded strained. He struggled to sit up, resisting the urge to clap his hand to his side, which he could feel was bleeding. He leveled his gun at the men. “Tie them up, Adam,” he urged. “The rope is there.”

It didn’t take Adam long to immobilize the men, and once they were secure, he hurried over to kneel beside Joe. “What were you playing at, you idiot!” he chided as he pulled open Joe’s coat.

“You can see what I was playing at!” Joe snapped. Despite his best intentions, he leaned against Adam. “I was finding the men who bushwhacked our brother!”

“Brother?” Forbes gasped. He began to fight against his bonds. “They’ll kill us, boys!”

“Don’t be stupid!” Joe retorted before Adam could say anything. “You’re going to the sheriff.”

Leaning back, Adam searched Joe’s face. Frowning, puzzled, Joe looked up at him. “What?” he asked. Pain was washing over him in waves, threatening to pull him under.

“Is that why you came after them?” Adam asked. “To take them in?”

“Of course it is,” Joe confirmed. “Did you really think I was coming after them to get my vengeance on them? After what happened with Red Twilight? Did you think I hadn’t learned my lesson?”

“You’re so impulsive, Joe,” Adam apologized. “And you were so angry, I didn’t know what to think.”

“You were partially right,” Joe allowed, leaning back against his brother and trying not to groan with pain. “I did want vengeance, but a different kind of vengeance. I wanted them brought to justice; not lynched.” He glanced over at their captives. “I wanted them to pay for what they did to Hoss.”

“They will,” Adam assured him. “They will.”

*****

When Adam and Joe finally reached home in the late afternoon, Ben was beside himself with worry. When he heard the horses clattering into the yard, he hurried out and saw that at least part of his worry was justified. Joe was slumped over his horse’s neck and Adam was helping him down.

“Hi, Pa,” Adam offered. “We caught them.” He offered a grin that Ben thought was inappropriate.

“But at what cost?” he snapped back, as he took Joe from his brother.

“One that I was more than willing to pay,” Joe croaked and tried a crooked smile. He failed to charm his father, and tried to stand up straighter. He couldn’t, and Ben tightened his grip.

As Ben helped Joe across the yard, he could hear Adam organizing some men to take the prisoners into town and fetch the doctor while they were at it.  Joe panted his way upstairs and while Ben stripped off his clothes, he laid back, exhaustion glazing his eyes. “I’d rather you just said it, Pa,” Joe muttered.

“Said what?” Ben asked, as he helped his son slide under the covers.

“Whatever it is you’re thinking that’s making you scowl at me like that,” Joe replied, and Ben couldn’t help but smile.

“I was wondering if you’d ever learn to do what you are told!” Ben told him, but the twinkle in his eye belied the sternness of his tone. He sat down by Joe and looked at him. “Why, Joe?”

“They had to be brought to justice,” Joe answered simply. “I didn’t go after them to kill them, Pa. I wanted to bring them in so they would stand trial. And when I saw Hoss yesterday, I realized I had to do it. They could’ve killed him, Pa,” and Joe’s eyes filled with tears. “If Hoss didn’t have such a hard head, they could’ve killed him. I can’t…” Joe couldn’t bring himself to go on, but Ben knew the end of the sentence anyway. ‘I can’t imagine life without Hoss.’

Blinking back tears, Ben realized that his anger had evaporated. Oh sure, he was still unhappy that Joe had decided to go off hunting for these men alone and sick, but he fully understood why he had gone. Joe couldn’t bear the thought of anyone else losing someone they cared about. “I understand, son,” he whispered.

Those words were the absolution Joe had been waiting for and his body relaxed. He slid into a deep sleep.

*****

The trial was short. With Both Joe and Hoss as witnesses, the three men had no chance. They were each sentenced to 10 years in prison.

“I’m glad that’s over,” Joe stated, as they left the court house. Ben helped him into the buggy, for three weeks after his ‘mad escapade’, Joe was still weak. His stitches had had to be redone and a mild infection had set in, confining Joe to more time in bed and when he finally was allowed up, he felt completely drained.

“So am I,” agreed Ben. Hoss nodded his agreement, too.

“Ya don’ need ta worry about Shortshanks here runnin’ off fer a while,” Hoss jested, heavily. “Ain’t no bushwhackers around needin’ caught!”

They all laughed as they drove off, but Ben was thinking about his sons, and the way they protected each other. It warmed his heart to know that they cared for each other so deeply.

***End***

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