A Time to Step Down (by Rona)

Summary:  An Alternative Ending to the episode of the same name.

Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  4179


 

Dimly, Joe became aware that the wagon had stopped. He forced his eyelids to open, wincing at the brightness of the morning sun. “Wh-what’s wrong?” he mumbled. “Why are we stopping here?” All he wanted was to get home and for the pain to stop.

“This is as far as I’m goin’, boy,” Dan Tolliver replied. He looked sorrowfully at Joe. “Yer pa made it right clear what would happen if’n ya got hurt and I just ain’t willin’ ta risk that. Ya can manage ta drive home from here.” He pressed the reins into Joe’s hand.

“What?” Joe struggled to sit upright, the pain drawing a horrendous groan from his throat. The bullet was still in his side and the pain was coming in waves. “Dan…” But it was too late; Dan had already slipped down from the seat. He walked swiftly to the back of the wagon and unhitched his horse. “Dan…” Joe tried again, but the old man didn’t look back.

*****

Walking out into the yard in the early morning chill, Ben wasn’t sure what he was going to do. He had no real idea how to find Joe, but he couldn’t just sit and wait. The sun had been up for some time and there was no sign of his son. Ben couldn’t wait any longer; he was going into town to report Dan Tolliver to the authorities.

The sound of hooves and the rattle of a wagon made Ben pause. He watched expectantly as the team drew into sight and a smile started to creep across his face. Joe was home! He stepped forward to greet his son warmly, but the smile slid away from his face and he let out a gasp of horror. Joe was slumped along the wagon seat, his face pale and his eyes closed.

“Joe!” Ben automatically grabbed the reins, bringing the team to a standstill. “Joe!” Ben reached for a pulse when he got no response from his son. It was there, fast and thready, but there. Relief made Ben feel momentarily weak.

As Ben eased Joe upright on the seat, he saw for the first time the saddlebag squashed underneath Joe. It was wet with the young man’s blood and Ben hesitated before lifting it. He knew at once, from the weight, that the wages were still in there. He didn’t know if they were intact or not and at that moment it didn’t really matter. What mattered was getting Joe into the house and getting him the help he so desperately needed. “Hop Sing!” he cried and was relieved that the Chinese housekeeper appeared at once. “Help me!” he commanded and together, they eased Joe from the wagon seat into Ben’s arms.

“Take that bag inside,” Ben instructed Hop Sing as he began to walk towards the house. Joe was a dead weight in his arms. “Send someone to get Hoss and the doctor,” he added.

Ben would never admit how winded he was when he laid Joe gently on his bed. Joe stirred and moaned, moving his head restlessly on the pillow for a few moments before he opened his eyes. Ben smiled and bent over him, struggling to hide his breathlessness from his son. “Joe? Can you hear me?”

“Pa?” Joe blinked and licked his lips. “Am I… home?”

“Yes,” Ben replied. “Joe, can you tell me what happened?”

“I was stopped on the road by those two men I fired,” Joe whispered. He swallowed and licked his lips again and this time Ben took the hint and offered Joe a sip of water. “They wanted Dan to get the wages money from you. I guess he did, but when he came back, Temple and Sand turned on him.” Joe stopped to rest for a minute. “I’d managed to free my hands and I fought with Temple. Dan was knocked down. Sand shot at me, but I managed to turn so that… so that…Temple got hit. Dan got Sand, but Sand’s last shot got me.”

“How did you get away from Dan with the money?” Ben asked gently.

“Dan…” Joe hesitated. “I told Dan to take the money and get out. To try and buy a friend like you. He helped me, Pa. Brought me back.”

“Where is he now?” Ben wanted to know.

“He…” Joe was finding it hard to keep talking. Pain was sapping his strength. “He left a ways down the road. Said he didn’t want you to find him, since I wasn’t all right.” Joe forced his eyes open. “What did he mean?”

“Don’t worry about it,” Ben told him. “Just you relax. I’ve sent for the doctor. Do you think we could take off your clothes?”

The very thought was enough to make Joe wince, but it served its purpose in diverting his attention. “I guess,” he agreed reluctantly. He lay quiescent as Ben carefully tugged off his boots. It hurt, but the pain was bearable. However, when it came to removing his jacket and shirt, Joe passed out as soon as he sat up. Ben used the opportunity to remove the rest of Joe’s clothes, heaping curses upon the head of Dan Tolliver, a man he once counted as a friend.

*****

“What’s happened ta Joe?” Hoss gasped as he practically fell through Joe’s bedroom door. He crossed swiftly to the bed, looking down on his younger brother with undisguised concern. “Hi, Punkin.”

“You haven’t called me that in a long time,” Joe replied, trying to smile. He wasn’t entirely successful. “I must look… pretty bad.”

“No worse than usual,” Hoss joked, but his attempt at humor fell flat. Joe did look pretty bad. He was pale and a sheen of sweat coated his skin. The way he was lying told his family that he was in a great deal of pain. Hoss glanced at Ben, waiting for an explanation.

Reluctantly, Ben told Hoss the story, watching Joe as he spoke. Joe had his eyes closed, the better to bear the white-hot pain that lanced through his abdomen with every breath. More than anything, Joe wanted to sleep, but he couldn’t quite manage to slip into that pre-sleep twilight state. He wondered how long he would have to wait for the doctor to arrive and if he could bear the pain that long. A moan escaped his control.

Instantly, Ben was at his side, one hand brushing the sweat-dampened hair back from his forehead. “What is it, Joe?” he demanded anxiously. “Is the pain worse?”

“No…” Joe replied, sounding uncertain. He felt nauseous and hoped he wouldn’t throw up. He couldn’t deal with that, too. “When’s the doc gonna get here?” Joe asked and regretted the words the instant they were out of his mouth. The alarm on Ben’s face scared Joe, for it confirmed his worst fears – this injury was serious.

“Soon, son, soon,” Ben soothed, although he sounded scared even to his own ears. He glanced up at Hoss as Joe squeezed his eyes shut once more.

*****

Three hours passed before Doc Martin arrived at the ranch. It was three long, long hours for all of the Cartwrights. Joe grew paler with every passing moment; sweat beaded his brow and pooled in the hollow of his throat. Blood no longer stained the makeshift bandage Ben had wrapped around his son’s slender waist, but it was clear that Joe had lost too much. With every minute that passed, the bullet had more chance to leave behind a virulent infection, if it hadn’t already done so. Hoss was essentially silent, smoothing a damp cloth over Joe’s head and chest occasionally, offering wordless comfort. Ben paced restlessly, his anger at Dan Tolliver growing ever stronger.

It came as no surprise that Paul had to operate. Joe, by then, was semi-conscious, groaning with pain sometimes, and by and large oblivious to his surroundings. Paul did not say that Joe was too weak for surgery. There was no choice. Joe might die under the knife, but he would surely die if the bullet was left in place. Hop Sing silently brought the boiling water he had had ready for the past two hours. Ben leant over Joe one last time.

“I love you, son,” he breathed.

Fever flecked, glassy green eyes opened briefly, but there was no recognition in those emerald depths. Joe was in a place where Ben could no longer reach him and the strength of his terror and anger shook the older man to the core. He had not known he could feel such rage and fear.

Straightening, Ben looked at Paul for a long minute before glancing down once more at Joe. Moving like an old man, he left the room physically, but his soul remained, praying that his beloved son would survive this ordeal as he had survived so many before.

*****

The bullet wasn’t difficult to find. But its position left a lot to be desired, resting as it did right beside Joe’s liver. The muscle was badly damaged, too, but that would be the least of Joe’s worries if by some mischance Paul did not manage to get the bullet removed cleanly. If the bullet nicked the liver, Joe would start to bleed internally and abdominal surgery was far too risky for a country doctor to perform. Drawing a deep breath and willing his shaking hands to steady, Paul eased the tweezers into the incision he had made.

Four times, the bullet slipped from between the tweezers. Blood welled into the wound and Hop Sing could not risk wiping it away too often, lest he move the elusive piece of lead they were hunting for. But at last, Paul was able to pull it clear and he closed his eyes, taking a moment to pull himself together.

But he wasn’t finished yet. He still had to check for bleeding blood vessels and do what he could to seal them; clean out any obvious infection and then suture the incision. The work was exacting and exhausting. By the time the last suture was inserted, Paul had been working over Joe for two hours.

“It’s up to you now, Joe,” Paul told him as he bandaged the incision. “You’ve got to fight to get better, understand?” He turned his head to look at Hop Sing as the other man gathered up the soiled towels and sheets. “You can tell Ben he can come up now,” he requested.

“Hop Sing bring doctor coffee,” he nodded.

“Thank you,” Paul smiled. “That sounds wonderful.” Actually a full night in bed sounded even better, but Paul wasn’t sure if he would be seeing any bed, far less his own, that night. Joe was going to take some careful watching and Paul wondered if there wasn’t something in this new-fangled blood transfusion business. Surely anything that could help restore the blood Joe had lost was a good thing. However, he had read that sometimes there were problems with it, although no one knew why yet. But since Paul didn’t know enough about the procedure to risk using it, he would have to rely on Joe’s constitution and the power of prayer. Paul had a lot of faith in both those things, but sometimes he would have liked to have had more tangible weapons at hand to fight this kind of battle.

The door opened and Ben came in, interrupting Paul’s thoughts. Hoss was at his father’s heels. “How is he?” Ben asked, the anxiety clear in his voice.

“He’s weak,” Paul replied. “I hope that I got all the infection out but we’ll just have to wait and see. I’ve done all that I can for now, Ben. I’ll stay tonight to keep an eye on him. His temperature is slightly up, but that’s not surprising given the trauma he’s suffered. Basically, we wait for Joe to get better.”

“What are his chances?” Hoss asked.

“He’s young and strong,” Paul replied – his standard answer for someone like Joe. “That gives him a head start on fighting this. And he survived the injury and being moved – that says a lot.” He looked at Ben and Hoss and saw that he hadn’t reassured either of them. Well, he couldn’t blame them for that. It was hard to be optimistic when Joe was lying so pale and still in the bed. “What happened anyway?”

At once, Paul knew the question was a mistake. Ben’s brows drew down and Hoss’ mouth tightened noticeably. “Dan Tolliver,” Ben growled. The contempt and loathing in his voice shocked Paul.

“What do you mean?” Paul asked, wondering if he would come to regret the question. As the story spewed from Ben’s mouth, Paul found that he did. Ben’s bitterness towards his old friend and mentor was unmistakable. However, Paul didn’t blame Ben. Kidnapping Joe was a poor way to repay a friendship of such long standing and even though Dan had seen sense in the end, it didn’t excuse what he had done. “Where’s Dan now?” he enquired when Ben ran out of words.

“He ran off,” Ben reported scathingly. “He couldn’t even see Joe to the door.” His eyes were fastened on Joe’s face and his hand reached out to brush the errant curls from his son’s forehead. “I’m going to press charges. Dan is going to be sorry.”

Now that did shock Paul. Ben was the most forgiving man he had ever met. People hurt him, yet time and again Ben ignored the hurt and offered the hand of friendship once more. There had been times when Paul had privately thought Ben was stupid to do so, but that was just the way his friend was made. It was rather stunning to hear Ben suggest such a thing in a tone of voice that left no one in any doubt of his anger. Then it occurred to Paul why Ben was reacting like this. It wasn’t him who had been hurt – it was one of his sons. And there was no hiding from the world that Joe and Ben shared a special relationship.

Thinking back, Paul could find another example to back up his conclusion. Yes, Sam Kirby had been a party to Joe’s kidnapping, but he had saved Joe’s life and apart from a few bruises, Joe hadn’t been hurt. He also knew that Sam Wolfe, who had hunted Joe down, tied him up and was ready to murder the youth, had died at Ben’s hand. Perhaps it wasn’t so shocking. Ben had been both mother and father to all his sons – he had no one to share the highs and lows with. Perhaps that was why his emotions were so extreme.

Before Paul could say anything, Joe moaned. Paul moved to his side, reaching for his pulse, reassuring himself that all looked well so far. “He’s coming round from the anesthetic,” he announced, as though the Cartwrights couldn’t guess that for themselves.

Sure enough, within a short time, Joe’s eyes were opening, although he wasn’t entirely aware of his surroundings. Then the dreaded vomiting began. Paul wondered, vaguely, as he wiped Joe’s mouth, whether someone, some day, would invent an anesthetic that didn’t make people throw up. Or perhaps they would invent something that stopped the nausea.  Either way, he was sure Joe would appreciate it.

“How’s the pain, Joe?” Ben asked, watching as his son bit his lip as he moved.

“It burns,” Joe admitted. He felt deathly ill. His side hurt; a deep, burning pain that sapped his strength. He just wanted to sink into oblivion and sleep until the pain was gone. Joe wasn’t quite sure how he would bear it otherwise.

“I’ll give you something for the pain,” Paul promised. Morphine was a double-edged sword. It killed the pain, but it could cause breathing problems and patients who were on it for a long time became addicted. But right now, Paul knew it was the best thing for Joe. Before long, Joe was slumbering again.

*****

The night passed more peacefully than Paul had anticipated. Joe slept soundly for the most part and Paul was able to persuade Ben to get some much-needed sleep. However, towards morning, he started to toss restlessly and Paul was not surprised to find that his temperature had risen. Wearily, Paul unwrapped the bandages, fearing what he would find.

The wound looked clean. It was slightly red, but no more than Paul had expected after the operation. He frowned. There was no infection to speak of – so where was the fever coming from? He got his answer a moment later when Joe opened bleary green eyes and spoke through one of the stuffiest-sounding noses that Paul had heard in a long time.

“Water,” Joe croaked.

When Joe’s thirst had been satisfied, Paul peered into Joe’s ears and down his throat and was relieved to confirm that Joe had a bad head cold. It was all he needed on top of the operation, but the relief that he wasn’t brewing up a potentially fatal infection made Paul feel quite giddy. “I have the feeling you’re going to make a full recovery, young man,” he told Joe. “Even from the head cold.”

Joe simply sniffed, far too miserable to see any humor or relief in his situation.

*****

After breakfast, some of which Joe ate, Paul took his leave. He gave Ben a prescription for some painkillers for Joe and in the meantime, gave Joe another shot of morphine to hold him over for a few more hours.

Checking on Joe after Paul had gone, Ben found his youngest son asleep, looking strangely vulnerable for someone who was normally so capable. His anger flared anew. “I’m going into town,” he told Hoss. “You hold the fort here until I get back. And then, can you be trail boss? I want to stay with Joe.”

“Sure thing,” Hoss agreed, although he knew how much Joe had been looking forward to being trail boss that year. Thanks to his brother’s organization, the supplies were ready and enough men had been hired. The cattle were rounded up and they were ready to go. “What’re ya gonna do in town?”

“I’m going to press charges against Dan Tolliver,” Ben replied grimly.

*****

“Sure, I seen Dan yesterday,” Roy Coffee, the sheriff, confirmed. “He stopped in town an’ went in ta see Beth.” He chewed on his moustache reflectively. “What d’ya want him for, Ben?”

“I want to press charges against him,” Ben replied tautly. “Charges of kidnapping and blackmail.”

“I think ya’d better tell me the story,” Roy gasped, scarcely able to believe what he was hearing. He leaned back in his seat while Ben recounted the story, pacing agitatedly up and down the jail. Roy was shocked by what he heard. “Have ya talked ta Dan?” he asked, when Ben had finished.

“The only talking I would do with Dan Tolliver would be with my fists,” Ben replied. “I made it clear to him that if Joe came home unhurt, he could have the money and welcome to it. But that didn’t happen and he didn’t even had the nerve to make sure my son got back to the yard safely. Joe was unconscious when I found him, Roy! Unconscious! It was just good fortune that Joe fell along the wagon seat, not out of it! He didn’t care if Joe managed to get home or not!”

“I’ll git the warrants made out,” Roy agreed. “But heed me, Ben. If’n ya find Dan, ya’d better jist bring him back here, alive – or there’ll be trouble.” He fixed Ben with his fiercest glare.

For a moment, the two old friends glared at each other and then Ben backed down. Common sense told him that Dan was not worth getting into trouble over, although Ben’s hot temper demanded the right to beat the man to a pulp. If push came to shove, Ben was not sure which side of his nature would prevail. “All right,” he agreed, but his eyes were lowered. Roy decided not to push it.

“Go on home, Ben,” he suggested. “I’ll let ya know when I find anythin’.”

“Thanks, Roy,” Ben murmured and left the jail.

He stood for a few moments on the porch. He felt somehow unsatisfied with his actions. He began to walk slowly towards his horse, but an errant breeze brought a tantalizing smell of apple pie to his nostrils and Ben’s feet changed direction of their own accord and he found himself outside Beth Riley’s café.

It was no secret in the town that Beth had a yen for Dan. Dan didn’t seem to know it, but he was fond of Beth in his own way and often frequented her establishment. Ben knew that times were not easy for Beth. The mines were going through a quiet spell and the men who had been her customers at the changing of the shifts had generally drifted on. But Beth never complained, she just continued to work hard.

The café was empty when Ben went in. There was a rich smell of coffee in the air. Beth turned from the stove and there was a momentary hesitation before she smiled in welcome. “Hello, Ben,” she offered.

“Beth.” Ben walked in and looked around. The small café was neatly painted and very clean. He had eaten there on occasion himself and knew that his sons came in often. “I’m looking for Dan.” His voice was cold and Ben wondered at the anger that he was allowing to spill onto this woman who was innocent of any wrong doing. But he somehow couldn’t help himself.

“He’s not here,” Beth replied, steadily. She found Ben in this mood very fearsome. “He left yesterday. I don’t know where he was going, but he gave me a message for you.” Beth drew a deep breath. “He told me to tell you that he’ll always be looking over his shoulder. That one day, he knows that when he looks, he’ll see you there.”

The surge of savage satisfaction that swept through Ben’s being was a surprise to him. It surprised him because he didn’t think he was the type of person who could be so vindictive, but the thought that Dan Tolliver would never again have an easy moment was enough to assuage the anger that had kept him going since Joe returned home. “Good,” he grunted. “Perhaps that way, he’ll pay for what he’s done.”

Afraid or not, Beth loved Dan and had to defend him as far as she could. “That’s not fair,” he retorted. “He didn’t want any harm to come to Joe. You know that.”

“Do I?” Ben shot back. “Then why did he agree to kidnap Joe in the first place? How come my son is lying at home recovering from a gunshot wound that nearly killed him? Answer me that, Beth!”

Tears sprang to the woman’s eyes. She couldn’t refute Ben’s argument. “He told me he’s sorry that Joe got hurt. But Temple and Sand were going to kill them both!”

“And Dan truly believed that they would release Joe unharmed, when he had seen their faces?” Ben gave a mirthless laugh. “Then he is even more naïve than I thought!”

Turning, Ben walked back towards the door. He thought it more than likely that he would never see Dan again. In a way, he was sorry, for they had been friends for many years. In another, he was glad, for then his indecision would not be put to the test. He would not have to wonder which side of his nature would prevail. But one thing he knew for sure; when he was away on business for the ranch, he would always keep his eyes open for Dan.

At the door, he paused. “If you hear from him again, just tell him one thing.” Ben stopped, instinctively pausing to give his words more weight. “There is no place in this whole world that is deep enough or dark enough for him to hide in.”

Beth stood, frozen, as Ben left. Outside, he stretched, and realized that he felt better. The warning had been given and would be passed along, he was sure. Some day, Dan Tolliver would pay for what he had done, one way or another. And if in the meantime, he found no peace for the fear that Ben would turn up one day, so much the better.

There would be times in the future that Ben would wonder that he felt that way. But he didn’t deny that he had. He knew he was only a flawed human, not perfect and he could not forgive the callous way that Dan had used Joe, had shunned the years of friendship so easily. To Ben, that said a lot about the man.

To forgive was divine.

Ben was nowhere near divinity.

He walked to his horse and returned home to nurse his son back to health.

***End***

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