Another Mountain to Climb (by Rona)

Summary:  A What Happened Next for the episode “Between Heaven and Earth.”

Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  9598


 

“Mitch?” Joe Cartwright started to smile as he left the saloon and saw his friend coming towards him. But the smile died on his face as Mitch gave him a cold look and brushed through the other half of the saloon doors. Seconds later, the door swung back and hit Joe on the shoulder. The blow wasn’t sore, but it signified what Mitch would like to do to him. Sadly, Joe glanced back over his shoulder and saw Mitch joining the group of young men that they had both previously hung out with.

Feeling excluded, Joe took a few steps towards his horse and slowly mounted before riding off towards home.

*****

“That you, Joe?” Ben called as he heard the front door open and then close again.

“Yeah, it’s me, Pa,” Joe replied, but his tone was listless and Ben frowned. Putting down his pen, Ben abandoned the letter he had been writing and got to his feet.

“What’s wrong?” he asked Joe, as the younger man headed wearily towards the stairs. “Are you sick?”

“No, I’m fine, thank you, sir,” Joe answered. He tried a smile, but it was far from convincing. “I guess I’m just tired. It’s pretty hot out there.”

That was perfectly true, it was hot outside, but Joe looked as cool as a cucumber. For a moment, Ben pondered if he should probe further or wait and let the situation play out. Joe had had a hard couple of weeks, with the sudden nightmares and then confronting his fear of heights in a way that only Joe would. The falling out with his long-time friend, Mitch Devlin, hadn’t helped either. Then Ben remembered that Joe had been in town that afternoon and he was suddenly sure that he knew what was wrong with Joe.

“Did you see Mitch?” he asked, his tone sympathetic. He rubbed a hand over Joe’s forearm.

“Yes,” Joe replied, stonily. He kept his gaze averted. “He didn’t say anything and neither did I. I’m going to my room now, Pa.” He walked on without a backward glance and Ben allowed him to go. He knew what was wrong with Joe now.

Up in his room, Joe looked around blankly before going over to fall on the bed. He wasn’t sleepy but he was so tired. He had known how badly he had hurt Mitch that afternoon when he took him on at arm wrestling and beat him. He had tried to apologize, but Mitch hadn’t wanted to know. Joe couldn’t blame him. Mitch didn’t have the advantages that Joe had. His parents scrubbed out a meager living growing oats, barley and wheat. The only thing that Mitch had that was different was a lot of strength in his upper arms. He had been undisputed arm wrestling champ among the younger cowboys for quite some time.

“And I spoiled it,” Joe whispered, his hands clenched into fists. He glanced down, seeing his knuckles white and the cords and sinews standing out in proud relief. Joe was physically strong. It came from working each day with horses and cattle, from repairing fences and moving bales of hay. Joe had always suspected that he was stronger than Mitch, which was one of the reasons why he had never challenged his friend before. How he wished he could turn the clock back.

The need to hit something was almost overwhelming. Joe rolled onto his side, eyes closed as he pictured once again Mitch’s face as Joe forced his arm down onto the table. Groaning in despair and frustration, Joe swung blindly and caught his punch on the wall. Pain rocketed up through his hand and arm and he groaned again.

But the physical pain didn’t help his emotional pain. Joe sat up, cradling his injured hand, rocking back and forth. Joe held his breath for a long time, finally expelling it in a rush of air. He felt slightly better – less tense, but no less miserable. This was not the first storm Joe had weathered since he had fallen out with Mitch and he didn’t suppose it would be the last.

“Joe! Supper!”

Rising, Joe looked down at his hand in disgust. There was no way he could hide the split knuckles from his family.  “Coming!” Joe quickly swilled his hand under the water from his ewer and washed the worst of the blood away, but his knuckles were still oozing slightly and Joe knew he was in for some hard questions. “It’s your own fault!” he chided himself as he left his room.

*****

Seeing the damage to Joe’s hand, Ben knew that his son was still feeling down. Actually, Ben mused to himself, down was something of an understatement. However, he offered no comment and silenced any smart remarks that his other sons might make with a single glance. Joe was grateful that nobody spoke directly to him through the meal and in consequence, he managed to eat slightly more than the few bites that had been his lot since the argument.

It was amazing how quickly Adam and Hoss made themselves scarce after supper, and all without Ben having to say a single word. Joe slumped dejectedly on the sofa and waited for the lecture. However, there was no lecture forthcoming. Ben simply brought warm water from the kitchen and proceeded to bathe Joe’s bruised hand gently.

“What am I going to do, Pa?” Joe asked. “I hurt Mitch so badly. I can’t blame him if he never wants to speak to me again.”

“I don’t think you really need me to tell you what you should do, Joe,” Ben chided him gently. “But only you can decide what you’re going to do.”

Looking up into Ben’s face, Joe blinked back tears when he saw the love and understanding there. “I was so busy trying to prove I was a man,” he murmured. “And all the time I was proving the exact opposite.”

“You are a man, Joe,” Ben replied. “A very fine man. And like all men, you are flawed and human. You made a mistake. Yes, it was a big mistake and one that perhaps Mitch won’t be able to forgive you for. I’m afraid that can happen, for Mitch is a flawed human being like the rest of us.”

“I know,” Joe whispered. He winced as the warm cloth wiped across his knuckles once more. “I’m going to apologize to him, Pa. I’ll go out to their place. That’ll be easier than trying to talk to him in town.”

Putting aside the cloth, Ben started to dry Joe’s hand with a towel, wincing at the rawness of the knuckles. “Is tomorrow soon enough?” he asked and Joe smiled.

“Thank you, yes it is,” he replied. “Thank you for understanding, Pa.”

“You’re welcome, son,” he answered gravely.

*****

That night, Joe slept better than he had done for weeks, his dreams untroubled. When he woke in the morning, he felt rested for the first time in ages and noticed as he rose that he had been allowed to sleep in.

“Thanks for letting me sleep late, Pa,” Joe muttered around a mouthful of food. “I appreciate it.”

“Well, I know that you’re going over to see Mitch today, and I decided, since you were sleeping so soundly, to leave you for a while.” Ben smiled. “How are you feeling about going?”

“I’m kind of dreading it,” Joe replied, honestly.

“It probably won’t be as bad as you think its going to be,” Ben consoled his son. “But I do understand how you feel. When do you think you’ll be back?”

“I’m not sure,” Joe admitted. “Probably by supper, I would think.” He shrugged, looking vaguely dissatisfied. “It depends on how things go, I guess.”

“Well, then, we’ll see you at supper,” Ben smiled.

He was still smiling as Joe rode away, projecting an aura of unconcern and confidence. But once Joe was out of sight, the smile faded and Ben’s shoulders slumped. He hoped Joe and Mitch would be able to patch up their friendship, but Ben wasn’t at all sure that it would happen. And if the worst did come to the worst, how would Joe feel then?

Turning away, Ben knew the answer; Joe would be devastated.

*****

Several times on the ride over to Mitch’s place, Joe felt the urge to turn back. Each time, he stopped for a moment, pulling in deep draughts of air, calming himself down. Cochise fidgeted uneasily; Joe was tense and the sensitive horse had picked up on that. Joe patted the silky neck soothingly and pulled an ear and rubbed between Cochise’s eyes when the horse turned his head to nuzzle Joe’s boot.

Time seemed to have become elastic, for when Joe saw Mitch’s home hove into view he felt as though he had just left home, yet in another way, that the ride had taken far too long. Shaking those confused thoughts out of his head, Joe rode up to the house and dismounted, hitching Cochise to the porch rail.

The welcoming smile that sprang to Mrs. Devlin’s face was the best thing Joe thought he had ever seen. But the speed at which it faded told Joe much about Mitch’s feelings towards him. It was an extremely awkward moment.

“Hi, Mrs. Devlin,” Joe offered quietly. “Is Mitch here?”

“No, he’s out,” Mrs. Devlin replied. She was a small faded woman, with the same fair coloring as her son. Life had not been kind to the Devlins and they struggled to make ends meet all the time. The hardness of the life out west showed in Mrs. Devlin’s face – she looked about 70, yet Joe knew she was barely in her mid-forties.

“Do you know where he is?” Joe asked. He put out a pleading hand before she could shake her head and shut the door on the unwanted visitor. “Please, Mrs. Devlin. I want to apologize to Mitch.” He tried to smile, but it didn’t come off. “I promise I won’t make trouble.”

“All right,” Mrs. Devlin sighed. “He’s gone up Rim Rock Canyon to hunt down some strays belonging to old Mr. Potter next door.” Next door was a euphemism for the neighboring ranch about 10 or 12 miles along the road. “He said he’d be gone for a couple of nights.”

“Thank you,” Joe replied. He didn’t linger, instead turning at once and vaulting onto his horse. Joe set out for home at the gallop. He now knew exactly what he was going to do.

*****

“Be careful!” Ben admonished Joe as he swung the saddlebags onto Cochise’s back and started to tie them on.

“I will, Pa, I promise,” Joe replied. He mentally ran through the list of things he was taking with him. Food, his rifle, a slicker, water and some basic first aid supplies that Hop Sing insisted that he couldn’t leave behind. “I should be back in a couple of days.”

Briefly drawing Joe into an embrace, Ben stepped back to watch his son mount and leave the yard for the second time that day. He was less downhearted about Joe’s errand now. Whether it was the confidence that Joe was displaying, or whether it was the idea that this confrontation should take place on neutral ground, Ben didn’t know.  He was just glad to be feeling more optimistic.

*****

It was afternoon before Joe came within sight of Rim Rock Canyon. Pausing on the trail that led from the top of the canyon into the bottom, Joe looked around to see if he could see any sign of Mitch. The canyon was an excellent spot to graze cattle, for the grass and undergrowth was still quite lush and green, compared to the dried up grass around about. It had been a long, hot summer. Joe wasn’t surprised that cattle had strayed from Potter’s ranch.

To begin with, Joe saw nothing, then there was movement from further up the canyon and Joe smiled. That was surely Mitch. He urged Cochise down the trail, allowing the pinto to pick his own way down the stony path. As soon as they reached the bottom, Joe picked up the pace and headed for where he had seen the movement.

There were advantages to knowing well the person you were looking for. Joe smiled as he saw Mitch come into view. Sadly, the other young man didn’t share the same expression. “What are you doing here?” he demanded rudely.

“I’ve come to talk to you,” Joe replied, his smile faltering and sliding off his face. He didn’t know why he was so surprised by Mitch’s reaction; he hadn’t really expected to be welcomed with open arms. A pang of disappointment shot through Joe as he saw Mitch gather up his reins in preparation to move. “Mitch, please,” he begged.

Mitch’s head came up and he gave Joe a searing glance. “You humiliated me!” he snarled. “Do you really think I’m going to forgive you just like that?” He snorted. “And you needn’t flash those puppy dog eyes at me, Joe! I’m immune!”

“I don’t expect you just to forgive me,” Joe objected. He flushed. “I know I hurt you and all I can say is sorry and I know that sorry isn’t nearly enough. But, Mitch, I don’t know what else to say! Please, will you let me explain?”

“Explain,” Mitch scoffed, and without saying anything else, he turned his horse and rode away.

This was the most important moment, Joe knew. He steeled himself and followed his friend. Mitch hadn’t told him to go away. Joe clung to that slender hope and followed, ignoring the dark looks thrown in his direction. And still Mitch didn’t tell him to leave. As the afternoon wore on, they fell into old, familiar habits, rounding up the strays they found, neither speaking to the other, but encouraging the cattle with whistles and calls. By dark, there was a strange feeling of camaraderie.

It was as they set up camp that the hostile atmosphere reasserted itself. From long years of habit, they both divided up the chores without thinking. Joe took care of the horses, while Mitch got some firewood. Then, Joe started the fire while Mitch spread out the bedrolls and they shared the cooking. As they worked in silence, Joe wondered if Mitch found this whole scenario as surreal as he did.

“You said you wanted to explain,” Mitch commented as he set the frying pan on the fire. “So explain.”

It was hard to know where to start and yet imperative that he didn’t hesitate. All the speeches that Joe had made up in his head vanished immediately. “That day we saw the big cat,” Joe began, awkwardly. “I climbed so far up Eagles Nest and threw my rifle up. And then I couldn’t climb up to get it and I couldn’t climb down and I just couldn’t do hardly anything at all.” He swallowed, the remembered fear and panic crowding into his mind once more. “I was too ashamed to admit to you what was wrong,” he whispered. “That was why I snapped at you once I was down again.” The hardest admission was still to come. “I was too ashamed to admit to myself that I was afraid.”

“Afraid of what?” Mitch asked, his voice harsh. Old habits died hard and he was having to fight his instinctive sympathy for his old friend. It was also rather startling to hear the bold, brave Joe Cartwright admit to being afraid of anything, especially when there didn’t seem to be anything around to be afraid of.

“I’m afraid of heights,” Joe declared. He raised his eyes to meet Mitch’s, expecting what the result might be.

“You?” Mitch scoffed. “Joe, I’ve seen you climb up huge trees. What are you talking about?”

“When did we ever go climbing up to the top of a mountain like that?” Joe replied. “We never did.” He drew in a deep breath. “I can’t help it, Mitch; I can’t stop being afraid, although I know now why I am.”

“Why?” Mitch challenged.

“Pa says after Mama died, I disappeared. I’d been told Mama was in heaven and that heaven was up in the sky and Pa thinks I must have decided to climb the tallest thing around to be nearer to Mama. I was missing for hours, but Pa found me at the top of Eagle’s Nest.” Joe hung his head. “I behaved so badly, Mitch. I behaved like a child. I’m so sorry. But I was feeling so ashamed of myself that I felt I had to do something to prove that I was a man. And all I managed to prove was that I was a child. I’m so sorry.”

Thoughtfully, Mitch regarded Joe for a moment before dropping a couple of pieces of bacon onto the pan. Joe put the beans into a pot and edged it onto the flames as well. “Why didn’t you just tell me, Joe?” Mitch asked, the hurt clear in his voice. “Didn’t you trust me?”

“Of course I did!” Joe cried. “But I couldn’t admit it. I thought I was less of a man because I was afraid. I was horrible to everyone. I accused Hoss of calling me a coward and I nearly hurt a horse Pa had bought for me because I was taking my anger out on it.” Joe shuddered as he remembered the horse crashing to the ground with himself still in the saddle. For one long, long, moment, Joe had been trapped beneath it, and then the horse had regained his feet. Miraculously, both horse and rider were uninjured and Ben had forbidden Joe to do any more breaking that day. He had broken the horse successfully the previous week.

“I nearly caused an accident with the buckboard, galloping the horses around that big rock in the road out there at Eagle’s Nest. Hoss wasn’t too impressed and I don’t blame him.” Sighing, Joe closed his eyes for a moment.

“My behavior was inexcusable,” Joe admitted, quietly. He poked aimlessly at the beans, oblivious to the fact they were starting to burn on the bottom. “And finally I decided that the only thing to do was to leave the ranch until I had found my courage and manhood.”

“What happened?” Mitch asked, sensing that this was the crux of the story.

“Pa came after me. I don’t know yet how he knew where to look. But I had got so far up the rock and I couldn’t move. I was completely stuck.” This was hard for Joe to admit. “Pa tried to talk me down, but it didn’t work. I still couldn’t move. And then Pa slipped. He was hanging over the edge.” The remembered tension and terror was in Joe’s voice. “He called to me. I wouldn’t be able to reach him, he said. I would need a long stick. The rifle would do. And before I knew it, I had climbed up, got the rifle and was on my way down to rescue Pa. It was only once I was sitting there with him safely beside me on the ledge that I truly realized what I had done.” Now wonder colored Joe’s voice. “Pa had tricked me into facing my fear.” Joe’s voice turned wry. “Then we went home, where I started to eat an awful lot of humble pie.”

“And now?” Mitch asked. “How do you feel about heights?”

“I’m still afraid,” Joe admitted. He knew he had to be brutally honest with himself and Mitch to stand any chance of repairing their friendship. “I think I always will be and that’s something I’ve got to face.”

There was a long silence as Mitch digested Joe’s words. They both suddenly realized that the food was burning and for a few more minutes, they concentrated on saving the meal as best they could. They ate in silence and it was only when the camp chores were done – the strange, uneasy camaraderie back in force for a time – that they looked at one another again.

“I guess I understand about you being afraid of heights,” Mitch offered at last. “But what I don’t understand is what that has to do with you taking me on at arm wrestling. Why did you do it, Joe?” The remembered hurt was still in Mitch’s voice.

This was the most difficult question of all for Joe and he still didn’t have a satisfactory answer. “I don’t know,” he admitted at last. “I – needed – something,” he went on, unconsciously using the very words he had said to Mitch that fateful afternoon. “Something to prove to me that I wasn’t weak.”

“But why me, Joe?” Mitch demanded. “Why did you pick me? I was supposed to be your friend!”

“I don’t know!” The words were torn from Joe in a plaintive cry. “Mitch, I just don’t know and what’s more, I know that isn’t an answer, let alone a good enough answer. I’m sorry, though, more sorry than I can say.” Joe turned to face his friend. His contrition was plain to see, yet Mitch was unmoved.

“You hurt me!” he accused. “You stole from me the one thing I was good at, Joe. You did it deliberately, not caring about how I was going to feel! You knew just how to hurt me, Joe and the worst thing is you didn’t hesitate! And now you want me to forgive you?” Mitch shook his head, over and over. “I can’t.”

“Mitch…” Joe didn’t know what to say. He looked around, as though hoping inspiration would strike out of the darkness, but it didn’t. He had no idea what to say and he really didn’t blame Mitch for not wanting anything to do with him. “I’m sorry,” he finally concluded, knowing the words were useless.

“So am I, Joe,” Mitch replied. He rolled himself into his bedroll and lay rigid, his back to Joe.

After a time, Joe lay down on his bedroll, too, but it was a long time before either of them slept, both reflecting on the years of friendship that were now a part of the past. Life was never stagnant, it always moved on and sometimes the moving hurt.

*****

Morning found both young men tired and yawning. Joe stirred up the fire and put the coffee on. The smell of the pungent brew roused Mitch and they had breakfast in silence. The old habits had once more reasserted themselves and Joe went to saddle the horses after he had rolled up his bedroll. Mitch usually put out the fire and Joe, his heart lying like a stone in his chest, left him to it. He no longer knew what to say to the man who had been his friend from childhood.

Mitch was rather surprised that his horse was saddled and he grunted his thanks. He mounted and glanced back at his former friend, who was standing motionless beside Cochise. “Goodbye, Joe,” he said. He regretted that it had come to this, but he could no longer trust Joe.

“Goodbye,” Joe muttered. He continued to stand there until Mitch was out of sight and then he slowly dropped his head until it was resting against the pinto’s neck. The horse was alive, warm, familiar and comforting. Joe knew that this break up with Mitch was his own fault, but that didn’t make it any easier to bear.

At length, Joe mounted Cochise and absently headed in the direction Mitch had taken. It wasn’t a conscious decision. Joe wasn’t really thinking about where he was going. He just felt the need to move, as he had felt the need to simply stand a short time before.

The sudden scent of something unexpected on the hot, dry wind woke Joe from his reverie. He pulled on the reins and Cochise obediently stopped, although he moved uneasily. Joe patted his neck and sniffed the air. No, please say that wasn’t what he smelt… Please.

But the next gust of wind bore the unmistakable scent of smoke with it. Joe didn’t know what had happened, or how the fire had got started, but he knew that he and Mitch both had to get out of the canyon – fast! The wind was blowing into the closed end of the canyon where Joe was and he knew the fire would be right at its back. He didn’t know how long he had, but he knew his priority was to make sure – if he could – that Mitch was safe.

“Mitch!” he bellowed, and touched Cochise with his heel. “Mitch!”

The sun was suddenly shrouded by a huge plume of smoke and Joe coughed as he breathed it in. Time was suddenly his enemy, but he couldn’t leave until he had looked for Mitch. “Mitch!” he called again and coughed.

*****

“Pa!” Adam stood in his stirrups and cupped his hands around his mouth. “Pa!”

Further down the field, Ben heard and turned. “What?”

“Fire!” Adam pointed to the plume of smoke that was rising into the cloudless blue sky.

Immediately, Ben turned and urged his horse back towards Adam and Hoss. Together, the three of them headed off to see if they could figure out where the smoke was coming from. A fire in such dry country could be utterly devastating.

Topping the next big rise, they could see that the fire was further away than they first thought. As the horses stamped impatiently, Adam wiped the sweat from his brow. “It’s not our land,” he reported, relief in his voice. “It looks like…” He paused and glanced around, making sure of his location.

“Rim Rock Canyon,” Ben concluded tonelessly. His eyes were glued on the smoke, his face pale.

“Rim Rock Canyon?” Hoss echoed. “Ain’t that where…”

“Joe is?” Adam finished. He glanced at Ben again and saw that they were right. “Come on!”

“Wait!” Ben commanded, putting his hand out and catching Adam’s rein. Sport whinnied indignantly and threw his head in the air, almost hitting Adam on the nose. None of them noticed. “Hoss, you go back towards home and send the first hand you see for a buckboard. Tell him to send for the doctor and get him to go to the Devlin’s place. It’s closer than our house. Tell him to bring the buckboard to Rim Rock Canyon. We might need it. Hurry, son. Then come on back and join us there.”

“Right!” Hoss replied, and turned Chubb in a twinkling.

“Joe will be fine, Pa,” Adam assured his father.

“Yes, I know he will,” Ben agreed.

Neither of them sounded as though he believed what he said.

*****

Cochise pranced uneasily as the smoke billowed around them. Joe was finding it harder and harder to keep control of his horse. He knew that before long, Cochise’s discipline would break and the horse would obey his instincts and take to his heels. “Mitch!” he called again, but his voice was hoarse from the smoke and the amount of coughing he was doing.

Looking back, Joe could actually see the fire now. His time had run out. He had to get out of there while he still could. Turning Cochise, he reluctantly abandoned his search, feeling as though he was letting Mitch down all over again.

And suddenly, through the smoke, Joe saw him! Mitch’s temperamental brown gelding was rearing, pawing the air as it resisted its master’s commands. Joe instantly put his heel to his horse and it was a testament to the trust that Cochise had in Joe that he obeyed without a moment’s hesitation.

As Joe hurried towards Mitch, he saw his friend lose his seat and crash heavily to the ground. The gelding regained all four feet and galloped off, reins flapping. Joe ignored the horse. His priority was Mitch, who was lying ominously still on the ground. Hauling Cochise to a halt, Joe slid down from the horse and, keeping the rein tight in his hand, knelt by Mitch.

The other man was pale and still and as Joe groped for a pulse, he feared that Mitch had died. But the heartbeat was there and Joe breathed a sigh of relief. However, they weren’t safe yet. Mitch was unconscious and Joe had to get him out of there. The fire was drawing closer and Cochise sidled about at the end of the rein, snorting.

“Easy, fella,” Joe soothed. “Easy there.” He knew they would be in big trouble if he lost Cochise now.

Turning to Mitch, Joe shook his shoulder, but although Mitch groaned, his eyes stayed shut. Joe knew he had no more time; he had to get Mitch out of there and hope that he wasn’t badly hurt from the fall. Bracing himself, Joe hauled Mitch over his shoulder.

It was awkward to get the unconscious man onto the horse, especially as the nearness of the fire was seriously spooking Cochise. Joe didn’t like to admit, even to himself, how much the fire was spooking him, too. The air was full of tiny sparks that stung when they hit Joe’s exposed face and hands. Joe was coughing steadily from the smoke and he had been unable to find a bandanna to cover his nose and mouth. As he mounted behind Mitch, Joe felt a bit light-headed.

There was no way that Joe was going to be able to hold Cochise now. The gelding took off, racing the fire, despite the double burden on his back. Joe, perched behind the saddle, had to rely solely on his balance to stay mounted, for he couldn’t reach either the stirrups or the saddle horn and his hands were full of Mitch.

With a groan, Mitch suddenly roused, pushing at the hands that were holding him so tightly. “It’s just me!” Joe bellowed over the roar of the flames. “Stay still!”

Turning his head to squint behind him, Mitch saw above them a flaming branch. With a startled cry, he broke free of Joe’s protective grasp and dived for the ground. Joe, caught by surprise, had no way to stay mounted and slid abruptly over Cochise’s rump, landing painfully on one hip. Cochise raced out of sight. The branch crashed down between them, showering both young men with flames. Joe beat frantically at the flames on his pants legs, scrabbling backwards out of harm’s way until he saw that Mitch, stunned by the second fall, was in a dire situation.

Without hesitation, Joe scrambled to his feet and ran towards Mitch, grabbing his friend by the jacket and hauling him forcibly backwards away from the branch. Mitch’s pants were alight, too, and Joe beat at them, rolling Mitch over and over on the ground, stripping off his own green jacket to help douse the flames.

At length, the flames were out, but they were by no means safe. Their only horse had gone, Mitch was quite badly injured and Joe knew that it was down to him to get them both out of there – if he could.

Gathering his courage, Joe glanced at Mitch’s legs and knew the other man wouldn’t be walking. Joe’s own legs and hip ached and he was as yet unaware of his burnt hands, but he was mobile and Mitch was not and it didn’t even occur to Joe to simply give up. With familiar determination on his face, he once more hauled Mitch onto his shoulder.

It was not the most comfortable position, but Mitch was in shock and really didn’t care. Joe stumbled through the smoke, knowing that he didn’t dare stop moving, even though he was coughing so hard that it seemed to him that he was trying to rid himself of his lungs. Joe was limping, stumbling, but putting one foot in front of the other; his sole mission in life at that moment was to somehow get to safety.

*****

“Look!” The fire had built up quickly, fanned by the strong winds. Ben dragged his mesmerized gaze from the dancing flames to peer at where Adam was pointing. There, clear of the fire, stood two exhausted, lathered horses. One was an ordinary brown gelding. The other was Cochise!

“Come on!” Ben urged, although Adam didn’t need the verbal encouragement. They rode down to where the horses were, but there was no sign of the riders.

Leaving their own horses there, Adam and Ben ventured closer to the fire on foot. The area in front of them was pretty much burnt out, black and smoking, the ruined vegetation cracking beneath their feet. It didn’t look good and they exchanged a glance in which their bleak thoughts were easily read.

Suddenly, from out of the smoke, there emerged a limping figure. Over its shoulder was slung another figure and as Adam and Ben gaped in astonishment, Joe stumbled, fell to his knees and then keeled right over onto his face.

The fall woke the two older men from their trance and they ran towards the fallen figures, fear and hope warring within them.

“Mitch is alive,” Adam reported, rolling Mitch onto his back. “But he’s hurt bad, Pa.”

“So is Joe,” Ben replied grimly. He slid his hands under his son and picked him up, while Adam lifted Mitch. They were all covered in soot at this point, but none of them really noticed. Turning, they retraced their steps out into clearer air, away from the burnt landscape and the smoky air.

There was a river no more than fifty feet away and Ben instinctively headed there. He laid Joe down on the bank where the air was much clearer and stripped off the bandanna at his throat. Soaking it, he wiped the soot from Joe’s face, wincing as he saw the tiny pin-prick burn spots. He was thankful, though, that Joe’s face had escaped worse injury.

Joe’s shirt was ripped and torn, covered in soot and fit only for the garbage. Ben pulled the buttons open and dragged the shirt off, relieved to see that there were no serious burns on Joe’s arms or torso. His hands, however, were another matter. Ben quickly soaked the remnants of Joe’s shirt and wrapped them around his son’s hands.

The burns on Joe’s legs were not as bad, but Ben ripped the sleeves out of his own shirt to create makeshift bandages. The soles of Joe’s boots were charred, but his feet appeared to have escaped serious hurt.

At that moment, Joe coughed and particles of soot were expelled. He gasped, barely able to breathe, and panicking slightly. Ben instantly reached out and gathered Joe into his arms, sitting him up to assist in his breathing. “I’m here, Joe, take it easy.”

For several minutes, all Joe could do was cough and gasp for air, but gradually, the coughing slowed and he opened bloodshot eyes to peer blearily at Ben. “Mitch.” Joe voiced his top most concern.

“Its all right, Joe, Mitch is right here. Adam’s looking after him.” Ben glanced across at Adam, who had been performing similar ministrations on Mitch. Adam met his eyes and shrugged, a frown lingering between his eyes.

There wasn’t much more the Cartwrights could do for the injured men until the buckboard arrived and they could be moved to the Devlin ranch. Ben was glad he’d asked for the doctor to go there. It was clear that they both needed to be seen as soon as possible. Mitch had wakened and was in a great deal of pain. Joe seemed to drift, secure in his father’s arms, but Ben knew that Joe was in pain, too. Ben kept the wrappings wet and offered Joe sips of water. Adam did the same for Mitch, but both of them still coughed continuously.

It wasn’t too long before Hoss arrived, his jaw dropping in horror as he beheld his younger brother’s condition. Fortunately, Joe had his eyes shut, the better to bear the pain and Hoss had time to school his features to a smile before he spoke to Joe.

“Hi, Shortshanks.” Hoss knelt by Joe, running his fingers through the singed curls. Joe’s hat had been lost quite some time before.

Cracking open his eyes, Joe squinted at Hoss. “Hi, Hoss,” he wheezed and coughed violently.

Worried, Hoss looked at Ben. “The buckboard should be here real soon, Pa,” he assured Ben earnestly. “I met Fred an’ Charlie on the road. Charlie done gone fer the doc an’ Fred was already drivin’ the buckboard an’ should be here any time.” He glanced over his shoulder as though expecting Fred to materialize with the buckboard right at that moment, but it was another five minutes before it came into view.

By then, Hoss was helping Adam with Mitch, for he could hardly bear to look at Joe. The pain was really hitting both young men now and the soft-hearted Hoss found it very hard to keep a neutral, calming countenance. The arrival of the buckboard gave Hoss something to do and he soon had both Joe and Mitch resting in the back. There wasn’t room for anyone to ride with them, but Ben rode alongside, keeping a sharp eye on them both.

*****

The sudden procession startled the Devlins and Mrs. Devlin flew around, drawing back covers on Mitch’s bed and the spare bed. They had barely got the two young men into bed when Doctor Martin arrived. He quickly assessed them.

“Ben, you keep those wrappings on Joe’s hands wet while I deal with Mitch.” Burns were the doctor’s worst nightmare, for there was so little he could actually do for the patient. He could keep them comfortable, but the morphine he needed to use was a double-edged sword, for too much over a long period could result in addiction. Infection was the other great worry.

Mitch’s legs were badly burned over the shins, where the skin was thin. Paul bit back a groan of despair, for the shins were notoriously difficult to heal. But he set to, cleaning the injuries, making sure that Mitch didn’t have a concussion or broken bones to complicate matters and then covered the sites, explaining to Mrs. Devlin that they would have to be kept wet all the time for the first few days, to help take the heat out of the burn.  Mrs. Devlin nodded with such an air of distraction that Paul repeated the instructions to Mr. Devlin, just to be on the safe side.

He repeated the whole process with Joe, but this time concentrating on his hands. Joe had some burns on his legs, but they weren’t too bad. He also had a huge bruise on his hip where he had fallen from Cochise and the area was quite swollen, too.

“How’s Mitch?” Joe demanded. His cough had subsided slightly, as long as he didn’t talk.

“He’s not too good,” Paul replied.

“The branch fell on him,” Joe coughed. “I wasn’t quick enough.”

“You did your best, son,” Ben reminded him, having had the story of the fire from Joe. “No one expected you to look for Mitch in a canyon fire like that.”

“Well, Joe, you aren’t going to be using your hands much for a while,” Paul told him, as he finished smearing on cream and bandaging Joe’s hands. “I’ll give you something for the pain now. You’ll sleep for a while and I hope you’ll feel a bit better when you waken.”

“And I’ll be home then,” Joe murmured, his eyes sliding shut. His breathing was less labored. Paul was glad of that, for he couldn’t in all conscience have given Joe morphine if his breathing was still bad. Mitch’s breathing had also improved, although it hadn’t been as bad as Joe’s in the first place, since Joe had had the added problem of exertion while breathing in the smoke.

The hesitation after Joe’s comment alerted the young man that there was something up and he opened his eyes to fix Paul Martin with a pleading stare. “I can go home, can’t I?” Joe couldn’t imagine anything worse than being stuck at the Devlins, given what had just happened between him and Mitch. “Please!” he added.

“Joe, it’s much easier for me if you are here,” Paul explained, not sure why Joe was suddenly so distressed, but knowing that it was better for his patient to be calm. “I know its not home, but surely you don’t mind staying here just for a few days. After all, you and Mitch can keep each other company.”

From the expression that crossed Joe’s face, Paul realized that he had managed to blunder most spectacularly, although he wasn’t sure how. Helplessly, he glanced at Ben, hoping for a clue from him, but Ben looked equally blank.

“I can’t,” Joe whispered. “I just can’t.” He was growing visibly distressed and he shot a frantic look at Ben, wishing that his brothers were there to lend him moral support.

Puzzled and concerned, Ben reached out a hand to stroke Joe’s hair. It was a move that usually calmed him down and that gave Ben comfort a reassurance, too. This time, it didn’t have the desired effect for either of them. Joe wanted more than anything to get out of that house, regardless of the cost to himself. Ben was shaken by the crisp feeling of Joe’s singed curls, which were usually silky and luxuriant.

“But why, Joe?” Ben asked, his voice low and gentle. “We don’t understand the problem. I’m sure the Devlins won’t mind.”

“I can’t tell you!” Joe cried. “Not here!” The strained emotions of the day were starting to catch up with him and the pain and exhaustion were taking their toll. “Please, Pa, take me home!”

Bewildered, Ben glanced at Paul who shrugged and nodded minutely. If the only way to keep Joe calm was to take him home, then that’s what they’d have to do. Paul could have sedated Joe, but that wouldn’t solve the problem. After he had had a good rest and was calmer, they could find out what was wrong, but in the mean time, Joe needed rest and his well-being was of paramount importance. Paul could put up with the inconvenience of treating them at two different locations. It didn’t really matter much in the long run.

“All right, Joe, we’ll take you home,” Ben promised.

An expression of unutterable relief crossed Joe’s face. His body was still tense as Paul gave him the morphine, but as the drug filtered through his bloodstream, Joe gradually relaxed until he was sleeping. Paul and Ben looked at each other over the top of his sleeping form. “What was that about, do you suppose?” Paul asked.

“I’m not sure,” Ben replied thoughtfully, but he was remembering now why his son was out there in the first place and he began to have an inkling of what had happened – or why Joe was reacting like he was. “But when I find out, you’ll be the first to know.”

“Somehow, I doubt that,” Paul scoffed as he packed away his belongings into his Gladstone bag. “I think you’re far more likely to tell Adam and Hoss.”

“Speaking of Adam and Hoss, I’d better tell them we’re taking Joe home and get things moving,” Ben muttered. “I’d better speak to the Devlins, too. Are you sure Mitch is going to be all right?”

Sighing, Paul considered for a moment. “As sure as I can be, Ben,” he replied. “Assuming infection doesn’t set in, he’ll be fine in time, the same as Joe. More than that I can’t say. Unfortunately, medicine isn’t an exact science.”

*****

It had been peculiar, taking their leave of the Devlins. Ben had never been particularly friendly with Mitch’s parents; his only contact had been through their sons. Now, he felt the atmosphere distinctly strained and wondered if they thought his taking Joe home was a snub. He had tried to word their departure as tactfully as he could, but it boiled down to the same thing – he was taking Joe away at Joe’s insistence and saying that Joe would feel better in his own room was only true up to a point. The Devlins also knew that Joe and Mitch had fallen out because of Joe’s actions and that Joe had been trying to rectify things with Mitch when this unfortunate accident had happened. Did they, like Ben, suspect that things had not gone well?

Outside, Hoss had turned the buckboard, ready to leave. Adam was mounted, waiting. Ben and Paul settled Joe in the back and Ben climbed in beside him. Fred had already left a short time before, riding Chubb and leading Cochise and Buck.

“I’ll be out later, Ben,” Paul told his friend. “Don’t worry if Joe starts to run a temperature – it’s just the journey. Keep him cool and give him fluids.”

“All right,” Ben replied. He glanced over his shoulder at Hoss. “Let’s go, son.”

The wagon lurched into movement and Paul stood watching them leaving before he went back inside to once more repeat his instructions for Mitch’s care.

*****

“So what do you think happened?” Adam asked in a low voice as they stood in Joe’s room watching him sleep. Joe had been home for a short time, and was running the predicted temperature. It wasn’t overly high, but high enough to worry Ben.

Turning away, Ben drew Adam and Hoss from the bed. He knew Joe was still asleep, but how deeply asleep was another matter and he didn’t want his son overhearing. “I suspect that Joe apologized and Mitch told him it was too late,” Ben replied.

“Poor Joe,” Hoss murmured.

“These things happen,” Adam agreed. “Joe made a mistake and now he’s paying for it.” Adam’s words weren’t sympathetic, but his tone was. “Its going to be tough for him, especially if Mitch…”

“Don’t even think it!” Ben commanded. “Nothing is going to happen to Mitch!” He glanced over his shoulder at Joe. “We’ll find out what happened later, once Joe is feeling a bit better. Until then, don’t plague him with questions. Understand?”

Both of his sons nodded. All three of them were consumed with curiosity, but knew it might be the next day before they found out what had happened.

*****

“Everything Mitch said was true,” Joe confessed in a low voice. He looked and sounded exhausted by his story, but he kept on talking, determined not to spare himself. “I did know that would hurt Mitch and I still did it. What kind of a person does that make me?”

“The same as everyone else, Joe,” Ben replied. “It’s always easier to hurt the people you know, because you do know them. I’m not excusing you, for you did do the wrong thing, but at the time, you weren’t behaving very rationally, were you?”

“I guess not,” Joe agreed. He risked a glance up and saw that he had his family’s undivided attention. Hoss was looking at him with an unsettling mixture of pity and sympathy; Adam’s expression was more difficult to read, but Joe was pretty sure he saw disgust there. Joe didn’t in the least blame Adam for feeling disgusted with him. He felt disgusted with himself.

“How did the fire start?” Adam asked, wanting to change the subject to allow Joe the chance to recover slightly. He was feeling rather disgusted, but more because he hadn’t been around to try and help figure out what was wrong with Joe when all this happened. He had been up at the railhead.

“I’m not sure,” Joe admitted. “After we’d had breakfast, I went to saddle the horses. Mitch usually puts out the fire when we go camping and…” Joe stopped and looked at Ben. “It was my fault,” he whispered. “I didn’t check that Mitch had put out the fire properly.”

Although it was true that Joe should have checked, Ben didn’t want his son shouldering all the blame. He was having a hard enough time as it was. “Son, when you’ve always trusted someone else to do something, it’s difficult to change that habit. And we don’t know that the two of you were the only ones in that area. We didn’t see anyone else, but that doesn’t mean that there wasn’t someone around who dropped something. We may never know, so stop blaming yourself.”

“I suppose so,” Joe sighed, but he didn’t sound convinced. “How’s Mitch?”

“I haven’t heard today,” Ben replied. “But perhaps Paul will be able to tell us when he comes to see you.” Privately, Ben hoped that would be soon, as the painkillers that Paul had left for Joe were not anywhere near as effective at dulling the pain as the morphine had been and that Joe was in pain was obvious from his pale face and involuntary winces. Ben knew that Joe was in for a long period of recuperation and his heart ached for Joe.

Later, when Joe had been seen by the doctor and was asleep again, Adam drew Ben aside. “Pa, as soon as Joe is strong enough, I think we ought to take him over to see Mitch.”

“Why?” Ben asked.

“Well, since Joe and Mitch had that talk, things have changed again,” Adam explained. “There was the fire. Mitch was hurt and Joe saved his life. Perhaps Mitch has had a re-think about his position.”

“Perhaps,” Ben muttered, but he wasn’t so sure. For Mitch to throw away what amounted to a life time of friendship, he had had to be pretty badly hurt. Ben didn’t think that Mitch would be any more inclined to forgive Joe now than he had been, albeit that his life had been saved. It might be that he no longer hated Joe, but Ben was sure that the friendship wouldn’t be rekindled that simply, if at all.

“I don’ think we ought ta, Adam,” Hoss objected. “What if Mitch ain’t ready ta forgive Joe? How would Joe feel, if’n we’d taken all the ways out there an’ Mitch turned him away? He’d feel real bad an’ so would we. I reckon we should jist leave well alone. Mitch’ll come ta Joe, if’n he wants ta.”

“But nothing’s really resolved if we wait for Mitch to come to Joe,” Adam argued. “Joe needs to know where he stands with Mitch now.”

“He does know where he stands,” Ben told him. “Joe knows that he killed his friendship with Mitch that day. He knows that it’s over and he doesn’t expect Mitch to fall on his neck because of a misplaced sense of gratitude. Hoss is right, Adam. We can’t interfere in this. All we can do is be there for your brother as he mourns the loss of his friend.”

“Mitch isn’t dead!” Adam responded impatiently. “Paul said he was going to be all right.”

“You can mourn the loss of a person’s friendship, just as you can mourn their death,” Ben reminded his son. “We need to give Joe the time to do this. Joe might never hear from Mitch again and I don’t think any of us should interfere if that’s the case. If Joe feels the need to do something about this later, that will be his decision and his alone. None of us can make it for him. I know you want to help, Adam,” Ben went on, his tone gentler. “But Joe is a man grown and only he can decide what is right for him.”

“I just want to help, Pa,” Adam replied, helplessly. “I feel so frustrated.”

“We all do,” Hoss replied, “but there ain’t nuthin’ we can do ‘bout that.”

Accepting defeat – for the moment – Adam just nodded. But he still hoped that a chance would come for the situation to be resolved between Joe and Mitch in a more satisfactory manner.

*****

It was several weeks before Joe was feeling more like himself. The burns on his hands had been painful and debilitating. He had been unable to do anything for himself and the resulting frustration and embarrassment had caused his temper to flare up more than once. Gradually, the amounts of painkillers he had been getting had been reduced until now, six weeks after the fire, Joe was only taking occasional pills and his hands were protected by lighter bandages, allowing him to do some things for himself.

He was alone in the house one day when there was a knock on the door. Joe went to answer it, fumbling with the latch, wincing as the still-tender skin came in contact with the narrow metal strip. Joe found slightly bigger things easier to deal with. Opening the door, still more concerned with not hurting his hands than who would be on the other side, Joe was shocked to see Mr. Devlin standing there.

“Hello,” he offered, at last.

“Joe.” Devlin nodded. “We’ve just been in town seeing the doctor an’ Mitch said he wanted to see you on the way home. He isn’t walking much yet, so can you come over to the wagon?” The requested was worded like a plea, but the tone was more like an order.

“Of course,” Joe replied, paling. He wished there was someone at home for moral support, but there wasn’t. Squaring his shoulders, Joe followed Mr. Devlin across to where his wagon stood in the yard.

Reclining in the back, Mitch looked pale, but mostly unchanged, if one could avoid seeing the blankets that covered his legs. He met Joe’s eyes, but the welcoming warmth that Joe was accustomed to seeing wasn’t there. “Hello, Joe,” he offered. “I just wanted to thank you for saving me from the fire.”

“I couldn’t just leave you,” Joe replied, unsure what to say. You’re welcome hardly seemed like the right response! “I had to see if you were all right.”

Ignoring that, Mitch shifted his gaze so that he was looking over Joe’s right shoulder. For an instant, Joe was tempted to turn his head and see what his friend was looking at, but as a blush rose to Mitch’s cheeks, Joe knew that his friend – his ex-friend – was embarrassed.

“I just wanted to tell you that it was my fault that fire started,” he stated in a gruff voice. “I didn’t put the fire out before we left. I didn’t realize until later on. Your job was always to saddle the horses and my job was always to put out the fire. I guess old habits die hard for you, Joe. But I didn’t do it and I’m sorry. It was my fault we both almost died.” His gaze came back from the distance and fastened on Joe’s face. “But this doesn’t change anything,” he continued. “I’m grateful that you saved my life, but our lives have changed. Those camping trips we took are in the past and we can’t go back to where we were. I’m sorry, but that’s the way it is. We can’t be friends any more.”

There didn’t seem to be anything to say to that, so Joe stayed silent as Mr. Devlin climbed back onto the wagon seat, his face as red as his son’s, and shook up the team. Joe and Mitch stared at one another as the wagon pulled out of the yard and Joe knew that there was no going back, ever. He and Mitch were no longer friends. Through one stupid move, Joe had destroyed something he held dear and he knew he deserved the sorrow and regret he felt now. With the wagon out of sight, Joe turned and trudged slowly across to the house.

Mounting the stairs to his room like an old man, Joe lay down on his bed. He had had a long time to come to terms with what he had done, but he knew it would never be completely conquered. It would always lurk on the fringes of his conscience, prodding him at unexpected times. Joe closed his eyes against the burning of tears, but one escaped and slid down his cheek to be absorbed in his pillow. The only person he had to blame for this was himself and Joe knew he would have a mountain – another mountain, he thought wryly – to climb to regain his self-respect. He had learned a terrible lesson, hurting himself, his family and his old friend in the process. It was a lesson Joe would never forget; a lesson he would remember with sharp clarity whenever he saw Mitch in the street.

He must have fallen asleep, for when he woke, his family were all in his room, looking at him worriedly. “Are you all right, Joe?” Ben asked.

“I guess,” Joe responded. He sat up, slowly. “Mitch came by. It’s over, Pa. Our friendship is over.”

“Oh, Joe,” Ben started, but Joe didn’t want pity.

“No, don’t say anything,” he interrupted. “It’s my own fault. I know that. I have to learn to live with the consequences now.” He gave a twisted smile. “I’ll be fine, don’t worry. I just need…” His voice cracked and broke and Joe stopped to draw in a breath that ended on a sob.

He didn’t need to go on. The family knew what he needed. Recriminations were in the past. What Joe needed now – in addition to the time he had been going to ask for – was love and support.

There was an abundance of those in the Cartwright family.

***End***

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