At All Costs (by Rona)

Summary:  On a business trip to Sacramento, Joe encounters Bethany again. Will he survive this time?

Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  11,424


 

The pain was such that he could hardly remember who he was. He had no clue why he was in such pain, but he knew one thing for sure; he wanted it to stop. For a time, he drifted in a sea of darkness, but a sudden down pouring of rain brought him back to full consciousness and he remembered where he was, who he was and what had happened.

When Joe Cartwright tried to rise, he discovered that he was trapped underneath the stagecoach in which he had been a passenger!

*****

“Pa, stop worrying so much,” Joe chided. “I’ll be fine, honestly.”

“I know you will, son,” Ben replied, smiling wryly. “But a father is allowed to worry.”

Smiling back, Joe conceded the point. “See you in about two weeks,” he reminded Ben, giving his father a quick hug, for the stage was about to leave. “Be good while I’m gone and don’t do anything I wouldn’t,” he added to his brothers, Adam and Hoss, who were also standing there.

“That gives us plenty of latitude,” Adam commented to Hoss, who grunted, not sure what ‘latitude’ meant.

“Ya see an’ behave yerself,” Hoss called after Joe as his younger brother swung into the coach.

“Bye!” Joe yelled, sticking his head out of the window to wave to them. He grabbed his hat as the wind attempted to blow it off and waved again. The next minute, the stage rounded a corner and was lost from sight by the town buildings.

“Well,” Ben said, straightening up. “I suppose we can go home now.”

“It’s going to be a very peaceful two weeks,” Adam remarked as they walked back to their horses.

Grinning sideways at his oldest son, Ben nodded. “I’m going to miss him, too, son.”

*****

Settling back into his seat, Joe smiled at the other two occupants of the coach, a married couple in their late 50s. The woman smiled back maternally, but the man gave Joe a disapproving look and Joe hid a sigh. It would be a long journey to Sacramento if they were going the whole way.

They traveled the first part of the journey in silence, but finally the woman struck up a conversation with Joe and after a few miles, the man thawed, too. They weren’t going very far; just to the next town. Joe was quite sorry to see them getting off, for several older men got in and he found himself squashed into his corner and generally ignored.

However, the mutual discomfort of traveling by stage soon loosened tongues and Joe discovered that these gentlemen were going all the way to Sacramento. He stifled another sigh, for he was squashed into the smallest possible corner of the stage, and the man next to him was constantly trying to gain more seat space. Joe was determined to stick to his corner without giving up more space – he didn’t want to end up sitting on the floor, as he had done in several other stage journeys in the past!

“Are you going to Sacramento, boy?” the man next to Joe finally asked. His tone ably implied that he hoped the answer was no.

“Yes, I am,” Joe replied, defiantly. He bristled at being called a boy.

“Why are you going there?” another asked. “Going back to school?” It was said with a sneer.

Drawing in a deep breath, Joe took a firm hold of his temper. It would be an extremely unpleasant journey if he blew up at these men on the first day. “No, sir,” Joe replied. “I’m going to negotiate a contract for my father.”

There was a muffled snigger. “And who would your father be?” a third asked. Joe wondered if they had a set routine they used with any stranger they encountered on the stage.

“Ben Cartwright,” Joe replied, and was annoyed when the attitudes of the men changed at once.

“You’re Ben Cartwright’s boy?” asked the first. “Well, you’re too young to be Adam, and not big enough to be Hoss, so you must be Little Joe?”

Wincing Joe replied, “Yes, sir. Joe Cartwright.”

“Oswald Emerson,” replied the man next to him and before Joe knew quite where he was, he was shaking hands and being introduced to his traveling companions.

The atmosphere inside the coach had improved immensely, Joe thought in amusement, but it didn’t stop Emerson trying to squeeze Joe out of his share of the seat. Joe sat stolidly, while making polite conversation. A couple of the men tried to get Joe to tell them the details of his contract negotiations, but Joe wasn’t for telling. For all he knew, these men might be agents for other cattle sellers and he didn’t want to give them any information, however unimportant, that might give them an edge in the negotiations. Emerson seemed to disapprove of Joe’s reticence, but Joe wouldn’t budge and eventually the other man gave up asking.

When they did arrive in Sacramento, Joe was almost sorry to bid goodbye to his companions. But the sights and sounds of the city soon had Joe entranced as he made his way to his hotel. Because they made the drive to Sacramento regularly every year, Joe knew the city quite well and he noted the new buildings that had gone up since his last visit, and the new stores that had opened.

He was just in time to bathe and eat, and afterwards was grateful to fall into a bed that was not grimy from its last occupant, and that didn’t have bed bugs. It wasn’t until Joe’s head hit the soft pillow that he realized how tired he actually was. His last coherent thought was that he would have to remember and wire Ben in the morning, to tell his father he had arrived safely.

*****

Had Joe slept as late as that at home, he knew he would have got a stern talking to from Pa. However, in light of the journey he had made, and that city folks didn’t seem to get up as early as they did on the ranch, Joe wasn’t too worried about it. He ate a leisurely breakfast and then gathered up the papers he would need and headed off to the cattle agent’s office.

It was only in recent years that Ben had started negotiating contracts to sell his beef before he arrived at market. It gave Ben a guaranteed price and allowed him to take more time to drive the cows and they then arrived in better condition. There was no longer the need to be the first to the market. Joe was rather proud of the fact that this innovation had been his idea and he relished the challenge of getting good prices for their beef.

Today was no exception. Simmons, the cattle agent, saw him at once and they haggled gleefully for quite some time before they agreed on a price. It was several dollars a head more than the previous year and as both men put their signatures to the contract, Joe couldn’t hide his pleasure. “It was a pleasure doing business with you, Mr. Simmons,” Joe declared, putting out his hand.

“And with you,” Simmons agreed. He watched as Joe put on his hat and said, “Joe, are you busy tonight?”

“Tonight? No sir,” Joe replied, sounding puzzled.

“Perhaps you would like to join us at a dance in the hotel? I know my daughter would like to see you again and it would be company for you.” Simmons smiled. “However, Rosalind isn’t pining for you, Joe, I’m afraid. She’s engaged to be married next month.”

“Can’t win them all,” Joe replied, smiling. He had quite liked Rosalind when they had met the previous year and he wasn’t surprised that she was to be married. “Thank you, sir, I’d like that.”

“The dance starts at 7,” Simmons went on. “I’ll look forward to seeing you there.”

“Thank you,” Joe repeated and took his leave. He knew he would have to go and get suitable clothes, for he hadn’t intended staying longer than a couple of nights and the thought of attending a dance hadn’t occurred to him. However, it would be far preferable than spending a lonely evening in the saloon, flirting with some saloon girl he would never see again.

With a spring in his step, Joe went off to shop.

*****

To Joe’s delight, Rosalind had blossomed dramatically in the year since Joe had last seen her. She threw her arms around him and planted a kiss somewhere beneath his ear. “Joe! You haven’t changed a bit!”

“I can’t say the same,” Joe replied, holding her at arm’s length to admire her. “You are even more gorgeous than you were last year. Now, where’s this lucky man?”

Laughing at the compliment, Rosalind turned and put her hand out to the young man standing behind her. “Rob, this is Joe Cartwright. I told you about him, remember?”

“I do remember,” Rob replied and shook Joe’s hand. Joe was quite relieved to see that he hadn’t minded Ross’ enthusiastic greeting.

“Oh listen, the music’s started!” Ros exclaimed. “Come on, Rob, you promised me the first dance. Joe, you’re next.”

Laughing, Joe didn’t have time to say anything as Ros dragged Rob off to the dance floor. He watched the young couple circle the floor in each other’s arms during the first dance and when his turn came, he took Ros in his arms and said, “Ros and Rob. Isn’t that a little confusing?”

“Joe!” Ros scolded. “You’re the only one who calls me Ros!”

“I’m privileged,” Joe replied and was amused when Ros agreed with him.

As the dance came to an end, Joe looked across at the entrance, where another young couple had just come in. The girl turned and Joe felt as though he had been punched in the stomach. He felt physically sick, and he could feel the color draining from his face. Beside him, Ros was chattering away blithely, not having noticed anything wrong.

“…don’t you think, Joe?” Ros asked and when she got no response, she turned, surprised to see Joe several paces behind her, standing as though rooted to the spot, his face chalk white. “Joe?” Ros hurried back to his side and put her hand on his arm. “Joe! Are you all right?”

“Yes,” Joe replied automatically. He couldn’t take his eyes off the other girl. His heart was hammering erratically in his chest.

And at that moment, the girl turned around, and met Joe’s gaze. She was very pretty, with long blonde hair and big blue eyes. For a moment, their gazes locked and then the girl smiled. Joe thought he would vomit right there and then, but he couldn’t tear his gaze away.

And then the crowd moved and the girl was lost from his sight. Joe began to recover slightly, now that he could no longer see her. However, others had noticed his unnatural stillness and Simmons was now by his side, worriedly asking if Joe was all right. Not accepting the ‘yes’, on the grounds that nobody who was all right should be that color of pale, Simmons led the young man to a seat and made him sit down. Ros brought him a drink and Joe sipped it gratefully.

“Thank you,” he offered and noticed his hand was shaking.

“What was that about?” Simmons asked as Rob claimed Ros for another dance.

“That girl who came in a few minutes ago,” Joe replied. “Do you know her? She’s got long blonde hair.”

“Bethany Purvis?” Simmons asked.

“Purvis?” Joe echoed. “Her name was Davis.”

“I don’t remember what her maiden name was,” Simmons responded. “I don’t think it was Davis, but I’m not sure. She married young Brian Purvis a few months after she and her father arrived here.” Simmons looked at Joe again. “Joe, what is this?”

Slowly, Joe drew in a deep breath and told the story. “A couple of years ago, Bethany and her father moved to Virginia City,” he replied. “Her father is Bradford Davis. Bethany wanted to go out with me, but I couldn’t do it – not that I wanted to anyway. Davis started a campaign to make me change my mind and it ended with Bethany ordering their men to kill me.” He saw the disbelief written on Simmons’ face. “That was the year my father came to town without my brothers or me,” he added. “Adam was shot, and Hoss got hit on the head. I was stabbed.”

“I do remember hearing about that,” Simmons mused. “Joe, are you sure it’s the same person? I haven’t seen Bradford Davis around, but Mrs. Purvis told everyone her father is an invalid.”

“Maybe he is,” Joe replied. “Or maybe he’s hiding.” Joe drew in a deep breath. “Mr. Simmons, I hope you’ll excuse me, because I have to go and see the sheriff. Bethany is wanted for attempted murder.”

“Of course,” Simmons replied. “Joe, you will be careful, won’t you?”

“Yes, sir, I will,” Joe assured him. “Very careful.”

He didn’t look back as he left the ballroom.

*****

Convincing the sheriff proved harder than Joe anticipated. “Bethany Purvis?” Sheriff Tyler laughed. “You’ve got to be kidding!”

“You must have had the wanted posters in,” Joe protested. “It was two years ago, in the fall.”

“Sonny, I can’t keep every single wanted poster that comes into this office,” Tyler told him. “And I ain’t gonna arrest her on your say-so!”

“Then wire Sheriff Roy Coffee in Virginia City,” Joe begged. “He’ll confirm my story, since he sent the posters out.”

“That old coot!” Tyler laughed. “Sonny, Roy Coffee is a nice guy, but he ain’t much of a lawman.”

“Maybe not,” Joe said, quietly, “but he is the sheriff of Virginia City and as such, you should be listening to him.” Joe was furious that the sheriff wouldn’t believe him and an uncomfortable feeling was growing in his stomach. Surely Davis hadn’t been able to buy the sheriff of Sacramento?

“All right,” sighed Tyler. “I’ll contact Roy Coffee and see what he says about it. Come back and see me in the morning. Mean time, I don’t want you disturbing Mrs. Purvis with your wild stories.”

“Believe me,” Joe replied, “the last place I want to be is anywhere near that woman!” Dissatisfied with the outcome, Joe headed back to the hotel, knowing that there was no way he could go back into the ballroom. He didn’t feel like having a beer, so just took his room key and went upstairs.

*****

Opening the door to his room, Joe’s heart nearly stopped! Sitting comfortably in the armchair in his room was Bethany Purvis, nee Davis. In her hand was a neat little derringer, glinting in the lamplight. “Come in and close the door, Joe, dear,” she told him, her voice as honeyed and sweet as he remembered.

Having no real choice, Joe did as he was told. He dropped his hat on the table by the door and looked at Bethany. “What do you want?” he asked.

“Why, you of course,” Bethany purred. The intervening two years hadn’t done Bethany’s beauty any harm, but the sight of her still made Joe want to shudder. “I was quite surprised to see you downstairs, Joe,” she went on. “I had hoped you’d died two years ago, but it seems Daddy was right and your death would have made the papers. It’s unfortunate for you that you’ve found me. But never mind. I know the sheriff won’t arrest me just on your say-so. I’ve married into a very powerful family, Joe.” She gave a feline smile.

“Why does that not come as a surprise,” Joe mused. He wondered if he would be able to make a break for the door without getting his head blown off, and determined to at least try. He took a step backwards.

The door behind him opened and Joe felt a gun prodding into his back. Glancing over his shoulder, Joe recognized the young man Bethany had been with earlier. “Your husband, I presume?” Joe asked, scathingly. “What a surprise.”

“He was waiting for you to come back, dear, as was I,” Bethany replied. “You see, Joe, killing you here would be troublesome, since Simmons is well known and well respected and you seem to know him. But I’m not through with you, Joe, not by a long way. You spoiled my life once before and I’m not going to let you spoil it again.”

“So you’re going to take me somewhere else and kill me?” Joe demanded angrily.

“Not exactly,” Bethany replied. “I’m going to have a little fun with you first.” She smiled again. “Take off your jacket, Joe.”

Glaring at Bethany, Joe resolved that he wouldn’t do anything to cooperate. If he was going to die anyway, he was going to force them to do it right there. He didn’t move.

Behind him, Purvis growled and cocked his gun. “Do what she says,” he ordered. When Joe still didn’t move, he grabbed Joe by the hair, dragged his head back and placed the cocked gun at his temple. “Now!” Joe decided that he didn’t want to die after all.

Slowly, Joe maneuvered his way out of his suit jacket. He dropped it on the floor as he was instructed and then untied the string tie. A few moments later, his shirt followed the jacket and tie, and still Joe’s head was bent back at an uncomfortable angle.

Rising, Bethany went over and picked up Joe’s tie. Joe watched her as best he could, fearing what she would do. Bethany smiled at him. “I’m going to enjoy this,” she purred and gagged him with his own tie. Her husband grinned.

“Where do you want him?” he asked, and Bethany pointed to the straight-backed chair at the desk.

“There,” she replied and watched as Purvis manhandled Joe over to the chair. She then handed Purvis some cording that Joe dimly recognized as the tiebacks from the curtains at his window. Joe winced as Purvis tightened them cruelly.

What next? Joe wondered, as Bethany picked up the poker and prodded the fire into life. She seemed to want a huge blaze, as she kept the poker in the flames for several minutes, until it was starting to glow red.

Turning, Bethany held the poker in her hand. Purvis snatched up Joe’s discarded shirt and held it tightly over Joe’s face, and with a sickening burst of fear, Joe knew what Bethany was going to do.

The brief minute that the poker was held against the scar on his belly seemed to last forever to Joe. His screams were effectively muffled against the layers of cloth that Purvis held over his mouth. The burning continued long after the poker was back in the holder with the other fire irons.

Watching Joe deal with the pain seemed to give Bethany pleasure. At last, she leaned forwards and put her fingers under Joe’s chin, forcing it upwards. “That was just a warning,” she whispered. “If you say anything more to the sheriff, I’ll kill you, and you know I mean it.”

Unable to respond, even if he hadn’t been gagged, Joe just looked at her. He quite believed she meant every word. He watched as Bethany straightened her skirts and took Purvis’ arm. “I’ve really enjoyed this evening, darling,” she told him. “Have you?”

“It was wonderful,” Purvis agreed and they left.

*****

It took Joe some time to work his way free, but he finally succeeded and dragged the gag from his mouth. The pain in his belly hadn’t eased any and Joe rushed across the room to the basin and was comprehensively sick into it. His stomach empty, Joe slumped back, feeling the sweat under his curls. At length, he collected himself enough to drop a cloth into the water in the ewer and held it against his stomach.

It was a long time before Joe’s legs stopped shaking. When he was finally steady on his feet again, he slipped on a shirt and his gun belt and cautiously left the room. He could hear the music from the ballroom and knew that the dance was still going on. Sickly, he wondered if Bethany and her husband were there.

On legs that were still a trifle unsteady, Joe made his way to the doctor’s surgery and by luck found the man in. He explained what had happened and allowed the doctor to treat the burn on his stomach. When it was done, the doctor handed him a painkiller. “I’m going to get the sheriff,” he announced. “You will stay here, won’t you?”

“I’ll be here,” Joe replied, grimly. He leant his head on the back of the seat and thought of what retribution would bring him. Somehow, he had the feeling that Purvis and his family could make Bradford Davis look like a rank amateur. It wasn’t something he was looking forward to.

When the sheriff arrived a few minutes later, Joe could tell by his grim face that he had spoken to Roy Coffee. “I believe your story, Cartwright,” he told Joe. “I’m sorry I was so brusque with you earlier.”

Shrugging, Joe allowed, “That’s all right.” He noted with amusement that he had been elevated from ‘sonny’ to his surname. An improvement of sorts, he supposed.

“The doc here told me your story,” he explained. He looked closely at the burn on Joe’s stomach in silence. “I wired Roy Coffee and he confirmed your story. I went out to the house where Mrs. Purvis’ father lives. He’s had a stroke and can’t speak, but he understands what you say and he confirmed your story. I’ve had to arrest him, but I don’t suppose he’ll be jailed. I couldn’t locate Mr. and Mrs. Purvis at their home.”

“They’re at the dance in the hotel,” Joe told him. “They used the supper break to call on me.”

“All right,” Tyler nodded. “You stay here until I get back, Cartwright. I’m going over to arrest Mr. and Mrs. Purvis right now. I’ll need a statement from you once I’ve done that, and then you’re free to go home until the trial. When were you planning on leaving?”

“I’ve got a seat booked on the noon stage tomorrow,” Joe replied. “My family is expecting me.”

Rising, Tyler nodded again. “I don’t see any reason why you shouldn’t get that stage.” He patted Joe on the shoulder. “I’ll be back soon.”

Resting his head again, Joe closed his eyes. He could hear the doctor moving about the room and a wry smile crossed Joe’s lips. What would his family think when they learned he had gone to a doctor voluntarily? He’d never hear the end of it, he decided. There would be even more comments than usual when he tried to avoid seeing Paul Martin.

After a time, Joe heard a commotion in the street. He opened his eyes as the doctor peered out of the window. “You’ve stirred up a hornet’s nest, son,” the doctor remarked, gleefully. “Young Purvis looks like he might have an apoplexy!”

“I take it you don’t like the Purvis family, then?” Joe asked.

“No, I don’t,” admitted the doctor. “I’ve had far too many people like you in here, and all because of them. No, if this helps to bring them down, I’m all for it. You’re to be congratulated for your bravery, Mr. Cartwright.”

“I don’t feel very brave,” Joe noted. “I feel afraid.”

“Being brave doesn’t mean that you don’t feel afraid,” replied the doctor. “It means that you act despite your fear. I suspect we’ll have a lot to thank you for, Mr. Cartwright.”

Embarrassed, Joe wasn’t sure where to look. He muttered something that passed for thanks and rested his head once more. Outside, the furor grew for a time, and then died away until the streets were quiet again. It was then that Tyler arrived to take Joe over to the jail to take a statement. Joe did it quietly and clearly, ignoring the heckling coming from the cells as best he could.

At length, he signed the statement and rose to leave. “You’ll never get back to Virginia City alive!” Bethany shouted. Her beauty seemed to have gone as the reality of her situation sank in. “You’ll pay for this, Joe Cartwright!”

“That’s not the smartest thing you could have said in front of an officer of the law,” Tyler told her. “Just ignore her, Joe. It’s all hot air.”

“I hope so,” Joe replied, noticing that he had risen in the sheriff’s estimation once more.

It was late and the streets were quiet as Joe made his way back to the hotel. He was tired, but sleep took a long time to come that night and when it did, Bethany’s malevolent cry echoed in his dreams.

*****

The burn on his stomach was still very painful the next morning and Joe found himself taking it easy. He packed away his new suit of clothes, but the tie was dropped in the bin; Joe couldn’t face it again. He made his way to the stage stop and was surprised to find nobody else there. He had expected a repeat of his outward journey and wouldn’t even have been surprised to find Emerson and his companions waiting for the stage.

“Is this it?” he asked the stage agent as the stage pulled to a stop. “No one else getting on here?”

”I had several tickets sold,” the man replied, “but they ain’t turned up.” He shrugged. “Looks ta me like ya’ll have the stage ta yerself”

“I’m not complaining,” Joe replied as he handed down a lady from the stage and waited while a couple of men got off, too. Then he gave the driver his bag and climbed aboard.

Within minutes, they were off and Joe stretched out across the seat. He didn’t look back.

*****

Wakening from a doze, Joe rubbed the sleep from his eyes and stretched. The coach was bouncing hard and his initial relief at being on the way home was slowly giving way to irritation at the method of travel. Even with more space, stages were uncomfortable contraptions! Joe glanced out of the window and saw that they were about half way to the second stop. There was perhaps another hour or so to go before they arrived there. Joe couldn’t understand why the coach had remained so empty, despite the stops they had had. At each place, they were told that tickets had been sold, yet nobody turned up to claim their seats.

As there was a particularly hard bounce, Joe consoled himself that the next stop was the one for the night and he would be home late the next afternoon. If I could only hire a horse tonight, I could get home by morning, across country, Joe thought, and sighed heavily.

Suddenly, Joe heard the driver cry out. The stage lurched and Joe clutched onto the window frame to stop himself being tossed to the floor. Sticking his head out of the window, he yelled, “What’s going on?”

“Someone shot one o’ the horses!” the driver yelled back. “It ain’t gonna last but another minute!”

This time, Joe heard the shot as it echoed back from the hills nearby. The stage lurched dramatically and Joe jerked his head back in and tried to brace himself.

But it was too late. The lead horses both collapsed and died, dragging the rest of the horses down with them. The stage kept going, over the top of the horses, cartwheeling away, as the traces and shaft snapped. Joe was bounced around unmercifully, until his head finally struck once too often and he blacked out.

*****

The pain was such that he could hardly remember who he was. He had no clue why he was in such pain, but he knew one thing for sure; he wanted it to stop. For a time, he drifted in a sea of darkness, but a sudden down pouring of rain brought him back to full consciousness and he remembered where he was, who he was and what had happened.

When Joe Cartwright tried to rise, he discovered that he was trapped underneath the stagecoach in which he had been a passenger!

*****

Panicking, Joe struggled wildly, ignoring the pain that spread through his body. He had to get free! He had to survive! Somehow, Joe was convinced that Bethany was behind the stage crash and more than anything, Joe wanted to survive to testify against her.

Exhausted, Joe slumped down, and drew in large gulps of air. His head throbbed, but his mind was clearer and he looked around to take stock of his situation. It was then he realized that the stage wasn’t actually on him as he had first thought; it was resting on some rocks and Joe was trapped more by pressure than actual weight. Studying his situation, Joe realized that keeping flat and slithering along the ground ought to get him free.

Of course, it wasn’t quite as simple as that, but in the end, Joe managed to free himself. His first thought was for the driver, but the moment he saw the man, he knew that it was too late. He was already dead, and in all likelihood hadn’t survived the crash.

The next thing was to check himself over for injuries and Joe knew he wasn’t in the best shape. He already knew that his right ankle was either sprained or broken. His boot had been dragged off when he had finally hauled himself free of the stage and Joe didn’t bother to try to retrieve it. There was no way it was going to go on over his swollen foot. His right shoulder appeared to be dislocated, and Joe put that down to an abortive attempt he had made to hold onto the window frame. He was bruised everywhere and the final tally point was the gash on his head.

Closing his eyes, Joe rested against the bulk of the crashed coach. He knew he was in big trouble. Somewhere, there was a canteen of water, for he had had one, but where? Joe had not seen it in the immediate vicinity, but he knew that he had to have water, and soon. It was very hot, despite the recent rain and Joe had no idea how long he would have to wait for rescue.

“I have to get water,” Joe told himself. His head was throbbing and he felt extremely unwell, but Joe knew that the only person who could help him was himself. “I’ll look for the canteen. Maybe the driver had one, too.” He dragged himself away from the coach and began looking around.

The first thing he found was his valise. Opening it, Joe pulled out a shirt, and with his teeth, he ripped it into strips and bound up his ankle as best he could. There was really nothing he could do for his arm, so he tucked it into his jacket to give it support, yelling out his agony as he moved the dead weight that was his own flesh. The pain left him nauseous and dizzy for quite some time afterwards and when he looked up again, the shadows had moved round and Joe knew that night was drawing on.

As he crawled on, it worried Joe that he hadn’t been aware of the passage of time. He had no idea how long he’d been unconscious under the stage, but it surely had to be more than the few minutes that he’d first supposed. It was about then that it occurred to Joe that he was most probably concussed and that the blurred vision he’d supposed was caused by sweat dropping into his eyes, might be caused by the head injury.

The urge to lie down and sleep was almost overwhelming, but Joe knew that he had to get water and he had to get it now! By the next day, he would be that much weaker and would be unable to try and get it. By the day after, he’d be dead.

“I’ve got to get that water!” Joe panted. “At all costs, I’ve got to get water.” He wiped his brow with a shaky hand, wincing as he encountered the sore spot on his head and crawled on.

It was a long and exhausting search, but in the end, Joe found both canteens. He was pleased to realize that they were both quite full. He took a refreshing drink, careful not to rush it, although he wanted nothing more than to drink until he was fit to burst. Then, as the shadows lengthened, he dragged his injured body back to the sheltering bulk of the coach, wrapped himself in his extra clothing and finally fell into sleep.

*****

It was a long, cold night and the rain set in again just before dawn. Joe had slept fitfully, every movement causing enough pain to waken him. His body had stiffened up dramatically after all the bouncing around he’d done the previous day and it made Joe glad he had looked for the water the day before.

By now, he consoled himself, the alarm should have been raised. After all, they had been expected at the stage station to spend the night. Joe didn’t know if someone from there would come looking for them, or if word would be sent ahead and help come from Virginia City. But either way, help should be coming.

Or is it? A disquieting small voice in Joe’s mind wouldn’t let him believe that all would be well. After all, the stage accident wasn’t actually an accident. Someone had deliberately shot the two lead horses, knowing that the stage would crash. He was sure this was also why nobody else had joined the stage at the other stops; someone had either bought those tickets or frightened off the people who had intended to travel. Joe had to believe that it was Purvis’ family. Bethany had said that he wouldn’t get back to Virginia City alive.

“But if that’s the case, why didn’t they come to check I was dead?” Joe asked himself, aloud. He looked around, suddenly anxious, but as before, there was nothing in sight apart from a few birds flying away from him. Had they just assumed, seeing him apparently crushed under the coach, that he was dead? Joe didn’t know, but he was thankful that they hadn’t checked.

Lying down, Joe tried to wait patiently, but he was now worrying that Purvis’ people had reached the stage station and had prevented word being sent about the missing stage. It wasn’t beyond the realms of possibility. With a sudden pang of anguish, Joe wondered if he would ever see his family again.

*****

The sudden sharp knock on the door roused Ben from his deep concentration as he read over some documents. Wondering who it could be, he rose and went to answer it, stretching as he went, for he suddenly realized how still he had been and how stiff he had become.

“Clem!” he exclaimed, opening the door wide to admit the deputy sheriff. “What brings you out this way?”

“A couple of things, Ben,” Clem replied, his tone grim. “Roy got a wire two nights ago from Sheriff Tyler in Sacramento.”

For a moment, Ben’s heart did a flip, and he scolded himself. Joe was fine, he was sure. But the disquiet didn’t go away. “Go on,” he urged, quietly.

“It was asking for details of Bethany Davis. It seems Joe had a run in with her in Sacramento.”

“Bethany Davis!” Ben breathed. He could vividly remember the girl’s face as she earnestly explained why she had sent men out to the ranch to kill Joe. And the scene that had met Ben’s eyes when he returned haunted his worst nightmares even yet. “Is Joe all right?”

Clem didn’t reply. Instead, he asked, “Ben, was Joe due in on today’s stage?”

“Why, yes,” Ben nodded, frowning. “Adam and Hoss took Cochise and went in to meet him. Why?”

Unhappily, Clem drew a deep breath before he imparted the bad news. “The stage didn’t reach its stop last night, Ben. The wire just got in a while ago. Apparently, the stage station was attacked by some men. Luckily, the agent had a couple of fellows stopping over to rest their horses and they were able to fight them off, killing one and wounding a couple of others.” Clem sighed. “Turns out that these men were sent to kill the agent so it would be longer before the stage was reported missing. It seems that these men worked for a family called Purvis, in Sacramento.” He glanced at Ben. “Bethany Davis married into the Purvis family.”

“How do you know all this?” Ben asked.

“One of the men who had been at the stage station rode across country and told us. Ben,” Clem put his hand on the older man’s arm. “They had been given orders to wreck the stage and kill Joe. I’m real sorry, but they say he was crushed under the stage. He’s gone, Ben.”

“No,” Ben said, numbly. “No, I don’t believe it.”

“Ben…”

“No!” Ben shouted, glaring at Clem as though it was his fault. “I tell you, Joe isn’t dead!” He pushed past the startled deputy, snatched up his gun belt and hat and hurried across the yard to the barn, where he began to saddle his horse. Slowly, Clem followed him, unsure what to do or say. “I’m going to collect Adam and Hoss and we’re going to find Joe!” Ben vowed. He swung himself into the saddle. “My boy’s alive!” he declared before he rode off.

*****

“We’re not taking a wagon!” Ben argued, glaring blackly at Adam. “We don’t have time to waste going round by the road! We go straight across country to the stage station and backtrack from there.”

“But, Pa…” Adam protested, but it was like trying to stop a runaway train. Ben wasn’t for listening.

“We’ll reach the station by dark and we can start out at first light. Joe will have to ride double with one of us, but we’ll manage that. Cochise can go to the livery stable until we get back.” Ben shook the canteen on his saddle and seemed satisfied with the amount of water he had. “Let’s go.”

“But, Pa,” Adam began again, and this time he kept talking over the top of his father. “What if Joe’s hurt bad?” The question he really wanted to ask, but was afraid to, was what if Joe is dead?

For a moment, Ben said, nothing, fighting down the fear that bubbled up in his throat. “Then we’ll cannibalize the coach if we have to,” he replied, shortly. “Now come on! Time’s a-wasting.”

Realizing that there was no stopping Ben, Adam silently mounted Sport and glanced at Hoss, who was on Chubb. Hoss met Adam’s look with an equally serious one of his own.

“I’ll take Cochise to the livery, Ben,” Roy offered. “I hope ya find the boy soon.” Privately, Roy didn’t think they would find Joe alive, but he wasn’t going to venture that opinion. In the mood Ben was in, that could well push the man into violence.

Barely nodding in acknowledgement, Ben put his heel to his horse and the Cartwrights galloped out of town.

*****

The rain stopped not long after noon and was replaced by a baking hot sun. Joe wakened from sleep to find himself in the full glare of the light. He had lost his hat during the crash and the sun was making his headache worse. Groaning, Joe pulled himself into a sitting position, gritting his teeth against the pain in his shoulder. Every bruise added its chorus and Joe couldn’t think when he had last been so miserable.

Grabbing the canteen, Joe dragged his aching body to the other side of the coach, where he would at least be in the shade. He took a drink, grimacing at the stale taste of the water, and leant back against the coach. It was slightly cooler in the shade.

Not for the first time, Joe’s stomach rumbled. It seemed a very long time since he had had an early lunch the previous day. Vaguely, Joe wondered if he could manage to find a rabbit and build a fire to cook it on, but his lassitude was all-encompassing and he couldn’t find the energy required to make the effort. Perhaps, he reasoned, it was better to stay as still as he could and not waste his energy. Perhaps he might survive slightly longer that way.

“Stop it!” he chided himself aloud, shocked by his sudden defeatist thoughts. “Someone will be out looking for you! Stop feeling sorry for yourself.”

Lying down again, Joe allowed his thoughts to drift to his family. He was sure that as soon as Ben heard that the stage was overdue, he would come looking for Joe. Adam and Hoss would likely come too, unless there was some sort of crisis at the ranch that required one of them to stay behind. If it was a timber crisis, Adam would stay, Joe reasoned. If it was a livestock crisis, Hoss would stay. But under no circumstances would Ben stay, unless he was ill.

That was a thought that always made Joe shudder. He had a deep-seated fear of his father dying. When he was a small child, Joe had been frightened every time Ben went on a business trip; frightened that his father, like his mother, would have an accident and die. Joe had never quite been able to voice this fear and had put on a brave face whenever Ben had to go, although he thought that perhaps his father knew about his fears.

Alone, injured and vulnerable, Joe wondered what his life would have been like, had his mother lived. Would there have been more children? Although it had never been spoken of aloud, Joe always had the impression that his mother had wanted more children and couldn’t have more. With a pang, Joe thought of Clay, his half-brother, and wondered where he was. Clay had come into their lives and Joe had fervently hoped he would stay. And yet Clay had gone and Joe hadn’t heard from him since. Would he ever see his brother again?

Closing his eyes to try and block his melancholy thoughts, Joe drifted back into sleep.

*****

It was dusk and the horses were lathered as they rode into the corral at the stage station. Evidence of the gun battle lay all around them. Ben’s face had grown progressively grimmer as he saw each new sign and it didn’t take a genius to discern what he was thinking. Adam grimaced. All the signs were pointing to Joe being dead, yet Ben would not admit it until he had concrete proof – Joe’s body.

Shuddering, Adam tried to dismiss that thought. He tried to tell himself he couldn’t conceive of Joe’s death, but life had marked Adam and he could conceive of it only too well. Although he had no memory of his own mother, her loss had left an indelible imprint on him, and the further loss of Inger and Marie had helped to make him the man he had become. The loss of a family member was something Adam knew only too well.

Glancing over at Hoss as they brushed down their horses, Adam could see the worry on Hoss’ genial face. Where Adam had always felt an extra responsibility for Joe, because he was the youngest, Hoss was also Joe’s best friend and confidant. Like Adam, the big man would hold himself responsible when something happened to Joe, even when Hoss himself was miles away from the scene.

“Hoss?” Adam ventured, moving over to touch his younger brother’s shoulder. “Are you all right?”

Shrugging Hoss replied, “I guess. Depends what ya mean by ‘all right’.”

Sighing Adam nodded morosely. “I know what you mean, brother,” he replied.

“I’m afraid, Adam,” Hoss admitted in a low voice. “I’m afraid o’ what we’ll find out there tomorra. What if Joe’s…?”

“He’s not!” Adam denied, quickly and vehemently and knew at once that he had betrayed his own fears. “We mustn’t think that, Hoss,” he insisted. “We’ve got to believe that Joe’s alive.” He swallowed hard. “Pa wouldn’t cope if anything happened to Joe.”

“Neither would we,” Hoss agreed. He rubbed a tired hand over his face, then glanced around to make sure Ben was out of earshot. “Adam, what do ya think, really? Do ya think Joe is alive?”

Looking away, Adam sighed deeply. “I don’t know,” he admitted.

*****

Shivering, Joe pulled his extra clothing closer to him, as though that would help keep him warm. He knew it was useless – he didn’t have enough extra clothes – but he couldn’t help himself. It wasn’t so very cold, Joe told himself. But it was cold enough to raise goosebumps on Joe’s exposed skin and to make him feel even more miserable than he had been feeling before. Two days with no food had taken its toll on Joe’s stamina and he had very little body fat to draw on. He desperately needed food, shelter, warmth and a doctor’s care.

Lifting the canteen, Joe remembered that it was empty. He reached for the other one, and was depressed to find that it was less than half full. Joe took a sip, but it didn’t quench his thirst, it just made everything worse. He longed to drink all that was there, but Joe wasn’t yet as far gone as that. He knew he had to keep rationing his water until help arrived.

If help arrived.

For the first time, Joe admitted to himself that it might not be the next day that help came. It might be the day after, in which case, he would be in very bad shape indeed. His water would definitely be gone by then and it was not a prospect that Joe looked forward to.

Unbidden, Joe’s hand strayed towards the canteen again and he gave himself a mental shake. He couldn’t give in to his thirst. He had to stay alive, and he couldn’t do that if he drank all his water that night. There was no way Joe could try and find water in the condition he was in. His foot had blown up to twice its normal size and his shoulder was such a constant blaze of agony that Joe was beginning to fear that it would never be right, even if help did arrive the next day. His head still throbbed relentlessly, but Joe kidded himself it wasn’t as bad as it had been. If anything, as his mouth dried out, his headache became worse.

“I love you, Pa,” he mumbled, as though Ben was near enough to hear. “I wish you’d come.” He closed his eyes and pictured his father standing before him. It brought a measure of cold comfort to the injured man.

*****

The supper the stage agent had prepared went virtually untouched. Ben brooded by the fire, tormented by thoughts that Joe was spending another night alone and probably hurt, and possibly not that far away. Adam and Hoss kept quiet, for what was there to say? Attempts to comfort could easily backfire and although false hope was better than no hope at all, they were reluctant to offer it.

“We’d better get some sleep,” Adam ventured at last. “We’ve got an early start in the morning.”

“Yes,” Ben replied tonelessly. He made his way over to the couch where he going to sleep and drew the blankets up to his shoulders. Did Joe have anything to keep him warm? Ben wondered. He closed his eyes to stop the sudden surge of scalding tears.

Silence fell over the small station, but none of the Cartwrights slept that night.

*****

Dawn was still about an hour away when they rose, but it was light enough for them to see where they were going and time now was of the essence. Ben gulped the food put in front of him without tasting it and hurried out to saddle his horse.

The pre-dawn air was chilly and Ben went back into the station to buy an extra blanket from the agent. Adam and Hoss had filled the canteens and were mounted, waiting for him when he came out. Securing the precious blanket, Ben mounted Buck and they set off to hunt for their lost son and brother.

*****

Less than an hour later, Hoss exclaimed, “There it is!”

Following his pointing finger, Ben saw the coach, lying on its side a little way down the hill. “Come on!” he cried and touched his heel to his horse.

Lying in the shadows, shivering helplessly, Joe thought he heard the thunder of hooves, but he decided it was his imagination. He was so cold and so tired and so sore. He wanted to sleep, but sleep wouldn’t come. He wanted someone to rescue him, but he was finding it harder and harder to believe that anyone would come in time.

“Joe!”

Now I’m imagining things, Joe thought, forlornly. I thought I heard Pa’s voice. He could feel tears welling in his eyes. Oh Pa!

“Joe!” Ben put his hand out to touch his son, suddenly terrified by how still Joe was lying. Surely he hadn’t come too late? His heart rate suddenly doubled, banging away uncomfortably in his chest. “Joe, its Pa. Can you hear me?”

“Pa?” Joe whispered and opened his eyes.

The welter of feelings that Joe experienced overwhelmed him. Relief and disbelief warred for the upper hand and Joe was horrified to find himself sobbing helplessly in Ben’s arms, when he should have been celebrating his rescue.

“Get me the blanket,” Ben ordered, feeling Joe shivering and noticing how cold he was to the touch. “Joe, son, are you hurt?”

“Kind of,” Joe mumbled, still barely able to believe that Ben was there. “My shoulder and my ankle mostly.” He snuggled closer to Ben, unconsciously seeking warmth. He turned his head as the blanket was draped over his body. “Hi, Adam,” he said, sounding surprised.

“Hi yourself,” Adam replied. His greeting was cool, calm and collected, but Joe could see the warmth in his brother’s eyes and the smile on his face.

By now, Hoss was crowding in close, his round face wreathed in smiles and tears standing openly in his eyes. Joe breathed a greeting to him, too, but his eyes were drawn back to the face of the man who held him as though he would never let him go. Joe didn’t mind; he couldn’t imagine ever wanting Ben to let go of him.

“Help me get him onto my horse,” Ben instructed them. “We’ll get him back to the station and see where we’re going from there.” Ben looked down at Joe’s dirty, bruised face and thought his son had never looked dearer to him. “Joe. We’re going to move you. I’m sorry, but it’s going to hurt.”

“I don’t care,” Joe breathed, but he still bit his lip as Hoss and Adam carefully picked him up and deposited him in front of Ben.

It took much longer to return to the stage station than it had taken them to reach Joe. The jolting of the horse was excruciatingly painful for Joe, and he drifted in and out of consciousness. He was quite surprised when he opened his eyes and found himself lying on a cot in a room that felt gloriously warm. “Pa?” he whispered and Ben immediately bent over Joe.

“I’m right here, son,” he soothed. “We’re just heating some broth for you. Are you hungry?”

“Starved,” Joe joked, but it fell flat. It had come all too close to being true. He dozed again, but woke easily when Ben gently touched his arm.

Three or four spoonfuls of the soup filled Joe’s shrunken stomach. He lay back, eyes closed once more, and felt the tendrils of inner warmth creeping through his body. After a moment, a warm cloth began to wash his face and Joe stayed quiescent, enjoying the sensation. He felt a good deal better just for the face wash and opened his eyes again, determined to stay awake at all costs. He smiled at his brothers, both of whom were leaning over the cot where he lay. It was so good just to see them there.

After a few minutes, Joe slipped into sleep once more and Adam went over to Ben, who was sorting through some bandages. “Pa, what are we going to do?” he asked.

“We’re going to patch Joe up as best we can,” Ben replied, “and hightail it back to Virginia City. That boy needs to be under a doctor’s care as soon as possible.”

“Is he well enough to stand up to the journey?” ventured Adam.

“I’m not leaving him here!” Ben declared in such a firm tone that Adam knew further arguing would be useless. Nevertheless, he persevered.

“It might do more harm than good,” he suggested diffidently. “Its obvious his shoulder is dislocated and we can’t be sure about his ankle…”

“And he’s had a bad knock on the head and is likely concussed,” Ben concluded. “I know all that, Adam, but I still think its better for him if we take him back to town, rather than expect Paul to come all the way out here. It’ll take a few hours to get home, I know, but better that than have Joe waiting for twice that length of time, or more!”

“Yeah, I suppose you’re right,” Adam agreed, feeling he ought to protest more, but also wanting Joe closer to home.

“I know I am,” Ben smiled and went over to waken Joe again. Gently, he bound Joe’s injured arm to his chest, hoping that this would make the journey more bearable for Joe. He left the ankle alone; Joe’s makeshift bandage seemed to be doing a sterling job. “Ready?” he asked Joe.

The honest answer was no, but Joe wasn’t willing to admit that. “Yes,” he replied and braced himself for the pain as Hoss picked him up and carried him outside.

*****

The journey home was one that Joe would have preferred to forget. The pain built up in waves until he slipped into unconsciousness, only to rouse a short time later for the whole cycle to begin again. Relishing the warmth of the blanket at first, Joe soon grew too warm as his body protested the movement and pain and he began to run a temperature. He said nothing unless directly asked, and even then only declared that he was ‘fine’.

Not fooled by this declaration, Ben resolutely kept going, although he was no beginning to doubt the wisdom of moving Joe. But it was too late now, and he had to see it through. Going back would be just as hard as going on. Each step was a step nearer to help.

It was late in the afternoon when they finally arrived back in town. Adam had ridden on ahead to alert Paul to their arrival and was waiting to take Joe in his arms when Ben pulled Buck to a stop. Joe groaned as he was moved and opened glazed, pain-filled green eyes to look at Adam. “Is it your turn again?” he muttered.

“I suppose you could say that,” Adam panted as he carried Joe carefully into the surgery. “But it’s a much shorter trip this time.” He laid Joe on the examination table. “Are you sure you haven’t eaten in three days? You feel much heavier to me.”

A ghost of a smile told Adam that Joe appreciated his joke. “Pure muscle, brother,” he whispered.

“Dead weight, I would’ve said,” Paul Martin joked, leaning in to look at Joe over Adam’s shoulder. He didn’t like what he saw. Joe’s face was desperately pale and his eyes didn’t seem to focus properly. His cheeks were pinched and the whiteness of his lips spoke eloquently of his pain. “Hello, Joe. What’s this you’ve been up to now? Trying to teach a stagecoach to fly?”

“Something like that,” Joe responded. He bit his lip as another spasm of pain hit him.

Shelving the small talk, Paul began to examine Joe, carefully removing the bandages Ben had put on, and then Joe’s filthy clothes. He didn’t say anything, but his face was grim. Finally straightening, and covering Joe with a sheet, he glanced at Ben. “I’m going to have to set his shoulder at once. It’s been out of place for several days and its going to be tough. His ankle isn’t broken, it’s just sprained, but it’s a bad sprain. His head is healing well, so I’m just going to leave it alone. He’s obviously slightly concussed, but by this point, the worst of if should be over.” He looked back at Joe, who was listening in a detached manner. “Joe, what’s this bandage on your stomach?”

“It’s where I got burned,” Joe responded. “By the poker.”

The others exchanged concerned glances. None of them had the least idea what he was talking about, and Ben suddenly feared that the head injury was worse than it appeared and that Joe had lost his wits. “What are you talking about, Joe?” Paul asked.

Sighing, Joe told them about meeting Bethany and how she had burned him with the poker. There was silence for several moments after he had finished speaking, while they looked at each other in horror. It was Paul who broke the silence. “I see,” he nodded. “Well, I’m going to give you something to make you sleep, Joe, and when you wake up, you should feel a bit better, all right?”

“’k,” Joe agreed, already on the point of sleep once more. He slid off into dreamland almost at once when Paul applied the ether and then ushered the other Cartwrights out.

*****

Although Joe did feel a bit better when he next woke, it was several days before he began to feel anything like his old self. He slept a good deal of the time, and it seemed that whenever he woke, food was stuffed into him. Joe could be a picky eater when he was upset, but generally he had a good appetite. However, he was soon protesting that he couldn’t keep eating all the time.

By then, Joe was complaining generally, which was usually a sign that he was feeling better. In this case, he was itching to get home, and pestered Paul every day. However, Paul was cautious, waiting to see how Joe’s shoulder settled down, as it had been very difficult to get the shoulder back in place, thanks to the length of time it had been out. The muscles had all been badly damaged and it would be quite some time before Joe had full use of it back. Paul had been afraid that he might trap a nerve when putting it back in place, but after a few days, he was convinced that it was all right.

However, before Joe was allowed to go home, he had to speak to Roy Coffee. Tyler had come through to Virginia City and taken the gunmen who had attacked the way station back to Sacramento. Under intense questioning, they had admitted working for the Purvis family. They had bought up the tickets for the stage and frightened off the genuine passengers so that Joe was alone. Then they had lain in wait and shot the horses, causing the coach to crash. They had thought Joe looked dead, but hadn’t checked on him. Their admission meant that Joe wouldn’t have to testify against them, and Tyler thought that perhaps the judge might take into account the fact that they hadn’t killed a lot of innocent people. Roy wanted the details of what had happened to Joe in Sacramento, since the trial would probably be held in Virginia City, since the original warrant for Bethany’s arrest had been made out there.

Reluctantly, Joe told his story again and his family listened in silence. Ben wished fervently that he had been able to stop Bethany once and for all two years ago when she had first set her sights on Joe. Adam and Hoss could vividly remember the attack in the yard of the ranch and they were horrified that Joe had had to face his ordeal alone.

“Well, it seems straight forward ta me,” Roy sighed, as he got Joe to sign his statement. “I reckon she’ll go ta jail at the least. Maybe even hang. Them boys o’ hers will sing like canaries and she won’t be able ta deny it.”

“She didn’t deny it last time, either,” Ben muttered, darkly, and Joe looked at him, troubled.

“She even threatened to kill me when I was in Tyler’s office in Sacramento,” he told them. “And Tyler was right there.” He shuddered. “I’ll never understand her.”

*****

Later that day, settled in his own bed at last, Joe repeated his statement to Adam. “I’ll never understand her, Adam.”

“I don’t think you’d want to understand her,” Adam replied. “Why would you want to understand a mind that could order someone’s death?”

“That’s a good point,” Joe conceded. “You know, I never imagined I’d run into her again. I’d almost managed to put her out of my mind.”

“Had you?” Adam asked, curiously. “I’d never managed to forget her.”

“No, I hadn’t really,” Joe replied, honestly. “But I wasn’t thinking about her day after day, like I was at the beginning, just after it happened.” He looked at Adam. “Did you think about her every day?”

“No,” Adam admitted. “Just sometimes. But I couldn’t say I ever really forgot her.”

There was silence for a minute as Joe tried to find a truly comfortable position and failed. He was pensive. Adam was content to wait until Joe was ready to share his thoughts. Pushing often brought about an explosion of temper.

“I don’t know how I’m going to face her at the trial,” Joe muttered at last, his head ducked, a sure sign of distress.

“With a great deal of courage, as usual,” Adam replied.

“Maybe,” Joe shrugged. He didn’t sound convinced.

Later, when he went downstairs, Adam told Ben about the exchange. Ben nodded thoughtfully, for he had sensed that there was something bothering Joe. But he said nothing until he was settling Joe for the night.

“Adam told me you’re worried about the trial,” he mentioned.

“I’m scared,” Joe admitted in a low voice. “I’m scared to face her again.”

“That’s natural,” Ben told him, sitting down on the bed and resting his hand lightly on Joe’s left arm. “But you have the courage to do it, with our support. You won’t be alone, Joe.”

“Courage,” Joe scoffed. “I’m not really brave, Pa. That doctor in Sacramento told me I was brave, but I’m not really.”

Smiling, Ben shook his head. “Don’t run yourself down, son,” he chided gently. “You are brave, Joe. You’re probably the most courageous person I know.”

“I’m not!” Joe denied.

“Perhaps you don’t feel brave,” Ben agreed, “but you behave bravely. You always stand up for what is right and for your friends. You don’t let others intimidate you into saying or doing something you don’t believe in. That’s bravery, Joe. Do you think that all the brave soldiers weren’t afraid as they went into battle? They were. Everyone feels fear, Joe; everyone. But true bravery is feeling fear, yet going ahead and doing what has to be done. You are brave, Joe. Very brave.”

Joe’s eyes were riveted to Ben. “Do you really think so?” he asked, hesitantly. “You’re not just saying that?”

“Joe!” Ben reproved. “Have I ever said anything I didn’t mean?”

Shamefaced, Joe ducked his head. “No,” he mumbled.

“No,” Ben echoed, gently. He put a finger under Joe’s chin and lifted his son’s head. “I’m not buttering you up, Joe. I believe every word I just said. You are brave and I am extraordinarily proud of you. You’ve coped amazingly well with your ordeal and we’re here to help you as much as we can. I hope you know that.”

“Yes, sir, I do,” Joe agreed, truthfully.

“I know it’s difficult, but try not to think about the trial right now,” Ben advised. “Things often seem worse in your mind than they actually turn out to be. We’ll be there with you all the way, Joe. There are a number of witnesses who will back your story, so it won’t be as if you’re alone against a lot of others. And remember, you’ll be feeling much better by then and things won’t seem so daunting.”

“Thanks, Pa,” Joe smiled and Ben saw that his son looked a good deal less tense than he had just a short time ago and silently thanked the Almighty for helping him to find the right words to help Joe. “I’ll remember that.” He closed his eyes, suddenly weary, not realizing that it was the release of tension that had tired him. He was soon fast asleep.

*****

There was a noticeable change in Joe’s spirits after his talk with Ben. He was much more like his usual self, cheeky and irreverent, although sometimes, naturally enough, being almost immobile got him down. However, his ankle healed well and his shoulder was soon on the mend too and Joe felt better as he was able to get about under his own steam, even if he wasn’t yet able to ride.

About three weeks after he got home, Roy Coffee appeared at the ranch one afternoon. It was almost supper time and he gladly accepted an invitation to stay and eat with the Cartwrights.

“What brings you out here, Roy?” Ben asked, as they started eating. “Not that we aren’t pleased to see you, of course.”

“I come to see Joe, really,” Roy replied. “It’s about the trial.”

Every eye turned to Joe, who took a deep breath before looking up at Roy, hoping his face didn’t show the sudden apprehension he was feeling. “Go on,” he encouraged.

“It’s like this,” Roy began and Ben hoped that his old friend wouldn’t beat about the bush too much as he got his story out. Roy was a great fellow, but brevity was usually a closed book to him. “I got a wire from Tyler, tellin’ me the trial date has bin set.”

“When is it?” Ben asked, hoping Roy would get the hint and just tell them. He glanced at Joe, pleased that his son was handling the news so well, but also concerned by the sudden paleness of Joe’s face.

However, Roy was oblivious to the hints. “He asked if’n I could come out an’ tell Joe all about it, so I here I am.”

“And when is the trial?” Adam asked, seeing Joe’s face getting stiller and stiller.

“Well, that’s the thing, see?” Roy replied, cryptically.

“No, I don’ see, Roy,” Hoss declared, frowning. “When is the trial?”

Frowning, Roy wondered if the Cartwrights had suddenly all become thick or if they were playing it dumb for some reason. Then he mentally reviewed what he had said and realized that he hadn’t really told them the story. “Ah,” he smiled and watched as the four of them frowned in unison. “See, that’s the thing! Bethany has pleaded guilty an’ there don’ have ta be a trial no more. The judge has sentenced her already. She’s gone to prison for 10 years.”

The relief was overwhelming and Joe suddenly felt sick. Mumbling something under his breath, he left the table and ran from the house. As he clung to the top rail of the corral, Joe heard footsteps and knew that it was Ben.

“Its over,” he said, turning to face his father. “And I don’t need to worry any more.”

“That’s right,” Ben agreed. “Didn’t I tell you?”

Smiling, Joe nodded and after a few minutes, they went back and rejoined the others in the house.

*****

But in the dark of night, Ben woke and wondered what would happen in 10 years time. Was he just being paranoid in thinking that perhaps Bethany wouldn’t forget? Or had it just been a nightmare?

***End***

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