Summary: A What Happened In-Between for the episode of the same name.
Word Count: 4395
As Dolly Kincaid rushed back in the door and knelt beside her father, Joe Cartwright wearily lowered his gun. It was over; he and his brother Hoss were safe. For a moment, Joe closed his eyes.
Opening them again, Joe knew that they would have to get help. Sheriff Kincaid was hurt – badly for all Joe knew. Poke was gut-shot and bleeding heavily, Clegg had been hit in the shoulder and Robe was unconscious, thanks to Hoss. Vince Dagen, the leader of the gang, also lay bleeding on the floor, courtesy of Joe. There was no way Hoss, Dolly and Joe could get the five injured men to safety by themselves.
Forcing his sore, weary body to rise, Joe holstered the gun. “I’ll go and see if I can find the rest of the posse,” he told Hoss. “Let’s get them tied up first.”
“I agree about the tyin’ up,” Hoss grunted, “but ya ain’t goin’ nowheres, Joe.”
“But we can’t do this by ourselves,” Joe objected. “We need help!”
“I know we do, lil brother,” Hoss replied, softening his tone. “But I ain’t gonna allow ya ta do it. Joe,” he explained earnestly, as he saw the confusion on his younger brother’s face, “ya’ve been hurt, too.”
Startled, Joe brushed off Hoss concern. “I’m all right,” he claimed dismissively.
“Yer bleedin’, Joe,” Hoss declared flatly. He lifted Joe’s right hand, the knuckles raw and swollen, and pointed to it. “This ain’t the worst o’ it,” Hoss went on. “Yer other hand an’ yer eye an’ yer ear. No, Joe, I ain’t allowin’ ya ta go anywhere.”
“Hoss is right,” Dolly agreed softly. “I’ll go.”
At once, both the Cartwrights started to object, but they were silenced by the sound of horses outside. “The posse!” Hoss exclaimed in glad tones. “I’ll go out.”
“No you don’t!” Joe cried. “Let them come in! They don’t know what’s going on in here! They could shoot you by accident easily enough!”
To confirm Joe’s words, a shout was heard from outside. “You in the cabin! Throw out your guns!”
“We’ll throw them out,” Hoss called back. “The bank robbers are all in here an’ they ain’t gonna cause no trouble.” He slowly threw the guns out of the door.
There was a hiatus for a few moments before the deputy slowly entered the cabin, his gun cocked and ready. It only took seconds for him to assess the situation and then he was calling out orders. “Get in here! Someone check and see if there’s a wagon in the barn.” He looked at the Cartwrights. “You two all right? Dolly?”
“We’re fine,” Joe replied, although he was suddenly feeling anything but fine. His knuckles were throbbing and so was his head. The room was spinning and Joe wanted nothing more than to sit down, close his eyes and sleep for a week. Light-headed, he staggered and Hoss caught him, practically carrying him over to the rough bunk where they had spent a good part of the last 16 hours or so. “Siddown,” he ordered Joe gruffly. “Ya jist stay there an’ let us do the work.”
“I’m all right,” Joe protested, but he didn’t make any effort to rise. His eyes closed for a moment before he forced them open again. “Dolly, I’m sorry about the things I said to you,” he offered.
“I know,” Dolly replied. She looked anxiously down at her father again. “I’m sorry I was such a fool, Joe! I thought Vince…” Dolly didn’t finish the thought. Joe knew what she thought Vince would do for her and he was sorry that Dolly had had her eyes opened to reality so forcefully. However, it was better that she had her heart broken before she found herself pregnant, unmarried and alone somewhere down the road, with no place left to go.
Time drifted away from Joe as the deputy and the rest of the posse organized their return to Virginia City. Kincaid and Poke were going in the wagon. Clay, Robe and Dagen were going down on horseback. Dolly was distraught that she couldn’t ride with her father, but there simply wasn’t room in the wagon. Hoss helped her mount her horse and then went back to waken Joe.
Leading the exhausted young man outside, Hoss overheard the argument that had blown up. “Look,” he interrupted, his usual quiet manner subdued by his overwhelming tiredness. “Why don’t ya take Sheriff Kincaid an’ Poke ta the Ponderosa? It’s closer than Mormon Flats an’ they both need the doctor. Dolly can come with us and ya can take them others back ta the jail in Mormon Flats.”
“I see what you’re saying…” the deputy began, looking uneasy. “But Poke is a criminal…”
“A criminal who’s been gut-shot,” Joe replied, bluntly, “and who might not survive.” He walked to Cochise’s side and put one hand on the saddle. His whole body ached fiercely and Joe was not sure that he would be able to mount. “He’s at least got a chance of standing trial if he comes to the ranch.”
“He ain’t gonna escape,” Hoss added earnestly.
“Please,” Dolly begged. “Pa might not have long.”
“All right,” the deputy agreed. “I’ll be over as soon as we have these three locked up.” He nodded to the others. “Let’s go.”
From his position on his horse, Vince Dagen looked over at Joe. “I’ll be back, Cartwright,” he promised. “And I’ll get you!”
“Shut up!” the deputy ordered, and nudged Dagen’s horse to make it move.
“He ain’t comin’ back, Joe,” Hoss promised, moving to his younger brother’s side. He looked at Joe’s pale face and a pang of worry lanced through his gut. “Let’s get ya home,” he suggested and boosted Joe into the saddle, making sure his brother was securely seated before going and wearily mounting his own horse.
It was a long journey back down, and part of the way there, they met Adam, who was coming to join with them in their hunt for the timber wolves. He was shocked when he saw his brothers and heard the story and immediately took charge, relieving the weary Hoss. “I’ll get someone to go for the doctor and alert Pa,” he said, giving them all searching looks. Their ordeal had left Hoss, Joe and Dolly pale and tired. “Then I’ll be right back.” He put his heel to his horse and rode off. He had left some men less than a mile behind him.
It was only when Adam returned that Hoss was able to admit that he felt less than well himself. Hoss had been knocked out for a few moments the previous afternoon and had refused to give in to the pounding headache that had plagued him ever since. Worry over Joe’s constant goading of Dagen, being forced to watch from the sidelines as Joe fought with Dagen, plus the exertion of digging up the barn floor to bury poor Traeger had all taken their toll on Hoss’ strength. He was about ready to fall off his horse and sleep wherever he landed.
That fact wasn’t lost on Adam, who was unsure which of the three required most support. Dolly rode beside the wagon, peering anxiously down every few seconds. Her father was still and pale, the makeshift bandage on his chest just beginning to show spots of blood. Adam hadn’t seen Dolly Kincaid in years – not since she was a young girl running after Joe. She had grown up to be very pretty, but he didn’t know her well enough to guess how she would cope with this crisis. He resolved to keep a close eye on her.
On the other hand, Adam knew Joe very well. He had seen his youngest brother in various states of distress and although he had seen Joe look worse, he hadn’t often seen him look like this. Joe was pale, apart from the dried blood on his face. Blood had curved down from a nasty, deep cut above his right eyebrow and down from his left ear. There was a dark bruise and gash on Joe’s left cheekbone and the growing imprint of a hand on his right cheek. Joe’s hands were swollen, bruised and bloodied – a sure indication of a fist-fight if Adam had ever seen one. Joe looked exhausted and dazed and Adam realized that he was functioning solely on instinct, unaware, by and large, of where he was. Adam made sure he rode close to Joe, ready in case his brother toppled from the saddle.
It was difficult to tell with Hoss, as the middle brother seldom showed when he wasn’t feeling well. But today, Adam was left in no doubt that his other brother was not firing on all cylinders. It could just be exhaustion or it could be something more. Adam didn’t know and he certainly didn’t want to question them in Dolly’s hearing. In fact, Adam had no idea how Dolly came to be with Joe and Hoss, or what had happened to them and Sheriff Kincaid. Last he had seen of his brothers, they were going to Traeger’s place to hunt for wolves. Had Kincaid deputized them?
It was a silent party that finally trailed into the yard to find Ben waiting with Hop Sing and a couple of the ranch hands. Kincaid was dispatched at once to the downstairs bedroom, where Doc Martin was waiting for him. Poke was sent to the bunkhouse to await his turn with the good doctor and Joe was eased from his horse and supported up to his bedroom, where Ben helped him change from his grimy, bloodstained clothes and put him to bed. Adam followed Hoss upstairs, but Hoss refused any help. He lay down on his bed and was asleep in seconds.
It was an anxious few hours for Ben. He checked Joe and Hoss regularly while he waited for word on Kincaid. It was a couple of hours before Paul Martin emerged from the downstairs bedroom and announced that it had been close, but he expected Kincaid to make a full recovery. He then headed out to the bunkhouse to look at Poke. By some miracle, the wound to Poke’s stomach was not as bad as it had first seemed and he was soon resting comfortably. Later, he would be transferred to the jail.
Exhausted now, Paul slowly mounted the stairs and wished – not for the first time – that he had an assistant. He went into Joe’s room first and found the youngest Cartwright in a restless sleep. He woke Joe and proceeded to check him over. Apart from the gash above his eye, Joe had mostly escaped with bruises. Paul took stitches in the eyebrow and bandaged Joe’s bruised, swollen knuckles. Then he gave him some laudanum to help him rest and went to see Hoss.
The middle Cartwright son was difficult to rouse, worrying Paul, although he strove to hide his anxiety from Ben, who was anxious enough for the both of them. However, after a thorough examination, Paul concluded that Hoss was simply exhausted and he was allowed to go back to sleep. The bump on the head had not given Hoss a concussion, but Paul advised Ben to keep a close eye on him for the next couple of days. That done, he went wearily downstairs with Ben and accepted a much-needed cup of coffee and a sandwich.
“What happened to them, Ben?” he asked. “I didn’t get much information from the man Adam sent.”
“I don’t really know,” Ben replied. “Joe said that they had met up with Vince Dagen again and that Dagen had robbed the bank in Mormon Flats. But that was all he said.”
“Hoss fell asleep at once,” Adam amplified. “So he wasn’t much help. Dolly was too distracted and I didn’t like to push her.”
“Well, whatever it was, it clearly wasn’t good,” Paul replied. “Joe took quite a beating.” He sighed and felt the tug of sleep. “I’d better get going,” he declared and rose to his feet.
There was a knock at the door. Adam rose and answered it, finding Kincaid’s deputy on the other side. The man looked done in and soon found himself sitting on the sofa with coffee and some food. He tucked in with the demeanor of a man who had not seen food in far too long. Paul sat down to wait for him to finish so he could find out what had been going on.
The tale came out in dribs and drabs. Some of it had been pieced together from what the prisoners had said, some from the deputy’s own knowledge. But it was enough to keep the men enthralled and horrified as they listened.
Finishing his meal, the deputy rose. He looked completely exhausted. “I’d better take the prisoner back to Mormon Flats,” he declared. “Thank you for your hospitality, Mr. Cartwright.”
“Poke isn’t fit to travel tonight,” Paul stated bluntly, “and neither are you! I suggest you both rest here overnight and then tomorrow, I’ll see if he’s up to the journey.” He glanced at Ben. “I hope I haven’t just over-stepped myself, Ben.”
Waving his hand, Ben denied it with a shake of his head. “Of course not, Paul. You’re quite right.”
“Thank you, then,” the deputy replied. “I’m very grateful.” He looked, if it was possible, even more exhausted than before. Adam rose.
“I’ll show you to the bunkhouse,” he offered and led the man outside.
Sighing, Paul rose, too. “I’d better be off before you have another guest for the night,” he joked.
“You’re more than welcome,” Ben reminded him.
“I know, Ben and thanks,” Paul replied. “But I do need to get home and pick up a few things before I come back here in the morning.” He smiled and headed for the door. “Get some sleep!” he ordered. “And see that Dolly Kincaid gets some sleep, too.”
“I will,” Ben promised.
How successful Ben was at keeping his promise was something Paul Martin never found out. When he arrived at the ranch the next morning, Dolly was once again by her father’s side and Ben was sitting at the table with Joe and Hoss, who were having a late breakfast. Hoss looked much better and although Joe’s bruises were colorful and he moved carefully, he appeared to be on the mend, too. A short time later, Paul had equally good news about Kincaid, who was now managing to stay conscious for more than a few minutes at a time.
As Paul left, Ben went in to speak to Kincaid, telling the sheriff what had happened and reminding him that Dolly needed him. Ushering Dolly in to talk to her father for the first time since he had wakened properly, Ben thought that it wouldn’t be long before Dolly and her father were heading for home. Dagen and his gang would be on the way to prison for a long time for the things they had done. Ben was not sorry.
Several days later, Dolly and Kincaid left to return home. Kincaid was looking better and his demeanor had softened considerably. He even apologized to Joe for running him off with a shotgun before the robbery. He and Ben had had a number of chats about raising children alone and Ben hoped that things would be happier for the Kincaid family in the times to come.
After the Kincaids had gone, Ben, Adam and Hoss all mounted up and headed off to get some chores done. Joe was left behind to cool his heels, since he was still rather stiff and sore from the beating he had received from Dagen. The bulky bandage that Paul had stitched into the skin to protect the vulnerable stitches in Joe’s eyebrow cut down his peripheral vision quite drastically and the eye was still quite swollen, further reducing his vision on that side. Ben had decreed, much to Joe’s disgust, that Joe was to stay close to home until his eye had healed a bit more.
Joe was restless that day. He didn’t want to read; he wanted to do something constructive. He wouldn’t have admitted it for any money, but he had dreaded the thought of riding that day, as his eye tended to ache when he simply walked about. He had no idea what it would feel like when on the back of a horse, but he was in no real hurry to find out.
A spell in the barn grooming Cochise calmed Joe somewhat, but he was still restless when he emerged into the autumn-scented air an hour or so later. Leaning against the corral rails, Joe thought briefly about Dolly Kincaid, but he knew that he would not ask her out. They had grown apart from when they were children at school and Dolly’s neediness wasn’t something Joe found attractive. And despite the truce he had made with Kincaid, Joe had no desire to spend time in the older man’s company.
Hearing hoof beats hurrying into the yard, Joe turned, alarm flaring through his gut. Someone riding fast into the yard was not always a good thing. He saw the figure – indistinctly – as the person launched themselves from the horse and tackled Joe.
Instinctively, Joe fought back, still having no idea who it was that he was fighting, nor why. But when he pushed his assailant away, he saw that it was Vince Dagen.
How Dagen had managed to escape from the Mormon Flats jail was anyone’s guess. Joe didn’t have time to worry about it. He barely managed to dodge another murderous lunge from Dagen before he turned and headed for the house. Hop Sing was there, and although Joe had no idea how he was going to draw the Chinese housekeeper’s attention to his plight without getting him killed, too, he had to try.
With a growl, Dagen tackled Joe from behind and the air whooshed out of Joe’s lungs as he contacted the ground. “I said I’d get you, Cartwright,” Dagen cried, pummeling Joe with unbecoming verve. “Here I am!”
Blocking the next blow aimed at his face, Joe drove both his fists into the pit of Dagen’s stomach. It was enough to make the other man drop his guard for a moment and another couple of punches allowed Joe to knock Dagen to the ground. He scrambled to his feet, trying to ignore the blood that dripped from his nose and the pain where the stitches had torn and allowed the bandage to fall loose to the ground.
“I suppose you think it’s my fault you got caught?” Joe panted.
“It is your fault!” Dagen sneered. “If it hadn’t been for you and your sniping, Dolly would never have given you that gun! We’d have been home free and you’d be dead!”
“I don’t think so,” Joe replied. He knew he was wasting his breath arguing with Dagen, but he couldn’t just let it lie.
Sneering again, Dagen lunged for Joe. Joe sidestepped, but he wasn’t quite in time and Dagen knocked him to the ground, pinning the more slightly-built Joe beneath his weight. “I’ve got you now, Cartwright,” he gloated and drew a thin blade from his boot. Joe struggled to no avail. His hands were pinned and he could barely breathe with Dagen sitting on his chest.
It was the first time that Dagen had got the better of Joe in a fight and he was reveling in the feeling. He laid the blade against Joe’s throat. “I’m gonna enjoy this, Cartwright,” he exulted. He slowly drew the point of the knife up Joe’s throat until it rested just on the underside of his chin. Joe didn’t move. There was no pain, but after a few moments, he became aware of something warm and sticky running down the side of his throat; blood. “How’d you like that?” Dagen asked.
“How you like this?” asked a voice from behind Dagen, bare seconds before something solid hit him on the side of the head.
But those seconds, scant though they were, allowed Dagen enough time to stab at Joe. The angle of the blow was wrong, he had not had time to raise the knife very far, but it was still enough to slice across Joe’s earlobe and score along the side of his neck, leaving a line of pulsing red blood in its wake.
For a horrible moment, Hop Sing thought he had killed Joe. He pushed the unconscious Dagen off the youngest Cartwright with some difficulty. The Chinese man was diminutive and Dagen was tall and strong, but Hop Sing was determined and he succeeded. “Lil Joe!” he cried, dropping to his knees by Joe.
Forcing his way past the pain in his head, Joe opened his eyes. “Thanks,” he breathed before he once more closed his eyes to deal with the pain.
Sounding the dinner triangle had brought a perplexed hand in from a nearby field, wondering why Hop Sing was calling the family to dinner so urgently when they had ridden away less than an hour ago. That man quickly found himself a messenger, charged with fetching the doctor and sending someone else to get the Cartwrights.
By that time, Dagen was trussed to the corral rails with almost every coil of rope Hop Sing could get his hands on. Joe still lay in the blood-soaked dirt of the yard, too light-headed to attempt to stand, even with Hop Sing’s stalwart help. The bleeding was being staunched by a selection of old towels. There hadn’t been a tremendous amount of blood; it was the pain that made Joe feel so ill. Nevertheless, he had only just graduated to sitting up when his family arrived back.
There after, there was a flurry of activity that exhausted Joe, as he was helped up to his bed. Adam rode off to get Sheriff Coffee, Hoss summoned one of the hands to stand guard over the furious Vince Dagen and Hop Sing took himself off back to the kitchen where he allowed himself a minute to indulge in a fit of the vapors before returning to preparing for the evening meal. Ben sat with Joe, trying desperately hard to conceal the shaking of his hands.
Joe, able to relax now that he was safe, slid into sleep.
Later, after Joe’s ear was delicately stitched up, he learned that Dagen had escaped when an inexperienced deputy had carelessly allowed himself to be grabbed while giving Dagen a meal. The deputy was nursing a bad head injury and had doubtless learned a lesson, but too late to be of any comfort to Joe.
However, there were no more mistakes and by the time the stitches came out of Joe’s ear, Dagen and his gang had been tried and sentenced.
Joe had been lucky – the knife wound had left no scar; just a few red lines that soon faded. He resumed his usual activities, seemingly without sparing the incident another thought.
But one night, a few months later, Ben went up to bed and saw a light under Joe’s door. His youngest son had gone off to bed early that night, pleading exhaustion. Ben had quite believed him; Joe had had dark circles under his eyes for a few days. But seeing the light, Ben was worried and knocked gently on the door before opening it.
“Are you all right?” he asked, going in as Joe smiled tentatively at him.
“I guess,” Joe replied. “I was thinking.” He made a moue. “I guess thinking late at night isn’t good for you.”
“That depends what you’re thinking about,” Ben answered cautiously. “What’s on your mind, son?”
“I was thinking about Dagen,” Joe replied after a moment. “About that night we spent at Traeger’s place. I wasn’t that scared at the time, Pa, but it sure gives me the shakes now.”
Sitting down on the edge of Joe’s bed, Ben chose his words with care. “At the time, you were concerned with one thing and one thing only,” he told Joe. “Your survival and that of your brother. You had to keep alert and aware; keep your wits about you. You didn’t really have time to feel afraid, because your mind was busy watching for any advantage you could get.”
“But that doesn’t explain why I’m feeling it now,” Joe objected. “It’s been months, Pa.”
“There’s been a lot going on,” Ben reminded him. “Dagen’s escape wasn’t in our plans, now was it? We didn’t expect you to get hurt, either. The mind’s a funny thing, Joe. It only deals with things when it’s ready to. I don’t think you were ready to deal with this until now; until you were totally convinced that Dagen was not going to break out of prison the same way he broke out of the Mormon Flats jail. So now, you have time to look back and shiver when you remember the outrageous things you said.” He smiled, for Hoss had told Ben about Joe’s bravado and the way he had taunted Dagen. He patted Joe on the shoulder. “It’s all right to be afraid, remembering that. But, now that you’ve acknowledged your fear, put it in a compartment and move on. It’s done, over and past. If you dwell on it now, you’ll never be able to live your life. The fear will cripple you.” Ben looked at Joe, who met his eyes, drinking in every word. “You’re one of the bravest people I’ve ever known,” Ben added. “I’m proud of you, son. I think you’ll come to terms with this.”
For once, Joe was speechless, unsure of what to say. Ben was never stingy with his compliments, praising his sons when they deserved the praise, chastising them when the need arose and loving them fiercely throughout everything that life threw at them. But somehow, this bit of praise was of more importance than anything else Ben had said to him.
Unable to find the words, Joe simply threw his arms around his father, his eyes shining. Ben gladly returned the embrace, blinking back tears. He knew that Joe would be all right.
They all would be all right.