Faith to Believe (by Rona)

Summary:   A continuatio of the story “Believe in Me.”

Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  7779


 

 

“What do you mean, Joe’s not there?” Ben asked, frowning. “Where is he?”

“I don’t know,” Adam replied, frustrated. “He’s not in his room.”

Rising from the table, Ben went into the kitchen. “Hop Sing, have you seen Joseph this morning?”

“No, Mr. Cartwright,” Hop Sing replied. “You were first person up.”

“Thank you,” Ben responded, more perplexed than ever. He walked back to the table, where Hoss was now neglecting his breakfast. “Better check the stable,” Ben suggested. “He might have gone out there early…” His tone implied that Ben didn’t believe that any more than his sons did, but Adam obediently headed out there.

“Cochise is gone,” Adam reported, coming back in. He exchanged a worried glance with Ben. “I’ll check his room.”

“We’ll all check his room,” Ben replied and they hurried upstairs.

Joe’s room was tidy, and the window stood open the curtains fluttering in the breeze. The bed was neatly made and, although it was impossible to tell if it had been slept in or not, a gut feeling told Ben that Joe had not slept there the previous night. Pulling open a few drawers, Ben could see at once that there were clothes missing and his heart sank. Why had Joe gone? And where? “He’s gone,” Ben said, hollowly.

Hoss spoke for them all.

Why?”

*****

Their first instinct was to go looking for Joe, but almost at once, common sense told them they had no idea where to look. They didn’t even know why Joe had gone, far less where he had gone. Anguished, they sat down to try and puzzle out Joe’s behavior.

“He was real quiet last night,” Hoss ventured.

“Yes, he was,” Adam agreed, suddenly looking thoughtful. “Right after we were talking about that business with the hands.”

“Was that it?” Ben asked. He suddenly went pale. “You don’t think he could have misunderstood what I said, do you?”

“What did you say?” Adam asked, blankly.

“I said ‘I wish…’,” Ben replied miserably.

“Is that all?” Adam asked, missing the point entirely.

“What did ya mean by it, Pa?” Hoss asked.

“I just wished that all this could be over,” Ben responded. “But what if Joe thought I meant that I wished he – I don’t know – he hadn’t said anything? Hadn’t met Emma? Or worse?” Ben couldn’t bring himself to say it, but he was suddenly terrified that Joe had thought he wished Joe would go away. Could his son really believe that? Surely Joe knew they all loved him?

“He wouldn’t think that,” Hoss avowed, but there was doubt in his tone. Who knew what Joe would think? There was nothing predictable about his younger brother’s thought patterns. Or was there? “Pa, what if Joe’s somehow trying to defend Emma?” he ventured.

“But, Hoss, she’s dead,” Adam replied, with strained patience.

“I know that!” Hoss returned, with a touch of asperity. “But ya know Joe – he defends his friends against everyone. He’s sure that Emma’s Pa is lyin’. What if he means to prove it?”

“How could he do that?” Adam scoffed, not noticing the hurt on Hoss’ face.

“I dunno,” Hoss admitted. “But Joe might have some ideas.”

“I think you’re right, Hoss,” Ben interrupted. He shot Adam a hard look. “Let’s go into town and look for him. Question his friends and see if any of them have seen him. We can’t just sit here and do nothing.”

*****

It was one of the most frustrating days the Cartwrights had ever spent. All around the town, they asked if people had seen Joe and the answer was always no. It was as though the youngest Cartwright had just vanished off the face of the earth. Ben finally sent Adam and Hoss off further a field to talk to Joe’s other friends who lived and worked on out-lying ranches. He went to see Roy Coffee, the sheriff.

“Hiya, Ben,” Roy greeted him cheerfully as Ben entered the jail. “I was gonna send someone out ta talk ta ya.”

“Oh?” Ben replied, his breath suddenly catching in his throat. “There isn’t… something wrong is there?”

“Wrong?” Roy echoed. “Why should there be something wrong?” He looked more closely at his friend. “Ben?”

“Just tell me why you were going to talk to me,” Ben replied, shaking his head. He braced himself for bad news, even though it didn’t seem as though Roy was going to tell him the thing he dreaded hearing.

“Well, it were that idea’s of Joe’s that made me do it,” Roy answered. Ben blinked, for that statement made no sense to him at all.

“Come again?” he suggested.

“After Joe were in here the other day, sayin’ about that fellar that scared Emma,” Roy replied impatiently. “I decided ta look inta it, jist ta see if there was anythin’ ta it.”

“And was there?” Ben asked. He didn’t know what he wanted to Roy say in response.

“Yes, there was.” Roy got up and went over to the stove where a pot of coffee was sitting. Unasked, he poured a cup for Ben, too and put it down in front of him. “Fact is, Joe was likely right about Cowdray,” he went on. “Seems he was real well known back East, Ben. He made a fortune an’ decided to retire.”

“And?” Ben asked. His heartbeat seemed to have doubled in the last few minutes and the tension was killing.

“Round about then, he became a witness to a robbery and murder. Seems that he was the key witness, in fact, an’ the man he was testifyin’ against was a big gang man, with lots of connections to organized crime.” By now, Ben was riveted and his eyes never left Roy’s face. “Seems this fellar vowed to kill Cowdray’s family one by one, which is why they decided to come west. But Cowdray reckoned they would be safer if they didn’t make any friends.”

“Poor man,” Ben murmured.

“Yeah,” Roy replied. “But it don’t seem ta have worked, do it? Emma is still dead an’ I would guess that Cowdray is now terrified that somethin’ will happen to his sons, or his missus.”

“Do you think he’s had more threats?” Ben enquired.

“Yes, I do,” Roy nodded. “I went out ta try ta talk ta him yesterday and he went so white when he saw me on the doorstep that I thought he was gonna faint!”

“That’s what Joe said about the evening that he and Cowdray quarreled,” Ben remembered. “What are you going to do, Roy?”

“I’m still lookin’ fer the fella as killed Emma,” Roy replied. “I jist thought I’d let ya know what was goin’ on, seein’ as how Joe has suffered so much from the nasty gossip. I thought it might make the boy feel better. How’s he doin’?”

For a moment, Ben had almost forgotten that Joe was missing. Roy’s kind words brought it all back crashing in on him. “That’s why we’re in town,” Ben muttered. “Joe has disappeared.”

“Disappeared?” Roy repeated, disbelievingly. “When?”

“Probably last night,” Ben admitted. “But we aren’t sure. Some of his clothes are gone and so is Cochise. He must have climbed out of his bedroom window.”

“Old habits die hard,” Roy murmured. He knew Joe had done that a few times as an adolescent, but hadn’t expected him to do it now he was an adult. But then, if there was anyone who could do the unexpected, it was Joe. “Have ya any idea where he’s gone?”

“No, we’ve been looking for him all day,” Ben replied.  “He’s just disappeared.”

“Why’s he done this?” Roy asked.

“I’m not entirely sure,” Ben admitted and told Roy about the conversation the previous night. “I was annoyed by all the gossip and innuendo,” he explained. “And you know how quick Joe is to pick up on atmosphere most of the time. He must have thought I wished that he hadn’t ever met Emma, or hadn’t spoken out or… I don’t know, Roy. I should’ve been more thoughtful.”

“Everyone makes mistakes,” Roy told his friend compassionately. “We’ll find Joe, an’ everythin’ will work out jist fine.”

“I hope so,” Ben agreed.

*****

But they were forced to return to the ranch that evening without Joe. As they rode home, Ben could not help but hope that his wayward son would be waiting for them at the ranch, but as he led his horse into the barn, he saw at once that Cochise wasn’t there and knew that he had been hoping in vain. He was not the only one to feel the pang of disappointment, for both Adam and Hoss had hoped Joe would be home, too.

“If I get my hands on Joe, I’m going to kill him, very, very slowly,” Adam told Hoss, only half in jest when they were alone in the barn.

Giving Adam a troubled look, Hoss said, “Adam, ya don’ mean that. Joe must have a reason fer doin’ what he’s done. Wait till ya hear his side o’ it afore ya decide ta kill him.”

“What good reason could he possible have for worrying Pa like this?” Adam snapped.

“I dunno,” Hoss admitted. “But Joe don’ allus see things the way we do. I can unnerstand him thinkin’ Pa were disappointed in him somehow, cos I kinda felt the same.”

“You did?” Adam asked. He didn’t sound angry any more.

“Yeah. Pa weren’t jist quite hisself wi’ Joe. It weren’t that he didn’t believe him, ezzactly, but he weren’t too happy.” Hoss frowned as he tried to put his feelings into words. “Joe allus gits real unhappy when Pa ain’t pleased with him. So I reckon he’s gone out ta prove that he was right.”

Quite a few moments passed as Adam thought through what Hoss had said. “I think you could be right,” he admitted, finally. Hoss smiled at him briefly. “But that doesn’t mean I’m not going to kill Joe when we do find him,” he added.

“Jist be sure an’ leave some fer me,” Hoss agreed.

*****

But as the days dragged on, the thought that Joe would come back to them became a torment, not a comfort, for nobody had seen Joe at all. Ranch work had still to be done and for the first time, Ben found himself resenting the ranch that he had spent so many years lovingly building up. All the necessary little jobs that required doing prevented him from looking for his son. And every time he thought that, Ben caught himself. Where was he going to look for Joe? Joe could be anywhere by now; he could even have taken a ship and gone to sea, although Ben had never seen signs of his sea-going genes in Joe.

The ranch, their home, no longer felt like home. They were a circle, fractured beyond repair.

*****

A man on a large, liver chestnut horse rode up to the fence at the front of the impressive mansion and dismounted. He was dressed more casually than a businessman, but more tidily than a cowboy. He carefully hitched his horse to the rail, straightened his jacket and walked up the path to the front door.

The little maid who opened the door clearly didn’t know what to make of him. However, he was admitted at once, much to the keen interest of the observer who had now been watching the Cowdrays’ home for the last few days. This was the third time this gentleman had called, although he had never been allowed in before, and this time, the observer was determined to be ready. He rose from his place of concealment and saddled his horse.

Such patient sitting and waiting didn’t come naturally to Joe Cartwright. And it had been especially hard for him, knowing that he had deliberately run out on his family and that they must be worried about him by then. Joe knew there was no excuse for what he had done, but with Ben so irritated with him, Joe had felt that he had no choice but to try and resolve this alone. His reputation had taken a beating in town, thanks to Cowdray and his insinuations and Joe was out to prove himself.

It had been a hard few days for Joe as he had run off without collecting any food for himself, and he had had to catch or collect everything that he ate and in consequence had missed quite a few meals. He had also kept cooking to a minimum, and as a result was feeling the cold, for he had lit fires only when he had to. And despite bringing changes of clothes with him, Joe had had no chance to wash more than perfunctorily and so had not put on clean clothes. He longed for a hot bath, a good meal and a soft bed…

At last, the man emerged from the mansion and this time, Cowdray himself saw him out.  Joe was too far away to see how Cowdray was looking, but he suspected that Cowdray would be shaking in his highly polished $100 shoes. He mounted up quickly and rode down from his place of concealment to follow Cowdray’s visitor.

As he rode along, Joe wondered what he was going to do when his quarry finally reached his destination. He had no real plan – and a wry smile twisted his mouth as the echo of Adam’s voice sounded in his head; “acting before you think is pretty foolish, Joe.”

“I know it is, big brother,” Joe muttered to himself, feeling incredibly lonely. “But I had to do something. I know you won’t understand, but I just had to.” Joe wasn’t entirely sure he understood his own actions, so how could he expect others to understand them?

Glancing ahead once more, Joe realized that the man he had been following had disappeared from sight! Stifling the urge to curse, Joe touched his heel to his horse and Cochise moved up to an easy lope. Joe pursed his lips in annoyance. He’d been daydreaming and wasn’t paying enough attention.

Too late, he realized that it was a trap and it no longer mattered what happened when his quarry reached his destination. For prey had turned hunter and Joe was knocked from his horse to the ground. He saw a fist coming towards him and then darkness descended.

*****

Unintelligible words first penetrated the darkness. He struggled to make sense of them, and finally gave up, just letting the sound wash over him. But after a few minutes, the words began to make sense and with that, memory returned. Joe risked cranking open one eye, and groaned as the light blinded him.

“He’s awake!” exclaimed a voice and Joe heard footsteps as someone came over to him. He risked opening his eyes again, more cautiously this time and surveyed a pair of dusty boots from very close to. After a second, the owner of the boots crouched down and peered more closely at Joe. “You’re one of them Cartwrights,” he declared in disgust. He glanced over his shoulder as Joe realized that he had caught up with the man who had been visiting the Cowdrays. “The one who was initially wanted for killing the girl!” The laugh the man gave told Joe two things; that this was Emma’s killer and he was in big, big trouble.

Joe’s first response was to try to get away, but as soon as he moved, he realized he was tightly bound hand and foot and wasn’t going to be going anywhere. But the movement hadn’t escaped his captor’s notice and he straightened up, laughing. “Going somewhere, boy?” he asked sarcastically.

Glaring up at the man in black, Joe saw the other man coming over to join them. He was similar enough to the first man for Joe to guess – accurately – that they were brothers. “We can always pin it on him,” said the second man, and Joe wondered what on earth he was talking about. “I’m sure we could arrange for him to write a note saying how remorseful he was about killing Cowdray for not believing in him. Of course, this is after he had killed all the rest of the family first!”

“You killed Emma!” Joe declared.

“Surely did, boy,” agreed the first man. “And now it looks like we’re going to have to kill you, too.”

*****

The knock on the door set Ben’s heart to pounding. Rising from his desk, where he had been listlessly working on the books, he hurried over to open the door. “Roy!” he exclaimed, with a mixture of hope and dread in his voice. He was too scared to ask the question that was on the tip of his tongue.

“Hi, Ben,” Roy replied, inviting himself in. “I got some news fer ya.”

“News?” Ben repeated, as though he had never heard the word before. “About…?” He couldn’t bring himself to say Joe’s name.

“Yep,” Roy nodded. He could see the fear lurking in his old friend’s eyes and put a reassuring hand on Ben’s arm. “Joe’s bin spotted.”

For a moment, Roy thought Ben was going to collapse. His eyes were wide, the pupils so dilated that they made Ben’s dark brown eyes look almost black, and his breath came in unsteady gasps, as though he had been running. “Ben, are ya all right?” Roy demanded.

“W-When?” Ben stuttered. “W-Where? Is he all right?”

“Sit down!” Roy ordered and helped his friend across the room. “Hop Sing!” he shouted. “Git in here!”

There was some annoyed clucking from the direction of the kitchen, but when Hop Sing saw Roy bending over Ben, who was slumped in his chair, he became concerned. “What wrong?” he demanded, hurrying over.

“Git him some coffee or somethin’,” Roy urged. “He’s had a bit of a shock.”

“Shock?” Hop Sing echoed and froze. “What happen? Not Lil Joe?” His face was almost as white as Ben’s and Roy all but groaned aloud. He couldn’t deal with two of them in shock.

“No,” Roy scolded. “Not the way you mean. Hop Sing, jist git some coffee, all right?”

“No, it’s all right,” Ben protested, coming back to life. “I’m all right.” He sat up a bit straighter. “Tell me about Joe,” he pleaded and Hop Sing began to smile, ever so slightly.

“Clem were out seein’ ol’ Parkinson, out past the Cowdrays’ place,” Roy began. “The ol’ coot thought he’d had his cow rustled, but turns out the cantankerous beast had jist wandered off. That’s by-the-by,” he added hastily, seeing the impatience in Ben’s face. “Clem heard hooves and seen this feller riding a big horse comin’ out a town. He hadn’t never seen the feller afore and seein’ as how we’re lookin’ inta a murder, Clem decided ta see where he went. But afore he could follow, he seen Joe comin’ along, followin’ the other feller.” He looked into both faces to make sure they were following the story. Reassured, he went on. “But afore Clem could shout ta Joe or anythin’, Joe put his horse inta a lope an’ when Clem started ta follow him, he saw Joe bein’ attacked!”

The ragged gasps from his listeners reminded Roy that he was trying to reassure Ben and Hop Sing, not terrify them. He had become caught up in his narration and had forgotten to just get straight to the point. “He followed carefully, seein’ as how Joe had bin knocked out. The feller met up with another stranger, an’ they tied Joe up. When Clem left ta git me, Joe had wakened and they was talkin’, although Clem were too far away ta hear what they said.”

“What are we waiting for?” Ben cried and leapt to his feet. Joe was alive, but anything could’ve happened to him in the meantime! “We need to go after him!” He glanced at Hop Sing. “Where are Adam and Hoss working today?”

“It doesn’t matter, Pa, we’re here,” replied Adam’s deep baritone and Ben swung round to view his older sons, both of whom were panting slightly. “We saw Roy and thought we should come and hear the news,” Adam explained, shrugging apologetically. “Is it Joe?”

Quickly, Ben told them the story, leaving out the dramatics, but also leaving them in no doubt that their brother’s life was in danger. In a few short minutes, they were all hurrying outside to mount up, leaving Hop Sing behind, worrying about Joe, but firmly believing that when the Cartwrights returned, his beloved boy would be safely with them.

******

“Don’t kill him yet,” the second man urged.

“Don’t tell me you’re going soft,” replied the first.

“Come on, Don, this is me,” grinned the other. Joe thought he looked rather wolfish, with longish hair hanging around his face. “But he might be useful, should there be any kind of a hitch, don’t you think?”

“Bro, I like the way you think,” Don replied, grinning back. “And we haven’t written his confession yet.”

“I don’t think we’re going to write it; we’re going to make him do it,” contradicted his brother.

“What do you mean, Reg?” Don frowned.

“He’s left-handed,” Reg replied, pointing to Joe’s holster, tied down to his left leg. “I’ve heard left-handed writing is real peculiar. Better make him do it when we get back.”

‘”Forget it!” Joe interjected. “I’m not going to write anything for you and there’s nothing you can do to make me.”

“Leave him, Don,” Reg sighed, grabbing his impulsive older brother. “He’s just trying to wind you up.” He knelt by Joe and checked over the ropes that bound him, but they were as tight as ever. Straightening, he glanced at his brother. “What did Cowdray say to you when you went in?”

“I told him who we were,” Don replied. “I thought he was going to have a heart-attack. He promised me all his money, as long as I left his family alone.”

“What did you say?” Reg asked avidly.

“I told him that we’d take his money,” Don grinned. Reg grinned back. “But I didn’t tell him that we were going to kill his family, since he was the cause of our father getting hanged.”

“Its funny,” mused Reg, while Joe looked at them both in horror. “I thought after we raped and murdered the girl he would run again.”

“He was hoping that it wasn’t us,” laughed Don. “He was hoping his daughter was a genuine victim of a random murder. Can you believe it?” He laughed again. “How stupid can you get?”

If Joe had been shocked hearing abut Emma’s death the first time, it was nothing to how he felt hearing it discussed as though it was nothing. He tried to struggle to his feet to inflict some kind of pain on these men, but he had no chance. Don kicked Joe’s feet from under him and Reg kicked him several times in the stomach for good measure.

“Let’s go,” Don urged. “We’ve waited long enough. Any longer, and Cowdray might find his courage and leave town.”

“Yeah, all right,” Reg agreed. “I’m fed up of Virginia City anyway. It’s so provincial.” He bent over Joe. “You stay here and be a good boy,” he said, patronizingly. “We’ll be back for you.”

Leaving Joe lying there, they mounted up and rode off back to town.

*****

He had to get free! Joe struggled wildly against the ropes that bound him. They were tied securely and he couldn’t budge them, but Joe was in no mood to be thwarted. He rolled over and over until he collided with the base of a tree and rubbed the rope against the rough bark. All he succeeded in doing was scraping all the skin off his wrists. Frustrated, Joe tried again to free his hands and succeeded in getting his right hand twisted inside one of the loops of rope. Elated, he tugged furiously.

A sudden pain rocketed up Joe’s right arm, at the same moment as he heard a sharp snap. Joe caught his breath and bit into his bottom lip to try and control the pain. His head, already throbbing, reeled dizzily and for a few moments, Joe thought he was going to be sick.

Eventually, Joe mastered his nausea and rested his head against the tree. He had broken his hand, he knew. Now what was he going to do?

Cochise! Joe’s eye fell on his horse and he knew that he had a knife in his saddlebags. Joe began to drag himself towards his horse, but stopped as it occurred to him to wonder how on earth he was going to get the knife out of the bag. With his hands tied behind his back the way they were, he wouldn’t be able to reach in and the ropes were too tight to allow him to thread his way through his hands, never mind the pain it would cause him. Joe groaned aloud. There had to be something he could do.

As he turned his head to look despairingly around, something glinted in the afternoon sunlight. Joe frowned, trying to see what it was, but the elusive glint had disappeared. Slowly, Joe moved his head until once more, the glint appeared. Fixing the position of it in his mind, Joe made his way over, panting from the exertion. It took him a few moments to find his elusive little glint, but what he found filled him with renewed hope. It was a long, sharp shard of glass, obviously broken out of a bottle.

Grasping the shard in his hand, Joe carefully placed it against the ropes and began to saw with it. Several times, the shard slipped from his sweating fingers and Joe cut himself innumerable times. But slowly – so slowly – the strands of rope parted and eventually fell free.

Bringing his hands back in front of him, Joe looked ruefully at the bruised, swollen object that was his right hand. One handed, he struggled to free his feet and eventually succeeded.

By the time he had stumbled over to Cochise, Joe’s legs felt like they belonged to him again. He mounted carefully, not wanting to jar his hand any further, for every movement caused him pain. He wondered how long it had taken him to get free. It seemed like forever. Would he be in time to save the Cowdrays?

*****

“Who’s visiting them?” grumbled Don in annoyance as he beheld the buggy parked outside the Cowdrays’ house. “I thought they weren’t liked in this town.”

“They aren’t,” Reg snapped back, equally as annoyed. “How am I supposed to know who it is? But a few more minutes won’t matter. Cartwright isn’t going anywhere and obviously neither are they right now. Relax, brother, we’ve got time to wait.”

“I guess so,” Don mumbled, but he clearly wasn’t pleased. They got down off their horses and tethered their mounts and then leant on the nearest tree, waiting for the unexpected visitor to leave.

*****

Almost the first person they saw as they rode into town on exhausted, lathered horses was Clem. He was waiting for them on the steps of the jail and he didn’t look happy. “Roy!” he hailed as the sheriff and the Cartwrights came into view. He snatched up the reins of his own horse and mounted, not waiting for the others to reach him. “I found out who those men were,” he told Roy in grim tones.

“Who?” Roy asked.

Casting a glance at the Cartwright that alerted them to the fact that this was not going to be good news, Clem replied, “Don and Reg Carson.”

The Cartwrights exchanged a glance as Roy looked bleakly at Clem. The names meant nothing to them, although Roy obviously knew who they were. “Who…?” Ben started and Roy didn’t let him finish.

“Ya remember I told ya about the feller Cowdray testified against back east?” Roy looked unhappy. “Well, these fellers are his sons, Ben. They must be out ta avenge their father’s death.”

“What are we waiting for?” Ben demanded. “Let’s go!”

“Don’t go off half-cocked here, Ben!” Roy scolded. “Ya’re jist as bad as Joe.”

“Maybe,” Ben returned. “But Joe’s in trouble and I’ve got to help him!”

“I know that!” Roy sighed. “Just let us go first, all right?”

Tight-lipped, Ben nodded his agreement, although he desperately wanted to ride off to find Joe.

*****

No more than fifteen minutes had passed before the door to Cowdray’s mansion opened and the parson stepped out. He shook hands with Cowdray on the doorstep before walking down to his buggy. Don and Reg stayed where they were in the shadows until the man had driven out of sight. Nonchalantly, they walked across the street and mounted the steps.

The moment the door was opened, Don forced his way in, knocking down the maid who had admitted him before. She fell to the floor in a heap, too dazed to scream. Don and Reg walked past, each one drawing a gun.

Throwing open the nearest door, Don glanced into the over-stuffed parlor, but it was empty. A glance at the little maid showed her eyes turned fearfully to the stairs, so with a nod to Reg, Don began to mount them. It was then that the maid found her voice. Her terrified screams echoed around the hallway, up the stairs and out into the street.

Neither brother so much as looked at her as they climbed the stairs.

*****

As he reached the Cowdrays’ house, Joe heard terrified screaming. Instantly, he threw himself from his horse and raced towards the house, indifferent to his own safety. He barreled through the front door and saw the maid sitting on the floor, having hysterics. Her gaze swung round to him, and he vaguely recognized her face, although he had no idea of what her name was. However, the girl seemed to know him and her screams subsided. “Where are they?” Joe demanded.

“Upstairs,” the girl whispered, her voice barely audible. Joe didn’t wait to say anything to her; he ran upstairs.

*****

There was no need for Joe to worry about finding them. The door to the room at the top of the stairs was flung wide and inside were Mr. and Mrs. Cowdray. Joe fervently hoped that the two boys weren’t there that day. But it was no more than a fleeting thought, for Don had drawn his gun and was aiming it at Cowdray. Joe wasted no time in shouting; he simply ran into the room and ploughed Don down.

The gun went off, but the bullet didn’t hit anyone. Joe struggled to keep Don down, all the while trying to see where the other brother, Reg, was. Joe was hampered by his broken hand, and it didn’t take Don long to throw Joe off. He clambered to his feet and dived after his gun, which had fallen from his hand. “Get him, Reg!” he cried. “Get them both!”

For a second, Reg was undecided which person he should shoot first. As he drew a bead on Cowdray, a wolfish grin spreading over his face at the look of abject terror Cowdray wore, Joe once more threw himself into action, racing across the room at Cowdray.

The gun went off and Joe knew he was falling, with Cowdray beneath him. From somewhere behind him, he could hear the thunder of feet on the floor and then there was more shooting. Joe wondered why he didn’t feel like moving.

Then hands touched his back and the voice he had most wanted to hear spoke his name. “Joe?”

Knowing he was safe, Joe passed out into his father’s arms.

*****

“I can hear screaming,” Adam declared and urged his tired horse to a faster pace.

“There’s Cochise!” Hoss cried, pointing.

“And there’s Joe!” Ben added, seeing his youngest son racing into the house. Forgetting all about Roy’s strictures about letting him go first, Ben urged his horse faster. He dismounted in a rush and followed Joe inside.

Silently, the maid, who had just regained her feet, pointed to the stairs. None of the men more than glanced at her as they ran past. All of them had drawn their guns, although they had no recollection of doing so.

From upstairs, they could hear the sounds of a fight, then the shout, “Get him, Reg. Get them both!” Then there was the shot, but by this time, they could see what was happening and Ben’s heart leapt as he saw Joe dive at Cowdray, knocking the man to the floor and taking the bullet that had been meant for him!

*****

Later, Ben was never sure if he fired a single shot, but it took only moments before both Don and Reg were taken out. Both were alive and it looked like they would live to stand trial, following in their father’s footsteps once more.

But Ben was indifferent to all this. He hurried over to kneel by Joe. Reaching out, he touched his youngest son’s back gently. “Joe?” he murmured and Joe sighed, passing out right into his father’s arms. Ben clutched him tightly, oblivious, for the moment, of the blood soaking into his clothes.

“Let’s get him to the doctor’s, Pa,” Adam said, helping Ben to his feet, Joe still clutched in his arms. “He’s bleeding badly.”

“He could stay here,” Cowdray offered. He was sitting in a chair, looking pale and shaken. There was no doubt that Joe had just saved his life.

“Its quicker if we take him to the doctor,” Adam explained. He followed after Ben and Hoss. Joe head was flung back over Ben’s arm, his eyes close and his curls bobbing gently as Ben walked. Adam felt a sudden lump in his throat. Joe looked so vulnerable; so defeated. He shook the thought off. Joe was strong. He would be fine, Adam was sure…

*****

The waiting was the hardest. There was nothing to do but wait and the time seemed to stand still, for every time Ben glanced at the clock on the wall, it didn’t seem to have moved. And yet, Ben thought, as he rose to pace restlessly, the clock was ticking, so it must be working. He looked at his sons to see how they were holding up and saw they were looking at him with equal concern.

“He’ll be all right, Pa,” Hoss assured his father and Ben appreciated the attempt, even if the words had a slight quiver of doubt behind them.

“I hope so, son,” Ben replied and sat down again, between Adam and Hoss, feeling both sons lean towards him slightly, seeking reassurance from the only stability they had ever known. Ben felt both awed and overwhelmed by their trust. He just hoped that everything would turn out all right.

When the door to the surgery did finally open, Doctor Paul Martin was smiling. Ben felt his head swim with relief; Paul was usually cautious with his words and expressions until he was sure of his facts. “Ben, Joe’s going to be just fine,” he declared. He beckoned the whole family into the room.

Joe lay on the bed at the far side of the room, his eyes closed and his face pale. Ben hurried over and sat down in the chair by the bed, taking Joe’s hand where it rested limply on top of the covers. Joe’s other hand was encased in a splint and bandages, but apart from a bruise on his jaw line, there were no other injuries to see.

“The bullet caught Joe in the back,” Paul explained. “It entered about here,” he demonstrated on his skeleton, “traveled along just under the surface of the skin before bouncing off the edge of a rib and exiting harmlessly through Joe’s side. It didn’t touch his spine at all and it touched no organs or arteries on the way out. Joe lost a lot of blood, though, so he’ll be weak for a while and I don’t want him to get up before I say he can!”

“No promises,” Adam mentioned and the release of tension made them all laugh at the feeble joke.

“His hand was broken,” Paul went on. “It was quite a nasty break, across the breadth of his hand, not just down one set of bones.” He frowned. “There’s a nasty rope burn there, too. Have you any idea…?”

“Not yet,” Ben replied, steadily. “We’re hoping Joe can tell us when he wakes up.” Ben looked at Paul. “Is that all? This bruise…”

“It looks to me like Joe was in a fight,” Paul replied. Ben nodded. He knew that, and was relieved to have it confirmed that it was nothing more. “And he was filthy, Ben. It looked like he had been sleeping rough and hadn’t bathed for days.”

“We think that’s possibly what he had been doing,” Ben replied, quietly. He looked at his slumbering son and silently urged Joe to wake up. “Joe left the Ponderosa during the night almost a week ago.”

“What?” Paul gasped. “But why?”

“I’m not sure,” Ben admitted. “I think perhaps it was something I said that Joe misunderstood. We’ve been looking for him, but until today, nobody had seen him. I’ve been frantic,” he admitted quietly.

“I’m… sorry,” whispered a thin, frail voice.

“Joe!” Ben exclaimed, turning his attention to his son. “It’s all right, Joe,” he soothed.

“But I worried you, Pa,” Joe whispered. “I’m sorry.”

“Right now, that doesn’t matter,” Ben told him, lovingly. “All that matters right now is that you rest and get better.”

Too weary to argue, Joe allowed his eyes to close and he slid back towards sleep. But all the time, he was aware of the big, warm hand holding his. Feeling secure and as though he had come home, Joe drifted away.

*****

Come morning, Joe was looking a lot better, although he was still pale and weak. He wasn’t allowed to sit up unaided, because of the soft tissue damage done by the bullet, but since sitting upright made his head swim still, because of the blood loss, Joe didn’t mind. He was content to stay lying down – for now.

“Why did you leave?” Ben asked, after he, Adam and Hoss had had breakfast.

“It was a combination of a whole lot of things,” Joe replied. He had had plenty of time to think about this, even if he wasn’t sure he could explain it properly. “You were disappointed in me, Pa. I caused a scene, and you were disappointed.”

“No, I wasn’t,” Ben denied. “I was angry with Cowdray, not you!”

“It didn’t feel like that,” Joe muttered, ducking his head.

“Joe’s right, Pa,” Hoss agreed. “I sure though ya were mad at Joe, too.”

“So it was my fault,” Ben breathed.

“No!” Joe denied. “I wanted to prove to everyone that Emma had been murdered and that she hadn’t been lying, but I knew if I stayed at home, you wouldn’t let me.”

“I wonder why,” Adam murmured sardonically. Joe shot him a dark look.

“And I had to have faith to believe…” Joe’s voice petered out.

“Faith to believe what, Joe?” Ben asked, gently.

“Faith to believe in myself again, Pa,” Joe answered. “I was beginning to wonder if I had been right about Emma and Cowdray. I knew what I’d seen; yet all the gossip was making me doubt myself. I just had to get away to believe in myself again.”

“And do you believe in yourself?” Ben asked, although he was fairly sure he knew the answer.

“Yes, I do,” Joe replied, looking directly at Ben for the first time since he began his story. “And now everyone else will have to believe in me, too. I had to have solid evidence for everyone else, Pa, but I didn’t need that for me. I just needed to know.” Joe wasn’t sure if he’d made himself clear, but Ben nodded. The need for self-belief was something he understood intimately.

“I understand,” he replied, huskily. “I just wish you could’ve found another way of doing it.”

“I’m sorry,” Joe repeated. “I promise I won’t do it again.”

“Until next time,” Adam added and they all laughed.

*****

Later, Roy came to speak to Joe about what had happened to him at the hands of the Carson brothers. Joe had slept again and this time when he’d woken, he’d been hungry and had managed to hold down some soft food.

“I saw Don at Cowdray’s door,” Joe explained. “I’d seen him there before, but each time, Cowdray hadn’t been in. This time he was, and so I got ready to follow him.” Joe had already explained where he had been hiding out. “I guess he must have realized I was following him, because he ducked out of sight and by the time I realized that he knew about me, he’d knocked me off Cochise and the next thing I knew, I was waking up, tied hand and foot.” Joe looked ruefully at his hand, but didn’t want to get ahead of his story. “Reg said they would make me write a confession, saying I’d killed Emma and then her family. They rode off and left me there and I knew they were going to kill Cowdray. I couldn’t let that happen. I tried to get free  – that was when I broke my hand. I caught it in the ropes. But I got lucky and found some glass and managed to get free.” Joe’s hands had been a mass of small cuts from the shard of glass. “I followed them into town, and the rest you know.”

“Why did you save Cowdray?” Roy asked. “I’d have thought that was the last thing ya wanted, after the way he’d bin bad mouthin’ ya.”

“That didn’t matter,” Joe said, impatiently. “He was an innocent man, Roy! I couldn’t let them kill him! What he said about me was – well, it doesn’t matter.”

“I’m proud of you, Joe,” Ben told him, as Roy left. “Many a man would have let Cowdray take his chances.”

“I don’t like Cowdray, Pa,” Joe admitted. “But I did like Emma. She was my friend, and I couldn’t stand by and let my friend’s father be killed. He was scared, Pa. When people are as scared as that, they don’t always do the right thing.”

“I don’t deserve your understanding, Joe,” came a voice from the door and both Ben and Joe turned to see Cowdray standing there. He had obviously been listening. “I was thoroughly despicable to you and I can’t apologize enough.” He walked slowly over to the bed. He met Joe’s gaze without flinching, although he colored slightly. “My Emma was lucky to have a friend like you, Joe and I’m sorry I stopped you from seeing her. I want to thank you for saving my life and the lives of my family, but the words don’t seem like nearly enough. Can I give you a reward?”

“No,” Joe replied, flushing himself. “No reward. I did it for Emma, because she loved you. I don’t need a reward.”

“I still don’t feel thanks is enough,” Cowdray muttered. He wasn’t sure he could have done as Joe had done, if the boot had been on the other foot. He was consumed with guilt at the way he had treated Joe and didn’t think a lifetime of penance would make him feel better.

“Its enough for me,” Joe replied, firmly.

“You have a remarkable son, Mr. Cartwright,” Cowdray remarked. “Thank you, Joe. Thank you very much.” He put his hand out for Joe to shake, but Joe regretfully lifted his right hand slightly where it rested in a sling against his stomach and Cowdray half laughed.

“Yes, I have a remarkable son,” Ben agreed as he rose to see Joe’s visitor out. “Good bye, Cowdray. I hope we’ll see you around.”

Smiling, Cowdray nodded. “Yes, I think perhaps you will. We’re going to stay in Virginia City, and try and make a go of living here. The people here are good people.”

“I think most people are good people,” Ben replied. “I’m glad you’re staying.”

Going back to sit by Joe, Ben noticed that his son was thoughtful. He waited quietly, until Joe was ready to speak. “There’s an Indian saying, Pa, that I never entirely understood until now.”

“Go on,” Ben murmured, although he was fairly sure he knew which one Joe was going to quote.

“I can’t quite remember the exact words,” Joe went on, “but it goes something like ‘You’ll never understand another man’s life until you walk a mile in his moccasins.’” He looked at Ben to see his father nodding and smiling slightly. “I never thought about why Cowdray was disagreeable. It never occurred to me that fear could make you bad tempered. I know I haven’t exactly walked in Cowdray’s shoes, but I think I understand him better now.” He smiled tentatively at Ben. “I don’t think I dislike him as much as I did.”

“I’m glad to hear it, son,” Ben responded, smiling broadly. “Just tell me one thing, Joe.” His smile faded. “You were going to come home, weren’t you?”

“Yes of course!” Joe exclaimed, looking distressed. “You didn’t think I’d run off forever, did you?”

“It felt like you were gone forever,” Ben told him.

“It felt like it to me, too,” Joe replied, quietly. “I thought what a fool I’d been, but I couldn’t come back until I had proved myself.” He looked up at Ben. “Can I come home? Do you want me back?”

“Oh Joe!” Ben wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry. He blinked the tears from his eyes and swept his son into a hug. “If I didn’t want you to come home, do you really think I’d have spent all these hours sitting here with you?”

“Well, I just thought I’d check,” Joe muttered. He was blinking back tears, too.

Behind them, the door opened again and Hoss breezed in. “Hey Pa!” he cried. “The wagon’s outside ready fer ya whenever yer ready ta bring Shortshanks home.”

Grinning up at Ben, Joe laughed. “If only I’d waited one minute more to ask that question.”

Laughing, too, Ben ruffled Joe’s hair. “Come on, scamp, let’s go home.”

Home! The very word made Joe feel better. He accepted help to get dressed and get to his feet, but he felt no pain, for his heart was singing within him. He was going home.

***End***

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