His Prey (by Rona)

Summary:  A What Happened Next for “The Hunter.”

Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  9285


 

 

For Claire, the sister I never expected.

 

 

“Jist take it easy, young fella,” the old drifter soothed. “Where d’ya live?”

“Too far away,” the man replied. “Can you…take me to…Fort Lowell?”

“I reckon I can,” agreed the old man agreeably. “Take a day or two, mind.”

“I don’t care,” returned the other. He was safe at last.

*****

“When d’you think Joe will be back?” Candy Canaday asked Ben Cartwright, his boss. He was hitching the wagon to go into town for supplies.

“A few more days yet,” Ben replied. “I had expected him to wire me by now, to let me know what the general thought of the price for the horses, but you know what Joe is like. He’ll be talking twenty to the dozen, charming the general into taking our horses.”

“Joe sure can talk his way round folks,” Candy agreed. “Want me to check in town to see if a wire has arrived and just been forgotten about?”

“Yes, thanks, Candy,” Ben nodded.

“No problem,” Candy agreed. He hopped up into the wagon seat and snapped the reins. The team obediently began to move. “See you later!” Candy called.

*****

There were various chores requiring Ben’s attention that morning and he set about them with enthusiasm. Although Ben still ran the ranch, he relied more and more upon Joe these days, especially since Hoss’ death. For a long time, he thought they would never recover, and then tragedy had struck again, with the death of Joe’s pregnant wife. Ben thought Joe would crack under the strain, but somehow, his youngest son had managed to get his life back together.

His youngest blood son, Ben corrected himself. He had adopted Jamie, and relished having a youngster about the place again. I must be crazy, Ben thought. I should be glad not to have to worry about all the fool things a boy gets up to! Didn’t Joe teach me anything? He laughed to himself. Joe was still getting into scrapes on a regular basis.

For a moment, Ben’s thoughts sobered, as he thought about his oldest son, Adam, whom he hadn’t seen for years. Letters still came, even if not with the same regularity of the first days Adam had been gone. Ben had been heart-broken that Adam hadn’t come home when Hoss died, and perhaps something of this had transmitted itself to Adam via his pen, for Adam’s letters had become defensive, offering excuses when none were asked for. Adam had made it plain he wasn’t coming back again.

Shaking off the melancholy, Ben applied himself to his correspondence once more. A little while later, he heard the wagon rattle into the yard and rose, glad of the break, to help Candy unload. He was surprised when the door opened and Candy hurtled into the house. “Mr. Cartwright!”

“What’s wrong, Candy?” Ben asked, for Candy’s face was pale and he was visibly agitated.

For an answer, Candy thrust a flimsy piece of paper into Ben’s hand. Ben took it, giving Candy another long look, and then read the wire. His heart skipped a beat.

TO BEN CARTWRIGHT PONDEROSA NEVADA STOP

YOUR SON JOSEPH VERY ILL STOP COME WITH ALL HASTE STOP

COMMANDING OFFICER FORT LOWELL ALL STOP

 

Now, Ben knew exactly why Candy was pale and agitated. Joe was in trouble again.

*****

“Griff, you stay here with Jamie,” Ben instructed. “Candy…”

“I’m coming with you,” Candy interrupted.

Frowning, Ben opened his mouth, but Candy over rode whatever he was going to say. “You can’t go alone,” he stated firmly.  “Griff can keep things ticking over here with Jamie, but I’m coming with you. Joe’s my friend.”

For a moment, Ben’s face softened into a smile. “I was going to ask you to come,” he chided, gently. “I didn’t want to go alone.” The last time Ben had been summoned by telegraph to Joe’s bedside, he had had Hoss to go with him. He just hoped he wouldn’t find Joe in such dire straits this time, although the tenor of the wire didn’t offer much in the way of hope.

Turning back to Griff as Candy began to smile, Ben went on, “Tell Jamie I’m sorry I couldn’t wait to say goodbye to him, but I’m sure he’ll understand.” At that moment, Ben didn’t care if Jamie understood or not. His overriding need was to get to Joe as fast as possible.

“I’ll tell him,” Griff replied, softly. He stood watching as Ben and Candy mounted up and rode out.

*****

They rode fast, stopping only when necessary to rest the horses. Ben was essentially silent, but Candy couldn’t summon much small talk either. He had drifted to the Ponderosa several years before, and had come and gone until finally returning and settling down after Hoss had died. He wished now that he had come back earlier, to say goodbye to the big man. Hoss had been his friend just as much as Joe and he missed him. The thought that Joe might now be dying was one Candy couldn’t entertain.

At last, after two days of hard riding, they trotted their sweating, lathered horses into Fort Lowell just before dusk. Ben had been there before, but it was Candy’s first visit. However, he spared no more than a cursory glance around the fort as he dismounted and followed Ben into the adjutant’s office.

“I’m Ben Cartwright,” Ben explained. He knew he was filthy and he didn’t care. “My son, Joseph, is here?”

“We’ve been expecting you, Mr. Cartwright,” replied the man who rose to his feet. “If you’ll follow me, I have orders to take you straight to the infirmary before informing the General of your arrival.”

His anxiety now notched even higher, Ben followed the officer across the compound, aware that Candy was so close to him that he was almost treading on Ben’s heels. Ben was grateful for the other man’s company. Arriving as an employee, he had first become a friend, and then almost one of the family. Ben knew that Joe was especially close to Candy. On the way to the infirmary, the adjutant explained that Joe had been brought in by a drifter who had found him in a ghost town, along with a dead man that Joe called Tanner.

There were a few beds occupied in the infirmary and Ben knew that this was because a lot of the soldiers in Fort Lowell suffered from ague. It seemed especially prevalent in that area. But it took Ben just seconds to pick Joe out and he hurried across to stand, frozen, by his bed.

Ben had often seen Joe ill in bed, but familiarity never made the sight easier. Joe was pale, his face beaded with sweat. A cold compress was on his forehead and his tangled curls seemed somehow limp. A large bandage and splint was wrapped around Joe’s right forearm and there was a scratch on his face. “How is he?” Ben asked of the man who came over to greet them, correctly assuming he was the doctor.

“Not well, as you can see,” the doctor replied. “He’s been like this since he was brought in a few days ago. The arm is badly infected, as are his feet.” The man drew back the sheet briefly. Ben caught a glimpse of Joe’s nude body, glistening all over with sweat and scratched here and there, as he glanced down at his son’s bandaged feet.

“Is his arm broken?” Ben asked.

Nodding the doctor indicated the break on his own arm. “Looks like he set it himself, too. When he came in, it was all tied up in his belt, with a stick for a splint. That must have hurt!” the doctor commented, admiringly. “I had to realign the bone, because it had been displaced again, perhaps by a fall. Although your son was conscious when he came in, he didn’t say much.”

“What are his chances?” Ben asked. He couldn’t drag his eyes away from the young man on the bed.

“If the fever lasts much longer, he’s doesn’t have a chance,” the doctor replied, bluntly. “I haven’t had as much time to spend with him as I would like, since we are quite busy, but I’ve tried to keep the cold compresses on him.”

“I’m here now, I can help,” Ben said. “Just tell me what to do.”

“And me!” Candy asserted. He met Ben’s eyes. “Joe’s my friend. I want to do my share. He’d do it for me!”

It was true. Ben nodded and they listened as the doctor outlined the treatment he wanted to give Joe.

*****

While Candy put up the horses, Ben sat down by Joe’s bed and leant forward. “We’re here now, Joe,” he told his son. “Everything will be all right.” Reaching for the cloth, he soaked it in cold water and laid it carefully on Joe’s head. With another cloth, he began to wash his son’s face and chest, hoping to refresh him somewhat.

The doctor appeared at Ben’s side with a cup of water. “Mr. Cartwright, do you think you could get your son to drink this? I’ve had a little success with him, but I feel he needs to drink more.”

“Yes, of course,” Ben replied, and changed his position so he could take Joe’s head and shoulders on his left arm, and he put the cup to Joe’s lips. “Joe, drink this for me.” He dribbled a little water into Joe’s mouth. As he had expected, Joe swallowed, his eyes still tight shut. Ben carried on giving his son a little water at a time, until the cup was empty.

The doctor looked on with approval. “You’ve had some practice at this,” he noted.

“You could say that,” Ben admitted, not relinquishing his hold on his son. “Joe is somewhat accident-prone and I’ve nursed him through more illnesses and injuries than I can remember.”

“He doesn’t look as though they’ve held him back,” the doctor commented. “He’s very muscular.”

Smiling Ben glanced at him. “Joe doesn’t get sick the way you and I would,” he replied. “He never seems to have a cold, and I could count on the fingers of one hand the diseases he’s picked up. But if there’s trouble, Joe will find it.” Ben’s voice was wry. He handed the cup back to the doctor. “I’m sorry; I don’t think I got your name.”

“I’m not sure if I gave it,” the other replied, smiling. “I’m Jim Fenton.” They shook hands solemnly. “I gather the general knows you and your family, but I’ve only been on the base a few weeks. Do you have any other family?”

“Yes,” Ben answered, as steadily as he could. “I have an older son overseas, and a younger, adopted, son at home. I had another son, between Joe and my oldest, but he died a few months ago.”

“I’m very sorry,” Fenton replied. “That must have been very hard for you. I’m so sorry I intruded on your grief.”

“Don’t be,” Ben smiled. “We’ve never banished Hoss from our thoughts or our conversation. To do that would be to deny everything he was to us and I couldn’t do that.”

“Hoss,” Fenton repeated. He glanced at Joe. “So he was a bit bigger than his brother here then?”

Laughing now, Ben nodded. “You could say that. Hoss was 6 ft 4in and 300lbs. Joe is the smallest of my sons. Apart from Jamie, but he’s still young and hasn’t finished growing.”

“And your other son?” Fenton asked.

“Adam’s about my height,” Ben replied. “I haven’t seen him for a number of years.” He smiled to take away the pain of that. “Each of my boys took after their mothers. You see, I was widowed three times.”

“I’m sorry,” Fenton mumbled. What a lot of pain this man had had to face over his life, he thought. Fenton didn’t know if he would have been able to deal with all that. He noticed Ben’s hand steal up to push the curls back from Joe’s forehead. But before he could say anything, another patient called out for him and he excused himself.

Left alone with Joe, Ben talked quietly to him, as he had always done when his son was sick. Joe’s head was now nestled in the crook of his shoulder and his face was turned towards Ben. Once more brushing back the sweat-soaked curls, Ben scolded, “Look at the length of your hair, Joseph! You look like a Mississippi riverboat gambler!” He laughed softly. How many times had he said that very phrase? Too many to count, and for many years, it had persuaded Joe to get his hair cut, but gradually, his hair began to get longer and longer, until he turned round one day and told Ben that he wasn’t getting his hair cut, even if he did look like a Mississippi riverboat gambler. He had looked so belligerent, with his chin jutting out, that Ben had been unable to prevent a smile slipping out, and the length Joe’s hair was never mentioned seriously again thereafter.

“Mr. Cartwright.”

Ben looked up at Candy. He hadn’t heard his foreman approach. He knew that, if he were conscious, Joe would be embarrassed for Candy to find him in this position – or would he? Joe and Candy had become fast friends. Candy was slightly older than Joe, but he got into just as much trouble. Together, they would go hell-raising around town, yet both men were utterly dependable and stood up for the other. “Yes?” Ben replied.

“I was speaking to the sergeant in the barn, and he said he’ll try and get us some ice for Joe. It won’t be right away, but in a couple of hours, if we think we need it.” Candy seated himself on the other side of Joe’s bed, and touched his friend’s arm. Joe was still very hot to the touch. Candy met Ben’s eyes again. “Are you all right?” he asked.

Touched, Ben nodded. “I’m all right,” he replied. He glanced down at Joe. “Joe needs me. I’ve got to be all right.”

“I’m here,” Candy reminded him. “If you need to rest, say so. I can do most of what you can.” When Ben cocked an eyebrow at him, Candy gave an embarrassed grin and shrugged. “I can’t do the lovey-dovey stuff,” he explained. “I don’t think Joe would like to hear that from me.”

“Maybe not,” Ben conceded. “Thank you.”

“You don’t need to thank me,” Candy replied. He retrieved the warm cloth from Joe’s head and took it over to the basin to rinse it through again. Ben watched him.

Candy was an enigma to Ben. He had no idea what Candy’s first name was; the cowboy had never told them. He had had a slightly shady past, by his own admission, but was as honest as the day was long. He always proclaimed to have a wandering foot, yet had returned to the Ponderosa a few times before taking off – for good, he claimed. And yet, he had come back and declared that he was staying – for good. Would he? Ben didn’t know. But he hoped that Candy would. He was an exceptional foreman, and he and Joe were so close, they were almost like brothers. More so than Joe and Jamie, as Jamie was so much younger. And it wasn’t as if Joe was trying to replace Hoss with Candy, as they had all three shared a close, warm friendship. No, Joe and Candy were just soul-mates. Ben couldn’t have been more pleased about it. The distance between Joe and Adam had become insurmountable with the years Adam had been gone, and he needed someone to have fun with. Candy seemed to be the answer to many prayers.

*****

As the night wore on, Joe seemed to be holding his own. His fever didn’t break, but nor did it climb. Ben at last gave in to Candy’s pleadings and lay down on an empty bed and fell asleep almost at once, his long journey and lack of sleeping catching up with him. Candy would waken him if Joe needed him.

“It’s just me for the moment, pal,” Candy whispered. “Your pa’s catching some sleep. So do me a favor and wake up, huh? He’s real worried about ya.” Glancing all round, Candy saw that there was no one near by. Nonetheless, he leant in a little closer. “I’m kinda worried, too,” he admitted in a barely audible undertone.

For a moment, Candy expected Joe’s eyes to pop open and his friend to give him a big grin and say something sarcastic. He desperately hoped Joe would, but there was no change in Joe’s position. Sighing, Candy wet the cloth again.

*****

Just before dawn, Candy woke Ben. “Mr. Cartwright, Joe’s real hot again. I’m gonna go an’ get that ice.”

Coming alert at once, Ben scrambled upright, swinging his legs over the edge of the bed and going straight to Joe’s side. Candy was right, Joe’s temperature had risen again and he was now groaning, mumbling and twisting in his delirium. “Yes, you’re right,” Ben agreed. “We’ve got to get him cool.” He devoted his efforts to trying to keep Joe still until Candy came back.

As they began to pack the ice around Joe, Dr Fenton appeared. He saw at once that they had reached a crisis and hurried over to help. Joe moaned as the coldness penetrated his burning flesh and tried to move away from it. Ben restrained him gently, talking soothingly all the time. Meanwhile, Candy pulled a sheet off the bed Ben had been sleeping on and soaked it. He laid it over the top of Joe.

For a few more minutes, Joe writhed restlessly before letting out a great shout, arching almost off the bed before collapsing back down, pale and still. Ben’s heart skipped a beat and he clutched Joe’s hand while the doctor laid his stethoscope against Joe’s chest.

“He’s still with us,” the doctor reported after a long minute of listening. “And his heartbeat is steadying. I think perhaps he’s turned the corner.”

“When will we know?” Ben asked, trying hard not to show his overwhelming relief. He failed.

“In a little while,” Fenton replied. And he was right; within half an hour, Joe had briefly opened his eyes. After that, he was moved into a dry bed while the medical orderlies removed the soaking sheets. Joe was sound asleep in an instant.

*****

 A good meal and several hours sleep later, Candy returned to Joe’s bedside. Ben was still there, dozing in the chair. Candy smiled fondly at him before looking at his friend. Joe was resting peacefully and there was a trace of color returning to his cheeks. Candy put down the steaming cup of coffee he was carrying and shook Ben gently. “Mr. Cartwright, I’ve brought you some coffee.”

Rubbing his face, Ben yawned widely before glancing over to check on Joe. He looked up at Candy. “Thanks,” he grunted. He reached for the cup and sipped cautiously. The warmth was welcome, spreading through his limbs and wakening him up. Ben stretched, feeling his muscles stiff from sleeping in the chair. “I needed that,” he admitted, as he put the cup down. “Thanks, Candy.”

“You’re welcome. Has there been any change, Mr. Cartwright? Has Joe wakened yet?”

“Not yet,” Ben replied. “And, Candy, I’ve asked you before, but I wish you’d call me Ben.”

“I can’t do that, Mr. Cartwright,” Candy mumbled, looking away. “It wouldn’t be right.”

“After all we’ve gone through?” Ben queried incredulously. “After that month we spent stuck in the dark? After what you’ve done for Joe? For the ranch? You even live with us in the house! Look, I’m asking you to call me Ben.”

“It wouldn’t be right,” Candy objected stubbornly. “You’re my boss.”

“I won’t be any the less your boss if you call me Ben,” argued Ben.

“I couldn’t,” Candy replied.

“Candy…” Ben began and gave an exasperated sigh. “I’m going to have to order you to call me Ben, you know!”

“Wouldn’t make any difference,” Candy shrugged. “I couldn’t.”

“Do it!” whispered a voice, tinged with tired exasperation. “Just do it, Candy and stop arguing so a fellow can get some sleep.”

“Joe!” Ben cried and bent over his son, who was lying there regarding his father and his friend with fond amusement. “How do you feel, son?”

“Tired,” Joe replied. He blinked, clearly finding his eyelids heavy. “Where am I?”

“In the infirmary in Fort Lowell,” Ben explained.

“The drifter,” Joe murmured. “I don’t remember getting here.”

“That’s because you were unconscious,” Fenton said. He’d seen the activity around Joe’s bed and guessed that his patient was finally awake. “It’s nice to see you finally awake, young man. You’ve been sleeping far too much for the last few days.”

“Who are you?” Joe asked.

“I’m the doctor,” Fenton explained. “You’ve been pretty sick, Joe, so I don’t want you trying to get up any time soon, understand?”

“Well keep him down,” Candy replied, smiling at Joe. “Won’t we, Mr.…I mean, Ben?”

Beaming, Ben nodded. “Indeed we will,” Ben agreed.

“I think you should eat something,” Fenton proposed and went off to get something organized, while Ben and Candy helped Joe sit up.

“Pa, how did you get here?” Joe asked. He looked down at the cumbersome splint on his arm. “What else is wrong with me?”

“The general sent a message,” Ben explained. “Candy and I came at once. The doctor said your arm was out of alignment, and your feet were infected. He can tell you more when he gets back. Joe, what happened?”

A strange look flitted across Joe’s face and was gone in an instant. “Not now, Pa,” he gasped, suddenly feeling he couldn’t breathe. “It’s too soon.”

“All right, son, it doesn’t matter,” Ben replied. He put his hand onto Joe’s arm and rubbed his thumb in small, soothing circles.

As they rose to let the doctor in with the soup he’d brought Joe, Candy and Ben shared a worried look. Whatever had happened to Joe had been bad; very bad. Ben just hoped that he would be able to unburden himself about it, but knew that Joe would only tell them when he was ready. Ben hoped it would be soon. Surely his imagination would produce worse scenarios than anything Joe could tell him?

*****

While Joe slept that evening, Ben and Candy had dinner with the general. Ben had known the man slightly for a number of years and they had often sold him horses. Since Joe had been unable to complete his sale to the army, the general had told Ben they would take all the horses he could give them and at any price. It was a relief to Ben, although the sale of the horses wasn’t as vital to the ranch’s well-being as the sale of the herd later in the year.

With business safely out of the way, the general began to tell them about Joe’s arrival at the fort. “He was brought in by an old drifter,” General Markham explained. “The old man wouldn’t give his name – claimed he couldn’t remember it – and said Joe had asked to be brought here, it being nearer than his home. And he brought in a man called Tanner with him – dead.”

“Who was this Tanner?” Ben asked, sensing that there was a lot more to this story.

“He had been a soldier here,” Markham replied. “I won’t go into the details, but he had massacred a lot of women and children and his defense was that he was just doing his duty. We locked him up, but he escaped a few days ago. I don’t know what happened to him, Ben. He had died, but he hadn’t been killed. He had an injury to one leg, but it wasn’t serious. I can’t explain. The drifter said that he had found Joe in a ghost town a couple of days ride from here, and Tanner was already dead. Joe was unconscious.”

“So only Joe can tell us what happened,” Ben murmured, looking at Candy, who met his gaze.

“Have you asked him?” Markham enquired.

“Yeah,” Candy replied. “But he wasn’t up to telling us.”

“Well,” shrugged Markham, “it doesn’t matter to us now, of course. Tanner is dead and that’s the end of it. It’s something of a relief, to tell you the truth. I tend to think Tanner was quite mad.”

Troubled by the general’s words, Ben bent his head over his plate, pushing the food around while he tried to make sense of it. But he knew he wouldn’t be able to until Joe felt up to telling them what had happened to him.

*****

Over the next 24 hours, Joe made good progress. His arm wasn’t giving him much pain any more, although his feet were still causing some discomfort. When Ben saw the state of Joe’s boots, he wasn’t really surprised that his son’s feet were in a mess. Joe’s boots were cracked and dirty; the uppers lifting away from the soles.

“When can I go home?” Joe asked the doctor.

“We’ll see how your feet are progressing tomorrow,” Fenton replied. “Maybe then, maybe the next day. But you aren’t going to be walking about for some time! You need to eat some more to get your strength up.”

“And we need to make arrangements to get you home, too,” Ben told him. “You aren’t going to be riding, that’s for sure!”

“I lost my horse, anyway,” Joe mumbled, the smile sliding off his face.  He was just glad he hadn’t been riding Cochise, his favorite mount. Cochise had been a bit lame for a few days before Joe was due to set off, so he had chosen another horse from the barn. Given that he had no idea what had become of the animal, it seemed to have been a wise decision. Joe hated to lose any horse, but better that it was one he wasn’t fond of.

Walking out to the door as the doctor re-bandaged Joe’s feet, Ben put his arm around Candy’s shoulder. “Candy, could you ride into Tucson and get Joe some clothes and a hat. We’ll need to buy a wagon and a team, too and some blankets and supplies for the trip back.”

“Sure thing,” Candy agreed. “Don’t you want me to get Joe some boots, Ben?” he added innocently and dodged adroitly as Ben swung a mock blow at him. He was still grinning as he took the money Ben offered him and went off to get his horse.

*****

It embarrassed Joe no end to be carried from the infirmary to the wagon, but he wasn’t given any choice in the matter. Truth be told, Joe couldn’t take any weight on his sore feet as yet and the doctor warned him that he shouldn’t even try to walk for another week at least.  And Candy hadn’t bought him any boots!

The wagon was sturdy and lined with hay to try and soften the ride for the injured man. The general had also thrown in a mattress and a couple more blankets, so none of them would be cold. Carefully, Candy and Ben eased Joe into the wagon, then Candy leapt nimbly up beside his friend and helped him slide up until he was resting against the up-turned saddle they had placed at the top of the wagon for him to lean on. “All right?” he asked, and Joe nodded.

“I’m fine,” he replied, in a low voice and found a shaky smile for Ben. He helped Candy tuck a blanket over his legs and watched Ben mount up. Candy was going to drive the wagon, so Ben could ride beside Joe and keep an eye on him.

“Ready, old buddy?” Candy asked, as he gathered the reins in his hands. His bay gelding was hitched to the back of the wagon.

“As I’ll ever be,” Joe replied. “Just don’t do anything foolish while I’m in the back here, huh?” He tilted his head back to see Candy’s reaction.

He wasn’t disappointed. Candy’s indignant face looked down at him. “Don’t you trust me?” he complained.

“I know you,” Joe responded, dryly.

“Let’s go,” Ben interrupted, knowing this wrangling could go on all day. But he wasn’t displeased by it; Joe had been very quiet over the last few days and he was pleased to see his son returning to his old self. “Goodbye, general, doctor. And thank you.”

“Our pleasure, Mr. Cartwright,” Markham replied. “Just send over those horses as soon as you can.”

Ben raised a hand in acknowledgement and followed the wagon out of the gate. They were on the way home at last.

*****

They probably traveled further that day than Ben thought they really should, but as Joe pointed out, he could doze in the wagon, and so they pushed on until almost dark. Ben and Candy then left Joe in the wagon until they had set up camp, then eased him out to rest for a while by the fire they had built. It didn’t escape either of them that Joe had been very quiet that day.

“Is something wrong, Joe?” Ben asked, as Candy attended to the horses.

Mustering an unconvincing, tired, smile, Joe shook his head. “No, not really,” he denied.

“Something’s wrong,” Ben persisted. “What is it?”

Looking up at Ben, Joe’s eyes held a glimmer of tears. “Remember that time I was bushwhacked down at Lone Pine?” he asked. When Ben nodded, Joe went on, “Well, I was just remembering the journey home. It was like this, wasn’t it? Only Hoss was driving the wagon.” A sob broke free of his control. “I’m sorry; I didn’t mean to get maudlin about it.” He dashed a hand across his eyes.

Unashamedly, Ben did the same. “I’ve thought so all day, too,” he admitted. “Your brother casts a big shadow, doesn’t he?”

For a moment, they sat silent, each caught up in their own thoughts. “Why now?” Joe asked. “Why should things suddenly remind us of that, when we’ve been doing so well, Pa?”

“I don’t really know,” Ben replied. “But grief is tricky, Joe. Just when you think you’re prepared for a particular anniversary or milestone – like a birthday, for example – somehow grief comes along and kicks you just before then, to remind you that it hasn’t gone away. But it will even out, Joe. The days of black despair will become fewer and the hurt will ease.”

“Always?” Joe asked.

“Always,” Ben assured him. “It never goes away entirely, but it does ease. There are still some days when it’s raw, but the rest of the time, you’ll find it won’t dominate your thoughts, Joe, I promise. The memories will bring comfort.”

“I suppose,” Joe commented, wisely, “that it creeps up on you when you’re low.”

“Yes, even when you think you’re ready for it,” Ben agreed. “And you’ve just got to deal with it and get on with life. There’s no other way. You see, if you grieve overly long, people won’t want to be with you. And it reflects badly on your belief in God, too. But above all, it’s not fair on the person who died. They had no choice in the matter. And grieving for too long usually means that, in the long run, you end up blaming the person who died and that certainly isn’t fair on them. And if you think for a single instant that Hoss would want us weeping and wailing over his grave, then you didn’t know your brother!”

A watery smile crossed Joe’s face. “I do know that,” he admitted. “Thanks, Pa. You’ve just confirmed everything I believe, too. But today; I don’t know, everything just caught up with me.”

“Quite understandable,” Ben smiled, and he reached out and hugged Joe, feeling his son clinging to him. There was more going on in Joe’s mind, he knew, but clearly this was all he was going to get right now, but it was enough.

*****

“Pa, I don’t want it!” Joe declared, adamantly. “I’m not in that much pain and it makes me feel hung over in the morning. I’ll be fine without it!”

“We don’t want him hung over in the morning, Ben,” Candy commented. “After all, he’s a bear in the morning as it is!” He hid his smile in his cup of coffee as he waited to see who would win this battle of wits.

Still holding the packet in his hand, Ben eyed Joe thoughtfully. His son looked tired, but that was to be expected. They had traveled a long way that day. But was he in pain? Joe’s dislike for painkillers was legendary, but Ben couldn’t altogether blame him; he didn’t care much for using them either. “Well, all right,” he capitulated. “But if you need them through the night, you waken me, hear?”

“I will,” Joe agreed. He yawned and rolled himself into his blanket. “G’night, Pa.”

“You’re not sleeping there!” Ben objected. “Not by the fire.”

“Its warmer here,” Joe murmured, already on the soft outer fringes of sleep.  His eyes stayed shut and he snuggled even further under the blanket. Letting out an exasperated sigh, Ben went over and took another couple of blankets from the wagon and tucked them around Joe. A soft snore was his only thanks.

Straightening, Ben glanced at Candy. His foreman met his eyes innocently, but Ben could hear his thoughts quite plainly. Joe had set the precedent for the rest of the journey home and nothing Ben could do now would persuade him to sleep in the wagon. Ben shrugged and went to lie down. Candy hid another smile. Ben might think he was in charge, but Joe sure was good at getting his own way!

*****

The cry of anguish dragged Ben out of sleep and he sat up, looking instantly at Joe, knowing his son’s voice. He half expected to see Joe awake and in pain, but he appeared to be still asleep. On the other side of the fire, Candy sat up, too, his gun in his hand. “What is it?” he asked.

“I don’t know,” Ben replied. “I think perhaps Joe is having a nightmare.” And the words were barely out of his mouth before Joe let out another cry.

Shoving the blanket aside, Ben went over to Joe’s side, trying to soothe the younger man. But as his hand touched Joe’s shoulder, Joe let out a huge yell and swung his fist at Ben. Only the fact that Ben was awake and Joe asleep stopped the blow from connecting. With his eyes still tight closed, Joe began to scrabble to get away.

“Easy, Joe, easy,” Ben cried, hoping his voice would penetrate the nightmare, but Joe just struggled more as Ben sought to prevent him getting to his feet.

Seeing the struggle, Candy went over and leant his strength to the struggle and after a moment, Joe’s eyes snapped open and he gazed at them both with wide, wild eyes. As he realized who they were, the fight went out of Joe’s body and he slumped to the ground, panting raggedly. “Get the canteen,” Ben suggested and Candy went to retrieve it and throw some more wood on the fire. “It’s all right, Joe, you’re safe,” Ben soothed him.

In a moment, Candy was back with the canteen and Joe gulped the water eagerly, and splashed some on his face. “I’m sorry I woke you,” he said, hoarsely.

“That must have been some dream,” Ben commented, hoping Joe would tell him about it, but Joe just nodded.

“Yes, it was,” he agreed. He handed the canteen back. “I’m all right, now, Pa, thanks.”

“Joe…” Ben began, troubled, but Joe didn’t want to talk about it.

“I’m fine. Good night.” He lay back down and closed his eyes. Ben and Candy exchanged glances before reluctantly heading back to their own bedrolls.

It was a long time before any of them slept again.

*****

“I’m sorry I woke you last night, Pa,” Joe apologized as Ben helped him the next morning.

“You don’t need to apologize to me,” Ben replied. “I just wish you’d tell me what it was about.” He looked into Joe’s green eyes, seeing the fear lurking there.

Color suffused Joe’s face as he met his father’s gaze, then he dropped his eyes and broke the contact. “I can’t,” he whispered wretchedly. “I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to tell anyone!”

“I see,” Ben replied, although he didn’t really. “Joe, why don’t you take one of those powders tonight, and you’ll sleep better.”

Joe’s head was back up in an instant, his green eyes flashing angrily at Ben. “No!” Ben recoiled from the near shout.

“Joe, I was just…”

“No, you don’t understand!” Joe shouted. “The powders don’t stop the dreams, Pa. They just stop me wakening up and I’m trapped in them, reliving it over and over again!” Joe dropped his head into his hands. “And I can’t bear it!”

Even more troubled than he had been before, Ben took Joe’s shoulders in his hands, lending strength to his son. “All the more reason you should tell me, Joe,” he coaxed. “Once you’ve told me, then perhaps the nightmares will stop.”

“They might stop for me,” Joe muttered. “But what about you?” He looked up at Ben again. “Pa, I couldn’t tell you, knowing what it might do to you.”

Shaken, Ben murmured, “Was it that bad, son?” He still kept his grip on Joe’s shoulders and blinked away tears as Joe nodded, the tears standing in his eyes, but not falling.

“Worse,” Joe whispered. “I can’t tell you, Pa. I just can’t.” He dropped his head again, a sure sign, with Joe, of deep distress.

Gathering his son into a warm embrace, Ben rested his head on top of Joe’s curls. “Tell me before it gets so bad that you can’t deal with it, Joe,” he begged. “Don’t let this destroy you. I couldn’t bear to lose another son.”

Resting against his father’s chest, Joe concentrated on that strong heartbeat, because he couldn’t bring himself to promise that. He wasn’t sure he would ever be ready to tell his father exactly what had befallen him.

*****

As the journey went on, Joe became ever quieter. Ben insisted that they didn’t do as many miles as they had done on the first day in the hopes that Joe would be less tired and would sleep more easily. But each night, his cries woke the camp and the circles under his eyes began to deepen. Ben was very worried. Joe was suffering and yet wouldn’t share his dream with either he or Candy. Ben couldn’t know that they were traveling through the area where Joe’s ordeal had occurred.

Despite everything he could do, Joe was unable to sleep the days away. Each boulder and hill reminded him of his desperate flight over the unforgiving landscape and the terror he had experienced. Tanner‘s voice echoed in his dreams, and the thready whistle of ‘Frere Jacques’ seemed to come at him from all around. Joe had never before been grateful that none of his family whistled. It was something only he had done and he didn’t think he would ever be able to bring himself to do it again.

A hand touched his shoulder and Joe yelled aloud and spun around, fists up, before he realized it was just Candy. “Whoa, buddy, it’s just me,” Candy chided, putting his hands up.

“Sorry,” Joe muttered.

“Are you all right?” Candy asked. “You looked pretty far away just now, with your eyes fixed on that hill.” The worry that he felt was poorly hidden.

“I’m all right,” Joe replied, listlessly.

Reluctant to intrude on his friend’s problem, Candy nevertheless felt he had to say something. “Joe, you’ve got to talk to us, pal. Its not good bottling it up. Whatever it is will only fester that way.” He paused, not sure what else to say. Finally, he resorted to a little emotional blackmail. He knew Joe wasn’t above doing that to Ben and he figured that what was sauce for the goose was sauce for the gander, too. “Your Pa’s so worried about you that he ain’t sleeping right. At this rate, you’ll both be sick by the time we get home.”

For a moment, the look of pain and regret in Joe’s eyes convinced Candy that perhaps he’d won. But then, Joe’s chin jutted out in that familiar manner and Joe shook his head. “I know,” he admitted. “But you’re no more up to dealing with this than Pa. Just leave it, Candy.”

Sighing, Candy wondered over to join Ben at the horse line. “I tried,” he admitted, hopelessly.

“I know you did,” Ben nodded. His heart was aching as he looked over at Joe.

 *****

That night, the dream began again. Joe was running, his heart pounding, his breath gasping raggedly in his own ears.  His broken arm throbbed unmercifully. For an instant, he stumbled and only with difficulty retained his footing. He couldn’t afford to fall. If he went down now, he might never get back up again. From behind came the sound he dreaded – the repetitive, endless whistling. Joe resisted looking over his shoulder. He knew he would see Tanner just a few feet away, rifle in hand, ready to kill Joe. Tanner was the hunter, Joe his prey.

With a scream, Joe came awake as the whistling began anew. He was panting as though he had been running in truth and his heart was pounding. His father was at his side in an instant, dark brown eyes anxiously probing Joe’s green ones, desperate to help. “Joe, tell me!” his father implored him.

The panic that had welled up in Joe during his dream didn’t diminish. For a moment, Joe thought he was going to tell Ben everything, and yet he had vowed not to do that. He couldn’t force his ordeal on his father even second hand, and knowing that Joe had survived. For Joe wasn’t sure he was going to survive. He was beginning to think he was going to lose his mind.

“I can’t tell you, Pa!” he cried and pushed Ben away, scrambling to his feet and starting to run. Candy caught his boss as he toppled backwards, then they both lit out after Joe.

It took several steps before the pain from his feet hit Joe and only when he stepped on a rock. With a cry, he toppled to the ground as the rock moved under his feet, suddenly aware of the pain. He was lying there sobbing when Ben and Candy arrived.

Instinctively, Candy fell back, letting Ben go cautiously forward to kneel beside Joe. “Joe,” he whispered.

“I’m going to go mad, Pa!” Joe cried. “I don’t want to tell you, but I’ve got to!”

Slowly, Ben gathered Joe into his arms, pulling him half across his lap, as though Joe was still a child, not a man grown. “Then tell me,” he replied. “I won’t let you go mad.”

And the words which had been beating around in Joe’s mind suddenly spewed out of him. He told of meeting Tanner the first night on the trail, and thinking he was a little odd, but accepting him as he’d been taught. Then the wakening in the morning with his horse and his gear stolen. Once more he relieved the conversation in which Tanner told him he had a four-hour head start and him running, running – always running. Something of his desperation still colored his voice as he reported his attempts to fool the man, who somehow always seemed to know which way Joe had gone.

As Joe relieved his fall down the embankment, Ben winced with him. He ground his teeth as Joe told of setting his own arm, and then running again. It always came back to him running. Joe told of the old man, who had died because Joe had asked for help from him and Joe’s guilt was clear in his voice. Ben didn’t interrupt him to tell him it wasn’t his fault. There would be time enough for that later when the terrible recital was over and Joe had it all out of his system.

The words washed over Ben, bringing immense pain that his son had suffered all this and tried to keep it to himself. The horror Ben felt grew with every word. How could a man put another man through an ordeal like that? General Markham’s’ words drifted back to him ‘I tend to think Tanner was quite mad.’ Ben couldn’t argue with him. Tanner was more than quite mad – to Ben he was completely crazy.

And still Joe’s voice went on, quieter now as he told Ben how he had set a trap for Tanner and managed to catch him in it, even if he didn’t succeed in slowing him down very much. And gradually, his words slowed as he told of tricking Tanner and locking him in the jail in the ghost town.

“Next thing I knew, the drifter was slapping my face,” Joe said. The passion had drained from his voice and he sounded tired. His tears were spent and the catharsis of reliving it had drained him of all energy. “Tanner was dead, but I hadn’t killed him, Pa.” His voice changed and became fierce again. “But I would! I’d have killed him to save my own life!”

“Yes, of course you would,” Ben replied, struggling to keep his own tears under control. “And nobody would have blamed you for that. You did nothing wrong, Joe. You were not to blame for any of it, even that old man’s death,” he added as he felt Joe draw breath to protest. “Tanner was to blame for that, Joe, not you.”

“But he died because I went there!” Joe protested, his passion flaring again.

“Did you go there to kill him?” Ben asked.

“NO!” Joe cried, stung beyond bearing. He began to struggle again.

Ben held him tight. “I know you didn’t,” he soothed. “So why are you blaming yourself?”

After an agonizing pause, Joe’s muscles relaxed. He turned his head to Ben’s chest and closed his eyes. “I’m so tired,” he murmured. “I’m sorry I burdened you with all that, Pa.”

“I’m not sorry,” Ben replied. “I’m not sorry at all. I’m just sorry you had to endure that.” He hugged Joe to him once more. “Come on; let’s get you back to camp.” He turned his head. “Candy? Are you there?”

“Here,” Candy’s voice replied and he moved into sight a few moments later. He was glad it was dark, for as he had sat out there listening to Joe, he had found himself moved to rare tears and immense hatred for the man who had tortured Joe like that. He didn’t want anyone else seeing what he was feeling and it was with difficulty that he schooled his face to neutrality.

But he fooled no one, and neither Ben nor Joe cared that Candy had obviously heard. They both knew how much he cared for Joe and Joe had never been afraid to show his feelings. Taking a single glance at Ben’s set, white, face, Candy helped him pick Joe up and they carried him back to camp where Ben set about cleaning up Joe’s bleeding feet and settling him for the remainder of the night. There was no protest about the pain medicine this time and he fell asleep in a very short time.

Finally, Ben looked over at Candy. Both men shared the horror of Joe’s story without words. Ben was acknowledging Candy’s presence and thanking him for being there. Candy was admitting that he was a part of this family, even if he wasn’t a son. Somehow, Candy knew that his wondering foot had given up wondering for ever. He had found a home at the Ponderosa and this experience had brought him even closer to the Cartwrights than he had been before. It was a profound moment, and one that Candy and Ben shared without need of words.

They both lay down, but neither of them slept as they thought about what Joe had told them.

*****

To Jamie, their return to the Ponderosa was somehow not the triumphant occasion that he had expected. Yes, Joe was on the mend, his father allowed, but he still wasn’t walking about. In fact, almost the first thing Ben did – after giving Jamie a hug in greeting – was to dispatch Griff to town for the doctor, assuring Jamie it was simply to make sure Joe was all right after the journey.

Standing back and feeling kind of awkward, a not unusual feeling for the adolescent boy, Jamie watched as Joe was carried upstairs by Candy and Ben. Joe had given Jamie a cheerful smile, but Jamie sensed that Joe had been through some terrible ordeal. Joe looked tired, although to Ben and Candy’s eye, he looked a lot better.

In actual fact, it hadn’t been plain sailing after Joe unburdened himself. When Joe woke the next morning, he was stricken with bouts of nausea and diarrhea, and they didn’t go anywhere that day.  Ben had been desperately worried, as he feared Joe had stood on something poisonous as he ran from him during the night and Candy, who had been doing the cooking, feared he had somehow given Joe food poisoning. However, by evening, the diarrhea, nausea and shivers had abated and Joe was asleep once more. Paul Martin would alter tell them it was probably a kind of shock.

Next day, Joe had been fine again and they had pushed on, each of them eager to reach the comforts of home and leave behind the area where Joe had suffered so much. The story would never leave any of them, and they would each suffer occasional nightmares about it in the years to come, but for them all, the sharing had made the burden easier to bear.

Not that Joe was instantly better, because he wasn’t. It took many more nights of Ben’s soothing before the nightmares began to lessen for Joe and while he was still under the weather, he remained quiet. Ben hoped that getting home would help and it certainly seemed to. Joe made an effort to be cheerful for Jamie and gradually the effort became less and Joe was more cheerful.

While Doctor Martin examined Joe, Candy took Jamie outside and told him at least some of Joe’s story. “So don’t expect Joe to bounce back as normal,” Candy warned the youngster. He had kept to the bare minimum details, as he didn’t want Jamie to have nightmares.

“Is he gonna be all right?” Jamie asked, and Candy nodded.

“Sure he will,” he reassured the youngster. He knew how vulnerable Jamie felt. Hoss’ death had kicked the feet from under all the Cartwrights, and Candy knew how much Jamie idolized Joe. He was the only brother he had left, for Jamie had never met Adam, and it seemed unlikely now that he ever would. “Joe’s just tired from the journey and he was pretty ill when we got there, you know.”

Looking up at Joe’s window wistfully, Jamie saw Ben looking down at them, and when he saw he had Jamie’s attention, he beckoned for Jamie and Candy to go up. Not sure if it was a good sign or not, Jamie hurried while he also seemed to drag his feet. But he was instantly reassured when he opened the door and heard Joe complaining.

“Another week? Ah, Doc, you’re joking! My feet don’t hurt at all!” Joe was sitting propped up in bed, while Paul Martin phlegmatically wound a bandage smoothly around his left foot. Joe’s right foot was still exposed to the air, and Jamie winced at the cuts and bruises that were on it still.

Eventually, after much teasing, more warnings from the doctor and a promise of some supper from Ben, Joe and Jamie were left alone. “I wish there was something I could do for you, Joe,” Jamie ventured.

Looking at the downcast face, Joe felt a pang of remorse that someone had chosen to tell his brother of his ordeal. But then, the little voice of common sense told Joe that since Jamie was his brother, he had a right to know at least some of it. And the last thing Joe wanted was Jamie feeling he had to be careful what he said around Joe.  “Well, there is something,” he replied.

Smiling, feeling better that Joe wanted his help, Jamie asked, “What is it, Joe?”

“You could take up weight-lifting,” Joe replied, straight-faced. “And grow about eight inches or so.”

Frowning, wondering if his ordeal had scattered Joe’s wits to the four winds, Jamie opened his mouth to protest, but Joe beat him to it.

“You could carry me around the house then, just like Hoss used to,” he concluded and let go his unique laugh at the expression on Jamie’s face.

It was at that moment that everyone who heard that sound knew that Joe would, in the end, be all right.

*****

Later that night, Ben went to his bookcase and drew out a well-thumbed volume. Sitting down, he began to flick through it until he found the passage that had been running through his head since Joe had told him what had happened.

 

So on this windy sea of land, the fiend,
Walked up and down alone bent on his prey

 

Yes, that was it, he thought. That seemed to fit the situation perfectly. Tanner had been the fiend, and Joe his prey. Laying the book aside, Ben went upstairs to bed.

The past and the present seemed so close together. The passage he had read came from Paradise Lost, Elizabeth’s favorite book. Elizabeth was many years gone. It was with a shock that Ben realized she had been gone more years than she had lived. Yet because of her love for this book, Ben had found something that somehow – he wasn’t sure how – helped him to deal with this dreadful ordeal.

The memory of it would never fade away completely. But, like Ben had told Joe, the pain would fade with the years. With the help of his loving family and friends, Joe would come to terms with this and put it behind him. He had taken the first steps to doing so already. Ben’s own belief in the strength of family was reinforced. With his family beside him, he could face anything.

As he climbed the stairs, he thought suddenly of Adam, child of the union between him and Elizabeth. Adam had once known the value of family, but somewhere along the way, he had lost it. Ben felt unutterably sad for his son and wished there was some way he could make Adam understand what he was missing.

Pausing to look in on Joe, he saw Jamie sleeping in the chair by his brother’s bed. Joe ws also sound asleep and Ben’s sadness was chased away when he saw that Joe’s hand rested loosely on top of Jamie’s. With a smile and a few tears, Ben lifted Jamie gently and carried him through to his own bed.

Yes, with the love of a family, you can face anything.

***End***

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