Summary: A What Happened Next for the episode “First Born.”
Word Count: 9883
Startling awake, Ben Cartwright realized he heard footsteps on the porch outside. He pushed himself out of the chair he’d been sleeping in and hurried across the room to open the door.
His youngest son, Joe, stood there, his left hand clutching his ribs under his open jacket, his face shining with sweat and revealing his misery for all the world to see. “Are you all right, son?” Ben asked, knowing all the time what the answer would be.
Joe said nothing; merely fell into his father’s waiting, loving, arms. He threw his arm round Ben’s neck, his fingers digging into Ben’s shoulder, but Ben didn’t care. His whole being was intent on offering what comfort he could as his son burst into exhausted, heart-broken sobs. “He doesn’t want me, Pa,” Joe sobbed.
There was nothing Ben could say to take away the hurt Joe was feeling. He just stood there and held him. After a time, he realized that both he and Joe were shivering from the cool air that was coming in through the still open door. Without letting go, he pushed the door shut and rubbed his son’s back. Joe was running a fever and needed to get to bed. “Come on, Joe,” Ben offered. “Let’s get you upstairs.”
Reluctantly letting go, Joe looked into Ben’s eyes and read the understanding there. He nodded, his hand clutching his side once more. Ben slipped his arm round Joe’s slim waist for support and was glad that he had for Joe seemed barely able to stand upright.
They had hardly taken two steps when Joe mumbled, “I don’t feel so good,” and fainted. Ben caught him before he crashed to the floor and hoisted him into his arms.
“Pa?” said a new voice, and Ben looked towards the stairs, where his oldest son, Adam, was standing. “Is he all right?” Adam asked, coming down.
“No,” Ben answered, impatiently, for it was clear that Joe was anything but all right. “Help me get him to bed.”
Together, they carried Joe upstairs, as they had done a few short hours before, when he had ridden in from town, badly beaten by a group of miners, who were intent on giving a message to Joe’s brother Clay. Gently laying Joe on the bed, Ben stripped off his boots while Adam took off his jacket and shirt. Once Joe was comfortable, Ben began to bathe his face with cool water.
“What happened?” Adam asked.
“I’m not too sure,” Ben responded, in a low voice. “But Clay told Joe that he didn’t want him.” He glanced towards Adam as his son made a noise in the back of his throat that might have been a strangled obscenity.
Before he could say anything, Joe’s eyelids fluttered and he drifted back to consciousness. “Pa?” he breathed. He turned his head weakly, taking in the change of surroundings. “What happened?” he asked, his voice slightly stronger.
“You fainted,” Ben replied, matter-of-factly. “Too much strain when you were told to rest, young man.”
“I couldn’t let Clay go without talking to him first,” Joe stated. “I had to talk to him.” His eyes begged for Ben’s understanding.
“I know,” Ben soothed, for getting angry with Joe at this juncture wouldn’t accomplish anything. “But now you must do as I said, Joe. You must rest. You’ve strained those ribs again.” He wiped Joe’s head with the damp cloth again. “How did you get your horse saddled?”
“Pigheadedness?” Adam offered, relieved to see a small smile cross Joe’s battered face. “I don’t suppose you put him away?” He smiled at his youngest brother. “I’ll go and do it for you, Joe.”
“Thanks, Adam,” Joe croaked. He could feel his eyes filling with tears again, and closed the lids tightly. The scalding tears seeped out between his closed lids and slid sideways into his hair. Ben wiped his face again.
“Do you want to talk about it, Joe?” Ben asked, gently. “Or do you want to sleep?”
Drawing in a painful breath, Joe opened his eyes. “I went after Clay and asked why he’d gone. He said it was because of the miners and how trouble always followed him. I offered to go with him.” Joe saw the pain in Ben’s eyes at those words, and glanced away before going on. “And Clay told me I could no more live his life than he could live mine.” Joe swallowed. Tears welled in his eyes again. “And the worst thing is, Pa, he’s right! I couldn’t leave here, not even to be with him.”
“Hush, Joe, easy,” Ben told him, stroking the damp hair back from Joe’s forehead. “Clay doesn’t blame you for wanting to stay here. He knows that this is where you belong, son. But Clay has lived such a different life to you that he finds it impossible to settle down anywhere.” He squeezed Joe’s arm gently. “But that doesn’t make it any easier to accept his leaving, does it?”
“No,” Joe agreed, trying to control his tears. Crying made his already sore ribs even sorer. He raised his eyes to meet his father’s. “I gave him the locket with the picture of Mama in it,” he confessed. “He didn’t have a single picture of her, Pa. I told him to bring it back when he comes to visit next time.”
For an instant, Ben wanted to rage against Joe’s generosity, knowing what the picture meant to his son. But then the unworthy thought vanished as he realized that Joe knew exactly what he was doing. There were other pictures of Marie in the house and Clay had nothing of her’s. “That was very nice of you, son,” he said, as evenly as he could manage.
“But you don’t approve,” Joe accused him.
There were times when Ben wished Joe was not as sensitive to the unspoken thought as he was. Now was definitely one of those times. So he chose his words with care, for he couldn’t allow Clay to create a barrier between himself and Joe; not when Joe needed him so much. “I don’t know that I don’t approve, Joe,” Ben replied. “I’m just not sure I could have parted with something that meant so much to me, that’s all. But I think it was the right thing to do, Joe. As you say, he didn’t have a single picture of her.”
Unaccountably relieved at Ben’s words, Joe relaxed and closed his eyes. Ben saw the exhaustion sweep over his son and began to tuck him into bed, making sure he was comfortable. “You get some sleep,” he ordered and Joe nodded.
“G’night, Pa,” he whispered, much as he had a few hours earlier. Sleep claimed him in a matter of moments.
“What did he say?” Adam asked, downstairs.
Sighing, Ben repeated the conversation, knowing that Adam would be as angry with Clay as he was himself. Running away from trouble was not the Cartwright way and Ben would have preferred to have the situation with the miners settled before Clay left. Now, there would always be the rankle of unfinished business. Joe had paid the penalty for Clay’s disagreement with the miners and Clay had left because of that.
“I’ve a good mind to go after him myself and teach him a lesson,” Adam growled when Ben had finished talking.
“Don’t!” Ben ordered. “There’s been enough violence without you going after Clay. Its over. Understand?” He glared at Adam, who finally dropped his eyes and nodded his head.
“I understand,” Adam offered, grudgingly.
“Then let’s go to bed,” Ben suggested. “It’s been a long day.” He put a hand on Adam’s shoulder as they mounted the stairs together. He could feel how tired Adam was, too.
Lying alone in his bed, Ben remembered Joe’s arrival home that afternoon, and the way his heart jumped when he saw his youngest son sprawled out on the porch, unconscious and so pale. For a second, he had thought his son was dead and the relief when he realized that he wasn’t was over whelming. Ben hoped that none of the others had seen the way his hands had shaken as he tended Joe.
And then it came to him; Adam and Hoss had stayed to help. Clay had gone downstairs alone, leaving Joe to the care of his family. Ben realized that Clay had been planning to leave even then.
The next morning broke far too soon for Ben and Adam. Habit brought Ben awake as dawn broke and he yawned as he climbed out of bed and dressed. Going along the hallway, he could hear sounds from both Adam and Hoss’ rooms, but there was silence from Joe’s. Opening the door a crack, Ben glanced in and confirmed that Joe was still asleep. He backed out and closed the door without disturbing him.
Over breakfast, Hoss was brought up to date with Joe’s nocturnal escapade. “I don’t want either of you teasing him about this,” Ben warned both Hoss and Adam. “No comments about Clay one way or the other, clear?”
“Oh, Pa,” Adam began, but Ben was in no humor for it.
“I mean it, Adam,” he said, sternly. “Whatever any of us think about Clay is not to be repeated to Joe. He feels bad enough about all this without your two cents’ worth on top.”
“All right,” Adam capitulated. Hoss nodded. Ben knew that Hoss wouldn’t say anything to Joe anyway, but Adam could seldom resist giving Joe the benefit of his superior wisdom. Ben also knew that Adam had been jealous of Clay, although he hadn’t admitted it to anyone, not even himself.
“I’ll go up and see how Joe is,” Ben declared as he finished eating. “But somehow I doubt if he’ll be up today.”
As Ben went upstairs, Adam and Hoss went outside to begin the day’s work. They were both quiet as they saddled their horses. Hoss was thinking about how bad Joe must be feeling after his dreadful day yesterday. Joe was gonna be real flat for a while, Hoss thought.
Adam, too, was thinking about Joe, but his thoughts were more vengeful than Hoss’. He wanted to ride off and find Clay and beat him to a pulp for hurting Joe so badly, especially when Joe had taken a beating for him. Adam had been jealous of the intimacy that sprang up so quickly between Joe and Clay, an intimacy that excluded Adam and Hoss, simply because they weren’t Clay’s brothers. But to Adam, reared on the bonds of family, Clay’s leaving violated the natural order of things, and he was determined to teach him a lesson.
It didn’t take Adam long to shake off Hoss that day. Hoss got involved in helping some hands with a fence that needed repairing and Adam rode off without saying where he was going. After some casting around, he spotted the tracks that Joe had followed the previous night, and he followed them, too.
The campsite was empty when he found it, but this didn’t deter Adam any. He hadn’t expected to find Clay still there. After a quick look round, he found fresh tracks and followed them. He entertained himself with thoughts of how Clay would look when he found him.
But by late afternoon, Adam realized that Clay was traveling fast, and he wasn’t going to catch up to him in a hurry. Thwarted in his desire to confront Clay, Adam was faced with a long trip back home, with an explanation to his father for being so late for supper. He had the feeling it wouldn’t be a pleasant evening.
“Sometimes I just don’t believe you, Adam!” Ben exclaimed in disgust. He was having to work hard to keep from shouting so that Joe didn’t hear the argument. “After all that I said this morning!”
“You didn’t say anything about keeping away from Clay,” Adam shot back.
“I didn’t think I had to!” Ben responded, scathingly. “I thought you were intelligent enough to figure that one out for yourself! Guess I was wrong!”
“Pa…” Adam began, then stopped himself. How could he explain what he’d wanted to do so that it sounded reasonable? He couldn’t explain it to himself, so how could he explain it to Pa?
“You wanted to hurt him for hurting Joe, didn’t you?” Ben asked, and Adam nodded. There was no denying it.
“I know it was wrong,” Adam admitted. “But I can’t forgive him for what he did to Joe.”
“We all feel that way, son,” Ben told him, his tone more understanding now. “But would hurting Clay have helped Joe?”
“I guess not,” Adam admitted.
“No, it wouldn’t,” agreed Ben. “All it would do is make trouble between you and Joe, and we don’t want that.” Ben patted Adam on the shoulder. “Joe wants to see you, Adam. Why don’t you go on up and there’ll be something on the table for you when you come down.”
“All right,” Adam nodded and walked wearily upstairs. Hoss glanced over his shoulder from where he sat on the settee and raised an eyebrow at his father. Ben met his gaze and shook his head. It hadn’t taken any effort on their part to guess where Adam had gone that day. Ben was just grateful that Adam hadn’t found Clay.
Pausing reluctantly outside Joe’s room, Adam hastily concocted an excuse for being so late back and hoped that his thoughts wouldn’t show on his face. Joe was all too perceptive at times and Adam didn’t want to provoke a row. Sighing deeply, he opened the door.
Quite what he was expecting when he went in, Adam wasn’t too sure. But he hadn‘t expected to find Joe lying flat out on the bed, gazing blankly at the wall. “Joe?” he ventured.
Slowly, Joe’s head turned. “Hi, Adam,” he said, with a singular lack of enthusiasm.
Concerned, Adam hurried over to the bed. “Buddy, are you all right?” he asked. He sat down carefully, to avoid jostling Joe and put his hand onto Joe’s head. It was warm, but not worryingly so. “Joe?”
“I’m all right,” Joe assured him, again with the worrying lack of passion.
“You don’t look it,” Adam told him. “Tell me the truth, Joe, what’s wrong?”
“Nothing,” Joe insisted, with slightly more animation. “I suppose I’m just tired.” He essayed a smile, but it was anything but convincing.
“Are you sure?” Adam persisted. “You haven’t got pain anywhere?” He put his hand onto Joe’s arm. “You must tell us, Joe.”
Irritably, Joe shook his head. “No, no pain, apart from what I had yesterday. I tell you, Adam, I’m just tired.” He shrugged his brother’s hand off his arm. “Anyway, where have you been all day? Pa says you were late for supper.” He made an effort to look interested.
“I went into town and ended up at the saloon, chatting,” Adam lied, knowing how threadbare an excuse it was.
“You were late?” Joe said, skeptically. “Mr. I’m-never-late-for-anything? Pull the other one, its got bells on!”
“You don’t tell me everything that you do,” Adam retorted, pleased to see this burst of animation. “So why should I tell you what I do?”
“It’s a girl then,” Joe deduced. “A new girl.” He looked at his brother’s deliberately blank face and smiled, a genuine smile this time. “All right, I’ll let you have your secrets for now, but I’ll find out who she is!”
“Adam!” Ben’s voice floated upstairs. “Supper’s ready.”
“See you later,” Adam told Joe. He glanced back as he went out of the door and saw, with worry and disappointment that Joe was gazing at the wall once more.
“I’ve never seen him so depressed,” Ben admitted. He glanced at Paul Martin. “What can I do to help him?”
“Keep him busy,” Paul suggested. “But not until those ribs have healed. It’ll be another couple of weeks anyway, Ben.”
“I was afraid you’d say that,” confessed Ben.
“Well, its not all doom and gloom,” Paul corrected him. “I said Joe couldn’t work, but that doesn’t mean he can’t go out riding, as long as he’s careful.”
“Joe? Careful?” Ben snorted. “Do those two words seem compatible to you, Paul?”
Rolling his eyes, Paul laughed. “I guess not, but we can live in hope.”
“All right,” Ben agreed, and rose. “I’ll head off back home now and give Joe the good news and I just hope it cheers him up.”
Rising, also, Paul shook hands with Ben. “Once he’s back into a normal routine, he should be fine,” he reiterated. “Stop worrying about him, Ben!”
Ben wasn’t the only one worrying about Joe; both Adam and Hoss were worrying about their little brother’s fit of depression. Joe would laugh and smile with everyone else, but his unique giggle and insouciant grin were notable by their absence. He only contributed something to conversations if he was asked directly. He never mentioned Clay’s name at all.
“What we gonna do, Adam?” Hoss demanded of his older brother in the barn, safely away from Joe’s hearing.
“I don’t know,” Adam replied. “Leave him alone, I guess.”
Frustrated, Hoss glared at Adam. “We cain’t jist do that!”
“What do you suggest?” Adam enquired, his tone that of strained patience. He was finding Joe’s blues as depressing as everyone else, but had no idea what to do about it. Ben had tried talking to Joe; so had Hoss and Adam, and Joe was insisting he was fine. “We can’t make him talk if he doesn’t want to.”
“But it ain’t good fer him to bottle everythin’ up like this!” Hoss declared and Adam’s impatience evaporated as though it had never been. He left his horse and went over to put a sympathetic hand on Hoss’ shoulder.
“I know, Hoss,” he agreed, softly. “But we can’t force Joe to open up to us. We just have to show him we’re here for him and let him work it out by himself. I know its tough, buddy, but there it is.”
“Dadburnit, I know yer right, Adam,” Hoss admitted wretchedly. “But it still don’t seem right!”
“I know,” Adam agreed, almost inaudibly. “I know.”
Wandering aimlessly around the living room, Joe picked up the book he’d been trying to read for the past week, and then put it down again, unopened. He didn’t know what was wrong with him, but he could muster no enthusiasm for anything. He was eating well and sleeping well, but he felt tired all the time.
“I’m bored,” he said aloud and looked slightly startled. He hadn’t realized that he was bored.
Going outside, Joe was leaning against the corral rails when Ben arrived back in the yard. “Hello, Joe,” Ben called, cheerfully. He got down from Buck and smiled across at his son. Joe smiled back.
“Hi, Pa,” he replied. “Have a good trip to town?”
“Yes, it was fine,” Ben told him. “Come into the barn with me while I put Buck away, please.” He thought it was getting a bit chilly for Joe to be standing about outside, doing nothing, without a coat. “I met Paul Martin in town,” he went on, making it sound as though he hadn’t gone in especially to see Paul. “He says that as long as you are careful, you can start riding again, although you have to give those ribs another couple of weeks before you start work again. Isn’t that good news?”
“Yes, good news,” Joe agreed politely. He wondered why he wasn’t more pleased by the news, but found a smile from somewhere and plastered it onto his face. Did his smile look as false as it felt? he wondered. “Cochise needs the exercise,” he added, thinking he’d better say something.
As they walked back to the house together, Ben chatted lightly about the people he’d met in town, and the good wishes they had passed on for Joe’s quick recovery. Joe nodded and smiled in appropriate places. He waited for Ben to mention collecting the mail and schooled himself not to react or ask if there was a letter for him. He knew there wouldn’t be. Joe didn’t think he would ever hear from Clay again.
By now, they were back in the house and Joe found himself sitting on the sofa with his book open in his hand, and no recollection of how he got there. He couldn’t remember Ben mentioning the mail, either, but these gaps in his memory were becoming more common as his depression deepened. He would become involved in his thoughts, and lose whole minutes at a time. It was quite frightening, and Joe feared that he was losing his mind.
A few minutes later, a clatter outside announced the arrival of his brothers, and for a moment, Joe’s spirits rose slightly. But as they launched into an animated account of their day, Joe retreated into himself once more, as he felt cut off from the rest of his family, for they all had a defined role to play and he was stuck on the sidelines. He ate his supper in silence and retreated early to bed, there to lie gazing at the ceiling with burning eyes before falling into a deep sleep.
For the first few days, Joe found that he did indeed have to be careful riding. He had been confined to the house for weeks, so his fitness had suffered and he found himself exhausted after a short time. But then, his muscles became accustomed to riding again, and he found he was able to go further and faster than he had to begin with.
Had Ben seen the reckless way Joe rode, he would doubtless have had a few choice words to say. But Joe managed to escape scrutiny and would arrive home tired each afternoon, although he wasn’t really any happier. He felt adrift in a sea of pain and disillusionment. One thought dominated his mind; Clay had left him.
Several wet days in a row kept Joe confined to the house again and Ben notice that his restlessness grew. When the sun finally appeared, he suggested that Joe go and watch his brothers separate the weanling foals from the mares. Joe agreed, because he couldn’t think of a reason not to go.
Riding hell for leather along the road later that morning, Joe was paying very little attention to where he was going, trusting his horse to pick its own footing. Normally, this would have been no problem, for Cochise was as sure footed as they came. But Joe wouldn’t normally have ridden at that speed after so much rain.
Suddenly, Cochise stumbled and his head disappeared somewhere around his knees and Joe was thrown forward in the saddle. Instinctively, he threw his left arm out and put it on the horse’s neck. A thought, fast as lightning, flashed through his mind. I really don’t want to fall here.
It seemed inevitable, as Cochise struggled to regain his feet. Just as Joe’s balance was tipping too far, the horse managed to scramble upright and threw its head up, thereby depositing Joe back in the saddle. But Cochise was frightened and had the bit between its teeth as it raced on, away from its fear.
Somehow, Joe’s head felt clearer than it had in a long time. The world seemed to be startling in its clarity. He pulled uselessly on the reins, but Cochise just pulled back. ”Whoa!” Joe called, for he suddenly was no longer indifferent to his own fate, but his voice had no effect on the headlong gallop.
And, as had been inevitable from the beginning, disaster struck once more. Cochise stumbled again and this time there was no miraculous recovery. The horse somersaulted down the slope by the road, flinging its hapless rider into space.
The last thing Joe was aware of was a horrific thud as he struck the earth, and then there was darkness.
“I thought Joe were comin’ down to watch?” Hoss asked, as they stood by the corral watching the weanlings mill around unhappily.
“So did I,” Adam answered, dryly. “I thought this might spark his interest. He usually likes to pass an eye over the new colts.”
“Ya reckon he’s all right?” Hoss wanted to know, his face screwed up with worry.
“He’ll have stopped somewhere to think, or something,” Adam assured him. “I’m sure he’s just lost track of time, as usual.” He straightened up. “Well, come on, this job’s done. Let’s get home for lunch and see where little brother has got to.”
As they rode, Adam thought Hoss was unusually silent, but the big man was seldom as voluble as either he or Joe, so it was difficult to be sure. Looking at his brother’s face, Adam decided that he was still worrying about Joe, and wondered what he could say to set Hoss’ mind at rest. He was finding it impossible not to worry about Joe, too.
“Look!” Hoss cried and pointed.
Following Hoss’ finger, Adam spotted the thing that had caused Hoss such concern; Joe’s pinto horse was standing, head down, further up the road. Its saddle was empty. Neither Cartwright said a word as they urged their horses into a run.
“There he is!” Adam exclaimed and jumped from Sport to rush to his brother’s side. Joe was unconscious and lay flat on his back. As Adam gently touched his head, he saw the blood pooled on the ground. “He’s hurt bad, Hoss,” he cried.
“What we gonna do?” Hoss asked, anxiously. Joe’s face was pale and still.
“Go and get a wagon,” Adam instructed. “We’ll need to bring him home carefully. How’s the horse?”
“Lame,” Hoss answered, succinctly. He swung himself into the saddle. “I’ll be back as quick as I can,” he promised and spurred Chubb into a gallop.
“Don’t you fall, too!” Adam shouted after him, but he didn’t know if Hoss had heard him or not.
With Hoss gone, Adam turned his attention to Joe. He didn’t try to move his brother, but felt gently down his arms and legs, trying to discern if there were any broken bones anywhere. Almost at once, he realized that Joe had broken his left thigh. The large rock under his leg told its own story, but Adam was relieved that it was rounded, and not sharp, or there could have been more damage.
Retrieving his canteen from his saddle, Adam soaked his bandanna with water and began to wipe Joe’s face. To begin with, there was no response, but after he managed to trickle a little water into Joe’s mouth, his brother began to mumble as he drifted towards consciousness.
After a long time, Joe’s eyes fluttered open and he gazed blearily at his brother. “Adam?” he whispered.
“It’s all right, Joe,” Adam soothed. “You’ve had a fall; don’t try to move. Do you understand?”
“Mmm,” Joe mumbled and his eyes began to close again.
“Joe!” Adam cried, sharply. “You’ve got to stay awake! Joe! Stay with me now!”
Reluctantly, Joe opened his eyes again. A whimper of pain escaped his control. “It hurts, Adam,” he murmured, his voice slurred. He shivered suddenly. “I’m cold.”
Concerned, Adam stripped off his custard-colored coat and tucked it carefully around Joe. He wasn’t sure if Joe was bleeding from somewhere other than his head, but he was afraid to move him. “Joe, you’ve got to stay awake for me,” he told him. “Can you remember what happened?”
“Cochise stumbled,” Joe slurred. “I was going too fast. Sorry.”
“You always ride too fast,” Adam chided him gently. “You always do everything at top speed, don’t you?” He ran his thumb down Joe’s cheek. A small smile told him that Joe realized that he was joking.
“How’s Cochise?” Joe asked. His eyes were closing again, and pain was clearly etched in the lines on his face.
“Lame, but on his feet,” Adam assured him. “Do you want some water, Joe?”
“I guess,” Joe agreed, listlessly. He winced as Adam raised his head slightly. “Am I hurt bad?” he asked.
“I think so,” Adam answered. “You’ve broken your leg and have had a big knock on the head. Good thing you’ve got the Cartwright thick skull!” Again, there was the fleeting smile. “Joe, can you feel your legs?”
“They hurt,” Joe replied. “Everything hurts.” The damp from the ground was seeping steadily into his clothes and he was feeling colder by the minute, despite Adam’s big coat. The cold seemed to make the pain worse and Joe was finding it more and more difficult to stay awake. “Where’s Pa?” he asked.
“I don’t know, but he should be here soon,” Adam responded. He very much hoped their parent would be there soon, as he longed to hand over the responsibility to someone else or at the very least share it. “How are you doing?”
“Can’t I go back to sleep yet?” Joe wanted to know.
“No!” Adam exclaimed. “You’ve got to stay awake, Joe. You’ve got to.” Desperately, Adam began to ask Joe questions about anything and everything that came into his head. Joe’s answers were frequently garbled or he trailed off while in the middle of a sentence, but he was still awake when Hoss returned with the wagon.
“Where’s Pa?” Adam asked, in an undertone as he went over to meet Hoss, having exhorted Joe to stay still and awake.
“He’s in town,” Hoss replied, also in a quiet voice. “I done sent Fred in ta git the doctor an’ Pa.” He glanced at the still figure on the ground. “How is he, Adam?”
“Not good,” Adam replied, honestly. “He’s broken his thigh and he’s got that head injury. I’ve been having trouble keeping him awake. I’m worried, Hoss.”
Wordlessly, Hoss clasped his older brother’s shoulder, lending him support. After a moment, he dashed his hand over his eyes. “Let’s git him home,” he said, determinedly. “You done real well, Adam,” he added. “I reckon Pa couldn’t a done any better keepin’ him awake.”
“Maybe,” Adam responded, doubtfully. “But its not me he wants; it’s Pa.”
“Only nach’ral,” Hoss told him, briskly. “Come on.” He strode over to Joe and knelt by his brother. “How ya doin’, Punkin?” he asked, tenderly.
“Hoss,” Joe breathed. He tried to smile, but his face contorted with pain. “What are you doin’ here?”
“Dadburnit, Joe, what kind o’ a daft question is that?” Hoss said, in mock exasperation. “I come ta rescue ya, what else? Ain’t that ma job?” He was having a hard job keeping the horror off his face at Joe’s condition.
“I guess it is,” Joe agreed, breathlessly. “Where’s Pa?” He sounded plaintive.
“Don’ cha worry none, ‘bout Pa,” Hoss told him kindly. “He’s gonna be waitin’ for ya at home. You ready ta go home, or was you plannin’ on lyin’ there for a while longer?”
“I’m ready,” he whispered and closed his eyes.
“Joe, this is going to hurt, buddy, and I’m really sorry,” Adam warned him.
“Just do it,” Joe responded, as Adam and Hoss had both known he would. He gritted his teeth.
Gently, Adam and Hoss slid their hands under Joe’s legs and back. “On three,” Adam told Hoss. He glanced at Joe, and saw the pain on his face. “One, two, three!” They lifted smoothly, but Joe let out a great shout of pain and passed out, his head dangling limply down.
As carefully as they could, they loaded Joe into the wagon and Adam wrapped blankets around him, taking back his coat. He was concerned by how cold Joe was to the touch and how damp his clothes were. Should he take off Joe’s clothes? he wondered, but decided that there had been enough movement for the injured youth to deal with.
The wagon started moving and Adam glanced back to discover that Hoss had tethered Sport and Cochise to the back. The pinto’s head bobbed with every step it took, but it was keeping up reasonably well. If the worst happened, and it was unable to keep up, Adam resolved that he would untie it, and let someone come out and collect it.
Joe groaned and Adam turned his attention to his youngest brother once more. He wiped the sweat off Joe’s face with his damp bandanna and realized that there was a growing warmth to his brother’s skin that he didn’t like the feel of. He was starting to run a temperature. Pouring some water on the cloth, he supposed that a temperature was better than Joe going into shock, as he might have done when he was moved, but there wasn’t really a lot to choose between them.
The ride home seemed to be interminable to Adam. Joe roused once more and Adam deliberately kept him awake, making him talk, when it was clear that all Joe wanted to do was sleep. Despite Hoss’ care, the jolting of the wagon was agony to Joe and he couldn’t hold back his cries of pain. Each one smote Hoss to the heart.
At long last, they drew to a stop in the yard of the Ponderosa, and Hoss jumped down from the seat to help Adam carry Joe to the house. As they picked him up, the door opened and Ben and Paul Martin came out. They hurried across to look down on the youngest Cartwright son. Ben’s face was tight with concern; Paul’s was grim.
“Joe!” Ben cried, but Joe had passed out again when he was moved.
“Get him upstairs, quick,” Paul ordered and stood back to let the brothers past. He gave Ben a searching look, making sure that he wasn’t going into shock or anything before hurrying inside to follow Joe up to his room.
“He should be waking up soon,” Paul assured Ben, waving some pungent smelling salts under Joe’s nose. Joe was tucked into bed, with a bandage round his head, protecting the stitches that Paul had taken in the gash on the back. His ribs had been re-bandaged, chiefly because the bandages were damp, not because the ribs had been further damaged. The bandages that had been round Joe’s ribs seemed to have protected them. Paul had just finished setting Joe’s broken thigh, and the youth was in plaster from his hip to his toes. “Once he’s awake, I’ll give him something for pain, and then we can let him sleep,” Paul explained.
“And will he be all right?” Ben demanded, anxiously.
“He’ll be fine, given time,” Paul assured Ben once more. “He was lucky; it’s a nice clean break. The head injury isn’t as serious as it looked at first. The head bleeds easily.”
“And you’re sure he’s not paralyzed?” Ben asked.
“Look!” Paul ordered, pointing to the bed, where Joe had drawn up his right leg as he began to surface and the pain hit him. “He wouldn’t be able to do that if he was paralyzed, now would he? Joe will be just fine in a few months when the leg has healed.” He tapped Joe’s cheek lightly with his fingertips and after a few moments, Joe opened bleary green eyes.
“Pa?” he asked, blinking to help him focus. He could still smell the chloroform and taste it in his mouth and he felt slightly queasy. “Pa?”
“I’m here, Joe,” Ben responded, moving closer and taking Joe’s hand. “You’re going to be all right, son.”
“Promise?” Joe asked, and Ben nodded, tears glazing his eyes.
“Promise,” he replied and Joe’s eyes drifted closed. He winced momentarily as Paul gave him an injection, but after a few moments his breathing evened out and he slept peacefully once more.
“He’s still warm,” Ben reported, stroking Joe’s head tenderly.
“That’s natural,” Paul replied, watching. “It should settle overnight.”
“Thank you,” Ben told him.
“Well, don’t thank me,” Paul answered. “If Adam hadn’t taken such good care of Joe out there, there would have been so much more for me to do. He made my job easier.”
As Ben glanced up at him, Paul saw that he didn’t have to tell Ben what his oldest son had done for Joe; Ben already knew. Smiling, Paul nodded. “Goodbye, Ben,” he said.
Over the next few days, Joe was quite unwell. He had a lingering headache that made him feel tired all the time, and the weight of the cast on his leg dragged him down. His temperature had settled overnight, as Paul had promised, but Joe still looked pale and ill. He barely ate enough to keep a sparrow alive, although he drank all the fluids offered to him. He slept a great deal.
Then, as he began to recover, Joe started eating again and within a few days was wishing he could get out of bed. However, that was to be a forlorn hope. Although the break on his leg had been quite clean, Paul was reluctant to let him get up and use crutches, because of the broken ribs and so Joe had to face the fact that he would be bedridden for some time.
As was often the case, when things were very difficult, or very busy, life became quite complicated. Ben was contacted to do jury duty in Carson City and was told he would be away from home for at least a week. He tried everything he knew to get out of doing it, but his pleas to the judge went unheeded, and, reluctantly, Ben made arrangements to go to Carson City.
“We can manage without you for a week,” Adam assured Ben. “You’ve been gone for longer than that, and the ranch has always been here when you returned, hasn’t it?”
“But you’ve seldom had Joe so helpless when I’ve been away before,” Ben pointed out, not appreciating Adam’s attempts to cheer him. “He needs so much help right now.”
“Aw, Pa, we can manage,” Hoss chimed in. “Joe unnerstands why you gotta go.”
“I suppose,” Ben agreed, but he sounded anything but convinced. “I’ll go up and say goodbye to him now.”
“I’ll git yer horse,” Hoss told him and went out as Ben climbed the stairs.
Joe had yet to find a comfortable position with his plastered leg. The top of the plaster seemed to stick into his pelvic bone whenever he sat up and the half-reclining position that prevented that left him with a sore back. As it was, Joe had some spectacular bruising on his back and legs from his fall, and those didn’t help his comfort any either. He glanced up in relief when the door opened.
“Hi, Pa,” he said, as cheerfully as he could manage, for he knew Ben was going away that day, and didn’t want him leaving with the memory of Joe feeling sorry for himself. “Is that you ready to go?”
“Yes, it is,” Ben nodded, stroking Joe’s head. He gazed searchingly at his son, trying to determine his state of mind. “Are you going to be all right while I’m gone?”
“Of course I will,” Joe assured him. He could hear the faint quaver in his voice and schooled it to normality. “I’ll be fine, and Adam, Hoss and Hop Sing will take good care of me, I’m sure. I’m on the mend, Pa, honest.”
Leaning over, Ben kissed Joe lightly on the forehead and Joe smiled at him brilliantly. “Safe journey,” he offered. “See you in a week. Who knows what I might be up to doing by then?”
“What you’re told?” Ben hazarded. He hated to leave.
“Now, Pa, don’t expect miracles,” Joe told him, his eyes shining with laughter. “I meant that I might be up and around.”
Ben drew a breath and Joe chorused along with him, “Only if the doctor says so!” Ben laughed, ruffled Joe’s unruly curls and took his leave, much cheered.
The door shut, and Joe’s laughter died. He sighed deeply and told himself that he wasn’t going to cry. He could survive without Pa for a week, even if he was stuck in bed and the others wouldn’t have much time to spend with him. “I’m a big boy now,” he chided himself.
But still, when he heard the hooves riding out of the yard, Joe suddenly felt unbearably lonely.
“We’ve got to arrange things so that Joe isn’t on his own all day,” Adam told Hoss as they sat down to supper that night. “He’s been so depressed, we can’t risk leaving him. So we’ll split our time with him so that one of us spends half the morning with him and the other spends half the afternoon and we can both sit with him during the evening. Hop Sing is here the rest of the time, and he’s said he’s willing to help out.”
“I’d a bin surprised if’n he hadn’ bin willin’,” Hoss commented.
“Does that sound all right to you?” Adam asked, and Hoss nodded.
“I’ll do the mornin’,” he volunteered. “I’m better at gettin’ him up than you are.”
“All right,” Adam agreed and they fell on the food like starving men, which, in Hoss’ case, wasn’t an unusual occurrence.
They put their plan into action that very evening, Hoss carrying up the checkers board and Adam bringing up some books and his guitar. He sat and read while Joe and Hoss played checkers, then sang to them when Joe tired, as he still did quite easily, before beginning to read to Joe after they had him settled for the night.
“Joe seems quite chirpy,” Hoss commented, as they left their sleeping sibling’s room.
“I thought that, too,” Adam agreed. “But we’d better keep a close eye on him, just in case he’s putting on a brave face for us just now.”
“Sure cain’t blame him fer bein’ depressed,” Hoss admitted as they went back downstairs. “Gettin’ that beatin’, an’ then Clay up an’ leavin’, then this. No siree, sure cain’t blame him.” He glanced at Adam. “Don’ cha think?” he added.
“Yes, I do,” agreed Adam, slowly. “I wish Pa hadn’t stopped me going after Clay that night.”
“That don’ git ya nowheres,” Hoss chided. “If’n you’d beat Clay to a pulp, how would that o’ helped Joe? He’d a jist been resentful ‘bout it.”
“I guess you’re right,” admitted Adam. “But it sure would’ve made me feel better!”
“Yeah?” Hoss queried. “If’n that’s so, how come you tole Joe not ta beat Red Twilight who shot me?”
Uncomfortably, Adam looked away, but Hoss kept his gaze on his oldest brother, who colored. “I didn’t exactly tell him not to,” he muttered.
“Don’ matter what the words was,” Hoss informed him, knowing he’d got through to Adam. “The result were the same.”
Putting his hand on Hoss’ shoulder, Adam squeezed it briefly. “Thanks,” he said. “Hoss, you have a rare gift for putting things into perspective for me.”
Blushing, the big man shook his head. “Naw, Adam,” he denied. “You done teach me that; I jist reminded ya.”
“Don’t deny your gifts,” Adam chided lightly, although real emotion lay behind the words. “You do put things in perspective for all of us.” He smiled. “Good night, Hoss.”
“Night, Adam,” Hoss replied, watching his brother go back upstairs. He wasn’t fooled by Adam’s cool exterior for a moment. He knew all too well the depths of emotion that hid behind the controlled façade his brother displayed to the world.
Over the next couple of days, as Adam and Hoss spent time with Joe, they were pleasantly surprised by how cheerful he was. Oh, there were still times when they went in and found him lost in thought, but he never stayed down for long. Given how depressed Joe had been before the accident, they were at a loss to explain it. However, they were loath to mention it, just in case Joe was plunged back into the depression he had so recently escaped.
This was not to say that Joe was all sweetness and light. His situation would have made a saint swear, when he found himself struggling to deal with his personal needs alone and the indignities that came with the necessary help, however subtly handled. On more than one occasion, Joe threw a major tantrum, usually driving away the person who was trying to help him.
Hoss had more patience with this than Adam, although it was difficult to say why. Perhaps because Adam was carrying the brunt of the responsibility for the ranch or perhaps because he felt that Joe should be more grateful for the help he was getting. Or perhaps it was simply that Hoss was accustomed to buffering the oldest and youngest from each other, and with the arrangement that had been worked out, Joe and Adam were spending quite a bit of time together.
The hardest day came a couple of days before Ben was due to return. Joe woke in the pre-dawn grayness, his mouth dry. Usually, Adam left a glass of water beside the bed, within easy reach, but for whatever reason, he had forgotten the previous night. The glass wasn’t that far away, but it was frustratingly out of reach.
Trying to settle himself again, telling himself that he wasn’t that thirsty, Joe lay back and closed his eyes. He generally found that he couldn’t keep awake, either day or night, but on this occasion, sleep eluded him. The harder Joe tried not to think about his dry mouth, the more he thought about it. His room was stifling, for there had been rain the previous evening and his room had been cool. Worried that he would catch a chill, Adam had shut the window, but judging by the heat of the room now, Joe guessed the rain had passed over and the temperature was on the climb again. It just made his misery worse.
Deciding that he couldn’t bear it any longer, Joe reached for the glass. Sliding closer to the edge of the bed, Joe tried to balance himself while he stretched for the glass. His groping fingers touched the edge of the glass, but he couldn’t quite get hold of it. “Just a little further,” he grunted and leant out that little bit more.
And of course, disaster struck. Joe’s balance went and he crashed to the floor, dragging the glass down with him. It shattered, with the glass spraying everywhere. Joe felt his face stinging, and he couldn’t prevent a cry escaping his lips.
After a moment, Joe realized that he was in real trouble now. He was lying face down on the floor, and his cast was keeping him firmly anchored there, as it had kept him anchored to the bed for almost the last week. There was no way he could tidy up the mess and get himself back into bed before someone came in and found him.
The thought had no sooner crossed his mind than the door opened and Adam rushed in. “Joe!” He hurried across, but Joe put up his hand, stopping his brother, for he saw that Adam had bare feet.
“Mind the glass,” he gasped.
“Don’t move!” Adam admonished him and Joe choked back an unsteady laugh as his brother hurried out of the door again. Where did Adam think he was going to go?
Moments later, Adam was back, with carpet slippers on this time and a lamp to show him the damage. He knelt by Joe, taking care to avoid the shards of glass. “Are you all right?” he asked urgently.
“Just bruised,” Joe admitted.
“Let’s get you into bed and get that gash on your face attended to,” Adam suggested and he helped Joe back into bed, lifting the heavy cast and tucking the blankets in around him.
“What were you trying to do?” he asked, sarcastically, as he finally got Joe settled. He could see his younger brother’s face was still pale and he dabbed the cut on his cheek that was oozing blood.
“I was going to go dancing in Virginia City,” Joe retorted, his eyes flashing. He felt completely exhausted. “What do you think I was doing? I was trying to reach the water.”
Wordlessly, Adam left the room, returning with another glass that he filled and handed to Joe. As the younger man sipped gratefully, Adam began to clear up the glass, taking care not to cut himself. Once that was done, he opened the window a bit and cool air rushed in. “Feeling better?” he asked Joe, as he took the empty glass from him.
“Yes, thank you,” Joe replied. He ducked his head. “I’m so sorry I woke you, Adam.”
“Don’t worry about it, kiddo,” Adam chided him smiling. He dabbed at the cut on Joe’s face again, but the bleeding appeared to have stopped. “I forgot to put the glass down for you last night. I’m sorry.” They sat in silence for a moment, and then Adam saw a glimmer of tears in Joe’s eyes. “Joe? Are you all right?”
“Yes, I’m sorry,” Joe said, wiping his eyes. “I shouldn’t complain, but I’m just finding this so hard.” He sighed. “You and Hoss have enough to do without babysitting me, and Pa will be the same when he comes home.”
“You’d do the same for us, wouldn’t you?” asked Adam. “If we were laid up in bed, wouldn’t you do the same?”
“Of course I would,” Joe replied, frowning.
“Then don’t worry about it,” Adam assured him, before Joe could say any more. “Why don’t you try and get some more sleep?”
“I’ll try,” Joe agreed, but although he closed his eyes, Adam could see that Joe was still tense. He did not know if it was because of Joe’s concerns about being a burden, or because he’d fallen out of bed, or both.
It was practically time for Adam to get up anyway. “Would you like me to read something to you that will put you to sleep?” he asked and Joe opened his eyes and grinned.
“I’d like you to read to me,” he replied. “And you don’t put me to sleep, honest.”
“Oh, so that was someone else who fell asleep last night during Moby Dick?” teased Adam. Joe laughed. Ruffling Joe’s hair, Adam rose and went to fetch a book. He was back a few moments later and settled himself in the chair by Joe’s bed and opened the slim volume of poetry. “This is by George Gordon, Lord Byron,” he told Joe.
“When We Two Parted
When we two parted
In silence and tears
To sever for years….”
Adam’s voice read on quietly, through the verses, until he came to the end
“If I should meet thee
After long years,
How should I greet thee?
With silence and tears.”
He finished reading and sat for a moment, eyes closed, for the poem always moved him. When he glanced at Joe, fully expecting his brother to have been lulled to sleep by the rhythms of the verse, he was surprised and concerned to see tears standing in Joe’s eyes.
“What’s wrong?” he asked.
“You’ll think I’m foolish,” Joe croaked, fighting the tears that threatened to overwhelm him.
“No, I won’t,” Adam assured him. “You can tell me; I won’t laugh.”
“That reminds me of Clay,” Joe admitted. “Because we did part with silence and tears, at least on my part. And if we ever meet again, how else could I greet him?”
For a long moment, Adam just looked at Joe. “You’re not foolish,” he stated. “It applies to all of us, although I hadn’t realized it.” When Joe cocked an eyebrow, he went on, “Remember when I went to college? Pa didn’t say much aloud when I got on the stage, but his eyes said plenty. And you wouldn’t talk to me, but you cried buckets.”
“I do remember,” Joe murmured.
Again, silence fell. The house slumbered on around them. “Can I ask you something, Joe?” Adam ventured.
“Sure,” Joe responded. He gave a small grin. “I might not answer, because I don’t want to incriminate myself…”
Smiling back, Adam shook his head. “Don’t answer if you don’t want to. But, Joe, you were so depressed after Clay left, yet you’ve seemed happier since the accident. I don’t understand it. I thought you’d be even more down.” He saw the look on his brother’s face and rushed on before Joe could make a smart remark. “And I haven’t forgotten about those tantrums of yours, rest assured!”
For a minute, he thought Joe wasn’t going to answer. Joe’s green eyes grew distant as he looked in to himself. “I was depressed when Clay left,” he admitted. “He’s my brother and he rejected me. He said he didn’t want me. How could I be anything but depressed?” He tried a smile, but it didn’t quite come off. “I wondered what was wrong with me that he wouldn’t stay.” He swallowed. “I wanted to die, Adam,” he admitted. “Right up until the moment Cochise stumbled. It was then that I realized I still loved life.”
“And then you had the accident,” Adam inserted, allowing Joe time to control his emotions.
“As you say,” Joe agreed, nodding. “And when I woke up, Adam, you were there. And you stayed with me until Hoss came back with the wagon and you both helped get me home. If you hadn’t known what to do, I might have died out there, Adam.”
“You weren’t that badly hurt,” Adam protested, uncomfortable with the praise.
“We both know I was, so stop being modest,” Joe chided. “But it was then – or rather a few days later – that I realized that Clay wouldn’t have been able to do that. He would have found it a burden sitting with me, and putting up with my tantrums when I got frustrated. When the miners beat me up, he didn’t even come up to see me; he just left.”
Adam nodded encouragement, not yet seeing where this was leading, but understanding that Joe needed to say it, now that he had begun.
“I realized that I have brothers, Adam; the best brothers in the world. You and Hoss have always been with me, looking out for me, loving me, helping me. I don’t need Clay to do that; he doesn’t know how. But I don’t need him to do that, because you and Hoss are here for me, as I’m here for both of you. You said it earlier.” Joe’s eyes shone with tears again, but they didn’t fall. “How could I be depressed when I’m so lucky?” he asked.
“Oh, Joe!” Adam murmured, too touched to be able to find more words.
“If I see Clay again, I’ll welcome him back,” Joe went on. “But whatever happens, I’ll never have the kind of relationship with him that I have with you and Hoss. I tried to create that relationship, and all I did was drive him away.”
“No, you didn’t drive Clay away,” Adam contradicted. “Don’t blame yourself. Clay just never had the chance to grow up as part of a real family and he didn’t know how to deal with it. He was fond of you, Joe; there’s no denying that.” Adam’s heart gave a pang as he said the words. “But he had never learned that family is all; that to hurt one member of a family is to hurt them all. He couldn’t see that he was hurting everyone when he left, not just you and him, because he’s never had a family.”
By now, dawn had broken and the light in the room had risen to such a degree that Adam turned out the lamp. “I was trying so hard to find a reason for him leaving that I thought it had to be me,” Joe murmured. “But maybe it wasn’t.”
“No, it wasn’t,” Adam assured him. “I think perhaps he was trying to protect you, in his own way. After all, he did realize that the miners beat you up to pass a message to him. He’s never had a family to help him fight his battles, so he didn’t realize that we would help him.” He saw that Joe’s body was completely relaxed now. “Why don’t you try and get some sleep before breakfast?” he suggested.
“I think I will, thanks, Adam,” Joe agreed and closed his eyes.
Rising, Adam quietly left the room to dress, taking with him the poetry book. He’d always liked Byron; now he had special reason to mark this particular poem.
Returning with trepidation from Carson City, Ben was quite prepared to find the house in a total uproar and both of his older sons swearing vengeance on Joe when he was recovered. So it was not only a pleasant surprise, but something of a shock, to find all three boys in Joe’s room, playing a very rowdy game of snap!
“Dadburnit, Joe, don’t hit so hard!” Hoss complained, snatching his hand out of the reach of his youngest brother’s enthusiastic dive for the cards.
“Snap?” Ben asked, in an incredulous tone.
“Hi, Pa,” Joe cried, looking up and beaming at him. “These two are cheating!”
“How can you cheat at snap?” Adam asked, raising an eyebrow. “Hi, Pa, it’s good to have you home.”
“Hi Pa,” Hoss added, before glaring at Joe. “Sides, you allus cheat at checkers!”
Chaos reigned for a while, but eventually, Ben persuaded Adam and Hoss to leave the room and he was alone with Joe. He was delighted to see the color in his son’s face and the insouciant grin which was unique to Joe was very much in evidence.
“How are you, son?” Ben asked, sitting carefully on the edge of the bed and putting his hand on Joe’s arm.
“I’m fine, Pa, thanks,” Joe replied. “How was the trial?”
“Finished, thank goodness,” Ben replied. “But it was boring, and I want to hear about you.”
“You were worried about my depression, too, huh?” Joe asked. His face sobered. “Adam said that he and Hoss were worried.”
“You were very down,” Ben agreed, carefully.
“I know,” Joe responded. “But I’m fine now.” He smiled. “How can I be down about losing one brother when I still have two brothers who love me? Clay thought he was doing the right thing by leaving, and no one can say different. He doesn’t love me any less because he left. And I have two brothers who have done everything they can to make sure I wasn’t too bored or alone for too long while you were away.” He smiled up at his father, and this time, the tears did fall. “How could I stay depressed when I knew all that?”
“I’m glad, son,” Ben replied, huskily. “So glad.”
Later that night, Ben knelt by his bed to say his evening prayers. As always, he thanked the Almighty for the blessings of his sons, and the good things in his life. And tonight, for the first time in many nights, he asked the Lord to look out for Clay, the brother who had left in silence and tears.
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