Lost (by Rona)

Summary:  Awakening to find himself badly injured, Joe learns his father is dead.

Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:   6885


 

The darkness that surrounded him seemed impenetrable. Vague sounds like voices reached him, but he couldn’t make any sense of it at all. Then someone touched him and pain flared through his body. For a fleeting instant his eyes opened, but all he saw was a confused kaleidoscope of colors and movement before the darkness swallowed him completely and he knew no more.

*****

He couldn’t move. It took Joe several seconds to realize that he was actually awake because his eyes wouldn’t open and he couldn’t move more than a fraction of an inch in any direction. Panic flared through his mind as he fought whatever was keeping him in place. It was useless, though and he tired after only a few moments. Lying there, panting, Joe became aware that there were leather straps around his wrists and something soft around his head. His legs felt like they weighed a ton each and they wouldn’t move at all, although he could feel them. “What’s going on?” he mumbled, his voice raspy and his throat dry.

There was no answer, not that Joe expected one. He couldn’t hear any sounds that would indicate another person’s presence. Joe tried to move again, but all he succeeded in doing was making pain awake in his legs. “Pa?” he called, as loudly as he could, but there was no response.

He must have fallen asleep again, for the next time he woke, there was someone in the room, someone who was wiping his chest with a warm, damp cloth. Joe flinched and the hand was removed. “Well hello,” said a female voice. “You’ve decided to waken up, have you?”

“Who are you?” Joe asked. “Where am I?”

“I’ll just get the doctor,” the unknown voice replied. “Don’t go away.”

Biting his lip in frustration – where did she think he was going to go and how did she think he was going to get there? – Joe contained himself with as much patience as he could, straining his ears to hear when she was going to return.

It seemed forever to the helpless young man, but it was only a couple of minutes. He heard a door open and then heavy footsteps approach the bed where he lay. “I believe you’re awake, young man,” asked a deep baritone voice. “Can you tell me your name?”

“Joe Cartwright,” Joe answered, without hesitation. “What happened? Where am I? Where’s my father?”

“You were involved in an accident,” the doctor replied. “You’re in my clinic at Milltown.”

Uneasily, Joe processed this information. “Where’s my father?” he repeated.

“Mr. Cartwright, I’m sorry to have to tell you this, but your father is dead.”

“No!” Joe whispered. “No! No! No! No!” He was shouting, struggling against the leather straps, oblivious of the pain shooting through his body. “No! Pa!”

Joe was barely aware of the needle sliding into his flesh, but his struggles gradually ceased and he was once more in a drugged slumber. The doctor looked down at him. “I had the feeling he wasn’t going to take that news well,” he commented to his nurse. “Let me know when he wakes up again.”

*****

The next awakening was painful. Joe remembered with too-vivid clarity the news he had received and he groaned aloud. Instantly, a hand touched his arm and Joe flinched. “Who’s there?” he asked, wishing that his eyes were uncovered so he could see.

“I’m Nurse Jones,” replied the voice. “Do you remember where you are, Mr. Cartwright?”

“I remember,” Joe replied. “What’s wrong with me? Why can’t I see? Why can’t I move?”

“The doctor will be here in a minute, Mr. Cartwright. He’ll explain,” the nurse soothed. “Would you like a drink?”  She lifted Joe’s head and helped him to sip. The cold water felt wonderful on his parched throat.

As soon as the doctor appeared, Joe repeated his questions. “What’s wrong with me? Why can’t I see? Why can’t I move?”

“Mr. Cartwright, what’s the last thing you remember?” the doctor asked.

If there was one thing Joe hated, it was people who answered questions with questions. But instead of snapping, Joe gave it some thought. His head ached and it made remembering difficult, but he persevered. “Pa and I left the ranch to go to Sacramento,” he whispered. “I remember our camp the first night, but after that…” Joe frowned as he tried to bring more pictures to his mind. He failed. “I don’t remember,” he concluded.

“We’re not exactly sure what happened, but your wagon overturned. You were trapped underneath it for quite some time. Both your legs are broken and you had a severe head injury.”

“Is my back broken?” Joe asked, fearfully. “Am I blind?”

“No, your back doesn’t appear to be broken,” the doctor replied. “We have you restrained, because you became violent as you woke up. You had a considerable amount of grit in your eyes. I don’t think there’s any permanent damage, but it’ll be a few days before we take the bandages off.”

“What about my Pa?” Joe asked, his voice cracking.

“He was dead when you were found,” the doctor told him. “I’m sorry.”

Turning his head away, Joe fought back tears. “Have you wired my brothers?” he choked.

“We didn’t know who to get in contact with,” the man replied. “But if you give me the details, I’ll arrange that.”

Slowly, Joe did as he was asked. He was exhausted by the news he had heard and wanted nothing more than to escape into sleep. His injuries began to hurt and he twisted reflexively against the restraints. “I’ll give you something for the pain,” the doctor told Joe. “But the restraints stay until we’re sure you won’t become violent again.”

“Please, I won’t,” Joe objected, but he was ignored.

As the needle pierced his flesh once more, a thought that had been niggling at the back of his brain suddenly crystallized. “Wait!” he cried. “You said a wagon…” The drug began to work. “What…wagon…?” Joe was unconscious once more.

*****

“I don’t care if you like it,” the man told the doctor. “You just keep the boy where he is until the father agrees to pass up on the contract. It won’t take long. He’s cracking already.”

“What do I tell the boy when he asks for his brothers again?” the doctor enquired. “I can’t keep sedating him.”

“You tell him the truth,” the other sneered. “Tell him there hasn’t been a response.”

“You did this to him, didn’t you?” the medic demanded. “You broke his legs, didn’t you? There wasn’t really a wagon accident. The boy remembers.”

“He remembers?” The tone told the doctor that he had just made a major blunder.

“Sort of,” he hedged. “I’m keeping him sedated a lot of the time, but I can’t keep doing that, either. He has had a bad head injury – masking the symptoms of that could be very bad for him.”

“Oh dear,” the other responded, with no trace of worry or sympathy in his tones. “How tragic.”

******

The nausea had to be the worst thing, Joe thought as he finished another bout of dry heaves. He had been unable to keep anything much down for days – or what felt like days – Joe had no way of discerning the passage of time. His eyes were still tightly bandaged and he was still restrained, although he protested this indignity every time he was awake.

Never a good patient, Joe was now more than just frustrated by his injuries. He was downright suspicious of the people looking after him. Was this really a doctor? Joe knew by now that the man’s name was Miller and that they were in Milltown, wherever that was, but he knew nothing else. Every time Joe started to ask an awkward question, he was sedated. Alarm bells were ringing loudly in his mind, but he didn’t know how to set about freeing himself.

“Have you heard from my brothers?” Joe asked, the next time Dr Miller was with him.

“There hasn’t been a reply yet,” Miller answered, but there was a certain hesitation in his voice that made the hair stand up on the back of Joe’s neck.

“Oh,” Joe whispered, as he slumped back on the bed. He sought to look as cowed and harmless as he knew how. “I had hoped…” He didn’t finish his sentence.

“I know how difficult this must be for you,” Miller sympathized, resting a hand on Joe’s shoulder. Joe flinched from the unexpected contact. “Now tell me, how are you feeling? Is the nausea any better?”

“No,” Joe admitted. He was exhausted, his body aching from lying in one position all the time. “Please, can’t you take these restraints off? I don’t know what you think I’m going to do.”

“Head injuries are unpredictable,” Miller replied. “You never know what a patient might do. This is standard procedure in my clinic.”

“Please,” Joe begged, although it went against the grain to plead. “I’m injured and alone and my father is dead. Please, take off the restraints.” He was practically in tears.

Something in Joe’s anguished plea must have struck a chord in Miller. “All right, Mr. Cartwright, I’ll loosen them slightly. But I won’t remove them all together quite yet. I’ll make another review of the situation tomorrow.” He fiddled about at Joe’s wrists and Joe felt the tight leather peel off his sweaty skin. The relief was quite overwhelming.

“Thank you,” he breathed.

“You need to get some rest now,” Miler added.

“Please don’t sedate me,” Joe cried.  He sensed Miller hovering over him and held his breath.

“All right, we’ll see how you go without it,” Miller agreed. Joe sagged with relief as he heard the footsteps retreating and then a room door closing – and locking.

For the first time since he wakened, Joe was alone.

*****

His first action was to make sure that he really was alone. The sound of the locking door might have been a figment of his over-active imagination, but Joe didn’t think so. Every time he had asked an awkward question, he had been sedated; the significance of that fact hadn’t escaped Joe, although he had no idea why it was happening. But there were too many things that didn’t add up here and Joe was determined to get to the bottom of what was going on.

After several minutes, Joe was sure that he was alone in the room. He began to wriggle his wrists, trying to ease them out of the leather restraints. His skin was already sweaty and sticky from the constant chafing, but Joe had small bones and slender wrists, and he was sure that, with a little perseverance, he would manage to break free.

It took more than a little perseverance; when Joe finally was able to get his right hand free, he was bleeding where he had torn the skin. Wincing as he stretched over to fiddle with the bindings on the other hand, he wished he had got his left hand free first, seeing as how he was left handed. It would have made things easier, but when was life ever that obliging?

But at last, his hands were free and Joe rubbed his sore wrists for a few minutes to restore his circulation. His next act was to take the bandages off his eyes and he did so with a certain amount of trepidation. He had no way of knowing if the doctor had been telling the truth about his eyes or not. The lingering headache was a pointed reminded that he had suffered a head injury of some description, but Joe was unsure what to believe.

Cautiously, he opened his eyes and winced at how bright the light was. However, one thing was for sure; if he had had grit in his eyes, it was causing him no pain now and his eyesight was perfect. The relief made Joe feel quite weak as he gazed about the small room that was his prison.

There was a window to Joe’s right, further down the room from where he lay on a bed. It was swathed in net curtains and Joe could tell only that it was daylight outside, but he couldn’t see anything. The room was bare apart from a chair by the bed and a basin, which Joe guessed had been placed there for his use, should the nausea surface again, although quite how he was supposed to make use of it, with his hands restrained and his eyes covered, was beyond Joe’s understanding.

Glancing down at himself, Joe saw that his torso was covered with bruises and he winced as he forced himself into a sitting position. He ached all over and his muscles were stiff from disuse. He took hold of the blankets that covered him to the waist and threw them off.

The shock was quite surprising, given that Joe knew his legs felt heavy and that he couldn’t move them. The plaster casts extended from his toes to his hips on each leg and – Joe sucked in another shocked breath – there appeared to be something connecting his legs together just above the knee. Sitting up further, and willing the dizzy feeling to go, Joe reached out and touched the casts, feeling how thick and heavy they were. The plaster that connected his legs was too solid for Joe to break with his hands, although that didn’t stop him from trying.

Eventually, exhausted, Joe slumped back. He was shaking. He didn’t know what to think. He was alone somewhere, he had been told his father had died, and he appeared to be a prisoner. Joe swallowed against the sudden dryness in his throat. And then he remembered again – the doctor said they had been in a wagon accident, and yet – Joe was panting now – they had left home mounted on their horses.

What was going on?

*****

Joe was dozing when Miller returned. He had been unable to maneuver the heavy casts off the bed and he knew that there was no way he could climb out of the window, even if he did get to the floor. There was nothing around that he could use to hack the plaster off – in fact, there was nothing in the room at all. It didn’t look like any clinic that Joe had ever seen.

He woke as the door opened and glared defiantly at Miller. “Stop lying to me!” he cried. “What really happened?”

“I told you what happened,” Miller responded, his tone quite cool. He reached into his pocket and withdrew a syringe.

“Oh no!” Joe declared. “You’re not going to sedate me again!” He made a lunge for the man, wrestling for control of the glass vial, although he had no idea what he meant to do once it was disposed of. He could hardly get up and run out of the door.

The struggle was brief and Joe did win, seeing the hated object crash to the floor and shatter. But Joe was exhausted by the fight, his injuries and the frequent drugging taking their toll on his strength. His head began to spin and before Joe knew quite what was going on, he was once more restrained to the bed, the leather cuffs buckled tightly around his wrists.

“Why are you doing this?” he panted. “Where’s my father?”

“I don’t know what you mean,” Miller replied. He checked the buckles and looked down at Joe, an oddly regretful expression on his face. “It would have been better for you to have done what you were told, Mr. Cartwright. Much better for you.” He turned and walked away.

“Wait!” Joe yelled. “Come back!”

The door closed and locked once more.

*****

Stretching as he left the house that morning, Hoss Cartwright was in no way prepared for the sight which met his eyes. For standing in front of the barn were Buck and Cochise, the horses belonging to his father and younger brother. Surprised, for there was no way they could have traveled to Sacramento and back in such a short time, Hoss peered around, half expecting to see them coming out of the barn or something.

When there was no immediate sign, Hoss went forward slowly, and caught the trailing reins of the horses. Buck was plastered with dried sweat and when he checked, Hoss found that Cochise was the same, the black and white hair dried to hard points.

Alarm bells were ringing loudly in Hoss’ mind. There was no way either Ben or Joe would have left their horse in such a condition. “Adam!” he cried. “Adam!”

The house door opened and Adam Cartwright, the oldest son, walked out, frowning. “What’s wrong?” he asked and then caught his breath as he saw the horses. “Where are Pa and Joe?” he asked, as though Hoss had hidden them in his pants’ pocket.

“I dunno,” Hoss replied. “Look, the horses is all sweated up.” He glanced at Adam, seeing the growing concern in the dark eyes. “Somethin’ must a happened ta them, Adam.”

“I think you’re right,” Adam agreed. “Come on, let’s get saddled up and look for them.”

“Where are we gonna look?” Hoss wanted to know.

“I don’t know,” Adam responded. “But we’ll follow the route they were supposed to take. We might find something.”

Slowly, Hoss nodded. He might not like the idea any better than Adam did, but it sure did beat sitting at home all hollow.

*****

It had been a long struggle, Ben Cartwright thought, as he finally freed his hands from the ropes that bound him. It had taken him several days to get to this point and he felt exhausted. Slowly, he drew his hands round in front of him and started to rub some life back into them. His arms felt heavy and the ‘pins and needles’ sensation of the returning circulation was more like knives and pitchforks, but Ben didn’t complain. Now, he had the chance to get away and rescue Joe.

Rising cautiously to his feet Ben pressed his ear against the door and held his breath, listening. The house beyond the locked door of his prison was silent, as he had expected. It was still dark, although Ben knew dawn was only an hour or so away.

It had been a long few days for Ben. He didn’t really remember the ambush that had separated him from his son, but he knew only too well who had triggered it – Curt Holmes, his rival for a big meat/timber/horse contract with the army. He had already told Ben that he was holding Joe – who was seriously injured – until such time as Ben withdrew his bed for the army contract.

Frantic with worry about Joe, Ben agreed that he would withdraw the bid, but so far, Holmes had not brought Ben pen and paper to write the letter. Ben was almost glad, for he wasn’t sure he would be able to bring himself to do it. He was desperately concerned about Joe, but it went against the grain to knuckle under like that. Yet what choice did he have? The life of his son – of all his sons – meant more to him than a contract, however lucrative.

However, Ben was not the type to take captivity quietly. He had been making his plans for escape since the day he had been brought in and tonight was the night he was going to put them into practice.

Although the door to his room was locked, Ben had noticed that the hinges were on his side of the door. It took him some time, but he had hung and removed doors from their frames before and he was soon squeezing out through the gap he had opened.

The house was still and hushed and Ben placed his feet very, very carefully to avoid any squeaky floor boards. He had to search the house, to make sure that Joe wasn’t being held prisoner in another room. Somehow, Ben didn’t think he was, although he had no real basis for this supposition. With his heart thundering in his chest, Ben searched the whole place before letting himself silently out of the front door.

He had no idea where he was, but one thing was for sure – he wasn’t going to hang around to ask Holmes. The other man had been soundly asleep in an upstairs room, but Ben couldn’t count on him remaining asleep for long. He had to get away, get help and find Joe.

Ben started walking.

*****

The only thing to be said for his current predicament was that he now knew if it was day or night, but that was the only plus that Joe could find. He was still a prisoner, his wrists restrained for most of the day, unless he was eating. He was sure that either his food or drink was drugged, for he always seemed sleepy afterwards and could provide only a token resistance to being restrained.

Despite sleeping so much, Joe didn’t feel rested. His body ached all the time – a common side effect of sedatives, although Joe didn’t know that – and the heavy casts on his legs prevented him from moving to get comfortable. His muscles cramped regularly and the headache he had initially woken up with hadn’t gone away.

Bored beyond belief, Joe couldn’t prevent his thoughts from dwelling on what had happened. He alternated between believing that Ben was dead and denying that it was true. He wondered why his brothers hadn’t responded to the wire telling them of the accident and then realized that it wouldn’t have been sent. He concentrated hard to remember what had happened. But his mind was a blank.

*****

The evidence was obvious to Hoss and Adam; the campsite had been attacked. There was some blood – not much, but enough to make the brothers deeply concerned. With Hoss in the lead, they set off following the tracks.

“Uh-oh,” Hoss commented, pulling Chubb to a halt. “Look! They split up.”

Biting his lip, Adam studied the tracks. “I think we’d better follow this set,” he decided. “They lead towards Milltown. We might enlist the help of the sheriff there.”

“I guess,” Hoss agreed, although he sounded dubious.

“Much as I would love to follow both sets,” Adam replied to the unasked question, “I don’t think we should split up, do you?”

“No, yer right,” Hoss nodded. “I jist…”

“I know,” Adam agreed. “I feel the same way.” He sighed and looked at the second set of tracks. “Let’s leave a marker here just in case,” he suggested. “That way, if the weather turns, we’ll know which direction to follow.”

“Good thinkin’,” Hoss enthused and jumped down to help Adam lay out a marker. They both paused for a moment when that was done and then mounted again, hurrying towards Milltown.

*****

Sitting heavily on a convenient rock, Ben Cartwright paused to catch his breath and to visually assess his surroundings. He had walked about seven miles, he thought, and was pretty sure that he was headed towards Milltown. He would be able to get help from the sheriff there – assuming that Holmes didn’t catch up with him in the meantime. So far, there had been no sign of pursuit, but Ben knew that wouldn’t last.

Even as the thought crossed his mind, he heard hoof beats on the wind. Panicking, he glanced around, but there was really nowhere to hide. He crouched down behind the rock, determined that he wouldn’t go easily. It didn’t sound like a large number of horses and Ben wondered if Holmes’ men had split up and would come at him from all sides. Either way, he would go down fighting, he decided.

So it was with a distinct sense of shock that he recognized the men riding towards him. He rose abruptly from his hiding place and shouted, oblivious to the startled shying of both horses. “Adam! Hoss!”

“Pa?” Adam was down off his mount in a moment, putting a hand on his father’s shoulder, searching the older man’s face. “Are you all right? Where’s Joe?”

Allowing himself to sag with relief, Ben sat down on the rock again, although he couldn’t stop himself throwing a glance over his shoulder. “I don’t know where Joe is,” he replied, wearily. “I haven’t seen him since we were attacked a few days ago. I just know that Holmes has him prisoner somewhere. We’ve got to get to Milltown and get the sheriff’s help.”

“Are you all right?” Adam persisted.

“A few bruises, but I’m fine, son,” Ben assured him. “How did you know to come looking for us?”

“Buck and Cochise came home alone yesterday,” Adam responded as Hoss handed Ben the canteen. Their father drank deeply. “We found your camp site. There were tracks, but they split apart back there about a mile.”

“I reckon them other tracks was the ones to where Pa was,” Hoss decided, eyeing the tracks that Ben had left.

Hope flared in Ben’s tired eyes. “Let’s keep following these ones then,” he suggested. “And we’ll find Joe.”

“Let’s talk to the sheriff first,” Adam suggested.

*****

It seemed like an incredible waste of time to Ben that he had a bath, a shave, a hot meal and a change of clothing, but he did feel a lot better for it afterwards. He sat in the hotel dining room, nursing a cup of coffee and smothered a yawn.

“I haven’t seen anyone fitting that description around town,” the sheriff was saying, “but I’ll ask around. Have you spoken to the doctor? There’s always the chance that he might have seen your son.”

“I didn’t see a doctor’s sign anywhere in town,” Adam replied. He didn’t add that he’d hoped to have the doctor check Ben out – his father was no more enamored of visiting the physician than his youngest son.

“He lives a little way out of town,” the sheriff replied.

“Let’s go there now,” Ben suggested. “Sheriff, can you point us in the right direction?”

“Sure can,” the man agreed. “I’ll just get my horse and meet you out front in a few minutes.”

“I wonder if the other sheriff has picked up Holmes yet,” Ben mused aloud as they went to collect their mounts from the livery. He didn’t like to admit how uneasy it made him feel that his captor was still at large.

“We’ll hear soon enough,” Adam assured him. He didn’t want to admit to his unease over the whole situation.

They followed the sheriff out of town. Dusk was draping the landscape with long purple shadows, but the Cartwrights were oblivious to the beauty of the evening. They simply wanted to find their missing brother and son.

“The doc must be busy,” the sheriff suddenly commented, pointing to a house standing alone at the side of the road. Several horses were tethered outside.

Ben’s heart began to race. “Holmes!” he exclaimed and kicked the rented horse he was riding.

“Pa, wait!” Adam called, for his father was unarmed. Ben paid no heed; his only thought was to save Joe.

*****

As the door opened once again, Joe dragged his heavy eyelids open and looked at the men standing there. His latest dose of sedative seemed to be taking much longer than usual to wear off and he found it difficult to muster much interest in the new arrivals. He was feeling nauseous again and had been unable to keep anything much down that day.

“How long will it take to get those casts off?” demanded a man. Joe blinked. Didn’t he have broken legs?

“The better part of an hour, I would think,” the doctor replied. “But I really wouldn’t consider moving him. He’s not been well today.”

“Do you think I care about that?” Holmes replied. “But I can’t wait an hour. I need to get him out of here now.” He frowned, deep in thought. “All right, we’ll just have to sling him belly down over a saddle.” He snapped his finger at two of his men. “Bring him.”

“Wait!” the doctor protested. “You really shouldn’t move him and not like that! Do you want to kill him?”

“What’s the matter, doc?” Holmes sneered. “Isn’t the thought of your continued freedom enough incentive for you?” He laughed. “I can get you sent away for a long time, don’t forget. And I bet you haven’t been exactly following good medial practice while taking care of this young man, now have you?”

The doctor flushed, though Joe didn’t know if it was through shame or anger. “What do you want?” Joe slurred.

“Shut up, boy,” Holmes advised him. “If you stay quiet, I might allow you to live a little longer.”

Panic surged through Joe’s belly, helping him shake off the last lingering effects of the sedative. He had a sudden feeling that it was dark and he could hear voices as blows rained down on him. He felt searing pain in his legs and heard his father’s despairing cry. “Joe!”

Blinking, Joe came back to reality, panting as he gazed into the face of the man who had led the attack on their campsite. “You!” he panted, shaken. “It was you!”

Too late, Joe realized he would have done better to keep his mouth shut. Holmes’ face grew dark and he glared down at the helpless young man. Joe felt very vulnerable, and began to twist hopelessly against the restraints on his wrists. Holmes back-handed him across the face.

“Boss!”

Interrupted in his desire to make Ben’s son pay for Ben’s escape, Holmes looked at the door, his expression telling his man that this had better be good. “What?” he snarled.

“Four men are coming,” was the response.

“You, stay here with him,” Holmes ordered one of his men. “If anything happens to me, blow his brains out.” He smiled down at Joe, enjoying the panic that crossed his captive’s face. “I warned your father, boy. If he behaved and did as I said, you might have got to live. But he didn’t do as I said and so you’re going to die.”

Although he tried to appear stoic, Joe’s breath was coming in panicky gasps. He knew that there was no way out of this situation. He was completely helpless, even if he did get his hands free. The number of drugs he had ingested over the last few days had sapped his strength and the injuries he had sustained in the attack on the camp were severe. He closed his eyes as the gun came to rest by his temple.

*****

The element of surprise was gone. They all knew that. Nevertheless, they didn’t hesitate. Joe’s life was in danger – somehow, they were all convinced that Joe was inside that building. Ben snatched up a stout branch as he jumped down from his horse.

He needed it at once, as a man launched himself out of the front door. Ben didn’t have time for thought; he just reacted. The branch swung around and although he didn’t get his opponent’s head, he did manage to strike a hard blow to one arm, causing the man to drop his gun.

A second, follow-up, blow caught the man in the solar plexus and he went down. Ben dropped the branch and scooped up the gun. He heard the others behind him and went forward.

A shot fired from the open door and they all ducked, someone behind Ben returning fire. The next instant, bullets were flying everywhere.

*****

When the first shot sounded, Joe’s eyes opened wide and he looked right up into the face of the man who held a gun to his head. If he was going to die, Joe was going to face death with his eyes wide open. It seemed to disconcert the gunman, who hesitated.

Although there was nothing Joe could do, the doctor didn’t miss his chance. He slammed into the man’s back, knocking him away from Joe and to the floor. He reached out to gain control of the gun and was met with a fist in his face. Miller fell away.

As a doctor, Miller had spent most of his life taking care of others. He had never learned to fight – wasn’t sure he had ever been in a fight, even as a child. His punches were ineffectual for the most part. But he wouldn’t give up. He might have compromised his ethics beyond repair over the last few days, but he couldn’t stand by and see a helpless man murdered in cold blood. Miller fought on.

As the door to the room opened once more, there was a shot and both the men on the floor lay still. Joe was frozen with horror, unable to do anything to free himself or help the other man. His eyes swiveled to the newcomers, sure he was going to be looking at his own death once more. The sight of his father brought tears to his eyes.

The relief was so incredible that Joe fainted.

*****

“Joe, can you hear me?” Ben had Joe in his arms the moment the restraints were released.

The young man’s eyelashes fluttered and then Joe opened confused green eyes. “Pa?” He blinked, scarcely believing what he was seeing. “Are you really here?” he whispered.

“Really here,” Ben soothed. His hand rose, unbidden, to stroke the errant curl back from Joe’s forehead. “Joe, are you all right?”

For a moment, Joe couldn’t speak. He choked on a sob. “They told me you were dead,” he gasped and his hand clutched the front of Ben’s tan vest, the knuckles white. “Oh, Pa.”

“Easy, Joe, easy,” Ben soothed, tears standing in his eyes. He had very little idea of what Joe had gone through, but it was clear to see that the last few days had not been easy for his youngest son. “We need to get Joe out of here,” he declared, looking round at the others in the room.

“I’ll find a wagon,” Hoss mumbled and hurried out.

“We’ll help you carry Joe,” Adam offered. The stench of death would soon overpower the small room. Neither the doctor nor the gunman had survived the last bullet.

Together, they carried Joe from the room.

*****

There wasn’t another doctor in the area to assess Joe’s condition. They had no way to know how badly injured Joe’s legs really were and so Ben opted to take his son back to Virginia City.

Together, Joe and Ben had pieced together the ambush that night. Holmes and his men had come out of nowhere. Joe was already asleep, Ben drifting on the fringes. Ben had fought back as best he could, but he was distracted by the scream that Joe let out as an iron bar was crashed against his legs not once, but twice. A fist got through Ben’s guard and that was the last thing he remembered until waking up as Holmes’ prisoner.

Joe remembered only being dragged from sleep, and blow after blow raining down on him until the first crashing pain in his legs. His memory stopped there, mercifully for him. There were no gang members left alive to tell them that Joe sustained his head injury as he was dropped to the ground; no gang members to tell that Ben was going to be shot the minute he wrote the letter to the army.; no one to say that the doctor had accidentally killed a man by giving an overdose of morphine a few years before. Miller had confessed all to the other patient he had at the time and Holmes had lied for him. Miller had been performing certain services for Holmes ever since.

The journey home was once that Joe wished he could forget. Every bump on the road jarred him awake and he wished fervently that he could have had some of the sedatives that had been in his system. He had still had some symptoms of concussion and he became motion sick in the back of the wagon, necessitating more stops along the way than Ben was happy with. But all that mattered to him was getting Joe home to be checked out and if Joe needed to stop frequently, then they would stop as often as necessary.

It took three days for them to get to Virginia City. They were all filthy and tired, but the relief at being back was overwhelming. They stopped first at Doc Martin’s and carried Joe carefully into the surgery.

“I’ll cut these casts off, Ben and see what we’ve got,” Paul told his friend. He didn’t like to say that if Joe’s legs were broken and hadn’t been set properly, then the young man was going to be in dire straits. It was possible to re-break the bones, but it was never entirely successful and the last thing Paul wanted was for Joe to be permanently lamed.

While Paul worked, Ben, Adam and Hoss took turns sitting with Joe while the others washed up. Joe was as tense as a bow, fear showing in those remarkable green eyes that were the window to his soul for those who knew him well.

“Have you got any pain, Joe?” Paul asked, as the last of the plaster fell away.

“Some,” Joe replied, truthfully. He looked down at his legs, which seemed very pale and wrinkled. The sides of both legs were dotted with large, yellowy bruises. Joe suspected that they had, initially, been very dark purple. He braced himself as Paul reached to touch them.

A hand took Joe’s and he clutched at that lifeline. Ben did not wince as his son’s hand closed tightly on his own. He could bear anything for his sons.

“Is that sore?” Paul asked. His touch was infinitely gentle.

“A bit,” Joe admitted. “Not as sore as when I’ve had broken bones before.”

“Good,” Paul replied, moving on to examine Joe’s other leg. Again, the touch was light. Joe wondered how on earth Paul could learn anything from such a delicate probe.

Finally, Paul straightened up. “What’s the verdict, doc?” Joe asked. He could hear the tiny quiver in his voice. A quick squeeze from Ben told him that his father had heard it, too.

“If your legs were broken, they weren’t bad breaks,” Paul replied. “But I don’t think they were. Oh, the bruising has been bad, as I’m sure you can see and they will be very tender for some time to come. The damage has been to the soft tissue, not to the bone. But sometimes, a soft tissue injury will take longer to heal than a break.” He tapped his chin thoughtfully. “Joe, let’s get you up on your feet.”

“All right,” Joe agreed. He accepted help to swing his legs around – the muscles were weak after almost seven days in plaster. He grabbed Ben’s arm and Paul took the other. Adam leant over the bed to steady Joe around the waist. Hoss hovered uselessly.

It hurt – there was no doubt of that. But Joe’s legs bore his weight quite easily and the pain subsided to a manageable level after a few moments. Joe shook off the support and took a few, stiff steps on his own.

“Guess you’ve got your answer,” Adam smiled.

“Guess I have at that,” Joe agreed, grinning broadly. “Can I go home, doc?”

“I’m sure you’d rather put some pants on first,” Paul murmured, unable to hide the laughter as Joe colored. He had forgotten that his clothes had disappeared and he’d been wearing only an old shirt of Ben’s along with his underwear.

“I’ll go an’ git ya some clothes,” Hoss offered, as Joe finally saw the funny side and began to laugh.

“I’d wait a few more days before you attempt to ride,” Paul advised, as the hilarity died down.

At that point, Joe would have agreed to almost anything. Hoss was soon back and Joe slipped on the clothes with a feeling of complete contentment. They would soon be home.

*****

“Its good to be back,” Joe sighed as he settled into his bed.

“Yes, it is,” Ben agreed, tucking Joe into bed. “I thought I’d lost you, Joe.”

Remembering the fear he had felt, Joe nodded. “I know,” he whispered. “And I thought you were dead.”

“I wish it hadn’t happened to you,” Ben confessed. “I’m sorry.”

“It’s not your fault, Pa!” Joe objected. “You didn’t know this was going to happen. And hey, it’s over. We’re both home and in one piece, just for a change.”

Smiling, Ben nodded. “We ought to celebrate,” he suggested. “Have a ‘Joe Cartwright’s Back Home in One Piece Party’.”

“Sounds like a right good idea ta me, Pa,” Hoss declared, coming in carrying a tray with a plate of broth on it. “An’ Hop Sing says if’n ya don’ git downstairs right now an’ eat, he’s gonna go back to Ol’ China.”

Smiling at this oft repeated threat, Joe jerked his head towards the door. “Better hurry up,” he advised. “You know who really runs the Ponderosa, don’t you?”

Rising, tacitly admitting that Joe might well be right, Ben muttered, “Funny, I thought that was me…”

***End***

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