Measure of a Man (by Rona)

Summary:  How do you measure a man?

Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  8800


 

“What do you mean?” Ben asked, sounded perplexed. “What makes you think you aren’t good enough for this girl?”

Shifting miserably, Joe wished he had never brought the subject up.  “I don’t know,” he admitted wretchedly. “I just don’t feel I live up to her standards.”

For once, Ben was at a loss for fatherly words of comfort. He sighed. He didn’t want to be too harsh with Joe, for the boy – young man, he corrected himself sternly – was obviously very taken with this girl. “Joe, what exactly do you mean by ‘standards’?” he asked, hoping that this would enlighten him.

“Well, sometimes when I’m with Elaine, I say ‘ain’t’ and she complains that I dress too casually when I go into town.” Joe rolled his shoulders unconsciously, as though the girl’s criticism was resting there. “And she says I hang around with Adam and Hoss too much and we don’t live genteelly enough out here.”

There were several comments that sprang to Ben’s lips at those words, but he manfully bit them back. Joe was just 20, mature for his age in many respects, but still young enough to be vulnerable in his emotions. Elaine was pretty in an exotic way and Joe was not the first of the town’s young men to fall into her clutches. This was Ben’s first close encounter with Elaine’s ‘standards’ and he wasn’t impressed.

“Joe, do you love Elaine?” Ben asked, having mastered his wayward emotions for the time being.

“I dunno,” Joe admitted. “She’s really pretty an’ all, and I like her real well, but… you know…” Joe trailed off as though he didn’t know and Ben waited patiently for him to continue. He wasn’t going to prompt his son. Joe looked up at Ben and the father read the depths of the son’s misery in his expressive green eyes. “I don’t think so,” he concluded.

“Joe, you know the verse in the bible about charity? ‘I Corinthians 13:4 – Charity sufferth long and is kind; charity envieth not; charity vauntheth not itself, is not puffed up.’” Ben looked at his son as Joe nodded. “Charity is another word for love, Joe. In other words, love doesn’t look for the flaws – it sees them and accepts them. I don’t know what Elaine wants from you, but I don’t think she loves you. Joe, you have nothing to prove to anyone.”

“It doesn’t always feel like that,” Joe mumbled.

Ben knew exactly what his son meant. Being the youngest himself, he knew what it was like to follow along behind an older brother, reaching landmarks that had lost some of their importance because someone else had reached there first. Being the youngest was not always the picnic that everyone assumed. Sure, there were benefits, but sometimes, the drawbacks seemed overwhelming. Ben’s brother had not been that much older than him, but he knew from past experience that the 6 year age gap between each of his sons could be almost insurmountable. Joe was clearly going through one of those periods right now.

“Trust me,” Ben soothed. “You don’t have anything to prove and certainly not to Elaine.” He saw the pensive look on Joe’s face and went on, “She’s young, Joe; it could be that these things she’s saying are meant to impress you with her maturity.”

“What do you think I should do, Pa?” Joe asked.

“I can’t tell you that, Joe,” Ben replied. “The only person who can decide that is you. Why don’t you think about it for a while?” Ben desperately wanted to tell Joe to end his relationship with the girl, but he knew only too well that Joe might dig in his heels and refuse to do so.

“I guess you’re right, Pa,” Joe nodded. He got to his feet, not looking any less troubled than he had looked before the talk with Ben. “Thanks.” He wandered off outside and leaned against the corral rails, his eyes fixed unseeingly at the middle distance.

*****

All that evening, Joe was silent. Ben didn’t tell Adam and Hoss what was wrong, but he made it quite clear that any teasing would be out of line. For all that Adam and Hoss were adults, they recognized the tone Ben used for that command – it had been christened his ‘or else’ tone by a young Adam and they knew that breaking a rule handed down in that tone was really serious. Neither had ever felt compelled to find out what their punishment would have been, but Adam had discovered the phrase ‘a fate worse than death’ and had applied it to that tone. It gave both boys a real thrill when they were young.

That didn’t stop them speculating amongst themselves, though. “Girl trouble?” Hoss asked, as he and Adam took the coffee cups and pot back to the kitchen before they went up to bed.

“That would be my guess,” Adam replied, as he checked to see if there was any warm water left to wash the cups. He hated to leave them for Hop Sing to find in the morning. There was enough to wash the four cups, so he set to and Hoss dried them. “I would think Elaine is a handful.”

“Sure is pretty though,” Hoss mentioned, a trifle wistfully. He felt himself to be too old for the exotic young beauty and hadn’t even spoken to her, but he appreciated the feminine form, especially when it came packaged like that.

“Pity the inside doesn’t match the outside,” Adam remarked. He had heard the same stories as Ben, but first hand and didn’t doubt that Elaine was really no better than she should be.

“Poor Joe,” Hoss sighed.

“Poor us, until he gets it out of his system,” Adam corrected wryly. But the smile on his mouth told Hoss he wasn’t as unsympathetic as he sounded.

*****

A good night’s sleep gave Joe the perspective he was looking for and he decided that the best thing to do was break up with Elaine. There was a dance in town that night and Joe did not want to go with Elaine. In fact, he didn’t want to go at all now, so he decided to go into town early and see her. Then he could return home and brood in peace.

His resolve faltered at the breakfast table when Ben reminded his sons that they had to get supplies that morning and it would require all of them to be there, as they were starting to stock up for the forthcoming winter. Extra flour, sugar and coffee had been ordered, along with some goodies that Hop Sing wanted to put away for Christmas. It was late September. The snow could start to fly at any time. Ben didn’t want to be caught on the hop.

“There’s something I need to do in town,” Joe ventured.

“I’m sure we can manage without you for a few minutes,” Ben replied casually.

“We usually do,” Adam added.

“Always, in fact,” Hoss continued, grinning.

Joe was overwhelmed with relief. He ignored the teasing, thinking about what he had to say to Elaine when he reached town. Little did Joe know that nothing would go to plan for the Cartwrights that day. Nothing.

*****

The trip to town was uneventful. Ben, Adam and Hoss watched Joe as surreptitiously as they could, although he did sometimes catch them at it. Usually, they offered a grin, as though there was nothing out of the ordinary happening that day and Joe would smile back, although he looked rather preoccupied. As they drew nearer the town, Joe became more and more apprehensive. He was dreading his coming meeting with Elaine.

But his meeting with Elaine was soon forgotten as they neared the town. Thick black smoke smudged the skyline and Ben looked across at his sons, who were riding next to him. “I don’t know what that is, but it looks bad. We’ve got to help!” He snapped the reins and set the team into a trot. Joe spurred Cochise ahead, his brothers close on his heels.

The general store was on fire. The Virginia City fire department was there, but they seemed to be making little headway against the blaze. Joe leaped off Cochise, abandoning his horse as he raced over to help. With the wooden buildings in town, if the fire started to spread, they could lose the whole town! From all around, men came running, the same fear prompting their actions.

“Is everyone out?” Adam yelled and the fire chief nodded.

“Yes. But we need to keep watch on the stores on either side!” He gestured to the hardware store, with its stock of tars and other flammable items.

“Why don’t Joe, Hoss and I start wetting that building down?” Adam suggested. The Cartwrights had experience of fighting fires on the timber on their own land.

“Good thinking!” approved the chief and Adam quickly rounded up his brothers.

“There’s a pond down there,” he told them. “Why don’t you get a couple of the bigger boys and get them to man the pump down there?”

The equipment they had to fight the fire was primitive, but it was all they had. Determination would win the day or the men would go down fighting. Hoss hurried over to some teenaged boys and soon had their cooperation. Joe was already dragging the pump down to the pond.

Normally crystal clear and one of the better watering places in town, today the pond looked murky. Joe glanced quickly around, looking for the problem, diagnosing it from long years of practice working on the ranch. He saw at once that the inlet stream was partially blocked by a tattered beaver’s lodge. There was only one way to reach it, too and that was to plough through the pond itself. Joe didn’t hesitate.

The pond bottom was unstable and Joe stumbled several times. Luckily, he had a good sense of balance and was able to keep his feet. However, he was soaked to the waist and his boots were full of water. He was oblivious to his discomfort. A strong sense of urgency kept him moving, until at last he was wrestling with the old lodge.

Precious seconds ticked away as Joe pulled out tree branches and mud. Still, the lodge wouldn’t budge. Just as Joe thought he would have to enlist help, it gave and Joe was knocked off his feet as the force of the dammed up water his him right on the chest. He went over backwards and vanished into the water.

The shock of the fall caused Joe to inhale sharply and he breathed in water. He flailed desperately with his arms and legs, trying to propel himself to the surface, but he had lost all sense of which way was up. If Hoss had not arrived at the crucial moment and already been in the water, Joe might have drowned. But as it was, Hoss grabbed him and yanked him to the surface. Joe began to cough violently and water gushed from his mouth as Hoss half-carried him to the bank.

“Ya all right, Shortshanks?” Hoss demanded, as he supported Joe for a few moments longer, although the younger man was fast regaining his strength.

“I’m fine, thanks, Hoss,” Joe replied, gratefully. He coughed again, but his breathing was easier. “I’m glad you were there.”

“Me, too,” Hoss grinned. “Joe, whyn’t ya go an’ give Adam a hand up at the store?”

“Trying to get rid of me, huh?” Joe teased. He pushed his wet hair from his eyes.

“Nah,” Hoss denied. “I jist thought ya’d dry out quicker by the fire.” The brother grinned at each other.

“I might just do that,” Joe agreed. He glanced back at the pond, but the boys who’d come with Hoss were already fitting the pump. Everything seemed to be under control at the pond end of things. “All right, I’ll go up and help Adam.” Joe staggered to his feet, grimacing at the feel of his wet boots, but a glance at the burning building was enough to make him forget his discomfort and he hurried off to help.

*****

“What can I do to help?” Joe asked.

Adam looked in disbelief at his bedraggled youngest brother. “What happened to you?” he asked. “Are you all right?”

“I lost an argument with a beaver’s lodge,” Joe replied lightly, although he was still shaky and coughing a bit. “I’m fine. What can I do to help?”

“We’re trying to take out the most flammable items from the hardware store,” Adam explained. “I’ll wet down this side. You could go in and help move things.”

“All right,” Joe agreed and vanished inside the structure before Adam could ask any more questions.

There were several men already at work. Joe hurried over and helped one man pick up a large crate. He almost groaned aloud when he felt the weight of it. Joe had no idea what was inside, but he wished someone else had offered to carry it before he got there! There was no conversation as the heavy item was moved, but once it was set down safely across the street, the other man looked at Joe. “Is being wet a good way to stop being burned?” he asked curiously.

“I hope so,” Joe replied, unsure if the man was being serious or not. Together, they hurried back across the street.

The noise was tremendous. Men were shouting, the flames crackled loudly and occasionally, there would be an explosion in the burning building. Smoke drifted here and there on an eddying breeze. The fire company tackling the blaze were streaked with soot. They were losing the battle, despite the help they were getting from the town.

All at once, the general store building collapsed in on itself like a pack of cards. Sparks flew wildly in every direction and men ducked for cover. A chorus of screams rose from the watching women and children. Bodies littered the ground as people dived every which way to escape the falling timbers.

Miraculously, nobody was hurt in the collapse. Somehow, the men scrambled to their feet and backed away, looking in awe at the fiery remains of the store. The moment seemed to go on and on, and then the action resumed as the men continued to throw water on the burning timbers.

In the hardware store, the first the men inside knew of the collapse was the noise. Sparks flew in the window and although everyone hurried to stamp them out, there were far more sparks than there were men. Adam’s wetting down of the building had helped keep the fire at bay so far, but as he was forced back by the collapse, the sparks crossed the small space and found dry goods to land on. In moments, the hardware store was ablaze!

“Everyone out!” shouted a voice and Joe wasted no time in obeying. They had moved what they could – everything else would have to take its chances along with the store itself.  He was almost clear when a voice from behind him – in the store – called, “Joe! Help!”

Turning, Joe saw that Hank Jones had tripped and fallen. Fire was snaking along the floor towards him. Joe didn’t know why Hank didn’t get up, but he didn’t hesitate. He ran back towards his friend and tried to pull him to his feet. There was inexplicable resistance.

“Ma leg’s stuck,” Hank panted, as Joe let go of him, overwhelmed by a fit of coughing. The fire had caught hold of a roll of tar paper and thick, oily smoke was billowing through the structure.

Kneeling, Joe saw at once that it was only Hank’s pants leg that was actually stuck in the hole. He yanked hard and succeeded in tearing the material. By now, the heat was scorching the back of Joe’s hands, his ears and his neck. He wanted nothing more than to be out of that hell, but he couldn’t leave Hank behind. Once more, he grabbed Hank and pulled him to his feet.

Feeling himself free again, Hank suddenly shook off the fear that had paralyzed him and gave Joe an unintentional shove as he raced for the door and safety. Joe stumbled, caught unawares, his ankle twisted beneath him and he landed on his backside. Hank didn’t look back as he raced outside.

Unhurt, but shaken, it took Joe several seconds to climb to his feet. Just as he gained them, a shower of sparks erupted around him. An unnoticed container of kerosene exploded, sending flames shooting across the doorway. Joe ducked, instinctively throwing his arms up to protect his head.

Miraculously, Joe was virtually untouched by the explosion. The sting of burns went unheeded as he gazed in horror at the doorway – his only escape route – which was now ablaze.

*****

“Where’s Joe?” Ben demanded hoarsely. Like everyone else round about, he was streaked with soot and dirt.

Dragging a filthy shirt sleeve over his face, Adam shook his head. “I don’t know,” he admitted. “I lost track of him.” He coughed, a deep, harsh noise. “He was helping take stuff out of here.” Adam gestured to the burning store.

Frowning, Ben stood on tiptoe to survey the crowd, but nowhere could he see his youngest son’s green jacket and curly hair. Movement at the door of the store drew Ben’s attention and he saw Hank Jones come stumbling out. Mere seconds later, there was an explosion and flames licked around the doorframe. Ben gazed at it for several moments, mesmerized by the sight.

As he turned away to pursue his search elsewhere, Hank let out a shout. “Joe! Where’s Joe?”

Moving with a speed he didn’t know he possessed, Ben was by Hank’s side in a heartbeat. “Where was Joe when you last saw him?” he demanded.

He knew the answer, but it wasn’t until Hank turned and pointed that Ben allowed himself to despair. For Hank was indicating the burning building.

No!” Arms were around Ben, strong, familiar arms, loving arms that were stopping him from throwing his life away in a useless gesture. Ben was not sure he could ever forgive those arms for stopping him. How could he live with himself, knowing that he had done nothing to help Joe? “Pa, ya cain’t go in there!” Hoss panted, holding tight to his father, ignoring the painful pinches Ben was giving him while trying to pry his fingers apart. Hoss knew why Ben wanted to go in; he knew how much he wanted to go in; how much Adam wanted to go in. But none of them could do Joe any good by trying it.

“Pa, please,” Adam added and Ben heard the pain in his son’s voice and stopped struggling. His shoulders slumped in defeat.

His youngest son was dead.

*****

Joe knew he had no choice. He knew he might well die, but he had no choice. If he stayed where he was, he would die, too. He tried to take a deep breath, but the smoke choked him. Coughing, he began to run towards the door. His ankle hurt, but it was a far away pain. His whole being was intent on fighting against his natural instincts to turn away from the heat and the flames. He was terrified.

The dive through the flames was a moment of hellish agony for Joe. Somehow, he had buried his face in his hands, preventing his face from harm. He landed hard on the edge of the boardwalk and fell onto the dirt street, rolling and rolling. His damp clothes hadn’t caught fire. They were smoldering, but not ablaze. Only his hands were burned.

“Joe!” Ben was at his side in seconds clutching Joe to his chest, oblivious of the wet clothes and reek of smoke. “Are you all right?”

Coughing harshly, Joe couldn’t answer. He nodded his head, but he was fairly sure that didn’t register with Ben. He opened stinging eyes and squinted at his family. The pain from his hands was hitting him now, but he made no move to break the contact with his father. His heart was still hammering erratically in his chest and Joe was fairly sure that he would be unable to support himself should Ben let him go.

“Let me in!” The crowd parted slightly to let Doctor Paul Martin through and then closed ranks behind him. They mostly seemed unaware how close they were to the fire. “Joe?” Paul asked, kneeling down to peer into his face.

Coughing again, Joe just nodded. The adrenalin was clearing his system and he was sudden shaky and exhausted. He winced as he moved his arm and Paul nodded in return. “Let’s get you off the street,” he suggested.

With Adam supporting one arm and Hoss the other, Joe limped slowly across the street on shaky legs. He coughed continuously, feeling that he wasn’t getting enough air into his lungs. He was relieved when they reached the doctor’s office and he was eased into a seat.

With Paul crouched on one side of him taking his pulse, and Ben on the other, looking anxiously into his face, Joe allowed himself to relax. He tried to find a smile for Ben, but he didn’t think it was very successful judging by the look on Ben’s face. “I’m all right, Pa,” he croaked, although the pain from his burns was getting worse.

“Given where you’ve just been,” Paul commented, “you’re in pretty good shape. Right, let’s get these burns seen to. Any more anywhere else?”

“Dunno,” Joe admitted. He coughed. “My ears nip.” He started to raise his hand to touch one, but thought better of it almost at once.

“Hmm.” Paul leaned over and examined Joe’s ears closely. “A bit red, Joe, but the skin isn’t burned.” He looked into Joe’s eyes, seeing how red and irritated they were. “Are your eyes sore?”

“They sting,” Joe admitted. His eyes were watering and keeping them open was uncomfortable.

“We’ll wash them out,” Paul decided. “Anything else?”

Joe started to shake his head, but Adam spoke up from his position behind Ben. “He was limping,” he offered, his voice gravely from the smoke. “His right leg.”

The pain from his burned hands was such that Joe hadn’t noticed his ankle. He had forgotten about it completely. But as his boot was drawn off, Joe was reminded of the injury as pain shot up his leg. He winced, biting his lip.

“Just a sprain,” Paul told Joe, after he finished his examination. “All right – anything else?” He grinned as he looked up at the youngest Cartwright. Joe simply shook his head. He rose and went to a cabinet on the wall, returning a few moments later with a syringe full of liquid. Joe winced again as the needle pierced his flesh, but blessed relief from the pain soon swept through his veins. Joe allowed himself to relax.

Despite the painkiller, Joe suffered quite a bit of discomfort as his injuries were treated. The world came and went in a most disconcerting manner, leaving Joe dizzy and nauseous. He was relieved to find himself stretched out on a bed when it was all over, although he had no memory of how he had got there.

“Are you all right, son?” Ben asked, leaning over him. He ran a hand across Joe’s forehead, brushing the hair back from his brow.

“Where am I?” Joe asked. He sighed. “I’m… sore.”

“We’re at the hotel,” Ben explained. “You drifted out on us, Joe.” He smiled, although his heart wasn’t really in it. Watching his son suffer through the painful treatment of his burns was something he didn’t want to go through again. “Doctor Martin will be over to see you later. He had a rush of business.”

“A rush?” Joe echoed. He glanced around and saw that Adam and Hoss weren’t there. Panic flooded his being and he struggled to sit up, trying to shake off the fog in his mind. “Adam! Hoss! Are they all right?”

“Take it easy,” Ben soothed, holding Joe’s shoulders to prevent him getting up. “Adam and Hoss are fine. They’re downstairs getting something to eat.”

Slumping back against the pillows in relief, Joe closed his eyes for a moment. “What about the fire?” he asked. He could still smell the smoke, but he didn’t know if it was on the air, in the room or if it just clung to his body.

“Its out at last,” Ben answered. He glanced at the window. A watch had been set up to make sure that no stray embers could kindle another conflagration. In all, three buildings had been lost to the fire and a fourth had been pulled down to create a fire break. Several people had had minor burns, or got sparks in their eyes and Paul had suggested to Ben that he take Joe to the hotel. He needed peace to get some rest. Seeing the way everyone was gazing avidly at the bandages, Ben quickly agreed. “Are you in pain, Joe?”

“A bit,” Joe agreed. He hated taking painkillers, but this was one time when he was happy to oblige his father and the doctor. “Pa, is Hank all right?”

“Thanks to you, Hank is just fine,” Ben replied. “You did a really brave thing there, Joe.”

“Not really,” Joe denied. “Anyone would have done what I did.”

“Turning back into a burning building?” Ben cried. “No, son, I don’t think many people could have done that. I don’t think I could have.”

“Yes you could,” Joe insisted. “I just thought about what you would do, and so I went back,” he concluded. “I know you’d have rescued Hank.”

“I’m touched by your faith in me,” Ben replied. It was true – he was touched. He hadn’t realized what high esteem his sons held him in. Ben thought he was just an ordinary man, working hard to make a success of his ranch and raising his sons the best he knew how. Yes, the boys weren’t boys any longer and didn’t need their father to tell them what to do or how to behave all the time, but he was always there when they needed him. Ben didn’t realize how rare that made him. “Now, how about something to eat?”

Feeling suddenly nauseous again, Joe hesitated. “I’m not sure,” he hedged. “I don’t feel that good.” Joe sighed. “I would like a drink, though.” He sipped gratefully at the cool water and glanced towards the window. The shadows were growing long outside. “What time is it?” Joe asked, startled to have lost so much of the day. The last thing he really remembered, it was late morning. “I was going to go and see Elaine!”

“I think Elaine can wait for another day,” Ben scolded gently. “You’re not moving from that bed. Now, how about something to eat? Some soup? That would be nice and light for you.”

“All right,” Joe agreed, although he wasn’t hungry. He laid his head back on his pillows and tried to think of something other than the throbbing of his hands. As his eyes drifted to the window once more, he could see the flames that had been between him and outside. With a determined shake of his head, Joe switched his thoughts to Elaine. He wondered what she would think of his actions that day.

*****

The night was a difficult one for Joe. His injuries were paining him and his sleep was shallow and restless. Come morning, all the Cartwrights were hollow eyed and tired. However, Joe was feeling hungry and managed to eat a decent breakfast, even if it did have to be fed to him.

By the time Joe was dressed – his clothes having been washed and dried overnight at the Chinese laundry – Doc Martin had arrived to examine him. He was pleased with Joe’s progress so far. There was no sign of infection. “Keep resting and don’t try to do too much with those hands too soon,” Paul admonished him. “Keep the bandages dry and I’ll pop out in a couple of days. If there is anything that you’re worried about, don’t hesitate to send for me.”

Downstairs, Hoss had a buggy waiting for Joe. Joe’s boots were still sodden, but he couldn’t get the right one on anyway and he had to accept help in negotiating the hotel stairs and getting into the buggy. Joe grinned ruefully at his family. “Guess I’m gonna be keeping you guys busy for a few days,” he teased, hiding his own discomfort at his helplessness.

“A real man would never admit to weakness,” intoned a disapproving female voice. Joe winced. It was Elaine.

“A real man does what is necessary, miss,” Ben told her, his voice low and deadly. His dark eyes bored into her, seeing past the dusky skin, wide dark eyes and ebony hair to the spoilt, selfish girl that lay at the heart of Elaine’s soul. He pushed past her to climb into the buggy beside Joe. He shook up the team and drove away without casting so much as a glance at Elaine.

*****

“She’s doing her best to destroy Joe’s reputation, Pa,” Adam commented. He did his best to keep his voice neutral, but the anger was underlying it and Ben heard it unerringly. “She’s casting all sorts of aspersions about him and you know as well as I do that if something is said often enough, people start believing it.”

“And what do you suggest we do about it?” Ben asked. He was just as angry as Adam. “Walk into town and hold a public meeting, telling everyone that Joe is not a coward?” Ben shook his head. “Enough people know what he did for Hank Jones! Why doesn’t anyone remember that?”

“You got me,” Adam replied with feeling. “Elaine is even saying that she dumped Joe because he wasn’t man enough for her.”

“How do you measure a man?” Ben retorted scornfully.

“Perhaps it depends on your criteria,” Adam replied, sounding suddenly weary. “In this case, I think it’s because Joe remembered what you taught us and didn’t…” Adam didn’t continue. He glanced down. “I never did think she was a nice girl.”

“Bad mouthing her won’t change what she’s saying,” Ben reproved, “and it doesn’t make you any better than she is.”

For an instant, Adam looked as though he was going to argue with Ben. But the moment passed and he sighed heavily. “I know,” he muttered. “But sometimes…” Adam didn’t complete his sentence. “What are we going to do?” he asked.

“I don’t know,” Ben replied.

In the barn, Joe laid his head against the wall. He’d often heard it said that eavesdroppers heard no good of themselves. He didn’t think this was what the proverb had in mind. Joe didn’t know what to think.

*****

The silence coming from his youngest son over dinner was resounding. Hoss eyed Adam and Ben with a puzzled frown on his face, but there was nothing that they could say to enlighten Hoss without telling Joe, too. But the sudden silence was disturbing and Ben began to wonder exactly where Joe had been that afternoon when he and Adam had been talking.

“Joe? Are you all right?” Ben ventured finally.

“I’m fine, Pa,” Joe replied tonelessly, pushing the food aimlessly around on his plate.

The others at the table exchanged a glance. Joe sounded anything but fine. Adam opened his mouth to ask Joe if he had overheard what was said in the yard earlier and then shut his mouth again. He didn’t want to bring it up, just in case Joe had not heard. Perhaps Joe was just feeling blue. It had been very awkward for him over the last few days with his hands bandaged up.

Feeling at a loss, Ben replied, “I would like some of that food to make it into your mouth, son.”

“I’m not hungry.”

“Try and eat something,” Ben coaxed.

“Pa, I said I’m not hungry!” Joe snapped. “Can’t a man have a day when he doesn’t want to eat?” He dropped his fork and threw his napkin down on the table before stomping off.

“What were that about?” Hoss asked as the door slammed behind Joe.

“Did you hear the inflection?” Ben asked. Hoss looked puzzled. Adam nodded.

“He heard, didn’t he?” he asked.

Sighing, Ben looked down at his own plate. His appetite had suddenly vanished. “He heard,” he agreed heavily.

Looking from father to brother in confusion, Hoss asked, “Heard what?”

*****

“I don’t want a lecture, Pa,” Joe announced when Ben found him by the corral.

“What makes you think I was going to give you one?” Ben enquired, keeping his tone mild.

A ghost of a smile passed across Joe’s face and was gone. “Not even a lecture about my table manners or lack thereof? You surprise me, Pa.”

“If you don’t know about table manners by now, I’ve wasted a great deal of my life,” Ben replied. “Joe, did you hear Adam and I talking out here this afternoon?”

“I heard,” Joe answered. His voice was bitter. “So Elaine is telling everyone I’m not a real man. So what? Who’s going to believe her?” Joe turned away to hide his face from Ben, but it was too late. “Nobody who really knows me. As for the rest – who cares?”

“If you really feel like that, why are you so angry?” Ben enquired. “Joe, you know you’re a man. You don’t have to prove yourself because some silly girl was saying some stupid things.”

“How do I know I’m a man?” Joe demanded, swinging around to face Ben again. “How? When Adam and Hoss are sent to keep an eye on everything I do, or you are following along behind to make sure I’ve done things right. Elaine doesn’t think I’m a man and by the time she’s finished, neither will anyone else.”

“Joe…”

“No, Pa, you know I’m right. There’s only one way to show Elaine I’m a man and I can’t do that! You brought me up too well.” Joe’s eyes were blazing in his face. “I don’t know what else I can do to prove myself to her, but I will, Pa. I will!” Turning, Joe walked steadily across to the house and disappeared inside.

Left alone, Ben simply stood. He had no idea what to say to Joe; no idea what actions to take. Joe had been hit when he was at his most vulnerable and the blow hurt. Ben wished fervently that he could do something to ease his son’s pain, but he was at a loss to know what that should be.

*****

The rest of the week was wretched for Joe. He still brooded over Elaine’s betrayal but hadn’t found a solution to his problem. Sometimes, when he woke in the night, he imagined himself riding into town, going to her house… but there he ran into a barrier – his upbringing. Even in his angriest imaginings, he couldn’t imagine himself forcing Elaine to do anything.

His family was forced to watch as Joe picked at meals and went around the house surrounded by an invisible black cloud. It was very difficult for them. Ben made several more attempts to speak to Joe without any success and when Adam tried, he and Joe almost came to blows, with Joe bellowing that it was no wonder Elaine thought he wasn’t a man, the way his family had to sort out all his problems for him. The atmosphere soured even further after that.

So it was with astonishment that they greeted the news that Joe was going to the dance on Saturday evening. “Don’t you have anything to say?” Joe challenged, standing with his back to the fire.

“Keep a civil tongue in your head, young man!” Ben snapped. “There is no call for rudeness.” He stared Joe down without too much difficulty. “I have to say I find your decision rather surprising – and unsettling. Why are you going?”

“I want to have some fun,” Joe replied, but his answer didn’t ring true.

“You’re going to confront Elaine,” Adam corrected him.

“Aren’t you the smart one?” Joe jibed. “I’m going to prove I’m a man.”

“How?” Ben demanded. “By drinking too much and making a fool out of yourself? By doing something you’ll regret tomorrow?”

“Elaine’s not the only girl in town,” Joe replied. His gaze met Ben’s steadily. “I’m going, Pa and there’s nothing you can do to stop me.”

“You’re not 21 yet,” Ben reminded him. “I can stop you.”

Taking a deep breath, Joe drew himself up to his full height. “Don’t do that, Pa,” he begged quietly. “Neither of us would like the consequences.”

“Don’t threaten me, Joe,” Ben warned, although his face had blanched.

“I’m not,” Joe replied. “I’m asking you to treat me like the man you say I am.”

For a long moment, the older man and the young man looked at each other across a distance. At length Ben nodded. “Be careful.”

It seemed to Ben that he could see Joe maturing before his eyes. “I will,” Joe replied, just as quietly. He walked purposefully to the door, grabbed his belongings and left quietly. Ben gazed unseeingly into the fire.

“Shall we go after him?” Adam asked after a long silence.

“No,” Ben replied. “No.”

*****

Going into the hotel ballroom was one of the hardest things Joe had ever done. He was aware of every eye in the place coming to fall on him and although it wasn’t an unusual reaction when someone entered the room, it seemed to Joe that everyone gazed at him for far longer than was necessary. He kept his head up and fought the blush that wanted to stain his cheeks. Smiling at one or two people, he moved calmly into the room, pretending that he didn’t see the girls whispering to each other behind their hands, or hear the derisive snickering.

Asking someone to dance was as difficult as entering the room had been. Joe was by no means sure of the response he would get, even though the girl was an old school friend and already married to another school mate. Joe was pretty sure Mary-Beth was someone he could trust and he was relieved to find that it was so when she accepted his invitation gladly.

There after, the atmosphere eased slightly until Elaine arrived a little later on. She was with a new beau – Hank Jones. Joe blinked in surprise. Hank was a nice guy, but he didn’t seem like the right type for Elaine. He didn’t have much money and he was poorly spoken and usually untidy. Tonight, he had clearly made a great effort. He was wearing a suit that was a little too large for him and his unruly straw-colored hair was plastered to his head.

“Poor Hank,” Joe murmured to himself. He turned away to avoid meeting Elaine’s eyes and helped himself to a glass of punch. It was overly sweet for Joe’s taste and he put it aside after only a single sip.

The band struck up a polka and Joe escorted Jane out to dance. Jane was young and pretty and engaged to one of Joe’s friends. He smiled to himself when he realized that he was playing safe with the women so far tonight. Joe didn’t usually shirk a challenge, but he hadn’t asked any of Elaine’s friends to dance – so far.

As the music stopped, Joe took Jane back to her seat. Elaine’s voice cut across the general hubbub in the room. “I am amazed that he’s got the backbone to show up here,” she commented, not in the least perturbed when she realized that everyone in the room had heard her. “After all, did you see the way he was being helped into that buggy by his father? Pathetic, that’s what it was. He only had a couple of little burns.”

Stiffening, Joe couldn’t keep the color out of his face this time. He froze in place, waiting to see what would happen next. His temper was already flaming into life.

“That ain’t fair,” Hank objected. “Joe turned back inta the fire ta save me.”

“Be quiet, Henry. I didn’t ask for your opinion,” Elaine chastised her hapless date. “Joe isn’t a man – he’s a child.”

Turning, Joe walked across the room towards her. A hush fell as people waited avidly for the public squabble that was about to break out. Joe stopped by Elaine, a strained smile on his face. He wondered what he had ever seen in this girl. “You’re quite entitled to your opinion,” he smiled and walked on.

There were exclamations of disappointment from all around. Joe had managed to hold on to his notoriously short temper. Elaine’s mouth hung open in shock. She had expected him to fly off the handle and show himself up. Instead, she felt as though she had been shown up – and she was right. She had.

Beside Elaine, Hank was still protesting. “Shut up, Hank!” she hissed. “You aren’t a man either! You needed to be rescued from that fire!” She flounced off.

Hank found himself beside Joe. “I dunno what ta say,” he mumbled, embarrassed.

“If you were talking to Elaine, ‘goodbye’ seems to be a nice word,” Joe replied, smiling. He forced himself to calm down. He saw Hank smile in response. “Don’t worry about it, Hank. I think the only kind of man that Elaine could respect would have to be able to walk on water, never mind run through fire. She’s never been in the positions we found ourselves that day,” he went on. “Elaine has no idea what she’s talking about.”

The barbed comments went on all evening, and all the pleasure had gone out of the evening for Joe, yet he stubbornly refused to leave before Elaine did. He got a certain amount of satisfaction from dancing with quite a number of her friends, some of who took gory interest in the still red skin on his hands. Joe grew weary of repeating the story of what had happened.

At length, the band packed up and everyone drifted to the exits. Joe was relieved. He could finally go home and forget about the fiasco the evening had turned out to be. He watched Elaine’s back going through the door and went to retrieve his jacket, hat and gun belt.

Stepping onto the hotel verandah, still fastening his gun belt, Joe heard a sudden scream. Looking up, he saw a young man further up the street being knocked down by the buggy horse he was trying to hold on to. It was the girl in the buggy who had screamed. The horse bolted.

Standing in the street, frozen in place, was Elaine.

*****

There was no time to waste, no time to think. Joe put one hand on the balustrade and vaulted over, landing on the run. He grabbed Elaine around the waist and twisted around, practically throwing her out of the buggy’s path. He lunged for the flapping reins, catching them more by fortune than design and was hauled off his feet.

His weight slowed the horse as he clung to the reins. His legs were bumped by the pounding hooves and grazed by the ground. The shaft of the buggy stabbed him just below the ribs. When the buggy stopped, Joe’s feet were just scant inches in front of the wheel. He collapsed the few inches to the ground, still clinging to the reins.

People pounded to Joe’s rescue from all around. He was too winded to speak, feeling pulped by his experience and in a lot of pain. Gentle hands uncurled his fingers from the reins and Joe cried out as he was lifted. Something warm was trickling down his side. Despite their attempts to be gentle, Joe felt unbearably jostled by the people who carried him. He slid into welcoming darkness.

*****

Odd disjointed words slid through Joe’s consciousness. “Penetrating wound… cuts and bruises… blood loss…” It didn’t seem to have anything to do with him, so he didn’t listen. He just continued to drift in a warm twilight world. Then something pressed down hard on his side and the pain drew him from the cocoon where he had been.

“Easy, Joe, easy,” soothed a familiar voice as Joe almost leapt his own height in the air.

“Doc?” Joe mumbled, forcing open his eyelids. They felt as though there was a ton weight on each of them, but he managed at last, peering around blearily to see that he was in the doctor’s office. “What… what happened?”

“What do you remember?” Paul asked instead, wanting to check that Joe hadn’t had a knock on the head.

“Uh…” Joe swallowed and forced himself to think. “The dance and… a buggy…” Joe grimaced with pain.

“That’s what happened,” Paul smiled.

“Was anyone hurt?” Joe mumbled, allowing his eyes to close again. The pressure eased form his side momentarily and he winced as it resumed.

“Just you,” Paul remarked cheerfully. “But you’re going to be fine.”

“What about… Elaine?” Joe asked. He winced again and tried to move out from Paul’s hand. “Doc, you’re killing me here.”

“You’re bleeding quite a bit from a puncture wound to your side, Joe,” Paul scolded. “Would you rather I let you bleed to death?” He didn’t wait for an answer. “Elaine is just fine, thanks to you.”

“I guess a real man would’ve let her be run down,” Joe muttered.

“Not according to Elaine,” Paul replied. “Roy told me she was singing your praises to the sky.” He frowned as he heard Joe’s next comment, wondering if perhaps he had overlooked a head injury.

“Maybe I have learned to walk on water,” Joe muttered and chuckled. Paul felt his head for a temperature.

*****

Stitched and bandaged, Joe slept while he waited for his father to come and collect him. No one knew why the buggy horse had bolted and there was speculation that perhaps it had been stung. Joe didn’t care. His side hurt badly and he was covered in cuts and bruises. He knew that he was going to have very sore muscles come morning. The town appeared to be singing his praises again, but Joe didn’t care. He hadn’t done what he did to get praise. He had acted because that was his nature. He couldn’t stand by and watch someone get hurt if he could help it.

It was the early hours of the morning when Ben, Adam and Hoss all arrived. They had brought the wagon with them. Joe was sleeping soundly, thanks to a hefty dose of painkiller. Paul, yawning and disheveled, brought them up to date.

“Joe has a puncture wound to his left side, just below the ribs. It’s not as deep as I had initially feared, but he did lose quite a bit of blood. He’s covered in scrapes and bruises, thanks to being dragged along the road. There’s nothing broken. Make sure he rests and I’ll take those stitches out in about 10 days.”

“Thank you,” Ben replied and went over to gently shake Joe’s shoulder. “Joe?”

Stirring, Joe opened his eyes. “Hi, Pa,” he yawned. “What are you doing here?”

“I’ve come to take you home,” he smiled. “Correct me if I’m wrong, young man, but didn’t I tell you to be careful?”

It was a sure sign that Joe wasn’t firing on all cylinders when he nodded meekly. “Sorry, sir,” he muttered.

Ruffling Joe’s tumbled curls, Ben grinned. “I’m teasing you, son,” he chided. “Come on, let’s get you home.”

Together, he and Paul assisted Joe to his feet. Joe was momentarily overcome by light-headedness, but after a moment, the world steadied. Joe found it was almost impossible to stand straight due to the pain in his side, but Paul told him he would have to make an effort to do so, regardless of the pain, or the muscles would heal contracted and Joe would never stand straight again.

The short walk to the wagon exhausted Joe and he was more than willing to snuggle down amongst the soft hay and sleep all the way home.

*****

“You’ve got a visitor downstairs,” Adam announced, coming into Joe’s bedroom.

“I have?” Joe wondered, blinking sleepily. “Who?” He struggled to sit up, accepting help from Adam to do so.

“Elaine,” Adam replied, the twist of his mouth eloquently conveying his feelings.

“Guess I’d better get up then,” Joe murmured.

“You don’t have to,” Adam replied. “Pa sent me up to ask if you want to see her.”

“Yeah, I’d like to speak her.” Joe pushed the covers back. “Hand me my pants, please.”

Pursing his mouth, Adam looked as though he had a few choice words to say, too, but he held his silence as he assisted Joe to get dressed. By the time that was done, Joe was more than ready to get back into bed, but he said nothing, only accepted help to first stand and then make his way slowly downstairs.

It took him a couple of minutes to catch his breath when he was finally sitting down. He essayed a smile at Ben, but was too winded to speak. When he was finally feeling more like himself, he became aware of Elaine watching him with an open mouth. “Hi, Elaine,” he offered.

“Joe… I…” Elaine seemed to be at a loss for words. Ben grabbed Adam’s arm and led him to the kitchen, where they discreetly eavesdropped. “Joe I’m sorry.”

“Sorry for what?” Joe asked. “For saying I wasn’t a man because I wouldn’t make love to you? Sorry I got hurt?”

“Both,” Elaine whispered. “I want us to be more than just friends, Joe. We’d be good together.”

“No, we wouldn’t,” Joe interrupted. “You were right to find someone else. You see, I would never be able to live up to your standards. I do sometimes forget and say ain’t and I do dress comfortably. I’m never going to change.” He shrugged. “You accept me as I am, or we part company.”

“But you could be so much more,” Elaine cried. “We could be good together.” She glanced around the house. “We could do so much to make this house better. New drapes and carpets on the floors. Joe, you could give up breaking horses and concentrate on managing the ranch.” Elaine looked desperate. “Joe, I love you.”

For a long moment, Joe simply looked at her. Hope flickered in Elaine’s heart. She wanted Joe. She wanted him in the same way she wanted the nicest dresses and the best house. He was good looking and together, they would be a very handsome couple, the talk of the town. That was what Elaine wanted.

“You don’t love me,” Joe told her. “If you did, you would love me just like I am and not want to change me. I am who I am, Elaine. If I wasn’t good enough for you before, why am I suddenly good enough now? Because I saved your life? I would have done the same for anyone.”

Rising unsteadily, Elaine looked at him. “I wanted you to be the kind of man I thought you should be,” she replied, honest for once. “But you…” She glared at him, suddenly angry. “You were always your own person, weren’t you, Joe? You had to show me up, didn’t you? Why couldn’t you have been my kind of man?” She burst into tears.

“I’m sorry,” Joe said kindly. “It would never have worked between us.” He was exhausted now and ready to go back upstairs. “I suppose,” he mused as she walked towards the door, “it depends on how you measure a man.”

*****

Neither Ben nor Joe mentioned the fact that Joe was well aware that his father had been eavesdropping on the conversation. Joe was helped back to bed where he promptly fell into an exhausted slumber, not waking again until suppertime, when Ben decided that he had to eat.

Elaine was never mentioned again. Ben didn’t feel there was any need. Joe no longer needed to be convinced that he was a man. His measure had been taken and nobody thought he came up short. Here was a man who would willingly lay down his life for others and now everyone knew that, not just the members of his own family.

Taking the measure of a man was always difficult, for each man was an individual. Ben had no better examples of that than his own sons. Each one was a man to be proud of.

***End***

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