Summary: Helping a friend of Joe’s almost costs the Cartwrights more than they are willing to pay.
Word Count: 11,325
There was a decided nip in the air that autumn day. Joe Cartwright was riding along on a loose rein, his mind miles away as he thought about his up-coming date with Callie Burns, in a couple of days’ time, when he was escorting her to the Governor’s Ball, which was being held in Virginia City. Ben Cartwright, Joe’s father, always received tickets to the ball, although he seldom attended, given the distances often involved. This year, Ben and all three of his sons were going.
It was the sudden quickening of his horse’s gait that alerted Joe and he swiftly pulled his mind back from its wanderings and glanced around, smoothing one hand down the silky black and white neck in front of him. “What’s up, Cooch?” he asked.
Movement seen from the corner of his eye had Joe reaching for his gun, but as he turned to look more closely, he realized that his caution was unwarranted, for the man standing there was an old school friend of Joe’s, Ken Blake.
But the sight of Ken aroused all Joe’s caution again and he rode forward warily. “Ken?” he called. “Are you all right?” For his friend had a black eye and was wearing ragged, threadbare clothes and was on foot. Joe thought he had been robbed.
“Joe?” Ken looked at him and smiled, the smile revealing a split lip. “Yeah, I guess I’m all right.”
Sliding down from Cochise, Joe took a closer look at Ken’s face. The bruising was clearly a day or so old. “What happened?” he asked. “Were you robbed?” He looked around. “Where’s your horse?”
“My horse died yesterday,” Ken replied. He grimaced. “Better for him. And this?” He gestured to his face. “Pa wasn’t in a good mood.”
Joe wasn’t sure quite what to say. Ken’s father was a small rancher, who hadn’t made the success of his spread that he should have done. He was known for his foul temper, meanness and drunkenness. This was not the first time he’d taken his bad mood out on one of his sons. Unfortunately for Ken, his three older brothers had all left home and he was the only one there to bear the brunt of it.
But before Joe could think of anything to say, Ken went on. “I tell you, Joe, I’ve had enough! I’m on my way into town to find a job. I can’t take it any longer!”
In that moment, Joe made up his mind. “We’re looking for hands on the Ponderosa,” he lied. “Why don’t you come work for us? I can swing it with my Pa.”
“For sure?” Ken asked, doubtfully. “Don’t you have to ask your Pa first?”
“Well, of course I’ve got to clear it with him,” Joe agreed, knowing he would have to do some fast talking, “but he trusts our judgment. The job’s yours, I guarantee.” Joe vowed to himself that even if he had to pay Ken’s wages himself, he’d give his friend the job he so badly needed.
“I accept,” Ken replied, sounding relieved and Joe knew he’d made the right decision. “Joe, I gotta go back and tell Pa. Would you come with me?”
“Of course,” Joe agreed. He glanced at his friend, noticing him shivering. “Ken, where’s your coat?”
“I haven’t got one,” Ken replied, his tone quite accepting. “I haven’t had one in the last year.”
Glancing away to hide his expression, Joe was appalled. Ken’s clothes were so tattered he doubted if Hop Sing would use them to wash the kitchen floor and he guessed that his shirt was thicker than the rags on Ken’s back. “Here, borrow mine, because you look cold,” Joe told him, shrugging out of his green jacket. When Ken would have protested, Joe over-rode him. “Go on, I’m warm enough. You can give me it back later, when you’ve got a new one.”
“If you’re sure,” Ken agreed, doubtfully, but when Joe insisted, he slipped the jacket on gratefully. The warmth was delicious and he couldn’t stop himself hugging the material close, not realizing how much he gave away in that gesture. “Thanks, Joe.”
“Let’s get your stuff,” Joe proposed, and mounted Cochise before offering Ken a hand to get up behind him.
The ranch was even more neglected than Joe remembered. The three horses in the corral were so thin that their ribs showed and their coats were staring. Joe was horrified. The cattle out in the pasture were too far away for Joe to see any details, but he suspected they were in much the same state as the horses; the pasture was exhausted.
Aaron Blake was waiting for them on the porch. His clothes were dirty, but warmer that Ken’s. He had looked much the same all the years that Joe had known him; thin, stooped, with a craggy face and no teeth. He glared at the world from under the brim of a hat, and he had carried a chip on his shoulder for most of his life.
“Where you been, boy?” he growled, ignoring Joe completely. “Where’d ya git that coat?”
“I gave it to him,” Joe replied, as Ken fumbled for words. Undaunted, he glared back at Blake.
“I weren’t askin’ you, boy!” Blake snapped, but Joe refused to be intimidated.
“Pa, I’ve got a job at the Ponderosa,” Ken said, all in a rush. “I’ve come to collect my things and I’m leaving.”
“You ain’t goin’ nowheres,” Blake growled. “Leastwise, not till you’re 21.”
Sliding to the ground, Ken seemed to find his courage at last. Joe dismounted to stand beside him, silently offering his support. “I’ve been 21 for four months, Pa,” Ken shot back, scathingly.
This was clearly a surprise to Blake, although Joe thought it shouldn’t be. He had known that Ken was 21, for he had helped Ken celebrate it. Joe was older than Ken, although they had been friends at school. Joe had felt sorry for the younger boy, as he seemed out of place in his family and they had the added bond that they had both lost their mothers when young. Joe had made the effort to befriend the boy in the dark days after Ken’s mother died, and he had enjoyed the fruits of the rewarding friendship ever since.
“You ain’t leavin’!” Bake exclaimed and raised his hand to Ken.
An ominous click froze him in place, with his hand raised. “Leave him alone!” Joe warned, his tone perfectly calm and somehow menacing. Without taking his eyes from Blake, Joe said, “Get your stuff, Ken.”
After a momentary hesitation, Ken headed into the house. Joe put the safety back on his gun, but he didn’t put it away. He and Blake stood there, eyeing each other. “I’ll git ya for this, Cartwright!” Blake warned. “You’re stealin’ ma boy away an’ I ain’t gonna stand fer it!”
“Ken is old enough to decide what he’s going to do with his life,” Joe replied. “He wants to work for us and that’s just what he’s going to do. You can’t stop him, Blake. Ken is of age and is doing this of his own free will.”
A moment later, Ken was back and his saddlebags were noticeably flat. Keeping an eye on Blake, Joe mounted Cochise, then put his gun away. Moments later, Ken was on the horse behind him and they rode slowly away. Joe could feel Blake’s eyes on him the whole time.
“I’ll git ya, Cartwright!” Blake screamed. “You’re a dead man!”
As they rode slowly back to the Ponderosa, Joe decided that the best thing to do would be drop Ken off at the bunkhouse, while he went inside and persuaded his father that they had to take Ken on. The rhythm of life slowed on the ranch through the autumn and winter, with work beginning afresh come spring. But there were always odd chores needing done, and although Ben had let most of the hands go, he was sure there would be a place for Ken.
Just for once, the first part of Joe’s plan worked like a charm. He dropped Ken at the bunkhouse, telling him to stow his gear and introducing him to the foreman, Charlie, who had been there longer than Joe – or so he told everyone. “Thank, Joe,” Ken muttered, as he handed back the jacket. “Thanks for everything.”
“Don’t mention it,” Joe told him. He shrugged the jacket back on, glad of the extra warmth, for he had been getting quite cold on the ride home, although nothing on earth would have persuaded him to admit it! “I’m sure Charlie can find you a jacket, Ken,” he added, with a wink at the foreman. There were certain advantages to working with a man for all those years, he thought, as he saw Charlie quickly assess Ken’s clothing. Before long, he would be the recipient of a few warm garments, all coaxed from their owners by the persuasive Charlie.
Putting Cochise into the barn, Joe hurried through his chores, anxious to speak to his father before Adam and Hoss arrived back. He found Ben at his desk, writing a letter. “I need to talk to you, Pa,” he began, and launched into the story.
Listening, Ben kept his face impassive. He knew Aaron Blake and had never liked the man. He bore a chip on his shoulder and when the first of his sons had left home, nobody had been surprised. Thinking back, it occurred to Ben that each son had left shortly after his 21st birthday. Had Blake been as free with his fists with the older sons as he had with the youngest? And Ben remembered the persistent rumors that had circulated after the death of his wife; that he had murdered her.
Of course, Roy had looked into them, but he had Paul Martin as an eye witness of the woman dying in childbirth, along with the infant daughter she bore. There was no question of foul play over Mrs. Blake’s death, but Paul had mentioned that he’d found a poorly healed break in her arm, which had still been giving her pain during the labor and he had wondered. But there was no concrete evidence and Blake had gone on living the way he always had.
It suddenly impinged on Ben that Joe had fallen silent and was waiting with barely concealed impatience for Ben to say something. In truth, very little that Joe had said had reached him. “Tell me again about going to Blake’s ranch?” he suggested, as that was where his mind had strayed.
Impatience evident in every syllable, Joe repeated his stand-off with Blake, watching his father’s face for signs of anger. He had been too caught up in his tale to notice Ben’s inattention the first time round, but his father asking for him to tell it again suggested to Joe that there was about to be an explosion.
But there wasn’t. Ben nodded. “I don’t approve of you holding a gun on him,” he stated, “but you couldn’t have stood back and let him beat Ken. I appreciate that, Joe.”
Silent now, Joe’s shoulders slumped. He was sure Ben was going to tell him that Ken had to go elsewhere. He didn’t know how he was going to tell Ken. Raising his head to make one last effort, Joe saw that Ben was smiling. Uncertainly, Joe began to smile back. He wasn’t in trouble and perhaps… He refused to let himself hope any more.
“Ken can stay,” Ben nodded.
“Thanks, Pa!” Joe exclaimed and threw his arms round his father’s neck, all but strangling him.
“Let’s see what we can do about some clothes for him,” Ben suggested, patting Joe on the back before disentangling himself. “As I recall, Ken’s about your build, isn’t he?” He led the way to the stairs, with the grinning Joe following behind. “Isn’t it time you cleared out your wardrobe?”
“Yes, sir!” Joe agreed. He bounded up the stairs. Ben followed more sedately. He was very proud of Joe for sticking up for Ken. He realized that more of what Joe had said had got through to him than he realized, for he remembered Joe offering to pay Ken’s wages out of his own. Of course it wouldn’t come to that, but he was proud of Joe for suggesting it.
Going into Joe’s room, Ben felt that his chest was so swelled that it might burst. He swept Joe into an exuberant hug before they started hunting through his clothes.
Over supper, Adam and Hoss were apprised of the situation. Ben and Joe had gone down to the bunkhouse with the clothes he had found, and Ken had been embarrassingly grateful. He’d already received some things from the other men. Normally, someone like that would never accept what they termed ‘charity’, but Ken had had to live with hand-me-downs all his life and they had never been as good as the clothes he now owned. The sheer novelty and delight of being warm enough, with a full belly, for the first time he could remember, made him more than grateful. As he left to return home, Joe was reminded once more just how fortunate he had been all his life.
He was still mulling this over when they returned home. Adam had been sitting strumming his guitar, but he put it aside as his father and youngest brother came in. “How did it go?” he asked, with the cynical certainty of one who had seen many a benefactor soundly thrashed for the munificence.
“Fine,” Joe murmured, doffing his hat and coat. “He was very grateful.”
“Sure,” Adam commented. He’d heard this before, although he was surprised that Ben didn’t look annoyed and Joe wasn’t sporting any red areas – embryonic bruises. “You must be faster than he is.”
“That’s enough, Adam!” Ben snapped. “Ken was grateful and I don’t want to hear any more snide comments about him.”
“Sorry, Pa,” Adam responded, looking surprised and chastened. Joe was throwing him dark looks. “But giving clothes to a destitute hand isn’t usually very successful, is it?”
“No, I suppose not,” Ben agreed. “But Joe told you everything went fine. Why didn’t you believe him?”
“Well, any fight that Joe comes out of not dead went fine by his standards,” Adam offered, and even Joe had to laugh at that.
“I allus felt plumb sorry fer them Blake boys,” Hoss commented. He was laying out the checkers board. “Ol’ man Blake were allus meaner than a rattlesnake. I mind the one ‘bout ma age – Frank? – tellin’ me he never got no dinner ta bring ta school after his mama died. His Pa said it were a waste o’ good food, feedin’ the boys.”
The others looked at Hoss, profoundly shaken by his sorrowful comment. “Ah mind him tellin’ me that he were expected ta do lots more chores than we was expected ta at the same age. He were doin’ a man’s work as well as bein’ at school.”
“And he wasn’t too happy when Ken said he would like to go on with his schooling,” Joe remarked. He perched on the edge of the table and contemplated the board before him, but didn’t make a move. He’d never entirely understood Ken’s thirst for learning, not realizing that he was absorbing a great deal of knowledge, not just at school, but at home, too.
“Ken hasn’t had an easy life,” Ben commented, softly. “We must do what we can to help him settle in here.”
Adam answered for all of them. “We will.”
Over the next week, Ken found his place on the ranch. He was a hard worker and keen to learn, but for a young man raised on a ranch, there were an awful lot of things he didn’t know. The first morning, Joe had handed him a horse and told Ken that this horse was his to use as long as he worked on the ranch. Ken was delighted and patted the horse enthusiastically. But when the end of the day came, and Joe was putting his horse up in the barn, he saw that Ken hadn’t groomed the sweat off his horse, nor given him a measure of grain.
Putting his head round the bunkhouse door, Joe saw Ken lying flat out on his bunk. The other youth looked exhausted and Joe knew that he’d done a full day’s work, even though he really wasn’t fit enough. Joe didn’t know when he had last seen someone as thin as Ken. “Ken,” he called and the other sat up.
“Yeah, Joe?” he asked, although he hoped he wouldn’t be asked to do anything else that day, because he was worn out.
“Can you come here a minute?” Joe led the way to the barn and looked pointedly at Ken’s horse. “Is that the way you’re going to leave your mount?” he asked.
“What’s wrong with it?” Ken asked, defensively. “That’s the way I’ve always left my horse.”
“All right,” Joe replied, taking firm hold of his patience. “But that’s not how we do it here. You always take care of your horse before you do anything else, unless you’re badly hurt, ok?” He walked over to the horse. “I’ll show you what to do,” he explained. “And you do it every time you put your horse up for the night, even if you’re out camping.” Explaining what he was doing and why, Joe scraped the dried sweat off the horse, sponging down some of the worst bits, and then groomed the animal from head to tail and picked out his feet. That done, he made sure there was adequate fresh water and gave it some grain. While the hungry horse tucked into its meal, Joe made Ken go into the hay loft and fork down some hay.
“Gee, no wonder our horses never lasted on us,” Ken commented as he patted the animal’s neck. “We didn’t ever give them hard food like this. They had just hay, and not much of that.”
Seeing that Ken’s basic horse management would need watching until he was more confident, Joe dispensed a few more words of wisdom. “Don’t give your horse too much cold water when he’s very hot,” he advised. “That’s a fast way for them to blow up and get colic. If your horse is down with colic, try and get him onto his feet and moving, otherwise he might twist his gut and there’s only one cure for that.”
“Which is?” Ken asked.
In answer, Joe pulled out his gun and held it up. Ken looked at it for a long moment, then nodded. “I understand. I’m sorry I didn’t do all this, Joe.”
“You’re still learning,” Joe excused him. “We all make mistakes as we’re learning. If you aren’t sure how much grain to give your horse, then ask someone. Remember to check his shoes regularly and if he loses one, don’t ride him, walk him back and get it seen to as soon as possible.”
“Right,” Ken nodded.
Feeling there had been enough lessons for one night, Joe grinned at his friend. “You did a good day’s work out there,” he praised him and Ken’s grin lit up his face. “Now, go get your supper and put some flesh on those bones.”
“You haven’t got much more flesh than I have,” Ken defended himself, although he was already moving in the direction of the delicious smell coming from the kitchen.
“But mine’s all muscle!” Joe quipped and Ken laughed as he disappeared.
“I thought you’d decided to live out there,” Adam commented as Joe came in the door. “You got back ages ago. What were you doing; giving your horse a manicure?”
“Ha ha,” Joe commented, taking off his gun belt and coiling it neatly before setting it down on the top of the credenza. “Ken hadn’t taken care of his horse, so I showed him how to do it.”
“He didn’t know?” Adam asked, incredulously.
“No.” Joe shook his head. “He didn’t know anything about caring for his horse.” He sighed. “Tomorrow, I’ll show him how to clean his saddle, because I bet he doesn’t know that either!”
“You still sure bringing him here was the right thing to do?” Adam asked, knowing all the time what Joe’s answer would be, but wanting to give the boy a subtle reminder that this was part and parcel of rescuing his friend.
“Of course!” Joe snapped. “I wasn’t complaining, I was merely telling you where I’d been.” He gave Adam a hard look.
“What was the sigh for?” Adam wanted to know. He deliberately softened his tone.
Joe sighed again. “I’m tired, Adam. That ever occur to you?” He walked across the room and climbed the stairs to freshen up for supper.
“Joseph, I need you to ride into town this morning to send an urgent wire for me,” Ben said the next morning as they were having breakfast. “Wait for the reply, and when you come back, you can start getting ready for the Governor’s Ball.” He fought to keep a straight face. “A haircut wouldn’t go amiss.”
As he had expected, Joe reacted to this as though he’d been stung. “I got a haircut last week!” he objected, strenuously.
“I didn’t notice,” Adam commented, keeping his face to his plate so that he didn’t give anything away.
“Nor me,” agreed Hoss, but he was less successful in schooling his face and Joe suddenly tumbled that he was being teased.
“All right, you got me there!” he grumbled, but he couldn’t keep a straight face.
“Adam, Hoss, you can both finish early, too, so we’re ready to leave on time this evening,” Ben continued.
“Thanks, Pa,” Adam said.
“Yes, sir,” Hoss agreed.
Riding into town, Joe thought how cold it was. He had on one of his old blue jackets, while Hop Sing steamed and brushed his green cord one for that evening, and this jacket wasn’t as warm as his green one. The wind seemed to cut right through the jacket.
Dismounting outside the telegraph office, Joe handed over the wire Ben wanted sent and paid for it. “There should be a reply, Rudi,” he told the clerk. “I’ll look back in a few minutes.”
“All right, Joe,” Rudi agreed.
Wandering aimlessly away, Joe wasn’t quite sure what he was going to do to while away the time. He didn’t want to go to the saloon, because it was too early for a beer. He didn’t need anything from the mercantile and he wasn’t sure he was in the mood for window shopping. There didn’t even seem to be anyone he knew wandering about the streets.
Finally, Joe decided that he would walk down one side of the street and back up the other and see what happened. He was in no rush and strolled across the street, skillfully dodging buckboards and horses from long years of practice.
A few times, Joe lifted his hat to a lady he knew, but the cold edge to the wind made everyone want to get indoors and Joe was no exception. He was on his way back up the street, and hurrying slightly, for this side was in the shade, and was decidedly cold, when he heard his name called. “Cartwright!”
Turning warily, Joe was in time to see a fist coming right at his face, and although he jerked his head sideways, he couldn’t avoid the blow completely, and it grazed along his cheekbone, knocking him off balance. He stumbled further up the alley he’d been passing.
It came as no surprise to see that it was Aaron Blake. Joe caught his balance, and faced his attacker cautiously. He didn’t want to get involved with a brawl with the dance coming up that night, and he certainly didn’t want to get into a brawl with Aaron Blake!
“Look, Mr. Blake…”
Joe got no further than that, even though he’d had no idea what he was going to say. “I’ll see you dead, Cartwright! You stole my son!”
Backing off, Joe watched Blake. He wore a gun, but had made no move to draw it, and Joe had no desire to draw his gun. “I didn’t steal Ken,” he protested, knowing his words were useless. “Ken left home and came to work for us!”
“A boy should be at home with his pa,” Blake snarled. “You Cartwrights always have to have things yer own way. Yer pa’s got three boys. Why do he want mine?”
“Ken left because of the way you treated him,” Joe accused the other man. “What had he done to deserve a beating like you gave him?”
“Lip!” Blake snorted. “Jist like you; all lip!”
With sudden speed, he jumped at Joe and punched him in the stomach, hard. As Joe crumpled involuntarily, Blake brought his hands up to smash down on the back of Joe’s neck.
But some awareness made Joe dive to the ground, to avoid Blake’s blow and he partially succeeded. He was still moving as the hands hit him and instead of knocking him out, the blow only dazed him. He scrambled to regain his feet, but Blake thought fast and kicked out, catching Joe in the ribs. Joe fell to the ground, still trying to get away, but aware that he had no breath left to move. Another kick in the ribs drove his newly regained breath away and Joe sprawled onto his back. The world seemed to be quite dark, and he squinted vilely to try and see where Blake was.
A hand twisting into the front of his jacket told him, too late. He tried to turn his head to avoid the punch he could see coming, but just couldn’t do it. Blake’s fist caught him right in the mouth and Joe could feel blood spurting as his lips split. He managed to throw a punch that spoiled the aim of Blake’s next blow, but he knew it was all over. His head was ringing.
There was a shout from the mouth of the alley and a moment later, hands pulled Blake away from Joe. But whoever his rescuer was wasn’t any more successful in holding off Blake, as he crumpled to the ground. But the shout had attracted attention and Blake fled up the other end of the alley and disappeared.
Moments later, the alley was filled with people. Joe wished they would all go away and leave him in peace as he tried to get his head together and sit up. But he was still flat on his back when Sheriff Roy Coffee and Dr Paul Martin arrived at a run.
“Joe!” Paul knelt by the youth as Joe attempted to smile. “Don’t move!” he admonished. After a moment, he nodded. “Those ribs are probably cracked, and your face is a bit of a mess, but I don’t think there’s anything broken,” he commented.
“Who done this to ya, Joe?” Roy Coffee asked, his voice full of concern.
“Aaron Blake,” replied another voice and Joe cautiously turned his head to discover that his rescuer had been Rudi the telegraph clerk.
“Thanks, Rudi,” Joe croaked as he gingerly sat up. His head whirled a bit, but it soon settled down.
“Here’s your wire, Joe,” Rudi chirruped and disappeared back to his office. Joe tucked the flimsy paper into his pocket, wincing at the movement.
“Let’s get him down to my office,” Paul suggested to Roy, supporting Joe, “and then you can ask him whatever you want while I put him back together?”
That was what they did, and although Joe wouldn’t admit it, he needed the help they gave him. However, by the time he had filled Roy in on all the happenings of the last few days and Paul had bandaged up his ribs and dabbed anti-septic on the cuts on his face, he felt a good bit better. His head still throbbed, but Paul insisted he take a painkiller and soon Joe felt almost human again.
“I’ll go out ta Blake’s place,” Roy declared, when Joe finished talking.
“Don’t, Roy, please,” Joe begged. “He’s just sore, is all. I’m sure he didn’t mean to hurt me. He just lost his temper.”
Frowning at Joe, Roy tried to see if Joe meant this or was covering up for Blake. “He could a killed ya, boy,” he pointed out.
“I know,” Joe agreed. “But I’m sure he’s probably horrified about this already. Please, Roy, I’m all right. There’s no point in pressing charges.”
Reluctantly, Roy agreed. He wasn’t quite as sure as Joe that Blake didn’t mean to hurt him, but since Joe didn’t want to press charges there was very little he could do. What Roy didn’t know was that Joe was sure that Blake had meant to kill him, but he couldn’t have Ken’s father arrested. Besides, a few nights in a cell and Blake would be free again. Joe vowed to be more careful in future.
“Can I go now?” he asked Paul.
“Be careful riding home,” Paul warned him. “I think you should go straight to bed when you get in, but I dare say you won’t.”
“I’ve got to get ready for the Governor’s Ball,” Joe informed him. “I’m taking Callie Burns.”
“Enjoy yourself,” Paul told him, wondering how his date would react when she was the bruising on his face. He watched as Joe hauled himself into his saddle and rode slowly away down the street. “I wonder what story he’ll think of to tell his date?” he mused to Roy.
“There won’t be a particle o’ truth in it, whatever it is,” Roy grunted and they both smiled.
Riding home, it wasn’t his date that Joe was worried about telling. He hoped he would be able to avoid Ken and tell Ben the whole story before he encountered the cowboy, for he didn’t want to tell his friend the truth. Ken would be devastated if he learned that his father had tried to kill Joe and would probably leave. Joe did not want that to happen. Ken needed somewhere where he was getting good food and enough rest in a warm place before he went out and tried his hand in the big bad world.
Luckily for Joe, Ken was nowhere near the yard when he rode in. Charlie was there and he took one look at Joe’s face and took Cochise’s reins without a word and Joe nodded his thanks. Paul Martin’s painkiller had worked in the town, but riding home had proved too much for it and he ached all over.
“Pa?” he called, walking into the house and dropped his hat on the credenza.
“Here,” Ben replied, in a pre-occupied voice.
Slowly, Joe walked round to the study area and delved in his pocket for the wire. He stifled the wince that the movement brought to his lips, but he knew that the evil moment couldn’t be put off much longer. “Pa,” he said, softly, and Ben looked up, unable to stifle a gasp.
“Joe, what happened?” Ben asked, leaping to his feet and coming round the desk to put his hand gently on Joe’s arm. “Are you all right? Sit down,” he ordered, steering Joe into the chair.
With obvious reluctance, Joe told the whole story. Ben listened wordlessly, but his hand rested comfortingly on Joe’s arm throughout. “Do you understand why I did it, Pa?” Joe asked, after telling of his decision not to charge Blake.
For a moment, Ben was silent. He saw the white face behind the darkening bruises and the pain that Joe couldn’t quite hide and understood perfectly. “Yes, I understand. I might not have made the same decision if I’d been there, but I know why you did it, Joe.” He patted his son’s arm. “How do you feel?”
“I’m a bit sore,” Joe admitted, “but the doc patched me up.” He looked up at Ben with a worried expression. “I don’t want to tell Ken about this, Pa. I’ll just say I got caught in a fight in the street, is that all right?”
Again, Ben understood Joe’s reasoning, and nodded, although he preferred to tell the truth. “All right, son. I’ll tell Adam and Hoss. Now, why don’t you go up and have a lie down for a while? Hop Sing will heat some water for a bath.”
“Sounds good,” Joe agreed. He rose stiffly. “I’m sorry this happened.”
“It’s not your fault, son,” Ben assured him. “You go and get some rest.”
“Is he all right?” Adam asked, his face dark with anger as he heard about Joe’s morning.
“He’s pretty sore,” Ben replied, “but you know Joe; he won’t admit it.”
“Don’ worry, Pa, he’ll be all right,” Hoss assured him. “An’ we’ll be sure an’ tell his tale if’n we’s asked.”
“Thank you,” Ben muttered. He glanced at the clock. “I’d better go and waken him so he can have his bath. We don’t want to be late.”
“Do you think Joe will want to go?” Adam wanted to know.
“Yes, he’ll want to go,” Ben answered, wryly. “If only to prove that he’s all right!” He smiled and the other two laughed.
However, when Ben went in to waken Joe he wondered if he would want to go to the ball, for his face was smudged with bruises and his lower lip was badly split and swollen. Shaking Joe’s shoulder gently, Ben saw the pain rise to his face as he awakened. “Time to wake up, Joe,” he urged.
“Pa?” Joe asked, dazedly. His headache was back full force and as he tried to sit up, his body protested mightily. He winced, then forced a small smile. “I think I’m a bit stiff,” he offered, but Ben wasn’t deceived.
“If you want to stay in bed, we won’t mind, and I’ll explain to Callie,” Ben suggested.
For a moment, Joe was tempted, but he really did want to see Callie that night and he also didn’t want Blake getting the satisfaction of knowing he’d hurt Joe so much he’d had to miss the Governor’s Ball. “No, I’ll be fine,” he declared. “Is my bath ready?”
“Sure is,” Ben smiled. “Want a hand?”
“I can manage, Pa, honest,” Joe assured him. Ben caressed his head briefly before going down stairs.
The hot bath did wonders for the stiffness Joe felt, although he had to submit to having his ribs bandaged again after it. Hop Sing handed the youth a cup of steaming tea and Joe drank it down, not knowing what it was and making a face at the bitterness of the brew, but after a little while, he realized that the pain in his head had gone and his ribs were down to a barely-felt ache. This wasn’t the first time the Cartwrights had experienced Hop Sing’s home remedies, and Joe sincerely hoped it wouldn’t be the last.
Dressing slowly, Joe winced every time he looked in the mirror. The bruise up his cheekbone was black and swollen and along with the split lip made Joe look a lot like the kind of man Callie Burns’ father wouldn’t want her going out with! And what would everyone else think? Joe hated to go out looking less than what he considered perfect, but he was determined not to allow Blake to win.
Deciding he looked as presentable as he was going to, Joe went downstairs, where his family were waiting patiently for him. He waited for the inevitable jibes from his brothers, but they didn’t; come and it was in unexpected amity that they went out to the buggy.
To say Callie was not happy when she first saw Joe was something of an understatement. Her mouth tightened noticeably and she sent him a dark look as he edged carefully out of the buggy. Hoss was there to give him a hand until he was securely on his feet and for once, Joe didn’t complain. Whatever Hop Sing had given him earlier had begun to wear off on the way into town.
Taking as deep a breath as he could, Joe mounted the steps to meet his angry date. “Joe Cartwright! Look at you!” she cried, but before she could go on, Ben was there at Joe’s back, greeting Alistair Burns, her father.
“Evening, Mr. Burns,” Ben boomed, jovially. “I thought I’d just come and apologies for Joe’s appearance. He got caught up in a little trouble in town this morning and he looks just like a hoodlum. However, I have to say in his defense that he is entirely innocent.”
“I heard, as it happens,” Burns responded.
By now, Callie’s anger had gone as though it had never been. She linked her arm carefully though Joe’s and drew him slightly aside. “Joe, are you all right?” she asked, raising her hand to touch his face.
“I’ll be fine,” he assured her, catching her hand before she could touch the bruise on his cheekbone. “Just a little sore. I hope you don’t mind if I sit out the fast dances?”
When Joe turned on the charm, there were few people who could resist him and Callie certainly wasn’t one of them. “Of course I don’t mind,” she chided him and they made their way to the door with the other members of their families.
The evening was a glittering occasion, and the ballroom was filled to capacity. The governor was graciousness itself to everyone, but he did unwind for a few people, one of whom was his old friend Ben Cartwright. “Hello, Ben!” he boomed, pumping his hand. “Good to see you!”
“Hello, Stewart,” Ben returned, smiling. “You’re looking well.”
“And you still can’t lie worth a damn!” Stewart Ingram replied. “Are these your boys?” he asked. “I haven’t seen them since…”
“Since Joe was in diapers?” Adam supplied.
“Hardly, Adam, hardly!” Ingram laughed. “But you were pretty small, young man,” he added to Joe, who smiled as best he could and tried not to fidget. He didn’t remember meeting Ingram at all. But Ingram didn’t prolong their ordeal, releasing the boys with a few well-chosen words and continuing his conversation with their father.
Heading off to rejoin Callie, Joe tried to hide how tired he was, but he only fooled the strangers around him. Adam snagged his arm. “Are you sure you’re all right, buddy?” he asked, concern in his dark eyes.
“Yes, I’ll be fine,” Joe told him. He smiled and Adam nodded.
“Don’t overdo it,” he suggested and Joe agreed, but with a twinkle in his eyes that told Adam he would overdo it if he wanted to.
For quite a while the company and the dancing kept Joe’s mind off his woes, and his intention to sit out the faster ones deserted him as soon as the music started. But as the evening wore on, he found that whatever painkilling concoction Hop Sing had given him had really worn off, and he was more than glad when Callie’s father collected her to take her home quite early. Joe found himself a soft seat in a quiet area and tried to keep the pain off his face.
However, Ben had been keeping a discreet eye on Joe, and when he noticed him sitting alone, he excused himself from the person he was talking to and collected Adam and Hoss before making his way over to where Joe sat. “Ready to go?” he asked, and Joe nodded. Ben put a hand down and helped his son to his feet. “Straight into bed for you, young man,” he chided lovingly, “and there you’ll stay all day tomorrow.”
“Right now, Pa,” Joe agreed, “I feel like I could sleep all day tomorrow.”
The ride to the Ponderosa passed in a blur as he dozed against Ben’s shoulder. When they arrived home, he was more than happy to allow Ben to pull off his boots before he undressed and fell into bed. He was asleep in seconds.
The next morning, Joe was so stiff and sore that he was more than glad to spend the day in bed, and he slept on and off. He rose for supper and joined his family at the table in his dressing gown and slippers. Hoss and Adam, both of whom had had a light day’s work, teased him mercilessly, but Joe was equal to the task of responding.
“You spent a lot of time talking to Governor Ingram last night, Pa,” Adam commented as they sat by the fire drinking coffee.
“We’re old friends,” Ben agreed, taking a sip.
“You must have had a lot of catching up to do,” Joe noted. “You seemed to talk to him all night!”
“As Adam said last night, son, I haven’t seen him since you were in diapers,” Ben agreed, but his mouth twitched slightly.
“What was you talkin’ ta him about, Pa?” Hoss asked. “You looked mighty serious.”
“He asked me if I was willing to stand for Governor at the next elections,” Ben told them and watched the reactions.
Adam nodded and half smiled, as though having his suspicions confirmed; Hoss sat with his mouth open and Joe looked momentarily delighted, then his face fell. “Doesn’t surprise me,” Adam commented.
“Are ya gonna do it?” Hoss demanded. Joe looked at Ben anxiously.
“No,” Ben replied, smiling at the different reactions he got once more.
Joe looked vastly relieved; Hoss looked surprised, and Adam looked disappointed. “Why not, Pa?” he asked. “You’d make a great Governor.”
“It’s not for me,” Ben replied. “I’m happiest here on the Ponderosa with you boys. Oh, I know I once thought of running for the legislature, but that was a few years ago and it wasn’t until I was forced to withdraw from the race that I realized how much pressure it had put on me, and how often I would be away from home and you boys. I was glad not to be running any more. No, the political life is not for me.”
As Adam began to list all the reasons Ben would be a great Governor, Joe rose. “I’m going to bed,” he announced and headed upstairs without a backward glance. After a few minutes of listening to Adam’s logical arguments, Ben shook his head firmly and stood up.
“The answer is still no,” he said. “I’m going to speak to Joe.” He went up to his son’s room and knocked briskly before entering. “Joe? Are you all right?”
“Yeah, Pa, I’m fine,” Joe replied, but Ben could still see the shadows in his eyes.
“This decision has nothing to do with Le Duc, Joe,” he told him, sitting down on the edge of the bed. “Yes, I was referring to him downstairs, but I told you then, as I’m telling you now, that it was a relief to realize that I didn’t have to be polite to some of the half-wits that work for the government, or all these strangers that I didn’t know. There was no pressure on me, and I liked that. I don’t want the office, Joe. Stewart was saying that his marriage is under severe strain because of his governorship, and he doesn’t know his children. I didn’t want that to happen to you boys. I don’t want the post!” He lifted Joe’s chin and looked into those green eyes, so like his mother’s. “Have I ever lied to you?”
“No, sir,” Joe responded. He smiled. “I just thought, with Adam so for it…” he let his voice trail off as Ben grinned. “What?” he asked.
“Maybe we should nominate Adam,” Ben whispered and Joe roared with laughter.
Over the next week or so, Joe found himself spending more time with Ken, teaching him the things he needed to know to become part of the team. Ken was bright and learned quickly, although he found the theory often easier than the practical side. Joe taught him to rope and herd, to clean tack and muck out the barn, to check the grazing and the rudiments of tracking.
However, it was soon clear to Joe that Ken didn’t want to be a rancher. He certainly had the pedigree and he was good with the stock, often able to spot a sick animal before anyone else had seen much wrong. What Ken wanted was to go to college and learn book keeping or maybe law. Something that involved working indoors at a desk, preferably far away from cows or horses. Joe couldn’t say he blamed him, after the life he had led.
“I’m saving my wages from here to pay for my college,” Ken told Joe, showing him the letter he had received from a college, detailing all his expenses for the courses he was interested in.
Whistling, Joe tipped his hat back on his head. “Boy, this is pretty steep,” he commented, with renewed admiration for his father for managing to keep Adam in college while still building the ranch and feeding and clothing two other sons at the same time.
“But worth it,” Ken replied, his eyes glowing. “I don’t mind waiting, Joe. I want to earn my place in this world, the same way you’re doing. I just want to do something different. You can learn all you need to here; I want to go to school to do my learning.”
“I’m sure you’ll do it,” Joe assured him, thinking that he might talk to his father about helping Ken out somehow.
“Joe, I want you and Ken to do down to the winter pasture and check the waterholes and streams today,” Ben told his son over breakfast a week or two later. The leaves were falling with a vengeance now and there had been hard frost for the last few nights. The first snows could come any time. “Adam, you and Hoss take the rest of the men and start gathering the herd together. I’ll come and check on you boys at noon, Joe, and then ride up and let you two know if we can get the herd moving.”
The three all mumbled assent. They continued to eat as though they had never seen food before and Ben hid a smile. It was always like this in winter; the boys ate vast amounts of food to keep themselves warm for the first few minutes until whatever work they had that day took over the job. In a few weeks, it would be too cold to go out without a big jacket on.
“Joe, that reminds me,” Ben said, as Joe started to get up. “Does Ken have a winter coat?”
“I dunno,” Joe shrugged. “But I’d be surprised if he did.”
“We’ll have to see what we can do,” Ben suggested, thoughtfully.
“He can have that blue one of mine,” Joe announced, cheerfully. “After all, I’ve got that new sheepskin one you bought me and there’s nothing really wrong with the other one…” His voice trailed off. Ben was cocking an eye at him, since Joe had persuaded his father that the coat was getting a bit thin. “Apart from the fact it’s ugly and made me look like I was wearing one of Hoss’ hand-me-downs,” Joe added. He made a face and shrugged again.
Rolling his eyes, Ben sought to look disapproving, but since he had bought Joe the coat in the first place, and had never thought it looked good on his slender son, he made no further complaint. “Go on, then,” he agreed. “Give him the blue coat.”
“I don’t know how you do it,” Adam commented as they went out of the door, Joe’s arms full of the blue coat. “If I’d said anything like that, Pa’d have skinned me alive.”
Smirking, Joe responded, “Well, I am his favorite son, after all.”
He took to his heels as Adam lunged for him and his manic laugh could be heard quite clearly all over the yard.
Clearing out waterholes could be a pretty grotty job, but the winter pasture seemed to have survived the summer quite well. The streams were all running freely, although they were already ice-cold, reflecting the snow that had fallen in the mountains.
There really wasn’t that much to do, apart from clear some weeds out of one waterhole. Joe had expected this. That same hole had grown weeds all the years he could remember and he seemed to be the only one who had to clean them out! With two pairs of hands, the job went quickly and they broke for something to eat just before noon.
“Are those rain clouds, Joe?” Ken asked, eyeing some slate grey clouds in the north west.
“Probably,” Joe replied, casting an eye over them. “There might be some hail from them. As soon as we’re finished here, we’ll meet Pa if he’s not been here already and go and give the others a hand with the herd. The sooner we get them here, the less likely we are to be caught in the weather.”
“I wanted to thank you for the coat,” Ken went on. “You’ve all been so kind to me.”
“You’re welcome,” Joe replied. “You’ve worked real hard since coming here.” He pulled the front of his green jacket a little closer to his neck. “Say, I wish I did have my big coat, it’s pretty chilly here, today.”
They ate their lunch in virtual silence and after they had finished, Ken went to the stream to rinse the coffee pot and cups and Joe put out the fire. Satisfied that it was dead, Joe rose and stretched slightly. Walking over towards the stream, he was caught by surprise when something thudded into his back. A moment later the shot echoed, but Joe had already fallen face down across the freezing stream.
Someone cried out his name, but Joe couldn’t seem to focus his thoughts on anything but the pain. Then he heard another shot and something heavy fell on top of him. The pain was appalling and Joe spiraled down in darkness.
As the two rifle shots echoed off the hills, Ben Cartwright drew his gun and urged his horse to hurry. He could see Cochise and another horse milling about anxiously, and when he looked around, he saw a figure hurrying away towards the trees. Ben fired at him, but he knew it was useless. He touched his heel to his mount again and galloped over to the other horses.
At once, he spotted the body lying ominously still by the stream. Hurrying over, he reached for the man and saw that it was Ken. Blood was spurting out of his chest and his breathing was ragged. “Ken,” he hissed.
“Sorry,” Ken whispered. “It… was… Pa.” His eyes rolled back into his head, and Ben saw that he was dead. The blood stopped a moment later.
Gently laying the dead youngster aside, Ben was unprepared to see Joe lying face down in the stream. Frantically, he grabbed the back of his son’s jacket and hauled him out.
For a moment, he thought Joe was dead, then he detected the rise and fall of his chest and he searched to find out how badly his son was injured. Joe was soaking and already shivering in the rising wind. Frantic with worry, it took Ben several moments to find the bullet wound low in Joe’s back, about waist level. There was no exit wound.
There wasn’t a moment to lose, Ben knew. He dashed over to his horse and dragged the blanket from the back of his saddle. He drew his gun and fired three shots – a cry for help that he hoped his other sons would be close enough to hear.
As he tucked the blanket around Joe, his son groaned. “It hurts,” he whimpered.
“I know, son, don’t try to move,” Ben urged him. “You’ve been shot, Joe. Stay still now.”
“Pa?” Joe breathed, sounding puzzled.
“I’m right here, Joe,” Ben soothed, taking a moment to stroke the wet hair back from his son’s brow. “Just lie still, Joe; I’ll get you home.”
As he desperately gathered the things he would need for a travois, Ben heard three shots fired in the distance and returned them. Knowing that Adam and Hoss were on the way, Ben allowed himself another check on Joe, something he had been doing every few minutes. Joe was drifting in and out of consciousness and shivering, despite the blankets Ben had piled on him. The only thing in his favor seemed to be that he wasn’t bleeding much.
Ben had no way of telling how long it took Adam and Hoss to arrive, but he filled them in with a few short sentences and they took over the travois, two pairs of hands making quicker work of it than one pair had done. As soon as it was ready, they loaded Joe carefully onto the travois, and set off for home.
After placing Ken’s body over the saddle of his horse, decently wrapped in his bedroll, Adam galloped to town for the doctor and the sheriff. As he left, he shot a glance at the blanket wrapped bundle that was his youngest brother. He sent up a prayer that Joe would survive, but Adam wasn’t too sanguine about his chances. That bullet was badly placed.
Throughout the journey home, Joe remained unconscious, which worried Ben immensely, even though he was glad his son couldn’t feel the pain. When they arrived back at the Ponderosa, Ben and Hoss carried Joe upstairs between them and laid him gently on the bed. Although Ben didn’t want to move him more than was necessary, he knew he had to get the wet clothes off Joe. Hop Sing brought the scissors and Ben proceeded to cut his clothes away. While he did that, Hoss went out to move Ken’s body. They didn’t want the hands coming back to find that.
Gradually the warmth brought Joe back to mumbling consciousness, and Ben took his hand and soothed him, urging him to remain still, for they had taken enough risks with Joe’s life bringing him back. Joe was clearly in great pain, and although he tried to stifle his groans for Ben’s sake, he failed.
Miserably, Ben bathed Joe’s brow with cool water, for the youth’s temperature was rising as his body reacted to the dreadful shock it had had. He hoped Adam would be able to find Doc Martin quickly, as Joe needed medical attention now. Ben hoped that he wasn’t facing having to try and remove this bullet himself.
But at last there came noises from the yard and a few moments later Adam burst through the door, followed by Paul Martin, who looked concerned. They were both wet, and Ben realized that the promised rain had arrived. “How is he?” Adam asked, anxiously.
“Bad,” Ben replied, moving so that Paul could look at the wound.
“Is the bullet still in there?” Paul asked.
“Yes,” nodded Ben.
“I’m going to have to operate,” Paul answered. “Hop Sing can help me. Go downstairs and drink something hot and sweet. Doctor’s orders.” He glanced at Adam, who nodded.
“Come on, Pa,” Adam urged, leading Ben from the room. He knew how hard the waiting would be for Ben; how hard it would be for all of them. He patted Hoss’ shoulder as they went downstairs to wait.
The operation took a long time. Paul found himself searching for a small piece of lead amongst Joe’s kidneys, liver and bowels. The danger of accidentally nicking an artery was high and although every instinct urged Paul to hurry, he forced himself to be slow and methodical. And eventually, his strategy paid off and he retrieved the bullet without causing any more damage to the surrounding tissue.
There had been some internal bleeding, but remarkably little considering. Paul thought that the fact Joe had been lying in cold water, even for that short time, had made a difference to the amount of bleeding. But Joe was weak; his system in shock, and Paul knew that there was still a chance he could die. Bandaging the wound, Paul then covered Joe with every blanket he could find and sat watching him until he began to rouse from the anesthetic. Only when Joe was awake and aware did Paul allow Ben and the boys to return to the room.
“Keep him quiet and warm,” Paul instructed them. “If he gets to running a fever, as he probably will, then do everything you can to cool him off. Strip off those blankets if need be. Give him fluid as often as you can. I’ve made up a solution of sugar water for him, to help replace the blood he’s lost. Another 24 hours should tell us how he’ll be. As long as infection doesn’t set in, he should recover.”
“And if infection does set in?” Adam asked, grimly.
Paul looked at him steadily for a long minute. “Then he’ll die,” he said, bluntly. “I’ve done all I can. It’s up to Joe now.”
About an hour later, Roy Coffee arrived. “How is Joe?” he asked, in his kindly way, motivated by real concern.
“Resting,” Ben answered, for he really didn’t know how Joe was. His son had not moved since Paul had left. Ben found it extraordinary that it was still just afternoon. It felt like days had passed.
“I’m real sorry ‘bout this,” Roy told him. “I went out to Blake’s place and found him there, Ben.”
At this, Ben’s attention sharpened. “What did he say?”
“He admitted it,” Roy replied, his face screwed up in an expression of distaste. “Admitted shootin’ his boy an’ then Joe. Didn’ try to deny it, an’ didn’ put up any kind o’ a fight.”
“That doesn’t make sense,” Ben muttered, slowly. “Ken was on top of Joe; his blood was all over him. Joe must have been shot first.”
“So Adam said,” agreed Roy, nodding. “I told Blake that. He shook his head. Said he’d shot his boy first.” He sighed. “He tol’ me where he was hidin’ an’ I asked how he knew it was his boy at that range. He said he knew by the jacket, ‘cos Joe Cartwright had given Ken his green jacket. He knew, because Joe was wearin’ a blue jacket when he beat him up in town.”
Frowning, trying to make sense of this, Ben just gazed at his friend. “But Joe hadn’t given Ken his green jacket; he just leant it to him that first day. He was wearing his blue jacket because…”
“…because his green jacket was being steamed for the Governor’s Ball,” Adam finished. “Blake must have thought that Joe had given Ken the green jacket to keep!”
“But why?” Hoss burst out, bewildered. “Why did he want ta shoot Ken?”
“He said that you Cartwrights had stolen Ken from him and he wanted to make sure you didn’t keep him.” Roy shook his head. He had seen a lot of the darker side of life, but it still saddened him. “There’ll be a trial, o’ course, but I don’t doubt Blake will hang.”
“It’s so sad,” Ben murmured. “A man with four fine sons and he drove three of them away and murdered the fourth. What a waste.”
Deciding that now was as good a time as any to leave, Roy began to edge towards the door. “I’ll be hearin’ about Little Joe,” he offered and left.
“I can’t imagine what that man must be feeling right now,” Ben whispered.
“I cain’t imagine what made him do such a thing in the first place,” Hoss corrected. “Why’d he want ta do a thing like that, Pa?”
Shaking his head, Ben seemed to come back to them from somewhere far away. “I have no idea, Hoss,” Ben admitted. “None. He must be sick.”
Neither Adam nor Hoss could argue with that.
Through the rest of the day and that night, Joe tossed and turned, mumbling incoherently while his body fought to replenish the blood it had lost and deal with the damage done. Although his temperature rose, it didn’t reach dangerous levels, and the rest of the family took heart from that.
Both Adam and Hoss knew that there was no point in trying to coax Ben into sleeping before he knew that Joe would be all right, so they traded off on sleeping and keeping their father company and supplied with coffee all night. As the hours wore on and Joe showed no signs of waking, they began to fear the worst.
But shortly after dawn, Joe’s restless movements ceased and after a minute of breathless anxiety, he opened his eyes. “Pa?” he whispered, his voice cracked.
“I’m here,” Ben responded, moving so that Joe, who was lying on his stomach, could see him. “How do you feel?”
“Sore,” Joe admitted. His eyelids dipped briefly then opened again. “What happened? I remember being hit in the back…?”
“You were shot,” Ben told him, steadily.
“I remember now,” Joe whispered, and Ben hurried to give him some of the sugar water Paul had left. Joe made a face at the taste, but drank it thirstily. Then Ben gave him the painkiller that had been left, and Joe also drank that without complaint. “Is Ken all right?” he asked.
The momentary hesitation told Joe everything he wanted to know. His eyes widened, and filled with tears. “No!” he whispered. “Please no!” The tears spilled down Joe’s face and Adam moved away so he didn’t have to be a witness to his brother’s distress. Just the thought of it was distressing enough to him without having to see it, too. He could feel tears pricking at his eyes.
After Joe’s initial grief had run its course, he slipped into sleep again, worn out by his emotion. Adam looked at Ben, and saw that his father was no less exhausted. “Go and rest, Pa,” he suggested, hoarsely. “I’ll come and get you when Joe wakes up.”
“Yes, I think I will,” Ben agreed.
Over the next few days, Joe began to recover and was soon sitting up in bed for a short time every day. He had never again mentioned Ken, and when Ben expressed his worry over this, Paul explained that the brain often did this, when the body needed a lot of healing. Once Joe was well on the mend, he would ask the questions he needed to.
In the meantime, Blake was brought to trial and Ben was required to go along to testify. He didn’t tell Joe where he was going, and Adam and Hoss allowed Joe to think that Ben was asleep. Joe was too ill to see through this lie.
Blake was a broken man. He meekly followed Roy into the court room and sat where he was told to. When it was his turn to be questioned, he answered all the questions in a dull monotone. It was like watching the man’s ghost, Ben thought, unexpectedly moved by pity for him.
Over the course of the questioning, it came out that Blake had a history of violence towards his family. It also became quite clear that he had lost his reason. He wasn’t a raving madman, by any means. He was just lost inside himself and when the judge handed down the sentencing of hanging, Blake didn’t react. Ben thought of pleading for mercy, but the judge had made it clear that clemency was not going to be given in this case.
“You gonna come an’ watch the hangin’, Ben?” Roy asked, as they stood together outside the courthouse in the late fall sunshine.
“No,” Ben answered. “No, I’m going home to be with my son.”
“Don’ blame ya,” Roy agreed. “See ya soon. Give Little Joe my best.”
“Thanks,” Ben replied, mounted up and rode home.
It was the following week before Joe, who had now progressed to sitting in a chair for an hour or so every day, asked, “Who shot me?”
Eyeing Joe closely, Ben could see the color returning to his cheeks. They had had some worrying times with Joe, for the bullet had been perilously close to his spine and Paul had been afraid that his legs might have been paralyzed and for the first day, Ben had feared the same, seeing how still Joe’s legs were. But that fear had mercifully proved unfounded and each day saw Joe a little stronger. “Aaron Blake,” Ben replied, watching Joe closely.
“Aaron Blake?” Joe repeated, faintly. His eyes were wide with horror. “Ken’s father?” Ben nodded. “But why?”
“He thought we’d stolen Ken from him and decided that if he couldn’t have Ken, neither could we.” Ben put his hand on Joe’s. “He told Roy that he’d tried several times to kill both you and Ken, but that you had always been with someone else. He’d even come looking for you the night of the Governor’s Ball, and was angry when he saw you there. He’d thought you’d be too badly hurt to attend. He said,” and Ben’s mouth twisted down, “that it was a case of mistaken identity. He thought you were Ken.”
“But that doesn’t make sense,” Joe replied.
“I know it doesn’t,” Ben agreed. “But Blake seems to have lost his reason somewhere along the line. Perhaps, in the strange world that he inhabited, it made sense to him.”
In dribs and drabs over the next few days, Ben told Joe about everything that Blake had said and about the trial. Joe absorbed it all, trying to comprehend the incomprehensible and failing, as the rest of his family had failed.
Gradually, Joe grew stronger and seemed to put the incident behind him. Ben was relieved that Joe seemed his usual cheerful self most of the time, although he had some dark days when his wound gave him a lot of pain, or he was annoyed that his body was still weak. He took comfort from the fact that when Joe was upset, the whole world knew it.
There came a day when Joe was able to go outside alone and it coincided with the first deep snow of the winter. Joe loved to be out in falling snow, and Ben had to make him promise not to stay out too long, for it was very cold and Joe was still weak.
When he came back in, glowing and laughing, Joe flopped down in front of the fire and for all the world looked like his old self again. “Coffee?” Ben suggested, wanting to do something concrete to warm Joe up.
“That would be great, Pa,” Joe agreed.
They sipped companionably for a minute, then Joe broke the silence. “I’ve been thinking about Ken,” he offered and Ben lowered his cup and nodded.
“Go on,” he urged.
“Ken had a rotten life for a long time,” Joe went on. “But you know, when he died, he was happy.”
“Was he?” Ben asked.
“Well, maybe not right that minute,” Joe allowed. “But before that, he was really happy. He told me so. He was making his way in the world, working to pay for what he wanted, learning new things every day and with a goal in mind. He was working with people who respected him and treated him decently.” He glanced at Ben. “Not everybody realizes how lucky they are,” he concluded. “I hadn’t, till he said that to me. I took all this for granted.” Joe looked around his home with fresh eyes. “I’m so very lucky, Pa, to have a home like this, where I’m shown such love.”
Smiling, despite the tears standing in his eyes, Ben leaned over to hug Joe. “We’re all lucky, son,” he said, huskily.