Summary: Missing scenes for the episode “A Time To Step Down.”
Word Count: 7983
As Dan Tolliver stepped into the cave, Joe Cartwright looked at him with disgusted disbelief. He could see that Dan had managed to get the money from Joe’s father, Ben, Dan’s long-time employer and friend. Joe could scarcely believe that Dan had betrayed the family like that and with two good-for-nothings like Temple and Sand.
“Any trouble?” asked Sand.
Throwing down the saddlebag, Dan shook his head. Temple snatched the bag up and opened it, rifling through the money, grinning broadly. Urgently, Joe continued rubbing the ropes that bound his wrists against the rock at his back, feeling the strands parting.
Picking up his knife, Dan walked over to Joe, who looked up at him blankly. “Hold it,” Sand ordered. “What are you doing?”
“I’m going to cut him loose,” Dan replied, looking bewildered. Joe rubbed harder and with relief felt the last strands of the rope parting. He tensed. “That’s what we agreed.”
“Yeah,” Sand nodded. “And we couldn’t a done it without you, Tolliver. But we ain’t lettin’ him go.”
“We agreed we’d set him loose and by the time he got back, we’d be long gone and they wouldn’t catch us,” Dan protested.
“What about next week, or next month or next year?” Sand demanded. “We’ve changed our plans.” He drew his gun as did Temple. Dan looked from one to the other and his knife dropped from his hand.
Before any of them could react, Joe launched himself across the space at Sand. He caught the outlaw around the waist and they tumbled to the ground. Dan took immediate advantage of Temple’s distraction to grapple with him.
For all Dan’s boasting that age wasn’t slowing him down, Temple was younger and threw Dan off. The older man landed heavily on his back and fumbled for his gun, vaguely aware that Joe and Sand were still wrestling furiously. He heard Joe grunt as a blow struck him in the stomach, then Sand shouted, “Shoot him, Temple!”
The other man fired and Dan shot at him, sure that Joe was dead. As Temple fell, his finger convulsed on the trigger and from behind Dan, Joe cried out in pain and fell to the ground, writhing in agony as the bullet burned into his side.
For a moment, Dan just stared at Temple, then glanced over at Sand. Realizing that Sand was also dead, from Temple’s first bullet, Dan scrambled to his feet and hurried over to Joe, who had managed to prop himself on his elbow, his right hand clamped to his side. “I didn’t mean for you to get hurt,” Dan apologized. “Where’d it take you?”
“In the side,” Joe replied. There was a covering of sweat on his face as he fought to control the pain. “I’ll be all right.” Joe looked up at Dan. “What’re you waiting for? You got all the money now. That’s what you wanted ain’t it?”
“No,” Dan replied. “Its all you left me with. What you forced on me.”
“Come on, Dan,” Joe retorted, scathingly. “No one forced you to anything. You did that all by yourself. You think you’re the only person to ever get old? It happens to lots of people. Only difference is, they adjust to it; find work they can handle. Good, honest work and they take pride in it. Not you. You’re too proud to work for my father, but you’re not too proud to steal from him.” Joe’s face twisted with momentary pain. “I feel sorry for you. You’ve a lot to offer. Fifty years experience on the trail; something you could’ve passed on. But you just quit! Go on, take the money! Try and buy yourself a friend like my father!” Joe caught his breath as another jolt of pain shot through him.
Turning, Dan moved away. Joe bit his lip, wondering how on earth he would get to his feet, far less reach the wagon and somehow drive home. But Dan wasn’t leaving. Joe’s words had hit home. “Let me help you,” he offered and all but lifted Joe to his feet, leaving him leaning painfully against the rock wall while Dan retrieved Joe’s hat and the saddlebag with the money.
Slowly, he helped Joe to walk outside and then get into the wagon. He climbed up beside Joe and shook up the team. Joe leaned back and tried to pretend that he wasn’t in agony. Dan would get him home, he knew, and there they would patch things up with Ben. More than anything, Joe wanted to see his father.
As dawn lit the sky, Ben went out into the yard. He crossed to the bunkhouse, and roused the hands who were sleeping there. “One of you go and get Hoss from the herd and bring him back,” Ben told them. “I may need one of you to ride to town later.”
He went back to the house, where he paced up and down the room while he waited for Hoss to arrive. After what seemed like an eternity, he heard hooves in the yard and moments later, the door opened and Hoss strode in, anxiety written all over his face. “What’s wrong, Pa?” he asked.
“It’s Joe,” Ben replied. “He was kidnapped yesterday by Dan Tolliver and a couple of others. I don’t know who. Dan wanted the payroll money, so I gave it to him. I told him I’d forget about it if Joe got back here safe this morning, but there’s been no sign, and I’m worried.”
“Dadburnit, I wish I’d come home last night when he never showed!” Hoss cried. “What d’ya want me ta do, Pa?”
Sighing, Ben rubbed the back of his neck. He didn’t really want Hoss to do anything right that moment, he’d just needed someone to share the load with. But if Joe didn’t show up soon, he would ask Hoss to track Dan and see if they could find Joe. He sighed again, but before he could say anything, he saw the wagon pulling into the yard.
For a moment, anger blazed white-hot through Ben, for Joe was clearly anything but all right. His son was slumped down in the wagon seat, leaning heavily against Dan Tolliver, who was driving. Ben hurried forward, anxiety and anger warring for the upper hand within him.
“Ben, I’m sorry,” Dan apologized, before Ben could speak. “I tried to keep him safe, honest I did. But they were going to kill us both.”
“Dan saved me,” Joe whispered, opening his eyes. His face was a mask of sweat and pain dulled his usually sparkling green eyes.
It was only too obvious that now was not the time to deal with this. Ben shot Dan a look. “Later,” he warned, and beckoned to Hoss to help him lift Joe from the wagon seat. “Get the doctor!” he called, and one of the hands mounted up and rode off at a gallop.
Up stairs, Ben supported Joe while Hoss unbuckled his gun belt and belt before gently lowering his son onto the bed. Joe’s right hand was still clamped to his side, where a circle of red was spreading slowly. “Pa,” Joe whispered, urgently. Ben leant over to better hear what Joe had to say. He stroked the curls back from Joe’s damp forehead. “Don’t be…mad at… Dan,” Joe panted. “He was…frightened. Foolish.” Joe bit back a groan.
“It’s all right, son,” Ben soothed, although right now he wasn’t in the mood to think about Dan Tolliver one way or the other. “Don’t worry about Dan.” He began to straighten up, but Joe caught at his shirt with weak fingers.
“No…you don’t…understand,” Joe gasped. He swallowed desperately against the pain. “Dan…didn’t…shoot…me.” He dragged in more air. “Temple…did.”
“Temple?” Ben repeated. Then the name clicked and he glanced at Hoss. “One of those two who beat you up?”
Joe nodded, exhausted. The pain was very bad now and he just wanted to sleep and not feel anything. Every breath was agony, for the bullet was still in his side. “Dan…killed…him,” he concluded. He blinked the sweat out of his eyes and squinted at his father to see how Ben was taking the news.
It was almost too much for Ben to think of at that moment. Joe was seriously injured and required medical attention right away, but at best, it would be two hours before the doctor arrived. Ben was angry with Dan, furious that he hadn’t kept his word to keep Joe safe, and yet Joe had just told Ben that Dan had saved his life. Ben didn’t know what to think. He rubbed his forehead, trying to help the thoughts settle, but his emotions were too raw and confused to allow him that peace. “I understand,” he told Joe and hoped that would be enough to allow his son to rest. “You take it easy, Joe.”
Satisfied that he had done what he could for the moment, Joe glanced at Hoss, who was standing at the bottom of the bed. Hoss’ troubled blue gaze met Joe’s pain-filled green one and the big man nodded. He had heard what Joe had said and would remind Ben of it later. A faint smile drifted across Joe’s face as he finally let go and drifted into unconsciousness.
It was an anxious wait for them all. Ben and Hoss did what they could for Joe, bathing him to try and keep down his growing fever and offering him sips of water. Outside in the yard, Dan leant against the corral fence and prayed. He couldn’t believe the results of his stubborn pride. He had never meant for Joe to be hurt. Why had he not listened to what Joe and Ben were suggesting? He was afraid, he supposed, of growing old. Stretching his hands out in front of him, Dan looked at the wrinkled skin. There was no denying it – he was old! Fifty years he had been wrangling, and Dan didn’t care to figure out how old that made him. Old enough not to fall in line with stupid schemes, he chided himself. Glancing over his shoulder, Dan looked up at Joe’s window. He hoped the boy would be all right. Why had he thought robbing Ben would make him feel better? The money was back in the safe now, but Dan knew he would always have an unease of conscience over it, even when he was paying for his crime in jail.
A buggy rattled into the yard, and Doc Martin got out as one of the hands went over to take the horse’s head. Dan looked at the man, envying his cool confidence. He hadn’t seen Joe; he didn’t know the state the boy was in. Paul Martin was a good doctor, but would he be able to help Joe now? As Paul’s back vanished into the house, Dan started praying again.
“Paul, thank goodness!” Ben exclaimed as Paul let himself into Joe’s room.
“I came as soon as I could, Ben,” Paul Martin replied, patting his friend’s arm, even as his eyes sought the young man on the bed. “Tell me about it.” He crossed over to sit lightly on the bed.
Quickly Ben told him the little he knew, and Paul nodded as he listened. “You did the right thing keeping him quiet,” Paul told him. “But now I need to get these clothes off him and get a look at that wound. Can you give me a hand?”
As they lifted Joe carefully, the movement evoked a long groan of pain and Joe’s eyes flickered open. “Pa,” he whispered and Ben reacted instantly, leaning in to sooth his son.
“It’s all right, Joe,” he replied. “The doctor is here and we’re just getting these filthy clothes off so he can examine you.”
Joe’s eyes flicked to the doctor’s face and a small grin appeared. “Hi, Doc,” he whispered.
“Nice to have you with us, Joe,” Paul replied. He stripped the shirt away from Joe’s back and looked in vain for an exit wound. “You can tell me, since you’re awake. What happened here?” He listened as Joe repeated essentially the same story as Ben, not because he didn’t believe Ben, but to check that Joe hadn’t had any kind of head injury. Gently he eased Joe back onto the bed and took his first good look at the wound.
Even if he hadn’t known that there was no exit wound, Paul would have known from just looking that the bullet was still in Joe. The wound was red and swollen and it was bleeding sluggishly again. “I’ll have to operate,” Paul announced, his words aimed as much at Joe as at Ben. With a martyred sigh, Joe nodded. Paul couldn’t hide a grin. Joe might not be at all well, but he wasn’t that far gone if he was prepared to give them a display of petulance.
After Joe had succumbed to the ether, Paul ushered Ben and Hoss out of the room. Ben hesitated, looking at the closed door for a moment. Hoss put his hand on his father’s shoulder. “Whyn’t ya go an’ see Dan?” he suggested, gently.
“Yes, why not?” Ben agreed and he made his way outside on slow feet, most of his mind up in the bedroom with Joe.
Dan was still leaning against the corral. He looked up when Ben approached and for a moment, he looked almost frightened. Then he swallowed. “How’s the boy?” he asked, nodding towards the house.
“The doctor’s operating now,” Ben replied. He looked up at Joe’s window. He hesitated, not sure what else to say.
“I was right foolish, Ben,” Dan stated, quietly. “Joe showed me that. I’m real sorry I done what I did. I never meant for Joe to be hurt. My pride was hurt an’ I didn’ know how to take what you was offerin’ ta me.”
“I didn’t offer it very well, did I?” Ben reflected, ruefully. Once more, his attention strayed to the house. “It’s over; let’s leave it that way.” He thrust his hands into his pants pockets and hunched his shoulders, trying to ease the tension out. “I’ve got to go back inside in case the doctor needs anything.” He left, not looking back.
Grasping the rail of the corral, Dan watched as his knuckles grew white. Ben was not going to give him a job now, he realized. He wasn’t going to turn him over to the law, or that was how it seemed, but there wasn’t going to be a job that he could do here. Dan resolved that as soon as he knew how Joe was, he’d leave.
The operation was comparatively short and Paul was back downstairs within the hour. “Joe’s been lucky,” he told Ben, bluntly. “The bullet missed his bowel by less than an inch and was within an inch of his kidney, too. There must have been a guardian angel up there looking out for him.”
“Will he be all right?” Ben asked, his face pale as he heard of his son’s close brush with death.
“Yes, in time,” Paul agreed. “He should be up in a few days, but he’ll have to be careful that he doesn’t overdo it too soon. Time is the only cure.”
“Thank you, Paul.” Turning away, Ben tried to hide the relief that swept through him, but he failed.
“I’ll have to tell Roy about this, but from what Joe says, it was Temple that shot him.” Paul took a step closer and looked at Ben. “What do you want me to say about Dan?”
“Just say he brought Joe home,” Ben responded. “Dan didn’t mean to do anything like this. He was hurt and reacting against it. He did the right thing in the end. No, leave Dan out of it, Paul. He didn’t shoot Joe.” Ben’s eyes were drawn to the stairs once more and Paul smiled.
“You go to your son, Ben and I’ll see myself out.” He patted his friend on the shoulder and went towards the door. Hoss went with him, although Paul could see that he, too, would be heading to Joe’s room as soon as he was gone.
Dan was still standing by the corral. He turned as Paul Martin came and felt a wave of relief sweep over him as he saw the amused smile playing over the physician’s lips. “Doc, is Joe…?”
“He’s going to be fine, Dan,” Paul replied, patting the old man on the arm. “Good thing you were there to bring him back. I know Joe’s a stubborn cuss and doubtless told you he was all right, but he’d never have got home alone.” Still smiling, Paul got into the buggy and snapped the reins. Dan watched the buggy go and then went over to his horse. Mounting, he rode quietly away.
Joe was awake when they went up. He found a small smile for them both and Ben returned it, sitting on the edge of the bed, careful not to jostle the injured man. “How do you feel?” he asked.
“Sore,” Joe replied, truthfully. It was more than just sore, but he knew the painkiller he’d been given would start to work soon. “Guess I’m not going to be trail boss after all, Pa.” The smile Joe essayed didn’t hide his pain at missing out. “Sorry, Hoss. I know you weren’t expecting to be landed with this again.”
“Aw hush up,” Hoss scolded gently. “We can hang on a week or two fer ya.”
“Good try, big brother,” Joe replied, moving slightly on the bed and wincing as he did so. “But we both know you need to set off tomorrow to get to market on time. Don’t try to con me. But next year, for sure, I’ll be trail boss.”
Troubled by the depth of his brother’s disappointment, Hoss frowned. “Joe…”
“Hoss, please, just go like we planned. Everything is organized. I’ll be here when you get back, all better again, I promise.” Frustration, pain and disappointment combined to bring tears to Joe’s eyes where they glittered, but didn’t fall. “Please, Hoss.”
“All right,” Hoss capitulated. “I’ll leave at first light tomorra.” He smiled for his brother, but it wasn’t convincing. Joe smiled back, but after a moment, his eyes drooped closed as the drug started to work.
“Take care,” Joe whispered, and slipped into slumber.
“An’ ya,” Hoss replied, softly.
First light saw the men starting the big cattle drive to Sacramento. This year, Ben had a contract with one of the biggest beef buyers in the country, who wanted to buy every single beast Ben could provide. The money was excellent, too. It meant that there was less pressure to get the herd there early, but from Ben’s point of view, the sooner they were away, the sooner the ranch had the money in the bank. Ben saw Hoss off and returned home to have breakfast with Joe.
“How’s Dan this morning?” Joe asked, as he ate. “I thought he might have come up to see me.”
“That’s funny,” Ben frowned. “I thought I’d see Dan either down at the camp with the boys or up here in the yard and I didn’t see him at all. I wonder where he is.”
“You did talk to him, didn’t you, Pa?” Joe enquired, anxiously. “You told him you forgave him and wanted him to stay?”
“Yes, of course I did,” Ben responded. He thought back to the conversation the previous morning. He met Joe’s eyes. “I don’t know that I said it in so many words,” he admitted. “I was worried about you, Joe, and I maybe didn’t make myself clear enough.” He squirmed uncomfortably under Joe’s very direct green gaze. “I think I’d better look for him,” Ben decided and saw the relief on his son’s face.
It was a while before Ben was back and Joe was dozing when he returned. However, he jerked awake as he heard his father’s step and blinked sleepily. “Well?” he asked, eagerly. “Did you find him?”
“No,” Ben sighed, sinking down into a chair. “Dan’s disappeared. Nobody’s seen him since Doc Martin left here yesterday afternoon. He isn’t with the trail riders and he wasn’t in the bunkhouse last night.”
“Pa, go after him,” Joe urged. “You said yourself, he taught you everything, and you’ve been friends since before I was born. You can’t let him go now.”
Meeting Joe’s pleading green eyes, Ben wasn’t sure what to do. He wanted to go after Dan, but he knew that Joe needed looking after, too. “But you need me here,” he protested. “Or I would go after Dan.”
“Hop Sing is here,” Joe reminded his father. “And if you go now, you’ll catch up to Dan today and you can be back here tomorrow at the latest, both of you.” Seeing that Ben was wavering, Joe added, “Pa, please. He saved my life and we can use him here to teach these young guys to wrangle cattle the way he did.”
“You’re right,” Ben acknowledged. “I’ll go and fetch him back. Are you sure you’ll be all right, Joe?”
“I’ll be fine,” Joe assured him. He gave his father a smile. “You hurry and find Dan, and I’ll be good until you get back.”
“I’ll be as quick as I can,” Ben promised and hurried off to make his preparations.
Wakening from a deep sleep, Joe stared uncomprehendingly at Hop Sing as the Oriental gibbered at him. It took Joe several minutes to realize what the cook was saying and when it did sink into his tired brain, Joe felt a surge of adrenalin charge through his system; Hoss had gone off and left behind the contract for the sale of the herd!
“Slow down,” Joe pleaded. “Let me think.”
His first thought was that he should mount up and ride after his brother but as he tried to push himself further up the bed, the twinge of pain from his side reminded him forcibly that he was in no condition to go riding off across the country. If he had been, then he would be riding off as trail boss.
“The contract was on Pa’s desk, you say?” Joe questioned, trying to force his brain to work.
“Yes, yes,” nodded Hop Sing impatiently. “I dust father’s desk. See it there.”
There was no other choice. “Hop Sing, you’ll have to ride after Hoss and give this to him,” Joe told the housekeeper. “The men who were left here will be off doing chores and I don’t know where they’ll be. If you leave now, you should be back tomorrow.”
Hop Sing frowned. “Not leave Lil Joe alone,” he protested. “Lil Joe not able.”
“I’ll manage,” Joe assured him. “Hop Sing, I promise, I’ll be just fine. Pa will be back by morning at the latest. He’ll probably be back tonight, for you know he hates sleeping on the ground.” Joe fixed his pleading eyes on his friend, for he knew Hop Sing was no more able to resist them than Ben was. “It’s really important, Hop Sing. We don’t want Hoss to turn tail and come back for that. Think of the time he’d lose, and we can’t entrust a contract to just anyone, you know.”
“All right, I go,” agreed the housekeeper, against his better judgment. He did know how important it was for the Cartwrights, and knew that Joe had been thinking of going himself. Hop Sing would not put it past Joe to try and go after Hoss, and he didn’t want that happening! “I bring some food up an’ you stay in bed.”
“I promise,” Joe vowed, holding his hand up, palm out. He was sure Ben would be back by night fall.
Finding Dan was not proving as easy as Ben had expected. He followed a trail for a while, then lost it. Unsure where else to go, he headed into town and went to see Beth, who owned the café. He knew that Dan was a friend of hers, and knew, too, that Beth still held a candle for Dan.
The café was quiet when Ben went in and he was glad of the offer of coffee. “Sit down, please, Beth,” he urged. “Have you seen Dan today? I’m looking for him. I think we’ve had a misunderstanding.”
Looking at him levelly for a moment, Beth asked, “Was that money yours?”
Ben was startled, but he pretended not to know what she meant. “I don’t know,” he replied. “What money?”
“So it was. Is the law looking for Dan?”
“No, Beth, of course not!” Ben denied, vehemently. “I’m looking for Dan because we had a misunderstanding. I want him to come back.”
Whether it was Ben’s reputation, or the honesty in his eyes, Beth was never sure, but she decided then and there that she believed him and that Dan wasn’t in trouble, as he had told her he was late the night before. Beth loved Dan and would have married him in an instant, but she had known that he was not the kind of man to marry and settle down. “He’s heading down to Arizona,” she told Ben. “He left at first light, so you should catch him fairly quickly.”
“Thank you, Beth,” Ben replied, warmly, grasping her hand. “Bless you.”
“You have nothing to thank me for,” Beth smiled. “Just bring him back.”
“I intend to,” Ben told her and hurried out to his horse.
It wasn’t difficult after that to find the trail that Dan had taken. In fact, Roy Coffee told Ben which direction Dan had taken. He had hailed the other man as Ben left the café. “Ben! Paul Martin told me Joe had been shot by that good-fer-nothing Temple. That true?”
“Of course it’s true!” Ben snapped. “Didn’t Paul tell you all the story?”
“Sure did,” Roy agreed. “He said Dan brought Joe home. How’s the boy doin’? He gonna be all right?”
“Yes, he’ll be fine,” Ben replied. “Say, Roy, have you seen Dan? I need to speak to him. It’s kind of important.”
“Sure, seen him this mornin’,” Roy replied, looking confused at the sudden change of subject. “Why? He done somethin’ wrong, Ben?”
“No,” Ben scoffed. “We had a few words and I need to speak to him to apologize properly. With Joe being hurt, I didn’t get the chance yesterday and he was gone this morning.”
“Oh,” Roy replied. He sensed that Ben wasn’t telling him the whole truth, but knowing that Ben was a law-abiding citizen, he trusted that it was nothing that had anything to do with him. “He went that-a-way.” He pointed.
“Thanks,” Ben called, as he mounted Buck. “See you, Roy.” He touched his heel to his horse and rode out of town at a gallop.
While Ben headed out after Dan, Hop Sing rode in search of Hoss and the herd, confident that he would find him soon and be headed back home. Leaving Joe alone had not been part of the plan and the little Oriental was uneasy.
However, at that point in time, he had nothing to be uneasy about. Joe was sleeping peacefully, secure in his hopes that both father and housekeeper would be back before dark. And even if they weren’t, Joe was blithely certain that he would manage without them.
It was late afternoon before Ben spotted the man he was searching for. “Dan!” he cried and saw the older man hesitate and look over his shoulder. “Dan, wait, please!” he shouted. He made Buck break into a lope and for a moment, he thought Dan was going to ride off, but to Ben’s relief, he saw the other man stop his mount.
“You’re a hard man to track down,” Ben panted, when he reached Dan. The other man said nothing, merely looked at Ben. “Let’s get down so we can talk,” Ben suggested and dismounted. After a moment, Dan copied him.
“I don’t have nothing to say,” Dan stated.
“Then listen,” Ben proposed. “Dan, I’m sorry. I didn’t make myself clear back at the house. I meant to say that I forgive you; that I know you didn’t intend for anything to happen to Joe. I want you to stay at the Ponderosa. Please say you’ll come back.”
“There ain’t a place for me there, Ben, you made that clear,” Dan replied.
“Of course there is!” Ben cried.
“What?” Dan demanded. “What can I do, Ben? You said it yourself – I’m an old man! What use am I?”
Controlling his temper, Ben took a deep breath. “There is work you can do,” he replied quietly.
“I’m not going to be a ranch hand!” Dan shouted. “I’m a wrangler, Ben! I always have been!”
“I know that!” Ben snapped. “And I wasn’t about to suggest you become a ranch hand. I did that before and I know I was wrong! Dan, please, listen to me.” He saw the other man nod and drew another deep breath. “Dan, you taught me everything I know,” Ben went on.
“I remember,” Dan replied, softly.
“You’re a good teacher,” Ben praised him. “But who taught you what you know?”
For a long moment, Ben thought Dan wasn’t going to answer. The older man’s eyes were unfocused, looking back over 50 years of hard work. “An old wrangler,” he replied at last. “Someone like I am now. He taught me everything he knew.”
“Yes,” Ben nodded and waited.
“I could do that,” Dan murmured. He looked at Ben, his face suddenly animated. “I taught you; I’ve taught your boys, too. I could teach those smart-alecky young’uns that come every year and don’t know nothing. I could do that!”
“I know you could,” Ben replied. He put his hand on Dan’s shoulder. “Will you come back? Please?”
A smile spread across Dan’s weather-beaten face. “I will come!” he declared. “Ben, I will!”
“I’m so glad to hear it!” Ben cried.
By the time Hop Sing caught up with Hoss, the herd was stopped for the night. Not being completely familiar with the trail Hoss was following, Hop Sing had had to follow the herd’s trail instead of cutting across country as he had planned to do. Riding wasn’t one of Hop Sing’s favorite occupations and he was exhausted as he drew his horse to a stand still. “Mistah Hoss!” he cried.
Looking over, Hoss’ genial face was a picture of confusion as he saw Hop Sing. “What cha doin’ here, Hop Sing?” he asked, as he helped the tired man down from his horse. “Joe ain’t no worse, is he?”
“Lil Joe just fine,” Hop Sing panted. He hunted through his clothes until he found the precious contract. “Mistah Hoss left this.”
Taking the contract, Hoss peered at it for a moment. “Dadburnit! How’d I leave that behind?”
“Hop Sing no know,” the other replied. He was immensely relieved that he had found Hoss and didn’t have the responsibility weighing on him any more.
Tucking it safely away inside his vest, Hoss smiled at Hop Sing. “Ya’d better have somethin’ ta eat an’ a good night’s sleep afore ya try an’ go home,” Hoss suggested. “It’s a long ride.”
A thread of worry crept through Hop Sing’s stomach as he thought of Joe alone at the ranch, but there was no way that he was going to attempt to make his way back to the ranch in the dark. “I stay,” he agreed tiredly and went off to get something to eat and complain to the cook about the food.
Darkness caught Ben and Dan less than half way back to the Ponderosa. They made camp and Ben brought Dan up-to-date on Joe’s progress, blithely unaware that Joe was alone at the ranch. The two old friends reminisced about the days gone by. Dan had already been an experienced wrangler when Ben bought his first piece of land, and Dan had taken the young man under his wing.
“You never think of marrying again, Ben?” Dan asked.
“I never dismissed the idea, but I never really found anyone else,” Ben replied. He’d fallen in love a few times, but somehow, the relationships had come to nothing. “I still miss Marie,” he confided.
“She was made for you, Ben,” Dan agreed. “And she was so good to those boys of yours. Treated them like they were her own, even after Joe came along. Never made any difference between them.” Dan shook his head. “If Adam had been half as rude to me as he was to Marie in the beginning, I’d have tanned his backside,” he confided.
“He surely wasn’t that bad!” Ben protested. “Or I would have tanned his backside!”
“I reckon that little wife of yours didn’t tell you everything,” Dan retorted. “She just kept on being nice and kind to him, and he come around. It must a been a shock to him when you brought her back.”
“I suppose it must,” Ben agreed. “I didn’t think about it at the time. All I knew was that I had found love again – and I felt as though I had never loved before.”
“I never found me a woman like that,” Dan mourned.
“She might be nearer than you think,” Ben told him.
“How’d ya mean?” Dan asked, frowning over the fire at his friend.
“Beth?” Ben suggested gently. “She loves you, Dan. She always did. She was only waiting for you to ask.”
“Naw,” Dan denied. “I ain’t the right kind for Beth. She needs someone to look after her.”
“She needs someone to love her,” Ben corrected him. “And she loves you, Dan, whether you believe me or not.”
“What do I have to offer?” Dan growled, clearly uncomfortable with the direction the conversation was taking. “I’m an old man, Ben.”
“You have to offer what you always had,” Ben replied. “Yourself. If a woman is looking for more than that, then she’s not worth it. It doesn’t matter to Beth that you aren’t rich. She never expected you to be. She just wants you the way you are.”
“I ain’t so sure,” Dan muttered, but he was obviously thinking about it.
“You won’t know till you ask,” Ben agreed and rolled himself in his bedroll. Dan was still staring into the fire, thinking about Beth, when Ben fell asleep.
Joe was lonely. The most gregarious of the Cartwrights, he was frequently content with just his own company, but confined to his bed, Joe found it difficult to entertain himself and wished that his family would hurry back. He had expected Ben back the night before and Joe began to worry that Ben had not found Dan, or that Dan had not been willing to come back.
And then there was Hop Sing. Joe hoped that nothing had happened to his friend. It was a long ride for someone who usually drove a wagon and Joe felt guilty that he had been unable to go in Hop Sing’s place. He was also disappointed that he had missed out on being trail boss. There would be other years, he knew, but still, the disappointment was keen.
Still, Joe managed to while away the morning, and as he ate the last of the cold food Hop Sing had left for him, he hoped someone would be home before supper time. Joe was feeling much better and his appetite was returning. He really didn’t fancy missing a meal.
Meanwhile Ben, Dan and Hop Sing were making their way back. None of them were traveling very fast. Hop Sing’s horse had lost a shoe not long after he left Hoss and the herd and he was forced to dismount and lead the animal back, thereby slowing his traveling down immensely. Ben, of course, didn’t know that Joe was alone, and thought it wouldn’t matter if he didn’t get home until afternoon.
The skies began to darken after lunchtime. Joe was woken from sleep by a crash of thunder right overhead. His room, despite the open window, was oppressively close and the air seemed to be charged with electricity. A flash of lightning illuminated the sky and Joe could smell the burning air. The bang as it struck close by made him flinch. He remembered the saying that if you heard the bang, it hadn’t struck you. Still, it had been very close. As Joe debated getting up to see if he could see any signs of where it had hit, he heard the barn door banging as the wind got up.
It was the first time he had got up for more than a moment, and Joe’s head swam dizzily. He drew in deep breaths, calming the pain in his side. He had not taken a single pain powder since Hop Sing left, and felt that his head was much clearer for not doing so. Now, he wondered if he had been wise, but he was only going to his window to see if anyone was closing the barn door. It wasn’t as if he was going anywhere.
There wasn’t a soul in the yard. The horses in the corral, including Cochise, milled about anxiously. But Joe’s eyes weren’t on the banging barn door, or even on the horses. They were riveted to the burning pine tree that stood just at the back of the barn.
There was no time to lose. Joe sat heavily on the edge of the bed and dragged on his pants and boots. There was no time to waste hunting for a shirt. If that tree came down, there was a fair chance it would come down on the barn, and they couldn’t afford to lose the barn now!
Cursing his weakness, Joe forced his aching body to hurry as he went to the door, along the hall and down the stairs. The great room was naturally deserted and the fire had burned out. Joe didn’t care. He struggled over to the door and went to the fire bell, a big iron triangle that hung near the kitchen door. Grabbing up the piece of metal that they used to strike it, he began to ring the bell for all he was worth, panting with the effort and hoping desperately that the men who had been left behind were somewhere close by.
Pain forced him to stop. Joe clasped his right hand to his side and felt a warmth under it. Glancing down, he saw a small spot of blood blossoming on the bandage round his middle. He had burst the stitches. He grimaced with the pain, but there was no time to waste. He had to start tackling the fire. There was no guarantee that the men were anywhere nearby and had heard the bell. Joe snatched up the nearest bucket and hurried around the back of the barn.
He knew it was a useless effort – one man against a burning tree. Yet he had to try. He had to save the barn if he possibly could. He staggered back and forth to the water trough, emptying bucket after bucket on the tree, to no avail. Joe tottered back round to the yard and collapsed in a heap by the trough as his strength ran out.
Moments later, the heavens opened and rain poured down, dousing the fire before it could cause any further damage. Joe lay oblivious.
“There’s weather coming in,” Dan reported.
“I know,” Ben agreed. He had been watching the clouds gathering over the hills for miles now. “Let’s pick up the pace a bit. We don’t want to get soaked.” Dan grunted agreement, and the horses stretched out into a ground eating lope.
The thunder and lightning began a few minutes later. Ben gasped as he saw a tree suddenly flame into life. Dan flicked a glance at him. “What is it, Ben?” he asked.
“I’m not 100% certain,” Ben replied, “but I think that tree is by the house!”
“Let’s hurry,” Dan replied, and they kicked their horses into a gallop. A few minutes later, the ringing of the fire bell could be heard. Ben blessed Hop Sing’s quick thinking. He could still see the tree burning fiercely.
Again, the thunder rumbled around them and then the storm broke in drenching torrents of ran. With relief, Ben saw the flames on the tree flicker before they were extinguished by the rain. He heaved a sigh of relief. He hoped that the barn was still all right and they didn’t slow their horses at all.
Thundering along the road, Ben was relieved when the barn came into sight and it was unscathed. He slowed his horse and they peered at the burnt tree as they rode past. Ben knew it would have to come down, but that was a problem for later. Right now, he just wanted to get out of the rain and dry off.
As he trotted Buck round the corner of the barn, a cry escaped Ben’s lips, for Joe lay face down in the yard. Ben was off his horse in an instant, kneeling by his son’s side. “Joe? Joe, can you hear me?”
“Ben?” Dan said, from over his shoulder. He bent to see what Ben was looking at, not having seen Joe, and caught his breath. “What’s Joe doing out here?”
“I don’t know,” Ben replied. “Joe?” He was rewarded with a groan. Gently, Ben turned Joe over. His son’s face was pale under the dirt that caked his cheeks, and the bandages around his waist were dirty, too, but the dirt didn’t hide the blood stain that was spreading across them. “He’s bleeding!” Ben exclaimed. He didn’t hesitate any longer, but slid one arm under Joe’s knees and the other under his shoulders. Moments later, other hands joined his and together, he and Dan carried Joe into the house, out of the soaking rain.
The ringing of the fire bell had brought the few hands who had stayed behind and one of them was dispatched to bring the doctor from town. Dan fetched Ben some water and Ben washed the dirt from Joe’s face, which brought him back to consciousness. “The fire!” he whispered as his eyes opened.
“Its all right, Joe, the fire’s out,” Ben soothed. “What were you doing out there? Where’s Hop Sing?”
A grimace of pain passed over Joe’s face. “The tree was on fire,” he explained. “Hop Sing went after Hoss; he forgot the contract. I saw the fire and had to try and do something. There was no one else here.” Joe grimaced again as he tried to make himself comfortable. “I must’ve passed out.” He shivered suddenly and Ben drew the covers up around Joe’s bare shoulders. The storm had taken the heat out of the day.
“That was very brave of you,” Ben commented, and Joe’s eyes suddenly twinkled.
“You mean foolish, don’t you?” he teased.
“That too,” Ben agreed. “Joe, you’ve hurt yourself.”
“I know,” Joe agreed and the pain passed across his face again. “But there was no one else here.”
“How could Hop Sing go and leave you alone?” Ben scolded, his worry getting the better of him.
“I told him to go,” Joe confessed. “I didn’t know how long you would be gone and the men were off out somewhere, and it seemed easier for Hop Sing to go. I was all right, and I wouldn’t have got out of bed if there hadn’t been that fire.” Joe winced again. “I don’t regret it,” he lied unconvincingly.
“Don’t you?” Ben asked, bluntly.
“Well, maybe just a little,” Joe agreed, smiling. Then he sobered. “But if that tree had fallen, we could have lost the barn. Maybe there wasn’t anything I could do, Pa, but I had to try.”
“I know, and I’m proud of you, son,” Ben told him. “You rest; the doctor will be here soon.”
Sighing, Joe closed his eyes and a few minutes later, his even breathing told Ben he slept.
The damage Joe had done to his wound was easily repaired with a few stitches. He was told to stay in bed for a few more days, and then he could get up and sit downstairs for a few hours at a time. “But no more fire-fighting!” Paul warned, wagging his finger at Joe. “You take it easy until I tell you otherwise, you hear?”
“All right, all right,” Joe grumbled, smiling. He had had to put up with a lecture from Hop Sing, too, when the little Chinaman had arrived home, footsore and tired. Joe wondered what they would have said if he’d allowed the barn to burn down. How was he to know that the rain would douse the burning tree?
“I’ll make sure he behaves,” Ben promised, moving in to smile at Joe. “We won’t go leaving him alone again.”
“Glad to hear it,” Paul joked and left them alone.
Joe was tired but there was something he had to find out before he slept. “Pa, what about Dan?” he asked.
“What about Dan?” Ben replied, sitting on the edge of the bed and smiling down at Joe.
“Did you find him?” Joe asked, impatient with the prevarication. “Did he come back?”
Smiling, Ben nodded. “Sure did,” he replied. “He helped me carry you inside, as it happens. He’s settling back into the bunkhouse as we speak.”
“So he’s going to stay?” Joe asked, determined there would be no misunderstanding.
“Yes, he’s going to stay,” Ben agreed. “He’s going to teach what he knows to those young lads who come every year and don’t know anything. With his help, we should have a bunch of good wranglers coming along.”
“I’m glad,” Joe replied. “I’m sorry this happened, Pa. It was all my fault. If I hadn’t been so determined to get Dan off the trail, none of this would have happened.”
“Hush, Joe,” Ben soothed. “This isn’t all your fault. I was at fault, too, for the way I told Dan I wanted him to stay here. I didn’t think it through properly. I should never have asked him to be a hand; I knew he wouldn’t do that. And Dan was at fault, too, for not admitting that he was finding the work too hard. This was not one person’s fault, Joe. We were all to blame. Let’s be thankful that we’ve found our way through it and come out safely on the other side.”
A month later, Joe was back riding. He still had to be careful, but day by day he felt his strength coming back. He and Ben were riding back from town when they heard shouting. Going over, they saw Dan trying to teach one of the new young hands how to rope a horse. To say the youth wasn’t having much success was an understatement.
“What’s the matter with ya, boy? Can’t ya see that horse standin’ there as big as life?” Dan yelled.
Again, the young cowboy threw the rope and again he missed. Dan’s scathing comments cut the air, even as he explained again how to throw the rope.
“Its good to have him back, isn’t it?” Joe asked, a catch in his voice. Dan had settled in better than they had hoped and he was seeing Beth regularly, too.
“Yes, it is,” Ben agreed fervently and both he and Joe began to laugh as Dan’s comments reached a new pitch of disbelief. Hearing the laughter, he turned round and looked at his boss and he began to laugh, too. The young cowboy gave them a bemused, embarrassed grin, and this time, to Dan’s delight, he roped the horse.