Singled Out (by Rona)

Summary:

Rated:  PG
Word Count:  10,019


 

“Cartwright,” growled a low voice.

Standing by the punch table, getting a drink for himself and his date, Joe Cartwright stiffened. “What do you want, Jennings?” he asked, warily, not looking at the other man.

“You’re marked, Cartwright,” Jennings hissed. “Just remember that! You’re marked!”

As Jennings sidled away into the crowd of revelers, Joe dropped the ladle back into the punch bowl and put the cup down absently. So it was out, and he was a marked man. He drew in an unsteady breath. He would have to mind his back for sure now.

*****

“There’s smoke!” Joe declared as he and a group of his friends rode over to Tony Parson’s house. Tony and his family had arrived in Virginia City a few months before and he and Joe had become fast friends, with Tony joining the crowd that Joe hung out with.  On this particular evening, Tony’s mother had invited his friends over for supper.

“Looks like its coming from the Parsons’ place,” Mitch Devlin agreed.

“Come on!” Joe urged, kicking his pinto into a gallop. Mike Abbott, Jeff Campbell and Don Foster all hesitated momentarily before following. They weren’t so sure they wanted to get involved in fire fighting.  But in all conscience, they couldn’t avoid going to help. It was one of the obligations of living in such a tough landscape. Everyone helped out everyone else.

As they drew nearer, Joe and Mitch in the front, they could see that both the house and the barn were well alight. “Get the horses out of the barn!” Joe ordered as he slithered down from Cochise and turned his horse loose into the meadow, away from danger. “I’ll check the house!”

“Joe, wait!” Mitch cried, but he was talking to himself. Joe was already running over to the burning homestead.

He was at the foot of the porch steps when the door opened and four youths barreled out. Without hesitating, they literally ran Joe over, knocking him to the ground and kicking him while he was down for good measure. Joe knew them all and as he dragged himself to his feet, wincing, he saw the Jennings brothers leap onto horses and ride away.

Seeing Mike coming across, Joe waved him away and headed into the house. He knew that the Parsons must be there somewhere. Smoke eddied in his face and Joe dragged out a bandanna and clutched it to his nose, coughing.

The parlor was empty, although the table was set in there for supper. Joe went on through into the kitchen, but the fire was so fierce in there that he was forced to retreat, unable to tell if there was someone in there.

The other downstairs room was also empty. Joe glanced apprehensively at the flames now licking the door between parlor and kitchen. He didn’t have long, he knew, but he had to find Tony and his family. He raced upstairs.

All the doors upstairs stood open, bar one. Joe tried the handle, gasping at the heat coming from it. The door was locked. Immediately, Joe threw his weight against the door. Three times he hit it before the lock sprang and Joe catapulted into the room.

The heat was horrific and Joe realized this room was directly above the blazing kitchen. Mrs. Parsons was tied to a chair. Mr. Parsons and Tony were tied back to back, and they were all gagged. Joe knelt by Tony and his father, dragging out his knife and slicing through their bonds. “Get out!” he yelled, above the noise and the smoke. “I’ll get your mother!”

As Tony and his father rose shakily to their feet, Joe hurried across to Mrs. Parsons and began to cut her bonds. He helped her to her feet, but it was clear that she was much too shaken to walk. Joe stowed away his knife and picked her up.

The smoke was thicker than ever, and Joe could no longer hold the bandanna over his face. He began to cough at once. Mrs. Parsons appeared to have fainted, for her head rested heavily on Joe’s shoulder and she was completely limp. When he had first lifted her, Joe had thought she weighed very little, but with every step he took, her weight seemed to increase.

With a roar, the outside wall of the room burst into flames. Joe felt the heat licking his back as he staggered towards the door. The very air seemed to burn as he drew it into his lungs. But he couldn’t rest now, as he wanted. He had to keep going and get Mrs. Parsons to safety.

Reaching the top of the stairs, Joe leant for a moment against the wall. His chest was heaving as he fought to get the air he required and his head was swimming from the thick smoke that eddied around him. Joe suddenly realized that the wall he was leaning against was hot – very hot! With a ragged cry, he straightened and started to descend the stairs.

Three quarters of the way down, Joe lost his footing and tumbled to the floor. Somehow, he managed to twist around so that Mrs. Parsons was cushioned against him, but he was winded and lay there for several seconds before getting his breath back.

The whole house was ablaze now and he was finding it increasingly difficult to concentrate his thoughts as the smoke affected his thinking. But the survival instinct was strong in Joe, and he somehow got to his feet and staggered towards the door.

He burst through into the clearer air outside and fell down the porch steps. This time, he was unable to keep hold of Mrs. Parsons and she rolled across the ground. Joe simply could not get up. He wheezed and coughed as he tried to get air. The wind fanned more smoke over him. Joe closed his eyes.

Then there were hands there, dragging him away from the burning house. It was the last thing Joe remembered as he plunged into unconsciousness.

*****

“Hello, Mitch,” Ben Cartwright exclaimed in surprise, as he opened his door to the frantic knocking. He gazed at the youth in disbelief, for he was liberally streaked with soot.

“Mr. Cartwright, there’s been a fire,” Mitch panted.

“A fire?” Ben echoed. “Where?”

“At the Parsons. Come quick!” He tugged at Ben’s sleeve.

“Wait!” Ben ordered, confused. “I’ll get some men.”

“No, you don’t understand,” Mitch cried. “Joe’s been hurt. He’s at Doc Martin’s and they want you to come quick.”

“I’ll be right there,” Ben agreed, his heart in his mouth. He turned back into the house and saw that both Hoss and Adam, who had gone upstairs to get ready for bed, were standing there. “Joe…” he began but Adam interrupted.

“We heard. We’re coming, too, Pa.” They hurried over to the door, snatched up hats and gun belts and headed out to the barn for their horses, while Mitch panted out the whole story.

The ride into town was essentially silent and Ben kept his heel to his horse all the way. He raced along the main street and pulled up before the doctor’s office. He carelessly hitched his horse and hurried inside, Adam, Hoss and Mitch on his heels.

The waiting room was full. Mr. Parsons and Tony were there, also covered in soot and coughing steadily. Mike, Jeff and Don fidgeted uncertainly in a corner. “Where’s Joe?” Ben asked.

Hearing the voice, Dr Paul Martin came out. He looked grim and Ben’s heart leapt into his mouth and started beating at twice its usual speed. He found he couldn’t talk. But Paul didn’t address Ben at once. He went over and sat beside Mr. Parsons. “I’m very sorry,” he said, quietly. “Your wife passed away a few moments ago. I’m so sorry.”

Parsons dissolved into tears. Tony’s face drained of all color and his eyes were wide. Ben’s heart went out to the bereaved family, and he feared even more for his son. “I’m so sorry,” he muttered, brokenly.

“Would you like to see her?” Paul asked and Parsons nodded. Paul gave Ben a look as he led the Parsons into the other room. He was back a few moments later.

“Ben, boys, come in, please,” Paul asked, and stood back to allow the Cartwrights into the consulting room.

The Parsons were not there, for which Ben was thankful. Joe lay on the examination table, his eyes closed. As Ben hurried over to him, he began to cough, a deep, harsh noise as his body tried to rid itself of the poisons he had inhaled. “Joe?” Ben whispered.

For a brief instant, Joe opened his eyes. They looked very green in the smoke-streaked pallor of his face. But he didn’t say anything and his eyes drifted closed again at once.  Ben glanced over at Paul.

“Joe’s going to be all right,” Paul assured him. “He’s inhaled a lot of smoke, Ben and he was unconscious for quite a while. He hasn’t banged his head, though, which is good. He apparently fell down the porch steps and he’s sprained his ankle. Apart from that, he has some minor burns on his right arm and left hand. His throat is also very raw. But he’s going to be just fine,” he reiterated.

“Do you know what happened?” Adam asked as Ben sat down beside Joe and drew the blankets back. Joe’s right arm was bandaged, as was his left hand. Joe lay on his left side and Ben could see that his back was pink, as though he had been sunburned. Joe coughed again and Ben hovered helplessly as his son grew breathless in his fight for oxygen.

“Mitch told us that when they arrived at the Parsons’ place, the house and barn were already on fire. Mitch and the others got the horses from the barn and Joe went into the house. He freed the Parsons, who told me they were tied up in an upstairs room.” Paul went over and listened to Joe’s chest. Joe was drifting in and out of sleep.

“Who did it?” asked Hoss, frowning. “An’ why?”

“Good question,” Paul agreed. “But the Parsons haven’t been around here long enough to have recognized the men who did it, and I didn’t have time to ask Mitch and the others. That’s Roy’s job.”

“When can I take Joe home?” Ben asked. Although he was heart-sorry for the Parsons, his main concern was Joe.

“Not till tomorrow,” Paul replied. “I want him here where I can keep an eye on him overnight. He’s having a bit of difficulty breathing, as you can see, and I want to be here, just on the off-chance there’s a crisis.” He saw the look in Ben’s eyes and hastily added, “Ben, I said it was an off-chance, and that’s what I meant. But you don’t take chances with smoke inhalation.” He found a tired smile. “And, yes, Ben, you can stay.” He excused himself.

“Boys, I think you ought to go home,” Ben told his sons. “Hop Sing will be worried, and besides, I need you to bring out a wagon to bring Joe home in. See if you can find Cochise and take him back with you. I want to be here in case Joe needs me, and I’m sure Roy will be in to talk to him.”

“All right,” Adam agreed, reluctantly. “Come on, Hoss.” He went over and looked down on Joe for a moment before briefly touching his cheek. Hoss followed him, swallowing visibly as he saw the lines of pain etched on Joe’s face, despite the painkiller he had been given earlier.

“He’ll be all right,” Ben soothed Hoss, touching his son’s broad shoulder. Hoss nodded and followed Adam outside.

*****

The night seemed very long to Ben, but by morning, Joe was looking a little better. He wasn’t coughing quite as much, and seemed to be resting more easily. Paul had looked in several times, and Ben had heard him visiting the Parsons, too, for both Tony and his father had suffered from smoke inhalation.

Early in the morning, Mr. Parsons appeared in the room where Joe was sleeping. Ben wakened from a doze as he heard the footsteps and looked up. This was the most difficult thing, he knew, facing the newly bereaved. But it had to be done and Ben muttered, “I’m so sorry.”

“Thank you,” Parsons murmured, brokenly. He drew a deep breath to control his emotions. “I wanted to come and see how Joe was doing, Mr. Cartwright. He saved our lives yesterday.” He paused to wipe away a tear. “My wife was quite frail, you know. She had a heart condition, and Dr Martin says that’s why she died. Joe did everything he could for her, you know. He carried her out of the house.”

“I didn’t know,” Ben replied, for he hadn’t known about Mrs. Parsons’ heart condition and he hadn’t known that Joe had carried her from the blazing house.

“Is he going to be all right?” Parsons asked.

“Yes, with time,” Ben replied. “He wasn’t hurt badly. Thank you.”

“It was the least I could do,” Parsons told him. “Joe risked his life for us, and saying thank you doesn’t seem enough, somehow.”

“I’m sure it’ll be enough for Joe,” Ben assured him. He watched as the man left, feeling his heart aching in empathy for him. Ben had been there three times. He blinked back the tears that gathered in his eyes and looked down on Joe. He was so thankful that he had not had to face that this time.

*****

Joe’s next visitor was Roy Coffee, the sheriff. By then, Joe was sitting up, and eating some breakfast. Ben was watching him discreetly while he ate, too, just in case Joe needed some help, but so far he was managing fine with his right hand.

“Mornin’, Little Joe,” Roy greeted him cheerfully. “Ya ain’t lookin’ too bad this mornin’.”

“I feel fine,” Joe lied, for he was sore all over.

“Glad ta hear it,” Roy agreed. “I wanted ta ask ya a few questions, if’n ya don’ mind.”

“I don’t mind,” Joe assured him. He took a fortifying sip of coffee.

“Joe, Mitch an’ the others says ya was knocked over by the fellas as set this fire. Is that true?”

“Sure is,” Joe replied, with feeling. He pulled back the blanket to show Roy the boot-shaped bruises on his chest. “They just ran me down.”

“Ya didn’ happen ta recognize them, did ya?” Roy asked, in a tone that implied he was not hopeful.

“It was the Jennings boys,” Joe replied. “Well, four of the Jennings boys, anyway.” He closed his eyes for a moment to make sure he had the right ones. “Matthew and Mark,” he began, “and Luke and John.”

“What about the other two boys, Isaac and Jacob? Was they there?”

“I don’t know,” Joe replied. “I didn’t see them. But I certainly saw the others.” He grimaced. “How many sets of identical twins do we have in Virginia City?” he asked, rhetorically.

The Jennings family was well known in town for being completely shiftless, and for their three sets of identical twin sons. Mrs. Jennings was a small, thin, wizened woman, who looked about 60, although reliable reports only put her in her 40’s. Quite where she had found room for three sets of twins, nobody was sure. Mr. Jennings was so like her that people often mistook them for brother and sister. But the six sons were tall and strong, and soon totally dominated their parents. Roy often had to take them to task, but he had never managed to catch them doing something illegal.

“Are ya willin’ to swear ta this in court, Joe?” Roy asked.

“Sure am,” Joe responded, darkly. He had been told of Mrs. Parsons’ death a short while before. “And so should Mitch and the others.”

Roy made a face. “Well, they would, Joe, but none o’ them saw the boys ‘ceptin you. They was all getting’ off their horses.”

“I see,” Joe nodded, expressionlessly. “Don’t worry, Roy, I’ll testify.” He gazed sightlessly at his plate as Ben saw the sheriff out. He wondered how long it would be before the other set of Jennings twins discovered who was the chief witness against their brothers. When they did, Joe knew his life would be made a misery.

*****

For the next couple of weeks, Joe took things easy. He had no choice and he was not the only member of his family who was disquieted at how long it took the smoke to clear his system. Even a week after the fire, the least exertion brought on a frightening bout of coughing. Because he had so many minor injuries, Joe was not moving about much, and the coughing gradually settled. Paul had kept a close eye on Joe’s burns, but they were soon healing up nicely, and would not leave a mark. Joe’s hand was taking longer to heal than anywhere else, but because he was left handed, he often reached for things with that hand before he thought.

“Do you feel up to going to the dance?” Ben asked Joe. It had been exactly two weeks since the fire. Joe’s ankle had proved to be twisted rather than sprained and he had been walking about quite easily on it after a week.

“Sure,” Joe replied, cheerfully. “I feel fine, Pa, honest.”

Raising one eyebrow, Ben regarded his youngest son intently. “Oh?” he queried mildly. “And who was it that almost cursed aloud when he banged his burned shoulder this morning?”

The expression that crossed Joe’s face was so comical that Ben almost laughed aloud. “I didn’t know you were there,” Joe muttered, flushing. He’d bitten off the curse that sprang to his lips, but obviously not fast enough. “How did you always know?” he demanded.

Smiling, Ben replied, “I’m omniscient, son.”

“Oh sure, rub it in with big words,” Joe teased. “You’ll be as bad as Adam if you don’t watch out, Pa!”

“Do I hear my name being taken in vain?” Adam asked, coming in to hear the last sentence.

“’Eavesdroppers seldom hear good of themselves’,” Joe quoted, cheekily. How Adam had loved saying that to a much younger Joe, and how Joe had longed to turn it back on his older brother. Now he’d taken the chance and the look on Adam’s face was everything he’d hoped for.

“Almost,” Adam corrected him. “The proverb actually says, ‘Listeners never hear any good of themselves.’”

“I was close,” Joe retorted, disgruntled. “And that’s not what you used to say to me.”

“Perhaps not,” Adam agreed, “but I do at least know the correct phrasing.”

Deciding that he’d better step in before this broke out into war, Ben said, “Well, Joe, if you’re up to going to the dance, I’ll let Gwen Sharp know when I go into town today. She was asking me earlier in the week.”

“Thanks, Pa,” Joe smiled. Usually, he would have pestered Ben to be allowed to go into town with him, but Joe knew that he would need the extra few days to allow his hurts to heal and rest was the best way of doing that. He went over to sit down on the settee, sticking his tongue out at Adam behind Ben’s back.

*****

“Why did the Jennings set fire to the Parsons’ ranch?” Joe asked, as Roy Coffee gave him the scheduled date for the court case. It lay some three weeks in the future.

“Well now, Joe, I ain’t too sure,” Roy admitted. “They ain’t admittin’ that they did it.”

“But you do believe it was them?” Joe demanded, suddenly feeling a bit panicky. All his friends had assured him that they had not seen the intruder’s faces, but Joe did not entirely believe them.

“Course I do, Joe,” Roy replied, sounding slightly offended. “I know ya tell the truth, and Parsons an’ his boy identified them, too. There won’t be a problem at the trial, Joe, believe me.”

“How are the rest of the Jennings taking it?” Joe wanted to know. “I haven’t been in town since it happened.”

“The ma an’ pa ain’t sayin’ too much,” Roy mused. “But them other boys is real angry, Joe. I guess its nacheral, them being their kin.”

“Angry how?” Joe asked. “Against me?”

“Naw, jist mouthin’ off,” Roy replied. “Don’ worry about it, Joe. They won’t do anythin’.” Roy took his leave, stopping to talk to Ben in the yard. Joe went back to sit on the settee, but although he opened his book, he didn’t begin reading. He was thinking about what Roy had said. Somehow, he didn’t think the Jennings were just mouthing off.

*****

As he eased his way into his dress white shirt on Saturday night, Joe was glad that Hop Sing – or cousin number three to be more accurate – had not put too much starch on the shirt this time.  Putting clothes on and taking them off was still time consuming and a little uncomfortable. Joe fumbled slightly with the buttons and for a moment contemplated asking for help, but he decided that he would manage. Paul Martin had put a smaller bandage on his hand the previous day and Joe had found he was more able to perform everyday tasks. Buttoning a shirt shouldn’t be beyond him, he decided.

However, not everyone had the same view, for Adam appeared a short time later. “Are you ready yet?” he demanded. “We’re all waiting for you.”

“I can’t get this tie to sit,” Joe complained. He dropped the ends again and glared at the offending object in the mirror. “I’m ready apart from that.”

“Well, why didn’t you just ask for help?” Adam retorted, exasperated, and came into the room to tie the tie.

Flushing, Joe said nothing. However, Adam was not totally without sensitivity, and he went on, in a softer tone, “We don’t mind helping, Joe. I know you’re getting on better than you were, but some things are more difficult than others. This tie being one of them,” he added tartly, having failed to make the tie sit, too. Joe grinned, feeling slightly better.

It was soon done, though and they went downstairs in amity. Joe didn’t protest when Adam helped him ease his jacket on over the bandaged arm, but a grin broke forth when he saw that Cochise had been saddled for him. Ben had announced that they would be going to the dance in the buggy. “How…?” Joe began, but Adam put his finger to his lips.

“Ask no questions and I will tell you no lies,” he whispered and they hurriedly mounted up before Ben could come out and veto the horses. As they trotted decorously out of the yard, they heard Ben muttering behind them, but not one of the three looked back.

“Whose idea was this?” Ben asked, as he caught up with them.

Looking at him with wide, innocent eyes, Joe shrugged. “I don’t know what you mean, Pa,” Adam replied, smoothly. Hoss choked and looked away.

“I told you we were going in the buggy,” Ben commented.

“I’m sorry, Pa, I don’t remember that,” Adam apologized. Nobody believed a word of it, but Ben was seen to smile briefly.

*****

It was a perfect, still, golden evening as they arrived in town. Joe had thoroughly enjoyed his ride, although he was feeling a bit stiff after it. They hitched their horses to the rail outside the hotel and went in. The heat in the ballroom hit them immediately.

“Its gonna be sticky tonight,” Adam mused. “Joe, do you want a hand to take your jacket off?”

Glancing round to make sure no one was watching, Joe nodded. “If you don’t mind,” he replied. He bit down his winces as Adam eased the material down over his arms.

“Joe!” The feminine voice made Joe whirl around, hoping furiously that Gwen hadn’t seen Adam helping him. But if she had noticed, Gwen was exercising a tact Joe didn’t know she had and didn’t mention it.

“Hi, Gwen,” Joe replied and offered her his arm as they went into the ballroom. Ben and Adam exchanged amused looks. Hoss made straight for the food table.

To begin with, Gwen was agog to hear about Joe’s experiences with the fire, but Joe could not indulge his date’s curiosity. He was not allowed to talk about the case at all. Gwen pouted, but Joe put himself out to charm her out of her sulks, and they were soon treading the boards.

“I’m sorry, I have to rest,” Joe apologized as he led Gwen from the floor after a particularly energetic dance.

“That’s all right, so do I,” agreed Gwen, wielding her fan against the heat.

“Would you like a drink?” Joe asked and when she nodded, rose and went over to the table where the bowls of punch were set out.

“Cartwright,” growled a low voice.

Standing by the punch table, Joe stiffened. “What do you want, Jennings?” he asked, warily, not looking at the other man.

“You’re marked, Cartwright,” Jennings hissed. “Just remember that! You’re marked!”

As Jennings sidled away into the crowd of revelers, Joe dropped the ladle back into the punch bowl and put the cup down absently. So it was out, and he was a marked man. He drew in an unsteady breath. He would have to mind his back for sure now.

“Is something the matter, son?” Ben asked, as he approached the table a few minutes later. Joe was still standing there, gazing into space.

“Hmm? Oh, Pa. No, everything’s fine. I was just getting a drink for Gwen and myself.” Joe smiled at Ben before pouring punch into a couple of cups and weaving his way expertly between the dancers to where his date was sitting.

Watching him go, Ben was not convinced. But there was no way to make Joe talk before he was ready to.

*****

“You’re very quiet, Joe,” Adam observed as they rode home. “It’s not like you.”

“I’m tired,” Joe sighed, avoiding his brother’s gaze.

“It’s all that there dancin’ that does it,” Hoss commented knowledgably. “An’ ya don’ eat enough ta keep yer strength up while yer dancin’, Joe. Ya didn’ eat a thing.”

“I ate plenty at supper,” Joe grouched. “We don’t all have to eat 16 meals a day, big brother.”

Looking at the way Joe slouched in the saddle, Ben could well believe that his son was tired. But there was something else on his mind, too. Joe’s retort to Hoss lacked something of its usual sparkle. But Hoss hadn’t noticed and was laughing. Glancing at Adam, Ben saw that his oldest son was looking closely at Joe, too. Ben felt almost relieved. So it wasn’t just his imagination that suggested that Joe was not behaving in his usual manner.

*****

“Since you proved on Saturday that you are up to riding again,” Ben told Joe on Monday morning, “you can go and collect the mail for me. Oh, and I need you to take a letter into the bank, too, Joe. There should be a reply, so wait for it, will you?”

“Sure thing, Pa,” Joe agreed, readily enough although he couldn’t deny a slight pang of unease. But it wasn’t Joe’s way to avoid things, so he resolved that he would be careful in town.

“What’s wrong, Pa?” Adam asked, as Ben stood in the yard, gazing absently after Joe’s departing figure. “You’ve been watching Joe ever since the dance. Is he all right?”

“I think so,” Ben replied. “But you’re right; I’ve been uneasy since the dance. I found Joe standing by the punch bowl gazing into space. He’d been there for several minutes, but he denied that there was anything wrong.” Ben sighed. “But I can’t help feeling that he’s hiding something from me and I don’t know what.”

“Joe can take care of himself,” Adam reminded Ben. “When he’s ready, he’ll talk to you about whatever it is.”

“I’m sure he will,” Ben replied. “But that’s no comfort in the meantime, is it?” He turned and went back into the house.

*****

The uneasy feeling did not go away as Joe went about his business in the town. He met various people that he was obliged to stop and talk to, and he tried to be polite to each one, but it was difficult. He was itching to get his chores done and then get back.

Finally, having delivered the letter to the bank and received the reply, Joe was free to go home. Collecting the paper, he angled across the street to where Cochise was tethered outside the mail office, reading as he went. From further down the street, there was the sound of a shot, and Joe glanced idly over his shoulder. However, he didn’t see anything and nobody seemed to be panicking, so he continued on strolling towards Cochise.

Then the shouting started and Joe felt the rumble in the ground before he realized that there was a wagon barreling down the street, aiming directly at him. For one frozen moment, Joe found he could not move. People were screaming at him to jump out of the way, but Joe still stood there.

Suddenly, his muscles unlocked, and Joe dived for safety. He tumbled across the dusty street, feeling a flying hoof just touch his leg. As he sat up, unscathed, people crowded around him, demanding to know if he was all right. Nodding, for he was still slightly winded, Joe glanced after the wagon and saw that it had been brought to a halt. The wagoneer was running down the street behind it.

“Joe, are you all right, boy?” Roy Coffee demanded, puffing up to him.

“Yeah, I think so,” Joe replied, still shaken. A shudder ran down his spine as he realized how close he had come to being seriously injured. Part of his pants leg was ripped away.

“Did anyone see what happened?” Roy asked, glancing around. He kept his hand on Joe’s shoulder, preventing him from rising.

Various voices answered, and Joe gave up trying to sort out the different stories. He eased out from under Roy’s hand and stood up. Despite the torn pants leg, he was uninjured. He fidgeted impatiently while Roy gathered as much information as he could, then followed meekly as Roy shepherded him across to the doctor’s office.

A quick look was all it took for Paul Martin to establish that Joe was all right. Nobody had seen anything, although various people had, like Joe, heard the shot. Roy decided that somebody had been careless with their gun, and that the wagon driver had forgotten to set the brake properly. Joe, at last, was able to escape and head for home.

*****

Despite his intentions not to tell Ben what had happened, Joe had forgotten that he would need to change his pants. He went into the house and headed for the stairs, deliberately not looking around, in the hope that if he didn’t look, his father would not be in the house. It was a forlorn hope, for as Joe came into view, Ben’s voice said, “What happened to you? Are you all right?”

“I’m fine, thanks,” Joe replied and produced the mail and Ben’s letter from the bank in an attempt to distract his father.

“But what happened?” Ben persisted. “Are you hurt?”

Smiling ruefully, Joe told the story, and repeated that he wasn’t hurt. “Honest, Pa, Roy insisted that Doc Martin checked me out and he said I was fine. I am, honest. Not even sore.”

“You were lucky,” Ben commented, shaken by his son’s near miss.

“I know,” Joe agreed. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, Pa, I’d like to put on some pants that aren’t quite as well ventilated as these?” Ben laughed and swatted at Joe’s behind. Used to his father’s little foibles, Joe dodged the blow adroitly

Later, over supper, the story was told again for Adam and Hoss’ sake. Hop Sing was already cutting Joe’s torn pants into squares that he could use for washing the floors, grumbling all the time he did so.

“Do you think it was an accident?” Adam asked.

“Sure,” Joe replied. “That’s what Roy thinks.” He frowned at Adam. “What do you mean?”

“Are you sure it isn’t the Jennings trying to get rid of their star witness?” The words were no sooner out of his mouth than Adam wished he could call them back. He had not meant to say anything.

“Adam!” Ben protested.

“Well, it could be,” Adam replied, trying to sound reasonable.

“I’m not the only witness,” Joe objected. “There’s Tony and Mr. Parsons.”

“Yeah, that’s right,” Hoss agreed. “Joe ain’t the only one who saw them Jennings boys.” He glared at Adam for upsetting Joe.

Sighing, for Adam had hoped not to have to tell Joe, he reported, “Gossip tells me that Mr. Parsons is having problems with his memory. And Tony was beaten up in the street the other day. Okay, it wasn’t the oldest Jennings twins who did it, but the men who did are their friends.”

“The crowd from the Lazy K?” Joe asked. His handsome face bore a ferocious scowl. “Did Roy catch them at it?”

“No,” Adam replied, ruefully. “The first Roy knew of it was when Tony appeared at church on Sunday, all battered and bruised. He refused to tell Roy who had done it.”

“But why won’t Tony say who did it?” Joe cried. “The Jennings killed his mother!”

Reaching out, Ben clasped Joe’s wrist. “Joe, we don’t know why Tony said that. But it could be that he’s afraid. Look what happened to them, after all. He only has his father left in this world. Perhaps some threat was made against him.”

“Are they going to testify?” Joe demanded of Adam, who shrugged.

“Joe, I don’t know. I’m only telling you what the hands overheard in the saloon the other night. I just don’t know the answer.”

Looking down on his plate, Joe blinked back the tears that threatened to overwhelm him. “So that’s why I’ve been singled out,” he whispered. “And that wasn’t an accident this afternoon. The Jennings are out to get me.” He lifted his head, his green eyes blazing. “But I’m not going to back down! I know what I saw, and they are guilty of murder!”

“Atta boy!” Hoss praised him. “We’ll make sure you’re all right, Shortshanks.”

Nodding, Joe looked at Ben and saw there the worry in his father’s dark eyes. He knew Ben would not ask him not to testify, for that went against every principle that Ben held dear. But it would not stop his father worrying about his safety, despite the presence of his brothers.

“I’m proud of you, Joe,” Ben whispered.

Suddenly, Joe couldn’t take any more. He muttered something that no one caught and rose to his feet, practically running from the house. Adam looked down at his plate, so he didn’t have to see the accusing looks in his father’s and brother’s eyes.

*****

The Parsons’ ranch house was a blackened ruin and Joe hesitated as he saw it. The memories it produced were ones he would sooner forget. Close by the house was the shanty that the Parsons had built to keep the worst of the weather out. Joe dismounted in the yard and went over to the shanty.

“What do you want, Joe?” Tony asked, opening the door a crack and peering out.

“I wanted to see if you were all right,” Joe replied. He was horrified by Tony’s black eyes and split lip. “Tony, who did this to you?”

“I don’t know,” Tony evaded, his eyes cutting away from Joe. “I never saw any of them before.”

“Tony…”

“Joe, you’ve seen me and I’m fine. Now get out of here, will ya?” Tony shut the door firmly in Joe’s face.

Walking back to his horse, Joe wondered what he had expected. Had he thought Tony would tell him who had beaten him up? Say that he was still willing to testify? Stepping into the saddle, Joe acknowledged that that was exactly what he had thought. He had thought his friendship would encourage the other young man to take his place on the witness stand and tell the truth. It appeared that his friendship wasn’t enough. Tony had lost a lot, but it seemed that he could not face losing any more.

Deep in thought, Joe did not notice his danger until it was too late. In the fading daylight, he didn’t see the rope stretched across the road between two trees.  One minute he was riding along the road at a casual lope, the next, he was swept from the saddle.

Winded, Joe found he couldn’t move as his body fought to regain the breath knocked from it by the fall. Two masked men leapt from the trees. Joe saw them coming, but there was nothing he could do. One yanked Joe to his feet and the other began to tie his hands behind him. Joe started to struggle, but he was too winded to do anything effective.

He was dragged over to the nearest tree and the rope binding his wrists was flung over a branch. Joe suddenly understood what the men were going to do. They were going to hoist his arms up behind him until he was forced to bend over, standing on tiptoe, or worse, suspended by his arms. Joe knew that by the time someone came looking for him, the damage done to his arms would be severe.

But before the men could do more than throw the rope over the branch, there was a shot. Joe twisted his head round and saw two men on familiar horses galloping towards him. Adam and Hoss. The men with Joe let loose muffled curses. The one holding the rope gave it a fierce tug, forcing a cry of pain from Joe before the other man punched him in the stomach. They fled.

As his brothers pulled their horses to a stop beside him, Joe collapsed to his knees. His breath was still coming in gulps, for he had barely got it back before it was knocked out of him again. “Joe!” Adam knelt beside his brother while Hoss made sure his attackers were gone. “Are you all right?”

“Yeah, I think so,” Joe wheezed. “Good timing, brothers. Thanks.”

While Adam cut through the ropes binding Joe’s hands, Hoss went over to disentangle Cochise from the rope that had knocked Joe from the saddle. The pinto wasn’t hurt, just shaken and it danced about on the end of the rein while Hoss crooned nonsense to calm it down. By the time Adam was satisfied that Joe wasn’t really hurt, the pinto was back to its usual state of mind.

“Did you recognize them, Joe?” Adam asked as they rode slowly home.

“No,” Joe replied, in a disgusted tone. “I didn’t really see them. I was too winded from that fall, then you guys came along.” He glanced sideways at Adam. “Do we have to tell Pa?” he asked, hopefully.

“Yes,” Adam replied, and Joe groaned. He wasn’t looking forward to that one bit.

*****

“Twice in one day is more than coincidence, young man!” Ben stated, his face tight with concern.

Sitting on the sofa while Hoss massaged some of the kinks out of his sore shoulders, Joe sighed. “I know that, Pa,” he agreed, with strained patience. “I didn’t say it was a coincidence.”

“The trial is still two weeks away,” Adam commented, glancing worriedly at Ben.

“I know that,” Ben replied. “We’ll have to tell Roy about this,” he added. “And Joe, you’ll have to stay around the house or with others until the trial comes up.”

Looking up and wincing as Hoss found a particularly sore spot, Joe saw by the look on Ben’s face that he had no choice but to agree. He could clearly see Ben tying him to his bed if he took silly risks. Much as he hated to be cooped up, Joe nodded. “Sure, Pa.”

Ben was under no illusions that the next two weeks would be easy for any of them, but he didn’t know what else to do. Joe had to be kept safe, not just because of the trial, but for his own sake. Ben did not want anything else happening to Joe.

It was a long time before any of them slept that night.

*****

Next morning, Ben went into town, leaving Joe with his brothers. Roy Coffee was in his office, saving Ben the trouble of trying to track him down. He swiftly set out what had happened to Joe.

“Well, there ain’t a whole lot I can do, Ben,” Roy muttered, as his old friend fell silent. “I could take Joe into protective custody, but the only place I got ta keep him is here in the jail and I don’ think he’d want ta be in the next cell to the Jennings boys.”

“Couldn’t we wire the judge and ask for the trial to be brought forward?” Ben asked.

Shaking his head, Roy replied, “I already asked that, Ben and the judge jist cain’t do it. He’s got a big trial down in Carson City next week an’ he ain’t altogether sure he’ll git here on the day he’s meant ta.”

“Well, I guess it can’t be helped,” Ben sighed. “Thanks anyway, Roy.”

“You keep that boy safe,” Roy warned him. “I ain’t got a case without him, Ben.”

“Believe me, Roy, I’ll keep him safe!” Ben vowed.

*****

Life at the Ponderosa was a very tense affair for the next two weeks. Joe spent a lot of time at the house with Ben and although he cherished each moment he spent with his father, Joe also longed for the freedom he habitually knew. He wasn’t allowed to go into town at all, and even a last, abortive attempt to talk to Tony involved both his brothers riding out with him. None of the Cartwrights went anywhere alone or unarmed. Tensions and feelings ran high and on more than one occasion, voices were raised. But finally, the date of the trial arrived.

*****

“Do you feel all right?” Ben asked Joe in an undertone as they put on their jackets and hats. “You didn’t eat much this morning.”

“I wasn’t hungry,” Joe answered, truthfully. His stomach was tied up in knots. The prosecutor had been out to see Joe the day before and had gone over his testimony with him. Joe was as prepared as he could be, but that didn’t make him feel any better.

“Time to go,” Ben declared, and put his hand on Joe’s shoulder. He could feel the tension in the muscles there and rubbed gently. Joe leant unconsciously into the warmth of Ben’s hand, but the muscles didn’t loosen any. Then they were mounted and riding out, clustering around Joe protectively.

There was quite a crowd pushing into the court house as the Cartwrights arrived. A murmur went through the crowd as they were recognized and a few ghoulish young men pushed forward to get a closer look at Joe.

Ben and Adam stood on either side of Joe as Hoss pushed a way through the crowds. Nobody wanted to argue with the biggest Cartwright son, and they soon got out of the way. It was almost time for the trial to start, and the people were keen to get seats. Before long, the Cartwrights were alone in the lobby.

“Ben!” The cry made them all look round as Roy hurried towards them. “Glad I caught ya, Ben,” he puffed. “I jist learned somethin’ that might explain why the Parsons ain’t too keen to testify.”

“What?” Ben asked, eagerly, as Roy paused to catch his breath.

“Seems that the Parsons came out here after they were involved in a big case back east,” Roy went on. “Parsons witnessed a bank robbery and caught the hold-up man. He got a big reward fer it an’ came out here to make a new start. But here’s the interestin’ bit. The hold-up man is a cousin of the Jennings!”

“What?” Joe gasped.

“It’s true,” Roy attested. “Cain’t hardly credit it, but it’s true. I reckon the Jennings went after the Parsons when they discovered who they was. Their cousin was hanged.” Roy dragged his watch out of his pocket. “I’ve got a few minutes to speak to the Parsons, an’ see if’n I can git them ta change their minds. Joe, you won’t be called for about half an hour yet. Ya don’t have ta go in if’n ya don’ want ta right now.”

“Thanks, Roy,” Joe muttered. He looked at his family as Roy hurried off. “I’d just like a little air, Pa. Alone, if you don’t mind. I won’t go far.”

“All right,” Ben agreed, reluctantly. They were all a bit shaken by Roy’s news, and Ben would have preferred that Joe stay with them. However, Joe needed the space, if just for a few minutes. He watched as his son went out of the door and vanished from sight.

*****

Whatever else Joe had expected Roy to say, this had never crossed his mind. Tony had not said much about why they had come west, but Joe respected the other youth’s reticence. There were times he wanted to keep things to himself, too.

Lost in thought, Joe wandered along the street, then crossed over and turned back. He didn’t want to be late. He had no desire to spend time in jail for contempt of court.

As he passed the side alley that led along the back of the International Hotel, someone jumped on him. Joe was caught completely by surprise and before he could fight back, he was dragged up the alley by many pairs of hands. Next moment, he found himself against the wall, his arms pulled out from his sides. He was surrounded by half a dozen men of the Lazy K ranch, and the oldest Jennings twins.

Joe had no chance to shout for help or try to say anything before they all lit into him, punching and kicking him. Joe tried desperately to fight back, but the two men holding his arms kept pulling him from side to side so he couldn’t get any leverage to kick out at anyone.

As fist followed fist followed boot, Joe realized through the pain that he would probably die in the alley. These men did not want to frighten him into not testifying; they wanted to silence him altogether. He toppled to the ground as the men holding him let go, and the gang closed in, ready to finish him off.

“Hold it!” a hard voice ordered. Joe vaguely recognized it as Adam’s, but he was adrift on a sea of pain, his breath coming in painful gasps. There was the sound of a further scuffle and several people stepped on Joe, but he was past caring. He closed his eyes and blacked out.

*****

When he opened his eyes again, Adam was trickling water into his mouth. Joe swallowed gratefully. His mouth was as dry as a desert.  “Adam,” he croaked.

“Don’t try to move, Joe,” Adam urged. He was horrified by the state Joe was in. His youngest brother’s face was barely recognizable, covered as it was in cuts and swelling. Joe’s eyes were rapidly swelling shut and already beginning to take on a bruised hue; his lips were split and massively swollen and blood tricked down both sides of his face from cuts above his eyes. Adam didn’t think he had ever seen Joe look worse.

“Gotta testify,” Joe insisted, trying to rise. The movement brought a cry of anguish to his lips as his abused body protested.

“You can’t!” Adam protested.

“Must,” Joe mumbled. He lifted his hand painfully to grasp Adam’s shirt. “Catch any?”

“Just one,” Adam responded, grimly. “He won’t be going anywhere for a while.” Hoss had knocked the man cold with a single punch.

“Help me,” Joe slurred.

“Don’t worry, we’ll get the doc,” soothed Adam, as Hoss came to look over his shoulder with concern.

“No, not doc,” Joe insisted. “Court.” Seeing that Adam was going to argue, Joe mustered his dwindling strength. “Adam, they’ll go free… if I don’t.” He swallowed painfully and Adam gave him more water. “Can’t let them get… away with…murder.”

As Adam hesitated, not sure that Joe knew what he was saying, Hoss came to Joe’s assistance. “He’s right, Adam. You an’ me can tell them what we saw here and we have this fella ta back us up. ‘Sides, we gotta take him ta Roy, an’ Roy’s at the courthouse.”

“Zac’ly,” Joe muttered. He felt dreadful, pain hammering him from all round and his chest felt unbearably tight. “Please, Adam.”

“All right,” Adam agreed, his voice rough with concern. Joe had sounded so young as he pleaded with his brother to help him. Together, Adam and Hoss helped Joe to his feet, then Adam swung his brother’s arm over his shoulder and put his own arm around Joe’s slim waist. He pretended not to hear the gasp of pain the movement evoked.

While Hoss gathered up their unconscious prisoner, Adam began to half-carry Joe up the street towards the courthouse. He was so relieved that he and Hoss had decided to go looking for Joe when they did. “You better let me clean you up a bit,” he panted.

“No,” Joe objected. “No time.” He was finding it harder and harder to stay conscious. Even though Adam was doing most of the work, the actual moving was proving almost too much for Joe’s battered body. “Might… pass out.”

“Oh,” Adam panted, understanding. He hurried his steps slightly, but Joe was deceptively slender. His body carried a network of impressive muscles that made him heavier and stronger than he looked.

But finally, they arrived at the court house. Adam knew that Ben was inside, keeping seats for them all, so that Joe could get all the support they could offer. As he drew closer to the inner door, he heard Joe’s name from within.

“If Joseph Cartwright does not show up inside the next two minutes, I will hold him in contempt of court!” the judge thundered.

Shoving open the door, Adam went in, dragging Joe with him. Ben was the first to follow the judge’s horrified gaze and he leapt to his feet, hurrying towards his sons as a shocked hubbub broke out in the room.

“Joe! Adam! What happened?”

“Not now, Pa,” Adam gasped, and dragged Joe to the front and over to the witness box. He gently helped his sibling sit down.

“What is the meaning of this?” the judge demanded.

“You Honor, this is my brother, Joe Cartwright,” Adam replied. “Hoss and I found him in an alley just down the street, being beaten by a gang of men. Most of them got away, but we did manage to get one.” He gestured to the door, where Hoss had just entered with the man in tow.

Frowning, the judge turned to Joe. “Mr. Cartwright, can you tell us what happened?”

“I was jumped,” Joe replied. “Two of the men were… the oldest Jennings… twins.” Joe dragged in a ragged breath. “Isaac and Jacob.”

“Are you sure of this?” asked the judge, his face softening as he took in Joe’s condition.

There was a soft noise which Adam realized was Joe attempting to laugh. Luckily, the judge didn’t realize this. “I know them,” Joe whispered. The court room was silent as everyone strained to hear Joe’s thin voice. “They look alike.” He tried to wipe his brow, but his hand wouldn’t do what he asked of it.

Looking at the man held tight in Hoss’ mighty grip, the judge asked, “Who are you?”

Slowly, the man told his story. “I’m Jack Parkins, an’ I work for the Lazy K ranch. Isaac and Jacob Jennings asked me an’ a bunch o’ other guys to help them intimidate the Parsons an’ Joe Cartwright so’s they wouldn’t testify.” In the main part of the court room, Tony Parsons ducked his head, a deep flush staining his face. “We tried ta git Cartwright afore, but his brothers come along. So the twins asked us to git Cartwright today.”

“Were you trying to kill him?” the judge demanded. “Because it looks to me like with another minute, you might have succeeded. Sheriff, take this man in custody. Find out the names of the other men and arrest them, too.” He turned back to Joe. “Mr. Cartwright, can you answer me a couple more questions?”

“Sure,” Joe wheezed, although he was remaining sitting only through sheer stubbornness. Adam hovered helplessly nearby, reluctant to touch Joe again if he didn’t have to, afraid to cause his brother more pain.

“When the fire occurred, you went to rescue the Parsons from the burning house, is that right?” Joe grunted assent. “Did you see the defendants close enough to identify?”

“Sure,” Joe agreed. He thought about nodding, but wasn’t sure if his head would stay on if he did. “They ran… right over me.” He took a shallow breath. “I saw them… as they… came out… of the…door.” A groan of pain escaped his control. “Matthew… Mark… Luke and John.”

Suddenly, Tony stood up. “I saw them, too,” he cried. “I saw them!”

“Thank you,” the judge responded, gravely. “Is there a doctor here?”

“Yes,” cried Paul Martin, standing up. He hurried over to Joe, following Ben, who was now by his son’s side, looking anxiously at the battered face. Joe’s eyes were only open a tiny slit. “Just relax, Joe,” Paul advised. “We’ll get you out of here, don’t worry.” He swiftly drew up a painkilling injection and Joe drifted away.

*****

When Joe next opened his eyes, hours had clearly passed. In actual fact, only one of Joe’s eyes opened a tiny bit; the other stayed shut. The room was dim and Joe assumed that it was evening. He tried to move, but his body protested and he let out a groan of pain.

“Joe?” A figure hove into view, but Joe didn’t need to be able to see clearly to know that it was his father. “Don’t try to move, son.”

“Too late,” Joe replied. He tried to smile, but it was too painful. “How long?” he asked.

“Oh, a few hours. It’s mid-afternoon,” Ben replied. He saw the surprise on Joe’s face. “The curtains are shut to protect your eyes a bit, and to keep away the crowds who want to peer at the hero.”

“What hero?” Joe enquired.

“You,” Ben told him, gently. “Because of you, Tony and his father both testified and the Jennings boys are going to hang. Joe, you are the hero.”

“Can I get a drink?” Joe asked. He sipped the cool water gratefully. “I don’t feel like a hero,” he added, when he was finished.

“What do heroes feel like?” Ben asked. “Do you know?”

“Heroic?” Joe suggested. Ben smiled.

“Perhaps, but you know, Joe, I think most heroes don’t know that they are heroes. They feel hunger, cold and pain just like the rest of us.”

“I guess,” Joe agreed. He focused again on his father. It required quite a lot of effort. “What’s wrong with me?”

“Broken ribs, mild concussion, dislocated shoulder and a lot of bruises,” Ben replied, succinctly, as though telling Joe quickly might make his injuries seem less severe.

Having had it all explained to him, Joe could now sort his general malaise into distinct areas of discomfort and pain. His ribs and shoulder were the worst, but the rest of his body throbbed in time to his heartbeat. He suddenly felt all shuddery and gasped, “I’m gonna be sick.”

Moving quickly, Ben assisted his son and put the noisome basin aside. “Try and sleep some more,” Ben suggested.

“Pa, I need to pee,” Joe whispered. The water had just aggravated the urge that had woken him in the first place. Ben offered discreet help, but Joe was exhausted when he lay back down again. He hoped that the next time he needed to go, he would be able to help himself! He could think of very little worse than having to rely on someone else in that department.

“When can I go home?” Joe asked, as his eye drifted shut.

“When the doctor says so,” Ben whispered, but he doubted if his son heard him.

*****

Next morning, as Joe was trying to stand without falling over, the Parsons arrived. It was a relief to sit down and talk to them, as it allowed Joe more time to regain his equilibrium. Paul had said he was not returning home until he was able to stand alone.

“I just wanted to thank you, Joe,” Parsons said. “Not just because you saved our lives, although I do thank you for that. But I wanted to thank you for the courage you showed on the stand. I would never have found the courage if I hadn’t seen you up there, like that.”

Embarrassed and unsure what to say, Joe cleared his throat. However, before he could speak, Tony jumped in. “We didn’t realize that each of us had been threatened,” he explained. “I was scared that something would happen to Dad and he was scared that something would happen to me. We’ve been through this before, Joe and it was awful. It seemed too bad to be facing it all over again.”

“I’m glad that you decided to tell the truth,” Joe replied. “And I didn’t do it just for you. I did it to show the Jennings that I wouldn’t give in to them.” Joe glinted a sideways glance at Ben. The effect was kind of spoiled by the fact that he had only one eye partially open, but Ben was attuned enough to his son’s ways to appreciate what he was trying to do. “Pa’s always telling me I’m too stubborn for my own good.”

“And I was definitely right this time, wasn’t I?” Ben asked, laughing.

“When do you get home?” Tony asked, clearly trying to regain the friendship that he had thought lost.

“Now,” Joe replied. “Why don’t you come over in a couple of days?” he suggested. “I’m bound to be driving Pa mad by then, and he’ll be glad of the break.”

“In fact, if you would like to have Joe live with you…” Ben suggested and they all laughed.

*****

Later, as Joe finally managed to stand unaided, Ben said, “That was a nice thing you did for Tony, inviting him over.”

“Well, why wouldn’t I?” Joe asked discovering that turning his head quickly was not a good idea. He caught himself on the back of the chair. “Tony’s my friend.”

“I don’t think Tony thought he was still your friend until you asked him over,” Ben prompted.

“Why would he think…?” Joe began, then the penny dropped. “You mean he thought I wouldn’t be his friend because he wouldn’t testify?”

“I mean just that,” Ben nodded. “Remember, Joe, he hasn’t lived around here that long and he really didn’t know exactly what your reputation for stubbornness meant. I’m glad you were able to prove to him what a real friend is.” He smiled at Joe. “I’ll pretend I didn’t see that stagger, son and then Paul will let you come home.”

“Good,” Joe replied. “Thanks, Pa.” His sunlit smile filled the room.

Crossing the room, Ben caught Joe in a gentle hug, mindful of his sons’ broken bones and bruises. “I’m so proud of you,” he whispered.

“Thanks, Pa,” Joe replied. “Can we go home now?”

“Let’s go, hero,” Ben smiled and together, they went out to where Adam and Hoss were waiting with the wagon.

***End***

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