The Balance of His Mind (by Rona)

Summary:

Rated:  PG
Word Count:  11,849


 

 

“Make one move and I’ll shoot!” the young man cried and cocked his gun to show he was serious.

“Don’t do it, Mark,” Ben Cartwright warned. “You’ll ruin your life. Throw down your gun and we’ll forget about this.” Ben could see Mark’s eyes narrow and knew that his plea was in vain. But still he persisted in trying to talk Mark out of his course of action. “Mark, if you shoot at me, I’ll have to shoot back,” he reminded the young man. “And think of your father – Mark, you can’t do this to him!”

“Shut up!” Mark screamed. “I’m not one of your sons! You can’t order me around like you do them!”

“Mark…” Ben began, but Mark wasn’t listening any more. He snatched up the bag containing the money he was stealing from the bank and fired at Ben.

Pain flared through Ben’s hip and he fell, pulling the trigger involuntarily as he went down. “No,” he moaned, but the plea was not for his own safety, but for the welfare of the young man who had shot him. It was too late – Mark would go to jail.

“Pa!” Joe’s voice sounded in Ben’s ear, dragging him back from the sepia-toned world he’d been inhabiting. Pain flared anew through Ben’s hip and he winced. In that other world, he hadn’t felt the pain. Slowly, Ben opened his eyes.

“I’m… all right,” he lied. His eyes swiveled, trying to see Mark. “Joe – Mark?” He found it impossible to form a coherent sentence.

“You got him, Pa,” Joe replied, cradling his father in his arms. He looked across at Hoss, who was kneeling over Mark Armstrong. Hoss glanced back at Joe and shook his head. Joe looked down at Ben, who once more had his eyes closed. “The doctor’s coming, Pa,” Joe soothed, seeing Paul Martin running down the street behind the sheriff, Roy Coffee.

“What happened here?” Roy puffed.

“I seen it all!” cried one of the citizens of Virginia City. Joe knew his face, but didn’t know the man’s name. “Armstrong came out o’ the bank with that big bag o’ money, an’ Ben Cartwright challenged him. He tried ta talk Armstrong out a shootin’ him, but Armstrong jist shot him down! Ben fired as he went down!” He babbled on excitedly, repeating his story over and over. More witnesses came out of the bank to report that Mark Armstrong had indeed been robbing the bank when Ben happened across him.

Meanwhile, Paul Martin knelt by Ben, checking him over. “You’ll be all right, Ben,” he soothed his friend. “Joe, go down to my office and get the stretcher please.”

Worried green eyes met his own and Joe hesitated. “Go on,” Paul urged gently. “Your Pa’s going to be just fine, I promise. But I don’t suppose you want him walking on it…” He allowed his voice to trail off, knowing that Joe knew what it was like to walk on an injured leg.

“I’ll be right back, Pa,” Joe told Ben and jumped to his feet, running off.

*****

The furor seemed to be dying down at last. Mark’s father, Jim, had been summoned from his blacksmith’s work and stood staring in disbelief at his dead son. Soberly, Roy Coffee explained what had happened, but the one thing no one could tell the bereaved father was why his son had done what he did.

Turning away from the body, Armstrong wiped his eyes. “I want to see Ben Cartwright,” he said, quietly.

“I dunno if’n that’s such a good idea,” Roy protested mildly.

“I don’t hold no blame ta him,” Armstrong assured Roy, although there was little the slight sheriff could have done to prevent the well-built blacksmith from leaving if he had decided to be nasty. “I jist want ta apologize ta him fer what ma boy done,” he explained. “He is gonna be all right, ain’t he?”

“I think so,” Roy replied. “All right, Jim, but no trouble, mind.”

Together the two men walked slowly over to the doctor’s surgery. This was the second son that Armstrong had lost in the last twelve months. His older son, named Jim like his father, had been found dead on the Ponderosa. From the signs, it appeared that Jim had been part of a gang of rustlers and there had been a falling out among thieves. The other members of the gang got clean away, despite the trail they had left. Roy grimaced as he remembered that it had been Ben who had found young Jim’s body. This meeting had the potential to turn nasty.

But Roy’s fears were unfounded. Both Hoss and Joe were still at the surgery, and Ben was resting on a bed, covered by a blanket. Roy was grateful for Hoss’ presence, as he was about the only man in town of a comparable size to Jim Armstrong. “I jist wanted ta see how yer pa was doin’,” Jim assured Joe as the younger, slighter man got hastily to his feet.

“I’ll be all right,” Ben replied. He no longer felt the pain of the wound on his hip and as Paul Martin had already told him, it wasn’t serious. “Jim, I’m sorry about your boy.”

“It weren’t your fault, Ben,” Jim assured him. “He were doin’ wrong. I jist wanted ta see if ya was all right.” He looked at Joe and Hoss. Joe had relaxed slightly, but still stood protectively near Ben. “Ya’ve got yer boys, Ben, an’ that’s what matters.” He smiled sadly at Joe. “Relax, young’un, I ain’t gonna hurt yer pa.”

Abashed, Joe smiled tentatively back and moved aside. However, he didn’t sit down again; instead, he lifted a glass of water and offered Ben some. His father took a few sips and then lay back. The pain relief that Paul had given him was making Ben sleepy now and his eyes drifted shut involuntarily.

“I better go,” Armstrong suggested and did just that, leaving before any of them could speak or make a move.

“I’ll be movin’ along, too,” Roy declared. “Bye, Ben. Bye, boys.”

“Bye, Roy,” Joe replied and Hoss echoed him just a heartbeat later. As their visitors left, both of them turned their attention back to Ben, but he was already asleep.

*****

Within a few days, Ben was getting about on a stick and his hip was healing well. Joe had gone to represent the family at Mark’s funeral and had overheard a great deal of talk about the way Jim Armstrong was dealing – or rather, not dealing – with his youngest son’s death. Although he turned up at his forge each day and worked, he spent his evenings drinking himself sodden in the saloon. He had never been outwardly violent to anyone, but several people told Joe that they would not risk crossing him and the barman was too afraid to refuse to serve him.

It was sad news. Joe had always respected Jim Armstrong, although he couldn’t say he had ever really liked the man. Jim was too reserved to get to know well and Joe, who had known him since he was a kid, was wary of the older man. As a child, Joe had found the forge fascinating and terrifying in equal measures and keeping away from the forge unless he was accompanied by Ben or Adam had been one rule that Joe had never broken.

The service was over and people began to file towards the gate. Jim shook hands with one or two people, but he looked remote from what was happening. Slowly, Joe walked over and waited patiently to speak to the bereaved man. It was something he hated doing, but never felt he could shirk. At last, it was his turn and he put his hand out and shook the smith’s hand, somewhat taken aback by the way his own hand disappeared in the other man’s grip. “I’m so sorry,” he said.

Until that point, Jim Armstrong hadn’t really been looking at the people who were paying their respects. He had simply shaken hands and avoided meeting anyone’s eyes. But hearing Joe’s voice, his head snapped up and he fixed Joe with an un-nerving gaze. His grip tightened on Joe’s hand. “You have a nerve coming here,” he whispered in a raw voice.

Startled, Joe replied, “I came to represent Pa, Mr. Armstrong. He couldn’t make it himself.”

“That’s right, rub it in!” Armstrong hissed, his grip tightening even further. Joe was struggling to pull his hand away, but had no luck. “My boy shot your father. It was a mistake, do you hear? A mistake!” He pulled Joe towards him and Joe couldn’t back bite a small yelp of pain. “Your father killed my boy and the sheriff tells me it was in self-defense! My boy’s dead and your father is gettin’ away scot-free! There’s no justice in this world, boy, and you remember that!”

“Pa didn’t want to kill Mark!” Joe protested. The pain in his hand was getting worse and Joe wondered if it was broken. “He didn’t mean to!”

“You just watch out, boy!” Armstrong hissed and Joe could smell the alcohol on his breath. “Now get out of my sight!” He shoved Joe violently away and the younger man fell to the ground. Armstrong turned and walked quickly away, completely ignoring the murmurs of the people gathered there.

As Joe picked himself up off the ground, Roy Coffee arrived at his side. “Ya all right, Joe?” Roy asked, seeing Joe grip his wrist and grimace.

“I think so, Roy,” Joe replied, deciding that his hand maybe wasn’t broken. It was, however, red and swollen and bruising was starting to form.

“He do that ta ya, boy?” Roy asked and Joe wondered why he had suddenly lost his status as an adult.

“He was drunk and upset,” Joe sighed. “I don’t think he realized what he was doing. Leave it, Roy; I’m all right.”

“If’n yer sure, Joe,” Roy agreed, doubtfully.

“I’m sure,” Joe nodded and bent to retrieve his hat. He walked quickly to his horse and mounted to ride home. As he picked up the reins, his hand began to throb painfully and Joe quickly transferred the reins to his other hand. He was more shaken by the incident than he had been willing to admit to Roy. Armstrong had been drunk, but Joe was pretty sure he had meant to do him some harm and the warning to ‘just watch out’ seemed to be as much a promise as a threat.

Going home, Joe wondered if he should tell Ben what happened and decided in the end to tell him the version that he’d told Roy. There was no point in starting up some kind of feud. Armstrong was upset and would see that when he sobered up.

At least, Joe hoped he would.

*****

Joe’s hand was sore for several days, but it soon healed up. With Ben partially laid up, Joe and Hoss found themselves doing Ben’s work too, and it was a nice change for Joe to take the wagon into town and get the supplies.

But his heart sank as he entered the store and saw Armstrong there. Although Joe had been quite successful in persuading both Roy and Ben that Armstrong meant him no harm, Joe had not been as successful in convincing himself. The incident at the cemetery had un-nerved him. But it was too late to leave the store now – Armstrong had seen him and was coming across.

“Joe, I just wanted ta apologize for the other day,” Armstrong offered. His voice was once more quiet and reserved as it usually was. His breath smelt clear. “I hope I didn’t hurt ya and I hope ya know I didn’t mean those dreadful things I said. It was – I wasn’t thinkin’ straight. I’m sorry.”

“That’s all right, sir,” Joe replied, relaxing slightly. He resisted looking down at his hand, which was now at the green and yellow stage.

“You’re very generous, Joe,” the smith answered. “Tell me, how’s your father?”

“He’s a lot better, thank you,” Joe replied. He was anxious to finish the conversation now, but didn’t want to seem rude. “He’ll soon be going about as usual. The doc says he can start riding again next week.”

“That’s good news,” Armstrong smiled and left. Joe heaved a sigh of relief before going over to give the storekeeper his list.

Outside the store, Armstrong stopped to fondle the nose of one of the Cartwright’s horses, then bent to pick up a back leg and examine the shoe with a professional air. Casually, he reached out and loosened the nut that kept the wheel locked on the hub. Putting down the horse’s hoof, he patted it gently and walked away. Nobody had even noticed.

*****

The town seemed to be busy as Joe set off for home and he kept the team to a walk to avoid running down careless pedestrians and tired cowboys. But once he was clear of the town, Joe put the team into a trot and let his mind wander. He had driven the road hundreds of times and could probably have made it home with his eyes shut.

As they came to a slight downhill slope, the team picked up speed as the weight of the wagon behind them pushed them on. Joe came out of his reverie as the wagon hit a large rut that he hadn’t noticed while wool-gathering. The whole wagon bounced and the next moment, the left front wheel bounced off the axle. It careened past the horses, startling them thoroughly and as the wagon sank down at that side, the horses panicked.

The crash was inevitable, but that didn’t stop Joe trying his best to avoid it. He pulled back on the reins as the horses broke into a canter. They only managed a few steps before the weight of the wagon dragging along the ground hauled the nearside horse to an abrupt standstill. The offside horse kept going for another couple of steps until its companion’s inertia pulled it sharply back on its tracks and the wagon slewed around, pitching over onto the exposed axle. Joe, despite being braced, was thrown from the seat.

*****

He didn’t know where he was, or what had happened. All he knew was that his head hurt fiercely and it seemed like too much trouble to open his eyes. Feeling pulped, the young man continued to lie there, despite the discomfort of a rock poking in his side. He didn’t want to move, afraid of the consequences.

Later, Joe didn’t know how long he lay, drifting between full wakefulness and unconsciousness, but when he finally opened his eyes, he realized quite a long time had passed. The wagon lay tipped on its side, the supplies scattered all around. The team stood patiently in the twisted traces, but Joe couldn’t tell if they were hurt or not from where he lay, some distance away.

He would have to move, Joe knew, and as soon as he thought it, pain assaulted him from all over. He groaned and breathed deeply, trying to sort through what his body was telling him to find out where the worst hurts were. He finally decided that nothing was broken and raised himself onto one elbow. His head spun violently and Joe closed his eyes until the dizziness subsided. Gingerly he continued to move until he was sitting up.

His ribs hurt, but after gently probing them, Joe decided it was just bruising. His right hand and wrist had been twisted under his body and Joe winced miserably as he tried to wriggle his fingers. He didn’t think his wrist was broken, but it was swollen all the same and hurt to move. A sprain, Joe decided and checked out his legs, both of which seemed to be in one piece.

“I’ll live,” he told himself aloud and gently probed at his sore head. His fingers barely brushed the wound on his hairline and pain burst through his whole head. His fingers came away bloody. “Just take it slowly, Joe,” he told himself and put down his good hand to push himself to his feet.

The wave of dizziness that swept over him caught Joe completely by surprise and he tumbled back to the ground, instinctively putting out his right hand to save himself. His wrist buckled under his weight and Joe let out a cry of pain as he collapsed to the ground.

Nausea twisted in his stomach and Joe retched helplessly onto the ground, over and over again, until his stomach was empty and his head reeling even more. Exhausted, Joe barely managed to drag his body away from the vomit before dropping his head down to the grass to rest. His eyelids drifted shut and he slipped into sleep.

*****

When Joe didn’t arrive home by supper time, Ben began to get worried. Although it wasn’t unusual for Joe to be back later than expected, he had been the model of reliability since Ben had been laid up and it seemed completely out of character for Joe to suddenly not turn up when expected. After supper, Hoss saddled Chubb and went out to look for his younger brother, more to placate Ben than any real belief that disaster had befallen Joe.

So when Hoss beheld the scene of the accident, he was immediately stricken with remorse. The wagon lay tipped on its side, the supplies scattered around. Joe was lying in a crumpled heap, not moving, and Hoss’ heart skipped a beat.

Urging Chubb to a gallop, Hoss raced across the distance separating him from his brother and threw himself from his mount to kneel by Joe’s side. “Joe?” he called. “Joe, can ya hear me?”

From a long way away, Joe heard his name being called. The voice sounded familiar and Joe struggled to hear it again. When he did, he made a gargantuan effort and opened his eyes. A face swam into focus, making Joe feel nauseous again, but he blinked and saw Hoss kneeling beside him looking anxious. “Hoss,” he breathed, his voice barely audible.

“Yeah, it me, lil brother,” Hoss assured him. “Ya jist lie there, young’un and ol’ Hoss’ll git ya home. But ya mustn’t go back ta sleep, Joe, ya hear me? Joe?”

“I hear you,” Joe sighed. His head felt like it was splitting and his eyelids seemed to have hundred ton weights on them, but he fought his weariness as Hoss got to his feet and examined the team and the wagon.

He saw at once that the team wasn’t injured and after a bit of work, he managed to get the wheel back onto the wagon and the nut secured again. Then he hastily gathered up what supplies he could and turned back to Joe. His heart sank when he saw his younger brother’s eyes were closed again, but as he knelt by Joe and touched his shoulder, Joe readily opened his eyes. “I’m gonna put ya in the wagon, Joe,” Hoss told him.

“Busted,” Joe replied, inexplicably.

“What’s busted?” Hoss asked, perplexed and worried. Had Joe got broken bones? Hoss hadn’t really checked him over for injuries, other than the obvious one on his head. Now, his fear rose to choke him. Should he have been fetching the doctor, not trying to right the wagon?

Making an exasperated sound, Joe elucidated further. “Wagon,” he muttered. “Busted.”

“Oh,” Hoss said, understanding. “Its all right, Joe, I dun fixed the wagon.” His momentary amusement gone, Hoss turned his mind to more important matters. “Joe, ya hurt anywheres? Anythin’ broke?”

“No,” Joe replied, doubtfully, but he didn’t go on. Thinking made his head hurt and it was easier just to drift.

Worried all over again, Hoss wondered if he should go for help. But he didn’t fancy leaving Joe alone again. His brother could have been lying out here for long enough. “Listen, Joe, I’m gonna lift ya and put ya in the wagon, unnerstand? If’n anythin’ hurts, jist sing out, okay?”

“’k,” Joe agreed. His body tensed in preparation for the expected pain, but apart from a horrible swimming feeling in his head, nothing hurt any more than it had while he was lying down. Joe gratefully rested his aching head against his older brother’s brawny shoulder and felt obscurely comforted.

When he had Joe settled as comfortably as he could, Hoss hitched Chubb to the back of the wagon and checked the wheel nut again before climbing onto the seat. He started the team moving again and heard a groan from Joe. But Hoss didn’t dare stop; he wanted to get Joe safely home and into bed as soon as possible.

*****

For Joe, the journey home was a nightmare, as his head throbbed relentlessly and his stomach roiled. Although he had no broken bones, enough bits of him ached from the developing bruises to make him feel desperately uncomfortable and he passed most of the journey with his eyes shut, as otherwise the passing trees and sky made him dizzy. It was with immense relief that Joe felt the wagon jolt to a halt and heard Hoss calling for Ben.

“Pa! Pa, quick!” Hoss hurried round to the back of the wagon and looked anxiously at Joe.

“What is it”? Ben called as he came out. “You found him? Oh, lord, Joe!”

Wearily, Joe forced his eyes to open and tried gamely to smile. He failed. “Hi, Pa,” he breathed.

“What happened?” Ben demanded. “Hoss, let’s get him inside and then send one of the men for the doctor.”

Hoisting Joe into his arms once more, Hoss carried him carefully inside and upstairs, telling Ben what he knew of the story, which wasn’t very much. “I found Joe lyin’ at the side o’ the road a couple o’ miles outa town,” Hoss began. “The wheel had come off o’ the wagon an’ it had turned over. Joe was lyin’ a bit away.”

“An… accident,” Joe mumbled. “Not… late.”

“I know it was an accident, son,” Ben soothed him. He didn’t want Joe getting agitated. The way his eyes were rolling about his head told Ben that his youngest son had a concussion. “You just lie still and let me get you more comfortable. Hoss, send for the doctor, please.”

“Sure thing, Pa,” Hoss agreed and hurried from the room.

Gently, Ben pulled off Joe’s boots, then slid off his gun belt. He helped Joe to sit up and eased off his green jacket, discovering in the process Joe’s swollen and bruised wrist. Laying Joe back down, Ben took off his belt and then pulled the blankets up. He knew it would be quite some time before the doctor arrived and he concentrated on keeping Joe awake, giving him tiny sips of water and talking to him quietly.

When at last the doctor arrived, Ben was more than relieved. He was finding it more and more of a strain keeping Joe awake and when he told Paul how long it had been since Joe had been found, Paul smiled. “Well, once I’ve checked him over, he might be able to have a sleep at last,” he told Ben. He wasted no time in starting his examination and peered closely into Joe’s eyes and asked him several questions.

Eventually, he straightened up. “I don’t see any signs of a skull fracture, Ben, but Joe is definitely concussed. Keep him quiet and wake him every two or three hours during the night. I’ll pop a bandage on that wrist. It’s quite a severe sprain.” He smiled down at the glazed green eyes that were watching him. “You can go to sleep now, Joe,” he told his patient and saw Joe’s eyes drift close immediately.

With Joe safely asleep, Ben accompanied Paul downstairs. “Do you think it was just an accident?” Paul asked Ben.

“What else could it be?” Ben asked. “I am surprised, for the boys keep the wagon wheels greased properly and always make sure that the nuts are done up tightly. Its just bad luck, I guess.”

“Joe was lucky,” Paul sighed, sitting down. He was dog tired, having been on the go from early morning. “He’s badly bruised, as you can see, but he’s essentially all right. Just keep an eye on that head wound.” He grinned suddenly. “I know; that’s superfluous advice around here!”

Smiling ruefully, Ben said, “Thank you for coming out.”

“Any time,” Paul replied. “And now I’d better get back into town before I fall asleep here.” He held up a hand anticipating Ben’s offer. “I’d love to stay, but not tonight, Ben. Not when you’ll be up and down all night to Joe. No, I’ll be just fine going home, thanks all the same.”

“You’re always welcome here, Paul,” Ben assured him, and saw his friend to the door. He didn’t envy Paul’s life at all.

*****

Once more, Joe made one of his trade-mark swift recoveries. He was perplexed, as was Hoss, as to how the wagon had lost a wheel. As Ben said, they were very careful – almost obsessive – about making sure that the wheels were kept well greased and the nuts tight. But accidents did happen, especially to Joe and they dismissed it as bad luck.

Meantime, Ben’s hip healed finally and he resumed his usual active life. He had been quite relieved to hear that there would be no charges over the death of Mark Armstrong. Ben had not meant to shoot the young man, but it was viewed as self defense. Jim Armstrong had agreed that Mark was in the wrong and that was an end to it.

Once or twice, Ben met Armstrong in town, but the men had very little to say to one another. Ben’s heart ached for the smith, but Armstrong didn’t invite expressions of sympathy and Ben respected that. He was quite glad not to talk to Armstrong, for there was something about the other man that made Ben feel uncomfortable. He wasn’t sure what it was, exactly, but he sometimes fancied that the smith was standing the in shadows of the forge and watching him.

About a month later, Ben decided that the stock of ready-made horseshoes he kept around for emergencies needed replenished. Joe and Hoss both went in, as there were various other chores that needed seeing to around the town. The monthly bill for the store was due to be settled, it was pay day and Ben was hoping that a timber contact he’d been bidding on might have come through. He estimated the amount of money they would need for the wages, then sat down to tot up what each hand was due while Joe and Hoss set off.

“Let’s go to the forge last,” Joe suggested to Hoss as they arrived in town.

“Ah, Joe, why?” Hoss protested. “It’s easier ta git the horseshoes an’ then do the other stuff. I hate hangin’ around town when we’ve got all that money on us.”

For a moment, Joe as going to object, but he could see the sense in what Hoss was saying. “All right,” he sighed. “We’ll go to the forge first.”

“Why did ya want ta go there last?” Hoss asked, curiously.

Shrugging, Joe found it difficult to articulate his feelings. “I dunno,” he finally admitted. “To put off going, I suppose. I find Armstrong difficult to talk to.”

“Its bin that way since Mark’s funeral, huh?” Hoss sympathized. “It wouldn’t have nuthin’ ta do with yer hand bein’ so bruised afterwards, would it?”

Silently saluting his brother’s perspicacity, Joe smiled and said no more. He didn’t really need to confirm it though; his silence spoke eloquently for him. Hoss nodded, as though having his suspicions laid to rest. “I can unnerstand that, little brother,” he smiled.

The buckboard rattled to a stop and Armstrong came out to see who had arrived. His face was cold and closed, difficult to read. “What do you want?” he asked. The words weren’t welcoming, but Armstrong didn’t say them in a manner that suggested the boys weren’t wanted. He just sounded disinterested.

“We want 100 horseshoes, please, Jim,” Joe replied, as pleasantly as he could manage.

Without replying, Armstrong took the box Hoss lifted from the back of the buckboard and marched into the shadowy interior of the forge. The brothers exchanged glances, then Hoss shrugged and followed him, with Joe a few steps behind. The air was soon filled with clanging, as Jim put the shoes into the box – with rather less care than usual, Joe thought.

Hoss attempted several times to make small talk, but there was never any response from Armstrong. At last, the requisite number of shoes was in the box, and Hoss bent over to help Armstrong carry the box to the buckboard. Joe produced the money, and it was snatched from his hand, accompanied by a dark glare. Still wordlessly, Armstrong disappeared back into the forge and shut the door.

Exchanging another glance, the brothers got back onto the seat and Hoss shook up the team. They had gone some distance before Hoss spoke. “I can see why ya didn’ want ta go there first, lil brother,” he remarked. “I’ve met porcupines that were friendlier than him!”

“That was worse than I expected,” Joe confessed with a shudder. “You know the saying ‘if looks could kill’? Well, I just got one of those looks.”

“Poor man,” Hoss sighed, his kind heart moved by the man’s plight. “It must be real hard fer him, Joe.”

“I know,” Joe replied. He squared his shoulders. “Well, it’s done and I don’t have to worry about going there any more.”

“Why were ya worried?” Hoss wondered aloud.

Cracking the first grin Hoss had seen for a while, Joe retorted, “He’s bigger than me!”

*****

It didn’t take so very long to get the rest of the chores done. As Joe set out to the bank, Hoss nudged him with his elbow. “Ya be careful an’ make sure there ain’ nobody robbin’ the bank, okay?” he teased. “Seems ta me like ya cain’t hardly go ta the bank without somethin’ happenin’ ta ya!”

“Oh, ha-ha,” Joe replied, but he was finding it hard to keep a straight face. “Everyone’s a comedian.” He made a face at Hoss, who simply laughed, then headed off to the bank. It only took a few minutes for the clerk to gather together the money and Joe headed back to the buckboard as soon as he had it tucked securely into his jacket. Hoss was waiting for him and they headed for home.

“Guess Pa got the bank robber this time,” Joe mentioned as they left town. He sighed, realizing that this wasn’t a joke any longer.

“Sure is a strange coincidence, ain’t it?” Hoss mused. “Young Jim bein’ found dead on our place, an’ then Pa shootin’ Mark.” Hoss shook his head. “No wonder Jim’s gone all funny.”

There didn’t seem to be any reply to that and the brothers fell silent. So when the bullet whined past Joe’s head, they both got the fright of their lives. “Come on!” Joe cried, leaning over to reach for the reins. “Move!”

Hoss didn’t need any urging. He slapped the reins down on the teams’ backs and yelled, “Giddap!” The startled team broke into a reluctant trot and then a slow lope. Joe glanced anxiously over his shoulder, his gun in his hand, but there was no one in sight.

And then the rifle spoke again, and this time, there was no chance for either of them to duck. The bullet hit Hoss high in the back of the shoulder and the big man lurched, the reins falling from his suddenly slack fingers.

There was no opportunity for Joe to shoot back. He thrust his gun back into its holster and grabbed at Hoss, just catching his older brother before Hoss toppled from the buckboard. But that wasn’t the end of the troubles. Hoss was big and heavy and Joe struggled to hold him upright. The team raced on, and the reins were flapping uselessly just out of Joe’s reach. Joe had somehow to hold onto Hoss and grab the reins, or he would be facing another accident – and he didn’t want that!

“Sit up!” he screamed in Hoss’ ear. “Hoss, sit up!” He had no real hope that his brother heard him, for he thought Hoss was unconscious, but after a moment, Hoss took his own weight and Joe reached down just in time to snag the end of the reins before they disappeared out of sight in amongst the wheels.

Frantically, Joe hauled on the reins and gradually the team came back to his hand. Joe kept them moving and put the reins into one hand as he turned to look at Hoss. “Hoss, are you all right?” he asked, putting a hand onto his brother’s arm.

“Don’ feel too good,” Hoss mumbled and began to lean on Joe.

“I’ll get you home, big brother,” Joe assured him and moved slightly to accommodate Hoss’ head on his shoulder. He was only too aware how vulnerable they were, but the shooting seemed to have stopped for the moment and Joe knew they had been lucky.

But as they carried on homewards, Hoss’ head heavy on Joe’s shoulder, the younger man wondered; who has it in for us?

****

“He’s going to be all right,” Paul Martin assured Hoss’ worried father and brother several hours later. “His shoulder’s going to be sore for some time to come, of course. That bullet hit him at fairly close range and it tore up the muscles pretty good. However, he’s awake and hungry, so I’m counting that as a good sign.” He smiled at the relief this last statement evoked on each face. “You sure you’re all right, Joe?”

“It was all Hoss’ blood,” Ben explained as Joe nodded. “Hoss was leaning so hard on Joe that it’s a wonder Joe wasn’t squashed.” He smiled gently at his youngest son, knowing that Joe had had a hard journey back to the ranch, supporting his injured brother as best he could.

“Anyone would think I’m still a skinny little kid,” Joe sniffed, disdainfully.

“You’ll always be that skinny kid to me,” Ben told him, ruffling Joe’s hair affectionately. “Paul, would you like something to eat before you go back into town?”

“No, Ben, I’m fine,” Paul replied, smiling as Joe tried to brush his mussed curls back into some semblance of order, and failed. “But thanks for the offer.”

As the physician left, Ben headed upstairs to see Hoss. He wasn’t surprised when Joe came in a few minutes later and leant over the bed, his green eyes dark with worry. Hoss smiled up at his brother and the worry lightened slightly, but the frown still remained. “What’s eatin’ ya?” Hoss asked.

“Who was shooting at us?” Joe responded. “Why? They weren’t after the payroll.”

“Do you see a pattern?” Ben enquired.

“I don’t know,” Joe admitted. “But something about this makes me uneasy, Pa. First you get shot, then I have an accident with the wagon and now Hoss gets shot. What else is going to happen and are we going to be as lucky the next time?”

“I don’t think my getting shot had anything to do with this,” Ben replied.

“Don’t you?” Joe asked. He fidgeted for a minute, then said, “At the funeral, Jim Armstrong was angry that I was there.” He rubbed his right hand absently as he remembered the dreadful grip tightening on his hand. “He told me to watch out,” he admitted at last.

“That’s not what you said at the time,” Ben frowned.

“I know,” Joe admitted, wretchedly. “But, Pa, you had just been shot and you had enough on your mind without me telling you that!”

“You told me Armstrong was drunk and that he squeezed your hand too hard before pushing you away in a paroxysm of grief and leaving,” recalled Ben. “What part of that was the truth?” he added coldly.

Flinching away from his father’s angry voice, Joe replied, “Not much. Armstrong was drunk, and he did squeeze my hand too hard, but I don’t think it was by accident.” Miserably, Joe told Ben what had happened. Ben listened in silence, taken aback by the viciousness of Armstrong’s threats.

“What did Roy say?” Ben asked, in a gentler tone when Joe stopped.

“I told him it was an accident,” Joe confessed. He glanced up and quickly looked away again. “I didn’t want to cause trouble, Pa,” he added in a low voice. “There’d been enough trouble, with Mark dying and Jim being left alone.” He kept his head down and eyes averted, a sure sign he was upset.

After a moment of endless silence, Ben’s hand touched the back of Joe’s neck, rubbing gently. Joe risked lifting his eyes and saw understanding in Ben’s warm eyes. “I understand why you did it, son,” Ben reassured him. “And I’m not angry. You did a nice thing. But I think now we have to mention this to Roy.”

Straightening slightly, Joe felt the burden of his knowledge lift. “Roy will be angry though,” he predicted gloomily.

*****

That turned out to be something of an understatement. Roy paced the floor of the jail house, glaring furiously at Joe the entire time. “I cain’t unnerstand ya, boy!” he snapped at last. “What was ya thinkin’?”

“I told you,” Joe insisted, feeling his temper beginning to rise in response to Roy’s derision. “I didn’t want to cause more trouble for Jim; he’d been through enough. It’s just been since Hoss was shot that I began to think perhaps I should’ve said something sooner.”

“Come on, Roy,” Ben appealed. “You would have put it down to grief, too, wouldn’t you? Jim is stronger than he realizes; he could easily have pushed Joe over without noticing. Would you have arrested him on the strength of that incident?”

“No,” Roy admitted. “But ya should a told me the truth, Little Joe.”

“I’m sorry,” Joe replied, wretchedly. “What are you going to do?”

“I’m gonna have ta question him, o’ course,” Roy responded. “But if’n I cain’t git any proof, there ain’t nuthin’ I can do.”

“And if he didn’t do it, then I’ve just made everything worse,” Joe whispered, but neither Ben nor Roy caught what he said.

In silence, Joe followed Ben and Roy outside and down to street level. Roy said something that Joe, sunk in misery, didn’t catch, but it clearly didn’t require a reply, for Roy didn’t wait for one. He started walking up the street in a determined fashion. Sick at heart, Joe watched him go, only belatedly becoming aware that Ben was already mounted and waiting for him. Quickly, Joe vaulted into the saddle and they rode off.

As they left the outskirts of town, Joe glanced back and saw Armstrong standing at the door of the forge, watching them. A moment later, Roy came into sight and Joe’s heart sank even further. He had a really bad feeling about this. Cochise broke into a lope and Joe faced front again, thankful that he was nowhere near when Roy spoke to Armstrong.

But he had the feeling that he would discover the outcome of the meeting sooner than he really wanted to.

*****

“Mr. Cartwright! Boss!” The voice belonged to Charlie, the foreman and Ben frowned. Charlie sounded agitated and it took a lot to agitate Charlie. Ben hurried to the door and opened it as Charlie reached it.

“What is it?” Ben asked. He sensed Joe coming up behind him, also attracted by Charlie’s voice.

“Stampede!” Charlie panted. “The section of herd in the west pasture was stampeded – we’re not sure what by, it might have been a big cat. They‘re scattered all over the place and some of them went through the fence…”

“We’ll be right there,” Ben replied, his face paling as he thought of the damage the beasts might have done to themselves tearing through the barbed wire fences.

“Pa, I’ll come with ya,” Hoss offered.

“No you won’t!” Ben ordered. “Hoss, you only got out of bed today! You stay put. Joe and I will deal with this.” He found a smile from somewhere. “I appreciate the offer, son, but no. You stay here.”

“Be careful,” Hoss pleaded. Joe gave him a pre-occupied smile as he buckled on his gun belt.

“And you behave,” he teased his older brother as he went out the door.

Neither Ben nor Joe spoke as they rode out to the west pasture. They knew only too well how bad things might be. They would not get home again before dark, Joe was certain, and possibly not until morning, depending on what needed done.

If anything, the scene was worse than they imagined. The mournful bellows of injured beasts filled their ears. The grass was all trampled and the fences hung askew. The cowhands were slowly rounding up the cattle, but they were scattered far and wide. Looking at the number of injured animals stretched on the turf and staggering around, Joe knew that they would be putting them out of their misery. Barbed wire fencing was effective, but when something went wrong, it was devastating.

Dismounting, Joe tethered Cochise firmly and walked over to start inspecting the injured animals. He drew his gun and swallowed hard as he put the first animal out of its misery. He moved along to the next wounded creature and repeated his movements. Behind him, Joe was aware of one of the hands coming in with the wire clippers, cutting the strands of barbed wire as close to the blood-splotched hide as possible.

It was a devastating afternoon and Joe was more than glad when Ben asked him to go looking for strays. They were quite a number of head down and Ben didn’t want the herd left in the west pasture. Willingly, Joe mounted up and left the blood, guts and gore to others to deal with.

“Joe!” Ben rode up to him as Joe skillfully herded two recalcitrant cows back towards the main body of the herd. “I’ll take these from here, son. You go and have one last sweep and then come in. It’ll be dark soon.”

“All right,” Joe agreed. He was tired, and quitting sounded just fine to him. He watched for a moment to make sure Ben was managing the cows and then smiled to himself. His father would give him what for if he knew Joe was wondering if he could manage! Ben had been pushing cows since before Joe was born!

Turning, Joe was about to ride away when he heard a calf bawling from the top of a nearby slope. Cursing, for he had no idea how the calf had managed to the top of the rocky incline, Joe dismounted and prepared to start climbing. He had gone no more than a few feet when everything suddenly gave way and Joe was caught in a rockslide!

*****

Hearing the clatter behind him, Ben turned in his saddle and saw the rocks sliding down the hill. Cochise, loose at the bottom, shied and galloped off. Ben caught a glimpse of Joe’s green jacket before it was swept away. “Joe!” he cried and turned Buck, spurring his horse towards the cloud of dust that rose into the air.

As Buck baulked, refusing to go closer to the swirling morass, Ben jumped from his horse, hoping that Buck wouldn’t run off. He was going to need him. “Joe!” he cried again, hoping against hope that there would be a reply. “Joe!”

Nothing. Ben took a step nearer, and movement caught his eye. Glancing up, he saw Jim Armstrong standing at the top of the slope. It didn’t occur to Ben to wonder what Armstrong was doing there. He just saw someone who could help him look for Joe. “Jim! Thank goodness! Can you…” His tongue cleaved to the roof of his mouth as Ben saw the gun in Armstrong’s hands, aimed directly at him.

“How does it feel, Ben?” Armstrong called, slowly making his way down the denuded slope. “How does it feel ta know your son is dead? Dead by another man’s hand?”

Swallowing, Ben tried to speak. “Jim…” he began, but Armstrong interrupted him.

“Don’t tell me it was an accident, Ben,” he snarled. “You’d have shot my boy anyway!”

“No!” Ben denied. “I was trying to talk him out of doing anything stupid. Jim, I didn’t want to hurt him.”

A groan sounded from close by and Ben’s head snapped round. A rock moved and Ben saw Joe’s green jacket. Ignoring the man with the gun, he hurried over to Joe and stood gaping at him in horror. “Joe!” he breathed and sank to his knees.

Struggling to open his eyes, Joe was aware only of pain. His head throbbed and he couldn’t remember what had happened. He groaned aloud and moved slightly. Something solid moved off his ribs and Joe felt immediately able to breath more easily. He cranked open his eyes and winced as the light struck him. He heard his name spoken softly from behind him and tried to turn his head. “Pa?” he croaked.

“I’m here, son,” Ben replied, reaching to move some of the rocks covering Joe. It wasn’t as difficult as Ben had anticipated, as when he moved the first one, the rest rolled off alone and Ben was able to brush off the smaller rocks. Joe’s eyes were barely open and there was blood streaming down his face. “I’m just going to turn you over, Joe,” he continued, in the same soothing tone, totally ignoring Armstrong.

Grunting in pain, Joe allowed Ben to gently roll him onto his back. He crammed his eyes tight shut as rivers of agony coursed up and down his battered body. His clothes were torn and the exposed skin was scraped and bleeding. But it was Joe’s leg that grabbed Ben’s attention. His son’s thigh had a rock partially driven into the flesh and from the angle the leg lay, Ben feared it was badly broken.

Something cold and round came to rest on Ben’s cheek and he froze at once. “Move away from the boy,” Armstrong ordered.

Slowly, Ben turned, but he kept his body between Joe and Armstrong. “I’m not going to let you kill him,” Ben told his captor.

“Your son is a dead man,” Armstrong replied, coldly. “The bible says ‘an eye for an eye’, Ben. I reckon that means a son for a son. I tried before, but neither of your sons would die.”

“You caused the wagon accident?” Ben asked. “And shot Hoss?”

“But he didn’t die,” Armstrong complained. “And then ya sent the sheriff out ta question me. Didn’t work, Ben. I can pull the wool over Roy Coffee’s eyes. Like leadin’ a lamb to the slaughter. I’m a grieving father, Ben; I don’t have time to seek revenge.” He laughed. “But I managed ta get ya out here, didn’t I, Ben? Rigged the rocks to fall and set yer herd to stampede. Ya came, just as I knew ya would.”

“Pa?” Joe murmured. He could hear the voices, but he couldn’t seem to catch every word. The pounding in his head was deafening.

“Don’t try to move, Joe,” Ben soothed not turning his head. He wished he could take the chance of rising, but he was afraid that if he offered the slightest chance to Armstrong the other man would shoot Joe.

Something about Ben’s tone seemed to be not right to Joe. He wasn’t sure what it was. With an effort, he forced open his eyes and peered blearily at the figures in front of him. One was Ben, he knew. The other seemed to be much larger. Hoss? Joe squinted, trying to bring his vision into focus. No, he didn’t think it was Hoss. He frowned.

“Move out of the way, Ben. I’ll go through ya to get ta him, you know.” Armstrong sounded quite calm, which made his words all the more horrific.

“I’ll kill you before I allow you to hurt my son,” Ben warned him angrily.

The anger clearly reached Joe. “Pa?” he repeated, trying to sit up. Pain hammered him from all round.

“Be still, Joe!” Ben urged. He didn’t dare take his eyes off the mad man in front of him.

Unsure what exactly was wrong, but sensing that the other person was the cause of Ben’s anger and distress, Joe began to feel around with his left hand. There were rocks aplenty within his reach, but most of them were too big to fit into his hand. He shifted position slightly and caught his breath at the stab of pain from his right side. But then his hand fastened on a rock of the right size and he grasped it firmly.

With a gargantuan effort, Joe sat up and hurled the rock with all his might. It struck Armstrong full in the chest and Ben took the chance Joe had given him, throwing himself on Armstrong and wrestling the bigger man for the rifle. He knew that he couldn’t afford to lose. If he did, both he and Joe would die. He didn’t know where Joe had found the energy to throw the rock, but he wasn’t going to waste the chance his son had given him.

Behind him, Joe sank back on the rocks, exhausted beyond measure. His eyes closed and he slid away into darkness, oblivious to the life and death struggle raging just a few short feet away.

The tide of the battle was starting to go against Ben. He was older, smaller than Armstrong and he had had a tiring afternoon. Armstrong threw Ben off, and Ben rolled away. His hand groped for his holster and he drew and fired his gun in one smooth movement. Armstrong lurched as the bullet bit into his arm, but he didn’t stop coming. Again, Ben fired and this time he hit the other man in the stomach. Armstrong faltered, took another few steps, then sank to his knees. As he collapsed to the ground, dying, his rifle went off. Ben felt a searing pain in his head and then knew no more.

*****

There was pain in his head. Moving made everything worse, so for some time he just lay there, drifting in a twilight world between the darkness and the light. Suddenly, memory returned with a rush and Ben forced himself to sit up, groaning as his head whirled madly. He shut his eyes until the dizziness past, then cautiously opened them again. Joe! He had to get to Joe!

Standing was clearly beyond him at that point, so Ben crawled, not even glancing at the body of Jim Armstrong, stretched out on the grass. The pool of blood on the ground told its own story. Armstrong had bled to death. Ben didn’t feel one single iota of regret; that would come later, when he had got Joe to safety and could afford to think of other things.

“Joe?” Ben whispered, looking down on the pale, blood-streaked features of his youngest son. “Joe, can you hear me?”

There was no reply. Blinking sweat out of his eyes, Ben gently began to check Joe over for injuries. The head wound was obvious; there seemed to be ribs either broken or badly bruised on Joe’s right side and his right arm was broken, too. Ben already knew about the broken thigh and he thought about removing the rock that puncture Joe’s flesh, but he wasn’t sure he would be able to control any bleeding that might result from that action, so he changed his mind.

Despair gripped Ben; how was he going to get Joe home? He would somehow have to make a travois, but doing so alone was time consuming and he was feeling worse and worse with every moment that passed. Putting his hand to his aching head, Ben was astonished when it came away red with blood.

What was he to do? Ben closed his eyes, trying to think. The hands! He opened his eyes wide. Why hadn’t he thought of that before? Just a short distance away – no more than a mile – were the hands! All Ben had to do was go and get them. He faltered there. He didn’t want to leave Joe alone, but it seemed he had no choice. Staggering to his feet, Ben set out to get his horse.

Buck had strayed a little way, but came when Ben whistled. It seemed an incredibly long way up into the saddle, but Ben persevered, hanging onto the saddle horn for grim death. Resolutely, he turned his horse, for already his reluctance to leave Joe was starting to assert itself. If he didn’t go now, he would never go.

Speed was out of the question. Ben’s head reeled at a walk and he knew he would never be able to hold on if Buck broke into a lope. He still clutched the saddle horn, the hard leather giving him a point of reference in a world suddenly out of kilter.

“Boss!” The cry roused Ben from his stupor and he squinted vilely as he tried to focus on the figure riding towards him. He recognized Charlie with a rush of relief.

“Accident… Joe… get help…” he babbled.

Grasping at once the seriousness of the situation, Charlie twisted in his saddle and whistled piercingly. Ben winced, as the sound seemed to rip right through his head. He noticed vaguely that Charlie had hold of his rein, but it didn’t occur to him to wonder why. Almost immediately, two cowboys appeared from out of nearby trees and rode over. In a few short sentences, Charlie had them organized to take Ben back to the west pasture and to send on the wagon that had arrived a short time before with more wire in it. Charlie himself was going to find Joe.

*****

“Joe?” Charlie called, looking down at his young boss. He was shaken by the young man’s visible injuries and by the dead body lying so close by. Ben’s hat lay a few feet further on and Charlie had no problems envisioning the scene that had occurred. “Can you hear me, Joe?”

“So tired,” Joe breathed, not opening his eyes.

“I know, Joe, but ya gotta wake up fer me now,” Charlie coaxed. He kept talking, drawing Joe out of the darkness and finally being rewarded by a hint of green eye. “You gotta stay awake now, Joe. The wagon’ll be comin’ fer ya, an’ ya gotta stay awake.”

“My…head…hurts,” Joe sighed, wishing Charlie would go away and leave him alone. When he was awake, everything hurt, especially his head and Joe wanted nothing more than to remain in the darkness where he couldn’t feel anything. “Tired,” he added, and his eyes dipped closed again.

“Stay awake fer me, Joe,” Charlie pleaded, but it was more than Joe could manage. Although he roused briefly once or twice, he basically remained unconscious the whole time that Charlie was waiting for the wagon to arrive.

Loading Joe into the wagon was an unpleasant business for both Joe and the cow hands. No matter how careful they were, it was impossible not to jostle Joe and he slid off into another period of unconsciousness, which really was a mercy for him, even though Charlie was growing more and more concerned.

As soon as Joe was settled, Charlie sent one of the hands off to fetch the doctor out to the ranch and began the journey back. Ben was collected on the way, and he sat beside Joe in the wagon, fighting off his own nausea and headache to give his son what comfort he could.

To Ben, it took far too long to get Joe home. He was grateful to stumble out of the wagon and into the house, leaving it to the others to carefully bring Joe inside. Hoss hovered anxiously. He had been worried when Cochise arrived home without Joe and had been on the point of going out looking for his brother when the wagon came in. Now, he was uncertain who to see to first. Ben looked almost as pale as Joe.

“You see to father,” Hop Sing ordered, seeing the big man’s indecision. “I see to Lil’ Joe till doctor come.” He gave Hoss a push to emphasize his words. “Make father lie down, rest.” He nodded imperiously and Hoss took the hint.

“Come on, Pa,” he urged Ben, helping him up. “Ya need ta go ta bed.”

“Joe…” Ben objected, but he was too weak to resist Hoss and soon found himself lying on his bed, with Hoss tugging his boots off. “I must see to Joe,” he said, vaguely and his eyes drifted shut and Ben fell asleep.

Satisfied that Ben was all right for the moment, Hoss went to see to Joe and found Paul Martin had arrived and was leaning over Joe looking concerned. “How is he, doc?” Hoss asked.

“Just from what I can see, Hoss, he’s in a bad way,” Paul replied, soberly. “I’ll need to examine him properly.” He glanced at the big man. “Aren’t you supposed to be resting?” he asked.

“Yeah, but Pa’s hurt, too,” Hoss explained, “an’ someone had ta make sure he went ta bed.”

“Don’t wear yourself out,” Paul instructed, tacitly accepting that he was going to need Hoss’ help one way or another. “Sit down while I examine Joe.”

While Paul stripped off Joe’s clothes, Hop Sing went to bring hot water, knowing that there was going to be an extended session with Joe. He gently began to wash the dirt and blood off Joe’s face while Paul listened to Joe’s heart and lungs and Joe gradually began to revive. He had barely stirred, and Paul had been very concerned. “Can you hear me, Joe?”

“Yeah,” Joe slurred.

“Good. You have to stay awake now and tell me what hurts. Can you remember what happened?” Paul listened with half an ear as Joe struggled to remember what had happened to make him feel so bad.

“There was…a rock slide,” he began. “Pa was… there. So was… someone else.” Joe swallowed painfully. “He was… big. Pa…worried.” Frowning, Joe dredged up the memories. They were pretty hazy. “I threw… a rock…at him.” Another breath. “Hit him.”

“Before or after the rock slide?” Paul enquired, sure that Joe meant before.

“After,” Joe panted. The pain was bad.

The other men looked impressed. “Good for you,” Paul nodded. He had no idea who Joe was referring to, and neither did Hop Sing or Hoss. “Now, what hurts?”

“Head,” Joe began, for his head was pounding after the effort of talking. “Everywhere.”

“Where especially, Joe?” Paul persisted. “This is important.”

“Arm…ribs…leg,” Joe elucidated. “Right side.”

Nodding, Paul relaxed slightly. Joe hadn’t mentioned an area that Paul hadn’t already catalogued. “All right, young man, you just relax and let me help you. I’m afraid that you’re in for a spell in bed and I’ve got to do a small operation, all right?” He began to sort out the things he would need to remove the rock from Joe’s leg.

“Pa?” Joe asked, looking round. “Pa?” he repeated, louder this time. “Pa?” Joe sounded frantic.

“Easy, Joe,” Hoss soothed, hurrying over to gently pin his brother to the bed. “Pa’s sleepin’.”

Frantic green eyes fastened onto Hoss’ blue ones. “Really?” he demanded, fear still coloring his tones.

“Really,” Hoss promised. “I ain’t never lied ta ya, Joe.”

“I thought…” Joe murmured, relaxing.

“He’s not dead,” Paul stated firmly. “I promise.” He slipped the chloroform mask over Joe’s face and within a few minutes, Joe was slumbering peacefully. “Hoss, go back and keep your father in bed until I’ve seen him,” Paul instructed. “I’ll come and see you as soon as I’m finished with Joe.”

“All right,” Hoss agreed, reluctantly and looked down on Joe for a long minute before mussing his curls and leaving. Paul smiled; how alike the Cartwrights were in some respects!

*****

Paul’s big worry had been that the rock was piercing an artery, but his fears proved unfounded. Joe had a nasty, deep puncture wound to the thigh that required stitches, but the bleeding was minimal under the circumstances. The broken bones were soon set, and the plaster casts applied. Stitches were needed in the head wound and a bandage was applied there. Joe’s broke ribs were wrapped. At last, Paul straightened up, exhausted. It had been a long few hours, but Joe was going to live.

Wearily, he went through to Ben’s room. It was well past midnight and Paul wasn’t in the least surprised to see Hoss sitting in a chair in front of the fire, sleeping soundly. Ben was awake, which was also no surprise, as Hoss was snoring vigorously.

There were plenty of indications that Ben had a concussion, not least the basin resting on the edge of the bed, within easy reach. Ben’s eyes immediately flew to meet Paul’s and the physician could almost see him wince. “Joe?” Ben asked, as fearfully as his son had earlier asked for him.

“He’ll live,” Paul replied. “He’s going to be out of action for some considerable time, Ben, but he’s alive. He’s hurt badly – a broken leg, arm, ribs, but he was lucky. He could have died in that rock slide.” Sitting down on the edge of the bed, Paul examined Ben, not giving him time to say anything else. “Well, you’ve got a nasty concussion, Ben and I suspect you’ll be spending quite a bit of time in bed yourself over the next day or two. Take things easy until you start to feel better, do you hear me?”

“But Joe…” Ben started and Paul interrupted.

“Joe isn’t going anywhere right now,” Paul replied. “I’ll help you through to see him in a minute and then you are coming right back here to go to sleep.” Curiosity won out. “Ben, who was the man Joe threw a rock at? He said you were worried by him.”

“It was Jim Armstrong,” Ben replied, sounding subdued. “He had set up the rock slide to try and kill Joe. He was the one who loosened the wheel nut so that Joe had the accident with the buckboard. He shot at Hoss.”

“Because of Mark?” Paul guessed.

“Because of Mark and because of young Jim, too, I suspect.” Ben sighed. “Joe knew I was worried?” he questioned. “Joe was barely conscious. I wondered how he knew to throw that rock – and I wondered where he found the strength.” Ben’s dark eyes were focused inwards as he remembered Joe sitting up and heaving that rock with deadly accuracy. It would have been quite a throw under normal conditions, but was especially impressive considering how badly injured Joe was.

“How did you hurt your head?” Paul asked, leaning in for a closer look at the shallow furrow that marred Ben’s head.

“Jim shot me,” Ben replied, sighing.

“Its not too serious,” Paul assured him. “But I still want you to take it easy.”

“I want to see Joe,” Ben demanded and Paul nodded.

“Come on, then, and maybe you’ll do as you’re told and go to sleep,” he grumbled good-naturedly. He assisted his friend to his feet and made sure he was steady before they began their trek to Joe’s room.

Once there, Ben leant over his sleeping son, reveling in the fact that Joe was safe, but dismayed by the casts and bandages marring his son’s body. “I love you, Joe,” he whispered and was rewarded with a wordless murmur as Joe nestled into the warmth of his father’s hand.

*****

The furor began the next day. Roy Coffee arrived out at the ranch very early and found the place in chaos. Ben was still in bed, but arguing that he had to get up and see Joe. Paul Martin was arguing back, looking very tired indeed and Hoss was practically sitting on Ben.

Along the hall in Joe’s room, things were slightly calmer. Joe still slept soundly, thanks to the large dose of morphine he had received in the early hours of the morning. Knowing that Joe would sleep for some time to come, Paul was reluctant to let Ben get out of bed and just sit with Joe. The older man was concussed and had been stricken with bouts of nausea repeatedly overnight and the last thing Joe needed was to see his father being sick. The longer Joe slept, the less likely it was that Joe would suffer from the same nausea, given that Joe had a concussion, too. Throwing up with broken ribs was not a pleasant prospect.

However, Roy’s arrival allowed Paul to escape and get some well deserved breakfast, leaving Roy to deal with Ben. “What happened out there, Ben?” Roy asked, and listened patiently as the other man recounted the horrors of the previous afternoon. “He admitted it all?” Roy asked, when Ben was finished.

“Yes,” Ben replied, wearily. “But I don’t have any witnesses, Roy. Joe was unconscious most of the time.

“Reckon I don’t need none,” Roy avowed stoutly. “I’ve known ya a long time, Ben, an’ I know ya wouldn’t lie ta me.” He gestured to Ben’s head. “’Sides, that’s evidence of sorts.”

“I didn’t want to kill him,” Ben admitted. “But I couldn’t get him down. He was determined to kill Joe and I couldn’t let that happen.”

“O’ course ya couldn’t,” Roy comforted. “Don’t fret none, Ben. Ain’t nothing gonna be said about it.” He chewed his moustache meditatively. “Mind if I stick ma head in ta see yer boy?”

“Not if I can come with you,” Ben agreed and Roy didn’t have the heart to say no, even knowing that Ben should be resting.

Joe didn’t move as they went in and Roy didn’t stay. He didn’t think Joe could add anything pertinent to the case and it was open and shut as far as Roy could see. He was quite appalled at Joe’s injuries, though and thought it was probably just as well that Armstrong had died when he did. Otherwise, there would have been a trial and all this would have been dragged up, when he was sure Joe and Ben would prefer to forget about it if they could.

A few minutes after Roy left, Joe stirred uneasily and moaned. Ben took his uninjured hand in his larger, warm one and gently stroked it. With a sigh, Joe settled again, but only for a few more minutes. Then his glazed green eyes opened and fastened on Ben. “Pa?” he whispered, his voice cracked and hoarse.

“Hi there,” Ben smiled. “I thought you were going to sleep forever.”

“Your…head,” Joe breathed. His throat was dry. Ben somehow divined this and helped Joe to drink, realizing as he did so that his son was going to be helpless for the next few days, until his injuries began to heal. He would need a lot of nursing and they were none of them in any great condition to do so. Ben knew that they would have to rely on help from friends until he and Hoss were back on their feet. Thank the Lord for Hop Sing, he thought, fondly, as the Chinese factotum came into the room bearing a cup of coffee for Ben.

For a moment, the smell made Ben nauseous, but he fought down the feeling and took a sip. “My head is going to be just fine,” he assured Joe. “It’s not serious.”

“He tried to kill you,” Joe remembered, a distressed look on his face. “Who? Why?”

Quietly, Ben explained. Joe drank in all the information, but he didn’t understand. “Why?” he asked, plaintively. “You didn’t…mean to kill…Mark.”

“I’m not sure,” Ben admitted. “He spoke to me about the bible stating ‘an eye for an eye’. Perhaps he thought that justified it. Perhaps the balance of his mind was disturbed when he lost both his sons. Lord knows, I don’t know how I would act if I thought I’d lost you all.”

“Not like that,” Joe protested. He tried to sit up, but a sharp pain in his side kept him in place. He saw Ben’s worried face and tried to smile. “Pa, you would…never do something…like that,” he insisted and Ben was touched by his son’s devotion.

“Well, I hope not, but you never know,” Ben averred.

“I know,” Joe replied. “Pa, you taught us…that vengeance wasn’t… right. I know…I almost… let you down… once…but I learned. You wouldn’t.”

“I second that thought,” interjected a voice from the door and Paul came in. “I don’t think for a single instant that you would deliberately set out to murder someone to get revenge.” He smiled at his friend. “What are you doing through here? I thought I told you to stay in bed?”

“And you give me…into trouble…for trying to…get out of bed,” Joe wheezed. He sniggered and clutched his ribs. “Laughing hurts,” he noted.

“Then don’t laugh,” Paul advised prosaically.

At that, Ben laughed. “All right, I’ll go back to bed in a minute,” he agreed. “Just let me sit here a bit longer.”

Glancing at Joe, Paul could see that this was the best medicine that Joe could have. “Perhaps you would like to help this young man have something to eat,” he suggested. “And then you’ll go back to bed, or I’ll dose you with my worst tasting medicine!”

“I could give you…some suggestions,” Joe smiled.

His smile slipped away as Paul helped him sit up, but he was soon propped comfortably on pillows, gloomily examining the cast that reached from his hips to his toes and prodding the cast on his right forearm. He glanced at Ben, who was watching him closely. “I’m going to need help doing everything, aren’t I?” he mourned.

“I’m afraid so, son,” Ben sympathized. He knew how the independent Joe hated to have to rely on others, especially for his personal needs. He watched as Joe made up his mind to bear the indignities as best he could. Joe was nothing if not a realist, but Ben knew how hard it was to accept help.

Finally Joe sighed. “I guess I shouldn’t complain,” he admitted. “I might have been dead, mightn’t I? And then I wouldn’t be in a position to moan about what I can and can’t do.”

“We might both have been dead,” Ben agreed, soberly. “But thanks to you, we aren’t.”

“Thanks to both of us, Pa,” Joe corrected him. “Together, we Cartwrights are unbeatable.”

***End***

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