The Last Viking (by Rona)

Summary:  What Happened before the last scene of the episode.

Rated:  PG
Word Count:  9041


 

 

Panting, Hoss Cartwright straightened up and drew his gun. With a trembling hand, and grief in his heart, he aimed it at his uncle, the man who had murdered his little brother. Though he had intended to shoot Gunnar for causing all this trouble and grief, he couldn’t bring himself to do it. Hoss just wasn’t the kind of man who could shoot another in cold blood.

“I cain’t do it,” he panted, and holstered his gun, his shoulders slumping in defeat.

“Hoss!” Carrie cried. “Look, Hoss!”

Turning swiftly, dreading what might be coming next, Hoss could barely believe his eyes as his younger brother Joe limped heavily into the clearing, stumbled against a rock out-cropping and fell to his knees. Joe’s shirt was bloodstained on the right shoulder, and he was obviously in some pain. In his hand, he still clutched the knife he and Carrie had used to free themselves.

“Joe! Are you hurt bad?” Carrie asked, throwing herself down to hug him. Joe winced and shook his head, although that wasn’t the truth.

“Punkin!” Hoss exclaimed, rushing to his brother’s side to take his head in one massive hand. “I thought they done killed you, boy!”

“No, not this time,” Joe said, valiantly giving Hoss a smile. “It was your uncle, Hoss.” He paused to catch his breath.

“I know,” Hoss interrupted, glancing down.

Oblivious of this, Joe went on. “He saved our lives. He helped us get away.”

Hoss’ head jerked up and he looked at Carrie for one anguished second before looking over to where his uncle lay. “I tried to tell ya, Hoss,” Carrie said, and Hoss couldn’t deny that. Carrie had indeed tried to tell him something, and he was so overcome by grief that he hadn’t listened to her.

“Amigos,” said a new voice, and they all glanced up and froze. On top of a nearby rock formation was Vaca, one of the commancheros from Gunnar’s band.  He had his gun in his hand, aiming it at the small group below. “I’m gonna kill you, amigos,” he went on. As Hoss made a move to draw his gun, Vaca lifted his and warned, “Don’t move! I know the old man pretty well. When I kill you, he will die too.”

“Vaca!” Gunnar cried, rallying himself from the beating he’d received from Hoss. A short time before, he and Vaca had also fought and although Gunnar had won, he was exhausted. He lifted his gun.

“Don’t move, old man,” Vaca warned. “Don’t move. I will kill them.”

“Take your choice, them or me,” Gunnar challenged. He wished he’d killed Vaca earlier, when he had the chance.

Without hesitating, Vaca changed his aim and shot Gunnar. Hoss’ uncle clutched his side, his gun discharging harmlessly away from everyone. Moving quickly, Hoss drew his gun and shot Vaca. The commanchero fell form the rocks, dead. Joe and Carrie let out the breaths they’d unconsciously been holding, and for a moment, Joe thought he might pass out.

Then, Hoss’ warm hand left Joe’s shoulder and he was running over to his uncle. Gently, Hoss turned the older man over, and cradled him in his arms. “I’m sorry, Uncle Gunnar,” he whispered. “I didn’t understand.”

“Don’t go getting stuck in the mud, sonny,” Gunnar said. “Sometimes it is difficult to get out. I don’t regret anything I done. I ain’t askin’ forgiveness from anyone. I meant to do all them things I done.” He paused to drag in some breath.

“Yessir,” Hoss muttered.

“Forgive me, Hoss,” Gunnar gasped, and then his grip on Hoss’ arm loosened and Hoss knew his uncle was gone.

Slowly, gently, Hoss laid him down and buried his head in his hands. Carrie looked away, and she saw that Joe’s head was down, a sure sign of distress. Joe wished he could go over and comfort Hoss, but the thought of moving was too much for him.

After a few minutes, Hoss came back over to Joe and looked at him. His grieving for Gunnar could wait. Joe needed attention now. The bloodstain on Joe’s shirt hadn’t noticeably grown, but it was big enough already. “Let’s get you home, Joe,” Hoss suggested. “Can you walk?”

“I don’t think so,” Joe replied, wincing as he tried to move. “I fell, and hurt my ankle.” He bit his lip as he stretched his left leg out.

“That bullet still in ya, too?” Hoss asked, knowing, with a sinking feeling in his heart, that the answer would be yes.

“Yeah,” Joe admitted. His breath was panting away from him as he tried to control the pain. “What’re you going to do?”

Biting his own lip, Hoss wasn’t sure what to say. He wasn’t sure what to do. Joe needed help, and fast. But Hoss wasn’t sure it was wise for him to carry Joe back to his horse in case they came across some more commancheros. No way could Hoss carry Joe and have his gun ready to fire. He briefly thought about giving the gun to Carrie, but she was exhausted and inclined to be hysterical, and Hoss didn’t know if she could shoot. What was he going to do?

There was a sound from behind them, and Hoss whirled around, his gun in his hand, ready to shoot. “Hoss!” Ben’s voice called, and Hoss could have wept with relief.

“Here, Pa! Hurry!” he called, and knelt again by Joe. “Ya hear that, Joe? It’s Pa!”

“Good,” Joe responded, his head lolling on his shoulders as he tired ever more quickly. He dragged his eyes back open and saw Ben and Adam rush into the clearing.

Both men had their guns drawn. “Hoss, are you all right?” Ben demanded, seeing, for the moment, only his middle son.

“Yes, sir, I’m fine,” Hoss answered, although it wasn’t sure that that was the truth. Physically, he was fine, but emotionally, he wasn’t. “But Joe’s hurt bad, pa.”

“Joe?” Ben muttered, finally seeing the young couple huddle behind Hoss sheltering bulk. He holstered his gun and rushed forward. “Joe! What happened?”

“It was Vaca,” Joe said. “He shot me…” His voice trailed off as another pang of agony shot through his body. He swallowed, and glanced up at Ben, who knelt by him, gently unbuttoning Joe’s shirt to see the wound. “I hurt my foot, too, Pa, and…and… I don’t think I can…walk.”

“Are you all right, Carrie?” Ben asked, glancing at her as he tried to hide his horror at the severity of Joe’s injury. The girl nodded, and Ben turned his attention to Joe’s foot.

It was clear from the moment Ben put his hand on the foot that there was no way Joe could stand to have to boot pulled off. Yet it had to come off. From what Joe said, he knew the ankle was unlikely to be broken, simply because Joe had been walking on it. But it was surely sprained and would be swelling. If he didn’t get the boot off, the swelling would be impeded, and would creep up his leg, causing other problems. “Someone give me a knife,” he said, harshly.

As Adam and Hoss fumbled through their clothes, Joe put his hand down and picked up the knife he’d dropped. “This do?” he asked. At the expression on Ben’s face, he went on, explaining, “It was Vaca’s. Gunnar gave it to us, to help us escape.”

“Its fine,” Ben answered, taking it in his hand. “Adam, Hoss, you keep a sharp lookout for the rest of those commancheros. Those shots will have attracted them. Joe,” he paused until those expressive eyes looked up at him. “I’m going to cut your boot off. I’ll try not to hurt you.”

“Just do it,” Joe said, and sagged back against the rocks. Carrie tightened her grip on him, and Joe tried not to wince at the unintentional pain she caused him. He failed and at once, she contritely loosened her grip.

Meanwhile, Ben worked as quickly as he could. The jerking against his injured ankle caused Joe’s head to swim, and he drifted on a cloud of pain, not quite unconscious, until at last Ben could ease his boot off round his heel. Next moment, he felt his sock being cut off, and then, blessedly, for a moment things were still. He drew in a deep shaky breath, and realized that he’d bitten his lip, trying to control his pain.

“All right, son?” Ben asked, softly, looking worriedly at Joe. He was concerned about the positioning of the bullet. It looked to Ben like it was dangerously near Joe’s lung, and he’d heard his son panting for breath.

“All right,” Joe breathed unconvincingly. Ben nodded.

Moving fast, he ripped the sleeve out of his shirt, and fashioned it into a makeshift bandage. Even by the moonlight, Joe’s ankle was swollen and discolored. Ben knew there’d be no way he’d be walking on it for some time to come. Satisfied with his handiwork for now, Ben sat back. He glanced all around, feeling uneasy. Both Adam and Hoss were keeping watch, but every now and then, their attention strayed to Joe.

Following Hoss’ glance, Ben saw, for the first time, Gunnar’s body. He stiffened, glanced to first his middle son, then the younger one, and rose to his feet. Without saying a word, he went over to look down on Gunnar. It didn’t come as a surprise that Gunnar had died violently. He had led a fairly violent life. Ben was glad Inger wasn’t around to see what her little brother had come to. “I hope you find your ship,” he said, softly, and went back to his sons.

It was decided that Hoss would carry Joe, and Adam and Ben keep watch for the commancheros. Ben was surprised that they hadn’t already appeared, drawn by the shooting, but there was no way to be sure they weren’t watching. The area was covered in trees and rocks, providing many natural hiding places. Ben just hoped their horses were still where they had left them. He and Adam had heard the shots and hurried to where they were coming from, meeting each other on the way. Each had feared that Hoss had found the camp, but hadn’t waited for them before trying to rescue Joe and Carrie. Ben was still a bit hazy about how Joe and Carrie had escaped, but now wasn’t the time to ask about it.

Gently, Hoss lifted Joe, feeling his younger brother’s head lying trustingly against his shoulder. Hoss wasn’t sure that trust was totally justified, even though he knew he wasn’t responsible for Gunnar’s actions. But it somehow seemed wrong to him that Joe didn’t blame him for what had happened.

It wasn’t far to where Ben and Adam had left their horses, and Chubb had found his stable mates. Hoss put Joe down while they decided how they were going to proceed from there. Three horses and five people meant that at least 2 horses were going to be riding double. Ben didn’t ponder for long.

“Adam, you go and send for the doctor. We’ll cut across the hills and come to the house by the back road. Make sure there’s boiling water and bandages ready for Paul. Light the fire in Joe’s room, too. He’s cold, and going to be colder by the time we get home.”

“Are you sure you don’t want to get a wagon?” Adam asked. “We could bring it to the meadow down there.”

“No,” Ben replied, positively. “It would take too long, and Joe needs help now. You get off, and we’ll bring Joe and Carrie home as quickly as we can. Better alert Roy, too. I doubt if the commancheros are just going to ride off.”

The words were hardly out of his mouth when a bullet whistled past Ben’s ear. He ducked instinctively, even though the bullet was past. Adam hauled him into cover as Hoss yanked Carrie down and crouched over Joe. Adam fired back. The commancheros had found them.

It was immediately clear that the commancheros were targeting Joe and Carrie especially. They didn’t know that Abe McLain was still alive and could identify them; they thought Joe and Carrie were the only eyewitnesses. None of the men left were leaders. They did their best thinking under the command of others. Now that both Vaca and Gunnar were dead, there was no one to lead them. They had attacked the Cartwrights without thinking the situation through, and they found themselves facing men determined not to let anything more happen to the young couple.

The shoot-out was short lived. Adam winged the first man, Ben got a second and Hoss got a third. By then, the others were clearing off and running for their lives. It wasn’t worth losing their lives, just to kill two youngsters, one of whom looked like he might die anyway. As fast as the commancheros had begun the fight, they gave up and fled.

Cautiously, Adam rose to his feet and made his way over to check the three men they’d shot. All of them were dead. He scouted around, but found no further signs of anyone waiting in ambush for them. He holstered his gun and went back to join the others. “All gone,” he reported, laconically.

Kneeling by Joe, Ben forced some water into his son’s mouth. Joe roused from the stupor he’d been in and gulped the tepid liquid greedily. Hoss offered a canteen to Carrie, who was no less thirsty than Joe. She was beginning to look teary, reaction rapidly catching up with her. Ben privately thought a good cry would do her the world of good.

“Hoss, I’ll take Joe,” Ben decided, wrapping his bedroll securely round Joe. “Adam, get going. We’ll be along as fast as we can.” He collected a nod from his oldest son, who touched Joe’s cheek briefly before mounting and riding away. “Carrie, you ride with Hoss,” Ben went on. He nodded as Hoss got his own bedroll for Carrie. The night was cooling rapidly, with a chill wind soughing through the trees. He had a sudden thought, and smiled at her. “Carrie, your uncle is still alive,” he told her gently.

“Uncle Abe?” Carrie breathed. “Oh.” After a second, she began to cry and Ben stroked her hair gently, thinking that was exactly what she needed.

Leaving Carrie to compose herself, Ben and Hoss helped Joe onto Buck and Ben mounted up behind him. At once, Ben started his horse walking back to the Ponderosa. The route he intended taking wasn’t one to be ridden without thought, for it was precipitously steep in places, but it was far quicker than going down to the meadow and around to the house.

“All right, Joe?” he asked, feeling Joe sigh. He knew that all right was a relative term.

“It…hurts,” Joe panted.

“Your shoulder or your foot?” Ben questioned, suddenly terrified that the bullet had moved, or they had carelessly bumped Joe’s shoulder when moving him.

“Everything,” came the answer, and there was a catch in Joe’s voice that told Ben he was on the verge of tears. Not that Ben blamed him. Joe had as much right to a crying jag as Carrie, and it would probably do him as much good. “Pa,” Joe went on, “Gunnar saved our lives.”

Slowly, with many pauses to catch his breath, Joe told the story of how he and Carrie came to be kidnapped, starting with their encounter with Vaca at the McLain’s ranch; meeting Gunnar for the first time; Vaca attempting to ravish Carrie, and beating Joe, who was tied up at the time; the rattlesnake; the fight between Gunnar and Vaca; the knife and finally, their escape. By the time Joe’s voice petered out, Ben was burning with anger.

He had always known that Gunnar was a bandit at heart. He was appalled that Gunnar had taken Joe hostage after learning his identity, however. Just that morning, he, Gunnar, Adam and Hoss had shared a meal. He had known about Joe because Hoss had several times mentioned his younger brother, and hoped that he and Gunnar would have the chance to meet. Even though Gunnar had helped Joe and Carrie escape, Ben found it hard to forget that Gunnar had ordered them hostages in the first place.

 Vaca was different entirely. Ben had distrusted the man on sight when he had come to the ranch house that first evening. There was something oily about his manner; he was too obsequious, while clearly eyeing up the wealth of the house. That Vaca would think nothing of trying to ravish a young female hostage was not a surprise. But Ben was sickened that he had laughed while beating up a young man who was bound hand and foot. It was no surprise to Ben that Joe had tried to protect Carrie, even in that predicament.

“I’m proud of you, son,” he whispered.

“Me?” Joe queried. He coughed painfully. “Why?” Joe’s mind was foggy with pain and he couldn’t think why his father was proud of him getting into yet another scrape where he had had to be rescued by his family and had been hurt besides.

“I’m proud that you kept your head,” Ben answered. “And I’m proud that you tried to protect Carrie from Vaca.”

That still didn’t make sense to Joe. He blinked, feeling sweat running into his eyes. “I couldn’t… let Vaca …hurt her,” he said, sounding puzzled. “I had…to…do…something.”

“I know,” Ben soothed. “And that’s why I’m proud of you. Don’t try to talk any more, Joe. Rest. Sleep if you can.”

“Hurts…too…much,” Joe panted. He leant his head back onto Ben’s shoulder and sighed deeply. Ben wanted nothing more at that moment than to get Joe back home and safely into bed.

For some time they plodded along, unspeaking. The moon disappeared behind some clouds and the trail grew dim and indistinct. Several times Buck stumbled and Joe caught his breath each and every time. He had never felt so ill. His shoulder throbbed in time to his heartbeat and his ankle dangling, unsupported, in mid-air was a blazing agony all of its own. One minute he was hot, the next minute he was cold. He wanted to sleep, but he was afraid that if he let go, he would slide into darkness so deep that he would never find his way out. He wanted Ben to talk to him, but his father was silent, concentrating on guiding the horse safely. It was all Joe could do not to ask Ben to stop the horse and let him rest, but he knew that if they stopped moving, he would not want to go on again.

Finally, fearing he was going to be sick, Joe opened his mouth to ask Ben to stop. At that very moment, Buck’s feet slid out from underneath him, and Ben and Joe were falling.

“Pa!” Hoss shouted and pulled Chubb to a stop. Carrie wakened with a jerk. Hoss jumped down from Chubb’s back and ran over to where the horse lay groaning on its side and his father and brother lay in a tangled heap further down the slope. “Pa, Joe, are ya all right?”

For a horrible minute, Hoss thought they had both been killed. He felt fearfully for their pulses, and found them. The moment of relief was overwhelming and Hoss was trembling faintly as he tried to rouse them.

“Pa, are ya all right?” Hoss repeated, shaking Ben’s shoulder gently. He tried to see if there were any obvious injuries, but it was too dark to see clearly. “Pa.”

“Hoss?” Ben muttered. He lifted his head, clearly dazed. “What happened?”

“Buck fell,” Hoss answered, looking over his shoulder at the horse, which had regained its feet, but was standing with its head down and one foot lifted. “Are you all right, Pa?”

“Yes, yes,” Ben assured him. “How’s Joe?”

“He’s out cold,” Hoss said, worriedly. Ben sat up, groaned at the movement, and bent over Joe anxiously.

The moon came out again at that moment, and cast some much need light on the scene. However, it didn’t bring much reassurance with it. Joe was unconscious and deathly pale. The bloodstain on his shirt was spreading, and Ben listened anxiously to his labored breathing.

“Can you hear me, Joe?” Ben asked, patting his cheek gently. “Joe, son, open your eyes for me.” He repeated this a few times before Joe stirred and opened his eyes. “How do you feel, son?” he asked.

“I want to go home,” Joe whispered. His voice was thin and weak. “It hurts, Pa.”

“We’ve got to get him home,” Ben said, urgently. “Hoss, check Buck for me, please.” He cradled Joe carefully in his arms, and drew back the thin cotton of Joe’s shirt to check his wound. The new bleeding made him wince, but he had no way to tell if the bullet had moved at all. Once more, he left the wound undisturbed, fearing that too much handling would be worse than none at all.

“Pa, Buck’s pretty lame,” Hoss reported, coming back over. “He cain’t hardly put that hoof to the ground at all.”

This was bad news .Ben bit his lip. He had to get Joe home and handed over to the doctor’s care. Carrie might need some medical attention too. What was best to do?

“Mr. Cartwright, you and Joe take Hoss’ horse,” Carrie suggested, having slid down from Chubb’s back and come over. “Hoss will look after me, and we’ll get back. Joe needs to get home.”

“Carrie’s right, Pa,” Hoss agreed. “You send someone with fresh horses when you get back. Chubb’ll take care of ya both.”

“Thank you both,” Ben said, feelingly. “I hate to leave you here alone with a lame horse, but you’re right. We must get Joe home quickly.” He rose stiffly to his feet, feeling his head throb slightly. Hoss picked Joe up carefully, but for all his care, his younger brother winced miserably.

They were soon mounted up, and Ben paused for another moment before heading Chubb in the direction of home. “Be careful,” he urged Hoss and Carrie and then set off.

*****

It was a long journey home. Chubb was sure footed and patient, but still slid and slipped a little on the treacherous ground. About half an hour after leaving Hoss and Carrie, it began to rain, a cold, thin rain that slanted in on the wind. Joe shivered and mumbled. He was beginning to feel hot, and Ben was concerned. The bullet was starting to cause an infection. He hoped Adam had the doctor waiting when they got back to the house.

At last, they came down the final slope and were on the last lap for home. Ben’s arms ached relentlessly from holding Joe onto the saddle. The urge to make the horse go faster was almost over whelming, but he knew that it could make things much worse for Joe if he did that so held the horse to a steady walk.

Finally, they came into the yard and the house door opened and Adam popped out like a cork from a bottle. He hurried across to look anxiously at Joe before glancing at his father. “I thought something had happened to you.” He took in the horse they were riding and a frown creased his forehead. “Something has happened. Are you all right? What happened to Buck? Where are Hoss and Carrie?”

“Buck fell,” Ben said, gently sliding Joe into Adam’s waiting arms. “Send one of the men with fresh horses to meet them, Adam. They’re walking back.” He dismounted stiffly, and clutched the saddle horn for a moment while he straightened out the kink in his back.

“Are you all right?” Adam asked, over his shoulder, for he knew that Joe needed attention at once. The heat coming form his youngest brother burned through the bedroll wrapped around him. Joe’s eyes were shut and he breathed in shallow gasps.

“Never mind me,” Ben said, although his head throbbed yet. “Where’s Paul?”

“He’s inside,” Adam assured him. “We put his buggy into the barn when the rain started.” Moving carefully, Adam carried Joe across the room and began to mount the stairs. “Go and get changed and dry, Pa,” he ordered.

“Where’s Abe?” Ben asked, realizing that the sofa was empty. He felt a pang in his gut as he thought that the man had died. How would he tell Carrie, after assuring her that her uncle was all right?

“Downstairs bedroom,” Adam’s voice informed him as he disappeared from sight. “He’s doing better.”

It was a relief. Ben went slowly upstairs, and into Joe’s room, despite Adam’s advice to get dried. He had to see how Joe was first.

“Get a towel, Adam,” Paul Martin was saying as Ben went in. He was stripping Joe’s sodden clothes off. He paused as the extent of the bullet wound became evident. After a moment, he moved on, and as Adam handed him the towel, he had Joe’s bloody shirt off, and his pants loosened. Paul used the towel to dry some of the dampness from Joe’s skin before continuing his visual examination and removing the youth’s sodden pants.

“I’ll operate at once, Ben,” Paul said, grimly, straightening. “But I have to warn you. That bullet is in a bad place. It’s very close to the lung. I won’t know until I’ve opened him up if the lung is damaged. We’ll just have to hope. He’s lost a lot of blood. I’ll do everything I can for him. Adam can help me. You get some rest.”

Knowing that Ben would want to stay, Paul all but pushed him from the room, and Ben reluctantly went. Before he changed, he went to organize horses for Hoss and Carrie and checked on Abe McLain, who looked much better. Then he went to get changed, and after that there was nothing to do but wait.

*****

Sometime near dawn, Carrie and Hoss returned. They were both soaking and exhausted, but Carrie went at once to see Abe before being persuaded to have a hot bath and go to bed. Hoss changed his clothes and joined Ben downstairs. Paul was still operating.

“Will he be all right?” Hoss asked in a low voice.

“I don’t know,” Ben replied, honestly. “The bullet was in him for a long time. Who knows how much damage that fall did him?”

“Are you all right?” Hoss went over to Ben and looked more closely at his father’s face. There was a graze near his hairline, with a bruise spreading around it, but the injury seemed minor. “You was knocked out, too.”

Impatiently, Ben brushed away Hoss’ concern. “Its nothing,” he said, for he truthfully had barely felt either it or the headache he had had since Paul began to operate on Joe. “I’m fine, son.”

Turning away, Hoss thrust his hands deep into his pockets. “I thought Uncle Gunnar had shot Little Joe,” Hoss muttered. “I fought him, Pa. Then… then…”

“Then what, son?” Ben asked gently. When there was no immediate answer, he went over and took Hoss’ shoulders in his hands. “Tell me.”

“I pulled ma gun,” Hoss said, his voice so quiet that Ben could barely hear. He instinctively tightened his hold, giving Hoss support. “I wanted to shoot him, Pa. I wanted to real bad.” He looked round at Ben. There were tears in his eyes. “But I couldn’t do it, Pa. I couldn’t.”

“Of course you couldn’t, boy,” Ben soothed. “You couldn’t kill in cold blood like that.”  He rubbed his hand up and down Hoss’ arm.

“Pa, d’you understand why I wanted to?” Hoss asked, urgently.

“Yes, I understand,” Ben said, slowly. “You were so badly hurt that you lashed out. Did Gunnar deny shooting Joe?”

“I didn’t rightly ask him,” Hoss admitted. “I jist jumped on him.” He swallowed. “He asked me to forgive him, Pa. Me! When I shoulda bin beggin’ his forgiveness.”

“Gunnar had kidnapped the brother he knew meant a lot to you, Hoss. He understood why you acted as you did. He was asking you to forgive him for hurting you.” Ben didn’t know if that was true or not, but it was what Hoss needed to hear.  “And you did forgive him, didn’t you?”

The tears in Hoss’ eyes spilled down his cheeks. “I had to, Pa!” he exclaimed passionately.

“I know that, Hoss. And I wouldn’t expect anything less of you.” Once more, Ben tightened his grip on his son. “And Joe will understand that, too, son. I can guarantee that. Gunnar helped them escape. Joe wouldn’t hold a grudge against him, not when he weighs the good against the bad. He saved their lives, Hoss. He told you so himself.”

“You reckon?” Hoss asked, afraid to believe it too easily. He wiped the tears from his face with his sleeve.

“Joe told me so,” Ben replied.

Relief flooded through Hoss, and he felt fresh tears welling in his eyes. He sniffed hard, and wiped his eyes once more. Ben just stood there, holding Hoss and they both drew some comfort from the embrace. After a time, their eyes were drawn back to the stairs, where Joe battled for his life.

*****

The blood was sickening. Adam swallowed hard many, many times, trying to control his nausea. He wanted to look away, but couldn’t. Paul needed his attention on the job at hand. Adam’s job was to wipe the blood away as Paul cut further and further into Joe’s body to find that elusive piece of lead.

“There it is,” Paul muttered, and Adam gave a sigh of relief, until he realized that Paul hadn’t sounded pleased.

“What is it?” he asked, his heart suddenly in his throat. “Paul?” he pushed, when there was no answer forthcoming.

“The bullet is lodged against his lung,” Paul answered. “I can’t tell if the lung is damaged or not. There’s a danger that when I take the bullet out, the lung might collapse.” He bit his lip. “Well, I have to go on.” He glanced at Adam, and saw the chalk-white face. “Adam? Can you go on?”

“Yes,” Adam answered. He nodded, too as though to confirm his answer. He took a deep breath, and grabbed a fresh towel. There were three others lying on the floor, soaked in his brother’s blood. So much blood.

Adam scarcely dared to breathe as Paul probed the wound for the bullet. Paul seemed quite calm, but there was a betraying sweat on his forehead. Seconds dragged out and became minutes. Adam resolutely wiped away the blood and tried not to think about how much blood Joe had lost. He prided himself on his logical approach to life, but his logic betrayed him now, and he could only see his younger brother’s life blood seeping out of his body.

“Got it!” Paul exclaimed, holding aloft a squashed bit of something that Adam would’ve been hard put to recognize as a bullet. “Thank goodness.”

“His lung?” Adam questioned, anxiously. “Is it…?”

“Intact,” Paul replied. “There’s some damage to muscles, but nothing major. Joe was incredibly lucky. There must have been a guardian angel looking out for him last night.”

Reaction suddenly set in, and Adam found his hand was trembling. Tears formed in his eyes. Paul noticed at once and pushed Adam into the nearest chair, gently forcing his head between his knees. “Breathe deeply,” he advised, and hurried back to begin the long slow process of stitching Joe back together. After a couple of minutes, Adam had recovered, and came back over to help.

Finally, it was done, and Joe was cocooned in bandages, his right arm strapped firmly across his chest by bandages. Paul and Adam changed the bed linen, and Adam gathered up the soiled sheets and blankets, vowing that they would be burned, so as not to be a reminder to them of this dreadful period.

“You can bring up Ben and Hoss now,” Paul said, wearily. “I’ll just look at Joe’s ankle.” In the worry over the operation, Adam had forgotten about Joe’s ankle. It was black and swollen, but as Paul gently manipulated it, Adam could see it wasn’t broken. He left, his arms full of linen.

*****

As the footsteps sounded on the stairs, Ben leapt to his feet, his heart racing anxiously. His eyes widened at the sight of all the blood. “He’s alive,” Adam said, knowing that they couldn’t bear the waiting any longer. “Paul says you can go up. I’ll be right back.” He crossed to the kitchen as Ben and Hoss mounted the stairs two at a time.

The door to Joe’s room stood ajar, and Ben hesitated momentarily before going in, as though mentally preparing himself for what he might see. Hoss touched his shoulder and Ben gave him a slight smile before going in.

Paul was just finishing arranging Joe’s ankle on a pile of pillows. Joe lay on his back, his head turned to the door. His eyes were shut and his face was the palest Ben had ever seen. His anxious eyes sought the rise and fall of Joe’s chest, which was covered in bandages. He hurried over and took Joe’s hand. His eyes sought Paul’s. “How is he?”

“I won’t lie to you, Ben. He’s a pretty sick boy. But I hope he’ll be all right.” Paul sighed. “He’s lost a lot of blood and he’s running a temperature. That bullet was in there a long time.” He rested a hand on Ben’s shoulder. “That’s not a criticism, Ben. You brought him home as fast as you could. His lung was undamaged, but the muscles took quite a beating. It’ll be quite a while before he gets over this.”

“Thank you, Paul,” Ben said. His eyes went inevitably back to Joe’s face. One hand crept up to stroke the damp curls back from Joe’s forehead.

“I’ll stay until Joe comes round from the ether,” Paul assured him.  “I’ll go and check on Abe McLain while I’m here.”

Although Ben made a noise of assent, Paul was pretty sure that he hadn’t heard a word that he’d said. With a smile, Paul let himself out of the room, patting Hoss reassuringly on the shoulder as he went. He met Adam on the stairs, and saw that the oldest Cartwright had taken the opportunity to wash the blood off his hands. “Why don’t you get some rest, Adam?” Paul suggested.

“Later,” Adam answered. “Pa could do with the rest too, and I know what he’s like when Joe is ill. He’ll wear himself to a shadow given half a chance.”

“Just be sure you don’t wear yourself to a shadow, too,” Paul warned. “You’ll never cope if you all get sick.”

“Yes, sir,” Adam responded, but Paul could tell his words had hit home. He wondered who would go to bed first.

*****

About an hour later, Joe stirred. He tried to move, but pain hammered him from all around, and he couldn’t repress a groan. He had a strange taste in his mouth and a sick-sweet smell lingered in his nostrils. He lifted his hand to wipe the smell away, and a familiar voice spoke. “Joe?”

“Pa?” Joe replied. He forced his eyelids to open. They felt as though they weighed a ton each, but he eventually managed and saw the worried faces of all his family peering down at him. He tried a smile, which didn’t quite come off, and sighed deeply. Once more, pain lanced through him, but settled to localize in his chest. For a minute, he couldn’t remember what had happened to him. “What happened?”

“You were shot,” Ben responded gently, holding Joe’s hand. “And as we brought you home, Buck fell, and you were knocked out.” He rubbed his other hand up Joe’s arm, feeling the heat still radiating out of his son’s body. At least Joe was coherent, he thought. “Paul took the bullet out, Joe. That’s why you can’t use that arm. It’s all bandaged up.”

Swallowing with difficultly, Joe whispered, “Where’s Carrie? Is she all right?”

“She’s downstairs, asleep,” Ben told him. He saw Joe lick his lips and hastily helped him to drink. Joe gulped the cool liquid, but he was tiring rapidly, the blood loss telling on his stamina. “Did I tell you her uncle is going to be all right, too?”

There was no response. Joe’s eyes were closed and his breathing deepened. Ben sat back with a sigh. He was bone tired and still desperately worried about Joe. The youth was paper-white from blood loss, and Ben just hoped he had enough strength to withstand the infection that was coursing through his body. Paul seemed hopeful that the infection wouldn’t be too bad, but Ben couldn’t help worrying nonetheless.

“Why don’t you get some sleep, Pa?” Adam suggested. “I’ll stay with Joe.”

As Ben started to protest, Hoss over-rode him. “I’ll stay with Joe,” he said. “You both need some sleep. I can wake ya if’n somethin’ happens.”

“Hoss is right,” Adam said, swiftly. “We are both tired, and you got that bump on the head earlier.”

“I’m fine,” Ben responded stiffly. “I can sit with Joe a while longer.”

“Do as you’re told, you stubborn man,” interjected a voice from the door, and they turned to see Paul Martin looking at them all. “Ben, you really are a stubborn old coot! Take your son’s gracious offer and get some shut-eye. It’s going to be in short supply over the next few days, I can tell you that!” Despite his jocular tone, Paul was in deadly earnest. He came over and took Ben by the arm. “Now, get to bed, or I’ll give you something that will make you sleep for a week!”

“You’re supposed to be my friend,” Ben grumbled, as he reluctantly capitulated.

“Believe me, I am your friend,” Paul said. “If I wasn’t, I’d have just given you the drugs instead of threatening you with them!” He patted Ben’s shoulder. “Get going!”

*****

As the morning went on, Joe’s fever climbed steadily. Hoss kept a cold cloth on Joe’s head, and whenever the youth opened his eyes, he managed to get some water into him. Joe’s periods of consciousness were few and far between. They were also short-lived. His body required rest to heal itself, but the pain and the fever often disturbed him. However, he was so weak that he couldn’t remain awake more than about a minute and would drift back into a trouble slumber.

“I’m sorry, Joe,” Hoss whispered, as he put a fresh cloth onto his brother’s head. “I didn’ know Uncle Gunnar were with them commancheros. I wanted ya to meet him, but he wouldn’ stay. We didn’ guess he were plannin’ somethin’ like that. I didn’ want ya to get hurt, Joe. Ya gotta believe me.”

“It…wasn’t…your…fault…Hoss,” Joe breathed. He couldn’t make the effort to open his eyes this time. His fingers groped weakly over the cover, looking for Hoss’ hand, and when his older brother took hold of his hand, he barely had the strength to squeeze Hoss’ fingers. “You…couldn’t…know.” Exhausted, Joe’s fingers lost their grip and his hand slipped out of Hoss’.

“Ya gotta git better,” Hoss cried in an anguished whisper. “I couldn’t’ bear it if’n ya didn’.” Tears broke free and ran down Hoss’ face. He made no move to wipe them away. “I love ya, Joe.” Grief overwhelmed Hoss and he put his head down on Joe’s bed and sobbed out his heart-break and confusion.

As his sobs stilled, he became aware of a feather-light touch on his head. Looking up, he saw Joe had opened his eyes just a slit and was watching Hoss, compassion in those green orbs. “Don’t…cry,” Joe begged. “Don’t…blame… you.”

“Shh,” Hoss soothed, contritely. “You rest. I’m all right, Joe. Honest. I didn’ mean to disturb ya.” He gave Joe a drink, and put another cloth on his head, all the time reassuring Joe that he was all right.

Battling his exhaustion and fever, Joe fought to say the words he hoped would give Hoss, his adored big brother, the peace he needed. “Gunnar…forgive…” he panted. He was finding it difficult to concentrate his thoughts. “I…forgive…Gunnar.” This was so difficult. Why were his thoughts so fuzzy? Joe blinked sleep away. “You…forgive…too.”

Hoss was gazing intently at Joe, listening closely to that paper-thin voice whispering it’s all important message of forgiveness. “You mean, you want me to forgive Gunnar because you have?” Hoss asked, uncertainly.

“Yes,” came the exhausted reply. “He…saved…our…lives.” Joe was fighting to keep awake. “For…me.” He tried to move, but his shoulder twinged, and for the first time since he woke up at home, his ankle hurt. He couldn’t contain a whimper of pain, and slipped into a noisy void.

Shaken to his foundations, Hoss could only gaze at Joe. The younger man was desperately ill, running a high temperature, so weak he could barely turn his head on the pillow, yet he was counseling his older sibling to forgive his uncle. Automatically, Hoss changed the cloth on Joe’s head, noticing that his brother’s temperature had gone up again. Was Joe right? Should he just forgive Gunnar?

“What do I mean, should?” Hoss muttered to himself, walking across to the window. “Joe done it, an’ Gunnar treated him worse than me.” He shook his head. “Gunnar forgave me,” Hoss went on, finding it easier to sort out his thoughts by talking aloud.  “Dadburnit, I forgave him, too! Why do I feel so bad?”

“Hoss.” The whisper was so faint Hoss almost missed it, but he turned and hurried back to Joe’s side.

“What is it, Shortshanks?” Hoss asked, yet again changing the cloth.

“Forgive…you.” Joe gave a twitch that in his fevered state he fondly imagined was a smile, and drifted off again. His breathing was labored as his body fought the infection coursing through it. He drew his legs up slightly as pain lanced through him.

Frowning, Hoss wondered what on earth Joe meant by that last cryptic comment. What had he done that Joe had to forgive him? He dipped another cloth into the water and wrung it out, each action automatic, as his thoughts lingered on what his brother had said. He drew the cloth gently over Joe’s battered body, seeking to lower his brother’s fever that way.

As Joe groaned and whimpered again, Hoss forgot about what Joe had said, and concentrated on doing what he could to ease Joe’s discomfort. After a few minutes, Joe relaxed into a slightly deeper sleep, and Hoss sat back, closing his eyes. And that was the moment he realized that he did know what Joe meant. He had to forgive himself!

It was a revelation. Hoss had blamed himself for loving Gunnar, and so took the blame for Gunnar’s actions. What Joe had been trying to tell him was that he had to forgive himself for loving Gunnar. Ben had said as much to Hoss when they discovered the identity of the chief of the commancheros. He said that no man could really know the soul of another. Inger had suspected that Gunnar was up to no good, but she had loved him nevertheless because he was her brother. Hoss, accepting that Gunnar had done a lot of bad things in his life, had loved him because he was his uncle. And at the last, Gunnar had saved Joe and Carrie’s life, and had died protecting all three of them.

Understanding brought acceptance, and Hoss forgave himself for loving Gunnar. He sat down by Joe and took the youth’s hand. “Thanks,” he said, simply. He knew that Joe was unlikely to hear him, but he needed to say it.

*****

When Ben awoke it was the middle of the afternoon. He rose and dressed quickly, and hurried through to Joe’s room, his heart in his mouth. Logically, he knew that if there had been a crisis, they would have wakened him, but he couldn’t fight down the fear that coursed through his belly.

Opening the door, he paused, taking in the scene. Hoss was sound asleep in the chair, snoring away merrily. Adam was perched on the side of the bed, replacing the cloth on Joe’s head with another one. His voice murmured quietly, and Ben realized that Joe was awake. He quickly went over.

It was clear that Joe was still very sick, but he was coherent. He glanced at Ben and although he didn’t try to smile, his eyes shone. “Pa,” he mouthed, and barely a sound reached Ben’s ears.

“Nice to see you awake again,” Ben said, gently stroking Joe’s hair. He could feel the heat there still.

“Paul’s on his way,” Adam said, in an undertone. Ben glanced at him and nodded. Joe was obviously in pain, and in desperate need of more rest than his injuries were allowing him to get. “I’ll get Hoss to bed.” He smiled at Joe, and patted his brother’s arm.

It took Adam a few moments to get Hoss sufficiently roused to walk through to bed, but he succeeded eventually, shepherding his bigger younger brother out of the sickroom. He was back very quickly and joined Ben by the bed again. “I saw Carrie and Abe earlier,” he said, his voice soft, for Joe’s eyes were closed again. “Abe looks like he’ll make a full recovery in time.”

“And Carrie?” Ben asked, also softly.

“Clucking over Abe like a mother hen,” Adam said, with a laugh. “I think she’d be up here, too, if she thought she’d get away with it.” Ben smiled.

A few minutes later, Paul arrived and let himself in. He could see at once why Adam had sent for him, and at once began to unwrap the bandages. The wound was red and shiny, and seeped clear fluid all along the length of it. He shot a glance at Ben. “I’m going to have to open it up again,” he said. “I must let this infection drain out.”

“What do you need?” Ben asked, as calmly as he could manage.

*****

The second procedure didn’t take as long as the first, but it was more than long enough for Ben. Paul had worked quickly and thoroughly, opening the wound and cutting away the infected tissue. When he was sure there was noting else he could do, he flushed the incision with alcohol and closed it. He bandaged Joe, removed the ether mask, and they settled back to wait. Paul had already prepared a syringe with morphine in it.

Gradually, Joe stirred back to consciousness, moaning and whimpering at regular intervals. At last, his eyes flickered open, and Paul quickly made him drink some sugar and salt water he’d had Hop Sing make up. Joe had a lot of blood loss to make up, and this would help. Joe made a face at the taste, but Paul was gently insistent that he drink it all.  Once it was down, he fed Joe a few sips of cool soup that had been waiting ready for him. By then, Joe was exhausted and Paul readily gave him the painkilling injection that would allow him to sleep.

“He should begin to rally now, Ben,” Paul said. “It’s been hard 24 hours for all of you.”

“But especially for him,” Ben stated. “Paul, he will live, won’t he?”

Hesitating, Paul bit his lip. Ben looked at him. “I hope so, Ben. But I don’t know for sure,” he admitted. “The next day should tell us more. I’m sorry, I wish I could say more, but its touch and go at the moment.”

“Thank you for your honesty,” Ben replied, not sure he wouldn’t have preferred a lie.

*****

For the next few hours, Joe’s fever raged unchecked, but he was at least asleep, thanks to the morphine Paul had used. As it drew on towards midnight, Adam and Hoss both tried to persuade Ben to go to bed, but he refused. Joe’s temperature spiked again.

Leaning back, allowing Adam to change the cloth for a moment, Ben closed his eyes. He had prayed so much, he wasn’t sure he had any right to ask for any more. The night was warm, and Joe’s window stood open, scorning the tradition that night air was bad for people. There was a sudden rumble of thunder and then they heard rain slanting against the roof.

For a moment, they all paused, looking up as though they could see the rain through the slate roof. A cool breeze crept into the room, causing the curtains to flutter wildly.

“Better close that window,” Hoss muttered, moving in that direction. “Joe’s shiverin’.”

Putting out his hand, Ben stopped Hoss. He wasn’t looking at his middle son, though, he was looking at Joe. Frowning, Hoss looked at Joe, wondering too what was wrong. Adam’s gaze, too, was drawn to the youth on the bed.

Joe was shivering.

For a moment, they couldn’t comprehend what they were seeing. Ben broke the spell first. He moved closer to the bed and laid his hand flat on Joe’s head. For a moment, there was no movement, and the family scarcely seemed to breathe.

“He’s cooler!” Ben declared, relief in his voice. “The fever’s broken!” He glanced at his other sons, and they all grinned at each other, suddenly not tired at all, but on a high. “Hoss, better shut that window.”

“Yes, sir,” Hoss responded, and hurried across to shut out the cold, wet night.

*****

Over the next few days, Joe slept a great deal, re-building his strength. It seemed to him that every time he was awake, his family stuffed food and liquid into him. He was too weak to resist, so obediently took everything he was offered. Thanks to their persistence, his strength crept back, until almost a week after the shooting; he was able to stay awake for quite long periods.

“Where is Gunnar?” he asked one evening. Carrie had been in to spend some time with him that day. She and Abe were preparing to move back to their ranch. Some of the Ponderosa hands had been over there making the house habitable again. They had found small talk difficult, and Joe knew that any budding romance they might have had was gone, murdered by the ordeal they had shared. Joe looked at Ben. “I mean, I know he’s dead, but…”

“We buried him on the ranch,” Ben answered, casually. “Up by that lake that he and Hoss liked so much.”

“Is Hoss all right?” Joe asked, resting his head back against the pillows. He was beginning to be tired.

“Yes, I think so,” Ben answered, cautiously. “Why do you ask?”

“When I was ill,” Joe began, hesitantly. “Hoss was talking out loud. I think he thought I was asleep. He was talking about Gunnar and how he hadn’t wanted Gunnar to hurt me.” Joe stopped to rest and gather his thoughts. Ben waited expectantly. “I told him I’d forgiven Gunnar, and he should, too.” Joe reached for the glass on his bedside table, but Ben beat him to it, helping him to drink. “Thanks, Pa,” he said, as he finished. “I felt real bad, you know?” He waited for Ben to nod. “I wanted to sleep, but I couldn’t. I realized that Hoss had forgiven Gunnar, but he hadn’t forgiven himself for loving Gunnar.”

“How did you know?” Ben marveled. He had suspected something similar, but hadn’t had the chance to talk to Hoss about it. Joe’s sensitivity was often a revelation to Ben, but never more than at that moment. Desperately ill, hovering at death’s door, Joe had still realized what was wrong with his brother, and managed to do something about it. It was a gift that Joe himself was unaware he had, but shared more than willingly with everyone he knew, not just his family.

“I don’t know,” Joe admitted. “But I told him to forgive himself.” He paused. “Do you think he has?”

“The only person who can answer that for sure is Hoss,” Ben told him. “But I think he has.”

“Good,” Joe replied and closed his eyes. “He had nothing to blame himself for.”

“It were you what made me realize that,” Hoss said, from the doorway.  He hesitated, half in and half out. There was movement out in the hall and Hoss tumbled into the room. Adam, apparently, had pushed him so he could get in, too.

“You’d have figgered it out in time,” Joe denied.

“I dunno about that,” Hoss admitted. “Uncle Gunnar talked about getting’ stuck in the mud, an’ I reckon I were stuck, until you gave me a shove out, Joe.” He nodded, clearly embarrassed. “Thanks.”

The patient was equally embarrassed. Joe mumbled something that no one caught, but everyone took as some sort of acknowledgement.

It was Adam who broke the tension. “Well, seeing as how Joe isn’t showing any signs of getting out of bed yet, I guess that means we get to do his chores again, brother.”

“Guess you’re right,” Hoss agreed. “He’s a lazy little cuss, ain’t he?”

“You’re getting real good a chopping wood, though,” Joe riposted. “And at cleaning stalls.”

“Don’t worry,” Adam returned as he and Hoss left. “It’s not something you ever forget how to do!”

“Pity,” Joe remarked, as Ben settled him for the night.

“For the help you gave Hoss, when you were in dire need of all the care and help we could give you, Joe, I think Hoss might be willing to do your chores for a long, long time,” Ben said, softly. He leaned down and kissed Joe’s brow. “Good night, son. Thank you. I love you.”

“G’night, Pa,” Joe answered.

***End***

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