The Rattlesnake Brigade (by Rona)

Summary:   The way it should have been.

Rated:  PG
Word Count:  7269


 

 

Frowning, Joe saw the young woman nearing the prison wagon. He didn’t know what she was going to do, but whatever she had in mind, she shouldn’t be trying it. “Wait!” he cried, but too late.

A hand shot out of the wagon and grabbed the woman’s arm. Joe didn’t hesitate. He raced across the street and struck the grimy hand, which opened reflexively. The woman stumbled back. Joe’s initial relief turned to sudden foreboding as an arm snaked around his neck. The hold tightened immediately and Joe was slammed against the back of the wagon. He choked, raising his arms to break the hold that threatened him. Hands came from either side and caught his arms, and Joe knew that he was trapped.

Despite all his struggles, he couldn’t break free. He panted as he struggled, vaguely aware that the woman he’d saved was screaming and crying, drawing people out into the street. Joe made another attempt to break free, but only got another nasty jolt as he was pulled roughly back against the wagon, his head bouncing off the iron bars.

“What’s going on?” demanded a rough voice that Joe didn’t recognize. He squinted sideways to see the prison guard standing on the boardwalk, his rifle in his hands. Beside him were Clem Foster, the sheriff, and Joe’s own father, Ben Cartwright. Ben’s eyes were wide with apprehension.

“Things have changed,” shouted one of the men from behind Joe. “If ya don’t want this guy to die, ya better get yerself over here an’ open this wagon!”

“Do it!” Clem ordered, his voice tense.

“What?” The guard turned to look at Clem and Clem repressed a shudder. The other man couldn’t help his unfortunate appearance, but he surely could bathe more often. “I ain’t gonna do that!”

“That’s my son!” Ben grated.

“If we go over now, then they’ve won!” Tallman, the guard rolled his eyes. “They kill him an’ they’ve got nothing.”

Infuriated at the man’s callousness, and also at the truth in his words, Clem rounded on him. “Do what they say!” he growled.

Shaken by the sheriff’s anger, Tallman laid his rifle down and did as he was told. Ben put his hand anxiously on Clem’s arm. “Will they let Joe go?” he asked.

“I don’t know,” Clem replied. “Ben, I’ve got to take the chance to bring them down if I can.” He met Ben’s eyes and saw that the older man understood what he was trying to say. If he shot the prisoners down, there was the chance that Joe would be injured, or even killed. Fear shortened Ben’s breath, but he forced himself to nod.

“Do what you can,” he mumbled and turned his gaze back to the tableau on the street.

Tallman had the back of the wagon open and Doyle and his gang were stepping carefully down into the street, never letting go of Joe at all. Ben could see his youngest son’s eyes were wide with fear, yet his face would seem impassive to those who didn’t know him well.

At that moment, it occurred to all of them that Joe still wore his sidearm. Before Tallman could make any kind of move, Doyle had grabbed the pistol, his hand caressing the pearl handle. Things had suddenly taken a turn for the worse.

“All right, I’m gonna tell ya all what’s gonna happen,” Doyle declared. He had the undivided attention of everyone on the street – and there were a lot of people there. “We ain’t goin’ back ta prison.” Doyle started walking towards the crowd, who back away apprehensively. “You.” Doyle pointed to a youth of about 17. “Come here.”

“No!” the father protested. “No, please, he’s my son.”

“Shut up!” Doyle snarled. He gestured with his gun and the terrified youth stepped forward, his eyes glued on Joe, who still stood captive in the grip of the other men. Doyle gave a tight, cold smile. “Goatman,” he called to one of the other men. “Go and get all the horses and guns ya can find.” The man ran off.

Still smiling, Doyle walked over to the crowd and beckoned to another youngster. “Come out here.”

“Ricardo,” his father breathed, and the youth looked at his father fleetingly and tried to smile. He failed and kept walking, joining the other young man in the street.

The tension in the street was palpable. Doyle was enjoying his feeling of power. “And you,” he concluded, beckoning to the young girl.

There was an audible gasp from the on-lookers. “No!” Judith’s mother cried. “No, please!” Her pleas were ignored and Judith walked to the street to join the others.

At that moment, Goatman returned with horses in tow and Joe recognized his own pinto, Cochise and his father’s mount, Buck. Desperately, Joe sought his father’s face, both seeking reassurance and trying to give reassurance.

Ben stepped forward. “What are you going to do with them?” he asked, gesturing to the hostages. “Please, let them go.”

“Oh no,” Doyle replied. “I’m not letting them go jist yet. Ya’ll git yer kids back when I’m ready to give them.  But if ya follow us, ya know what we’ll do.” Doyle cocked the gun and placed it against Joe’s head. “Unnerstand?”

“I understand,” Ben growled. His eyes once more sought Joe’s face and for a moment their eyes met, father and son communing silently before Joe was turned away and thrust into the back of the prison wagon. Ben could only close his eyes and pray that his son would be safe.

*****

The hubbub in the street was quite incredible, given how silent it had been only a few minutes before. Ben stood still, watching with false detachment as the other worried parents rushed to Clem’s side and began to demand to know what the sheriff was going to do to get their children back alive. Clem had no real answer for them.

“Right now, they hold all the cards,” he sighed. “We can’t chance going after them in case they hurt the hostages.”

“Do you think they will?” asked Judith’s father. He looked furious and was pacing the jail house office restlessly.

“Do you want to take the chance?” Clem demanded.

“Why don’t you all come out to the Ponderosa with me?” Ben suggested. “I have to tell Hoss what is going on and he’s a good tracker. And we can decide what we’re going to do.”

Reluctantly, the other men agreed. Clem looked relieved. Ben would keep an eye on them and not let them go off half-cocked and he would do what he could from town. Clem watched them riding off and sighed. What was he going to do?

*****

The back of the prison wagon was stuffy in the heat from the sun. Joe Cartwright lay face down on the dusty floor, his left arm twisted uncomfortably up his back and the gun resting on the back of his neck. All he could see were the dusty boots of their captor. The other hostages were silent.

It seemed to take forever before the wagon jolted to a stop. Joe could hear voices outside, but he couldn’t make out the words. However, a few minutes later, the back of the wagon opened and Joe heard Doyle’s voice. “Get out!”

Slowly, the three young people climbed out. Lester gave Judith a hand down and then gallantly stepped between her and Doyle. Doyle sneered when he saw the youth’s actions. “Ya really think that ya could stop me doin’ somethin’ ta her?” he asked and was gratified to see Lester pale.

At that moment, Joe emerged from the wagon and stepped in front of all the young people. He rotated his shoulder to work the stiffness out of it. “What are you going to do with us?” he asked.

“What I choose,” Doyle snarled back. He gestured with the gun. “Get yourselves in there.”

Looking round at his fellow hostages, Joe knew he had no choice. All the men were armed now. He nodded reassurance to the others and led the way up the short track to the rickety shack that was to be their new prison. Joe knew where they were and he was unhappy. There was no cover around to allow anyone to sneak up from the front and the mountains at the back were difficult to traverse. Joe didn’t know what was going to happen, but he vowed to do his best to keep the young people with him safe.

*****

The initial shaking from the slight release of tension was over. Joe could see that the odd tremor still shuddered its way through Judith’s body, but that was quite understandable and the girl wasn’t hysterical, which had been Joe’s biggest fear. Ricardo and Lester just looked stunned now.

The shack was dim, the remaining evening light filtering through the grimy window. The floor was dirt, but it was at least dry. Joe eyed the wooden walls, wondering how sturdy they were. Would he be able to get them all out of there without being seen or heard? It was too late to try that night, but he knew they would have to make a break for it in the morning. He had no doubt that Doyle would kill them all.

“You should try and get some sleep,” he suggested to the youngsters. “You need your rest.”

“What if they come in?” Judith quavered.

“We can’t stop them,” Joe pointed out gently. “But I’ll do my best to protect you.” He smiled. “If they do come, it’ll just be to make sure we’re still here.”

“Will we still be here?” Lester asked.

“Its too late tonight to try and get free,” Joe replied. “I know how you feel; I want out of here, too. But I don’t know this area too well and it’s more difficult to find a trail in the dark. But tomorrow, we’ll think of something. Now, why don’t you get some rest?”

Slowly, reluctantly, the others settled themselves down. Joe crossed over and sat down with his back to the door. He knew that he would need to sleep if he was going to successfully mastermind their getaway the next day, but he also wanted to know if the men came in. He didn’t want anything happening to Judith if he could help it.

The darkness grew apace, but Joe’s eyes were slow to close. His mind was fixed on what might be happening at his home. Gradually, the calming thoughts of the Ponderosa lulled him into a restless slumber.

*****

There was nothing calm about the Ponderosa that night. Judith’s father was pacing the great room, ranting and raving about what he intended to do to the outlaws when he got his hands on them. Ben was trying his best to calm the man, but he wasn’t having much luck. Nor could he get Mr. Keefer to put down the rifle. Ben thought that if his hair wasn’t already grey, it would have been turned that night. The dark humor didn’t raise the faintest glimmer of amusement in the worried man.

“Listen!” Chavez cried. “Horses!”

Ben’s eyes met Hoss, and the big man nodded. He positioned himself by Keefer and kept an eye on him. Hoss was as worried as everyone else, imagining all the things that could happen to Joe. But he knew they had to keep their heads. Rushing off half-cocked would only get someone killed. He would later shudder at the prophetic nature of his thoughts.

Squinting into the darkness, Ben made out two riders drawing close. His mouth pursed as he recognized Doyle’s mount – his own horse, Buck. Ben fought down a flare of anger. It wouldn’t help anyone if he let his temper escape his control.

“Cartwright!” Doyle smiled grimly as he saw the men emerge. “Ya’ve done real well so far. Here’s what’s gonna happen next; I’ll let yer kids go if’n ya each pay me $10,000. I want the money by noon tomorrow, or I’ll have myself some fun with them.” He sniggered unpleasantly before telling them where to find him.

“Never!” Keefer yelled and Hoss lunged – too late – to stop him. The rifle roared and Doyle’s henchman fell to the ground.

By then, Hoss had Keefer under control, the gun wrested from his hands, but they all knew that it was too late. The next move was once again in Doyle’s hands and somehow, Ben didn’t think they were going to like it.

“Yer gonna pay for that!” Doyle swore. He glared at them. “Noon. An’ if’n yer late, one of those kids is gonna buy it!”

“Wait!” Ben cried, but Doyle didn’t stop. He rode off into the darkness.

“Pa!” Hoss was kneeling by the outlaw. His face was grim as he looked up. “He’s dead.”

“What have you done?” Lester’s father gasped. Keefer had no answer for him.

*****

Joe had no idea what had wakened him, but somehow, he sensed the atmosphere of the camp had changed. When the door banged open, Joe was already on his feet, facing the outlaw, his chin jutting in a defiant gesture that Ben would have recognized instantly. Not a word was said, but the coldness in the outlaw’s eyes made Joe shudder. He had to get the others out of there; there was no time to lose. He was relieved when the outlaw left without saying a word.

“Joe?” Ricardo looked over at him. “This board is loose.”

Crossing the shack in a single stride, Joe felt the loose board for himself. “It wouldn’t take much to break this free,” he agreed. He tried out his strength against it and the board gave easily, but the screeching noise it made would alert the guard outside. Joe dropped it at once and turned towards the door. He wasn’t surprised when the door opened almost immediately.

“What was that?” the guard demanded roughly.

“We were just wondering the same thing,” Joe replied calmly. “It seemed to come from outside. An injured animal?”

Not deigning to reply, the guard just looked at them for a long moment, but he couldn’t see anything out of place, so he just closed the door with a bang. Joe let out a sigh of relief.

“I thought we were done for,” Judith whispered.

“We’re all right,” Joe soothed. “But we’ve got to get out of here.” He looked at the loose board again, trying to think of a way to break it without making any noise.

“The dirt is pretty loose here,” Lester noticed. He was crouching by the back wall. “Maybe we could dig our way out.”

“Good thinking!” Joe exclaimed. “Let’s get to it. Judith, you keep watch!”

*****

They were all filthy, but it didn’t matter. Joe slid out beneath the board walls of the shack and crouched down to help Judith through next. All the youngsters were excited, sure they were going to get away. Joe was calmer, more worried; not sure if the move they were making was wise or not. But it was too late now; they couldn’t turn back.

“Up there!” he ordered, and pointed to the steep slope of the mountains above and behind them. Judith paled – her pink ensemble wasn’t designed for mountain climbing and Joe doubted that she had ever been a tomboy type of girl in the first place. He would have to help her. “Don’t worry, its not as difficult as it seems. Come on.”

It seemed to Joe that they made an inordinate amount of noise as they tried to be quiet. He glanced over his shoulder frequently, while still trying to help Judith along. Her long skirts hampered her drastically, but Joe knew that there was nothing he could do about it.

Reaching the base of the cliff they were going to climb, Lester glanced back. “I’ll go first!” he called in a voice that carried much further than he realized. Joe winced, but it was too late to change anything. He waited impatiently at the bottom as Lester started upwards, closely followed by Ricardo, with Judith gamely following.

Lester was only half way up when there was a shout from behind them. “Hurry!” Joe urged, the need for secrecy long gone. Speed was of the essence now.

But it was already too late. Shots were fired, and rock dust flew into Joe’s eyes, blinding him. He wiped desperately at his tearing eyes, struggling to see what was happening. He heard Judith scream and there was a thud from near by. The next moment, something collided hard with Joe’s head and he was sinking down into darkness.

*****

The men were gathering in the yard of the Ponderosa after a sleepless night. Ben knew it was going to be very difficult, if not outright impossible, to get the $40,000 they would need to free their children. It would mean emptying all the banks in town, and even then, they might come up short. Ben didn’t know if the other men actually had that kind of money, but he vowed to beggar himself, should the need arise, so that the others had the necessary cash.

There was a snort and the sound of hooves and Ben looked around to see Buck meandering into the yard. Across his back was slung a person wrapped in a tarpaulin. For an instant, they all stood frozen and then Ben forced his leaden legs to cross the yard and he lifted the tarp up to view the person underneath.

He instantly wished he hadn’t. There was no doubting that Lester was dead, a youth cut down on the brink of manhood. It was a waste of a young life and Ben wanted to rail against the fates. Beside him, Lester’s father let out a cry of unbearable anguish and put his hand over his face as he started to sob.

With unfeeling fingers, Ben let the tarp drop as he put his other hand on the grieving father’s shoulder in a futile gesture of support. There was nothing he could say that would make this any better; nothing. And one phrase was beating through his head;

There, but for the grace of God, go I.

*****

When Joe regained his senses, the world had changed dramatically. For a start, he was lying face down on the dirt floor of the shack, his hands bound behind him and his feet tied together. Somewhere on his left, Judith was sobbing, the sound heartbreaking in its intensity. Joe tried to move, tried to say something, but his head was throbbing so hard that he could barely see and he thought he might vomit. What had happened? He groaned as he tried to move and a boot caught him in the side, driving the breath from his body.

A hand suddenly entwined itself in his hair and yanked his head up. Joe gasped and opened his eyes, squinting wildly as he tried to focus on the face above him; Doyle! The outlaw’s face was dark with anger. “Did ya really think ya’d get away?” he sneered. “It was dumb of ya ta try, Cartwright. An’ all it cost was a boy’s life.”

Gasping once more, Joe felt a worm of guilt move in his belly. Who had died – Lester or Ricardo? He couldn’t bear the thought of either youngster losing his life. Whichever of them had died, it was all his fault. He was the oldest; he was in charge.

As Doyle dropped Joe’s head back to the ground, Joe allowed himself to sink into the darkness once more.

*****

There was no more blustering. Judith’s father had lost his arrogance completely and was now following Ben’s instructions to the letter. Fear ate at each father’s heart. Yes, Lester’s body had been returned to them, but they had no way of knowing if the other hostages were alive and well.

It was with relief that Ben saw Clem Foster riding into the yard, bringing with him the necessary money. Ben didn’t ask how he’d got it – that didn’t matter. All that did matter was that the money was there and they could go and give it to Doyle and get back their children. Ben didn’t allow himself to think that anything could go wrong.

Handing Ben the saddlebags, Clem eyed him closely. He could see the strain of Joe’s captivity in the lines in Ben’s face and the dark circles under his eyes told of the sleepless night he had had. “Hoss told me what happened,” Clem mentioned in a quiet voice. “He’s going to go in over the mountains. He should be in place by the time you get there.”

“Good,” Ben nodded. Hoss had been a tower of strength during this crisis and Ben didn’t know how he would have coped without him.

“Ben, be careful,” Clem warned him. “We’ll be waiting as agreed.” He had rounded up a posse and they would wait as close as they could to Doyle’s hideout so as to be on hand when the hostages were freed.

“I will be,” Ben agreed. He glanced at the other two men. “Let’s ride.”

*****

The next time the outlaws entered the shack, Joe was dragged roughly up and propped against the wall. It was a marked improvement over lying on his belly on the dusty dirt, even if his head did swim wildly for the first few moments. He drew in a couple of deep breaths and the world steadied down. He glanced at Ricardo and Judith, realizing that they were also bound and that the men were checking their bonds.

“Hey, you don’t have to be so rough with her!” he objected as Judith was pushed over.

“Shut up!” the man growled and backhanded Joe smartly across the mouth. He left the shack.

“Joe, are you all right?” Ricardo asked. Both he and Judith had been very subdued since their abortive escape attempt and Lester’s death. Joe’s long period of unconsciousness and the dried blood that marked his face and clothing scared them even further.

“I’m fine,” Joe mumbled, his split and swollen lip making talking difficult. “Are you all right?”

“Yes,” Ricardo replied, but his tone was anything but convincing.

Suddenly, they heard horses outside and all three of them looked expectantly at the door. “Do you think it’s our folks?” Judith asked hopefully.

“I don’t know,” Joe replied. “But let’s be prepared in case there’s anything we can do.” Joe tried not to allow himself to hope that it was Ben out there, but he couldn’t help it. He was sure that his father would have some sort of plan to free them. He was ready to do whatever he could to help.

******

“There it is,” Ben reported softly as he and the other men approached.

“Where’s Hoss?” Chavez queried.

“He’ll be here somewhere,” Ben replied, hoping that he was right. Hoss had set off earlier to make his way carefully through the mountains.

Slowing, they pulled their horses to a stop a few feet away from the campfire. Doyle was waiting for them, a wolfish expression on his face. “Glad ta see ya got here in time,” he sneered. “Drop yer guns.” He watched as the three men did as they were told. “Ya got the money?”

“Its here,” Ben replied. “I want to see the hostages.”

“First the money.”

“I want to see the hostages,” Ben repeated. “Then, when we know they’re all right, you can have the money.”

For a horrible, seemingly-endless moment, Ben thought he had pushed too far. He held his breath until Doyle grinned and waved at someone behind him. “Bring ‘em out!” he called.

Two of the men went into the shack and a few moments later, the three hostages were pushed into the light. Ben’s breath caught in his throat as he saw the blood on Joe’s face, but Joe’s head was up and he was looking at Ben, his green eyes as clear and expressive as always.

“Now the money,” Doyle demanded. His eyes still fixed on his son, Ben took the saddlebags from his horse and threw them at Doyle’s feet. The other man picked them up and started to rifle through them.

“Its all there,” Ben remarked, contempt creeping unconsciously into his tone. “Now, let them go.”

“Oh not yet,” Doyle sniggered. “I figure that without them, we won’t get very far. So I’ll keep them, release them one by one and the last one when we’ve got over the border. Ya won’t miss yer son that much, will ya, Cartwright?”

“We had a deal!” Ben cried anxiously, as Doyle indicated to his men to put the hostages back in the shack.

“We don’t now,” Doyle returned. He started to half-turn away and Ben started moving towards him.

That was when all hell broke loose. Joe, seeing Ben’s anguish and hearing the raised voices, knew that he had to do something. He turned sharply and drove his shoulder into the ribs of the man guarding them. “Run!” he cried to the others, even as the second guard dove into Joe, bearing him to the ground.

From somewhere above Joe, there came the sound of an enraged grizzly, but Joe had no time to wonder about it. He was being pummeled from both sides and was unable to fight back, his hands still bound tightly behind him. Nonetheless, he fought as hard as he could, writhing and twisting, kicking viciously.

A shot from further down the hill made them all flinch and Joe took the opportunity to knee one of his attackers in the groin. The man went down with a groan, but the other man wasn’t easily deterred and set about kicking Joe with an unbecoming vigor.

The pain was becoming too much; Joe couldn’t catch his breath. He felt himself pulled to a semi-upright position. A fist was buried in his gut, not once, but twice. Joe doubled over as far as he could, coughing as he fought to catch his breath. Then, the fist ploughed into his face and his captor let go. Joe started to topple backwards as the grizzly came closer. Joe realized, through his rapidly swelling and closing eyes, that the grizzly was actually his brother Hoss, who grabbed Joe’s hapless captor in one hand and punched his lights out with the other.

And then, Joe hit the ground and he knew no more. Merciful darkness came and took him.

*****

As Joe made his move, Ben reacted instantly. He threw a fist at Doyle and although fighting had never really been one of Ben’s strong suits, he had big, powerful hands and when his punches were on target, they were devastating. This punch, whether by luck or design, was bang on target and Doyle staggered back for a pace or two before his legs gave out and he crumpled to the ground in an undignified heap.

From above, Hoss appeared. He had already silently taken out the two guards further up the mountain and as the guards lunged for Joe, Hoss took out the third man before turning to help his younger brother. He grabbed the guard beating Joe before he could throw another punch into Joe’s face. However, Hoss wasn’t fast enough to get his man down and catch Joe before he blacked out. Nobody would have been quick enough. That didn’t stop Hoss berating himself though.

As soon as Ben moved, Chavez stepped forward and snatched his gun from the ground, pointing it at the two men by Doyle. “Hold it!” he ordered. Keefer grabbed up his weapon to back Chavez up. Slowly, the outlaws dropped their rifles and put their hands up.

Seeing that things were under control, Ben fired off the agreed signal to get Clem and the posse there and hurried up the short path to the shack, where Judith was still huddled against the rough wood, crying, and Ricardo was gazing in open mouthed wonder at the sudden change in fortunes. Both still had their hands tied.

“Joe!” Ben cried, seeing his youngest son slumped on the ground, blood streaming from his nose and mouth.

Much as he wanted to kneel by Joe and check him out for himself, Hoss forced himself to go over to the young people and cut through the rope that bound them. They both looked to be unhurt. “Ya all right?” Hoss asked.

“We’re not hurt,” Ricardo replied, which Hoss thought was very telling. No, they weren’t physically hurt, but Hoss knew that it would be difficult for them to come to terms with Lester’s death. And the person who would have the hardest time of all was lying unconscious on the ground at his feet.

The posse arrived and Keefer and Chavez left the guarding of the prisoners to them, hurrying to clasp their lost children in warm embraces. Released from his self-imposed vigil, Hoss knelt by Joe and sliced through the rope that had kept him prisoner. “How is he, Pa?” he asked, worrying crinkling his brow.

“I don’t think he’s too badly hurt,” Ben replied, but he didn’t sound convinced. “We need to get him home and get a doctor to see to him.”

In his arms, Joe stirred.

*****

“He’s got a concussion, Ben,” Paul Martin announced gravely. “Quite a bad one. Those two knocks on the head so close together have caused all the vomiting. And of course, that hasn’t helped those broken ribs.”

“But he’s going to be all right?” Ben persisted.

“With rest, he should be all right in a few weeks,” Paul agreed. “Keep him in bed all this week and then just keep him quiet. Build up his strength and let him start to do things gradually.”

“I am here,” Joe grumbled, but his complaint lacked genuine rancor. He couldn’t summon the strength to complain too much. “Doc, are you sure my nose isn’t broken?” Joe started to feel his tender nose once more, but Ben caught his hand and forced it gently back down to his side.

“I’m sure,” Paul chuckled. “Now, get some sleep young man. I’ll be wakening you a few times during the night. With a concussion like this, you can’t be too careful.”

“What about the others?” Joe asked. His eyelids – black and blue and swollen – were already drooping.

“They are fine,” Paul repeated. “As usual, you bore the worst of it, Joe.”

“It was my fault,” Joe muttered and Ben glanced sharply at the doctor. Paul nodded back to show that he had heard, but he didn’t want to discuss the situation within Joe’s hearing.

“Sleep,” Paul instructed, and it wasn’t long before Joe drifted off.

“How can I convince him that Lester’s death wasn’t his fault?” Ben asked as they slumped in front of the fire. Hop Sing silently brought them coffee.

“I don’t know,” Paul replied. “We still don’t know the full background as to what happened. Tomorrow, I’ll go into town and see what I can find out. That might give us more ideas. But meantime, keep telling Joe it wasn’t his fault.”

“I will,” Ben agreed.

*****

It was a long night for the Cartwrights. Joe had to be wakened every couple of hours to make sure that his head injury hadn’t worsened and his temper got shorter every time he was disturbed. But at length, dawn brightened the sky and Paul decreed that as Joe had stopped vomiting and was coherent and oriented, he could be allowed to sleep.

Everyone had a well-earned rest that morning, except poor Paul, who had to go back to town to run his usual morning surgery. Fortunately, it was a quiet morning and he was finished much sooner than he had expected. Even though he longed for sleep, Paul took the opportunity to go and see Judith and Ricardo.

He wasn’t surprised to find that they were still shaken by the incident. He had known they would be. “Can you tell me what happened to Lester?” he asked Judith, who he visited first.

“We had dug our way out of the shack,” Judith said slowly. Her pale blue eyes clouded with the unpleasant memories. “We started climbing and Lester shouted something, I don’t remember what. I guess the men must have heard us, because the next minute, the shooting started.” Judith looked troubled but kept her composure. “Lester was hit. He fell a long way. A bullet hit real close to Joe and for a minute, we all thought he’d been hit, ‘cos he was rubbing at his eyes and didn’t seem to be able to see. Then, Doyle hit him on the head with the butt of his rifle.” Judith swallowed and gulped some water from a glass her father had brought her. “Joe was unconscious for a long time. They tied us up, but they were especially nasty to Joe.” She drank deeply again. “Sheriff Foster asked me these questions this morning. Are we in trouble? Is Joe in trouble? It wasn’t his fault that Lester shouted and was shot.”

“No, you aren’t in trouble,” Paul soothed. “We just wanted to know, because Joe can’t remember what happened and is blaming himself.”

“It wasn’t his fault!” Judith cried. “He did everything he could to protect us.” Judith had had enough by then, her composure shredding. She burst into tears. “Tell him,” she sobbed. “Tell him he has nothing to blame himself for.”

“I’ll tell him,” Paul assured her and stayed until she had calmed down.

*****

The visit to Ricardo netted the same results. The Mexican youth was also stalwart in his defense of Joe. “He stood between us and those men,” Ricardo explained. “Literally between us sometimes. And later, when we were tied up, he asked them to let Judith go and they hit him on the face.” He met Paul’s gaze steadily. “Joe did nothing wrong. Lester’s death was not his fault.” He straightened proudly. “I would like to be a man like him when I grow up,” he added. “I will tell him all this, if it is your wish.”

“Well, not right now,” Paul smiled. “But thank you, Ricardo. If I think Joe needs to hear it, I will get you to tell him.”

*****

For the next few days, Joe slept quite a lot as his healing body sapped his energy. When he was awake, he was monosyllabic and unresponsive. Ben was worried about him, but couldn’t get Joe to talk to him. All Joe would say was that he was “all right.”

Convincing himself that all would be well when Joe shook off his persistent headache and was up out of bed, Ben soldiered on, but Hoss could see that Joe’s silence was worrying Ben and took matters into his own hands.

“Pa’s worried about ya,” he told Joe bluntly one afternoon.

“He needn’t be,” Joe replied. “I’m fine.”

“So fine that ya ain’t speakin’ ta him,” Hoss retorted. “Joe, ya ain’t hardly said one word! Ya ain’t eatin’ right an’ if there’s one thing I know, it’s that ya don’ eat right when yer upset. Now tell me what’s wrong!” Hoss was practically shouting.

“Nothing’s wrong!” Joe shouted back. “Why should something be wrong? I’m not eating because I’m lying here, not allowed to do anything for myself!” Joe glared at Hoss.

At last! Hoss exulted. He had got a response from Joe – a genuine response and if it was anger, that didn’t matter. Joe was at least reacting instead of sitting there sunk in apathy.

“Don’ try an’ weasel out o’ it,” Hoss snapped back. “Ya feel guilty because Lester died, don’ ya?”

For a moment, Hoss thought that Joe was going to hit him. His younger brother’s fist clenched and fury blazed forth from those green eyes. And then the moment passed and Joe’s shoulders slumped. “It’s my fault he died,” Joe whispered, and he swallowed back tears. “I took them out of there and Lester died because of me.”

“Did ya shoot him?” Hoss asked, his voice soft and gentle.

At once, Joe’s head came up. “No,” he replied, sounding shocked. “That’s not what I meant.”

“Did ya tell Doyle an’ his men ta aim at Lester?” Hoss was relentless.

“No!” By now, Joe was sitting up in bed getting angrier and angrier. “What do you think I am?”

“I think yer someone who was put in a horrid position that ya had no control over an’ is now takin’ the blame fer somethin’ that wasn’t yer fault,” Hoss replied. “Judith an’ Ricardo don’ blame ya.”

“How do you know?” Joe asked. He suddenly felt utterly defeated.

“Doc Martin spoke to ‘em,” Hoss replied. “They said ya stood between them an’ the men a few times. Lester was careless, Joe. He shouted out when ya were escapin’.”

“It wasn’t Lester’s fault!” Joe shouted. “They shot him and he fell!”

“An’ what could ya have done, Joe?” Hoss asked, his tone reasonable. “Could ya have caught the bullet in yer hand? Could ya have caught Lester when he fell?”

“No,” Joe replied, but his tone was uncertain.

“No,” Hoss agreed. “Joe, ya were blinded by rock dust in yer eyes, weren’t ya?””

“I guess.”

“An’ then Doyle hit ya on the head,” the gentle voice went on. “An’ when next ya were awake, ya were tied up hand an’ foot. Ya couldn’t do nothin’, Joe. Lester died from that fall, not from somethin’ that ya did.” Hoss searched his brother’s face. “Do ya believe me?”

“I don’t know,” Joe admitted slowly. “If we hadn’t tried to escape, Lester wouldn’t have died.”

“Ya don’ know that,” Hoss replied. “Did ya know Doyle wasn’ gonna let ya go? That he was gonna keep ya until he was over the border? What do ya think he could a done ta Judith durin’ that time? He could a killed ya all at any moment, Joe.”

“I was so scared,” Joe confessed and the next moment, he found himself in Hoss’ arms, safe and secure. More familiar hands were on his head, petting his hair, soothing him. It seemed quite natural to both Hoss and Joe that Joe should slip easily from his brother’s loving embrace into his father’s.

Later, Joe had no idea how long Ben held him. He just reveled in the feeling of security, enjoying it properly for the first time since he had returned home. Hoss’ words had gone a long way towards making him feel better about himself and Joe now felt that he could relax and let his guard down a bit.

“Do you think you’re up to a couple of visitors tomorrow?” Ben asked, when he had Joe settled back against his pillows once more.

“I guess,” Joe replied. He felt a certain reluctance to face anyone. “Who?”

Smiling, Ben evaded the question. “You’ll see,” he responded and with that, Joe had to be content.

*****

That night, Joe had a nightmare, but he managed to keep his screams under strict control and didn’t waken the rest of the household. Come morning, he felt out of sorts and his head was aching again, but by the time he had had breakfast and was allowed to get up and dressed – albeit with a bit of help – he was feeling much more like himself.

Negotiating the stairs showed Joe how weak he still was and he was quick to drift off to sleep on the sofa for a time before lunch was ready. He was sitting gazing dreamily into the fire after lunch was over when there was a knock on the door. Ben answered it and ushered the visitors into the house.

From his seat in Ben’s red leather chair, Joe had a clear view of them. “Judith! Ricardo!” He could feel the color draining from his face. He didn’t know if he was glad to see them, or wished they hadn’t come.

Before Joe could attempt to rise, Keefer and Chavez were by his side. “I just wanted to thank you, Joe,” Keefer said, his voice hoarse. “You kept Judith safe.” He was wringing Joe’s hand by this point.  “Thank you doesn’t seem to be enough somehow.”

“I thank you, too,” Chavez added quietly.

Overwhelmed, Joe stammered out some kind of reply before Judith and Ricardo could add their praise. But add it they did, telling Joe in no uncertain terms how grateful they were to him for the protection he had afforded them while they were hostages. His actions, which to Joe seemed pitifully inadequate, seemed heroic to his fellow prisoners. Joe began to think that perhaps he had done the best he could in difficult circumstances.

There was another knock on the door. There stood Lester’s father. He came in quietly and went straight to Joe. “I have to thank you for trying to save my son,” he said. His voice cracked and tears fell on to his cheeks, but he didn’t seem to notice. “I know that you did everything possible to get him away from those terrible men. Doyle has confessed that he didn’t mean to kill Lester. The bullet ricocheted off the rocks and then Lester fell.”

This was news to them all. Joe tried to find something to say, but failed. He looked helplessly at Ben.

“Why don’t we all sit down and have some coffee?” he suggested smoothly.

After a few moments of awkwardness, they all relaxed and small talk sprang up. Gradually, Ben worked the conversation around to the incident and once more, Joe found himself being praised for his actions.  “I didn’t do anything,” he protested.

“You did!” Judith flared. “You deliberately stood between us and those men. When that board made so much noise, you lied quite calmly to make them think that the noise had come from outside. They believed you! Joe, we would never have managed to carry that off!”

“Anyone would have done the same thing,” Joe objected.

“I disagree,” Chavez replied. The handsome Mexican man was softly spoken and generally kept quiet, so that when he did speak, everyone listened. “Not everyone would have put their life on the line for a Mexican boy. Not everyone would have stood between gunmen and their hostages, let alone lied to them. Everything you did was extraordinary and I think you should have some kind of reward. I don’t know what, but something.”

Blushing, Joe shook his head. “I don’t need a reward,” he replied. “The fact that you are here and safe is enough. I just wish Lester was here too.”

“We all wish that,” Lester’s father replied. “But it was not to be and he didn’t die through something you did.”

“Thank you,” Joe whispered.

******

Later, Ben helped Joe get ready for bed, turning down the covers, steadying his son as Joe eased awkwardly between the cool sheets. “How are you feeling?” Ben asked.

“Tired,” Joe admitted. “But it’s a good tired, Pa. You were right; I needed to see those people today.”

“I’m glad it helped,” Ben smiled. “Good night, son.”

“G’night, Pa,” Joe replied, snuggling down beneath the covers.

Going through to his own room, Ben knelt for a moment by the side of the bed to give thanks to the Almighty that Joe had not only survived his ordeal physically, but that he had been able to shed the burden of crippling guilt that he had been carrying. He gave thanks for Hoss’ steadfast common sense that had set Joe on the path to recovery.

Rising, Ben knew that the future in front of them was bright.

***End***

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