Firewater (by Lisa M.)

Summary:
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  16,610


 

Joe had been asleep for less than an hour before he returned to full wakefulness in the darkness of his room. Even the sleeping powders that his pa had insisted that he take could not suppress the troubled thoughts that inexorably forced him back into awareness. He threw back the heap of quilts that his anxious pa had piled on, suddenly feeling stifled beneath their weight, and sat up in bed, rubbing his eyes.

“It’s not your fault, Joe.”

His pa’s voice resounded over and over in his head, yet Joe remained unconvinced. He knew better.

“No one could have known this was going to happen, son.”

Pa had gently grasped and lifted Joe’s chin when he said it, looking him straight in the eye, willing him to believe it.

“The most important thing is that you’re going to be alright.”

Joe sighed, the breathy sound of it breaking the quiet stillness of the room. Everyone else had taken to their own beds by now, having made sure that their helpless injured member had been sufficiently attended; his dressings secured, his pillow fluffed, and his door opened just wide enough for Pa to hear should he call out in the night.

The doctor had said he would be able to get out of bed tomorrow, maybe even come downstairs — so long as he didn’t overdo it. Doc Martin had cast a meaningful glance at Joe’s family when he had mentioned this, warning them without saying outright to keep an extra close watch over the boy.

Not that they needed reminding, Joe thought wryly. Pa had already been watching him like a hawk all day, frowning at his son’s obvious preoccupation. Is something wrong, Little Joe? Are you in pain? Are you hungry? Thirsty? Cold? Tired?

Yeah, something was wrong, alright.

But it wasn’t a kind of wrong that could be fixed with a nice dose of laudanum or a glass of water or an extra blanket or two. This wrong went far beyond physical discomfort.

Because it had been Joe’s fault.

*****

It was to be the most far-reaching and lucrative timber contract that Ben Cartwright had ever bid on.

The Central Pacific Railroad had been authorized by the government to begin work on a railway expansion that would wind a circuitous route through the high Sierra and eventually lead all the way to the east coast. It was almost unbelievable that such a feat could even be accomplished, but nonetheless, Congress had bequeathed an enormous amount of cash to fund it.

As a result, the company was in dire need of wood – strong, sturdy pine for tracks, trestles, and bridges – and the Ponderosa’s thousand square miles had more than enough to spare.

It had been doubly satisfying when Ben learned that he’d been tentatively awarded the contract after weeks of trying negotiations in the Central Pacific’s Sacramento offices. Not only had he secured the financial future of the Ponderosa well into the next decade, he had also successfully outbid Barney Fuller, his chief competitor in the Nevada territory. The two had maintained a cordial, if lukewarm, relationship outside the bargaining table.

Fuller had been polite afterwards, wishing the Cartwrights the best of luck in the endeavor, but Ben knew that the man was angry enough to spit nails.

The timing of the contract had also proven coincidentally fortuitous. Revenue from the previous two cattle drives had been disappointing, and the local mines’ demand for shoring timber had been well below expectations. Ben knew that if their fortunes continued on such a downward spiral, the Cartwrights were well on their way to finding themselves land poor.

In order to meet the terms of the contract, Ben would have to invest a considerable amount of money hiring loggers, purchasing equipment, and renting draft horse teams for hauling. But it would be worth it in the end, he had assured them all. Definitely worth it.

Problem was, unfortunately, the ranch’s cash reserves had dwindled considerably in the past two years. But Ben Cartwright still had his name and integrity, and that’s all it took for Virginia City’s most prestigious banks to come forward with loans. Ben had been forced to offer the Ponderosa itself as collateral, but it was a small risk, after all. His investment would be repaid in spades once the contract was fulfilled.

Inside of a month, the entire project was well underway. Trees had been marked for felling, loggers had been hired, and Ben found himself in Sacramento again, preparing to sign the final papers. Adam had been left in charge at the Ponderosa to oversee the enormous undertaking in Ben’s absence. The weather had been unseasonably mild and things were going more smoothly than anyone could have even hoped for.

That is, until the day that everything jerked to an abrupt and unexpected halt.

The day that Joe disappeared.

*****

Probably none of it would have happened if Joe hadn’t rolled his eyes at his older brother. He hadn’t meant to; really, he hadn’t. It was just one of those things that……well, just happened. Joe regretted it almost instantly, and he likely would have apologized on the spot if Adam hadn’t struck him first.

It had almost turned out to be a perfect day. Joe had spent a full week marking trees for harvest on the southern ridge of the Truckee strip, and he was planning on making the most of his first day off. The day’s schedule had been etched in his head from the moment he opened his eyes that morning.

First, a leisurely breakfast, then a trip into town with Hoss to fetch supplies for the lumber camp. Of course, he’d have to talk Hoss into a side trip to the Silver Dollar, where he hoped Maggie was working today. Pretty little Maggie, with her sassy laugh and orangy red hair.

He had only met her once, but he knew that she liked him. On Joe’s last trip a month ago, she had made a beeline to the Cartwright table and had perched her trim little bottom on his lap. She had playfully snatched off Joe’s hat and ran her fingers through his hair, calling him a handsome devil. Then she leaned in close, so close that the provocative scent of her perfume assailed his senses, and Joe was sure she would have favored him with a kiss right then and there if Adam hadn’t dragged him away. But today…..today was the day. He could almost feel those soft lips pressed enticingly against his own, and the heady anticipation of it stole his breath away.

Joe was already whistling as he hitched up the team, not even minding that Hoss was still inside lingering over the remainder of Hop Sing’s hotcakes. He even called out a cheerful greeting to Adam as he stepped out of the barn, though he certainly didn’t deserve one. Adam had been so preoccupied with the big timber contract that he had practically snarled at anyone who had the nerve to speak to him. If anything good could be said about the heartbreakingly dull business of tree marking, it could be that Joe had managed to avoid his grouchy older brother almost constantly for the past few days. He sure would be glad when Pa came home next week and Adam wasn’t in charge anymore. Joe didn’t know how much more he could take of older brother’s bossiness.

Adam ignored the greeting and walked purposefully right up to him. “Sorry, Joe, but you’re going to have to stick around after all. Mickey’s sick, so he won’t be able to mark today. You’ll have to ride out and finish up so they can start cutting along the strip tomorrow.”

And with that, Adam turned toward the house, not even waiting for a response, not even seeming to care what his own brother thought about the abrupt change to his well-laid plans.

“Hey!” Joe snapped at his brother’s retreating back. “What if I don’t want to mark trees today? Anyone around here ever care what I want to do?”

Adam stopped in his tracks and slowly turned to face his brother, his hands rising to his hips in a gesture of long-suffering patience. Adam sighed loudly and deliberately, as if preparing to address an imbecile.

Joe bit back a sigh of his own as his brother then commenced with one of his standard Joe-lectures. Adam’s irritated voice immediately turned into a monotone drone in Joe’s head. Great, he thought. Here it comes. Ten bucks says he reminds me how old I am.

“……more responsible…….to remind you that you’re eighteen now, and…”

Knew it.

“……a man now……treated like an adult, then you have to start acting….”

Here comes the best part.

“…..your age……and practically running the entire ranch on my own….”

No one on earth is as perfect as you, Adam.

“….me in charge while he was gone……..and I fully expect…..”

I know. You’ve been reminding me for three days now.

“Joe?”

“Joe? Why do I get the feeling that you haven’t listened to a word I’ve just said?”

And that’s when Joe rolled his eyes.

Adam’s swift backhanded slap at that response was so fierce and unexpected that it nearly knocked Joe to the ground. Joe’s hand flew to his face, and then he drew his hand down to stare stupidly at the blood smeared across his fingers from his split lip.

As shock gave way to fury, Joe immediately launched himself at his older brother with fists flying, and the momentum carried them both to the ground. As he drew his arm back to deliver a blow to his brother’s jaw, his jacket was suddenly seized from behind and he was yanked off his feet by Hoss, who had somehow materialized behind him.

“That’s enough, Little Joe. Adam here ain’t got no time for this,” Hoss said, setting Joe down but keeping one restraining arm in place. “Now you need to get yourself up there and get working, boy.”

Joe’s jaw dropped in stunned outrage at this new betrayal and he angrily pushed himself away.

“Hoss!” Joe yelled as he gestured wildly at Adam, who was pushing himself to his feet. “Didn’t you see what he just did? He…”

“Oh, come on, Joe!” Adam snapped impatiently, wiping the dust from his pants. “Listen, I’m sorry I hit you, okay? I’m sorry. But I’m sick and tired of you acting like a kid all the time. We’ve all got work to do around here, in case you haven’t noticed.”

It was probably the most insincere apology Joe had ever heard. He glared at his older brother in disbelief, waiting for him to explain himself. But no explanation was forthcoming.

“Now, do as I said,” Adam said simply, and turned away, dismissing him. Hoss spared his little brother a single, apologetic glance before following Adam into the house.

Joe stood outside the barn and waited until the front door closed behind them. “I’m not a kid,” he said defiantly. And suddenly eager to put as much distance as possible between himself and his older brother, Joe hurried into the barn to saddle his horse.

The landscape passed in a blur as he urged Cochise to a faster pace toward Virginia City. Joe reached up and lightly grazed his fingers over the cheek that still stung from his older brother’s slap. He knew without even seeing it that an ugly red welt marked the skin. Probably not anything that Maggie would be even remotely interested in kissing, he thought, his anger threatening to rise up and choke him again.

He’d show ’em. He’d show both of his brothers. Eighteen years old. He wasn’t a kid. He was a man now. A man should be able to do what he wanted and when he wanted, right? Shouldn’t have to put up with an older brother bossing him around all the time. Or hitting him.

He’d go straight to the saloon, just like he had been planning before Adam took it upon himself to interfere. He’d see Maggie, and have himself a drink or two. And no sissy little glass of beer, either. He’d have himself a real drink. A man’s drink.

Upon reaching Virginia City, Joe headed down the main street toward the Silver Dollar, and, on impulse, passed it by, continuing on till he reached the alley just beyond the bank. He reined in his horse and secured him there, out of sight from the street. Wouldn’t do to have Hoss track him right to the saloon. Danged pinto stuck out like a sore thumb.

Joe made his way down the street to the Silver Dollar and paused just outside the door, drawing in a deep breath. He had only recently been allowed to even set foot inside the establishment, and only when he was with his Pa or brothers so they could watch over him. He couldn’t even imagine Pa’s reaction if he found out about this little excursion. Probably find himself banned from the saloon for the next decade. But still, he was a man now, and a man could do what he wanted. Joe defiantly squared his shoulders and pushed through the swinging doors.

“Bottle of whiskey, Tom,” Joe said, stepping casually up to the bar, hoping he sounded tough.

The barkeep glanced up curiously as Joe deliberately flipped a coin onto the counter.

“And a glass,” Joe added.

That earned him raised eyebrows. Joe frowned as Tom searched past him towards the door, likely wondering what the heck was keeping Joe’s chaperones.

“Your pa around, Little Joe?” the barkeep asked, not moving to grant Joe’s request.

“My pa’s out of town,” Joe replied, his voice edged with irritation. “You gonna get me that whiskey or not?”

“Oh sure, sure,” Tom said, reaching under the counter for a bottle. He paused before placing it on the bar. “Little Joe, wouldn’t you rather just have a beer?”

Joe narrowed his eyes and glared at him.

“Okay, okay,” Tom said, shaking his head as he plunked down a glass alongside the bottle. “I just….I guess I didn’t know that you liked this stuff, kid.”

“I’m not a kid,” Joe mumbled. He snatched up the bottle and glass and moved toward one of the darkened corner tables. He’d be damned if he was going to let that pompous barkeep stand there and watch him drink. He pulled out a chair, and set the whiskey on the table. “Maggie working today?” he asked, trying not to sound too interested.

Tom looked up and shook his head. “Not for a few hours, Little Joe. It’s not even noon yet.”

Well, fine, Joe thought, settling himself into a comfortable position. I got time and I got my whiskey. I can wait. He filled the glass halfway and idly swirled the amber liquid around, studying it. Firewater, Hoss liked to call it. Ain’t nothing like a little firewater to make a man outta ya, he’d say. Hoss and Adam had been known to indulge in the strong spirit every now and then, and even his pa liked to drink it sometimes, but Joe had not yet been allowed. He smiled to himself, contemplating the first time he had ever tasted it.

He had only been about twelve or so, he remembered. He and Seth had sought shelter one rainy afternoon in one of the Ponderosa line shacks, and the two had discovered the dust-coated bottle on a high shelf. God only knew how long it had been there. But when a dare turned into a double-dare, Joe soon found himself yanking out the cork with his teeth and drawing in a full mouthful of the dark, cloudy liquid. He had become ill almost immediately, the sound of Seth’s howling laughter ringing painfully in his ears. Joe never forgot it, and had decided then and there to avoid it after that.

But he had been just a kid then. Things were different now.

Joe brought the glass to his lips and stole a quick glance at Tom, who seemed to have taken a sudden intense interest in wiping down the counter in front of him.

Here goes, he thought, jerking up the glass and taking a deep swallow. He coughed harshly before he could stop himself, and nearly choked as the liquid immediately burned a fiery trail down his throat and settled into his chest. He drew in several quick, careful breaths, concentrating as hard as he could to not make a complete fool of himself, although he could tell Tom was already smirking from behind the counter. Good thing the saloon was mostly empty, anyway.

Another sip, less this time. Not as bad, though Joe still shuddered at the strong taste, and could feel that his cheeks were already hot and flushed. But least he didn’t cough.

He set down the glass and leaned back in the chair. He tipped back his head and closed his eyes, concentrating on the not unpleasant warmth that had now traced a steady path all the way down to his belly.

Yeah. Yeah, he could do this.

*****

“He’ll be back,” Adam said absently, not even bothering to glance up from his paperwork. “Let him throw his childish little fit, Hoss. He’ll end up running to Pa and telling him how mean I am. I don’t care. I don’t have the time for it.”

“Adam, he’s been gone four hours. Don’t you think we oughta get out there and start looking for him?” Hoss asked. “Looks like there’s a storm comin’ and…”

“He’ll be back,” Adam insisted again. “Probably just headed off into town anyway. Didn’t you see him when you went in?”

Hoss shook his head. “Didn’t see his horse nowhere. And I looked for it, too. Guess he just ran off or something. You sure made that boy mad.”

“Well, he made me mad too, Hoss!” Adam shot back. “You don’t see me running off, do you?”

“No, but there weren’t no call to hit him like that, Adam,” Hoss replied. “No call at all.”

“And just what was I supposed to do then, Hoss? Just stand there and let him roll his eyes at me? I couldn’t very well…”

Hoss grinned. “He rolled his eyes at you? Son of a gun, if that don’t beat all. That boy sure is bolder than brass, ain’t he?” he said, chuckling.

Adam frowned. “It’s not funny, Hoss. He’s gonna have to grow up one of these days.”

“Aw, come on now, Adam. You’ve been working that boy into the ground all week. You knew how much he was wantin’ to go to town today. Ain’t no wonder he was mad.”

Adam shot to his feet at that. “Oh, so Little Joe wanted to go to town?” he snapped sarcastically. “Well, I’m sorry, Hoss. I’m sorry to hear that he had to miss out on his little adventure in Virginia City, but in case you don’t remember, we’ve got an important job to do and Pa expects each one of us to pull his own weight. Now, our little brother may well think that an excursion into town may be much more important than a trifling matter such as a timber contract, but…”

“That ain’t fair and you know it, Adam,” Hoss interrupted, no longer bothering to hide his irritation. “You know I had to ride up and fetch that boy yesterday from the strip? Up there marking trees from sunup in that heat; danged kid was so blasted tired he could barely stand up, but there he was, still marking trees in the dark so he could finish up. Did you even know that? Did you even notice that he nearly fell asleep right there at the dinner table last night?”

Adam brushed off Hoss’ explanation with an impatient wave of his hand. “So what, Hoss?” he said. “So he’s been working hard! Everyone else on the ranch has been working hard! Why should it be any different for Joe?”

“Because you don’t treat everyone else on the ranch like a kid, Adam,” Hoss replied softly. “Joe deserves a lot better than what you’ve been dishin’ out lately.”

Adam stared at Hoss for a long, tense moment before releasing a heavy sigh. “Alright,” he said finally. “Alright. Let’s go find him.”

*****

Joe held onto his glass firmly to keep it steady as he filled it again. Damn glass moved anyway and whiskey sloshed over his hand and onto the table, but Joe managed to fill it halfway. He took note of his nearly empty bottle and considered calling out to Tom to bring him another, but decided against it, figuring he wouldn’t be heard above the noise of the saloon anyway.

He scanned the crowded room until his eyes found Maggie again. She was laughing out loud, and had snuggled herself onto the lap of some poker player. Even as Joe watched, Maggie snatched off the man’s hat and started running her fingers through his hair. No doubt calling him a handsome devil, Joe thought bitterly, tipping his head back and taking another slug of his whiskey.

He had grinned happily and waved as Maggie sauntered into the saloon earlier, wearing a sparkly green dress and a flouncy feather in her hair, and Joe was foolishly pleased when she turned her head at his greeting and headed straight over to him.

“Why, hello, Little Joe,” she had said, smiling prettily. “Where’s Adam?” she added, looking curiously around the room. “Didn’t he come with you?”

Joe shook his head, still grinning. “Nope, it’s just me today, Maggie. I was wondering if…”

The smile fell from her face. “Oh.” she said, sounding disappointed. “Well, you just tell that brother of yours not to be so much of a stranger, will ya?” She chuckled softly then and patted Joe on the head. “And you tell him Maggie said so.”

And with that she had turned and walked away, her attention already caught by another customer. She didn’t spare Joe so much as a second glance.

No problem, he thought, tossing back another mouthful and closing his eyes to savor the whiskey’s spreading warmth. Don’t need……don’t need Maggie. Don’t need Adam, neither. Don’t need…

“You okay, Little Joe?”

Joe startled so suddenly he nearly fell out of his chair. He opened his eyes and tried to concentrate on the blurry face in front of him.

“Don’t need nobody,” Joe mumbled, wondering vaguely why his voice sounded so odd.

“What? Little Joe, what are you talking about?” Tom asked. The barkeep was bending down and staring at him, his eyebrows knit in concern. “Are Adam or Hoss around? I want to make sure you get home okay.”

“Don’t need Adam or Hoss,” Joe replied, his voice slightly stronger this time. “I can…I can get home by myself.”

Tom snorted in disbelief. “Maybe I should send someone to fetch your pa…”

“Pa’s outta town,” Joe snapped, starting to feel irritated. Why did everyone insist on treating him like a kid?

Joe gingerly rose to his feet and grabbed the table for support when a wave of dizziness swept over him. He paused and took in a deep breath. Maybe he had had just a little too much of that firewater stuff. But he wasn’t drunk at all….no, not at all. He was sure he wasn’t drunk. He had seen how other people acted when they were drunk, and he was acting fine, just fine. The dizziness quickly passed and the crowded room came back into focus. Yeah, he was just fine.

“I can get home fine,” he said, picking up his hat and pushing past Tom to head for the door, which seemed somehow farther away than he remembered. His legs seemed strangely disjointed from his body, so walking in a straight line required a bit more concentration than he was used to, but at least he wasn’t drunk. He discreetly clutched at chairs in his path for support, and wondered why everyone seemed to be looking at him.

He saw Maggie glance up curiously as he passed, and he pointedly ignored her as he continued his agonizingly long journey to the door. He had only made it a few more steps when he had to stop again, suddenly feeling nauseous. Wouldn’t that be the talk of the town – Joe Cartwright throws up right in the middle of the Silver Dollar. He wouldn’t live that down for months.

When he finally pushed his way through the swinging doors to the street, he closed his eyes and breathed a long sigh of relief, thankful that he had made it out without falling over or retching. It was a good thing he wasn’t drunk, or he would have really embarrassed himself.

He stared in confusion at the horses crowded at the hitching post for a full minute before he realized that his pinto was not among them. His horse! Someone had stolen Cochise!

Probably someone in the saloon, he thought furiously, turning swiftly to stomp back in and confront the lowdown dirty thief. No wonder everyone was looking at him so funny. One of them had decided to help himself to a nice pinto and was probably in there now, celebrating. Maybe he even had Maggie planted on his lap, sniffing her perfume and letting her run her fingers through his hair.

Joe skidded to a halt just outside the door. No. No, it probably wouldn’t be a good idea to go charging in there hollering that his horse had been stolen. Whoever it was probably wouldn’t admit it, anyway. Joe reasoned that if he had stolen a horse, he didn’t think he would admit it either. Maybe he should go tell the sheriff or…

Oh, wait. Cochise was down the street, in the alley next to the bank. Now he remembered. Good thing, too, or he would have really looked stupid.

He carefully made his way toward the bank, hoping that no one was paying attention. He hoped he didn’t look like someone who had spent the day in the saloon. After an eternity, he made it to the alley where his horse was tethered. Cochise snorted in disapproval at his arrival, as if the pinto suspected what he had been up to all afternoon.

It took him three awkward tries to mount, and Joe was instantly grateful for the darkness of the alley. It was only after he urged his pinto out onto the street that he noticed the gathering clouds signaling a thunderstorm. Great. Just what he needed. He chewed his lip, considering what to do.

Maybe, just maybe, if he took the short way back to the ranch along the ravine by Mud Creek, he could beat the rain. Hardly anyone ever traveled that route because of the steep grade, but Joe knew he was an excellent rider and his horse was surefooted enough to make it. Besides, he didn’t have his rain slicker. Yeah, he decided. That’s what he would do.

The rooftops of Virginia City had barely faded into the distance when the first cold raindrops began to pelt his face. He pushed his hat down as low as he could, and continued toward the ranch. He tried to distract himself by thinking of the words he planned to exchange with his know-it-all older brother once he made it back to the house. Oh, and Hoss, too, he thought. Let’s not forget Hoss. The whiskey was still burning a sick hole in his belly and making his thoughts fuzzy, but it sure hadn’t cooled his anger.

It was already raining steadily by the time Joe abandoned the main road to continue along the ravine. He was wet and miserable and beginning to feel increasingly ill with each plodding step of his horse. The dirt was already turning to mud and he had been forced to slow down so Cooch could navigate the steep and uneven terrain that bordered the ravine. Oh boy, was this turning out to be a bad idea. Bad enough that he should do the smart thing and turn around.

But a sudden return to good sense could not override the unlucky combination of crashing thunder, a skittish pinto, and its dull-witted rider. His horse chose the worst possible moment to panic and rear, and before Joe could even comprehend what was happening, he found himself flung forcefully from his horse, and falling, tumbling, sliding down the rocky, overgrown incline that led to the creek. His rapid downward momentum was halted only by his head slamming into a protruding boulder, and in the brief hazy moment before unconsciousness overtook him, he was able to grasp one fleeting thought.

Maybe he had been drunk after all.

*****

“Well, Adam?”

Hoss had to shout to be heard above the howling wind. He reined in alongside his brother, who had abruptly stopped his horse again alongside the rain-swollen road. “Adam?” he repeated. “Where to now?”

Adam didn’t even glance over, and Hoss wondered if he had heard the question.

Hoss wasn’t overly concerned, at least not yet. Adam would figure it out somehow. The storm had hit within minutes of embarking upon their search for their little brother, but they wouldn’t turn back yet, although the driving rain and impending darkness made the effort seem ridiculously futile.

They had initially attempted to follow his horse’s trail, but once the downpour started, Cochise’s tracks had been almost completely washed away.

“Are you sure he didn’t go into town?” Adam shouted back. “The tracks seemed to be headed that way.” He twisted in his saddle to scan the landscape for what seemed like the hundredth time. “Maybe we should check again.”

Hoss shook his head. “Road’s getting flooded, Adam. We’re gonna have to wait for this storm to let up or else we’re gonna be swimming to Virginia City.”

When Adam didn’t respond, Hoss wondered again if his brother had heard him. “Adam? You think we should head back?” he asked, louder this time.

Adam gazed back at him, and even through the water streaming down his face, Hoss couldn’t help but notice his brother’s anxious expression.

“I don’t think we have a choice, Hoss,” Adam said finally, sounding defeated. “Let’s just hope that wherever Joe is, he’s dry.”

*****

The storm raged incessantly as night fell, the thunder crashed furiously, and the savage wind roared its way through the rugged terrain about him, but in the end it was the plaintive sound of his own whimpering that jerked Joe back into full awareness.

Cold. So very, very cold. So cold that his entire body was caught up in a violent trembling that he couldn’t seem to control. But that discomfort was nothing compared to the pain hammering throughout his entire head. He raised an unsteady hand to touch the sorest spot and nearly yelped when his fingers made contact with the swollen lump on his forehead.

Where was he? It was dark, so dark that he couldn’t even see his hand as he held it to his eyes. He was also wet, soaked through his jacket and clothes to the skin, and the sharp freezing rain still pelted him. He was lying awkwardly on his side and he could feel water icy cold puddling against his face, and he knew he had been hurt somehow. His head was throbbing, and it hurt to breathe. He glided a tentative hand down his body and could feel rips in his clothing, and cuts and gashes along his legs and chest, and could tell that he was still bleeding from several of them. His stomach heaved and he fought to suppress a wave of nausea.

But his concern over his injuries was quickly forgotten in the face of growing fear. Where was he? How did he get here?

“Pa?” he cried out softly, but the raspy sound of it was ripped away by the wind.

“Pa?” he repeated, his voice hitching.

“Adam?”

“Hoss?”

But there was no answer, no reassuring “Right here, Little Joe,” or “It’s okay, Little Joe,” or “I’m comin’ to get ya, Little Joe.” Just the wind and the rain and the dark and the pain and the bitter, bitter cold.

Joe bit his lip hard against a suddenly overwhelming urge to cry. Grow up, Joe. Think, Joe. There’s gotta be a way outta this.

But the strangling fear was as relentless and unavoidable as the storm itself, and as the warm blackness reached up to swallow him again, he welcomed it.

*****

Adam took another sip of coffee that had long gone cold as he stared into the sunrise. Any other time he would have appreciated the pinks and purples and golds that managed to burst through and illuminate the thick blanket of clouds that still hung stubbornly above the familiar landscape. He shivered beneath the shelter of the porch. The torrent of the night before had dwindled to a light drizzle, but a determined wind continued to whistle through the pines.

The door opened and closed behind him, but he didn’t need to turn around.

“No sign?” Hoss asked, though he already knew the answer.

Adam glanced at him with reddened eyes and Hoss was momentarily taken aback at how tired his older brother looked.

“You get any sleep at all, Adam?”

“Some,” Adam lied. He had tried all night to calm himself with common sense and reason. Joe was probably fine. He had been in weather like this before, after all. Probably stayed overnight with a friend, or at least found shelter somewhere. His brother wasn’t stupid.

But the common sense and reason kept getting rudely shoved aside by an odd sense of foreboding that Adam couldn’t seem to shake. He had lain awake for hours as the storm raged outside his window, staring at the darkened ceiling as horrifying scenarios played themselves over and over in his head. Images of his little brother hurt and alone and needing him.

He had so far been successful at suppressing the crippling guilt he felt at his words and actions of the day before. It would do nothing to bring his brother back. But in the stillness of that rainy morning he could feel it licking again at edge of his thoughts. What he did, what he should have done, what he’d do the next time.

If there was a next time.

“No. He’s fine,” he whispered, not even aware that he had spoken the words aloud.

Hoss looked puzzled, but ignored it. “You ready?” he asked.

Adam nodded. “Let’s go.”

*****

It was daylight by the time Joe struggled his way back to awareness, and he opened his eyes a tiny slit to survey his immediate surroundings. A creek. He was perched on the sloping edge of a creek; so close to it that one outstretched hand was already submerged in the freezing water. Where was he?

He could barely summon the strength to move, but he managed to turn his head ever so slightly and nearly cried out at the horrific pain the effort caused him. He looked up then, and groaned aloud as the memory came flooding back. Mud Creek. He had been riding along the top of the ravine at Mud Creek and…

The ravine. He was at the bottom of the ravine. It was raining hard, he remembered. Cochise had spooked, and…

He groaned again. The bottom of the ravine. The steepest, most treacherous part of the entire trail if he remembered correctly. His horse was long gone, and Joe knew that there would be no way for him to climb his way back up. The terrain stretched nearly straight up on both sides of the creek for as far as he could see. The only way out was downstream.

Joe considered the rushing, rain-swollen creek only an arm’s length away and wondered if he even had the strength to drag himself closer to it. He was now mostly numb instead of cold, but even though he was grateful for it, he knew that it was a bad sign. In the light of day, he could more easily assess his injuries. Something was wrong with his chest, he could tell. Maybe some ribs were broken or something. All he knew was that taking a deep breath hurt really bad, so he tried not to do it. He had a lot of cuts, but most were not too bad, except for one deep gash on his left thigh. It wasn’t bleeding much as far as Joe could tell, but as he observed the widespread red stain on his clothing, he knew that it had done quite a bit of bleeding in the night.

Joe bent his arms and pressed his hands into the mud beneath him and tried to raise himself up a little, but collapsed again as throbbing pain and dizziness overcame him. He closed his eyes as he fought hard against the nausea, already knowing how much pain the retching would cause.

He lay unmoving for several long minutes until the nausea passed, and tried to figure a way out of the mess he’d somehow gotten himself into. He considered the steep, slippery walls of the ravine again, and again discarded any possibility of climbing out. It had been hard enough on him coming down.

Maybe he could…maybe he could signal for help! Maybe someone might hear if he shot his gun a few times. Maybe his brothers were already out looking for him. But his hope died suddenly when he reached down to an empty holster. His gun had likely been lost somewhere in the fall, probably keeping company with his missing hat.

They’d never think to look here, he knew. They’d probably guess that he’d headed into Virginia City, but wouldn’t even consider that he’d try to come home by way of the Mud Creek ravine. They’d never think he’d be that stupid. He cursed again whatever fool notion made him think that this was a good idea.

Damn firewater.

He’d have to get out on his own.

Somehow.

*****

To: Ben Cartwright, Sacramento

Please come home. Joe missing.

Adam

Ben Cartwright stared again at the starkly rendered message. It did no more to quiet his fears or answer his questions than the last dozen times he had read it. Adam hadn’t provided any details. Perhaps there had been none to provide. Ben leaned back against the velveteen seat of the stage coach and closed his eyes.

He knew that he was taking a risk in leaving Sacramento – possibly an enormous one – but it couldn’t be helped. He couldn’t very well have ignored such a telegram and carried on with the business of a timber contract, not when his youngest boy was…..well, he didn’t know. He couldn’t think about it now, though. Couldn’t let fear and worry consume his mind with all the awful possibilities. All he could do was cling desperately to the hope that this was all some silly mistake, or that Joe would be found safe and sound and would come running out to greet him with an apologetic grin, and Ben would pretend to be furious with him even as he hid his relief.

At least he had been lucky enough to catch the stage back to Virginia City the morning he received the summons from home. He hadn’t had a chance to meet with the lawyers for Central Pacific and explain why he had been forced to leave so prematurely, but he had sent a brief message, confident that they would understand. Hopeful that they would. They seemed reasonable enough.

The stage jerked as it encountered a rough spot in the road. They would be stopping at a way station shortly for fresh horses, but even if there were no delays, it would be another full day before he arrived in Virginia City. Plenty of time for concern to blossom into full-blown panic if he allowed it.

He carefully refolded the telegram and tucked it back into his vest pocket, and tried to concentrate on the sparse view that the tiny window afforded. It would be several hours before the tawny hues of the high desert gave way to the lush greens of the Sierra Nevada, several wasted hours that should be spent searching for his lost son, and the utter frustration of it nearly made him ill.

“I’m coming, son,” he whispered, and his soft entreaty was carried away on the wind.

*****

Joe slipped beneath the frigid water again as a sharp, sudden pain slashed across his chest. He frantically struggled back to the surface, coughing and gasping, only to slip beneath it again. Drowning. He had to be drowning.

He’d decided that the only way out of the ravine had to be downstream. There was a break in the ravine somewhere down there; he couldn’t remember how far. He’d just move along the bank until he reached it, and then he could get out and walk the rest of the way home.

Course, that was all easier said than done. His head was pounding mercilessly and he was already so exhausted that he couldn’t even conjure up the strength to stand. So he’d begun his journey by crawling and creeping on his belly along the rocky bank of Mud Creek. Several times the incline had been so steep that Joe had slipped into the freezing, rain-swollen water. And with each submerging he became weaker and he was rapidly losing his will to continue.

He had thought he was close. Just around that part where the ravine curved to the right, and that break in the steep wall would be right there and he’d be out of this blasted ravine and he’d be heading for home and he’d never go anywhere near that trail again.

But he’d lost his grip and fell into the creek again, and the water was deeper and seemed even colder than the time before. He’d desperately fought against the current and just as he felt his lungs were near to bursting, he’d surfaced again and somehow managed to reach the shallows. He’d dragged himself from the water until he collapsed in a sodden heap on the narrow bank. He lay shivering and gasping painfully for several long minutes, knowing he could go no further. The sun had set, and the realization that he was destined to spend another long, miserable night in the freezing, wet mud nearly had him sobbing in despair.

As the hours passed, Joe gave in to pain and exhaustion, and he slipped into a restless sleep, dreaming of warmth and home.

*****

“I’m sorry, Hoss,” Adam said, reaching beneath his hat to scratch his head. “I guess it was a waste of time after all.”

He looked again across the steep and winding ravine that surrounded Mud Creek. It had been a hunch, coming up here, and apparently a wrong one. Little Joe had done some dumb things in his life, but even he wasn’t foolish enough to travel through such treacherous terrain in the middle of a thunderstorm. Thing is, they were running out of places to search.

Adam had eventually been forced to temporarily shut down the timber operations off the Truckee so that every available hand could be called in to help search for his little brother. Cold rains had given way to warm sun, and for that at least he was grateful, but it did nothing to lighten his mood. Joe was missing and he was in trouble. His fears had been confirmed the moment he and Hoss had discovered Joe’s mud-splattered pony, exhausted and hopping lame, limping his way toward the house only a few hours earlier.

They knew by now that Joe had been in Virginia City, at least for part of the day. One of the workers at the livery stable saw Joe leaving town that afternoon just as the storm was about to hit, apparently headed towards the Ponderosa. And from there, the trail went cold. The storm had washed away any clue to his brother’s whereabouts.

He’d hated having to send that telegram to Pa – hated it, knowing how much his father would worry. But after a full day of fruitless searching, he’d had no choice. The stage from Sacramento wouldn’t arrive until tomorrow afternoon, and Adam had secretly hoped they would find his brother safe and sound by then. He’d rather be faced with his father’s irritation over being summoned unnecessarily than his father’s fear.

But as the second day of searching stretched on with no sign, it was apparent his hopes would be dashed yet again.

He sighed heavily. “Maybe we should…”

He stopped mid-sentence, his attention suddenly caught by something near the creek. Something…..

“Maybe we should….maybe we should what, Adam? If you’d just…” Hoss had glanced over and was struck speechless at his brother’s expression. “Adam? What is it?” He followed his brother’s gaze, desperately trying to determine what had put that shocked look on his brother’s face. “Adam?”

“God. Oh my God, Joe!” Adam was leaping from his horse and in a heartbeat was running, stumbling down the slope of the ravine to the creek below.

“JOE!” Adam hollered “Oh no….Oh God, Joe!”

The still form of his little brother was laying at the base of the ravine. The boy was lying face down with his body half submerged in the muddy water and his arms stretched into the mud above him, as if he had been struggling to pull himself out before he collapsed. He was dead; he had to be dead. No one alive could look like that.

Adam was at his brother’s side in a heartbeat and he reached down and dragged Joe from the freezing water and carefully turned him onto his back. Joe’s eyes were half-closed and unfocused, his face bruised and swollen. But what was most alarming was his brother’s rapid, shallow breathing — his mouth was open and gasping; to Adam it appeared horribly as if his little brother was drowning before his eyes.

“Joe!” he cried out, slipping a strong arm beneath Joe’s shoulders and lifting him slightly. “Joe!”

But his little brother didn’t seem to realize he was there; every ounce of his strength seemed to be desperately concentrated on getting enough air.

“Joe?” Adam repeated, pulling his brother closer and patting his face. “It’s okay, Little Joe. It’s me, Adam.”

Joe turned his head to look up at him, his expression hopeful. “Pa?” he whispered.

“No, Joe,” Adam said, resting his forehead against his brother’s wet curls. “It’s Adam,” he said softly. “I’ve got you.”

Adam carefully lifted his brother so he was partly sitting, and as he tried to check his brother over for injuries, Joe’s breathing became suddenly louder and harsher. He reached up to clutch desperately at Adam’s shirt, and his lips were moving as if he was trying to speak.

“Adam…..” Joe finally gasped. “….can’t…..breathe…..I can’t….breathe!” Joe looked up his brother, his eyes wide, and the frightened look in them tore at his heart.

“What’s wrong with him, Adam?” came a voice from above him. Hoss had apparently stuck around. “Is he okay?”

Adam looked up to see Hoss crouching at the top of the ravine. “I’m not sure,” Adam replied. “But he’s sick, he’s real sick, Hoss.” He examined his little brother, who had fallen unconscious again, and pressed an anxious hand to Joe’s forehead. “God, he’s so hot.” he said.

Hoss started to descend the muddy slope.

“Hoss, wait!” Adam yelled out. “Wait! Stay up there a minute. I need to try to…”

He slipped his other arm beneath Joe’s knees and carefully lifted him, while trying to maintain an uneasy balance on the steep bank. Joe’s head rolled against his big brother’s chest, and his arms and legs dangled uselessly as Adam stood uncertainly, wondering how he was going to manage to get his brother out.

Hoss took another impatient step toward them. “Let me help, Adam. Maybe I can get a rope or something.”

Adam shook his head. “No, the ground’s too rough. We’d end up dragging him right through the rocks and he’s cut up pretty bad as it is.”

He stood for a long moment considering the steep walls of the ravine and turned his head to stare downstream. Just down a little farther, around the bend, and there was a break in it. He was sure of it. Pretty sure, anyway.

“I’m going to carry him downstream for a bit, Hoss,” he said. “There’s a break farther down where it’s not quite as steep. I can hand him up to you then.”

Hoss looked doubtful. “He’s pretty heavy to carry that far, Adam. You sure you can do it?”

Adam regarded the pale face nestled in the crook of his arm and even through his clothes could feel the frantic beating of his brother’s heart.

He nodded. “I can do it.”

*****

Adam paused in his restless pacing to gaze up the stairs again. What was taking so long? “Maybe I should go up there. The doc might need some help,” he said impatiently.

“Sit down, Adam,” Hoss replied. “You know exactly why he don’t want neither of us up there.”

Adam sighed. Yeah, he knew why.

Broken ribs combined with pneumonia were a lethal combination, the doctor had told them. He’d have to insert a tube into at least one of Joe’s lungs to drain out the fluid that was making it so hard for him to breathe. But even worse was the fact that the sleeping medicine needed to keep Joe unconscious during the procedure couldn’t be used because his breathing was already compromised.

Adam knew about chest tubes; he had seen one used before. He knew that to insert one the doctor would have to stab deeply into Joe’s chest and force a rubber tube through the open wound and sew it to the skin to keep it in place. Doc Martin had gathered his supplies and shooed the brothers out of the room, allowing only Hop Sing to assist. Joe had thankfully lost consciousness by then, but as Adam stole one last glance into the room before the door was closed behind him, he saw the doctor already moving to tie his brother to his bed; restraining him so he wouldn’t move during the procedure. The fact that it was necessary to save his little brother’s life did nothing to ease the dread of what was to come.

Adam bit his lip as he stared at the closed door at the top of the stairs. Please, Joe, don’t wake up. Don’t wake up. Don’t wake up.

It had been a miracle that they found Joe when they did, Doc said. He wouldn’t have survived another hour in that frigid water, especially as sick as he was.

Adam rubbed his arms anxiously, and noticed for the first time the reddish marks streaked across them. Blood. Joe’s blood. Must have happened when he carried Joe along that creek.

The break in the ravine had been considerably farther downstream than he first thought, and by the time Hoss had come splashing through the creek from the opposite direction to meet him, Adam was close to collapsing. He had stumbled several times over the uneven terrain, nearly dropping his brother right into the water, but he managed to regain his balance. Fortunately Joe remained oblivious throughout, though his breathing was still fearfully shallow.

“Here, let me take him,” Hoss had said softly, reaching out to lift Joe from Adam’s arms.

Yet as exhausted as he was, Adam had been almost absurdly reluctant to hand him over. His hesitation must have been obvious, because Hoss had tried to calm him. “It’s alright, Adam. I’ll take him now.”

Hoss gently lifted his little brother up to sit before him in his saddle. Joe didn’t even stir as Hoss wrapped a big arm around him and held him fast to his chest. It only made sense that Hoss took him home while Adam rode for the doctor, since Hoss was stronger and less exhausted, but Adam lingered a moment longer as he mounted his horse. He leaned over and clutched Joe’s arm, suddenly terrified that his brother was dying. “You’re gonna be okay, Little Joe,” he said softly, hoping, praying that it was the truth.

Adam had made it to Virginia City in record time, and returned to the ranch with the doctor even faster than he would have thought possible. He’d then sped through the door and up the stairs even as the doctor was still stepping down from his buggy. He threw open the door to Joe’s room, and for a heart-stopping moment, believed for the second time that day that his brother was dead.

Hoss was sitting on the bed with Joe leaning on him, resting his head on his shoulder. It looked as if Hoss was hugging him, until Adam realized he was holding his little brother up to help him breathe. Joe’s eyes were as wide and terrified as when Adam first discovered him in the creek, but his face and lips had taken on a bluish cast, his breathing even more labored than before.

Doc Martin had come up behind him, and Adam heard him gasp. “Dear God.”

The doctor pushed past Adam to the bed, and gingerly untangled Joe from his brother and helped him to lie back. As Hoss moved to get up, Joe’s hand fastened on his brother’s arm with surprising strength.

“Stay…..Hoss,” he whispered.

Doc Martin had wasted no time in examining his young patient, gently palpating Joe’s chest and thumping each side with his fingers. When he moved to turn him onto his side, Joe cried out softly and fainted.

Doc Martin frowned. “Broken ribs,” he said to Adam. “At least two on this side, and maybe on the other side as well.”

“He’s had broken ribs before, Doc…”

“Not with pneumonia, Adam,” Doc Martin interrupted. “I’m pretty sure that’s what the problem is here. Joe’s building up a lot fluid in his lungs and he’s unable to cough it up because of the pain. It’s the reason he’s having trouble breathing.”

Hoss spoke up then, concerned. “Can’t you….Doc, can’t you fix it?”

Doc Martin glanced down at Joe and nodded. “I can fix it….maybe,” he said. “But you’re not going to like it, either of you.”

And as the doctor prepared the necessary supplies required for the task, he looked so grim Adam knew for certain how much he hated what he was about to do.

Don’t wake up, Joe.

It had likely been only a few minutes since he and Hoss had been ushered from the room, but the wait already seemed interminable.

And in the next instant, his little brother was screaming and Hoss was there holding him back from the stairs and telling him it’s okay and to calm down and that the doctor’s trying to help him and it will all be over in just a minute, Adam.

Then the screaming stopped as quickly as it began, and the house was quiet. Adam moved to his father’s favorite chair and collapsed into it and covered his face with his hands. He wished like hell that Pa was here. Little Joe needed his father right now.

And God help him, so did he.

*****

Ben Cartwright quickly dismounted and hurried toward the house with a swiftness that belied his years. He was calling out even as he threw open the door. “Adam? Hoss?” he yelled, wildly searching the empty great room.

“Pa? You’re home?” Hoss answered from the stairs. “Didn’t expect you back until tomorrow.”

“Hoss, what’s happened to Joe? Where’s Joe?” Ben asked frantically. “Is he okay? Did you find him yet?”

Hoss nodded. “We found him, Pa. Adam and me.” he said. “Pa, he’s hurt pretty bad. Doc says…”

But Hoss’ words were brushed aside as his father raced past him to get to the room at the top of the stairs. In the next instant Ben was beside Joe’s bed, his face drawn in concern as he took in the sight of his injured son. The boy was deathly pale, his eyes sunken, and his chest and head swathed in thick layers of bandages. Numerous bruises and cuts marked the exposed, delicate skin. But most alarming of all was that even in sleep Joe seemed to be laboring hard to breathe.

“Joe,” Ben said softly. “Oh, son….what have you done to yourself?”

“Pa?” Adam glanced up in surprise from the chair opposite the bed. “You’re home. I thought the stagecoach wasn’t due till tomorrow.”

“I rented a horse outside Placerville,” Ben explained. “The stagecoach broke an axle and that fool driver—Adam, what’s wrong with him? He’s breathing so fast….what happened to him?”

“We’re really not sure, Pa,” Adam replied. He stood and moved around the bed to join his father.

“We fished him out of Mud Creek yesterday afternoon,” Adam continued quietly. “We’re not even sure how he got there.”

“Mud Creek?” Ben looked over at him, surprised. “What was he was doing there?”

Adam shook his head. “We don’t know. He hasn’t been able to tell us yet.”

“He’s been like this since yesterday?” Ben asked.

“He’s better than he was, Pa. When we found him…” Adam swallowed back the sudden lump in his throat. “When we found him, Pa….I thought he was dead. He was laying there in that freezing water, and…” His voice had dropped to a whisper.

“And what happened?”

“He couldn’t breathe, Pa. I’ve never seen anything like it. And then the doctor had to….he had to…”

“Had to what?”

Adam fell silent, considering. What was the point of telling him now? “It’s not important,” he said, hoping his father wouldn’t press the issue. Thankfully, he didn’t.

Ben reached down and gently touched Joe’s face. “He’s feverish,” he murmured.

“I know,” Adam agreed. “We’ve been sponging him down all morning. And the doctor says some of his wounds may be getting infected. It’s likely to get worse overnight, Pa. I’ll stay here with him.”

Ben straightened and studied his oldest son. “You look tired, Adam.”

“I’m fine, Pa. I’ll be fine,” Adam replied.

Ben looked skeptical. “You don’t look all that fine to me,” he said.

“Pa, I’m…”

“Adam.”

Adam sighed. He should have known he’d have a hard time keeping anything from Pa. “We’d been fighting, Pa,” he admitted. “I think I got mad about something or other and…well, I hit him, Pa. I didn’t mean to, but I did.”

Ben smiled in spite of himself. “Did he hit you back?”

“Yeah,” Adam replied, stroking his chin. “Kid packs quite a punch, too.”

“Adam, I hope you’re not blaming yourself…”

“I should have been more patient with him, Pa,” Adam interrupted.

“Son, we all make mistakes…”

“That’s not the point, Pa,” Adam said, his voice unintentionally sharp. “He ran off because of me. If I hadn’t lost my temper like that, none of this would have happened—I know it!”

“Adam, now you listen to me. You don’t know anything. And whatever happened is done; it’s over, you hear? What’s important right now is making sure your brother gets better. And all I want…”

He was interrupted by a soft moan from the bed.

“Pa……Adam?” Joe’s voice was barely above a whisper.

Their conversation forgotten, the two men immediately crouched down and turned their attention to Joe, who was moving his head and trying to open his eyes.

“Joe?” Adam said urgently. “Joe, it’s me.”

Joe’s eyes opened and Adam could see the effort it was taking for him to focus.

“Adam?” Joe repeated. “Pa?”

“I’m…..sorry,” Joe whispered, before sleep overtook him again.

*****

Adam took his time unloading the supplies from the buckboard and carrying them to the porch. He knew he was stalling, but he was in no hurry to be the bearer of such bad news.

It had been five days since they found Joe, and he was recovering as well as could be expected. He wasn’t out of the woods yet, though, the doctor had made sure to caution them. Still, Joe’s color had returned and his wounds were healing nicely, and his breathing had improved somewhat. His brother wasn’t saying much, though, and Adam knew that his pa was concerned about it. Adam and Hoss had tried to reassure him that everything was fine and that maybe in a few days Joe would be ready to talk about what happened, but Pa didn’t seem all that convinced.

Today had been Adam’s first trip into Virginia City since the accident, and Rudy had flagged him down just as Adam finished loading up the buckboard. There was a telegram from Sacramento for Pa.

Adam paused and took a deep breath before opening the door. Pa looked up expectantly from his desk and smiled in greeting. Adam was grateful for that, at least. It would have been awkward to do this at Joe’s bedside. “How’s Joe?” he asked automatically.

“Sleeping,” Pa replied. “He had a bad night, so I’m glad to see him getting some rest now. Just thought I’d go over cutting schedule for the south side of…..Adam? Is something wrong?”

Ben rose and stepped around the desk to face his son. “Adam?” he repeated, alarmed at the look on his son’s face.

Adam had quietly plucked the telegram from his pocket and held it out to his father. “I’m sorry, Pa,” he said.

“Sorry? Sorry for what?” Ben asked, puzzled as he unfolded the sheet of paper and glanced down at it. Adam watched as the color drained from his father’s face.

“I can’t believe this,” Ben finally said after a long, tense silence. “I thought for sure they would understand.”

“Apparently not,” Adam said grimly. “The contract’s defaulted to the next lowest bidder. I wonder who it was?”

“Let’s not fool ourselves, Adam. We both know who it was,” Ben said sharply. “It’s Barney Fuller. Fuller’s got the contract now.”

Adam sighed. “Well, it won’t be the first time that Fuller’s gotten away with a Ponderosa contract,” he said. “Probably won’t be the last, either. I guess we have some decisions to make.”

“You don’t know the half of it, Adam,” Ben replied quietly. He walked across the room to stand before the fireplace and he stared into it for several long minutes, as if considering what to do.

“Adam?” Ben moved to the sideboard and began to put on his gunbelt. “Do you think you can stay here with Joe for a while?”

“Sure I can, Pa. But why do you…”

“Never mind, son.” Ben interrupted. “I’ll be back.”

And with that, Ben jerked open the door and left the house.

*****

It was nearly midnight before Ben returned. Adam kept anxiously looking out the window and listening for his pa’s horse, and if he hadn’t been charged to care for his little brother, he likely would have saddled up and gone out looking for him. Hoss had left earlier that afternoon to help suspend the cutting operation on the south forty and would likely stay the night.

Adam had fallen asleep in the chair and startled awake when he heard the click of the door downstairs. He yawned and checked to make sure that Joe still slept, and descended the steps.

Ben was sitting at his desk with his head in his hands, looking as forlorn and desolate as Adam had ever seen him. He glanced up at his son’s approach, but did not smile.

“Where’d you go?” Adam asked quietly.

Ben shook his head. “Off to take care of some ranch business,” he said. “As you might have guessed, it didn’t work out the way I’d hoped.”

“Is it about the timber contract?”

“Yes. Mostly. It’s just……I don’t know what I’m going to do, Adam. I was so sure that…” Ben Cartwright leaned back in his chair and sighed. “Well, what’s done is done. No use wasting time worrying about it now,” he continued. “Got too many other things to worry about.”

“Pa, isn’t there anything you can do?” Adam asked. “Can you talk to Barney Fuller? Maybe you could….I don’t know….maybe work out some kind of compromise or agreement or…”

Ben shook his head. “I’ve known Barney Fuller for twenty years, Adam. I can tell you right now that the man won’t budge an inch. This contract is too important to him. Almost as important as it would have been for us.”

“Pa….just how important was it to us?”

Ben sighed deeply. “Very important. Too important, Adam. To be frank, I…” He paused, hesitating. “Well, I made some foolish decisions, Adam. I cast all my eggs into one basket, took a little too much for granted, I suppose.”

“What do you mean by that?”

Ben continued as if he hadn’t heard. “…but I was just so sure that this would work out. I needed cash, Adam. I needed cash that we didn’t have. I needed to pay for equipment and hands and draft teams before I could even deliver the first load of pine. So I went to see Jack Henderson and…”

“Henderson? Mr. Henderson at the bank?”

Ben nodded. “And he agreed to loan me the money up front. Thing is, our liquid assets have dwindled down considerably in the past couple of years, and there wasn’t much I could offer in the way of collateral….” Ben broke off, unable to continue.

Adam closed his eyes, suddenly understanding. “And so you offered up the Ponderosa,” he said quietly.

“Yes. Not all of it. We’d still be allowed to keep the house and the stock and a small amount of surrounding acreage, but…”

“Have you talked to him? Maybe…””

Ben stood up suddenly, his expression angry. “Of course I’ve talked to him, Adam! Talked till I was blue in the face! Asking, pleading, practically begging him to extend the loan or let me make a smaller payment, just until we can sell off some stock or seek out a new contract or…” He sat back down at the desk. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to raise my voice like that, Adam,” he said. “And I can’t blame Henderson, either. Things are bad all over, he says. He can barely toss a nickel to anyone in this town without the board’s approval.”

“Well, there’s gotta be something we can do,” Adam said. “It’s late, Pa. Let’s talk about this in the morning.”

“You’re right,” Ben said. He rose from the desk and moved toward the stairs, but paused and looked back at his son. “How’s Joe? Did he do okay this afternoon?”

“He’s fine, Pa. Still not saying much, though. I’m not sure exactly what the problem is.”

Ben nodded grimly. “Yeah. That’s got me worried, too,” he replied. “Adam?”

“Yeah, Pa?”

“Don’t…..don’t tell Joe about any of this. I don’t want the boy blaming himself for….well, just don’t say anything, Adam. Promise me?”

“I promise.”

*****

Barney Fuller glanced up and frowned at the sound of hooves in the front yard. He rose from his desk and stepped to the window to draw aside the velvet curtain, and his eyebrows rose in surprise as he recognized his visitor. He moved to the door and drew it open before his guest could even knock. “Well, well,” he said. “Adam Cartwright. Never would have expected to see you here.”

“Mr. Fuller, I’d like to speak with you for a minute,” Adam said, removing his hat. “It’s important.”

Fuller smiled widely. “Sure, son. Won’t you come in?” He stepped back, allowing Adam to enter the lavishly furnished parlor. He motioned for Adam to follow him to a small sitting area before a huge stone fireplace.

“Sit, sit,” Fuller said, gesturing to a blue flocked settee. “It’s not often I have a Cartwright as a guest.”

Adam complied and waited for his host to join him. He was impatient to discuss the purpose of his call. “Mr. Fuller, I’ll be frank with you,” he said, leaning forward as Fuller settled into a tufted chair. “This isn’t a social visit.”

Fuller snorted. “No, I didn’t think it was, son. I’m guessing you’re here to discuss the Central timber contract, am I right?”

Adam nodded. “That contract should have gone to the Ponderosa. My father was called away for an emergency and was unable to sign the papers.”

“And so it defaulted to me, the next highest bidder,” Fuller said. “Fair and square, boy. Are you asking me to turn it back over to your father?”

Adam sighed heavily, “All I’m trying to say is…”

“Your father send you here, boy?”

Adam drew back indignantly. “My father knows nothing about this,” he snapped. “I just want to…” He sighed, gathering his thoughts. “Listen, I know you won the contract legally,” he continued. “I’m not disputing that. It’s just…I’m just trying to appeal to your compassionate side. Little Joe just up and disappeared, and no one knew what had happened to him. My pa had to do what any father on earth would do, and that was to leave in order to join in the search. And then when we found Joe, my pa couldn’t just turn around and head back to Sacramento. Joe had an accident, and for a while we weren’t even sure he was going to pull through.

“And so you’re asking me to surrender a perfectly legal contract because of what happened to your brother? Listen Cartwright, I’m a businessman, and…”

“All I’m asking…” Adam paused, collecting his breath. “All I’m saying, Mr. Fuller, is that all of this happened because of a terrible accident. There was nothing anyone could have done about it. Now I know you don’t have any children of your own, Mr. Fuller, so I don’t expect you to fully understand, but please try. My little brother was badly hurt, and my pa needed to be with him.”

Fuller’s response was to get up and walk over to the walnut buffet to pour himself a brandy. He held up the crystal decanter, offering the same to his guest, and shrugged when Adam shook his head.

“That was a couple weeks ago when that happened, wasn’t it?” Fuller asked, swirling the dark liquid in his glass before downing it in a single swallow. “Around the time of that big storm?”

“Yes,” Adam replied, curious. “Yes, it was. Why do you ask?”

“Then that must have been the day I saw your brother over in the Silver Dollar,” Fuller said, staring into his empty glass. He gave a hard laugh. “Kid got himself so drunk he could barely walk.”  He set the glass back on the buffet. “That, uh, didn’t have anything to do with his little accident, did it?”

When Adam didn’t reply, Fuller turned around to look at him. “Did it?” he repeated.

Adam was staring back at him, stunned.

“Cartwright?” Fuller straightened as understanding dawned. “Oh. Well, I thought you knew about that. I thought everyone did. It appears I was mistaken.”

“Mr. Fuller, I…” Adam stammered.

Fuller held up his hand to interrupt him. “It appears that your perspective on this little situation may have changed since you came barging in here, hasn’t it, Cartwright?” he said. “Your brother’s unfortunate injuries seem to be his own fault, don’t they? I just wonder what kind of sons Ben Cartwright has raised if they can’t even take responsibility for their own actions?”

Adam shot to his feet, suddenly furious. “Mr. Fuller, if that’s meant to be some kind of backhanded insult to my brother, I’ll have you know…”

“Oh, settle down, son,” Fuller said impatiently, “Settle down. I’m not trying to insult anybody. But I’ll tell you one thing, boy. I’m not about to give up this contract for you or your pa, and least of all for some stupid kid who didn’t have sense enough to hold his liquor. Now, get the hell out of my house, Cartwright.”

And Fuller left the room without a backward glance.

*****

Joe awakened suddenly at the sound of his door slamming against the wall as it was forcefully thrust open. He jerked his head to see Adam stalking toward him. Older brother was mad….no, furious….and Joe seemed to be the apparent cause of it.

“Tell me he was lying, Joe!”

“Who?” Joe said blearily, rubbing the sleep from his eyes and pushing himself up to sit. “Who was lying?”

“That snake, Barney Fuller!” Adam snapped, his voice low and angry. “Tell me he was lying when he said you were drunk the day you disappeared!”

“Adam, I…”

Adam yanked Joe up by the collar and nearly lifted him off the bed. “Tell me!”

Joe gaped at his brother, desperately trying to figure out why his brother was so upset. Did he say drunk? Had he been…

“Do you know what you’ve done, little brother? Do you even have a clue?”

Joe continued to stare back open-mouthed, a myriad of emotions crossing his face. Adam released him abruptly with a disgusted snarl, and Joe nearly fell off the bed.

“Of course, that’s what happened!” Adam said, pacing along the window. “It all makes sense now. Why else would you have done such a fool thing as ride along that ravine? We wondered about it, wondered how you happened to be up there to begin with, but you were so…” He paused to rub his eyes. “Barney Fuller said he saw you drinking whiskey in the Silver Dollar that day. Said you were so drunk you could hardly stand up. Was he telling the truth, Joe?”

“Joe? Was he?”

Joe had hung his head and was covering his face with his hands. The Silver Dollar. Whiskey. Oh yeah, he remembered it alright. Quite a lot of whiskey, as he could recall. He had been mad, really, really mad for some reason. Mad at Adam and Hoss and….Maggie? Had he been mad at Maggie too? He wondered why. And then his horse was gone, and it was raining and he forgot his slicker and he just wanted to be back home and then he was so cold and it hurt so bad and…

“I guess he was, Adam,” Joe replied softly. “I guess Fuller was telling the truth.”

At Joe’s admission, Adam turned abruptly toward the window, and Joe saw Adam’s hands turn to fists. He wondered vaguely if his brother was going to hit him. “I’m sorry, Adam. I didn’t mean…”

“Damn it, Joe….do you have any idea what Pa is going through right now because of your stupidity?”

Joe sighed. “Well, I guess the contract got delayed, huh? I’ll make it up to him. I can…”

Adam jerked his head around to glare at his brother. “There is no contract, Joe. We lost it. We lost it because of you. It defaulted to Fuller the day after we found you.”

Joe straightened up in bed, alarmed. “What do you mean? Pa was getting ready to sign the papers!”

“Pa couldn’t sign the papers because he had to rush home to help find you!” Adam snapped. “No one knew where you were, Joe. And now we come to find out that you got yourself so drunk that you stupidly tried to take a dangerous shortcut home in the middle of a thunderstorm and your horse stumbled. Is that pretty much how it happened, Joe?”

Joe hung his head and closed his eyes as the memory of the dreadful event came rushing back. He nodded almost imperceptibly.

“Adam?” Joe said fearfully. “Does Pa know?”

Adam waited a long moment before answering. “No. And I don’t intend to tell him either. He’s got his hands full trying to hold on to the ranch.”

“What do you mean by that?”

Adam moved toward the door. “Never mind. Pa said he doesn’t want to worry you with it.”

“Adam, wait!” Joe pleaded. “Wait! Tell me what you mean by that!”

“Sleep well, little brother.”

Adam left the room and closed the door behind him.

*****

Joe had been asleep for less than an hour before he returned to full wakefulness in the darkness of his room. Even the sleeping powders that his pa had insisted that he take could not suppress the troubled thoughts that inexorably forced him back into awareness. He threw back the heap of quilts that his anxious pa had piled on; suddenly feeling stifled beneath their weight, and sat up in bed, rubbing his eyes.

“It’s not your fault, Joe.”

His pa’s voice resounded over and over in his head, yet Joe remained unconvinced. He knew better.

“No one could have known this was going to happen, son.”

Pa had gently grasped and lifted Joe’s chin when he said it, looking him straight in the eye; willing him to believe it.

“The most important thing is that you’re going to be alright.”

Joe sighed, the breathy sound of it breaking the quiet stillness of the room. Everyone else had taken to their own beds by now, having made sure that their helpless injured member had been sufficiently attended, his dressings secured, his pillow fluffed, and his door opened just wide enough for Pa to hear should he call out in the night.

The doctor had said he would be able to get out of bed tomorrow; maybe even come downstairs — so long as he didn’t overdo it. Doc Martin had cast a meaningful glance at Joe’s family when he had mentioned this, warning them without saying outright to keep an extra close watch over the boy.

Not that they needed reminding, Joe thought wryly. Pa had already been watching him like a hawk all day, frowning at his son’s obvious preoccupation. Is something wrong, Little Joe? Are you in pain? Are you hungry? Thirsty? Cold? Tired?

Yeah, something was wrong, alright.

But it wasn’t a kind of wrong that could be fixed with a nice dose of laudanum or a glass of water or an extra blanket or two. This wrong went far beyond physical discomfort.

Because it had been Joe’s fault.

Adam’s outburst the day before had done nothing more than confirm it. And it had also succeeded in arousing his curiosity. Joe managed to get himself out of bed that evening and he stood quietly just outside of his room, listening. He could hear his pa and brothers talking somberly at dinner. He hadn’t heard everything they said, but he’d heard enough. Bits and pieces of the conversation; phrases like default on the loan and able to keep the house and don’t have the assets. Most revealing of all, though, were the words don’t want either of you telling him either; the boy feels guilty enough as it is.

The situation was as bad as it could possibly have been. Joe wondered if his father would even be able to look at him if he knew the truth.

He laid in bed staring at the ceiling for hours, until the rosy shades of dawn began to peek over the horizon. He got out of bed and reached for his clothes. The family would be up and about soon, and he’d miss his chance. It was time.

Time to make things right.

*****

Joe was dragged stumbling to the house and shoved through the door so forcefully that he landed in an undignified heap on the marble floor.

“Mr. Fuller!” His captor called out. “Caught someone trespassing down by the camp!”

Joe cursed himself again for ending up in this fix. Things were definitely not going as planned. He didn’t know what foolish impulse had led him bypass Fuller’s house and ride straight over to the timber operation on the western boundary of the Fuller ranch. Maybe he had just wanted to see for himself. He probably would have slipped away unnoticed if a sudden coughing spell hadn’t gone and given away his hiding spot. Fuller’s foreman had come up from behind and nudged him with a very ominous looking shotgun. The burly man hadn’t believed Joe when he’d said he meant no harm, and before Joe could protest further, his hands were jerked behind him and tied and he was tossed roughly into the bed of a wagon so he could be taken to see “the boss”. Joe assumed that meant Fuller himself, whom he’d come to see in the first place, although the circumstances were a bit different than he’d planned. Not likely that Fuller would take him very seriously trussed up as he was.

After several long, humiliating minutes, Barney Fuller descended the winding staircase.

“Bit early in the day for trespassing, ain’t it?” Fuller said irritably as he stepped over to stand in front of Joe. He reached down and grasped Joe’s chin and jerked his head up. “Well, I’ll be. It’s another one of them Cartwrights,” he said with a disgusted snort. “Two days in a row. How did I get so lucky?”

He dismissed Joe with an idle wave of his hand. “Untie him, Jake. He ain’t no threat.”

“But Mr. Fuller! We found him sneaking around out by the lumber camp. Probably lookin’ to sabotage…”

“Sabotage?” Barney laughed derisively. “He ain’t about to do nothing like that. He’s just an idiot kid.”

“I’m not a…” Joe began, and then stopped. What was the use? At least Fuller had the idiot part right.

The foreman bent down and grudgingly untied him, and Joe rubbed his chafed wrists.

“Thanks,” he murmured.

Fuller cocked his head and stared piercingly at Joe. “You’re the youngest, right?” he asked. “Joe, ain’t it?”

“You know you got the devil’s own luck, boy?” Fuller continued at Joe’s nod. “Ain’t nothing Jake here likes to do more than shoot trespassers. You better hope and pray he don’t change his mind.”

Fuller turned and walked away and Joe quickly rose to his feet and stumbled after him.

“Mr. Fuller – wait! Please – I just wanted to talk to you about…”

“Save your breath, boy. I already know why you’re here.”

“But, please….I only want to…”

Barney Fuller stopped and turned around so quickly that Joe nearly ran into him. “You’re here about the lumber contract, am I right, boy? You Cartwrights sure don’t give up easy, do you?”

“Yes, sir….I mean, no, sir.”

Fuller regarded him for a long moment as he placed a cigar between his teeth and lit it. He inhaled deeply and deliberately blew a stream of smoke into Joe’s face, and Joe had to force himself not to cough from the heavy fumes. He couldn’t think of anything more unpleasant than smoking cigars. Except drinking whiskey, maybe.

“I’m assuming your pa doesn’t know you’re here?”

“No, sir,” Joe stammered. “I came because….well, you see….it’s my fault that he lost the contract, Mr. Fuller. All my fault.”

“Yes,” Fuller replied. “So I’ve heard. It came as quite a shock to your brother Adam yesterday. The boy came here and made a blasted fool out of himself, just like you’re doing now.”

“But Mr. Fuller, if you’d just listen…”

“No!” Fuller’s hand jerked up then and he was pointing a meaty finger in Joe’s face. “No. You listen, boy. Now your pa’s a fine man. Done well for himself, hasn’t he? Got himself a nice spread, and three fine boys, too. It’s a damned shame that he lost the contract. But business is business, boy. Now I’ve got work to do.”

Fuller jerked his head at his foreman, and before Joe even realized what was happening, he was dragged away and shoved through the door, to land face down in the yard. He heard the unmistakable scraping sound of the latch sliding into place behind him.

Joe rose shakily to his feet and wiped the dust from his pants.

So much for making things right.

*****

Adam descended the stairs that morning to discover his father standing near the door, struggling to fasten his gunbelt. He glanced up at the sound of his son’s approach, and the look of stark fear on his face took Adam’s breath away.

“He’s gone, Adam, gone.” Pa said frantically.

“Joe?” Adam said, though he already knew.

Pa nodded. “I got up to check on him this morning, and he’s just…gone. Cochise is missing, too. Dear God, what was that boy thinking? He’s in no condition to…” He paused to take a deep breath. “Hoss is getting the horses ready now.”

“Any idea where he might have gone, Pa? Did he say something last night?”

“No. Not at all,” Pa replied. “Just some nonsense about how sorry he was for getting hurt. As if he’d gone and done it on purpose. I tried to tell him that it was just an accident but he….Adam? You didn’t say anything to him, did you?”

“Adam?”

“I know where he is, Pa,” he said quietly.

*****

Joe could feel the wheeze starting up in his chest as he struggled to mount his horse. At least the foreman had been courteous enough to bring his pinto along for his disastrous visit with “the boss”. Joe didn’t think he had the strength to wander off looking for him.

He managed to swing himself up into the saddle, but he didn’t immediately depart. Joe sat for a few long moments, wondering what in the world he was going to do next. Probably would do no good to barge up to Fuller’s door and try to plead his case again. He’d likely end up getting that scary-looking shotgun shoved in his belly by that trigger-happy Jake.

He was in no hurry to go home, either. Sneaking back into the house would be impossible by now; everyone was probably already up and awake and wondering where he was. Pa was probably beside himself. He’d most likely be standing outside waiting for him as he rode into the yard, with that you’re in big trouble look on his face and demand to know where he’d been. Thing is, Joe couldn’t even come up with a plausible story to tell him.

He sighed as he reluctantly kicked his horse into motion. Might as well get it over with.

Joe was barely out of sight of the house when all hell broke loose. Panicked shouting and screaming, the high-pitched clanging of a bell, men running in all directions through the yard. It was disturbingly familiar, and Joe immediately knew what all the noise and chaos meant.

Fire.

He looked around wildly, and saw the telltale smoke rising in the east. Joe knew that with the high winds it would only be a matter of time before the fire spread and overtook the house and outbuildings and made its way toward……the Fuller timber operations. If that were to happen, then…

The brief, hopeful thought disappeared as quickly as it had appeared. Joe knew what he had to do. He jerked his horse around and headed back toward the Fuller house at a full gallop.

*****

The morning dawned clear and bright as the three Cartwrights made their way toward the Fuller ranch, north of Virginia City. Adam noted ironically how different it was from the last time they had been out searching for Little Joe. Of course, this time there had been no need to follow any tracks; Adam already knew where he was. Adam offered no reason as to how he happened to know this, and thankfully Pa had been too worried to ask. But as they continued their journey, he could tell Pa was starting to wonder.

Adam kicked his horse and pulled slightly ahead of Pa and Hoss, so he couldn’t be forced into an awkward conversation. He didn’t think he’d be able to explain himself even if he tried.

Adam had known immediately where his little brother had taken off to this morning. Heck, if he were to be completely honest with himself, he’d probably known last night what was going to happen. Just couldn’t let it go, could you? he berated himself. Had to take that knife and drive it in and then give it an extra twist for good measure, didn’t you? Wasn’t it bad enough that he ran off in the first place because of you?

“Adam?” Pa’s voice could barely be heard on the wind. Adam pretended that he hadn’t heard.

“Adam?” called Pa, louder this time.

They had just crested the hill that would lead down to the valley where the Fuller ranch was located. It looked much the same as it did when Adam had paid his disastrous visit the day before. To the west lay the Fuller timber operations and to the east…

“Adam, look!” Hoss this time, but Adam had already seen the stream of dark smoke and the orange flames licking beneath it. Fire! A ghost of a thought crossed his mind, but he abandoned it immediately. Joe would never…

Joe.

If there was one thing he knew for certain about his little brother, it was that if there was ever trouble to be found, Joe would be right there in the thick of it. And there were few things on any ranch that spelled more trouble than fire.

“Pa? Do you think…” he began, but his pa and brother had already spurred their mounts and were racing headlong toward the Fuller ranch. They knew Joe too.

*****

“Joe?”

Ben swore he saw the boy’s eyelids flutter, and tried to rouse him again. He’d been asleep for nearly two hours and Ben was starting to worry, despite the doctor reassuring him that he was fine. “Come on now, son. Open your eyes,” he coaxed, gently patting Joe’s face.

Ben didn’t think he’d ever be able to forget the sight of his youngest son being dragged from the woods into that smoke-filled clearing. Joe was laid on the ground in a grassy area and he looked so still and lifeless that for a horrific moment Ben thought his son was already dead. Ben had leapt from his horse and raced to his son’s side and panicked when he realized that the boy wasn’t breathing. Adam had pushed ahead of his father and threw himself to the ground beside his brother. He lifted him up by his shoulders and began slapping him hard on the back.

“Come on, Little Joe,” he had pleaded urgently with each blow. “Breathe, damn it! Breathe!”

For a long, tense moment it had looked as if Adam’s efforts would be in vain, and then suddenly Joe erupted into a fit of violent coughing. As he quieted and his breathing became steady and regular, he slipped back into unconscious and slumped against his brother’s chest. Adam had gently relinquished his brother to his father’s care and had stepped away, his hand covering his eyes.

Joe’s eyes opened at his father’s urging, and he gifted his father with a sleepy smile. “Hey, Pa.”

“Hey yourself, son.” Ben replied, smiling. “How do you feel?”

“Tired,” said Joe. “Pa, there was a fire…”

“I know. It’s out now. What did you think you were doing out there?”

“Had to…..had to….” Joe said, his voice starting to fade. “There was a fire…”

“Joe?”

Ben gently stroked his son’s cheek as the boy drifted back to sleep. He turned his head when he heard the door open and Fuller stepped into the room.

“Cartwright?” Fuller stood just inside the door. “Could I have a word?”

Ben glared at the man but did not respond.

“Please,” Fuller added.

Ben looked up expectantly at the doctor, who nodded.

Ben rose to his feet and followed Fuller from the room. He noted with a grim satisfaction the reddened welts that marked Fuller’s neck. Hoss had shot up and had nearly strangled the man earlier when he discovered the rope burns encircling his little brother’s wrists.

Since his arrival, Ben hadn’t had much to say to the man other than a grumbled “thanks” when Fuller had insisted that Joe be brought to his house to wait for the doctor. Ben knew that he’d had no right to hold any sort of grudge against Fuller because of the circumstances, but he’d be damned if he was going to be friends with him. He also didn’t know if Fuller bore any responsibility for the present situation with Joe. But if he did…..

“I wanted to talk to you, Cartwright,” said Fuller as he approached his desk. He sat in his chair and gestured for Ben to sit as well. “About the contract.”

“I don’t see that there’s anything to discuss,” Ben replied, trying to keep the bitterness out of his voice. “The contract is yours now. You’ve won it fair and square and I…”

“How’s the boy?” Fuller interrupted, and Ben was briefly startled at the change in subject.

“The doctor says he should be fine,” said Ben. “He says we can take him home in a little while. I’ll be sending Hoss home shortly to get the buckboard.”

“That’s ridiculous, Cartwright. You can use one of mine.”

Ben shook his head. “I wouldn’t want to impose…”

“Impose? Impose?” Fuller laughed. “Cartwright, that damned pride of yours is going to choke you one of these days. Now, not another word about it. I’ll have one of the hands hitch it up.”

“Thanks,” Ben said quietly. “I appreciate the offer.”

“Cartwright. . . Ben. . .it’s the least I can do. Turns out I owe ya.”

“What do you mean?”

Fuller jerked his thumb toward the bedroom. “Your boy in there. Kid charged in there like he was hellbent on putting that fire out by himself. Damn near did, too. Never seen anything like it.”

Ben smiled. “Sounds like him. That boy never does anything halfway.”

“I’m sorry about….well, you know….sorry that he had to get hurt like that, Ben.”

“The boy was sick, Fuller. He shouldn’t have even been out of bed,” said Ben. “It’s a miracle that he even survived.”

“Ben,” Fuller asked tentatively. “Do you know why he came here?”

Ben sighed. “You don’t have to tell me, Fuller. I know my son. I’m pretty sure I know why.”

Fuller opened a drawer and withdrew a stack of papers. “Well, that’s what I wanted to talk to you about, Ben. Your boy in there got me to doing some hard thinking…”

“Thinking?”

Fuller nodded. “I would’ve thought any of you Cartwrights would have been thrilled to see my ranch burn to the ground. He didn’t have to do what he did,” he said. “That’s quite a boy you got there, Cartwright.”

“Yes,” Ben replied. “I know.”

“Good. Then you’ll have to mention that to him when you’re thanking him later.”

*****

There was a sharp rap at the door, and Joe looked up expectantly as it opened. Adam peeked his head around the door. “Joe? You awake?”

“I am now,” Joe grumbled, smiling.

“Well, you’re certainly looking a mite perkier than you were a little while ago,” Adam said, stepping into the room and sitting on the bed. “How do you feel?”

“Better than I was,” Joe replied. “You still have to do my chores, though.”

“Boy, you’ll do just about anything to get out of…” Adam stopped abruptly. “Joe, I didn’t mean…”

“I know, Adam.”

“So I guess you’ve heard?”

“Yeah,” Joe said. “Fuller offered the timber contract back to Pa. The whole thing, too. Don’t know why Pa didn’t just take it and run. Fuller never deserved it to begin with.”

“Well, you know Pa. He said a partnership would be best all around. It’s not what we originally had, but at least we’ll be able to keep the ranch and pay down those loans.”

Joe remained quiet, and there was a long, uncomfortable silence between the brothers. Adam stood and stepped to the window. Joe could see his brother’s troubled reflection in the glass.

“Joe, the reason I came in here was to….I’m not really sure how to….”

“It’s okay, Adam.” Joe was taken aback at how nervous his brother seemed.

“What I’m trying to say, Joe….is that I’m sorry. Sorry for hitting you like I did, and speaking to you the way I did, and….well, just sorry for a lot of things lately.”

“Adam, this isn’t necessary…”

“But I shouldn’t have…”

“You’re not to blame for everything that happened that day, Adam,” Joe said softly. “Seems I did a few stupid things myself.”

“Joe, we all make mistakes.”

“Now you sound like Pa.”

Adam turned and grinned. “I guess that’s not such a bad thing, is it?”

Joe smiled back. “No, I guess not.” He turned suddenly serious. “Adam? Is Pa still out there?”

“Yeah. He’s still talking to Mr. Fuller.”

“I want you to tell him to come in, Adam.” said Joe. “I need to tell him about…….what really happened. About….well, you know.”

“Joe, you don’t have to do this,” Adam argued. “Everything’s settled with Fuller, and the ranch is safe. Everything’s fine.”

“No, Adam. It’s not fine. It’s the right thing to do.”

“Little Joe, Pa’s not gonna like it. I hope you know what you’re getting yourself into.”

“I know,” Joe agreed. “I’ll probably end up confined to the ranch till the end of the year. But sometimes you just have to accept the consequences of things, right?”

There was a long pause as Adam considered his brother, a funny look on his face. “Yeah. I guess you’re right about that, Little Joe.” He turned towards the door. “I’ll send him in then. And Joe?”

“Yeah?”

“Good luck, okay?”

“Thanks.”

**********

Joe reached for the bottle and stared at it for a brief moment before lifting it to his nose. He felt his stomach churn as he caught the strong, familiar scent of the amber liquid. This is stupid, he thought. Just pour the damned stuff.

He caught up the glass in his other hand and filled it to the brim, noting how much easier it was to accomplish the task when his hand wasn’t shaking.

“Here you go,” he said, setting the glass down in front of Adam.

“Thanks,” Adam said. “Aren’t you going to have any?” he asked, though his amused look indicated that he knew Joe’s answer.

Joe managed a weak grin. It was still hard for him to think about what the deadly combination of firewater and his own stupid choices had nearly cost him and his family, but he was back here in the Silver Dollar now; the townsfolk had moved on to other, more titillating subjects to gossip about, and the future of the Ponderosa looked brighter than ever. But most of all, his family had forgiven him. Joe knew that in spite of it all, he had a lot to be thankful for.

“Maybe some other time,” he said.

Adam shrugged. “Alright, but you know what Hoss always says. Ain’t nothing like a little firewater…”

“…to make a man outta ya,” Joe finished. He deliberately slid the bottle away from him. “Don’t think I’m quite ready yet, older brother.”

Adam considered Joe for a long, thoughtful moment. “Too late for that, younger brother,” he said simply. He took one last swallow of his whiskey and set the empty glass on the table. “Let’s go home.”

Tom the barkeep barely spared the two brothers a glance as they headed for the door.

The Cartwrights would be back.

***The End***

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