Suffer the Children (by Lisa M.)

Summary:
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  10,898


 

Suffer the little children and forbid them not to come unto me, for of such is the kingdom of heaven — Matthew 19:14

 

It had seemed like such a good idea at the time. Clever, in fact. Maybe even something that his older brother Adam would have thought up.

But in hindsight, maybe it wasn’t.

Of course, there hadn’t been a lot of time to think things through. He could have just told the stranger that he didn’t know where Susan Kelly lived, didn’t even know anyone by that name. She has a son named Greg, you say? No, never heard of him neither. Sorry, but I can’t help ya, mister. Hope you find her, though. And then the man would have been on his way, continuing onward toward Virginia City.

But then he would have just asked the next person he ran into. And that person might well be someone who did know Susan Kelly. Someone who might even know where she lived. Someone who wouldn’t have given a second thought about giving a friendly stranger answers and directions.

Someone who had no idea who the stranger was and what he had done.

But Joe knew who he was. Joe would have recognized him even before the man introduced himself as Jeffrey Kelly. Tall and thin, with dark blue eyes, he looked like a grown-up version of Greg himself. To an innocent observer he would likely have appeared amiable and polite — a friendly stranger stopping to chat on his way to town.

And yet, there was something else about the man, something insidious and disturbing that immediately set Joe’s nerves on edge.

But then again, Joe knew what the man had done, even if Hoss and Adam didn’t. If only Pa were there. He would have known what to do.

Joe and Hoss had been clearing brush near the ranch boundary for a future fence. It was hot, backbreaking work, and the brothers were tired and hungry and looking forward to Hop Sing’s famous fried chicken for dinner that evening, playfully teasing each other over who would get the largest portion. They didn’t notice the stranger’s approach until he was nearly upon them.

“Pardon me,” he had said amiably, reining in his dappled gray stallion. “But I’m a stranger in these parts and I need some help.” His eyes passed over the two brothers and settled on Hoss, as he appeared to be the older of the two. “I’m looking for my wife and son. I’ve been away in the army and I’m told they may be living nearby. I, uh, was kinda hoping to surprise them with a visit. Her name’s Susan Kelly and…”

Hoss grinned back. “Susan Kelly? Why, sure…..she…”

“I know where she lives,” Joe interrupted, abruptly stepping in front of his brother. “It’s not far away, but it’s kinda hard to get to. I can show you, though. I got my horse right over there.”

The stranger glanced down at the boy. “Much obliged, kid. I’ll even pay you for your time. I’m really anxious to see my family.”

Hoss was blinking at Joe in surprise. “You know where she lives, Joe?”

Joe turned his head and glanced back at his brother. “Yeah. The old Miller homestead, Hoss. That’s where she lives.

“The Miller homestead? But that’s…”

“That’s where she lives, Hoss. You know my friend Greg, from school. I’m going to show Mr. Kelly where they live.”

“Joe?”

Joe walked over to where Cochise was tethered and mounted the pinto. He bit his lip and looked down at Hoss, trying to catch his eye. Pay attention, brother. Pay attention, now. “Hoss, tell Pa…..tell Pa that I won’t be home for supper, will ya? I’m not all that hungry anyway — and you know I can’t stand fried chicken. You be sure to tell Pa to save me some coffee, though, you hear? I’m really wanting some coffee.”

But Hoss didn’t seem to understand — just looked back up at his brother, clearly baffled.

As Joe left with the stranger, he chanced a look back at Hoss, who was still standing on the side of the road, hands on his hips. Joe didn’t have to see his face to know that his brother was both irritated and confused by his little brother’s actions. Think, Hoss. Get Pa, Hoss. Get the sheriff.

And hurry.

*****

Greg had been attending the school in Virginia City for a little over a month. He was thirteen, almost two years younger than Joe. He was slight and shy, qualities that were unfortunately not very helpful when you’re the new kid. Course, the wrinkled pink scars that marked the right side of his face were a bit of a detriment as well.

Pa had always taught Joe to be nice to the other kids, especially the ones who didn’t seem to have a lot of friends. Pa was always spouting that stuff about the Golden Rule and whatnot. The Cartwrights had first met Greg and his mother at church one Sunday just that spring. After the services, Pa dragged Joe along and made a beeline to the two new members. Always important to introduce yourself and make newcomers feel at home; it’s the Christian thing to do, Pa said. Joe made a point of turning his head and rolling his eyes at Mitch and Seth, who were sniggering up a storm on the church steps. They had noticed the boy with the ugly scars around town and had already been gossiping about it. Joe never joined in on the talk, of course, but he still needed to save face with his buddies.

Pa had to nudge him, and Joe grudgingly mumbled a greeting, holding out his hand to the other boy. Greg hesitated, but shook Joe’s hand, barely raising his head and averting his eyes. He seems scared, Joe thought at the time. Why should he be scared of me? The scars were even more menacing and cruel-looking up close, and Joe wondered vaguely how Greg had gotten them.

“It was an accident.”

Joe started at Greg’s voice, realizing only then that he had been staring stupidly at the boy’s face.

“An accident,” Greg repeated, sounding almost defiant. “A lamp broke, and there was a fire. It was just an accident.”

“Sorry,” Joe mumbled, embarrassed. He felt kinda dumb apologizing, but what was he supposed to say? Nice scars?

Thankfully, Pa intervened at that point. “Well, Joe, looks like young Greg here will be going to school with you tomorrow. Maybe you can introduce him to some of your friends.”

“Sure, Pa.” Joe responded, forcing a grin on his face. Sure, Pa. Won’t the guys love that. Hey gang, this is Greg, my new maimed best friend. Check out his face.

Joe’s grin vanished at the direction of his thoughts. That was mean; mean to even think like that. Pa would be appalled. Geez, he was getting just as bad as his friends. Joe forced the unpleasant contemplations from his mind, and smiled again, sincerely this time. “I guess I’ll see you in school, then.”

“Yeah, I guess so.” Greg replied, smiling back.

*****

“Sorry,” Joe said to the stranger, reining in Cochise. “I gotta stop for a second. I think my horse has picked up a stone or something.” He dismounted and gingerly bent up his pinto’s foreleg, pretending to study the shoe for a wedged pebble, but casting surreptitious glances on the road behind them. What was taking so long? Come on, Hoss.

“Not a problem, kid,” Kelly replied, though he was clearly impatient. That was okay, though. Impatient was okay. Suspicious would be a different thing entirely.

After a minute or so of careful investigation, Joe pretended to pull out something from alongside the quick and toss it aside. He remounted. “Okay, ready,” he said. “Sorry ‘bout that.”

The two continued onward toward the Miller homestead; Joe hoping that Kelly didn’t notice the way he kept sneaking glances behind him. He tried not to, tried to appear friendly and casual, but he could feel himself growing more nervous by the minute. Boy, was this ever a bad idea. What was he thinking?

Where was Pa?

Hoss should have caught on right away that something was not right. His older brother was much more intuitive than a lot of people would have suspected. Hoss knew that the Miller homestead had been abandoned years before, and the only structures that remained on the property were a dilapidated barn and nearly collapsed privy. No one could possibly be living there other than a few rats.

And the coffee comment? Well, it was a dumb clue, but Hoss should have latched on to that one, too. Pa had stopped letting Joe have coffee with them after dinner because Joe couldn’t sleep afterwards. Sheriff Coffee, Hoss. Get the sheriff.

Joe kept up an awkward conversation with the man; answering his questions; trying not to appear nervous. My name? Oh, it’s, um, Joe. Joe Cartwright. Um, yeah, the Ponderosa Cartwrights. Greg? Oh, yes, Greg’s one of my friends from school. No, he hasn’t told me anything about you. I guess, uh, I guess he’ll be pretty surprised to see you, huh?

To Joe’s relief, the man quit trying to make small talk after a few minutes, instead turning his concentration on the road ahead.

“How much farther to this place, kid?”

Joe swallowed. “Not too much. A couple miles, maybe.”

Joe glanced sideways at the stranger traveling alongside. He looked mean even in profile. Joe couldn’t even fathom what he would do if Kelly caught on to what he was up to.

After several more minutes at the brisk pace the man had insisted upon, and still no sign of anyone following, Joe knew he would have to stall again. The Miller homestead was only minutes away. Kelly was sure to figure out that something was going on, but Joe reluctantly slowed Cochise again.

“What now?” Kelly muttered, not bothering to hide his irritation this time.

Joe fumbled; he was never good at lying. “Um, I just gotta check my horse again….still something in that shoe, I think. Should only take a second.”

He dismounted, taking his time to examine the pinto again. He glanced in the distance and saw the flying dust of an approaching rider and nearly went limp with relief. Pa. Thank God.

As he lowered Cochise’s leg to the ground, Joe heard an ominous click as the barrel of Kelly’s gun was suddenly pressed hard to the back of his head. He felt the man’s breath, harsh and angry in his ear.

“Alright, Cartwright. What the hell is going on?”

*****

“I like your horse.”

Greg had followed him out the door after school. He had been following him around almost all week. Joe had made the mistake of telling Mitch and Seth to knock off teasing the kid and now Joe was stuck with a new best friend.

Be nice to him, Joe. He doesn’t have a lot of friends, Joe. He’s new, Joe. Help him out, Joe. His Pa’s voice in his head was starting to give him a constant headache.

So he was nice to him. He helped him out. He tried to be friendly. And now he had a kid hanging on his every word like some lovesick pup and a group of highly amused buddies who took every opportunity to tease him about it.

“What’s his name?”

Joe’s head snapped up as he adjusted the pinto’s cinch. “Oh, uh…it’s Cochise. I got him for my birthday last year.”

“I used to have a horse.”

“Really?” Joe replied, absently. He really didn’t want to hear about the kid’s horse, but tried to be polite anyway. He impatiently shoved his books into his saddlebags and tried to ignore Mitch and Seth making faces from the doorway. He was glad that Greg’s back was to them so he wouldn’t have to be put in the position of having to defend the kid again. It was getting to be a burden.

“Yeah, a sorrel. Real pretty, too. I don’t have him anymore, though. Ma and I had to leave him behind when we…” Greg stopped suddenly and bit his lip. “Well, I don’t have him anymore.”

Joe paused, his attention caught by the sudden sadness in Greg’s voice. “Um, that’s too bad about your horse. Maybe….maybe you can ride Cooch some time.”

Greg brightened. “You mean it? Thanks, Joe.”

Joe mounted and threw an irritated glare in his friends’ direction. Didn’t those two have anything better to do? He glanced down at Greg who was stroking the pinto’s neck and still grinning happily at the thought of riding him. Thankfully Greg still hadn’t noticed the two idiots teasing him from the schoolhouse.

“Maybe you can come over sometime,” Joe said. “We can go fishing or something. I’ll ask my Pa.”

Greg’s face fell. “I don’t know, Joe….my Ma….my Ma doesn’t like for me to go too far. She’s just–well, I guess you know how Ma’s are sometimes.”

“Not really,” Joe replied. “My Ma died when I was little. But Pa’s can be like that, too. Believe me.”

Greg looked up at Joe, unexpectedly serious. “Can they? Not my Pa. My Pa….”

And before Joe could even blink, Greg was gone, running down the road toward the tiny house at the edge of town that he shared with his mother.

The snickering from the doorway turned into full-blown laughter at that point. “Where’d your little friend go, Cartwright? Where’d monster boy take off to?”

But Joe was too preoccupied to notice. All he could think about was the look that had crossed Greg’s face when he mentioned his father.

The look of raw fear.

*****

Kelly roughly grabbed his collar and jerked him around, thrusting the barrel of his gun into Joe’s chin. Joe glared back defiantly.

“What’s going on, boy? Who’s that coming? What did Greg tell you about me?”

Maybe it was bravado, knowing his father was only moments away. More likely it was his typical tendency to act first and think later.

Joe spit in his face.

“I know who you are! I know what you did to him! It was your fault that he’s scarred like that – your fault!” he yelled, and then immediately regretted his impulsive words at the man’s explosive reaction.

Kelly plowed his fist into Joe’s face.

Joe fell to the ground, blood spurting from his mouth and nose. As he unsteadily tried to get to his feet, Kelly’s boot connected with his chest and slammed him back down.

“Now listen here, Cartwright!” he hissed, leaning down toward the struggling boy. “I mean to get my boy back! I’ll find him, you can count on that! I’ll find him!” He grabbed Joe by the throat and yanked him forward. “But I’m gonna remember you, Cartwright.”

He backhanded Joe at that, and as the boy fell back, dazed, Kelly remounted and rode away.

******

It had taken some time and a lot of coaxing, but Greg was eventually allowed to visit Joe on the Ponderosa. Ben made arrangements with Greg’s mother to bring the boy to the ranch one Sunday after church services with the definite promise that he would be safely returned by nightfall.

But even with Greg’s assurances to his mother that all would be well, Joe noticed how pale and anxious the woman seemed as they drove away in the buckboard, how she was nervously wringing her hands even as she smiled and said goodbye to her son.

For his part, Greg was so excited he could hardly sit still, to the family’s amusement. His first request was to ride Cochise, which Joe agreed to.

He had known Greg now for almost a month, and things had become much more pleasant at school as the boy became used to the students and routine. The teasing had died down considerably, thanks in large part to Joe’s furious glares at anyone bold enough to make fun of his new friend.

For he had become a friend, to Joe’s surprise. Mitch and Seth and his other buddies were puzzled by it, but dared not mention it in Joe’s presence. Nearly all of them had been the unlucky recipient of Joe’s left hook at one time or other.

Joe didn’t know what to attribute their odd friendship to. They certainly didn’t have much in common, that was for sure. Joe’s exuberant and outgoing personality was a stark contrast to the shy and reserved Greg Kelly.

But it didn’t matter. When the two of them were together, they always seemed to have something to talk about. Except for the scars, of course. Greg never wanted to talk about the accident that caused them, and always seemed to grow quiet and even fearful when the subject was brought up. So Joe never mentioned the accident to Greg, though he remained deeply curious about it.

The boys were stretched out on the banks of the Truckee late that afternoon, unsuccessfully trying to snag a catfish or two for supper. It had been a full day of brisk activity for the two friends, and a comfortable silence had crept upon them with the lengthening of the shadows. The quiet was broken only by the occasional plop of a baited hook or the buzz of hovering insects about sunburned cheeks.

Greg stood up and pulled in his line to check the squirming bait, then skillfully recast it into the shimmering shallows.

“My Pa took me fishing once,” he said simply, unexpectedly breaking the silence.

Joe shaded his eyes and looked up at him curiously. It seemed like such an odd thing to say. “Just once?” he asked, wondering again about the elusive father that Greg never mentioned.

Greg nodded. “Yeah. That was a good day. He showed me how to bait my line and everything. I even caught three fish. We cleaned ’em and then Ma cooked them for dinner that night. They were real good.”

Greg sat back down in the grass, grasping his pole carefully. “Yeah. That was a good day,” he repeated softly, as if to himself.

Joe frowned in confusion, but didn’t respond. His Pa and brothers had taken him fishing more times than he could even count; he had contributed possibly hundreds of fish to Hop Sing’s pantry over the years. What was the big deal about going fishing one time?

The silence soon returned to fill the space around them, but this time there was a tension to it; something subtle and unspeakable. After several long minutes, Greg bit his lip and spoke again.

“It wasn’t an accident, Joe.” he said, so quietly that Joe almost didn’t hear him.

“What? What wasn’t an accident?” Joe asked, wondering what Greg was talking about.

Greg looked at him pointedly. He gestured to his scarred right cheek. “This.” he said, his voice stronger, more resolute. “It wasn’t an accident.”

Joe sat up and dropped his pole on the ground. “What do you mean? I thought you said that a lamp caught fire and…”

Greg nodded. “Oh, it was a lamp, alright. But it was my Pa, Joe. He threw it at me. He was hitting me — he used to hit me a lot, Joe. He was hollering real loud and hitting me and I fell down and I yelled something and that’s when he grabbed the lamp and smashed it down right next to me. It was like an explosion and there was fire and glass everywhere. I tried to get away from it but I still got burned, Joe. I got burned real bad.”

Greg’s voice had dropped to a whisper again; his eyes were wide and frightened as he relived the horrible memory of it. He looked up at Joe then; seemingly terrified of what his friend’s reaction would be.

Joe was staring at his friend, stunned. He was unable to comprehend the thought that a father could be so viciously hateful and violent to his own child and struggled to think of something to say.

“Wh…..When?” he stammered clumsily.

Greg put down his pole and brought his knees up to his chest and wrapped his arms around them, staring unseeingly into the distance.

“Just last year. And it’s not just my face, Joe….it’s the whole right side of my body…almost down to my knees. I was really sick after it happened. The doctor told my Ma that I might even die. But I got better, and now it doesn’t hurt so much. But that’s why me and my Ma left, Joe. She said….she said she didn’t want my Pa to hurt me anymore.”

He rested his face on his knees and closed his eyes. “It makes me sad. It makes my Ma sad, too. But it was really scary, Joe. And no one should ever be scared of their own Pa, should they?”

Not knowing how to respond, Joe quietly scooted over to sit beside his friend, and patted him on the back. “No,” he said softly. “No one should ever be scared of their own Pa.”

*****

Late that night, long after Greg had returned home, Joe lay awake in his bed, contemplating the terrible secret his friend had shared with him. After what seemed like hours of fruitless tossing and turning, he gave up, and sat on the side of his bed to light the lamp.

The flame flared high for a brief moment before he turned it down to cast the room in a gentle glow. He sat for a time studying the lamp, touching it lightly, feeling the soft warmth emanating from it. It was just a kerosene lamp — such a simple, innocuous thing — something he had never given much thought to beyond its intended purpose. He had never before considered how devastating something so benign could be when held in cruel, angry hands.

He knew he should blow it out and go to sleep, but for some reason, the dim light was reassuring. Confusing and frightening thoughts continued to cloud his mind, and he knew that sleep would be a long time coming that night.

“Joe?”

Joe looked up as his father quietly opened the door. The light spilling from beneath it had alerted him that his son was still awake.

“Can’t sleep, son?” Ben asked softly. “Is everything okay?”

Joe looked at the lamp and didn’t answer.

Ben stepped over and sat next to him. He knew that his youngest son had been deeply troubled all evening. The boy had picked at his dinner, eating little, and played checkers with Hoss without his usual enthusiasm. Joe had surprised them all by excusing himself early to go to bed. And now his son was sitting up, wide awake when he should be sleeping.

“Is this about Greg, son?”

Joe turned his head and stared at his father. “Greg?”

“Yes, Greg. He talked to you, didn’t he? He told you about his father?”

Joe blinked in surprise. “You knew?”

Ben nodded. “Mrs. Kelly told me about it. She knew you would be wondering about…..about how he got hurt. I told her that Greg would talk to you about it when the time was right. Joe, the boy must consider you a very good friend; it had to be a difficult thing for him to share with you.”

Joe turned his face away, focusing again on the flickering lamp. “Pa?” he said. He hesitated, as if searching for the right words. “I’m not sure that I…..I almost wish he hadn’t told me, Pa. I don’t understand it. Not any of it. Is that bad? Does that mean that I’m selfish?”

Ben frowned. “No, Joseph. It only means that you don’t understand it. It only means that you can’t comprehend such cruelty and brutality because you’ve never had to experience it. It’s confusing and heartbreaking, Joe, but you’re not selfish, son. Not at all.”

Joe shook his head. “But I don’t know what to do, Pa. I don’t ….I don’t know what to say to him or how to even act now. What do I do when I see him?”

“There’s nothing you can do, Joe. He just needs you to be his friend.”

Ben stood up and patted his son lightly on the shoulder before stepping toward the door. “Try and get some sleep, son.”

“Sure, Pa. I will.”

He watched as his father closed the door behind him, and Joe glanced at the lamp once more. He sighed and blew it out before settling himself beneath the sheets. Joe laid awake for a long time that night, wondering if he was capable of being such a friend.

*****

“Joseph?”

“Little Joe?”

Joe opened his eyes and nearly gasped in relief at the sight of his Pa bent over him, dark eyebrows furrowed with concern. He felt his father’s strong and gentle hands cradling his head as he carefully examined the bruises forming on Joe’s face.

“Little Joe?” Ben repeated, dabbing at Joe’s bloody lip with his kerchief. “Are you alright, son?”

Joe nodded. “I think so, Pa.”

“Was it Greg’s father?” Ben asked, his voice low and angry. “Did he do this to you?”

Joe painfully pulled himself to a sitting position. “Yeah, Pa. I made him pretty mad. That’s when he…”

Joe’s eyes suddenly flew open wide as he remembered.

“Pa! He’s come back to get Greg! We gotta get the sheriff! We gotta…”

Ben grabbed the boy’s arms to prevent him from frantically jumping to his feet.

“Joe, don’t worry, I…..Joe!”

Joe was struggling to escape his father’s grasp, not seeming to hear his father’s calming words.

“Pa, he’s going to…he’s going to hurt him again, I know it!” Joe said, his voice hitching. “We gotta get help!”

“Joe!” Ben grasped his son’s chin and turned his son’s face to look in his eyes.

“Listen to me, son. Settle down. Hoss has already gone for the sheriff. And I’ve sent Adam out with the buckboard to tell Mrs. Kelly what’s going on and bring her and Greg out to the Ponderosa. We’ll keep them safe, Joe. I promise. We’ll keep them safe.”

Ben carefully assisted Joe to his feet, and stood supporting him. “Are you okay, son? Do you think you can ride?”

Joe nodded, and then paused, hesitating.

“Pa? I….I’m awful sorry about all of this….I didn’t mean…”

Ben considered his son for a moment, and then suddenly pulled the boy into a fierce embrace. “I know why you did it, Joe,” he said softly. “And I’m proud of you for it. But when I found out you had gone off alone with that monster, I almost……Well, anyway, I’m glad you’re okay.”

Joe let himself relax in his father’s arms; and as he breathed in the familiar, comforting scent of him, he felt a sudden rush of sadness for his friend Greg, who would never know the warmth and safety of a loving father. He closed his eyes and pressed himself even closer to his Pa’s dependable chest.

“Thanks, Pa,” he whispered.

*****

Ben had decided that Mrs. Kelly and Greg would be safer staying with them on the Ponderosa for the time being. The Cartwrights were dismayed to learn that Sheriff Coffee could provide them with little assistance since Kelly had not been charged with a crime within his jurisdiction. They also discovered that it would be nearly impossible for Mrs. Kelly to prosecute him for the abuse suffered at his hands during their marriage due to a lack of evidence. He assured them, however, that he would continue to keep a watchful eye out for the man anyway.

Joe thought it would be a bit of an adventure to have Greg so close by despite the serious circumstances. He didn’t count on the dramatic change in his friend, though. Already shy, Greg became even more quiet and withdrawn when he became aware of his father’s intentions. His anxious mother was little help, terrified that her husband would find them again, despite Ben’s frequent assurances to the contrary.

Joe wasn’t quite sure what to think of the petite, blonde Mrs. Kelly. While Greg definitely took after his father in appearance, he certainly inherited his shy personality from his mother. Joe was torn between anger at the woman for allowing her son to be so viciously brutalized by her husband, and a grudging admiration that she found the courage to break free of him for her son’s sake.

As the days passed, Mrs. Kelly was able to tell the Cartwrights more about the man she and her son were running from, and revealing in graphic detail the history of fear and abuse that the both of them had endured for years. Three times she had tried to escape, and three times he had found them, spouting tearful promises that were broken the minute he pried open another bottle of whiskey. After Greg was so horrifically burned the previous year, Mrs. Kelly finally realized that Kelly would eventually kill their son unless she left for good. She sold the few remaining pieces of jewelry she had left to obtain stage fare to bring the two of them from their home near St. Louis to San Francisco, where she was from. The money had run out by the time the two of them reached Virginia City, so Mrs. Kelly took on a temporary job waiting tables in Hansen’s small restaurant in town. Mr. Hansen took pity on the shy woman and her equally shy son, and offered up a tiny house for Mrs. Kelly and Greg to live in until she could save enough money to complete their journey.

Soon three weeks had passed with no sign of Jeffrey Kelly, and though everyone was able to breathe a little easier, no one was naive enough to think that the man had left for good. So Ben still insisted on taking all precautions necessary to ensure the continued safety of the boy and his mother, including keeping him out of school. Joe attended school alone, bringing home assignments for Greg so that he could keep up with his studies.

As time went by, Greg’s old self began to emerge, and the boys spent their free time fishing and swimming and racing their horses on the Ponderosa’s grassy meadows. For Greg’s birthday, the Cartwrights had presented him with his own horse–a sorrel, much like the one he had left behind, and the boy was unspeakably touched by the gift.

School was nearly out for the term, and summer had arrived in full force. It was late on a hot Friday afternoon and Joe stayed behind in the empty classroom, waiting impatiently for Miss Jones to finish wiping down the blackboard so she could assemble Greg’s assignments for Joe to take with him. The other students had raced frantically for the door the moment Miss Jones had rung the brass bell for the last time that day. Joe shuffled his feet and blew out his breath in frustration. Miss Jones seemed to take her time at everything.

Well, at least that was one thing to be thankful for, Joe thought several minutes later as he shoved the extra books into his saddlebags. Poor Cooch wouldn’t be lugging all this weight back and forth every week. “Ain’t that right, Cooch? No more books for you either, huh?” he said affectionately, patting the pinto on the neck as he prepared to mount.

“You talk to your horse a lot, Cartwright? What’s the matter? Ain’t ya got any friends?”

Joe froze at the voice, and stiffened even more at the ominous feel of a gun barrel poking into his the back of neck. Before he could even turn around, his arm was suddenly jerked up and twisted cruelly behind him. Joe looked around wildly, hoping that there was someone nearby who could come to his aid, but the schoolyard was already long deserted. Increasingly nervous, Joe nonetheless tried to keep the tremor from his voice as he spoke.

“You won’t find him, Kelly. Greg doesn’t want to have anything to do with you. You won’t find him.”

Kelly chuckled at that, and Joe gasped as his arm was yanked harshly and the weapon pressed even harder against him. “Oh, that’s no problem, Cartwright,” Kelly said as he leaned in closer, his voice dropping low. “He ain’t the one I’m looking for.”

*****

Gregory Kelly was anything but stupid.

He knew that Joe hadn’t come home from school that day. But all the adults in the house seemed to be tight-lipped about the situation when it came to Greg. Their mingled voices, sometimes raised in argument or anger, would suddenly dissolve to utter silence when he walked into the room. His mother, eyes reddened and swollen from crying, would smile kindly at him and send him off to fetch a cookie from the kitchen or to the barn to check on his horse. Why no, nothing’s wrong, darling. Don’t worry, son. The adults just want to talk privately, that’s all, she said. Everything’s fine.

Unfortunately, his Ma was never very good at lying. She had smiled at him through tear-swollen eyes before, more times than he could count. And things weren’t fine then, either.

It didn’t take Greg long to figure out exactly how not fine things were. He plastered himself closer to the top rail of the stairs and chanced a peek down into the great room where they had gathered. He knew that none of them had seen him creep quietly out of his room. He had spent years honing the skill of stealthily hiding from adults. Sometimes his life had depended on it.

Mr. Cartwright sat grim-faced in his tufted blue chair, rubbing his hands over his face every couple minutes or so. His mother was perched uneasily on the settee, and worrying her handkerchief with anxious fingers, eyes widened and glassy as she watched Adam pacing in front of the fireplace, gesturing wildly and angrily as he spoke. Hoss was seated near him on the hearth, his great body bent and his head buried in his hands in an obvious effort for control. And the newest arrival, Sheriff Roy Coffee, in a posture of long suffering patience, stood by quietly until Adam had concluded his rant. The sheriff was clutching a folded piece of paper in his hand. Apparently the note had been tucked beneath Cochise’s saddle. Sheriff Coffee had noticed the still-tethered pinto abandoned in front of the long empty schoolhouse.

Adam’s frustrated voice carried easily to where the boy had hidden himself.

“The man must be insane, Pa. There’s no way he could expect that we would just up and make a trade like that! He’s already furious at Joe for lying to him. Pa, he’s going to…..he’s going to….”

Adam’s voice dropped down and he rubbed his hand across his mouth. “He’s going to kill him, Pa,” he said, quietly, looking earnestly at his father. “We have to get a posse together now.”

Mr. Cartwright came to his feet and crossed over to where Sheriff Coffee was standing. “And I say we can’t make any hasty decisions, Adam!” he declared forcefully to his oldest son. “We need to plan this through and decide. I won’t put my son in any more danger than he’s already in!” He turned to the sheriff. “Can you read that note again, Roy?”

Roy sighed. “Okay, but it still says the same thing as before, Ben. We’re wasting time.” He unfolded the paper and began to read aloud. “To Ben Cartwright: I have your son. To have your boy returned alive, you will bring Greg Kelly to the barn at the Miller homestead tomorrow at sunrise. Come alone, and unarmed. I will be watching. I have nothing to lose.”

The room grew silent as the sheriff carefully refolded the paper and placed it in his vest pocket, the small group alarmed anew at its cryptic message.

At top of the steps, Greg turned to rest his head against the banister and closed his eyes as his suspicions were bluntly confirmed in the room below. Little Joe.

Little Joe — the only one who had befriended him in a town full of cruel and mocking kids, who had defended him time and again from those who would whisper and stare, who had listened quietly and sadly as Greg related the tragic details of the abuse he had endured; the boy who had come to his rescue when he desperately needed it — was now being held by the evil man who was the very cause of it all, and Greg himself was to be the ransom.

Well, not this time, he thought resolutely to himself. His father had won over and over again, had been given second and third and fourth chances. Now his chances had run out.

Greg glanced back at the group gathered downstairs, and ensuring that he could not be seen, slipped quietly into Adam’s room. There it was, coiled neatly on the dresser. Adam’s holster. And his gun.

Greg picked up the revolver with tentative hands. He had never fired a gun before, but had figured out the basic procedure from the many times he had watched his drunken father shoot randomly in the yard. He made sure that the weapon was unloaded, and helped himself to a handful of bullets from Adam’s top drawer.

He would leave that night, he decided. His father wouldn’t win again.

*****

Joe offered no resistance as Kelly roughly forced him at gunpoint into a darkened alley near the school where the man’s horse was tethered. The boy had been the unlucky recipient of Jeffrey Kelly’s lethal blows before and was in no hurry to suffer them again.

But Joe panicked when the man slammed him forcefully against the wall to tie his hands behind him. Fear led him to struggle in spite of himself, and he was soundly pistol-whipped for his efforts. Several moments later, dazed and bleeding, he was limply hoisted up on Kelly’s horse, and whisked away.

It was nearly dark by the time they arrived at their destination: a clearing within a dense wooded area a mere stone’s throw from the Miller homestead.

He had been brutally slammed to the ground after being yanked from the horse, and he laid unmoving as Kelly tied up his horse and gathered wood for a fire. Joe was consuming every bit of will and energy he had left to remain conscious. He didn’t know what Kelly was planning, and Joe needed to be alert so he could try and get away if he could, though with his hands tied and the unrelenting pain in his head, he knew his chances were slim. He bit at his lip, feeling tears misting in his eyes. Pa. He sure wished Pa was here.

Kelly kicked him in the side as he passed, and Joe gasped at the sudden pain.

“Where’s Greg, Cartwright? Where’s my boy?”

Joe turned his head and glared up at him. “I don’t know.”

Kelly kicked him again, and Joe fell back, whimpering.

“Sure you do, Cartwright. But no matter. I’ll get my boy back, one way or other. I know all about your Pa, boy. He’ll make sure I get my boy back, mark my words.” Kelly reached into his pocket and pulled out a knife and studied it, running his finger lightly across the blade.

“He’ll make sure I get my boy back,” he said again. “Cause if he don’t, you’re gonna die, Cartwright. Hear that? You’re gonna die.”

Joe’s eyes widened at that. He hadn’t wanted to suspect it, hadn’t thought that it was possible for anyone to be so callous about killing someone. But then, why not? The bastard had almost killed his own son.

Kelly was still talking. “…and that Sue sure thought she was smart, alright, telling everyone she was heading to Kansas City. Damn wild goose chase. But I’ll show her.” His lips curled up in a snicker. “I’ll show her but good.”

Joe lifted his head and looked at him. “How you planning on doing that?” he asked, closing his eyes against the wave of dizziness the movement cost him.

Kelly laughed. “Why, by taking Greg away from her. Forever. Little witch won’t ever see him again.”

“But why? He doesn’t want you. He doesn’t want to be with you anymore.”

Kelly blinked, as if in surprise, and looked down at him. “Why? Why? Because he’s mine.”

Joe became angry at that, forgetting what his previous anger at the man had cost him. He struggled futilely at his bonds, and kicked out at the man. “No! You’re not going to take him away! He doesn’t want to see you anymore! Greg doesn’t want you! He hates…

And before Joe could regret his unwise words or even blink, Kelly was on him; his furious fists making brutal contact with his body again and again.

And this time as unconsciousness reached out to claim him, Joe welcomed it.

*****

The barn door creaked loudly as Greg opened it, and he froze for several minutes, looking anxiously up at the dark house. Satisfied that no alarm had been raised, he stepped inside and carefully closed the door behind him.

He paused to retrieve the match he had hidden in his pocket, and lit the lamp that was always kept on a shelf just inside the door. He was pleased that his hands did not shake this time as he held the flame to the wick. Lamps still made him nervous.

He quickly saddled and bridled his pony, and quietly, oh so quietly led her through the door, carefully closing it so there would be no betraying squeaks this time around. He positioned the dim lamp so that it was shielded from the house, in case curious eyes were peering through the curtains.

He waited till he was several yards beyond the barn before he finally mounted, and guided the sorrel into a gentle lope toward the Miller homestead, suddenly grateful that Joe had taken him there once. Still, it was dark and the terrain was sometimes difficult, so he knew he would have to be careful.

It would be the hardest, most frightening journey of his life. Because his father was waiting at the other end of it.

As he guided the pony toward the main road, he thought back to the terrifying events that had brought him to this point. He wondered when the love he had once had for his father had run out like a leaking vessel, each crack deepened with every punch, every slap, every vicious word. Somehow, there was none left. No love, no forgiveness, no feeling was left for the man he had once known as a father. Especially now.

He thought about his long-suffering mother, how she used to drag him to church week after week, and sometimes wondered idly what she prayed for. His father’s redemption? Her own? Greg had learned a long time ago not to give much credence to the passionate philosophies espoused from the pulpit. Either prayer didn’t work or he just didn’t know how to do it right, because no one ever seemed to listen to his. He remembered snatches of the random biblical quotes that their pastor used to read authoritatively from his New Testament every Sunday morning. Love one another. Honor thy Father and Mother. Husbands, Love thy Wives. The Greatest of these is Love. None of them seemed to have any relevance in the life of young Gregory Kelly.

Except Suffer the Children. He couldn’t remember the whole thing, but that part seemed to jump out at him one Sunday morning, when he was still nursing a broken nose from a drunken tirade on Saturday night.

Greg Kelly’s life had been governed by his father’s Golden Rules, laws that he was compelled to live by if he was going to continue living. Rules that had consumed his life for as long as he could remember.

Don’t cry. Ever. Crying is for babies and sissies and silly females. Don’t spill your milk. Don’t soil your clothes. Don’t interrupt. Don’t touch your Pa’s things. Don’t be late for supper. Don’t look at your Pa like that. Don’t talk back. Don’t run away from your Pa. Don’t roll your eyes. Don’t make noise while your Pa is trying to sleep. Don’t think. Don’t breathe. Don’t exist.

Each broken rule came with devastating and painful consequences, the severity of them in direct proportion to the amount of whiskey consumed immediately before.

Of course, there was one rule he didn’t know about. Not until it was too late, anyway.

If you’re ever lying on the floor being kicked and punched by your drunken father and hurting so bad you wish you would die, never, ever scream out to your father that you hate him. That one brings the worst consequence of all.

That one gets you scarred for life.

*****

“Pa!”

“Pa! Wake up! Pa!”

Ben stirred and rolled over at his son’s urgent voice. “Adam?” he said, still barely awake.

“Pa, Greg’s gone. His bed hasn’t even been slept in. Hoss just checked the barn and the pony’s gone too.”

Ben sat up as full awareness returned, and the alarm at his son’s words began to sink in. “What…..what time is it?” he asked, reaching for his robe lying at the foot of the bed. He donned it and stepped to the doorway where his son was waiting.

“It’s almost four, Pa.” Adam hesitated briefly before continuing. “Pa, there’s something else. My gun is missing, too. I think Greg’s taken it.”

Ben caught his breath as the implications of that statement became clear. There was no need to guess what the boy was going to do. Greg had obviously caught on to what they all had been so carefully trying to hide from him. He should have known better. The boy was no fool.

Ben straightened and took immediate charge. “Adam, wake up Mrs. Kelly and let her know what’s happened. Tell Hoss to saddle the horses. We need to find Greg and Joe before he gets them both killed.”

*****

Greg slowed his pony and guided her to the middle of the flat open field that sprawled across the Miller homestead. It sure looked a lot different from when he and Joe had recklessly raced their horses across it a few weeks ago.

He knew his father had to be somewhere nearby, though he wasn’t sure exactly where. Greg dismounted and placed the lamp on the ground in front of him. He opened up the saddlebag and pulled out Adam’s revolver and a handful of bullets. He knelt down next to the lamp, and with shaking hands, pulled open the cylinder and carefully loaded it. He stood and positioned the gun in his hand, curling his index finger around the trigger and resting his thumb lightly on the hammer. He knew he was holding it right, yet the weapon still felt heavy and uncomfortable in his grasp.

He picked up the lamp in his other hand, and stepped away from his horse; toward the edge of the field. He inhaled deeply. It was time.

“Pa?” he yelled as loudly as he could, lifting the lamp beside his head.

“Pa!” he yelled again. “Pa, it’s me! It’s me, Greg!”

He paused for several moments, walking back and forth, listening for a response. When none came, he moved to the opposite side of the field and yelled again.

“Pa! I’m here now! Pa!”

And then he heard something. There was a furtive, rustling movement immediately to his left, and he first thought it was an animal until he heard the voice of his father.

“Greg? That you, boy?”

He gasped and jerked his head to his left, raising the lamp and searching desperately in the overwhelming darkness for a sign of his father. The lamp wobbled erratically and he could feel himself starting to shake as the long familiar feelings of fear and dread returned and slammed into him full force. No, he thought, not now. I gotta help Joe.

He lifted the weapon and pulled back on the hammer.

“Pa?” he said again, though his voice was clearly unsteady this time. “I’m right here, Pa.” He tightened his grasp on the revolver, and kept his finger poised on the trigger.

And then, suddenly, there was his father, standing right in front of him, an eyebrow raised at the sight of his trembling son holding a gun on him.

“You planning on using that?” he said, amused. “Someone been teaching you how to shoot, Greg?” He took a deliberate step closer to his son.

“Don’t, Pa! Don’t come closer! I’m not…I’m not going with you! I’m just here for…..for my friend Joe.” Greg fought to get out the words, hating how frightened he sounded.

Kelly grinned at that. “Oh, you mean the Cartwright kid? Why, he’s just back here.” he jerked his thumb, gesturing to the darkness behind him. “He’ll probably be glad to see ya, son. Why don’t ya just come on back now and take a look-see for yourself?” He took another step toward Greg.

“No! Don’t come closer!” The hand grasping Adam’s gun was now shaking nearly uncontrollably, causing the weapon to bob up and down. Greg suddenly fell silent, nearly overwhelmed with uncertainty and confusion, and he mentally chided himself for not planning things out more. What was he going to do?

The decision was abruptly taken away from him, though, when Kelly suddenly leaped forward and pushed his son to the ground. The lamp fell from his hand and rolled away, the flame snuffed by the movement. He felt his father’s rough hands on him in the darkness, searching for and finding the gun and yanking it away from the boy. And then he felt the excruciating impact as his father’s fist slammed into his jaw. Greg fell back, stunned, as blood instantly filled his mouth. His father got to his feet and jerked his son up with him. He pulled Greg up by his collar, and lifted him so they were face to face.

“You’re gonna pay for that, boy. Holding a gun on your own Pa? Oh, you’re gonna pay for that!”

He grabbed Greg by the arm and dragged him toward the woods.

*****

They hadn’t had much of a plan to begin with, Ben thought to himself as he adjusted Buck’s cinch, preparing to search for the two missing boys. They certainly couldn’t deliver up Greg Kelly to his father like some sacrificial lamb, even though his own son’s life hung in the balance. After much heated discussion with his sons and the sheriff, it had been decided that the four of them would ride to the Miller homestead before daybreak and quietly surround it, hoping to surprise and arrest Kelly and rescue his son. Of course, that was before Greg decided to play his own hand and try to find Joe himself.

Joe. Ben paused and rested his head briefly against his saddle as thoughts of his youngest son filled his head again. He had barely slept to begin with; so consumed was he with worry for the boy. It was only at Hoss and Adam’s insistence that he even retired to his bed, only to be abruptly awakened an hour later with news of Greg’s disappearance.

He knew that self-recrimination at this point was useless, but he nevertheless berated himself again for his own shortsightedness. He should have known. He should have known that Kelly would do something desperate when he couldn’t locate his family. Ben had learned more about Kelly in the past few weeks, knew what he was capable of, and the thought of Joe in that man’s hands filled him with so much fear that he fairly trembled with it.

“Ready, Pa? Hoss’ gruff voice sounded behind him. He was leading Chubb and Sport into the yard. “I sent one of the hands to fetch the Sheriff, Pa. He can meet us there. Didn’t think ya wanted to wait.”

Ben nodded at his middle son and mounted Buck. He was still too unsure of his voice to respond.

“We’ll find him, Pa. Them boys are gonna be just fine,” Hoss said, trying to reassure his obviously anxious father, though he doubted his own words. He knew about Kelly too.

Adam joined them a moment later, having been forced to find another weapon to replace his missing one. He nodded at the other two, and mounting his own horse, the three men set off at a gallop as the first rays of dawn broke on the horizon.

*****

“Well, there he is, boy,” Kelly said harshly, flinging Greg forward toward the figure lying prone on the ground. “He don’t look too good, huh?” he said with a laugh.

Greg tripped and landed near Joe. He lifted himself up and crawled toward his friend, searching his face in the light of the tiny fire.

“Joe?” he whispered, taking in the blood and darkening bruises that marked his friend’s face. He also saw with growing anger that his friend’s hands had been tied.

“Joe? You alright?”

But Joe didn’t respond as Greg drew closer and turned Joe’s face so he could study it in the firelight. Joe’s eyes were closed and his breathing was erratic.

“What did you do to him, Pa? He’s hurt bad, Pa! Why did you hurt him so bad?” Greg said, unable to keep the anger and resentment from entering his voice. He pulled a kerchief from his pocket and tried to staunch the blood still flowing from a deep gash above Joe’s ear.

Kelly shrugged and pulled out his whiskey flask, jerking off the lid in a practiced motion. He took a long draught and turned his attention back to his son. “Kid tried to get away,” he said simply.

Greg glared at him angrily. “He needs a doctor, Pa! I’m here now. You can let Joe go now.” He turned back to look at his friend. “Let him go, Pa,” he said softly. Greg sighed, suddenly unbearably sad and resigned. “I’ll go with you.”

Kelly considered his son for a long moment, his eyes narrowed. Then he shook his head. “No, I don’t think I’ll be doing that, boy. If I do that, you’ll just run off first thing. No, I’m thinking I’ll keep young Joe with us for a while. That way I can make sure you’ll stick around. You wouldn’t want anything to happen to your friend, would ya?” he said, looking directly at Joe.

Kelly leaned back against his upturned saddle and drank again deeply. His voice was already starting to slur. “Good thing ya brought a horse, boy. We can leave at first light.”

But Greg ignored him, turning his attention to Joe. He frantically patted his face, willing him to open his eyes. “Joe? Come on, Joe! You need to wake up!”

Then unexpectedly, Joe turned his head at the sound of his friend’s voice.

“Joe?”

Joe’s eyelids flickered and for a brief moment he stared at his friend, but there was no recognition in their green depths. He moved his lips, as if to speak, and Greg leaned in closer to hear. Then, just as suddenly, Joe’s eyes closed again as he slipped back into unconsciousness. But not before Greg heard the single, heartrending plea that slipped from his friend’s lips, softer than a whisper.

“Pa.”

*****

“I see ’em, Pa…..just beyond that grove of trees, see?” Hoss was beckoning his father over. The men had met up with Sheriff Coffee and the four of them had crept in carefully. The open expanse of field made it difficult to remain hidden, and it had taken longer than anyone would have liked to approach the woods that framed it.

They found Greg’s sorrel almost immediately, grazing casually where Greg had abandoned her. Then they found the discarded lantern and several bullets on the ground. But no gun. And no Greg. And no Joe.

But now, several minutes later, as the rays of early morning sunlight trickled through the trees, they could just make out the shape of three individuals in a tiny clearing. One of them was lying quite still on the ground, and Ben knew right away that it was Joe. Even from his far away position and in the dim light, he could tell that his son was hurt, and his heart ached with the knowledge. Greg was sitting next to his son, seemed to be tending him somehow, and Kelly was standing over the boy, apparently shouting. They couldn’t make out the words, but the man was gesturing wildly and staggering slightly. The man appeared to be on the razor-thin edge of violence, and Ben knew they had to take action immediately.

As the Cartwrights and sheriff fell into their planned positions, and started to quietly approach the campsite, Kelly suddenly swung around and pulled a burning log from the fire and stalked over to the boys, waving the flaming weapon in front of him. He was headed right for Joe……

*****

It was all his fault, Greg thought sadly. Little Joe was hurt–hurt bad, maybe he was even going to die, and it was all because of him.

No.

No, it wasn’t his fault. It was his Pa’s fault. It was all because of that man sitting across from him, who was looking irritated at his now empty whiskey flask.

Well, Joe wasn’t going to die. Not if he could help it. Joe was his friend; maybe the only real friend he had ever had, and he deserved more than to suffer a bloody, painful death on the cold ground in the middle of nowhere. He straightened himself deliberately and turned angrily to his father.

“You’re not taking him, Pa,” he said loudly, bluntly. “I’m not going to let you. Joe is my friend, and I’m not going to let you hurt him like…..” he paused and his voice dropped to a whisper. “…..like you hurt me.”

Kelly glared at his son incredulously and in a flash was on his feet, stalking over to the boy, who was leaning over the still unconscious Joe, as if to protect him.

“You talk to your Pa like that, boy?” he said, his voice rising in fury. He was gesturing wildly, unsteady on his feet. “Maybe you need to be taught some respect again!” he yelled angrily. Then he paused, a smirk crossing his lips.

“Or maybe I should finish off Cartwright once and for all so you don’t have to worry about him anymore,” he said, his voice suddenly low and ominous.

Greg felt a sudden thrill of fear at the strange expression that had come over his father’s face. Before he even had an opportunity to interpret it, his father suddenly swung around and grabbed a burning log from the fire. He held the flaming wood in front of him, waving it back and forth, coming closer, closer…..

“No, Pa!” Greg yelled, terrified. “No, Pa! Don’t…..please…”

As Joe lay unmoving, oblivious to the perilous situation he was in, Kelly swooped in and dropped the fiery tip toward Joe’s shirt. The cloth caught the flame almost immediately, and flared up the length of Joe’s arm.

“Pa! NO! Pa!!” Greg was screaming and clutching at his father’s legs, trying to pull him away.

Kelly ignored him and as he turned to light the clothing of Joe’s pants, the blasts from four guns firing simultaneously suddenly rent the stillness of the clearing. He collapsed heavily to the ground.

Greg crawled over to Joe, who was waking up and starting to move, and rolled him quickly from side to side to extinguish his burning clothing. Then, Hoss was there, then Adam, then Mr. Cartwright, all bending anxiously over the injured Joe, who was now whimpering at the white hot pain enveloping his scorched left arm. Greg stood aside and let them tend the boy, and watched quietly in sympathy. Burns like that hurt like the devil. He knew.

Greg looked around, dazed, and his eyes fell upon the prone figure of his father, ignored and lying near death from four gunshot wounds. He staggered over and knelt down next to the man, and gazed into dark blue eyes so much like his own. He watched as those eyes grew dim and the life faded from them.

His breath caught, and he rose to his feet, unable to comprehend the well of emotion that had suddenly risen in his chest. He thought of his Ma, and of himself. He thought of a broken little family that would never, ever be put together again. And he looked down upon a man that he thought he hated. Maybe….just maybe there was love to be spared. Perhaps it hadn’t all run dry after all.

And he threw himself across his father’s bullet-ridden body, and for the first time in as for long as he could remember, Greg Kelly cried.

*****

He looked different somehow, Joe decided. He tilted his head and considered his friend again for a long moment. Then again, maybe not. Maybe the head injury was affecting his eyesight.

“You’re staring at my scars again!” Greg accused angrily.

“I am not!” Joe declared hotly, and then grinned at the exchange that had become a game between them soon after they met. Those first few days Joe couldn’t help but stare and Greg had called attention to it so often that it had become funny. But now Joe didn’t really notice the scars anymore; they had become just another part of Greg, something you didn’t pay much attention to unless you thought about it.

Kinda like a lamp, Joe observed quietly as Greg bent down to turn it up with a sure hand in the dim light of his bedroom.

“Your Pa said I could only visit for a few minutes. The doctor gave you some medicine that makes you sleepy.”

Joe grinned drowsily at that. Morphine. Yeah, that morphine was some good stuff, alright. Dr. Martin had just finished up another dressing change, and when Joe felt the screaming pain dull to a mere throb soon after the stinging injection, Joe thanked God, the heavens, the stars, and every deity he could think of for the gift of the blessed drug.

Dr. Martin had said the burns were not as bad as he first feared, and hopefully would not scar so long as infection didn’t set in. Joe had been quite relieved to hear that, but then felt a bit sheepish considering the extent and severity of Greg’s scars.

Of course, Joe also had three broken ribs to contend with, two deep gashes to his head that had required stitching, and a colorful assortment of dark bruises that marked his face and body, but that would all heal nicely as well, Dr. Martin had assured him. In the meantime, though, that morphine sure was some good stuff.

“Joe?”

Interrupted from his musings, Joe shook his head to clear it and blinked up at his friend. “Sorry.”

Greg held up his hand, warding off the apology. “Don’t worry about it,” he grinned. “I know about morphine too.”

“Pa says you’re leaving, Greg. Is it true?”

The grin vanished. “Yeah,” he said quietly. “Ma and I think it would be best. We’re leaving for San Francisco on Friday.”

He looked pointedly at Joe. “She said we could stay if I really wanted to. Stay here in Virginia City and go to school here and….Well, I don’t know if I can, Joe. You understand, don’t you?”

Joe nodded, but only to reassure his friend. Because he didn’t understand, not really. Pa had told him that Greg was still grieving for his father and though it wasn’t his fault, Joe’s continued presence was a painful reminder of the man’s violent death and the tragic circumstances surrounding it. But Joe couldn’t find it in him to understand how anyone could grieve for someone like that, even if it was his father. Jeffrey Kelly didn’t deserve such consideration, not even in death. But he didn’t tell Greg that.

“Maybe Pa will let me come with him to see the stage off,” Joe said. “I’m feeling a little better. I’ll bet I can talk him into it.” He caught himself yawning and grinned up apologetically.

“I hope so, Joe,” Greg replied, and then suddenly became quite serious. He held out his hand and Joe shook it, surprised at the strength in his friend’s grip. Greg was looking him right in the eye this time. Joe knew then why his friend had looked different to him. He wasn’t afraid anymore.

“I better let you sleep now,” Greg said softly as he moved toward the door, his lips curved in amusement at Joe, who had dropped his hand limply and had closed his eyes. Greg opened the door slowly so as not to make any noise and startle his sleeping friend, but before he stepped through it, he paused and turned around, walking back purposefully to Joe’s bedside.

And blew out the lamp.

***The End***

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