A Kiss to Die For (by DebbieB)

Summary:  Caught in the wrong place at the wrong time, under wrong circumstances, Little Joe pays the price, not only for himself but for the beautiful Indian maiden whom he was warned to stay away from.

Rated:  PG for mild violence. (11,040 words)

 

                                  A Kiss to Die For

 

“It was only a kiss!” Joe shouted.

 

“Joseph, do not use that tone of voice when you speak to me!” ordered Ben, his dark eyes glowering with anger.

 

“I’m sorry,” Joe said as he turned away.

 

He took several steps across the room and stopped, turning again to face his irate father.

 

“A kiss…that’s all, just a simple little kiss, a peck on the cheek really, I never kissed her on the lips. Honest, Pa…I swear!” Little Joe explained to his father. “It meant nothing…I was just…”

 

“You were warned! That’s what you were!” stormed Ben. “Chief Winnemucca warned you, Adam warned you…and now I’m warning you, Joseph…stay away from that girl…she will only bring you trouble!”

 

Ben was livid with anger but beneath the anger he feared more for his youngest son’s life. The chief of the Paiute’s meant business; the boy was to stay clear of the beautiful young Indian maiden, niece of Chief Winnemucca.

 

“Joseph, I mean what I say…stay away from Chief Winnemucca’s niece, please,” Ben said, taking a deep breath to stay his anger.

 

Joe turned around to face his father, a remorseful look on his young face. He tried to smile, but his attempt fell short.

 

“I’m sorry, Pa, really. I didn’t mean anything, except…well, I suppose…”

 

“She’s a beautiful young woman, Joe…admit it; you were attracted to her. Who wouldn’t be,” Adam stated. “Hey, if I was your age…I’d find her enchanting, myself!”

 

“Adam,” stormed Ben, “for heaven’s sake, please do not encourage the boy!”

 

He’d been sitting in the blue chair trying to keep from voicing his own thoughts on his younger brother’s escapades. Adam had seen the young woman, and he could hardly blame his brother for reacting as he had. Adam supposed he might have done the same thing…when he was Joe’s age. Fact was, it wasn’t the kiss that mattered so much, it was a kiss to die for, Adam admitted to himself. What did matter was the fact that Chief Winnemucca’s beautiful niece was promised to another man, and if that man had found Little Joe kissing his intended, even if it were as innocent as Joe proclaimed, Joe would have suffered miserably and then would have been put to death. Paiute warriors were noted for their extreme possessiveness of their womenfolk.

 

“You’re right, Adam, but when she…” Joe hesitated and glanced at his father. “You know…what I mean, don’t ya, Adam?”

 

Adam couldn’t help but lower his head and hide his smile, he knew exactly what affect the beautiful woman had on his brother, especially when she batted her long lashes at him, and moved so close to the boy that Joe had nearly stopped breathing.

 

“I know, Joe…but still, Pa’s right, you need to give the girl a wide breadth, that is, if you want to live to be an old man,” Adam teased lightly, even though it truly was not a laughing matter.

 

“I’ll try, honest Adam, honest Pa, but…”

 

“That’s good enough Joseph, just remember, Lone Eagle can be extremely dangerous if he finds you alone with his woman…”

 

“I will Pa,” Joe grinned. “Like Adam said, I’d like to live to be as old as you at least and…”

 

“Hey!” piped Ben, smiling, for he knew his youngest was teasing him. He slipped his arm about Joe’s shoulders and pulled the boy to him. “You best behave yourself, young man!”

 

“Yes sir,” laughed Joe.

 

 

The next afternoon, Joe was down in the bottoms where some of the more rambunctious steers had pushed down a fence trying to get to greener pastures. The steers had crossed over the Ponderosa boundary line, onto a section of land owned by Chief Winnemucca and his tribe.

 

“Whoa, Cooch,” Joe muttered to his horse as he pulled back on the reins.

 

He sat for several moments, trying to decide if he should cross the line and retrieve the steers or chalk it up to loss. He could hear one steer bawling and saw two more standing idle as if wandering what all the racket was about.

 

Joe sighed, “Pa can’t afford more loss, Cooch, we’ll just have to make it quick like.”

 

Joe nudged his mount forward and within minutes had found the reason for the bawling bovine. A young steer had ventured too far into the stream where the mud had incased its body, leaving the animal stuck.

 

“Dadburnit,” cursed Joe, using one of Hoss’ favorite by lines. “What’cha go and do that for?” he fumed, unlacing his rope and making a noose in one end.

 

He made short work of roping the steer and soon was tugging and pulling, trying to free the animal. Joe groaned, for the steer was stuck firmly and he had no other choice but to dismount and wade into the water.

 

Leaving one end of the rope wrapped around the saddle horn and stopping long enough to remove his boots, Joe stepped into the muddy water, cursing silently under his breath. Joe began pushing on the steer’s backside.

 

“Come on ya ornery critter,” he fumed as he pressed his shoulder against the rear of the animal and shoved.

 

The steer took a step, and then another and feeling himself free of his mud prison, the steer bolted from the water. Joe, caught off guard by the animal’s sudden movement, slipped and fell face down into the muddy stream, soaking himself from head to toe. For a moment, he lay motionless in the shallow water before pulling himself up and inspecting his mud coated clothing.

 

“Great!” he stammered. “Damn you, you stupid cow!” he ranted as he sloshed his way to the bank.

 

 

From the bushes along the water’s edge, a young woman held her hand over her mouth, trying to stifle her laughter. She was a vision of loveliness, with long silky hair, black, like a raven’s. She was slender of build with eyes that danced with amusement at the boy who afforded her, her merriment. Morning Star knew she should turn and go, for she had been warned to stay away from the handsome, young white man. But she was drawn to him, by something that she could not explain and in her heart, she knew that the youngest son of her uncle’s friend was drawn to her as well. So she stayed, a yearning in her heart to know the boy better caused her to cast caution to the wind. For she knew what would happen to them both, should her intended become aware of where she was, and why. She had purposely come to the spot in the stream where the white man’s cattle had crossed over unto her uncle’s land, in hopes that the young man would be the one to come for the stranded cow. And her hopes had been fulfilled.

 

 

Joe groaned as he glanced at his clothing and giving a quick survey of the area around him, began stripping down to the bear skin.

 

“It ain’t even Saturday night, and now I have to have a bath!” he muttered.

 

Once free of his clothing, Joe moved downstream just a short ways and stepped out into the water. It felt refreshing and Joe plunged into the deeper water, staying down several moments before resurfacing. Quickly, so as not to tarry longer than necessary, he bathed the dirt and mud from his body as best he could.

 

When he finished, he dove again into the cool, invigorating water.

 

From her hiding place, Morning Star stepped into the clearing, standing in full view of the young man, who had yet to notice her. Giggling softly to herself, Morning Star picked up Joe’s clothing and hid them in the bushes where she had been hiding, only minutes before.

 

She watched the sun bronzed body as Joe dipped in and out of the water. A strange yearning deep within her began to stir and Morning Star, having never felt this type of desire, did something so unlike her self that she gave no thought to the consequences that would be reigned upon both the handsome young man and herself.

 

Without a thought to her motive, Morning Star stripped away her doeskin dress and tossed it into the bushes with Joe’s clothing. She stepped to the water’s edge and waited. Joe’s head broke the surface of the water and with a toss, to rid the curls of the collected moisture he began making his way to the shallow water where he stood, in all his glory.

 

Suddenly, his eyes fell upon the naked girl, standing unashamedly before him. He froze, not sure if what he was seeing was real or a vision. He rubbed his eyes, but Morning Star only smiled and inched deeper into the water. Joe cast anxious eyes around, hoping that they were alone, and fearing what would happen, should Lone Eagle or Chief Winnemucca happen upon them.

 

Joe backed up, covering his lower body with the deeper water. He held his hand out before him, as if to stop the advance of the lovely maiden.

 

“Stop!” Joe called.

 

His voice quivered, both from fear and from the excitement he felt building in his loins.

 

“Go back,” he ordered. “Go away…” he begged. “Oh Lordy…don’t do this, ma’am…I mean…go away…”

 

The young maiden paid no heed to Joe’s rambling and continued to inch forward until she was standing only a heartbeat away.

 

“No…” whispered Joe.

 

Joe felt his body become rigid as Morning Star raised one hand and gently caressed his cheek.

 

His eyes closed, he muttered softly. “I better go.”

Joe started to move, but Morning Star blocked his path.

 

“Your body trembles,” she whispered, smiling coyly as she inched forward.

 

Joe opened his eyes, unable to resist the urge not to look at her.

 

“Yeah…and your body…is…is…too beautiful for words,” he stammered, wondering why he was still standing where he was and knowing that he should move away from her as quickly as he could. Yet he remained, as if the water about him was ice and he was frozen within its solid walls.

 

Morning Star smiled softly and allowed her fingers to walk down the upper portion of Joe’s chest. She heard the handsome young rancher inhale deeply and knew then what affect her body had on the man. She wanted him, like she had never desired a man before, unlike she had ever desired Lone Eagle, for in truth, she did not love the man who was to be her husband. He had not the affect on her that this handsome brave had. She felt Joe’s body respond as she stepped closer and tiptoed up, placing a kiss lightly on Joe’s sensuous lips.

 

Joe heard himself groan and surprised himself when his arms embraced the young woman, pulling her body tightly against his. His lips sought hers and he kissed hard, causing Morning Star to moan with pleasure. He felt the slender body relax against him. His heart beat wildly against her bare breast. The heat of their bodies molded them as one and it was a lifetime before Joe came to his senses enough to remove his lips from Morning Star’s lips. He smiled and leaned down, desiring to place his lips once more over her moist mouth.

 

The kiss was interrupted by the hiss of a rope and suddenly without warning Joe felt his arms pinned to his sides and his body being hauled under the water and along the stream’s rocky bottom. He struggled to free his arms from the binding rope, but the effort was in vain. Somewhere in the back of his mind, he heard the young Indian maiden scream.

 

The rocks beat against his naked flesh, battering and bruising the tender area about his rump. He opened his mouth to cry out, but the water filled his mouth and when he swallowed, a rush of liquid overflowed into his lungs. He was gasping for air and felt that within minutes he would drown.

 

Just as quickly as it began, it ended. Joe’s battered body was hauled to the water’s edge, where he lay, gasping for air. When he was finally able to breath, he glanced up. Several pairs of deerskin moccasins surrounded him, and he gulped. Lifting his head higher, and struggling to his knees, he looked into the dark hate filled eyes of Lone Eagle. Terror and his father’s words filled his heart and mind, there was no other word for it; he knew that this time, he would not get by with just a warning.

 

He tried to get to his feet, but Lone Eagle kicked out, hitting Joe just under the chin with his foot and sending him falling backwards onto his already sore backside. Before Joe could recover, he felt the rope yanked tightly and then more hands than he could count, pulled him to his feet and tightly tied his hands in front of him, leaving the loop around his chest and waist, his elbows still tightly pinned to his sides. He was helpless and totally at the mercy of the Indian who glared at him such hatred that Joe shivered.

 

Without a word to him, Lone Eagle hauled back on the rope, forcing Joe to walk along behind him. Joe glanced around for the young woman, and caught a glimpse of her. Someone had found his and her clothing and Morning Star was now wearing her soft doeskin dress. She had been unceremoniously tossed onto a horse and was now riding double behind another young brave.

 

Lone Eagle muttered something to the group and Joe watched as each man glanced down at his nakedness and laughed. Joe felt his face redden in embarrassment and suddenly wished for his own clothing.

 

Joe was huffing and puffing by the time that Lone Eagle led the group into their camp. Joe’s embarrassment deepened when the village people gathered around the captive and began pointing and snickering at him.

 

From the corner of his eye, Joe saw Chief Winnemucca step from his tepee and heard when the chief shouted out something in his native tongue. The crowd parted, going in separated directions. The chief stepped up to Joe, his eyes glowering dark with unbridled anger. He glanced up at Lone Eagle.

 

“What reason have you brought this white man to our village?” Chief Winnemucca demanded.

 

“He was caught, with Morning Star…and he must be put to death!” Lone Eagle growled in an angry voice. “And the woman must be punished!”

 

“Wait a minute…” Joe began but was silenced when the chief raised his hand demanding that he be quiet.

 

The chief stepped up to the youngest Cartwright and eyed him from head to foot.

 

“You wear no clothing,” he stated.

 

“No, I usually don’t when I’m taking a bath…”

 

“You were bathing? With Lone Eagle’s woman?” the startled chief demanded.

 

“No sir…not exactly…I was bathing…”

 

“On Indian land?” Chief Winnemucca declared.

 

“Well…yes…but I can explain…it’s not what Lone Eagle thinks…honest, chief…”

 

“Be silent!” growled the chief. “Bring the young maiden to me!” he said, turning his back to Joe.

 

“If you’ll just let me explain,” Joe said, attempting to tell the chief why he was naked and why Lone Eagle’s intended was in the water with him.

 

“Morning Star…did you bathe with the white man?” Chief Winnemucca asked.

 

The young girl hung her head. Joe could hear the soft sounds of her crying.

 

“Yes, my uncle…”

 

“NO!” shouted Joe and was quickly silenced when Lone Eagle yanked on the rope, causing Joe to fall to his knees.

 

“We weren’t bathing, not together…I fell in the mud…”

 

Again the rope was yanked hard and Joe was hauled face down in the dirt. He struggled to get up, but Lone Eagle moved his horse, dragging Joe around in a circle.

 

“He speaks the truth, my uncle…I took his clothes, and hid them, so he could not dress,” the maiden explained. “He did nothing…”

 

“I saw him place his lips against your lips in what the white man calls a kiss,” stormed Lone Eagle. “Your arms were about his neck, his about your bare body!”

 

Lone Eagle tossed the end of the rope to another brave and dismounted, coming face to face with the chief.

 

“He must die…it is Paiute law, that no man touch another brave’s woman!”

 

“That is true, but if this man is innocent…”

 

“Innocent, how can he be innocent…when his hands have touched Morning Star’s bare flesh?” demanded Lone Eagle, casting an angry glare at Joe who had managed to get to his feet. His breath was coming in short pants.

 

Chief Winnemucca moved toward Joe and stopped, facing the battered boy.

 

“Is what Morning Star says, the truth? Did she come into the water, tempting you?”

 

Joe glanced at the young woman, knowing that if he told the truth, she would be severely punished and in all probability, cast out of her tribe, shunned as a fallen woman, what would happen to the young girl then? The thoughts raced through his head.

 

“Chief…it isn’t exactly like she said, we were in the water, but not for the reasons that Lone Eagle thinks…I am as much to blame. I should have walked away…”

 

“Then you shall be punished as well. Tie him to the tree!” ordered the chief.

 

Two braves grabbed at Joe’s arms and began hauling him away.

 

“Wait…wait…Chief…please…just hold on a minute,” stammered Joe, fighting against the strong hands that gripped his upper arms.

 

Chief Winnemucca held up his hand, the two braves stopped.

 

“What will happen to her?” Joe asked, seeing how the young woman, held tightly by her arms by two more braves, was weeping.

 

“She shall be punished, as well. Both of you will be whipped with sticks, until blood rolls from your wounds and down your back, or until Lone Eagle sees fit to show you mercy,” explained the chief.

 

“Please,” Joe said, “she’s young…she didn’t know any better…won’t you spare her? She’s your niece, your own sister’s daughter…please, let me take her punishment as well as mine,” pleaded Joe.

 

He hated to think of what the young girl would look like when the braves finished ripping her skin from her back. He had heard stories of how the Paiute’s beat their captives with long thin sticks and of the scars that they bore, should they survive. Joe gulped, he was scared, but he could not allow such a thing to happen to one so young…and beautiful. Joe looked again at the young girl; she couldn’t have been more than sixteen, maybe seventeen.

 

“You are brave…but do you believe you will survive? Lone Eagle hates you with a passion, and he will show you no mercy,” the chief said.

 

“I’m not so brave, Chief Winnemucca…I’ll admit…I’m not wanting to take a beating, but I cannot allow the young woman to be beaten, and killed…”

 

“Then you shall bare her punishment.”

 

Chief Winnemucca nodded his head to the two braves who had been holding Joe’s arms. The pair moved Joe to two nearby trees and untied his hands, lacing the ropes over low branches and then pulling his arms wide, forcing Joe to stand on tiptoe.

 

He groaned at the pressure in his shoulders and then again when the pair tied another rope just above the knees and a third rope around his ankles. Joe stood in a t-shape position, unable to move or flex any muscles. His bare body was drawn taunt as they fastened the ropes off to hold him in place.

 

Joe tried to glance over his shoulder. He could hear the sounds of the men moving about him and once caught a glimpse of Lone Eagle, whittling away at a long slender branch. Joe heard the whizzing sound as the angry brave flexed the long stick in the air. He cringed, already dreading the feel of the switch across his back.

 

Lone Eagle made a gurgling sound deep within his throat and Joe felt the first of many lashes cut into his flesh. He bit into his lip to keep from crying out, but after several of the agonizing slashes, he could no longer contain his pain.

 

“AGGGH!” he cried as again and again the long stick tore away at his flesh.

 

Joe’s knees folded, adding pressure on his shoulders as his body sagged. The beating continued until blood dripped from the broken places across his back. It was only after he had fallen unconscious that Chief Winnemucca held his hand up to Lone Eagle, calling an end to the punishment.

 

Lone Eagle stepped back, smiling at the abuse he had rendered to the white man. He turned to his chief.

 

“He must die,” he said solemnly.

 

“No!” the chief responded by jerking the switch from his brave’s hand and breaking it in two.   “This boy has paid the price, he will live…to kill him would only bring war to our people. He is the youngest son of Ben Cartwright, friend to the Paiutes.”

 

Lone Eagle was seething in anger, but he turned, grabbed Morning Star by the arm and walked away, dragging the weeping woman behind him.

 

“Cut him down. I shall take the boy to his father,” ordered Chief Winnemucca. “See that his body is wrapped in a blanket and tie him across his horse, we will leave soon.”

 

The same two braves that had tied Joe to the tree, cut down the battered body. Joe dropped unsympathetically to the ground. Neither brave paid any attention to the soft moans that emitted from the white boy. A squaw tossed them a blanket while another younger brave, led Cochise over to the two braves. They spread out the blanket and wrapped Joe’s bleeding body into the folds, and then tossed him across his saddle. Chief Winnemucca waited on horseback while the two secured Joe enough that he would not fall from his horse. When they were ready, the chief led a small band of braves out of the camp.

 

 

It was after dark by the time that the small party of Indians arrived in the yard of the Ponderosa. Inside, Ben, Adam and Hoss were just finishing supper when the sound of approaching hooves announced company.

 

“Maybe that’s your younger brother!” Ben said, pushing back his chair and heading for the door.

 

Adam and Hoss gave one another a quick glance, knowing that Joe would be reprimanded for being so late.

 

Ben stepped out onto the wide boarded porch, just in time to see his son fall to the ground at his horse’s feet. He hurried forward, stopping to stare in shock.

 

“Your son, Ben Cartwright,” Chief Winnemucca announced, pointing to the body wrapped in the blood soaked blanket.

 

Adam and Hoss raced forward, kneeling at their brother’s side, slowly unwrapping the blanket. Hoss gasped at the sight he saw, cringed and turned his head.

 

“Pa, take a look at this,” he stammered, barely able to control his anger. The gentle giant stood to his feet, glaring at the chief.

 

“Dear God,” Ben muttered, kneeling down and taking Joe into his arms. He glanced up at the Indian. “What’s the meaning for this?” he demanded.

 

“Your son was warned to stay away from Morning Star, Lone Eagle’s woman. But he does not heed the warnings. Today, he was caught bathing with my niece…she admitted that it was her doing…that is the only reason why your son’s life has been spared. He willing took the punishment, to keep Morning Star from the beating, and from being shunned by her people.”

 

Chief Winnemucca moved his horse forward, nearer to Ben, who had issued Adam and Hoss to take Joe inside.

 

“Your son is a brave man…I would not allow him to be killed, even if those are our ways. Lone Eagle would have done otherwise, Ben Cartwright, be glad that the boy lives, and never allow him near our village, or the young maiden, again. Next time, he will die.”

 

Chief Winnemucca held up his staff and turned his horse around, leading his men from the yard. Ben watched for a moment longer and then hurried to his son’s bedside.

 

 

Adam and Hoss had laid Joe face down on his bed and Hoss had quickly pulled a light blanket from the foot of the bed, covering Joe’s lower body. Joe moaned softly.

 

“Joseph?” cried Ben, leaning down and brushing the strands of dark curls from the side of his son’s face.

 

“Hurts…” whimpered Joe.

 

“I know son, I know,” whispered Ben.

 

The concerned father looked over his shoulder at his oldest son.

 

“Tell Hop Sing to bring the disinfectant, some salve and cloth for some bandages, hurry,” Ben ordered.

 

Joe continued to whimper, crying out in pain.

 

“Shh…take it easy, son, I’ve sent for the doctor,” Ben said.

 

He looked over at Adam, seeing the angry darkness in his oldest son’s eyes. “Adam,” Ben said quietly, “go for the doctor, please.”

 

Ben saw Adam swallow and look his way. Without speaking, the oldest of Ben’s sons marched from the room.

 

Ben and Hoss worked at cleaning the wounds that ran the length of Joe’s back and over the tender flesh of his bottom and down the backside of the boy’s legs. Ben noted the multiple bruises about Joe’s arms and chest, his thighs and lower legs. He pointed out to Hoss the scrapes and the skinned places that seeped blood.

 

“Dear God…Hoss, it looks as if he’s been dragged along on the ground as well as beaten,” mutter Ben softly so that Joe could not hear his words.

 

Joe cried out as his father tenderly cleaned the wounds and when the pain became unbearable, succumbed into a world of his own, where he felt no pain, no horror at what had happened to him.

 

“Pa, Joe’s in a bad way,” Hoss said through gritted teeth. “I’d sure ‘nough like to get my hands of that Injun, Lone Eagle…”

 

“Hush Hoss, keep those thoughts to yourself. Hand me the salve, will you please?” Ben said, sitting on the side of the bed.

 

With all the tenderness he could force his callused fingers to use, Ben carefully smeared the thick salve onto the bloodied welts that crossed and re-crossed several times about Joe’s back. He cringed as he gazed into the broken flesh of his son’s back and wondered silently how the boy had been able to bare the pain of such a beating. He wondered also about the incident that had led to such brutality and why Joe had disobeyed his orders and why had his son not stayed away from the young Indian maiden. All these thoughts ran rampant through his mind as he worked feverishly to bring a measure of relief from the agony that caused his youngest son to cry out.

 

Joe moaned and turned his head to the side, whimpering again.

 

“Pa?” came the weak cry.

 

“I’m right here son, try not to move around…”

 

“I…didn’t…do anything…honest,” Joe whined. “She…oh…please…it hurts, Pa…hurts,” Joe sobbed, burying his face against the mattress to muffle his sobs.

 

Ben glanced up at Hoss. The bigger man’s face reflected back to him, his own inner turbulence and Ben had to turn away, unable to meet the questions lurking behind the blue hue of his middle son’s eyes.

 

 

“I’ve sedated him, Ben. He’s in too much pain to try to stay awake; the best medicine for him at the moment is sleep. At least that way, his body can take the time it needs to begin healing.”

 

Paul Martin closed his black bag and began rolling down his shirtsleeves.

 

“This is the worse abuse I’ve seen in quite sometime, Ben. What are you planning on doing about it?”

 

“Nothing.”

 

“Nothin! Pa, ya cain’t be serious?” Hoss exclaimed in an angry voice.

 

“I am…I cannot do a thing, until I have a chance to hear what your brother has to say about what happened. He was warned, Hoss…don’t forget that…and we both know that Joe has a propensity to disobeying my orders. If what Chief Winnemucca says is true, and I have a feeling it is, he’s certainly no liar…then…as bad as it is, Joe…deserved to be punished.”

 

Ben swallowed hard and glanced down at the sleeping boy.

 

“Like that?” Hoss demanded, his ears not believing what his father had just said.

 

Ben spun around, his wrath embedded in his expression.

 

“Of course not!” he growled. “What do you take me for?”

 

Hoss’ eyes misted and he lowered his head, ashamed for believing even for a second that his father could agree to such treatment.

 

“I’m sorry, Pa…I didn’t mean…”

 

Ben turned and placed a hand on the big man’s arm.

 

“I know you didn’t, son…neither did I,” Ben said in a softer tone.

 

“Well, Ben,” Paul interrupted, “I’d best be on my way. Make sure he eats something, if he feels like it, when he wakes up and give him another powder. I want to keep him sleeping for several hours. I’ll see myself out,” he said, turning to Hoss who held the door open for him.

 

Paul patted Hoss’ arm as he slid out the bedroom door. “Send word if you need anything.”

 

“Sure thing doc, and thanks,” Hoss said.

 

When the doctor had left, Ben pulled a chair along side the bed and sat down. He felt as if his life-blood had been drained from him. His hands he held in his lap, his eyes focused on the still form of his youngest son. When he sighed, it was deep, pushing the air from deep within his lunges.

 

“I don’t understand how on earth this could have happened,” he muttered to Hoss who came to sit on the side of the bed, next to Joe.

 

Hoss’ lips were pinched tightly together. His throat was thick with emotion and he could only respond to the statement by shaking his head back and forth. The massive head lowered, shielding the well of tears from his father.

 

“I can tell you how it happened,” growled Adam.

 

He was standing behind his father. His hands rested on the back of Ben’s chair, but his long slender fingers had folded tightly as they gripped the wood.

 

Ben turned slightly, looking up into the angry face of his eldest son. Hoss raised his head, his blue eyes filled with unasked questions. They both waited for Adam’s assumption.

 

“The kid disobeyed you again. He went where he was told not to go, he saw whom he was told not to, and now he’s paying for that little rendezvous. Possibly with his life.”

 

“Aw shucks, Adam…ya don’t really think he out and out disobeyed Pa, do ya?” Hoss said, glancing once at Joe and then his father and finally bringing his eyes upward, to stare into Adam’s face.

 

“Obviously, Hoss…look at him. Lone Eagle practically ripped the flesh from Joe’s back. He must have had a good reason…”

 

“Reason is no reason!” Shouted Ben, rising from his chair. “Not for this kind of abuse!”

 

“I know that, Pa, but to the Paiutes, its different. The Chief said that Joe was caught with that girl…bathing with her! Dear God…what was he thinking? He’s lucky to even be alive!” Adam fumed.

 

His hazel eyes darkened and the anger lines deepened into his sun-bronzed face. Adam turned from the others and stormed out of the room, leaving Hoss and his father alone with Joe.

 

“He sure is put out with Little Joe, I ain’t seen him so mad since…well…since last month when Joe…aw shucks, makes no never mind. Pa?” Hoss said softly.

 

He had moved from the bed to a chair and had drawn it up next to his father.

 

“What, Hoss?” Ben answered while straightening the blankets about Joe.

 

“Ya reckon it’s true…I mean, about Joe and that girl…bathin’ together?”

 

Ben spun around, his eyes wide and his lower chin drooping. He was stunned by the suggestion, but then quickly remember that Chief Winnemucca had said that Joe and the lovely young maiden had been caught bathing…and Joe had been brought home unclothed.

 

“I didn’t know that Joe…well…ya know…knew about those…things,” Hoss stammered after seeing the shocked expression on his father’s face.

 

“He doesn’t!” Ben said quickly and then straightened the covers again even though they didn’t need to be.

 

Finally, Ben lowered himself into the chair. He leaned over and put his face into his hands and remained as such for a long period of time. When he raised his head, Hoss could see the tears that had collected in the chocolate eyes, but refused to fall.

 

“My God, Hoss, your brother is just a…boy. He’s only eighteen…how could he…oh God…of course he knows. He hasn’t been raised on a ranch and not learn about…reproduction and such.”

 

Ben glanced sideways at Hoss. “He’s not a boy, not really…though I wish he were. I thought I’d never see the day that your younger brother was a young man, I thought I’d go crazy with worry when he was a little fellow, but now…”

 

“I understand, Pa. Ya still worry about’em, the worries are just different now than back then,” Hoss whispered.

 

“I’m not sure what is worse, then or now,” Ben said, forcing a smile. “Hoss, go to bed, son. I’ll sit with Joe; I really don’t want to leave him, tonight. I want to stay close, in case…in case he needs me.”

 

Hoss understood his father’s mood, his worries about Joe, and the big man understood his parent’s feeling of helplessness, for in a sense, Hoss felt the same way about Joe; they all did, including Hop Sing.

 

“Call me if ya need anythin’” Hoss instructed as he rose.

 

He turned to go, but stopped and placed a beefy hand firmly on Ben’s shoulder, giving it a tight squeeze.

 

“Try not to worry, Pa…Little Joe’s tough, he’ll be alright.”

 

Ben gave Hoss a smile, but the shine was on his lips only, for there was no joy showing in the senior Cartwright’s eyes.

 

“Thank you, Hoss.”

 

“Anytime, Pa,” Hoss grinned.

 

 

For three long days and nights, Joe tossed and turned in the bed, moaning and crying out in anguish and pain. His fever soared; the doctor was summoned to Joe’s bedside. Ben spent endless hours tending to the wounds that reflected the abuse that his son had suffered at the hands of savages. For that was what they had become in Ben’s mind, ruthless, uncaring, brutal savages, every one of them. The devoted father’s face showed his weariness, his fatigue, his worry and concern, his doubts. But through it all, his unfaltering love for the boy was steadfast. Yet, regardless of the prompting, he refused to leave Joe even for the length of time it took to sit down at the table and eat a meal; those were now served in the sickroom, not that Ben ate much, for he barely ate enough to keep himself going.

 

Hoss worked steadily, keeping busy so that he could take his mind off the suffering, the pain, the unease and the fear that had seemed to settle itself amid his world. He felt as if he lived in an eggshell and that at any moment his world, his life, his family would shatter and life as it had once been, would never again be. He quivered in fear when he let down his guard and his thoughts turned to the unpleasantness that had settled about him. Even now, in this instance, he trembled.

 

Those same days, Adam paced the house, much like a caged animal. At night he sat beside the bed and watched the tortured expressions on his youngest brother’s face and tried to turn a deaf ear to the piteous whimpering. When he was in his bed, Adam found no rest or any peace. He lay awake, staring at the ceiling or he crawled out from beneath the covers to stand in the window, counting the stars. By the fourth night, Adam was ready to scream. He had seen and heard all he could withstand. His family was crumbling, and there seemed nothing that he could do to keep it from happening. Joe lingered between life and death, his father was becoming a shell of his former self, Hoss was quiet, keeping a strained distance from the family, and he, himself was ready to run…run far away from the eerie gloom of his once happy home.

 

On this night, Adam tore from the house and ran across the yard toward the barn. Hoss was just coming through the door and the two nearly collided in their haste.

 

“Get out of my way,” Adam snapped at Hoss while practically shoving the bigger man to one side.

 

Hoss stared into the dark eyes. “Excuse me,” he said in a condescending tone as he bowed to Adam and moved to the side.

 

“Just watch where you’re going the next time,” Adam responded, grabbing the barn door and pushing it forcibly opened.

 

He entered the barn and made toward Sport’s stall, taking the saddle from the half wall where it sat. Adam was unaware that Hoss had followed him into the darkened interior until he felt a strong hand on his shoulder.

 

Hoss clamped tightly, the flesh beneath his fingers, and spun Adam around to face him. His eyes seemed to shoot sparks of red from their ocean blue depths. His free hand was folded into a tight fist that ached for release.

 

“What in tarnation has gotten under your craw?” he demanded in a brash voice, so unlike his normal, mild-mannered tone.

 

Adam’s eyes strayed from the angry scowl to his shoulder where Hoss gripped tightly with his fingers. He could feel the pressure being applied, and he willed himself not to give in to the painful sensation.

 

“Take your hand off me, Hoss…now,” he ordered.

 

“Or what…ya gonna clobber me? Ya better think on it, Adam…and think real hard. Now ya gonna tell me what’s eatin’ at ya, or are we gonna stand here like this all night?” Hoss said with his teeth clenched together.

 

Adam squinted up his eyes, making a frown on his handsome face. Hoss had added just a bit more pressure and Adam felt his knees growing weak. He feared he might succumb to the pain.

 

“Nothing…I just need to get out of here for a while. Is there anything wrong with that?” he demanded, though his tone had softened somewhat.

 

“Nope, but there’s plenty wrong when ya come bustin’ in here shoutin’ out orders and shovin’ me aside. Now what’s wrong…did ya and pa have…”

 

“No, nothing like that. In fact, Pa’s upstairs with Joe, sleeping in that damn chair again,” snorted Adam in disgust. “You would think he’d let us take over for a few hours so that he could get some rest, but does he? Hell no, he thinks he’s the only one capable of tending to Joe!”

 

Hoss had removed his hand from Adam’s shoulder and watched as Adam massaged the sore spot.

 

“He’s going to be down sick if he doesn’t get some sleep and something solid in his stomach.” Adam moved back into the stall to finish saddling his horse. “But does he listen to me…of course not. You know what he just told me? Go ahead…take a guess.”

 

“I wouldn’t know, big brother. What did our pa say…obviously, whatever it is, has made ya very upset.”

 

“Upset? Pissed off would be more like it!” shouted Adam, guiding Sport out of the stall.

 

“You would have thought my name was Joseph, instead of Adam, the way he talked down to me! Called me, ‘boy’…’boy’, Hoss, can you believe that? Me, thirty years old and he calls me, ‘boy’,” ranted Adam.

 

Hoss’ brows shot upward and he struggled to contain himself.

 

“Oh, I see, being called a boy rubs ya the wrong way, heh?” Hoss said softly.

 

“What do you think, who wouldn’t be offended by it?” Adam led his mount out of the barn into the yard.

 

“Joe?”

 

Adam had started to mount up, but stopped and turned to look across his shoulder at Hoss.

 

“Joe? What’s he got to do with this?”

 

“You call him boy…all the time, so do I occasionally. Don’t ya reckon he gets offended by it, too, just like ya do?” Hoss said, the smile he’d been trying to keep hidden finally emerged.

 

“Why should he? He is still a boy…”

 

“Adam, I know to ya and to Pa, Joe might still seem like a boy, because of the things he says and does at times. But deep down inside of him, in his heart, he believes he’s a man, same as you and me. It ain’t right that we take that feelin’ away from him like we do. It just ain’t right.”

 

The smile had faded from the rotund face as Hoss glanced up at the window that was Joe’s room. Hoss could see his father’s shadow silhouetted against the soft glow of the lamplight that filter through the thin shears.

 

Adam’s eyes followed the same path as the two stood together, each lost in their own thoughts. It was several moments before either of them spoke.

 

“I’m sorry, Hoss,” stated Adam, drawing Hoss’ attention from the window and his private ponderings.

 

Hoss turned to his brother. “Aw…I know ya didn’t mean those things, Adam. You’re just worried about the bo…about Joe, same as me.”

 

“I am worried, Hoss, about Joe, about Pa, about…us. Something’s happening to our family, and it…troubles me,” Adam explained.

 

“What do ya mean?”

 

“I mean…we, all of us, seem to be drifting apart. I’ve felt it for sometime now,” he said.

 

“And ya ain’t said nothin’? How’s come?”

 

“I don’t know, I guess I thought it was just me. I’ll tell you something Hoss, but you have to swear not to tell anyone, especially Pa, promise?” Adam whispered.

 

“I ain’t gonna tell, long as it ain’t bad,” Hoss promised.

 

“It’s not bad, but I doubt if Pa would approve.”

 

“What is it?”

 

“I was thinking about…no, I already decided, before Joe got himself in this mess, that I was going to…leave…”

 

“LEAVE? Leave…ya mean, go away…for good?” stammered Hoss, shocked by Adam’s confession.

 

“Shh…keep your voice down. But yes, I was leaving. I was going to go back east, just for a spell, to see if I liked it or not. I wanted to be on my own…”

 

“But Little Joe got hurt, and ya changed ya mind?” Hoss asked hopefully.

 

“I didn’t really change my mind, but Joe’s getting hurt did stop me from leaving, for now. It also made me see that I’m needed here. Pa needs me, Hoss, so does Joe, whether he realizes it or not. And…” Adam’s voice faltered slightly. “I think, in a way, you need me too.”

 

Hoss’ eyes clouded with tears that he wiped away with the palm on one hand.

 

“Course we need ya…it just wouldn’t be the same, with you gone, Adam. I’ve seen that faraway look in ya eye at times, and I guess deep down, I’ve known for some time now, that something was eatin’ at ya, that ya needed something…something different than what we got here. I ain’t surprised, not really. Ya gotta decide what ya want, and then go after it, ya cain’t let us hold ya back, Adam, that wouldn’t be fair…leastwise, not to ya it wouldn’t.”

 

Adam swallowed the lump that threatened to choke him and looked into the blue eyes that watched his every move. Adam smiled.

 

“Thank you Hoss…for…understanding.”

 

Adam surprised Hoss by stepping forward and embracing the big man. For several moments the two stood locked in the embrace before Adam pulled away.

 

“Want to help me put this horse back in the barn?” he asked, grinning at his brother. “Then we can go check on…the boy.”

 

Hoss laughed, slapping Adam’s back in a brotherly manner as he took charge of Sport.

 

“I’ll do it, I have an idey that ya need to have a word with our pa, first.”

 

Adam pinched his lips tightly and nodded his head. “You’re so right, best I get to it. Pa sure is worried about Joe. I wish I could get Pa to at least take a nap, but he just won’t listen.”

 

“We could slip him a sleepin’ powder,” snickered Hoss.

 

“Hey…that’s not such a bad idea; Hoss, you’re a genius!” Adam proclaimed.

 

He turned and headed back to the house, his steps more lively than when he first came outside.

 

“Adam…don’t ya dare,” shouted Hoss in a whisper.

 

He stood and watched his older brother enter the house.

 

“Dadburn my big mouth!”

 

 

By the time that Hoss had finished unsaddling Adam’s horse and returned to the house, Adam had managed to do as Hoss suggested. Adam had taken one of the powders that Doc Martin had left for Joe and had offered it to his father in a cup of coffee, unbeknown to Ben.

 

Hoss slipped into the room quietly and tapped Adam, who was standing beside the bed, lightly on the shoulder. He glanced down at his father, already sleeping in the armchair.

 

“Ya didn’ t do that, did ya?” Hoss questioned in a whispered voice.

 

He pointed at Ben.

 

“Yep, sure did,” answered Adam. “He needed to get some sleep, Hoss. Help me move him onto the cot.”

 

Adam reached down and slid his arm under Ben’s and waited until Hoss had done the same thing. Together they lifted their father and carefully guided him to the cot where they gently lowered him. Once Adam was sure that Ben was settled, he covered the sleeping man with a warm blanket and then took the vacant chair.

 

“Get some rest, Hoss. I’ll wake you in about three hours and then you can sit with Joe. Pa won’t wake up before morning, if then,” he said with a hint of a smile.

 

“Alright, Adam, but just ya remember, when Pa asks…I didn’t have nothin’ to do with druggin’em!”

 

Hoss stepped over to the bed to check Joe’s fever before turning and bidding his brother good night.

 

Adam settled himself into the chair and picked up the book he had carried into the room with him. Within minutes, he was lost in the story he was reading.

 

 

By the end of the first week, Joe was able to sit up in bed and prop his back against a stack of soft pillows. He had been quiet, not willing to share with his father what had truly happened. A part of him still clung to the embarrassment that it caused not only for himself, but for his family as well. His reluctance made him moody and sullen. The lingering pain from his injuries did nothing to enhance his better side and it was with caution that his family approached him.

 

“Joe?” Ben said softly as he entered the room carrying a tray that Hop Sing had prepared.

 

“Hop Sing fixed you a bite to eat,” smiled Ben, placing the tray across Joe’s lap and removing the cover. “Hmm…smells good.”

 

“I’m not hungry,” Joe muttered. “Just take it away.”

 

“Joseph, you have to…”

 

“I said, I’m not hungry!” he spat, glaring at his father.

 

“I don’t like your tone of voice young man. Just because you are ill is no call for rudeness, do you understand?”

 

Ben was bent over the bed, leaning down closely to Joe. His dark eyes were enhanced by the anger that had suddenly consumed him and he made no attempt to hide it from his son.

 

Joe lowered his eyes, unable to look his father face to face. He hadn’t meant to snap, he hadn’t meant to do a lot of the things he’d done lately, like get caught naked with a young woman in his arms, for that there was no excuse and he blamed no one, other than himself.

 

“I’m sorry,” he said, at last looking up.

 

His eyes had filled with tears and though he tried to keep them from overflowing, one lone tear escaped and rolled slowly down his face.

 

Ben, seeing the tear and the sad expression on Joe’s face, forgot his anger. He picked up the tray and moved it to the nightstand and returned to the bed to sit down next to his son.

 

“Would you like to talk about…all of this?”

 

Ben watched as Joe struggled with his emotions and tried to find his voice.

 

“I…I’m not sure what…to say,” Joe said in a whisper. “I guess I owe you an apology…for embarrassing you.”

 

“For embarrassing me? Joe…what are you talking about?” Ben questioned, puzzled by the statement.

 

Joe looked up, confused. How could his father not know what he meant?

 

“Pa…I was caught with…I mean we were…hmm…just what did Chief Winnemucca tell you when he brought me home?”

 

Ben sighed deeply. “He told us that you were caught bathing with his niece, Morning Star, and that her future husband wanted to kill you, but the Chief would not let him. Instead, he allowed Lone Eagle to punish you. He also said that you freely took the girl’s punishment as well.”

 

“He told the truth…we did get caught,” muttered Joe.

 

He glanced from beneath lowered lashes at his father.

 

“Joe…would you please explain to me, what on earth you were thinking…being alone with that young woman, especially after being warned so many times?” Ben insisted.

 

“What I was thinking? You want my honest answer to that?” Joe said, with a laugh that sounded strained.

 

His eyes widened as he remembered the lovely vision that stood before him, ankle deep in the crystal clear water. He recalled the tingling sensation he felt when her fingers touched his flesh and his mind summoned up his desire for her as Morning Star pressed her lips to his in a heated kiss, but he could not tell his father all this.

 

“I wouldn’t think that you would lie to me, son,” Ben exclaimed. “What were you thinking?”

 

It was several moments before Joe could look up again and into the dark chocolate eyes that seemed to probe directly into his mind and read his thoughts.

 

“That I shouldn’t be where I was…that I should go.”

 

“Then why didn’t you?”

 

Ben watched Joe’s face and saw the faint tint of pink fill the boy’s cheeks.

 

“Joe?”

 

“I couldn’t move…she was…like a…goddess. She was beautiful…I’d never seen anything so lovely in my entire life. And when she came into the water, when she touch my face…I…it…I mean, it was as if she branded me…as hers. I…couldn’t move.”

 

Joe hung his head, afraid of what he might see illuminated in his father’s eyes.

 

“I see,” Ben whispered at last.

 

He stood up and walked across the room to the window and pulled back the curtains. Joe watched, wondering about his father’s sudden quietness and the fact that Ben seemed preoccupied with his own thoughts.

 

“I remember when I saw her for the first time. I felt much like you described…about seeing Morning Star standing before you. She too, was a vision of loveliness; just as beautiful, just as desirable, just as enchanting and bewitching,” Ben said as he stared out the window.

 

Hoss and Adam had just ridden into the yard and Ben watched as they dismounted and led their mounts into the barn.

 

“Who, Pa?”

 

“Your mother, that’s who,” Ben answered, returning to the bed and sitting back down. “I loved her from the very first minute I laid eyes on her. I was like a puppet, I…” Ben snickered softly. “She must have thought I was nothing more than a mere school boy by the way I acted around her. I couldn’t even say my name with out tripping over my tongue,” laughed Ben.

 

The sound of his father’s warm laughter and the shine that had returned to the dark eyes, mixed with the special memory, caused Joe to smile.

 

“You must have loved her a great deal.”

 

“Oh, I did Joseph, I loved her with every fiber of my being. She brought so much happiness into this house, into our lives…I…miss her very much,” he said as his smile faded.

 

“Oh hum…enough of that…Joe…what happened, I mean between you and Morning Star that you were both…let’s say, in the water together? And is it true that you two were kissing?”

 

“Yes, but…not for the reasons that Lone Eagle said. It wasn’t anything like that,” started Joe.

 

“Then tell me how it really was, please.”

 

“I had to pull a steer out of a bog, I slipped and fell in the mud. I was covered from head to toe, so after checking to make sure I was alone, I stripped and bathed off. As I was getting out of the water, there she was…standing naked before me. I didn’t know what to do…I mean, I knew I should leave…but she had hidden my clothes and I couldn’t get out of the water. I mean…well…honestly, a part of me, didn’t want to leave,” Joe said almost shyly.

 

“I bet I can guess what part that was,” laughed Adam from the doorway.

 

“ADAM!” scolded Ben.

 

“I’m sorry, Pa…I couldn’t resist, sorry Joe, guess you couldn’t resist either, could you?” Adam laughed again.

 

“No…and it cost me. My back still hurts like heck,” Joe said, suddenly feeling more at ease after explaining to his father and getting everything off his chest.

 

“Pa,” he said as Adam moved on into the room and made himself at home.

 

“Yes, Joe?”

 

“I had to take the girl’s punishment…if she had been beaten like this, she would have died, or…lived with horrible scars for the rest of her life. And besides…she would have been an outcast, her tribe would have shunned her. She was so young…I couldn’t let that happen to her. Think of what would become of her…her own family would have been forced to shun her as well, and she is only a…girl…hardly old enough to know how to survive in the world, alone. Please…can’t you understand?”

 

“Of course I can understand, but Joe…you paid an awful price for that one kiss,” his father proclaimed.

 

“Maybe, but I knew that my family would never turn away from me. I always knew that you’d be here for me, that Adam and Hoss would somehow understand why I did what I did…”

 

“I can understand the attraction, little brother. There have been those, fair maidens, that have had the same affect on me as the beautiful Morning Star had on you,” grinned Adam.

 

“What did you do about it?” asked Joe.

 

Adam rose from the bed, grinning. “I shall never tell…it’s not meant for a boy’s ears.”

 

“Adam, I ain’t a boy!”

 

Adam laughed lightly.

 

“Apparently not, not if a beautiful young woman sought you out as a desirable young man. But to me, you will always be, a boy, my little brother…”

 

“Pa!   Pa…come down here, quick,” Hoss called from the bottom of the stairs, interrupting the conversation.

 

Ben jumped to his feet, glanced at Adam and Joe and then hurried from the room without saying a word.

 

“I best see what this is about,” Adam said, rushing to follow his father. “You stay put, hear?” he tossed over his shoulder at Joe who was trying to crawl from the bed.

 

Groaning, Joe leaned back against the pillows, waiting. When he could stand it no longer, he forced himself out of bed, moving to the window to see what was going on down below in the yard. Joe saw the small band of Indians and the young girl, Morning Star, standing before his father. He was determined to get downstairs and thus grabbed his trousers and pulled them on as quickly as he could.

 

 

Joe’s strength was practically drained by the time he reached the front door and ventured out into the yard. Joe swayed slightly, being light headed from the lack of food and for the fact that he had been immobile for so many days; he clung desperately to the stout pole at the end of the porch.

 

“Pa,” he said, forcing the word upward from the depths of his throat.

 

All heads turned to see Joe slowly making his way across the yard.

 

“Joseph, what do you think you are doing, young man!” exclaimed Ben as he slipped his arm about Joe, offering his support.

 

“I’m sorry, but I had to know…what’s going on?”

 

“The Chief, and his niece have come by to check on you. They wanted to see how you were feeling,” explained Ben.

 

“Really?” Joe said, surprised that the Chief would even care.

 

“I come in peace,” Chief Winnemucca proclaimed. “I come, with niece, Morning Star, who has come to give you her thanks for saving her from being cast out of her tribe.”

 

Joe’s eyes met the dark, caramel colored eyes of the beautiful maiden and he felt himself straighten and gently he pulled away from his father, to stand on his own two feet.

 

“There’s no need to say thanks,” Joe said.

 

“Oh yes…there are many reasons to say thank you. Many more reasons to say that I am sorry,” Morning Star muttered in a soft voice.

 

She lowered her head; her shame was evident to all of them.

 

“Had I not done, what I did, you would not have been punished and made to suffer as you have.”

 

Slowly her head moved upward and she looked into Joe’s eyes. He could see the tears that were slowly building in the gloomy depths.

 

“For your suffering, I bear guilt, for your embarrassment, I bear shame. For turning away from the man I was promised to, I bear failure, for that failure, I am now forced to marry another, for Lone Eagle will no longer have me and he has within drawn his petition to take me as his wife,” the young maiden explained to Joe.

 

“I’m sorry,” whispered Joe.

 

“Do not be, my scars are less noticeable that yours are, though the pain is enough that it pierces my heart. I have learned a costly lesson, for you see, I found in my heart the love that I thought was lacking. I love Lone Eagle…I always have, though only recently have I found this to be so. It is when he refused to marry me, did I come to this knowledge and now it is too late.

 

I long to be his wife, to bear his children; I long to place my lips upon his, as I had upon your own lips, but if I be so bold to try, I will die. Lone Eagle has sworn that a kiss to his lips would be a kiss to die for. So you see, Little Joe…I too am being punished, you are not alone, for we have been foolish, we have acted as small children, not in control of our emotions and for that, we have come to an understanding. It is as my uncle has proclaimed…that we are no longer children, but adults and we must put aside our childish ways. I go now, I bid you farewell and may the light from above guide your paths and may your days be long upon this earth.”

 

Morning Star turned from them and with the help of a handsome young brave, who seemed most anxious to help the girl, Morning Star mounted her horse. Joe watched, saddened by her words as the small band of Indians rode from the yard.

 

For several moments he stood without speaking, until he felt his father’s hand rest on his shoulder.

 

“She’s going to be alright, Joseph,” Ben said.

 

“How can you be so sure?” Joe asked, turning to look questioningly into his father’s face.

 

“I just know, son. I can’t explain it, but I know.”

 

“I suppose you’re right, you usually are,” Joe said seriously and then smiled when Ben’s expression changed.

 

“Oh, you little scamp! Let’s get you back inside and into bed!” laughed Ben, realizing that his son was teasing him.

 

 

“Did ya decide?” Hoss asked Adam.

 

The two had been working together in the barn. There had been little conversation between the brothers until Hoss had gotten up the courage to broach the subject.

 

“Are ya, or aren’t ya gonna stay?”

 

Hoss set aside the rake he had been using and turned to face Adam who was just finishing with stacking some bales of hay in the corner.

 

“I’ve decided that I’m…leaving, Hoss.”

 

“WHAT?” Hoss shouted. “I thought you said…”

 

“I said I’d think about it, and I have,” answered Adam.

 

“I am going to leave…someday, just not right away,” he smiled.

 

“Ya mean, ya ain’t goin’?”

 

The relief was evident in his expression and in the way that his blue eyes lit up.

 

Adam moved over to Hoss’ side and placed his arms across the broad shoulders. He was eyeball to eyeball with Hoss.

 

“Not yet…there’s still things that I have to finish around here, before I go,” he said seriously.

 

“Yeah, like what?” Hoss questioned.

 

Adam smiled, showing his dimples.

 

“Like making sure our little brother grows up to be a man…”

 

“Adam!”

 

“Well, shucks Hoss…I can’t help it, it’s like I said days ago, to me, he’s still a boy. And until I know, or feel confident that Joe’s a full-grown man, I have to stay. I can’t go. You see, Hoss, I made a promise many years ago to his mother that I would always take care of her baby boy and until I am sure that Joe can stand on his own two feet, I’ll stay. I aim on keeping that promise.”

 

“But Adam, if ya really wanna leave, I think Joe…and Pa…will understand…”

 

“No…Joe will never understand, he’ll never be able to…and when I’m gone, he’ll never be able to forgive me for leaving him. But that’s okay, perhaps someday…in the far, far future, he will be able to accept my leaving, and until I know that he’s reached that point, I’ll stay. After all Hoss, I was in it from the beginning, I’d like to stick around long enough to see how he turns out…that is, if he will leave the women alone. With our little brother’s luck, he just might not live long enough to become a man!”

 

Hoss snickered and squeezed his brother’s arms.

 

“He’ll be fine…Joe has all the makings, he has what Pa taught him, and what he’s learned from me and Adam…he has you to look up to, and besides, he IS a Cartwright!”

 

“That’s right, he is his father’s son.”

 

Adam and Hoss, taken by surprise, turned toward the door. Ben had propped his shoulder against the frame, enjoying the gentle batter between his two oldest sons.

 

“Hey, Pa…we didn’t hear ya come in.”

 

“I know, Hoss,” smiled Ben. He turned to Adam. “I’m glad you’ve decided to stay awhile longer, Adam.”

 

Adam’s eyes opened wide in surprise. “How’d you know?”

 

Ben moved further into the barn. His voice was thick with emotion when he spoke.

 

“I’ve seen that look in your eyes for sometime now, son. I know it for what it is. You see; I’ve had that same look about me, a long time ago.”

 

“Then you’ve known?”

 

“Yes…but I was just waiting to see what you were going to do. I know why you want to go away, and I know why you’re staying. I thank you for that, son. I know Joe is not up to coping with something so traumatic right now, he’s suffered so much in the last several weeks, that you’re leaving now, would destroy him.”

 

Adam nodded his head. “I agree, but when he’s able…”

 

“I know son…but until then…let’s just enjoy our time together and not say anything to the boy…”

 

“BOY!” chorused Adam and Hoss.

 

The pair began laughing uncontrollably, leaving Ben to wonder about his sons’ sanity.

 

“What? What did I say that was so funny?” he issued.

 

“Nothing, Pa…just don’t let Little Joe hear you call him, boy!” snickered Adam.

 

“Oh…that’s right, my baby isn’t a little boy any more, is he? He’s well on his way to being a man…”

 

“That’s true…just ask the ladies! I bet before Joe gets finished sowing his wild oats, there will be more than one angry father out to get him!” laughed Adam.

 

“Don’t forget the entire Paiute nation!” Hoss added with a laugh.

 

“God help us all!” laughed Ben as he slipped an arm about each son’s shoulders and walked together across the yard.

 

“What do you say we pay the rapscallion a little visit? He was complaining about not getting enough attention,” Ben said with a light heart.

 

“Not enough attention? You’ve got to be kidding!”

 

“Ya mean havin’ half the Paiute’s in the Nevada territory on his tail wasn’t enough excitement for’em?” exclaimed Hoss.

 

“Nope…guess not,” answered Ben. “But then, that doesn’t surprise me in the least. Nothing your little brother does surprises me anymore. I think I’ve become immune to his shenanigans.”

 

“Huh…I wish the ladies would become immune to him. Pa, you do realize that we’ve got our work cut out for us now, don’t you, since Joe’s been made to think that he is a desirable young man?” laughed Adam.

 

They had reached the door. Ben’s fingers closed around the latch, but he paused before opening it and glanced up at Adam, with a desperate look in his eyes.

 

“Promise me, Adam, that you won’t go until Joe is married, with a family of his own?” pleaded Ben.

 

Adam snickered and pushed the door open so that he could go inside.

 

“Sure Pa…that could be as near as this time next year. He does have a reputation, you know.”

 

Ben had followed his boys into the house but stopped in his tracks.

 

“I’ll say it one more time, for all three of us……..God help us!”

 

The shutting of the door silenced the end of a father’s prayer. But God heard and He answered…years later when Adam had gone, and Joe was finally married to Alice.

 

THE END

MAY 2004

 

 

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