Pitfalls (by Rona)

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Summary: WHN for the episode The Trap. What did Joe and Booth say to each other in that tantalising missing scene. And what happened after that?

Rated: T   (11,520 words)

Disclaimer: All publicly recognizable characters and settings are the property of their respective owners. The original characters and plot are the property of the author. No money is being made from this work. No copyright infringement is intended.

Pitfalls

 

“Oh, Joseph,” Ben whispered and Joe felt an unbearable guilt shoot through his injured body. He tried to speak, but his tongue refused to form the words. There was a jolt of pain as Ben gently turned Joe over to lie on his back and gathered his son into his arms. Joe passed out.

Rising, Ben looked only once at Booth Shannon before he began to walk steadily down the street towards the doctor’s office. He could see Roy Coffee, the sheriff, running down the street to alert the doctor that there was a gunshot wound on the way. He vaguely remembered hearing Roy say something about that. Joe was a warm, dead weight in his arms, his head thrown back and his jaw slack. Blood soaked the left shoulder of his green jacket. Ben didn’t know how badly Joe was hurt, but the bullet was still in there and he didn’t want to risk jolting Joe around too much. Steadily, he walked, feeling all the eyes of the town on his back. Let them look! he thought. Let them see what all the gossip and innuendo has caused!

Gently, he laid Joe down on the table in the doctor’s surgery and prepared to assist as the bullet was removed from his son’s flesh. Joe lay unmoving under the knife, his face pale. At length, the bullet was found and the doctor began to stitch closed the wound. Ben looked at his hands, marveling how steady they were under the circumstances. This was not Paul Martin, the town’s usual doctor, who was away on a well-deserved and much-needed holiday. This was his locum, Dr Carver. Ben had had no choice but to trust him. Now that Joe was through the operation and beginning to come around, he felt grateful for the man’s skill. “Thank you,” he said, as he stroked Joe’s hair.

“Thank you for assisting me,” Carver replied. He was smoothly bandaging Joe’s chest and shoulder. “Not many fathers could have done what you just did.”

“I would’ve taken the bullet out myself, if that was what was needed to save Joe’s life,” Ben replied and the quiet acceptance in his voice convinced the doctor that this was not idle boasting; it was the truth. Ben bent over Joe as his son’s eyes flickered open. “Joe? How do you feel, son?”

Licking his dry lips, Joe focused on Ben’s face. “Sore,” he whispered. “Did…?”

“Yes,” Ben replied, calmly. “Booth shot you, Joe.”

Once more, the reproach in Ben’s voice, though not heard by the doctor, was almost too much for Joe. Tears formed in his eyes. “I’m sorry,” he whispered wretchedly. “I thought… if I confronted him…”

“I know what you thought, Joseph,” Ben soothed. “Don’t worry about it now, son. You just rest and get better.” He saw Joe’s eyes close again, although he plainly wasn’t asleep. Yes, I know what you thought, Ben thought sadly. You thought that Booth Shannon would kill you. You thought that you had to get this resolved. But did you really want to die, Joseph? Ben wasn’t sure if he wanted to know the answer to that question or not.

“Why don’t you go and sit down for a while, Mr. Cartwright?” the doctor suggested. “I’ll stay here with your son. I’ll give him something for the pain in a few minutes, when I’m sure the ether isn’t going to make him sick. I’ll call you if he needs you.”

“Thank you,” Ben agreed and accompanied Roy Coffee into the waiting room.

“You gettin’ a room in the hotel fer tonight?” Roy asked. Ben hadn’t realized that his friend had been in the surgery with them the whole time.

“Yes,” he replied.

“You git yerself somethin’ ta eat, hear?” Roy chided him gently and Ben nodded before sitting down in an over-stuffed leather chair. He rested his cheek against his fist as Roy left.

The door had barely closed behind Roy when it opened again and admitted Booth Shannon. The lawman looked decidedly uneasy as he laid Joe’s hat and gun on the table. “How is he?” he asked Ben.

“He’ll be all right,” Ben admitted. He eyed the other man. “You could’ve killed Joe out there,” he stated. “Why didn’t you?”

“Because I realized he was telling the truth,” Booth replied. “A killer wouldn’t have confronted me like that. But you see, I didn’t want to believe that. I’m sorry.” He sighed and moved towards the door. “Tell Joe that for me, will you?”

“Why don’t you tell him yourself?” Ben suggested. “He’s awake and I know he’d like to hear it.” He watched with interest as Booth hesitated, then squared his shoulders and went over to the inner door, opened it and disappeared inside.

With a sigh, Ben again rested his head on his hand and closed his eyes.

************************

As the door opened, both Joe and the doctor looked over to see who had come in. Carver began to look uneasy, for he knew that Booth had shot Joe. “Can I have a word with Joe?” Booth asked.

“I’m not…” Carver began.

“It’s all right, doc,” Joe replied, knowing that the only person who would have let Booth come in was his father.

“All right,” Carver agreed. “I’ll just be over here, Joe.” He stepped over to the other side of the room.

“Thanks,” Booth said, awkwardly. He hesitated and Joe just waited. He didn’t have much energy to spare and talking was something he only intended to do if he had to. At last, Booth cleared his throat. “I’m sorry, Joe,” he said. “I know you didn’t murder Burke.”

Burke had been Booth’s identical twin brother, and Joe had shot him, mistakenly thinking that Burke was a rustler. What Joe and Booth didn’t know was that Burke had shot at Joe on purpose, trying to kill him, as he had discovered that his wife Hallie was in love with Joe. Joe had shot back in self-defense, killing Burke instantly. He had suffered agonies of remorse over it. At Burke’s funeral, Hallie had asked Joe if he would take her home. There was no way to refuse and it showed the town that Hallie had forgiven him; believed that Burke’s death had been an unfortunate accident. Joe had been horrified when Hallie had then started chattering on about them getting married. Then Booth had come and Hallie had been found dead by Piaute falls. Once more, Booth had implied that Joe had killed Hallie and had put up posters offering $1000 reward for information leading to the conviction and hanging of Joseph Cartwright for the murders of Burke and Hallie Shannon. For Joe, that was the final straw and he had challenged Booth to a gunfight, knowing that, however good he was with a gun, Booth was better. And because of that action, Joe was lying here.

“How do you know?” he asked.

“A killer wouldn’t have challenged me like that,” Booth replied. “He’d have shot me in the back when I wasn’t looking; ambushed me somewhere. You took me on, even knowing that I would kill you.”

“Why am I not dead then?” Joe wanted to know.

“Because I knew the only thing you wanted was that fight, Joe. And I knew that I couldn’t back out either. I have a reputation to keep. I couldn’t go back to my job if I’d passed up a challenge like that. My town would have become lawless again and I can’t afford that. But I couldn’t kill you, knowing that you were innocent.” He looked Joe straight in the eye. “If you’d been a bit slower, I might have just winged you as I planned. But you were quicker than I expected.”

A slow smile spread over Joe’s pale face. “So it’s my own fault all around?” he joked. “It’s my fault because I challenged you and it’s my fault the wound was so bad because I’m faster with the gun than you thought.” He started to laugh, only to have it die away as the pain resurfaced.

“I am sorry,” Booth repeated. “Joe, can you forgive me?”

“Yes,” Joe replied. “Just make sure you tell everyone before you leave town.”

“What makes you think I’m leaving town?” Booth asked, wondering if this was some kind of threat, although anyone less threatening than Joe Cartwright at that moment he couldn’t imagine.

“You said something about your town,” Joe replied, suddenly feeling enormously tired. His eyelids dipped of their own accord. “I assumed that meant you were going back there.”

“You should’ve been a detective,” Booth joked. “I’m leaving now, Joe, but you can be sure I’ll pass the word around.”

“Bye, Booth,” Joe muttered. He was already drifting away. He flinched as a cold needle pierced his thigh and then he knew nothing else for quite some time.

************************

“But its not going to make any difference, is it, Pa?” Adam asked the next morning as he watched his father eat breakfast in the hotel dining room. “People are still going to believe that Joe murdered Burke and Hallie, despite what Booth says.”

“Eventually, it will make a difference,” Ben replied. He didn’t want to admit that he agreed with Adam’s depressing assessment of the situation. He signaled the waitress for more coffee.

Impatiently, Adam fiddled with his hat while he waited for Ben to finish. He wanted to shake his father, but a single glance at his face had told Adam that Ben didn’t believe that Booth’s intervention would make any difference. Half the people in the town believed that Joe was a murderer. “I had to get rid of Floyd and Cletus,” he told Ben, referring to two of the cowboys who worked for them and that Joe had befriended. They had both been with Joe that fateful day when Burke tried to kill him, although neither of them had seen anything. The lure of the money had been enough to turn them against Joe, and when Booth had rejected their offer of lying on the witness stand, it had been Floyd’s cold words to his erstwhile friend, Joe, that had finally goaded Joe into the rash action he’d taken.

“Why?” Ben asked.

“Because of what they were saying about Joe,” Adam replied, trying to keep his tone neutral. “They were running off at the mouth, implying that they knew Joe was lying.”

 “I thought Joe was their friend,” Ben responded indignantly.

“So did I,” Adam replied grimly. “And I think so did Joe until yesterday.” He repeated the gossip about Floyd goading Joe into the duel.

Ben listened in silence as he finished his coffee. He had barely slept the previous night, wondering if Joe had really wanted to die to prove himself innocent. Quite what that would have accomplished, Ben didn’t know. What he did know was that doing nothing was the hardest thing for Joe. Always, Joe had to take action and face his problems head on and alone, taking the consequences – whether good or ill – but always dealing with it. Was it any wonder, then, that he had decided that a duel was the only way to shut Booth up?

Ben knew Joe inside out, but sometimes he couldn’t understand what made his youngest son tick. Joe was handsome, clever, funny, kind, charismatic, moody, high-strung and unpredictable. He was generous with his money and with his love, defending his friends to the death, if need be. He was popular in the town. But Joe could be driven by unseen demons sometimes, and this appeared to be one of those times. He had needed his name to be cleared, so that he wasn’t treated as a pariah in the town and he had taken drastic steps to do so. But why didn’t he come to me? Ben wondered, silently. Surely I could have helped?

“Pa.” Ben looked at Adam; for a moment, he had forgotten his son was there. “Joe’s a man,” Adam went on, seeing he had his father’s attention. “Sometimes a man has to do what he thinks is right, and make his decisions alone.”

“I know,” Ben agreed, but in his mind’s eye, he could still see Joe sprawled on his face in the street, looking so vulnerable. Of all his sons, Joe was the one who was most needy of love, but who was strong – as strong as they came when need be – yet could be heart-rendingly vulnerable at other times. It was all part of whatever made Joe the striking individual that he was. “I know,” he repeated, but he didn’t sound convinced.

*********************

Joe was awake when they arrived at the doctor’s. He had slightly more color in his face and Ben was quick to smile at Joe. He got a wan smile in response. “How is he, doctor?” Ben asked. Unbidden, his hand drifted out to stroke the curls back from Joe’s face. His son’s forehead was slightly warm. “Good morning,” he added to Joe directly.

“Hi, Pa,” Joe replied, his eyes searching his father’s face.

“He’s running a slight temperature,” Carver replied,” but that’s not unusual. It’s just the shock. It’s settled a good bit over night.” He smiled at Joe. “You can take him home, if you want.”

“Oh, has he been complaining?” Adam asked, grinning at Joe. “I don’t suppose anyone warned you about Joe’s complaints.”

“Paul Martin did, before he left,” Carver replied. “He briefed me about Joe.”

But the subject of this gentle teasing had heard none of it. His eyes were still glued to his father’s face, and there he found what he sought and wished that he hadn’t. His father was disappointed in him. Ben still loved him, Joe knew, but he was disappointed in the decision that Joe had made. Joe was engulfed in shame. “I’m sorry, Pa,” he whispered.

Confused by Joe’s distress, Ben frowned slightly. He didn’t know what Joe thought, and wasn’t aware that his own confusion showed on his face. But he didn’t get a chance to say anything to Joe. Adam touched his arm and drew his attention away. “Sorry, did you say something?” he asked Adam, since his oldest son was clearly waiting for an answer.

“I said, do you want me to get the buggy while you help Joe?” Adam glanced from Joe to Ben. There was definitely something going on there, but he wasn’t quite sure what it was.

“Yes,” Ben replied, snapping back to reality and shelving the question of what Joe was apologizing for. He could find out in private at home, without the doctor standing by and listening. He smiled at Joe. “Come on, son, I’ll help you get dressed.”

“Thanks,” Joe replied, realizing with a sinking heart that his father was just going to ignore his apology, because he didn’t know if he could forgive Joe.

He obediently angled arms and legs into sleeves and pants legs and leaned heavily on Ben’s arm as he walked to the buggy. There, he was relieved to lean against Adam and doze away the journey home. But it was a long journey for Joe, and he was exhausted when he got home. Once more, Ben helped him with his clothing – this time getting undressed – and he fell asleep almost at once.

And the misunderstanding between the two was deepened.

***********************

For several days, Joe was confined to bed. He said almost nothing to anyone, always claiming to be tired and he made no further effort to apologize to Ben. Ben was confused by Joe’s behavior, but put it down to the shock, loss of blood and residual weakness. He was, as ever, loving and tender when nursing Joe, but he was haunted by the question – had Joe really wanted to die? He didn’t know how to ask, and so tried not to think about it at all. But the more he tried not to think about it, the more he couldn’t help thinking about it.

Both Adam and Hoss were aware of the slight atmosphere that permeated the sickroom, but were at a loss to explain it. Joe was very quiet, but a lot had happened to him in a very short time and Adam reasoned that he was trying to sort everything out in his mind. Joe would cheer up a lot when he was able to get up and go about a bit again.

He was right. When Joe was finally able to get up, his spirits did improve slightly. Before long, Joe was regularly walking to the yard, then to the barn, and finally around the immediate area of the house, trying to get his strength back. Joe still needed help for a lot of things, for the damaged muscles were taking a long time to heal and the weight of his left arm, without the sling, caused him a great deal of pain. But with Joe being left-handed, it meant that he was often frustrated doing ordinary chores. But being Joe, he drove himself to overcome the difficulties wherever possible.

One particular sunny afternoon, Joe had been standing in the yard, passing the time with the horses in the corral. It had been almost three weeks since the shooting and Joe was frustrated with his slow recovery. Normally, he healed fast. But today, he felt better than he had in a long time. Suddenly, he decided that he had to talk to Ben. “I gotta find out if he understands, Cooch,” he whispered to his horse. “I can’t go on like this.”

The decision made, Joe marched purposefully towards the house. Part of his problems had been this unresolved matter between him and his father. Joe usually dealt with things straight out and not confronting the issue had been playing on his sub-conscious.

The door was open to allow any breezes into the house. As Joe neared, he heard Adam and Ben talking. He couldn’t catch any words to begin with, but as he came into the house, he could hear the words quite clearly. “Of course I’m disappointed in him,” Ben was saying, testily. “Did you think I wasn’t?”

“I don’t know!” Adam retorted. “You didn’t say anything.”

“It’s hardly been the time or the place, has it?” Ben returned. “But don’t worry, Adam, I will talk to him. This can’t go on any longer.”

Stunned, Joe stepped back. So it wasn’t forgotten and Ben didn’t sound like he was going to forgive Joe any time soon. He walked away from the house without any awareness of what he was doing. Somehow, he managed to saddle his horse and rode away.

***************************

“I wonder where Joe went,” Adam frowned as he and Ben went out into the yard. “He was here when I rode in a few minutes ago.”

“It was almost half an hour ago,” Ben reminded him. “Perhaps he’s in the kitchen. I’m going to have to tell him about letting Pete go. I’m sure Joe will as disappointed as we are in his attitude. He’s been so careless. I’ll catch Pete as soon as I’ve spoken to Joe. You know that he was doing his best to help Pete out.” Pete was a hapless young drifter that Joe had befriended and offered a job to. He had tried very had to learn, but just wasn’t cut out to be a cowboy. That morning, he had left a gate open and the young horses in that corral had all got out. Pete had tried to round them up, but had ended up spooking them so badly Adam thought it would take another couple of days to get the horses caught again.

But Joe wasn’t in the kitchen and he wasn’t in the barn. And it was about then that they realized that Cochise wasn’t in the corral anymore. “He shouldn’t be riding yet!” Ben stormed. “And who saddled the horse for him? I gave strict instructions that no one was to saddle Joe’s horse for him, no matter what he said!”

“He’ll be back, Pa,” Adam said, comfortingly. “You know how restless the kid is. He’ll come back all smiles again. You know how he is about that horse!”

“He should have told me!” Ben fumed.

“And you’d have forbidden him to go,” Adam pointed out. “Can you blame him for not mentioning it?”

“Yes!” Ben declared, but a small smile tugged at the corner of his mouth. “No, I guess not.” He sighed. “But I’m worried about Joe, Adam. He’s been so quiet lately. He doesn’t really talk. And he watches me as though he’s looking for something from me, but I’m not sure what it is he wants.”

There wasn’t an answer to this, so Ben looked at Adam. “What?” he asked.

“Don’t lose your temper,” Adam began, slowly. “But you haven’t exactly encouraged Joe to talk to you, have you, Pa? I don’t know what Joe is looking for either, but he doesn’t want to talk to either Hoss or myself. Whatever he wants, he wants from you.”

“No, I haven’t tried to talk to him much, have I?” Ben replied. “I’m afraid to ask him why he challenged Booth. He knew he didn’t stand a chance against him.”

“You’ve got to talk to him, Pa,” Adam suggested. He put his foot in the stirrup and mounted Sport, who pranced impatiently, tossing his head, as Adam reined him in for a moment. “And don’t worry about the kid; he’ll be back for supper!” He turned the temperamental chestnut gelding and rode out of the yard.

“I hope you’re right,” Ben muttered.

*********************

Joe was in no hurry; he had no destination in mind. He simply rode where the wind took him, although he was careful to avoid the area by the lake; that was the first place his family would look for him. Ben’s words ‘of course I’m disappointed in him’ rang through his mind endlessly. Joe was utterly miserable.

As evening came on a thin, cold rain began to fall. Joe knew he would have to seek shelter. He was already chilled, since he wasn’t wearing a jacket and exhaustion was beginning to make lethal in-roads on his stamina. Joe glanced around to get his bearings. He was still on the ranch, close to an old cabin that had once housed the prospector who had originally owned this land. He had never found the vein of gold that he was looking for and had willingly sold out to Ben Cartwright and moved on. Ben kept the cabin in good condition, treating it as he would one of his line shacks. Joe knew he would have to be careful riding there in the growing darkness. The ground was riddled with holes, for the prospector hadn’t realized that digging into the hillside was more likely to produce results than digging down. Joe nudged Cochise in that direction.

It didn’t occur to Joe that there was smoke coming from the cabin chimney. He simply slid down from his horse in the shelter of the lean-to and leaned against him, totally drained. It was only when Cochise snorted and something prodded him in the back that Joe realized he wasn’t alone with his horse. “Well, this is a nice surprise, Joe,” Floyd said, sarcastically. “What cha doin’ here? Come to throw us out?”

Turning slowly, Joe eyed the two men. Floyd had his gun drawn. “If I’d known you were here, that’s exactly what I’d be doin’,” he responded, coldly. “My Pa told you to leave.”

“We didn’t do nuthin’!” Cletus protested.

“Offering to lie on the witness stand is nothing, is it?” Joe asked, cuttingly. “You were my friends! How could you offer to sell me out like that?”

“Friends with the boss’ son?” Floyd scoffed. “No, but we had you fooled! We thought it’d be good to be your pals; we would get the easy jobs. But it didn’t work that way, did it? But $1000! It might be nuthin’ to you, Cartwright, but its more money than I ever seen in my life!”

“Put the gun away,” Joe told him, wearily. He wasn’t armed, since he could barely use that arm. Just the thought of unsaddling his horse was making him tired. “You can stay till morning,” Joe told them. “Then clear off.” He turned his back on them and began to undo the cinch one-handed.

An arm suddenly circled Joe’s throat and his back was bent at a painful angle. “We ain’t goin’ anywhere,” Floyd growled. Joe struggled, but Floyd was taller than he was. Joe was helpless to resist as he was dragged into the cabin and thrown into a chair.

“Why?” he gasped, as he regained his breath. “Why are you doing this?”

“Cos we’re tired of having Cartwrights shove us around,” Floyd answered. He took a long swig from a bottle on the table and Joe realized that they were both drunk. His heart sank. “We’re gonna have a little fun with you, Cartwright!” He grinned at the expression on Joe’s face.

*********************

When darkness fell, Ben was forced to admit that Joe was not coming back. He had picked at his supper, drawing concerned mutterings from their Chinese housekeeper, who was just as worried about Joe as Ben was. Restlessly, Ben had paced the floor, going often to the door until the rain, cold and darkness forced him inside.

“Pa.” At the voice, Ben blinked and looked at Adam, who was standing close by him. “I’m sure Joe’s all right,” he offered lamely.

It took all of Ben’s not-inconsiderable self-control to not shout at Adam. Adam had assured him Joe would be back for supper. Well, he wasn’t! Why was Adam now so sure that Joe would be all right? He took a deep breath to stop the words spewing out; it wasn’t Adam’s fault and no good would come of Ben taking his worry out on someone else. I just wish I had your certainty, Ben thought and then realized from the look on his son’s face that Adam was not in the least certain; he was only offering what comfort he could.

“Why has he gone?” Ben asked, not wanting to say the words ‘run away’, even though that was what Joe appeared to have done. Could a grown man run away from home? Ben wondered, idly. “Why now? What triggered it?”

There was silence. Hoss stared moodily into the fire; Adam’s gaze lengthened as he thought back to that afternoon. Ben resumed pacing. He wanted to rush outside and start hunting for Joe, but he had no idea where to look. The rain would wash any tracks that there might have been away.

Suddenly, Ben realized Adam was staring at him with an odd intensity. “What is it?” Ben demanded, alarmed by his son’s utter stillness. “Adam?”

“What were we talking about before we discovered that Joe was gone?” Adam asked.

Perplexed, Ben replied, “We were talking about Pete and how disappointed I was in…” His voice trailed off and he met Adam’s gaze. “You don’t think…?”

“Yes, I do,” Adam replied, grimly.

“Think what?” Hoss cried, frustrated by the cryptic statements his father and brother were conversing in. “What d’ya think?”

Sinking into a seat, Ben said, “We were discussing Pete and how disappointed we were in him. I think Joseph overheard us and thought we were talking about him.”

Frowning, Hoss asked, “Why would Little Joe think that, Pa? That don’ make sense.”

There was a long silence. Hoss glanced at Adam, who met his eyes briefly before shaking his head and looking back at Ben. He felt sure that this was the crux of the matter. He waited and Hoss waited, still not sure what was going on. Adam didn’t know for certain either, but he had a feeling…

“I was disappointed in Joe,” Ben admitted, his voice so low that his sons had to strain to hear it. “When he went after Booth Shannon, I was disappointed. I was disappointed that he had chosen that way to solve his problem. I was disappointed that he hadn’t come to me and talked it through. And I wondered if he really wanted to die. But Joe was sick and I couldn’t say anything. But perhaps he sensed how I felt. When he tried to apologize and tell me how he felt and what he thought, I cut him off and told him I knew and that he had to rest.” Ben swallowed. “He apologized to me the next day, too, but I didn’t know why he was sorry and then you asked me about the buggy, Adam, and I began to help him get dressed. I just let it slide. And after he was home…” Ben looked utterly wretched. “I didn’t want him to explain why he went after Booth. I didn’t know if I could face him telling me he wanted to die.”

Sitting down on the table in front of Ben, Adam put his hand on his father’s arm. “I don’t think Joe did want to die,” he assured Ben. “Remember, I told you Floyd and Cletus had goaded Joe into confronting Booth? I think this is another example of Joe’s famous ‘act before you think’ attitude. He was desperate to do something to sort out the situation and this seemed to him to be the right thing. I don’t think for a minute that Joe actually thought of his own mortality at all.”

“It don’ sound like Joe ta want ta die,” Hoss insisted stoutly. “But he allus was chiv…chiv…”

“Chivalrous?” Adam suggested, wondering what that had to do with this situation.

“Yeah!” Hoss exclaimed, his face clearing. “Maybe he were thinkin’ about them knights what used ta fight ta clear their names. Ya know, Adam.”

Thus appealed to, Adam did his best to back Hoss’ hypothesis. “Trial by combat,” he nodded. “Could be. It certainly sounds like Joe’s thinking.” His brief try at humor fell flat and he turned back to Ben. “Pa, the point is, Joe could have talked to any of us, and didn’t. We all know how he is at blowing things out of proportion, don’t we? Yes, I think he did sense that you were disappointed in him, but because he wasn’t well, he probably convinced himself that we didn’t like him any more.” Adam almost said ‘didn’t love him’, but changed his mind at the last second. “Don’t go blaming yourself, Pa, any more than we should go blaming Joe.”

“Yes, you’re right,” Ben agreed, but he didn’t sound convinced. Until he had Joe safely back home and had cleared up this misunderstanding, he wouldn’t be happy.

***************************

Despite the dire nature of Floyd’s threat, neither he nor Cletus did anything physical to Joe. They tied his hands together and taunted him about murdering Burke and Hallie, but didn’t lay a finger on him. Joe was relieved. He could endure the taunts, he thought, but he knew he wasn’t up to any kind of beating.

But the taunts were enough. Floyd and Cletus had been with Joe on the day that Burke had died, and had later been with Booth when he found Hallie’s body. They had stood in the jailhouse and listened while Booth told Roy what he thought had happened to Hallie – basically that Joe had murdered her. At the end of his recitation, Booth admitted he had no proof and left. But Floyd and Cletus had been standing there and Joe had been quite right when he said, looking at them, that he’d already been tried, even if it wasn’t in a court of law. Thrilled beyond measure to be caught in the middle of this battle of wills between Booth Shannon and the Cartwrights, they had soon capitalized on their proximity to Burke’s death and passed on gossip quite cheerfully, jettisoning Joe’s friendship without a qualm.

“You better be nice ta us, Joe,” Floyd stated, breathing whiskey fumes over Joe. “If’n we go ta Roy Coffee an’ tell him that we saw ya shoot Burke, you’ll hang!”

“Roy’s not going to believe that now!” Joe declared. “You were with me when I brought Burke in and you told him what you’d heard and what you’d seen – nothing! Change your story now and you’ll likely do time for perjury!”

“That’s a real fancy word,” Floyd drawled. “Cletus, ya reckon Cartwright’s tryin’ ta scare us with it?” He laughed.

“I reckon so,” Cletus responded. He wandered over and loomed threateningly over Joe. “You tryin’ ta scare me, boy?” he asked.

Glaring back, Joe refused to be intimidated. “I’m telling it how it is,” he insisted, holding on to the embers of his temper. “You two wasters had better get out of here come morning.”

“He is tryin’ ta scare us!” Floyd scoffed. He yanked Joe to his feet and shook him. “Ya better jist shut up!” he warned. “Cos ya’re annoyin’ me now.”

Angry, Joe shoved the other man, wincing at the pain that lanced through his shoulder. Floyd was no less angry, but he was also drunk. He shoved Joe back much harder than was necessary and watched in surprise as Joe crashed into the cabin wall and slowly slid to the floor, out cold.

“Well, don’ that beat all,” Floyd murmured and returned to his bottle. Cletus copied him a moment later.

************************

It was debatable if Ben slept at all that night. He was up before dawn and while Adam and Hoss finished up their hasty breakfast, he was out getting the horses saddled. The rain from the previous evening hadn’t quite cleared away and the morning was grey and dismal.

“Where are we gonna look?” Hoss asked Adam as they left the table.

“I don’t know,” Adam admitted. “But I guess Pa will start at the lake and we’ll see from there.” He slid on his custard-colored coat with a shiver that didn’t come entirely from the cool, damp morning.

But their luck was in that morning. As they rode towards the lake, Hoss spotted some tracks angling off in a totally different direction. He pulled Chubb to a halt and got down to look more closely. The tracks were under the shelter of a large tree and the rain hadn’t touched them. “Pa! Look!” He waited while Ben and Adam came back and looked at the tracks. “They could be Joe’s,” Hoss suggested. “And we ain’t got anythin’ ta lose followin’ them, do we?”

Hesitating, Ben thought that through. He needed to find Joe quickly to heal the rift between them. His first instinct had been to go to the lake, but if Joe really were trying to avoid them, would he go there? That was the first place they had thought of. Why couldn’t he decide what to do?

“All right, let’s follow these tracks,” he agreed. They all mounted up and followed Hoss, who led the way.

*************************

When Joe roused, he blearily opened his eyes and gazed around. He was lying slumped against the wall on his sore shoulder, which was throbbing fiercely. Raising his bound hands, he gently probed the back of his head and wasn’t surprised when his fingers came away with blood on them, but the head injury didn’t seem serious. Joe looked at his captors and saw that they would soon pass out from the drink. He struggled to sit up and saw Cletus glance his way for a moment.

It had been dark outside for hours, and Joe could hear the rain drumming down on the cabin roof. He knew that it would be foolish to try and escape, but he knew that morning would only bring one improvement – it would be daylight. Floyd and Cletus would be hungover and nastier than ever and he didn’t want to wait to see what they would do to him come morning.

It was a while before he was sure they were both asleep – or passed out would probably be more accurate, Joe thought – but raucous snores soon told him what he wanted to know. Slowly, Joe got to his feet and looked around for a sharp knife to free his bound hands. But he was to be frustrated. Although there were several knives in the cabin, none of them was sharp enough to make any impression on the rope that bound him.

“I’ll just have to manage,” Joe muttered and swiftly checked himself. He would have to be careful that he didn’t talk aloud. He thought it unlikely that either Floyd or Cletus would be roused by him talking, but he didn’t want to take any chances. He made his way over to the door as silently as possible.

This was the tricky part, Joe acknowledged. The cool rush of air might well be enough to rouse the drunks. Joe wanted to try and slip out and get to Cochise without them noticing that he had gone. The latch was difficult to maneuver with his hands tied like that, but Joe persevered, convinced that he would find a knife in the men’s saddlebags.

The door opened with an unexpected, horrendous creak and a blast of cold wind and rain rushed in and soaked Joe. Floyd, the nearest to the door, also got doused. Spluttering, he opened his eyes and looked right at Joe, who stood, frozen, in the doorway. At once, Floyd realized what was happening and he lunged for Joe. “Get back here, Cartwright!” he cried.

Startled, Cletus woke, too, and gazed around blearily. But as he saw Floyd race out of the door, he saw that Joe was gone and leapt to his feet to hurry outside, too. He could see two figures running and he hastened after them.

The rain dashing in his face and his bound hands hampered Joe, as did his exhaustion. He stumbled and nearly went down several times, but each time he kept his feet, knowing that to fall would be the end of his escape. He didn’t dare look back. His breath panted away from him and his injured shoulder burned viciously.

And then suddenly, there was nothing under his right foot. Joe tried to check, but he was going too fast, he felt his left ankle twinge as it twisted violently as he fell – down, down – until he hit bottom with a thud and knew no more.

Startled by the sudden disappearance of his quarry, Floyd barely managed to stop himself falling into the hole on top of Joe. He peered into the darkness in front of him, but beyond the shadowy outline of the hole, he couldn’t see a thing. No sounds came from the hole.

Cletus came panting up. “Where is he?” he demanded. “Cartwright didn’t get away, did he?”

“No,” Floyd answered and a grin began to creep over his face. “He fell in a hole.” He pointed.

“What we gonna do?” Cletus asked. He had always followed wherever Floyd had led.

“We’re gonna leave him there,” Floyd answered. “Let’s get out of this rain!” Turning, he led the way back to the cabin without a backward glance. Obediently, Cletus followed him.

***********************

For a long time after he regained consciousness, Joe simply lay still. He wasn’t sure he could move, but after a time, the cold rain soothed some of his aches and he made an effort to sit up. His entire body felt wrenched, but the sorest areas settled across his shoulders, down his arms and his ankles. Wincing as he raised his hands to brush the wet curls off his face, Joe knew there was no point calling for help. Floyd hadn’t been that far behind him. He must have seen the fall, yet Joe was still here. Joe was on his own.

Squinting up into the pouring rain, Joe estimated that the pit was at least eight feet deep. He had fallen into one of the holes the prospector had dug, looking for gold. Eight feet wasn’t that much of a climb under normal circumstances, but under normal circumstances, Joe’s hands weren’t tied and he didn’t already have a bad shoulder.

Doing nothing wasn’t an option. Joe felt about the bottom of the pit, hoping he would come across a broken blade or something sharp that might help him get free. Although he encountered a few sharp pebbles, none of them were sharp enough for his purposes and there was nothing else.

“Its only eight feet,” Joe told himself sternly, wondering why that eight feet sounded like eighty feet, or eight hundred feet. He rolled onto his knees and made a try for his feet.

Agonizing pain shot up his right leg and the ankle folded beneath him. Joe let out a whimper of distress as he crumpled to the ground. After a few minutes, the pain was bearable once more. Joe wondered if he should try standing once more, but cautiously this time. He would try with the other leg. But this time, he could barely move his foot, never mind put weight on it and Joe knew that he was well and truly stuck. He leaned back against the dirt walls and wondered what on earth he was going to do.

***************************

By great good fortune, the rain hadn’t washed away all the tracks the Cartwrights were following. Sometimes they lost the trail and would have to cast around until they found it again, but a lot of the way, the tracks had been protected by the heavily leafed trees and this gave them a chance. The other thing on their side was time. Joe had left the house in the late afternoon and Ben hoped that they would catch up to his son soon, since they seemed to be moving much faster than Joe had been doing.

***************************

“Cartwright?” a voice called and Joe surfaced out of an uneasy slumber. He bit back the moan that rose to his lips, for his body was stiff and sore and he was soaked to the skin. “Sleep well, did you, Cartwright?” Floyd laughed.

“What do you want?” Joe called back, although he hadn’t intended to speak.

“Nothing,” Floyd replied. He leant over the hole, peering down at Joe. “Why you’re still all tied up, Joe! Weren’t you able to get free?” He glanced over his shoulder. “Look at this, Cletus. Joe’s all tied up!”

“So he is,” Cletus agreed, appearing beside Floyd. “Are you comfortable, Cartwright?”

Doing his best to ignore them, Joe leaned back into the corner where he’d propped himself and wondered once more how he would get out of this situation. He couldn’t expect help from his family, he reasoned, as they were unlikely to be looking for him, given how Ben felt about him right then. And even if Adam or Hoss had persuaded Ben to go looking for him, the rain that was still falling would have obliterated any tracks he’d made. Joe shivered. He couldn’t see any way out.

“Here,” Cletus called, in a hushed tone. Something thudded down beside Joe and he saw it was a canteen. “Floyd an’ me is leavin’ now. I’ll try an’ tell someone where you are before the water runs out.”

Refusing to let himself hope, Joe reached for the canteen and slaked his thirst. From above, he heard the sound of hoof beats and wondered if they had taken Cochise, or left his horse behind. Not that it made any difference to him; Cochise was about as far away as heaven right then.

Feeling that he couldn’t just sit there and do nothing, Joe again started to struggle with the ropes that bound him. He had no more luck than he had had previously and only succeeded in tearing the skin on his wrists still further. He slumped back once more.

The rain stopped a little while later. Joe was grateful, but he was already soaked through and the sun, which was now offering to shine, would not reach down far enough to offer him any warmth. The damp was soaking through the butt of Joe’s pants, but there was nowhere else he could move to. Everything was just as wet.

“Oh, Pa, I wish I’d spoken to you sooner,” Joe whispered, brokenly. He dashed his eyes over his damp sleeve. “Then perhaps I’d know you were coming for me, instead of sitting here wondering when you’ll find my body.”

***************************

Watching Ben morosely filling his canteen at the stream, Adam muttered, “I’m going to throttle that boy when we find him!”

“Aw, Adam, lighten up a bit,” Hoss pleaded. “Gettin’ angry ain’t gonna solve anythin’. Joe must be hurtin’ real bad fer him ta run off like that.” He fixed Adam with a keen stare. “Jist think how ya’d feel if’n ya thought Pa were disappointed in ya an’ didn’ want ta talk ta ya.”

Avoiding Hoss’ gaze, Adam thought back to the times when he had done something that Ben hadn’t approved of and his father had let him know how disappointed he’d been. Ben’s disappointment had been worse – much worse! – than his anger. Remembering how it had felt, Adam also remembered that Ben had never avoided speaking to him. All right, he had never done anything as crack-brained as deliberately challenge a fast gun to a fight, but he could imagine how awful it must be to fear that his father was so disappointed in him that he didn’t want to talk to him. And for someone as sensitive as Joe, it must have been soul destroying.

Thoroughly chastened, Adam glanced at Hoss again. “You’re right,” he apologized. “I’m sorry.”

Hoss smiled. “Adam, it ain’t jist anger talkin’ there,” he reminded his older brother, gently. “That’s worry, too.” He patted Adam’s arm and walked over to his horse, leaving his older brother not sure whether to laugh or cry. Hoss had a remarkable talent for focusing others’ minds on the important things. He could administer a slap-down in the nicest possible way.

Watching Adam as he mounted his horse again, Hoss knew why his brother had been so angry. It was because he was no longer just worried about Joe, he was frightened for him. But being Adam, he wasn’t prepared to deal with that feeling yet, so he pretended to himself that he was angry. Hoss knew both his brothers. He accepted them just the way they were and loved them both. But ever since he’d been told he was going to be a big brother – just like Adam – he had carried a special place in his heart for Joe. He knew that Adam had a special place for both he and Joe. That was what big brothers did.

“Let’s go,” Ben ordered curtly, breaking in to Hoss’ thoughts.

“We’ll find him, Pa,” Hoss stated with quiet certainty.

**********************

They hadn’t ridden much further when Hoss lost the trail. Confused, he stopped and dismounted, circling round on foot while Adam held Chubb’s rein. Ben tried not to look anxious and failed. They had been lucky to this point; was their luck going to run out now?

“He turned off that-a-way,” Hoss told them, remounting.

“I wonder why he went this way,” Adam mused.

“I reckon it was gettin’ dark,” Hoss replied. “An’ it was rainin’, too. I reckon he went to the old prospector’s cabin fer shelter.”

“Of course!” Ben exclaimed and urged his mount to a faster pace. Adam and Hoss copied him.

***********************

Chilled to the bone, Joe tried to sleep to pass the time, but although his body was weary and he was exhausted, his mind wouldn’t stop spinning as he sought to find a way out of his predicament. But there was no way out. He rubbed his face. “This is all because I challenged Booth Shannon,” he said aloud. “If I hadn’t done that, I wouldn’t have been shot and Pa wouldn’t be so disappointed in me that he won’t talk to me.”

Yet, thinking about it more, Joe knew that he couldn’t have done anything different. He knew that challenging Booth would settle things one way or the other. Although Joe knew that there was a chance he could die, he didn’t really believe it. Despite his close brushes with death, Joe had no real sense of his own mortality.

But what he would have done differently was confronting Ben. “Why didn’t I talk to you, Pa?” he cried in anguish. “I know you were disappointed in me, but I should have explained.” Once more, he dashed away tears. “It’s all my fault!”

After a time, he reached for the canteen and took a sip. He didn’t know why he was rationing his water; the longer it lasted, the longer it would take him to die. But even in this predicament, with no obvious chance of survival, Joe could not meekly accept death. He knew it was a possibility, but wouldn’t admit that it was a probability. Leaning his head back, Joe closed his eyes and slipped into an uneasy slumber.

*********************

“Better slow down,” Hoss warned the others. “The ground’s full of pitfalls here.”

“I thought we had them filled in,” Adam replied, frowning.

“Sure did,” Hoss agreed. “But I ain’t so sure we found all of ‘em. The ground was fair riddled with ‘em.”

A ringing neigh drew their attention from the ground to the cabin. A black-and-white head was sticking out of the lean-to. “Cochise!” Adam exclaimed, as though the other two needed help in identifying Joe’s horse. Covering the last few yards, Adam flung himself from his horse and threw open the cabin door, expecting to find Joe asleep on the bunk or sitting at the table. But the cabin was empty. “He’s not in here,” he reported.

“An’ his pony ain’t bin unsaddled, neither,” Hoss added. “That ain’t like Little Joe.”

“Well, standing here won’t find him!” Ben exclaimed impatiently. He got off Buck and tethered him to the hitching rail. Cupping his hands round his mouth he shouted, “Jo-seph!”

***********************

Jerked out of sleep by some noise or other, Joe looked up. What had wakened him? He held his breath, straining to hear, but whatever it had been wasn’t repeated. Bitterly disappointed, Joe slumped down, convinced he had dreamed the noise.

But the next moment, he heard the sound he had been longing for, although he had not thought to hear it. “Jo-seph!”

“Pa!” he screamed. “Pa, I’m down here! Pa!”

Breathlessly he waited.

“I’m coming, Joe!” he heard Ben call. “Keep shouting!”

**************************

“That’s Joe!” Ben exclaimed. “But where is he?” He drew a deep breath and shouted, “I’m coming, Joe. Keep shouting!”

“Here!” Joe called. “I’m down here!” In his excitement, Joe tried to draw his legs under him, as though being on his feet would make him any more visible. But the pain in his legs brought him to a gasping halt and for a moment, he couldn’t breathe, never mind shout.

“Joe? Joe! Are you all right, son?” Ben paused, worried when Joe’s voice stopped.

“I’m here!” Joe called again, but his voice sounded thinner.

It took only seconds before all three were leaning over the edge of the hole, peering down into the darkness. For a moment, until their eyes adjusted, they could see nothing. Then Joe moved fractionally and a collective gasp escaped his family’s throats. “Joe, are you hurt?” Ben called.

“Yes,” Joe admitted, miserably. First he had to go and do something stupid like run off, he thought, then he had to get hurt, too. No wonder Pa was disappointed in him! “I’m sorry, Pa.”

“I’ll be down there in a minute, Joe, just hang on,” Ben replied. He didn’t want to have any kind of conversation with Joe when they were separated by an eight-foot drop. “Get some rope,” he ordered, straightening, but he saw that his order had been superfluous. Hoss was already on his way.

Together, Adam and Hoss lowered Ben carefully into the hole. Joe blinked back tears. Whatever happened now, he was safe. The relief made him feel weaker than he had felt the whole way through this ordeal.

Sliding off the rope, Ben crouched by Joe’s side and gathered his youngest son into his arms. “Joe! Thank goodness we found you!” he exclaimed. “I’ve been so worried!”

Safe in Ben’s arms, Joe began to relax. His father felt so warm and Joe didn’t want to let him go. “I’m sorry I worried you,” he replied in a low voice. “I didn’t mean to be a bother to you.”

“You’re never a bother to me, son,” Ben told him, sincerely. “Let’s see about getting you out of here.” Ben let go of Joe and reached for his knife, slicing through the bonds that had held his son prisoner for so many hours. “Who did this to you, Joe? And where are you hurt?”

Haltingly, Joe told his story from his arrival at the cabin to Cletus and Floyd leaving him there. Ben didn’t try to hide his shock. “Oh Joe,” he whispered. “I’m sorry this had to happen to you.” He gently felt down his son’s legs, feeling Joe tense as he neared his sore ankles. The merest touch to the left ankle had Joe screaming out in pain and Ben stopped. It was more than obvious that Joe would not be walking anywhere.

“We’re going to need a travois to get Joe home,” Ben called. He took the rope he’d used to come down and looped it around Joe’s shoulders. “I’m sorry, son, this is going to hurt.”

“It’s all right,” Joe replied. He wanted, more than anything, to get out of that hole. He braced himself for the inevitable pain, but he was unprepared for the ferocity and was barely conscious as Hoss finished pulling him out of the hole.

Gently, the big man laid Joe down on the blanket he had spread out earlier and tenderly tucked it around Joe. His brother was so cold. “There ya go, punkin,” he soothed, his hand brushing Joe’s damp curls back from his head.

“Thanks, Hoss,” Joe replied, between chattering teeth. The air above ground was palpably warmer than the air in the hole and Joe couldn’t understand why he was shivering like mad. He closed his eyes and gritted his teeth to stop them chattering.

“Get another blanket,” he heard Ben say, and then his head and shoulders were lifted from the ground and he looked up to see Adam cradling him. Slightly surprised, he looked round for Ben and saw his father at his feet. “Joe, we’ve got to get these boots off before there’s permanent injury to your legs. I’m sorry, son, but its going to hurt.”

“Just do it,” Joe replied through gritted teeth. He braced himself once more, but as with his rescue from the hole, he wasn’t really prepared for the amount of pain and this time, he passed out.

“Thank heavens!” Ben exclaimed as he began to work more quickly. “Adam, give Hoss a hand when I’m finished this and get the travois rigged. Then ride into town and bring back Doc Carver.”

“Doc Martin’s back from holiday,” Adam replied.

“Even better,” Ben responded. He grimaced as he saw the blackened, swollen mess that was Joe’s left ankle. He began to saw through the right boot and found that ankle in almost as bad a state.

“Both broken, huh?” Adam asked, softly. “Poor Joe.”

“I think you’d better tell Roy about this too, Adam,” Ben added. He tucked the extra blanket that Hoss had brought over Joe and moved to relieve his older son. “If I could get my hands on Floyd and Cletus, I’d horse-whip them!” he declared.

“Would you, Pa?” asked a weak voice and Ben looked down to discover that Joe had woken. He was desperately pale.

“Yes, I would,” Ben vowed. “Joe, I’m so sorry you had to go through this.” He had estimated that Joe had been in the hole for more than 12 hours.

“It’s my own fault,” Joe replied.

“How do you work that one out?” Ben asked.

“Well,” Joe moved uneasily and Ben automatically began to smooth the curls back from his forehead. “If I hadn’t challenged Booth and got myself shot, you wouldn’t have been so disappointed in me that you couldn’t bring yourself to speak to me. Then I wouldn’t have left and run into Floyd and Cletus and they wouldn’t have chased me into that hole.”

“Let’s get a few things straight here,” Ben replied, deciding that now was as good a time as any to have this talk. “Yes, I was disappointed that you went ahead and challenged Booth without talking to me about it first. But the person I was referring to yesterday afternoon was not you, Joe. I was talking about Pete, who left open the corral gate and let all those young horses out. We still haven’t got them all rounded up. But with horses milling about everywhere and the place in an uproar, I couldn’t talk to him then.” Joe was watching him intently, Ben saw. “Did you want to die?” he asked, abruptly.

“No!” Joe cried. “I didn’t think about dying, Pa. I just wanted everything sorted out. Floyd and Cletus had been speaking to Booth and I just knew I had to do something. I didn’t want to die, though. Please believe me.”

“I do believe you, Joe,” Ben assured him.

Relief made Joe start to tremble again. He hadn’t noticed his shivers dying away as the warmth of the blankets, the sun and body heat from his father warmed him through. “Then why didn’t you accept my apology?” Joe asked in a whisper. “I could feel how disappointed you were and when you wouldn’t let me talk, I thought you didn’t want anything to do with me.”

“Oh, Joe, is that how I came across?” Ben asked, aghast. “When you were sick, did you think I was looking after you out of duty?”

“I don’t know!” Joe cried. “But you kept watching me, as though you were puzzled and didn’t know what to say and I thought you were so disappointed in me that you were keeping your distance.” Tears broke out. “I didn’t know what to think, Pa. I know I let you down.”

“You didn’t let me down, Joe,” Ben soothed. “Listen to me.” He waited until he had Joe’s full attention. “I let you down by not talking to you. I was afraid, you see. I was afraid that you did want to die, and I didn’t want to hear you say that, Joe.  I couldn’t bear to lose you.” He sniffed raggedly as his son clung to him. “I love you very much, Joe. I always have and I always will. I’m not perfect, Joe and I make mistakes. And I made a big one with you. Can you ever forgive me?”

He already had his answer in the way Joe was clinging to him. Now, Joe practically crawled into his lap. “Of course I forgive you.” After a moment he asked, “Can you forgive me?”

“I did, a long time ago,” Ben replied. “I just didn’t know it.” He drew Joe further into his arms and dropped his head down to lean on top of Joe’s. They sat like that for some time.

“Pa?” Adam said, at last. Ben glanced up at him. “The travois’s ready.”

“Thank you, son,” Ben replied. He looked down at his sleeping son cradled in his arms. “Could you go for the doctor now please?”

“I’m already on my way,” Adam replied.

********************

The journey home was something of a nightmare for Joe. He was in a great deal of pain and although Hoss took it easy, the travois bumped over the grass, sending daggers of agony through Joe. Ben rode by his side the whole time and his loving presence comforted Joe. After a time, the rain began again and Ben called for a stop while he tucked a slicker over Joe as best he could. Joe was slightly feverish and Ben wished they could break out of the steady walk they were restricted to.

Because they could take a direct route home, instead of following tracks, they made much better time than Ben had anticipated. Still, it was the middle of the evening before they drew to a stop in the yard. Joe had been drifting in and out of consciousness for a while, exhausted by the pain and the ordeal he had suffered.

The house door opened and Adam popped out like a cork from a bottle. At his heels was Paul Martin, looking tanned and rested after his holiday. “Hi, Ben,” he said, as he approached. “Fancy my first call out being my favorite patient.”

“He’s not doing so well,” Ben confided, completely missing Paul’s humor.

“Let’s get him inside then,” Paul replied, after a single glance at Joe’s face. He stood back to allow Ben and Adam to pick Joe up between them. Joe let out a cry of pain and whimpered intermittently as he was carried through the house to his room.

The first thing Paul did was to give Joe a painkilling injection. He waited until it took effect before he allowed Ben to help him remove Joe’s damp, filthy clothes. Then, while Ben and Hoss had something to eat, Paul and Adam gently bathed the dirt from Joe’s face and Paul examined him thoroughly. By then, Ben was back in the room and Hoss followed soon after.

“I’m sure you realize that Joe has broken both ankles,” Paul began. He glanced at the bed, where Joe was now sleeping peacefully. “I’m going to have to set them and it’s a good thing I brought plaster of Paris with me. His shoulder is obviously still a bit tender, but I would expect that at this stage. There’s a bit of redness in his wrists, so you’ll need to keep an eye out for infection. I’ve cleaned them up thoroughly, so it should be all right. And the bump on the head is minor. The wound is clean and he’s obviously not concussed.”

“What about the fever?” Ben asked, anxiously, once more stroking Joe’s hair. “He’s still warm.”

“Its reaction,” Paul explained. “Almost shock, if you like. And he’s probably got a chill from that soaking he got. And don’t forget, he was in pain all the time as you brought him home. The body often seems to run a fever when there’s a lot of pain.” He patted his old friend on the shoulder. “Ben, he’ll be fine, I promise you.”

“Thank you,” Ben replied, in a low voice.

***************************

It was morning before Joe stirred again. He squinted against the light and saw that it was Adam who sat by his bed. A horrid pang of dismay shot through Joe’s heart, but before he could get himself into a state, the bedroom door opened, and Ben came in with a cup of coffee. He was haggard and unshaven and Joe knew at once that Ben had been sitting at his bedside right up until the moment Adam persuaded him to go and get some coffee.

“Well, look who’s awake!” Ben exclaimed, seeing the green eyes looking at him. He handed the coffee to Adam before bending over the bed. “How do you feel, son?”

“A bit better,” Joe replied. “But my feet sure feel heavy.” He gave Ben an enquiring look.

“Plaster,” Ben replied, succinctly and nodded at the resigned expression on Joe’s face. “Both feet,” he added, just to be sure Joe understood. “You’re not going to be walking anywhere very soon.”

“Great,” Joe muttered. He squirmed uncomfortably. “Pa…”

“I know,” Ben sighed. “You gotta go.”

“I’ll leave you to it,” Adam declared brightly and made a hasty exit.

“One day,” Joe said, “Adam is going to be in this predicament and I’m going to take great pleasure in assisting him to pee, because for once, I’ll be the expert!” He caught the look on Ben’s face and began to laugh.

The thought of Joe ‘assisting’ Adam appealed to Ben immensely and they both laughed until Joe gasped, “Quick, Pa, or I’ll burst!”

Later, it occurred to Ben that that was the first time he had helped Joe without embarrassment causing his son to become reticent, and the two of them chortled over the thought of Joe helping Adam for several days.

******************

Later that afternoon, when Ben had had a sleep, he resumed his post by Joe’s bed. The younger man had been sleeping restlessly, his ankles bothering him as he drew near the surface. Ben knew that the doctor was due out shortly with some more painkillers and a rolling chair that he had stashed away.

At length, Joe’s eyes flickered open. “Hi, Pa,” he smiled, looking a sleepy and vulnerable 16.

“Hi yourself,” Ben replied. “How do you feel?”

“Sore,” Joe admitted. He made a wry face. “And a bit stupid.”

“Oh here we go,” Ben replied. “We’re not going to have a repeat playing of ‘it’s all my fault’ are we?” He rolled his eyes dramatically. “I don’t think I’m ready for it.”

“No,” Joe smiled. “But I was going to try out ‘sorry’ again. I don’t know why I didn’t come to talk to you sooner.”

“We’ll probably never know,” Ben replied, seriously. “But I should’ve spoken to you, and didn’t. I was afraid.” Ben helped Joe to sit up and gave him a drink. “There are so many pitfalls in a relationship, Joe. And misunderstandings like this can arise so easily. We think we’re doing fine, and then something comes along that knocks us off our complacent feet.” He took Joe’s hand. “Promise me one thing, Joe.”

“Anything,” Joe vowed and meant it.

“Next time, come to me at once. I promise that I’ll do my best to listen to you fairly, but let’s not ever allow something like this to happen again. I could’ve lost you, and that’s not something I ever want to have to face.”

“I promise,” Joe whispered, huskily. He found himself in Ben’s arms without any idea how he had got there.

*************************

Two days later, Joe was sitting in his rolling chair on the porch when Roy Coffee rode in. He smiled as cheerfully as he could, for Joe found it slightly embarrassing being in the chair, but Roy treated him just the same as ever. A few of the hands had begun talking to Joe like he’d lost his mind, not just broken some bones.

“Afternoon, Little Joe,” Roy called, as he dismounted.

“Hi, Roy,” Joe replied, mentally wincing at his nickname. “What brings you out here?”

“I caught Floyd an’ Cletus,” Roy told him. “Got ‘em locked up tight down my jail house.”

“What did they say?” Joe asked, clenching his fists. He could still see Floyd’s mocking face laughing at him over the edge of the hole.

“Cletus admitted everythin’,” Roy replied. “An’ when I tol’ them you was gonna be all right, Floyd admitted it too.”

“What does that mean?” Joe wanted to know.

“It means the circuit judge can jist sentence them without a trial, is what it means,” Roy replied. He sounded suspiciously satisfied for an impartial lawman. “Ya don’t need ta worry about ‘em fer a long time.”

“That’s good news,” Ben responded. He had come onto the porch quietly when he heard the voices. “Thanks for coming out, Roy.”

“No trouble at all,” Roy replied, smiling.

Just then, Adam and Hoss rode in and were quickly told the news. Roy smiled once more and made to depart. Joe looked wistfully at the sheriff’s horse, although his taste in horses ran to a livelier mount than Roy favored. But he hadn’t really been anywhere and it didn’t look as though he was going anywhere soon.

But his brothers had noticed his moment of melancholy and a single look was all they needed to exchange an idea. As Roy rode out of the yard, Adam and Hoss suddenly grabbed the handle of the rolling chair and began pushing Joe at high sped across the yard. Caught by surprise, Joe let out a yell of outrage.

But before long, he and Hoss had ganged up on Adam and Hoss was relentlessly chasing Adam down with the chair, while Joe shouted instructions and orders at the top of his voice, hanging on for grim death. Chuckling, Ben went back inside, hoping they didn’t break the chair.

He wasn’t quite sure how he would explain that one!

*****End*****

4 thoughts on “Pitfalls (by Rona)”

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