Summary: Ben Cartwright had thought the worst thing that could happen was that his son, Hoss, was shot in back by mistake. But like the other time Hoss was shot – by Red Twilight – Little Joe was in danger too. Joe’s brother could be dying and he’s nowhere in sight. What’s going on?
Rated PG – references to drunkeness
Word Count – 4406
If you have ever watched the Bonanza episode, ‘Once a Doctor’, you were probably left with the same burning question I was – just where is Little Joe? We see him bursting into the jail, ready to take justice into his own hands, threatening to kill the man who shot his brother in the back, and then – nothing. Joe is conspicuously absent at his father’s side as the decision is made to operate on Hoss to save his life and, indeed during and after the operation. We don’t see Little Joe again until the tag ending. Obviously weeks have passed since Hoss is healed and we are left with everyone smiling.
This WHN story is my answer to the question, ‘Where is Little Joe?”
Never Quote Me the Odds
It seemed he might lose two sons today.
Ben Cartwright ran a shaking hand over his stubbled cheeks as he halted in the street outside of Rob Keefer’s office. Beyond the door, through the anteroom, in a small space in the back, Virginia City’s only doctor labored to save his son – to save Inger’s boy. He’d reluctantly left Hoss and Rob a short time before in order to reach the telegraph office before it closed, so that he could let Adam know what had happened to his middle brother. He’d liked to have been able to tell him what had happened to his youngest brother as well.
Sadly, that story was still unfolding.
Shortly after they got Hoss to the Doc’s, Roy Coffee had come looking for him. The lawman told him how, earlier, Little Joe had burst into the jail fit to be tied, shouting and threatening to kill the Englishman Thomas Crippen if the law didn’t convict and hang him. Lips pursed, pale blue eyes narrowed, Roy had explained how he’d put a quick stop to what he called the ‘boy’s nonsense’. Then, a little while later, word had come to him by one of his deputies that Little Joe was at it again. He was drunk as a skunk and stirring up trouble, tryin’ to incite the crowd that had stormed the jail earlier and nearly carried the craven Crippen away to do it again. As his friend, Roy had come to warn him. He didn’t believe it, but if he found out Little Joe was doing any such thing, then he’d have no choice but to arrest him.
Ben drew a steadying breath and let it escape slowly through his nose. He couldn’t believe it either. He simply wouldn’t believe it. While it was true that Joseph’s love of his brother ran deep as the ocean, it was also true that his love of justice did the same. Still, there were times when his youngest’s high emotions overran his common sense. Ben frowned as he remembered another night like this. A night when he had feared for Hoss’ life – and Joe’s as well. The night Joseph had almost killed Red Twilight in cold blood – would have, if not for Adam’s voice of reason in his ear.
Lord, how he wished Adam was here now!
Ben glanced up and down the bustling street. He’d asked around after leaving the telegraph office, hoping someone had seen his wayward boy. No one had. That fact troubled him. He found it hard to believe that anything could keep Joseph from his brother’s side at his time of need. According to Doctor Keefer, Hoss’ life hung by a slender thread. He needed to go back inside – needed to be with Inger’s boy just in case…. Ben closed his eyes, calling on that inner reserve of faith that had gotten him through the loss of three wives.
He didn’t know if it was enough to see him through the loss of even one of his three sons.
“Mister Cartwright?” a soft voice asked from beside him.
He turned to find Allie Lou, Doc Keefer’s assistant standing by him. With a tip of his hat, Ben acknowledged the pretty blonde.
“Allie. Is everything all right?”
“I just heard, Mister Cartwright,” the forthright woman said, a tremble in her voice. “How is Hoss?”
Ben winced with the pain of having to speak the words. “Not good, Allie. Not good at all.”
“I came as quickly as I could to assist the doctor.” She looked slightly puzzled. “I was afraid, since you were outside….”
“I went to send a telegram to Adam, to tell him…well…. As to Hoss, he’s holding his own for the moment.” With a sigh, the rancher added softly, “If you want to know the truth, it’s Joseph I’m the most worried about right now. He’s missing and the boy can be so rash….”
Allie patted his arm as she offered him a sympathetic smile. “He’s your son, Mister Cartwright. I know Little Joe must be half out of his mind with worry, but he wouldn’t do anything wrong.”
As the blonde woman moved toward the doctor’s office, Ben came to a decision. He turned his feet away from Doc Keefer’s and toward the saloon. He found it hard to believe, but the only thing he could think was that the deputy’s report had been right, at least in part. Joseph had gone to there to numb himself into accepting Roy’s forced inaction. He didn’t want to consider the other possibilities – that Little Joe actually was attempting to raise a lynch mob or – and this fear was much more real than the first one – that Marie’s boy had fueled his fire with liquor and done something rash; that Joe was lying somewhere, in an alley or back street, hurt or worse. Rage was Joseph’s balm just as it had been his mother’s. It came and went with the swiftness of a violent storm, most often leaving a glorious sunset in its wake.
A fact that did nothing to lessen the destruction it wrecked before ceasing.
Drawing a deep breath, Ben stepped onto the boardwalk and went into the saloon. A quick circuit of the main room showed him his youngest was not there. In answer to his rather pointed questions, one of the Bucket’s girls finally confirmed the fact that Joseph had been there earlier, but only stayed a few minutes. He’d bought a bottle of whiskey and then disappeared into the night.
Discouraged, Ben stepped out of the smoke, noise, and chaos, and back onto the boardwalk. Once in the street, he again looked both ways.
Joseph had simply vanished.
From the shadows of the alley behind the saloon, Little Joe’s bleary green eyes followed his father’s figure as the older man made his way back to Doc Keefer’s office. He watched until, bent and suddenly aged, Ben Cartwright closed the door behind him and his impressive shadow moved behind the window glass, headed for the back room where his middle son lay dying.
Hoss was dying.
Joe sniffed and ran the back of his coat sleeve across his eyes, striking away tears that turned his skin raw and red. He wanted to walk across that street as well, to go into that room and be with his brother, but he couldn’t. He just…
“Coward!” Joe snarled, speaking the truth no one else would. “Gutless, yellow-bellied coward!”
It was what he was. He knew it. Deep down he knew he was spineless. That’s why he tried to pretend he was just the opposite – why he went off like a half-cocked gun, exploding like a bullet from the barrel, ready to take on anything and everything he was afraid of before he could remember to be afraid.
Everything except the one thing he was the most afraid of.
Little Joe Cartwright looked again toward the doctor’s office, and then at the bottle in his hand.
He didn’t have any courage of his own.
He was sure as hell hoping he would find it in the amber liquid it held.
Roy Coffee sighed as he walked the boardwalk and passed Doc Keefer’s office on his late night rounds. A real battle was ragin’ behind them doors – one a gun and a badge couldn’t win. He’d been surprised when he’d checked in earlier to find Little Joe was still missin’. There weren’t no two brothers closer on the face of God’s earth than Little Joe and Hoss Cartwright. You might of said them two boys were stitched together at the hip. Hijinks or trouble, when you found one of them, the other was there – though he had to admit more often than not it was Little Joe what got Hoss into water hot enough to scald them both. There was somethin’ about that youngest boy of Ben’s. He’d never met anyone as able to charm the socks off of a man.
No, that weren’t true.
There’d been Joe’s mother.
Roy sighed deeply as he stepped off the boards and headed for the alley behind the saloon. He remembered the day Ben Cartwright had arrived in Eagle Station with his new bride. He’d been a wet behind the ears deputy then, green as they came even though he shoulda know’d better since he was a sight older than most who was learnin’ how to represent the law. He knew who Ben Cartwright was, but they weren’t friends yet. Ben had come to Eagle Station a few years back totin’ two young’uns with him, one of them little more than a weaned pup. He’d heard the man had lost two women before and was surprised he’d found the courage to keep on tryin’. Ben was one of Eagle Station’s most eligible bachelors and soon as that pretty little thing he’d married in New Orleans stepped off the stage, well, them women who’d set their eye on him went green. Rumors started flyin’, includin’ one that Marie de Marigny Cartwright was some kind of voodoo woman and she’d bewitched him.
Roy shook his head. Rumor or not, that last part were true.
As he continued to walk his beat, the lawman chuckled. That Marie…. He was pretty sure at first Ben didn’t have a clue what he’d got on his hands. He remembered right well the first time he’d gone out to the house to talk to the rancher after he’d returned. Ben Cartwright had been backin’ out of the kitchen door, his hands raised.
A second or two later a cook pot near took his horse between the eyes.
Prouder than a roadrunner with a fresh caught rattler, that was Marie Cartwright. Wilder than a turpentined cat and always kickin’ like a bay steer. Roy halted. He shifted a wooden barrel and looked behind it. Satisfied that it was just a ratty old she-cat, he moved on. Truth to tell, Ben’s wife had her quite a temper. Still, she’d tamed a bit when her boy was born. Motherhood suited her. One of the prettiest sights in all of Eagle Station had been that pretty little woman with her sweet face and golden curls, hangin’ on Ben Cartwright’s arm and cradlin’ that curly-headed little youngster against her breast.
Laughter had gone before them, and joy remained long after they were gone.
Then came that day. That God awful day when one of the Ponderosa hands came ridin’ into town lathered up as his horse, huntin’ the doctor. He’d been talkin’ to the Doc at the time. The older man listened, his head bobbin’ up and down, lettin’ out a ‘hmm’ here and there and a few ‘I sees’ as the hand explained what had happened. It didn’t take the Doc by surprise. It hadn’t taken him by surprise either. The candle that burns the brightest, burns out the quickest. He’d known that about Marie and worried what would happen to Ben when the day came. He dang well suspected it about Little Joe too. The boy was too much like his mama. Roy shook his head. It was a cruel thing and he’d tried to stop it, but there were people in town runnin’ bets on just how long the boy would live, with the odds bein’ he wouldn’t make twenty.
Shakin’ his head again, Roy Coffee continued his journey into the alley. It was one of them places where he took his time, keepin’ both an ear and an eye out to the long shadows that filled it. He didn’t like shadows much. There was somethin’ unsettlin’ about them. They was kind of like those dark swells on the ocean. He’d seen them as a young man when he’d done some wanderin’.
Every sailor knew you had to look for what was underneath.
With two fingers, the older man unhooked the strap on his holster; his hand lingering near the weapon it cradled. No sense in takin’ chances. You never knew –
Roy halted. He’d heard somethin’. Somethin’…. No. Some one.
They was cryin’.
Squintin’ into the light that gleamed like the devil’s eyes at the end of the alley, Roy tried to locate whoever it was, was makin’ the sound. They was sobbin’ like their heart done broke. He was still walkin’, still lookin’, when he near took a tumble and ended up flat-out disgraced on the ground. The only thing that stopped him was them rough tan boots. The light done caught on their toes. As his eyes adjusted, Roy made out the rest of the feller who was attached to them.
“Now, Little Joe, what are you doin’ sittin’ here in the dark? Shouldn’t you be with your Pa and brother?”
The boy didn’t look up. He was starin’ at his fingers. They was wrapped around the neck of a whiskey bottle.
A near empty one.
Kneeling, Roy reached a hand out and placed it on his shoulder. It ‘bout tore him apart to feel how hard the boy was shakin’.
“Little Joe?” he tried again.
Finally, the boy looked up. Them great big, wide green eyes of his were near black as his pa’s. Tears filled ‘em, makin’ them gleam like a cougar’s in the dark. Little Joe drew a breath. Two words shuddered out with it.
Roy shifted. He was too old to crouch for long. Comin’ to a quick decision, he shoved aside some filth and sat beside the boy.
After a minute, he asked, “Why not?”
“I just…can’t!” Joe’s fingers clutched the bottle, his knuckles gone white.
Roy knew what the boy was afraid of – that he’d tell him he was his friend and he needed to tell him all about it. That he’d force him to face whatever demons had driven him to buy that whiskey.
Instead he asked, makin’ conversation, “Anythin’ left for me in that bottle?”
It took a moment. “You…wanna drink?” Joe asked, slurring his words slightly.
“Seems to me you done had enough,” he said quietly, reaching out. “Best you let me finish it.”
The curly-haired man hesitated and then handed it to him. “It’s coffin varnish,” he admitted. “I didn’t have any money….”
“Couldn’t afford you a good one, eh?” Roy took a swig and spit it back out. Joe wasn’t kiddin’! Wipin’ the fumes from his whiskers, he demanded, “You tryin’ to kill yourself, boy?”
There was a pause. Then Joe Cartwright said somethin’ that startled him like he’d stepped on a raw egg.
Roy bit his lip, scowlin’ not only at the taste of the rotgut that lingered there but at the boy himself. He wanted to tell Little Joe to stop feelin’ sorry for himself and to get up off his hind end and march over to that doctor’s office and go support his pa the way his pa always supported him.
Somethin’ stopped him.
Maybe it was that memory of Marie.
Ben Cartwright returned to the chair beside his son’s bed. He’d been looking out the window of the office, hoping against hope to see his youngest headed his way. He’d been worried what he would say to Hoss if he regained consciousness and found his little brother was not there. Almost as worried as he was about what he would say when Joseph did show up. He’d passed from concern to anger to a kind of disbelief while he waited for Dr. Mundy to gather what he needed and prepare to operate on Hoss. Mundy was ready to begin now.
The rancher closed his eyes and leaned his head against the window frame. If Joseph didn’t show up and his brother died without him being able to say goodbye….
His youngest had been such a happy child. Prone to fits of passion as much as laughter, it was true, but seldom brooding or sad. It had been his delight to stand outside of the boy’s bedroom and listen to Little Joe and his mother giggle, their joy bubbling over like champagne bubbles suddenly released from a bottle. He and his son had been laughing that day. They’d been sitting on the porch waiting for Marie’s return. He had Joseph on his knee and was bouncing him, pretending the boy was on a runaway horse.
Ben sucked in air as the image of his beautiful wife riding pell-mell into the yard flashed before his eyes. He hadn’t been able to shield the boy. Joseph had watched his mother fall, seen the horse – all sixteen hundred pounds of it – crash down on her diminutive frame. The four-year old boy he held heard the single shriek she let out, and – even worse – the silence that followed. He’d known Marie was dead before he checked. There was no way she could have survived. It was actually a blessing that it had been so quick. She would have suffered so.
Like her son suffered.
It was then Little Joe’s nightmares had begun. His son said little about them. Sometimes he stood at the end of his bed as Joseph fought a battle visible only to him, trying to understand. Something pursued him. Something Little Joe could not outrun.
He was sure it was the memory of that day.
It was Allie Lou, just like before.
“Doctor Mundy is operating.”
Roy sat beside Little Joe Cartwright, listenin’ to his uneven breathin’. Now that he thought about it, it seemed to him that, maybe – just maybe –the boy did have one of them death wishes people talked about. Little Joe was always takin’ risks, always pushin too hard; runnin’ too fast and flyin’ too high. Or maybe it wasn’t a death wish.
Maybe it was just a wish that he could outrun death.
The lawman rolled his eyes over so he was lookin’ at the boy. Joe’s head was back and his eyes were closed. A sheen of sweat covered him like a horse what had been rode too hard. Any minute, if he guessed it right, the boy was gonna be sick.
“I was thinkin’ about your mama,” Roy said, out of the blue.
Little Joe’s body went rigid.
“Was you thinkin’ about her too?”
“I…” Joe paused. “Why do you….” He shook his head. “Why in hell would…” He swallowed hard. “Why would I…be thinkin’ ‘bout…my ma?”
“Well, she’s dead, ain’t she? Seems to me right soon Hoss just might be dead too.”
The boy’s jaw tightened and his chin jutted out. Those dark green eyes flashed with anger. “Don’t you…say that! Don’t you…dare…say that!”
“You’re afraid of bein’ there, ain’t you, Little Joe?” Roy waited a heartbeat before finishing. “You’re afraid you’re gonna see Hoss die just like you saw your mama die.”
For a moment Little Joe looked like one of them deer caught in a hunter’s sights. Then the tears came, streamin’ down his face in a flood.
“I…. No! …yes. I…can’t….”
“You know what, Little Joe, there’s only one thing I can think of would be worse than bein’ there to see your brother die.”
Joe looked so like that little boy Roy remembered, staring up at him through a tangle of brown curls.
“What?” he asked.
Roy took hold of the boy’s arm and squeezed.
“Not bein’ there.”
Hoss had pulled through with Doctor Mundy’s help. Once the Englishman had decided to operate, his hands had flown like quicksilver, doing what was needed. Along with saving Hoss’ life, it seemed the physician had regained his confidence. When they walked out of the operating room, leaving Allie Lou behind to tend to Hoss’s recovery, the Englishman had spoken to him of resuming his practice before heading over to consult with Doctor Keefer. He’d watched the tall lean man go and then turned back to the window, to see if there was any sign of his missing son. When he got there, fear caused his heart to skip a beat.
It wasn’t Joe but Roy Coffee who was headed toward the doctor’s office.
When Roy arrived he asked after Hoss and then, after assuring him that he had no bad news where Little Joe was concerned, went to clean up. The lawman looked the worse for wear and, curiously, smelled of both whiskey and vomit. All Ben could think as he waited for his old friend’s return was that the sheriff had had to rescue some drunk.
Little did he suspect that drunk would turn out to be his own son.
Less than ten minutes later he was standing outside of one of Roy’s cells staring down at his wayward child. Joe’s clothing was filthy. The seat of his pants was black with…something. His green coat was ruined. His hair – it was getting too long again – was a snarled mess of dark curls matted with debris and God alone knew what else.
“Don’t be too hard on him, Ben,” the lawman said. “Little Joe’s bein’ hard enough on himself.”
“I don’t understand,” he countered, his fingers gripping the bars. “Joseph’s brother could have died and he went out and got himself drunk!”
“Now hold your horses. Little Joe didn’t get himself drunk, Ben. He just sorta ended up that way, that’s all.”
Ben glared at him. Those black eyes, he swore, they could melt steel.
“And just exactly what does that mean!?” the rancher demanded.
Roy hesitated, then said it anyway – softly, not with a big stick. “Sort of like how you just ended up ridin’ off and leavin’ all your responsibilities behind, includin’ those boys, when Marie died.”
Ben flinched. “This has nothing to do with Marie’s death!”
Roy shook his head. “Now, Ben, I always figured you as a sight smarter man than I am. Don’t you see? It’s got everythin’ to do with Marie’s dyin’.”
His friend looked puzzled. Ben’s eyes shot to Little Joe, layin’ all curled up like that little lost boy he still was, and then back to him.
“I don’t understand….”
Roy rocked back on his heels. “Well, let’s say you saw somethin’ once that was the worst thing you could ever see, or at least you thought it was, and then there it was starin’ you in the face again like a rattler waitin’ to strike. As I see it, a man’s got two choices when trouble comes callin’. You face it or you run. Neither choice is right or wrong. They’re just choices.” The lawman pursed his lips and raised an eyebrow. “Seems to me you chose that second one once upon a time.”
The look out of Ben’s eyes softened. The rancher closed them briefly and then reached out and placed a hand on his shoulder.
“Thank you, Roy,” he said, his voice near breakin’. “Thank you for being there for my boy when I couldn’t be.”
Roy shrugged. “Shucks, Ben, I didn’t do nothin’. The boy’d already come around to the fact that he had to face his fears.” The lawman chuckled. “It’s just a shame it was after a full bottle of the most gosh-darned awful corn squeezin’s I ever tasted!”
Ben sniffed and frowned. “I take it Little Joe got sick?”
His friend nodded. “Good. Maybe it will make him think twice about doing the same thing the next time.”
A sound brought their attention back to the young man in question. Joe was sitting up and he was about as green as his eyes. Little Joe was starin’ at his father like he was lookin’ at a hangman’s noose.
Before he could say any more, Roy stepped in. “I told your Pa how I found you layin’ in that alley sick as a dog. Next time you stop by the Bucket of Blood, Little Joe, you be sure to tell them to feed you somethin’ from the counter instead of the privy.”
Joe looked at him confused. Then his eyes filled with tears and gratitude. A moment later he asked, “Hoss?”
“You brother looks better than you do,” Ben said, his tone stern. “What have I told you about drinking too much, young man?”
Joe’s energetic eyebrows did a dance. “…not to?”
“There ain’t no charges, Ben. Seems to me the boy’s been punished enough,” Roy said as he stepped aside to let the rancher into the cell. “Looks to me like he’s been beat like a rug and hung out to air.”
“Come on, Joe. Your brother will be asking for both of us,” Ben said as he helped Little Joe to his feet. As the older man put a hand around his son’s waist, he added, sniffing again, “However, before you see Hoss I think a bath might be in order.”
Joe caught his father’s wrist. They was always touchin’ them too, like they had to make sure the other one was real.
“I’m sorry, Pa. I should have…been there. I….”
Ben’s eyes shot to him and then returned to his son. “We all make choices, some of them better than others. If you’ve learned something, then it was worth it.”
As the pair brushed past him, Joe’s hand shot out, gripping his sleeve briefly. It shone out of his eyes, what that boy had learned about himself, about those who loved him, and most of all about that thing that made him run too hard and ride too fast and fly too high.
He wasn’t runnin’ from somethin’ after all, but toward it.
Next time he caught them people gamblin’ on Little Joe’s chances of dyin’ before he was twenty, he was gonna place a bet. Odds were, he’d come out with more money than one of them cattle barons or mine owners.
He was gonna place his money on ninety-five.