Summary: A ‘What Happened Next’ for the episode ‘The Last Haircut.’
Rated: T (8,515 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.
“Come on, Paco,” Joe Cartwright said, softly, putting his arm around the boy’s shoulders. “Let’s get going.” He cast one last look back at Duke Miller, cowering in the dust, trying to hide his bald head from the laughing circle of on-lookers and then turned his back on the man who had caused so much misery by murdering Paco’s father, Carlos.
Fighting his way free from the crowd, Duke Miller leant against the side of a building and watched with hatred as Joe and Paco climbed onto the wagon and drove away. “I’ll get you for this, Joe Cartwright,” Miller vowed. “I’ll get you!”
As they bedded down for the night, Joe looked over at Paco. There was a new peace about the boy. He still looked sad, naturally, but he looked more accepting now. It had been hard on both Joe and Paco when Duke Miller and his cohorts had escaped punishment, but Paco, like Joe, saw Miller’s humiliation as sufficient retribution.
“How long will it take us to get to Mexico?” Paco asked, seeing Joe looking at him.
“A couple of weeks, I’d guess,” Joe replied. “It depends a bit on the weather. Don’t worry, Paco, I’ll have you at your grandparent’s house before you know it.” He smiled.
The youth did not smile back. “Are you all right?” he asked Joe. Joe had taken quite a beating at the hands of Miller and his companions that afternoon and was moving very stiffly and gingerly.
“I’m all right,” Joe assured him, more cheerfully than he actually felt. He was stiff and sore and knew that it would get worse before it would get better. However, the outcome could have been much worse, and Joe was not about to complain. He felt that his cuts and bruises were well worth the cost.
“Do you think Duke Miller will come after us?” Paco asked next.
“No, I don’t,” Joe replied, putting as much certainty into his tone as he could manage. For that very thought had been growing on him all afternoon. Miller’s friends had run away from the barber’s shop and Joe did not know where they had gone. Miller had been humiliated and was a dangerous man. He might well come after them. “I don’t think we’ll ever see Duke Miller again,” Joe went on. “Now, how about you get some sleep, huh? It’s been a long day and we’ve got a lot of travelling to do.”
“All right, Joe,” Paco replied and rolled himself into his bedroll.
For a long time, Joe gazed into the embers of the fire and wondered about Duke Miller. The man was a killer, and Joe had humiliated him completely. He hoped that Frank, the barber, would be safe from any retribution Miller might think up. But finally, Joe’s eyes were drooping and he rolled himself into his blanket and lay down. But sleep took some time to come.
“Did you hear about Frank?” Adam asked, the next afternoon, as he dismounted in the yard next to his father.
“What about Frank?” he father replied, distantly, for he was leafing through the mail that Adam had just handed him.
“He got beaten up and his house set on fire last night. He says it was Duke Miller.”
Ben’s attention sharpened on Adam at once. “Duke Miller?” Ben echoed. “Why does he think that? Miller got off!”
“It turns out that there was a little trouble in town yesterday when Joe went in to cash that draft. Miller turned up and was at Frank’s barber’s shop. Paco raced in and Joe went after him. Paco was let go, but Joe took a bit of a beating before he and Frank somehow managed to subdue Miller enough to shave his head. Miller was made to look a complete fool in front of the town.” Adam took off his hat and ran his fingers through his hair. “Frank and his wife were just returning home when Frank was jumped. His wife was lucky that the men holding her didn’t have anything else in mind, but both she and Frank were sure it was Miller and his gang. He apparently told Frank that was payment for embarrassing him like that.”
“What does Roy think?” Ben asked, numbly.
“Roy thinks it was Miller,” Adam replied. “He’s issued a warrant for his arrest. Pa…” Adam hesitated, for he wasn’t sure how to broach what was on his mind without worrying Ben further.
“What if he goes after Joe and Paco?” Ben muttered and Adam nodded, for that had indeed been troubling him.
“Do you think we should go after them?” Adam asked. By now, Hoss was standing there listening too, his genial face screwed into a worried frown.
“Yes, I think we should,” Ben replied. “Saddle the horses. We’ll set out at once. They can’t have gone all that far. We should catch up to them easily.”
Leaving Adam and Hoss to see that the horses were made ready, Ben went into the house. He knew it would be late the next day before they caught up with Joe, assuming they found him at once. He just hoped his youngest son would be all right until they reached him.
All day long, Joe found himself glancing uneasily over his shoulder. There was never anything to see and he concluded several times that he was imagining things. However, he wasn’t alone in letting his imagination run away with him. Paco was glancing over his shoulder, too. Joe finally decided to broach the topic when they stopped for their noon break.
“Its tough to leave your home, isn’t it?” he asked softly, seeing Paco looking back once more.
“Yes, it is,” agreed the boy, but Joe immediately sensed that this was not what was troubling Paco.
“What’s wrong?” he asked.
The Mexican boy turned troubled dark eyes on Joe. “You feel it too,” he challenged. “You sense someone following us. You can feel the eyes on your back.”
Caught by that dark gaze, Joe could not lie, as he’d intended to do. “Yes, I do feel them,” he agreed. “But it doesn’t necessarily mean trouble, Paco. It could just mean someone who’s curious, or looking for travelling companions. They’re just watching us to make sure we’re nice people.”
“But you don’t think so, do you?” Paco demanded. “You think that someone’s following us to cause trouble, don’t you? You think its Duke Miller.”
“I don’t know if someone is following us at all,” Joe denied. “But yes, I have thought about it being Miller. But don’t go borrowing trouble, Paco. He hasn’t done anything and I don’t think he will.” It wasn’t an adequate answer, and Joe knew it, but he wasn’t sure how else to reassure the boy. “I won’t let anything happen to you, Paco,” he added.
“I know,” Paco replied, but he avoided making eye contact with Joe, and Joe could only wonder if he had destroyed the trust the boy had had in him. But what else could he have said? He didn’t know the answer.
As they made camp for the night, Joe thought that they were making pretty good time. The wagon was loaded with supplies for the trip and some of the things from Paco’s ranch home and it was a heavy load. Joe had to be careful not to over-tax the horses. He tethered them for the night, groomed them and checked their feet.
Turning, he saw Paco sitting gazing aimlessly at the fire. The boy had been very silent all afternoon. Joe had tried to make conversation a few times, but Paco had always answered with just yes or no and Joe had quickly taken the hint. He hoped that Paco would thaw towards him soon, because it would be a long, uncomfortable journey to Juarez if Paco wouldn’t talk. It would be bad enough returning home with just the empty wagon.
There was a noise out in the darkness and Paco was on his feet, his eyes seeking Joe at once. Joe crossed to the boy’s side in a few long strides and drew his gun, drawing the boy close to him. “Who’s there?” Joe called, his voice strong. “Show yourself!”
There was no response. After a moment, Joe let go of Paco and began to move. Panicked, the boy put his hand out to stop Joe, but Joe just held his finger to his lips and smiled reassuringly. He took another step, and a moment later, a rabbit shot across the camp, practically running under Joe’s foot. A frustrated snarl from the darkness told Joe that a bobcat had lost its supper. He fired a single shot to make sure the cat left them alone, then holstered his gun.
“That rabbit nearly had me!” he joked. It was a relief to see Paco grin. The rabbit had come very close to causing Joe to lose his balance. Joe was quite glad that no one had seen that. Knocked over by a rabbit! Try living that down, he thought.
“I thought it was him,” Paco replied, his grin disappearing again.
“I know,” Joe responded. “But I don’t think he’ll come after us, Paco. Not after yesterday.”
But despite his assurances, Joe found himself keeping watch through the night.
By morning, it was raining. Joe rose stiffly and yawned convulsively. He had dozed during the night, but never for more than a few minutes at a time and he felt exhausted. There had been no sign of anyone through the night, not even another rabbit. Joe set about cooking breakfast over the hissing fire as Paco put away the bedrolls.
“You don’t looks so good,” Paco observed, as they packed up the last of their gear.
The unspoken fear was clear in his voice and Joe summoned a smile. “I’m just a bit tired,” he replied. “I didn’t sleep very well for some reason.” He tried to imply that he didn’t know why he hadn’t slept well, but he wasn’t sure if Paco got the message. The boy said nothing, just continued on with his chores, as Joe stifled another yawn and thought longingly of a soft, warm bed out of the rain.
It was going to be a dismal day for travelling in, Joe thought as he climbed onto the wagon seat. The ground was already turning muddy and that would slow them down considerably. Paco was morose and disinclined to talk, so Joe left him alone. He wasn’t feeling very garrulous himself and was quite content to be silent. Once or twice, he found himself nodding as he drove, but an odd drip of rain had wakened him at an auspicious moment each time.
The rain went off in the afternoon, although the sky didn’t clear. Joe shrugged off his rain slicker and stretched. How he wished this journey was over. His feeling of being watched was back, although he had spotted nothing and was making an intense effort not to glance over his shoulder all the time. Was he just paranoid because of lack of sleep? Paco returned from the tree he’d just been watering, and they moved on again.
The attack came out of the blue a few hours later. One moment, they were jogging along in silence, the next a bullet ripped through the air and landed in the rump of the offside horse. The poor animal leapt into the air and began to run, dragging its mate and the wagon along with it. Joe pulled ineffectually on the reins, but the horses were not listening.
Glancing frantically over his shoulder, Joe saw three men racing towards them. Further shots splintered the air, although luckily, none hit them. But Duke Miller and his men were not their most pressing problem. The wagon was sliding on the muddy road and Joe could already feel the inexorable swing that meant the heavy wagon would soon begin to overtake the horses. The offside horse was dead lame, but the repeated shots whining over its head kept it running.
They burst from a stand of trees and the road veered left. The horses took it at a flat out gallop, and the wagon slewed around, until the back wheels were hanging in mid-air over a gully. Joe saw at once what was going to happen. “Jump!” he cried, trying desperately to stop the horses. “Jump, Paco!”
“But…” the boy protested hanging onto the seat for grim death.
“Jump, or you’ll be killed!” Joe glanced at him. “Go on! I’m right behind you!”
Paco jumped. It was not a moment too soon. Joe abandoned the reins, and prepared to jump. But he was too late. Gravity and momentum had their way and the wagon toppled into the gully, tossing Joe out into space.
As the wagon disappeared from under him, Joe launched himself clear, but he landed badly on the rough, sloping ground and his ankle twisted under him, throwing him down again. From above, he could hear the screams of the horses as they were dragged to their deaths, and the crashing of the wagon as it careered down the slope. Joe forced his legs to move, but the ankle wouldn’t hold his weight. Joe turned, to see how much time he had to get clear and saw the wagon tumbling down on top of him. He threw up his arms to protect his face. There was a moment of agonising pain, then the world went dark.
Someone was calling his name. Joe didn’t recognise the voice at once, but it was full of fear. He tried to move and a dreadful pain shot up his legs and into his back. Joe could not bite back a groan and slowly, he opened his eyes.
A face swam into focus and Joe recognised Paco. The boy was crying, tears streaking his dirty face. “Joe! Are you all right?”
“I don’t know,” Joe replied, looking around cautiously. His head throbbed and he was lying on his stomach, his head turned to the left. He tried to move, but another hideous pain shot up his back, taking his breath away. There was pain all across his shoulders and running down his arms. “Are you all right?” he asked.
“Yes,” Paco replied. He reached out to gently touch Joe’s face. “Your head is bleeding, Joe, and the wagon is lying on your legs. What should I do?”
Reaching up cautiously, Joe winced as his fingers grazed the gash near his hairline. “You’ve got to get help,” Joe told him. “I’ll be all right for now, if you can get me a canteen. But you’ve got to go for help, Paco. Take the shotgun with you.” He could see the doubt on the boy’s face. “Please, Paco. You’ve got to go.”
It took several more minutes of pleading before Paco agreed to retrace their steps to where they had seen a signpost for a town. Joe knew it would take the boy several hours to get there, and several more to get back. Somehow, he would have to deal with the pain while he waited. As long as he didn’t move, the pain was bearable, but Joe was afraid. Had he broken his back in the fall? Would Duke Miller and his men come back? Joe knew his only chance rested on the frail shoulders of the young Mexican boy.
As Paco finally set off on his journey, Joe managed one last smile for him. When the boy disappeared from sight, Joe laid his head on the ground. He didn’t know how he was going to get through the next few hours.
“I thought we might have caught up with Joe before now,” Adam stated in a discouraged tone.
“The rain will have slowed them down, too, son,” Ben consoled him. “They can’t be much further ahead.”
“I hope not,” Adam replied. He glanced at Hoss, who rode on in front, looking for tracks. The rain had washed away a lot of signs, and now the light was beginning to go.
“What do you think?” Ban asked, as Hoss drew rein at a split in the road. “Would he have pushed on, or opted to find somewhere to stay for the night?”
“Normally, I’d say he’d stop,” Adam offered, “but Paco was keen to get going, and I think that Joe might have just kept on going.”
“I’ll scout along here aways,” Hoss offered, pointing to the turn-off to the town. “Then we’ll know. It’s real muddy along there, an’ I’ll be able ta see if’n the wagon went this way.” He urged Chub in that direction. Ben and Adam waited in silence.
Before they had left the Ponderosa, Roy Coffee had come out to tell them that there was a warrant out for Duke Miller’s arrest. He had been seen by other witnesses riding back from Frank’s place after the fire had been set. Miller had been seen leaving the town in a hurry that night, and he was reported to be following the road that Joe and Paco had taken.
“O’ course, Miller coulda turned off anywheres along the way,” Roy assured them, in a vain attempt at comfort. “No sense thinkin’ the worst, Ben. ‘Sides, Little Joe can take care o’ himself.”
“Thank you, Roy,” Ben muttered. He was unconvinced and he and his sons rode off before Roy had even remounted.
Now, the conversation was sticking in Ben’s brain. Had Duke Miller caught up with his son? Or was he meekly going away to nurse his humiliation somewhere else?
“Do you think those were shots we heard being fired earlier?” Adam asked, breaking into Ben’s reverie.
“They could have been,” Ben agreed. “But we were just too far away to pin-point where they came from.” He fought down a shudder of fear. If those shots had been aimed at Joe and Paco, they could be too late. It was a thought Ben wasn’t prepared to deal with.
“There ain’t no tracks along there,” Hoss informed them. “Joe musta decided ta go straight on.”
“Then so do we,” Ben declared and he headed his horse off down the trail. Adam and Hoss exchanged worried looks before following him.
“Mr Cartwright! Mr Cartwright!” The despairing cry flared through Ben’s ears. He turned his horse and all but rode over Paco, who had emerged, trembling, from the undergrowth.
“Paco! Where’s Joe?” Ben dismounted quickly, gathering the boy into his arms. A shotgun clattered to the ground and Ben recognised it as Joe’s. “What happened?”
Sobbing with relief, Paco told his tale. At times, the Cartwrights were barely able to understand the words, but the jist was related to them all too clearly. Joe and Paco had been bushwhacked and Joe was lying injured somewhere.
“Can you take us to him?” Ben asked, smoothing back the boy’s hair. It was a gesture he used with Joe and it always seemed to bring the young man some comfort. It seemed to work for Paco, too, for he relaxed slightly.
“I don’t know,” he admitted, glancing around into the twilight. He had got lost creeping through the bushes and truthfully had no idea where to go to look for Joe. He didn’t recognise the trail in the growing gloom. “I don’t know.”
Straightening, Ben looked grimly at his sons. “Hoss, you take Paco and go back to that town. Get a doctor and the sheriff. Adam, you come with me. Hoss, we’ll go on in the direction we were going anyway, and we’ll leave some sort of sign for you.”
“I’ll find ya,” Hoss declared. “Come on, young’un,” he urged the boy, gently. “Ya jist git up there an’ don’ worry ‘bout a thing. Ol’ Hoss here’ll take care o’ ya.”
A noise woke Joe from the light sleep he’d fallen into. His body was exhausted from the lack of sleep the previous night, and the addition of a head injury, plus the injuries caused by the wagon falling on him had combined to lull Joe into slumber.
Disoriented, he lifted his head, but the pain flaring immediately through his back reminded him of where he was and why and he slumped down again. But the rustling continued and he wondered how on earth Paco had managed to bring help so quickly. “Paco?” he called.
But the booted foot that hit the earth by Joe’s head did not belong to Paco. Joe just lay there, looking at the dusty black boot, his already dry mouth becoming more arid with every second that passed. He knew, without looking up, that Duke Miller was standing there, looking down on him and gloating.
“So, Cartwright,” Miller said, at last, squatting down so he could see Joe’s face. “Did you think I would just forget what you had done to me?”
Closing his eyes, Joe hoped that he might just die. He knew there would be no help forthcoming from Miller and his men, only more torment. He was already in agony; he couldn’t face any more pain.
There was more rustling as Miller’s cohorts came through the bushes. They both laughed as they spotted Joe lying, trapped, under the wagon. “You got him good, Duke,” one of the men sneered. He kicked Joe lightly in the ribs, but the movement caused Joe more pain than the man realised. Joe bit his lip to keep silent. He wondered briefly if he could reach his gun, but moving his arms caused him untold pain and he decided, regretfully, that he wouldn’t be able to do it, not even to save his own life.
“Where’s your little friend?” Miller asked. “Did he survive the crash?”
There was no response. Joe was not going to tell them Paco was wandering around alone out there somewhere. He wouldn’t put the boy’s life in danger. Perhaps, if they thought Paco was already dead, they wouldn’t go looking for him. Joe didn’t care what they did to him, he discovered. He just wanted to keep Paco safe.
“Wonder what old man Cartwright’s gonna say when he finds his little boy all broke up, huh?” Miller sniggered. “Did ya see the way he acted around our friend here? All over him at the trial. It was really funny.” He kicked Joe. “Daddy’s little boy.”
For years, Joe had endured the jibes of his fellow school mates about his father’s concern for him. Joe had long ago made his peace with it, although sometimes the over-protectiveness of his family drove him nuts. He understood why Ben acted as he did and he appreciated the fact that his family cared for him. He had seen too many other families where hate, not love, ruled. Joe knew which he preferred. Love won over indifference every time, in Joe’s book. He was not ashamed of the love his father showed him, or that he showed for his father.
But he hated to hear Ben ridiculed and without thinking, he grasped Miller’s ankle, which was right beside his hand, and pulled. Caught unawares, Miller let out a startled cry as he toppled onto his backside. “Damn you, Cartwright!” he cried, scrambling back to his feet, his face crimson with embarrassment.
In a frenzy of anger, he stamped down on Joe’s unprotected hand, feeling the delicate bones moving beneath his foot. Joe could not keep quiet under this new assault. He let out a cry of pain and dragged his hand free. For a long moment, he couldn’t catch his breath and the world spun in dizzying circles around him. He could dimly hear the other men laughing.
Miller stood there, looking down at Joe and panting. That was twice the other man had made a fool of him and Miller didn’t like it. He had led a totally lawless life, prior to arriving in Virginia City and he had been horrified when he had been captured and made to stand trial. It was good luck on his part that one of his partners was an identical twin. It was through this misleading piece of information that Miller had been able to get acquitted. He had simply informed his lawyer that this was his other partner.
It had been foolish, going back to Virginia City, Miller admitted silently to himself. But he had wanted to see if he could provoke Joe Cartwright into shooting at him and thereby having the pleasure of Joe going to jail, as the judge had assured him that anyone who fired at him would. He hadn’t counted on Joe’s strength of will in refusing to use his gun. Nor had he expected the barber to suddenly find his courage and help Joe humiliate him. The barber had paid for that mistake, he thought, with relish.
Now, it was Joe’s turn. He had followed them along the trail, keeping just out of sight, until they were far enough away from a town that they would not be found at once, if at all. That the wagon had over-turned was an added bonus to Miller. He was going to kill Joe, and enjoy himself whilst doing so. That Cartwright was already suffering when he had found him had only given Miller more pleasure.
Now, that had changed. Joe had just shown him up again, and his partners could barely keep the laughter from their faces. Duke Miller didn’t like being laughed at. He threw the others a black look and drew his gun. His friends sobered immediately. They knew what Duke was like.
For the moment, the new pain in Joe’s hand was keeping the old pain in his back at bay. Joe gritted his teeth, but a few whimpers escaped his iron control. He slit open his eyes and saw that his hand was already swelling. Joe had broken bones before and he knew that his hand was broken. It was another pain he had to endure until either Paco arrived with help, or Miller killed him.
A bullet bit into the ground only inches from Joe’s face, causing him to flinch violently. Joe could not bite back the cry of pain this time. Miller looked pleased. He fired another round into the ground, this one nearer Joe’s side. He laughed at the inevitable flinch and cry.
On and on the chilling game of Russian roulette went, with Joe never knowing if the next bullet would be the one that would end his suffering. He was exhausted, shaking, sweating and in pain. Would his torment never end?
“Listen!” Adam exclaimed and put his hand out. Ben drew rein beside him, his eyes wide and round.
“Shooting!” he breathed. “Joe!” He put his heel sharply to his horse, as did Adam and they thundered along the trail towards the sound of firing.
They were oblivious to the signs of the wagon accident as they flung themselves from their horses and drew their weapons, pushing their way through the bushes towards the sound of crazed laughter.
Breaking through the undergrowth, Ben was distantly surprised by how much light lingered in the gully. But he had no more time to think of it, because Joe was in mortal danger. Adam was lunging off to one side, throwing punches at the two men who stood there watching. Ben turned his attention to Duke Miller, who had swung around to face this new threat.
“Cartwright!” he exclaimed and on the ground, Joe opened his eyes, squinting in disbelief at his father.
“Move away from my son,” Ben ordered, his tone grim. He gestured minutely with his gun. “I said, move!”
After a moment, Miller began to move, but not away from Joe. He stepped back, and began to turn, raising his weapon to fire the last, fatal shot at Joe. “No!” Ben cried, and fired.
The bullet caught Miller high in the chest. His finger contracted automatically and the bullet gouged the ground by Joe’s face, sending clouds of dust into his eyes, nose and mouth. Joe choked and began to cough. Miller fell to the ground, dead.
Ben’s first instinct was to run to Joe’s side, but Adam was fighting two men, and they were determined not to go easily. Ben couldn’t abandon Adam to a beating. He moved so he could be seen and shouted, “That’s enough!”
One of the men, Cal Brennan, took advantage of Adam’s momentary distraction and shot the oldest Cartwright boy in the arm. Adam fell. Ben did not hesitate. All their lives hung in the balance. He shot both men.
“Adam!” Ben exclaimed, hesitating between his two boys.
“I’m all right, Pa,” Adam assured him, sitting up slowly, clutching his arm. “Look after Joe. I’ll deal with them.”
Kneeling by Joe, Ben shoved Miller’s body away with distaste. He was not sorry the man was dead. His only concern now was for his son, and finding out how badly injured he was. “Joe?” he whispered, stroking the curls back from his forehead. “Joe, can you hear me?”
“Pa?” Joe replied. “Are you all right?”
“Yes, I’m fine,” Ben assured him, marvelling that Joe, in a desperate situation like this, could worry for his father’s safety. “Adam’s been nicked by a bullet, but he’s all right.” He swallowed as tears threatened to overcome him. “Where are you hurt, Joe?”
“My back,” Joe replied. “My head and my hand. Everything hurts, Pa.” He drew in a shuddering breath and winced. “Paco went for help. You’ve got to find him, Pa.”
“Don’t worry, Joe,” Ben soothed him. “Paco’s with Hoss. We met him on the way and they’ve gone for help.” He glanced up as Adam came over.
“They’re both dead,” Adam told him in an undertone. “How’re you doing, buddy?”
“Adam?” Joe asked. His eyes were closed as he dealt with another wave of pain. Sometimes, he wondered if he would be able to keep his head above water, so to speak, when each wave hit. They were getting stronger. “I’m doin’… real fine,” he concluded.
“See if you can find a blanket and a lantern,” Ben ordered him. “We need some light.” Indeed, it had grown suddenly dark in the gully.
While Adam searched amongst the scattered items from the wagon, Ben gave Joe what comfort he could.
Almost two hours later, Hoss arrived with the doctor, the sheriff and a wagon. Joe had been drifting in and out of a restless sleep, while Ben tended to Adam’s arm. It was only a graze; the bullet had just skimmed the edge of his arm. However, Ben made Adam sit down and rest once he’d found the blanket and lantern and Adam had been glad to do it. The wound throbbed away.
Leaving Paco to talk to Joe, the men rigged some ropes to haul the wagon off Joe. The doctor had given him something for pain, because he knew from past experience that, bad as the pain had been, it would get a whole lot worse very quickly when the wagon was moved. He just hoped that Joe was not going to bleed profusely when the wagon was moved, but this was a fear he kept to himself.
As the shattered wagon was hauled away, Joe let out a great cry of pain and slumped unconscious. Ben abandoned his role and hurried to his son’s side, beating the doctor back there by a hair. The physician hastily checked over Joe’s legs, fearing that any moment, blood would come spurting out from a ruptured artery, but there was no blood at all.
When everyone was once more finished moving the wagon, the doctor got them to help him turn Joe over, each moving a bit, so that any broken bones would not be jarred about. He checked Joe over very thoroughly, looking often at the pain filled eyes that watched him.
“His back isn’t broken,” he announced. “But more than that I’m not willing to say right now. I’ll know more when I get him back to my surgery. However, I will say that I don’t think he’s bleeding internally. Let’s get him moved.”
Relieved, Ben bent over Joe once more. “Did you hear that, son?” he asked. “Your back isn’t broken. The doc thinks you’re going to be all right.”
“Good,” Joe whispered. His eyes closed once more and he slipped into unconsciousness when they moved him.
It was well into the next morning before Joe woke again. He stirred uneasily, his body feeling slightly odd for a moment or two. He tried to move and a chorus of protest from abused muscles shot through him. Joe caught his breath, but the pain was not as bad as it had been the previous day.
At the familiar voice, Joe could not prevent a smile. When had he ever wakened from an injury or illness and his father not been there? He opened his eyes and Ben’s face swam into focus. “Hi, Pa,” he croaked.
“Hi yourself,” Ben responded, smiling. “How do you feel?”
“A bit funny,” Joe responded. “Bits of me won’t move.” He tried to hide the sudden worry that flared through his mind as this thought took hold.
“That’s because they’re in plaster, son,” Ben told him. “The poor doctor; you used up all the plaster he had.” He smiled at the puzzled green eyes. “First of all, Joe, your back is not broken, nor is your spinal cord damaged in any way.”
“How do you know?” Joe asked.
“The doctor stuck a pin in each toe,” Ben explained. “That certainly got a reaction from you, I can tell you!”
“I bet it did,” agreed Joe. “Can I have a drink, please?” His mouth suddenly was very dry.
Nodding, Ben lifted Joe’s head while he sipped at the cool water. He didn’t know when he’d last had anything that tasted so good. When he was finished, he waited expectantly, and nervously, for Ben to go on.
“Your left hand is broken,” Ben told him, and Joe’s eyes slid down so he could see the plastered limb resting on a pillow. “And both your ankles.” Joe’s head lifted momentarily, but it began to spin, so he put it down at once, closing his eyes against the nausea that rose in his throat. Ben rubbed his son’s arm comfortingly as he watched the colour ebb and flow in his son’s face.
“Anything else?” Joe asked, faintly, after a while. Ben mused that his son’s face had been as green as his eyes at one point.
“A lot of very severe bruising,” Ben replied. “And a gash on the head, which required some stitches.”
“Can I see?” Joe asked and his father obligingly drew back the covers and assisted Joe in sitting up. Joe admired the black and blue toes poking out of the tops of the plasters, which reached up to his knees. His thighs were mottled every colour from red to black and his abdomen was the same. His ribs bore some slight bruising, too. Joe blushed slightly when he realised he was naked. He wasn’t usually modest about showing off his body, but he wasn’t usually helpless when he did so. As he reached upright, Joe felt another pressing need. “I have to pee,” he announced and his father helped him with that, too. Joe was alarmed to see that there was a trace of blood in his urine, but Ben was quick to assure him that the doctor had said this might happen, due to the amount of bruising to his kidneys, which Joe couldn’t see. His back was as badly bruised as his legs and abdomen.
Lying back down again with relief, Joe glanced around. He was clearly in a hotel room, for there was a double and a single bed on the other side of the large room. “Where are Adam and Hoss?” he asked. Then he remembered. “How’s Adam?” he gasped. “Didn’t you say he’d been shot?”
“Take it easy,” Ben soothed him. “Adam’s perfectly fine. In fact, he and Hoss are taking Paco to the restaurant for some lunch.”
“Lunch?” Joe repeated. “What happened to supper?”
“We had that last night, after the doctor had treated you,” Ben explained. “And after he’d bandaged Adam’s arm. I’m sure you don’t remember, but you did open your eyes for a minute and the doctor chased us out. Later, when he’d wakened you another few times, he said we could bring you back here and stop cluttering up his surgery. Hoss carried you over and you slept right through the night.”
“Hoss carried me?” Joe echoed, thinking to his state of undress and wondering how many people had seen him in the altogether.
“You were wrapped in blankets, don’t worry,” Ben teased. “Joe, the ladies in this town are not ready for you yet and certainly not ready for you wearing your birthday suit!”
“What happened to Duke Miller?” Joe asked, once his embarrassed flush had died away.
“I shot him,” Ben replied. “He and his men are all dead.” He gazed at Joe in dismay as the colour drained out of his son’s face. “What’s wrong, Joe?”
“Oh, Pa,” Joe breathed. “You were there. You heard the judge. He said he’d jail anyone who shot Duke Miller!”
Pride raced through Ben’s heart at his son’s words. Lying helpless in bed in a strange town, Joe was worrying more about his father than himself. “You don’t need to worry about that, either,” he assured Joe. “Duke Miller was wanted for assaulting Frank and his wife and for setting their house on fire. Don’t worry, Joe, there won’t be any trouble come our way through this.”
Relief swept through Joe, leaving him exhausted. His eyelids drooped. Ben patted his arm. “Why don’t you have another sleep and I’ll bring you something to eat when you wake.”
“All right,” sighed Joe and closed his eyes, relaxing into the soft pillows. He slept almost at once.
For several days, Joe only ate and slept. The others kept Paco busy, while one of them always sat with Joe. The doctor looked in on him every day, making sure that the bruising wasn’t spreading in a manner that suggested internal bleeding, and checking that Joe was getting over his concussion. The sheriff wired Roy Coffee in Virginia City to tell him off the deaths of the outlaws, and Roy in turn wired the circuit judge, informing him of what had happened.
After a couple of days, Ben got a wire direct from the judge, saying that although he had forbidden anyone from going after Miller, he could not find any charges to answer in respect of Miller’s death. He cordially wished Joe a speedy recovery, too. Although Ben hadn’t been worrying actively about that, the wire did take a small weight off his mind.
“Are you really all right, Adam?” Joe asked, about three days after the accident. He had awakened to find his eldest brother sitting reading the paper beside him. Adam looked fine, but the torn sleeve of his shirt showed the edge of a white bandage there.
“I’m fine, Joe,” Adam replied. “It’s just a graze. I was careless. I allowed Pa’s shout to distract me, and the other guy got the drop. I was just lucky he was such a bad shot.” He obligingly showed Joe the bandage, although he didn’t offer to take it off and let him see the wound. Joe thought that was slightly bad form on Adam’s part, since he was showing off all his injuries for his family to see, even if it was unwillingly.
“Pa said Frank’s house was set on fire,” Joe mentioned. “Is Frank all right? And his wife?”
“Frank got a little beat up,” Adam replied. “But his wife is fine. The house was burned down, unfortunately, but people were rallying round them when we left. I’m sure they’re being well taken care of.”
“And that was Miller?” Joe asked.
“It was,” agreed Adam. “Joe, what was he doing when we arrived? We heard shooting.”
For a moment, the memory overwhelmed Joe. He shuddered, painfully. He felt Adam put his hand on his arm. “I’m all right,” he assured his brother. “I was just remembering.” He quietly told of Miller shooting into the ground, getting nearer and nearer. “I kept thinking that the next bullet would be the last,” he concluded. “Then you and Pa arrived.”
“The sheriff is going to want to hear the story,” Adam warned him. “But not until you’re up to it.”
“Just bring him,” Joe replied. “I just want to get it over with and forgotten.”
Smiling at the brave words, Adam knew that this was something his brother would never forget.
The sheriff came in the next day, and Joe gave his statement. It would go, as a matter of course, to the judge, but there would be no trial, with Miller dead. The sheriff had seen with his own eyes the state that Joe was in and thought he would probably have gunned Miller down in cold blood, had he seen his own son in that state.
The next day, the doctor announced that he thought Joe could safely be moved home, although he warned the young man that it would be a long and uncomfortable journey home. Joe was delighted. He wanted to be at home, not in some hotel in a strange town that he didn’t even know the name of. Reluctantly, Ben agreed to make arrangements to get Joe home.
That left only one problem – Paco.
“I said I would take him, Pa,” Joe whispered. He had been in a lot of pain that day, as he was now able to move around a little more and his muscles, used to the inactivity, were protesting. “But I can’t like this and I think it would be good for him to be with his grandparents. Too many things have happened to him. It’s not good.”
“Paco will understand that you can’t take him, Joe,” Ben soothed. “Hoss is quite willing to go on with him. We’ve retrieved as many of his belongings from the gully as we could and Hoss is organising supplies right now, for all of us. But I feel you’re right, Joe. Paco needs to get settled as soon as possible. Would you like to see him?”
“Yes,” Joe replied.
Nodding, Ben went to find the boy. He had been exceptionally quiet since the accident and Ben thought that Paco needed to talk to Joe as much as Joe needed to talk to Paco.
Hesitating in the doorway, Paco looked at Joe as though he had never seen his friend before. Paco had not had an easy life. His mother had died when he was very young, and the baby she was bearing had died with her. To be a Mexican in a mostly white town had proved difficult too, until the Rodriguezes had met in with the Cartwrights, who had befriended them. Carlos Rodriguez had been a hard worker and Ben had helped him in every way he could. Then had come the tragedy of his father’s murder and Paco had spent a lot of time after that with Joe. Paco knew that Joe had done all he could to save his father’s life, and to get the killers convicted although ultimately, Joe had failed.
After that, Joe had convinced Paco that seeking vengeance against Miller wasn’t the answer, and Paco had been impressed by Joe’s handling of the situation that had arisen in Virginia City. He admired Joe greatly, wishing to grow up to be just like him. Now, Paco was struck by how small Joe looked in the big bed, surrounded by pillows. Yet Joe was undefeated by what had happened to him. He looked up and saw Paco standing there.
“Paco! Come on in.” Joe grinned broadly. He had barely seen the boy over the last few days while he was still sleeping so much. He was very fond of Paco. “How’re you doin’?”
“I’m all right,” Paco answered, sitting down in the chair by the bed. He was unaccountably relieved that Joe was still treating him in exactly the same manner as he had always done. Somehow, he had expected a change. “Joe, I am sorry for what happened.”
“So am I,” Joe agreed. “I’m sorry it had to happen to you. But at least you weren’t hurt, and you did a great job bringing help back to me.”
Frowning, Paco shook his head. “No, Joe, you don’t understand,” he protested. “I am sorry this happened because of me. If I hadn’t gone after Miller, this would not have happened.”
“How do you figure that?” Joe asked. He watched the boy toy nervously with the edge of the bed cover. “Paco?
“You told me not to leave the wagon,” Paco admitted. “I disobeyed you. I nearly got you killed, Joe!”
“Listen, Paco,” Joe began. He reached over for Paco’s hand, taking the boy’s fingertips in his fingertips, the only part of his left hand that was visible outside the plaster. “Sure, you disobeyed me, but I don’t blame you. Seeing him there, like that, knowing he’d got off, was really difficult. Don’t you think I wanted to go after him? Sure I did. But you know, Paco? Pa was right when he asked me if vengeance belonged to Joe Cartwright. I wouldn’t have been able to sleep at night if I’d killed him, and neither would you. Do you know why?”
Paco thought around about the thought for some time. Finally, he looked at Joe and ventured, “Because two wrongs don’t make a right?”
“That’s it exactly,” Joe agreed. “That’s why, when the courts fail us, we leave the rest to God. God dealt with Duke Miller, Paco. He just happened to use my father to do it. Pa didn’t gun Miller down in cold blood. He was shooting only to save my life. Even after all that happened, Pa couldn’t just shoot because I was in danger. And that’s why I didn’t harm Miller when I had him where I wanted him back home. It wasn’t right.” He smiled. “So don’t blame yourself, Paco. This was a hard lesson, but you learned it well. And I wouldn’t have survived if you hadn’t gone for help.”
“I was lost when I met your pa,” Paco admitted, in a small voice. He scooted a look out from under his brows.
“That’s our secret,” Joe whispered, leaning over slightly. “Make sure when you tell the story, you just omit that bit, okay?”
“Isn’t that like lying?” Paco asked, shocked.
That was a thorny one, Joe admitted. “Well, sort of,” he hedged. He grinned at his young friend. “But it sounds a whole lot better than the whole truth, doesn’t it?” They sat quietly for a minute, both thinking. Paco was readjusting his thinking into accepting that he had not put Joe’s life at particular risk and had in fact been instrumental in getting help for Joe. Joe was thinking about all the things that had happened in the last few weeks.
Finally, he smiled at Paco again. “Hoss will take you to your grandparents,” he said. “I wish I could take you, like I promised, but it’s impossible.”
“Don’t worry,” Paco told him. “I know you would come if you could.” He stood and thrust a hand out to Joe. “I thank you for all you’ve done for me, Joe. I’ll never forget you.”
Joe shook Paco’s hand. “I’ll never forget you either,” he assured his young friend. “And if I don’t get regular letters from you, you can guarantee I’ll come hunting for you, is that understood?”
“Understood,” Paco replied, his eyes shining. He left, holding his head high, without a backward glance. Joe felt unbearably proud of him.
Hoss and Paco left the next morning at first light. Paco said a contained goodbye to the Cartwrights, but there were tears standing in his eyes. Slightly later that same morning, Ben and Adam loaded Joe into the wagon they’d hired and began the journey home.
It took them four days all told, travelling at a snail’s pace to avoid jarring Joe’s injuries. He didn’t complain at all, although he wound Adam up a great deal of the time. Having finally seen the small scratch on Adam’s arm, Joe had delighted in calling him ‘hero’ and reminding his brother of his own bad injuries. Once or twice, Ben thought Adam might throttle his brother.
Although he put on a show of outrage, Adam was not offended by his brother’s comments. To Adam, it was a strong declaration that Joe was getting better. He had found his sleep disturbed by images of Joe pinned beneath the over-turned wagon and could not help but speculate on what might have happened if they had not arrived just when they did.
As a logical man, Adam sometimes found religion difficult to deal with. He did believe in God, but sometimes his belief faltered slightly when his scientific mind wanted to believe something else. But at times like this, he was reminded that God was in all things, and those things only became clear in God’s own time. Over the course of the journey, Joe had told them of his talk with Paco and that had started Adam thinking. This was a time when God’s hand was more than evident.
The next few weeks were difficult for Joe, as he could do very little for himself. But throughout, the young man kept cheerful, reminded always that ‘God works in mysterious ways, his wonders to perform.’
Soon, Hoss was home, bringing the news that Paco had settled well with his grandparents, and soon regular letters began to arrive. Joe was on his feet again, moving about and regaining his lost strength. And on the day when Joe had resumed his normal chores, Adam knelt by the side of the bed to give thanks for a very special day.
One day, he knew he would no longer be able to resist the siren call to leave the ranch. But not today. Today, he still had so much to learn from his youngest brother, who lived life at full speed, accepting the bad times along with the good.
“You know, Adam,” Joe remarked, the very next morning, “you’ve been half-way nice to me for weeks now. Are you ill?”
To remind Joe just who was the older brother here, Adam clipped him gently round the ear. “Don’t worry, it won’t last,” he predicted.
Thanks to Lisa for the story idea, and to Claire as always.
Quote from William Cowper, poet.