Revenge is a Dish Best Served Cold (by Laura Brodie)

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Summary:  Joe dances with the devil as he comes up against a man who is nothing but  evil. Joe fights crossing over to the dark-side in order to best the man at his own game.

Rating  R  WC 149,000

 

                                                                        Revenge is a Dish Best Served Cold           

 ADAM CARTWRIGHT TO TESTIFY AGAINST CYRUS BAXTER

 Adam Cartwright, son of local cattle baron Ben Cartwright, almost single-handedly brought down the empire of Mr. Cyrus Baxter.  Baxter, originally a Pennsylvania strip-mining mogul, has substantial holdings in the Nevada territory and throughout the West.  In this news story it is learned that Adam Cartwright is due to testify sometime this month regarding Baxter.  Cartwright has made allegations that Baxter has stolen money from the investors of his Lone Pine Mine by falsifying ore reports and producing salted samples.  Rumor has it Mr. Cartwright, a local investor in mining, set up the mining legend for a fall and was able to show the investors and the public that Mr. Baxter had taken them for fools.  Mr. Cartwright will be scheduled for a full day’s testimony and seating will be limited.  It is suggested that those wishing to attend arrive early.  It should prove to be interesting.  Can a man from the local ruling family take down a man from a well-known empire?  Watch and read.

 

 

Joe Cartwright sat at the Reno livery, reading the lead story to an old Virginia City Press Enterprise he had found laying around, waiting for a shoe to be replaced on his horse.  The past few weeks had been full of tension for the Cartwrights, as Joe’s brother Adam prepared to testify against one of the most ruthless men in the West.  No one had been able to touch the corrupt businessman until Adam became wise to one of his schemes, set the man up for a fall, and in turn, possible prison time.  Adam also had known the man would not go to prison willingly, and there was significant danger to him in testifying.  In fact, several others who initially agreed to testify against the man had backed out of their obligation to the prosecution so much of the case now rested on Adam’s shoulders.

 

Knowing of the danger, the prosecution, Sheriff Roy Coffee, and the Cartwrights had all worked together to hide Adam, so he would be safe until after he testified.  There had been rumors that Baxter had placed a price on Adam’s head, and in a place such as the Nevada Territory, it would not take much for men to attempt to gain the blood money.

 

Joe had been sent to Reno by his reluctant father to sign the annual timber contracts.  This was normally Adam’s responsibility, but it was far too dangerous for Adam to be out in the open until after the trial.  The Ponderosa had to have the timber contracts in order to meet financial obligations elsewhere, or Ben would have simply let the contracts lapse.  Even with the financial need of the ranch, it had taken quite a bit of persuasion on Joe’s part to talk his father into allowing him to sneak away from where they were hiding and ride to Reno.

 

Joe completed the transaction easily enough.  He enjoyed getting to experience the feel of being a businessman on behalf of the Ponderosa.  He had negotiated horse contracts in the past, but those felt old, with the prices rarely varying.  The timber contract required negotiations and bluffing.  Joe had watched and learned from both his father and Adam and believed he had gotten them the best contract possible.  He had wished his father and Adam had been there to see how well he had done, and he looked forward to telling them once he saw them again.

 

Joe had tied up his business a day earlier than expected.  Usually contract negotiations were as much a social affair as a business deal, with meals being served, and time spent discussing politics and current events.  However, the man with whom Joe was meeting had pressing business elsewhere and had asked that he and Joe hammer out the details in one day, rather than doing it over a period of days.  Joe easily agreed, having been rather nervous about discussing politics and current events with the man.  He saw this area as something his older brother and father excelled at and knew he had more to learn as far as pulling off smooth social talk with men.  Joe socialized primarily with cowboys and girls and had no problem pulling off interesting conversation with them, but he tended to get quiet and blend into the background when the social talk was with businessmen.

 

Joe realized he would be returning earlier than his father expected and thought to himself,  “Hey now there’s a switch, me being early for a change.”  He had briefly entertained the idea of staying in Reno and playing the extra day, but he wanted to get back to help guard his brother to make sure Adam was safe.  Joe saw the blacksmith was no where ready to replace the shoe on Cochise, as he had several other horses waiting ahead of the black and white pinto.  He decided that he would take a look around town briefly, rather than reread the paper he had just finished.  He stood and told the blacksmith he would be back in an hour and then headed off to explore.

 

 

While walking down the wooden sidewalk, Joe looked into the storefronts.  He also enjoyed himself by looking at the ladies he passed, every so often turning totally around to watch them walk by.  He tipped his hat in true gentleman fashion and smiled brightly.  He would wink at the ones he viewed as the most pretty and chuckled to himself at how fun it was to be in Reno.

 

Eventually, Joe walked into a saloon and stood at the bar.  He ordered a beer and had just taken his first sip when he felt something jab him in the ribs.  He heard a man’s voice say in a low tone,  “Don’t move, Cartwright.  Don’t even breathe.  I want you to walk slowly out of this place, turn to your left, and go down the alley.”

 

Joe tried to look around him to see if he could easily get away.  When the man spoke, he thought he recognized the voice, and if he was right, he knew he was in trouble – big trouble. He started to walk forward slowly, as he caught a glimpse of the man behind him in the saloon mirror.  It was a man he had known only as Doyle, and he knew things had suddenly gotten very dangerous.  Doyle was one of Baxter’s lieutenants and followed orders well.

 

Both men walked slowly out of the saloon and around the corner into the alley.  There stood two other men, one Joe recognized as a man named Wells, and the other he did not know.  The man he did not recognize spoke; his voice deep and heavy,  “Mr. Cartwright, you need to come with us quietly if you wish to live.  If you don’t, then make a sound, and my friend with the gun will kill you.”

 

Joe scanned the area looking for some escape.  The alley was narrow and the two men in front of him were standing in such a way as to block movement forward.  There was also the man behind him, the gun securely in his ribs.  He knew he had no choice at the moment, but told himself he would look for some way to escape at the first opportunity.

 

The Stranger walked towards Joe, looked him in the eye, and took Joe’s gun from his gun belt.  Joe felt a cold shiver go down his spine, as he saw no life in the eyes that stared back.  They were hard and cold and seemed to look right through him.  He wanted to panic, but told himself to keep calm and try to keep the fear from his eyes.  The man smiled an evil smile.  “This is gonna be fun.”

 

Joe’s heart jumped, but he said nothing.  The man behind him shoved him forward, and they steered him to a cellar entrance at the side of the saloon.  Wells opened the double doors and stepped aside.  The Stranger spoke,  “I’ll take it from here.”  As he put the gun to Joe’s ribs and cocked it.

 

“Go ahead Pretty Boy, walk down the steps.”  The man ordered.

 

As Joe looked to where the man wanted him to walk, he could see nothing but a wall of darkness.  He realized he would be at a great disadvantage if he were taken out of public view and his only chance would be to somehow not allow himself to be taken down into the cellar.  He prayed someone would soon pass by who could help him, but doubted it would occur.  He also knew there was a gun in his side that, if fired, could easily kill him if he tried to resist.  He had a choice to make.

 

Moving quickly, Joe shoved the man with the gun away and dove to the ground to be out of the line of fire.  He rolled away and kicked the feet out from under Doyle, who was standing next to him.  Doyle fell, dropping his gun.  Joe reached for it but suddenly felt a strong kick to the stomach.  He lost his breath and then a face was in front of him.

 

“Cute maneuver there, Pretty Boy, and now you’ll die.”  The man put the barrel of the pistol between Joe’s eyes and cocked it.  Joe tensed, waiting for the trigger to be pulled.  He maintained eye contact with the Stranger, although it was very difficult, given the fear he felt.  He told himself if he was going to die, then he would go bravely.  The two stared at each other, neither with expression then the Stranger pulled away the gun and stood looking down on Joe.  He kicked Joe again in the stomach. “I still want to have some fun with you boy, so on your feet.”

 

Joe had just breathed a sigh of relief when he felt the second kick.  The pain radiated through him.  He was trying to stand, but apparently was moving too slow for the Stranger.  The man grabbed him roughly by the arm.  “I said stand, boy!  When I tell you to do something, I expect you to do it that instant!”

 

Joe scrambled to get his feet under him.  “Go to hell!”

 

The Stranger broke out laughing.  “Well, well, seems to me like you got some spunk to ya.  That’ll be good.  I was told you were a cocky one, and I’m glad to hear it’s true.  Will make for much more interesting, uh, shall I say, conversation?  I do hate it so when they just roll over and die so easily, not at all fun for me.  You know though, you really should watch your mouth.  It ain’t polite to swear, and so I’ll just help teach you a little lesson.  Now before I do this, I want you to remember one thing.  I have your life in my hands, and whether you live or die is totally up to me.  Now I expect you to treat me accordingly, and we will get along just fine.”

 

 

As Joe looked at the man talking to him, the coldness surrounding him was eerie, as it seemed to suck at the warmth around.  Joe tried to keep himself from shaking or showing any other form of fear.  He instinctively knew the man would enjoy seeing it and he knew he did not want to please the man.  He did nothing to acknowledge the Stranger.

 

The Stranger very calmly walked Joe to the top of the stairs and said in a tone of voice that was almost pleasant,  “Let this be a lesson.  When you are told what to do, you do it, and don’t talk back.”  With that the man pushed Joe down the stairs.

 

The stairs were steep, and Joe had no way to protect himself from the impact as he fell down them.  He rolled and pitched, being flung around each time a part of him made impact with the wood of the stairs.  He came to rest at the bottom of the stairs conscious, but dazed.  It took a moment to register what had happened to him, as he tried to clear the stars from his eyes.  He tried to stand, as the pain wracked his body.  He felt nauseous, as his head began to pound.  He reached up and touched the blood coming from his scalp.  There was more pain coming from his legs where his knee had hit the wooden stairs hard, and the pain was intense.  He found a post to pull himself up and made it to his feet.  He then leaned against it, trying to help his throbbing head.

 

Everything hurt, as he attempted to gather himself together.  He heard the Stranger laugh as he descended the stairs followed by Wells and Doyle.  “That looked like it hurt.  Did it?”

 

Joe looked at the man but did not answer.  The man immediately backhanded Joe across the face.  “You’re a slow learner, Pretty Boy.  I asked you a question, and I want an answer.  Tell me, did it hurt?”

 

The slap sent Joe’s head reeling, and the nausea increased.  He said quietly,  “No.”

 

The man laughed again and then kicked Joe in the groin.  “Don’t lie to me boy.  Tell me true.”

 

Joe doubled over and threw up.  The pain was enormous, and he was unsure if he would pass out.

 

“Now that was disgusting, Pretty Boy.  You wanna answer me, or you want another nudge?”

 

Joe moaned and said through gritted teeth,  “It… hurt.”

 

“See boys, he learns!  He’s just slow.”  The Stranger walked to Joe and pulled him by the hair, so he stood straight.  It was hard for Joe to breathe, and his stomach churned.  He took short breaths trying to keep the pain at bay.

 

“Awe, keep breathing.  It’ll pass.”  The Stranger said, offering false sympathy.

 

“What… do… you… want… with… me?”

 

“I was gonna get to that eventually.  I understand you have a brother.  Name’s Adam, I believe.  I want you to tell me where your brother is held up.”

 

“There’s no way… I’m gonna tell you.”  Joe tried to sound strong, stronger than he felt.

 

The Stranger laughed again, a deeply wicked laugh.  “They all say that at first.  They all end up telling.  You’ll be no different.”

 

Joe looked at the Stranger and gathered all of his resolve.  “I won’t tell you.  You can do what you want to me, but you’ll never get it from me.  I’ll die first.”

 

“That just may be, but I’ll give it a try first.  You’ll be amazed at what you’ll say to stop from hurting.  You may think you’re strong, but you really aren’t.  I can see it in you.  You’ll break.  Okay, time to limit our friend’s freedom.  We don’t need to have him wandering around.”

 

The Stranger shoved Joe towards the two men.  Wells and Doyle grabbed him, and he immediately started to struggle.  He had gotten his breath back and was more coherent.  He knew he was going to be in a worse predicament if he allowed them to tie him up, so he stomped hard on Wells’ foot, and Wells let go.  He then pivoted around and punched Doyle in the face.  The Stranger moved towards him, and Joe kicked him hard.  The kick did little to deter the Stranger, as he continued to advance.  The Stranger punched Joe in the face, and that, combined with the head injury from the fall, was more than Joe could take.  He collapsed onto the floor unconscious.

 

The Stranger turned to Doyle and Wells,  “You two are more a hindrance than a help.  Get him secured, and don’t just gag him.  Shove a rag in his mouth.  When he screams, I don’t want him heard.  I’ll be back shortly.  And if you mess this up, I’ll do to you what I have in mind to do to him.”  With that The Stranger walked into the darkness and left the room.

 

Both Wells and Doyle were intimidated by the Stranger’s handling of their young hostage.  Mr. Baxter had told them he had hired the Stranger to get certain information from the youngest Cartwright and was giving the Stranger free rein to do as he pleased with their prisoner.  They were beginning to wonder what else lay ahead for their charge and thanked their lucky stars it was Joe and not them that was at the mercy of the Stranger.

 

The Stranger had given the men handcuffs to restrain their prisoner, and they cuffed Joe’s hands behind his back and tied his feet.  They opened Joe’s mouth, shoved a rag into it, and gagged him.  After rechecking the restraints they left their prisoner, and walked off in the same direction as the Stranger.

 

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

 

The situation in which the Cartwrights found themselves with Adam made them opt to chose a location for hiding him that was secluded and remote.  There was a mining shack to the north of the ranch house that had often been used by line riders.  It seemed an ideal location to keep Adam safe.  The only problem was the shack was small and between the four Cartwrights, some loyal ranch hands, and some of Roy Coffee’s men, the atmosphere was tense, as individuals could find little privacy.

 

The claustrophobic environment was particularly getting to Adam who tended towards being a very private person.  Having others around him constantly was agitating, but he continued to tell himself they were there to protect him, and the real source of his irritation was Cyrus Baxter.  Adam had not thought twice of going up against the amoral businessman, but he was feeling guilt that he had placed his family in possible peril and had put the Ponderosa operations behind schedule.  Adam and his father shared several long and heated discussions regarding the practicality of all four Cartwrights stopping work to protect him.  He had simply wanted to stay at the ranch and keep a low profile, but Ben would not hear of it.  Ben believed the Ponderosa house was too difficult to guard effectively, and it would prove easier to hold up in a secret location.  He would not risk his son’s life.

 

Because of the need for secrecy, no one traveled out of the cabin except at night, and only then when it was absolutely needed.  Roy remained in town, but kept a close ear out for rumors and gossip pertaining to Adam’s location, or for individuals who appeared to be strangers in Virginia City.

 

The group had been successful in keeping Adam hidden for over a week when their luck ran out.  Joe had left the previous day for Reno when the guards around the area became aware of a lone rider passing close to the shack.  One of the guards approached the rider attempting to make it appear as if he was merely working on fences, and the sole occupant of the shack.  However, the rouse was not successful, as that evening shots began to be fired.  The men positioned around the shack were able to easily kill the man who had found their location, but it was soon agreed that the location had been compromised, and they would have to move.

 

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

 

Joe moaned several times before he woke.  His arms were behind him, and there was something in his mouth.  His head felt as if it would explode, and he felt nausea.  He tried to look around, but it was extremely dark, and he saw very little.  He heard the tinny music of the saloon above him, as well as the talk of people as they enjoyed their time gambling and drinking.  It was hard to think clearly through the pain in his head, but he knew he was in terrible trouble.  His father would not miss him for at least another day or two, so there was no one who would come for him.  He thought over what the man had said and done to him, and he had to admit he was scared.  The man seemed devoid of emotion and looked at him as if he were a speck of dust.  He knew the Stranger was taking pleasure in his pain.

 

Joe began thinking over what they wanted from him.  He knew where Adam was and also knew he would never willingly tell them anything regarding his brother’s whereabouts.  He told himself he would hold fast and endure what ever it was that the man could do to him.  He would never betray his brother.  He knew that about himself.  He realized he might have to die for his loyalty.

 

As Joe lay on the floor, he felt something scurry over him, and he shuddered.  He hated dark places since he was little, and where he was currently being held made his childhood fears emerge.  He continued to tell himself he was eighteen and was not a little boy any longer.  It was just darkness, nothing more.  He felt his breathing increase and continued to talk to himself.  “Stop it.  You’ve been in worse.  You can handle this.”

 

Just then, Joe saw the flicker of a lamp come around the corner.  He welcomed the light and felt his spirits lift until he saw the Stranger was the one who was transporting it.  “You’re back amongst the living I see.”  The Stranger sat the lamp down on an overturned crate, pulled the gag off and then pulled the rag from Joe’s mouth.

 

Joe did not answer, as he looked at the man.  He knew he was expected to answer, but he could not make himself do it.  There was something in him that kept him defiant, not wanting to bend at all to the man.  He wanted to hold strong.  The man walked over and looked him in the eye.  “You truly are gonna be fun.  I like your spunk, but I’ll break it.  You need to know that one.  Listen, you don’t have to be so brave.  I’ll just tell Baxter I got the information somehow, and you can go about your merry way.  Kid, you can’t win up against me.  You won’t win.”

 

“I will.  I’ll win or die.  You won’t make me tell you.”  Joe said, holding fast.

 

The Stranger tipped his hat.  “You got guts, kid.  I’ll give you that.  I’ll make you talk though.  You’ll say anything I want before it’s over.  You ever felt a bullwhip, kid?  I’m told it is quite painful.  I’ve seen what it reduces a man twice your size to.  You won’t hold up.”

 

As the man spoke, he produced the black snake-like instrument, making sure Joe’s eyes caught sight of it.  The Stranger laughed.  “What’s wrong kid?  You look ill.”

 

Joe saw the whip and knew it caused pain.  He also knew he would endure that pain because the man’s face showed him he would if he held out on Adam’s location.  He was filled with terror but did not allow himself to entertain the idea of revealing his brother’s location.  He knew he would let himself die for Adam.  He responded,  “Nothing’s wrong.  Do what you have to do.”

 

“Oh, I do like your spunk.  I think you and I could be friends if things were different.  But, since we play the cards we’re dealt, I’ll just have to finish my job.  I’m gonna ask you real nice.  Where are they keeping your brother?”

 

Joe looked at the man and then looked away.  He did not respond.

 

“Thought you’d be that way.”  The man roughly lifted Joe to where he was standing; his balance off due to his ankles being tied.  The man then pulled back and punched Joe in the stomach, resulting in Joe quickly losing his balance and falling to the ground.  The man again asked the question, and Joe’s response was the same.  He was punched again on his body and fell to the ground.  He tried not to let any noise come from him, as he endured the blows.  He prayed the man would tire of him and stop the beating.  He had no idea the type of man he was dealing with.

 

The abuse continued for several more minutes and then it stopped, just as quickly as it had started.  Joe was lying on his side his legs pulled up to protect himself.  He tasted blood in his mouth and wanted to spit it out, but did not want to do it in front of the man.  He knew it would show weakness.

 

The man looked down on Joe and shook his head.  “Oh Pretty Boy, you’re not looking so pretty.  It’d be a shame to get you all messed up.  I hear tell you’re quite the ladies’ man around town.  Now, I know you’d hate it if you were so messed up the ladies screamed when they saw you.  That’d just be down right awful, I guess.  You’d have to settle with two dollar whores for your fun then.”

 

Joe continued to hold his gaze on the man, as he spoke.  He was trying to focus on anything he could in order not to think of his pain or the power the man held over him.  He briefly wondered how the situation he was in would end, but he then became despondent and afraid.  He made himself move his thoughts back to fighting against the Stranger’s demands.

 

“Not feeling like talking, Pretty Boy?  You know I was thinking.  It sure is right cowardly of your brother to hide out rather than holdin’ his head up like a real man.  I bet he’s been shaking in his boots all hid away begging to be protected.”

 

Joe could not resist responding to the man’s insults of Adam.  “My brother’s no coward.  He’s gonna walk into court, tell the truth and put Baxter away.  He’s much more of a man than you. You’re such a man to tie me up, and then hit me?  What kind of man is that?”

 

The man laughed at Joe’s words and then pulled back and kicked Joe hard.  Joe rolled away and closed his eyes tight, waiting for the pain to lessen.  The man then said,  “I told you about being respectful.  You need to know every time you decide to disrespect me you will feel pain.  You need to learn that I’m in complete control.  You’re defending a brother who’s not here, and it’s costing you to do it.  He isn’t here to hear it, and I just find it tiresome, so save it.”

 

The man bent down so he was next to Joe’s head.  He saw Joe was in pain, and it made him smile.  He was impressed with the young man’s spirit and knew that if he could get him to talk at all he was going to have to completely break him down.  To do that would mean he would have to escort Joe right up to death’s door, and with a little luck, keep him there long enough to get his answer.  He sighed loudly,  “Do you understand?”

 

“Go to hell!”  Joe said through gritted teeth.

 

“All right.  Up ‘til now I’ve been nice.  Well, no longer, on your feet.  You’re a bit too comfortable lying there.  I wish you didn’t have to make me do this, but I have no choice.  You’re the one who isn’t playing by the rules.  Just remember that.  You brought this on yourself.”

 

The man pulled Joe to his feet by the handcuffs.  He produced a knife from his pocket and cut the rope that had tied his feet together, allowing Joe to stand easier.  The man then pulled out Joe’s gun and pointed it at him.

 

“Now walk.”  He shoved Joe back into the darkness.  The man held the light he had brought with him, but it did little to illuminate the dark cellar.  Joe had no idea where he was going and tripped over things as he went.  Each time he went to fall, the man jerked violently back on the handcuffs, pulling Joe upright.  Finally the man spoke once more,  “Stop.”  He jerked Joe back to him.  Joe saw he was standing in an open room with several posts around and beams above his head.  The man produced the key.  “Kiddo, you don’t want to move if you know what is good for you when I take off the cuffs.  You want to stand right there and do nothing.  You move one inch, and you will regret it.  I promise.”

 

The man undid the cuffs, and Joe instinctively brought his hands around to the front.  Just then, the man punched him hard in the back.  Joe pitched forward and fell.  He tried to stand, and the man kicked him again.  He finally lay on the ground, not moving.  The man finally said in a calm voice,  “What did I tell you?  I said don’t move.  You don’t listen.  Now say you’re sorry.”

 

Joe knew the man was toying with him.  He tried to get his breathing under control and to think of the smartest way to handle the situation.  He wanted to tell the man how sick he thought he was, but knew he would endure more pain for an outburst.  He was not sure he could hold up to another kick without passing out.  “I’m sorry.”  He whispered.

 

“What?  I didn’t hear you.”

 

“I said I was sorry!”  Joe snapped.

 

“Now don’t take that tone with me.  I expect you to be courteous.”  The man dragged Joe to a standing position once more.  As soon as Joe was standing, the man slapped him hard across the face.

 

“I would appreciate it if you watched your tone next time.  Now say, yes sir.”

 

“Yes sir.”  Joe said quietly.

 

“Much better.  Now reach up and grab that beam above you.”

 

Joe looked at the man but hesitated.  A bad feeling came over him, as he realized what the man wanted him to do.  His pause resulted in him being slapped again, and his face burned.  He slowly lifted his arms and grabbed hold of the beam.  Every impulse in him wanted to fight, but knew he had to simply give in.  He felt despair.

 

The man quickly handcuffed Joe’s hands to the beam above him.  He had enough room to be able to slightly bend his arms at the elbow, while his feet remained free.  The man then took the light and walked away.  He stood hoping the man was actually leaving, but he hoped wrong.

 

Joe listened carefully to the sounds around him.  The music upstairs went on, as did the laughter.  He tried to make himself think of another place, another time.  His mind did as it always did when he wished to feel safe. It took him to the Ponderosa and to Lake Tahoe.  He was thinking of riding around the lake on Cochise when he heard the man return and saw the bullwhip in his hand.  His heart began to race.

 

“Okay son.  I’ll ask you again.  Where are they keeping your brother?”

 

“And I told you, I’m not gonna tell you.”  Joe said with more courage than he felt.

 

“So be it.”  The man walked behind Joe, roughly grabbed the collar of his shirt and pulled down hard.  The buttons gave way and the shirt tore, exposing Joe’s back to the man.

 

“I’ll give you one more chance.  Where is he?”

 

“Go to hell.”  Joe closed his eyes and bracing himself for what would come next.

 

The man cracked the whip several times next to Joe, and the sound made him shudder.  He thought, just get it over with, as he stayed braced.

 

The whip then connected with his body.  His legs buckled, his head flew back, and he pulled down hard on the cuffs.  It was a cutting, tearing pain that seemed to go down to his very soul.

 

“You want to tell me now?”

 

Joe momentarily could not breathe.  His eyes were watering, as he tried to get the pain under control.  His lack of response was noticed.  “I’ll take that as a no?”  The man pulled back again with the whip.

 

The lash burned as it cut, and Joe screamed out.  “Oh God!”

 

“Sorry kid.  He can’t help you right now.  Only I can.  All you need to do is tell me where you brother is, and it will all stop.  I promise.”

 

“I… uh… I…” Joe tried to speak, but the pain was intense.

 

“You what?  Come on tell me.  Tell me, and it stops.”

 

“I… wo … won’t.”  Joe said breathlessly.

 

“Suit yourself.”  The man said shaking his head and striking Joe once more with the whip.

 

As the whip connected, Joe’s mind could take no more.  He felt the impact and passed out.

 

***********

 

Joe noticed pain before he became fully awake.  He realized he had passed out as he slowly opened his eyes.  The gag was back in his mouth, and the room was dark.  His back stung and burned if he made any movement, and it throbbed constantly.  He realized he was hanging by his arms and could not feel his hands.  As he stood to relieve the pressure, he felt the blood move back.  He let out a moan as the pain moved through him.

 

Breathing was difficult, and Joe knew he had broken ribs.  He hurt so badly, as he stood in the dark.  He tried to think of other things once more to distract himself, but his mind turned to his family, and he found himself begging for them to know something was wrong.  “Pa, I need you.  Oh Pa, please!  Hoss, Adam, come get me, please!  I need you!  I don’t know if I can hang on!  It hurts so bad!”

 

Joe knew his pleading would not be heard, and he felt desperation.  Every move he made caused more pain.  He listened to the music drifting down from upstairs and tried to hear the conversations.  Nothing was clear, and he felt very alone.  The tears started to roll down his face as he felt his body’s pain, and then his own fear as the thought of the man returning to continue to hurt him filled his mind.  He knew he would die with the Stranger the only one to be with him as he took his final breath.

 

As he stood in the darkness, Joe was unaware of the passing of time.  He had no idea how long he had been in the cellar, but prayed time would pass quickly.  He heard a door open and saw a light approach.  He thought,  “Oh no!  God no!  Please!  I can’t!  Please just make him go away!”  The tears were falling, and he tried to make them stop.  He could not let the man see him crying.  He rubbed his face on his arm, but the tears remained.

 

He looked to see it was Wells and Doyle standing looking at him.  They had a look of shock on their faces as they saw the condition Joe was in.  They moved towards him and Doyle spoke to Wells.  “Oh boy, that looks like it hurts!  I knew he was gonna get hurt, but ouch!  That looks bad.  Awe, look Wells, he’s cryin’!  The brave man is cryin’!”

 

“Ain’t that somethin’!  Poor baby!  Want your mama?”  Wells continued the taunting.

 

Both men laughed, as Joe stood looking at them.  He felt the despair leave and anger return.  He knew the two in front of him were not as dangerous to him as the Stranger, and he calmed.  As he relaxed once more, he experienced his body’s pain and closed his eyes.  He listened to Doyle.  “You know?  I owe you one for making me look bad in front of everyone.  I didn’t appreciate that at all!”

 

Joe opened his eyes just in time to see Doyle pull back and kick him in the groin.  Joe coiled in and felt nausea.  He choked it down, knowing he could not be sick with the gag in his mouth.  The pain hit hard, and he wanted to scream.  He tried to keep breathing through the hurt, but it was difficult.  His ribs protested with bolts of pain.

 

Wells laughed loudly as he watched Doyle.  “Oh geez!  You know how to hurt a guy, Doyle.  Here, let me have a go at it!”

 

 

Joe knew he would not let himself be kicked again.  He waited for the man to approach, and once he was within range, Joe kicked hard.  The man crumpled.  Wells rolled around on the floor, as Joe looked down on him silently happy he had been able to at least fight back a little.

 

Doyle laughed at his friend,  “Oh boy!  He got you!  Hey, Wells!  I bet you’ll be glad when that stops hurtin’!  Hey kid, you’re gonna pay for that one, I’m sure.”

 

Joe knew he would pay in pain for what he had done, but it felt good for the moment, and he told himself he could tolerate any pain these men could inflict upon him.  He kept watching the two before him to make sure he knew what they were doing and where the blows would come from.  He wanted to brace himself and prepare for the attack he knew would come.

 

Eventually Wells stood.  He looked at Joe and sneered.  “You think you’re clever don’t you.  Well, we’ll see who’s so clever.  We’ll see who can really handle the pain.”

 

As Well’s started to walk around him, Joe kept a close watch.  Wells stayed a distance from Joe as he moved to avoid another kick.  He ended up behind Joe.  “Hey Doyle, look here.  You see the kid’s back.  Oh that looks painful!  Kid he really did a number on you.  Does it hurt?”

 

Joe tried to move so he could position himself between the man and his back, but he was unable to turn around and knew he was exposed and weak which would make what was coming very painful.  “Kid, you’re really messed up back here.  I bet it would hurt if I did this.”  Wells reached up and slapped Joe hard on the back.  Joe pitched forward and held back a scream.  The pain was excruciating as he felt his body explode.  His eyes watered as he tried to focus.

 

The men laughed together as Doyle joined his friend behind Joe.  Joe became more nervous, knowing the men had found his greatest vulnerability.  He knew they would capitalize on their knowledge, and he would feel pain.  He prayed it would pass quickly.  Doyle and Wells took turns hurting Joe as he remained helpless, unable to retaliate.  He was fading back into unconsciousness when he heard a voice.  It was the Stranger.  Upon hearing the voice he felt himself lose all hope and prayed for death to come quickly.

 

“What the hell do you two think you’re doing?” The Stranger’s voice boomed and Joe realized it was the first time he had heard anger from the man.“We were helpin’ s’all.”  Doyle explained.

“I told you two imbeciles to check and see if he was awake.  That’s all I asked you to do.  Get away from him.”

Joe breathed a sigh of relief.  He could not believe the Stranger had saved him from pain.  Although he soon was in despair once more as he heard the Stranger.  “You two are fools, and you’ve delayed me.  I use the pain to make him talk you idiots.  You wasted an opportunity for me to get what I need.  Now I’ll have to wait ‘til he comes around again.”

It was surreal as Joe listened to the Stranger speak.  He had been thankful the Stranger had made them stop, but now heard the reason the man had done so was to do the hurting himself.  Joe felt woozy, and his body screamed.  As he drifted again into unconsciousness, he prayed never to wake.

 **********

Joe felt his face slapped several times as he returned back to consciousness – back to hell.  If he had not been gagged, the Stranger would have heard the moan he released.  His shoulders throbbed from his own weight, and he felt every inch of his body.  The pain was beyond words, as he felt it take his mind and consume him. As the gag was removed from his mouth, he struggled to breathe.  It was getting harder to fill his lungs as the time passed, and his body became more hurt, more broken.  He found himself having to pull hard on his hands to take a deep breath, but his desire to live was strong, and he would feel the pain in his hands before he would stop breathing.  He would fight until it was over.

“You ready to talk?  You want to tell me where your brother is?”  The Stranger calmly asked.

 “I… won’t!” Joe said defiantly.

 The Stranger punched Joe in the face several times.  His head flew back with each blow, but he made a point to return to look the Stranger in the eye after each hit.  He spoke through the pain with gritted teeth,  “You… know… you’ll have… to… uh, kill me… If you… don’t… I’ll find…you.  I’ll… kill… you.”

 The Stranger saw the young man’s resolve, and he admired the kid’s strength.  He knew the kid would not talk, and he would die.  He shook his head but proceeded.  “Pretty Boy, you won’t survive unless you talk.  You know that.  Just tell me what I want to know, and you live.”

 

“No!”  Joe managed to yell.  “My brother… he’d die… for… me… I know… he would.”

 “Are you so sure?  Everyone is in it for himself in the end.”

 “Not… Adam… Not… any… of… ‘em … I’ll… die… but… they’ll… be… okay  And… you’ll… be… with… out… your… answer.”  Joe struggled to speak.

 The bullwhip emerged once more by the man’s side.  Joe’s words unnerved the Stranger.  The manner in which the young man had held fast was admirable.  It would be disappointing to kill the kid, but he would.  He had killed before.  “Well, I really wish there was someone here who cared about what you said – all that noble stuff.  I know it took a lot of energy to do it.  It’s hard to breathe isn’t it?  Looks to me like you’re fading away, Pretty Boy.  You gonna die for your brother?  You gonna do it?”

 “Uh… yeah… Adam… he’d do… it … for me.”  Joe spoke his words in gasps.

“Would he take this kid?  Would he?”  The Stranger struck Joe’s back yet again with the bullwhip.

Joe felt the lash, as he recoiled in pain.  He knew Adam would never give him up, and he would remain faithful.  Joe spoke through clinched teeth,  “Go… to… hell!”

“Kid, you don’t have to do this.  You can live if you want to.  Just tell me.”

“NO!”  Joe screamed with his remaining energy.  It was hard to breathe as his lungs struggled over the weight of his own body.  His arms were out of socket, as he felt the pain in so many ways.  He longed for a gun to shoot the man dead, to keep shooting him until it was all gone-the man and the pain.  He hated more than he ever had before, and he told himself he would remember everything if he lived.  He would make the man pay.  As the Stranger slashed him yet again with the painful whip, he passed out, but his mind became set on revenge.

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

He was awake, but things were fuzzy and distant.  His breaths came in gasps, as he hung in the dark.  It took all of his energy to remain focused on breathing.  He thought of his family and the last time he had seen them.  Adam had given him last minute advice on the contracts for which Joe had acted outwardly as if he was annoyed, but had been secretly grateful.  Hoss had asked him to pick up some sweetening in Reno.  His father had looked at him with concern, giving him the look his father always seemed to give him when he was going to be away for a few days.  Joe had casually replied,  “Awe Pa, I’ll be fine.  It’s Reno you should worry about.”  And with that he had hopped on his horse and was away.

 As he hung in the darkness, Joe tried to recall his ride to Reno as a way of keeping going.  He made his mind take him on the ride and time passed.  He was far off in his head when he thought he heard a loud noise.  It made no sense.  He then heard the door open and felt terror.  The Stranger was back, and he would now die.  He knew he would not survive much longer.  His lungs were weak, and he was not able to take in much air.  He could no longer see out of one eye, so as the figure approached him, it was fuzzy and in shadows.  The figure grabbed him and was talking to him, but it made no sense.  Being touched was excruciating, and Joe felt himself gasping a scream in his head, “Just… kill… me!”

 He tried to move, but his body stayed frozen.  He waited for the whip again, as he waited to let go of his life.  He had no idea how much time had passed when he heard a noise above him.  Something was happening that did not make sense.  The handcuffs suddenly gave way, and Joe collapsed into the figure’s arms.

 As he felt the pain of being held, Joe screamed.  He wanted to struggle and fight to get away, but he was far too weak.  He felt the gag taken from his mouth, and he said through gasps,  “You… won’t… win.”

“Joe!  Little Joe!  It’s me, Hoss!  Joe, it’s me!  I’m here now buddy!  You’re gonna be okay.”

“No… no… don’t… hurt… more.”

Hoss held Joe and continued to speak,  “Joe, it’s me.  You’re safe.  I’m not gonna let anyone hurt you.  Joe listen, it’s Hoss!”

In a whisper, Joe asked,  “Hoss?”

 

“That’s right Joe.  It’s Hoss.  Let’s get you outta here now.”  With that, Hoss lifted Joe into his arms.  Joe screamed as he was moved.  “Sorry, little buddy!  I have to do it.”

 

 

Joe tried to grab hold of Hoss’s shirt but was only able to pull on it with his fingers.  Hoss could see his little brother wanted to tell him something and heard Joe whisper,  “Hoss… tell… tell… Adam… I… didn’t… tell.”

 

The words were painful for Hoss to hear, as he realized his little brother was more concerned about protecting his family than his own life.  He saw the amount of pain his brother was in and how difficult it was to talk or move.  Hoss knew that from the shape Joe was in, things were very dire.  Joe’s breathing was raspy, and he could tell his brother had been suffering for quite a while.  The body he held felt very cold, and he knew that was a bad sign.  Hoss started to pray.

 

Hoss walked through the saloon from where he had entered and was quickly outside.  People passing by on the street gasped at the large man with what appeared to be a dead man in his arms.  “The doctor!  Where’s the doctor!”  Hoss screamed.

 

A man pointed the way across the street.  Hoss ran with his brother to the doctor’s office, nearly braking the door down as he entered.  “Doc!  Doc!  Ya gotta help me!”  Hoss yelled into an empty room.

 

A distinguished looking man appeared, about to chastise the owner of the yelling voice, when he saw a large man with a smaller one in his arms.  He saw that the smaller man was very badly injured.  “Here, bring him in here.”

 

Hoss carried Joe into the room and reluctantly laid him on the table.  He wanted to keep holding his little brother – his desire to somehow give him all of his strength.  The doctor came along side of Hoss and was taken aback by what he saw.  “My God what happen to this boy?  Who did this to him?”

 

“It’s a long story, Doc.  You just gotta help him.  He’s gonna be okay huh, Doc?”  Hoss prayed to hear Joe would be fine.

 

“Let me look at him.  Step aside.”

 

Joe spoke again in a whisper,  “Hoss… Hoss… I’m… I… gotta… see… Pa… Adam…  Don’t… wanna… go… with… out… seein’…”

 

“Doc, do somethin’!”  Hoss felt his tears, as he feared the worst.  Joe was dying.  “Joe, buddy, hang on.  You gotta hang on!”

 

 

Joe felt very weak and speaking took so much of his energy,  “Hoss… take… me…”

 

“Mister, this boy cannot be moved.  It would kill him.  You cannot take him anywhere.”

 

“Can you save him?  Please Doc, do somethin’!”

 

“If you got family you want to see him, I suggest you get them here.  I’ll do what I can.”

 

“I can’t leave him!  He’ll be all alone!  Joe, buddy, I’ll stay with ya!”

 

“Hoss… go… I… need…” Was all Joe was able to emit.  It took too much from him to say more.

 

The thought of Joe dying alone tore at Hoss, but Joe wanted his family, and Hoss knew he would have to try and bring them.  “I’m gonna go get ‘em.  You don’t leave me, Joe!  You don’t go, buddy!  Hang on!  Pa and Adam’ll be here soon.  I promise ya, Joe!  Now you be here for us!”

 

Joe asked very quietly,  “Where… would… I… go?”

 

Hoss rubbed Joe’s head and looked down on him the tears flowing.  “Joe, you promise me?  Promise me you’ll be here?  You won’t… die?”

 

Joe gathered his strength.  “Go… I’ll… be… here.”

 

Hoss reluctantly left his brother at the doctor’s office, but did not leave Reno before stopping to see the Sheriff to apprise the lawman of the situation he had found his little brother in.  He demanded guards for Joe and his brother protection.  The Sheriff himself went to the doctor’s office with three of his best men.  He had been aware of the upcoming trial of Cyrus Baxter, as well as the Cartwrights involvement in bringing down the businessman.  He would do his job well.

 

Hoss rode Chub hard to the camp that held the Cartwrights and at least a dozen guards.  He was careful to hide his tracks and doubled back on himself several times.  He had two brothers in danger and wanted them both safe and alive.  He cursed Cyrus Baxter, and the peril his family faced due to the man.  He prayed he was careful in not putting one brother in danger for another.  He loved them both and needed them equally.

 

Hoss dismounted and was quickly through the door.  He was inside and speaking before anyone had a chance to react.  “Pa, Adam, its Joe.  He’s hurt real bad, real bad.  Pa, he’s askin’ for you and Adam.”

 

Ben and Adam were shocked to see Hoss standing before them, looking pale with tears falling down his face. Both quickly ran to Hoss, as Ben asked,  “Son, what’s wrong with Joe?  Where is he?”

 

“He’s been beat.  He’s been worse than beat.  He’s real bad.  It was Baxter’s doin’ for sure.  He don’t even look like him.  He’s back in Reno.  Pa, the Doc said we’d better get there quick.”

 

“Let’s go.”  Adam was the first to the door.

 

“Adam!  You can’t!  It’s far too dangerous!  This could be some kind of a trap!”  Ben felt himself full of fear and concern.  He had two sons in trouble, and he needed to protect them both.  One had already been harmed, and he did not want to have the other hurt as well.

 

“Pa, we’re not even gonna discuss this one!  Joe is… he’s wantin’ me there, and I’m gonna be there.  Now lets go.”  Adam’s tone indicated there would be no more discussion.

 

“Well at least lets be sensible.”  Ben quickly formed a plan.  “You shouldn’t ride Sport, and here, trade clothes with one of the hands.  We’ll have a group of us ride to Reno.  Adam, I want you in the middle.  Joe wouldn’t want you taking unnecessary risks.  He needs you, but he needs you alive.”

 

“We’re wasting time here.  I’ll do as you ask, but lets go.”  Adam was anxious to get to Joe.

 

The men were quickly away, riding to Reno.  The new location had been an hour’s ride from the city, and the men pushed their horses fast.  As they rode, Hoss told how he found Joe…

 

Ben became concerned about notifying his youngest after they had to move Adam to another location.  He decided to send Hoss to Reno to intercept Joe on his way home and bring him to the new location.  Hoss was more than happy to retrieve his little brother and rode fast to Reno.  He expected to meet his brother on the trail and was surprised when he made it all the way to the city without seeing him.  Hoss rode to the livery with the intent of stabling his horse.  He looked over to an adjoining stall and saw a paint pony blissfully tearing off hay from a pile.  He walked over, checked the brand to be sure his assumption was correct, and confirmed it was Cochise.  He looked at a pile of things next to the stall and saw Joe’s saddle, saddlebag, and jacket.

 

The liveryman saw Hoss looking at the pinto.  “You know where the guy who owns that horse is?  He was here the day ‘fore yesterday waitin’ for a shoe for that pony.  He told me he’d be back in an hour but never showed.  He owes me money for the board and the shoe.”

 

Hoss immediately felt uneasy.  Joe would not go off without tending Cochise, nor would he leave things such as his saddlebag lying around in the livery stable.  It was obvious something was wrong.  His gut warned him.  Joe was in trouble.  Hoss paid for Cochise’s care, as well as for Chub, and then headed out onto the street to try and find his little brother.

 

He decided to try the hotel they always stayed at while in Reno on the off chance Joe was still there.  The desk clerk informed him that Joe had checked out two days prior after having settled his bill and leaving a generous tip.  Hoss now was passed worry.  His brother was missing.

 

The big man walked the streets of Reno hunting for any clue that would lead him to Joe.  He had no idea where to look, and as the hours ticked away, he grew more concerned.  If Joe had disappeared soon after he had left the livery, then he had been gone for days.  He knew that kind of time would give someone quite a lead on him, and Joe could have been taken anywhere.  He was about to go to the sheriff when he spotted a man that he recognized from Virginia City.  The man worked for Baxter, and Hoss knew he was trouble.  He held back and followed the man he knew as Wells from a distance.  Wells went into the Mercantile and then re-emerged.  He then walked to a café and sat and ate a meal.  Hoss resisted the urge to go up to him and confront him regarding Joe.  He had no idea if it was mere coincidence the man was in Reno, or if he was somehow involved in Joe’s disappearance.

 

Wells finished his meal, and Hoss remained in pursuit.  Wells strolled down the street, but eventually came to stop at a saloon.  As he walked, Hoss held back.  He saw Wells walk to the back of the saloon, look around to see if anyone noticed him, and then opened a door and disappeared.  Wells’ behavior appeared suspicious, and Hoss began to believe he might have stumbled on something.  Hoss entered the saloon and walked to the same door he had seen Wells enter.  He put his hand on the door and pushed it.  He breathed a sigh of relief when he realized it was not bolted.  Hoss slowly pushed the door open after having drawn his gun.  He was tense and ready for anything.

 

The door opened to a blind corridor.  The hallway turned; the end not visible.  Hoss heard men talking as he sneaked closer and listened to the conversation.

 

“Boy, you see how that kid looks?  Not such a high and mighty Cartwright no more.  I don’t think he’s gonna last much longer.  You think he’s gonna spill it?”  Voice number one asked.

 

“Geez, he’s all torn up.  It’d probably be better if he just up and died.  I’ll bet ya five dollars, he croaks soon.  I don’t think he’ll say nothin’ though.”  Voice number two answered.

 

“How soon’s, soon?  I think he’ll stay ‘live ‘til we know his brother’s location one way or ‘nother, then he’ll croak, or we’ll just kill ‘em.  I’ll take that bet.  I say we gotta put a bullet in his head.”

 

The two voices laughed, and then voice number one said,  “I’m just glad it’s that stupid kid and not me.  Boy, oh boy he’s bad off.  Wouldn’t ‘cha just love to see his family when they get a look at him.  I think ol’ Adam Cartwright may just find out he crossed the wrong man.  Hey, after we finish up here, you wanna go to Frisco for a while?  I wanna spend that money we earned livin’ a little high on the hog.”

 

Hoss was livid.  He knew they had his little brother and were betting on his life.  He rounded the corner to see the two sitting on crates playing a card game.  He had been able to surprise them, catching both unaware.  Both men went to stand, as Wells reached for his gun.  Hoss fired one shot, hitting Wells squarely in the chest.  Doyle dropped his gun, while watching his colleague fall.  Hoss quickly aimed his gun at Doyle,  “Where is he!  Where’s my brother!”

 

“Hey look.  I didn’t have nothin’ to do with any of this ‘cept to guard the door.  Just put the gun down, and we can talk.”

 

“I ain’t in no mood to talk!  Where’s Joseph!”

 

“Now, now.  Calm down.  I didn’t hurt your brother.  I didn’t do it.”

 

Hoss exploded, punching the man in the face.  “Where is he!  I’m warnin’ you!  I’ll kill you with my bare hands!”

 

Doyle was recovering none too quickly from the punch.  He knew the big man would indeed kill him if he tried to hold out.  He sheepishly pointed to the door that the men had been sitting in front of.  Hoss then punched the man once more, and the man lay flattened on the floor.  He immediately jumped over the body and opened the door to find stairs that lead down to darkness, and he knew he needed a lantern.  He saw one sitting by the crates, picked it up, and lit it.  He hurried down the stairs hoping to find his little brother.

 

The image Hoss saw before him would be forever burned into his mind.  The room was cold and damp, the only light coming from the lantern, as he stood momentarily unable to move.  He heard the saloon above him so festive and gay, but he knew at that moment he was standing firmly in hell.  He saw a man, hanging from his hands, his legs bent and useless.  From the manner in which the man hung, it was obvious he was very weak, if not already dead.  The man was covered in dirt and blood, and it was hard to make out any identifying feature.  Hoss let out a moan, as he looked upon the man hanging so battered and bruised.  He was finally able to move, as the shock passed him, and he rushed to his baby brother.  “Joe!  Oh God, Joe!  Be alive!  Please be alive!  Joe, buddy!  You gotta be alive!  You just gotta!”  As Hoss begged, he heard a muffled moan come from Joe.  Hoss knew had to get his brother out of there and quickly.  He looked up and saw the handcuffs knowing they would pose a problem.  “Joe, buddy, I’ll be right back.  Hold on, buddy!”

 

Hoss then ran up the steps and picked up a semi-conscious Doyle.  “The key!  Where’s the key to the cuffs!   Tell me, or I’ll snap your neck!”

 

“I don’t have a key.”  Doyle groaned.

 

Hoss ran out to the saloon and yelled to no one in particular.  “Someone get the sheriff or a deputy or someone.  Get a handcuff key.  A man’s dying here!”

 

Hoss turned and ran back downstairs.  He saw Joe’s eyes were closed, but he was still breathing.  He heard someone call from above; a deputy was there with a handcuff key.  An unknown man appeared at the top of the stairs, and Hoss ran to him, grabbed the key and was down the stairs to Joe in an instant.  As he un-cuffed Joe’s hands and his little brother collapsed in his arms, Hoss thanked God he had found Joe and prayed he would live…

 

Hoss completed telling of the events in the cellar and what he had found, as the men reached the doctor’s office.  All three ran into the office and were quickly looking around.  Hoss knew where Joe was and took the lead.  He stopped at the closed door, but turned to Adam and his father before they could enter,  “Pa, Adam, I wanna tell you, he don’t look like him.  He’s all… he’s, just be ready ‘cause it’s bad.”  Hoss did not want to add, and “be ready if he’s already gone.”

 

Hoss opened the door, and all three entered the room.  They heard Joe’s gasps before they saw him.  The doctor was working over his patient, and the men had to move around to where they could see Joe more clearly.  There was nothing Hoss could have said that would have prepared them for what they saw.  Adam moaned, “Oh God no!  No, little buddy!”  And was immediately by Joe’s bedside.  As he went to take his brother’s hand, he saw the deep cuts around Joe’s wrists.  He closed his eyes and said,  “Joe, I’m so sorry.”

 

Ben stood back in utter shock.  He was looking at his son, but the only way he knew it was the color of his child’s hair, and the shape and size of the individual on the table.  He eventually was able to move towards Joe and knelt beside Adam.  “Joe, we’re here.  We’re all right here.  You’ll be okay, son.”

 

Joe heard his father and brother’s voices.  He felt himself calm some but found most of his focus had to remain on his breathing.  “Pa…Where’s… Adam… Need… talk… Adam.”

 

“Son, he’s right here, but keep your strength.  You don’t need to talk.”

 

Joe ignored his father and continued to gasp out the words,  “Adam… I… I didn’t… tell.”

 

“Joe,” Adam started to speak, as he felt tears on his face.  “Joe, I know what you did for me.”

 

“I… would…n’t.”

 

“I know.  You did an incredible thing, but now you have to be quiet, buddy.  You gotta get better.”

 

Joe’s breathing was disturbing to listen to, and as the men watched, they saw how difficult every breath was. Hoss had been standing back, away from the scene, praying hard for his brother.  He anxiously watched his brother breathe, so afraid Joe would stop and then be gone.

 

 

The doctor looked up at the men as they entered.  He had been spending the time since the young man had been brought to him, trying to keep him alive and breathing.  The constant hanging Joe had experienced had caused his lungs to become weakened, and he was unable to take much of a breath.  The doctor had propped up his head, but doing so put pressure on Joe’s back.  The pain he was experiencing was excruciating.  The doctor tried to give him a painkiller early on in tending to him and Joe had as adamantly as he could, refused the relief telling the doctor he needed to wait.

 

“Excuse me, but I need to speak with you all outside for a moment.”  The doctor finally spoke.

 

“Oh, uh, yes.”  Ben said.   “But I don’t want my boy alone.”

 

“Pa, I’m with him.  You go.”  Adam was not about to leave Joe’s side.

 

Ben walked out of the room, and Hoss followed behind.  Adam was soon alone with his little brother, “Joe, Pa’s just gone to talk to the doctor, and he’ll be right back.  You gotta be okay, Joe.  You gotta make it.  I promise you buddy, I’ll make Baxter pay.  I just need you to be okay.”

 

“Adam…”

 

“No, Joe.  Don’t talk.  That’s an order from your big brother.  Now I know how much you hate listening to me order you around, but this one you better do, or you’ll have me to deal with.”

 

It was hard to tell any expression on Joe’s face given how swollen and battered he was, but Adam thought he saw a smile.  He hoped that was what he saw.

 

Ben and Hoss stood next to the doctor as he spoke to them.  “I’m not going to lie to you gentlemen, he’s in grave condition.  The biggest thing he’s up against is the damage he has experienced to his lungs.  He’s struggling to breathe, and there’s very little I can do to help him with it.  Propping him up helps some.  He needs to stay quiet and not talk.  He was in shock when he was brought in, and we need to get plenty of fluids into him and keep him warm.  The rest, well once we see if he… if he pulls through and calms, then we can clean him up more.  Mr. uh?  I’m sorry in all the chaos I didn’t get any names.”

 

 

 

“It’s Cartwright, Ben Cartwright.  This is my son, Hoss, and my other son Adam is in there with Joseph.  Joseph’s a fighter.  He’s very tough.”  Ben said his words to himself as much as to the doctor.  He was trying to remain positive regarding Joe’s ability to survive, but he was so very afraid.

 

“I’m Peter Green.”  The doctor extended his hand, and the men shook. “Mr. Cartwright, your son has been tortured, and it’s obvious whomever did this wanted him in extreme pain.  Now what I don’t understand is why your son is refusing any pain medication.  Can you help me get him medicated?  It can help him breathe easier.”

 

Ben thought for a minute and thought he knew why Joe had refused the medication.  “Certainly, let me go talk to him, and you get it ready.”  Ben was immediately back through the door to Adam and Joe.  Adam was softly talking to Joe, but quieted when his father approached.  “Adam, let me get there a minute.  I need to talk to Joe.”

 

Adam moved out of the way, and Ben took his place,  “Joseph, listen to me son.  I want you to take the medicine that the doctor wants to give you.  It’ll help you breathe.  We’re here now.  It’s okay.  You don’t have to wait for us.”

 

“Bu… no… don’t…”

 

“Son, listen.  It’s okay.  I’ll make sure it is.  I promise. We’re all here now, and you can let yourself not feel the pain. Now I want you to do this.  We’re here now.”  Ben reached out to the doctor and took the medicine.  “Here son, now I want you to take all of this.”

 

Joe looked into his father’s eyes and knew to trust.  He took the medicine slowly and lay back, waiting to feel the relief.  Adam moved back to where Joe lay and began talking to him once more.  The men held vigil as they listened to Joe breathe.  Eventually, his breathing came a little easier, and he quieted some.

 

The doctor spoke,  “That medicine needs to get in him real good before we do what we have to do for him.  I want him to not have to feel much due to the shock and all, but we need to get his clothes off and check him over real good.  I didn’t see any wounds that were needing immediate attention, and with him so beaten I wanted to wait ‘til he could be more comfortable.”

 

Eventually the doctor determined Joe was heavily medicated and began to continue to treat him.  He pulled back the blankets, and they undressed Joe.  As they worked, the men saw some of the price Joe had paid for his silence, and a collective gasp passed between them.

 

“Oh dear God!  Joseph!”  Ben was beside himself with horror.  He could not believe what had been done to his child.

 

Hoss looked away, unable to remain focused on what he saw.  He felt rage building and was grateful he had killed one of the men who had done this to his little brother.  Hoss looked to Adam and saw his older brother’s jaw tightly clenched and his hands in fists.  He knew he was not alone in his rage.  It was obvious the suffering Joe had endured.  Both of Joe’s shoulders were out of socket, as his arms lay in an awkward fashion.  His body was purple where fists and feet had connected.

 

The doctor spoke softly, knowing the men were seeing a loved one in a shape one would hope no one would ever have to endure.  “We need to turn him over.  I need to look at his back.”  The doctor did not know if the family was aware that Joe had been whipped and prepared for their reactions.

 

The doctor and Ben slowly rolled Joe over on his side.  Joe moaned and his breathing became more labored.  Ben started to speak,  “It’s oh…” But he stopped.  He closed his eyes, as he saw his youngest son’s back.  “Joseph!  My boy!” Ben’s hands too went to fists, as he felt so helpless to see his son had endured such agony.

 

Adam had been standing on the other side of his father, so when Joe was rolled, he did not see his back.  He saw his father trying to maintain his composure as a look of great pain clouded his face.  Adam rushed around to where he could see what his father was looking at.  There was so much blood, both fresh and dried, and it was obvious what Joe had endured.  Adam saw his brother had been whipped.  Rage overtook him, and he screamed “HE’LL DIE FOR THIS!  I’LL MAKE SURE OF IT!”

 

Hoss could not bring himself to look at his brother’s back.  He had felt it as he had carried Joe to the doctor’s office and knew it was very bad.  He looked at his brother so small and realized his bravery.  He thought of Joe alone during those countless hours that he had endured so much pain.  He felt the rage that had begun to infect them all.

 

Even with the medication, Joe was moaning in pain.  He felt every touch, every breath.  Things were foggy, but the pain was ever present as his body was moved.  He was confused as to where he was and associated the pain with the Stranger.  “Nuh… no… go… way… no… tell… die… no… no…”

 

Everyone in the room heard Joe’s pleas.  It was so painful to see him, and then the pleas became almost more than any of them could bear as they took on a tone of desperation and despair.  “Joseph, listen it’s Pa.  You’re okay.  No one’s gonna hurt you, son, never again.  Never.”  Ben was reduced sobs.

 

Adam stepped in to talk to his little brother,  “Joe, its Adam.  I’ll never let this happen again.  You’re gonna be safe, Joe.  Pa’s here and Hoss is here, and I’m here.  We’ll keep you safe, Joe.”

 

Joe was unable to associate anything or anyone else with the pain other than the Stranger.  He was back in the cellar, and it was starting again.  Joe moaned a low and long “no” as the tears fell from his eyes.  His breathing became raspier, and he tried to do as he had done in the cellar, to pull on his hands to breathe.  It did not make sense to him how he was now positioned, but he continued to try what had worked before when the pain was at it’s worst.

 

“Try to keep talking to him.”  The doctor ordered.

 

“Joe, you’re safe.  We’re all here.  Hoss, come here.  See Joe, Hoss is here too.”  Ben was trying desperately to get Joe away from his fear and away from the torture.

 

“Joe?  Short Shanks?  It’s Hoss.  Calm down now.  ‘Member I got you away from that place?  You’re with all a us, and no one’s gonna hurt you.”

 

Joe continued to fight.  He would not give in to the pain or the Stranger.  He remained in the cellar and in the nightmare.  Eventually the doctor conceded they could do nothing more to help him than to relieve the pain, or they would lose Joe to his own panic.   The doctor stepped away from his patient and told them to roll Joe onto his back.  They quickly responded, and then the doctor moved Joe to an almost seated position to help him breathe.

 

As breathing became somewhat easier, Joe quieted.  Everyone remained focused on every breath Joe took and saw as he calmed, he breathed more evenly.  The doctor watched his patient for a while and then said,  “Gentlemen, we have a big problem.  Joseph is at great risk for infection if we can’t get him cleaned up, but he cannot tolerate the pain in order for me to properly clean those wounds.  I’m cautious to give him more painkillers, because it can make it harder for him to breathe.  I can give him a bit more chloral hydrate and see if we can get him calm.  It is really up to you.”

 

“Doctor, I want my boy out of pain, but I won’t risk his life to do it.”  Ben was frustrated.  He did not know this doctor, and he had to trust someone who did not know the real value of sons to him.  He prayed the doctor truly knew what was best.

 

“Let me see if we can give him a little more of the chloral hydrate and see if we can’t keep him calm.”  The doctor suggested.

 

“Doc,” Ben said, grabbing the doctor’s arm.  “He’s my boy.  He’s gotta be okay.  We need him to be okay.”

 

The doctor looked at the man before him and saw the worry and pain of a father.  “Mr. Cartwright, I will take the very best care of your son.”

 

The doctor walked to the cabinet and then returned to Joe.  He went to give Joe the medicine, but Adam intervened.  “Here doctor, mind if I do it?”

 

“Certainly, just talk to him and let him know what’s going on.”  The doctor instructed.

 

Adam did as he was told, and Joe took the medicine with little resistance.  The men sat back and waited.  Adam had stayed next to Joe’s head after he had given Joe the liquid.  He had an idea.  He began humming very quietly a lullaby he knew Marie had sung to Joe when his little brother was a baby.  It was old and French, and Adam had forgotten many of the words, but he knew the tune, and he knew his little brother did as well.

 

Ben heard the song and remembered a time long ago and smiled.  Adam briefly looked to his father, all the while continuing to hum the song.  Then Ben and Adam’s eyes locked, and both men shared the memory and a hope.  A hope that Joe would hear and be comforted.  It seemed to work as Joe breathed easier, and his body relaxed.  Adam reached out and took Joe’s hand in his.  He knew how fragile the hand was, given the deep cuts to Joe’s wrists, but he wanted his brother to know how appreciative he was of the price he had paid.  He also wanted his little brother to know he was not alone any longer, nor was he in further danger.

 

Joe calmed considerably and the doctor decided to try and get Joe’s wounds cleaned and sutured if needed.  He saw the interaction between brothers and said,  “Adam, you need to just keep doing what you’re doing.  Mr. Cartwright and Hoss is it?  I may need you to help me with Joseph.”

 

Each man set about with his own task to help Joe overcome the suffering he had endured.  The eye Joe had not lost to swelling was open but unfocused, and he looked around the room as if he were lost.  Adam made a point to be where Joe could see him if possible and continued the soft humming.  He held Joe’s hand until the doctor requested it to sew up the deep cut the handcuff had made.  Adam immediately took Joe’s hand back as soon as it was bandaged.  He took it carefully in order to not cause pain to his brother and he held it firmly, but gently.

 

The most painful parts for Joe were still to come, and all of the men held their breath at the thought of what Joe was yet to endure.  The doctor instructed yet again,  “His shoulders can wait, but I have to tend to his back.  We are risking infection that could kill him if we don’t get it cleaned.  It’s obvious that some of the wounds are older than others are, and he’s already taken on a redness and swelling.  Now even if he can tolerate this and be able to continue to keep breathing evenly, he will still feel it.  Talk to him and get him through it.  Keep up the humming, anything to distract some for him.  It will help him, and to be honest, it will help me.”

 

Once more they rolled Joe onto his side.  Adam hummed louder, as he heard his brother’s discomfort increase.  Ben spoke softly,  “Joe, I’m here, son.  We’ll do it.  All of us will do it together.  Joe be strong, son.  Hold on to us, and we’ll get you through.”

 

The doctor took a deep breath and then began to clean the wounds on Joe’s back.  Although he was very weak, Joe screamed loudly when the doctor began the painful process.  Hoss, Adam, and Ben worked harder to keep their loved one focused on them and their love of him.  Joe was openly crying as the doctor worked, but was medicated to the point where panic stayed at bay.  He tried to grab hold of those closest, but grasping caused pain and he screamed once more.  The doctor tried to work quickly, but it took time and his patient felt it.  It was so hard for Joe to talk, and the words remained in his head as he begged and pleaded for all the suffering to end.

 

Ben joined Adam by his son’s head, and he took his youngest’s hand from Adam.  Ben looked at the hand of his child and remembered when he had seen them for the first time.  He had counted fingers just as Marie had, and delighted that his son had a strong grip.  Ben had thought at that time it was a sure sign of a Cartwright.  He returned to the present and looked at his boy’s hands.  He saw the bandages and felt his son pulling against the pain.  He hurt for his child and knew there was pain Joe had endured he would have yet to hear about and help his son overcome.

 

The doctor worked to clean the wounds out but it seemed to take too much time. Ben finally snapped as he watched his child cry and scream in pain.  “How much more!  He can’t keep this up forever!”

 

“Mr. Cartwright, hold on.  I’m doing what has to be done.  It’s very bad, and we have to make sure he is properly cared for.”

 

“Hurry!”  Ben said, returning his attention to Joe.  He looked at the bandages around his child’s wrists and felt anger.  Someone had restrained his child and deliberately hurt him.  Ben felt as if he could kill in that instant.  Someone had pitted one of his boys against the other.  He knew his boys would die for each other, and this was the price being asked of his youngest.  “No!”  Ben Cartwright thought.  “I will not allow the person responsible make one of my children pay that price.  I’ll see to it that the one responsible pays.”  He prayed he would not lose his boy in the process.  But if he did, Ben knew he would kill Cyrus Baxter with his bare hands.  He would do it for Joseph, and he would take whatever the punishment.  He loved his boys, and no one would harm them and get away.  Ben vowed that a long time before Cyrus Baxter.  He prayed to keep Joe with him, but he vowed revenge if he lost him.  His boy deserved it.

 

The doctor finally finished cleaning Joe’s back, and the group gave a collective sigh of relief.  Ben moved his son back to lying on his back, as Joe moaned.  He comforted his child and stroked his hair.  Joe continued to breathe shallow gasps, and looked aimlessly around the room.  He was aware his family was with him, but he felt as if there was a lurking presence; any time the door could open, and he would be once again with the Stranger.  He was not thinking clearly as he felt a strong need to protect himself.  He was groggy, but the pain kept him from sleeping – that and his fear.

 

“Pa…” Joe whispered.

 

Ben found it painful to hear his son try and talk.  “Hush Joe.  Don’t try and talk.”

 

“Pa… need… I… need…” It took great strength for Joe to speak, and the words were slow in coming.

 

“What son?  Tell me.”

 

“Gun… need… gun.”

 

“No son.  You don’t need a gun.  We’re all here, and we’ll protect you.  Just rest.”

 

“No… no… gun… need… gun”

 

“Joseph, you don’t need one son.  I promise.”

 

Several minutes passed with Joe not speaking.  He felt the terror, as he remembered the cellar and what had happened.  He believed the Stranger could return at any moment to end his life.  He wanted to be ready and to make the man stop.

 

The doctor interrupted the silence in the room,  “Here, we need to get this into him.  We’ve got to keep giving him fluids.  He needs them to battle the shock.”

 

Ben took the liquid and tried to give it to Joe.  His child was very weak, so he could do little to protest, but what he could do, he did.  He looked at his father and clinched his jaw.  Ben finally said,  “Come on Joe.  You’ve got to drink this.”

 

Joe continued to look at his father.  “Gun.”

 

Hoss and Adam looked at each other and could not resist a smile and a shake of their heads.  They had seen the battle of wills between their father and Joe many times, and it was amazing how long each could hold out on giving in to the other. Hoss commented quietly,  “Stubborn little cuss, ain’t he?”

 

“That’s the truth.”  Adam said and pulled his pistol from his holster.  He turned away from Joe’s view and quietly unloaded the gun.  He looked to make sure the gun was truly empty of ammunition, and then he turned back.  “Pa, here.  Give it to him.  If it keeps him calm what does it hurt?”

 

Ben looked at his oldest in surprise.  Adam motioned with his eyes for his father to look at his hand.  Ben saw six bullets and knew what Adam had done.  “Okay fine.  Here Joseph, you win this one.  Now you drink all of this, and I don’t want any more foolishness out of you.”  With that Ben placed the gun under Joe’s left hand.  He realized in Joe’s condition he was so weak and hurt he could not even lift it if he wanted.  He said more for his son’s benefit,  “But son, I don’t want you waving that around.  Someone may think you’re aiming at him.  Just keep it there.”

 

“’Kay…” Joe felt some of the terror leave, as he felt the weight of the gun on him.  He would be ready for the Stranger, and when he showed, he would kill him.

 

As Joe lay calming the pain, both mental and physical, Ben motioned to Adam to step outside with him.  The two men gathered in the hallway, and Ben spoke,  “Adam, we still have your safety to worry about.  I’m sure Baxter knows where you are now.  Thank God the room where Joe is has no windows, but we could be taken pretty easily here.”

 

“Pa, after what that man has done to Joe, let them come!  I’d love nothing more than to have a go at his henchmen!”  Adam again thought of what his brother had endured as he spoke and he felt the anger rise.  He soon felt rage.

 

“Adam, I know exactly how you feel, but we have to be smart in this.  We have to keep our heads.  Believe me, if Little Joe… if Joe… if he doesn’t make it, I’ll kill the man myself.  Right now we need to get you another weapon.”  Ben smiled momentarily as he said,  “Thank you for doing that for him.”

 

“Pa, I can’t stop thinking about what he went through.  Joe held out for me.”  Adam spoke and his anger rose.  He was soon yelling.  “What kind of man tortures another like that!  And a kid!  What did Joe see and go through with those monsters!  I have never felt what I’m feeling before, Pa!  I want blood!  I could ride into Virginia City tonight and kill Baxter!”  Adam yelled to the man he knew could understand more than anyone else.

 

Ben saw the amount of anger in Adam, and he knew his son was struggling.  Adam had always preferred to be reserved and logical in his encounters.  What Ben saw in his son was something more base and primal – his son was fighting to maintain control of rage.  “Adam we’re all angry, but it won’t help Joe or even you right now.  We have to make sure we’re all safe here, all of us.  Now, I’m gonna make sure guards are posted and we’ll get you a pistol.  I want you to stay in that room with Joe and not show yourself to anyone.”

 

“Pa, please don’t worry about me.  I’m fine, really.”

 

“Adam, I need you safe, son.  I need all of you boys safe.”

 

Adam suddenly saw his father looking older than he had ever seen him.  He saw that the ordeal was weighing heavily on the man who had raised him, and he knew he had to comply with his father’s requests.  “I’ll make sure I’m safe, Pa.  Listen, I’ll go sit with Joe, and you and Hoss can make sure the place is secure.  But Pa, you don’t take any chances either.  You and Hoss stay down and let the men do their job.”

 

Ben smiled at his son and placed his hand on Adam’s shoulder.  He knew they were all in danger and would have to be very careful until Baxter was behind bars.  “I will son.  We’ll all come through this together.”

 

Adam and Hoss traded places, and Adam sat by Joe’s bedside.  He found himself listening to his brother breathe, and the rage quickly returned.  He saw his gun on his brother’s stomach and knew Joe had to have been so afraid of what had happened to him.  He knew his little brother was brave, he had seen it before, but he had also seen his brother very scared.  He hated that it was because of him that Joe had been hurt so badly.  As he sat watching Joe, he was unable to tell if he was asleep or awake.  He found himself wanting to tell his brother some things he had been feeling, but he was unsure if he could or would.

 

As the minutes passed, it soon was time once more for Joe to drink the liquid the doctor had concocted.  Without speaking, Adam reached over and touched Joe to lift his head off of the pillow.  Joe startled and let out a “no”.  Adam saw his brother’s hand try to grab the gun, but Joe had no strength, and he could not grab hold.  “Joe, it’s me, Adam.  You’re okay.  I’m right here.  I was the one who touched you. ”

 

“No… no… hurt…” Joe moaned, and Adam knew Joe was somewhere else.

 

“Buddy, you’re okay.  It’s me Adam.”

 

“No… hurt”

 

“Joe, listen it’s Adam.  I won’t let it hurt again like it did.”

 

“Ad… am?”  Joe asked, as he realized his brother was there.

 

“Yeah Joe, it’s me.”

 

“Ad… am… I… did… n’t… tell… I…”

 

“Joe, buddy, I know that.  I know.”

 

“No… lis…ten… Ad… am… I… not… do… it… I… need… know… I… would…n’t”

 

“I know that buddy.  I know” Adam said, as he felt tears form.

 

“No… no… Ad… am”

 

“Joe, stop now!  Stop and rest!”  Adam was feeling the hurt and rage so strong.

 

“Ad… am… you… would… n’t… me… you… you… my…” Joe’s speaking required so much of him physically.  He wanted to tell Adam what was in his heart, but he was exhausted.

 

“Joe, stop now buddy.  You’re so tired.  Take this.  Here drink it, all of it and then you sleep.  Remember Joe?  You slept with Hoss or me when you got scared?  That’s just what we’re doin’ now.  You’re in my bed, and you’re safe, buddy.  Remember?”  Joe’s hurt was tearing at Adam.

 

“Need… be… here…. Pa… Hoss.”

 

“Joe, they’re just outside.  Go to sleep, now.”

 

“No…” Joe was getting more and more agitated.  Joe knew he wanted those around him who were safe and who loved him.  He was so frustrated he could not talk, and frustration lead to tears.

 

Adam saw what was happening to Joe and knew to call his father.  He rose from his position and made it to the door, he opened it and called.  “Pa, Joe needs you.  I think he wants Hoss too.  I tried to calm him, but he just got more upset.”

 

Ben and Hoss ran in and were quick to talk with Joe.  Joe calmed as he heard from each member of his family.  He wanted them close, as he was scared and did not want to be alone.  Their voices made the Stranger move away from him, and he was then able to settle down and once more focus on breathing.

 

None of the men wanted to risk upsetting Joe again by leaving, so each found a place to try and make them comfortable.  All three of the men focused on Joe’s breathing and they each found themselves breathing along with him.  If there was a way to will someone healthy, then the Cartwrights could do it.

 

*******

 

The knock on the door stirred the men from their thoughts.  Ben drew his gun as he asked,  “Who is it?”

 

“Sheriff Baker.”  The voice behind the door responded.

 

Ben had met the sheriff when he and Hoss had gone out to check the security of their location, and he recognized the voice.  Ben opened the door, but kept his hand on his pistol.  He did not know the lawman personally, and given what had happened to Joe and the contract on Adam, Ben trusted few.

 

“’S’cuse me, Mr. Cartwright.  I don’t mean to bother you good folks, but I wanted to introduce myself and to offer you all something to eat.  I’m havin’ one of my men bring you all some food from the best place in Reno.  Mr. Cartwright, I’m sorry this happened in my town.  I know you folks are good people, and your boy went through hell.  I wired your sheriff in Virginia City about the problems you folks are having here.  I got a wire back, and I know Roy Coffee from way back.  He told me to take the best care of you people.  I plan to do just that.  I also know you folks should be wary of me, and I’m just fine with that.  I’d do the same if it were my boy layin’ there.  Mr. Cartwright, we’re good folks here, and the people of Reno will do what we can to help.  We don’t like what happened to your boy, and we’ll help your family.”

 

Ben remained leery, but optimistic by what he had heard from the sheriff.  He was encouraged that maybe he would get some help from those around them, and the family would not have to protect themselves alone.  “I thank you for any help you can give us.  My boys and I’ll be staying here with Joseph.”

 

“I completely understand.  I have a boy about his age, and I’d be doin’ the same thing myself.  I’ll make sure you folks are made to be comfortable, and I have my men all around you folks to make sure you’re safe.  You all need anything else?”

 

Ben looked at his boys and Adam and Hoss shook their heads no.  He looked at Joe and wished he could see his youngest doing what he did so often.  Joe usually claimed he was fine and would minimize any need for help.  What he saw instead was his youngest son struggling to live and desperately needing help.  “Thank you for the help.  I want my boys to stay right here, so any help you can give would be appreciated.”

 

“Well Mr. Cartwright, you ask for it, and we’ll get it for you.”  The Sheriff offered.  “Please let me or one of my men know if you need anything.  And, uh, I want you to know too, I’m prayin’ for your boy.”

 

Before Ben could answer, the doctor was next to the sheriff and moving him out of the way.  “’S’cuse me Dan, I wanna get by you, and to my patient.  And Mr. Cartwright, Dan’s been our sheriff for goin’ on fifteen years.  You and your boys are very safe with him in charge.  He’ll make sure of it, won’t you Dan?”

 

“Sure will.  You folks take care.” The sheriff said as he left the doorway.

 

The doctor walked into the room and over to Joe.  He looked at his patient and decided he could not postpone the next step in tending Joe any longer.  “Gentleman, Joseph looks like he’s breathing a little better, and I think he’s holding his own.  Now, we need to get his arms back in place.  I wanted to wait a while, but I don’t want him in any more pain than necessary.  He’ll be heavily sedated for this, and then we’ll set them.  He’s gonna feel it, believe me.”  With that the doctor walked over and mixed some powder in water.  He then turned and looked at the Cartwrights.  “He’ll probably take this best from one of you.  It’ll help knock him out.”  The doctor instructed.

 

Ben took the medicine from the doctor and leaned over his son.  He spoke softly,  “Joseph, come on now and take this son.”

 

Joe heard his father and looked at him with trust.  He obeyed the request as he took the medicine, all the while holding his father’s eye.  Ben laid his son’s head back on the pillow and felt concern regarding what was awaiting his child.  He prayed the medicine would block the pain, and his boy would not feel what they were going to do.

 

The men sat back and watched Joe be overcome by the sedative. Once it was evident that Joe was fully under the influence of the medication, Ben, Adam and Hoss took hold of him.  Each looked at the other with a look of dread, as they knew Joe would once more endure pain and hurt.  The doctor watched closely and eventually said,  “Let’s get it over with.  He seems to be out of it.”

 

Hoss spoke abruptly,  ‘Pa, do we have to?  It’s gonna be bad.”

 

“It’s okay Hoss, we gotta do this.  You just hold on for Joe.  He needs you.”  Ben comforted his middle child.

 

The doctor spoke up,  “Okay, we need to do this while he’s medicated.  Joe, I don’t know how much you can understand of what I’m saying, or if you even hear it, but I’m going to set your arms.  Now I need one of you three to get back behind him and hold him.”

 

“Okay Doc, tell me what to do.”  Adam immediately volunteered and moved towards Joe.

 

Ben and Hoss looked at Adam and knew he needed to do this for his little brother.  They could see he was struggling due to his own feelings of being responsible for Joe’s condition.  They let him do as he needed.

 

“Okay, Adam, sit him up and get behind him.  Put your arms around his chest and hold on tight to him.  Mr. Cartwright, you and Hoss may want to just help hang on to his legs ‘cause he is going to want to come off the table.”  The doctor instructed.

 

Adam spoke to Joe the entire time he was near him.  He first took the gun from under his brother’s hand and placed it next them on a side table.  Then he gently moved behind Joe and propped him up.  He heard his little brother moan and cry out, as he took the gun and then moved him.  Adam closed his eyes as he heard the pain.  He then laid Joe slowly back on him as he propped himself against the wall.  He winced, as he knew his brother’s back would be so very painful for him to lay back on, and he continued to talk softly about the ranch and the things they would do once they returned home.

 

Hoss and Ben grabbed Joe’s legs gently and waited for the doctor to proceed.  “Adam, you ready?”

 

He wanted to say no, he would never be ready for it, but Adam shook his head yes, as he braced himself for the pull.

 

With Adam’s response, the doctor put his leg on Joe’s chest for counter-pressure. He then instructed, “Hang on to him.  It’s going to be a jolt.  Okay, on three, one, two,  three.”  The doctor had Joe’s right arm in his hands and pulled it out and towards him with a jerk until the arm popped back in.  Ben, Hoss and Adam watched the doctor work and each felt the need to cringe.

 

As soon as the doctor pulled, Joe screamed.  “NO!”  It was obvious Joe was in agony.  He was trying to move, but each held tight to him and waited for Joe’s screaming to quiet.

 

The pain took Joe immediately back to the cellar and to the Stranger.  He believed the Stranger had once again returned, and he would die.  “DIE… JUST… DIE!” Joe screamed.

 

Adam leaned down where his mouth was next to Joe’s ear,  “Listen buddy, its Adam.  You’ll make it.  I got a hold of you, and you’re gonna be just fine.  We gotta do this for you.  We’re all here and it’s gonna stop soon.  I promise you, Joe.  It’ll be over soon.”  Adam had felt ill at what he had to watch his brother endure.  As he looked around to Joe’s face he saw tears, and he wiped them away.  He looked up to see both his father and brother suffering as well.  He wondered how much more Joe could take.

 

“NO… PLEA…SE…” Joe could see the Stranger before him in his mind and could not get away from the man.  The pain was unrelenting as Joe struggled unaware that his family was trying to help him.  Adam held on to his brother and felt him struggling to breathe and moaning loudly.

 

The doctor sighed as he walked over to Joe’s left. “I hate to do this, but we’ve got one more to do.”

 

Ben spoke,  “Wait, let me talk to him a minute.  Hoss you can hold his legs yourself.”  Ben moved close to Joe’s head, making sure his son could see him.  “Son, its Pa.  You gotta hold on and be real strong.  It’s going to be over soon and you can sleep.”  He saw Joe recognize him, and then Ben motioned for the doctor to continue.

 

Ben and Adam kept speaking to Joe as they saw the doctor place his leg on Joe’s chest once more.  They heard the doctor count, “One, two, three.  Now.”  The doctor performed the same maneuver he had previously, and Joe’s left shoulder was once again in place.

 

Joe continued to scream,  “PA… NO… HURT…OH… GOD…” Joe was writhing in pain as his brothers held on.

 

Ben was praying the pain in his son would leave soon.  “Joe, it’s over.  We’re all done now.  It’s over.  It’s all over.”

 

“NO… NO… OH GOD… STOP”

 

“Doc, do somethin’!”  Hoss ordered and tried not to grab hold of the doctor.

 

“I’ve given him what I can give him for pain.  I know it’s hard to see, but anything else could compromise his breathing too much.  I’m sorry.”

 

“He can’t stay like this!  It ain’t right!”  Hoss was unsure to whom he was speaking, but he could not stand to see his little brother in agony.

 

“Ssh, Joe it’s okay.”  Adam spoke quietly.  He had not released Joe after the doctor had replaced Joe’s arm and could feel the tension in his brother’s body.  Adam again began humming the lullaby hoping to break through to Joe.  He also motioned for the gun back and made sure it was again placed under Joe’s left hand.

 

It was more exhaustion that stopped Joe from moving than relief from the pain.  He could move no more and lay back against Adam.  He was sweating heavily, and his breathing was raspy and shallow.  He held his jaw clenched and waited for any relief.  As he was unable to move around, the pain dulled slowly and the sedative gained power.  Joe tried to listen to the humming and focus solely on it.  He eventually allowed himself to relax his jaw and slowly he faded into a restless and light sleep.

 

The doctor put his hand on Ben’s shoulder and squeezed.  He spoke quietly as to not disturb his patient,  “Gentlemen, I’m guessing there’s dinner here for you, and I’ll make sure it is brought in, and you’re all made comfortable.  Joseph should be kept warm and quiet in the meanwhile.  He needs to remain propped up, and I’ll have some more fluids for him soon.  I don’t want anything to disturb him for a while, so lets just let him sleep.  He has to be exhausted.”

 

Ben saw how compassionate the doctor was with his son and with his whole family.  “Thank you for what you’re doing for him doctor.”

 

“Please, call me Peter.  We’ve been through too much for formalities.”  The doctor smiled at Ben.

 

“Thank you Peter, and please call me Ben.  We’re so thankful to you and what you’re doing for Joe.  We love him so much and this is really a very difficult time for all of us.”

 

“I know it’s a hard time, and like the sheriff said, please tell us if there’s anything you need.  Now let me go check on your supper and you folks keep him quiet.”

 

“We’ll take care of him.”  Ben said, walking the doctor to the door.  He then turned back and looked at his three boys.  They had their share of differences Ben knew, but he also knew they had always pulled together in a crisis and would do anything for each other if it were required.  He had never visualized the types of crises his family had undergone in their lives, but he remained proud of his family’s strength and their love.

 

Ben moved back over to the table where Joe lay.  “Adam, you want help in moving him off of you?”

 

“I’m just going to stay here.”  Adam whispered.  “He needs to sleep, and I don’t want to disturb him anymore.  I’m okay the way I am, and I want him to know he’s not alone.”

 

Ben nodded to Adam and looked at his youngest.  Joe was asleep and out of pain for the time being, and Ben felt some relief.  His mind returned over and over to what he wanted to do to the man responsible for the pain.  He watched Joe have such difficulty simply breathing and wanted the one responsible to pay.  He felt rage and the need for his child to be avenged.  He knew he would struggle with the feelings inside of him.  He also knew he would act on them if he had to bury his boy.

 

Hoss stood looking at his brothers, seeing one physically broken and struggling to take each breath, and the other, emotionally in such pain, feeling guilty and responsible for his brother’s condition.  Hoss knew who was really to blame for the pain in his family, and he wanted revenge.  He wanted his youngest brother to be alive and healthy, and his oldest brother to know he was not to blame.  He wanted both to know they had done their family proud.

 

Adam lay with Joe in his lap holding his brother lightly.  He realized he felt relief with every breath his brother took.  He was enraged as he thought of the torture that Joe had endured as he felt his brother’s gasps to simply breathe.  Joe had offered to die for him.  It filled him with love for his brother, but guilt for what he had undergone.  Adam vowed to be there for Joe for whatever he needed, and vowed to make them pay for harming him.

 

Joe slept lightly, so aware of his body and the pain.  He had grown more secure as he laid back and felt a loving presence.  He believed it would keep the Stranger away, and he could rest for a while.  The pain would continually intrude on the peace, and he struggled to fall into deep sleep.  As the Stranger moved away and sleep overtook, he felt himself able to protect himself, but when the pain returned, as it did often, he was again so very afraid and felt too vulnerable.  He wanted the Stranger and the pain gone from him.  He would do what it took to make it happen.

 

The doctor returned with a meal along with bedding and other comforts as the family held a watchful eye over their loved one.  The men settled in for a long wait and each was in his head, thinking of their fear, their concern and their rage.

 

Evening turned to night and each settled into sleep.  Throughout the night the doctor faithfully returned to his patient to treat and evaluate his progress.  Every time the doctor entered, the sleeping family woke to assist, and Joe was lovingly tended.  Each would quietly talk to Joe as they helped him, as Joe was easily startled and quick to panic.  As Joe slept, he fought his battle with the pain and the Stranger.  He dreamed of dark places and shadowed people standing out of sight not touching him, but always there and always lurking.  He felt trapped in the darkness, but unable to cry out or move until he was awaken and told to drink.

 

Adam had fallen asleep with his little brother still in his lap.  By doing thus, he hoped Joe would feel as if he was little again and sleeping with his big brother.  Adam fell asleep remembering Joe as a little boy asking him all kinds of questions at bedtime regarding the presence of monsters and things that could get little boys in their sleep.  Adam would patiently listen to the questions and reassure his brother that there were no such things as monsters.  As Adam thought of his brother’s questions of the reality of monsters, he realized he was wrong in what he had told him and there were indeed monsters.  Not the type of monsters little boy fears create, but more foreboding, unidentifiable and real monsters.  It was this type that had held and harmed his little brother.  Adam whispered softly to Joe,  “I’m sorry about the monsters, Joe.  I’d never have gone after Baxter if I’d known this would’ve happened to you.  I love you little buddy, and I’ll help you any way I can.  I’ll be here for you.”  After speaking quietly to his brother, Adam slept.

 

Sometime in the early morning hours, Adam woke to pain in his legs from them having fallen asleep and was feeling uncomfortable.  As he tried to move, Joe stirred and moaned loudly but was not brought out of his dark dreams as he continued to wrestle inside his mind.  Adam remembered where he was and what had happened as he fully woke.  He patted his brother and spoke softly to him.  Joe quieted.  Adam laid there a while longer enduring his legs asleep as long as he could and then knew he had to get up.  He tried to slowly lift Joe but as he tried to move him, Joe immediately was awake and screaming.

 

The screaming woke up Ben and Hoss who were up, out of bed, and to Joe and Adam immediately.  Adam had known the movements had scared Joe and had started trying to comfort him.  “Hush, now Joe.  It’s okay.”  Adam tried to explain as he saw Hoss and his father.  “Sorry.  I moved him, and I guess it scared and hurt him.  I was trying to get up.  Can’t feel my legs.”

 

“Here Adam, we’ll help.”  Ben said.  As Hoss lit a lantern and helped Adam, Ben talked to Joe.  “Joseph, I’m gonna pull you forward and let Adam move around some.  You’re just fine.  You go back to sleep.  I want you to sleep now.”

 

“Pa?”

 

“Yes son, its Pa.  Now you need to sleep.  You’re so tired, and I want you to rest now.  It’s not time to get up.  I’ll let you know when it is.  You close your eyes and rest.  You do as I say now, Joe.”  Ben was moving his son as he spoke.  This had been something he had done so many times over the years with his youngest.  As a child, Joe would fall deeply asleep in his father’s arms after having spent time talking with his father in the evening or in various places such as a buggy on a ride home, on the sofa, or in Ben’s room, trying to fight sleep.  He eventually would need to be moved to his own bed.  Ben had found with practice he could talk to Joe while he was moving him and was able to keep him asleep if he spoke quietly to him, telling him the same words he was saying this night and so many others prior.

 

“It’s… ‘kay?”  Joe asked very quietly, already drifting away.

 

“Yes, son.  Adam just needs to move.  You sleep now, and I’ll wake you in the morning.”  By the time Ben had spoken the words, Adam was free, and Joe was again lost to sleep.

 

“Sorry to wake you both.  I just had to move.  I hated to bother him.  Any movement is just so painful for him.”  Adam said, the concern showing as he looked at his little brother.

 

“He’s okay now, Adam.  Here come over here and lie down.  You’ve got to be pretty tired yourself.”  Ben gestured towards a cot next to his own.

 

Adam moved over, and sat.  It was obvious he was deep in thought and wide-awake.  Ben asked,  “Need to talk?”

 

“You can always tell.”  Adam said as he looked at his father.  “Can I talk to you and Hoss?  I’ve got a lot on my mind and maybe you two can help me sort it out.”

 

 

Hoss and Ben sat ready to listen.  Adam took a deep breath and began.  “Pa, Hoss, I know we’re all feeling something very similar, and I feel responsible…”

 

“No son, I’m proud of you for what you want to do.”  Ben tried to ease his child’s guilt.

 

“Pa, listen please.  I just need to do this.  I knew when we were all in the shack I had put a lot on all of you regarding the running of the ranch.  I also knew Baxter needed to be brought down and made to pay for what he had done to all those people.  I never in my wildest dreams, thought he would do what he has done to us.  We could have easily lost Joe in that cellar.  It’s still so much a possibility.  That’s on my shoulders.”  The anger began to build again as he spoke and heard the words he had been thinking.  “Joe was tortured.  He was tortured!  As many times as I tell myself that, it’s still just so unreal.  As we talk here, all of us so comfortable, listen to him breathe!  Listen!  He’s fighting for something I’ve taken for granted!  I want to go into that courtroom and kill Baxter!  There, I said it.  I want him to suffer and hurt and beg and plead like Joe was made to do.  That’s what I really want.  I want to do to him what he did to Joe.  Pa, Hoss you both know what I’m sayin’, don’t you?”

 

“Adam, I want him dead too.”  Hoss commiserated.  “I think of what I saw in that cellar.  Our Joe there so scared and hurt.  I know Joe’s tough, and he’s been through it, more than we probably know, but I just want to protect him.  I know what your sayin’ Adam, but I want you to know too, I’m proud of you and what you’re doin’.  A lot of good people lost money ‘cause of what Baxter did to ‘em.”

 

“But Hoss, money isn’t worth Joe’s life!  How much would we pay for him?  You see, Baxter deals in dollars, we deal in something more substantive.  He knew that, and he used it.  I have to look at Joe and know that he went through hell for money?  For people’s savings?”  Adam shook his head at the thought.

 

“No Adam.  Son, you’re making Joe’s sacrifice something it wasn’t.  Joe did it because of his brother.  He did it because of you, Adam.  He loves you.  He told you and he told Hoss he didn’t tell where you were to the people hurting him.  It’s you he loves, and you he wanted to protect.  He wasn’t doing it for the lost money, he was doing it for our family and for you, Adam.”

 

“But Pa, I’m supposed to do that for him!  I’m older, and I want to watch for him.  I’m so angry that they asked him to do what he did!  He’s so young and… uh… Pa, what will this do to him?  Let’s be honest and ask it, right? What will it do if he makes it!”  Adam asked, hoping his father saw the future, and knowing he did not.

 

“I don’t know son.  I’ve asked myself that, but your brother’s so unpredictable, but he’s also resilient.  The one thing I do know for sure is we’ve got to be here for him, all of us.  He needs us, and he has got to be afraid.  We didn’t go through what he did, and I’m worried for him, but Adam, I’m concerned about you too.  Tell me what you’re doing to yourself.”

 

“Pa, I have to testify, I’ve known that, but now I want the man dead.  I know it’s not my place to do it, but I want it, and I know when I have to look at him and say what I have to say, I’ll do it not only for those faceless investors anymore.  Joe’s there now.  He’s the first and foremost I will testify for.  I want Baxter to die and with what I know the man is charged with, he’ll not die.  I want him dead!”

 

“Adam we all do, but we have to believe in the law.  You’ve even told me that before when I was running off half cocked demanding to take the law into my own hands.”  Ben reminded his oldest.

 

“Pa, somehow it is different when your little brother lies a few feet away trying simply to breathe!  Pa, Joe did nothing!  He’s a boy!  He gets a thrill out of pretty girls and making us proud of him!  He had nothing to do with this!  They tortured him!”  Adam was furious each time he returned to his brother’s pain.

 

“Adam, I know!  I saw Joe’s body!  I saw what he endured!  I saw my youngest son battered and bruised!  I see him trying to breathe!”  Ben said, meeting his oldest’s intensity.  “You have to ask yourself why he did it, and what you are to do with it!  You have always wanted to teach Joe about life.  Okay, teach him!  Teach him what you want him to learn, Adam!  Do it!  He’s a boy who risked his life for his brother!  Show him why he did it!  Show Joseph the right way to do it, cause if you do anything else Adam, Joe did it for nothing!  You have told him over and over that he needs to know the right way!  He only knows what he sees!”

 

“Pa, that’s not fair!  What I started out to do in this case is GONE!  It left when Baxter decided to torture my baby brother!  He made the rules, and now all bets are off!”  Adam was so very angry as he spoke to his father.

 

“No Adam!  You decided all bets were off!  A while back, you and I sat by my desk and you told me what you thought was going on regarding Baxter.  At that time you said you would pursue it to the end and see justice served.  You didn’t make it conditional.  You said you’d do it.  Joseph needs that lesson!  If Joe lives…” Ben paused at the thought, then continued.  “He has to know he did it all for a reason!  If he doesn’t live Adam, it is out of your hands.  I will take care of it.  I’m the father, and no one will take one of my boys without me having justice!  I’ll take Baxter’s life as a father!  I saw Joseph born, and if he leaves us, the one who does it pays!  I vowed that a long time ago and would do it for any of you!  Joe will not have to pay the ultimate price without me stepping in!  My boy will not die without vengeance!  Anything else son, you have control of!  Joseph needs you as his brother, and he needs you to make it through this just as he does!  Damn it, Adam!  Don’t you see!  You have such a chance!  You and Joseph!  You make your own rules!  You decide the scenario before it is played!  You’re the leader Adam, and you already have your brother dead, and Baxter having gotten away with it!  I’ve always taught you that you do what you can.  You put him away and in that way you tell Joe what is right.”

 

“Pa, you know I want to do what is right, but look at him!  Look at Joe!  He’s so torn up I can’t see passed it!”  Adam looked upon his brother and felt such rage.

 

“Adam, he’s my son, and I’m asking something of you no father wants to ask!  To turn away from it for their hurt child!  Believe me, I could kill!  But, I don’t want to lose Joe, and I don’t want to lose you!  Adam, you could do things that are un-fixable, unchangeable!  I want all three of my boys happy and safe!  I won’t lose any of you.  If you do what you want to do, then you pay a price that is too high!  I won’t have you hung for that man!  I won’t let you do it, and Joe can’t have you do it!  He’d never be able to handle that!”

 

Adam continued to look at his brother as Ben spoke.  He wanted revenge more than he had ever wanted in his life.  He heard his father and believed that logically everything he had said was true.  He also knew that this would be an enormous challenge for him, and he was uncertain that he could hold in the rage to do what he knew was right.

 

“I’ll not promise you anything but to think about what you said.  I do know there is a place in hell for Cyrus Baxter, and I’d love to help him get there.”

 

“Adam,” Hoss spoke after having quietly listened to the exchange.  “I’m also askin’ you.  Don’t do nothin’ to make us lose you.  You heard it would hurt Pa and Joe, but it would hurt me too.  I don’t wanna lose either you or Joe.  You have to know that.  We all need each other.”

 

Adam looked at Hoss and tried to smile.  “I hear you.  I just need to think about it.  You two get some sleep.  I’ll be fine.”

 

 

The three sat a while longer, then Ben and Hoss turned in for the remainder of the night.  Adam laid awake listening to Joe breathe, thinking of the previous conversation.  He felt heavily conflicted between what he knew was the right thing to do and what he wanted to do.  He realized that no more sleep would come that night and he lay listening and waiting for morning.

 

Chapter 2

 

Upon waking, Ben stood, walked over and checked on Joe.  Seeing Joe still asleep, he looked around and saw it was apparent that Adam had not gone back to sleep after they had talked.  It concerned him because he knew his son was to testify in a few days in Virginia City and was afraid of where Adam’s mind was taking him.  He stood watching his oldest, silently praying Adam would do what was right.

 

The men were eventually disturbed by the doctor’s entrance.  “Good morning.  I know you all didn’t get much sleep, but I hope what you did get was restful.  There’s some breakfast in the other room my wife made for you and water to clean up.  We’re going to need to get some food into Joseph as well.”

 

The doctor moved over to the table and felt Joe’s forehead.  He frowned slightly as he felt warmth.  He stood looking at his patient a moment longer than he meant to and was immediately noticed by the three others in the room.  They moved over to Joe, and Ben questioned,  “What is it?”

 

“Hmm, he’s started running a fever.  It seems slight now, but I’m going to need to keep a close eye on it.  I want to make sure we avoid further problems.  I’ll need to get a few things to address the fever, and then I’ll be right back.  In the meantime, eat breakfast and get cleaned up folks.”

 

Ben did not move from Joe’s side, and he felt his son’s forehead as well.  The touch caused Joe’s eyes to flicker and open.  The swelling of his left eye continued to make it difficult for him to see much.  His father came into focus, as did the pain.  He grunted,  “Pa… what’s… wrong?”

 

Ben did not realize the expression he had on his face and quickly changed it to a smile.  “Nothing’s wrong.  Just was thinking about something.  How’re you feeling?”

 

“Hurts… little”

 

“A little?”  Ben’s smile broadened at his son.  It was so typical of Joe to respond as he had done.  “Well, you stay still and quiet.  The doctor’s got you something to eat and then more rest for you.”

 

“Get… some… thing?”

 

“You need something, son?”

 

Joe shook his head yes, and Ben continued,  “What do you need?”  Given Joe’s last request of a gun, Ben had no idea what his son may want, but he was determined to make him happy if he could.

 

“Sad… sad…”  Joe continued to be frustrated at his lack of strength to talk.

 

“Are you sad, son?”

 

Joe shook his head no and continued,  “Sad… dle… bag”  He felt relief he had gotten the words out.

 

“You want your saddlebag?”  Ben was confused.

 

Joe shook his head yes.  Hoss had overheard his brother’s request and volunteered,  “Joe’s stuff’s still at the livery, I guess.  I saw it all there when I first got to town.  After I found Joe, I didn’t take care of the other stuff.  Buddy, I’ll go get it for you.”

 

“No Hoss,” Ben interrupted.  “Send one of the sheriff’s men.  I’m sure there’s one in the waiting room out there.  Get him to go.”  Ben wanted all of his boys in the room and safe.  He did not want any of them exposed and vulnerable.

 

“Sure thing, Pa.  And Short Shanks, I’ll make him hurry.  I know how you hate to wait.  And I’ll bring in the food ‘cause you know I hate to wait.”

 

Hoss left the room as the doctor entered.  “Oh, I see my patient is awake.  How are you Joe?”

 

“Fine” Joe said but noticeably winced when he said it.

 

The doctor broke out in laughter at Joe’s response.  He had noticed that from the beginning the young man was strong and courageous.  Peter was relieved his patient had strong traits, because he had a fear that they were not out of danger yet.  “Well I have a couple things you need to drink.  First though, I want to listen to your chest a minute.”

 

The doctor pulled out his stethoscope and listen to Joe’s breathing.  He heard the rales and knew what had started.  He reached up, felt Joe’s forehead once more and frowned.  He decided to treat Joe without discussing his findings in front of his young patient.  He knew Joe had been through enough and wanted him strong, determined and believing he was getting better.  The doctor was unsure what a potential setback might do.  “Okay Joe, you need to get some things into you. I’ll give you the pain killer first to make you comfortable, and when it has done it’s thing, then I want you to take all of this chicken broth, and then this egg flip here.”

 

The doctor gave Joe the painkiller, and he took it without comment.  He then laid back and waited for it to enter his system and dull the pain.  As they waited, Hoss returned with their breakfast.  “This looks mighty good.  Adam, Pa, eat up.”

 

Hoss’ mention of food made Joe look at his own.  As he looked at the tray of liquid and egg he thought to himself,  “Why is it when I’m sick I get the worst food.  I hate that stuff when I’m feelin’ good, let alone feelin’ as bad as I do now.  What is it with that stuff?”  Joe finally felt the painkiller start to work as the intensity of the pain lessened and moved away.  His muscles loosened, and he felt his body become lighter.

 

As Joe relaxed and his breathing came easier, Ben took over.  “Here, I’ll help with this.”  Ben stepped in, knowing getting Joe to eat would be a battle.  He carefully spooned the egg mixture into his son and immediately saw the reaction.  Although Joe’s face was badly swollen, Ben saw a frown and a scowl.  “I know it doesn’t taste very good, but you gotta eat son.”

 

Everyone tried to keep light conversation going as they ate their own breakfast, and Ben helped Joe. Joe was a picky eater to begin with, and they had to admit what Joe was having to eat did not appear at all appetizing.  He moved slowly and had to take breaks to gather his strength.  He found the food to turn his stomach and fought back gagging.  He tried to stop his father several times by turning his head away and resisting, but Ben simply waited him out, and Joe knew his father was not going to go away.  In what felt like an eternity, the meal was finally over, and Joe breathed sigh of relief.  He laid his head back and wanted to drift off to sleep when the doctor spoke.  “Joe, you’ve got two more things here we need to have you take, and then you can go on to sleep.”

 

Joe thought to himself,  “Oh geez, what’s now?  At least nuthin’ can be as bad as that last stuff.”

 

The doctor motioned for Ben to join him over in the corner.  Once there, he spoke in a low voice,  “We’ve got a medication to give him that he isn’t going to like it at all.  We need to start giving him ammonia suspension.  It is bad tasting stuff, and he is going to hate it, but we have to do it.”

 

“Ammonia suspension?  Isn’t that a medicine for pneumonia?”

 

“Yes, Ben it is.  I didn’t want to talk to you about it in front of him, but he is showing definite symptoms of his lungs filling.  I’m hoping we are catching it early enough that it won’t be life threatening. This will hopefully allow him to cough and clear his chest.”

 

Ben could not believe what he heard.  It was obvious Joe was so weak and now the doctor was saying there were further obstacles in front of his son.  “But he’s so weak already.  Tell me honestly, can he fight this off?”

 

“I don’t know, but I’m going to do everything I can to make sure your son is given every chance possible.  We will need to keep him sedated so his body can fight.  Our biggest challenge is getting this into him.  We have to have him breathing deeper than he is now.  His inability take deep breaths is exacerbating his condition.  You all will need to keep a close watch on him and remind him to breathe deep.  If needed, I may have to bind his chest to help him.  I don’t want to do it because of how much pain he is in, but if he can’t do it himself, then I’ll need to do it for his own good.  Do you want to give him the medicine or do you want me to?”

 

“I’ll do it.  I’ve been wrestling with that young man for eighteen years, I think I’ve gotten good at it.”  Ben tried to keep his mood light, though the news he had just been given scared him more than he would admit.

 

“Very well.  I’ll get it, and you give it to him.”  The doctor and Ben moved back over to Joe.  Ben looked at Hoss and Adam and the expression on his face told them that something was wrong.  The doctor handed Ben a glass.  “He needs to take all of this.”

 

Ben took a deep breath and lifted his son’s head,  “One more to take, son.”  Joe smelt the liquid and turned his head.  “Come on, Joe.  You need to take this.  It’s to help you get better, son.”

 

Joe thought to himself,  “Nothing that smells like that is gonna help me do anything but get sick.”

 

“Son, you have to take it.  You don’t have any choice.”

 

Joe shook his head and resisted.  He knew he would eventually lose and have to take the vile smelling liquid, but he could not bring himself to do it without a struggle.

 

“Son, you’re making too big an issue of this.  You’re too weak to do this fussing, and you know you’re going to end up taking it, so lets just do it and get it over with.”  Ben didn’t blame his son’s resistance.  He himself had experienced pneumonia and had been given the same treatment.  He vividly remembered the medication and how uncomfortable it was to take.  “Here son, real quick.  Just drink it quick.”

 

Joe looked at his father and sighed.  “Don’t… need”

 

“Well son, when you become a doctor you can tell me what you need.  But until then, you’ll let Dr. Green here do his job.  Now open.”

 

Joe and Ben were in a stand off, and Ben waited for Joe to give in.  “Son, I don’t want to have to force this, but if I have to, I will.”

 

Once Joe heard his father speak those words the battle was over, and he had lost.  There had been times when Ben had forced medicine down his youngest son’s throat, and Joe knew when it came to the health of one of his children, his father did exactly as the doctor ordered.  Joe gave a sigh to make sure he let his father know he was unhappy and opened his mouth.  As he started to drink, the fluid burned his mouth.  He instinctively spit it out and let out a strong, “ugh.”

 

“Son, I know it’s bad, but you’ve got to take it.  It’s going to make you better.”

 

“Mean… kill… me.”  Joe muttered.

 

Ben looked to Hoss and Adam who were standing watching the exchange, and all three shook their heads.  “Joseph, you’re going to do this now and get it over with.  I’m finished playing with you.”  Ben did not want to scold Joe, especially in the condition he was in, but he knew that unless he took a hard line with his son, they’d be going round and round for hours.

 

Joe was not quite ready to admit defeat with his father,  “Spit… out.”

 

“Fine, son.  You keep spitting, and I’ll keep pouring, but one way or another you’ll take this!”

 

Joe knew he was going to have to take the liquid.  He dejectedly opened his mouth and drank.  The liquid burned, and it took all he could not to spit it out, but he drank.  He made sure he gave his father the best thing he could come to as a glare to let him know he was unhappy.  He was angry, tired and frustrated.  It seemed everything he did required such energy, and the pain drained him quickly.  There was no comfortable position he could find, and his arms lay useless in front of him.  Joe felt himself retch as the burning liquid entered his stomach.  The doctor was soon beside him giving him water and chloral hydrate.  He then laid back and stared at the ceiling, but was soon overcome by coughing and felt the sharp pains in his ribs.  He closed his eyes and hoped he would calm the pain and avoid the coughing.

 

Ben, Adam and Hoss had learned from experience a long time ago, after a battle of wills with Joe it was best to move away from him and give him space.  Joe would eventually settle down and be more hospitable.  If he was not given the space, each knew they would be snapped at, and Joe’s mood would be prolonged.

 

A knock on the door revealed a sheriff’s deputy who produced a saddlebag with the initials JC tooled into the leather, a bedroll and a green jacket.  Ben thanked him for his efforts and then moved over to Joe.  He held up the saddlebag so his son could see it.  Joe thought of ignoring his father and closing his eyes.  He was so angry at having had to take the vile liquid, but he also knew there was something in the bag he really wanted to share with his family.  His need to please them outweighed his anger, and Joe calmed.  He spoke very quietly,  “Op… en… con…tracts”  and was then overcome by coughing once more.

 

Ben realized what it was that Joe had wanted from the saddlebag.  He had stored the signed timber contracts inside the leather bag.  Ben was touched by his son’s desire to complete the task he had been given, but knew Joe’s energy was fading fast, and he looked so pained as he coughed.  “Son, we don’t need to do this now.  You rest, and we’ll talk about it later.”

 

“No… want… you… Ad… am… look.” Joe was breathing heavily, but was determined.

 

Ben opened the leather bag and saw a rolled up piece of paper tied with a ribbon lying on some wadded up clothes.  As he pulled it out and untied it, Hoss and Adam moved to read over their father’s shoulder.  After Joe had left for Reno, Ben and Adam had pounded out the numbers to determine how much of a loss they could take from the previous year’s profit on the contracts.  They decided they could lose fifteen percent from the previous year’s contract and still run the ranch without feeling the pinch.  Both knew Joe was young and had no experience negotiating the prices on his own, although Joe had sat in with his father or brothers on several of the ranch’s contract negotiations since finishing school.  Ben and Adam knew that the negotiation process could be ruthless, and Joe was up against a shrewd businessman in Reno.  They just hoped he could keep them within a fifteen percent loss, and they would be fine.

 

The first page of the contract Ben looked at was the buyers request in board feet of timber.  The amount requested was an ambitious, although certainly an obtainable amount of Ponderosa timber.  Ben held his breath and turned to the final page, the payment the Ponderosa would receive for the timber produced.  He pointed to the numbers and smiled.  Not only had Joe not lost money on the deal, he had gained them twelve and a half percent over the previous year’s price.

 

Adam looked at the figures and let out a whistle.  He walked over to where Joe lay and smiled as he said,  “He’s Cartwright through and through, Pa.  Great job, Joe.  I’m proud of you.  You were listening in those meetings.”

 

“Ad… am… I… just… did… it… like… you… Ask… high… num…ber… you… al… ways… say.”

 

Adam practically beamed at Joe.  He realized he was sharing something very special and rare with his little brother.  They both clashed at times due to their strong temperaments, but Adam saw Joe looking up to him and wanting to make him proud.  He saw how Joe was struggling to talk, but how important it was that his little brother got to see his reaction.  “Hey Joe, next one of these I have to do let’s go together.  Between you and I, we could get an incredible profit.”

 

“Want… to”  Joe said trying to smile, but it hurt and came across as a grimace.

 

 

“Hey Joe, you better watch it.  You’re gonna start turnin’ into Adam and readin’ all them books.”  Hoss teased.

 

“Nah… only… one… Ad… am.  You… miss… me… too… much.”

 

“Well you are right about that one.”  Hoss quickly agreed.

 

Ben looked over the contract once more and felt himself fill with pride.  He saw the unmistakable backward slanted writing of his youngest, signing on behalf of the Ponderosa ranch.  Ben’s dream had been to build a place for himself and his boys that they would soon take over and run with the same pride he had felt when he first signed the deed for the vast land.  He had seen his two oldest negotiate on behalf of the Ponderosa and now Joe had done something for which he could truly be proud.  His youngest had made quite the business deal, and Ben knew in a few years he could stand next to his oldest brother as demonstrating a unique business savvy.  “Joseph, I’m so very proud of what you’ve done.  With the extra money we can buy that Texas bull I have been eyeing and I do believe there is room for that stallion you’ve been going on and on about in Carson City.  We may even have some to set aside.  Son, you did a wonderful job, and we’re all so proud.  But now you need to rest.  You look very tired, and you’ve done too much talking.”

 

Joe had more to say,  “Thanks… for…lettin’… me.”

 

Ben felt the tears form, but held them back.  “Son, you’ll do so many more of these you’ll be fussing that I’m making you do it.  But right now I want you to sleep.”

 

Joe was looking groggy and it would not take much to make him sleep.  The only thing that kept him from surrendering to sleep was the frequent coughing that made him hurt so badly.  The doctor, who had been present, but standing out of the way, stepped forward.  “Okay enough, young man.  I need you to start breathing deeper than you are right now.  You need to make sure you take a full breath, and you need to try and rest so no more talking.  I’ve got something here for you to take, and then you need to close your eyes.”

 

Joe was leery of taking anything else from the doctor.  “What?”

 

“It’s brandy to help you breathe.”

 

Joe did not quite trust the doctor and smelled the liquid first.  Satisfied it was what the doctor had said it was, he drank it.  Joe soon felt his eyes grow heavy, and he tried to rest.

 

The doctor gave final instructions to the family before leaving the room.  “You’ll all need to keep close watch on him.  He needs to stay quiet, but you’ll need to watch him closely.  He needs to be checked every thirty minutes or so and reminded to breathe deep.  He’s in a lot of pain, so he isn’t breathing as he should.  You’ll have to help him with that.  He’ll keep coughing since he’s had the suspension, so he is going to be stirring anyway.  I’ll leave you folks for a while.”  and with that Doctor Green left the room.

 

The Cartwrights listened to the doctor as they watched Joe fade away to rest.  They then moved over to the cots and sat.  Adam was the first to speak,  “Joe did great didn’t he?”  Adam’s thoughts returning to the contract negotiations.

 

“He sure did.”  Hoss agreed.  “Ya know he’d have my hide if he knew I told ya’ll this, but he was real nervous before leavin’ that shack.  He told me he couldn’t eat and kept wakin’ up the night ‘fore he left.  He done real good though.  I told him he would.  He kept tellin’ me he didn’t think he’d ‘member what he learnt.  I told him just think of you all’s voices, and it’d come.  This deal was real important to him.”

 

“He did great.”  Ben said as he smiled, but both Hoss and Adam saw the worry.

 

“What is it?  What did the doctor tell you?”  Adam knew there was something more to Joe’s condition.

 

“Boys we gotta keep positive for him.  He can’t see the worry, but Joe’s getting pneumonia.  His lungs are so weak, I guess.”  Ben could not hide his worry as he talked to Adam and Hoss.  It was written all over his face.

 

“Pa, is the doctor gonna save Little Joe?”  Hoss asked wanting reassurance he knew was not there.

 

“Hoss, he’s gonna try.  He’s doing everything he knows to do.”

 

Adam had sat back quietly thinking over his little brother’s desire to make him proud and the conversation he had shared with Hoss and his father.  He was so torn.  “Damn it!”  Adam whispered.  “Does Joe’s torture just continue ‘til he’s dead?  He’s done enough!  He’s hurt enough!  He’s just a kid!”

 

“Adam, I know.  I know.”  Ben saw his family hurting and it tore at him.  He was so afraid to lose Joseph, but knew he had to be strong.  “You can’t give up.  Joe’s as strong as they come.  He’s a Cartwright.  Look at what he negotiated for us.  He has so much strength.  Don’t let him go yet.  Adam, hang on to him.”

 

“Pa, we can’t lose him.  It’s all of us together.”  Adam was feeling very vulnerable and afraid.  “Joe’s part of that.  He has to be okay.”

 

“We pray for him and protect him.”  Ben tried to guide his children.  “It’s all we can do now.  Adam you’re so tired yourself.  You need some rest.”

 

“Pa I want to sit by him.  I want to just be close to Joe in case he needs anything and help wake him like the doctor told us to do.”  Adam said moving next to his resting brother.  He looked down at Joe and saw the struggle to breathe.  He knew it was a struggle for Joe to live, and it scared him.

 

Joe drifted in and out of sleep.  He was awakened as he was overcome by a coughing fit, or by a family member as he was told to breathe deeply.  When he slept he dreamed of the cellar as his body cried out from the pain in the doctor’s office.  The present blended with the recent past, and Joe could not tell if he was safe or in danger.  He mumbled frequently, but no one could make out what he said.  In both dream and foggy awake times, Joe had a strong desire to live and he fought hard.

 

Time passed slowly for everyone as they waited and watched Joe fight for breath and life.  Eventually, the doctor returned with the ammonia suspension.  “He needs to take this again.”

 

Hoss, Adam and Ben all looked at each other wondering who would wrestle with Joe to have him take the medicine.  Adam spoke up.  “I’ll do it.”

 

Adam took the liquid and spoke softly to his brother,  “Joe, you need to take this now.  Wake up.”

 

Joe’s opened his right eye but was unable to open his left.  “Uh… wha…”

 

“Joe, open and drink this.”

 

Because he was groggy, Joe responded to the command and was drinking before he realized what it was he was ingesting.  As soon as he felt the burning sensation, he fought the liquid, and Adam had to react quickly to countered his brother’s resistance.  The liquid made it into Joe.  He felt the burning and again wanted to retch.  The doctor soon followed the harsh substance with a glass of water laced with chloral hydrate.

 

Joe was fully awake after having felt the burn of the liquid and being once again to be overcome by a coughing fit.  He immediately became angered as he felt he had been tricked.  He looked at Adam with rage and then looked away.  He felt so very bad, and it now seemed to him as if his family was trying to hurt him as well.  He wanted to be away, safe, and without pain.

 

Adam saw Joe’s glare.  “Joe, I’m sorry.  You have to take it.  We want you better.  And oh, listen Joe, I got a book they gave us here to keep us entertained.  I think you’d like it.  You want to hear it?  It’s one of your favorites.”

 

Joe looked directly at Adam.  He made sure Adam saw his look, and then Joe deliberately shut his eye.  He wanted Adam to know he was mad and did not like it that he had been given the medicine that hurt his mouth, his stomach and made him cough.

 

Adam knew Joe’s actions meant he was very angry.  He felt bad he had made his brother mad after the price Joe had already paid, but he knew Joe had to have the liquid if he was going to be able to make it through the pneumonia.  He found it almost funny that Joe would show his anger, even though he was so sick and weak.  He hoped that maybe it showed Joe’s resolve and determination, and his brother would fight hard.  He eventually decided to ignore Joe’s anger and read the book aloud anyway.  He knew his little brother would listen because he loved the story.  Adam read aloud from The Three Musketeers, and although Joe tried not to listen, he was soon caught up in the story and listened in spite of his anger.  He coughed often and felt the pain, but he also let his mind drift to being D’Artagnan, running through France in the heroic tale.  In Joe’s mind, the countryside of France looked very similar to his home on the Ponderosa, and D’Artagnan’s mount looked very much like a certain black and white pinto.

 

The family spent much time listening to Adam read.  Each found himself engrossed in the tale, and it made the tension in the room decrease.  Joe would fade in and out, but Adam kept reading all the while.  Time seemed to pass more quickly, and soon it was again time to disturb Joe to eat.  As Adam noted the page he was on and closed the book, Hoss said,  “Gee Adam, that story’s got me all hooked.  You gonna keep reading later?  I wanna know what happens next.”

 

Adam smiled at Hoss and chuckled.  “Sure Hoss, after Joe eats, we’ll see what’s in store for the Three Musketeers.”

 

Joe’s meal was a repeat of breakfast with broth and egg flip.  He ate slowly as his father helped him.  Ben had placed the tin bowl on Joe’s lap to make it easier to feed his son.  Joe did little to resist.  He was weaker and had resolved himself to the fact that he would lose the battle in the end, and he wanted to save his strength.  He would periodically cough and feel himself losing energy with each bout.  Joe began to hope the food would help him fight.  He had started to be concerned about how much harder it was to breathe, to move, and to tolerate the pain.

 

After Joe had finished, Ben left his side to get him a drink of water.  When he returned, he saw his son staring into his lap, looking at the tin bowl.  “What are you doing?  Is something wrong?”

 

Joe looked from the bowl to his father, and Ben saw he was crying.  “What is it?”  Ben asked with concern.

 

Joe looked down again, and Ben moved to see what his son was seeing.  As soon as he realized what it was, Ben’s heart broke.  Joe was able to see his reflection in the tin bowl.  The image was distorted, but still clear enough that Joe had seen the battering that his face had taken.  As he looked at himself, he thought back to what the Stranger had said to him regarding the reaction of people to seeing him beaten.  He closed his eyes and tried to make the image go away, but knew he would see it again as soon as he reopened them.

 

Ben reached for his son to comfort him.  “Joseph, it’s going to be okay.  It’s a lot of swelling and bruises.  I know it scares you son, but I know you’ll be back to your old self soon.”

 

Joe looked at his father and said,  “Mirror.”

 

“Son, no you don’t need to do that.  Not now.  You wait ‘til you’re all healed up, and you’ll see you’re just fine.”

 

Joe shook his head no, as he looked at his father feeling fear at what he would be left with when his body had healed.  He already knew he was going to have to face the fear in him from what the Stranger had done.  He had known that his face was swollen, simply by the fact he could not see out of one eye and it hurt to talk or make any expression, but until he had seen his reflection, he had assumed it was the type of bruising he experienced before from fights.  He had not allowed himself to entertain the idea that there might be more significant damage.  He whispered once more,  “Mirror.”

 

Ben looked at Hoss and Adam.  Both brothers had pained looks on their faces.  They had known far too well how their brother had looked and what seeing himself would do to him.  “Uh, Joe, don’t you want to hear Adam read more of the story?”  Hoss asked trying to get Joe’s mind off of what he had seen.

 

“Want… to… see… now.”  Joe gasped as the tears ran down his face.  “Mirror.”

 

“Joe, son, really.  Not now.”  Ben said.

 

Joe summed all of his strength,  “NOW!”  He screamed and fell back on the bed into a coughing fit.  He was not going to be put off by his family’s distractions nor comfort.

 

Ben was at a loss as to what to do.  He knew Joe seeing himself clearly in a mirror would upset him, but Joe was escalating in his panic.  “Son, you can’t do this.  You need to stay quiet and save your strength.  Calm down now, Joseph.”

 

Joe looked at his father with pain in his expression.  He was so afraid and was becoming angry that his father was withholding what he had requested.  He again spoke though it was obvious that is was a struggle,  “No… Pa… let… me… Mirror… I… want… see… No… wait… No… “

 

Ben saw Joe was going to keep pushing and trying to talk.  He knew his son was weak and needed to save his strength for a much larger battle that possibly lay ahead of him.  He was caught in a bind.  With a mirror, Joe would see more clearly what he looked like, and Ben realized it would be very difficult for his son.  Joseph was a very handsome young man, and Ben knew his son at times hid behind his looks as a way of appearing arrogant and self-assured.  Ben worried what would happen to his child if he suddenly lost that.  He did not know how his youngest would handle the change in appearance.

 

Ben looked at his oldest boys.  “Could one of you go get a mirror?”

 

Neither brother thought the decision was easy, and they felt for Joe and their father.  Hoss agreed, went the door, opened it and requested a mirror from the man he saw standing in the hallway.

 

No one spoke as they waited.  Joe felt the tears roll down his face, and he wanted to wipe them away and be alone.  He was unable to do either.  He felt such fear and had no idea if he would ever feel he was himself again.  He wondered if he would look like himself ever again.  He told himself as he lay there to remember.  He wanted to remember the fear and rage for when he struck back; for when he sought his revenge.  He told himself he would have it, and the rage kept him going.

 

A mirror was brought to the room, and Ben took it in his hands.  He slowly walked to his son and said,  “Joseph, I want you to know this is not how it will be.  You are going to be better and back to your old self.”

 

Joe was determined,  “Pa… show… me… I…. gotta… know… I… wanna… know.”

 

Ben closed his own eyes as he showed his son his reflection and waited for Joe to react.  He heard a moan as Joe saw himself and was overcome.  His youngest had tears flowing down his face as he took a long look and then turned away.  Ben tried to help.  “Joseph, it’ll all be fine.  You’re upset about something that may not be.  It’ll take time, son.  All of this just happened to you.”

 

“Leave… ‘lone”  Joe refused to look at his father.

 

“Son?”

 

“NO… ‘lone.”

 

It was obvious that Joe was finished speaking and the tension was heavy in the room.  Ben, Adam and Hoss felt helpless.  They knew Joe was hurting and had no idea what to do to help him.  Finally Ben broke the silence.  “Adam why don’t you start reading again?  It’ll do us all good.”

 

The story of the Three Musketeers once more came alive in the doctor’s office, and the men settled in.  Joe laid unable to listen to Adam as he could not stop thinking of what had happened to him.  His mind wanted to return to the cellar and the beatings, as he continued to see how he looked in his mind’s eye.  He could not stop replaying the torture and he found himself begging for it to stop.  He coughed hard and felt the sharp pain in his chest.  He was miserable and wanted relief.  The medications eventually worked to relax him and Joe moved in and out of consciousness as his body fought to live.

 

*****

 

The crisis started early that evening.  Joe had been sleeping restlessly and his family checked on him often, reminding him of deep breaths.  It was during one of the checks that Ben felt his son’s forehead and noted he was quite warm.  He felt himself saying a silent prayer,  “No God, please.  He’s been through enough.  Please let this pass from him.  He’s so weak.  I need him to be okay.  I really do.”

 

Both Hoss and Adam saw their father standing looking over Joe.  “Pa what is it?”  Hoss asked.

 

“He’s really warm.  I think he’s getting sicker.”  Ben said in a dejected tone.  He felt concern and fear as he looked at his boy.  Not taking his eyes off of his child, he spoke,  “One of you go get the doctor.”

 

Adam went to the door and called the doctor.  Dr. Green entered immediately and moved over to Joe.  He saw the flushed face and sweat apparent on his patient.  He felt disappointed at the turn of events.  The doctor knew the young man had been through hell, and he needed relief.  Doctor Green felt Joe’s forehead and knew he was indeed in danger.  “I’d like to get some vapor going for him, and I think we’re going to need to bind his chest.  I didn’t want to do that, but he isn’t breathing deep enough because he is in so much pain, and although waking him is helping, I don’t think it’s enough.  Binding will help manage the pain for him, but we need to keep a close eye on him.  He’s becoming a very sick young man.  We have to do it now to save him.”

 

“We’ll do what’s needed.  Tell us and it’s done.”  Adam spoke.

 

Assistance was needed as the doctor began binding Joe’s chest in an effort to help him breath more deeply.  Hoss and Adam took hold of Joe and sat him forward.  He was groggy from the medications, as well as from fever.  He felt himself being moved and the pain was sharp.  He wanted to beg them to leave him alone, but it was hard to speak through the pain.  He felt the tightness moving around him and screamed out, but his words were unintelligible.  The pressure hurt him, as he tried to use his hands to fight off what the doctor was doing to him, but he immediately felt pain and could not lift his arms.

 

Adam and Hoss kept looking at each other as the doctor worked.  They would hear Joe moan and knew that once more Joe was going through torture.  The doctor told Joe exactly what he was doing as he worked to keep him from panic.   In his weakened condition, it was very difficult for Joe to remain conscious and fighting the pain.  Prior to the onset of pneumonia, Joe had been determined to fight to stay conscious, but this time as he felt the pull to let go he gave in and passed out.   This allowed the doctor to quickly finish with his patient, and Joe was laid back once more to rest.

 

“What more do we have to endure?”  Ben silently asked himself as he watched his son tended.  He had prayed ever since the doctor had first told him Joseph was developing pneumonia that his son would be able to rally and fight off the illness.  It was quite obvious that his son was becoming worse, and the risk to his life even greater.  It seemed to Ben that they had to put Joe through more and more pain and discomfort the sicker Joe became.  This went against every instinct he had as a father.  He wanted the pain to stop.

 

The fear and desperation set in strongly the next time Ben went to wake his son to give him the ammonia.  It took great effort to bring Joe around to a level of consciousness that would allow him to take the liquid.  He deliberately waved the pungent solution under Joe’s nose as a way of reviving him.  This seemed to work, and Joe returned to partial consciousness.

 

The smell of the ammonia broke through the dreaming.  Joe had been caught in a dream where images were distorted and confusing.  He had thought he was at home when he heard his father’s voice, but as he became more awake, he saw he was back in the doctor’s office.  He heard the now very familiar command to drink, and he did with no resistance.  Again it was followed by another solution and he simply surrendered.  His stomach now had a constant burn, but he was not able to do anything about it.  His coughing would come over him in fits, and he felt his ribs with each breath.

 

As he thought of his discomfort, Joe decided he would feel better at home in his own bed.  Although it was not a logical conclusion, and Joe was on the verge of delirium, it made sense to him.  He thought he would stop hurting then.  “Pa?”  He whispered.

 

Ben moved close to his son so he could hear what Joe was saying.  “Yes, Joe.  What is it?”

 

“Pa… wan… na… go… home.”

 

Ben closed his eyes to the words he heard.  He wished nothing more than to be able to have Joe in his own room and his own bed.  Ben reached out and stroked Joe’s hair as he spoke,  “We’ll go home soon, son.  You need to get all better, then we’ll take you home.  All of us are going to go there just as soon as the doctor says you can travel, but right now, we’ll need to stay here so you can get good and strong.”

 

“When?”

 

“Well, I’ll tell you what.  You do everything the doctor says to do.  You get lots of sleep, and before you know it, we’ll be packing you out of here.  You know, I bet if you just rest, the time will go by real quick.  Did you want to hear something read to you?  Would that help?”

 

“No… talk… to… me.”  Joe found comfort in his father’s strong voice and wanted to hear him most of all.

 

“Sure son.  Did I ever tell you about the time I was at sea, and we came upon a bunch of whales?  I don’t think I told you this one.  Well you see, Joseph…” Ben went about telling his tale, and his youngest was soon asleep once more.  Ben remained next to Joe a few moments more, his head bowed in prayer.  Adam and Hoss moved over to their father and both placed a hand on his shoulder.

 

The waiting was long, and little was said the remainder of the evening.  The room was muggy from the vapors, which helped Joe breathe a little easier.  Each was lost in his own thoughts as to the outcome of Joe’s illness.  There were fleeting thought of Joe dying, but no one allowed himself to stay there long.  They would be positive and strong to will Joe back to them.  Eventually they turned in for the night and all was quiet for a while except for the constant raspy breathing of Joe, and each man silently thanked God it still continued, and Joe was alive.

 

The fever rose throughout the night, as Joe fought to breathe.  Soon his mind left for a place where he was trapped in thoughts and images that had him agitated and confused, but unable to return.  He was in the cellar, but the Stranger no longer stayed away from him.  He was taunting him with the whip and asking him over and over where Adam was being held.  Joe was screaming in his head that he would never tell.  In the delirium he was running away, but the Stranger was always just behind him.  He could not escape, and he could not hide.

 

His cries became audible and woke everyone in the early morning, and they moved over to Joe.  Each knew what they were seeing was very bad.  Ben tried to rouse his child,  “Joe, son, wake up.  It’s a dream, wake up now.”

 

It was quickly evident that Joe was beyond reach.  He talked out loud to the Stranger attempting to keep him at bay.  He was trapped in a fog where his words made sense to him, as he felt he was defending himself against the Stranger.  “Won’t… tell… Get… away… No… don’t.”

 

“Hush now, son.  It’s okay.  You’re safe.  That’s all over.  No one’s going to hurt you.  I promise son.”

 

“No… don’t… Please… God… Leave… ‘lone.”

 

There was nothing that would comfort Joe, and the three were left to hear his cries.  The doctor was sent for once more and was again soon attempting to relieve Joe’s suffering.  He soaked rags in cold water and placed them on Joe attempting to cool down the fever.  Joe was cold from the fever rising, although he was sweating.  The feel of the water sent him shaking uncontrollably.

 

“No… don’t… hurt.”

 

The cries were tearing at those in the room.  The doctor decided to intervene in Joe’s turmoil.  “I’m going to give him a stronger sedative.  This isn’t helping him to be so distraught.  You speak to him and try and rouse him.  You’ll have to be forceful.  I need to pinch him.  I know it looks bad, but pain will bring him around.”

 

As the doctor pinched Joe, Ben spoke loudly.  “Joseph, wake up now.  Son wake up!”

 

Joe moved towards the voice and the pain, as he felt himself leave the cellar.  He was groggy and confused, but as he saw his father, he became more coherent.  “Pa… uh… Pa… I… don’t… feel… good… Some… thin’… wrong… Wanna… go… home”

 

“I know you don’t feel good son.  We’re trying to get you well.  The doctor’s gonna fix you up in no time.”

 

It… I’m… cold… want… be… home… Take… me.”

 

“Ssh, it’s okay.  You’ll be home soon.  The doctor wants to give you something right now.  So you stay awake a little longer, then you can go back to sleep.”

 

“Pa… where… am… I?”  Joe felt so confused and things made little sense.  He would remember parts of what was happening to him, and then the confusion would hit once more.

 

“Don’t you remember, son?  You’re in the doctor’s office.”

 

“Huh… doc… oh… Ad… am… where… Ad… am.”

 

“Joe, I’m right here.  I’ll stay right here with you.”

 

“Ad… am… watch… Bax… ter.”

 

“Hush now, Joe.  I know he’s bad.  You just need to get better.”

 

“No… I… know… bad… watch… him.”

 

The words Joe spoke pained Adam.  He knew his brother did indeed know Baxter was a bad man.  His brother had experienced the man’s malevolence first hand and was struggling because of him.  Adam fought to keep himself under control as he looked on his little brother trying to take care of him.  “Joe, I’ll be careful.  I promise.”

 

“I… help… ya”

 

“Joe, son, you gotta be quiet and save your strength.  Hush now.”  Ben continued to try and comfort his son.

 

“No… go… with… Ad… am… help… him.”

 

“Oh buddy, you don’t know what that means to me for you to want to help me, but you are so tired.  You have to rest first.”

 

“You young man are doing nothing but drinking this right now.”  The doctor interrupted the family’s conversation and held the liquid up to Joe.

 

“But…”

 

“No, buts.  No more.  You drink it, and no more talking.  You have done too much already.  I am beginning to think you’re a difficult patient.”

 

Hoss, Adam and Ben smiled at the last comment the doctor had made.  How they knew the difficulty of being with Joe when he was sick.  And now how they all longed for the griping of a cranky Little Joe who was always horrid to be around when he was feeling bad.  Joe usually was only his worst when he was on the mend.  To hear that now would seem a good sign from him.

 

 

Joe slowly drank the liquid.  When he finished, he immediately started to talk again.  “I… sleep… then… Ad… am… we…get… ‘em”

 

“Yeah Joe you sleep now, and then we’ll get him.  That I do promise.”

 

“Wait… for… me… Wan… na… be… with… you.”

 

Adam’s eyes were clouding with tears, and he closed them briefly.  When he opened them again he said,  “You have to be with me Joe.  You have to be with me a long time.”

 

“I… will…” Speaking had taken the remainder of Joe’s energy, as he drifted off once more asleep.

 

Once Adam had watched his brother fall asleep, he moved away from Joe and sat on a cot with his head in his hands.  It had been an emotionally grueling few days, and he was exhausted.  He looked up at his father and Hoss and saw their fatigue as well.  Adam was so afraid Baxter would win and claim Joe’s life as his revenge for him having revealed the business con.  He had no idea what they would do if Joe were gone from them.  Adam for one did not think he could bear the loss.  He had lived through too many already, and this one he believed was solely his responsibility.  He could not even attempt to think what the loss would do to Hoss or his father.

 

*****

There was a knock on the door early in the day.  Hoss went to it, his hand firmly resting on his pistol.  “Who is it?”

 

“Hoss, that you?  It’s Roy Coffee.  I’ve got the territorial prosecutor with me.”

 

Hoss recognized the familiar voice of the Virginia City lawman and opened the door.  “Hey ya, Roy.  Come on in.”

 

As Roy Coffee entered the room, a grave sight accosted his senses.  The air in the room was muggy and thick.  He saw his friend and two of his boys looking warn and haggard.  Roy had received the telegram from the Reno sheriff and had been made aware of the circumstances that had kept the Cartwrights in Reno.  However, there were no words to describe the state of the family as he looked at them.  Fear and fatigue were so evident.  He finally spoke,  “Ben, Adam, Hoss, how’s Joe?”

 

Ben tried to smile at his old friend, but there was only worry on his face now.  “Roy, it’s very bad.  Joe’s hurt real bad.”

 

Upon hearing the young man’s name, Roy looked at the table where Joe lay asleep.  He could not believe the figure he was looking at was Joe Cartwright.  It was far worse than he could imagine.  Roy knew Ben would need his friendship to help him through whatever happened to his child.  He feared it would be in helping his friend bury his son.  “Ben, is there anything you need?”

 

“Roy, I’m afraid I need a miracle.”  Ben tried hard not to break down.

 

“Well if anyone will make it through this, it’s your Little Joe.  He’s tough, Ben.”

 

“Yeah.”  Ben said quietly and looked back to his child.  “Joseph’s very strong.  He’s fighting hard.  I feel it.  I just pray he can hold on.”  Ben could not talk further.  He touched his son’s arm lightly and felt the fever.  He cursed the fever and the one responsible.

 

No one spoke for a few moments, but eventually the man who had joined Roy cleared his throat.  This reminded Roy of the reason for their visit.  “Oh, uh, folks this here is Thomas Baldwin, and he is the territorial prosecutor.  Adam, he’s here to speak with you.”

 

Adam looked up, the fatigue apparent in his eyes.  “Mr. Baldwin, you’ll forgive me, but I’m not wanting to discuss things with you right now as my little brother lays there fighting to live.”

 

“I’m sorry, Mr. Cartwright.  We’d received a telegraph about your brother, but I had no idea it was as serious as it seems to be.  I just need to discuss this case with you at some time.  We all want Baxter put away.”

 

“Discuss the case?  You want to discuss it?  Take a good look at my baby brother there.  That is what that monster had done to keep me from discussing this case!”  Adam was moving quickly to rage.

 

Ben moved to his oldest son.  “Adam, it won’t help to just strike out at this man.  He is trying to help.  He wants Baxter like we do.”

 

 

“Pa, no he doesn’t!  He couldn’t!  That’s our family lying there!  That’s your son and my brother!  Joe is ours, and everyone else has far less to lose than we do!”

 

“Son, calm down.  You remember what we talked about.  You do what you can.  Joe’s still here, and you have to do what you set out to do.  Son, it’d do you good to go and discuss this case.  Let’s find you someplace safe and you and Mr. Baldwin go talk.”

 

Adam’s face showed resistance, but he saw resolve in his father’s face and knew he needed to do what his father had asked of him.  “Fine.  Mr. Baldwin you and I will discuss this case, but I want you to do something first.  I want you to look at my brother lying there.  Look at him and remember what you see, because it is why I am now doing this.  And if you do not get a conviction I’ll tell you something more.  You will be prosecuting me, because I will kill Cyrus Baxter.  Now that we understand things, I’ll review the case with you.”

 

Adam headed for the door and Ben stopped him.  “Son, don’t be foolish.  Let’s get you set up somewhere safe to talk.  Let me arrange it.  You sit tight.”  Ben was out the door before Adam could resist.

 

Ben quickly returned with directions and several deputies.  “Adam, you need to go with these men.  There’s a room similar to this one across the corridor.  There are no windows and they will guard your door.  You let them lead and cover you son.”

 

“Pa, really, I’ll be fine.  But listen… if Joe’s condition were to change…” Adam paused, not wanting to say what he was thinking.  He took a breath and continued.  “If he needs me, uh… if I should be here Pa, you come get me.”

 

“I promise you son.  Go, make sure you do what you have to do against Baxter.”  Ben replied trying to appear upbeat.  He was unable to accomplish the task, as everyone in the room knew things were tenuous at best for Joe.

 

Roy chimed in.  “I’ll get him across the hall and then be back, Ben.”

 

Soon Adam was settled with the prosecutor and Roy returned to sit with his friend and Hoss.  Ben was next to Joe talking softly and stroking his hair.  He felt the fever burning into his child, and his own helplessness.

 

Ben’s touch stirred Joe and he began mumbling once more.  Ben immediately wished he had not disturbed his son and tried to quiet him.  “Hush, son.  Just sleep.”

 

Joe was out of his head as he mumbled,  “Gotta… get… it…. done… Trouble.”

 

Ben could not figure out where his child’s mind was but continued to give him comfort.  “Oh son, don’t worry about anything right now.  It’s all okay.”

 

“Book… lost… it… Miss… Travis… don’t know… where.”

 

Ben realized Joe was back in school in his mind.  Miss Travis was his son’s teacher when Joe was thirteen.  He smiled as he thought of how many books and assignments his youngest had lost, or homework he simply had not done.  The tug-of-war he had gone through with his child seemed so meaningless now.

 

“Joe, son, you can take care of it all later.  I’ll help you find the book.  Now you need to sleep.  Hush now.  You sleep.”

 

Joe fell back into the fog, once more quiet.  Ben shook his head as he looked at his child.  He knew instinctively that things were growing to crisis.  He thought over all he had endured as a father with his boys.  They were his joy and also his weakness.  One had no further to go to get to Ben Cartwright than his boys.  He thought of his youngest.  His boy had brought such joy to him as well as such fear.  Joe’s adolescence had been rough, but Ben would not trade the experience for the world.  He certainly would have spared his boy from some of the pains he had endured, but in the last year or so, he was finding a friend in his youngest.  He so much wanted to experience a full life with his child.  He felt it would be so very cruel to let him see the glimmer of the man Joe would become and then have it snatched away.

 

The next time the doctor checked his patient, he too felt despair.  Joe’s temperature continued to remain high, and he was not coming around.  Dr. Green knew they would soon lose Joe if it continued.  “Ben, I need to speak to you.”

 

“What is it?  Tell me.”  Ben was full of concern.

 

“I need to send some men to the ice house.  We have to try and drop the fever.  I’m afraid we will lose him if we can’t get it down soon.  This is the only thing we really have left.”

 

The words hit Ben hard.  The doctor was telling him there was one final thing to be tried and then that was it.  It was over.  “No!”  He said in his mind.  “I will not let Joseph go!  He has to be here!  HE’S MY BOY, GOD!  PLEASE! DON’T MAKE ME SAY GOOD BYE TO HIM!”  Ben stood frozen in his thoughts.

 

“Ben, you okay?”  Roy asked, seeing the look on his friend’s face.

 

“Huh… uh… oh yeah.  I’m here.  Dr. Green do whatever is necessary for Joseph.”  Ben stated and then grabbed the doctor’s arm.  “Dr. Green, don’t give up on my boy!  Please!”

 

“Not a chance of that happening, Mr. Cartwright.  Now, I’ll have the men get the ice.”

 

Ben sat by his son talking softly,  “Now Joseph.  You’re my boy, and you have to be okay.  You have to just get real determined, and you’ll do it.  Joe, please hang on.  Please don’t leave us.  We have so much more to go through together.  Please son, get stubborn with this one.  If you do that, I know you’ll be here.”

 

While they waited for the men to return with the ice, Dr. Green filled in the family as to what to expect.  “Okay folks.  You need to know a few things.  This is going to be extremely uncomfortable for Joseph.  It is very painful to have done and given how battered and bruised he is, it is going to be excruciating for him.  He’s delirious and probably won’t understand what is going on.  I’ll definitely need your help.”

 

“Say no more, Doc.”  Hoss said, waving off any questions the doctor may have regarding their helping Joe.

 

The men eventually returned with the ice.  Dr. Green set them about chopping it up from the large blocks, and then the doctor instructed the men to bring in the bathtub that he used in his residence upstairs.  The tub was then filled with cold water.  Doctor Green carefully wrapped a sheet around Joe and then said to Hoss,  “Can you place him in the water?  He’ll need to be there about ten minutes.”

 

Hoss picked up his little brother, and as he placed him in the cold water he heard a scream come for Joe.  “NO!”  Joe yelled as the cold water assaulted his body.  “NO!  HURTS!”  The pain went throughout his body as the coldness hit.  The feeling of being lifted was enough to make him cry out, and then the placement into the water made him feel pain.  He panicked to breathe and to get out of the cold.  He was gone from them mentally, but his body fought hard.  “NA… NO… HELP… ME!”  Joe was unable to use his arms and hands, or he would have been up and out of the cold bath from sheer reflex.  “GOD… HELP… ME!”

 

Hoss felt awful for what he had done.  He knew it was best for Joe to have the procedure the doctor had prescribed, but his little brother was in agony.  He tolerated it poorly.  “Doc, he’s not doin’ good.  He’s hurtin’ too much.  I’ll get him outta there.”

 

“No Hoss.”  The doctor spoke.  “He has to stay there for a little while.  His fever is too high for any other way.”

 

“But Little Joe’s not gonna be able to stand this.  Please doc.  I’ll just get him outta there, and we’ll do somethin’ else.  Joe’s real bad like this.”

 

“Hoss, we have to do it.  There’s nothing else for him.  I’m sorry, and I know you’re having a hard time.  It’s hard to see, but your brother’s only chance is for the cold to lower the fever.”

 

As the doctor talked, they all looked at Joe and saw his teeth had begun to chatter.  Ben moved to the tub and once more talked to his child.  “Joe, you’re gonna be okay.  We need to get your fever down.  That’s all we’re doing.”

 

“Pa… Pa… pl… pl…pl… ease…. Co… Co… Cold.  Help… m…m… me.  Pa… pl…pl… please….”  Joe was shivering uncontrollably.  He continued his pleas, and they wore on his father.  “Got… got…got… ta… go… help… Ad… am… sleep… fir… st… can…n’t… sleep… Pa… help… co… co… cold…”

 

Ben heard his boy and the cries tore at him.  As he watched, and he listened, he heard words that sent him into a panic.  Joe was delirious and did not know what he was saying, but his words made his father extremely afraid.  Joe said, “Pa… Pa… I… c-c-c-can… n’t… d-d-d-do… it.  C-c-c-c-old.  Pa… I… w-w-w-w-want… Ad… am…  H-h-h-hoss… en… y-y-y-you… know… l-l-l-love… y-y-y-you… Pa… c-c-c-old… Save… m-m-m-m-me.  Pa… too… c-c-c-old… Pa… I… c-c-c-can’t…”

 

“Doctor stop it now.  He’s suffering!  My boy is in misery!  This is killing him!”  Ben was shouting out his fears.

 

“No, it’s not Ben.  It’s his only chance.  Now here, we need to hold this on his head.”  The doctor said handing Ben a rag with ice in it.

 

As Ben placed the rag up to Joe’s head, his son moaned loudly.  Suddenly the door opened, and Adam was through it and to his father.  “What’s going on?  I heard the yelling.”  Adam looked down to see Joe in the water shivering.  “Pa?  What are you doing to him?”

 

The doctor interrupted.  “Your brother’s fever is too high.  We’ve got to get it down.  This is very uncomfortable for him, and I admit it that it’s very hard to watch.”

 

“Pa, why were you yelling?”  Adam continued to question.

 

“I’m not sure at all if this is right.  Joseph is being tortured in all of this.”  Ben was exhausted himself and was finding it difficult to cope.  He was tired of seeing his son endure all he had and simply wanted Joe out of pain.

 

“Adam, Joe is just hurtin’ so bad.  We gotta end this.  I think we should try something else.”  Hoss added.

 

“Listen folks!  There is nothing more to try!  This is it!  Joe will be dead if that fever does not come down!  I am sorry, but there is nothing else to try!  I wish there was, but this is it.”  Dr. Green was frustrated at the situation as he chastised the Cartwrights.  He felt for the family and understood what he needed to do for everyone involved.  “Now I think all of you need a break from this.  I’m going to tend to Joe, and I want all of you out of here.  I need to focus on helping him, and he can get more upset if he hears all of this.”

 

“I’m not leaving him.”  Ben said, digging in his heels.

 

“Ben, listen I am telling you to go now.  I’ll get you if you are needed in the slightest.  I have to do this for him, and you folks don’t need to watch it.”

 

Adam looked at his father and Hoss.  They had such fear on their faces.  He then looked again at Joe, and his heart broke.  He wished it was him lying there suffering and not his baby brother.  Adam was also torn.  He wanted to be there for his brother to make sure Joe knew he was not alone, but it seemed to be almost more than any of them could bear to watch.  “Uh, Pa, you need a break from this right now.  We all do.  The doctor has to do this, and he’s right, it is terrible to watch.”

 

“Adam I am not leaving him!”  Ben yelled.

 

Joe heard his father’s yelling.  Everything was so confusing in the fever, and he thought his father was upset with him.  As he feared his father’s anger and he felt the assault his body was taking from the cold water, his fear, frustration and hurt became too much.  As he concluded he would be forever trapped in pain and torment, Joe began to cry.

 

Ben saw the tears and moved next to his son.  “Joseph?  It’s okay son.”

 

Joe was wracked with coughs as he cried, and the pain increased his frustration.  “N-n-n-n-n o-o-o-o…” Joe shook his head and continued to cry.  He was becoming distraught as it felt to him as if he would never feel anything but afraid and hurt.  He was having a more difficult time breathing and was gasping.

 

“Okay everyone out now!  He has to settle down!”  The doctor said forcefully as he steered the room’s occupants to the door.

 

Ben was going to protest, but Adam grabbed him by the shoulders.  “Pa, it’s best.  Joe has to get through it, and I don’t think we are helping matters.”  Ben reluctantly allowed himself to be lead out of the room.

 

As Hoss was leaving, the doctor called to him.  “Hoss, I need you back in about five minutes to help me move him back onto the table.”

 

“Uh… yeah I’ll be here.  You hear that, Joe?  I’ll be right back.”

 

Adam, Hoss, Ben and Roy joined the prosecutor across the hall.  The attorney sat taking notes from his discussion with Adam and few words were spoken as they waited for Hoss to go back in and move Joe.  They each took a seat and prayed hard for Joe and the doctor.

 

Meanwhile in the room they had vacated, Joe lay violently shaking and crying.  The doctor walked over to the counter, poured some liquid and walked back to his patient.  “Hey there, Joe.  I know it’s bad, but here you need to drink this.  It’s some wine that will help with the breathing and calm you down a little bit.  You don’t have much longer to go.  You know, you’re a very brave young man, and I want to get to talk to you after this is all over.  I bet you give them all fits with that spirit you have in you.  You just keep on fighting, Joe.  Hang in there.”

 

The doctor gave Joe the liquid and then felt his forehead.  Joe’s head was initially cold to the touch because of the ice that had that had been there. But eventually the fever broke through.  The doctor thought to himself,  “Damn it!  Come on kiddo fight hard.  You’ve come this far.  You keep it going and make it through.  There are three people out there who need you.”

 

The doctor walked to his medical books and looked through them hoping maybe there was something he had missed.  He knew the standard treatment for pneumonia-ammonia suspension, alcoholic beverages, chloral hydrate and get the fever down.  He asked himself, “Is there anything else?”  He felt the anger at the limits of his abilities.  Dr. Green turned and looked at the young man who was suffering.  He felt he wanted to apologize to him, because he could do nothing more than what he had already done.  He saw Joe’s courage and wanted to match it with medicine.  He knew Joe had far surpassed him.

 

The door came open at the precise five-minute mark, as Hoss was ready to help his brother.  Ben could not resist following but stood back out of the way.  He had instructed Adam to stay put in the other room.  Hoss spoke to Joe before he touched him.  “Hey Short Shanks, it’s ol’ Hoss.  I’ve come to get you outta there.”  As Hoss reached in the water he felt how cold it was and cringed.  He quickly scooped up Joe and could feel his brother’s shaking.  He lovingly held him while the doctor fixed the table for Joe to be laid upon.  Joe was still crying and would moan and say things Hoss could not understand.  Hoss very gently laid Joe on the table and went to cover him with blankets.

 

“No Hoss you can’t do that.”  The doctor said, stopping Hoss.

 

“But he’s plum near froze to death in that water.”

 

“He has to still be cooled down.  We need to place ice around his head and chest.  You can cover his legs there.  Here prop him up some for his breathing.”

 

“Doc, you sure you know what you’re doin’?  Ain’t his fever gone?”

 

“No Hoss, I’m afraid it isn’t.  Now help me here, and then you and your father go on out of here so I can help him, and he can stay quiet.”

 

Hoss did as he was told and then he left the room.  Ben paused and walked to Joe.  “Son, its Pa.  I’m here for you.  Remember we are all doing this together.  I love you so much, Joseph.  You keep remembering that.”

 

Joe said very softy,  “P-p-p-p a… l-l-love… y-y-y-y-you.”

 

Ben started to cry as he heard the words from his child.  As a little boy, Joe was open in telling everyone in his family how much he loved them, but as he had gotten older, he had not said it as much.  Ben knew it was not because Joe’s feelings had changed, it was much more because his son seemed to get more embarrassed saying the words.  Something Ben chalked up to adolescence.  He knew when he did hear them from Joe, it was heart felt and very precious.

 

“Joe, you rest now son.  You need your sleep.  I’m right here for you.”

 

“P-p-p-p a… s-s-s-stay… w-w-w-with… m-m-m-me… S-s-s-s-scared…l-l-lone.”

 

Ben looked at the doctor, and Dr. Green nodded to him.  “Okay Joe, I’m right here.   I’ll stay as long as you need.”

 

“T-t-t-talk… t-t-t-ta… m-m-m-me… T-t-t-tell… ‘b-b-b-bout… th-th-the… s-s-sea… ‘g-g-g-gain”

 

All Ben needed was Joe’s request, and he was off talking of his adventures on the high seas.  He always maintained some type of physical contact with Joe as he told him the tales.  Ben knew Joe had heard them many times before, but thought that maybe that was what gave his son comfort, the familiarity of it.  He would look to Joe’s face remembering so many times before he had told his son tales, and Joe would sit captivated, asking what seemed like hundreds of questions.  Ben tried to think of the questions Joe would want to ask and would say in the middle of recounting something,  “And I bet you wanna know about…” as he would try and guess his youngest’s question and answer it.

 

Joe noticeably calmed as he listened to his father, and the cold bath faded from recent memory.  The ice kept him shivering, but he felt the warmth of his father’s presence, and it helped him.  Adam and Hoss had both stuck their heads in to check on things and saw their father knelt over Joe, talking softly.  Both knew it was exactly what Joe needed and left their father to comfort their brother.

 

Ben would every so often reach up and stroke his son’s hair or face, and it comforted his child.  He thought over his boy’s life and the happiness his child had brought him.  Joe was so full of life, and he would never want that gone from him.  As his son matured, Ben had seen some of the impulsiveness settling, but he also knew Joe was very young, and his youth brought on wildness that was yet to be completely channeled.  There were days where Ben would look at Joe and see the man he would fully become, and then other days where he would see a little boy, the child he had known prior.  It depended so much on his son’s mood and the situation as to which part would be present.  Ben recalled several weeks before having watched his son when Joe thought no one was around.  He saw Joe climbing up to the rafters of the barn as he done many times as a boy.  It was as if he was watching Joe caught again in a fantasy game, and he was once more a little boy climbing mountains, or whatever it was a little boy did in his head.  Ben had loved watching it, because there were times he missed the little boy, but he was feeling so proud at the man he was seeing emerge in the child’s place.

 

As Ben reminisced on Joe’s growing up, he realized that in a few weeks his youngest would be having a birthday.  Ben thought to himself,  “Joseph, could you really be turning nineteen?”  He spoke to his child,  “Hey Joe.  I just realized something.  Your birthday’s coming up.  We need to have a big party now don’t we.  I bet you’ll have a list as long as my arm of the girls you want there.  I wonder what I should get you for it.”

 

Ben was teasing Joe, because he had known for months what Joe had wanted for his birthday.  Joe had been none too subtle in his hinting.  He had wanted a saddle he had seen at the mercantile, one Joe just knew was the best for Cochise and for himself.  Ben had not told Joe he had bought the saddle soon after the first hints and had almost felt guilty when Joe had come home and told him in a dejected voice the saddle was gone from the store.  Joe had been quick to add though, that he thought a new one could be easily ordered.

 

Ben knew at the time he had bought the saddle he was going to overindulge his child, but on any of his boys’ birthdays he liked to make them happy.  Ben had added to the saddle with a new bridle, halter and breast strap to complete the ensemble for his son’s beloved Cochise.  He thought back to when he had given his son Cochise.  He knew he could never top that gift to his child, but he would try and come close.  The pinto was his boy’s pride and joy, and Ben loved seeing Joe ride her.  He wanted his son to live; to be able to have his birthday and to ride his beloved horse.

 

“P-p-p-pa… c-c-c-can…g-g-g-go… h-h-h-home?”

 

“No son, not now.  Why are you in an all fired hurry to get home anyway?  You anxious to get back to work?”  Ben tried to keep it light with Joe.

 

“S-s-s-scared.”

 

“Oh Joe.  You’re very safe here.  You know I won’t let anything hurt you.”

 

“W-w-w-want… l-l-like… ‘f-f-fore.  A-a-ad… a-am… ‘k-k-k-kay… an-an-and… m-m-me… ‘k-k-k-kay… B-b-bad…m-m-man… p-p-p-pa… n-n-need… h-h-h-help  Wh-wh-where’s… g-g-g-gun?”  Joe was becoming agitated as he realized somewhere in what he had been through he had lost the weapon that made him feel safe.

 

Ben looked around Joe and saw the gun sitting on the table beside his child.  He grabbed it and placed it under Joe’s hand.  “The gun’s back Joseph, you feel it?”

 

“P-p-p-pa… I-I-I … g-g-g-gotta… k-k-k-keep… w-w-w-watch…h-h-help… A-A-Adam.”

 

“ No young man, you have to rest now.  You’ve done too much.  It’s my watch for Adam now.  You have to sleep.  You already did yours.”

 

Dr. Green had stood back listening to father and son and knew the bond was tight.  He also knew Joe needed to rest.  He prepared the ammonia suspension and the chloral hydrate, as well as a healthy dose of brandy.  He was hoping to knock his patient out.

 

Dr. Green administered the medicines and Joe drank.  He was soon exhausted and said very quietly.  “P-p-p-pa… w-w-watch… f-f-f-for… b-b-b-bad… m-m-m-man… I-I-I…c-c-c-lose… eyes… now.”

 

Ben told his son,  “Joe you sleep, and I’ll keep us all safe.  You rest now my boy.  You’re tired.”

 

In a whisper as he faded to sleep Joe said,  “P-p-papa… s-s-stay… r-r-right… h-h-here… h-h-hold… m-m-my… h-h-hand.”

 

Ben felt tears again as he reached for his child’s hand.  He knew that whatever Joe needed he would so gladly do for him.  He stayed next to Joe talking again to him of the sea as his son drifted to sleep and was quiet.

 

Ben knew he would stay next to his son, holding Joe’s hand forever if that was what was needed.  He stopped talking of the sea once he heard Joe’s breathing change and knew his boy was asleep.  He began to talk of other things he wanted to say to his child.  “Joseph, you are so strong son.  You amaze me with your strength.  What you did for Adam was truly incredible, and I know he is so touched by it.  I’m so worried about you.  You went through hell, I know, and I want it all taken away from you.  I want you to not be afraid.  It is really so hard to see you of all people afraid.  You seem most of the times to not fear anything.  You do things that sometimes I wish you did have some fear inside you about.  But Joe, I know this isn’t right.  You should not have to feel like you do.  It angers me so much that someone would hurt that part of you.  You know, when you were little, you’d take off and be in the middle of the street with a wagon barreling down on you and just believe some how you’d not be touched by it.  I know you have had some things happen that have made you realize it isn’t that easy, but I know you always felt safe.  Son, will you be okay with all of this?  Will you be able to not be so afraid again?  I hope so, son.  I do know I’ll help you.  I’ll be right here.”

 

Adam and Hoss returned to the room where Ben sat next to Joe.  They were both relieved to see their little brother asleep.  They saw their father was talking to Joe, so they moved over to the cots and out of the way.

 

Adam sat down and watched his father so carefully tending to Joe.  He saw his father stroking Joe’s hair and the tears that were in Ben’s eyes.  Adam saw the love present between father and son and knew his father was an amazing man.  He had raised three boys well, and had developed special and unique relationships with each.  Adam then looked at his baby brother.  Joe was still so much a mystery to him.  He would often find himself understanding how Joe felt about things, but unable to understand his actions.  He wanted to have the easy closeness that he had with Hoss and Hoss had with Joe, but it seemed he and his little brother were oil and water.  Adam knew he was impatient at times with Joe’s youth and also at times longed to be as playful as Joe.  He loved his little brother deeply and he was finding through this latest ordeal that he was learning to respect and admire Joe as a man and not just as a little brother.  He wanted Joe to live so he could some day tell him how he felt.

 

Soon Ben was actually falling asleep himself as he sat next to his son.  Hoss moved over and spoke to his father,  “Pa, you’re real tired.  You go lie down and I’ll sit with Joe.  I wanna be with him some anyhow and you gotta get some sleep.”

.

Hoss accepted no resistance and helped his father stand.  Ben acquiesced and allowed himself to be moved.  As Ben moved to the cot, Hoss took his place next to his brother.  From the day Joe was born Hoss knew he had a best friend in Joe.  Sure Joe would anger him and get him into trouble, but Hoss just saw Joe as wonderful.  Closest in age, the two would share secrets and stories together.  Hoss sat looking upon his almost grown little brother and remembering the child Joe had been.  He thought of the time that Joe, at age nine, had sworn him to secrecy at the gold mine he had found.  It turned out to be simply a cave he had found and explored, but to Hoss, he remembered his little brother’s excitement.  Now Joe was rich, and the rest of the family would have to ask him for money for things such as candy at the mercantile instead of the other way around.   Hoss looked on Joe and knew he would never be the same if Joe left him.  He just could not be Hoss without Little Joe.

 

The family remained waiting as father and youngest son slept.  Adam thought over the impending trial and his desire to shoot Baxter dead in his tracks.  He kept an eye on Hoss and found comfort in Hoss’s quiet talking and Joe’s breathing.  Hoss watched over his baby brother, vowing no one would ever harm Joe again.  He talked quietly to Joe of their adventures together and how much he wanted them to return to Joe’s gold mine for a night of camping and hunting.

 

Joe was lost to dreams and nightmares as the fever raged on, and the medicines fought back.  He could see the Stranger’s face, but then Hoss would intercede, and the Stranger would move away.  The dream would repeat for him, and he wanted the Stranger gone from his mind.  He would yell and scream, but no one heard him.  He was trapped.

 

Ben woke to see his sons very much as he had left them.  Hoss was quietly talking to Joe, and Adam sat on his cot lost in thought.  Ben spoke,  “Adam, what’re you thinking about?”

 

“Uh?  Oh, I need to be in Virginia City day after tomorrow.  I guess I should leave tonight.”

 

“What?  I thought we had more time.  What happened?”

 

“Well the prosecutor wants me going now.  I don’t know.  They wanna ride out tonight.”

 

Ben looked to Joe and then back to Adam.  “Damn it!” Ben thought.  “Both boys need me.”  He sat a while longer thinking and then said, “Son, I’m going with you.”

 

“Pa, you stay here with Joe.  He needs you.”

 

“No Adam.  I want both my boys okay, and I know it looks like choosing, but I’m not.  Joseph has Hoss and the doctor to keep him going along with our prayers.  I cannot let you do what you are gonna do by yourself.  Baxter is far too dangerous and I need to make sure you don’t do anything foolish.”

 

“Pa, I won’t do anything foolish.  You have my word.”

 

“But Adam, I also want to see this man put away for what he has done.  I need to be there as well.  I have to believe we won’t lose Joe.  He is far too precious and strong.  I need to be with you to support you, son.  I have made my decision.  I’d like to not leave here until we absolutely have to though.”

 

“I just don’t think you should, Pa.  Joe needs you.”

 

“Adam, whether you want to admitted it or not, you do too.  And you know your little brother.  What would Joe want?  He did what he did to support you, and I will do the same.  We will go together.  End of discussion.”

 

The phrase ‘end of discussion’ always frustrated Adam, but he knew his father would not budge once those words were spoken.  He did not want to leave Reno and his little brother’s side, so he knew it had to be tearing at his father.  He stared at his hands secretly longing for Baxter to do something the next day that would get him killed.  It would make things so easy; he believed he would feel better.

 

Ben stood and walked over to Hoss and Joe.  He looked at his sick child and saw the fever was still present.  Joe was sleeping rather soundly, and he prayed it would continue.  He knew his boy had to be so worn out and rest would help him fight.  He squeezed the shoulder of his middle child and asked softly,  “You okay?”

 

“Yeah, I’m holdin’ up just fine.  I’ll take care of Joe while you and Adam are gone.  Ya know that, huh?”

 

“Yes, I sure do.  I know Joseph is in good hands with you son.  You just keep doing what you’re doing, and Joe’ll be fine.”  Ben prayed the words he was saying were true.  He wanted Hoss to believe it, and he wanted Joe to as well.

 

The time eventually came where Adam and Ben needed to pack up to head to Virginia City.  They had stalled as long as they could and knew leaving was going to tear their hearts out.  Ben was having a very difficult time leaving.  Joe had slept the rest of the day, but the fever remained ever present.  He knelt beside Joe and spoke softly,  “Son, I need to go with Adam and watch him like I told you I would.  I want to you to sleep and get lots of rest.  I know you’re so tired.  Joseph, you hold on now.  You be here when we get back.  We’re going to get the man who did this to you.”  Ben was starting to break.  “But son, I need you here when we get back.  You don’t go.  You don’t leave us.”

 

Hoss closed his eyes as he heard his father’s words, and Adam turned and looked away.  They all knew that while Adam and Ben were gone, Joe could die.  Hoss knew he would try and hold on to Joe; to keep him there for his father and brother when they returned.  “Pa, Joe’s gonna stay here.  He promised me he would hold on, and he will.  I’ll tend to him.  I promise, Pa.”

 

“Son, I know you will.  But Hoss…” Ben did not even want to say the words.  “Hoss, if Joe… goes… make sure he knows we love him.  And don’t let him go… alone.  He needs you right there.”

 

Hoss’s eyes welled with tears,  “Pa, he ain’t goin’!  Not Little Joe!  He’ll be here.  I’ll make him be here Pa!”

 

The words Hoss spoke touched Ben so deeply, and he smiled at his child.  “That’s it Hoss.  You don’t let him do it.  You tell him what to do.”  Ben could say no more and turned and walked towards the door.  He paused before leaving and looked once more on his son.  He thought,  “I love you so much, Joseph.  I love you.”  And he left the room.

 

The ride to Virginia City was a sober one.  Roy and the prosecutor rode ahead of Ben and Adam as Roy’s men surrounded the group.  Rifles were drawn and ready to hold off any would be attacker.  Ben felt the desire to turn his horse and ride back to Reno numerous times, but fought the urge and kept Buck facing south.  He thought of his youngest son and the struggle that continued.  He could never imagine his life without one of his boys and prayed hard for his son’s recovery.  He knew in his heart that he had a connection to his child and he channeled strength and love into that connection.  He would not let his child go.  His heart ached as he rode, but never allowed himself to fully believe he would return to Reno only to claim his child’s body.

 

Adam felt a similar urge to simply abandon his agreement to the prosecutor and go back to his primary obligation and love, his family.  As he rode along, he thought of his little brother and remembered how he felt at the arrival of the third heir to the Cartwright fortune.  He looked upon the small baby and was awed and amazed at what he saw.  He remembered so much of his little brother’s early years.  He had been twelve when Joe was born, and because of the age difference, had struggled with his role with Joe throughout his life.  He started to ask himself questions he did not want to entertain.  Would it all end there?  Would it be his brother would have been born to live such a short life?  Would his brother make the ultimate sacrifice for his own life? He prayed it would not be so.  He wanted more time with Joe to get to know his brother and for his brother to get to know him.  He cursed himself that he had not done more to narrow the gap between himself and Joe and prayed he would still be allowed to do it.

 

In Reno things remained dire.  Hoss had settled into sitting and reading The Three Musketeers to himself and keeping watch over his little brother.  He had not wanted his father or Adam to know how much he had longed for them to stay.  He did not want to pressure them, but Hoss was afraid.  He did not know if he could watch Joe give up his life if that was what was going to happen.  He felt he could not watch it, but knew he would have to for Joe.  He wished he had said something, but also knew he would not speak because Adam had to face Baxter and make him pay for the people he had hurt and especially for Joe.  He prayed to be as strong as his two brothers, to face what lay ahead with courage.

 

The doctor entered the room with food for his patient and Hoss.  Dr. Green knew Hoss had to be nervous regarding what possibly could happen, so he wanted to support the man, and to help him as the rest of his family had done.  “Hoss, lets wake him and get some food into him if we can.  Now Joe may not wake up, but we need to try.”

 

Hoss found comfort in the mannerism of the doctor and followed his lead.  “Okay.  Ya want me to wake him?  That job at home usually falls to me.  See Joe ain’t a mornin’ type person, and I’ve had the job of waking him for a long while.”

 

“Sure Hoss, I bet he’d want to hear your voice.”

 

Hoss tried to pretend he was back at the ranch, and Joe was late again to the breakfast table.  “Joe, up and at ‘em.  Time to get up.  Pa wants you awake.”

 

Joe mumbled and stirred but did not come conscious.  The doctor closed his eyes, afraid Joe was slipping further from them.  Hoss did not lose faith.  “All right, you got your extra sleep.  Now you wake up, Joe.  I ain’t got all day to mess with you.  I got my stuff to get done too.”

 

Joe’s mumbles were becoming more coherent,  “Q-q-q-quit… l-l-l-leave… m-m-me.”

 

“Nope, can’t do it Joe.  You got a full day’s work, and you best get awake and downstairs before Pa gets real mad.”

 

Joe opened his eyes as much as he could and looked at Hoss.  His body hurt so badly, and he felt the need to get down to his father and breakfast to avoid being in trouble.  He was freezing from cold he did not know the source of, but wondered if he had left his window open.  “H-h-h-h-hoss… c-c-cold.”

 

“Yeah buddy.  I know you’re cold, and I kinda tricked you.  Pa’s not mad, and you don’t have to go downstairs, but ya gotta have supper now.  I had to wake you to eat, buddy.  Now, I ain’t taken no guff from ya, Joe.  I want you to eat all I give you.”

 

“W-w-what…?

 

“I know it don’t look real good Joe, but you’re gonna eat it, even if I’ve gotta force it down ya.  I told Pa I’d take good care of you.”

 

Hoss raised the spoon to Joe’s mouth, and Joe opened.  He tasted what had become his every meal and surrendered without fight.  He hated the taste, but the fight was so far from him he had nothing more to do but swallow.  He kept his good eye on Hoss as he ate, knowing he was safe and away from the Stranger.  His stomach burned, and he wanted to tell Hoss all that hurt and scared him, but there were no words to express, and he was trapped in fatigue, coldness and pain.  He could not summon the strength.  He tried hard to take all Hoss gave him in food and love, because he knew somewhere inside his body needed it.

 

Hoss was able to give Joe all of his supper without resistance, and that alarmed him.  He knew Joe was very weak to not fight back, and as he looked at his brother he knew Joe was barely hanging on.  He talked to Joe throughout the meal and again told him his desire to camp and hunt at Joe’s old gold mine.  He saw Joe try to smile at the idea of a time for the two of them to go away.  Hoss spoke,  “Joe, you gotta hold on for us to do that, ya know.  Ya gotta be here for me buddy.”

 

“H-h-hoss… I-I-I-I… a-a-ain’t… g-g-g-gonna… g-g-g-go.” Joe looked at his brother, needing him to believe.  He felt if Hoss believe he would not die, then he would not die.  He would hold to that.  Hoss’s face came alive, and Joe saw and believed.  He would fight and win.  He would let Hoss rescue him once more.  This time, the draw from his own mind and the desire to give in.  “H-h-h-hoss…h-h-h-hold… t-t-t-tight.”

 

Hoss was unsure what Joe was asking for, but he made sure he covered everything he could.  First, he physically held tight to Joe.  Secondly, he held tight to his thoughts of a well Little Joe, and thirdly, he held tight to his prayers for Joe.  He would make sure all of it was covered.  He would leave nothing left to chance where Joe was concerned.

 

Dr. Green felt Joe’s head and realized they had to subject Joe once more to the pain of the submersion in cold water.  The fever was persistent, and the doctor knew it was the only thing to do.  He hesitated, but finally spoke,  “Hoss, we need to do the bath again.  The fever isn’t breaking.”

 

Hoss was much calmer this time.  “Okay Doc, we’ll do it cause Joe ain’t leavin’.  He’s gonna be here, I know it.  He wouldn’t say what he did and then leave.  Joe wouldn’t  do that.  He was tellin’ me to hold on, and he would too.  I’ll help you.”

 

Once more Joe was lifted and placed in the cold water to reduce the fever.  He screamed, moaned and cried as before, and Hoss allowed himself to feel his brother’s torture.  Tears came to his own eyes as Joe passed into delirium and begged to be relieved from a torture he did not understand.  Hoss remembered Joe’s words to hold tight.  Something in him knew Joe needed him to believe, and he would.  He pulled out The Three Musketeers and read out aloud to his shivering brother.  As Joe continued to scream and cry out, Hoss read louder through his own tears.  He was determined to will Joe through the torture of cold, and he would not give up.  He would be there and make Joe be there too.

 

Ten minutes felt like ten hours, but Hoss held on to the belief that Joe had told him what he had needed.  He knew Joe was having a hard time and wanted to call a stop to all of it, but bit hard on his lip and held back the plea.  His little brother was still there and alive, and the doctor remained ever present.  Dr. Green gave Joe alcohol and several medicines as he once more soaked in the cold water.  Joe had gone to somewhere else in his mind as he tried to cope with the cold and fear.  He was again in front of the Stranger, cursing him and trying to hold the evil presence away from him.

 

“P-p-pa, h-h-help!”  Joe called out.

 

“Joe, Pa’s gone to Virginia City with Adam.  You remember Adam’s gonna testify ‘gainst Baxter.”  Hoss tried to explain to his brother.

 

“N-n-n-no… s-s-supposed… t-t-ta… b-b-be… t-t-there.  G-g-gott… a-a-a-a… h-h-help.”

 

“No Joe, you need to stay here.”

 

“N-N-N-NO!”  Joe screamed.  “B-B-BAD… H-H-H-HOSS!”

 

“Joe, it’s okay.  Really, Pa is there with Adam and everythin’s fine.”

 

“N-N-N-O!”

 

“Joe stop it.  Pa will take care of Adam, and you’ll stay right here.  Pa left me in charge, and you’ll do as I say.”  Joe was crying hard, and it hurt Hoss to have to be forceful with him, but he knew his brother had to calm down.  “Joseph, Pa told me you were to behave, and you’ll do it!”

 

“P-p-p-pa…w-w-w-want… t-t-talk… p-p-pa.  Joe said as he cried.

 

“Oh buddy, I know you do, and he’ll be back real soon.  You’re okay.  Pa told me he knew you were gonna be fine.”

 

“P-p-pa!”  Was all Joe emitted as he was overcome by the cold and pain and gave into the desire to pass out.  Hoss waited until the doctor gave the signal, and once more lifted his brother’s cold and still body from the water.  He cradled Joe, as he hoped his little brother knew how much he was loved.  Hoss would not let go.  As he laid him once more on the table, he talked quietly to Joe about how much he was loved and needed.  Hoss could not quite let go of his brother even after laying him down.  He held tight, and Joe felt it.  Joe knew he could not let go, and he held fast in his heart and mind.  He had fought for Adam and now he did it for Hoss.  He loved them all and would never willingly leave them.  He believed Hoss believed, and he would not let go of it.  He was loved and needed and he would hold on to help and protect the ones he loved.  They were his blood and his life.  He fought the fever and the unseen demons.  He would not go without a fight.  He would sleep a while and be back, stronger and more determined.  The Stranger would not win, as Joe told himself the same thing he had told himself in the cellar-he would not lose to the Stranger.  He would hold out and win.

 

Hoss was terrified as he saw a very still Joe, passed out from the shock of the cold and the medicines.  He could not know what was in Joe’s mind.  He feared his little brother had given up.  He talked to Joe, but there was no response.  He could not turn loose of Joe and eventually fell asleep sitting next to him, holding onto his beloved brother.

 

Joe maintained his own as he was lost to sleep and the fever and the night passed rather quietly.  Dr. Green continued with the ice on his forehead and chest.  The doctor felt somewhat encouraged because the fever, although it did not decrease, did not seem to have increased.  He deliberately kept Joe heavily sedated to allow his body the ability to fight off the illness.  They would wake Joe for the medications in the night, but he would never fully return to consciousness.  Hoss lightly dozed but was awake and assisting the doctor whenever the doctor entered the room.

 

Morning came and Hoss began tending his brother once more.  He tucked in blankets and patted Joe’s arm in an effort to help.  His brother lay quietly sleeping when the doctor entered the room.  The doctor walked to Joe, removed the ice from his head and placed his hand on Joe’s forehead.  He waited to feel the fever breaking through the coolness of Joe’s skin, but Joe’s head was only warm to the touch.  The fever had broken.  He felt relief and something more.  He was elated.  Dr. Green had found himself easily mixed up in the love and drama of the family he had only met several days prior.  He had been drawn into the support they had shown and had realized he saw his patient as more than a patient.  He was a vital part of an incredible family with each needing the other for wholeness.  He stood with his hand on Joe’s head until he finally believed what he was feeling in his hands regarding the young man.  “Hoss, I don’t want to jinks anything, but I believe Joe’s fever has broke.”

 

Hoss had been carefully watching the doctor, but the words he spoke did not register at first.  He saw the smile on the doctor’s face and replayed the words in his head.  Did he hear what he had thought he had?  “Doc, you sayin’ Joe’s gettin’ better?”

 

“Hoss, his fever is definitely down, so yeah, that’s what I’m saying.”

 

“You mean Joe’s better?  He’s better, Doc?”  Hoss asked unable to hide the joy he felt.  He slapped the doctor hard on the back and let out a yell.  “Hot diggity, Joe’s gonna make it!”

 

“Well Hoss, he’s very weak and tired, but he has a shot now.  He definitely has a shot.  You keep doing what you’re doing in taking such good care of him.  I want him to sleep.  He is worn out, and the fever took its toll on him.  You just keep it up Hoss, and I think you may have your little brother back.”

 

“Oh Doc, I’ll take the best care of Joe.  You can count on it!  Joe and me are already gonna go huntin’ together, so I gotta get him strong.”  Hoss said and winked at the doctor.

 

“Hoss, we gotta keep him fed and quiet.  We do that, and he just may have licked this illness.  Your brother, he’s a strong kid.  Almost amazing.”

 

“Yeah, he is.  There’s just one Joe, Doc.  And he’s tough as they come.”

 

 

“I’m learning that.  Your whole family is tough.  Listen, you watch over him and keep him quiet and I’ll go tend to some sick people.”

 

“I’ll do it, Doc.  I’ll make sure Joe’s got all he needs.  I’ve been lookin’ after my little brother for years, and I ain’t gonna stop now.”  Hoss then turned and spoke to Joe.  “Little buddy, you’re gonna be okay.  Boy Joe, ya scared me.  I gotta have ya with me.  Ya know that?  I’m gonna make sure you’re just fine.  You’re gonna be sick of ol’ Hoss botherin’ ya with stuff, but you’re gonna behave and cooperate.  You got that?”  Hoss knew Joe was asleep, but he was practicing for when he would make his speech for real, and he would show his little brother who was boss.  He knew Joe would fight him, but he would not allow it.  His little brother would do as he said.  And at that moment he was ordering him to get better.

 

Chapter 3

 

The men on the trail to Virginia City rode under guard and cover of darkness.  The tension in the group was evident, and no one wanted to stop to rest unless absolutely necessary.  They arrived in Virginia City in the late afternoon and quickly moved Adam to Roy Coffee’s home to hide him until the following day’s testimony.  Neither Ben nor Adam could relax, as they were often pacing and moving about to occupy their time.  Their thoughts remained back in Reno.

 

The passage of time was slow for everyone except Joe who remained quietly sleeping.  Hoss sat wondering how his father and Adam were fairing, and Adam and Ben wondered about Joe.  Ben also worried about the following day for his oldest child.  Adam was wound tight, and Ben feared he could go off at any time.  He wanted to avoid Adam making a serious mistake and doing something that would ruin his life.  He saw his oldest cleaning a pistol and decided to try and head off a potential problem once more.  “Adam, are you thinking of doing anything to Baxter tomorrow other than testifying?”

 

Adam was conflicted.  “I know you’re worried.  I don’t see how that man should live after he had done to Joe what he did.  I just don’t understand it.  Why are you so quick to forgive?”

 

“Oh Adam, I have forgiven nothing!  What he did to Joseph will be avenged, but legally.  We have to believe that.”

 

“And what if it isn’t?  What if he walks?  You thought of that, Pa?”

 

 

“Yes I have, and I will not like it, but Adam we have to wait and see.  You cannot go in there ready to kill the man.”

 

“Pa, I’ll ask you again.  You saw Little Joe! You saw his back.  Baxter had someone whip Joe.  Whip him!  I’m supposed to just let that go?  You know how Joe is right now.  He should NEVER have to be like that.  I see Joe’s face in my mind.  I saw him look at himself.  It scared him!  He didn’t deserve the beating.  If he doesn’t heal, you know and I know Joe will have a real bad time.  He’s a good lookin’ kid who may have it all taken away.  Then I see his beaten back.  They did that because of me.  It turns my stomach to see Joe as he is!  He’s a boy!”

 

“Adam, I know what you saw!  I was there.  Joe doesn’t need this son!  He needs you with him!”

 

“But what if he’s dead?  What if Joe isn’t here?  What then?”

 

“No!  I won’t even entertain that thought.  Not Joseph, he wouldn’t leave us!”

 

“He may not want to, but it so easily could happen.  Joe could leave us!  I know we don’t want to think about it, but Joe is very sick and just hanging on.”

 

“Stop it Adam!  You need to focus on what is right here and do what you agreed to do.  You’re scaring me with this kind of talk.”

 

“Well I don’t know what to say.  This is one of the hardest things I have had to decide in my life, Pa.”

 

“Son, I’m begging you!  Please don’t do anything foolish.”

 

“If something happens Pa, it will be because Baxter deserved it.”

 

Ben shook his head, but knew Adam had to work it out for himself.  He would not broach the subject again, but rather prayed hard that his son would be given wisdom for the situation he faced.  Adam as well prayed for wisdom and for his little brother.

 

The courthouse was bustling as armed guards through a back entrance escorted Adam.  Roy had remained vigilant to Adam’s safety and had men positioned throughout the room.  Guns were not allowed in the courtroom except for the sheriff or his appointed men.  Adam had his gun with his father’s just outside the room.  He knew if he were to kill Baxter, it would have to be outside the courthouse.

 

Internally, Adam was struggling.  He believed in the law and how the legal system operated, but he had never had to test his faith until Baxter’s attack, which had hit home.  Adam wanted to believe that the legal system would take care of Baxter, but he wondered if simply sending the man to prison was justice.  He had seen Joe suffer and knew Baxter would never reach that level of suffering with what they were going to do to him.

 

The door opened and Baxter was escorted into the room.  He walked to his attorney and exchanged a few words.  Ben and Adam had to pass by Baxter on their way to their own seats.  Baxter saw them coming and stepped in their path.  “Adam, I would have thought you would have reconsidered slandering me by now, but I shouldn’t be surprised.  I heard someone hurt that young pup brother of yours.  Huh? You’ve proven your cowardice in hiding and letting that boy suffer because of you.  Really Adam, I would think your kid brother’s screaming, while you sat back hiding would haunt you.  How’s the brat doin’ anyway?”

 

Adam clinched his jaw and fought hard not to lunge forward and put his hands around the man’s neck and squeeze.  He knew he was being baited as he felt rage move through him like a lightening bolt.  Ben could see Adam struggling and grabbed Adam by the arm to lead him to their seats.  Baxter continued speaking with a sneer on his face,  “Oh, and Ben, you should thank me really.  I’ve heard your youngest was spared the rod.  Maybe he’ll be better behaved now.”

 

Adam reacted.  He jumped forward and placed a solid punch across Baxter’s jaw.  With that, the room broke into chaos, as Ben struggled and was finally able to pull Adam off of Baxter.  “Adam, no!”

 

The rage had overtaken him, and Adam felt the release as he hit the man.  He soon though felt his father’s grasp pulling him off of Baxter, and being pulled away, allowed Adam to refocus.  “Let go, Pa.  I’m fine.”  Adam said as he pulled away from his father.  He walked over to a corner and tried to gather himself together.  He could not believe how the rage had overcome him, and he closed his eyes to regroup his thoughts.

 

The prosecutor was soon next to him,  “What the hell was that!  You’re going to fool around and lose this case.  You’re making this a personal vendetta, and the other side is going to eat that up.  Now you get yourself under control.”

 

 

Adam knew he had allowed Baxter to get to him, and he had behaved much more like his little brother than himself.  At that realization he smiled and thought,  “Hey Joe that one was for you.”  He looked at the prosecutor and said,  “I am under control.  You do your job, and I’ll do mine.”  With that Adam walked over to his father and sat down and waited to be called to testify.

 

Adam was called as the first witness of the day, and the morning’s testimony consisted of direct testimony of the prosecutor leading Adam through the facts of the case.  The entire time Adam told his story he looked Baxter in the eye.  Late in the morning as Adam was talking, he watched the telegraph clerk walk into the courtroom and hand his father a piece of paper.  Adam watched as his father opened the paper and read it.  He then saw his father’s eyes close.  Adam’s heart jumped, and he stopped in mid sentence.  “No, please, no!”  He thought.  He kept his eyes on his father and saw Ben open his eyes and look at Adam.  His father had tears in his eyes and was smiling broadly.  Ben shook his head, yes.  Every fiber of Adam’s being wanted to hop off the stand and go to his father.  He knew they had gotten word about Joe, and the word was good.  He answered the remaining questions of the morning, and when the judge called the lunch break, Adam was off the stand and to his father.

 

Ben put his hand on Adam’s shoulder and was smiling broadly.  He handed his son the telegram.  Adam quickly opened it.

 

Ben Cartwright (stop)

Fever broke (stop)

Joe sleeping now (stop)

         Asking for you both (stop)

         Hurry back (stop) 

         Be careful (stop)

         Hoss (stop)

 

Adam sighed big as he read and reread the telegram.  Joe was alive, and the fever had broke.  It was the best news he had ever received.  “Pa, how ‘bout I buy you lunch, and we enjoy this news?”

 

“Well son, lunch will probably be sandwiches in the back room, but I’m all for enjoying the news.”

 

“Sounds good to me.  I want this to finish, and us to get back to Joe.”

 

Ben and Adam enjoyed the first lighthearted meal in a while and smiled throughout.  They longed to be done in Virginia City and back to Reno.  Adam thought he could now get through the testimony without reservation, because now he would return to his brother who was still alive.

 

The afternoon’s testimony proved more grueling as Baxter’s attorney attempted to paint Adam as a potential business rival of Baxter’s who wanted him shut down to decrease competition in the mining business. The attorney attempted to imply that the fisticuffs in the courtroom earlier in the day were due to Adam’s anger at Baxter was having bested him at business and that Adam wanted revenge any way he could get it.  The rules of evidence were such in court that Adam was not allowed to discuss what had happened to Little Joe, and he felt frustrated.

 

Court ended at five in the evening, and Adam and Ben were both exhausted.  Both looked at each other and said at the same time as they walked out of the building,  “Race you to Reno.”  They laughed out loud and headed towards their horses.

 

Roy was following them out of the court.  “Ben, I’m not too sure Adam’s out a’ the woods yet with ol’ Baxter.  Me and my men are gonna go with you.  When you leavin’?”

 

Adam quickly spoke for his father and himself, “Oh, uh Roy, we want to get back to Hoss and Joe as soon as possible, so we were going to ride most the night, rest a little and then go on in.  You and your boys are tired.  You really think we should keep worrying?”

 

“Adam, I think Baxter’s about capable of anything.”  Roy said as he looked between Adam and Ben.  “And after what he had done to Joe, I think you both know that too.  No, I’m not gonna be responsible for anything bad befallin’ either of you.  Now we’re ridin’ with both of ya, the same way we rode here.  We’ll get some supplies and meet you here shortly.  I know you’re both anxious to get back to Reno.”

 

As the traveling group left Virginia City to once more return to Reno, Hoss kept watch over Joe.  He spent his time reading quietly or helping the doctor when he came to check on his little brother.  The doctor and Hoss made it a point not to stir Joe anymore than they had to, and Joe slept quietly, although his breathing was an ever-present raspy sound.  Dr. Green diligently checked Joe’s forehead, and although it was warm, the burning temperature remained at bay.  It had been after the doctor had checked Joe’s fever several times and felt more certain the fever had broke that Hoss sent the telegram to his father.  He had been overjoyed at being able to send the good news.

 

It took great determination for Hoss to wake Joe for his evening meal.  Joe had been heavily medicated and continued to remain deep in sleep.  Hoss however kept his father’s direction foremost in his mind and was determined Joe would eat.  He was finally able to stir his little brother and once more presented the broth and egg flip.  Joe was groggy, but as he smelled the familiar meal, he grunted and curled his lip.

 

“Oh no!  You ain’t gonna do this to me, Little Joe.  You’re eatin’!”  Hoss said smiling, glad to see some resistance on Joe’s part.

 

Joe felt so very tired, and although he wanted to struggle with Hoss, he was unable to do much.  He acquiesced soon after his initial protest.  Joe ate slowly as Hoss fed him.  He eventually finished and looked around the room.  “Hoss… where’s… Pa… Adam?”

 

“You remember, Joe?  I told ya they went to Virginia City, so Adam could testify ‘gainst Baxter.”

 

Joe had a look of fear come over his face when he heard where his father and Adam had gone.  He thought,  “No, they can’t go there.  Baxter will get Adam!  I was gonna help him!  I gotta help him!”  Joe tried to explain to his brother in a voice a little louder than a whisper,  “No… I… there… ta… help.”

 

“Joe, you can’t go buddy.  Anyway, they’re already there and probably on their way back.  It’s all okay.”

 

“Hoss… man.”

 

“No Joe, you’re not supposed to talk.  Be quiet and go on back to sleep.  By the time you wake up, Pa and Adam will probably be back.”

 

“Naugh… listen… man… cell…”

 

“Joe, no stop!  Hush up ‘fore I get real mad.  You gotta save your strength.  Now no more talkin’.”

 

Joe was frustrated.  He was trying to tell Hoss of the Stranger, but it took so much energy to form the words.  Joe had fears of the Stranger harming someone in his family, and he wanted Hoss aware of the danger.  “Cell… ar… Hoss”

 

The word cellar had not registered with Hoss, so he was unsure what Joe was talking about.  “Joseph!  You say one more word, and I’m gettin’ the Doc and gonna have him knock you out.  Now hush!  You tell me all about it later, after you’re better.  You want me to read to ya?”

 

“Pa… tell…”

 

“All right, that tears it!  You are the stubbornest thing I ever did see!  I ain’t playin’ here Joe!  Hush up right now!”

 

Joe felt his frustration, but the fatigue of trying to talk soon wore him out.  He scowled to show his displeasure at Hoss’s insistence that he be quiet and then closed his eyes.  It was not long before Joe was back asleep.

 

Hoss watched him doze off and then said quietly,  “That’s just fine with me, you givin’ me that look.  Ain’t gonna change one thing, Joe.  You just behave and do as I say.  Pa left me in charge anyway.  Now where was I?”  And with that Hoss was once more reading his book and watching over his brother.

 

Night passed without incident as Ben and Adam moved closer to Reno, and Joe and Hoss slept.  Morning brought a beautiful day and with daylight the men could quicken their pace.  As the streets of Reno came into view, Ben kicked Buck hard and rode in a full gallop to the doctor’s office.  Adam reacted almost as quickly, and Sport slid to the hitching post next to Buck.  Both were off their horses and through the door of the doctor’s office without a look back to Roy or his men.

 

They hurried into the office, but slowed to a quiet pace, as they reached the door to the room where Joe was resting.  Ben quietly turned the handle and opened the door.  The sight he saw before him touched him deeply.  Joe was propped up asleep, and Hoss was quietly reading aloud to his little brother.  Hoss stopped as he saw movement at the door, and his face lit up when he saw his father in the doorway.  “Pa!  You guys are back!  How’d it go?”

 

Ben and Adam moved into the room and closed the door.  “Son, it went just fine.  Adam made us all very proud.  How’s Joe?”

 

“Awe Pa, he’s gettin’ better.  He was stubborn as ever last night.  Doc’s got him sleepin’ lots, but I know he’d want to see you.  He’s worried about Adam.”

 

 

“So Adam, why don’t you wake him and let him know you’re fine.”  Ben said as he put his hand on Adam’s back.

 

“Oh yeah, and if Little Joe is feeling better let me get griped at.”  Adam said joking as he moved to his little brother.  He knelt down close.  “Hey Joe, its Adam, wake up.”

 

There was a grumble and a sigh, but Joe did not initially wake.  Adam persisted.  “Come on Joe, open your eyes and wake up.”

 

Adam’s voice broke through to Joe, and he was unable to tell if Adam was calling for him as if he needed him.  Joe fought hard to break through his sleep.  What Adam saw was Joe woke suddenly looking as if he had been startled awake.  “Ssshhh… Joe’s it’s okay.  Just wanted to let you know Pa and I are back, safe and sound, and I think Baxter’s going away for a while.”

 

It took a moment for Joe to get his bearings, and he looked confused.  He saw Adam before him and then felt relief.  “Adam… you… ‘kay?… Pa?”

 

“Yeah, I’m just fine, and Pa’s right here.  See?”

 

Joe let out another sigh and closed his eyes for a minute.  The Stranger had not won.  His family was safe.  Now he could place all of his energy on keeping the Stranger from himself if he knew everyone else was not vulnerable.  Joe called,  “Pa?”

 

Ben moved over to Joe so his son would not have to strain to be heard.  Ben could not hold back the grin as he saw the feverish look on his son’s face that had been present when he had left Reno was gone.  “Hey there.  You look like you’re doin’ better, son.”

 

“Go… home… now?”

 

Ben laughed.  “When you want something you just keep at it don’t you, son?”  Ben was grateful for this trait in Joe, because he knew it was what had sustained his child’s life.  “You rest up, and we’ll get out of here just as soon as we can.”

 

“Promise?”

 

“I promise son.  Just as soon as we can travel, you’re on your way home.  But that means you do just as the doctor says.  You eat everything we give you, take ALL of the medicine given and rest.  You do that, and you’ll be out of here before you know it.”

 

Through out the next few days, Joe spent much of his time sleeping.  Ben, Adam and Hoss took turns tending to Joe, and the days passed quietly.  It was obvious Joe was gaining strength as time passed and his body rested.  The medication was heavy so much of his sleep was dreamless and quiet.  When he was awake, the medication held off the pain if Joe laid still.  He was able to talk more and more, although he was easily winded and tired.  It was on the third day since Adam and Ben had returned to Reno that the Cartwrights knew Joe was well on his way to being ready to return to the Ponderosa.

 

Joe had begun to become fussier and found something wrong with almost everything he was offered to eat or made to take.  He was very groggy and would appear slow in his thinking and reacting, all product of the medication that kept the pain away.  Joe was beginning to try and stay awake more.  He actively fought falling back into sleep until the fatigue became too great and he could no longer keep his eyes open.

 

All three men noticed Joe’s improvement and were relieved to see the youngest Cartwright’s fight and spirit.  The doctor approached Ben late in the afternoon.  “Ben, I’m thinking, Joe has been chomping at the bit to go home, and I do believe you all need to start planning to take him.  He’s doing real well, and if he keeps it up, I think maybe you could look at the day after tomorrow to take him on home.  There’s just one more thing that you need to know.  The sheriff would like to get a statement from Joe before you leave.  He’s asked me to let him know when Joe may be up to it.  He seems to be getting stronger, so I told the sheriff maybe tomorrow.”

 

The need for a statement from Joe had been something Ben had been dreading.  He knew Joseph was going to have to relive the events he had experienced in the cellar.  He looked at his son and wondered if Joe was strong enough to endure the recalling of what he had been through in detail.  Ben then looked to Hoss and Adam and saw they were thinking very similar thoughts.

 

“Pa, why can’t my statement be enough?”  Hoss asked.  “I was the one who shot the one and hit the other.  I was the one that found Joe any ways.  Couldn’t that be enough?”

 

“We can ask the sheriff son, but I doubt it.  I think he’ll wanna hear from Joe.  Boys, we’re gonna have to help him with this.  I’m afraid he’ll have a real hard time.  We’re gonna have to be here for him.”

 

“That’s a given, Pa.  Whatever he needs.”  Adam said his expression showing his worry.

 

“Adam, you must stop blaming yourself.  I’m sure Joe doesn’t.”

 

“Well I do, Pa, and I’m gonna make it up to him somehow.  I’ll do whatever it is he needs.”

 

“He just needs you to be his big brother.  That’s all, Adam.  That’s all Joe needs from you.”

 

“Well Pa, I’m not sure that’s all he needs from me, but I will help him any way I can.  I promised him that.”

 

“Pa… What’s wrong?”  Joe had awakened and had heard what was being discussed.

 

Ben walked over to Joe and smiled at him.  “Son, there’s nothing wrong.  You’re doing wonderfully well.  The doctor’s really happy.  He said we can take you home in a couple of days.”

 

“Can’t we go… today?”

 

A laugh escaped Ben as he answered.  “No son, not today.  Day after tomorrow.”

 

“Uh geez… Pa, I can’t stand it… much more.”

 

“Yes you can, Joseph.  You’ve come through so much and done so well.  Just a little longer.”  Ben thought of his son’s strength and found it ironic Joe could endure incredible agony, but had a hard time simply laying still and resting.

 

The doctor entered with a tray of food for Joe and sat it next to the bed.  Joe looked at it a groaned loudly.  “Nah… not more a that.”

 

“Come on son, you need to eat.  You know the agreement.  You cooperate, and it will get you home sooner.”

 

“No more a that… I ain’t eatin’ it.”

 

“Yes you are, Joe.”

 

“No.”

 

“Why are you doing this son?”

 

“Taste it… you’ll see.  It hurts my stomach.”

 

“But it is good for you.”

 

“If it’s so good… you eat it.”

 

Ben would normally have sternly corrected his son’s attitude, but knew Joe was irritable because of how bad he felt.  “Son, you need to stop this and eat.”

 

“I don’t mean to interfere, but Joe, if you’d eat something willingly what might it be?”  Dr. Green decided to help out in the struggle between father and son.

 

Joe answered quietly, but without hesitating,  “Hop Sing’s rice puddin’.”

 

“Joe, we can’t go home yet, I told you that.  Now quit this and eat what’s here.”  Ben corrected.

 

“Well, my lovely wife Karen makes a wonderful rice pudding, and I bet she’d just love to make some.  I think she’s as tired of making that ol’ egg flip and broth as you are of eating it, Joe.”

 

Joe looked at his father with a “see” expression, and Ben simply shook his head.  He spoke to his son,  “Now if Mrs. Green is going to go to all that trouble Joseph, you will eat every drop.  You understand?”

 

“I’ll try… Hey… uh, Pa what was it you… were all talkin’ ‘bout earlier?  Why… does Adam have ta… help me?”  Joe wanted to return to what he had heard upon wakening because he was concerned what was happening out of his awareness.  It bothered him to fade in and out of sleep, as he felt things happened while he was away that were beyond his control.  It was starting to become very important to him that he knew what was happening around him.  It felt as if he had to watch out for things so that he could feel better able to protect himself.

 

Ben was unsure what would be the best thing to tell Joe.  He wondered if it would be better to give Joe some time to get ready for the statement he needed to give, or should he just have the sheriff show up and ask Joe for it.  He thought over what his son had endured and decided Joe would probably not respond well to surprises after what he had undergone.  “Son, the sheriff is going to come by tomorrow and get a statement from you about what happened to you in the, uh… when you were hurt.”

 

Joe swallowed hard.  He felt afraid as he listened to his father and knew what was being asked of him.  He looked at Hoss and Adam and saw their concern.  He looked back to his father, the fear evident on his face.  He said nothing.

 

“Son, if you don’t feel up to it or need more time, then we can postpone it I’m sure.  It doesn’t have to be tomorrow.”  Ben could see Joe was afraid and it concerned him.

 

“I have to?”  Joe softly asked and Ben thought he sounded very young.

 

“I am going to try and get you out of it, but son, I think they need your statement to charge the man they have in the jail.”

 

Because of Joe’s condition when Hoss found him, and his battle to survive the ordeal in the cellar, Joe had been unaware of what had happened to the men that had hurt him.  “Who’s in… jail?”

 

“A man who goes by the name Doyle.  The other man that was there, I think he was called Wells, is dead.”  Ben explained.

 

Hearing the words his father spoke made his heart jump.  What had happened to the Stranger?  Where was he?  “That’s all… they got?”  Joe asked.

 

“Son, what do you mean that’s all?  Were there more people there?  Those were the men, weren’t they?”  Ben was confused.  He had simply assumed that Doyle and Wells had been the men that had hurt his child.

 

The panic was increasing inside of Joe.  The Stranger was somewhere around.  His dreams were becoming true.  He was still amongst an evil presence.  He was more scared than he had ever felt, and neither his family nor the gun, quelled the fear.  He tried to hold it in, but it was obvious to those in the room Joe was terrified.  Joe began shaking as he thought of the Stranger able to come and take him any time back to torture and back to pain.  Breathing was becoming more difficult as he felt his fear.  It was washing over him, and his heart began to race.

 

“Son, what is it?  What did you mean when you asked if that was all?”  The panic on his son’s face scared him.  Adam and Hoss moved closer to their father and Joe as all three saw sheer terror in Joe’s eye.

 

The panic was strong and Joe was afraid he could not breathe.  He felt lightheaded and could not calm himself.  He wanted to scream, but no words came.  How could he escape the images in his head or the fear that overwhelmed him?  As he thought of the Stranger, he wanted him gone.  He wanted the man to suffer, to hurt and then to be dead.  Joe tried to think of shooting the Stranger over and over, but the panic was too strong, and he could not stay with the image of killing the Stranger in his mind.

 

“Joseph, look at me son.”  Ben took Joe’s hand in his and continued to talk.  “Look right here.  You’re okay.  Calm down now and tell me what is it that is scaring you so much.”

 

Joe tried to focus on his father.  He wanted his father to remove the fear from him and make it as if it had never happened.  He knew what he wanted was impossible, but he was not far enough away from boyhood to not want to still believe somewhere inside of him that his father could take any hurt away.  “Pa.”  Joe started his voice shaky.  “There was…” Joe stopped and questioned himself.  What would he tell them?  No one knew of the Stranger but himself, the man in jail, and the one that had hired The Stranger.  What would The Stranger do if he talked?  Would the Stranger come after him, or worse after his family?  What would happen if the Stranger were caught?  Would the punishment he received fit what he had done?  These questions raced through Joe’s mind, and he had no answers.  His panic did not allow clear thought, and he was unsure what to do to answer his father.  He was so very afraid as he made his decision regarding what he would reveal to his family.  “Pa… um, there was… a uh, man, but I never saw what he looked like.”

 

As Joe told his lie, he saw The Stranger’s face in his head.  He would never forget the man’s image; it was burning into his mind.  He feared the man and what power he held.  Joe respected the power and wanted nothing to do with challenging it.  He felt the price was too high.

 

“Son, there was another man there?”

 

 

“Uh, yeah… but uh, he um, he didn’t do much.  Sounds like they, uh got the uh, worst ones.”  Joe wanted to cry as he thought of how he had betrayed himself in letting the Stranger go with his words.  He knew if he were able, this would have been a conversation he would have somehow found a way to walk away from.  He hated his fear as he hated the Stranger.

 

Each person felt the intensity in the room.  No one had entertained the idea that there was yet someone else out in the world, living free, who had participated in Joe’s torture.  That person also had a large head start on disappearing, and there was a strong likelihood he would never be caught.  Joe saw his family’s faces and knew they were concerned.  He believed even more strongly that he would keep the identity of the Stranger a secret.  He would protect his family from their own need for revenge and from their exposure to the evilness of the Stranger.

 

There was a knock at the door, and Hoss moved towards it.  He inquired who it was and was greeted by the soft female voice of Dr. Green’s wife.  Hoss opened to see an attractive woman standing with a tray and a broad smile across her face.  “I’m sorry to disturb, but I understand there is a young man needing some rice pudding.”

 

“Uh, yes ma’am.  You’ll be friends for life with my little brother if you brought some.”  Hoss said, moving aside to allow the woman entrance.

 

Ben stepped forward and took the tray from the woman.  “Hey Joe, look what Mrs. Green brought.”

 

Joe had heard the woman’s voice at the door and suddenly became very self-conscious.  He had resigned himself to the fact that his family and the doctor would see his face battered and bruised, but he was very uncomfortable with strangers seeing him, especially a woman.  Joe saw the woman out of the corner of his eye and then quickly turned his head and tried to roll away.  It was far too painful to roll over, and he was trapped.  He cursed inside and then desperately wished he could have use of his arms to pull the blankets up to where he could just disappear.

 

Joe’s discomfort was noticed by all, and Mrs. Green stayed back to give the young man privacy.  She had heard her husband talk at length about the brave patient he was treating and the incredible family that surrounded the young man.  As she caught glimpse of the patient, she saw he had been so badly beaten.  Her heart went out to the young man.  She kept her distance.  “Joe, I hope you like it.  There is extra cinnamon in it for you, and I went to the icehouse and got you some ice cream too.  I know that stuff you’ve been taking is hard on your stomach.  I hope it helps.”

 

The desire to disappear remained, and Joe said nothing.  Ben looked from Joe to the woman and knew the situation was awkward.  “Son, what do you say?”

 

“Thank you.”  Joe mumbled as if his voice would reveal his embarrassment.

 

“Well I’ll leave you folks, but Joe, you can have all you want.  You just tell the doctor and you got it.  You’re very brave, and I think you’ve earned it.”  With that Mrs. Green left the room.

 

The embarrassment remained with Joe, and he did not speak for a long while.  He allowed his father to feed him, as he avoided eye contact.  In his head he felt so many things.  All feelings he traced back to the Stranger.  He blamed the Stranger, and his hatred grew.

 

The remainder of the evening began quietly.  Joe was trapped in thoughts of fear and felt anxious and tense.  He was unable to relax since he had realized the Stranger was truly free to return and harm him.  The doctor had given Joe the medications to relieve pain and make him tired, but he was fighting it hard.  Hoss had taken over reading for Adam and was trying to keep them entertained.  Joe had been half listening when he suddenly snapped,  “Would you please pronounce his name right!  You’re driving me crazy!  It’s Richalieu, Reesh-a-loo, not Rich-Lou!”

 

No one had expected Joe’s outburst, and they were taken aback.  The room was quiet for a moment, and Ben walked over to Joe.  “Joseph, you’re feeling very badly I know, but that is no reason to be hateful.”

 

Hoss tried to defend Joe,  “Awe Pa.  He don’t mean nothin’ by it.”

 

“No Hoss, what he said was just mean, and he owes you an apology.  Well Joe, we’re waiting?”

 

Joe looked to his father and then to Hoss.  He knew he had been mean to Hoss and should apologize, but he was upset, hurt and afraid.  He was so full of emotion and unsure which he would express.  He looked back to his father, and seeing his father’s stern look he said in a quiet voice without emotion, “I’m sorry.”

 

After he spoke, Joe immediately flashed to another time recently when he was made to say he was sorry and was hurt when he had not said it correctly.  He hated how his mind returned so easily to the cellar.  He then closed his eyes and tried to shut out his thoughts, his feelings and his family.  Ben stood looking at Joe a while longer.  As he watched, he saw a tear fall from Joe’s eye and down his cheek.  He knew not to say anything, but simply stood by his son, knowing he was hurting deeply.  Ben knew there was so much more ahead of them.

 

Joe did not talk the remainder of the evening, and night eventually came.  The family settled into sleep, and as the lamp was blown out, Joe opened his eyes.  He had laid in thought as his family had quietly talked.  He was thinking of the statement he would give the sheriff and wondered what was the punishment for lying to a lawman.  He knew the punishment he could be given would pale in comparison to the torture he had endured.  He was not afraid of the law.

 

Sleep was not coming for Joe, and the night passed slowly.  He tried to distract himself from his mind and even allowed himself to focus on the breathing and snoring of his family around him.  He tried to let it comfort him, but it seemed to only make it harder to sleep.  He could find a comfortable position, and as he tried to move, he seemed to only increase his suffering.  He tried to tell himself his body was healing, and he would be able to be comfortable again soon.  As he thought of this his mind went to his face and how he had no idea if he would ever be the same again.  So much had changed in a very short time.

 

Joe coughed and felt everywhere his body hurt.  He was so tired of it all.  The more he allowed his mind to think, the further away sleep became.  He knew it was deep into the night, and he was going to lay trapped in his body and in his thoughts.  He wanted to stop-all of it.  Nothing allowed escape, and frustration eventually led to despair.  He wanted to be home, to feel better and to be himself again.  As he dwelled on his situation, he determined it would never be the same again.  He knew he did not want to sleep because sleep made him vulnerable.  He started to cry softly and then he became mad at himself for crying over his situation.  He thought,  “Come on, stop it.  You’re pathetic.  You’re grown, not some baby.”  Joe’s talking to himself only made him feel worse and the tears flowed.

 

Joe’s coughing awakened Adam, and he listened to make sure Joe was not in any distress.  The room remained quiet for a few minutes, and Adam was just about to drift off once more when he heard sniffling.  He knew it was Joe, and what he heard was crying.  Adam quietly got out of bed and moved over to his brother.  “Buddy, you okay?”

 

Joe was crying hard and had not expected anyone to bother him.  He had not heard Adam approach and jumped when he heard the whisper.  This made him more afraid and frustrated.  He could not speak.

 

“Joe, you okay?”

 

“Go away.”  Joe finally was able to choke out the words.

 

“Hey, buddy, you hurting?”

 

“Go away.”

 

“What is it, Joe?  What’s wrong?”

 

“Nuthin’s wrong.  Go away.”

 

Adam knew Joe was in a bad place.  He was unsure if he should pursue it or leave Joe to himself.  “Can I get you anything?”

 

Adam’s offer made Joe cry harder.  Joe was so frustrated at having to rely on everyone to help him perform the simplest of tasks.  He wanted to walk out of the room and find someplace private to face what he was feeling.  Joe let out another coughing fit, which woke his father as well.  Ben saw Adam next to Joe and was immediately up and next to his oldest.  “What’s wrong?  Joe, you okay?”

 

“I’m fine.  Leave me alone.”  Joe was feeling as if everything was closing in on him.  He could not stop the tears and was feeling exposed.

 

Both men were concerned.  It was obvious Joe was getting more upset.  Ben lit the lamp to check and make sure Joe was truly okay.  As the flame was lit, Joe groaned.  He could not believe he had to simply lay there and let them watch him.  He used all of his strength to try and roll over.  He felt intense pain as he put weight on his shoulder.  “Oh, God!”  Joe said through tears and then turned to his brother and father.  “Is this what you want to see!  You wanna just sit there and watch this!”

 

“Oh no son, no.”  Ben said as he turned down the lamp until the light was dim.  “It’s not like that.  What’s wrong.  Tell me.  Are you in pain?  Do we need to get the doctor.”

 

“NO!  I WANT TO BE ALONE!  DON’T LOOK AT ME!”

 

 

“Joseph, calm down.  You need to settle down now.  We’ll leave you alone if I know you’re okay.  Now tell me what has got you upset.”

 

“YOU HAVE TO ASK!  REALLY PA!  LOOK AT ME!  JUST GO AWAY!”  Joe could not stop crying and it angered him further.  He hated the dependency he felt and he hated the exposure.  He was tired, but sleep would not come, as he was overwhelmed.  He was gasping for breath and his ribs were on fire.  “Mmm,” Joe moaned as he felt the pain.  “I DON”T… WANT TO… TALK!  GO AWAY!”

 

Dr. Green appeared in his nightshirt to see what the commotion was all about.  He saw Joe almost hysterical and Ben and Adam next to Joe.  Hoss, who had been awakened earlier, was standing back with a worried look on his face.  Dr. Green asked,  “You need some help?”

 

“NO… GO… AWAY!”  Joe screamed.

 

“He’s really upset, and we can’t get him to calm down.”  Ben expressed his concern.

 

The doctor walked over to the counter and poured a healthy dose of something into a glass, motioned for Ben and Adam to move away and then walked to Joe,  “Okay Joe, you gotta stop this now.  You’re going to hurt yourself.  Your ribs have got to be hurting something fierce.  We’ll all go away as soon as you take this.  I want you to drink all of it.”

 

Joe looked at the glass.  He just wanted it all to stop and leave him.  He was angry and scared.  He also felt very alone in his hurt.  As he cried, Joe willingly drank the liquid.  He wanted everything gone and decided maybe what the doctor was giving him would calm him, and he could sleep. After Joe finished the liquid, the doctor moved away and reassured Ben and Adam it was okay for them to keep their distance from Joe.  No one spoke as they heard Joe trying to cry softly and trying to breathe without gasps.  Eventually Joe’s breathing slowed, and the men listened as Joe finally surrendered to sleep.

 

The remaining Cartwrights stood by with worried looks on their faces as they watched Joe.  Dr. Green spoke softly,  “I know that is disturbing to see, but sometimes it happens when someone is watched as closely as we have all watched Joseph.  He seems like a real independent young man and the constant lack of privacy and the extreme dependency sometimes get to people.  I think that’s what was happening.  Tomorrow, or uh, I guess later today rather, we need to get him up and give him a change of scenery.  It can help him cope better.  And going home will probably do wonders for him.  You men get some sleep, and I’ll see you in the morning.  If he wakes again, you can give him another shot or so of brandy.”

 

Dr. Green left and the Cartwrights returned to their beds and tried to sleep.  Adam laid tossing and turning, thinking of his little brother and the grief he had seen in Joe.  He had no idea how he could best help, and he hated he was at a loss.  Adam wondered how his relationship with Joe would fair after the ordeal his little brother had undergone.  He wondered if the precarious relationship he held with Joe would weather the current storm.  After seeing how he was coping, Adam worried.

 

*****

 

Joe slept late into the morning.  Everyone remained quiet as to not disturb him.  Ben watched his child sleep, as he wondered if he should not allow the sheriff to take Joe’s statement.  He hated to see his son upset and knew that when the sheriff did speak with Joe, it was going to be an extremely difficult time for his youngest.  As if Hoss read his mind, his middle son asked,  “Pa, don’t ya think it may be too much for Joe to have to talk to the sheriff?  He gets so upset right now.  Maybe we should wait.”

 

Ben smiled at how protective Hoss was of Joe, especially when Joe was sick or hurting.  “I’ve been wondering that same thing, son.  I’m very worried about Joe.  He’s been through enough.”

Joe grumbled and stirred.  He reluctantly opened his eyes and felt disappointed that he remained in the doctor’s office.  As the room came into focus he saw his father and Hoss looking at him.  He looked back for a moment and then finally asked,  “What?”

 

Good morning, son.  How are you feeling?”

 

The situation appeared strange to Joe, and he wondered why they had been looking so intently at him.  “I’m fine.  What’s with you two?”

 

“Nothing, we were just waiting for you to wake up.”  Ben tried to be nonchalant.

 

“So you’ve been standin’ there all morning watching me?  I know it’s boring around here, but I bet you could find something better to do than watch me.”  Joe did not like the feeling of being watched and was wondering what it was they had really been discussing.  He knew it had to do with him, and he liked that even less.

 

Ben decided to ignore Joe’s question and moved on to other things.  “Your breakfast is already here, rice pudding as ordered, and as soon as we get you fed, we are going to try and get you dressed and up into a chair.  How does that sound?”

 

“Exhausting.”  Joe thought, but said,  “Fine.”

 

Hoss took over and fed Joe, as Ben went to the mercantile to buy some clothes for him to wear.  Adam held back, feeling more reserved after the events of the previous night.  He felt awkward with Joe and was unsure what to say.  He kept looking over at Hoss and wished for the easiness he saw between his two younger brothers.  Adam was beginning to have serious doubts if he would ever feel that close to Joe.

 

When Ben returned, he sent Adam and Hoss out of the room as he helped his youngest sit up and then dress.  Dr. Green had given Joe a strong painkiller in anticipation of trying to get him up and about.  The doctor had also placed Joe’s arms in slings to hold them still as Joe was moved.  Joe was lightheaded as he sat up, but the pain was tolerable for him.  He was unable to do much to help his father, but Ben was able to maneuver in such a way as to get his son’s pants on.  Joe actually let out a chuckle as he watched his father struggle.  “Sorry Pa, I ain’t much help.”

 

Ben shared the laugh and said, “Joseph, I thought you and me fighting over getting you dressed was over a long time ago.”  As Ben struggled he realized he had guessed Joe’s size wrong.  Joe mostly bought his own clothes, so Ben had been at a loss to determine what size his youngest wore.  Oops, I got the size wrong.  I can’t ever keep it straight with you.  These are a little big on you.”

 

Joe looked down and shook his head.  “A little?  Pa, these look like they’d fit Hoss.  I need my belt, or I’m gonna embarrass myself.”

 

Ben was glad Joe could be more easy going than he had been the previous night.  They laughed between them, and the mood quickly sobered, as Ben thought of putting a shirt on Joe.  “Uh son, you want to put on a shirt?  I can put it around your shoulders if you’d like.”

 

Joe thought of his back and knew he did not want anyone seeing how it looked.  He had not seen it himself, but knew it was bad.  The thought of anyone knowing what had happened to him made Joe cringe.  It would show too much of what he had been through, and he was vulnerable.  “Uh yeah Pa, give me a shirt.”

 

As Ben placed the shirt around his son, he once more looked at Joe’s back.  The doctor had painstakingly cared for the wounds several times, and although they looked better than they had when Ben first saw the whip marks, he still felt rage at what was done to his boy.

 

“Well son, I think we’ve got you about as dressed as we can right now.  You ready to stand up and try to walk?”

 

“Now’s as good a time as any, I guess.”  With that Joe allowed his father to assist him, and he took a few steps.  His knee almost buckled and hurt him greatly, as it felt stiff to bend.  “Oh boy, it’s hard to move.  Everything kinda hurts.”

 

“Well let’s get you a chair and sit you down.  How ‘bout we go outside and sit on the porch?”  Ben suggested.

 

“No!”  Joe quickly snapped, but then corrected himself.  “Uh, I uh, just think I need to stay in here, just in case.”

 

Ben saw his son’s reluctance and was momentarily caught off guard with the quickness of Joe’s reply, but decided to let his son take the lead in what he needed.  “Okay well, the doctor thought maybe you could use a change of scenery to kinda help you get through waiting to go home.”

 

“No Pa, just sittin’ here will be fine with me.”  Joe said in a calmer tone.  There were two reasons Joe did not wish to go outside.  The adolescent in him was extremely self-conscious about his appearance and did not want to have people looking at him as they walked by.  The second reason was hidden deeper inside of him; a reason that was primal and came from the need to survive.  It was the feeling the prey feels in regards to the predator. The vulnerability he now experienced was animalistic.  The predator salivated at his exposure, and Joe felt it deep in his gut. He had never felt the type of vulnerability he now experienced.  He was afraid of being in the open where the Stranger could see him.  As he thought of being outside, he thought of all the places the Stranger could hide and watch.  The thought of the man being able to see him scared him.  If he were seen, then there was always the possibility he could once more be taken away to torture and to pain.

 

As he was maturing, Joe was learning to open up to his family.  He was gradually allowing them to learn who he was and how he thought.  It had been slow in coming for him due to Joe’s own make up, as well as certain life events he had experienced, but he was actively trying to allow his family to know him as more than a son and more than a brother.  The growth had required him to be vulnerable, but he had been relatively safe in his exposure.  He had shown himself to those who loved him and had experienced protection and acceptance as he did so.  The threat of the Stranger also threatened this new found and healthy vulnerability in Joe.  He wanted desperately to protect himself and was unsure if he could risk exposure to anyone, even those he loved most.

 

As he sat thinking, urgency developed inside Joe.  He needed to know those around him were of no threat.  He felt himself noticing things around him much more and it kept him on edge.  The things noticed were things that before he would have simply ignored.  Now he felt it would be far too dangerous to ignore anything.  It felt to him as if the threat was all around him and persistent.  He needed to be on guard constantly to keep the Stranger away and keep himself alive.

 

Ben kept a watchful eye on his son as Joe settled into the chair.  He noticed how tense Joe appeared.  “Joe, you look worried.  You need to talk?”

 

“Oh, uh, no just thinkin’.”

 

“About?”

 

“Nuthin’ important.  When’s the sheriff comin’?”

 

“Well son, I’ve been thinking, and I’ve decided maybe now isn’t the best time for you to talk with the sheriff.”

 

“Why not?  I wanna get it over with.”  Joe had worked out with himself what he was going to say to the lawman.  He hoped by making his statement, he could close the book on what had happened to him and allow himself to forget the cellar.  He knew that until he talked to the sheriff, he would feel anxious.  He had no idea his emotional turmoil was only beginning.

 

“Well, after last night I think maybe all of this is too much on you right now.  We can get the sheriff to come out to the Ponderosa once you are settled and feeling better.”

 

“Actually Pa, I’d rather get it over with if it’s okay with you.”

 

“But son, I really think it’s too much.  You’ve been through enough.”

 

“No Pa, I need to go ahead and do this.  I wanna be able to just go home and be done with it all.”

 

Father and son held each other’s look.  Joe knew his father was feeling protective of him, and although he understood it, it made him feel confined.  He also knew he would not be able to ease his father’s mind.  He had learned a long time ago that his father was going to be over protective with him, and he would have to assert himself if he were going to be treated as an adult.

 

Ben admired his son’s courage, but knew under Joe’s firm resolve he was only eighteen and had a fragile quality to him that needed protection.  Ben was unsure if he should assert his authority as a father and make the decision for his son regarding when his statement would be given, or if he should allow his son to decide what he needed.  As Ben looked at Joe he wished he could see up under his son’s exterior to know what was truly best.

 

Joe could see his father’s hesitance, and it made him more anxious.  He did not feel he could allow the impending statement to hang over his head.  It would leave things too open, too unfinished.  “Pa, I’m sorry ‘bout last night.  Things kinda got to me, and I’m fine now.  I just was real tired’s all.  I really need to do this.”

 

There was a look on Joe’s face that Ben interpreted as his son very much needing his father to acquiesce.  As much as he hated to do it, Ben said,  “Okay son.  We’ll do it your way, but I want you to know you can stop at any time.”

 

Joe thought to himself,  “No, Pa.  I really can’t.”  He said,  “Pa, you worry too much.  I’ll be okay.  It won’t be that big of a thing.  You’ll see.”

 

It was after lunch when the sheriff arrived at the doctor’s office.  The Cartwrights had enjoyed a quiet meal and the mood was relatively light.  The doctor had given Joe his usual medication with his meal, but also added a nerve medicine in hopes that it would help Joe in the upcoming discussion with the sheriff, and he would not be overtaxed.  Each man felt his own nervousness at the thought of Joe telling of his experience in the cellar.  Joe was quiet, both from the medication and from him being deep in thought.  He sat and slowly reviewed over and over what he would tell the sheriff.  He felt a twinge of guilt at what he was going to do but knew there was not any way he would expose his family to the Stranger, nor would he allow the law to handle the situation.  To Joe what he had experienced at the Stranger’s hand had been personal, and as such, he would handle it his own way, in his own time.

 

The doctor escorted the sheriff into the room and greetings were exchanged.  Joe looked at the lawman and then lowered his head.  He was uncomfortable with someone he did not know in the room, and his posture showed it.  The sheriff saw Joe’s discomfort and knew they were in for a grueling discussion.  The sheriff had carried into the room a cloth bag, paper and a pencil.  He took the chair immediately across from Joe and spoke,  “Joe, oh, do you go by Joe or Joseph?”

 

“Either.”  Joe said quietly.

 

“Okay.  Well Joe, I know this is a hard thing for you to talk about, but I need to get your statement regarding what happened to you.  Now I need you to know I will need as much detail as you can give me, but if you don’t know something-just say, I don’t know.  I will be writing down what you say.  Usually I’d have you do that, but I know you’ve been hurt real bad and won’t be able to do it.  Son, I want you to tell me if you need to stop to take a break, okay?  And uh, finally, would you prefer you and I talk by ourselves, or is it okay that your family is here?”

 

Joe thought a moment.  He did not want to be alone with the sheriff, but he was unsure he wanted to tell what happened to him in front of his family.  He decided to not choose.  “I don’t care.  Either way’s fine with me.”

 

None of the Cartwrights wanted Joe going through his recall of the cellar by himself, so no one moved.  Everyone settled in to listen to Joe’s story.  Ben sat the closest to his son, as if wanting to be ready to physically pull Joe away from the ordeal if needed.  Hoss settled in where he could keep a watchful eye on his little brother and stay far enough back as to not intrude.  Adam stood leaning against the wall.  He was dreading hearing what Joe had been through and knew the next minutes would be agony for his little brother and for himself.  He prayed it would pass quickly.

 

“Joe, before we get started with your statement,” Sheriff Baker began,  “I have a couple of things my men found in the cellar, and I was wondering if you could identify them for me?”

 

“Uh, I’ll try.”

 

The sheriff open the cloth bag and pulled out what at first appeared to be a tattered rag.  As he spread it out, it became obvious what it was, a shirt with blood on it.  Joe looked at the shirt and swallowed hard.  He took a deep breath and said,  “Uh, that’s, uh, that’s my shirt.  He, um, uh, they pulled it off before uh, before they used the uh, whip.”  The last word of the sentence Joe spoke was almost whispered.

 

The sheriff wrote something down and then reached in again to the bag and pulled out the handcuffs.  Joe looked fleetingly at them and then at the floor.  He was beginning to realize that the process was going to take more out of him than he had expected.  He started to dread having agreed to speak to the lawman.  Ben, Adam and Hoss were also increasing in their nervousness as they watched Joe and the struggle going on inside of him.  Joe said very softly,  “Um, those were used to, um to tie my, uh hands.”

 

As the sheriff placed the handcuffs down so to write Joe’s identification of the item, Adam saw that there was blood on the cuffs.  He looked to Joe’s wrists and then closed his eyes.  The image in his head sickened him.

 

The sheriff knew the next item would be very distressing for his witness.  He had no idea how to prepare Joe for what he would see.  “Son, I have one more thing for you to look at and then we are done with this.  You okay?”

 

“Uh, yeah, I’m okay.”  Joe said, forcing himself to breathe evenly.  He could tell the sheriff was reluctant to show him the final item.  “Let’s get it over with.”

 

The sheriff pulled out the bullwhip that had been used on Joe.  Again Joe looked quickly and then diverted his head.  He closed his eyes to gather himself back together.  He felt lightheaded and was unsure if he would faint.  Ben intervened.  “Okay stop this now.  He can’t do this right now.  It’s too much.”

 

The sheriff put the whip back in the bag and was beginning to pack his things when Joe spoke in the same soft manner he had previously,  “That looks like the whip used, to uh, to uh, get me to uh, talk.  If it has a mark all the way around the handle, an uh, wide band, then that’s it.  It was uh, held in front of my face, so I saw it pretty good.”

 

Everyone held their gaze on Joe as they tried to determine how he was fairing.  Joe continued,  “Let’s uh, let’s keep goin’.  I only wanna do this once.  I just want it over with.  What’s next?”

 

“Joseph, are you sure?”  Ben asked his voice full of concern.

 

“Yeah, I’m sure.  What now?”  Joe asked, but held his head down not wanting to look at anyone.

 

“Now I need you to tell me what happened to you and who did what.  You think you can do that?”

 

“Here we go.”  Joe thought, but said,  “Uh, yeah, where do you want me to start?”

 

“You pick where the best place to start would be.”

 

“Okay…” Joe took a deep breath and began to recount the events for the sheriff and his family.  “I uh, Cooch threw a shoe, so I had to get that taken care of before I could ride out.  There were a couple of horses ahead at the blacksmith’s, so I decided to go for a walk and see a little of Reno while I waited.  I walked down the street and went into a saloon.  I don’t know the name of it, but I think it is the one where I was kept.  Well, I ordered a beer, and I felt a gun in my side, and Doyle had the gun on me.  He told me to walk outside and around the corner.  Um, uh, Wells was there when I turned the corner.  They um, told me to uh, cooperate, or they would kill me.”  Joe was having a difficult time mentally staying in the room as he told what happened to him.  He was drawn back to the cellar.  He believed he had to remain diligent to his mind so he would not say the wrong thing and let them know he had seen the Stranger’s face and could describe him.  He was losing the mental battle to stay in the room.

 

“There was a struggle when I realized that they wanted to put me in the cellar.  I knew it would be bad if I was out of sight, so I fought them.  I uh, kinda lost the struggle, and cause he was, uh they were mad, they threw me down the stairs.”

 

Ben, Adam and Hoss were having a difficult time listening to Joe talk and knew they had only begun to hear what Joe had undergone.  As they watched and listen to Joe, they noticed he was drifting away from them, and it seemed he was reliving the events.  He was once more in the cellar as he spoke.  “They wanted to know if it hurt to be thrown down the stairs.  At first I said, no.  But they slapped and kicked me ‘til I told him it hurt.  That’s when I found out what they wanted from me.  They wanted to know where Adam was being held.  I told them I’d never tell.”  Joe took a deep breath and told his lie.  “Um, there was an, um, uh, another man there, but he stayed in the shadows.  I never, uh, saw what he uh, looked like.  He was there, but Doyle and Wells did most of it.  I guess I passed out, cause next thing I know I’m handcuffed on the floor.”

 

Adam turned away from Joe.  He could not watch his brother tell of what he had been through.  It was getting harder and harder to listen and he desperately wanted to take away the memories and leave Joe in peace.  Hoss had his head in his hands listening to Joe and trying not to react to what he heard.  Ben sat his eyes closing at times as he heard his youngest recall being tortured.  He wanted to hold his boy and make it all better, but he knew it would not be that simple.

 

As Joe continued to talk, he became more entranced in the ordeal as he relived the events.  He stared at nothing, but it was very obvious he was watching the events in his mind.  “When I came to, I was in the dark, and I could hear the music upstairs and people talking.  I laid there a while and, uh, then he came back, and they kept asking me where Adam was, and um, every time I refused to answer, they hit me.  They hit and hit and hit.  I don’t know how many times.  I made them mad, and that is when they walked me into the other room and uh… they uh…” Joe stopped talking.  He paused a long moment, and then asked as if he were in a casual conversation,  “Pa, is Cochise okay?”

 

The question came out of the blue for Ben, and he was caught off guard.  He opened his eyes to see Joe looking at him waiting to be answered.  “Uh son, Cochise is fine.  Are you okay?”

 

“Good.  I think she’s been stuck in that barn for a while now.  She’ll need to get out and get exercised.”

 

“I’ll make sure that happens son.  Are you sure you’re okay?”

 

“Uh, yeah… just fine…” Joe trailed off to silence and the room had an eerie feel to it.  Just as suddenly as Joe had changed topics, he started talking again of the ordeal in the cellar.  “I was walked into a uh, different room ‘cause he was mad and um, was hit a couple a times and uh, then I was told to, um reach up and grab the beam above me, and uh, I uh, I uh, I did it, and uh, I was handcuffed to it.  Um, that’s when my, uh, shirt was, uh, torn off, and uh, I uh, told them no, and they said I could uh, not have it happen if I just uh, told and uh, I didn’t, and uh, then I was hit with it, and uh, I could, could, couldn’t and uh…” Joe was lost in the memory.  He was trapped with the Stranger once more ready to whip him.  He was beginning to violently shake as his breathing came rapidly and he stared into space.

 

Ben hopped up and was immediately in front of his son.  “Stop Joseph.  It’s okay now.  Just stop.”

 

 

Joe’s recounting continued.  He was no longer able to hear his father, as he was at the mercy of the Stranger.  “I couldn’t breathe to an-an-answer him, and he hit me ag-again.  Hurt so bad, cou-couldn’t stop him.  He-he-he”

 

“Joseph, stop son. Look at me and stop!  No more!  You don’t have to say anymore.”  Ben instinctively reached to hug his son, and the touch scared Joe.  He let out a scream like none they ever heard and started fighting against his father.  “Joseph, no it’s Pa.  You’re okay.  You’re okay.  I’m here, and you’re safe.”

 

Ben could feel his son shaking and the gasps to breathe as he held him.  He knew the physical contact would cause his son pain, but he hoped maybe that it would bring Joe back to them.  Joe’s screams turned to moans and then sobs.  He was returning to the room, and as he did so, he began begging over and over,  “Make it stop!  Please make it stop!  Make it go away!  He won’t go away!”

 

“Hush, Joe Ssshhh, it’s okay.  I’m here and you’re safe.  It’s all over now, son.”

 

Although the words were meant to comfort, Joe could not calm down.  He could not get the flashes and images out of his head.  As Ben tried without success to quiet Joe, the sheriff stood and went to the door of the room.  He called the doctor who was waiting nearby.  Dr. Green saw upon entering Joe’s state of mind and walked over to where he had a glass of liquid sitting.  He had prepared for such a reaction in his patient, although he had hoped it would not happen.  He was soon at Joe’s side and handed the liquid to Ben.  Ben needed not ask what the substance was and simply made his son drink it.  Joe fought with the liquid, but most of it made it into him.  Ben sat holding his son until he felt the medication take effect, and Joe’s muscles loosened.  The medication hit hard and soon Joe had stopped struggling and was very groggy.

 

“Son, I want you to let me move you over to the bed, and then you need to lay down and sleep.”

 

“I’ll finish.  I can do it.”  It was obvious Joe was heavily medicated, and his words were slow and slurred.

 

“No, son, not now.  It’s too much for you right now.  You need to just relax and rest.  I shouldn’t have let you do this right now anyway.  It’s too soon.”

 

“But, I don’t wanna do it ‘gain.  It’s real bad, and it’s in my head, and gotta get it all out and gone.”  As Joe spoke it was obvious he was drifting away to sleep, but was fighting the medication.

 

“No one is going to hurt you, son.  You’re safe now.  It’s all gone.  No one here will let anything happen to you.  Now lets get you over to the bed and get you to go to sleep.  You sound really tired.”

 

“Can’t sleep.  Gotta watch out.  Gotta make it safe.”

 

“Well let’s have you do that over at the bed.  Come on now, can you stand up?”  As Ben started to help Joe stand, Hoss and Adam moved towards their father and brother to help.  Joe was unsteady and his family helped him.  He slowly lay down and then spoke,  “Gotta finish it.  It’s not over.”

 

“Yes it is son.  It’s all over.  Now you close your eyes and rest and everything will be okay.”

 

As Joe lay down, he was one step closer to surrendering to the medication as his eyes would close and he would slowly reopen them.  His family watched and knew he would be asleep soon if he was given the right distraction.  Ben decided to try.  “Joe, I wanted to tell you about that new string of ponies we have coming in.  I need you to start thinking of which you want working them.  You’re going to have a full crew, and you need to decide all of the hours for the men.  I need you to help me with that right now, and we’ll worry about the other later.  Can you help me with that?”

 

“Uh huh, I’ll try, Pa.”  Joe found as he tried to think of what his father had asked of him, his mind was confused, and it was to hard to think.  He decided he would sleep a while and then figure out what his father wanted from him.  Joe finally stopped fighting and slept.

 

No one moved until it was certain Joe was deep in sleep.  The doctor had reassured them all that the medication Joe had been given would keep him asleep and unaware for many hours.  Ben prayed his boy’s sleep would be peaceful.

 

The sheriff had remained in the room watching the family tend their loved one.  He knew there was one thing left for him to do, and then he could leave them in peace.  “Mr. Cartwright, Dr. Green is going to give me a statement regarding your boy’s injuries, and I’ll need a statement from your other son there if I may, regarding the shootin’ and him gettin’ that Doyle fellow.  I also would like to take a look at your son’s back if you wouldn’t mind.  I know you folks are gonna be takin’ off soon to go back to your ranch, and it’s pretty obvious your boy there is gonna need some time before he’s up to testifyin’.  I need to have some documentation of his injuries, and this will allow me to do that.”

 

Ben looked from the sheriff to his son.  He knew the lawman was only doing his job, but he felt annoyed.  He believed his boy had been through far too much, and he was not happy at disturbing him.  The sheriff noticed his pause.  “I know how you feel, Mr. Cartwright.  If it were my boy I’d want him left alone too, but I need to get all of this so the man who did this can be prosecuted.  This will be all I need from him for a while.”

 

Ben sat on the side of the bed where Joe lay and unbuttoned the shirt he had put around his son’s shoulders.  Adam and Hoss assisted their father and they moved a sleeping Joe so that he was sitting up.  Ben moved in close so Joe’s head was on his father’s shoulder.  The sheriff moved over so he could get a good look at Joe’s back.  As much as everyone wanted to look away they seemed drawn to watch the lawman.  As they watched they each felt sickened and angered that Joe had been harmed in the manner he had.  They saw Sheriff Baker silently count the whip marks on Joe’s back and write down a note on the paper.  Each Cartwright felt his rage, but each kept it to himself.  They vowed the man responsible would pay and they would protect Joe from further harm.  As they mentally reviewed Joe’s recalling of the events he had endured each one also knew so much damage had already been done.

 

The sheriff finished and said quietly,  “Thank you, Mr. Cartwright.  I’ll leave you folks now.  And uh, Hoss, why don’t you just come on over to my office a little later and give me your statement.”

 

Hoss readily agreed, and the lawman left.  Ben remained holding Joe for a few moments, remembering how many times he had carried a small, sleeping little boy to his bed over the past eighteen years.  Joe’s head on his shoulders was such a familiar feeling, and he smiled to himself.  Before moving Joe back to where he had previously lain, he ever so gently hugged his boy and told him how much he loved him.  He wanted his son to know he was safe and to sleep as he had as a boy.  He promised his son he would keep a diligent watch, and Joe could sleep in peace.

 

Late in the day, Hoss made his way to the sheriff’s office.  He saw there was a commotion in front of the office and pushed his way through several people to see what was happening.  As he entered the room and looked towards the barred walls, he saw a body laying inside one of cells with a sheet over it.  Hoss heard the men speaking and was shocked at the news.  Doyle was dead.  The sheriff was talking to a man who stood next to him when Hoss decided to interrupt.  “’S’cuse me sheriff, but did I hear right?  Doyle’s dead?”

 

“Oh, Hoss.  Yeah, ya heard right. It happened while I was talking to your little brother as a matter of fact.  My deputy stepped out for a meal, and when he came back, he found Doyle had hung himself.  Imagine that.  Guess his conscience got to him about what he did to your brother.  That or he just got tired of living.  Looks like your brother won’t have to testify now.  I’d imagine that’d make you all breathe easier.”

 

“We’ll I’d be lyin’ if I said I ain’t glad that man’s dead.  I think my little brother deserves to live in peace.  You still need me then sheriff?”

 

“Well let me just get your statement as a formality, but you tell your family it’s all over now, and your little brother has nothing to worry about.  Tell him he can just be concerned with gettin’ better.”

 

“I’ll do that sheriff.  Now what is it you want to know?”  And with that Hoss Cartwright gave a statement to the Reno sheriff about two men, both dead and both no longer a threat to his little brother.

 

After finishing with the sheriff, Hoss was anxious to return to his family.  Once he arrived back in the doctor’s office he was quick to tell his father and Adam the news.  “Pa, Adam, you’re not gonna believe this.  That Doyle fella’s dead.  He hung himself in the jail.”

 

A look of concern crossed Ben’s face as he looked over at Joe to make sure he was still asleep.  Ben lowered his voice to a whisper and asked, “When did this happen?”

 

“When the sheriff was here talkin’ ta Joe, his deputy was outta the office.  I think this could help Joe feel lots better, don’t you, Pa?”

 

Ben looked at Adam and saw the same worried look on his oldest son’s face that he had on his own.  “Uh, Hoss.  I’m not sure how Joe will handle this.  Let’s wait some before we tell him.  He has been through too much and needs some time to just have some peace and quiet.”

 

“Oh, okay, Pa.  You don’t think it’d hurt Joe to know it, huh?”

 

“I don’t know, Hoss.  I just don’t know.  Joe has been through such an ordeal, and he’s going to need time.  Son, Joe’s more fragile than sometimes he lets on.  We need to remember that.  He tries to be so strong, but you saw how he had such problems talking about what he went through.  Hoss, Joe’s just eighteen, he’s gonna need time.  I want to protect him from anything else right now.  He’s a lot more scared than we might think, or he’d want us to believe.”

 

Each Cartwright settled into what had become their routine since they had taken up residence in Reno.  Joe remained quietly out of awareness as his body rested and his mind stayed away from the cellar.  He slept hard as the evening passed and night fell.  Before turning in for the night, Ben walked over to his youngest.  He stood watching his child sleep and remembered so much of his son’s life.  Ben thought to himself,  “Oh son.  I want you to be as peaceful as you look right now.  You’ve been through so much already, and I’m so worried about you.  You’ve grown up so much, but I know this has got to scare you.  You don’t need to be so brave.  I was there you know?  When things scared you and you needed me.  Son, I hope you’ll tell me what you need.  Please let me know.  I’ll be there.  I promise.  You won’t have to go through this alone.”  Ben eventually moved away to sleep, but he wished Joe was home in his own bed and among familiar things.  He knew that is where his child could become strong and feel safe once more.

 

The medication remained heavily in Joe’s bloodstream, and he slept quietly until deep into the night.  He had been in dreamless sleep until the nightmare hit and he was lost in it…

 

Joe was sitting in the great room listening to his father and Adam speak of the ranch.  He felt safe and happy as he heard of the day’s events and his family’s obligations.  There was a knock on the door, and as Joe looked at his father and brother it was obvious they had not heard the knock.  Joe walked to the door and opened it.  He looked around but saw there was no one at the door.  He was confused.  As he turned around, he saw where his father had been there was now a shape of a man with no face.  He looked to Adam and saw his brother was there, but he was fuzzy and difficult to see.  Joe was again confused.  What was happening?  He called out to his father and saw the Stranger in front of him.  The Stranger spoke,  “You’ll tell me what I want to know.  You can’t last.”  As Joe realized what was happening he saw the Stranger had his father so that his father’s head was in the Stranger’s hands, and the Stranger held a knife to his father’s throat.  Which should he choose?  He knew he could not make the choice.  It was too much.  He would not choose.  “NO!  I won’t do it!  You can’t make me choose!  Pa! Adam!  NO!  NO GOD NO!  PLEASE!” He watched as the Stranger ran the knife blade over his father’s throat and blood poured from the wound.

 

Adam was the first to his little brother and was about to wake Joe when Joe bolted upright into his brother’s arms.  “NO!  PLEASE NO!”  ADAM, PA, NO!  PA!”

 

“Joe, wake up.  Wake up.”  Adam said, as he held his trembling brother in his arms.

 

“Huh?  Uh, what?”  Joe said as he tried to regain his senses.

 

“Joe, buddy.  It’s a dream.  That’s all it is, a dream.”

 

“A dream?  Huh?

 

“Joe it’s just a dream, buddy.  You’re okay.”

 

“Wha… what?  A dream?  Oh god.”  Joe was slowly coming back around as he opened his eyes and saw Adam standing before him.

 

“You okay?”

 

“Um, uh, yeah.  I think so.  Uh, yeah, I’m fine.” As Joe thought back to his dream, he shuddered.  Adam felt Joe’s movement and knew he was shaken by whatever it was he had dreamed.  He knew Joe was far from being fine.

 

“You wanna talk about it?”  Adam offered.

 

“Uh, it was just, uh…” Joe was not wanting to recall all he had dreamt, rather he hoped by quickly dismissing it, the dream would remove itself from his head.  “Just stuff from the uh… you know.  It’s better now.  I’m okay.

 

“It could help to talk about it.  You sure?”

 

“Yeah.”  Joe said, lying back down.  He was trying to slow his breathing and remove the images from his head.  “I’m fine really, Adam.  Sorry I woke you.”

 

“Hey, no need to apologize.”  Adam said as he started to walk away.

 

As Joe felt panic at the thought of being alone in the dark, he blurted out,  “Uh, Adam?  Could you, uh maybe light the lamp and just turn it down low?”

 

 

The request reminded Adam of when his brother was little and a lamp lit low was often the request of Joe to be comfortable at night.   He smiled at his little brother. “Sure thing, Buddy.  You need anything else?  Want me to sit with you a while?”

 

“Uh, no… I’m okay”

 

Adam sensed the hesitancy and thought he would help Joe out some in his fear.  “Well, I think it’s probably going to take me a while to fall back asleep, so I’m just gonna sit up and read a little.  Do you mind?”

 

“No… That’s okay by me.”  Joe said, feeling a relief he was too embarrassed to share.

 

Adam went about lighting the lamp and looked over to his father and Hoss.  He saw both men still in bed but sitting up, watching and ready to help.  Each knew of Joe’s proclivity towards nightmares from time to time and had at times offered comfort to him.  Adam gave a nod to both men, letting them know everything was under control.  He saw his father’s worried look change to a small smile as his father mouth the words “Thank you”.

 

The room settled once more as Adam sat up pretending to read, all the while watching over his youngest brother.  Joe lay awake for a long period thinking and rethinking how he would keep the thoughts of the Stranger from his mind.  Eventually though, sleep over took him and he was gone to the night.

 

*****

 

Joe woke to see his father and brothers talking softly in the corner of the room.  As he shook off the heaviness of sleep, he overheard them discussing if they should return home that day.  He immediately felt frustrated they were even thinking of not leaving for the Ponderosa.  “Pa, we are going today, aren’t we?”

 

Ben walked over to his son as soon as he heard him speak.  “Son, the more I think about it, the more I feel we should stay another day or two and let you get stronger.”

 

“But Pa, the doctor said I could…”

 

As Ben listened to the protest he knew would come from his son, he held up his hand to stop him.  “Joe, that was before yesterday and how difficult it was for you.”

 

“But, I’m fine.  Really.”

 

“That is what you said yesterday and you weren’t fine, Joseph.  You need to take it easy, and the trip home’s gonna be hard on you.”

 

“Pa, please?  I’ll be okay.  That yesterday was ‘cause of talkin’ about that stuff.  I won’t talk about it on the ride home, so I’ll be just fine.”  Joe knew the ride would be difficult, but he felt it was very important that he leave Reno.  He wanted the cellar to be gone from memory, and believed that being out of the city where the torture had occurred would help him greatly.  Feeling the way he did made him persistent.

 

“No I don’t think so.  You’ve just been through such a difficult time, and I’m not gonna risk your health to take you home.  You need to realize son, you’re body has a lot of healing to do, and you have to take it very slow.”  Ben’s primary concern about Joe’s recovery was not the physical recovery, but rather the emotional one.  Watching his son, he knew Joe was emotionally damaged and he wanted to help insure that no further harm came to him.

 

“Pa, that’s not fair!  I want to go home and the doctor said it was okay.  I’ll take it easy, I promise.  Please let’s get out of here.  I really need to be home.  I need to be away from here.”

 

Ben heard Joe getting upset and was struck by the last thing he had said.  He thought he would try and see if he could get Joe to open up some and talk about his fears.  “Son, is it bothering you to be here because you were hurt here?  Are you afraid of something?”

 

“No, some one.”  Joe thought and then slightly shuttered.  He said, “Uh… well… I, uh, don’t really like bein’ here.  It bothers me some I guess.”

 

Ben could see that it bothered Joe more than “some”.  He was torn as to what was best.  “Well, I can understand that, but do you feel safe here with us?”

 

“I don’t know if I’ll ever feel safe.”  Joe thought.  He knew he definitely felt better with his family around, but the uneasy feeling of being on edge and needing to remain alert was always present regardless.  He had found himself looking over the room often as if he needed to attend to the most minute of detail.  He answered,  “I’m okay with you guys here.  I think I’d be better if I were home.”

 

Ben was at a loss as to what to do.  He knew Joseph would feel better being at home, but he was so concerned as to the journey.  He saw the pain in his son’s eyes and knew if he denied Joe, he would add to his son’s misery.  But the trip home would be a rough one.  They would have to take the trip much slower due to Joe being unable to ride a horse.  He shook his head at his own indecision.

 

Joe saw his father’s head shake, and became more desperate.  “Pa, please!  You can’t say, no.  I need to get outta here, and I wanna go today.  You gotta get me out of here.  I just can’t do it no more.”

 

Adam and Hoss were pained with what they were hearing.  They looked at each other and knew that whatever was decided, it would prove difficult and painful.  Adam suggested,  “Pa, why don’t we get the doctor and ask his opinion.  Maybe let the doctor take a look and see how Joe’s doing.”  Adam thought that if the decision were left up to Dr. Green, then whatever was decided could be pushed off on him, and Ben could avoid the conflict with Joe.

 

Ben realized what Adam was trying to accomplish.  “Hoss, could you go get the doctor?  Adam’s right, it may be a good idea for the doctor to take a look at Joe and give us his opinion.  Son, how ‘bout we do just what the doctor says?  Will you agree to that?”

 

Joe continued in his frustration but decided to take a chance on the doctor keeping his same opinion.  “Okay, but I wanna go home.”

 

“Yes, son.  You’ve made that very clear.”

 

Hoss went to retrieve the doctor and filled him in on Joe’s desire to go home and his father’s hesitancy to allow it.  Dr. Green realized why he was being called in, entered the room and soon decided it may be best if he talked to his patient alone.  “Folks, why don’t you step outside and let me take a good look at Joseph and see how he is doing.”

 

Hoss and Adam immediately left the room, but Ben was more hesitant.  He knew Joe was able to be very persuasive at times and hoped the doctor would not allow it to influence his decision of what was truly best for his youngest child.  Dr. Green saw Ben’s reluctance and was quick to reassure.   “Ben, don’t worry.  I’ll be sure and check him over real well.  You go on and get some fresh air.  Joe will be fine.”

 

 

Ben haltingly left the room, and Joe was soon alone with the doctor.  “Doc, you said it was okay for me to go home, and I really need to get out of here.  I feel just fine, and Pa worries too much any way.”

 

“Now Joseph, I’m the doctor, and I need to take a look and see how you’re really getting along.  You had a rough time yesterday talking to the sheriff, and you need to realize something, young man.  You’re gonna have a tough time for a while, and you certainly aren’t fine right now.  You’re body is very weak.  You’ve been lying around here saving your strength, so you may indeed be feeling better.  Once you start moving around though, you are going to find yourself feeling tired quickly, and you’re going to feel much more of the pain.  Your lungs are weak, and you’re not going to be able to do as you have been used to for a while.  You’ll notice that you’ll feel winded easily.  Young man, you have been through an ordeal where many would not have survived, and you need to take very good care to ensure you’ll get back to your old self.  You understand all of this?”

 

As the doctor gave his lecture, Joe half listened.  He was trying to think of a convincing argument to persuade the doctor to allow him to leave Reno.  He was deep in thought when he realized the doctor had stopped talking.  He returned his thoughts to the room and saw the doctor looking at him as if waiting for a response.  He looked back with a blank expression.

 

“Joseph?  Did you hear anything I said?”

 

“Uh, yeah, I did.  I know I need to be careful, and I will, but I know I’ll get better a lot quicker if I’m home.  No offense, I just do better there.”

 

Dr. Green grabbed his stethoscope and listened to Joe’s chest.  He was pleased that Joe seemed to be recovering nicely and believed the young man would continue to improve physically, if he were careful in his recovery.  Just as Joe’s family worried about how he would handle the emotional aspects of the ordeal he had endured, the doctor also worried about Joseph’s mental state and knew that would be the greatest challenge for his patient.  “Son, I know it was very hard for you yesterday recalling what you went through.  How are you doing with that?”

 

“Uh, I just try not to think about it, really.”  Joe was uncomfortable with the doctor’s question and knew talking about it would take him back to the cellar.  He spoke words he did not know if he really believed.  “I know it’s gonna take time for all of it to go away.  I know the worst is over, though and getting home will just help me forget sooner.”

 

The doctor stood and looked at Joe a few moments.  “If I let you go, are you going to follow your father’s instructions and do exactly as you are told?  I’ll give you something that will knock you out for the trip and that should help you some.”

 

Joe felt encouraged.  “Yeah, I’ll behave.”

 

“Let me go talk to your father.  I’m going to let you go young man, but you can easily end up just as sick as you were.”

 

Joe rolled his eyes.  “I know.  I know.  I’ll be good.  I promise.”

 

Dr. Green laughed at Joe’s reaction and left the room to speak with his father.  The doctor informed Ben, Adam, and Hoss of his opinion regarding the family taking Joe home and gave careful instructions on how to make the trip safely, as well as how to keep Joe on the road to recovery.  Although Ben remained hesitant, he knew he had told his son he would abide by the doctor’s decision, so he would take his son home.

 

When Ben returned to Joe and told him they would indeed be returning home, Joe could not hide excitement.  Joe immediately felt his spirits lift and breathed a sigh of relief.  He believed that the return home would return him to his old life and to safety.  Ben admitted he enjoyed seeing Joe happier than he had seen him since being injured.

 

The doctor gave Joe a low dose of chloral hydrate to allow them to help him get ready for their travel and gave more for Joe to take once they were ready to get moving as well as for use on the long ride home. Joe’s arms had previously been placed in slings and the doctor knew what he needed to do to make Joe’s travel less harmful on him would bother the young man.  “Joe, I need to bind your arms to your chest so that as you travel home your shoulders don’t move back out of socket.”

 

“What?  What’re you gonna do?”  Joe became quickly anxious and a look of concern appeared on his face.  He instinctively knew he would not like what the doctor wanted to do.

 

“I’ve got to wrap your arms to your chest, sorta like we bound your ribs.  Your shoulders are not strong enough to keep you from becoming re-injured as you bounce around.”

 

Joe’s eyes darted around and landed on his father.  Ben saw his son’s fear.  Joe in turn saw his father’s concern and became more anxious he would change his mind about them leaving unless he allowed the doctor to tend him the way he wanted.  He mumbled,  “Do what you have to do.”

 

The doctor began to bind Joe’s arms, and as he worked, Joe tried to keep his breathing even.  He felt his heart racing and made himself think of saddling and unsaddling Cochise.  His mind wanted to go to the cellar, and he actively fought it.  As the binding became tight, Joe felt the restriction of his movements and wanted to scream out, but held it down telling himself over and over, “It’s not the same.  It’s not the same.  I can do this.”

 

Ben, Adam, and Hoss also flashed to thoughts of Joe being restrained in another manner as they watched Joe intently.  Joe’s face held a blank expression and it seemed almost strange Joe was not talking.  Out of their own nervousness, the three began to make small talk to distract.  As the doctor finished, everyone found himself releasing their breath.  Joe eventually felt the effects of the chloral hydrate, and it brought about emotional relief as his anxiety decreased.

 

After the doctor finished, Ben once more helped Joe dress, wrapping a shirt around his shoulders and putting on his boots and hat.  Given the extent of Joe’s injuries and his bound arms, he required much assistance to be moved.  He found the help frustrating, but soon realized it was greatly needed.  As he stood, he was rapidly aware once more of how much his body hurt and how painful the process of returning to the Ponderosa would be for him.  He tried his best to hide the degree of pain, again fearful that if his father saw him hurting, he would change his mind, and Joe would have to stay longer.

 

Eventually the family was ready to move from the doctor’s office to the livery stable.  Ben suggested Joe stay in the office while they prepared the horses and a wagon.  At the mention of a wagon, Joe balked.  “Pa, I wanna ride Cochise.  I can do it.”

 

No one was shocked at Joe’s statement.  It was typical Joe. It did not seem to bother him that he was unable to move his arms and his body was so battered and bruised. Ben shook his head. “Son, there’s no way you’re going to ride Cochise.  You’ll ride in the wagon, end of discussion.”

 

“But Pa, the doc gave me somethin’, and I don’t need the wagon.  I’ll let one of you lead Cooch even.”  Joe hated the idea of being weak and having to ride along in a wagon.  It would make him feel the vulnerability that would lead to the fear.  Ben gave Joe a look that told him he was pushing and his father would tolerate no more.  Although he knew his father was right, the dread of vulnerability was stronger, and Joe silently sulked.  Ben decided moving Joe with them to the livery would help appease his child some and avoid a full out emotional explosion.

 

As they went to move Joe outside, Joe’s nervousness increased, but the chloral hydrate kept him from full panic.  He knew he did not want to be seen by anyone on the street, both because of his injuries and his fear.  He was walking very slowly being helped on either side by Hoss and Adam.  His brothers heard him ask very softly,  “Uh, could one of you pull my hat down.  The sun’s bad.”

 

Both Hoss and Adam knew that was not the reason Joe wanted his hat pulled down, but Hoss reached up and willingly helped his little brother.  They then saw Joe lower his head further and seemed to keep his eyes focused on his feet as they moved.  The brothers felt the need to protect their loved one strongly and seemed to almost close in around him.  They held a look on their face that told the people they passed they dared them to harm Joe in any way.

 

The family arrived at the livery, and Joe knew he needed to sit down.  He was exhausted and realized it was indeed going to be hard for him to do the most basic of movements.  Joe saw several hay piles stacked to the side of the livery and headed towards them.  Adam and Hoss helped him move over to them and sit.  Joe sighed heavily as he sat, and then leaned against the rails that were behind him.  Ben walked to the liveryman and briefly discussed something before moving over to his sons.  He pulled out the medicine and knelt next to his youngest.  “Joe, the doctor said to give you some more of this.  He said you’d then be falling asleep soon after.  Here ya go.  Go ahead and take it.  The ride home will be rough, and I don’t want you hurting anymore than necessary.”

 

Joe sat forward and willingly took the medicine.  He then once again leaned back against the rail and waited for the medication to continue its effects.  Ben asked Adam to accompany him to saddle the horses and told Hoss to stay with Joe.  As Ben and Adam moved away from them, Hoss sat down next to his younger brother.  Joe was feeling himself become groggy as he sat quietly.  He was drifting off when he suddenly realized he was without Adam’s gun and had no idea where he had left the weapon.  “Uh, Hoss?”

 

“Yeah, Joe?”

 

“Where’d I leave Adam’s gun?  I don’t have it with me, and I’d kinda like to have it.  You know where it is?”

 

Joe’s need for a weapon concerned his older brother.  Hoss wanted Joe to feel safe and was willing to do anything to help him.  “I don’t know where it is Joe, but I’ll go find it.  Will ya be all right if I leave ya for a minute?’

 

“Sure, I’m fine.  It’d help me out if you could go get me a gun.  I just don’t really like bein’ without it right now.  Kinda silly I know, but I think I’m just used to havin’ one.”

 

“Hey, it ain’t silly, Joe.  I’ll go get ‘cha one.  You sit tight.”  With that, Hoss walked away towards his father and Adam to inquire about the weapon.

 

Joe’s head rested against the railing that separated him from the stall located behind him.  He sat, eyes closed, and was falling away from consciousness when he heard a voice and a gun cock.

 

“Hello, Pretty Boy.  Now you know I’ve got a gun and just to let you know it’s right behind your head.  Feel it?”

 

As Joe heard the voice, he felt terror rise in him.  His heart started pounding, and he felt faint.  He knew he could not pass out, or he would be at the Stranger’s mercy.  He had to stay alert and fight against the desire to panic.  He looked over to where his family stood so close to him, but he knew if he cried out, he jeopardized his own life and perhaps his family’s as well.  He tried to keep his voice steady, but it was evident there was a shake in it.  “What do you want?”

 

The Stranger laughed a wicked laugh.  “Ah, ah, ah!  Now Pretty Boy, how quickly you forget.  I’m in charge, and I’ll always be in charge of you.  You know that don’t you kid?  I’ve been visiting in your sleep, haven’t I?  I know that one ‘cause I’ve been told I’ve done that to a lot of men.”  The Stranger laughed again, as he saw Joe start to shake.  His reaction confirmed that for the Stranger he was correct.

 

Joe wanted to scream and not stop, but his desire to live was stronger.  However, he could not control his mind as it left the livery and was in the cellar once more.  He told himself to just survive the torture.  He told himself to simply hang on.

 

“Now Pretty Boy, you’ve done a right fine job of keeping that mouth of yours shut.  I can trust you more than that ol’ Doyle fella.  He just had to have his neck stretched because he was weak.  Now you stay strong, and you’ll do just fine.  If you feel weak though and have the need to talk, here, use this, and you’ll keep it shut, I’m sure.”  The Stranger produced the gag that had been used while Joe was in the cellar.  He took the cloth and stuffed it down one of the slings, and it came to rest next to Joe’s arm.

 

A low moan was released from Joe, as he saw the gag and felt the Stranger’s touch.  He was shaking uncontrollably and staring straight ahead.  He could not move as he prayed someone would return to him and make the Stranger leave.

 

“Pretty Boy, you’ll come to hate me if you don’t already.  You know hate will destroy you if you let it burn hot.  You need to let it go cold.  Let it fester, and let it become a part of you, and then let it go cold.  When that happens, then you’ll be ready to come to me, and we’ll settle this.  I know you want to ‘cause I know the type of man you are.  You and I are now connected forever ‘til we settle this.  When you’re ready you can find me in Salt Lake.  I’ll wait for you, because I know you’ll come.”

 

The thought of being connected to the Stranger was terrifying, but Joe knew it was true.  The dreams and the memories were powerful and vivid.  It was hard for him to know where he really was when the images hit him.  The Stranger was inside of him, he knew it, and he did not know if he could tolerate the connection.  Joe was moaning softly, but it was getting louder as he shook and started to rock back and forth.

 

Ben, Adam, and Hoss heard the moaning and ran over to him.  Joe had tears streaming down his face as he rocked.  “Joseph!”  Ben called to his son as they all moved toward him.

 

Hoss made it to Joe first and was beside him.  “Joe, I’m sorry I left you little buddy.  I’m really sorry.  Is that what’s upset ya?  I’m sorry.”

 

Joe could not talk.  The terror was a massive presence, and he could not see nor hear anything else.  He knew he was with Hoss once more and was out of the cellar, but he could not stop his reaction.  The tears and moaning were the only expression he could release as he tried to calm himself.  He was so afraid the Stranger was still in the livery, and he had placed the rest of his family in peril by them coming to tend him.

 

“Son?  What is it?  What’s got you so upset?”  Ben sat down next to Joe and pulled him close.  “Ssshhh… It’s okay.  Whatever it is Joe, its going to be okay.  Calm down now, and tell me what’s got you so upset.”

 

Adam knelt down in front of Joe so that his family surrounded him.  What Joe really wanted most though, was for one of his family members to be behind him to protect him from the Stranger.  The panic was strong, and his mind raced with fear.  As he tried to calm himself and stay in the room with his thoughts, he realized he no longer felt the gun at the back of his head.  “Pa?”  Joe asked quietly as he tried to stop shaking, but the tears still flowed.

 

“What is it?  Tell me.”  Ben said, moving in close to listen.

 

“Move me to the wagon.  I wanna go home.  I… want outta here.  Please, Pa?”  Joe had begun to stand but was weak and felt his legs buckle.  He fell back against his father, but Ben reacted quickly and caught him.  Ben put his arms securely around his son as he helped him walk towards where the horses were being saddled.  He felt his child’s shakes and his own confusion.  He had no idea what had scared his son so much.

 

“Steady son.  We’ll get you over there.”  Ben comforted.  As Ben started to half walk-half carry his son towards the wagon, Joe turned back and looked over his shoulder towards the place where he had been sitting and more so to the stall beyond.  The expression on his face showed his incredible fear.  Slowly he turned back around and leaned heavily against his father.  He felt more secure but knew the images in his mind would stay there regardless of who was with him.

 

Adam saw where Joe was looking and was confused.  It seemed as if Joe was looking for something or someone.  He knew his brother was terrified and wondered what it could be that had him so upset.  The last time he had seen Joe in the same emotional state was when he had given his statement to the sheriff.  A puzzled look came across Adam’s face as he tried to determine what it was that could be so disturbing.

 

Adam looked around the area where Joe had been sitting, and then walked around and entered the stall behind.  He moved slowly, unsure what it was he was looking for.  He noticed the outside door to the stall was cracked open, so he opened it further to look around.  The streets of Reno were bustling with activity, but Adam saw nothing unusual -not that he necessarily knew what would be out of the ordinary.  He soon finished his inspection and returned to the rest of the family.  His gut said there was something there Joe had been reacting to, but he was unable to figure it out.

 

The saddling of the horses was completed, as well as the hitching of the wagon.  Joe stood leaning, his back to the wall, with Hoss’s arm firmly around him, supporting his full weight.  Joe tried to ensure himself the Stranger would not be able to get to him once more, but it was difficult, and he felt terror.  The excitement of the conversation with the Stranger had caused the sedative to stop working, and Joe felt wide-awake and hyper-alert.  He found himself wanting to help his family move faster to get them gone from Reno, but he stood back feeling afraid and useless.  He craved to feel safe.

 

Eventually, the horses were saddled, the wagon was hitched, and it was time to leave.  Ben approached Joe and spoke softly,  “Son, you ready to go?  Let’s get you into the wagon, and we’ll get going.”

 

“Yeah I am, but I wanna ride up front.”  Joe was shaky and scared, but it seemed the closer he was to someone he knew and trusted, the better he thought he would feel.

 

After the occurrence in the stable, along with the emotional events of the previous day, Ben wanted to keep Joe as calm as possible.  He decided not to do anything to make things harder for Joe unless he absolutely had to in order to make sure his son did not do further harm to himself.  Ben nodded his head to acquiesce, moved Joe over to the wagon, and helped him get up into the front seat next to Hoss.  The wagon had already been prepared so that Joe could lay down and be more comfortable in the back if he would need it on the long trip home.

 

The family finally moved out with Cochise and Chub tied to the back of the wagon, and Ben and Adam on horseback.  Joe sat next to Hoss and found himself feeling watched as they rode out of town.  He painfully turned in his seat and looked behind him.  He saw nothing but the street, the doctor’s office, and the saloon where he had been held.  He turned back around and closed his eyes.  He started saying quietly to himself,  “It’s back there, and it’s gonna stay there.  It’s all gone.  I don’t have to go to Salt Lake, and I don’t have to ever go to Reno if I don’t want to.  I’m goin’ home, and that’s all that matters.  That’s all.  It’s safe there, and I can just let it all go.”

 

As the family traveled, Joe began to feel a little safer.  Wanting to help his little brother, Hoss talked about the upcoming round up and then started to reminisce with Joe about prior round ups they had shared.  Joe allowed his thoughts to go to the memories as Hoss recalled them, which in turn allowed his mind and body to begin to relax.  Hoss’s voice was of great comfort, as Joe told himself he would close his eyes and just listen.  Joe’s calming allowed the medication in his system to begin to relieve the pain and cause sedation.  As the wagon moved along the road to the Ponderosa, Hoss felt his little brother’s head come to rest softly on his shoulder.  Hoss spoke in a low tone,  “That’s right little buddy, you sleep now, and Ol’ Hoss’ll get ‘cha home safe and sound.”

 

Both Ben and Adam had been silently pondering what had occurred in the livery as they rode along.  In his gut, Adam believed there had been something there in the barn that had caused Joe to react.  He continued to look at his brother as he tried to reason what it was that could have upset his little brother so much.  He knew it had something to do with the torture, as he kept asking himself,  “But what?”

 

Ben and Adam saw Joe’s head come to rest against Hoss, and they both felt relief that Joe was once more calm enough to sleep through the painful journey.  Ben noticed as time went by, his youngest did not move from Hoss’s shoulder, and he felt it was safe to move him to the back of the wagon.  Ben wanted Joe to rest and to be without discomfort as much as possible.  He called for his boys to stop moving forward and then added,  “Hoss, Joe, would rest easier if he were laying down.  Let’s move him to the back of the wagon.”

 

Hoss felt protective.  “But Pa, Little Joe wants to stay up here.  He said it in the livery.”

 

“I’m gonna tie Buck onto the wagon, and I’ll sit there and be with Joe.  He won’t be alone.  He just needs one of us with him.  I want him to lay down and be comfortable.  Son, you did a fine job of helping him rest, and now all I want is for it to continue.”

 

Ben settled in and sat next to his youngest.  He wanted Joe to sleep without fear.  He prayed for peace for his child, and for healing.  He looked at Adam and saw his oldest’s pain as well.  Ben knew Baxter had injured the entire family, and they would have to rely on the love they held to heal them and restored them to their former selves.  Ben believed the love his family held could do it.  They would survive the ordeal.

 

The family was once more on their way, and travel was slow.  Joe slept through the trip, only stirring to take more of the chloral hydrate offered by his father.  It was dark before the family finally reached the expansive ranch house that each called home.  Ben smiled as he woke his youngest child, knowing he was going to tell Joe something his child had desperately wanted to hear,  “Joseph, wake up son.  You’re home now.”

 

Joe came awake to hearing his father say the word ‘home’.  He was groggy but opened his eyes to familiar surroundings.  He was indeed home and could not help but smile.  “Pa, could ya help me outta here?  I wanna get in the house.”

 

Ben, Hoss, and Adam were quick to help, and Joe was soon slowly walking into the house.  Before the men could reach the door, it sprung open and standing in the doorway was Hop Sing, a big smile on his face.  Joe had been holding his head down looking at the ground as he walked, but he looked up when he heard the door open.  Hop Sing then caught sight of Joe’s face so battered and beaten, and his smile disappeared.  He could not hide the shock he felt.  He thought to himself,  “No!  My boy!  My poor boy!  Who did this to my boy?”

 

Hop Sing rapidly gathered himself together and replaced the look of shock with another smile.  “Welcome home, Mr. Joe.  Mr. Ben, Mr. Adam, Mr. Hoss, you sit, and Hop Sing make supper for family.”

 

“Thank you, Hop Sing.”  Ben said, so accustomed to the cook’s offerings.  “I think we’ll get this young man upstairs, and then we’ll take you up on that meal.”

 

Hop Sing graciously bowed and then turned and left the room.  He stopped in the doorway to the kitchen where he could watch the family move Joe upstairs.  He closed his eyes and shook his head.  He looked once more to see the youngest Cartwright-the one who usually ran up or down the stairs-move so very slowly, only able to take a step at a time.  Hop Sing said aloud to no one, “It bad.  It very bad.”

 

Joe had seen Hop Sing’s expression change, and it hurt him to see the reaction.  He did not blame Hop Sing for the look, because he himself had felt shock over his appearance.  Joe told himself he should get used that kind of reaction, as he believed he would see it often throughout the rest of his life.  Moving into the house and into his own room increased Joe’s feeling of safety, although there remained an ever-present hesitancy to let his guard down.  He looked over his room as if inspecting to see if anything was out of place.  Finding nothing amiss, he sat down on the bed.

 

Ben sent Adam and Hoss to tend to the horses, and he was finally alone with Joe.  He had seen the expression change on Hop Sing’s face as well and knew Joe had not missed it either.  He stood wondering what his son was thinking and hoping that now Joe was home, he could begin to put the events in Reno behind him.  “How’re you doing, son?”

 

“Uh, I’m okay, Pa.  That stuff you gave me makes me real tired, so I think I could probably fall right to sleep.”

 

“Well, how ‘bout I get Hop Sing to make you some supper, and then you can go on off to sleep?  What would you like to eat?  The usual?”

 

“I’m not real hungry, Pa.  Just tired.”  Joe’s face did indeed look tired, but he looked sad as well.

 

“Son, you sure you’re okay?  You look like something’s on your mind.”

 

“Pa, I ah, I don’t wanna… I know I should talk about it, but I’m tired, and I just don’t wanna talk about it now.  But Pa… I wanna thank you.  I’m glad to be home.  I needed to be here.”

 

“Joseph, you know I’m here, and your brothers are here.  You know you aren’t alone.”

 

“Yeah, I know that.  I just need to get some sleep.  I’m really tired, and, uh… I don’t think I can, uh… Can you help me, Pa?”

 

Ben was quick to assist.  He helped Joe remove his clothes, but left his arms in the slings.  As his father grabbed for a nightshirt, Joe said quietly,  “Uh, Pa… shirt’s kinda hurt.  I’ll just pull up the blankets, and I’ll be fine.”

 

Ben smiled at his son, but felt anger that someone had hurt his son to the point where a simple shirt would cause pain.  He helped Joe prepare for bed, put him under the covers, and then sat down next to his child.  “Joseph, you’ll let me know if you need anything?”

 

“Sure, but don’t worry.  I’m just glad to be home.  I’m really happy to be in my own bed.  I’ll be fine.  Don’t worry, Pa.  You know I’m gonna be okay.”

 

“Okay Joe.  I’m going to get Hop Sing to make some rice pudding for you.  You rest up here, and I’ll be back soon.”

 

“Okay, Pa.  Could you have Hop Sing put cinnamon in it?  I kinda liked that.”  Joe tried to smile at his father, but both knew Joe was trying hard to act as if nothing were wrong, and Ben was acting as if it were any other night at the ranch.  They looked at each other and knew it would be a long while until Joe would feel safe.

 

“Sure, son.  Whatever you want.”  Ben said, leaving the room.

 

Joe watched his father leave and shivered.  He was alone and truly vulnerable, but the draw to sleep was also strong, and he longed to let go.  He felt safe that the light was lit, and he knew his family was near.  He thought back to the last times that he was in his room, so carefree and happy.  It had been before the Stranger and before the pain.  He had gone to sleep that night thinking of how happy he had been that his father had noticed he had broken several more horses than expected.  As Joe lay in bed remembering, he laughed at himself.  “Oh, Joe.”  He thought.  “How easy it was to make you happy.”

 

Chapter 4

 

After his brother had found the kid, the Stranger had taken to watching the doctor’s office.  He had expected his prisoner to die from his wounds rather quickly and was actually surprised as the days past, and the undertaker remained without business.  Lawmen surrounded the area nearest the kid and his family, making it too risky to approach the building, but he relaxed, as he knew he would not be seen as suspicious.  He blended in quite easily.  He had stayed in Reno off and on during other jobs and knew he would have a quick explanation if he were to be questioned, not that he expected it.  He thought over the events in Reno, critiquing his performance, as one would a play.  He believed he had performed some scenes quite well, but others he felt did not measure up to the standard he held for himself.  He was most angered by having to work with the two incompetents Baxter had given him.  He had needed them for the initial capture, but realized he should have disposed of them soon after.  He told himself not to dwell on that issue though, since the kid’s brother had taken care of one of his irritants and he would take care of the other.

 

He prided himself in being professional and always cleaning up the ‘messes’ left after a job was completed.  He had only a few more loose ends, and he would be able to take another job, in another town.  He waited for the right opportunity and was eventually able to make it into the jail and silence a potential problem.  As he had released Doyle from his existence he looked upon him with disdain.  Doyle had cried and begged and wet himself for his life-behaviors he found pathetic and cowardly.  As he strolled out of the jail wiping his hands with a white handkerchief, he shook his head and thought,  “So unbecoming in a man.”

 

He reflected on the lives he had released from their earthly bondage, reviewing over and over each encounter, interaction, and conclusion.  He found most of the men not up to his challenge, as they quickly succumbed or begged to die.  There were a few he held in greater respect-they had held on longer before they had talked.  He found them more worthy of his admiration.  He held his highest admiration for the ones who never talked regardless of the pain.  He had dealt with a few such men.  They were rare, and he found them his most worthy opponents.  They interested him, and he wished to study what made them different from the others.  He wondered if they were not more like him, and he longed to test his hypothesis.

 

He thought of his latest captive, a kid who had held out and had been freed from his clutches.  The encounters he had experienced with the young man had made him respect the kid.  He had been amused by the kid’s spirit and wondered how long it would have continued until he would have watched the light leave the kid’s eyes as he drew his last breath.  He had every intention of ending his prisoner’s life, and felt cheated he had not been able to accomplish the deed.  He believed seeing the kid die would, in a way, give him a preview to his own death.

 

He had originally thought he would simply take aim on the kid the next time he was exposed and shoot him as he would any other menace.  However, the more he thought of this, the more he realized what a waste it would be to rid himself of such a worthy opponent without allowing the game to run it’s course and complete itself.  A bullet was worthy of the men who so easily talked after feeling the least amount of pain.  The kid was stronger than that.  When he discovered that the kid had not told the sheriff much about him, even covered for him by not revealing him as a major player, he realized then, the kid was a natural at the game.  He found that impressive and wondered if the kid had plans for him, just as he was forming plans regarding the kid.

 

He had come to decide he wanted more from him.  He wanted to see what the kid was really made of, and what it would take for the kid to either break down or become just like him.  The torture of the kid had been business, nothing more for him.  It had now turned to pleasure as he began to wonder how the kid would manage their previous encounter in his head as well as how he would resolve their unfinished business.

 

He had watched the family escort his opponent down the street.  The kid was very weak it was obvious, but he had survived the ordeal.  He tipped his hat to the kid, though he knew the kid had no idea where he was at that moment.  “Very good, Pretty Boy.  You are a fighter.”

 

He watched them walk into the livery, and he followed.  He saw his chance when the kid asked his brother to get him a gun.  He thought,  “Ah, Pretty Boy, you do still have fight in you.  I’m impressed.  You want to come for me, don’t you?”

 

After he had spoken to the kid in the livery and had seen the kid’s reaction, he evaluated it.  “Not bad, Pretty Boy.  You’re shaken, but you still stay quiet.  Yes, indeed there will be more with you.  I feel it and so do you.”  As he watched the wagon leave with the kid and his family, he said to the departing figure,  “Heal up Pretty Boy, and we’ll meet again soon.  And this time, we’ll finish it.”

 

*****

 

Light streamed into Joe’s bedroom, as he fought to wake.  He had been home for several days and had slept through most of them.  The physical and emotional strain of the days in Reno, followed by the travel home had weighed heavily on him and his body demanded sleep.  He surrendered to the need for rest, as he slept in a dreamless slumber for many hours.  His family checked on him often, each spending time sitting in his room, feeling the need to protect.  It had been something they had grown accustomed to doing in Reno and each felt the need to continue their vigil.  They seemed to know Joe would not want to wake to an empty room and took turns making sure he was well attended.  Meals were catered to him as he needed assistance simply to eat, and he would fall back into sleep quickly after.  The reassurance Joe received at waking to a loving presence kept him free of panic and away from the cellar.  He had told himself countless times while in the doctor’s office, if he were to be home, then he would be free of the Stranger.  For a short time, as the belief he was free from terror held in his mind, Joe felt safe and without fear.

 

As the sun proved it would not give in to his sleepy protests, Joe reluctantly opened his eyes and for a few moments forgot what he had endured.  He lay in bed dozing, enjoying the warmth of the blankets, and doing as he always did upon waking late.  He listened to hear who was around and what kind of mood his father might be in.  Sleeping late had always been a source of pleasure for Joe, who would take advantage of any time he was given the opportunity and a source of irritation for his father.  Joe knew his father believed in rising with the sun to begin work, but to Joe, his father seemed far too eager to get to things that could be done just as easily in a later part of the day.  And, he had justified to himself long ago, if he were more rested, he would do a better job any way, so it was beneficial for everyone that he get the most sleep possible.  He had known not to share his reasoning with his father, because on this topic, they would never see eye to eye.  As a matter of fact, Joe knew most of the Nevada territory would disagree with his philosophy regarding when best to begin the day.

 

 

As Joe lay in bed drifting in and out of sleep, he moved his leg and felt the pain that brought the events in Reno back to his awareness.  It was no longer simply a day he had slept late where the worst that could happen would be he received a lecture from his father on the evils of laziness.  Instead, it became a day where he would spend much time remembering why it was he was sleeping so much and would fight a battle to stop his thoughts from going to the Stranger.

 

Joe sat up and groaned aloud as his body fully woke and told him of it’s displeasure.  He began thinking of how he was going to manage to get out of bed and dressed when he heard someone coming down the hall.  He looked towards the door, as Adam looked around the corner to check on him.  “Hey, Joe.  Heard ya groaning.  You okay?”

 

“Yeah, just hurts ta move much.  What are you doin’ around?  I thought I’d be stuck up here ‘til least lunchtime.  What time is it any way?”  Joe asked through a yawn.

 

Adam laughed.  “Lunch was an hour ago.  We didn’t want to disturb you.  We knew you needed the sleep.”

 

“Seems that’s all I’ve done for a while.  Hey, could you maybe help me get up and dressed?  I think I’d like to look at something other than this room.  I got to see lots of it over the years, and sittin’ up here kinda makes me feel like Pa’s mad, and he’s sent me to my room again.”

 

Adam thought back to the many times he had heard his father say,  “Joseph, go to your room,” and smiled.  His brother had indeed spent many hours in his room supposedly contemplating his transgressions.  It was more likely though that Joe had spent the time in his room playing or sleeping through the punishment rather than thinking of where he had erred.  Adam had also experienced his fair share of banishment to his bedroom as a boy, but had to admit Joe had them all beat in that area.  “Sure, I’ll help.  We’ll get you liberated and downstairs.”

 

The two worked together, and Adam helped Joe dress.  All was calm until Adam wanted to retie the slings around Joe’s arms, and the gag fell out onto the floor.  Joe had originally felt the cloth next to his arm after the Stranger had placed it there, but after having been medicated, and then having fallen asleep in the wagon, he had forgotten it had been there.  That was until it had fallen out onto the floor.  Joe’s eyes remained set on the cloth as Adam picked it up and looked at it.  He then turned his look to Joe, and saw his little brother very pale and about to faint.

 

The room began to spin and Joe knew he needed to sit down.  He moved to his bed, sat and put his head down.  Watching Joe’s reaction, Adam was unsure what to make of it.  He looked again at the cloth in his hand but had no idea the significance.  “Joe, what’s wrong?  You look sick.  What is it?”

 

Joe remained with his head down, as he tried to stop the dizziness.  He made himself breathe as he looked at the floor.  He started counting the wood planks to get his mind off of the gag.  He swallowed hard and could almost taste the cotton in his mouth.  He resisted the urge to bite down hard, as he had done so many times when it was bad in the cellar.

 

Seeing Joe in obvious distress, Adam moved over and sat next to him.  “What is it?  Is this thing upsetting you?”  Adam was holding the cloth so that Joe could see it out of the corner of his eye.  Joe turned and looked away.  He knew he had to get himself under control, or Adam would become suspicious.  “Uh, nah, it ain’t that, Adam.  I got dizzy from standing, I think.  I haven’t done much of it, and the doctor said it would make me feel funny.  That’s all that happened.  I’ll be okay in a minute.”

 

Adam felt Joe was lying but he had no idea why.  The reaction Joe had seemed to have occurred because of the rag.  It did not make sense though as Adam asked himself,  “But why, Joe?  Why would you lie?”  Adam held out the rag and asked, “Do you know what this is?”

 

Joe did not look at Adam’s hand as he answered, “Uh, I saw Doctor Green with a rag like that.  Maybe he was trying to rush too much getting me outta there, and he got it mixed in with the sling.  I don’t know how it got there.”

 

Joe looked Adam in the eye, and Adam saw fear.  He knew he should not push.  “Well, okay Joe.  But listen.  If there is something else, something more, you can tell me, buddy.  Maybe I can help?”

 

“No, there’s nothing to help with.  ‘Sides, I already need you to help me get down stairs.  Now can ya help me finish dressing?”  The dizziness had passed, and Joe stood once more.  He told himself to not think of the gag, the cellar or the Stranger.

 

After Joe was dressed, the two made their way downstairs.  Adam had to help Joe’s every movement, so they traveled slowly.  The more he was up and around, the more pain Joe felt.  By the time he reached the downstairs sofa, he was exhausted and hurting.  As Joe sat, Adam could see movement had been painful and was quick to get the medicine the doctor had sent with them to help manage the pain.

 

Joe lay on the sofa with his head resting back on the arm waiting for his body to calm, and the pain to move away.  After insuring Joe was comfortable, Adam walked over to the large desk from where the massive Ponderosa Empire was run.   He had volunteered to stay around the house that day to be available if Joe needed anything.  Hop Sing was also there, so between the two men they felt that whatever Joe might need they could easily care for him. Adam sat at the desk trying to concentrate on the facts and figures of the timber mill.  He had difficulty concentrating and could not help but look up and watch his little brother.  Joe had always been somewhat of an enigma to him, and he wondered if his suspicions regarding Joe’s deception was due to his not understand his brother’s emotional reactions, or if there was something deeper going on inside of Joe.

 

The frustration and guilt over Joe having been injured had not calmed in Adam.  He had laid awake the previous night thinking about his anger at Baxter and questioning if he had allowed foolishness or even naive arrogance to drive him to pursue the ruthless man.  Adam was a man of principle and integrity who felt that corruption, wherever found, should be exposed, and the perpetrator strongly punished.  He knew he still believed it in theory, but now he had begun to develop certain questions within himself.  Questions he had thought he had known the answer to until Joe had been brutalized.  Now it seemed so much of what he held as an unquestionable belief was up for grabs.

 

The questions that ran through Adam’s mind the previous night, the one’s that had kept him so far from sleep, were questions men had asked over the ages.  After the ramifications of his decision to set up and bring down Cyrus Baxter, Adam now wondered if his decision to protect society from the likes of Baxter was wrong.  He had asked himself what was more important, Baxter’s downfall or protecting his own family?  When was it the right choice to protect himself and his family and turn his back on the masses?  He had no idea the answers.

 

In the past, Adam had found people who had not been willing to get involved and take a stand for what they believed in to be harmful to the greater good. They were too self-focused in his opinion.  He had shown his father several times where the needs of the people of Virginia City outweighed the needs of the Ponderosa.  He had helped his father loosen some of the rigidity Ben had developed regarding people whom he viewed as a threat to the Ponderosa.  Ben was naturally benevolent, but Adam had encouraged, supported, and at times prodded his father into not being so isolationistic.  Now the family had experienced an enormous price for involvement in the affairs of others, and Adam wondered if the price had been too high.  He wondered if the Cartwrights would not have been better off keeping to themselves and protecting their own.  Questioning and self doubts had replaced secure belief, and Adam was thrown.

 

The Virginia City Press Enterprise lay off to the side on the desk.  Adam looked at the headlines – Baxter’s Conviction Brings Investigation into Mining Corruption.  The conviction of Baxter was what Adam had wanted when he had talked to his father the months before regarding his suspicions, and now it was there in bold type.  The jury had deliberated less than four hours bringing in a guilty verdict at the same time Joe was giving his statement to the Sheriff of Reno.  Ben had been told of the conviction while they were still in Reno and had notified Hoss and Adam.  Since Joe had not asked, they decided to wait until he was stronger to talk to him of the trial, and Doyle’s death.  If Baxter would be charged with a crime in what had happened to Joe, it would be up to Joe to be the one to charge him and testify against him.  Adam shook his head.  It would be a Cartwright once more going up against the man Adam now felt was truly evil.  He had serious doubts if Joe could tolerate such an ordeal given how he had responded to giving his statement, and the emotional reactions that were occurring inside his little brother for which there seemed no obvious reason.  Adam began to regret not having shot the man as his first impulse had told him to do.

 

Adam looked over to the sofa and could see Joe’s eyes closed.  He stood and began to walk across the room when he saw Joe’s eyes open.  “Hey, feeling better?”

 

“Uh, yeah.  Kinda tired now, but it doesn’t hurt so much.”

 

“I was going to the kitchen.  You want anything?  You gotta be hungry.”

 

“Nah, I don’t want anything.  Thanks anyway.”

 

“You know you’re not gonna get away without eating, so let me get you something, and I’ll help you eat it.”

 

Joe sighed loudly.  “Adam, I don’t want anything.  It’s just all, uh… I’m not hungry right now.”

 

“Hey, I know this is really hard on you Joe, but you’ve got to eat.  I’m gonna get you something, and you just try and eat what you can.”  Adam did not wait for Joe to respond before he was off to the kitchen.  He returned without a tray and Joe gave him a questioning look.  Adam explained,  “Hop Sing told me he would get it and sent me out of the room.”

 

The two shared a look and a grin, both knowing Hop Sing was the boss of the kitchen, and they would have to bow to his wishes.  Hop Sing soon appeared with a tray piled with food and placed it on the large table in front of Joe..  “Little Joe, you eat all and get better.”

 

Joe rolled his eyes at the doting cook and then looked at the tray.  “Hey could ya put some cinnamon on the rice pudding, Hop Sing?  It’s better that way.”

 

Hop Sing gave Joe a look of questioning and offense.  “Why you now want to change how Hop Sing make your pudding?  You eat all time the way Hop Sing make.  Now you change.  You no like Hop Sing’s no more?”

 

With that Hop Sing turned away from Joe and Adam to make Joe the rice pudding exactly the way he wanted it.  As he left, Hop Sing silently scolded himself.  He had forgotten Joe now liked cinnamon on the pudding.  He had wanted to make his boy feel better, and he felt as if he had failed.  He chastised himself all the way to the kitchen.

 

Joe watched Hop Sing scurry to the kitchen and shook his head.  He knew how much Hop Sing loved and pampered him, but also knew Hop Sing would not show it in the traditional western way.  Hop Sing and Joe had developed a strong bond long before Joe’s mother died, and he knew the cook’s rantings were a sign of affection.  He chuckled and said,  “You’d think I insulted second cousin or somethin’.  Sheesh.”

 

They laughed as Hop Sing returned quickly.  He placed the bowl on the tray and scurried away, chattering all the while.  “Little Joe think I have all time in world to make pudding.  He not care Hop Sing busy.  Too busy to mess with boy who change mind.  Hop Sing’s pudding used to be best boy ever had.  Now it no good.  Boy need to make own pudding he not like Hop Sing’s.”  The rest of the speech was in Cantonese of which Joe understood.  He heard Hop Sing say,  “Eat it all.  There is more if you want it.”

 

Joe chuckled at his friend’s carrying on and the ‘secret’ message he had been given.  Adam enjoyed Joe’s laugh, but as he helped his brother eat, he saw Joe’s mood sober.  Adam debated if he should ask what was wrong, although he knew it was that Joe hated to be so dependent.  He decided to approach it differently.  “Joe, there’s something I’d like to talk to you about if you’re up to it.”

 

Joe was caught off guard.  “Yeah, sure.  What is it?”

 

Adam felt uncomfortable, but wanted to help.  “You know, you and I haven’t really talked about what you went through and how grateful I am to you.”

 

“Yeah we did, Adam, at the doctor’s office.  I don’t remember some of it, but I remember you talking to me.  You already thanked me.  But, you know…” Joe felt his discomfort rising.  “You don’t have to thank me.  I only did what you would do for me.”

 

“But Joe, I want you to know I know how hard this is for you.  I’m sorry that you went through what you did, buddy.  I would trade places with you if I could.”

 

“I know that, Adam.  I do.”  Joe saw something come over Adam’s face.  “What is it, Adam?  Why you lookin’ like that?”

 

“I wanted to tell you I’m sorry.  Sorry for getting you hurt.”  The words were hard for Adam, not because he was unwilling to apologize, it was because the emotions felt uncomfortable and expressing them with his youngest brother was somewhat foreign.

 

“But you didn’t get me hurt.  It was Baxter and… um… the uh… the men he told to, uh… ta do it.  You didn’t do it, Adam.  You got nothin’ to be sorry for.”  Joe saw Adam’s concern and it made him feel loved, but awkward.  His relationship with Adam was confusing to him as they usually allowed much to go unspoken between them.

 

Adam saw his opportunity to ease his brother’s discomfort.  He thought that if he made it so Joe felt he was helping him, then Joe might relax and allow himself to be properly tended.  Adam was not fooling himself either.  He knew it would make himself feel better to help Joe, but that was really secondary to wanting his brother to acquiesce.  “Well, I do feel responsible about all of this, and I’d like to… Um Joe, I think it would help me some if you let me help you.  It’s real hard to know I caused all this, and you’re hurting, and I think that maybe we could get each other through it.  What do you say?”

 

Joe was conflicted and torn.  He wanted to be independent because that was his nature and how he felt most comfortable, but he knew it was impossible for him at that moment.  He wanted to help make Adam feel better, but to do so in the manner Adam said he needed, require him to have to lean on his brother, and that went against Joe’s nature.  However, the conflict was complex and multifaceted.  He also wanted his big brother’s protection, but knew he was the one who had to protect them all from the evil he had encountered.  It left him confused.  “I don’t know what you’re askin’ Adam.  What do you want me to do?”

 

“Nothing Joe, other than let me take care of you for a while.  Well, me, and Pa, and Hoss, really.  Let us tend to you and get you all better.  I know it would help me, and you should have seen Pa and Hoss stumbling all over themselves to help you these past few days.  I think we need to do this for you, buddy.”

 

“But Adam, I don’t… it uh, bothers… I hate bein’ like this.  I hate havin’ to have help with everything.  You wanna know frustratin’?  Try having an itch on your face that you can’t scratch, and then even if you could, it would hurt so darn bad to scratch the place.”  Joe looked down at his arms.  When he looked back up, there were tears in his eyes.  “I hate it, Adam.”

 

“Hey now, we’re your family, Joe.  We want to help you, and you won’t be like this long.  You’re gonna heal up quicker than you think, and it will all be over.”

 

“I know, but I feel like I’m three years old not bein’ able to do anything and getting all upset all the time.  It’s driving me crazy.”

 

“Buddy, you need us.  There is nothing wrong with that.  We want to help.  Hey, I want to help.  I know you’ll be there to return the favor someday.  Hell, you already have done that.  Joe, it’s not a weakness in you.  You’re incredible in what you survived.  It won’t be long before we’ll be arm wrestling again, and I’ll let you win as I always do.”  Adam was grinning broadly.

 

“Oh yeah!  You let me win!  I can beat you with one arm tied down!”  Joe realized what he said and grinned back at Adam.  “Just not two of ‘em!”

 

Adam leaned over and ruffled Joe’s hair.  “You let me help you now, and we’ll see how you do against me.”

 

“I’ll try, Adam.  I will.  I just can’t guarantee I can do it without gettin’ upset sometimes.”

 

“Hey, I understand.  You can get upset, but I’m still going to be there to help.”  Adam was encouraged at how things were going.

 

 

“Okay, you got a deal.  You help me now, and I’ll beat you later.”  Joe tried to hold his smile, but it was hard, as he knew he was admitting he was dependent and agreeing not to fight it so hard.

 

The two settled into a familiar quiet with each other, as Joe finished his meal and then began dozing once more.  Adam moved back over to the desk and tried to finish the work he scheduled for himself for that day.  It was near dinnertime when the big door opened, and boots were heard across the hardwood floor.  Adam looked up to see his father catch sight of Joe on the sofa.  Ben moved over to where he could see his youngest son’s face and smiled at his sleeping child.  Hoss moved quietly over to a chair near the sofa and sat down, tired from a day of ranch work.  He too looked at his little brother.  The work he was doing on the ranch was a project both he and Joe had started before the ordeal with Baxter, and he had found himself missing Joe’s company throughout the day.  When Hoss and Joe worked together, they often found the fun in a tedious task by either ruthlessly teasing each other, discussing the latest pretty girl that had caught Joe’s eye, or news and gossip from Virginia City.  It had been too quiet in Hoss’ opinion as he worked, and he looked forward to Joe being up and about to keep him company.

 

Ben walked over to Adam and spoke softly.  “How’s he been today?”

 

Before answering, Adam thought over what had transpired in Joe’s room.  He had no idea what had happened inside of his brother and wondered if telling his father would only make him worry.  “Oh, he’s had a pretty good day.  He’s slept most of the time, but about an hour after lunch he woke up and wanted to come downstairs.  He seemed to have a rough start getting going, but he’s okay now.”

 

“What do you mean rough start?”  A look of worry crossed Ben’s face.

 

“I’m not sure what happened to tell you the truth.  He seemed like he was going to faint, but then, he’s been fine since.  I thought it was because he was getting upset about things from Reno, but he told me it was cause he felt funny standing.  I don’t really know what it was.  But Pa, he’s okay right now.  Don’t worry.”

 

Telling Ben not to worry about one of his boys was like telling the sun not to shine.  He looked over at his youngest with concern.  “I am worried, and I know you are too.  We need to continue to keep a close eye on him for a while.”

 

“We’ll get him through it, Pa.  He’ll make it.”  Adam prayed his words would come true given his own doubts that Joe could return to his former self.  Adam felt the change within him and wondered if anything would ever be as it had before he had heard the name Cyrus Baxter.

 

The remainder of the evening passed quietly, with Joe dozing off and on, and the rest of the family retiring to their usual relaxation.  Conversation was casual and easy with the family sharing small talk and several laughs.  Joe joined in as much as he could, but it was obvious he tired easily and was fading fast.  “Joseph, it looks like you’re ready for bed.  I’ll help you upstairs.”  Ben began to stand and was over to Joe before he could protest.

 

Ben and Joe moved slowly together up to Joe’s room.  Joe sat on the bed feeling the strain of climbing the stairs.  He was tired, but was uncertain if he really wanted to try to sleep.  This was the first night he was not so incredibly exhausted since being injured, and he knew he might not fall off quickly to sleep.  He thought of being alone in the dark, and it bothered him.  He looked at his bedside table and saw Adam had placed the gag on it.  He knew he would have a difficult night.  “Uh, Pa?  I uh, well, I’m not real tired, so maybe I’ll stay up a while.”

 

“That’s fine, son.  You need me to help you get undressed, don’t you?”

 

“Yeah, I guess.  I wanna get my arms out of these things.  It’s hard to sleep with ‘em all done up like this.”

 

Ben once more helped his youngest get ready for bed.  He thought over the many times he had done this for his boys, making sure they were scrubbed clean, or at least were without obvious dirt, and had said their prayers before bed.  He recognized as he helped his son that he missed having little boys around at times.  He had never felt a closer time with each of his boys when they were little than at night, as they ended their day and were about ready to be lost to sleep.  During those precious times, he had heard many fanciful tales and little boy tragedies.  They were all locked firmly away in his heart, and he held them close.

 

Ben began to tuck in Joe and then stopped himself.  He looked at his son with an expression of apology, and Joe smiled.  “I was waitin’ for it myself, Pa.  Kinda feels like a lot of other times.  Ya know?  Times when I was little.”

 

“I still see you as little sometimes, Joseph.  You grew so quick.”

 

“Could a fooled me.  I thought it took forever!”  Joe quipped.

 

Ben laughed at his son’s remark, knowing growing up had been Joe’s primary goal as a child.  He patted his son’s leg and then stood to walk out of the room.  “Do you need anything else, son?”

 

“Naugh, I’m fine.”

 

Ben went to pull Joe’s door closed when he heard,  “Uh, Pa.  You can leave it open.  I, uh, well I may, uh…” Joe had no reason for the door being left open except to hear his family around him.

 

“Oh, uh, good idea, son.  If you had to get up in the night to get one of us, the door would be a problem.  I’ll leave it open.”

 

“Thanks, Pa.”  Joe lay back putting his head on the headboard of his bed and sighed heavily as he listened to his father walk away and down the stairs.  The room was then quiet, and he was alone.  He looked around his room once more, noting that nothing appeared out of place.  He listened to voices speaking in low tones downstairs.  They were close and could come if they heard him yell, but the feeling of being alone and exposed was strong, and his family’s presence did little to quell it.

 

Joe lay in bed staring at the familiar ceiling, telling himself to breathe easily and not think of Reno.  He had little success and finally decided to do what he did as a boy.  He struggled and sat up slowly, feeling each muscle he used as he moved.  He made his way over to his window and sat in the sill.  His first instinct was to look up and try and locate his mother’s star.  He knew it was the time of year where it was harder if not impossible to find, and it left him feeling abandoned.  He talked quietly to her in his head, telling her how much he missed her and loved her and then turned his attention to the yard below him.

 

He had never noticed before, the number of shadows that were cast on the area around the house.  The moon was a crescent so the light was low, but the shadows were massive, and Joe felt his uneasiness grow.  He studied the area as best he could, trying to think if anything was different.  “Has that always been there and I’m just now noticing it, or has someone moved it?”  He asked himself as he scanned the area.  He then felt silly at his need to know that everything was in it’s place, and there was nothing in the dark to harm him.  Joe was about to move back over to the bed, when he saw a small glow of a cigarette.  He squinted hard and tried to make out the figure.  It was a man standing leaning against the barn.  Joe was frustrated at the lack of light, which made it impossible to make out who was there.  He felt his heart beat faster as he noticed from the cigarette light that the figure had turned and was looking up at him.  He sat frozen as he began to breathe rapidly, his pulse racing and the fear growing.  “Who are you, and what do you want?”  He said aloud to the figure.  “Get out of here!  Leave!  Go!  Go away!”

 

Joe’s heart jumped as the figure moved.  He watched as the man threw down the cigarette, smashed it out with his foot and then turned and went inside the bunkhouse.  Joe closed his eyes as he breathed a sigh of relief, but he remained trembling and shaken.  He opened his eyes to the dark of the night and realized there could be anyone outside his window, waiting for him.  The thought was overwhelming.  He rapidly moved himself back to his bed, out of the line of sight of lurking evils.

 

Night.  Joe hated the constant return of the time that was so hard for him.  During the day there were many distractions and obligations to keep him away from himself, but the night.  The night made him have to listen to his head and feel the loneliness of the lack of answers.  It was not always bad.  There were times he welcomed the dark and embraced the freedom it gave him to allow his mind to wander far away to adventures and intrigue.  But the dreams he knew were coming were the ones where he would fight to wake.  They were the dreams of death and torture and pain.

 

“Safe.”  The word kept reverberating in his brain.  “If only I could feel safe.”  His room was usually a place of safety at least it had been for eighteen years.  Was it still safe?  Would he ever feel any place was safe.  He thought again of the man outside and was immediately thrown into fear.  He told himself to stop it- stop thinking of unknown threats, but it did not work, and he was terrified.

 

Joe felt his vulnerability.  Felt it and hated it.  He stood and made his way slowly to his door and then out and into the hall.  He creeped down the hallway, careful not to make a sound to alert his family below.  He did not want them to know of his fear.  He made it to the hall closet.  He was unsure if he could even perform the next few maneuvers, but he used his fear to push him forward.  He took a deep breath and made his arm move.  He closed his eyes to the pain as he felt the door handle.  It was next to impossible to grip it, and it took several tries to get a grasp and turn the knob.  He felt lightheaded as the pain went through him, and he paused for it to pass.

 

Eventually, he reached into the closet, and lifted several towels.  It was there as he had hoped.  He reached in to pick it up, but the weight was too heavy, the pain immense, and the pistol fell to the floor with a loud thud.  “Damn it!”  Joe swore as he waited to hear what the response from downstairs would be and thankful the weapon had not fired.

 

“Joseph?  Everything okay?”  Ben called up the stairs.

 

“Uh, yeah, Pa, every things fine.  I was trying to move some things off my night stand and they fell on the floor.”

 

“You need help?”

 

“Nah, no, Pa.  I’m fine.  Just gonna go to sleep now.”

 

“Well you call if you need anything.”

 

“I will, Pa, night.”  Joe breathed a sigh of relief when no one came up the stairs to investigate.  He looked down at the weapon lying on the floor and knew although it did not weigh much, there was not any way he could pick up and carry it.  He worked diligently and quietly, scooting the pistol along the floor with his foot.  He kept it on the rug to avoid any noise the gun could make against the floor.  Joe painstakingly guided it to his room and over to his bed.  He knew the most difficult part was next.  He bent down and using both hands, he scooped up the weapon and placed it on his bed.  He had to sit then in order to calm the fire in his arms as he also gathered his breath.  However, having the gun in his possession quieted some of the fear.  After the pain lessened to a dull ache he used his hands one final time to push the gun under his pillow.  His task complete, he breathed a sigh of relief once more.  He could now sleep, because he felt he was ready for the Stranger.  It would hurt him to have to hold and fire the weapon, but he knew he would do it and that gave him peace.

 

Joe finally allowed himself to lie down to sleep.  His need for protection was momentarily addressed, and he would reluctantly let go his diligent watch.  Joe fell off to sleep trying only to think of the good that was around him.  He knew the bad would eventually intrude, but he wanted it safe just a little while, and he made it that way in his mind.

 

*****

 

The time dragged on as Joe impatiently waited for his body to heal and attempted to manage his thoughts.  His moods vacillated, and he became difficult and hard to predict.  He would move through periods of irritability where he was very dark, and snap and bite, as the limitations of his mobility would wear him down.  His family helped him as best they knew, but no one was immune to Joe’s moods.  If he was in a complacent mood, the house felt peace, but if he were in a black mood, it hung over the house like a cloud.

 

Joe made a realization early in his recovery.  The medication kept him too groggy, unaware and relaxed in his surroundings; something he felt was dangerous for him so he began taking less of it.  He soon was enduring his body’s protests by sheer will power, as he preferred pain and alertness to medication and the possibility of something happening for which he was not prepared.  He admitted to himself that the seduction of the medicine was a strong temptation.  He knew it could allow him to become unaware of so much including the memories of the cellar, but the risk of harm to himself or his family was too great, and he would not allow it.

 

As he became increasingly mobile, Joe attempted to manipulate situations so he was never alone in the house if it were at all possible.  His tendency was to keep close to whomever was around, all the while trying to make it appear only a coincidence or as if he were merely bored and wanting to talk.  He would stay in the kitchen with Hop Sing as the cook tended the family’s needs, or in the great room when his father or Adam worked on the ranch paperwork.  Hoss tended to work outdoors most of the day, and Joe missed spending time with him. He made up for it at night when he would spend the majority of his time talking to Hoss, listening to how his older brother’s day had gone, or as his arms and wrist became somewhat stronger, playing checkers.

 

It was not abandonment Joe feared in being alone, rather it was his own vulnerability.  He had learned his family would not willingly leave him, but he knew they were also very busy, attending to the Ponderosa’s welfare.  He knew the livelihood of the ranch was important, but he could not quiet the need inside of him.  He needed the ranch to step aside and be second.  He was afraid and wanted to be with the familiar and the safe.  Somehow, he reasoned, if there were others around, he was less likely to be taken off guard.  He made sure when he woke he was out of bed and down the stairs quickly, so he would know everyone’s whereabouts.  He was on his way downstairs when he overheard Adam and his father talking at his father’s desk.

 

“You gonna talk to him about it?”  Adam asked with concern.

 

“Yes, I know I should, just not sure when.”  Ben answered, but upon seeing Joe, he changed the subject quickly.  “Joe, morning.  Sleep well?”

 

Immediately Joe knew the conversation concerned him.  “Talk to me about what?”

 

“Oh, uh, well, I wanted to talk to you about your birthday.  We’d like to have a party for you.”

 

Joe looked at his father and then Adam with suspicion.  He was at first unsure if his birthday was what they were really discussing, and became certain they were hiding something from him when he saw his father quickly put down and cover up a paper he had been holding in his hand.  It bothered him that he was being deceived.  “You’re discussing my birthday?”

 

Ben responded as if he did not notice Joe’s questioning.  “I think we should have a big shin dig here for you, what do you say?”

 

The idea of having a group of people around felt overwhelming.  Joe had not wanted to be seen by anyone since returning to the ranch and knew he could not tolerate a party.  The thought of friends looking at him with unspoken questions or worse yet, pity made him feel ill.  He was slowly recovering, but his face and body still showed the torture he had undergone.  He briefly pictured how an evening of friends would be for him but stopped the thoughts.  “No, Pa.  I don’t want a party.  I uh, I’m not really feelin’ good enough yet.”

 

Joe’s response saddened and concerned his father.  Ben knew his youngest loved parties, especially his own birthday parties and had hoped a party would lift Joe’s spirits.  Joe was quite popular with the young ladies and tended to use get-togethers and parties as a time to flirt with all of them, which seemed to always put him in a good mood.  He thought he knew why his son was turning him down and wondered if Joe was not returned to his former self, how long his son would spend his time held up in the house.  Ben was unsure the best manner to handle Joe’s discomfort.  “Okay son.  But is there anything you’d like to do for your birthday?”

 

“No, not really.  It doesn’t matter to me.”  Joe walked over to the sofa and sat down.  He did not want to discuss his birthday further and hoped the subject would quickly change.  As he sat, he started to think that his father and Adam had been talking about something they did not want to share with him.  He then started to feel annoyed.  One of Joe’s greatest irritants was when he felt his family was trying to protect him from something they felt he should not know.  He often wanted to ask them,  “Am I such a child you have to coddle me?  When’ll I ever be grown to you?”  As he sat thinking, he became angrier.  Soon Joe was furious.  He was lost in his anger when his father spoke,  “What are you going to be doing today, Joe?”

 

There was a pregnant pause before Joe answered in a terse manner.  “Probably, the usual-nothing.”

 

Ben and Adam noticed Joe’s mood and knew to tread lightly.  Adam made a suggestion.  “You want to ride out with me to the branding corral?  It’d be good to get out of here I think.”

 

“Oh and you know what is good for me don’t you?”  Joe muttered.  The anger drove him on as he spoke before he thought,  “I know you weren’t really talking about my birthday when I walked in.  What is it you two were discussing?  Not my mother this time ‘cause nothing I know of brought that one about, so what is it now you feel you both have to protect me from?”

 

Adam and Ben became nervous at Joe’s confrontation.  Adam tried to remain calm.  “Joe, it’s nothing you need to get so angry about.  We were just talking about some things.”

 

“Okay, I’m an idiot!  It was enough of something that you wanted to hide it from me, but I’m not supposed to let it bother me!  What is it?  What do I need protection from now!”  Joe knew he was becoming obnoxious, but his frustration drove him.

 

“Joseph, stop.”  Ben commanded.

 

“Stop what, Pa?  Stop getting upset at the secrets you two whisper?  You gotta be kidding me!  Really!  You’re not very good at all of this!  I learned a thing or two I could show you!  Don’t let ‘em see they’ve got you, Pa!  You go through it and you don’t say nothin’, and you let ‘em do it to you.”  The hurt, pain and fear of what Joe had endured were pushing hard on him.  He did not want to say what he had, but seemed unable to stop it.

 

“Joe, come on.  Don’t do this.  You don’t need to get so upset.”  Adam tried to calm Joe, but knew from experience that his brother was probably passed calming.

 

“Oh of course Adam!  I have no reason to be upset!  Well dear brother, you and Pa go on and have your secrets.  I don’t really care.  But don’t think me a fool!  I know what is happening!  You and Pa both so good at agreeing to protect poor Joe from something.  Well ya wanna know somethin’, older brother?  I’ve seen the worst that can happen!  I seen it and looked at it and made my peace with it!  Whatever you think you’re protecting me from, I don’t need it!  You got nothin’ I ain’t seen!  So go on ahead and lie to me!”

 

“Joe, stop now!  Stop it!”  Ben was beginning to anger.

 

“You keep saying stop, Pa.  Stop what exactly!  Stop asking to know the truth!  Stop wanting you two to stop talking behind me! What, Pa!  Tell me what to stop, and I will!”

 

“Joseph, calm down now and hold your tongue.  You have no right to speak like this, and I won’t tolerate it.”

 

Joe smirked.  “Pa, I ain’t afraid of you!”

 

“What did you say, Joseph?”  Ben could not believe what he heard from his youngest.  He started to move towards Joe, but then stopped himself.  Taking a deep breath he said,  “I’ve never wanted you to fear me, but you will respect me.  I think you need to go back upstairs and think about what it is you will say next to me.  And I would advise you, young man, to think long and hard about it.”

 

There was a standoff as Joe stood looking at his father defiantly, and Ben stood firmly.  Joe looked to Adam, their eyes locked briefly, and then Adam looked away.  Joe stood, turned and ran up the stairs to his room.  He slammed the door and then looked around his room.  He asked himself why he had become so angry and had no answer.  He looked to his desk and saw several books.  He picked them up and threw them across the room.  The intense pain he felt from using his arms was ignored due to his anger.  His rage seemed to be building rather than dissipating.  He felt the need to hurt someone as he wrestled his feelings.  He wanted revenge and had no idea how to channel the rage.

 

The books being thrown across the room were not missed by the men downstairs.  Ben looked to the ceiling and shook his head.  “I have no idea what to do with him right now.  He’s impossible.  One minute he’s fine, the next he’s taking our heads off.  Has he talked to you or Hoss about Reno?”

 

“No… he’s been pretty quiet about all of it.  But you know as well as I do that it’s eating at him.  Let me go try and talk to him.  Maybe tell him what happened to Baxter.  It could possibly help him.”

 

 

Ben stood thinking for a moment, then shook his head at the problem.  “It’s worth a try I guess.  I’ll be up later to talk to him as well.  He has got to learn to control that temper of his.”

 

Adam grabbed the paper he and his father had been discussing and headed up the stairs.  Ben watched Adam leave and then walked over, sat at his desk and put his head in his hands.  He was at a loss as to how to help Joe.

 

The knock on Joe’s door was not unexpected.  Joe ignored it, hoping whomever was there would go away.  He was standing looking out his window when the door opened.  “Go away and leave me alone.”  Joe did not bother to turn around as he stood trying to control his rage.

 

Adam ignored Joe’s protest.  “Hey, I wanted to talk to you about what Pa and I were discussing.  You’re right.  It did involve you.  Come sit down and talk to me.”

 

“I can talk just fine from here.  What do you want?”

 

“Come on Joe, calm down.  No one meant to upset you.  We were trying to figure out the best way to tell you.”

 

“Tell me what?”  Joe asked staring into the yard.

 

Adam was unsure how best to approach the topic.  “With everything you had to go through in Reno…”

 

“I don’t want to talk about Reno!  Reno is over, so if that is what you want to talk about, get out!”

 

“Joe, wait it isn’t really about Reno, its about Baxter.”

 

Joe finally turned around and looked at Adam.  “What about him?”

 

“You up to talking about this?”

 

“I can handle it.”  Joe tried to sound tough, but hearing Baxter’s name had made his heart jump.

 

“Pa and I were discussing Baxter’s conviction when you came in the room.  While we were still in Reno, Baxter was convicted.  Given ten years in Yuma.”

 

“So, he deserved it.  What does that have to do with me?”  Joe was beginning to feel uneasy.  There had been no discussion regarding Joe pressing his own charges against the man for what had happened in Reno.  He wondered if that was what they wanted him to do and had no idea how he would survive something like that.

 

Adam took a deep breath before continuing.  “Roy Coffee rode out this morning before you woke up.  He came out to tell us Baxter’s dead.”

 

“Dead?  How?  When?”  Joe was shocked at the news and slowly sat on the bed.

 

“Roy said the prison guards were transporting Baxter to Yuma when they were ambushed.  One guard made it but the rest were killed.  They seem to think it may have been someone Baxter had swindled.  I guess the way he was killed was brutal.  Roy said it was pretty obvious he was tortured.”  Adam realized what he had said too late.

 

Joe was looking at his hands unsure what to feel.  He kept asking over and over in his mind,  “Baxter dead?”  Joe spoke quietly,  “Tortured?  How?”

 

Adam held a newspaper account of Baxter’s demise in his hand.  “You want to read this?”

 

Joe reached out and took the paper.  He was unsure if he wanted it.  “Uh, I’ll read it later.  Well I guess that’s it then.  They’re all dead.  Was wondering about a trial, but I guess there’s no one left to testify against.”

 

What Joe said struck Adam as strange.  “You know about Doyle?”

 

“Yeah, why wouldn’t I know?”  Joe made his admission before realizing its significance.

 

“Joe, how’d you know that?”

 

“Uh…” The realization of where Joe had learned the information hit him and he was thrown.  “I, uh I think Pa told me maybe.  I don’t really remember.  Doesn’t really matter anyway.”  Joe looked at Adam hoping he had not raised suspicion.

 

 

Adam knew their father had not told Joe about Doyle.  They had talked about telling Joe when they had discussed Baxter’s death.  Adam could see Joe was nervous and thought to himself,  “Joe, what’s really goin’ on with you?  What is it you’re hiding?”  He said,  “Hum, that’s strange Joe, Pa told me he hadn’t told you about Doyle.”

 

“I don’t know where I heard it.  Must have been Hoss, then.  Anyway, it doesn’t matter.  It’s all over and done with.”  Joe looked at the newspaper article more for a distraction than anything else.  He started to read.

 

CYRUS BAXTER, PRISON GUARDS SLAIN IN ROUTE TO YUMA

 

Reports arrived in Virginia City late Monday evening from Yuma Territorial Prison that the wagon transporting Cyrus Baxter has been ambushed.  Baxter was murdered along with two prison guards who were traveling with the convicted man.  The lone survivor of the attack, a prison guard named Henry Taylor was shot and left for dead.  Taylor survived his wounds and was able to give an accounting of the events to lawmen.  He reported the attack appeared well orchestrated, as no one saw anything until it was too late.  A roadblock was placed on a blind curve, which resulted in the driver having to veer from the road, tipping the wagon.  Taylor went on to tell that the guards were shot immediately after the wagon came to rest.  Although injured, Taylor was able to hear the events that occurred next.  He heard the voice of a man who seemed to know Baxter’s identity.  The unidentified assailant spoke to Baxter as he took him out of the wagon.  Taylor reported the man having said,  “This is going to be fun,” and told Baxter he really should not have withheld the money the man was owed.  Taylor heard screams from Baxter as the assailant laughed and told him he knew he was weak and he was easy to break.  Cyrus Baxter’s body was brutally tortured and he eventually died from multiple knife wounds.  Motive for the killing has been speculated as revenge for Baxter’s bilking of thousands of dollars.  There are no known suspects as of this writing.

 

Joe read and reread the article.  His eyes kept returning to what the assailant had said.  He knew immediately who had killed the corrupt businessman.  Adam watched Joe read and then saw him go back and look over the article once more.  “You okay?”

 

Joe sat staring at the paper, unable to divert his eyes.  He heard the Stranger’s voice in his head laughing and saying over and over  “This is going to be fun.”  He finally spoke very softly,  “Uh, Adam, I’m fine.  Just fine, I uh, think I uh, wanna be alone.”

 

Adam did not want to leave his brother by himself.  Joe did not seem to be fine.  “Hey, why don’t I just stay a little longer and maybe you and I talk some?”

 

“Huh?  Talk?”  Joe sounded far off as he questioned Adam.

 

Adam took the paper from Joe’s hands and set it aside.  “I don’t think you’re okay right now.  I’m just going to stay with you a little while.”

 

Joe ignored Adam’s response as he sat continuing to look at his hands.  It appeared as if he were simply thinking out loud.  “Can I ask you a question?”

 

“Sure.  Ask.”

 

“Why would someone want to torture someone?”

 

“Uh, I don’t know, buddy.  I’d think there was something wrong with them.”

 

“Like what?”

 

“Well, some folks would say they’re evil I guess.  Or maybe they were not right in their head some way.  To tell you the truth, I’m not sure why someone would want to do something like that.”

 

“What do you think makes someone evil?  They born that way?  Does somethin’ happen to them, and they just get that way?”

 

“Boy, you’re asking some tough ones.  I don’t know, Joe.  There’re books written on this stuff.  No one seems to really agree.  Some say you’re born that way and some say you become that way.”

 

Joe sat not speaking as he thought over his ordeal with the Stranger and asking himself questions – so many whys.  “Why did he like hurting me?  Why does he kill so easily?”  Joe knew the murder of Doyle and Baxter was to keep them quiet, and yet he himself was left to walk around free to speak at anytime of the Stranger.  “Why did he let me live?”  He had no answers as the questions ate at him.  Joe wondered how long it would be before he and the Stranger would once more meet.  He involuntarily shuddered as he sat reliving their previous encounter.  He knew he had more to endure.

 

*****

 

It had not been his original plan to bother with Baxter, but Baxter had tried to change the rules and that was not done.  He had received a wire from one of Baxter’s cronies that told him he would not be paid for his work.  That was an insult to him as a businessman.  How dare Baxter tell him his work was not worthy of being adequately compensated.  After all, it was Baxter’s men who had allowed the kid to be discovered.  Of course once found, he himself had surrendered the handcuff key, but it had been part of the game – rescuing the kid from himself.  It had made him laugh.

 

He had followed the prison wagon from Virginia City.  Virginia City.  He knew that was where his opponent lived.  He thought of the kid when he was in town and knew he was somewhere close.  As he thought of the encounter he had wanted with his adversary he became melancholy.  The kid was so very close, and yet the game could not continue just yet.  The kid had to heal and be ready to come for him.

 

What was the kid doing?  Was he thinking of him?  Was he in his blood?  The kid was growing in importance in his own mind.  He hoped it was the same for his young opponent.  He hoped he was thought of, dreamed of and waited for.  Was he there?  Was he waiting?

 

He followed the wagon for a while and then rode ahead.  He knew the trap he would set was to rid him of the one who had questioned his bill.  Baxter was a soft, fat, weak man.  He knew it before he had approached, but the man’s reactions confirmed it.  He had told Baxter of his displeasure and had seen fear.  Fear-a weakness if the man could not control it.  The more he talked the greater the reaction.  He had killed the guards without thought other than they were a nuisance and needed to be gone from his sight.  They knew the perils of their job when they took it, so he gave it no thought to shoot them.  His pleasure was firmly on playing with Baxter.  He dragged Baxter out of the wagon by his hair as the man whimpered and cried.  He threw him against the rocks to make the man quiet and still the man begged.  “What a pathetic pig!”  He had said.

 

He had looked with disdain on the businessman knowing he was so far beneath him.  The torture left him empty, as it was easy and unchallenging.  He sat and looked over Baxter before deciding how he would sign his work of art.  He eventually decided to make his mark in the execution by gutting Baxter.  He reasoned it was fitting a pig.

 

After finishing his task, he looked himself over to make sure he had been professional and had not soiled himself with the dead man’s blood.  He noted a drop of blood on his boot and swore out loud.  He kicked Baxter’s dead body feeling he had been wronged once more by the dead man.  He then wiped the boot with a handkerchief, mounted his horse and rode away never looking back.  He would go to Salt Lake and rejoin his life as he waited for the one he knew would come.  He began to think of that encounter and smiled.

 

*****

 

It was dark.  The only sound, a constant drip of water.  Joe tried to determine where he was, but the blackness kept the location hidden.  He called out,  “Is anyone there?” 

 

“Come here.”  The familiar voice called to him.  He moved towards it, knowing he could do nothing to stop himself.  The Stranger was there as he always was-waiting. 

 

“Is it over?”  Joe asked once he was standing in front of the Stranger.

 

The Stranger laughed.  “Yes.”

 

“I can leave?  You’re finished?”

 

The laugh continued.  “Oh no, Pretty Boy.  You can’t leave.  You’re dead.  You’re life is what is over.  All that is left now is me.  You and me.”  The Stranger then pointed to the handcuffs. “You know what to do.”

 

Joe picked up the handcuffs and placed one around his wrist.  He reached up, put the cuff over the beam and then cuffed his other wrist.  He heard the cracking of the whip and the wicked laughing getting louder.  The laughter and the popping became deafening.

 

The screaming was heard throughout the house, as Joe bolted upright in bed.  It was difficult to breathe, and he gasped.  He kept saying over and over to the night,  “Get out of my head!  Get out!”

 

Ben and Adam were quick to Joe’s door.  Ben waved Adam off as he entered his youngest’s room.  Adam remained in the hallway, wanting to help, but knowing his brother needed his father.  Joe’s nightmares weighed heavily on Adam’s shoulders.

 

“You okay, Joe?”  Joe jumped at the voice.  He had not heard his door open, or Ben enter.

 

“Uh, yeah, I think so, Pa.”

 

“Sounded like a bad one.”  Ben moved over to the bed and sat next to his son.  “Tell me about it?”

 

“It’s just the, uh, the stuff that happened… I keep dreamin’ ‘bout it.  It keeps comin’ back.  I can’t seem to stop it.”

 

“I’ve noticed they’ve been real bad since you found out about Baxter.  Think there’s any connection?

 

Joe had been free of nightmares once he placed the gun under his pillow, but since he read of Baxter’s death, the gun no longer brought comfort.  He knew the Stranger could get him anywhere, anytime.  “Don’t know, maybe.  I just wish I could forget it all.  I don’t know why it won’t just go away.”

 

“Son, what you went through was a nightmare in itself.  I know none of us can really understand what it was like for you, but you’re safe now.  The people who hurt you are dead.  It’ll take time for you to put it behind you, but you will eventually.  I know that.  Listen, what can I do to help?”

 

The desire to tell his father was strong.  Joe said the words in his head,  “There’s one more.  He’s evil, Pa, and he’s inside me.  He did it all.  He did it, and I can’t keep him away from me.  Help me kill him, Pa.  I want him dead.”  Joe looked at his father, his eyes seeming to beg.

 

“All you have to do is ask, and I’d do it.”

 

“I know you would, Pa.  There’s nothing you can do, though.  It’s all in my head.  I’ll be okay.  You go on back to bed.”

 

Ben patted his son’s leg.  “You think you can go back to sleep?  I could stay, you know.”

 

“Um, leave the lamp, and I’ll read a bit and then probably fall back asleep.  I’m okay, though.  Really.”

 

Ben sat a while longer, knowing Joe was trying to be brave.  He also knew his son would hide his fears from him.  Finally Ben stood.  “Son, if you need me, I’m right down the hall.”

 

“I know.  I’ll get you if I need you.  I’ll just read a while.  I’ll be fine.”

 

Ben left his son’s room reluctantly.  He saw Adam still in the hall and placing his hand on his eldest’s shoulder.  He whispered,  “He’s okay.  Don’t worry.”

 

Ben and Adam shared a look and then each retired to his room.  Both did as they had done whenever Joe was having difficulty with nightmares.  They left their doors cracked, wanting to listen in case Joe needed them.  Adam lit the lamp in his room, knowing he would not fall back asleep any time soon.  He picked up the book he had been reading and tried to become involved in the words on the page.  He was unsuccessful as the words remained merely words, and the plot left him flat.  He finally put down the book and laid thinking.

 

His thoughts went to his brother.  Joe was bad off.  Adam knew it and was at a loss as to how and help.  He thought over the times in their lives that he had experienced the greatest connection with his little brother.  He knew it had been when Joe was very small and looked upon his older brother with admiration.  Something had happened to them as Joe grew.  Adam was unsure just what it had been.  Was it Marie’s death that had formed the wall between the two?  Was it his own travels to college while Joe was still little?  Was it his return after time away from the family that had made the rift?  He knew he and Joe loved each other very much, but there were strong differences in temperament.  He wondered if that was all it was between them.

 

Adam had to admit that it was very hard for him not to parent Joe.  The age difference made it a natural tendency, but it was when he became like a parent that Joe and he were doomed for an explosion.  But Adam had to admit to himself, there were times he did feel very parental with Joe.  His biggest frustration was that his little brother was very bright, but had never really done much with his intellect.  Adam wondered how Marie would have felt about it.  Marie had encouraged and supported his own intellectual endeavors and wondered how she would have brought up Joe.  Adam also knew Joe had a fire in him that was difficult to harness.  He saw the potential in his brother and was frustrated that Joe did not seem to care.  His brother seemed to simply take it for granted, or worse yet, at times give into his destructive impulses.

 

Joe’s passions were not Adam’s.  Adam thought of where Joe found happiness.  His brother loved a good horse, laughing with his friends, a pretty girl, and a brawl in a saloon.  Was that it?  Was Joe no deeper than that?  No, Adam knew Joe also found his greatest joy in his family and being part of what they were building with the Ponderosa, but beyond that, Adam admitted he did not know his little brother very well.  His relationship with Joe could be very good.  When both could relax, they could laugh and talk easily.  But if one or the other were defensive, an argument would soon result; the tension between them could be thick.

 

Defensive.  Adam asked himself why it was so easy to become defensive with Joe.  He knew part of it was because Joe could be brutal in his attack-going straight for the throat and not seeming to care the damage.  But was that all it was, Joe’s rage?  No there was more, and as Adam lay in bed being honest with himself, he admitted something.  At times he felt Joe did not like him as a person.  It seemed silly to worry about your own brother not liking you, but it was true.  Adam knew Joe loved him, but wondered if Joe really liked him.  He saw the fun Hoss and Joe had, and it was obvious the two genuinely liked each other.  The picture was much murkier with him and Joe, and he had no idea how his little brother felt about him.

 

He asked himself if he liked his brother.  He thought over Joe’s escapades and laughed – thinking of his little brother’s mischievous look when he was up to something, Joe’s grabbing hold of life full force, without fear, and his brother’s funny habits that made the family exasperated at times.  Yes, he did like his brother.  He concluded he must or the situations he found himself in with Joe where they were locked in heated battle would not frustrate him as much as they did.  He would never share with Joe that an argument between the two would stay with him for days.  It is one reason he dreaded the friction.  Joe could get to him as no other could.

 

The night passed slowly as Adam lay in thought.  He noted the light stayed on in Joe’s room and eventually got up to check on him.  He saw his little brother propped up against the headboard, sound asleep, a book in his lap. Seeing his brother asleep with a book brought a smile to Adam.  Adam had tutored Joe with some of his schooling and could just about bet money that if Joe were left with a book to read that Joe deemed dull, he would quickly be asleep after the first few pages.  Joe had jokingly told Adam it was their own fault he fell asleep reading, because that was how they had always put him to bed when he was little.

 

Adam walked over and took the book.  He glanced at the title: Critique of Practical Reason.  He was taken aback that Joe would be reading Kant. He knew Joe was an action and adventure lover, and a book such as he was now reading would have been Joe’s last choice for entertainment.  It was apparent the book was from Adam’s room, one he had used in college.  As Adam thought over what the philosopher had discussed in the book, he thought he knew the reason Joe was reading it.  The book discussed morality and man’s actions.  Was Joe still asking questions about evil?  Adam wanted so badly to wake his brother and talk with him.

 

Instead, Adam talked very softly and moved Joe so he was lying in bed.  He pulled up the blankets to cover his brother, but Joe in his sleep quickly pushed them back down.  Adam took a seat in Joe’s room holding the book and watching his brother.  Joe slept soundly, with no torture invading his dreams.  He eventually rolled away from Adam, as his sleep deepened.  Adam looked at his brother’s back the whip marks so harsh. What had been done to Joe was amoral, the epitome of evil.  Adam looked at the book, wishing Joe’s answers were all inside.

 

Adam stood to walk out of the room when something caught his eye.  There was a glint of silver under Joe’s pillow.  He reached for the object, Joe too lost in sleep to know.  Adam’s hand touched metal, the object familiar.  He closed his eyes knowing his brother was so very afraid.  He said softly,  “Little buddy, I’m sorry.  I’m so sorry.” and placed the gun back as he had found it.  He would do nothing to deprive his brother of security.  Adam sat back down, placed his head in his hands and watched over his youngest brother as he slept.

 

*****

 

The smell of cake permeated the downstairs of the large house.  Hop Sing had been cooking most of the day in anticipation of the celebration that evening.  The day was Joseph’s nineteenth birthday.  Ben decided to honor Joe’s wishes that there be no party with guests, however he had remained hopeful up until a few days prior, Joe would change his mind.  He was disappointed when Joe never broached the subject.  Ben talked with Adam and Hoss about trying to make the day a good one for Joe, and both brothers vowed it would be so.

 

Joe woke early that day, after a difficult night of dreams laced with never ending torment.  He was exhausted, but knew the gift of sound sleep was something he would not be blessed with that morning.  He lay in bed for what seemed hours, not wanting to get up and face the day.  He was thinking he finally might be ready to leave his bed when there was a knock at his door.  “Yeah, come in.”  Joe halfheartedly invited.

 

He saw Hop Sing in his doorway, a tray in his hand, and Hoss standing behind, smiling.  “Happy birthday, Little Joe.”  Hop Sing greeted.

 

Joe tried to look interested and smiled.  “Thanks, Hop Sing.  I’d forgot it was today.”

 

“Little Joe forget birthday?  That very bad.  Hop Sing no forget.  Hoss no forget.  We bring breakfast.  You eat in room, stay in bed you want.”

 

“What’s this, Short Shanks?”  Hoss was determined Joe would be happy.  “You forgettin’ it’s your birthday?  That just ain’t right.  I’ll fix that for you by singing to ya.”

 

“NO! PLEASE DON’T!”  Joe begged.  “Last time you sang there was an avalanche.  No tellin’ what you’d bring down with that voice of yours.”

 

“Nope, Joe.  I gotta do this.  It just ain’t your birthday without me singin’ to ya.”  With that, Hoss launched into his own rendition of Happy Birthday.

 

Joe could not help but laugh.  He groaned and winced as Hoss was determined to hit all the notes on the scale.  Ben and Adam had been downstairs but could not miss hearing Hoss serenade his little brother.  They crept up the stairs and saw Joe, sitting up in bed laughing.  Hoss was standing in his most professional of stances, hands clasped in front of him, projecting his voice across the room.

 

Upon finishing, Hoss put down his hands and bowed to his audience.  Joe was laughing hard and shook his head at his brother’s talent.  Ben and Adam joined in the laughing, and the family shared it first real joy in some time.  Determined to keep the mood light, Ben yelled, “One more time.”  With that Hop Sing, Ben, and Adam joined in with Hoss singing a rousing chorus of Happy Birthday to the youngest Cartwright.  Joe moaned and groaned at his family’s entertainment, but for a few minutes, he completely forgot Reno and the Stranger.

 

After the singing, Ben, Adam, and Hop Sing returned to their tasks, and Hoss and Joe were alone in Joe’s room.  Joe sat eating the breakfast Hop Sing had lovingly made.  It was pancakes with lots of syrup, which happened to be Joe’s favorite breakfast as a little boy.  Hop Sing, a big one for tradition had decided long ago Joe would get pancakes on his birthday, or any other special occasion.  He smiled at his friend’s remembrance.  Hop Sing loved to keep Joe small, and Joe humored him in a way he would do for no other.  To be small for Hop Sing cost him nothing in family status, and it allowed him to feel a little of his mother.  He would have it no other way.

 

Hoss had wanted to spend some time alone with Joe and was grateful the room had cleared quickly.  He wanted to talk with his little brother about the thing they always discussed on their birthdays.  Joe and Hoss had started some time back their own birthday tradition.  It had begun as little boys, but was a part of them, and neither would forget the event.  “So you thought of it yet?”  Hoss asked with full knowledge Joe would know what he was asking.

 

The memories came flooding back.  It had been on Joe’s first birthday after his mother had died that Hoss had wanted to cheer him up.  He had told his baby brother that birthday’s were magical and, because they were such, Joe could ask one thing of his older brother which Hoss could not refuse.  That birthday Joe had decided Hoss would have to take him fishing, and they would have to go alone.  Joe had kept the tradition alive on Hoss’ birthday, allowing a request to be made of him.  That sealed the event as a yearly occurrence between the boys.

 

Joe sat and remembered other birthdays and requests he had made.  He thought of the time he and Hoss were feuding badly, and he had made Hoss dig a six foot trench with further specifications that it be four feet deep, collect all the earthworms from the diggings and then fill it back in.  Hoss had countered that year by deciding Joe should have to sort through a box of hundreds of nails, placing them in piles according to Hoss’ directions.  Joe recalled more requests: a hunting trip, the use of a favored rifle, more fishing, and an occasional chore.  The only rules to the tradition were that requests stayed between the brothers, nothing was asked that could wind either up in their father’s bad graces, and the request, if reasonable, could not be denied.  The definition of reasonable was left to the minds of little boys.

 

The history of requests made Joe smile as he thought of them, but he sobered quickly.  He knew what he wanted to ask of Hoss, but wondered if he was breaking a rule.  Was what he was about to ask reasonable?  Joe’s voice was soft and he looked at his blankets as he made his birthday request.  “Hoss, I want you to never, uh, to um, never hate me for what I might do.”

 

Joe’s request stunned Hoss.  “Hate you?  Joe, I could never hate you.  What would make you ask something like that?  No, that ain’t no request.  Ask something else.”

 

Joe looked up at Hoss.  “Uh, no Hoss.  It’s what I really want from you.  Just give me that.”

 

“That’s the easiest one you’ve ever asked for, cause I’d never hate ya, Joe.  Not in a million years.”  It was confusing to see Joe so serious, and his request disturbed Hoss greatly.  “Is there somethin’ buggin’ ya that maybe I could help with?  Seems you’re troubled.  I hear the nightmares, Joe.  You wanna talk?”

 

“Um, Hoss it’s just bad right now.  But it’ll get better.  You know that.”

 

Hoss knew Joe was trying to take care of him with his words, but Joe would speak no further on the topic.  “Uh, Joe, let me help you get dressed, and we’ll head on downstairs.”

 

“How ‘bout you finish the pancakes there so I don’t get fussed at, and I can manage most of the gettin’ dressed ‘cept the buttons and such.”  Joe tried to return the atmosphere to it’s previous lightheartedness, but he felt pensive, and it proved difficult.

 

After dressing and making his way downstairs, Joe encouraged Hoss to go about his daily activities, but Hoss would not hear of it and made himself at Joe’s disposal.  The two sat and talked of nothing deeper than how Hoss had heard the hunting was in the high country.  Joe would not tell his family but he was dreading that evening.  He had wanted his birthday to simply come and go, but knew his family would never hear of that.  He hoped he could pretend well enough that he was happy that they would enjoy the evening and he would avoid hurting their feelings.  He was brought back to the conversation with Hoss, when Hoss asked,  “Mm, Joe, that cake smells great, don’t it?”

 

“”Yeah it does.”

 

“I’m glad it’s your birthday, cause it’s chocolate cake tonight.  Boy, when Pa has his, he has that ol puny angel food cake.  That stuff’s mostly air.  I gotta eat a lot more to get satisfied on that measly cake.”

 

“Yeah, I noticed.  But, I also noticed heavier cake don’t stop you from eating at least two slices of the chocolate one either.”  Joe chuckled.

 

“Ah, come on Joe, you see how Hop Sing holds back on me.  Seems to think I should cut back.  I happened to think I need the cake on the chance I could be stuck somewhere on this ranch and miss a meal or two.  Then I’d need it to endure the hardship.”

 

“Yeah, I know we’d worry if you went without a couple of meals.  Could be dangerous.”

 

The two remained bantering until the door opened, and Ben and Adam arrived.  There were the usual exchanges, and then the family was ready to sit down for dinner.  Ben had brought out one of his finest wines for the evening meal and stood to propose a toast.  “Gentlemen, may I propose a toast to Joseph, on his nineteenth birthday.  Son, you have brought me such happiness and have contributed to more than your fair share of gray hairs on my head.  We are so very blessed and thankful you are with us and well on the mend.  Happy birthday, son.”

 

The allusion to Reno made Joe uncomfortable, but he accepted the toast as if he had not noticed the reference and drank.  He sat through dinner trying hard to smile at the right times and comment when appropriate.  He fought hard to stop thinking of headier issues, such as why was he still alive to have a birthday and would he survive to have another?  The thought would pass briefly through his head, and he would make himself refocus and think of nothing more than the plate in front of him.

 

Dinner concluded and Hop Sing took center stage.  He made Hoss dim the lanterns as his cake made its entrance.  Everyone knew to hem and ha at the presentation, as this was Hop Sing’s finest hour.  It became momentarily awkward when Hop Sing presented the knife for Joe to cut the cake, and Joe balked.  He was gaining control of his arms much easier than his wrists and had difficulty at times using his hands.  Ben, seeing his son’s discomfort, quickly stepped in with the excuse that he had to take over to cut the cake so each would get their fair share.  After cake, the family retired to the great room.

 

“Well Joseph, now comes your favorite part, the presents.”  Ben watched his son’s face and could see Joe was not enjoying his birthday much.  It seemed his son was trying hard, but was distant.

 

“Oh boy, now I get to do mine first.  Be right back.”  Hoss was on his way to the kitchen before anyone could speak.

 

“Hey Joe, maybe it’s a side of beef?”  Adam quipped.

 

“Naugh, Hoss’d give me his bank account before I’d see him part with a side of beef.”

 

Hoss quickly returned along with Hop Sing.  “Now Joe, this is really from Hop Sing ‘n me.  You know that time I knotted up all that rope bettin’ you couldn’t undo it, and it took you days, but you finally got it?  Well Joe, this is your challenge.  Hop Sing showed me a thing or two ‘bout puzzles.  You ain’t gonna get this one.”

 

Joe unwrapped the gift and saw before him a very simple looking puzzle of two metal pieces interlocked.  “What, this thing?  It looks easy.  I bet I can do it, too.”

 

Hop Sing and Hoss smiled.  The gift peaked Joe’s interest.  Hop Sing furthered the challenge,  “Little Joe, think easy.  Spend many hour, no get puzzle undone.  Little Joe have to ask Hop Sing for answer.  Hop Sing decide if he give answer.”

 

“There’s no way I’ll have to ask you, Hop Sing.  I’ll get it.  You watch.”

 

“Well Joe, this is from me.  It’s a challenge of another sort.  Happy birthday.”  With that Adam handed Joe his gift.  Before even unwrapping, Joe knew it was a book.  He looked at the title: Critique of Pure Reason.  Joe had no idea Adam had seen what he had been reading.  There was an awkward silence, and then Joe spoke, “Uh, I borrowed that uh, other one from you.  I guess I should a asked.  I was um, just…”

 

Adam helped him out,  “Hey the one you’re reading’s his second volume.  This is his first.  I’d lost my copy of this one, or I’d’ve just loaned it to you earlier.  I guess I’ll have to borrow this one from you some time.”

 

“There’s a switch.”  Hoss remarked.

 

Joe and Adam stood looking at each other, neither speaking.  Joe eventually looked down once more at the book, and without thought, opened the front cover.  He saw Adam’s distinctive script.  Adam did not tell Joe the words he had written had been advice given him many years ago by Marie.  He hoped his little brother would heed the words as he sought out answers to very painful questions.

 

Joe-

Happy 19th birthday.  For the answers you search for, let books be only part of where you look.  Let your family and your heart also guide you.  You’ll never get lost that way.

Love, Adam

 

The words touched Joe deeply, and he felt the tears wanting to form.  He cleared his throat, took a deep breath and said,  “Thanks Adam.  I’ll try.”

 

Ben was touched at the scene he witnessed between his eldest and youngest.  He stood by quietly, allowing his boys to share something very special.  He knew they both needed it.  Eventually though, the moment was over, as neither Joe nor Adam could say anything further, and Ben intervened.  “Well Joseph, I have a gift for you, but we need to go to the barn to see it.”  Ben had himself, lovingly placed his gift to his son on Cochise after thoroughly grooming the paint pony.

 

Joe heard he would need to go outside and his heart began to beat wildly.  He avoided being out of doors since returning to the ranch, and the thought brought terror.  The feeling of vulnerability was almost overwhelming.  He developed a sense of safety being in the house with his family and had not entertained the idea of traveling outside.

 

Ben saw Joe go pale.  He had noticed since the time they had returned from Reno, Joe was staying inside, and it was one reason why he wanted Joe to venture out to the barn.  The hope was that on such a happy occasion, Joe would be able to be with his family and see there was nothing to fear.  Ben wondered if he had done the right thing.  However he worried if he did not get Joe out of the house soon, the problem would only become worse.  “Son, why don’t we go out there and see what you got?”  Ben put his arm around Joe’s shoulder and started walking.  He felt Joe’s legs resist slightly, but then he began to walk.

 

Adam and Hoss watched what was occurring.  The three had discussed the previous evening after Joe had gone to bed the need to get Joe outside and back into life.  They agreed to try to get him out to the barn, but each one was having second thoughts as they saw Joe’s face.  As they moved toward the door, Joe stopped.  He looked at his father trying not to panic.  His thoughts were loud as they raced through his mind.  Ben said very quietly,  “It’s okay.  I’ll be right beside you.”

 

Joe looked to his father wanting to talk him out of making him go outside, then to the waist of each man.  He saw no gun belts, no way to protect.  He did not know if he could make it out the door.  His eyes darted to the credenza and saw his own gun belt lying atop the cabinet, no gun in the holster.  He turned his focus back to his father and tried to trust.  He made his unwilling legs move, but a man to the gallows would have shown more life in his step.  Ben opened the door, and Joe looked out into the night.  Across the yard a light burned in the barn.  Joe told himself to focus on the light and simply make himself walk.  He made it through the doorway then he stopped,  “Wait!”  He called out as he turned and grabbed the first gun belt his hand could reach.  He winced at the weight and quickly threw it over his shoulder.  There was pain, but relief.  He told himself he could now make himself move.

 

No one commented as they moved out to the yard.  Ben had his arm firmly around Joe.  Joe allowed himself to feel the weight of the gun, and Adam and Hoss brought up the rear.  It was then that Joe could face his fear.  The group made it to the barn, and Ben slowly opened the barn door.  The first sight Joe could see was Cochise decked out in all new tack, and the walk across the yard was temporarily forgotten.  “You were listening!”  Joe exclaimed in reference to the many hints he had made to his father.

 

“Yes, as a matter of fact I listened the first time you told me about the saddle, and the second, and the third.”

 

“Ew wee, Cooch that does look right fine on you.”  Joe began to talk softly to his beloved horse.  “I bet there ain’t a better lookin’ pony in the territory.  No, I take that back-in the country.  You’re gonna be the envy for sure.”

 

Ben, Hoss, and Adam stood back as Joe walked all the way around Cochise, seeing the tack from every angle, and talking quietly to the mare.  “Yeah, you’re gonna make them other Ponderosa horses look a might pitiful.  We’ll have to not make ‘em feel so bad, only do this get up when we really wanna look our best.  Otherwise, Pa, Hoss, and Adam’ll just hide away from embarrassment, and you and I’ll have to do all the work ‘round here.  Yep, this is for when we’re feelin’ spry.”

 

Ben, Hoss, and Adam exchanged looks and laughs.  No one could carry on more about an animal than Joe could about Cochise.  It was enjoyable to watch, and the family lingered in the barn.  Eventually, Joe reluctantly allowed them to unsaddle Cochise, as he closely supervised where the new tack should be placed.  Finally the family was ready to return to the house.

 

As they moved towards the house, Joe suddenly stopped at the hitching post in front.  He wanted to make himself fight the fear.  He had felt happiness in the barn as he fussed over Cochise, and the return of fear upon being exposed in the night bothered him.  It started to make him angry with himself.  He wanted his freedom back, but the fear was strong.  He decided to face it.  “Uh Pa… I wanna, um… listen… I am gonna stay out here a few minutes… um… I wanna see if… I’ll be in soon.  You all go on inside.”

 

“Son, we can all just stay out here if you want, or one of us can stay with you.”

 

“No… thanks… but you know as well as I do… I gotta… do it.”

 

Ben felt proud Joe was willing to try.  His son’s courage continued to amaze him.  “Very well.  We’ll be inside.”  Ben put his arms around Hoss and Adam and walked them inside without looking back.

 

Joe heard the door shut and reminded himself to breathe.  He had the gun belt on his shoulder and told himself,  “If he’s here, I’ll shoot him.  I’ll just shoot him.”  Joe was shaking and felt his legs want to buckle.  He kept telling himself he was safe; it would pass.  He wanted to run for the door, but made himself lean against the hitching post.  He would not give in.  He closed his eyes to make himself focus on even breathing, but opened them quickly to a noise.  He soon identified the noise and talked himself through the panic.  He would make himself stay until it passed.

 

Immediately upon entering the house, all three men moved over to the high windows behind Ben’s desk and looked out.  They watched.  They watched Joe look longingly at the door to the house, but he did not move.  They watched as Joe closed his eyes and shook his head.  They watched, as it was obvious Joe was forcing himself to do something that terrified him.  They watched and each held their breath.  They rooted for Joe in their heads that he would win and overcome a personal demon.  They were rewarded when an hour later Joe slowly walked into the house, put the gun belt on the credenza and casually walked upstairs to bed.  The three men looked at each other realizing Joe had given himself the most awe-inspiring gift.

 

*****

 

The dream came as it usually did, the darkness, the sound of dripping water, the Stranger.  It was all there, as it was every night.  The dream was a constant that stayed with Joe, waiting – willing to be placed on pause during waking hours, waiting – willing for him to join in each night.  He lay sleeping, his face grimacing at the realization The Stranger was there, and they would again be locked in a sadistic dance.  Joe talked aloud, no one to hear but the Stranger in his head. The light burned in his room, but in the drama, there was only darkness.  Two men, two wills, both battling for one man’s peace.  The dream ran it’s familiar course, but as the Stranger pointed for Joe to place himself in bondage, something changed.  The dance was altered, as a new script was written.  Joe’s mind resisted the old scenes, as it had fought the fear in the yard days before.  His mind took the lead as the scenario developed anew.

 

The Stranger pointed to the cuffs, and Joe walked to them.  He picked them up, but as he looked down, expecting to see the familiar, he saw a pistol.  The fear left, as he realized he was finally protected.  The torture was over.  He could now fight back.  He turned to the Stranger, as he held the gun firmly in front of him.  There was no shake, nor tremor in his hand, as he aimed.  It felt good.  It felt so very good.  The rage was strong, stronger than any other feeling he experienced.  It was powerful and intoxicating to have the Stranger in his sites, Joe in full control.   Joe smiled as he spoke,  “Now you die!”  He pulled back the trigger and fired. 

 

The first shot sent the house into panic.  Ben, Hoss, and Adam were immediately awake and down the hall to where they heard the shots originate.

 

The Stranger would not fall as Joe shot him rather he stood defiantly laughing and mocking.  Joe pulled the trigger once more, as he growled,  “I want you dead!  DEAD!”

 

All three men arrived simultaneously, but were momentarily halted, as the sight before them was completely unexpected.

 

Joe sat up in bed, arm outstretched, and eye looking down the sites of the pistol, a haunting grin on his face, firing into the wall across the room.  Ben called out  “Joseph!” just as Joe pulled the trigger.  The gun discharged – bullet three.

 

Ben reacted before he thought, moving quickly towards Joe, all the while mindful of the gun.  “DIE, DAMN YOU!”  Joe screamed his voice guttural.  The gun discharged – bullet four.

 

Ben dove on top of Joe at the same time he reached for Joe’s left arm.  He made sure to grab securely, pointing the gun away from any target.  The gun discharged – bullet five.

 

Joe felt panic and confusion as his father grabbed him, placing him firmly in a bear hug.  The nightmare still remained but was fading.  “NO!  YOU WON’T WIN!”  Joe quickened his pace, as he began madly squeezing the trigger.  The gun discharged – bullet six.  As he continued to pull the trigger, the click of a dry fire was heard over and over.  The gun discharged – the bullets gone.

 

“NO!”  Joe screamed repeatedly as he woke himself.  He was fighting and struggling with his father to be freed.  “I WANT YOU DEAD!”

 

“Joseph!  Joseph, wake up!  Wake up, son!”  Ben held on to his bucking son as Joe became more coherent.

 

“NO!  No!  no!”  Joe cried, but the terror was leaving.  He realized he was no longer with the Stranger.

 

“Son, it was a dream!  Wake up!”  Ben went to take the gun from Joe’s hand, but his son held firm.  He saw Joe’s knuckles, white from his grip.  “Joseph, let go of the gun.  Go ahead.  It’s okay to let go.”

 

Joe was disoriented and confused.  He had no idea he had been shooting at nothing, nor that it had all been a dream.  He felt his left arm being grabbed, and he tried to move it away.  Ben held firm, and Hoss and Adam moved over to help.  As Joe became more coherent, he still refused to let go the gun.  Ben wrestled his arm down, pinning it against the bed.  Adam then reached in and began to work to remove the weapon from Joe’s grasp.  He had to pry the gun away, as Joe screamed,  “NO!  I NEED IT!  I GOTTA KILL HIM!  STOP IT!  NO!”

 

“Joseph, let go!”  Ben commanded.

 

Adam worked to free the weapon.  Joe’s strength was fading, but adrenaline worked where injury inhibited, and it proved difficult.  Eventually, Adam won and pulled away, the gun in his hand.  Joe let out another scream,  “NO!  GIVE IT BACK!  YOU DON’T UNDERSTAND!  I GOTTA KILL HIM!”

 

Ben grabbed Joe by the shoulders, gave Joe a little shake as he made his son look squarely in his eye.  “Joseph, stop it and look at me!  LOOK AT ME!”

 

The grasp and the shake made Joe stop fighting.  He looked at his father confused.  Ben tried to explain,  “Joseph, it was a dream, only a dream.  Now calm down and stop this right now.  Settle down.”

 

Joe was breathing hard from the ordeal.  He looked at his father but then turned to Adam.  “Give it here.”  Joe said calmly.

 

“No, Joseph!  Stop it!”  Ben continued to try to get Joe’s mind off the weapon.  “Joseph, you just shot up your room with that thing!  You don’t need it!”

 

“Huh?  I shot…  What?”  It slowly registered what his father had told him.  He noticed the smell of gunpowder in the room.  He looked passed his father and saw bullet holes in the wall in front of him.  Four definite holes, each less than an inch from the other.  He looked back to his father and shook his head,  “No Pa, I didn’t.  I couldn’t.  I was…” Joe suddenly turned from his father and looked back to the head of the bed.  His pillow was thrown to the side, the gun gone.

 

It finally registered.  Joe realized what he had done.  He looked back to his father, his expression a mixture of fear and embarrassment.  “I uh… I didn’t mean… oh god!”

 

Realizing Joe was fully cognizant and aware Ben released his hold.  The two sat unmoving, both uncertain what to say.  Joe broke the silence.  “Pa, I’m… I’m sorry.  I didn’t do it on purpose.”

 

“I know that, son.  I know you were asleep.  Tell me, where’d you get the gun?”

 

“Gun?  It was… I had it… I put it… it’s from the closet in the hall.”

 

“You walked out there and got it tonight?  Do you remember that?”

 

“Uh, no… I didn’t get it tonight.  I got it a little while ago.  I was uh… I kept it…” Joe closed his eyes not wanting to see his father’s reaction.  “Under my pillow.”

 

“WHAT!  You’re telling me you kept a loaded weapon under your pillow!  You could’ve blown your head off!  That’s ludicrous!”  Ben was reacting out of his own fear, momentarily forgetting why Joe had needed the gun so desperately.  His son had shot up his room and the thought that something worse could have happened gave him a shiver.  “What in the Sam Hill were you thinking!”

 

“But Pa… I needed it.  I need it.  It makes it better.  I’m sorry, Pa.  I won’t do it again.  Just give it here, and I’ll put it somewhere else.”  Joe reached to Adam hoping to get the weapon back.

 

“Adam, don’t you dare give that to him.  Joseph, do you have any idea how dangerous this was?  What you did?”

 

“But Pa, I didn’t mean it.  I didn’t.  It won’t happen again.  I promise.”

 

“You were asleep!  How are you going to promise not to do something you did in your sleep?!  This is the most bizarre thing I’ve ever seen.  You are not getting that gun back, young man!”

 

“You can’t do this!  I told you I didn’t mean it.  It was an accident!  You can’t!”

 

“Pa?”  Adam interrupted.  He could see his brother and father escalating and knew where they were headed.  “Maybe we should all just calm down.”

 

Ben ignored Adam.  “Oh, I can, and I will, Joseph!  You have no business with a gun under your pillow!  Under your pillow!  I still can’t believe this!”

 

“I didn’t mean for this to happen!  I just need it!  I’ll put it over here on the nightstand, and it’ll just stay right there!  Pa, you gotta let me have it!  Adam, please!”  Joe once more reached for the gun in Adam’s possession, a look of pleading on his face.

 

“Joseph!  Stop it now!  Someone could have died tonight!  Do you not have any understanding of that!  You were shooting a gun off, asleep!  You must be crazy if you think for one minute I’m gonna trust you with a gun in here!”

 

“I’m NOT crazy!  You don’t know what it’s like!  I have ta have that gun!”  Joe jumped up and was headed for Adam.  His only thought getting his hand on the weapon and bringing back safety.

 

Ben lunged forward, grabbing Joe around the waist and pulling him back onto the bed.  “You’ll do no such thing!  You stay right on this bed, and you don’t move, if you know what is good for you!”

 

“I’m trying to tell you, and you won’t listen!  I gotta have that gun!  Give me the gun!”  Joe knew his father would stop his movements, and all he had left was to beg.  It felt degrading.

 

“Pa, Joe, stop it.  This is getting out of control!”  Adam intervened once more trying to be the voice of reason.

 

“Adam, stay out of this!  This is between Joseph and myself!”

 

Adam wanted to try to help his father get beyond what could have happened, to remember why it was Joe had the gun in the first place.  He feared if his father did not remember soon, more damage might inadvertently be done to Joe.  “Pa, Joe had the gun to help him handle what he’s been through.  You know that.”

 

“Oh, so Adam, now you’re gonna tell me you think it’s okay for Joe to have a loaded weapon under his pillow!  Surely you can’t think that’s smart!”

 

“Pa, I won’t put it there!  I promise!  Please!  You don’t know what happens!”  The emotion was extreme as Joe fought hard for what he believed would keep him from harm.  He was shocked and angry with himself for what he had done, and fearful his father would remove the one thing that had given him back his power.  For the first time since the torture, Joe had felt powerful.  He now knew it had been a dream, but the feeling of control was such a relief.  He needed the feeling to remain, but saw his father tearing it from his grasp.

 

“Well Pa, I didn’t see the harm, but now I do.  It’s just there has to be some middle ground here.”  Adam was hoping to deflect the intensity between Joe and his father, but realized too late he had added to his father’s anger.

 

“What do you mean you didn’t see the harm!  You knew he was doing this!”

 

“I, um… saw it there once, but I didn’t think it would hurt anything.”

 

“I can’t believe this!  I could almost expect this out of him, but you!  Adam, what the hell were you thinking!”

 

As Joe listened, he felt hurt and his rage.  It was obvious his father did not understand what he needed.  His need for protection was paramount, and the one with whom he usually felt it was betraying him.

 

“Joe was just trying to cope with what he’s been through.  He’s scared, Pa!”  Adam had not wanted to meet his father’s intensity, but he realized it was the only way to get through.  He felt his own guilt that Joe was suffering and was frustrated his father had forgotten.

 

Ben half listened to his eldest as he was ready to chastise Adam’s lack of discernment.  He had been so very afraid of Joe dying only a few short weeks ago and the current situation sent him beyond fear.  Joseph had acted inexplicably, and it seemed to Ben, he was the only one trying to protect Joe from himself.  “He’s scared!  This isn’t helping, to go shooting off guns in the house!  Joseph, you expect me to believe this helps you!”  Ben had faced Adam as he talked with him, but as he went to ask his youngest the question, his arm made a sweeping gesture, which passed in front of Joe’s face, inches from hitting him.

 

Joe recoiled as if his father’s arm had struck him.  He had been sitting tense and afraid as he listened to the argument.  His father’s movement caught him off guard.  He pulled back, the need for flight apparent.  His eyes were wide appearing almost wild.  Why did his father want to hurt him?  He anticipated the hits to his face, and his body tensed.  He wanted away from the danger.  He had no understanding of what was happening to him-only the need to flee.

 

Ben saw the reaction immediately and drew back.  Had he accidentally hit Joseph?  His child’s reaction appeared as though he had, but he had not felt it.  “Joe?  I didn’t hit you did I?”

 

Joe was lost to them, gone to another place, another time-where pain was expected and his only thought was to survive.  He moaned a low moan as he drew back, away from the threat.  As Ben moved towards Joe to check if he were okay, Joe retreated.  Every move Ben made forward, Joe countered with a retreating move backward.  Ben’s anger quickly left only concern in its place.  He looked at his son, and his heart broke.

 

Joe sat trembling, his eyes wide with fear.  He was watching every move, every breath his father made.  He scooted away from the approaching threat until his back hit the headboard of his bed.  He was trapped.  The moan got louder as the fear overwhelmed.  Joe’s breathing was in gasps, almost hick ups, as he tried to maintain his presence of mind.  The fear he was experiencing was far beyond any the other Cartwright’s had faced.

 

Ben stopped advancing, knowing it was what was panicking his child.  He momentarily berated himself; he had handled it all wrong.  His youngest child, his baby was afraid of him.  He had been so concerned at losing Joe he had forgotten what his son had needed.  He let his fear go and call out for his child.  He hoped it could reach through the terror.  “Joseph, I’m sorry son.  We need to stop this now.  You need to not be so upset.”

 

Joe heard soothing words and wanted to believe, however the terror and fear were there once more.  He was confused as he asked himself what had made those feelings leave.  Everything was jumbled as his thoughts raced.  He wanted his father, but they were now at odds.  What was he to do to stay safe?  He could not move any further away from his father as he was pushed up against the headboard.  He waited to hurt.

 

The scene was tragic.  Joe appeared so young and vulnerable as he tried to protect himself from the pain.  Each man in the room knew this was not the Joe who had been with them before Reno.  Before, Joe had no problem standing toe to toe with his father.  If anything, Joe’s prior behavior made it so hard for him to back away from the conflict.  Now all Joe knew to do was retreat.

 

“Joe?”  Ben asked softly, as he tried to reach out to his son.

 

Joe reflexively recoiled as a quiet, small voice begged,  “Please don’t hit me.”

 

“I’m not gonna hit you, son.  It’s okay.  No one is gonna hurt you.  I won’t hurt you.”

 

“I don’t wanna be hit anymore.  I don’t wanna be scared anymore.  I don’t wanna…” Joe broke out crying and eventually the tears turned to sobs.

 

Ben moved to Joe to hug him, but through Joe’s sobs, he verbally pushed his father away.  “No, don’t… don’t… I don’t wanna hurt.”

 

Hoss could stand the scene no longer.  He had been in shock for most of the ordeal, but his own reflexes kicked in, and he moved to Joe’s bedside.

 

“Joe, you ain’t gonna hurt no more.  No more, buddy.  We didn’t know it was so bad.  You should a come got me if the night was this bad.  You’re okay, Joe.  Remember it’s all over?  I got you out of there, and you ain’t never goin’ back.”  Hoss reached over and pulled Joe to him.

 

Joe leaned in with little resistance.  He allowed himself to let go as the tears poured from him.  It felt safe to be with Hoss, as it had when Hoss had saved him.  His brother had made it stop once, and Joe truly believed he could do it again.

 

Ben and Adam watched, feeling helpless.  Both felt a lack of connection with Joe at a time when they desired it most.  Joe had been fearful of his father, and although Ben knew why Joe had rejected his advances, it was painful.  Adam wanted to be where Hoss was, doing what was so natural between his two younger brothers.  His guilt was strong and comforting Joe his desire.  He knew only too well though, Joe would probably not allow him to help, and it left Adam with only his guilt.

 

As Joe released his fear in crying, Hoss quietly talked to him.  Eventually, Joe calmed and sat leaning against his brother.  He wiped his eyes and looked around, only to realize the room was empty except for himself and Hoss.  “Where’s Pa?”

 

“Um, Pa and Adam went on out a few minutes ago.  Listen, it is really late, and you gotta get some sleep.  Why don’t you go ahead and nod on off.”

 

The look of fear returned to Joe’s face, but Hoss was quick to comfort.  “Hey, don’t worry.  I’m stayin’ right here the rest of the night.  After all, that was my room you were shootin’ at, so I figure it’s a lot safer over here with you.”

 

Joe looked at Hoss with eyes full of so many emotions, but he did not speak.  He simply laid his head down on his pillow and closed his eyes, knowing with Hoss there in his room, he could let go his fear and sleep.

 

*********

The following days were thick with unspoken words, as each Cartwright avoided discussion of the night in Joe’s room where rage and terror had never been more apparent.  As days passed, Adam became more withdrawn as he stood back, watching his little brother.  His guilt was growing.  Ben attempted to approach Joe, and although Joe would speak to his father, it felt to Ben as if his son were apprehensive.  It seemed as if Joe startled more easily around him, at any moment expecting to be hit.  Ben’s concern was growing.  Hoss diligently attended to Joe at night, his little brother not needing to ask if he would be there.  He had all but moved into Joe’s room in order to make sure Joe felt safe.  Hoss’ need to protect was growing.

 

Joe grew more uncertain of himself, as the days passed.  The rage that came felt good, as the protection from it made him confident.  But the rage only came in sleep-in dreams- abandoning him upon waking.  He was becoming successful at conquering the Stranger at night, only to be left defenseless during the day.  The morning after Joe had begun to fight back in dreams, he had attempted to solicit Hoss into helping him be able to fight while awake.  He had asked his brother to help him obtain another weapon.  When Joe made his plea, he saw Hoss was tempted, but said he could never go against their father’s wishes.  Joe tried hard not to be angry, for even as he made his request, a part of him knew Hoss would turn him down.  However, Hoss’ refusal left Joe feeling alone in his conflict, the fear and rage enormous.  He could not allow himself to go unprotected, his belief being he would eventually succumb to the terror, if it remained unrestrained.  The only manner he had found to repel the persecution was to have a gun.  He became fixated on possessing one and was willing to go to most any lengths to accomplish his mission.

 

The house was quiet as Joe arrived downstairs.  He had stayed in his room most of the morning reading from the book Adam had given him.  He had made himself focus and concentrate on the pithy material-wrestling with profound issues such as ‘what is’ versus ‘what ought to be’ with regards to man’s behavior – to the point where he had developed a headache.  He was finding it much more difficult to take in the philosopher’s deep musings.  He knew some of what he was reading made no sense to him, the meaning lost in convoluted reasoning, but he so desperately wanted to know the ‘why’ of what he had endured and attended to the work as if his life depended upon it.  He eventually sighed heavily and closed the book.  He had been lying on his stomach while reading, and sluggishly rolled over to stare at the ceiling.  Lying there continued to produce more questions than answers, and Joe eventually decided a change in scenery, as well as giving his thoughts a break, would help ease his head.

 

Joe walked across the great room, headed towards the kitchen.  When he woke, he had thrown on a pair of torn jeans, a loose shirt and had not bother to put on his boots.  His hair was messed from the thoughtless running of his hands through it as he lay on his bed, reading.  Joe rounded the corner after passing through the dining room and ran smack into Hop Sing who was moving quickly.  Joe jumped, his heart racing at the unexpected encounter.  “Geez Hop Sing, you scared me!”

 

“I scare you! Why you make no noise?  Why you sneak round?”

 

“I’m not sneaking around.  I was just coming to get something to eat.”

 

“Kitchen closed.  You get up with rest family, or you no eat.”

 

“What’s got you in such a bad mood?”

 

“Whole house very strange.  No one act like self.  Mr. Ben not self, Mr. Adam not self, Mr. Hoss not self, and you not self.  When everyone be back?”

 

“That bad ‘round here, huh?  I think everything’ll calm down soon.  It’s probably my fault everyone’s acting the way they are any way.  I gotta convince them I’m okay, and then they’ll be okay.”

 

Hop Sing looked at Joe with concern.  He knew his boy would try and put on a mask for everyone, including himself.  “Little Joe, very troubled.  Heart and head very heavy.  Hop Sing know Little Joe not telling all.  Hop Sing worry Little Joe try to solve problem all by self.”

 

Joe was amazed at his friend’s powers of observation.  He knew his family suspected he was holding back something from them, but they had spent so much time with him in Reno and the days following, Joe was not surprised.  He had talked very little to Hop Sing about Reno, and yet his friend knew him so well, he could see the conflict inside him.  “Uh, Hop Sing, I’m just looking for some answers right now.  Once I find ‘em, I think I’ll be okay.”

 

“Answer why you hurt?  Why someone hurt you?”

 

Hop Sing’s direct questions increased Joe’s nervousness.  He had been unprepared for the conversation and wanted to find a fast way out of it.  “Well, uh, maybe something like that.”

 

“Little Joe need to understand the nature.”

 

“The nature?”

 

“The nature of things.  It a fish’s nature to swim, a bird’s nature to fly.”

 

“Yeah, well so far, no big revelation there, Hop Sing.  I think I know all that, but hey, thanks for the wisdom.”  Joe tried to walk away, hoping he could stop the conversation from going further.

 

“Little Joe try to find nature of men.”

 

Joe had turned his back and was walking away.  He stopped as he heard Hop Sing’s words.  He turned to look once more at his friend.  “Hey, I think you got me confused with Adam.  I don’t think that hard, most the time.  And if I did, it would be about some girl any way.  No Hop Sing, I don’t want to know the nature of men, women definitely, but I’ve got no need for the other.  That stuff’s beyond me.”

 

“Little Joe try make fun.  Try not show it bother.  Little Joe very bothered.  Little Joe need to know why men hurt him.  Hop Sing know why men hurt Joe. Men bad.  Men have bad nature and do bad thing.”

 

Joe remained quiet and did not move from where he stood.  Hop Sing could tell from Joe’s face he was speaking of things that were troubling the young man.  He decided to guess further what might also be present in Joe’s thoughts.  “Hop Sing know bird can be with fish all time and never be fish.  Sparrow can be with eagle and never become eagle.  Not in nature.”

 

The conversation was emotionally more than Joe could handle, and he had to defend against any further interaction with the cook.  “So you’re sayin’ me bein’ with Cochise all the time won’t turn me into a horse.  Well, I am truly relieved to know that and I thank you.  Now I gotta go get somethin’ upstairs, excuse me.”  Joe did not wait for a reply from Hop Sing.  He was halfway up the stairs when the cook said,  “Little Joe have good nature.  Very good boy.”

 

Joe was quickly to his room.  He closed the door and leaned against it, closing his eyes as he breathed hard.  He was unnerved that Hop Sing was so easily able to see his troubles, and the feeling of exposure washed over him in a wave.  He slid down his door, put his head in his hands and sat thinking.  He would be alone in his mind many hours, but the answers still would not come.

 

As the hours passed, and his thoughts raced, Joe’s headache increased in magnitude until it made him nauseous.  Thinking was not giving him peace, if anything, it was making it worse.  Talking to others had not given him answers, only discomfort and more questions.  His mind returned again and again to the one thing that made it all bearable.  A weapon to kill – the thoughts, the pain, and the memories.  A weapon to kill the one responsible, the personification of evil, the Stranger.

 

Joe knew what he was about to do was wrong, but his fear was greater.  He had to find some peace.  He had not heard anyone come in the house since he had been upstairs and prayed the house was still empty.  He made himself stand; his body stiff from hours in one position and walked to the top of the stairs.  He looked around, relieved he saw no one in the room.  He called out for Hop Sing, but was greeted with only silence.  Joe looked skyward and whispered “thank you” as he descended the stairs.

 

Joe crept over to where the rifles were stored in the built-in cabinet.  He contemplated taking his own rifle from the case as his choice, but decided it would not serve his purpose.  He opened the drawer under the rifles; his father’s pistol collection stored beneath.  Looking at the weapons, he thought of the stories that went with each.  There were several revolvers he automatically passed up as being too old, too valuable, or completely impractical.  His eyes finally came to rest on his father’s latest addition, a 1860, Navy Colt .45.  Immediately he knew he had found it.  As he stood looking at the weapon, he grew more certain this was the one to protect him from the Stranger.  This would be the gun that took it all away.

 

The revolver had an interesting history, only three years old, and already infamous.  It had been used to bring the untimely end to the life of Charles Von der Nacht (not his real name, as his identity was never discovered), a man of German decent, known for breaking into wealthy homes in San Francisco and killing his victims at night as they slept.  The crimes were particularly gruesome however, there was never any apparent motive, as no money or valuables were ever taken.  It appeared Von der Nacht simply liked to kill.  The man who had ended Von der Nacht’s killing spree had stumbled upon the killer after having heard a noise in the night.  When he went outside to check the source, he came face to face with the killer.  Gunfire was exchanged, and Von der Nacht ended up the loser.  The man who had killed Von der Nacht soon after sold his home and the weapon, taking his family to what he believed a safer refuge.

 

The weapon had been a gift to Ben, a kind of practical joke of sorts from an old friend in San Francisco.  Ben had found the gun’s history grotesque and had placed the weapon in his collection, more from an uncertainty as to what else to do with it, than wanting to keep it for it’s value.

 

The gun was a larger caliber than Joe ordinarily carried – his own weapon, a Colt .38.  The thought of a larger caliber brought comfort as it’s stopping power was more certain.  He thought once more of the story of the weapon.  He smiled.  “Von der Nacht.”  Joe said out loud, the smile widening to a grin.  “Perfect.”

 

He allowed himself the luxury of a fantasy as he stood, holding his new protection.  Joe raised the weapon.  It felt heavy, but true.  The security of weight gave comfort.  He knew he would have to strengthen his wrist to use the gun, but he saw that as a mere inconvenience.  He pointed the gun at the door, thinking of shooting the Stranger.  The sites dead on, he looked down them and laughed.  “DIE!”  He said with hatred in his voice as he imagined the man falling to the ground.  He was just about to replay the scenario when he heard boots across the porch.

 

“Damn!”  Joe swore at the noise.  He reached in, grabbed a box of bullets and shut the drawer with his hip.  Quickly looking around, he hunted for a hiding place.  He saw an ash can by the fireplace and threw the pistol and the bullets behind it, turning around just in time to see his father and brothers walk through the door.

 

All three men entering the house saw Joe jump at the opening of the door.  They had grown somewhat used to him being skittish, but seeing him startle at the slightest noise was unnerving.  It made them realize the depth of Joe’s difficulties.  Even in his own home, Joe anticipated being hurt.  That in itself was hard to face, but how best to help him remained a mystery.

 

“Hey.”  Joe greeted, trying to look innocent.

 

“Hey yourself, Short Shanks.  What ‘cha up to?”  Hoss naively asked.

 

“Nuthin’, just sittin’ ‘round.  I was thinkin,’ tomorrow I may get out for a ride or somethin’.  I can’t take it in here no more.”  Joe had already begun to formulate his plan.  He would have to start slow getting himself back to where he was before the Stranger.

 

Hearing Joe was interested in being outside was viewed as good news to everyone.  Ben encouraged his child,  “Son that sounds really good.  But you sure you’re up to it?  You feel okay?”

 

“Uh, well, I kinda just wanna go out and not really do much.  Maybe just take a ride.  And yeah, I feel okay.  I know the strength isn’t back in my arms yet and I get tired easy, but it’s gettin’ there.  Anything goin’ on tomorrow?”

 

“Actually there is.  Frank Percy and a couple others are comin’ over to see the new foals that stallion we got from Yuma’s producing.  Why don’t you come on out with us.  You know Frank’ll have a thousand questions, and you could help answer some of ‘em.”

 

“Uh, well, I was, uh… maybe later, Pa.  I haven’t… um… I was just gonna…”

 

“Yeah, maybe Joe’s right.”  Adam quickly responded as he turned to his brother.  “I think that would be a long day for you and it being your first one out, you may want to take it easy.  How ‘bout Hoss or I go with Pa and show Frank around?”

 

Joe was surprised that it was Adam coming to his rescue.  It threw him to have his oldest brother so quick to derail his father.  Joe looked at Adam and was given a nod in return.  He felt uncomfortable.  Adam showing concern was hard for Joe to accept.  He interpreted it to mean Adam had come to believe there was something seriously wrong with him.  Joe thought of the gun, hidden, but waiting.  He told himself that would fix everything, and he would no longer need to be rescued.

 

Ben looked from Joe to Adam and back to Joe.  He felt so out of touch with his youngest.  Every move he made since the scene in the bedroom had felt wrong, and Joe was drifting away from him.  He contemplated trying to run the house business as usual, but feared Joe could not handle the pressure.  He thought of allowing Joe to take the lead, but after seeing what could happen if Joe was left to his own devices, Ben could not trust his son to manage it safely.  He had been in town that day, the purchase a gift for his youngest.  He hoped it would help repair the damage between the two of them and help his son’s state of mind.

 

He kept his eye on his youngest, noting how young Joe looked at that moment.  So young to have to wrestle with something Ben knew was far beyond what most men his age had to face.  Joe’s life had been played with, as he had been made to surrender to someone whose sole purpose was to hurt him.  The ones, who had hurt Joseph, had hurt Ben deeply as well.  He was now realizing the extent.  The agony of seeing what Joe had been through stayed heavy on Ben’s mind.  The flashes of Reno would come to him, and it would be all he could do not to run to check on his son.  He could hear Joe scream as he underwent the torture of medicine it’s intent to save his boy, but its procedure gave pain.  He wondered if he could ever let go of what he had seen and see his boy before him unmarked and at peace.

 

As Ben looked at Joe, his familiar fatherly role took over.  He could not help but notice Joe looked like a street urchin.  Ben and Joe had been going round and round for several months about Joe’s choice of dress.  Joe had tended to grab tattered clothes and wear them until, in Ben’s opinion, they were well beyond good use.  Joe had countered with the argument he was just being thrifty, but Ben had chalked up more to Joe’s need to rebel.  “Let’s discuss tomorrow’s plans at dinner. I’m sure we’re all starved, so let’s get cleaned up.  Speaking of cleaned up, Joseph you need to go upstairs and put on some decent pants and some shoes.  I know we aren’t formal around here, but I think you could look a little nicer than what you got on.  And run a comb through that hair.”

 

Adam and Hoss were already headed for the kitchen as Ben instructed his youngest.  Joe could not let the situation pass without a smirk and a slight look upward to show his displeasure.  Inside however, he was relieved, as he saw he had been given a break.  He walked to the stairs and mumbled so his father could hear,  “I don’t see what the big deal is.  You’d think we were having the King of England here for tea.”

 

Ben listened to Joe mumble and shook his head.  It was shades of the child he knew before, and although Joe’s grumbling was disrespectful, he was glad to see his child reacting in his usual manner.  “Joseph, the big deal is because I said so.”

 

“Yes sir.”  Came the rote response.

 

Ben then turned and followed Hoss and Adam to clean up.  Joe reached the top of the stairs, turned and watched his father round the corner to the kitchen.  Moving quickly and quietly he ran down the stairs, over to the ash can and grabbed the gun and bullets.  His heart was racing as he looked once more towards the kitchen and saw he was still in the clear.  Feeling himself free from capture, he rapidly ascended the steps, shut the door to his room with his foot and, still having momentum from his speed, dove on top of his bed.  He lay trying to catch his breath and smiled.  He felt more freedom than he had since returning from Reno.  He had what he needed for protection in his hand.  He believed it would be what would save him.

 

Breathing and heart rate returned to normal as Joe contemplated where in his room he would hide the gun.  He could not risk it being found by anyone, and he admitted he could not risk himself reaching for it while sleeping and giving a repeat performance.  He thought a few moments and remembered an old hiding place.  He moved to the floor, laid on his back and looked up at his mattress.  It was still there.  He had almost forgotten how important the place had been for secret treasures when he was young.  He pulled back the covering of a little boy, hiding place and out fell a small pouch.  Joe smiled and said aloud,  “That’s where I left those!”

 

Joe had found what had at one time been a most prized possession, his bag of marbles.  Joe could not help but sit up, open the pouch and survey the contents.  He held the cat’s eye up to the light and remembered.  He had won the coveted marble from Stevie Potter, and when it became his, it had been a young Little Joe’s proudest day.  He had hid the treasure in his secret place years ago, when he had been forced to share his room with a little boy named Albert, with whom Joe had felt especially withholding.  After his visitor had left, Joe had forgotten where he had placed his precious marbles, and they had lain hidden, waiting for a little boy to return to play.

 

The memories took him back in time, and Joe sat thinking for several minutes.  He brought himself around when he realized there was not a lot of time to waste before he would need to be downstairs for dinner.  He lay back down on his back and looked at the space available.  It would be tight, but he could pull some more of the feathers out of the mattress and perhaps the gun would fit.  Working his fingers made his wrists ache, and he had almost abandoned the idea when he decided to try and see if the gun would fit.  He wiggled and pried, and the gun finally moved into place.  The task accomplished, he breathed a sigh of relief.

 

He had now only to hide the box of bullets, a chore he felt was much easier to complete.  He scanned the room and decided on a temporary spot.  He could explain a box of bullets much easier than a weapon, so the risk was minimal.  He opened his top drawer, dug up under some clothes and hid the bullets, closing the drawer when there was a knock at the door.  He had forgotten why he had been sent to his room.  “Yeah, come in.”

 

Joe was surprised to see his father.  “Uh, Pa, I was just gonna head on back downstairs.”

 

Ben heard his son, but noticed his clothes had not changed.  He looked at Joe, confused.  “I hope you were going to change first.”

 

“Change?”  Joe looked momentarily confused.  “Oh, uh, yeah, I was.  I was gonna do that and then go downstairs.”

 

“Well, before you do that, I’d like to talk to you.  Come sit down.”  Ben motioned to the bed, and Joe moved over and sat.  He saw his father had a box in his hand, which he placed between them.  “Joseph, I owe you an apology.”

 

“You do?”

 

“Yes, I do.  Son, I handled the other night all wrong with you.  I got angry when I needed to be more understanding.  I’ve been thinking a lot about it, and I realize I was so afraid of what could have happened to you, I overreacted.”

 

Joe shifted uncomfortably.  “You don’t have anything to apologize for, Pa.  I… um, it was nothing.  I’ll change, and we can go eat.  I’m starving.”

 

“Don’t do this, Joe.  We need to talk.”

 

“But dinner’s waiting.”

 

“It can wait.  This is more important.  Son, you have a heavy burden you’re carrying, and I think I added to it the other night.  You never have to be afraid of me, Joseph.  I’d never hurt you.”

 

“I know that.  I’m not.”  Joe wanted the conversation over as he looked longingly towards the door.

 

“Joe, please son.  Talk to me.”

 

“I don’t know what to say, Pa.  I couldn’t help what I did when I got scared.  It just happened.”

 

“I saw that.  What scares you son?  Tell me.”

 

Joe turned and looked at his father.  What should he say?  Everything?  Nothing?  He stood and walked to the window.  Looking out he said,  “It’s not one thing that scares me.  It’s different things, and I don’t know when it’ll hit.  I’m nineteen, and I feel like a kid.  It is so stupid.  I look out into the yard, and I think about what could get me – like I was three or something.  I hate it.”

 

Listening to his son was painful.  Ben hated he could not simply show his child there was nothing lurking under his bed or in his closet, as he had handled Joe at three.  He knew at Joe’s age, the best way to help would be to have his son talk about his fears, but it was difficult to listen and not want to take it all away.  “I know you hate it.  But son, every man gets afraid.  And with what you’ve been through, I think anyone would feel like you do.”

 

“What I went through… Huh?  It’s all so unreal, and at the same time, I see it over and over like it’s happening right now.”  Joe remained staring outside, not allowing himself to think, only talk.  “It’ll start, and it’s so strange, but I can’t stop it.  I’m back there, and it’s happening again.  I’m sorry I got afraid… It wasn’t you.  I thought you were gonna… You know what was the worst part…? I would hang there in the dark… dreading the hurt… The actual hurt was bad, but… I think the waiting was worse… It’s… so dark, and… and the noises upstairs are hard to hear.  I wish I could hear them, ‘cause then I could stop thinking about when he’s coming back.  I hear so many noises.  So many things that could be him… If he comes now, I think it’ll be the last time.  I can’t hold on much longer… I don’t know if I can.  What scares me more is, I don’t know if I want to.  If I let go, he won’t have his answer, but I don’t want to die… I don’t want to die.  I don’t want to let go, cause I wanna see everyone again… Does it hurt to die?”

 

Ben sat listening to his son go back to the cellar.  Joe’s voice had dropped to a quiet monotone and took on the feel of distance.  Ben could hear his son moving back to Reno in his head.  He heard what it had been like for his son, and it pained him beyond words.  He was nervous as to what he should do to help, his instinct being to reach out and hug his boy.  He knew it might not help Joe, so he resisted the urge.  His fear was he would scare his son if he touched him, so he remained quiet, looking at Joe’s back, as tears fell silently down his face.

 

“It hurts so bad…  His eyes scare me…  He likes to see me hurting…  I’m not gonna let him see it.  I’ll think of something else… He’ll wanna watch me die I know it…  What does he feel…? What does he think …?  Thinking.  God, I wish I could stop it.  I hate thinking.  Too much noise.  Too much… Pa?”

 

Ben looked to see his son turned towards him, tears falling down his child’s face.  Joe’s tears touched Ben deeply.  “What can I do, son?”

 

“Pa, why?  Why did it happen?  Why did he hurt me?  Why?  It won’t go ‘way, Pa!  He’s there!”

 

Ben was up and to his son.  He grabbed him and held him tight.  “Joseph, I’ll take it all away.  I’ll do it, son.  I’m so sorry.”

 

“Pa, why?  Why did he like it?”

 

“Joseph, the people who hurt you were wrong, so very wrong.  It’ll never happen again.”

 

Joe pulled back to look his father in the eye.  “Pa, you can’t promise that one.  I know you want to, but you can’t.  It could happen again.  It could.”

 

“No, Joseph.  Your brothers and I will keep you safe.”

 

“Pa, I’m not a child anymore.  I want to be right now, but I’m not.  I know you can’t protect me all the time.  I know it, and that’s why I got that gun.  I wasn’t trying to do something to make you mad, really.  I have to be able to protect myself.”

 

The discussion reminded Ben of his gift.  “I understand that, and I want to give you something.  Come over here.”

 

Joe let his father lead him over to the bed.  He sat, took the gift and slowly unwrapping it.  The words Colt were on the box, which held the present.  He opened the gift to see it was a gun.  A gun that looked just like the weapon he carried before everything, before the Stranger.  The same pearl handle, the same caliber, and as he looked, the same engraving.  His father had tried to replace a weapon Joe truly loved.  He tried to be happy, but the new gun was untested, it’s prototype, the one he did trust, in the possession of evil.  “Thanks, Pa.”  Was all he could say.  He did not want the gun, but would never tell his father.

 

“I think you need that, but I want it left downstairs.  I do promise you, Joe.  Up here in your room, you’re safe.”

 

Joe thought of the gun tucked safely away.  He believed in the weapon.  “I know I am, Pa.  I know it.”

 

“Well now.  You need to change clothes and then come on down to dinner.  I’ll take this and put it in your holster.”

 

“Uh, Pa.  I’m kinda not hungry, anymore.  I think I wanna just stay up here.  I’m all of a sudden really tired.”  Joe was exhausted from the day, and the thought of making small talk at the table was too much.  He was feeling dark and did not want to pretend to be happy.

 

“Okay Joe, you rest.  I’ll have Hop Sing bring up a tray.  But son, you’re really safe.  I promise.”

 

Joe once more thought of the hidden weapon.  “I know I am, Pa.  I know.”

 

*****

 

Joe stretched in bed as he kept his eyes closed, attempting to have morning come slowly.  He had heard Hoss get up much earlier and leave his room.  His brother had checked on him by saying he was leaving and patting his shoulder.  Joe had rolled away and grumbled, never letting on that his brother’s presence and concern gave him reassuring comfort.  It had become a routine with the two, an unspoken, allowing Joe to sleep without dreams.

 

Lying in bed, letting his thoughts meander over fantasies and daydreams, Joe eventually landed on the purpose of his day.  He remembered what he had wanted to accomplish, and it motivated him to get out of bed.  He pulled on the jeans he wore the day before and walked over to the wash basin.  He had been actively avoiding looking at himself in the mirror, but that morning he stood and made himself look.  His face was healing he could see that.  The bruising was still evident, as were the areas that were still sore and swollen, but he noticed he saw more of his old self, coming through.  He examined closer and knew he would have a scar over his left eye.  He only hoped it would be small.  The rest he did not know, but was for the first time that he was hopeful he might see his old face return.

 

He turned around and looked at his back in the mirror.  Joe’s mind so willing to go to when he had received the lashes.  “No!  Don’t!  Just look and be done!”  He was unable to keep the thoughts away.  He had no idea how much time passed, as he stood reliving the nightmare.  He eventually brought his hands to his head, closed his eyes tight and made himself stop thinking.  “Stop it!  Stop it, now!  I’m not there!  It ain’t happening!  GET OUT OF MY HEAD!”  Joe looked around the room for something to draw him away from his thoughts.  His eyes landed on the space up under his bed.  “Get it!”  He encouraged himself.  “Get the gun!  You’ll kill him, and it’s over!”

 

In a desperate frenzy, Joe lunged towards the hiding place where he had put the gun.  He was urgent to feel the weapon in his grasp.  Madly digging at the gun, he started tearing the hiding place open.  He ripped the gun from its lair, and as he finally held it, he felt power.  He sat on the floor, his back against his bed, embracing his rage and enjoying the strength it gave him.  The fear was gone – the feel of metal as his finger drew back the trigger, the sound of an explosion, the recoil in his hand – there was no room for anything else in his mind, as the fantasy took hold.  He would not feel fear with the weapon.  It gave him the ability to feel rage and hate.  It gave him his urge for revenge.

 

He held the gun cocked and pointed, his fantasy disturbed only when he heard the downstairs door close.  Joe’s thoughts returned to the room, and the wave of rage momentarily receded.  He looked down remembering he was only half dressed, the morning having been clouded in thoughts and nightmares.  He slowly stood, feeling out of sorts and foggy.  His movements were sluggish as he went to his dresser to grab a loose shirt.  As he finished dressing, sitting on his bed pulling on his boots, he thought over what he had done that morning, much of it confusing to him.  He returned to the Stranger’s prophecy that he would feel hate.  The Stranger was right.  He hated.  Was this The Stranger’s revenge or his own?  What did the Stranger want him to feel?  Rage?  Fear?  What did the man want from him?  Joe finally said aloud,  “I don’t care what you want.  I don’t care, and you won’t make me do anything I don’t want to do.  You have NO power over me!  I’m in control!  I can do as I please!”

 

Joe grabbed the gun and bullets, as he walked quickly out of the room.  He moved rapidly down the stairs to the front door, grabbing his holster along the way and moving outside.  He did not slow as he strapped on his gun belt, all the while walking across the yard.  Entering the barn, he saw Cochise stood saddled.  Without pause, he lead the paint out of the barn and quickly mounted.  With a kick he was away, riding fast and not looking back.

 

If Joe had looked behind him, he would have seen a very puzzled Adam standing in the yard watching him depart.  Remembering Joe’s wishes from the previous day, Adam had decided to help Joe by saddling Cochise.  He had finished in the barn, but had detoured into the kitchen for a quick bite when Joe had gone out the front door.  Adam had moved outside just in time to see his brother kick Cochise hard and ride away in a full gallop.  He stood watching the quickly departing figure of his brother, wondering where it was Joe was off to in such a hurry.

 

The feel of power and freedom on Cochise was exhilarating.  Joe never tired of riding his pony at a full gallop, the wind in his hair and the muscular animal beneath him.  It had been his first time back on a horse since being injured, and although he knew he should take it easy on his body and would pay for it later, he could not resist the feel of power and speed.  He saw some logs in front of him, and once he had scanned the area to insure the footing for Cochise, he reined her towards them and jumped her with ease.  He let out a whoop and a laugh, as he patted Cochise’s neck,  “You’re a fine horse, Cooch!  Mighty fine!”  As Joe rode, he was free from thought and feeling of the Stranger.  He was for a time only nineteen and enjoying the pleasures of youth.

 

Having stood and watched his brother ride off in such a hurry, Adam decided it would be best to follow, but at a distance. He had expected Joe to be hesitant, even delay the outing a few days and had been quite surprised to see it had not appeared to phase his brother in the slightest.  As he followed, Adam had thought he would need to hold back his horse to keep from being seen, but soon realized Cochise was being held at a full gallop, and he would have to quicken his pace to not lose sight.  He had mixed feelings about following Joe, knowing if his little brother knew of his presence, there would be hell to pay.  But he had become convinced Joe was hiding something from them, and it had to do with Reno.  He hoped to find out the secret soon, and give Joe the help he knew he needed.

 

Adam had seen Joe jump Cochise.  It was classic Little Joe, enjoying life to the hilt.  Adam began to doubt his instincts to follow, starting to believe that perhaps Joe was only out for a ride.  He pulled Sport up short, as Joe slowed.  He told himself he would watch Joe a while, and if everything appeared normal, he could simply ride away, his little brother none the wiser.  He sat, making himself comfortable and looked on with interest.

 

Finally slowing Cochise, Joe arrived at his destination.  A place where he believed he would be alone and free to do, as he wanted.  In the past he had occasionally visited the area when he needed to think.  He had several such places on the Ponderosa, and would select the appropriate one to fit his mood.  This time, the selection requirements were such that it was a place where he would not scare the herd or was where his family or ranch hands could hear him.  He wanted to prepare himself for the Stranger, to ready himself for battle.  He tied Cochise to a tree, knowing the animal would not be spooked by what he was about to do.  He had been out many times before shooting, and Cochise was used to the noise.  She would not bolt at the sound of gunfire, a trait the more Joe thought about, the more he admired.

 

He set about making targets as he focused his mind on his prey.  He thought of shooting the Stranger dead, and it began consuming him as he worked.  He would be ready to kill he knew it inside.  The Stranger deserved to die.  He knew he had to be ready for anything, and made sure he was challenging his skill.  He pulled the weapon his father had given him out of his holster, placing it on the ground by his feet.  He grabbed the .45 from his waistband and looked over the weapon once more.  He felt his tension rise and allowed himself to embrace his rage.  He slowly stretched out his arm, lining the site with his intended target.  He saw an image in his mind’s eye.  He fired.  The shot was off to the left, having just grazed his target.  He swore aloud.

 

The weapon was heavy in his hand, his arm and wrist much weaker.  The realization that it was going to take practice and time immediately frustrated Joe.  He had not demonstrated to himself the skill he had previously known, and it angered him.  He reminded himself where the fault lay, as he aimed at his second target.  He fired.  Again, just off target.  He unloaded the remaining bullets at the second target.  His rage now driving him, he screamed, “GO TO HELL, DAMN YOU!”

 

Watching his brother began to make Adam question the situation.  He had seen Joe with two weapons, and briefly wondered where and why he had obtained the second.  At first as Adam watched, he thought Joe’s practicing was not in itself all that unusual.  He knew Joe liked to shoot and, from time to time, would go out and practice shooting at targets.  All three boys had over the years gone out shooting together.  Invariably during those times, there would be a boast or a challenge from one, and the three would soon be competing against each other.  But as Adam looked on, it did not seem as if this were merely practice for Joe.  Joe body language was tense and the look on his brother’s face held rage.  Joe’s sole focus was whatever it was he was shooting at, and he seemed to become angrier at each pull of the trigger.  It was when Adam heard Joe scream that he knew Joe was shooting at someone in his mind.

 

Joe quickly reloaded and was firing again.  The scenario repeated itself over and over.  Joe’s aim was getting worse as his arm tired, and his wrist throbbed.  He would not stop though, determined to kill the Stranger so many times in his mind.  He was possessed by his rage, as he screamed and swore at the image he held in front of his eyes.  There were bullets flying madly, as every explosion added more fuel his rage.  He had lost track of how many times he had reloaded, and as he emptied the gun once more, he walked to the makeshift targets and began violently kicking and stomping on them.

 

Eventually he tired and sat to regain his strength.  However, the rage remained.  He felt anger so deep and primal; it’s extent he had yet to fully experience.  Joe sat thinking of his anger.  He recalled what he had been told so many times about it.  “Quick to anger, am I?”  He then looked over the destruction he had committed and laughed.  “Hell Joe, I think they’re right.”

 

All he could feel was paralyzed as Adam watched.  Joe’s rage was immense and there seemed to be no end to it.  Adam had seen Joe furious before, but never like this – never so much.  The desire to go to Joe and help him gain control was strong.  It was extremely uncomfortable to watch, as it was obvious Joe had released his restraint and there was nothing there but fury.  Watching Joe stop shooting and sit gave Adam no peace, either.  His brother still held tightly to the gun, the look on his face radiating hate.  What Adam saw next made him ill.

 

Joe’s attention was caught by birds overhead.  He looked up to see several vultures circling a little way off.  As he sat watching, he began to think,  “Somethin’s dead or dying… Sick birds, eatin’ off a dead stuff, or worse yet waitin’ for it to die… Watching and waiting… Wantin’ it dead… Gonna watch it die… Just stayin’ right there, don’t care how scared the dyin’ might be, just watchin’.” As Joe carried on the thoughts in his head, events became surreal.  He stood and walked towards where the birds were circling.  Raising the pistol, he aimed and fired.  “DIE!”  He screamed as the bullet hit it’s intended target.  The bird fell to the ground, several feet from Joe.  He walked to it, and while standing over it, he unloaded the weapon into the dead bird.  With each discharge, he screamed, “DIE!”  He reloaded the weapon, continuing to fire, shooting until the figure of a bird no longer remained.

 

Standing, looking down at the dead bird, Joe felt nothing.  Slowly holstering the weapon, he turned and surveyed his carnage.  The targets lay askew, no longer in the order he had placed them when he had started.  He walked reluctantly back towards where he had stood shooting, his eyes on the bullet casings all around.  He shook his head at the disgust that was rising inside of him, and then released a mad chuckle as an absurd thought entered his mind,  “Boy, here’d be a prime time for a lecture.”  Joe silently stood until he could look at what he had done no longer.  He reached down and grabbed the gun he had placed on the ground, ran to Cochise, untied her reins and was on her back and away.

 

Seeing the killing of the bird deeply disturbed Adam.  Thinking over what his brother had endured, Adam had known from the beginning, Joe would have problems coming to terms with it all.  But with what he had seen as he watched Joe’s behavior, he entertained for the first time, the idea something may have fundamentally changed within Joe.  He wondered if his little brother had been so damaged by the torture and pain his mind could not come back without it having mutated.  Was the Joe he had watched that afternoon the new Joe, left after the pain?  Adam spoke to his brother as he watched him riding away.  “Oh God, Joe!  What’s happened to you?  Oh please, don’t let this be what’s left.  This can’t be you!”  Adam allowed his little brother a lead, then mounted his horse and followed.

*****

He usually felt completion when he returned home after a job had finished.  He did not particularly care for Salt Lake, but she said it made her happy so he decided it would minimize his annoyances.  He had been more uneasy this return, knowing completion was still in the future.  He wanted the game to continue and chastised himself for his impatience.  In time, he told himself, all in good time.

 

He was now to return to the family, play the role of dutiful husband and father.  It was a role he tolerated; it’s cover quite useful.  The son had met him as the son always did, so joyous to see him.  The son’s sticky hands had soiled his clean pants during the greeting.  He pushed the son away to the wife and walked into a room to change his clothing.  They knew not to disturb, as he unpacked his bag.  He unloaded the usual clothing and toiletries.  His desire, the item at the bottom of the bag, which had held his thoughts for most of the ride home – the gun – the kid’s gun.  He had looked at it several times, impressed with its balance.  It was obviously an expensive weapon; the fine craftsmanship apparent.  He looked at the engraving, it was also obvious the gun had been a gift.  “A gift from whom, Pretty Boy?  Your papa, maybe?  Is that what papa’s do?  Give their little boys guns?  I bet papa did not prepare you for me, did he Pretty Boy?  No, when he gave you this gun, I bet there was laughter and all that father-son crap.  Well Pretty Boy, papa should have told you of me.  Maybe it wouldn’t have shaken you so when I entered your world.  No, your papa would not even entertain me in your world.  You’re a chosen child.  Well, chosen child, we’ll see how you do.  Will you make your papa proud or will you make me proud?”  He let loose a wicked laugh, the thought of the kid turning to him for guidance amused him.  “Oh Pretty Boy, I could be such a mentor.”

 

He returned to his occupation of skill and precision and attempted to remain focused on his work through the days.  The clocks he created, he normally took great pride in.  However, since his return, he found it harder to focus.  He had taken his opponent’s gun to his shop and laid it where he could easily see it.  He wanted to think and remember the encounter.  He spent many hours replaying the scenario, each time fantasizing the ending to come.  He held the weapon, and wondered what his adversary was doing.  Had this gun killed?  Had the kid tasted the power?  There was so much he wanted to know, and he felt anger at having to wait.  He had been working at a very tedious chore, threading cogs, when he could do no more.  He had to stop, his desire to continue the game filling his thoughts.  He said aloud,  “Tick, tock, Pretty Boy.  The clock is running.  Where are you?”

 

Chapter 5

 

Joe rode fast and furious, with no destination in mind, his only desire to clear his head.  The rage, disgust and shadow of fear inside traveled with him, unwilling to release their bonds.  His fantasy had been that with every pounding hoof beat he could leave it all a little further behind.  But it followed and haunted.  As he rode, he moved his thoughts between what had been done to him, and what he had now done.  His mind would then fleetingly travel to the murderous rage of what he desired yet to do.  The desires of vengeance were firmly inside him, but were ideas he did not allow himself to dwell upon.  They scared him, and if he were honest with himself, he would have to admit these thoughts were beginning to generate more fear in him than the memories.  They were both repulsive and disturbing, but also seductive and alluring, bringing with them power and rage.  In such thoughts, he was in complete control, and it would be another’s turn to feel the fear and beg for his life.  He felt the conflict, as it increased his tension.

 

The road to Virginia City lay ahead, the ranch house behind.  The thought of going home did not enter his mind, although it was beginning to be late afternoon.  The idea of walking into the house with the torrent of emotions he was experiencing was impossible to entertain.  He reined Cochise towards town, and again a conflict.  Being around people brought up such anxiety, he knew a saloon would be too much.  He did not want to be seen, the fear of having to engage in conversation paramount.  He did not want to talk, feel, or think.  He wanted it quiet, to be lost in something to the point he could simply just exist.

 

Joe avoided the main street of Virginia City, knowing that there he would most likely run into someone he knew.  He was concerned about his appearance, but more so, he had developed the belief someone who knew him could see inside to the coldness he felt was growing.  He ended up on D Street, where the more unsavory of society frequented.  The saloons were beginning to come alive as the evening began; the day’s work ended.  He had slowed Cochise to a walk, as he rode down the street, keeping his hat tipped down so as to cast a shadow on his face.  He made his decision once he saw the building.  He dismounted and tied Cochise to the rail, walked down the alley and entered the back of the building.

 

Following some distance behind, Adam was again taken off guard when he saw Joe turn the paint pony towards Virginia City, rather than home.  He checked the sun, noting the lateness of the day.  That morning he had told his father he would try and see if Joe would spend the day with him.  He just hoped his father would not worry, now that day was rapidly turning to evening.  “Well, can’t do anything about it now.”  He said to no one and turned Sport, continuing to trail his brother.

 

Clearing his mind from what he had witnessed in Joe was proving difficult.  As Adam rode, he thought of what he could do to help.  The rage he had watched seemed endless, his brother’s torment continual.  He knew only too well, Joe’s tendency towards acting impulsively, and he was alarmed Joe would be in town with such demons chasing him.  He knew the potential for disaster was high.

 

Adam saw Joe pull up Cochise, so he reined his horse up short, across the street and down a few buildings.  Joe seemed oblivious to his shadow, as he headed down the alley.  Adam looked to the building, knowing the alley lead to the rear entrance, and his eyebrows raised.  Although he knew little brother was far from naïve, he found the place Joe had chosen to go surprising, none the less.  He could not follow without being seen, so he made himself comfortable across the street, silently praying Joe could keep it all under control.

 

Joe entered the establishment, his senses assaulted by cheap perfume.  The parlor was dark and empty, as he had hoped it would be.  He moved over to a chair in the corner and sat, keeping his head down as he wrestled with his ambivalence.  Did he really want to do this?  He had no idea the answer, only the need to shut down his thoughts.  If this would do it, then he was more than willing.  The strongest desire that drove him was to have it taken all away.  The idea of peace was the greatest seduction of them all.

 

“Joe Cartwright?  Is that you hiding over here?”  The voice he recognized.  He closed his eyes a moment and told himself to let go and just let it happen.  “Hey ya, Katie.  Yeah, it’s me.”

 

The woman stood before him in a soft pink dressing gown and robe – her hair a long flowing brown mane, her eyes, deep blue.  She was attractive in the dark, no one really knowing her any other way.  She could be every man’s fantasy, but no man’s love.  She seductively moved over and lounged herself in Joe’s lap.  She went to take off his hat, but he quickly stopped her.  Without missing a beat she moved her arms round his neck and asked, “How ya been, Sweetie?  I haven’t seen you in forever.”

 

Katie had immediately noticed the bruises and swelling on Joe’s face, and could tell in his lack of eye contact, he was uncomfortable.  She had seen him a few times before and enjoyed it when he would visit.  He was one she almost felt guilty to take money from – almost.  She seemed to have a good time with him, the encounter hardly work.  She had heard through the rumor mill what he had been through recently and was somewhat surprised to see him.  She guessed he wanted to escape his troubles as so many men did, and she was more than willing to oblige.

 

Joe put his arms around her waist, as she sat.  “Oh, I’ve been, uh… okay.  Got a bottle?”

 

“For you sweet thing, anything.  You know that.  Now don’t you go no where.”  Katie moved to another room, Joe watching her, as she walked.  She returned quickly, plopping herself once more into his lap.  She poured him a drink and held the glass to his lips.  He went to take the glass from her.  “No, now, Sweetie.  Katie’ll take good care of you.”

 

Joe drank quickly, and Katie was attentive to refill the glass.  He drank without pause, and Katie poured yet again.  “Hey Joe.  Relax, there.  You’re all tense. I can feel it.  What’s got ‘cha so worked up, huh?  Tell me.”  As Katie asked her question, she began to gently stroke the back of his neck, playing with the curls in his hair.  She moved in close to talk softly in his ear.  “I heard what happened to ya.  You doin’ okay?”

 

Katie’s mentioning Reno made Joe’s heart jump.  He had hoped for a place to forget for a while, and the mention brought it all back.  “Uh, yeah… I’m fine.  Just don’t want to talk about it.”

 

“Well, that’s just fine with me.  So here, drink up and relax.”  Katie remained close to Joe’s ear and began to nibble on his neck.  He closed his eyes telling himself to only think of the pretty girl on his lap and let the other go.  The alcohol began to move through him, each shot bringing more distance from the Stranger and the events of the day.  He lost count of the glasses and reached for her, moving her face so he was looking in her eyes.  He thought how wonderful it would be to be lost in them.  He pulled her mouth to his and kissing her slowly at first, but as he relaxed, his passion grew.  His hands were in her hair, intertwining strands of her mane in his fingers.  He began enjoying her taste and her smell – Reno was moving away.

 

 

Katie felt him begin to let go his interest more obvious.  She pulled away, looking him again in the eye.  She raised her eyebrows and smiled playfully.  “I do believe you are relaxing.”  He grinned, pulling her toward him.  She let her lips lightly brush his, and then she was away from him once more.

 

“Oh, Katie you are a tease now, aren’t you?”  Joe’s focus moving more and more to the woman in front of him.

 

“Uh huh, that I am.  And I like teasing you.”

 

“You do, now do ya?  Well better be careful.  May get yourself into some trouble.”

 

“Oh your kinda trouble I like.  You know I do.  And I know what you like, Joe Cartwright.”

 

“You do now, do ya?”

 

“Uh huh.  You like this.”  She said, kissing him hungrily and then backing away to playfully nibble his lip.

 

Joe moaned his response but was unwilling to be passive.  As his desire for her grew, he wanted control.  He kissed her deeply on the mouth and then allowed his kiss to drag over her chin and down the nape of her neck.  His hands moved from her hair to pulling her robe and gown off her shoulder.  He began kissing and nibbling her, as she ran her hands through his hair – his hat knocked off in the process – Joe forgetting why he had wanted it.

 

The thought of this woman, her taste, her smell, her feel, became his sole focus.  He had to have her.  He moved his hand inside her gown, cupping her breast, and gently squeezing.  Katie threw back her head and moaned.

 

“Ah Katie, darlin’.”  Joe sighed.  He could wait no more to be with her.

 

Suddenly, without warning, he stood placing her gently on her feet.  He grabbed her by the hand and headed towards the stairs.  He moved quickly, almost pulling her, as his urgency increased.  He knew her room and threw open the door, pulling her inside with him.  Kicking the door closed, he pushed her up against it.  He was gone to his passion, nothing else in its place.  He began madly kissing her, his hands to her face, her shoulders and landing on her breasts.  He then began pulling at her robe, wanting to begin unwrapping his gift.  Katie met his intensity and was kissing him deeply.  Her hands were in his hair, the feeling so soft.  She then began moving her hands to his shirt.  She wanted it off of him to feel his bare skin.  She ran her hands over his shoulders giving his shirt a slight tug.

 

He pulled away, brief flash, split second of fear.

 

Joe contained himself quickly, as he pulled away from her.  The flash was then gone, Katie before him.  He stood back for a moment, allowed himself to think of the woman in front of him.  He let his eyes traveling up and down her, as if deciding where to start.  He looked to the sash on the robe, pulled it hard saying,  “This has got to go.”  The sash untied and fell to the floor.  He moved the robe off her shoulders, and Katie let the garment fall away.  He smiled wickedly, as he looked over what would soon be his to fully enjoy.

 

“You’re proud of yourself, aren’t ‘cha, cowboy?”  Katie flirted.

 

“Uh huh, I am.”  Joe took on a look of cockiness.  “You know these things here aren’t very sturdy.  They could just break right away.”  He reached for a strap of her gown pulled it with a jerk and it broke.  “My, my, my, what have I done?”

 

Katie reacted with mock irritation.  “Hey, now what am I supposed to wear?”

 

“Oh here, I must make it even.”  And with that, Joe broke the other strap, the gown joining its partner on the ground.  Joe’s hands were immediately on her, as he moved in close, pressing himself against her.  His breath was a whisper over her lips as he softly moaned.

 

Katie was not to be outdone.  She smiled wickedly.  “Two can play at this game.”  With that she tore open Joe’s shirt, the buttons flying.

 

Joe immediately recoiled, his eyes wide in terror.  The flash came again, but this time it did not leave.  He could not breathe, as he was instantly in the cellar.  It was all around him, the terror extreme.  His ability to understand what was happening left him, his only thought survival.  He appeared to be looking at her as he backed away, but his eyes did not see Katie.  They saw only images best left in nightmares.

 

Katie stood stunned and confused.  She had no idea what was happening.  There had been no warning.  “Joe?  What’s wrong?  Why are you looking at me like that?”

 

Joe remained unmoving, as he watched the Stranger come towards him.  The Stranger reaching out and grabbing his arm, pulling him towards danger, and towards pain.  The Stranger was between him and escape.  He had to get out.  As the Stranger touched him, he screamed “NO!  GET AWAY FROM ME!  DON’T TOUCH ME!  NO MORE!”

 

Joe grabbed Katie forcefully, to move her from his path.  He started to toss her away from him when a woman’s scream broke through and interrupted the nightmare.  It had been a noise Joe had not expected to hear.  He let go by sheer reflex, and Katie shoved him hard.  Joe fell back across the bed, his head hitting on the headboard with a hard thump.  Katie then began a barrage of hitting and kicking as she yelled.  “You sick bastard!  What the hell do you think you were tryin’ to do!”  Joe cowered at her attack, putting up no resistance.

 

When Katie realized Joe would not fight back, she slowly calmed.  “Listen here you sick bastard!  I don’t know what the hell you think you were doin’ or who the hell you think I am, but I ain’t gonna let no man hit me!  I don’t do no rough stuff!  You got that!  Now, you get the hell out!”

 

Nothing made sense as Joe tried to figure out what had happened.  He did not move from where he lay.  Katie grabbed him by his arm and started pulling.  “I SAID GET OUT!”

 

Joe scrambled to his feet, his only thoughts to obey.  He had no idea where he was, as past and present blended.  All he knew was he was being ordered, and if he did not do as he was told, he would be hurt.  He tried to obey.  He moved to the door dazed, but stopped to look at Katie.  “I’m… I… uh… I didn’t mean it.  I’m sorry.”

 

“GET OUT!”  Came the reply.  With that, Joe was out her door, running down the stairs.  He did not slow, as he left the building and ran to his horse.  He grabbed the reins, jumped on Cochise and fled.

 

The sun was down, the streets lively, as Adam waited for Joe.  He could not relax, his thoughts continuing to return to his brother’s state of mind, and the possibilities of what it could mean.  Had Joe turned into a… a… a what?  What was it he had seen in his little brother?  He knew the intensity of rage had been terrifying to watch.  He wondered if it scared Joe, or if his brother was finding it appealing.  There was so much he did not know about his youngest sibling.  Was Joe capable of turning bad?

 

He was deep in thought when he saw Joe run from the alley and take off on Cochise.  Joe’s shirt wide open and a look on his face, Adam immediately interpreted as something was terribly wrong.  “Oh God, no!”

 

Adam was running across the street, as Joe flew passed on Cochise, not seeming to recognize his older brother.  At first Adam thought of going after Joe, but as he stood momentarily stunned in the street helplessly watching his brother’s  rapid departure, he had a sick feeling it might be best to know what it was Joe was running from.  He continued his original course to the brothel’s back entrance.  Thoughts of what might wait him trying to invade his head.  “What did Joe do?  Oh dear God, what did he do?”

 

The parlor remained dim and empty, as Adam entered.  Scanning the room, he breathed a sigh of relief at not seeing anything amiss.  Looking up the stairs, he saw several women at the top.  They appeared to be huddled around a brunette, each asking numerous questions.  He cleared his throat several times in hopes of gaining their attention, but the women remained oblivious.  “Um, excuse me?” he finally interrupted.

 

The group turned in unison to look, their faces questioning.  “Do any of you happen to uh… ” Adam wondered how to put it delicately.  “There was a kid just here.  Um… he just left?  Any of you ladies happen to… um, know him?”

 

Katie stepped forward, her face showing tears.  “Who’re you?  Why ya wanna know?”

 

“Um, he’s, uh, my little brother.  I was wondering if there had been some kind of trouble.”

 

“Trouble?”  A red head mocked.  “That kid’s crazy!  Attacking Katie!  He should be locked up’s what he should be!”

 

Adam’s heart sank.  He closed his eyes a moment, as he took a deep breath.  Joe had attacked a girl.  What did that mean?  Had he raped her?  Worse yet, killed her?  The fear began to build.  He became as he always did to cope.  He tried to focus on what needed to be done, rather than the emotion tearing at him.  “Is the girl, okay?  Does she need a doctor?  Is she…? ” Adam wanted to ask if she were still alive, but the words failed him.  This was not happening.

 

“Now Rose, calm down.  I’ll be okay.”  Katie addressed the red head.  “Um… maybe you and I should talk.  Come on up.”

 

Relieved to see the woman speaking did not seem in immediate need of a doctor, Adam climbed the stairs and followed her into her room.  “Have a seat.”  Katie offered as she reached down and picked up the torn gown.

 

Adam could not help but see the garment’s torn straps, his mind racing at the thought of what Joe may have done.  He had no idea how to ask his question, so he stalled to think.  “Miss, uh… I didn’t catch the name.”

 

“It’s Katie.”

 

“Katie… did my brother do that?”  Adam asked, nodding towards the gown.

 

“This?  Uh… yeah.”

 

“How bad did he hurt you?  Did he…?”

 

Katie looked to the gown, realizing what Joe’s brother was thinking.  “Oh, no!  Mr. Cartwright, Joe didn’t rape me.  He didn’t.  Scared me to death, but he didn’t rape me.”

 

“Did he try to?”  Adam had to know.  The scenario was so frightening, his fears for his brother enormous.  What had Joe done, and even more important could Adam save him?

 

“To tell you the truth, I have no idea what happened.  One minute me and Joe are having a lot of fun, and the next minute he has this look on his face like he ain’t all there, ya know?  And I try to see if he’s okay, and he grabs me real hard and starts to throw me down.  You know, at the time I thought he wanted to hit me, like you know some fellas do?  But the more I think about it, it was like he wanted me away from him.  It was just all really strange.  He was real into it, and then all of a sudden he was just gone.”

 

Listening to the woman Adam had an idea of what may have happened.  It had been like the night in Joe’s bedroom, when Joe had thought their father was going to hurt him.  “Oh buddy.  You’re so bad off.”  Adam said under his breath.  Adam asked,  “Miss, are you hurt.  Did he hurt you?”

 

Katie looked at her wrists, seeing red marks.  She then looked to Adam and saw how pained he appeared.  “No, Mr. Cartwright, I’m fine.  All Joe really did was scare me.  I just don’t understand what happened.  Your brother is a nice guy.  He’s never done anything like this before.”

 

“Joe’s been here before?”  Adam again felt shock.  He did not know much about his youngest brother at all.

 

“Gee, I guess I’m talkin’ outta school here, kinda awkward.  Yeah, he has, but just a few times.  Not many, I assure you.  Do you know what happened to him?”

 

Adam did not feel comfortable discussing family business with the young woman.  She seemed nice, but it all was just too much.  The revelations he had experienced throughout the day had his head spinning.  He wanted to protect Joe, and was concerned as to what to say.  As he tried to think, Katie spoke.  “I heard the rumors of what happened to your brother.  They say he was tortured.  Is that true?”

 

Adam looked at the woman and simply nodded.  He had his own question.  “Um Miss, right before Joe got that look… what do you think caused it?  Do you have any idea?”  Adam knew it was an awkward question, his intention not to pry, but rather to try and understand what had set Joe off.

 

“Well, um… he had uh… we were playin’ around, and he had broke the straps to my gown.  Not mean like mind you.  Just playin’.  And I uh, told him that two could play at that game, and I tore open his shirt.  It was right after that.  I mean right after that, he got that look.”

 

Adam’s mind returned to the doctor’s office, to the time he had heard his brother speak of a similar event, Joe’s statement to the sheriff.  He could hear his brother say the words so vividly, as if Joe was speaking to him at that moment.  “Um, that’s when my, uh, shirt was, uh, torn off.”  Adam then thought of the torn shirt, a mere rag with blood, his brother had to identify as his own.  He now knew why Joe had done as he had with the girl.  It made sense.  “Miss, I think something happened between you two that reminded Joe of what he had been through when he was hurt so bad.  It must have upset him to think about it.”

 

“Oh, the poor guy.  Gee, I’m sorry if it was something that I did.  I kinda screamed and hollered at him after it happened.  Even hit and kicked him and he just lay there.  I didn’t know what was goin’ on.  Gee, I feel bad for him.”

 

The woman’s compassion was a relief to hear, and Adam believed she truly did understand Joe did not set out to hurt her.  “Miss, you are incredibly understanding.  Joe has just been through so much.  He’s just real bad off right now.”

 

“Well listen.  I’m fine.  Don’t worry about me.  Believe me, I’ve been through much worse.  And I hope Joe’s okay.  Like I said, he’s always been real nice to me.”

 

The conversation ended much better than Adam had dreamed it would, given his brother’s panicked face upon leaving the brothel.  He was so very thankful the situation had not been worse.  As he walked to his horse, he had a very troubling thought.  Would he now have to go around trying to repair the damage his brother would leave in his wake?  Was Joe that bad off?  Adam told himself he would try to prevent Joe from doing any further harm, but if he could not stop it, he would help his brother anyway he could.

 

The ride home was occupied with confusion for Adam.  He had no idea how best to respond to Joe.  He wondered what to say to his brother about what he had seen, knowing Joe would volunteer nothing.  If Joe discovered he had been followed and watched, the potential for creating such feelings of betrayal was enormous.  It would be extremely difficult or impossible to repair the harm to the relationship.  Adam would not have worried as much about possible damage, if Joe were more stable, feeling he could eventually get through to his brother regarding his intentions.  But given Joe’s condition, Adam worried about the amount of rage the knowledge would produce, as well as the level of damage it would inflict upon Joe’s already faltering spirit.

 

One thing Adam was greatly unsure of was what to tell or not tell his father.  He thought over how his father had responded to Joe throughout the ordeal.  It was obvious Ben was hurting deeply, as he could not do more to help his son.  Watching his father’s agony at trying to hold Joe’s physical and emotional pain, made Adam naturally want to shelter his father from more grief.

 

As Adam approached the ranch house, he made his decision.  He vowed to try and bring the Joe they knew and loved back home.  He wanted to give his father, his brother and himself the person who had left that day, several weeks ago to travel to Reno.  The son Ben could over-protect and keep young – the little brother they could tease and kid.  He had to try and find out if the Joe they all knew and loved made it through the torture, or did Baxter win and succeed at killing Little Joe.

 

The lantern in the barn was still burning as Adam walked his horse inside.  He was relieved and surprised at what he saw – relieved Cochise was in the barn, meaning Joe was home and surprised the horse stood fully saddled, her care left unattended.  Adam stabled Sport, as well as Cochise, seeming to linger and care for his brother’s horse a little longer than he might usually do.  It was as if by tending to the paint pony, he could feel as if he were tending Joe.  It was a small gesture, but at that moment, it was all he could do.  The horses bedded down, he moved to the big house with no idea what lay inside.

 

Entering the house, Adam looked around, unsure if he wanted to see Joe.  His eyes caught the silver hair of his father, sitting by the fire, smoking his pipe.  As Adam removed his gun belt and hat, placing them by the door, his father spoke,  “There you are.  Where have you been?  I thought you’d be with Joe, but when I asked him, he acted like he didn’t know what I was talking about.”

 

“Uh, sorry Pa to be out so late.  I had some things to tend to.  How’s Joe?”  Adam was immediately anxious.

 

“He looked terrible to tell you the truth.  I think he over did it.  He walked into the house and headed directly for the stairs.  I said hello to him, so it stopped him a minute or I think he would’ve just kept walking right upstairs without saying a word.  I don’t know if it was exhaustion or what.  I asked him where you were, and he mumbled something about how should he know, and he was going to bed.  Hoss went on up soon after.”

 

“When’d he get in?”

 

“Oh, he came in ‘bout an hour ago.  The way he looked, I’m sure he’s asleep by now.  I’m going to run upstairs a moment.  Hop Sing kept a plate for you in the kitchen.  Why don’t you go eat?  I’ll be back down shortly and keep you company.”

 

Adam could see the worry on his father’s face and knew he was going upstairs to check on Joe.  Ben was resorting to something he had done over and over throughout his boys’ lives.  When his boys were small, he made a nightly check on each sleeping child, like a sentry, guarding and insuring safety and peace.  He had done less of it as his boys grew, but if one of his boys were hurt or troubled, the sentry reappeared.  It was ingrained in him, and he could not relax until he had done his job.

 

The lantern burned softly, the room filled with snoring.  Ben did not knock for fear of disturbing, but slowly opened the door to Joe’s room.  He could not help the smile, that appeared on his face at the sound of his middle child’s snore.  He stood looking at Hoss sleeping on a cot, knowing it was uncomfortable, but also knowing Hoss would have it no different.  Ben felt so touched by his son’s need to watch over his little brother. He pulled the blankets up over Hoss’ shoulders and gently patted him.  He then quietly moved to check on Joe.  His youngest had his back to him, not moving as Ben reached out and rubbed his shoulder.  It appeared to Ben as if Joe was sleeping soundly.

 

Joe heard his father enter his room.  He had been laying, staring at the wall, and struggling to understand what he was becoming.  The day assaulted his mind, as he tried to grasp why.  However, the why was no longer a why aimed at the Stranger.  It was now a why pointed directly at him.  Why had he acted as he had?  Why did the rage feel so comforting?  Why could he not escape the memories?  More questions, deeper more frightening questions, began to form just out of his awareness, leaving him unable to rest and yet exhausted.

 

As Joe listened to his father move in his room, he closed his eyes.  The mere thought of looking at his father, looking into his father’s loving eyes made him cringe.  He could not look at the man who raised him, knowing what he had done, and who he was becoming.  The metamorphosis brought terror and rage, but now a new emotion joined in to torment – shame.  The shame brought forth a need to hide, and Joe retreated, feeling unworthy to be called Ben Cartwright’s son.  As his father rubbed his shoulder and whispered,  “Sleep well my son” he struggled to hold back the tears.  As he then heard his door close, he rolled his head into his pillow and cried.

 

It was some time later, the tears dried and only thoughts in their place, when Joe heard his door open once more, and someone move over to Hoss.  He remained unmoving, eyes closed, as he listened.  “Hoss, Hoss, wake up.”  It was Adam.

 

Hoss stirred and was awake.  “Uh… wha… what?”

 

“Ssshhh, Hoss, don’t wake Joe.  I gotta talk to you.  Come on outta here.  It’s important.”

 

“Adam, it’s the middle of the night.  What’s so important it can’t wait ‘til we get some sleep?”

 

“Will you hold it down!”  Adam whispered in a harsh tome.  “I’ve gotta talk to you.  We’ve got a big problem, and it can’t wait.  I need your help.  Come on outta here.  I don’t want Joe waking up.”

 

“If there’s a problem shouldn’t we let Joe in on it?”

 

“Will you come on?  Joe doesn’t need to hear about it.”

 

Hoss moved out of the cot and followed behind Adam.  His older brother’s behavior was very mysterious, behaving much more like Joe than himself.  He followed into Adam’s room and sat down on Adam’s bed.  “Okay.  What’s so all fired important it can’t wait ‘til morning?”

 

Where to begin?  Adam asked himself.  “Hoss, uh… we’ve got a big problem.  It’s Joe.  There’s something seriously wrong with him, and I’m not sure what to do about it, but we’ve got to do something soon or Joe’s gonna end up doing something that is gonna get someone hurt or worse.  Joe did some things today that were down right scary.  It started late this morning…”

 

What neither Hoss nor Adam knew was there was a third member to the conversation, only silent, standing outside the door, listening as the events of his day were exposed.  Joe’s mind raced, as he heard of his betrayal.  He had been followed, and now, Adam stood telling all he had seen.  The waves of rage were moving over him violently, as he began to shake.

 

The opening door immediately stopped the conversation.  The image in the doorway, radiated fury.  “Don’t stop on my account big brother.  Go ahead tell Hoss everything.  Just have the guts to tell it in front of me.”

 

Adam closed his eyes in dread at the upcoming scene that would more than likely take place.  A quick thought passed through his head,  “This isn’t going to be good!”  He tried to remain calm and keep things from escalating as he took a deep breath.  “Joe, let me explain…”

 

Joe was not about to let Adam explain anything.  “Explain what!  You following me!  You watching me!  You tellin’ Hoss!  How do you explain it!  What reason could you possibly give me to explain what you did, you son of a bitch!  What is it you want Hoss to know so goddamned bad!  You want him to think just as bad about me as you do, don’t you!  You think I’m bad, and you can’t wait to prove it!  Well go right ahead and tell him, you self-righteous son of a bitch!  TELL HIM ALL OF IT!  TELL HIM EVERYTHING I DID!  TELL HIM TO HATE ME!”  Words left, as action took over.  Joe was out of control.  He dove at Adam his hands in fists, the punches landing before Adam or Hoss could react.  Blows rained down on Adam, Joe’s response pure rage.

 

 

After the initial shock of the attack passed, Hoss joined into the fray, as he frantically tried to gather Joe off and away from his oldest brother.  Adam put up his hands in defense, but resisted the urge to punch back.  His guilt deciding for him, as he would not allow himself to fight back.

 

“What the hell is going on here!” a voice boomed.

 

Two of the three involved in the confusion immediately froze at the sound of their father’s voice.  The third, more focused on releasing his rage, was struggling to free himself from Hoss’s grasp.

 

‘Uh… Pa, we were having a bit of a… disagreement.  Sorry we woke you.”  Adam hoped he could quickly dismiss his father’s concern.

 

“Disagreement!  Joseph!  Stop that and look at me!  What is all this about?”

 

Joe stopped moving at the sound of his name.  Hoss was holding his arms tight around Joe’s chest, unwilling to give his little brother the freedom to attack.  Joe looked at his father with no idea of when he had appeared in the room.  He then looked to Hoss with a scowl.  “Let go a me, now!”

 

Weighing the possibility of Joe once more attacking, Hoss deciding to position himself between his feuding brothers before he released his hold.  As he let go of his little brother, Joe pulled away and moved as far from him as he could.

 

No one had answered the question Ben had asked, and his anger grew.  “I asked a question, and I expect an answer.  What’s going on here?”

 

Joe defiantly looked to the ceiling, Hoss looked to Adam, and Adam looked at Ben.  He spoke,  “Pa, it was my fault.  I uh… I said some stuff to Joe I shouldn’t a said.  He had every right to get upset.  I picked a fight.”

 

Joe quickly turned his head in disbelief.  He had expected Adam to tell their father exactly why he was so enraged, the details of his day dissected once more.  He could say nothing as he stood staring at his oldest brother.

 

“You’re telling me you went into Joe’s room, woke him up and picked a fight?”  The situation was impossible for Ben to grasp.

 

“No, not quite.  I wanted to talk to Hoss about something I wanted his help with.  I was having a hard time sleeping, so I thought I’d just wake Hoss and talk with him about it.  Joe woke up too, and when he offered to help, well I uh… said some things I shouldn’t have.  I told him the job was too big for him, and well you know how that sets him off.  I should a remembered, he’s not a kid anymore and included him.  I should have talked to him about it.”  Adam hoped his father would accept the explanation and leave it at that.  He also hoped Joe would hear what he was trying to tell him and understand.

 

The lie Adam told further shocked Joe.  His brother was covering for him, but why?  He had been so quick to tell Hoss about what had happened, but was hiding it from their father.  It made him confused and a bit paranoid.  What was going on and why?

 

Ben surveyed his three sons, knowing that he was being sold a bill of goods, but it was late, and it seemed the immediate crisis had passed.  “Okay it’s late and I’m tired.  All three of you go to bed, and we’ll discuss this in the morning.”

 

Joe moved towards the door first, keeping his eye firmly on his oldest brother.  As he walked passed Adam and into the hall, he glared and barked,  “You stay away from me!”

 

“Joseph!”  Ben reprimanded.

 

Joe did not stop, as he walked into his room and slammed the door.  Ben gave an exasperated look towards the noise, and then turned to his two eldest.  They both nodded as if to give deference and then Hoss left to follow behind Joe.  As he went to enter his little brother’s room, the yell, “Get out!” echoed through the house, and Hoss was quickly back into the hallway, walking to his own room.  Before entering his own room, Hoss looked once more to his father and brother, the look of hurt and concern quite evident.

 

Pacing the floor, Joe tried to gather himself together enough to think.  His mind would travel to rage, then embarrassment, to fear then disgust.  Nothing came clearly as peace and clarity could not find him.  The moonlight illuminated his way, as Joe moved over his room, always in motion, his hope by keeping moving he would not linger long on any one thought or feeling.

 

As Joe thought of what Adam had done, the rage was instantaneous, but the more he dwelled upon it, his feelings moved to despair.  “How dare he think he can follow me!  Watchin’ me like I’m some kind a show or somethin’!  Damn him!  He saw it all!  He saw it…! He saw it… Oh God, he saw it… What’s he thinkin’…? He’s gotta think I’m crazy… or somethin’.  That’s what I’d think… Crazy… or bad… Bad… Evil… Oh God… Born or made… Are they born or made…? Made evil… Can I be…? Has it always been there…? What’s in me…? What’s it he sees in me…? There’s something he sees.  Some reason… It’s why he won’t let me go…  What… Is it him he sees…  I’m becoming him… Oh God… I don’t want to… I can’t… Stop it!  Just stop!  Don’t do this.  Don’t think of it… But, what if… ”  Pacing and thinking.  Thinking and pacing.  No peace.  No quiet.  Only questions.  Questions with terrifying answers.  Questions with unknown answers.  Questions with no answers.  Only questions.

 

His body did not have the energy of his mind, and Joe eventually felt every ache and pain.  He had to give his body rest, even if his mind was far from surrender.  He moved to the window and took a familiar perch, looking out to the yard below.  Long ago, he had fixed his window where he could sit comfortably in it whenever the mood struck.  As always upon sitting in the window at night, he looked for his mother’s star knowing it would not be there.  He comforted himself by saying he was glad, as he hoped she had not seen what he had done that day.  He hoped she still loved him.

 

The thoughts raced and disturbed, never providing comfort, only persecution.  Joe looked out over the night, as he thought of the man who had turned his world to hell.  He ruminated over his desires for the Stranger.  Dead.  The original thought only wanting the man dead, but as time passed in his thoughts, he began believing death was too good for the man.  No, death ended it all.  Joe knew no peace, so why should the Stranger?  He focused on how he could ravage the Stranger as he had been, and for a while, he smiled.  But the thoughts eventually brought fear once more, as he realized what he was doing.  He was taking great pleasure in the violence, allowing his mind to think of all the ways he wanted to make the man suffer and pay.  He admitted to himself that he enjoyed thoughts of revenge, the seduction like that of a beautiful woman welcoming him to her bed.  However, thoughts of revenge brought forth such rage, such fury, he was soon lost in their grip and control was gone as they were soon driving him.

 

Joe’s mind wrestled, tumbled and turned over the events of the cellar.  Next it turned to his recovery, the pain, anguish and torment of trying to fight the pull towards death.  Thoughts then turned to the days after.  The days he remained trapped in fear and rage.  Days filled with waiting and watching for the return to the dance; the return to the man who had played with his life; the return to the man who now owned him.  Joe’s final thoughts were of the bond that had developed between himself and evil, as a sleep he did not expect to appear greeted him, and he was overcome.

 

 

He stood alone in the dark, sounds distant but familiar.  He waited for the one he knew would come.  Waited to be joined by the man who choreographed the dance.  He turned to his left, knowing the man was now there.  It was time.  He walked to the man and knelt before him, head bowed in supplication, begging to be worthy.  The image a young squire before his king, waiting for knighthood.  The man placed his hand on his apprentice’s shoulder.  “Rise.”  He stood, though unable to look his master in the eye.  “This will make you mine.  Prove yourself worthy.  Give him to me.”  He looked to where the Stranger was pointing and saw Adam, unaware ofthe evil thatwas present.  He hesitated and saw the man’s displeasure.  “I want him.  Do you deny me?  You cannot resist.  You must join me.  BRING HIM HERE!”  He could do only as the man wanted.  He walked to Adam, took him by the arm and walked him to the man.  The man smiled his pleasures.  “Who do you serve, Pretty Boy?  Who is your king?” 

 

He answered without hesitation.  “You are, my Lord.  There is only you.”

 

“Then you know what to do.”  The man handed him the whip and pointed to Adam.  “Make him talk, Pretty Boy.  Make him mine.”

 

He held the whip, the feeling power.  He made it crack, and his power grew.  He saw his brother flinch, and he paused, looked to the man, and saw the man nod.  He drew back the whip and with a flick of his wrist he released it.  The laughter filled the room as the man rejoiced.  “You’re mine, Pretty Boy.  All mine.  ALL MINE!  YOU’RE MINE!”

 

“NO!”  Joe screamed and bolted upright, only to feel himself fall.  He was disoriented and confused lying on the floor as the door opened Hoss quickly to him.

 

“Buddy?  What happened?  You okay?”

 

“Uh… uh, yeah… Help me up.”  Joe looked back up to the window, the realization of what must have happened hitting him.  He was shaking as he moved to his feet and over to the bed.

 

“Wanna talk ‘bout it?”

 

“Naugh, just fell asleep in the window and must have moved and fell out of it.  Stupid, huh?”

 

“Well, it’s probably safer ta sleep in your bed.  Listen, why don’t I stay the rest of the night in here?  I’m kinda used to that ol’ cot and I can’t get comfortable in my bed.  So if you ain’t sore with me no more I’ll stay.”

 

It was hard for Joe to stay angry with Hoss, as he felt guilt for having thrown him out of his room earlier.  He knew he had not really been angry with his brother, as much as he had feared what Hoss might think of him.  His brother’s quick response gave him comfort, and his look of concern gave him hope.  Maybe he had not lost his brother’s respect. Maybe there was a chance he could stop the nightmare from becoming true.

 

The two eventually settled in once more, however Joe lay in his bed awake, the thoughts continuing.  As he watched the sun rise out his bedroom window he made himself a vow.  He would not allow himself to cross over and join the Stranger.  He would keep it under control.  If he avoided certain thoughts he could keep the rage down, he told himself.  He would not give in to what he wanted to do.  He would rise above it and not feel his emotions.  He would will them away.  He would not feel it, and it would leave.  The plan made sense to him, and he breathed a sigh of relief allowing him to relax.  He was in control.  The morning faded away, as Joe once more slept.

 

Hoss rose at his usual time, the night’s ordeal leaving him tired and sluggish. He looked over to see Joe asleep, his hair a mess, it obvious he was enthralled in a very active sleep.  The blankets were strewn about Joe’s waist and cascaded onto the floor.  Hoss noticed that in his sleep, his little brother had taken a firm grasp on his pillow as if holding on to something very valuable.  He chuckled and pulled the blankets up on Joe once more, knowing that within minutes they would be right where Joe had previously placed them.

 

Descending the stairs, Hoss saw Adam and his father quietly eating breakfast.  It was obvious they too were tired from the events of the night.  He sat and began scooping up a healthy portion of the morning’s breakfast, when his father spoke.  “You two want to tell me what was really going on last night?”

 

It had been the question Adam had dreaded.  He looked to Hoss before he answered.  “Uh, Pa.  It’s like I told you last night.  Joe got upset because we had excluded him.  It was really nothing.”

 

“I saw the anger in Joe, son.  That was not, nothing.  What did you exclude him from?  Why’d you feel the need to?”

 

“I just wasn’t thinking more than anything.  I had my mind so focused on solving a problem that I was rude to him.  It was my fault.  He was overly tired, and you know how he gets.  Really Pa, don’t worry.”

 

As a father, Ben did not kid himself.  He believed there were issues and problems best left between the boys, and they could usually work them out with minimal bloodshed and feuding.  However, since Reno, it was hard to tell if the events from the previous night were merely a problem best left for them to work out themselves, or if it were something more.  Ben wanted to believe Joe was getting better.  The concern and worry that Joe could not move passed what he had been through had plagued Ben’s thoughts, as late at night he lay trying to remove his son’s suffering from his own mind.  He admitted to himself that he had grave concerns regarding Joe’s success at managing his own memories.  He knew his son could never forget, but feared they might haunt him and hold him back.  Ben prayed it would not be the case, and Joe could find peace.

 

Looking at his eldest, Ben was at a loss.  He chose to believe what every parent wants to believe – his sons were fine, and the problem was resolved.  “Well, whatever happened don’t try and aggravate him.  He’s on edge as it is, and we could all just use some peace and calm for a while.  Now, I’m off to town to the Cattleman’s Association meeting.  I should be gone most of the day.  I’ll see you boys tonight.”  With that Ben was away from the table and headed towards the door.

 

“Take care, Pa, and don’t worry.  No one has a desire to get Joe upset, believe me.”  Adam rubbed his jaw, as he watched his father leave.  Once Ben was out the door, he turned to Hoss.  “Did Joe say anything else to you last night?  I heard the nightmare and you goin’ in there.  You guys talk?”

 

“No, he didn’t want to talk about it.  I don’t think he’s sore at me no more, but I’m not sure you’ll fair so well.  Adam, are you sure it’s as bad as you were sayin’?  I just can’t imagine our Joe doin’ like you said he did.”

 

“I’d love to think there’s another explanation, Hoss.  There just isn’t.  Joe’s really messed up right now, and we cannot risk him off by himself.  Either you or I’ve got to be with him if he’s gonna go anywhere.  And you know he’s gonna fight us on it, but we can’t let him get himself into something that could ruin his life.  If you could have seen how angry he was.  Hoss, Joe could really hurt someone.”

 

“You know after Joe got so mad last night, and we all turned in, I kept layin’ in bed thinkin’ I was as mad as Joe, but I was mad at the men who did this to him.  I’m so angry every time I think of what was done to him.  And you know, every time I look at Joe it just ‘bout breaks my heart.  He looks so much younger since this happened to him.  Kinda like they took away some of his growin’.  It just makes me so mad.”

 

“I know just what you mean.  It’s hard to look at him and not want to just do like we did when he was little.  You know, distract him, or coddle him, or even tease him out of whatever was wrong.  I wish so badly that I could take this one away from him.  You don’t know how bad I want to do that.  But all we can do now is help him.  Even if he refuses our help, we gotta do it anyway.  We gotta do it for him, and we gotta do it for Pa.  It would kill Pa if Joe did something that was well…  if Joe hurt someone while he was in one of those states.”

 

“You don’t have to tell me that.  I know Pa is torn up about what Joe went through, just like you and me.  And you know I’ll help Joe anyway I can.  I just hope we are doin’ this all for nuthin’, and Joe’s just fine.”

 

“You and me both, Hoss, you and me both.  Well, we’d best get out there and get those doors on the barn mended.  I think we should stay near the house today, though.  We can send some hands on out to check fence, but I’d like us to be around to talk to Joe, if he’ll let us.  I’m not real hopeful of that, but I’d like to try.” Hoss and Adam made their way outside to the barn, their thoughts not wandering far from their little brother.

 

The dreams of the morning were fuzzy and confusing.  Joe woke slowly, feeling as if he had not slept.  He thought of dozing off once more, but sleep would not come, and he knew he was up for the day.  He was free from torture for a very few minutes, then it was back, as his head raced with thought.  What he would not give for a day free from the memories.  They seemed determined to stay in the forefront, reminding him how vulnerable he was, and how easy it would be for someone to take his life.  He hated the thought of someone with that kind of power over him.  It was terrifying to admit, so he gave himself the illusion of control.  He pulled out the gun he had chosen as his savior.

 

He wondered if he should risk it.  Should he allow himself the weapon?  He promised he would not shoot it, only have it with him just in case.  He rationalized that having the weapon near him would be enough.  He would not let his head go to rage, but would maintain control and maintain his power.  He told himself he could do it.  He could stand up against his own desires.  He vowed he would do it.  He would no longer let Reno be of any significance.  He was over it, he told himself, and his life would now go forward.

 

 

As he got up from bed, Joe felt himself more centered.  He could not help but feel pride at being able to talk himself out of the fear and the memories.  He dug through a pile of clothes, pulling out a pair of old black jeans.  He fleetingly thought, “Pa hates these.” but pulled them on anyway.  He stuck the gun in his waistband and grabbing a loose shirt.  He finished pulling it on and buttoning it while walking down the stairs.  He looked around the room, knowing he would have to hide the gun if anyone was around, but seeing no one, he then moved to the kitchen.  He was surprised Hop Sing was no where around, the kitchen door standing ajar.  He went to close it, when a movement caught his eye.  He looked to see one of the barn cats had wandered in and was in the corner digging at something.  He stood watching the animal, trying to figure out what it was the animal had caught.

 

As Joe watched, he saw the cat release and re-capture a mouse several times.  The animal appearing to find entertainment in repeating this maneuver.  As Joe looked on, he became seduced by the game.  The cat would reel in the mouse, and then release it.  He began silently rooting for the mouse, as it was temporarily freed, telling it to run, to get away.  Thought’s and images of how the mouse was going to be hurt started to fill his head.  He knew death was the end result.  He hated the game he was watching, but was helpless to stop it.  He then turned his focus to the cat, as it enjoyed the hurt, seeming to prolong it, savoring the kill.  The cat was sadistic; it’s joy disgusting.  He hated the cat.  The cat was evil.  As the cat once more grabbed the mouse, Joe instantly felt fear.  He wanted the cat dead. The fear was unacceptable to him.  He needed it gone.  He looked to the mouse.  Why won’t the mouse fight back?  What’s wrong with it?  It just sits there waiting to die.  It’s sick and pathetic.  Letting it be played with.  Fight back!  Damn you!  Fight back, you coward!  You’re gonna sit there and let that damn cat do that to you?  Damn you!  You deserve to die!

 

The scenario being played out before him took him to his own torturous game, as present and passed blurred.  He was being toyed with and made to beg.  He was no longer in the kitchen, but the cellar.  It was not a cat and a mouse, it the Stranger and him.  He could not move away, and he was trapped.  His rage was building, as he wanted to fight back.  He would no longer take the abuse, he would make the Stranger pay.

 

The events occurred rapidly with Joe having no thought – only action.  The feel of being touched made him attack – his thoughts to stop the abuse.  He grabbed the arm of the one who touched him and quickly slammed him up against the wall.  His voice was deep and guttural, as he spoke,  “I told you if you didn’t kill me I’d kill you, didn’t I!  You made your mistake by letting me live!  I won’t make the same one!  You’ll die, and I’ll watch it!  You lose!  The last thing you’ll see before you go straight to hell is me!  Me breaking your neck!”  He reached up and placed his hands around the man’s neck.  “I’ve been dreaming of this!”  He gave a wicked grin.  As he applied pressure to the throat, he heard his name called.  It did not make sense.

 

“JOE STOP!”  He was grabbed and pulled away, but his instinct was to still struggle.  He fought and cursed at whomever it was keeping him from killing the Stranger.  He was all movement, his goal to get away.  “JOSEPH!  STOP!  STOP!  IT’S HOP SING JOE!  STOP IT!”  Joe heard Hoss’ and Adam’s voices breaking through the rage.  He was coming back, and as he did, he realized Hoss was holding him, and Hop Sing was against the wall, his hands to his throat.  He stopped struggling as the shock of what he had done began to hit him.  He looked to Hoss and then Adam before looking back at Hop Sing.  He started shaking his head, “no” as he could not fathom what he had done.  Hoss released his grip on Joe, as he felt his brother’s rage disappear, and something much more pitiful take its place.  Once Joe felt Hoss release him, he gave a pained look to his beloved friend, as he stood for a brief second, frozen.  The tears started falling down his face, and then he ran.

 

The open door gave Joe his escape.  He had no idea where he was running to, his only desire to be away from what he had done.  His thoughts were confused and irrational, the need to flee and find safety his only goal.  Childhood habit took over, as Joe headed to the place where he often sought refuge when he was upset or needed to hide.  He entered the barn running fast.  He was quickly to the ladder and then to the loft above.  He scurried over to a far corner, his goal to be hidden by the hay.  He wanted to be hidden from those who had seen what he had done, but more importantly, he wanted to be hidden from himself.  He sought anonymity in the quiet and darkness, as terror of those he feared had become overwhelmed.

 

In the kitchen, the scene remained one of shock.  Neither Hoss nor Adam could believe what they had heard Joe say, nor the fact that he was in the middle of trying to strangle Hop Sing when they stopped him.  The person they saw in the kitchen was not their brother.  The voice was sinister, the look murderous rage.  Adam was quick to react, as he started to take off out the door after Joe, when Hoss stopped him.  “Adam, wait!  Joe’s gotta gun.  I saw it in his waistband.  He’s not right in his head, and God knows what he could do.  Be careful!”

 

Adam nodded to Hoss and took off after Joe.  He saw Joe disappear into the barn and followed behind, but held back, knowing it was very dangerous to get close to his brother if he were still in the state he had been in when he had attacked Hop Sing.  As he reached the barn door, he could hear movement above him.  He immediately knew where his little brother had hidden himself.  “Joe?  Buddy?  Can I come up?”

 

There was no response from the loft, as Adam moved to the ladder, slowly climbing, but ever mindful of the possibility of the gun.  He was halfway up the ladder when he saw Hoss come into the barn.  He motioned for Hoss to stay where he was and then continued to climb.  As the loft came into view, Adam looked around, unable to see Joe.  He could hear his brother’s voice muffled and very quiet, but was unable to make it out.  “Joe?  It’s Adam.  Can I talk to you?”

 

No response was decipherable, whatever Joe was saying, too soft to make out.

 

“Buddy.  I’m gonna walk over to where you are.  I’m not gonna do anything to hurt you.  I’m just gonna see if you’re okay.”  Adam moved towards Joe’s voice, keeping himself low.  He could finally see his little brother, the sight tearing at him as tears formed in his eyes.  “Oh buddy.”

 

Joe was sitting in the corner, his arms wrapped around his legs, rocking back and forth.  His head was down, as he softly chanted,  “Oh God!  Oh God!”

 

“Joe?  Buddy?  It’s Adam.  Can you look at me?”

 

Joe did not acknowledge Adam’s presence, seeming to be unaware of anyone else in the loft.  “Joe, it’s gonna be okay.  Hop Sing’s just fine.  You didn’t hurt him.  Buddy look at me.  Can you look at me?”

 

Joe’s mantra continued. The fear more than he could hold.  He knew Adam was present, and it increased his fear.  He did not trust himself nor did he trust Adam.  He wanted to be alone, and yet that too brought fear.  The thoughts raced through his head, the realization so very painful to accept.  It had happened.  He was now no different than the Stranger.

 

Adam heard a noise behind him and saw Hoss standing back, looking at Joe, the anguish so obvious.  The two older brothers locked eyes, each seeing the other’s pain.  They knew whatever was happening to Joe was far beyond their experience and knowledge.  They would have only each other and instinct to try and reach through to their little brother.  Both prayed it would be enough.

 

Adam took the lead as was habit and custom with the brothers.  “Hoss, go into the house and bring me the brandy.  And listen, we’re gonna help him.  Don’t worry.”

 

“Yeah, well you be careful, big brother.  Joe’d never hurt ya on purpose, but he looks real bad.  Real bad.”  Hoss lingered for a moment, looking to Joe once more.  He said very quietly.  “Come on little buddy.  Don’t you go away from us.  You come on back now.”

 

As Hoss left, and Adam waited for his return, he watched Joe closely.  Joe’s arms were wrapped around his legs in such a manner that access to the gun in his waistband would be difficult.  He decided to move closer to see what Joe might do.  As he traveled, he made sure not to make any sudden moves, all the while talking calmly.  “Buddy, I’m just gonna move over, so I can sit down near you, then you and I can talk a little.  I know this has got you scared Joe, but we’ll get through it.  You’ll see.  I think you’ve been trying to do too much of it yourself, and it got too big for you.  I think though between you, Hoss, and me we can handle it.  Don’t you?  We’ve handled so much before, us three.  Come on now Joe, look at me.”

 

Joe remained rocking but had stopped speaking.  He blinked slowly several times, as he stared at the ground, trying to clear his eyes from the tears that were streaming down his face.  He breathed in gasps, as the adrenaline rushed his mind and body.  It was all crashing down, his worse nightmare now true.  He tried to pull himself together enough to speak, but words would not come.  What could he say after what he had done?  Adam had seen it.  He had seen it all.  It was way too much.  The shame was too great.  There were no words, only terror and shame.

 

Hoss was soon present once more, the brandy in his hands.  He passed the decanter and a glass to Adam, as he then sat back out of the way.  Adam poured a glass and spoke,  “Joe, I think you’re real worked up.  You need to just calm down, and we’ll talk about it.  I want you to drink this now.  It’ll help.  Can you do that, buddy?”

 

“Nothing’ll help.  It won’t.  Don’t you know?  Oh God!  What am I gonna do?  What am I gonna do?”  The words stayed in Joe’s head, but the panic showed on his face.

 

Adam knew to touch Joe would be too much, but he had to try and get Joe to drink.  “Here buddy.  I’m gonna put this right here, and you just pick it up and drink it.  I want you to drink a couple of these, and it will help.  I promise it will.”  Adam reached out and placed the glass as close to his brother as he could.  Joe raised his eyes to watch the movement; unsure if what he was seeing was a threat to him.  He did not move.

 

“Go on, Joe.  You do as I tell you now.  Drink up.”  Adam held his breath, hoping his role as older brother would hold.

 

For the first time since Adam joined him in the loft, Joe looked at his brother, his eyes filled with tears, and a questioning look appeared on his face.  He did not know what to do, or whom to trust.

 

Fighting his desire to simply go to his brother and make him drink, Adam quickly tried to think of what might get through to Joe.  “Buddy, you remember when you and I talked a little while back, and you told me you would let me help you?  That it would help me to help you?  You remember that?  Well, I need you to help me, okay.  I need you to do this for me.  Drink all of that in that glass okay, and that’ll help me.”

 

“Help you?” Came a very soft voice.

 

“Yeah, Joe.  Help me by drinking that right now.”

 

“‘Kay.”  Came the response.  Joe reached out and lifted the glass, but as he tried to move it, the violent shaking of his body made the liquid spill.  Joe looked to Adam, terror in his eyes.  He was immediately afraid, as he dropped the glass, pulled himself back and cowered.  “I’m sorry.  I’m sorry.  I’m sorry.”  Joe’s retreat made it obvious he expected to be hit for his mistake.

 

“It’s okay, Joe.  It’s okay.  We got plenty here.  No one’s going to hurt you.  Let’s just try it again.”  Adam kept talking to Joe, as he refilled the glass.  “You know when you were little, I don’t think we made it through a meal without you knocking over your glass.  Most of the time it seemed to head straight for me too.  We made it through that, and we’ll make it through this.  Now try again Buddy.  Just take it slow.  I won’t fill it as full, but don’t worry about spilling it.”

 

Adam’s words kept Joe’s attention, as he watched the glass set down once more.  He sat still, waiting to see if it were truly safe.  Eventually, seeing no one was going to move towards him, Joe decided to try for the glass once more.  He took hold, and as the glass shook in his hand, he looked to Adam.  Adam gave an encouraging nod, and Joe continued.  Some of the liquid spilled, but much made it to Joe, and he drank quickly.  The warmth and taste made Joe cough – the alcohol strong in his mouth.

 

“Easy there.  I’m not sure this is the best stuff to drink real quick, but here, lets have you do a couple more, and then we’ll talk.”

 

Joe did not speak but did as he was told.  As he drank, he remained seated with his legs drawn up, cautious of those around him.  He kept his eyes on Adam, watching his brother with concern.  It was difficult to remain present in the barn as terror took his mind.  He had no idea who to trust, or what to do.  His mind wanted to protect him from hurt and pain, to escape the hell it was in.  That meant he was left with only doubt and caution.  His mind believing his own survival at stake – he did not want to die.  He had fought hard before, his survival instinct so strong.  He would fight once again, but what it was he was fighting, he did not understand.

 

Activity stopped as Adam waited for the effects of the alcohol to take over his little brother.  He hoped he had given Joe an amount that would have him calm so it might allow them to help.  He prayed Joe could be reached – that his idea would work.  He looked to Hoss and saw him watching Joe.  They all had so very much to lose – their own fear enormous.  “Buddy, can we talk?”

 

Joe nodded his head slowly.  He looked behind Adam to Hoss, and then back to Adam.  He felt shame at the thought of the two seeing him as he was, but his emotions were starting to deaden some from the brandy.  Things were becoming less sharp, less focused.  The fear was there, but it was as if someone had thrown a thick warm blanket over it, allowing it to be covered.  He was not sure he liked the new feeling, as now it seemed he had lost some of his control and ability to protect himself.  He told himself he would try and remain cautious.

 

“Tell us what happened in the kitchen.  What happened with Hop Sing?  Do you remember?”

 

“Kitchen?”

 

“Yeah, buddy.  What happened in the kitchen?”

 

“A mouse.”

 

“A mouse?”  Joe statement made no sense, and Adam felt himself grow more nervous.  “What about a mouse, Joe?”

 

“The mouse wouldn’t fight back.  It was gonna die.  It deserved to die Adam.  It should die cause it won’t fight the damn cat.  The damn cat won’t leave him alone.  It likes to hurt, but the mouse is worse.  The mouse just lives to be killed by the cat.  The mouse won’t fight back!  It has to fight back.  I have to fight and kill him!  He has to die!  It is the only way I can ever get away from him!  Don’t you see, Adam!  Don’t you know!  I have no choice ‘cause the cat won’t let me go unless I kill it!  I have to kill it!”

 

“Joe, I don’t understand.  I don’t know about the cat and the mouse.  Tell me what happened when you walked into the kitchen.  Tell me about that.”  Adam’s heart was breaking, as Joe’s words made no sense to him.

 

Adam’s redirect stopped Joe.  He looked at his older brother confused.  “You don’t understand ‘cause a him.  It’s ‘cause he’s in me, and now it’s all bad.  You’ve always been right ‘bout me, Adam.  You’ve known all along.  You saw it, just like he did.  You’ve always known.”

 

“Joe, help me here, buddy.  What did I see?  And who is he?”

 

Joe’s shaking was increasing as the thoughts confused in his head.  “It’s all jumbled up in my head.  It’s hard to figure out…  What did you want to know…? Oh uh… the kitchen.  The door was open.  The cat, that gray one was in the kitchen.  It had a mouse… it kept hurting the mouse, over and over… I couldn’t stop it from happening… I hurt Hop Sing.”

 

What Joe was saying finally made sense to Adam.  The cat and mouse, so symbolic of Joe’s own torture, had taken him back to his pain and fear.  “Joe, when you attacked Hop Sing, who was he?  Who were you hurting?”

 

“I didn’t mean to hurt him, Adam.  I didn’t.  I’m sorry.  I couldn’t stop it.  I didn’t know it was him.  Honest I didn’t.”

 

“He’s okay.  You didn’t really hurt him.  Is this what happened with Katie, Joe?  Did this happen before?”

 

“Katie…?” Joe’s embarrassment showed.  “You know about Katie…? I uh… yeah it happened.”  Joe could do nothing but lower his head and wipe his eyes.

 

“Katie’s okay too, Joe.  You haven’t hurt anyone.  Everyone’s okay.  Can you tell me what happened inside of you when you attacked Hop Sing?  Do you feel it happening?”

 

“I don’t know.  It just happens.”

 

“Think real hard, Joe.  Tell me how it happens.  Tell me all you can remember.”

 

“I don’t know.  I don’t wanna think about it, Adam.  I can’t do this.”

 

“Yeah you can.  Hoss and I are gonna help you now.  You need to try.”

 

“NO!  I don’t want to ‘cause it’s bad.  It’s really bad, and I don’t want to do this in front of you.  Not you.”

 

“I can help you.  I want to help.  Please Joe?”

 

“You never have anything wrong with you.  You’re so perfect and know everything, and I am so messed up.  I can’t do this in front of you.  It’ll just make it all worse.  You got your proof I’m bad, so there’s nothing else you need.  Just go away.”

 

Joe’s words hurt Adam deeply.  Was this how his brother viewed him, so judgmental and harsh?  “Buddy, no!  You’ve got it all wrong.  I don’t think you’re bad, not at all.  I understand you more than you think.  There are things that happen; things you see or feel that make the memories take over.  Don’t they?  You’re fighting so hard to keep it all under control.  I know that.  I see that.  When I followed you, it wasn’t to embarrass you.  It was to make sure you were okay.  Joe, you’re so angry and hurt over all of this.  You’re not bad, just hurt.”

 

“Why do I have to tell you about it?  Why do I have to show you more?  You saw how I can be?  You saw what’s in me.  I know what you think of people who can’t control themselves.  I’ve heard you talk about it.  I’m every thing you hate.  I know what you think of me.”

 

“No.  No you have it all wrong, buddy.  I love you.  I’ve not told you enough I guess, but I am so very proud to have you as my brother.  I need you to talk to me, Joe.  I need it for us, you and me.  We gotta do this together.  I can’t sleep knowing what you’ve been through.   It’s all I can do to get a day’s work done.  No buddy, I don’t hate you, and you are so far from bad.  Face it.  We need each other.  Tell me about it, Joe.  Do you feel it happening to you?”

 

Joe put his head down, unable to look at Adam.  “Sometimes…  I see stuff.  Like I’m there and it’s happening, but then it’s in my head and it ain’t really there.  I didn’t know I was hurting Hop Sing.”

 

“I know that.  Who were you hurting, Joe?  Who is it you talk about when you say, he?”

 

Joe looked up quickly, his face pale.  “I… uh… I… just those guys… you know.  I don’t want to talk about this anymore.”

 

“Joe, I know you’re hiding something.  Tell me what it is.”

 

“I’m not.  No… I’m not hidin’ anything.  Just don’t want to talk about it.”

 

“Yes, you are.  Who is it you keep talking about?  Who is the he?”

 

“I can’t.  Don’t do this Adam.  Don’t.  Just go away, please?”  Joe was becoming more fearful, as Adam pushed.  His shaking was more noticeable, his eyes wide with fear.  “Please go away?”

 

“Adam, maybe you should leave him alone.”  Hoss could not stand to see Joe so afraid.  “Joe don’t have to talk if he don’t want to.”

 

“Hoss, he does.  There is something that is making all this worse for him.  Something he won’t tell us.  Joe, look at me.  Hoss and I will make sure nothing bad happens.  We’ll take care of you.  Tell me what it is.”

 

“I CAN’T!”  Tears were falling hard, as Joe screamed.

 

“Why Joe?  Why can’t you tell me?”

 

“You’re just like him!  You won’t leave me alone!  You keep askin’ and askin’, and I can’t tell you!  You want me to do something I can’t!  You’re just gonna keep comin’ back and askin’, and I won’t tell you.  You just keep askin’ and hurtin’ me ‘cause I won’t!”

 

“Joe, who am I?  Who are you talking to?”

 

“You think you’re gonna win.  You’re not!  You won’t!  I told you you’d never get what you want for me!  Adam’d do it for me!  He’d do it for me, you son of a bitch!”

 

“Tell me, Joe.  Who am I?”

 

The tension was thick in the barn, as Adam pushed Joe to reveal his secret.  He knew it was a gamble, as he looked at his brother and saw the look on Joe’s face-so primal, so enraged.

 

“I WON’T TELL YOU!  I WON’T!”

 

Adam knew whomever Joe was shouting to was the key.  He had to find out how to get Joe to talk to him about it.  It was obvious Joe was wrestling his mind, his grasp on the present very tentative.  Adam asked himself when was it Joe had left them.  He soon realized it was when he had asked something similar to what had been asked of Joe in the cellar.  He had asked his brother to reveal a secret.  He decided he would try a different angle.  “Joe, tell me what you see.  It’s Adam, buddy.  Tell me who’s there with you?  Tell me, and I’ll make him go away.”

 

“I can’t tell.  I won’t tell.  He’ll hurt you.  He’ll kill you.  No… won’t do it.”

 

“Joe, this is different.  You don’t have to tell me who is there.  Just tell me yes or no, okay; just yes or no, buddy.  Listen is it Doyle?  Is Doyle there?”

 

Joe shook his head no.

 

“Is it, uh… is it Wells?”

 

Again a shake of the head, no.

 

Adam and Hoss looked at each other, both wondering if Joe had understood what he had been asked.  “Joe, is someone else there besides Doyle and Wells?  Is there another person?”

 

Joe did not answer.  The rocking started again, as he tried to calm the fear.  Adam thought he had his answer.  “The third person Joe, he’s the one you’re so afraid of isn’t he?  He hurt you didn’t he?”

 

Joe looked to his brothers so confused as to what it was he needed.  He wanted to answer Adam, to tell him everything, but his confusion made it such that he thought to tell his brother of the Stranger, would be the same as telling the Stranger of his brother.  His instinct was to fight and hold back, to not give in no matter the fear or the pain.  He believed he was waiting to die.  “I won’t tell you!  I won’t!  NO!”

 

 

The fear in Joe was difficult to watch.  Neither Hoss nor Adam had seen anything like what they were witnessing except in hurt animals.  It was so difficult to keep their distance, as every instinct told them to go and hold Joe to stop the shaking and take away the fear.  “Joe, the man hurt you.  I know he did.  But he can’t hurt you anymore.  I promise.”

 

“NO!  No one hurt me!  Leave me alone!  Go away!  I won’t tell you.  I won’t!”

 

“Joe, I know what happened.  I know the man hurt you really bad.”

 

“No!  No he didn’t!  No!  He didn’t!  No one hurt me!”  Joe’s agitation was growing noticeably, and Adam pulled back, unsure if he should push further.

 

“Buddy, it’s okay.  Let’s just take it easy and calm down some.  You look cold.  Are you cold?”  Adam noticed Joe did not have his boots on and only a light shirt with his jeans.  It was still quite cool out, and he knew Joe had to be cold.  He took off his jacket as he spoke,  “ Joe, here I want you to put on my jacket.  You’re shivering, and it’s cold in here.  I’m just gonna move over and put this around you, okay?”

 

“NO!  Don’t touch me!  Leave me alone!”

 

“I’m not gonna touch you.  I’m just going to put this around you. See, you can watch me the whole time.”  Adam kept moving as he talked, all the while keeping his eyes on the gun in Joe’s waistband.  It seemed to Adam, Joe had forgotten the weapon was there.  He prayed there would be no sudden realization.  As he placed the jacket around Joe, his little brother cowered away from him, but allowed the coat to be placed on his shoulders.  Having completed the task, Adam moved back and away once more.  “Go on buddy and pull it around you.  It’s cold in here.”

 

Joe did as instructed wrapping the coat around him.  He held the sleeves in his hands giving the illusion the coat were hugging him.  It gave Joe some comfort to feel the warmth and be able to smell his brother near him.  He continued to rock, ever mindful of Adam and Hoss’ presence.

 

“Joe, is that better?  Does that help?”  Adam kept his voice calm and steady trying to get Joe to reconnect with him.

 

Joe nodded slowly and pulled the coat a little tighter.  He remembered the cold of the cellar, how much he had wanted something to keep him warm.  It was a relief to have the coat, and he held on to it, fearful it would be stripped away.

 

Adam saw Joe seemed to quiet, the coat had been the right move.  He knew he had to get Joe to talk, to share whom it was he was protecting.  He feared Joe could not get better unless he told them of the secret.  He knew he would have to once more approach the subject.  “Buddy, I know there was another man there.  Someone you haven’t told us about wasn’t there?  I can understand why you are so afraid, Joe, ‘cause I know he hurt you bad.”

 

No!  No!  You don’t!  You don’t!  You don’t see his eyes!  He doesn’t hit you!  He doesn’t watch you with those eyes!  He watches!  All the time he’s watching me!  He watches it hurt!  OH GOD!”

 

Hoss could stand it no longer.  He had to get to Joe and make it better.  Seeing his little brother so distraught was simply too much for him to bear.  Joe saw the sudden movement and only knew it meant danger.  He let go a blood-curdling scream, as he moved himself as far into the corner, as he was physically able.  Adam reacted without thought, grabbing Hoss before he could make it to Joe.  “Hoss!  No!  Don’t!  You can’t do that right now!”

 

Both men looked to their brother whimpering in the corner.  He was trying to catch his breath, the fear overwhelming.  He began once more a quiet mantra,  “No, don’t!  No, don’t!”

 

“Ssshhh… Joe, look, it’s just Hoss ‘n me.  No one else is here, and no one’s gonna hurt you.  Remember?  Were gonna help with all of this.  You’re not alone in it anymore.  Hoss ‘n me will keep you safe.  I promise you that.”

 

As Adam’s voice calmed and soothed, Joe once more began to settle.  He tried to get his breathing under control, but it came out in gasps.  He so much wanted to believe his older brothers could protect him, but it had been so easy for the Stranger to get to him before, he doubted their ability.  “You c-c-can’t.  He’s gonna… gonna… get me… S’only matter a time.”

 

“No one can get you here, Joe, no one.  We won’t let ‘em.  Will we Hoss?”

 

“Adam’s right, Joe.  There is no way someone is gonna get to you and hurt you.  We’d kill ‘em before they could try.”

 

It was obvious to both Joe wanted to believe.  He sat studying them, when his face suddenly took on a questioning look.  “You can’t.  You can’t kill him.”

 

“We’d do it in a heartbeat if we had to, Joe.”  Hoss answered.

 

“No you can’t.  You don’t gotta gun.  Neither of ya got one.  I gotta gun.”  Adam and Hoss pulled back, as Joe reached down and took the weapon from his waistband.  He casually waved the gun around as if it were a toy.  “I can kill him.  It’s why I’ve got this.  I’m waitin’ for him.”

 

Adam had to think fast.  He had to get the gun away from Joe in a way that would not further increase the danger they were now in.  The fear that Joe could mistake one of them for the man that had hurt him permeated his thinking.  He told himself not to panic.  To think logically about the situation and come up with an idea.  “Uh, Joe.  Listen.  I want to talk some more to you, and we need a look out.  Why don’t we give the gun to Hoss, and let him cover us.  You and I aren’t done talking yet, and I think I’d feel better if Hoss was protecting us.  Wouldn’t you?”

 

“Hoss?  But it’s mine.”

 

“I know it is, and he’ll use it to cover us and then give it back to you later.  You know kinda like when you borrow my good rifle ‘cause it has the sites you say are so true.  Well, it looks like that gun you have is a good one, and Hoss will need it to protect us.  How ‘bout it?”

 

“Hoss?  You’d shoot him?  Kill him?  You’d do it and not go soft?  You shoot him dead?  You’d make him die?”

 

“Faster than you could say – this is for my little brother.”  Hoss reassured.

 

“’Kay… here.  But you gotta kill him.  Promise me Hoss, promise me!”

 

“I promise you, buddy.  No one gets up here to you.  You have my word.”

 

Joe reached out, placed the gun on the hay, and then moved back away.  His fear remained the strongest feeling, making it hard for him to venture away from where he felt the greatest safety.  He looked at Adam, his eyes seeming to need reassurance once more.  He felt so silly, so young and afraid.  Why was this happening to him?  Why could he not just make it leave?

 

“Joe?”  Adam questioned.  “I want to know more about the man who hurt you.  Can you tell me more?  Did you see him?  Do you know what he looks like?”

 

Joe nodded his reply.  Somehow to speak his confession out loud was threatening, far too risky.

 

“Would you recognize him if you saw him again?”

 

Again, another nod.

 

“Have you ever seen him before?  Do you know his name?”

 

“His name?”  Joe asked himself.  “I could think of a lot of names for him.”  He shook his head, no.

 

The thought that there was another that had hurt Joe was difficult for Adam to comprehend, however it made so much sense once he reviewed Joe’s behavior.  As he thought over Joe’s reactions throughout his struggle to recover, Adam understood why the terror was so strong, so relentless.  Joe could not relax and even begin to think of moving forward in his life, because there was still a threat, still a danger.  As Adam watched Joe and thought of the past weeks, he had another glimpse of understanding, but it made his own fear increase.  “Joe, the livery, who was in the livery?  Why were you so afraid?  He was there, wasn’t he?”

 

Adam’s question brought it all back, the livery and the Stranger.  He heard the voice and the threat echoing in his head

 

Now Pretty Boy, you’ve done a right fine job of keeping that mouth of yours shut.  I can trust you more than that ol’ Doyle fella.  He just had to have his neck stretched because he was weak.  Now you stay strong, and you’ll do just fine.  If you feel weak though and have the need to talk, here, use this, and you’ll keep it shut, I’m sure.

 

The Stranger’s threat was real.  He had killed Doyle and Baxter and how many more?  How many more?  “I can’t do this, Adam.  I can’t.  You don’t know what you’re askin’.  I’ve said too much.  I’m not supposed to talk to you.  Not supposed to talk.”  Joe started shaking his head.  “He told me not to.  I can’t talk about it.  It didn’t happen, Adam.  Okay?  Nothing happened.  Don’t ask no more.”

 

“Joe, no.  Don’t do this.  It did happen to you.  The man is a monster.  He was just trying to get you not to talk and identify him.  It’s over.  You can tell us all about it, and nothing is going to happen to you.”

 

 

The fury was immediate.  “NO!  NO!  IT DID NOT HAPPEN!  IT DIDN’T!  IF I DON’T WANT IT TO BE, IT’S NOT!”

 

“Buddy, look at your wrists.  Look at them.  You can’t deny that.  What about your back?  You were whipped.  You want this man to go free?  After what he did to you?”

 

“That’s right, Adam he did it to me!  TO ME!  I DECIDE WHAT HAPPENED TO ME!  I DECIDE!  IT DIDN’T HAPPEN!  IT DIDN’T!”

 

Listening to Joe’s protests, Adam knew his brother was trying to cope with his hurt and anger as best he could by trying to make it all just go away.  It was so painful to hear him trying and rewrite history in order to relieve his suffering.  “Joe, you want to forget, I know it.  But you know you can’t do it.  It’s hurting you to keep trying to deal with this the way you have.  You have to talk about it.  You have to get it all out.”

 

“I don’t have to!  I don’t!  What?  You gonna make me talk, Adam!  You gonna tie me up and hit me ‘til I tell you!  You gonna whip me ‘til I talk!  What do you know!  What!  YOU KNOW NOTHING!  DO YOU KNOW WHAT IT FEELS LIKE TO BE WHIPPED?  NO, YOU DON’T BIG BROTHER!  LET ME TELL YOU!  IT TEARS WHEN IT HITS YOU, YOU KNOW!  IT CUTS IN!  YOU CAN’T BREATHE, ‘CAUSE YOUR ARMS ARE OVER YOUR HEAD, AND YOU’VE BEEN HANGIN’ FOR HOURS!  THE SOUND IT MAKES IS NOTHIN’ TO HOW IT FEELS!  WHY DON’T YOU TRY IT, ADAM!  WHY DON’T YOU LET SOMEONE DO THAT TO YOU!  AND THEN, HEY, COME TELL ME ALL ABOUT IT!  TALK ABOUT IT LIKE IT’S NOTHIN’!  TELL ALL ABOUT WHO DID IT, SO THEY CAN JUST COME BACK AND DO IT AGAIN!  YOU DO THAT, AND I’LL TELL YOU ALL ABOUT IT!  I’LL TELL YOU, AND WE’LL COMPARE THE EXPERIENCE!”

 

Standing near the entrance to the loft, protecting his little brother from the unknown, Hoss could not help but be deeply affected with what he was hearing.  Joe’s emotional pain was so difficult to listen to and not act upon.  The rage in Hoss increased to match that of his brother’s and he struggled to contain it.  He thought to himself,  “We’re gonna get him, Joe.  We’re gonna find him and kill him for what he did to you.  I promise you!”

 

Adam remained focused on Joe, trying to help his brother move passed the wall he was trying to create with his anger.  He had to get Joe to talk about what he had endured.  However, he knew this went against his brother’s natural inclination, and the battle might be fierce.  “Stop it, Joe!  Stop!  I’m not the enemy!  You’re not mad at me!  You know you gotta do this.  The man you keep fighting, the man who hurt you, he’s the enemy, not me!”

 

Joe sat shaking his head, glaring at his older brother.  He ran through a gamut of thoughts, all focused on protecting himself from further pain and exposure.  Adam did not understand – he had not seen the eyes, nor faced the pain.  What was it he was supposed to do?  What did Adam want from him?  The emotions were so raw, so exposed, the alcohol doing little to numb them now.  Joe wanted relief, and escape sounded wonderful, but he saw his brother a threat and knew no other way to manage it.  “What is it, Adam?  What?  I don’t know what you want from me!”

 

“We want to help, that’s all.  That’s all I want from you.  You have to tell us about this man, Joe.  He’s still out there.”

 

A maniacal laugh rose from Joe.  “You think you’re tellin’ me somethin’ I don’t know!  You don’t think I, of all people, don’t live with that knowledge every day!  Really Adam, I’d a thought you were smarter than that.  I live with that fact dear brother, and I will keep livin’ with it.  I live with, and I see it every day in a thousand different ways.  Sleepin’ brings really a fun time.  You know, gettin’ to have that son of a bitch visit me every night is a special treat.  And oh, another wonderful experience is when I’m trying to forget, to just relax and be like any other person, I get the lovely experience of another visit.  I look crazy to everyone.  Maybe I am.  I sure as hell’ve never seen what’s happenin’ to me.  I’ve never seen none of it before…

 

“You know what it’s like to look into the face of evil?  I mean real evil?  You know that feeling?  Hell, no you don’t, do ya?  You have NO idea!”  The laugh continued.  “Well, you want to know so damn bad, let me tell you.  You look in his eyes, and it just takes everything out of you.  It takes your life, it takes your breath, it takes…  You have to look at him.  You can’t help but look.  It’s like you’re drawn to him and at the same time you want to run away screaming.  He’s not a man, he’s a… a… God, I don’t know what he is!  You don’t know Adam and don’t pretend you do.”

 

“But Joe, we can help you.  We can help get this guy.”

 

“NO!  NO!  YOU AND HOSS STAY OUTTA IT!”

 

“We want to make this guy pay.  Just like you do.  We’re so angry at what he did to you Joe, and we want to help you handle all of it.”

 

“YOU AND HOSS STAY OUTTA IT!  JUST STAY AWAY!”  Joe felt terror at the fact that the Stranger could contaminate his brothers.  He viewed himself as damaged, already ruined, a part of evil.  To have his brothers exposed was more than he could bear.  He would not allow it, and would stop them anyway he could.

 

Adam could see Joe again on the verge of hysteria.  The whole situation was so frustrating.  He knew where he needed to get his little brother, and yet he no idea how to get there.  Joe blocked him at every turn.  “We can help you.  You don’t have to do this alone.”

 

“NO I SAID!  NO!  YOU ‘N HOSS CAN’T!  YOU CAN’T!  NO!  OH GOD NO!  STAY AWAY!”  Joe was beyond panic, as he thought of the Stranger harming one of his brothers.  The look on Joe’s face pleaded with his brother, begging for their safety.

 

“Buddy, no one is gonna hurt us.  We won’t let it happen.  We can keep you safe and ourselves.  No one is a match for all three Cartwright brothers.  You know that!”

 

“NO!  YOU CAN’T!  NO!”  The tears were falling hard, as Joe could do nothing but beg.

 

“Calm down now, Joe.  Calm down.  We’re not gonna do anything right now.  You don’t need to be so worked up.  It’s okay.”

 

“NO!  NO IT AIN’T!  YOU CAN’T NEVER GO AFTER HIM!  PROMISE ME!  PROMISE!  IT’S BAD!  IT’S SO BAD AND YOU’LL BE BAD.  YOU’LL BE LIKE ME!  NO!  NEVER!  PROMISE NEVER!”

 

“It’s okay, Joe.  We aren’t gonna do anything right now, nothing.  It’s okay.  Just calm down.”

 

The terror had taken Joe to a place where calm could not reach.  Everything was feeling as if it was closing in once more, and it was hard to breathe.  Thoughts rushed and bombarded, making understanding impossible.  He wanted away from the thoughts, away from the feelings and away from his brothers.  “NO!  I CAN’T!  YOU CAN’T!  NO!  IT’S ALL BAD, ADAM!  IT’S BAD!  GO AWAY!  PLEASE GO AWAY!  LEAVE ME ALONE!”  Joe was gasping out the words, as he tried to make it stop, make them leave him alone.

 

Adam knew that there was no more talking.  He had to somehow get Joe calm and keep him there.  His little brother was too far-gone to his fear and panic to tolerate any further discussion.  Adam looked to his feet and saw the decanter.  He made his decision.  He wanted Joe calm, and knew a way to get him there.  “Buddy, you know how I wanted you to drink the brandy before?  Let’s do it again, okay?  I want you to drink everything I give you.  Can you do that?”

 

Joe wanted relief, escape more like it, and did not care from where it came.  Adam handed him the glass several more times, and he drank, not tasting the substance, only feeling it burn and hoping it would stop the onslaught of emotion.  Fear was rushing over him, the alcohol yet to calm.  The rocking started once more, as he put his head down, trying to will it all away.  He focused on breathing, as the gasping took him to the cellar.  It was flooding back.  He was watching the Stranger, he was feeling the pain, and he was there, and could not leave.

 

The moaning started as Adam looked on.  Nothing had ever felt more helpless to him, as he wanted to go to Joe and give comfort.  He felt at a loss to make the memories stop and silently prayed the brandy would work and stop Joe’s mind from further abusing him.  He listened to Joe mumble, only hearing a few words or phrases, but what he heard was so painful, the damage to Joe so apparent.  He looked to Hoss, unsure what they should do.  He saw Hoss had tears running down his face and knew the pain in the loft was felt by each of them.

 

Time stood still, Joe trapped in the nightmare.  Hoss and Adam trapped having to watch.  No one moved as they waited.  Joe waited for the Stranger to finish the dance, as his brothers waited for the brandy to take hold.  The waiting seemed endless, as Joe recounted his torture for them.  He screamed and cried out, but eventually the words became quite slurred, the rocking all but stopped.  Joe was intoxicated.

 

Adam eventually risked talking.  “Buddy?  You okay?”

 

“Uh… n’uh huh.  I’m ‘kay.  It don’t wanna stop.  It just keeps s’on.”

 

“Is it still there?  Is it still bad?”

 

“I’m scared, ya know.  Scared lots a times.  Scared’s bad, real bad.  Not supposed ta be scared after you’re grown.  Supposed ta be brave and not let nuthin’ bother you.  I’m a coward.  I get scared…  You know it just all keeps on in my head.  I saw it ‘gain.  It s’real bad.  Don’t want it ta happen to ya, Adam.  Not ta you, not ta Hoss, just me.  Just me, Adam.  I’ve got it all in me, and it don’t matter no more.  It don’t matter what I do, Adam.  I’ve got it all in me…  I d‘serve it.”

 

It was obvious Joe was drunk, as his body finally relaxed.  He let go of his legs and leaned back against the wall.  He felt so tired all of a sudden, the need to sleep most important.  His eyes began to grow heavy, as he was able to finally be free of torment.  It sounded so good to him to close his eyes and rest.

 

Adam and Hoss watched Joe begin to fade.  They let loose a collective sigh, neither realizing he had held his breath.  Hoss spoke,  “We need to get him into the house.  He needs his own bed.”

 

Adam only nodded, knowing it would indeed help Joe to be in his own room.  The brothers moved without speaking, to help the youngest.  They had done it so many times before, lovingly tending to Joe.  They were afraid to touch him, unsure what he would do.  As they moved towards him, Hoss talked softly,  “Little buddy?  We need to get you inside.  You can go to sleep once we get you to your room.  Here, let me help you stand up.”  Hoss once more held his breath, as he touched Joe.  Joe did not protest, but rather leaned into his big brother, as he was lifted.  He held tight to Adam’s jacket, not wanting to part from it.  It gave him a security and safety that went far beyond words.

 

Getting Joe down the ladder proved awkward, but with two to assist, he made it to the ground below.  Hoss held a firm grasp, but felt Joe pulling away, moving towards the horses.  Hoss moved with him.  “Joe, we’re not gonna go for a ride.  Remember, we’re gonna go inside the house.”

 

“Wait.  I just gotta do somethin’.”  Joe walked to Cochise and stood looking at the paint pony.  He then took her halter in his hand and moved her head so they were looking at each other.  “You’re a fine horse, Cochise -the best – Better than the best.  You’re most best.”  He stood petting his horse, as he moved in close to her. “Cooch, you ‘n me gonna go for a ride.”  Joe began to move towards his saddle, in his drunken state, his movements making sense to him.

 

“Oh no, little buddy, lets go in the house.  You can go for a ride later.”  Hoss coaxed.  He did not want to use sudden movements, nor much force to move Joe along.

 

“But, I… Cooch wants to… Don’t you see it in her face?”

 

“Joe, Cochise is tired right now.  So are you.  Let’s go get you some sleep, and then you can come out and ride if you still feel up to it.  Cooch has gotta rest too.”

 

“Oh… ‘kay.  I could just sleep right here with her.  I’ll do that.”  Joe started to sit down, but Hoss stopped his descent.

 

“No you don’t.  Let’s go, buddy.”  Hoss started to lead Joe away from the horse.

 

“Wait… gotta say g’night.  Cooch, sleep good…  Don’t let that ol’ Chub rub off on ya now.”  Joe started to giggle uncontrollably.  He went to kiss his horse, and Hoss decided enough was enough.  He placed his arm around Joe’s shoulders and steered him out of the barn.

 

“Hoss?”  Joe asked.

 

“Yeah?”

 

“Hoss?”

 

“What is it?”

 

Hoss, you gonna stay with me?  You gonna be near?”

 

“Sure am, buddy.  Gonna stay right next to ya.”

 

“’Kay…  Good…  Hoss?”

 

“Yeah, Joe?”

 

“I can’t feel my feet.”

 

“I know, Bud, lets get you in the house and upstairs.”

 

Adam had stood back, watching Hoss manage Joe.  Seeing Joe away from the memories was a relief, and watching his little brother drunk was rather amusing.  However, it was difficult to remain amused, as it was far too easy to think of the reason why Joe was in his current state.

 

Adam followed behind as they entered the house and went up the stairs.  Joe tried to detour several times, but Hoss remained firmly on course.  Once in Joe’s room, Hoss moved him to the bed.  Joe plopped down, allowing his body to simply fall back.  Hoss then moved him so he was lying comfortably and picked up the quilt off the floor.  “Hey buddy.  You wanna give me that coat, and I’ll put the blanket on you?”

 

“No, I need it.  You stay too, Hoss.  You stay.  Oh boy, the room’s spinnin’.”  Joe was fading off to sleep, as he rolled away.

 

Hoss gently placed the blanket on his little brother and then settled in onto a chair to watch over and protect.  The role so familiar, one he never tired of taking on for his baby brother.

 

*******

 

Evening was settling in as Joe’s bedroom door quietly opened.  Adam peered in, his eyes falling on Hoss dosing in the chair, and Joe still asleep in bed.  He hated to do it, but he knew he would need to talk to Hoss before their father arrived home.  Flashbacks to the disaster that occurred last time he had tried to talk with Hoss passed through his mind, and he double-checked Joe to make sure he was really asleep.  As he watched, it was obvious Joe was dreaming, so he decided to risk it.  Adam moved over to where Hoss sat and shook his shoulder.  The large man woke with a start, unsure where he was at the moment.  “Wa?  What?”

 

“Sorry Hoss, but we need to talk before Pa gets home.  We’ve gotta decide what to tell him.”

 

Both men looked to the one who slept so unaware and innocent.  Joe looked so much younger, his vulnerability never more evident, as it was just then.  He was the one they both wanted to protect as they always had, however, both were realizing for the very first time they feared him, and the demons which were haunting him.  Hoss had so lovingly placed his little brother in bed, and then had sat back and watched Joe fade so quickly away.  He breathed a sigh of relief as Joe was finally at peace, his mind gone from the fear, the anger, and the person who had hurt him.  Hoss had sat looking at his baby brother, wondering what had happened.  Joe had always been so hard to tame, yet so wonderful to be around.  But what he had seen was so foreign – the rage, the hurt – he had to ask himself was his best friend gone?  Was his little brother, the one he felt such a need to protect actually the one he needed to guard against?  Hoss would never accept this, even as he questioned.  His baby brother was still good.  He had to be.  He was Little Joe.  Hoss would insure it by protection.  He would insure it by love.  He would never turn his back on his little brother.  He had known from the day Joe had been born that they were bonded, the tiny baby looking up at him with love.  Something happened that day, and Hoss never questioned it.  He told himself he would not question now.  Joe was hurting and needing him so very much.  He would protect the little boy he always protected, and he would believe in his brother.  He vowed as well he would kill – kill the man who hurt his baby brother.  He would make it right for Joe if he could.  He knew there were no limits to his love.  Hoss fell asleep thinking of his brother, and the events in the loft.  He would never let Joe be exposed again to evil if he could help it.  He would protect, and he would guard.

 

Adam as well had spent the hours since Joe had been placed in bed, thinking and rethinking what had happened inside his little brother, and more importantly, what they need to do to best handle the situation.  In his thoughts, Adam returned over and over to the reason Joe had been harmed.  It came back to him each time, as he could not escape his guilt.  His little brother had been hurt because of his need to take out Baxter.  He made only one conclusion each time, it was his responsibility, his fault.  Joe was damaged, somehow changed.  He sat quietly praying it was not an irreversible change.  He was unsure he could bear to see his brother continue in the agony he had witnessed and needed to believe Joe could overcome his problems with his help.  It has been Joe’s haphazard naiveté that had bothered him so much in the past, the tendency of his little brother to living life with reckless abandon.  But he knew had never wanted the naiveté and careless abandon stripped away so unmercifully.  He would never want his little brother jaded and distrusting, so full of a rage that was unrelenting and dangerous.  He would never have wished this on Joe, or his family.  As he sat thinking, he decided he would do just that.  He would take Joe’s place in any predicament.  He would run interference with their father, and do whatever it took to help Joe manage his demons.  He wanted to believe he could get Joe through it, but after what he had witnessed in the loft, he wondered if he had the ability or relationship to reach him.

 

Both men moved to the hallway, leaving the bedroom door ajar.  Adam placed himself in the corridor such that he could see his brother’s sleeping form, unwilling to risk Joe overhearing the conversation.  “I talked to Hop Sing.”  Adam whispered.  “He’s shook up, but I think he’ll be fine.  He doesn’t want Pa to know what happened, and the more I think about it, I agree.  I don’t think we should tell Pa, either.  I know it’ll upset him, but I’m more concerned what it would do to Joe.  He seems to not be able to handle much right now and having to talk about it more may just do more harm than good.  I just don’t know.  It seems he couldn’t handle it.”

 

“But what if when Joe wakes up he ain’t no better?  Pa needs ta know ‘bout Joe bein’ so bad off.”

 

“I know we’ve gotta tell him something, I just don’t think we need to tell him about the part about attacking Hop Sing.  You and I are just gonna keep a VERY close eye on Joe and make sure he can’t hurt anyone else.  I think Joe’ll agree to that pretty easily, ‘cause he’s really scared right now.  But even if he doesn’t, he’ll do it anyway.  The risk is just too high.  I’ll deal with Joe if he balks, and I’ll talk to Pa.  Hoss, you just keep doing with Joe like you’ve been doing.  He needs you.”

 

“Well I ain’t changin’ how I deal with him, but Adam, can I ask you somethin’?  Is Joe ever gonna get back to our Joe?  And if he don’t, you think he’ll even want us to help or to even… to be… his family?  What if… ”

 

“Hoss, we’re not gonna worry about that, because we are his family, and we’re not going to let him go.  Joe’s our brother, and he’s gonna be just fine, because we’re going to make it that way.  If we can find out who this man is and have him put away, maybe Joe can go on.  Maybe that’s all he needs.  This man is still out there and has had at least one other contact with Joe we know of.  I think Joe’s in a lot of danger, and we gotta make sure he’s safe.  I’ve been trying to figure out why this man would allow Joe to just walk around being able to identify him, and it makes no sense.  I think he’ll try to get to Joe.  We can’t let it happen.”

 

“But Joe ain’t tellin’ us much ‘bout him.  We don’t know who he is or nuthin’.  We have no description, no idea who he is or where he is.  Why you reckon Joe’s protectin’ him?  He knows we’d help him, don’t he?”

 

“I think its just Joe’s afraid.  He’s trying to protect us, and he’s the one needing the protecting.  I think I’m gonna try and find out some things from Reno, like if anyone noticed anyone else with Wells and Doyle, and if they did, maybe they know who the man was, or at least could give us a description.  I don’t think Joe’ll tell us much, but listen, if you get him talking, see if you can’t get him to open up some.  You and he can talk about a lot of things, so maybe he’ll tell you more.”

 

“I’ll try, but in all likelihood he’ll just get upset.  Joe’ll talk to me ‘bout some stuff, but there are some things he don’t talk to no one about.  And don’t you let him know you’re snoopin’ ‘round Reno.  He’ll flip for sure.”

 

The men stopped talking when they heard the downstairs’ door close.  Both moved to the top of the stairs in time to see their father placing his hat and gun belt on the credenza.  Adam took a deep breath, as he descended the stairs.  “Hey, Pa.  Have a good meeting?”

 

“Fine, just fine.”  Ben smiled at his eldest.  He then looked behind Adam to see Hoss with a worried look.  “Hoss, you okay?  Something wrong?”

 

“Oh, uh… It’s just… uh…” Hoss had not expected his father’s question and was at a loss as to how to answer.

 

Adam was quickly to the rescue.  “Pa, everything’s okay.  No need to worry.  Joe just had a rough day today, and Hoss was up making sure he was okay.  He’s sleeping now, which is exactly what he needed to do.  I think he was overly tired after not sleeping much last night.”

 

Ben was immediately worried.  “What do you mean a bad day?  What happened?”

 

“Pa, lets go sit down, and I’ll fill you in.”  Adam felt a twinge of guilt for not telling all that had occurred.  However, the ordeal in the loft returned to his mind instantly, and he knew he could not express what had happened in a way that would not alarm his father.  He also admitted to himself, he had no idea how his father would react to hearing of the attack and did not want things worse.  He told himself he had made his decision and he needed to do what he thought was best.  It seemed to make sense to him, as he encouraged himself to continue on with his plan.

 

Ben, Adam, and Hoss moved over towards the fireplace as Adam filled in his father.  “Pa, don’t worry.  Joe’s okay.  He just got pretty upset today, and well, I gave him some brandy to calm him down.  It made him sleepy, so he’s upstairs.”

 

“But what upset him?”

 

“He had one of those memories like he does.  He said he saw something that reminded him of what he went through, and it bothered him real bad.  He told us that much, but most of it was just him talking about what he went through, but it was that talk like when he’s not really there, you know.  He was in a bad way, so we gave him some brandy.  That’s about it.”

 

Ben realized his own guilt at not having been home when he felt Joe had needed him.  He was struggling to understand what was happening inside his child.  So many questions filled his head: Why was it Joe was unable to leave it behind?  Why did his son’s mind seem to keep it so fresh and vivid?  It did not seem fair to him that Joseph would endure the incredible amount of pain he had gone through, only to be continually haunted by it.  It angered Ben that his boy had little relief.  It angered him and scared him.  How could he help his boy?  “He’s sleeping?  I’m going to go up and check on him.  How long has he been asleep?”

 

Adam looked to Hoss, and they both shrugged.  “Oh, uh at least three hours.”  Adam replied.  “He was still asleep just a minute ago.  Pa, you look worried.  Joe’ll be okay.  He was just tired.”

 

“I’m going to go check on him.”  Ben did not wait for a reply, but was up and to the stairs.  He entered his son’s room, something he had done so many times over his boy’s life.  The lighting was dim, so he moved close to check on Joseph.  He saw a sight that brought memories.  Joe was sleeping soundly, his arm turned so it was on his pillow, his hand resting inches from his face.  Ben thought back to years ago, when his son’s thumb would have been tucked securely in his mouth as he slept, a habit Ben had worked hard to break.  He wished he were back there once more, looking down on a small boy with small boy problems.  “My boy.”  Ben thought.  “Joseph, you’re hurting so bad, son.  I wish I’d been here today.  What can I do to help?”

 

Ben stood, the minutes passing, as he watched his child sleep.  It never ceased to amaze him each time he thought of his boys and how they were each a product of him.  He saw Joe’s face crease in sleep and then ease, it very apparent his son was dreaming.  “I want you to be as peaceful as you look right now.  You’ve been through so much, Joseph.  So much.”  Ben could not help but reached out and touch his boy.  He caressed his child’s arm, hoping his son knew how much he was loved.  He wanted Joe at peace, the horrid memories gone.  He felt his frustration, as he gently and lovingly moved his hand to Joe’s face.  He moved the hair from Joe’s forehead thinking he needed a haircut, but knowing it was such a trivial matter between father and son.

 

Joe felt the contact through sleep and moved towards it.  It was familiar and friendly, something he had felt many times before.  His eyes opened and closed several times, the draw back to sleep strong, the light harsh in his eyes.  He immediately knew from the touch who was there and tried to wake himself.  “Mmm… uh… Pa?  Pa.”  Joe said in a relieved tone, his father’s presence calming the fear that seemed to arise as he woke.

 

“Joseph, how are you son?”  He had not meant to wake his child, but upon seeing Joe stirring, he felt a certain relief his son was awake, and he could make sure he was all right.

 

 

The memories of the loft were slow in coming to Joe.  He was confused, his head hurt, and he was trying to figure out why his father would be so concerned.  Nothing was clear for a few seconds, and then it hit.  “Oh no!  Oh God!  Oh Pa!  I’m sorry.  I’m sorry!  What am I gonna do?  Oh God!”

 

Ben saw that in his son’s face was panic, nothing but sheer panic.  “Ssshhh…  It’s okay, son.  Ssshhh… calm down now.  It’s okay.  You’re okay.  Adam told me you had an, uh… you had one of those spells.  Look at me, Joseph.  How are you feeling, really?”

 

Joe looked to his father, and then to the figure in the doorway.  He saw Adam standing there, trying to get his attention.  As he watched, his brother gave him a sign – one from long ago – but the memory came.  He was to say nothing, and it would be okay.  It was a sign the three had worked out many years before, and they had agreed upon the significance.  It meant their father was not to be told more than he had to know, and it would be taken care of, usually by Adam.  “I, uh… Pa, I’m sorry.”

 

“Hey, nothing to apologize for.  I just want to know if you’re okay right now.  I didn’t mean to wake you, and if you need to sleep you tell me.”

 

Joe’s eyes diverted once more to Adam and then returned to his father.  He did not like lying, but the shame of what he did was strong.  “I’m okay, Pa.  I’ll be just fine.  I promise you that Pa… I promise I’ll not be… um…” Joe knew he no longer believed himself good.  He was tainted and damaged, so he asked himself how could he promise not to be bad?  He was bad already.  He was flustered and confused.  He could promise nothing.

 

“Joseph, son, you needn’t promise me anything.  I just want to know if you’re okay.  Look at me.  Are you really okay?”

 

Joe waited to answer, wanting to blurt out “No Papa, something is bad wrong!” but felt himself foolish and chastised himself for wanting to be a child.  His father had been so wise and omniscient then, so able to fix everything.  Where had that man gone?  He wanted him there desperately.  He asked himself why was it so hard to be grown?  “Pa, I’ll be fine.  I always am.  You know that.”

 

Ben sat looking at Joe, wondering how much was false bravado and how much was true.  He knew Joe would hide from him, and although it was frustrating, he had to let his son do as he needed.  He told himself he would be there when it fell apart, when Joe could no longer hold it all in.  He knew his son would reach out eventually, and he told himself to be ready to act.  Joe could hide from him for a while, but he knew his boy.  He would eventually need someone there, and Ben would be looking for it.  However, Ben had no way of knowing Joe had already revealed his need, revealed the secret of fear in the loft.  He had not counted on his sons bearing the burden of the parent, so aware of the secret and acting upon it to care for Joe.  Ben had no reason to believe he had been excluded from helping.  He was hoping for something that had already occurred.  He was the one left out, the one left to wait in the unknown.  “I wish you’d tell me when it’s bad, Joseph.  I’d like to help you with it.”

 

“Oh Pa, you’re so good.  You don’t know what I really am.”  Joe thought to himself.  He said, “Pa, I’m okay.  Uh… what time is it anyway?”

 

The question resulted in Ben shifting focus.  “It’s near dinner time.  As a matter of fact, dinner’s probably on the table.  You want a tray sent up, or do you want to join us.  You do what you need to, son.  I know you were sleeping and I woke you, and if you need more rest tell me.”

 

Joe was touched deeply by his father’s compassion.  He loved the man before him so very much.  He wanted his father not to worry, to be okay with him.  He told himself to fix it, Pa was worried and that was never right.  He wanted his father to be okay, it seemed more important than himself.  “Pa, I wanna go downstairs.”  Joe threw back the blankets, ready to ease his father’s mind.  The mention of food brought on a feeling of nausea given the hangover he was beginning to experience, but he told himself he could no longer upset those around him.  He had to make it all right for everyone.  He would force himself to fix it.

 

Adam had stood back cautiously watching, trying to assess his little brother’s current condition.  Joe sounded better than he had earlier, and Adam silently prayed Joe would be back in his right mind.  He was anxious to speak with Joe alone, to fill him in on what he had actually told their father, but knew he would have to wait and hope Joe would say nothing incriminating.  Adam was desperately hoping he and Hoss could restore Joe to his former self and protect him from danger.  If they could accomplish the task, Adam felt he would have paid back the obligation to his little brother and perhaps even bring them closer together.  He did not like what he had heard regarding Joe’s assessment of their relationship, and he vowed he would work to change it.  He would do what was needed to let his little brother know how he really felt and hopefully in turn, Joe could do the same.

 

 

Joe made his way out of his room and down to the evening meal.  His father and Adam held back, both trying not to hover.  He looked exactly as he felt, exhausted and ill, his hair and clothes messy from sleep.  He continued to wear Adam’s coat, and it hung on him, several sizes too big.  He looked like a ragamuffin: young and disheveled.  He knew as he moved they were watching him, wanting to know if he was okay.  He told himself to do it for them, to be okay and not let them see the other.  He had to bury it, make it not be.  Then they would not have the worried looks and have to deceive.  He alone would be the keeper of it all.  He vowed he would handle it all, not make them hurt anymore.  He could not bear to have them hurt by him.  He would not allow his impulses to do that.  He would be so very careful and give them the world they needed.  The world they deserved.  He would not allow the Stranger to take them too.  Even if it meant he would have to deceive them himself.  They could never see the real him anymore.  They could never experience the level of rage nor hate that lived in him now.  He would give them the dutiful son, the difficult, but always okay in the end, little brother.  He would do it because he loved them.  He loved them and feared himself.

 

The family sat down for their meal, and it was quiet around the table.  No one felt much like making conversation, so they ate in silence, each occupied in his own thoughts.  Hop Sing served the family a fine meal, and Joe noticed it was full of his favorites.  It added to his guilt, and his appetite was nonexistent.  His friend, the man he had hurt, was tending to him even after he had terrorized him.  Joe’s burden increased, as Hop Sing so lovingly cared for the family.  He sat asking himself why everyone was acting so nice to him.  Why didn’t they fear him?  He knew he was dangerous.  He knew they should get rid of him.  He loved them and felt the need to protect them from the bad inside of him.  He wished Hop Sing had never seen the bad.  He had no idea how he could return to the relationship that had existed before the attack, before the Stranger.

 

Joe was able to sit and tolerate his own emotional conflict until Hop Sing had entered the room to clear the table.  “Hop Sing, that’s a nasty bruise on your wrist.  What happened?  Are you okay?”  Ben asked, the significance of his question lost to him.

 

Joe was in the middle of trying to take a bite of food when he heard his father acknowledge Hop Sing had been injured.  He dropped his fork, making a loud clang on his plate.  “Um, uh… s’cuse me.  I uh, don’t feel real good.  I’m gonna be sick, uh… I gotta get some air.”

 

The men at the table felt helpless to watch Joe run out of the room and outside.  All three were to their feet, but Adam waved then off.  “Hey, he had a rough day, and we got him sorta drunk.  Dinner probably got him feeling sick.  Let me go check.”

 

Once outside, Joe was immediately sick, as he thought of the bruises on Hop Sing.  He soon felt a hand on his back and cringed.  “Leave me alone.”

 

“Joe, you okay?”  It was Adam.

 

“Yeah, just fine.  Leave me alone.  I wanna be by myself.”

 

“I’ll leave you be, but let me just tell you something first.  Joe, I’m gonna help you with all this.  You aren’t gonna have to do it alone anymore.  Pa doesn’t know about the thing with Hop Sing, and he won’t know unless you tell him.”

 

As Adam spoke, Joe tried to gather himself back together.  He moved away from Adam’s touch and stood looking out into the darkness.  He knew Adam had covered for him, but he asked himself if it really mattered.  Could he hide the bad in him enough for it to never rear its head in front of them?  “Adam, you don’t have to lie for me.  I don’t need it, and Hop Sing deserves to have Pa know what I did.”

 

“But Hop Sing doesn’t want Pa to know either.  He told me…”

 

The two men were interrupted.  “S’cuse, Mr. Adam.  Hop Sing tell Little Joe what Hop Sing say.  Hop Sing need to talk to Little Joe.”

 

The ill feeling returned to Joe, as he saw Hop Sing standing next to Adam.  The guilt was enormous.  “Hop Sing, you don’t have to talk to me.  You don’t have to have anything ever to do with me again.  I’m so sorry for what I did, but it’s not enough.  Tell Pa, and let him deal with me.

 

“Mr. Adam, may Hop Sing be alone with Little Joe?  Little Joe and Hop Sing need to talk.”

 

Adam was reluctant to leave the two alone.  He feared his brother’s reactions and knew Joe was dangerous.  Joe saw Adam hesitate and knew why.  It had all gotten so very bad.  Adam and Joe’s eyes locked, each making a decision in that moment.  “Joe, I’m going to go take care of some stuff I didn’t get done in the barn.  You both take all the time you need, and then I’d like to talk to you some.  Is that all right?”

 

 

“Umm… Yeah, fine.  Uh… Hop Sing, I’ll just stay over here, and I promise I won’t, uh… I won’t hurt you.”

 

As Adam walked away he heard Hop Sing’s reply.  “No, Little Joe.  You come, sit next to Hop Sing.  You do as Hop Sing say now.”

 

Joe reluctantly moved over to where Hop Sing had directed and took a seat next to his friend.  He held his head down and thoughtlessly played with the cuff on Adam’s coat.  He said very softly, “I’m really, really sorry ‘bout what I did, Hop Sing.  I uh… there’s something that uh… happens to me, and I didn’t know it was you.  I’d never hurt you and mean it.  I’m so sorry.”  Joe fought the tears he felt rising.

 

“Little Joe, Hop Sing not mad.  Hop Sing worried.  Little Joe very hurt inside.  Little Joe have such bad thing happen.  Little Joe and Hop Sing very good friends.  Hop Sing know what Little Joe did was not because Little Joe bad boy.  Little Joe never really bad boy.”

 

Joe kept his head down, as he listened to his friend talk.  He thought,  “You don’t really know me, Hop Sing.  You don’t, and you don’t want to.  Believe me.”  He simply shook his head in response.

 

“Now Little Joe.  Who know you more than anyone, but father and Adam and Hoss?  Hop Sing.  That who.  I know Little Joe’s mama when she come here to live, and I know Little Joe since he a baby.  Little Joe always handful, but never bad like Little Joe think he is now.  Not in Little Joe’s nature.  Little Joe have good mama and good papa, and they have good son.  Cannot change nature.  Hop Sing tell you before.  In my country we have saying, rivers and mountains change more easy than man’s nature.  You good boy before bad thing happened, you good boy after bad thing happen.”

 

Listening to Hop Sing took Joe back to many prior conversations he had experienced with the cook.  He had spent long hours with Hop Sing after his mother had died, and Hop Sing had shared many thoughts.  But now Joe felt it had changed.  He was no longer the little boy with whom his friend could be more open than with most.  There was a wall between them, Joe unwilling to risk further closeness for fear of what it might bring out in him.  “Please don’t do this, Hop Sing.  Don’t forgive me.  Just stay away from me.”

 

The turmoil inside of Joe tore at Hop Sing.  He so badly wanted to reach the young man and relieve the suffering he saw.  The events of the morning had terrified Hop Sing, because he saw so clearly the depths of Joe’s difficulties.  He knew Joe would have killed him had he not been stopped, but Hop Sing did not believe Joe’s actions were due to a character flaw.  He knew Joe was sick – a sickness of the mind.  He felt he had to reach the boy to stop what he saw him doing to himself.  Hop Sing knew it would only make Joe worse if he continued down the same course.  “Little Joe, Hop Sing see you as his own boy.  Hop Sing not tell Little Joe this before because it disrespectful to Mr. Ben.  But Hop Sing need Little Joe to listen to him now.  Little Joe hurting himself by so much worry.  Worry not help Little Joe get better.  Little Joe need to let go worry about Hop Sing.  Hop Sing just fine.  Little Joe need to help self by understanding self.  Need to listen to heart and head and learn how to help self.  Hop Sing know the answers Little Joe look for are inside Little Joe. ”

 

Joe was so touched by Hop Sing’s compassion, and he could hold back the tears no longer.  He cried very quietly, unable to share his hurt and fear with his friend.  Hop Sing respected Joe’s need and continued to talk.  “Little Joe need to relearn about people.  Need to relearn to trust and to be touched.  Little Joe no like to be touched no more.  It scare Little Joe very much to be touched.  Bad men touch Little Joe and hurt him.  Little Joe think every touch will hurt him.  Little Joe need to know this not true.  Little Joe need to understand his mind.  He need to understand how it work.”

 

The words were ones Joe heard, but they somehow felt wrong to him.  He had looked inside, and all he could find was bad.  He agreed he did need to know himself, but not in the manner Hop Sing was referring to.  He needed to know himself better in order to hide better, and in order to protect people from his badness.  “Um… Hop Sing, I’ll try.  I’ll really try, but you need to know one thing about me.  I’m not who you think I am, and I’ll never be that way again.  I know that, but I’ll be better.  I’ll make myself better for you, and Pa, and Hoss, and Adam.  I won’t disappoint you again.”

 

Hop Sing knew he had not reached Joe.  His boy was still so pained and resisting all comfort.  “Little Joe not let Hop Sing help.  Little Joe do what Little Joe always do.  He try solve problem by self.  Little Joe need help.  Father try help Little Joe.  Mr. Adam and Mr. Hoss try help Little Joe.  Hop Sing try help Little Joe.  Why Little Joe not let help?”

 

“Hop Sing, I know Pa, and Adam, and Hoss, and you all want to help.  I know that.  But how can you help me really?  I don’t understand what my mind does when it goes… back to uh, when I uh… see, I don’t even know what it does.  How can you help when I don’t even know the problem?”

 

“Hop Sing think talking help Little Joe.  He need to talk about bad thing that happened.  He need to let family help.  He too proud.  Too much brave.  Let family help.”

 

“Hop Sing, I know you’re tryin’ to help, but you just need to stay away from me.  I hurt you.  God!  I could a killed you.  I really wanted to, you know.  Not you, but who I thought you were…  That’s bad and wrong.  If Hoss hadn’t called out, oh God!  I would a done it.  Hop Sing, that ain’t no good person.  I would a killed you!  I would a!”

 

“Little Joe did not kill Hop Sing.  He would never do something like that if he were not so bad in his head.  Little Joe, Hop Sing love Little Joe like Little Joe Hop Sing’s own boy.  Little Joe, good boy.  Hop Sing know this.  Hop Sing pray to ancestors to help Little Joe.  They very wise and have helped Little Joe much in his life.  They watch over Little Joe.  Hop Sing tell them all about Cartwright family.  They tell Hop Sing Cartwright family very good.  Very good people.”

 

“Hop Sing, you’re very good to me.  You’ve done so much for me…” Joe was crying hard as he spoke.  “You didn’t deserve what I did.  God!  I’m so sorry!  I’m so sorry!”

 

“Little Joe, Hop Sing going to give you hug.  Hop Sing need to hug Little Joe.”  With that Hop Sing reached out and pulled Joe to him.  He felt the young man’s sobs, and he held him close.  It had been a while since Hop Sing had held a crying Joe, but it was familiar and so very special.

 

Allowing Hop Sing to comfort him felt so good to Joe, and he surrendered.  He let himself release his hurt, his fear and his pain, as he wept in the cook’s arms.  There was far too much he had tried to hold in, and the tears flowed endlessly.  Joe’s arms wrapped firmly around the man, and he held tight to his shirt.  It was in his grasp that he said so much that would not come in words.  Hop Sing spoke quietly in Cantonese, the expressions he had used to comfort his boy so many times in the past.  Hop Sing felt the relief of knowing Joe for a moment was letting go, and the pain was being released.  Eventually Joe quieted, as the tears he shed lessened.  “Oh God, Hop Sing.  I don’t wanna do this.”

 

Hop Sing wanted the moment to continue, as he knew Joe had so much more inside.  “Little Joe, very brave to show Hop Sing his hurt.  Little Joe not like, but it help.  He have to trust Hop Sing again like he did when little boy.”

 

Joe tried to gain his composure.  He felt such a release to cry, but he viewed it as weak, his mind quickly asking him – what if?  What if he let go and it went so very wrong again?  What if he could not control it and it all got way from him?  Even worse, what if he had his guard down, and the Stranger appeared?  No.  Hop Sing wanted far too much, he concluded, as he quickly pulled himself back together.  He could not do this, he told himself.  The risk was far too high.  “Hop Sing, um… thank you for uh, not tellin’ Pa, but I can’t do this.  I gotta go see what Adam wanted.”

 

Joe stood and quickly walked away, as Hop Sing watched the back of the retreating figure.  Hop Sing remained seated, his heart breaking for his boy who was in agony.  He watched Joe wipe his eyes on the sleeve of the coat he wore, as he entered the barn.

 

The barn was brightly lit, as Joe entered.  As he walked, he told himself to remain strong, to pull it back together and just be okay.  “Come on Joe, no big deal.  It was nothing.  You don’t gotta let ‘em see it.  Stay tough, and don’t let it in.  Get tough.”  He saw Adam over by the tack arranging several items on hooks.  He asked,  “You wanted to talk ta me?”

 

“Um…yeah, I did, but first, you okay?”

 

Joe stood looking at Adam, the answer in his face.  His eyes were red and swollen from crying, his expression appearing very sad.  He replied with a nod of his head, yes.

 

“I don’t want to upset you further, buddy.  That’s not my intention, believe me.  I think though, you and I need to talk a little about what happened to you this afternoon.  I just want to help make sure you’re safe, and you’re going to be okay.  I mean really okay.”

 

Adam’s words were met with silence, as Joe thought,  “Me be okay.  Huh, not possible.  Any other fantasies you wanna share?”  He said nothing.

 

“Come on, talk to me.  Hoss and I just want to keep you safe.  I think you need to be with one of us all the time for a while until we can find out who this guy is and turn him in to the law.  I know you still have some ways to go to get to feeling back to your old self, and I think it would help you to just have one of us around.  What do you say?”

 

Again Joe replied in his head, “Well, I’ll give you this older brother, you said I was crazy in a pretty nice way.”  He said aloud,  “What ever you think.”

 

It was very hard not to get frustrated.  Adam needed Joe to confide in him if he was going to be able to really help, but Joe seemed determined to hold it inside.  He felt a draw to confront his little brother and make him talk, but he feared the results might prove disastrous.  He decided to give a verbal nudge and see how Joe could handle it.  “Hey, um… this man who you told me about.  Can you give me a description?  Tell me what he looks like maybe?”

 

“Hell no, I ain’t sayin’ no more!  Where the hell were you this afternoon?  Didn’t you hear any of what I said?”  Were the thoughts, but he simply shook his head, no.

 

“Come on, Joe.  Tell me.  This is very serious, and you’re in danger.  We need to be able to protect you.”

 

“You need to protect yourselves, you mean.  I’ll take care of him, don’t worry ‘bout that one.  You watch for a bigger danger – me.”  Joe thought.  He shook his head again and turned to walk out.  He said,  “You better come on in the house. It’s late, and I need an escort.”

 

Adam threw down the tack he held in his hand and followed a quickly retreating Joe.  “How the hell do I get him to tell me?”  Adam wondered, as he felt so very helpless.

 

********

 

The waiting was not acceptable.  He was not pleased.  He sat in his shop caressing his opponent’s gun and thinking.  He spoke aloud in a calm voice, “Pretty Boy, you’re disappointing me.  I don’t appreciate being disappointed.  You sure this is something you wish to do to me?”  He then began spinning the barrel of the gun over and over, allowing a dry fire with each conclusion of a spin.  He aimed the gun at the dog resting at his feet and pulled the trigger.  The dog, used to his master’s game, never raised his head.

 

The activity he engaged in was one in which he had gained some enjoyment in the past, but now it was becoming dull – very dull.  He needed new memories, new excitement.  His anger was rising, as he could no longer enjoy thinking of the events with the kid.  It was no longer pleasurable. The scenario never altered, as he replayed the dance.  He wanted the tempo to change, the steps to quicken, and the music to crescendo.  He needed excitement.  “DAMN!”  He screamed at his lack of control.  “You better know what you’re doing, Pretty Boy!  You best not try my patience!  You best make it worth my wait!”

 

“Papa?  Can I come in?”  A small voice violated his sanctuary.

 

“Haven’t I told you a thousand times, NEVER interrupt me!  Haven’t I?”

 

The small child began to cry as he heard the yelling.  “But Papa, Mama wanted me to tell you…”

 

“Stop that sniveling right now and get out!  You don’t cry, you hear me?  You never cry!  Your mother made you weak!  She’s ruined you! You’ll be good for nothing! Get out of my sight!”

 

The door quickly closed, and he was alone once more.  “ Damn that brat!  Just like his mother, weak!”  He remained in thought, telling himself he was worthy of such a better child, one who would make him proud, one who would be as strong as him.  He needed a protégé, not a whiny, sniveling brat.  Someone who would admire him, and he could teach.  He needed a son with the traits he most admired: a cunning and clever resolve, the ability to gain control and exert power, and the ability to never feel.  Never.  He would settle for nothing less.

 

Years before, the woman had been chosen for convenience, nothing more.  He had not thought it through at the time.  He admitted he should have chosen one with better breeding potential.  He had not counted on the child, never wanted it. Still didn’t.  She had tricked him, he knew it, and now he had to tolerate a young one just like her.  He held her accountable. After all it was really her fault, he reasoned. She knew he needed to be free for his work, and yet she clung and groveled and whined.  Both were so very unworthy of him.  He made sure they knew it, made sure they were grateful he tolerated them.  He found them to be in his way, and was beginning to entertain the idea of replacing them.  They were not quite right for him. The wife he did not need, he could easily do without.  The saloon whores were much better, and could serve him adequately.

 

The son though, did he need the son?  Not this son, but another.  Yes, he deserved a different son.  He deserved better.  He would have better.  Better.  What was better?  Who was better?  Who was better than what he had?  He knew there was no one who held a candle to him, but who was close?  Who could be molded?  Pretty Boy?  Could you be what I am looking for?  Are you worthy of my wisdom?  Do you have what it takes, Pretty Boy?  Do you?  DO YOU?  He had to know the answer.  Had to know if he had chosen wisely.  Was his instinct correct?  He would test it and find out.  The kid would be his or die.  He would tolerate nothing less.

 

It was time for class to begin. He would wait no more.

 

Chapter 6

The drama of the previous night, as well as the day’s emotional deluge, weighed heavy on each Cartwright, as night fell and gave hope of a time for quiet and peace. Upon returning from the barn, Joe walked quickly across the great room headed for the stairs.  Ben saw his youngest looking so young and distraught and called after him.  “Joseph, are you okay?”

 

Joe stopped and turned to his father.  “Uh, yeah, Pa.  I’m not feelin’ real good, but its nothin’ to worry ‘bout.  It’ll go away.  I’m sorry ‘bout messin’ up dinner.”

 

“You didn’t mess up anything.  Listen, you go on upstairs and lie down.  You still look a little green.  You need anything?  Need to talk?”

 

“Naugh Pa. I’ll be just fine, promise.  G’night.”  Joe dropped his head down and walked up the stairs.

 

Entering his room, Joe lay on the bed, reviewing the day once more, trying to understand how it was his mind could so quickly go to a place he hated; a place where he felt things so much more intensely. His mind was so quickly to go to where there was no control, nothing but bad.  Why did it do this?  How could he stop it?  He thought over how it would come upon him.  Did he notice it happening?  Did he?  What were the clues?  Maybe, if he figured out how it happened, he could make it stop.  He knew it had something to do with being reminded of the Stranger, reminded of the cellar, or reminded of his pain.  But it threw him as to how many reminders there were. He recalled the things that had triggered it.  How many more reminders were going to come? “Geez!  It could be ‘bout anything!”  Joe said to no one. “Damn it!  I hate this.”

 

A knock on the door interrupted his questioning.  “Yeah, come in.”

 

His father stood in the doorway, a glass in his hand.  “Hey, I was headed up for the night and thought you could use this.”

 

“Oh, uh, thanks. What is it?”

 

“Something to help with the hair of the dog that bit you.”  Ben tried to keep it light with Joe, wanting his son to know he was in no trouble.

 

Joe grinned sheepishly.  “I think I could use it.  Thanks Pa.”

 

“You’re welcome.”  Ben handed the glass to Joe and watched him drink.  As he watched Joe, he could not resist the urge and reached out and messed Joe’s hair.  Joe looked at his father knowing it was from this man that he received a sense of peace he found with no other person.  It felt good to have him in the room.  It made it stop for a few minutes.

 

Ben wanted to stay and sit with his child, somehow feeling the need to have a stronger connection with Joe, but resisted the urge.  “Well son, you relax and feel better.  I’m down the hall if you need anything.”

 

“I’ll be fine.  Thanks again.”

 

Ben left the room, quietly shutting the door behind him.  As Joe watched him go he wanted to call out, to ask his father to stay with him, but he quickly chastised himself for being weak and allowed his father to leave.  He soon returned to pondering his own mind as his thoughts turned to how he could gain control over the bad in him.

 

As he sat, he decided to try something.  He would make himself go back there, but make himself remain mentally present.  He did not want to do it, but knew he had to try and gain control.  He reasoned it would be like when he had stood out in the dark – force himself through it, stare it down.  He sat back, leaning against the headboard and made himself remember.

 

Joe was in the saloon, so far no flashes.  Doyle was there, the gun against him – no flashes.  He walked out the saloon door, and around the corner.  His breathing was increasing; he felt his heart quicken.  He panicked at the changes in his body and stopped. “I don’t want to see him.  He’s around the corner, and he’s waiting.  No… no stop it… he’s not really there.  It’s in the past.  Calm down… Just breathe…”

 

Joe focused once more.  He went around the corner. He saw him… “Stay in control.  Don’t go there.”  He told himself.  The Stranger had the gun up to his head.  He began to shake.  “Don’t!”  He corrected himself. “What was next?”  He walked himself through the struggle to be free before the cellar.  As he thought of being thrown down the stairs, it came – the flashes. Sounds and images were vivid, rushing feelings, emotions raw and exposed.  He was there. It was no longer Joe in control, he was adrift in the tidal wave, helpless to do much but hold on and wait.  Wait for rescue from his head.

 

And then it was gone.  It stopped. As he mentally returned to his room, he found himself breathing heavy.  The fear was immense.  As he struggled to leave his emotions and return to his thoughts, he had a realization.  It had stopped.  Something had made it stop.  What was it?  What had ended it?  There was talking in the hallway.  Had that ended it?  Talking, maybe?  He asked what else?  What else was a clue?  He looked at his hands and saw they were firmly gripping the coat he still wore.  Had that done it, touching something?  Touching Adam’s coat?  What else is there?  What?  Figure it out, he told himself.  Think!  His room, had that done anything?  It was so familiar.  He knew every inch of his room.  Was it the safety he felt?  Voices, touches and safety. Did these things stop it? Would they give him back control? People? Could that actually help manage it for him?  Could just being with people and focusing on them be a key?

 

As he focused on his need for people around him, he knew it would be a while before Hoss would be in his room for the night.  It was still rather early, and he felt suddenly very alone.  He did not care for the solitude, as his realization took hold.  He needed to do as he had done when he had first arrived back at the ranch.  Adam was right.  He should not be alone. Alone was bad.  Alone made him bad. Alone made it all bad.

 

It was an urgency to reconnect that drove him out of his room once more.  He moved to the hall, and without thought, to his father’s room.  He walked through the door without knocking, his need to be in the room and with his father his only thought. “Uh, hey Pa.  I saw your light was on.”

 

Ben was surprised at Joe’s sudden entrance. It took him back to a memory of his son much younger.  Joe’s walking into his father’s room at night without knocking had been a sure sign his son was frightened.  It had been an unspoken between them then.  He would come in “just to talk” and Ben would chat about the day with his son, until Joe was tired enough that he would fall to sleep on the bed.  Ben would then move his sleeping child to his own room for the rest of the night.  Joe had eventually outgrown the need to be with his father in the evening, or so Ben thought, but here it was once more, the need was back.

 

 

Ben went about cleaning out his pockets onto his dresser and watching, as his son moved over to the bed and plopped down. The scenario, so familiar to both as it played itself out. “Uh, Pa, I was thinkin’ its probably time we were moving the herd, huh?”  As Joe asked, he began to play with the quilt on his father’s bed.

 

“Yeah, it’s about that time.  You’re right.  You got any thoughts on it?”  Ben was so touched.  Before him was his son, almost grown.  In fact in some ways very grown, yet appearing so young.  He had been right.  His son was afraid.

 

“Oh, no.  Just thinkin’ it was ‘bout time we did it.  How was your meeting today?”

 

Ben went about preparing for bed, all the while talking to Joe about the things his son asked.  He knew not to confront Joe on his fear, or his son would simply deny it and leave, walking away, having not received comfort, but embarrassment at having been shamed.  No, Ben thought to himself, he was enjoying some time alone with his son, allowing his heart to return to the little boy he had raised.  He admitted he loved seeing Joe had not fully left his boyhood behind, because the little boy was someone Ben treasured greatly and found himself at times missing.

 

The two shared the experience, a bond where there were no words; a father so amazed at the mere idea of his son, and a son, seeing his father as the one who fixed most everything; the one who gave him peace.  As the fatigue of the day hit both of them and yawns became frequent, they parted.  The son, so glad his father was there, and the father so glad his son needed him.  Joe eventually returned to his room, not carried as he had been as a child, but feeling his father’s words, and his father’s love, carrying him through a very scary time.

 

He could eventually sleep knowing they were there for him: his father, so willing to spend time and just be with him, his oldest brother, so willing to try and solve his problems, his Hoss so willing to sleep in his room and comfort the fear.  He was able to sleep knowing he was loved.

 

*******

The realization that came to Joe, the fact that he needed to surround himself with people, made Adam’s plan for helping his little brother cope much easier to implement. Joe began to return to the duties of helping to run the ranch, and soon discovered that if he exhausted himself during the day, he would fall off to sleep at night with little difficulty. The exhaustion kept him from the memories, as he drove himself hard.  He was up early with the rest of the family and was quickly in bed once the evening meal concluded.  He made himself focus on each task he undertook, not allowing his mind to wander to the bad.  As he learned more of how to handle his head, he grew in confidence.  It did not take away the fear, that would be impossible to do, but it did give him a different feeling to combat the fear.  It gave him power.  He found working hard was at first difficult for him, given his body’s need for healing, but it allowed him to get back into shape, and that in itself brought on more security. As he began feeling better physically, he felt less vulnerability, and his feelings of control became stronger.

 

The day had been long, as Joe worked with Adam clearing out a fence line.  Joe was hot, dirty and tired and saw a source of relief nearby. He walked to a nearby water hole and doused himself, letting out a sigh as the water relieved some of his discomfort. He then moved back over to where his older brother sat under a tree and took up a place next to him.  Joe had something on his mind he had been hesitant to discuss with Adam. He had avoided approaching the issue, due to his concern Adam might view him as still behaving strangely.  He decided while they were relaxing it would be a good time to go ahead and talk about it and see what would happen. At issue for Joe, was his need for the gun he had taken from his father’s collection.  He knew he was not trusted to be safe which added to his hesitation to bring it up, but his need for the added security was greater than his fear of Adam’s response.  “Um, Adam, can I ask you somethin’?”

 

“Sure.  What’s on you’re mind?”

 

“Uh, you know, um… Hoss still has that gun I had that day in the loft, don’t he?”

 

“Boy, I don’t know.  I don’t know what he did with it.  Why you ask?”  Adam was beginning to feel cautious.

 

“I, uh… I’d kinda… um… I’d like it back, I guess.”

 

“I wanted to ask you about that gun.  How come you had it?  Pa gave you a new one, and I thought it was just like the one you had before. You don’t like the new one?”

 

Joe became openly nervous.  How could he explain it to Adam in a way that did not make him sound crazy?  “It was really nice of Pa to get that one for me and even make it just like my old one, but… uh, I… it uh… it just reminds me of… you know, and you know what that does to me.  I get a little tetched.”  Joe tried to make light of his problem in hopes of distracting Adam, wanting his older brother to think his request was trivial.  But inside as his anxiety increased, he put his hands on the ground and told himself, “Just feel the grass.  Focus on the grass, not the other.  Don’t let it happen.”

 

“Joe, you don’t get tetched.” Adam chuckled. “But why that gun?  It’s a canon, and I thought you didn’t like ‘em that big.”

 

“I don’t know.  Just like it.  You have a problem with me having it?”

 

Adam was unsure how to respond.  He needed Joe to believe in himself, but he was indeed nervous about his little brother having that weapon.  He remembered what he had seen in the meadow with Joe so enraged.  He wondered if the weapon contributed to the incident, or was it just as Joe had said?  He had never distrusted his brother before all of this and felt guilt he now doubted Joe so much. “Well, uh… I’d be lying to you if I told you it didn’t concern me. I keep thinking back to what I saw, and Joe, you were pretty scary.”

 

“Yeah, I know.  I know I was, um… but it’s been weeks since then, and I haven’t done nuthin’ uh, strange since I did that to Hop Sing. I’ve been okay since then.”  Joe knew it was a daily struggle inside of him to keep it all together, and he did flashback at times, but he would never reveal that.  He simply prayed it would get easier and the bad would stay hidden.

 

“Yeah, I’ve noticed you seem better. And I know you have on a gun right now, so its not like you having one is the problem.  I actually think you need it because that man is still out there somewhere, but do you think that maybe that particular gun caused you to get, uh, to get…”

 

“Crazy?” Joe filled in the word.  “S’okay Adam, you can say it. I know what you saw was crazy, and I have a handle on it now.  I can kinda feel it.  It’s just a gun to me, but I’d like to have it.”

 

“Um, listen buddy, we need to develop a plan about the man out there who did this to you.  You can’t go living your life in fear forever, and something needs to be done about him.  I don’t want you in any more danger.”

 

Listening to Adam made Joe more nervous.  He knew they were approaching a topic where he was at great risk for losing control.  He noted he was breathing rapidly and made himself calm.  “Just breathe. Calm down and breathe.”  He said over and over in his head. “Uh, Adam, I can’t tell you who the man is… I don’t know, uh… what he looks like so, there’s nothin’ to do.  I think it’s over.  I’m better, and he’ll just leave me be.”

 

Adam knew Joe was lying about not knowing what the man looked like, but he wondered if he should push again.  He sat looking intently at his little brother asking himself if he wanted to risk it?  Could Joe hold it together?  He wished he knew the best way to proceed.  “Buddy, I can tell you’re doing a lot better, but this man, he hurt you so badly.  And I cannot for the life of me understand why he’s allowing you to just walk away.  I think back to the livery and about how he got to you. It concerns me.”

 

The Livery. A quick flash. “Hold on, come on, keep it together.”  Joe thought. He looked down to the ground.  “Focus on it, just focus.” He said, “Adam, don’t worry ‘bout it.  I don’t want you involved no more.  It’s over, and he’s gone.”  Joe silently prayed his voice would not give away his secret.

 

“But Joe, he would have killed you if… ”  With that Adam’s voice left Joe’s awareness. The roar of images filled his head.  He was holding tight to the grass as he moved in and out of reality.  He was fighting hard to stay present and keep Adam unaware of the struggle.

 

“… and it would help if we had you maybe see the posters in Roy’s office.”  Adam continued to explain unaware Joe was gone from him.

 

“I’m sorry.”  Joe said aloud as the Stranger commanded him to apologize.

 

“Joe?  You have nothing to apologize for.  Why are you saying you’re sorry?”

 

Hearing his name brought Joe’s attention back to Adam.  “Uh… huh?”

 

“Why’d you say you were sorry?  What’s there to be sorry about?”

 

“Oh, uh, just that… um… sorry for all the grief, I guess.”  Joe desperately hoped Adam had not noticed what had just happened.  He wanted the gun and knew if Adam still thought he was a danger he would never get the weapon.

 

“You aren’t the cause of grief, well not this time.”  Adam tried to make light of the situation. “You have nothing to be sorry about, buddy.  I want you better.  I really want you okay.  Seeing you so bad off and hurting just makes me want to go after this guy.  I know Hoss feels the same way I do.  Joe, you’re our little brother.  We look out for you.  That’s what brothers do.”

 

Joe voice was very soft as he tried to keep focused on Adam and not the other.  He looked down at the grass he held in his hands as he talked. “Adam, I looked after you too and I did it cause I love you.  You have no idea… um… never mind.  I don’t want to talk about it.  I want the gun back and I want this all over.  It has to be over.  You tell me you want me better, well I’ll get better if you let it drop.  I’m not thinkin’ ‘bout it all the time like I was.  My back’s gettin’ better. I’m gettin’ my strength back and I’m out and about.  I think I’m fine.  Now how ‘bout the gun?”

 

Adam knew he was in a precarious position and wondered how he had gotten there.  He felt much more like Joe’s father as they spoke, and if he were wise enough to see the future he would know that as it was in the past, when the roles blurred there was always an explosion.  However, Adam was trapped in his own pain and hurt, and this guided his decision.  That and the love he felt for his little brother. “ Okay, I’ll tell Hoss to give you the gun.  But Joe, you’re telling me everything aren’t you?”

 

“I’m tellin’ you what I need, Adam.  I need it all to go away.  I need you to let it go.  I’m tryin’ to and I can’t worry about you and Hoss too.  It’s too big any other way.  Can you just let it go?  Please?”

 

“This is what you really want?  You want this man to go free after he hurt you so bad?”

 

“I can’t do it no other way.  Maybe later, maybe never, hell, I don’t know what I want ‘bout him.  I want it ended.  I do know that.”  Although he felt bad about lying, Joe knew he could not share his own plans for the Stranger.  He believed it would not be acceptable what he wanted to do, but he rationalized that he had crossed over to bad already, so anything he did no longer mattered. He further reasoned if he were bad, he might as well use the bad in him to rid the world of a person such as the Stranger.  He found it to be fitting.

 

“I’m not sure if I can let it go, but I will for now.  I will for you Joe.  But I can’t help feeling you’re in danger and this is far from over. I appreciate you sticking to our agreement and staying close to Hoss or myself.  I don’t think we can let our guard down. We can’t lose you, Joe.  It would destroy this family if we didn’t have you. You know… I guess we don’t talk like this much do we?”

 

It was feeling uncomfortable to Joe as he listened to Adam speak.  He knew his older brother found times like this difficult.  He also knew he did not want to be close to anyone.  It would be too dangerous that they could see the bad.  He had become successful in hiding it the past few weeks and he had to continue the charade.  “We don’t talk so much cause you and me have this understanding.  I am always right and you’re always wrong.”  Joe said his comment with a straight face and then grinned.

 

“Ah, so that’s our agreement is it?  I always thought it was the other way around.  Well anyway, we should be getting home.  It’s suppertime. I’ll race you if you think that nag of yours can handle it.”

 

“You’re on, older brother.  I just hope at your age you will know how to handle your whippin’ like an adult.”  And with that Joe was to his feet and quickly to Cochise.  Adam soon was close behind.

 

*****

 

There remained one thing Joe believed he needed to make right, and as the days passed he knew he had to take care of it, to right a wrong.  He continued to feel bad about what had happened with Katie and wanted to apologize to her.  He doubted she would accept it, and even pictured her giving him more of how she had responded to him when the incident occurred, but he felt he had to at least try. He found his opportunity when Adam and Hoss invited him to travel with them into town. The idea of him having to explain what he wanted to do while there made him very uncomfortable and he hoped to avoid having to give details.

 

The three rode their horses at an easy pace into Virginia City.  They lightly bantered as they traveled but there was an unspoken. As they rode, Hoss and Adam flanked Joe as if wanting to provide any amount of protection they could.  It had developed into a habit with the two older siblings, each always cautious and concerned over the youngest, each determined he would be safe from outside threat or internal demon. Joe was aware of his brothers’ need to protect and where he would normally be highly irritated with their hovering, he now found it helping to contain him.  He had made no protest prior to the trip to town and had willingly accepted the manner his brothers chose to care for him.

 

Upon the horses entering Virginia City, Joe repeatedly scanned the area as his anxiety rose.  He thought, “Too many people, way too many. I can’t watch them all. How can I do this?  Oh geez. Just watch Cooch’s ears.  Just look at them and no where’s else.  But no, wait.  I’ll miss seeing if he’s here.  Oh boy this is bad.  Hold on.”  Joe’s eyes then darted to Hoss who caught his look.  Joe tried to smile nonchalantly knowing that if his brothers saw his panic it would not help him. Joe then turned to Adam, but Adam was looking away.  Joe thought, “Oh boy, I just wanna go home.  Really dumb idea, Joe.  Really dumb.”

 

The men pulled up their horses in front of the telegraph office and Hoss quickly was away to get the mail.  Joe saw this as a chance to tell Adam he had an errand he wished to complete alone.  “Uh, Adam, I got uh something I need to do.  I’ll be back in a few minutes.  Maybe meet you guys at the Silver Dollar for a beer?”

 

“Joe, you’re not gonna go off by yourself.  You know the agreement.  What do you need to do?”

 

“I just need about thirty minutes to take care of somethin’ and I’ll be right back.”  Joe was beginning to become frustrated.

 

“No.  We can’t risk that.  I’ll go with you.”  Adam began to wonder what was suddenly so important that Joe was willing to break their agreement.  Prior to this Joe had seemed almost relieved at Hoss’ or his own presence most times.  He wondered why the change.

 

“I don’t want you to go with me.  I want to go by myself.  Now I’m an adult and I’m gonna do it.  I’ll be back.”  Joe’s tone was harsher as he began to resist.

 

Adam grabbed Joe by the arm and Joe quickly pulled it away and growled, “Don’t touch me!”

 

Adam knew he was headed for trouble with Joe if he could not get his little brother calm.  “Okay buddy, I’m sorry I grabbed you, just calm down a second. Listen you know you can’t be alone.  You remember what happened last time you were in town alone?  Now I’ve kept all this from Pa because you were willing to go by the agreement and you’re getting so much better, but if something else happens, I can’t keep it from Pa anymore.”

 

Joe glared at Adam as he tried to keep himself calm.  “I know the agreement, you don’t have to blackmail me with it.  I am trying to fix what happened before.  What I did.  I need to… I want to… Damn it, Adam.  Don’t I get any privacy?  I just need to go apologize and I don’t need my big brother goin’ with me.  How would that look?  I already look like a carnival act, so why make it worse?”

 

“Joe, you don’t need to apologize.  It’s over and done with, and Katie knows you didn’t mean anything by what happened.  I made sure of that.  Now calm down. Lets get our business done and have that beer, okay?”

 

“No.  I’ll not have you cleaning up after me.  It is my responsibility and my obligation.  I’m gonna go do this and you can do what ever the hell it is you think you need to do.  I guess I can’t appear any more off… You do what ever you want.  I just don’t care no more.  I don’t care ‘bout any of it.” And with that Joe pushed by Adam headed down the street.

 

What neither man realized was there was a figure in the alley near where they spoke.  The man stood in the shadows his heart racing with excitement as he smoked a cigarette and smiled. He found himself impatient to take what he viewed was now his possession, but knew he must wait, the unification must be a work of art.  He restrained himself and listened intently.  “Ah, I’ll make you care, Pretty Boy.  I’ll make you worthy to be my son. Then you’ll care. You’ll care about the right things. There’s that spunk in you I find so facinating and I’ll teach you to use it.  I’ll teach you and you will thank me. You will make things most interesting for me.  Most interesting indeed.”  The figure threw down the cigarette and trailed after the departing brothers.

 

Adam caught up with his little brother just as Joe stopped in front of a ladies shop.  “Joe, tell you what.  You do what you have to do.  I’ll wait across the street and down away.  Then when you go on over to D street I’ll do the same.  Deal?”

 

“I said I didn’t care.”  Joe turned and went into the shop.

 

Adam shook his head and walked across the street.  He stood leaning against a building waiting.  Joe soon reemerged from the shop with a box in his hand and immediately headed to see Katie.  Adam fell in behind as did the Stranger.  The three moved to a seedier section of town, Joe in the lead.  He paused a moment to see Adam had stopped following and then headed down the alley.

 

The room was dark and the perfume heavy as Joe entered.  His nervousness increased as he saw several men sitting with various women.  “Stupid idea, Joe.”  He told himself as a woman approached.

 

“Hey there cute thing, your mama let you come out and play?”  A pretty blond approached him.

 

“Hmm… is uh… Katie…  available?”  Joe asked feeling very awkward.

 

“What? You don’t like me?”  The woman asked flashing Joe her body.

 

“I need to see Katie, if she is… available… Please?” Joe almost left until he heard the woman’s sultry voice leave and another more rustic one take its place.  He heard her yell, “Katie, for you.” And then the woman left.

 

Joe waited a moment and then saw Katie materialize.  He was hesitant to speak and looked to the floor.  Katie saw who it was and was taken aback. She never thought she would see him again. “Hey cowboy.  Surprised you’re here. You and me kinda um… Are you okay?”

 

Joe looked around feeling incredibly exposed. Katie saw his discomfort and pulled him to the back room.  “So why are you here, Joe? What is it? Your brother explained what happened.  I’m sorry you got… uh… you were reminded of the stuff that had happened.”

 

“No Katie, please let me apologize.  I want you to have this and to let you know that I didn’t mean you no harm.  I didn’t and I feel really bad ‘bout what I did.”  Joe continued to look at the floor as he apologized.  His guilt weighed heavy.

 

“Hey, cowboy, you didn’t do nothin’ so bad.  I got scared and I think you did too.  You did nothing to me.  See I’m just fine.  You have nothin’ to worry about.”

 

“But I don’t… I’d never…”

 

Katie took Joe’s chin in her hand.  “I know that, cowboy.  You really bought me a present?  For me?”  Katie could see Joe felt horrid over the ordeal and wanted to help him.

 

“Well, I uh… I messed up your other… you know… “ Was all Joe could say.

 

Katie took and opened the box to see an expensive dressing gown.  Much more elaborate and costly than anything she had owned.  She looked to him and smiled. “Joe, you’re a gentleman, through and through.  Thank you.  This is beautiful.  But you didn’t have to.  I understood. I really did.”

 

“I’m sorry, Katie.  Sorry I got uh… strange.  I didn’t mean any of it.”  Joe looked her in the eye as he spoke.  He needed her to know it was an accident.

 

“Cowboy, you are a class guy, ya know that.  And you look so handsome. I see that face I love lookin’ at me.  You look good baby.  It’s all gone, huh?”

 

“Yeah… all gone.”  Joe said as a prayer.  Katie placed her arms around him and kissed him hard.

 

“Want to see your purchase on me?”  She asked teasing.

 

“Nah, you enjoy it.  I hope you like it.  And Katie, I’m sorry.  I didn’t mean it.”  Joe said once more as he gathered himself and walked away.

 

Katie watched him leave, and shook her head. She said aloud as she touched her mouth, “Oh Joe, you are a good guy.”

 

Soon Joe reappeared in the street and walked to Adam. He saw his brother studying him intently.  “I’m fine, Adam.  Nuthin’ happened.  I was a good boy.  So lets go get Hoss.”  Joe continued his pace and the two returned to the main street of town.

 

The Stranger watched where his protégé had gone and smiled.  “Ah, Pretty Boy shame on you. You know those kind of women will lead you astray.  And here I was thinking you were a fine, upstanding young man.  Tsk, tsk. Now what would your pappy say?”  He could not help but laugh out loud as he enjoyed the game he had begun.  Soon he would make the kid aware he was there and ready for them to continue the dance.  He followed behind, his eyes never leaving his intended prey.  “Yes, class is about to start.  A few more details and I take what is mine.”

 

As Joe and Adam returned to C Street, Hoss walked over with obvious frustration on his face.  “Where in tar-nation have you two been?  I’ve been looking all over for you.”

 

“We went to a brothel.”  Joe said flippantly and walked past Hoss.

 

“Yeah, right. No, really where’d y’all go?” Hoss chuckled.

 

Adam knew Joe was irritated at him and it was why he had said what he had. “Sorry Hoss. Joe needed to talk to someone a minute, so I went with him to do it.  We should have told you where we were going.”

 

“Well it’s no big deal, just got concerned.  Where to now?”

 

“I’ve got some papers to sign at the attorney’s office so you sit on Joe.  Then we’ll get a beer.  Maybe that will help his bad mood.”  Adam directed.

 

“He was in a good one comin’ in.  What happened?”

 

“Oh you know him.  He’s mad I wouldn’t let him go off on his own.  He’ll get over it.”

 

The three brothers moved to the family attorney’s office and Adam went in.  Joe and Hoss stood outside, Joe sulking and Hoss trying to entertain.  Joe was leaning against the hitching post ever observant of the people who passed by.  He was more anxious than mad, but found focusing on his anger allowed him to let down his guard some and not be so hyper alert.  He was watching a woman he thought was attractive walk by, when he thought he saw a figure out of the corner of his eye that he recognized.  His heart jumped at the thought, but when he looked the figure was gone.  He scanned the area, no sign of the man.  “Was that him or am I just getting’ all worked up?”  He wondered what he should do.  He looked at Hoss who was talking about something Joe had not paid attention to.  “If I go over and look and it ain’t him, I’m gonna look odd.”  He thought a moment and came up with an idea.  “Hey Hoss, I’m gonna go check out the stuff in the mercantile window.  I’ll be back.”

 

“I’ll go with you.  This is boring standing here.”

 

“It’s just right there.  You can see me the whole time.  I don’t need you holdin’ my hand.”

 

“I ain’t holdin’ your hand.  I wanna see if that new shipment of boots came in anyway.  My feet get so dadburn squished in these here I got.”

 

“Do what you want.”  Joe said already walking away.  He scanned the area, trying to look casual.  He wanted to look down several of the alleys they passed so as to make sure no one was hiding out of view.  He saw no one and his heart slowed. Hoss quickly joined him and the two stood looking in the mercantile window.  Joe was not really interested in what was there and was doing it more as a distraction than anything.  His eyes traveled over the glass, and landed on a reflection.  It was there and gone in an instant.  Joe turned quickly to see if it was the one he suspected.  He saw people on the street, but not the man, not-the Stranger.  His pulse quickened once more, as his hand was on his gun.  He was frantically searching the people. “Boy, I really am losing it.”  He thought to himself.

 

Hoss saw his brother looking around. “What’s wrong, Joe?  What is it?” Hoss looked to where Joe’s attention was focused.

 

“Uh… nuthin’. It’s nuthin’. Never mind.  Let’s go back over and wait.”

 

“Joe, what’s gotten into you.  You’re jumpier than a frog on a skillet.”

 

“Just come on.”  Joe had already started to move away from the mercantile.  He walked to the attorney’s office but did not pause, as he continued to walk to the saloon, which he entered. Hoss, concerned with what was bothering his brother, followed behind.  Joe took a seat towards the back of the establishment wanting his back against the wall. He could have it no other way, as he knew he could not protect every angle.  He grabbed sight of one of the saloon girls and ordered a beer for himself and Hoss.  He assumed he would be joined and was not disappointed.

 

The beers were brought to the table and Joe downed his quickly.  He needed something to relieve the fear and wanted it lost in alcohol.  He ordered another as soon as he could and anxiously awaited the relief he sought.  As the beer arrived, once more Joe drank it fast, feeling his body start to relax.  He wanted the feelings, images and thoughts gone as he sat in the saloon but was afraid that they would stay regardless of how he tried to force them to leave.  He ordered his third, wanting the fear to dissolve in the drink.  Hoss sat watching, unable to determine what was right.  He thought of saying something, but knew all he would get back would be an angry response.  Hoss simply let Joe do as he pleased.

 

The saloon doors opened and Adam appeared.  He scanned the room and saw his brothers in the corner. He moved over and sat down with ease.  “I thought you two were going to be on the street waiting, but I guess you couldn’t wait for that beer.  You guys got what you need?”

 

“All I need.”  Joe talked into the glass he held to his mouth.

 

Hoss and Adam exchanged looks, both knowing they needed to leave Joe alone and let him approach them.  The three sat drinking as Adam and Hoss made small talk.  Joe finally began to relax as he sat back and slouched in his chair.  He was beginning to go numb and eventually allowed his head to let down its defenses and stopped being so concerned about those around him.  He sat watching the pretty saloon girl serve drinks around the room as he half listened to his brothers.  He let his guard down as he felt the liquor bring on the numb. He desired to be in place that he often longed for when he felt something was too intense, too big to handle.  It had become a familiar longing since Reno. A longing to be without thought and without feeling.

 

The Stranger sat and watched the kid as he decided exactly how he would reveal his presence.  His tension was growing as he anticipated the reaction and smiled.  He asked, “Would the kid welcome him?  No, that’s too much to hope for.  The kid should know the game was not over.  Surely, he knew that much.”  Class was beginning.  He saw his student sitting, enjoying a beer. “Ah Pretty Boy, we will share many drinks together.  You will love me and what I can do for you.”

 

As Joe’s eyes followed the woman around the room they suddenly stopped as they landed on a figure.  On THE figure.  On the Stranger.  Suddenly, there was no one else in the room but Joe and HIM, as all other images moved away from Joe’s vision.  He could not help but lock eyes.  He was trapped and could do nothing but stare, his face suddenly pale, his body paralyzed.  The draw was all encompassing and Joe was ensnared.  He could do nothing as the Stranger took the lead in the dance.

 

The Stranger smiled as he caught the kid’s eye.  “Surprise! Ah, what’s that look? You look shocked, Pretty Boy.  You’re hurting my feelings. You knew I was coming.”

 

Adam and Hoss continued talking, each unaware of what was occurring in their brother.  The sadistic dance had begun as terror began its crescendo inside Joe.  He could do nothing more than watch as the Stranger remove a gun from his holster and, holding it under the table out of other people’s view, began to caress the barrel.  His eyes never left Joe’s as he smiled a wicked smile.  Joe knew the weapon was his.  He simply knew it without looking.  The waves of fear pounded over him, the noises of the saloon magnified.  His sense on maximum as his mind fought to live. His heart was beating through his chest and his breathing became rapid.

 

The Stranger pointed the gun first at Adam and mouthed the words, “bang”.  He then did the same to Hoss, once more a silent, “bang”.  The Stranger was enjoying the game. He was exhilarated by the power.  He was in his element as the excitement grew.  “Come on, Pretty Boy.  What ‘cha gonna do?  Your move.”

 

Joe did nothing as he stared at the man.  His thoughts were rushing in his head as images flashed and his body betrayed his need for safety.  He knew he needed to cry out but no words would come.  There was no help, no safety, only evil in his world.

 

Hoss looked over at Joe and saw his little brother not moving.  The expression on Joe’s face was fear.  “Joe?  You okay buddy?”

 

Hoss’s question made Adam look to their brother as well.  He recognized the look.  Something was wrong.

 

Joe heard his name and wanted to cry out, but all he could emit was a low moan.  He began breathing in gasps as the panic hit full on.  He was staring ahead unable to change focus.

 

Adam knew the reaction instantly and deduced the man had to be around somewhere close.  Joe’s reaction showed the same terror of the livery.  He knew Joe had seen him. “Joe, is he here?  Joe, talk to us!  Where is he?”

 

Joe continued the soft moan as his fear seized him.

 

Adam looked to where Joe was staring.  There was no one there.  He frantically searched the room.  “Where is he, Joe?  Where? Come on tell me!”  He saw Joe was beyond reach but could not simply sit and comfort his brother.  He had to help.  He had to get the man.  Adam stood and frantically moved through the people.  He was driven to find the man in his brother’s nightmares, but had no idea who he was looking for.  “Damn it!  Who is he?”

 

Joe sat trembling as he realized he had not done as he had thought he would.  He had not drawn the gun he believed in.  His protection had remained in his holster, the thought of the weapon having never entered his mind.  “Oh God!” were the words he finally was able to emit.  “Oh God!”  His shaking was violent and he began to try and calm himself by the familiar rocking.  He could not move his eyes from the table where the Stranger had so calmly sat, taunting and laughing.

 

Hoss had his weapon drawn as he watched Adam survey each person.  He then moved to Joe and without touching him began to talk very softly to him.  “It’s s’okay, Little Buddy.  It’s all right.  Calm down buddy.  Ssshhh… Adam’s tryin’ to help.  Is he here Joe?  Tell me. Come on buddy, can you tell me where he is Joe?  Where is the man?”

 

Joe simply moaned louder unable to do more.  The patrons in the saloon were by now watching a frantic Adam and a panicked Joe as the intensity of the two permeated the room. Hoss grabbed his little brother’s chin and turned his face towards him.  He knew it could make Joe worse to touch him, but he was desperate to get Joe to talk to him.  His little brother was in danger.  “Joe look at me.  Look at Ol’ Hoss.  Tell me.  Is the man still here?  Tell me!”

 

Joe’s eyes at first did not focus on Hoss.  He looked passed him, the image of the Stranger so vivid.  Hoss could feel Joe shake and knew the terror was extreme.  He knew to keep talking, “Joe, look at me and tell me.  Where is he?”

 

“Wh-wh-where… He’s a, he’s a, he’s… not there.  No one…  not there.”  Joe’s eyes landed on Hoss and he felt the need to be rescued.  “Oh God, Hoss!  Get me home!  Please get me home!  I gotta go home!  I gotta go home!  Please, Hoss!  Please!”

 

Adam had moved back to his brothers his frustration evident.  “Joe, is the man in the saloon?  Is he here?”

 

For a moment Joe could not shift focus from Hoss as his face continued to beg.  He heard Adam say his name once more and he looked to his oldest brother.  “No, Adam.  He’s… he’s uh… gone.  I wanna go home now.  Take me home.  Please!”

 

“Buddy, we need to go to the sheriff.  We need to talk to Roy.  He can help.”  Adam coaxed.

 

“NO!  I gotta go home!  I gotta!  Oh God! PLEASE!”

 

It was obvious Joe was close to hysteria as the terror hit him hard. Adam knew then it would be best to get Joe home, but he wanted the man caught and punished for doing this to his little brother.  It was so painful to see Joe’s panic.  “Okay Joe, we’ll go home.  Hoss and I’ll get you home.”

 

“Adam, I need Pa.  I need him to help me. I can’t do it no more.  I need Pa to help.  Please get me to Pa!”

 

In that moment, as Joe begged for his father, Adam realized he had made an enormous mistake.  Joe was now saying so clearly what he needed, as Adam had missed the subtle signs Joe had previously given. Joe needed his father and Adam had stood in the way.  He began to have a sinking feeling inside himself.  Had he made Joe worse?  “We’ll get you to Pa, Joe.  I promise.  We’ll get you home and I’ll tell Pa.  I’ll tell him everything.  I’m sorry Joe.  I’m really sorry, buddy.”

 

Adam and Hoss placed Joe between them as they helped him move out of the saloon.  Joe was trembling as he tried to walk and his legs were uncertain.  His brothers all but carried him to his horse and helped him mount up.  The three rode their horse full out back to the sanctuary that was home.  Joe could only hold fast to Cochise telling himself over and over, he would be home and to his father soon.

 

He had not left the saloon, rather he had ducked back behind the staircase.  He was not pleased.  He had watched the kid’s reaction and was disgusted.  “Pretty Boy, you stop that!  Stop it now!”  He had felt rage at how the kid was coddled by the other two.  “You’re ruining him with all that fuss!  Stop that!  You’ll make him no good to me!”  He had watched them escort his protégé out the door.  “Damn them!  They’re weak! If you are weak Pretty Boy you will die!  No more coddling!  It’s time you were a man!”  The stranger walked to the table where the kid had sat.  He looked at the kid’s glass, still half full.  He reached down and brought the glass to his mouth.  He drank the beer and setting the glass back down he looked to the saloon girl as she passed.  He pulled her close and kissed her hard.  For now she would allow the tension to be reduced, he would claim his power with her so to tap off and quell his impulse to act before he was ready.

 

He grabbed the woman by the hand and commanded,  “Take me upstairs.  I must have you. NOW!”

 

The saloon girl obliged. Money her own aphrodisiac. “After you.”  She said in her most seductive voice.  He took her and then took her life.

 

*******

The three Cartwrights rode fast and furious to the stability of the ranch.  Once there, they did not bother to stable the horses, rather they focused on safety and moved Joe into the house.  All three felt themselves relax some as they entered and there was a collective sigh of relief.  Joe looked around for his father, anxious to be near him.  The great room was empty.

 

Hop Sing, hearing the door, moved to greet the family.  “Mr. Adam, Mr. Cartwright tell me to tell he be late tonight.”

 

Joe felt his heart race once more as any peace he felt at being home left.  “No!  He can’t be late.  I gotta see him. I’m gonna go find him.”

 

Joe immediately turned back for the door, but Adam stepped in front of him.  “No you don’t Joe.  You need to stay here and wait for Pa.  You can’t go running around out in the open.”

 

“Get out of my way, Adam.  I gotta get to Pa.”  Joe was frantic, his only thought getting to his father and calming the fear inside of him.

 

“No.  You’re not going. It’s too dangerous.”  Adam knew that with the words he spoke, he was headed for a struggle with Joe. He watched as a familiar look came over his little brother’s face – the look was rage.  He braced himself for the explosion that was about to occur.

 

“Adam, get outta my way!  I mean it! You got no right to do this!  I need Pa!”  Joe plowed forward, his only thought to get out the door and to his horse.  Adam grabbed him by the shoulders, which result in Joe’s desperation overwhelming him. “Damn you, Adam!”  Joe’s next movement was to throw a punch hitting Adam firmly in the stomach.

 

Hoss immediately joined the fray, placing himself to Joe’s back and pulling his little brother away from Adam.  Although Joe was no longer within striking distance of Adam, he was flailing around frantically, attempting to be released from Hoss’ clutches.  “LET ME GO!  DAMN YOU, HOSS!  LET GO A ME!  I MEAN IT!”

 

“Nope, no way Joseph. Not ‘til you calm yourself down and quit this fighting.  Adam’s right.  You can’t go traipsing all over tar-nation with that man out there.  Pa will be home soon and we’ll all talk about it.”

 

“NO!  I need Pa now!  I can’t do it no more!  I can’t and he’s gotta help me!  You don’t know what it’s like!  None of you do!  I can’t do it!  I can’t!”  Joe felt a wave of panic wash over him.  He could not catch his breath as he felt the rush of fear and terror.  He began to shake as he tried to talk,  “Hoss… I can’t… breathe… Let… go… Hoss… please!”

 

Hoss was immediately alarmed with the change in Joe.  He had gone from struggling and fighting to almost collapsing.  Hoss moved his little brother to the couch and sat him down.  “What’s wrong, Joe?  What is it?”

 

“I don’t know… I can’t breathe… My chest hurts… I feel really strange.”  Joe had put his head down, as he soon felt faint.  “It feels like I’m gonna pass out.”

 

“Keep your head down, buddy.”  Adam instructed and then added,  “I’ll get the brandy.”

 

Joe was fighting becoming ill as he wrestled to keep himself under control.  He felt the fear taking him and knew he would have to ride it through, but it was hard not to want to fight against it.  He held himself tightly together, eyes closed as he talked to himself in his head,  “Come on now.  Calm down. Breathe, and it will stop.  Just slow it down and breathe.”

 

Adam was soon sitting next to Joe with a glass of brandy.  He had to call Joe’s name to get his little brother to open his eyes and take the drink.  Joe downed it quick and said,  “Give me another.”  Adam complied with the request and soon that drink was gone as well.  Joe remained seated, not moving, waiting for relief.  It did not come fast enough to suit him so he grabbed for the brandy himself.  Both Adam and Hoss sat watching as Joe poured himself a full glass.  He then just as quickly drank it.

 

Hoss watched, feeling the need to intervene. “Hey buddy, enough.”

 

“I’ll say when it’s enough, Hoss.  Either I go get Pa or I drink ‘til it feels better.  You both won’t let me get Pa, so leave me alone and let me do what I gotta do.”  Joe did not bother to look up at Hoss as he focused on the table in front of him.  He was beginning to feel the effects of the alcohol and prayed relief would come soon.  However, the waves of panic continued pounding on him as Joe poured another.  He did not want to wait to feel if he had drunk enough.  He wanted instant relief and believed a continuous assault of alcohol to fight against the panic would accomplish his goal.

 

Adam moved away and signaled Hoss to follow. Hoss reluctantly left Joe but held a watchful eye on his little brother.  Adam saw the situation was precarious and could not fault Joe.  He knew the youngest Cartwright was barely hanging on and did not need anything further to upset him.  He stood back thinking of a few short hours ago when Joe had once more been caught in the terror of a living nightmare. He then felt his own guilt take over. It seemed things were only getting worse the more he tried to help his little brother. As he watched Joe get drunk, he thought,  “Joe, I’m sorry.  I really am.  I was trying to help.  I really was.  I’d never want you hurting like this.  Damn it!  If I’d only left Baxter alone.  This should have never have happened.  If only… Joe, are you ever gonna be okay?”

 

No one spoke as time passed in the great room.  Joe had lost count of the drinks he had drunk and was finally calming.  He remained seated on the couch as he poured yet another.  He tried to drink it, but ended up dumping it down the front of his shirt. He sat looking at his shirt the spill did not register at first.  Finally, as his slowed thoughts caught up with the situation he said,  “Oh Damn.”

 

“What’s wrong, buddy?”  Hoss was quickly to Joe once more.

 

“Not to worry big brother.  Just spilt stuff on me.  I’ll go up and get a clean one so Pa don’t know I’ve been drinkin’.”   Joe went to stand and as he did he swayed noticeably.  Hoss tried to help him, but Joe pulled away.  “I got it jus’ fine.  I’m gonna go find a shirt.  You stay here.”  Joe stumbled as he made his way to the stairs and then pulled himself up towards his room.

 

Once up the stairs Joe crashed into the wall several times before making it to his room. As he weaved and swayed his way down the hall he began to take off his shirt, finally dropping it at the entrance to his room.  He made his way inside and stood momentarily confused.  He looked around the room and then said aloud, “They won’t let me see Pa.  Who do they think they are?  I need him and I gotta get to him.  Adam thinks he’s the boss of everythin’.  Not my boss.  Nope. I ain’t taken no orders from him no more.  I’m the boss of me.”  Joe’s eyes continued to scan the room and then he had a thought.  “That’s what I’ll do.  More ‘en one way outta this fort.”

 

Joe moved to his window and started to open it, but lost his balance and stepped backward. He was beginning to feel dizzy as the alcohol caught up with him. It was hard to keep the room from spinning.  “Oh, this ain’t good.”  Joe said to no one.  “Gotta make it stop spinnin’ then I’ll get Pa. Stop the spinnin’.  Then get Pa.  Yeah that’s what I’ll do.”  Joe then plopped over on the bed and was quickly lost to the alcohol.

 

 

*****

 

He remained outside preparing for his debut.  The house was large, but he deemed it to be of no real challenge to him as he reviewed his plan.  He once more removed the book he had found which would provide the assistance he needed without having to rely on the stupidity of an accomplice. “It will amaze and thrill you Pretty Boy what I can do.  You will know you are with a magnificent teacher and you will beg me to show you the way.  You will not be weak.  You will not.  You’ll pay if I see that sniveling, whining child you had the audacity to show me in town.  You will be punished for doing that to me.  I didn’t care for it in the slightest.”

 

The Stranger stood reading from the book. He read over the instructions spelled out so clearly in the text.  Three drops on a rag was all that was needed to have the kid submit. It was risky, as the procedure would not be performed as it was suggested in the book.  “Ah well. Another interesting challenge. Hmm… but if it goes wrong Pretty Boy, it will be your fault.  You will be unworthy, and I’ll have my answer.”   He reviewed the procedures a final time and then talked to his protégé in his head.  “This shall prove interesting.  You have challenged me to new heights.  Yes, I’d like to try this. I do hope you make it worth my while.  Are you ready Pretty Boy?  Once I have it all in place and time is perfect, we reunite.  I know you’ll love it!”

 

*****

 

Evening turned to night as Ben dragged himself through the door of the ranch house.  He had spent the day haggling with Phillip Henry over water rights and his head was pounding. He entered the great room to see his two oldest sons sitting, heavy in discussion.

 

“Evening boys, sorry to be so late.  You boys been home long?”

 

“Hey Pa.”  Adam answered.  “We got back early this afternoon.  You look tired.  Everything okay?”

 

“Oh yes.  Just tired from putting up with Phillip’s need to review things right down to the punctuation in those contracts.  I tell you, that man just looks for something to argue over.  Well, I’m hungry as well.  You boys eaten?”

 

“No we were waiting for you.”  Adam responded as he and Hoss moved over to the table.

 

Ben looked around expecting to see his youngest emerge.  “Where’s Joseph?”

 

“Uh, Pa… Joe’s upstairs asleep.  I went up a couple hours ago and he had fallen asleep across his bed. Um… listen Pa, let’s sit down to eat cause I know you are tired and hungry.  Tell me about the contracts and then, uh… there are a couple things I’d like to talk to you about.”

 

“Is Joe okay?  Maybe I should go check on him?” Ben was immediately concerned.

 

“No, uh… Pa, he’s fine.  Lets just sit and eat and I’ll fill you in on… everything.”  The last thing Adam felt like doing was eating.  He knew his father was going to be outraged at having been kept in the dark regarding Joe’s condition, and more importantly that they had kept the information regarding the man who had hurt Joe from him. He dreaded the fallout.

 

Hop Sing was quick to place the food around the table and, using the water pitcher he had taken from the kitchen, he filled each glass with water.  He soon disappeared once more into the kitchen to continue to care for his family.

 

*****

 

The room was quiet as he stood watching the kid sleep. The blankets were tossed aside as the kid lay on his stomach.  His heart was racing as he realized it was all coming to pass. He would have his son and he would have a legacy. He saw himself living on through the kid and he felt the power.  It was intoxicating. The lamplight was soft as he looked upon his student.  He smiled.  He saw his brand upon the student’s back.  “You have a reminder of me I see.  Five marks from our previous encounter.  It shows you are indeed mine.”  The Stranger reached out and ran his finger down one of the whip marks. Joe grumbled and stirred, but did not wake.  The Stranger continued.  He could not resist the attraction as he ran his finger down each one. He remembered the cellar.  “You fought hard, Pretty Boy.  Will you fight again? This will be our destiny. We will unite or your blood will make me stronger.”

 

He continued to smile as he reached out to Joe’s arm and shook it.  “Son, come on wake up.  Wake up Joseph.  It’s your father.  I’m here for you.”

 

Joe heard the voice and was confused.  His head was cloudy but he felt the touch.  He struggled with the desire to ignore the voice and stay in his sleep but the draw to his father was strong and he resisted the urge.

 

Joe rolled over and called out in a sleepy voice, “Pa?”

 

Suddenly there was a hand over his mouth.  Joe was immediately awake as he felt the pressure on his mouth.  He moved quickly to squirm away as he tried to get his legs under him.  He reached up to grab the hand that silenced him all the while he looked into the eyes of his nightmare. Joe was all movement as he grabbed the hand struggling to pull it from his mouth.  He had to call out.  He had to have help for those just in the room below him.  He was pulling hard on the Stranger’s hand as he kicked and flailed.  The Stranger slapped him hard across the face as he said.  “Hello there, Pretty Boy.  That’s it.  Keep fighting.  I like it so when you fight.”

 

Joe had no time to think as he reacted.  He had to get this man away from him.  Joe opened his mouth and bit down hoping this would release the hold on his mouth.  The man did not flinch.  He remained focused on his victim as he pulled back and slapped Joe once more.  “Don’t you hurt me, Pretty Boy.  You’ll make me mad.”

 

Blood began to pour from Joe’s nose as he struggled and endured the slaps.  The Stranger kept his hand firmly on Joe’s mouth as he used his other to pull Joe to a seated position.  The strength of the man was alarming as Joe felt himself manipulated like a rag doll.  The man pushed Joe back against the headboard.  “Now Pretty Boy, you and I are going to have a discussion.  You remember our discussions?  You sit there and behave, and you listen like your life depends on it, cause you know what?  It does.  Now, you are going to go with me and do exactly what I say.  You know I am a man of my word and I do as I say.  I expect the same from you.  Do you understand?”

 

Joe continued to struggle, his desire to get away stronger than any other.  He had to get away from this man. He felt the man’s strong hand on his throat and then the squeeze.  His mouth remained covered as he began to see stars.  The pressure remained until he stopped moving and then it was released.  He tried to gulp in air but the Stranger never moved his hand from Joe’s mouth.  Joe was lightheaded as he heard the Stranger continue,  “Now, if you will not do it for yourself, do it for that so called family of yours downstairs.  If you do not do everything I tell you to do, I will kill them and you will watch me do it.  Do you understand?”

 

“This isn’t happening!  OH GOD!  It’s not real!  Please!”  Joe begged in his head all the while knowing the truth.  Joe stopped struggling at that moment.  He had to try and save his family.  He could not let them die.  He would die before he let the Stranger harm them.

 

“Thought you’d see it my way.”  The Stranger smiled at Joe and then tossled his hair. “Now Pretty Boy, this is what I expect of you.  I own you now.  You are mine.  You have any doubt of this I will give you a quick reminder.  Believe me you won’t like it.  You will do exactly as I say, when I say it.  I have some business to take up with Ben Cartwright and those other two and then we are gone.  If you do anything to upset me, I will kill Ben Cartwright.  Shake your head yes if you understand.”

 

“NO!  You leave them alone!  Stay away!”  Joe thought.  He nodded his head yes.

 

“Fine then.  I have your gun here to remind you of how serious I am.  If I have to Pretty Boy, they all die.  Okay, now you are going to move to the side of the bed and stand.  You will make no move I do not approve of.  Got it?”

 

 

Again Joe shook his head.  He tried to make himself think, but the fear was growing as the Stranger exerted total control. The sense of helplessness was washing over him as he felt the man’s power.  The man who held his life.

 

Unaware of the events upstairs the three men sat for dinner.  Adam remained nervous regarding what he needed to discuss with his father so he encouraged small talk and discussion of ranch business.  As they ate, Ben filled in his two sons on his day, once more reviewing with them the needs of the herd and the needs of the land.  Adam sat drinking more water than eating as he tried to formulate in his head how he would approach the subject.  He had listened to very little of what his father had said and as he heard his name he returned his focus to his father. He noticed though he was beginning to feel strange.

 

The three each began to experience a slow onset of euphoria.  Ben felt his headache leave and was thankful.  Hoss felt his anxiety ease as he ate his meal and washed it down with the water Hop Sing had provided.

 

Adam knew he could wait no longer, but his thinking was becoming cloudy.  “Uh, Pa.  I need to tell you about Little Joe.  There are some things that I’ve been keeping from you.”  Adam found his thinking to be running together and it was hard to speak.

 

Ben listened to his son but found it hard to comprehend.  “Little Joe?  What is it with Joe?”

 

Suddenly there was a noise of someone stumbling down the staircase. All three men turned to see Joe on the landing, his face covered in blood, a man behind him, holding firmly to him and a gun to his head.  “Greetings Cartwrights!  I am sensing you were not expecting me, Ben Cartwright.  Now have you not been told of me?  Oh a shame because I’ve been very close to your son here for weeks.  You might say I’m in his blood.”

 

Ben felt shock as he looked at his youngest son.  Joe’s eyes were wide with terror as he stood very still.  There was blood on his son. There was a gun to his son’s head and he had to sit unarmed and watch.   “Dear God what is this?”  Ben asked aloud.

 

“Let me fill you in shall I? You see Pretty Boy here and I have unfinished business.  You remember that little incident in Reno?  You know the one I mean?  The one where Pretty Boy got a nasty owie or two?  We were in the middle of bonding when fat boy there interrupted. Does this refresh your memory?”

 

“Who are you?”  Ben could not help but ask.

 

The Stranger let loose a laugh.  You really have no idea do you?  You boys are good! Pretty Boy very good!  You kept our little secret from Ben.  I am not pleased you told the other two, but they are of no consequence.  They were fools in this!  I played you all like a fiddle. This so-called family makes me laugh.  You are all so beneath me.  The only one worthy of me is this one.”

 

Hoss sat stunned, this man had his baby brother and he wanted to react.  He wanted to tear the man apart, but his body felt like lead.  He saw Joe’s eyes and knew his little brother was beyond terror.  He knew all the nightmares he had protected Joe from paled in comparison to what was now happening.

 

No one expected what happened next.  Hop Sing had been in his room when he heard a voice he did not recognize.  He moved out to check and see if they had visitors to tend.  He rounded the corner and then darkness.

 

The gunshot rang out passed Joe’s head as the Stranger reacted to the movement.  The body fell back and into the hall to the kitchen.  Joe let out a scream  “NO!” but it was too late, as he could only watch his beloved friend fall.  “NO!  HOP SING!”  Joe tried to run to his friend, but the Stranger grabbed hold and began to choke him once more.

 

“What did I tell you, Pretty Boy?  I told you the rules.  Now get down those stairs.”  The Stranger gave a shove and Joe fell down the remainder of the stairs.  He landed at the bottom and tried to get up.  The Stranger was there and stepped on his back.  “Boy you ever gonna learn?”

 

Joe lay unmoving as he stared at the floor.  It was happening all over again.  He would have to go through it once more.  “Oh I can’t do this!  I can’t!”

 

The Stranger seemed to read his mind as he said softly,  “Pretty Boy, you remember what I told you upstairs.  Do I have to kill another one?”

 

“NO!  NO!  Tell me what to do!”

 

“Watch your tone!”  The Stranger scolded pulling Joe to his feet.  As soon as Joe was standing he slapped him once more.

 

 

The three at the table felt the fear and disgust rising.  They could do nothing as they watched how Joe was treated.  Each feared any movement would result in Joe’s death.  They could do nothing but watch.  The full realization that this was what Joe had endured before hit them.  It was all so evident.  His recall of it had been torturous enough, but this was something beyond.  This was sadism and it was obvious the man drew power from what he was doing.

 

 

“Now where was I before I was so rudely interrupted? Ah, yes.  Ben you need to realize you are unworthy of this one as your son.  You are no longer his father, your coddling and acting as nursemaid is making him weak.  He is mine.  After all you did get a few more weeks with him than you should have.  Pretty Boy should be dead, but instead he is now mine, a gift from the gods to me.  He is now my son.  You have two others so you won’t miss him much.  You have no idea what you were in the presence of with this one.  He is just like me in so many ways.  I see it in him, as I’m sure he has seen it as well.  Haven’t you Pretty Boy?”

 

Joe was shaking, as he knew he had to respond.  His voice was soft as he said, “Uh, he’s right Pa.  I’m like him.  I’m just like him.  Adam and Hoss know.  They know about me.”

 

Again a slap.  “Don’t call him your Pa.  Never again will he be that to you.  I am your father now.  I will be until you die.  Look at me!  Look me in the eye.  You know you are mine and you will do as I say. It’s time to tie them up and you will do it.  And Pretty Boy I will check.  This is your first test.  You fail it then they die.  Make me proud.  This is what you will do.  You will go to the barn and get rope.  I will be counting.  If I hit the number forty Ben Cartwright ceases to be.  I hit forty-one no more fat boy. Forty-two and that one you thought was so worth dying for is history.  Get a move on Pretty Boy, clocks ticking.”

 

Joe did not move, as he stood paralyzed as numbers filled the air. “This isn’t happening!  No!  God! Just let me die!  I can’t do it!  I can’t!”

 

The three at the table saw Joe frozen as they heard the count begin.  Each wanted to call out encouragement to get Joe to move.  They saw him slowly turn to them, the look of pain on his face so great.  He then was quickly away as he stumbled to the door.  Joe ran across the yard, unaware he had no boots on his feet.  He reached the barn door and fell against it as he struggled to get it open.  There was no light in the structure as Joe threw himself inside.  He had only his sense of touch to use in order to find what he needed.  He grappled around as his hands hit rope.  He grabbed and was quickly outside.  He was halfway across the yard when he looked at what was in his hand.  The moonlight illuminated and his heart jumped.  There was not enough rope.  He had to go back.

 

He turned quickly to the barn and ran once more inside.  He heard the counting in his own head and knew he had little time left.  He felt around some more as he frantically searched.  “Oh God!  Joe, don’t panic!  Don’t do it!  There’s more here!  Just find it!”  His hand finally hit what he desperately needed.  He turned to run once more and was on his way out when he dropped the rope.  All in one motion as he ran, he bent down and scoop up the cord.  He made himself sprint faster than he ever thought he could back into the house just as he heard the number thirty-eight called out.

 

“A little slow there, Pretty Boy.  I would have thought you’d have wanted to save this family a little more.  Maybe you have mixed feelings about them?  Hmm…  Okay, you tie them up.  Here, here’s a knife.  And you know the rules.  I got a gun pointed right at Ben.  You mess up and Ben gets it.  You tie them up right.”

 

Joe took the knife as his hands shook.  His family would hate him for what he was doing.  He did not deserve them.  He had brought this man to them.  He should have gone and settled it in Salt Lake.  He had allowed their home to be defiled.  Joe walked first to Hoss and knelt behind him.  He took his brother’s strong hands and he held them together.  He then used a knot to tie the rope the brother he was restraining had taught him.  He knew it was strong and sure and Hoss could not undo it.  He lingered a moment longer as he grabbed hold of Hoss’ hand.  He held it a second, hoping Hoss would know.

 

Joe moved to Adam and took his hands.  Adam felt cold to him and he wanted to ask his big brother if he was okay.  He took the hands once more and moved them together.  Using the same knot he had on Hoss he tied the hands.  Again he lingered as he squeezed Adam’s hand.  He said very quietly, “It’s okay, Adam.  It was meant to be.  I told you that a while back.”

 

Joe then moved to his father and stopped.  How could he tie up the man who had raised him?  He believed he was now performing some form of sacrilege. Sons did not do this to loving fathers.  Joe heard the gun cock and quickly moved his father’s hands together.  He shook as he tried to tie the hands and he struggled to do as he knew he had to.  As Joe pulled the ropes tight, Ben heard a low moan.  His son was in agony as he tried to comply with the Stranger’s wishes.  It was Ben who grabbed hold of Joe’s hands and squeezed.  Joe heard his father say,  “Joseph, you are my son.  You will always be mine.”

 

The shaking increased as Joe stood. He put his hand on his father’s shoulder, never wanting to release it.  He heard the Stranger call him back, but his eyes fell to the body on the floor.  There was blood.  So much blood. Was this what was in store for his family?  He could not move as he realized he had made each of them as vulnerable as Hop Sing.  “No!  Oh, NO!”  Joe looked over his family members as his panic grew.  He then quickly turned back to Hop Sing.  They were all dead because of him.  He knew that would be the fate.  Joe could not stop the reaction he was having.  The agony of what he was enduring overwhelmed as he started to shake his head no.  His moaning increased as he fell to his knees.  It was too much to hold as his mind was in full assault.  Images past and present blurred, as the rush hit hard.  He could do nothing to move as he thought he had set them up for slaughter.

 

The Stranger watched as his protégé collapsed. The kid still had feelings for the family who had spawned him.  Well that must be addressed and he must be rid of them.  “Pretty Boy!  Come here!  Come here now!”

 

Joe could not move as the panic overwhelmed.  He kept his head down hoping there would be a bullet and then peace.  He felt his arm jerked as he was once more dragged to his feet.  “Pretty Boy, you defy me. You make me angry.”  The slap was not felt as Joe looked to his loved ones.  “I’M SORRY!  I’M SO SORRY!”  Joe screamed as he struggled to maintain a grasp on his panic.  Again a slap and Joe looked at his father.  “Pa, I didn’t want to give in.  I didn’t!  Pa I…” With that Joe felt the stranger’s hand over his mouth, but this time his nose was covered as well.  He smelled a strange smell as he struggled to breathe.  Then there was nothing.

 

The Stranger dropped Joe’s body to the floor.  He had experienced enough.  He wanted the kid to himself; the drama was beginning to grow tiresome.  He looked at the ones who sat around the table.  He had planned for the kid to shoot them, but it was not to be this time.  There would be another time though. He felt it.  The kid would rid himself of this shameful family.  He was tempted to do it himself, but knew it was the kid’s to do.

 

The Cartwrights watched Joe’s agony.  They were medicated and senses were dull as they saw Joe’s torture, but each cried out for their loved one.  Adam had been trying to stay focused and not pass out.  As he watched his little brother every fiber of his being cried out to take his place.  Hoss wanted to snap the man’s neck at that moment.  He saw Joe crumpled in a heap and he wanted the man dead.  Ben looked at his youngest son and every fear he held for his boy prior to this night meant nothing.  “Joseph!  My Joseph!  He’s my son!  He’s my boy!”  Ben could no longer remain silent.

 

The Stranger moved to Ben and sneered.  “No old man, you’re wrong about that.  He became mine the first time I saw him.  I own him. I own his soul. Ask your other boys if that isn’t right.  You leave him be old man.  You leave him be or I’ll hurt him in ways you have never dreamed of.  You think he hurt before.  Just wait.  I haven’t begun to hurt your Joseph!” The Stranger moved backed to Joe.  He took the knife he had given Joe and as the three men watched the Stranger sliced open Joe’s forearm.  “Gentlemen, see here.  The kid bleeds.”

 

The Stranger made certain that blood was flowing freely from Joe.  “I will give you a reminder.”  The Stranger then dipped his fingers in the blood flowing from Joe’s arm.  He walked behind each man and placed a smear of blood on each hand.  “Now unless you want more of his blood on your hands you will not follow and you will not try and find him.  I hope you know I am serious.  Now Gentlemen, I bid you good night.  It really has been a pleasure taking him from you.”  Remembering the book he had read, the Stranger knew to keep the body warm.  He walked to the credenza and grabbed the first coat he touched.  He wrapped it around the kid and then picked up Joe in his arms and carried him out the door.  The Cartwrights could only watch and pray.

 

The Stranger had planned well and the escape was flawless.  He threw an unconscious Joe over the saddle of a waiting horse, and was quickly aboard another as he rode out into the night.  He needed to make ground between him and the ranch.  He was not foolish enough to believe the family would simply let the kid go.  He had hoped they would all be dead by now and out of his way and his plans, but since the kid had balked, and not done as he was told, the Stranger knew the family would soon follow.

 

The night air was crisp as the Stranger rode with his charge.  He pushed as hard as he dared, hoping to make it to the place he had chosen as his classroom before morning. However, it proved a dark night and he had to slow his pace considerably.  Joe was gone to the ether as the horses moved further away from the safety of home and family.

 

Eventually the Stranger had to stop as the horses were tired and Joe had let out a groan.  The Stranger did not want the kid awake until he was ready and would not allow anything to change his plans. He dismounted and was quickly to his protégé.  “Oh, no Pretty Boy, it’s back to sleep for you.”  He pulled Joe off the saddle and dumped him on the ground.  He had placed the coat on Joe and that alone was Joe’s protection from the cool night air.  As Joe stirred, the Stranger once more produced the ether.  He dabbed some on a rag as he spoke, “Pretty Boy, I have no idea how much is too much.  We shall see if you are strong enough to make it. You will not be awake until I decide it is time.  I am in control of you.  Yes, you will learn this very soon.”  Joe had not returned to full consciousness as he once more had a rag over his nose and mouth and was breathing in the sedating fumes.  The Stranger removed the rag as he watched Joe’s head fall to the side. He remained seated watching to see if Joe remained breathing. Joe’s chest continued the rhythmic rise and fall so the Stranger left him to tend to other business.  Joe lay unconscious, exposed and alone – the ones who loved him so very far away.

 

*****

 

The men sat at the table their heads swimming both from being medicated and from the events that had occurred in the house.  As the Stranger took Joe from them, they each felt a ripping down to their souls.  The maniacal manner in which the Stranger performed his torture, the loathing and hate he displayed in response to the connection they felt towards one another, sent a terror through each of them.  To imagine a man’s sole desire was to steal love from them; to steal a bond from them, to in fact steal a part of them was more than they could fathom.  It was as if the man was cutting off a limb from each family member.

 

Each man tried to struggle against the restraints that held him.  However, Joe had done his job well and the three were hopelessly trapped.  Ben sat staring at the place where he had last seen his son being carried away in the arms of a mad man.  His son no more than the monster’s possession.  “Joseph!”  Ben repeated over and over, the shock of his child being torn from him still resounding inside of him.

 

Adam was fighting the ropes and the pull to pass out.  He was feeling the effects of the drug the most of the three and was chastising himself for his groggy condition.  “Pa, we can get Joe.  We’ll get him back.  We will.”  Adam tried to comfort.  He had no idea if he was trying to convince himself or his father Joe was not lost to them. He made a vow to his little brother as he sat unable to stop the miles that were being placed between himself and Joe.  “I’ll do it for you Joe.  I’ll get you back.  You won’t be lost to us forever.  It can’t happen like this.”

 

Hoss was furious, even with the sedation. He struggled with the bonds, but found himself very weak.  To watch Joe taken left Hoss with such feelings of failure.  He again felt his role as protector within the family, especially with Joe.  This man, this devil, had proved more powerful and had taken his little brother.  The man would pay, Hoss vowed.  His thoughts although muddled turned to how he had found Joseph in the cellar and he wanted to cry out. Joe could not endure the torture again.  He had been so close to death before and Hoss feared his little brother would not fight as he had previous.  He knew it had taken everything within Joe to hold on before, and as the weeks had passed and Hoss had seen the damage from that previous encounter, he saw Joe was more vulnerable than before. He knew his brother had much more despair and fear within him.  His own nightmare would be that Joe would give up.

 

There was no comprehension of the passing of time in minutes, only the understanding Joe was being taken further away from them the longer they stayed tied. A groan was heard and the men looked to the kitchen hallway.  Each had not allowed himself to think of the death of Hop Sing.  It would be too much to have to hold but then they heard the groan; a spark of hope was ignited.  “Hop Sing!  Hop Sing!  Are you there?  Can you hear me?”  Ben cried out.

 

The men heard the groaning increasing and each called out.  As they looked to where the noise originated they saw a hand grab the corner of the wall and Hop Sing pull himself up.  There was blood on his shoulder and he looked very pale.  He had no idea what had happened to him, but the pain was intense.  He saw his family tied up in chairs around the table.  It was all so confusing.

 

“Hop Sing!  Thank God you’re alive!  Can you help us?  We need your help.  You’ve got to get me untied.  Please, hurry!”  Ben begged.

 

Hop Sing moved slowly, as he was weak from blood loss.  He pulled himself around to where Ben sat and saw the ropes tied so tight.  Ben’s hands had lost circulation as he had sat the hours waiting to be freed.  Hop Sing moved very slowly as he felt his the pain radiate through him. He was able to take the knife from Ben’s place setting and begin to work on the rope.

 

Ben found himself impatient as he waited for the cook to free him.  His thoughts were of his son and how far of a head start the man had gotten on them. He could not stop returning to the expression on Joe’s face.  His son felt agony as he was ripped away.  With Joe’s screaming apology Ben knew Joe held himself responsible.  It scared him what Joe might do in that frame of thinking.

 

As Hop Sing cut the ropes Ben also pulled.  Suddenly he felt freedom as the restraints fell to the floor.  He was then quick to Adam and Hoss, cutting each one free. “Come on over here, Hop Sing.  Lie down on the sofa and let me take a look.”  Ben commanded.

 

Adam tried to move and felt queasy.  He had to sit still with his head down as nausea soon overtook him.  Hoss was very weak but was trying to make it to the door when he heard his father call out.  “Hoss, no!  We’ve got to get a doctor for Hop Sing and we may need one as well.  We need to make a plan as to how best to proceed.  Joe’s life is in jeopardy.  You heard him threaten Joseph, if we tried to intervene. We have to be smart about this.”

 

“PA, he’s gonna hurt Joe! He already has!  You saw what he was doin’ to him!  We gotta go stop him!”  Hoss was feeling his own panic rise as his father tried to stop him.

 

“HOSS!  We have to do this carefully!  Run to the bunkhouse, get someone to the doc’s and get Roy out here!  Then you come back in here and help Adam!  Do as I say now!”  It felt as if every thing was moving in slow motion.  Nothing seemed real as Ben helped his cook off with his tunic.  He ran to the kitchen to gather some bandages and medicine to tend to Hop Sing.  He saw Adam slumped head down and called out, “Adam, son, you okay?”

 

“Yeah, just feel real sick.  I’m gonna stay here a few minutes. Pa, this is my fault. I kept this all from you.”

 

“Not now Adam, not now.  Let me tend to Hop Sing. The wound looks serious.  You stay there and Hoss’ll be right back.”

 

Hoss soon returned and went to help Adam. Adam asked to be moved over near his father and Hop Sing so he could try and assist in any way he could.  The men sat in virtual silence as they began the wait for help to arrive.  Ben wanted desperatly to go and claim back his son, but knew to try and follow at night would be an exercise in futility.  None of them were feeling well, but that alone would not have stopped him.  It was his fear that they might destroy any evidence of a trail inadvertently in the darkness.

 

As time passed slowly, the waiting allowed the effects of the sedation to begin to wear off. Adam was able to lift his head without feeling as if he would be ill. He had a splitting headache but was relieved the nausea had passed. He watched his father work on Hop Sing as his guilt and fear built.  He had known of the monster that had taken his baby brother and had kept his father in the dark.  He saw the pain his father was in unable to rescue his child.  How could he have been so stupid? He asked himself. “Pa, we need to talk.”  Adam approached the subject once more.

 

“NOT NOW!” Ben barked back.  He could not hear what his son had to tell him. He had reviewed what the man had said to them.  Adam and Hoss had known of this demon.  Why had he not been told?  Why had they taken away his role as a father?  He was so very angry and knew he would have to watch what he said very carefully.

 

“Yeah Pa, now!  I didn’t think this would happen.  Joe took a long time to tell me and then he was so messed up about all of it I just was trying to help him.  I didn’t know.”

 

Ben snapped.  All he could think of was his fear for his youngest child as he lost control.  “YOU HAD NO RIGHT!  NEITHER OF YOU DID!  JOSEPH IS MY SON!  HOW MANY TIMES HAVE I TOLD YOU I AM THE PARENT!  I AM HIS FATHER!  I MAKE THE DECISIONS! GOOD GOD WHAT HAVE YOU DONE?”

 

“I don’t know, Pa.  I messed up really bad and I know it. I’m sorry. Joe was so messed up in his head.  He was so afraid he had gone bad because of what that man had done to him, and after seeing the stuff he was doing I just wanted to get him right…”

 

“WHAT DO YOU MEAN WHAT HE WAS DOING? WHAT’S WRONG WITH JOSEPH?”

 

Adam held his gaze on his hands as he told his father what had happened to Joe the previous weeks. He told of the meadow, the brothel, the attack on Hop Sing and the loft. He finished by telling his father what had occurred in the saloon.  Ben turned away from Adam trying to keep himself under control.  As he heard of each ordeal his fear and pain for his youngest increased. He spoke in his head as he listened to Adam.  “Oh my boy.  Joseph, son, you’ve been hurting so. Why didn’t I see it?  Why did I want to believe it was all over?  I promised you I’d be there.  Oh son!  Please God let me find him.  Keep him safe.  Please!”  Ben could not speak for a few moments as he tried to gather himself.

 

Heavy silence hung in the room as Ben kept his back to his son.  He wanted to shake Adam for what he had done. His fury took over once more. “WHY!  WHY ADAM!”  Ben turned to look at his oldest once more.  “WHY WOULD YOU KEEP THIS FROM ME! WHAT DID YOU THINK I WOULD DO TO JOSEPH!  YOU THINK YOU CAN HELP HIM BETTER THAN ME!  YOU FIND ME INCOMPETENT AS A FATHER!”

 

Adam flinched at the words he heard. He realized how this looked to the man who had raised him.  “No Pa!  I was trying to protect Joe and protect you!  I know you have done a great job of raising us! I didn’t mean to take your place! That wasn’t what I was trying to do at all!  I know you are Joe’s father!  I would never take that away from you!”   As he spoke the words he knew this is indeed what he had done.  “Oh God, Pa, I was trying to fix it.  I was trying to make it up to Joe.  I was trying to make it up to you.”

 

“Make what up?  What are you talking about?”

 

“Joe was hurt because of me.  Joe is, uh… Joe has changed cause of me. I wanted to get our Joe back.  I wanted to give him back to you Pa.  I was trying to help him get better so we could all go on and not have my decision to go after Baxter hurting us anymore.  Pa, God!  I never meant for any of this.”

 

Ben listened to his oldest explain and his heart broke once more.  His boys were being so damaged by Cyrus Baxter.  The man was reaching out from the grave wreaking havoc on his family to this very day.  Ben cursed the man and then looked to Adam.  “Adam, I cannot tell you I am happy with what you did.  Son, you made some serious mistakes, very serious mistakes.  I understand why you did it. But Adam, didn’t you realize no one blamed you for this.  No one did except you.  I told you what Joseph needed.  I told you back in Reno.  You did what was right with Baxter.  I told you that.  I did not need you to hide Joseph’s pain from me to protect me.  I needed to be there for him.”

 

“I know that now.  I do.  Pa, I’m so sorry.  It’s all I can say to you.  This should not be happening.  Joe needed you.  I knew that this afternoon in the saloon when he called out for you.  I should have known it sooner.  I let my feelings blind me to what Joe needed. I’d trade places with him in an instant if I could Pa.  I don’t know what else to say.”

 

Hearing that Joe had called for him and he had not been there tore at Ben.  “Joseph, hang on. I’ll be there.  I promise I will find you son.  You are my boy and I’ll never rest ‘til you are safe with me.”  Ben said to his son, “Adam, we need to form a plan to get Joe back.  It is all we can do now.  We have to get him away from that…” Ben thought of how he saw his son treated and felt ill.

 

The men tended to Hop Sing as they waited for the doctor and Roy Coffee.  Each held the desire to run out the door to find Joe, but each knew they had to wait.  Each also prayed for the safety of the youngest Cartwright as they recalled the horror of the man who now held his life.

 

 

*****

 

The Stranger once more loaded Joe up on a horse well before morning and was soon on his way.  He rode hard to his destination as he thought of his plans for the kid.  He would look back from time to time to the trailing horse.  Over the saddle was his prize. He had found and claimed his choice for a son.  The kid never moved as he was carried through the night.  As he rode, the Stranger fantasized of future rides with his new son after a job had been completed, and they traveled together to a new destination.  It made him excited for what lay ahead.  He would be the teacher, revered for his knowledge and admired for his ability.  Dawn turned to daylight as the Stranger reached his destination.  He had chosen the place those many weeks before as the original meeting place for the kid and himself.  His plans had to be altered when the kid’s horse had thrown a shoe in town and the location had to be moved.  He had liked this place much better. If the kid screamed or tried to get away, there was no one and nothing to help him.  The kid would have to submit or die.  It was that simple.

 

He carried his student into the mine and disposed of him on the cold floor.  He lit the lanterns he had placed within the confines and pulled out the sack of supplies he had carefully deposited several days prior. It had the basics for survival, as well as what he was now hunting for – something that would keep his student subdued.  He easily located the handcuffs and ropes.  He thought, “Oh it would not do to have you run around free Pretty Boy.  You should be used to these.  I’m sure they bring back memories.”  With that the Stranger cuffed the hands of an unconscious Joe, as well as tied his feet.  His victim was gone to the world as the ether took him away from the agony of what had occurred at the Ponderosa.  It also kept Joe from the fear of what was yet to happen with the Stranger.  He slept medicated in a dreamless state, which was welcomed.  His mind wanted nothing of the Stranger and what he instinctively knew awaited him. He slept hard, away from all of it as he fought the return to hell.

 

The Stranger sat back, waiting for his son’s full return to his clutches.  He watched the sleeping form and longed for it to awake.  He eventually poked Joe several times hoping it would revive him, but Joe remained oblivious, as his mind fought back.  Finally the Stranger knew he had to leave to gather more necessities, as he had needed several things to make himself more comfortable. Before leaving, he pulled out his knife and walked to his protégé.  He bent down and watched his sleeping student, so anxious for him to wake.  He soon decided what would be his next move and cut a curl of hair from Joe’s head.  After he had taken the lock, he sat back looking at the one he had chosen. “Wake up Pretty Boy!  Wake up so you can learn the lessons you have been waiting for.  I will teach them to you.  I will teach you so much.”  The Stranger waited a while longer, hoping for Joe’s awakening, but as time passed and he knew he had to travel to town, he reluctantly left, disgusted his student still lay asleep.

 

Joe lay medicated for much of the day; his mind somehow knowing to wake would mean more pain.  He fought the draw to find out why he was cold as long as he could.  Somehow he knew it would be bad as he lay trying to understand.  His head throbbed as he returned to his life, and he struggled to understand why he was restrained.  He suddenly felt sick as the sedation took its toll.  He felt horribly ill, unable to remember what had happened last.  He was soon sick again as the medication moved through him.  The headache he felt was like no other as it punished him for another’s actions.

 

He held his head down as the room spun and his stomach revolted.  The air was damp and musty and he felt a cold move through him.  He tried to gather the coat he wore around him, but soon felt the pull of the handcuffs against the post. He looked to his hands and the despair swept through him.  There had been those weeks of freedom in between, the weeks for him to recover from the previous assault, but now he was there again.  He had fought to live, only to return to hurt and pain.  It was hard to think as the ether numbed his mind.  His thoughts slowly returned to his home and family and the agony was there once more.  His thoughts were heavy as he remembered having restrained the ones he loved. “They’re dead.  I did it to them.  There dead ‘cause of me.  Hop Sing, I’m so sorry.  Pa, oh God Pa! What have I done?  Adam, Hoss I warned you.  I warned you.  You shouldn’t a helped me.  I’m so sorry!”  Joe looked around where he was being held.  The light was dim and the only noise was his heart beating. He was alone in silence and the pain washed over him. “Why?  Why is he doing this to me?  Why take me from my family? Oh God! Let me go with them! Please!”

 

Joe lay where he had been placed, trying to make his mind understand evil and madness. He believed he was now alone to face the Stranger and knew he was weak.  The fear in him was enormous as he realized that for the first time in his life, he would face things totally alone.  He would be with the knowledge his family was not there for him.  He could run from his home before, but it was his choice to do so.  Now they were gone, taken from him and he was left with evil.  He doubted he could stand strong and face the one who had made it all so bad.  His head throbbed and the sickness came and went as depression set in.  He knew he needed his family, at this time more than any other but they were gone and he was left. He was left to end it with the Stranger.  He had no one now, and he was unsure if he would go to those he loved or try to make the one responsible pay.  “Pa? What should I do?”  Joe asked to no one.  He felt so very alone as he lay in the dark to wait.

 

He heard the noise of someone approaching as he tried to gather his resolve.  He knew who it would be and a shiver traveled down his spine.  He waited to see the eyes, the coldness, and the evil, as he lay trying to ease his head.  Joe was afraid of the man, he would not kid himself and say he was not.  He feared the power the man held and how he would show it.  If his family was dead, Joe wanted to be with them, but how this man would release his life terrified him.  The Stranger was soon in front of him.  Joe saw him smile, seeming to be pleased about something. “Ah Pretty Boy. You finally woke up.  I was beginning to wonder if I had used too much of that stuff.  You seem to be having a bad time. What’s wrong with you?  You look under the weather. Awe, poor baby.”

 

Joe could not help but compare the differences between his father and this man. He remembered the times when he was very sick and his father had sat up with him, helping him through the crisis.  This man would not do that.  This man would mock him and make him feel weak.  Joe felt terrible and he was vulnerable.  He had no response to the man and his gut said he was doing something that would be unacceptable by not answering.  He braced himself for the blow and was correct in its anticipation.

 

“Listen here Pretty Boy, I’m the one who holds your life.  You need to remember that.  Your weakness before will no longer be tolerated.  You have shown you are pathetic.  I don’t want to have to see that again.  You were so weak! I almost killed you then.  Maybe I should have!  You felt bad for them?  For the ones who have made my job so much harder! You’re pathetic if you care for them Pretty Boy.  They’ve hurt you.  They stifled your growth.  They coddled you when you should be strong.  They should pay for your struggle!”  With that the Stranger let loose again slapping Joe hard across the face and then continued the tirade.  “You should’ve not been so weak! You were supposed to kill them. You are a disgrace to me Pretty Boy. A Disgrace!  I thought you were made of much better stuff than what you’ve showed me.  Falling down like that – sniveling and whining.  How can you even hold your head up and think you’re a man?  That’s not a man. A man never shows weakness, never shows where he’s vulnerable.  You’re vulnerable because you have too many attachments.  You think these other people are important to you?  You think you need them?  You don’t need them.  You only need me.  I am your world now.  I will make you into what you need to be.   You will do it. Do you hear me?  I’m not playing around with you.  It is time I see what is really there inside you.”

 

The Stranger’s verbal assault continued and Joe was left only to listen.  His stomach churned and his head throbbed as he heard the words, which made no sense to him.  Why?  He wanted to ask why.  Why was this man doing this to him?  What was the reason? What had happened in the last encounter that kept them bonded?  What was it that made Joe so full of rage and bitterness that he saw himself as the Stranger saw him.  Joe watched the man pacing as he wished for his family.  He wanted to be like them, not this mad man.  What he saw terrified and repulsed him.  This man was everything his family was not. It ran counter to the way he had been raised.  But this man saw he had in him the same traits; the same characteristics as him.  Did he?

 

Joe again was thrown into the attempt to understand.  Was he bad?  Was there something in him different than his brothers, different than his father?  The only difference was his mother and he had known she was not bad.  He could never see her as bad.  She was sunny days and sweet kisses.  She was laughter and joy and the loving comfort given to a scraped knee.  No, she was not the root to his badness.  He had resolved to himself she was strong and passionate and did what she needed to do.  She had saved him by her own strength.  She flowed through his veins and he would never see her as anything other than strength and love.  He knew he had come from good.

 

He thought over what Hop Sing had told him the night of the attack.  He recalled his friend’s appraisal of his parents and he agreed.  His mother was everything good to him and his father was his world.  It did not come from them.  It came from this man in front of him.  This man was evil.  He listened to the tirade and he grew fearful.  This man had placed such terror and rage in him, what more would he do?  Was he more aligned with this man now than his own family.  Had he been corrupted?

 

Hop Sing.  Joe’s mind returned to his friend.  “I am so sorry, Hop Sing.  I didn’t know he’d do this.  I didn’t.  I wouldn’t a let him hurt you. I never meant any of it.  Hop Sing can you forgive me?”  Joe did not realize that by being lost in his own thoughts he was ignoring the Stranger.  He had been asked a question and he had not heard it.  This sent the Stranger into a rage.  Joe soon felt hands around his throat as he was attacked.

 

The Stranger expected a struggle and all he got from his protégé was a limp body.  It enraged him further.  “How dare you!  You won’t give up like this!  You won’t!  I have given too much to this reunion!  You will fight and you will do as I want!”  The Stranger closed his hands tight on Joe’s throat and Joe came close to surrender.  He wanted it over.  The thought of being in this man’s grasp was repulsive. He had changed and the evil he saw before him had infected him.  He wanted death to take him.  He would die having not totally surrendered.  He would not give the Stranger his soul.

 

“Damn you!  You’re weak!  You’re a disgrace! THEY RUINED YOU!  YOU ARE NO GOOD!  NO GOOD!”  The Stranger glared at him as he tried to contain the desire to kill the kid.  Joe waited for the end to come, knowing he would leave the world hearing the ranting of a mad man and having his last thoughts be of hate.

 

The Stranger stopped suddenly, and walked away from his captive.  Joe lay gasping for breath as he watched the man move to a saddlebag and rummage through the contents.  What was then removed was so familiar – a most prized possession.  The Stranger moved back over to Joe and knelt next to him.  He held out the picture and watched Joe’s face. He got the desired reaction.

 

Joe rapidly moved from despair to rage.  He was looking at the picture that sat by his bed.  The picture he talked to when things were confusing and cried to when he was beyond trying to understand and there was only hurt.  This man, this bastard had his mother’s picture.  “Ah, Pretty Boy.  Another of your attachments I see.  She’s pretty.  She’s the reason you’re pretty?  Where is she anyway?  I think I’d like a go at her!” The Stranger smiled, as he knew his bait had worked and his student was ready to interact with him once more.

 

Joe could not contain the rage he felt.  “You sick coward!”  Joe started to fight back as all of the rage and fear exploded in him.

 

Joe was slapped again, as the Stranger could not help but react to Joe’s insult.  The man knelt very close to Joe’s head as he sneered,  “You will watch that mouth of yours if you know what’s good for you.  You’ll say you’re sorry for that little outburst.”

 

Having his mother brought into the dance was too much.  Joe could not allow this man to defile her. “You go to hell!”

 

“That’s it Pretty Boy.  You’re gonna mess around with me and get yourself killed.  You need to know I tolerate your disobedience poorly.  You stop it and we’ll get along right fine.”  While the Stranger spoke, he once more locked his fingers on the throat of his student.  Joe soon was lightheaded as he both struggled to breathe and struggled with the Stranger.  He felt his hate and refused to give up his life to this man without a fight.  This man, this demon may watch him surrender, but Joe vowed he would only see courage and fight.  Joe would hold the other.  The fear of evil – the fear of what would become of him should he die.  His mind tried to panic, tried to make him submit to the man, but he would not allow it.  He would make the man kill him if that was what it took to win.  He would not submit.  He would not.  The last Joe saw before darkness took him was the grin of the devil.

 

The return was slow and the Stranger waited.  He hated the wait and would make sure the kid knew of his displeasure.  He enjoyed the last exchange, seeing the fire that remained in his student. He sat staring at the picture that had made the kid react. “Pretty lady, are you responsible for the kid’s fight?  Are you adequate breeding stock to turn out my son?  Are you the mother to greatness?”  He laughed aloud as he asked his questions.  The father of the kid was unworthy.  Was the mother as well?  The Stranger reasoned that someone was responsible for the kid’s spirit.  It had to be this woman.  She had born him his son.  He looked at the picture and then smiled.  He pulled it close and kissed it.  She was worthy of him as well.

 

Joe groaned as he felt the soreness in his throat.  He knew he did not want to open his eyes and hoped that he could convince the Stranger he was still unconscious.  He was successful for a short while as he lay thinking of his fate.  He wanted revenge for his family.  They deserved to have this man pay for this crime.  No one knew of this demon but him, and he knew if there were to be justice he would have to dole it out.  He wanted to live to take the man’s life.  He would have that for his family and then whatever fate held for him afterward, he would accept.  He felt a kick to his side, as he knew he could enjoy the intermission from the dance no longer.  He was being called back once more to continue the steps.

 

Joe opened his eyes and was immediately greeted by dead eyes.  The two looked at each other, as they knew there was much more to go through together.  The Stranger grinned,  “Pretty Boy, you’re back I see.  You know you still owe me that apology.  Let’s hear it.”

 

“I owe you nothing!”  Joe spat back.  He saw the man still held the picture of his mother and the revulsion grew.  In defending his mother, Joe knew no limits.  He had fought in school over insults or perceived slander of her name.  He would risk everything to protect a woman who was more fantasy than real.  She was part of him, as it was with his father, Hoss or Adam, but she lived on in his head in the memories and beliefs he held of her.  She was sacred.

 

The laughter grew from the Stranger as he witnessed Joe’s devotion.  He saw the kid could attach and worship another.  It was this woman now but it would be him soon.  The ideas of such respect a powerful draw.  But he must not let the kid see his own weakness – his love of devotion and power. No the kid must only see where he erred and immediately correct the fault.  “Pretty Boy, do you want a reminder of my power?  Do you need to feel pain?  I’m beginning to think you like this.  Do you like it Pretty Boy?  You like me to hurt you?”  The Stranger grabbed hold of Joe’s hair and pulled it so Joe was looking him in the eye.  He sat on Joe’s legs as he made his move. He let loose a punch to Joe’s stomach, but held his head and restrained his legs, so Joe could not do what was instinctive. He could not curl in and comfort himself at all.  The Stranger punched once again and Joe lost his wind. “Oh no Pretty Boy, you can’t breathe?  You should be used to that feeling.  You remember before?  You remember how hard it was to breathe?  You remember trying to pull the air in you?  You remember don’t you Pretty Boy?  I see in your eyes you remember.”

 

There were flashes but Joe grabbed the cuff of the coat he wore.  He tried to move his head so he could smell the smell.  It would keep him there in the room if he could just focus on the coat. The coat had helped before when it was bad.  It had helped in the loft.  It was Adam’s coat and Joe realized how desperately he needed it to help him hold on. The coat meant they were near and they loved him.  It meant they were protecting and watching for the bad; they were holding the wolves at bay that threatened to take his mind.  “Oh stay with me please!”  Joe begged in his mind, he said, “I remember.  You didn’t win then you won’t win now.”

 

“Oh but I let you go Pretty Boy. I could have killed fat boy quite easily, but I saw this as much more fun.  Don’t you think it’s fun? Tell me true.  Aren’t you having fun?  Haven’t you just waited for us to meet once more?  You’ve wanted this! I know it!”

 

“Why are you doing this?  Why?  You don’t need anything from me anymore.  Baxter’s dead.  What do you want?”  Joe held fast to the coat as he challenged the man.

 

The Stranger punched Joe hard again,  “You were not asked if you had a question Pretty Boy.  You have got to be the dumbest person alive.  Do you not understand what I tell you?”

 

Joe tried to continue to breathe slow breaths as the pain radiated.  He lay, looking up at the man as he tried to understand what it was this man wanted.  He wanted a son? A son?  Joe found it so hard to believe.  This man who had hurt him so was now saying they would be father and son.  Father and son… Father… Joe’s mind once more drifted to the man worthy of that title.  Father.  His Pa.  “Pa, I need your help.  I did it again and this time it got you killed.  I didn’t tell you what was in my head and it killed you.  It killed all of you.  Pa!  I need you now!  What I would give to change it.  I’ll kill him. I’ll do it for you all.”

 

“Now Pretty Boy, about that apology.  I’m still waiting.”

 

Joe braced himself as he knew what would come next,  “You’ll be waiting forever! I’ll never apologize to you!  Go to hell!”

 

A laugh rang out as the Stranger looked down on him,  “Oh yes Pretty Boy you will apologize.  You continue to miss the idea here.  You are the one without power.  You are the one in my control.  You do nothing without my permission, without my direction. Why do you insist on fighting the bit?  You know what they do to horses that refuse to be broke?  You want that as well?  Tell you what.  I’m going to give you some time to think about your decision.  Perhaps you responded in haste and would like to reconsider your position.  See I am a fair man.  I’ll let you have some time.”

 

Joe grew concerned the more the man talked.  He feared what was next as knew all to well that the Stranger had nothing but malevolence for him.  He had to think of the best way to handle the situation, but his fear and rage were in conflict. It was hard to control his impulse to push back.  “You can give me all the time in the world and it won’t matter.  You’ll get nothing from me.”

 

“We’ll see about that one.  We’ll see how much you can stand. Okay, here is what is going to happen.  I am going to undo those handcuffs once more and as before, I am warning you don’t move.  You move you hurt, and as an added incentive, lookie here.  See this gun?  You know this gun well don’t you?  Well if you don’t do as I say when I say it, then I will shoot you.  Oh, but you won’t die, Pretty Boy, at least not immediately. You will suffer a great long while before it would actually kill you.  A gut shot is a bad way to go I’d say.  You understand?”

 

“Should I let him kill me? Should I just surrender?  What should I do?”  Joe asked himself the questions once more.  His hatred of the Stranger was the response he gave himself.  “No, I’ll kill him.  I’ll best him and kill him.  I want you dead!”  Joe said to the Stranger, “I understand.”

 

The Stranger undid the cuffs and untied Joe’s feet as Joe lay perfectly still. Joe knew he was walking a very thin line where his reactions would help or harm him in the dance.  He wanted to never submit, but knew he had to avoid enraging the man to the point he was killed before he could kill.  He needed to avoid injury if he could so when the time was right he could kill this devil.  Joe fought to control the rage in him as he fantasized attacking the man.  “It’ll feel so good to kill you.  Better than anything else I can imagine.”  Joe thought, as his eyes never left the man.

 

“Stand up, slowly.”  The Stranger gave the command as he stepped back and away from his prisoner.

 

Joe did as commanded careful never to let down his guard.  His eyes continually moving to try and predict where any attack might stem.  As he returned to his feet he fleetingly thought to just run.  Run and let the bullet hit him in the back.  It would take him out of the dance and he would join the family he loved.  As he played the scenario in his mind he felt a shove forward.  “Get going.  Walk until I say stop.”

 

The Stranger led Joe further down into the mineshaft twisting and turning through the tunnels, the only light dim from the torch the Stranger carried.  As they traveled, the air grew thick and damp. It was quiet except for dripping water and the occasional scurry of an animal.  Joe finally heard the command, “Stop.”

 

The men were at the end of a tunnel, Joe having gotten confused as to where they had traveled.  He knew they had been headed deeper into the mountain, but the changes in direction had been several and his concentration on trying to watch where he stepped had made him less attentive.  He scanned where he now stood.  The area was more open than many of the tunnels they had moved through and it was obvious the Stranger had set this place up to be part of the scenario.

 

Joe stood not moving, waiting for the next order.  He did not have long to wait.  “Okay Pretty Boy, I learned a thing or two.  People are much more willing to work with me when they are uncomfortable.  Not sure why that is.  I would think you’d just figure out I’m going to win and just be done with it, but so be it.  Now you are just too comfy for my liking.  We’ll let you sit and ponder the error of your ways and see if you’re not willing to change your feeble mind. So in that vein, off with the coat.  Come on, give it here.”

 

The words sent terror through Joe.  The coat was a bond, a connection to safety.  This man wanted everything from him.  No, he would not do it.  Joe stood defiantly before the man and did not move.  He squared his shoulders and waited for the encounter.

 

The back of the Stranger’s hand hit Joe squarely across the face. Joe’s head reeled back as he took the blow.  He returned to look into the eyes of evil.  The Stranger scolded, “Defy me will you?  Take off the coat.  Do it now.”

 

Joe continued to hold his ground, as in his head he was screaming in agony.  He could not give this man the coat.  It held his sanity. How did this man know how to strip his every defense?  How did he know where he was vulnerable?  Joe did not move.

 

The Stranger was quickly on him. Joe was slammed against the wall of the tunnel as the Stranger placed his forearm across Joe’s throat.  He began pulling at the coat with the other as Joe struggled and fought back.  The two men were locked in fierce battle, as the Stranger demanded submission and Joe fought for his hold to everything good. “NO!  NO!  YOU CAN’T HAVE IT!”  Joe screamed as he felt another blow.

 

He struggled, punched and fought for the coat, but Joe’s size was no match for the Stranger.  He would lose the battle, as the Stranger gained the upper hand and showed his complete domination by stripping the coat from him.  Joe slid down the wall of the shaft trying to gather his mind and his breath as the Stranger moved away from him and looked on him with disgust.  “Now that was truly pathetic.  When are you going to learn? You will lose every battle.  EVERY BATTLE!  Get up here.”  The Stranger did not bother to wait for Joe to move, rather he yanked Joe to his feet by the arm and slammed him back against the wall.  “Pretty Boy, You will hang around here thinking of your transgressions. You will confess your sins to me when I return and we will go forward from there.  You do need some time to concentrate on what will please me.  Hold out your hands.”

 

Joe responded. His eyes still on the coat that lay on the ground several feet from him. The Stranger placed the cuff around one wrist and then told Joe words he had heard before,  “Reach up.”  Joe once more did as he was told.  The past and the present laying on top of each other in his mind.  He began to wonder if he had ever left the cellar, if this were still not the first encounter and he had only gone home and to his family in his head.  Had he never left this man’s clutches?

 

The Stranger moved to where his face was inches from Joe’s.  He pulled Joe’s head back by his hair forcing Joe to look at him. “Okay Pretty Boy, I am going to go and have some drinks, a fine meal and maybe even indulge myself with a saloon whore. You on the other hand will stay here and think of how you can behave.  When I return, if I even bother to return, I expect certain things from you.  I expect an apology.  I expect respect and I expect you to be ready to learn.  I’m done playing with you.  This wastes precious time and I have more things to do than mess with your foolishness.  I would advise you to straighten up.” The Stranger patted Joe hard on the cheek, and then walked away down the tunnel.  As Joe watched the light leave, he kept his eye on the coat until the light was gone and he was alone in the dark.

 

******

It was all they could do to wait for first light to begin the search for Joe.  The doctor and Roy had arrived before sun up and they went about caring for the fallen cook and preparing a plan to get Joe from the clutches of the Stranger.  Adam continued to feel overwhelming guilt as he watched his father’s torment.  Ben struggled with remaining calm as every fear for his son’s life passed through his mind.  He would attempt to reassure himself with his faith that Joe would be found and returned to him, but his mind would go to the time in Reno when he had watched his child’s suffering and had been helpless to do anything about it.  The impotence brought a new surge of rage as he thought of the man attempting to tear away his most sacred possession – one of his sons. What kind of man does this to a family?  What kind of man defiles the love found between parent and child?  What kind of man tries to destroy what is good and right in the world?  As he thought of the kind of man who would take pleasure in this act he winced.  That kind of man had his son.

 

Hoss had busied himself by preparing the horses and gathering supplies.  He would be on Chubb as soon as there was light enough to follow the tracks.  Hoss knew his family relied on him to find the trace of where Joe had been taken.  He was the best at tracking and vowed in his head,  “Joe, I’ll find the way you were taken.  I’ll get you the help you need little buddy.”  As Hoss prepared the horses he looked to Cochise. He walked over and scratched between her ears as he stood thinking of Joe.  The pinto would not be going with them, for it was her master that was missing.  “Cooch, we gotta get him home.  We just gotta.”  Hoss rested his head for a moment on the neck of the animal as he fought back his fear.  The images in the cellar returned full on to his mind and he began to cry for his little brother.  He waited until the emotion passed before lifting his head. He once more rubbed the horse that was so much a reminder of Joe and then walked back into the house to tell the men inside he was going whether they would join him or not.  The paint pony shifted restlessly in her stall as the big man left and the tears that had fallen on her coat left to dry with time.

 

Hoss did not have to urge as the men were soon on their way to find any evidence of a trial to follow. Roy had decided to ride with the family and provide whatever assistance he could.  The tracks from the house proved easy enough to decipher and the group made good time moving away from the ranch house.  However, things proved more difficult as they reached rocky ground.  It was apparent the man who had Joe had begun to cover his tracks as if toying with them.  There would be evidence of two horses and then nothing as it appeared the animals had simply stopped moving.  It was frustratingly slow to try and determine where next to look and tension mounted.

 

Adam kept in his head on the ride, trying to determine how he could have allowed everything to get away from him. He had done something he swore he would never do.  He had allowed his emotion to rule his head.  Why had he done it?  What was it he could not come to terms with?  It was his guilt.  He knew it was the feeling of being responsible and his frustration at not being able to turn back time.  He felt his frustration and disappointment at having believed in theory and concept.  However, when the reality of his actions hit he was not the bearer of the consequences. It was not supposed to happen as it had.  It was his decision to bring down the man and for that he was more than willing to endure Baxter’s wrath.  But it had not been his to endure it had been another’s.

 

He had underestimated the malevolence in Baxter and now an even greater evil had moved in to take his place.  Adam wanted the consequences to be on his shoulders alone.  Not Joe’s, an innocent party in all the drama.  As he rode he again wondered how he could right his own wrong.  How could he redirect the scene such that he would be the one to take the place of his brother as he felt it should have been from the beginning?  He made his decision.  He would kill the evil that was haunting his little brother.  He would not question or doubt. He had known what he had wanted to do after first seeing Joe in the doctor’s office those many weeks ago. He would have revenge and the man who had made Joe’s life hell would pay.

 

*****

 

He stood alone in the dark with nothing but his own thoughts to occupy him.  Joe felt the excruciating pain of being alone.  It was the knife in his heart as he tried to keep those who loved him close.  He had them in his head, but the terror made it hard to keep hold.  His mind fought the memories of the cellar and the ripping away from his family.  This man knew how to hurt. He knew where Joe was weak and capitalized on the knowledge. Thoughts and feelings rushed him and Joe was swept away in the current of memories.  The position his body was in made it so easy to return to the previous encounter and the scenario played itself out.  Joe shook from fear as well as cold.  There was no one to help him, no words to talk him through the torrent of emotion and memory.  He held tight as the assault pounded his mind.  There was no escape until the dance played out.  Every image, every thought brought fear.  Joe cried out to no one as he wrestled the past and feared the future.  He wanted to give up, to let his mind run the scene over and over until insanity took him and nothing mattered anymore.

 

It was hours of torment before Joe’s mind relented, and it was exhaustion that eventually stopped the onslaught.  Joe wanted to collapse, to lie down and regroup his thoughts, but he knew he could not allow himself to sleep.  He had to stay on his feet. It was the sound of footsteps that drew him wide-awake.  The room remained dark and cold as the steps echoed. He waited for the light to reveal the identity of the steps, but there was nothing, only blackness. He heard the voice and knew he was there.  “Pretty Boy, you ready to talk to me?  You ready to give me what I want?”

 

“Leave me alone!  I CAN’T DO IT!  I CAN’T!  NOT AGAIN!  NO!”

 

“You need to know I am in complete control.  You ever feel a whip kid?  You ever have that experience?”  The Stranger let go his wicked laugh.  “It cuts when it hits you, you know.  It tears away flesh.”

 

“God no not again! Please no!  I can’t!  I CAN’T!”  Joe was crying as he realized what his fate would be. “STOP HURTING ME!”

 

“You know how to make it stop, Pretty Boy.  You know what I want.  Now give it to me and it is all over.  The hurt, the pain the fear the rage is gone if you give me what I want.  You will be free.  I will give you up.  I will return you to your home.”

 

Joe was hearing everything he wanted.  He could have it over he could give up the agony.  He could be released from this devil’s grasp. He wanted to be seduced by the offer of peace.  He wanted the cold in him gone. It was all he could think of as he shouted,  “I’LL TELL YOU!  ANY THING YOU WANT I’LL TELL YOU!  MAKE IT STOP… PLEASE GOD!”

 

“Tell me, Pretty Boy.  Tell me what I want to know.”

 

“HE’S IN THE LINE SHACK!”  As the words left Joe’s mouth he realized what he had done.   “OH NO!  NO!  I HAD TO MAKE IT STOP!  I’M SORRY ADAM!  I HAD TO MAKE IT STOP! I COULDN’T DO NO MORE!  HE WON! I’M SORRY!”

 

Joe heard the laughter echoing through his head. The endless laughing of a mad man filled his thoughts as Joe wept for his act of betrayal.  He had done what he vowed he would not do.  He had given the Stranger his brother’s life.  It was a torture worse than any physical pain as it carried him deeper into hell.  “KILL ME!”  He screamed the command but there was no response.  “I WANNA BE DEAD!  YOU PROMISED IT WOULD END! YOU PROMISED IT WAS OVER! KILL ME!”

 

Still no response as Joe thrashed about. He tried to make contact with the Stranger in the dark but there was nothing there.  Nothing.  He heard dripping water and his own gasping breaths but he was alone. There was no one.  Joe moaned and sobbed as he tried to gather his mind.  The Stranger was winning.

 

Joe tried to comfort himself by thinking of other times, the good times that made what he had with his family so valuable, but it was hard to find them in his thoughts. He would return to what he had done.  He had told the Stranger the forbidden.  His world had become consumed with the Stranger and it seemed that was where his mind wanted to stay.  His mind wanted to give in.

 

He had to fight the draw to surrender.  He needed revenge, not sadness.  Sadness and fear made it too hard to hold, and the Stranger became the victor.  He needed rage. He allowed his mind to fantasize the ending of the dance as he took the Stranger’s throat between his own hands and squeezed.  He embraced the rage as he could all but feel the man’s struggle and fight.  He did not realize his hands were in fists as he watched the image in his mind.  He enjoyed the thought of the evil life leaving his world.  He grabbed hold of the rage he felt as he thought of killing the man.

 

His fantasy brought forth a question.  How could he gain the upper hand?  It seemed that every move he made resulted in more pain and more fear.  He needed the fear in control.  As Joe hung in the dark his thoughts moved from terror and the desire to give in, to rage and the desire to kill.

 

He had no grasp of the passing of time as he stood in the blackness. He knew it had been hours, but would have been shocked to hear it had been a day.  He found himself so tired but would not allow his body to submit.  To sleep would take him off his feet.  He could not afford for his arms to be made useless.  They would be needed to kill.  The thoughts of the Stranger’s death gave the only comfort, and Joe replayed scenarios over and over in his head.  At one point he realized the Stranger was right.  He was without power as he was without a weapon.  How could he best this monster?

 

Power. It was obvious the Stranger liked power, and as Joe stood feeling his fatigue, he knew all too well the man held the power in every encounter.  He had solved his fear of the Stranger with fantasies of shooting him or choking him dead.  But it would not be possible to act out the fantasy as the situation now stood.  Joe had no power, and as each time his mind returned to this fact he felt desperation, not rage.  This man wanted him as his son.  The revulsion at the idea was almost too much.  He was Ben Cartwright’s son, and he would always be his child.  His father had told him this even in those desperate hours at the ranch.  He wanted to be his father’s son.  It had always been something he took such pride in.  He could not let the Stranger corrupt that relationship.

 

Too much thinking, and too much fear. He wanted nothing to do with the thoughts, but they continued in their harassment. “Stop thinking.  Stop it.”  He scolded himself.  “It’s not helping to think.”  There were no more answers.  He had spent weeks on the problem and the answers stayed hidden.  Were they hidden or impossible to find?  He was unsure the answer.  The fight against despair was difficult and he knew he had to think of something else.  Something to distract.  He made himself redirect his thinking as he focused on his everyday life.  His life consisted of average living, he worked cattle, he tended a ranch, and he broke horses.  He knew of these things and tried to make himself focus.  He thought of cattle drives, but his mind soon went to his family, always with him during these events and he made himself change focus. The ranch too brought images of family and it hurt to think of it.  So it would be breaking horses.  That was something he knew how to do and excelled at.  He thought of the powerful animals that he had ridden, having made them take the saddle and the bit without breaking their spirit. It was a fine line and a craft he had learned, make the horse think it was his idea.  He thought of this and could escape a while as he broke horses in his thoughts.

 

He had run the subduing of horses over in his head many times until other words entered, and it clicked into place.  Hop Sing had said it.  The answer was in him and he just had to find it…  It was the breaking of horses… that had given him the key…  Make them think it’s their idea… Make them think… Horses don’t think…  Out think them… Was it that simple?  Were the lessons learned in every day life even applicable with madness?  Could he take what he knew as a rancher’s son and apply it to craziness?  Joe knew he could easily out-think a horse, but this man?  If he underestimated the man, he would be killed. He knew that straight away.  “It’s the chance I have and the chance I’ll take.  I know what to do with an animal needing to be persuaded. Pa always said I had the gift of gab. Was it the same?  Would it work? ” Joe remained nervous and fearful as he questioned himself.  If he was wrong, he was dead.  He knew that was the only outcome for a mistake.

 

The quiet brought about the desire to let go, as Joe struggled to give in to temptation.  He knew if he gave in to his desire, he would hang from his hands, give up the control and start it all once more.  “Does it matter?”  He asked himself.  “Is all this for nothing?”   The sound of someone coming stopped the questioning for a while.  The music was starting and it was time to dance.

 

“Pretty Boy, there you are.  Have a nice time?”  The Stranger asked as he examined his charge.  “You ready to submit?  You ready to learn?”

 

Joe knew the next words were crucial and he paused.  He had to say it right.  He had to give what was wanted, but… he had to make it believable.  He knew the dance had entered a rhythmic beat where steps were watched and graded.  He had to be believed.  “You want too much.”  Joe said, his voice soft.

 

“No Pretty Boy, just your soul.  That’s not too much to give me.  Now tell me.  You sorry yet?”

 

“Sorry?  I uh… nuh uh.  I’m not.”

 

The Stranger punched Joe hard but Joe had braced for the attack.  He had to make it real and he had to endure the pain.  He would have to let the dance get brutal in order to change the lead.  “Pretty Boy, you have not learned.  You need more schooling to know whose boss. You will hang there ‘til you submit.  You remember it?  You remember the pain.  Perhaps a reminder is what you need?  I think you like this.  Why else would you do this to yourself?”  The Stranger reached into his possessions and once more produced a whip. Joe’s head flooded with images as this demon threatened him once more.

 

What he meant to do in acting he did for real. His head so easily led to the memories and grief.   Joe begged that he not be struck by the painful instrument.  “No!  No! Please, no!”

 

The Stranger grinned.  “You don’t want this Pretty Boy?  You want me to stop?”

 

“YES!  STOP!  NO MORE!”

 

The Stranger felt his power.  “No more what?  No more, sir?”

 

“No more, sir! Please no more!”  A small voice answered.

 

“Ah… I’ve got your attention Pretty Boy.  I’ve got you where I want you.” The Stranger thought.  “What do you want Pretty Boy?  Tell me.”

 

Joe was afraid and held back, but knew he could do this for only a short time. The Stranger grew impatient. “Leave me alone.”  Joe managed to say.  He sounded as if he were begging, trying to be saved.

 

“Leave you alone?  Are you trying to tell me what to do?  Surely you wouldn’t do that would you Pretty Boy?  You didn’t get more dumb on me hanging here?”  As the stranger spoke he held up the whip.  Joe’s heart raced, as he knew to be hit would drive him mad.

 

“Oh no!  No! I didn’t mean it like that!”  Joe thought.  He knew he had to give a different response.  His eye could not leave the whip, as he spoke to it rather than the man,  “I meant don’t… please don’t… uh… you don’t have to uh… I’m sorry.”

 

Again the slap. “You’re sorry what?”

 

“I’m… sorry… I called you… a coward.”

 

“NO! You stupid idiot!  I swear I have no idea why I tolerate you!  The phrase is I’m sorry, sir.  I’ m sorry SIR!  You got it?  You understand anything in that stupid head of yours?  All you are is pretty ‘cause you have no brain.”

 

Joe immediately responded, as he feared the whip.  “I’m sorry, sir.”  As the words left his mouth, Joe felt pathetic. He was so afraid of the man’s ability to hurt him and his inability to protect.  Once more the man had known what to do to send fear into his soul.  “Get the advantage.”   He told himself.  “Do what you have to do to win.”  Joe wanted to scream out in fear but made himself look at the man’s eyes.  “What’s next?”  He said, holding a terrified voice so very steady.

 

“Are you ready to learn?  Are you over being stupid?  No, I don’t think you are.  You need to be taught a lesson.”  With that the Stranger walked behind Joe, the whip still in his hand.

 

Joe winced as he prepared.  He could not stop the one thing that would allow the Stranger to win.  He was losing.  He felt it and thought,  “I can’t do it.  I can’t make it through this.  I’m sorry Pa. He’ll win.  Will you be there for me when I come to you?  I’m afraid, Pa.  I don’t want to die.  I want to be with you but it’s scary to die.  Will you help me do it Pa?”  Joe closed his eyes as he braced himself for the Stranger’s wrath.  He heard the whip crack and wanted to cry out.  He bit his lip as he waited to feel the connection.  Again there was the sound but again no slash.  Joe kept his eyes closed, knowing the Stranger’s delay was part of his sadistic game.  The agony of waiting to be hurt became too much as Joe cried out, “Just hit me!”

 

The Stranger let out a laugh.  “You know, you’re really disturbed Pretty Boy.  I do think you like all this.  Begging to be hit. Tsk, tsk that’s pretty crazy.”  The Stranger dropped the whip but remained in place behind Joe.  “You must be right proud of these here marks then.  Got my brand on you, Pretty Boy.”  The Stranger began slowly tracing the marks on his victim’s back.  He lingered as he touched Joe, enjoying the recall of their last encounter.

 

The contact made Joe cringe, his revulsion extreme.  The feeling of this devil touching him, enjoying the pain he had inflicted, created contempt and fear. He tried not to move as his heart raced.  He wanted to pull away, and fought hard to endure the connection.  He began to breathe more rapidly as the Stranger prolonged the torture.  “Yes Pretty Boy, I’ve thought of our last time together often.  I’ve thought of you and the future we will share.  You have so much to learn.”

 

The Stranger’s voice, coupled with his touch was too much.  Joe had to move away, to try and get the man to stop his current choice of dance.  He was so very close to returning with the Stranger to the previous dance.  He could not let his head go.  He had to hold on.  Joe moved in the only way he could. He pulled away from the man’s touch as a moan escape his lips.  He could no longer endure this man’s remembrance.

 

The Stranger immediately reacted with rage at his victim’s defiance.  How dare this inferior try to exert any type of resistance?  How dare he think he has any power at all?  “Don’t you move away from me!  Get back here! NOW!”

 

Joe knew this was a test for his mind.  Could he give himself back to the Stranger and withstand the connection?  He had to do it to dance, but knew his mind would leave.  It was too much to endure as he submitted and he felt himself go.  He did what had become instinct to him, a way to hold onto reality.  There was no coat to grab; no soothing words; no grass to feel.  He reached up to the beam above him and grabbed hold.  He felt the splinters of the rough wood dig into his skin.  He used the pain to keep his head away from the man who loved nothing more than his agony.

 

The Stranger knew what he was doing would disturb his captive and it pleased him.  He wished to be in the kid’s head and hear the screams.  He admired his protégé’s ability to keep him from knowing his thoughts and he saw what he wanted his student to learn.  The kid could keep it in.  Now he needed to make it go cold.  He knew that was where the power bloomed, in the dark, in the cold, and in the hate. The Stranger was repulsed by the kid’ emotions, all but the rage and devotion.  But he wanted the rage and devotion to be hidden, not exposed.  Exposure made you weak.  It made you vulnerable.  The kid had to learn this.  He had to learn to let it harden.  He had to learn to NEVER let the opponent know the secrets inside.

 

Joe’s head was gone, back to the cellar and the lashes, feeling the whip as he felt the touch.  He grabbed tighter to the beam forcing the splinters to distract, forcing his pain to be real. “I can make it.  Oh, God!  I can do it!”  He continued his thoughts and told himself his plan,  “Easy Joe, easy.  Get the rope around the horse’s head.  Just get the rope on him.  Be calm and hang on.  Lure him in.  Don’t move and let him settle down.  Easy.”

 

The Stranger only stopped his torment of Joe once he received no more reaction.  He was impressed the kid could not respond and felt he had just passed his first lesson.  He saw that the kid could let him lead and in the kid’s submission the Stranger grew in power.  “Well now Pretty Boy, you ready to learn?”

 

A key was produced to the handcuffs but Joe did not see it.  He felt the man moving behind him and then his wrist become freed. Again the same feeling and Joe’s arms dropped like lead.  The Stranger had not spoken as he worked, but Joe knew not to move.  He stood perfectly still as he felt the blood moving through his arms.  He wanted to shake them but instead put his hands in fists and clenched them tight.  He waited for the next instruction.

 

“Move over to the post and sit.  No other movement will be tolerated.  Do you understand?”

 

“Yes… sir.”  Joe had almost forgotten the title for the demon.

 

“Ah, almost got yourself smacked.  You’re learning. Now move.”

 

Joe did as instructed.  He looked down the corridor, which would lead him to freedom.  He made himself look away.  The corridor was torture to focus on.  It made him too hopeful, too willing to escape.  It symbolized his desire to give in and die.  He had to finish the dance.  He had to allow the last song to be played and for the band to pack up and leave.  He was now totally bonded to this man and the future between them.  He had to watch the life leave the man’s body. He had to see the vengeance doled out.  Either way the dance ended he had to know.  Would this man pay for the deaths of the truly good?  Would he pay for their lives and for his own?  Would he get to pay the man for killing everyone he loved?

 

Joe walked slowly, his body sluggish from having stood still.  It hurt to move and he was hoping to allow his body some recovery from the grueling hours he had endured standing before he had to move.  The Stranger grew displeased at the pace and shoved Joe hard.  Not expecting the attack, Joe pitched forward and fell. The Stranger was immediately upon him dragging him by the arm. “I swear you’re an idiot.  Can’t even walk without falling.  Why do I put up with you?  I really should kill you and be done with it.  You need to thank me for tolerating you.”

 

The man dragged Joe to the post and threw him against it.  Joe scampered and sat up, not wanting to be unprotected.  He looked up just in time to feel the slap and bit hard on his lip.  He made himself look the Stranger once more in the eye, knowing he had done something to anger the demon.

 

“Thank me for not killing you!”

 

“Thank you, sir.”  Came the quiet voice.

 

“Much better.  I guess you just need the pain to keep you awake, huh?  Bet you’re tired aren’t you, Pretty Boy?”

 

“Yes sir.”

 

The Stranger smiled and patted Joe’s cheek hard. “That’s my boy.”  The man went about restraining Joe once more by cuffing his hands behind him around the post, and immediately retied his feet.  Joe noticed he had stopped reacting to the man’s manipulations of him.  He felt as if he was no longer in his body rather he was simply watching the events as a spectator.  It allowed him to let the man touch him without pulling away so his mind did what it had to do to survive.

 

The Stranger sat directly across from Joe as he studied his student.  He held a wicked grin as the dance had entered his most desired steps.  It was time to impart his wisdom. It was time to create his son.  “Now, Pretty Boy you will keep your eyes on me- only on me.  You will listen and you will learn.  You will say nothing but will answer when you are told to.  You will be asked questions so you’d better be paying attention.  This is your classroom, Pretty Boy.  This is where you find greatness. This is where you take that hatred you have for me and you use it.  You channel it and you grow strong. You have been too weak.  You have been a waste until now.  You had miserable pathetic teachers who probably went on and on about that ‘do unto others’ drivel.  Well you will do unto others.  You will watch them submit and you will watch them die.  Every death gives more power, every death makes you better.  You are better than most, Pretty Boy.  Better than the excuse you have for a family…” The Stranger began a diatribe on the evils of weakness and vulnerability.  Joe could do nothing but sit and listen as hours passed and the verbal assault grew endless.  Finally a question.  “Tell me, Pretty Boy. Tell me how you feel about the Cartwrights?  Tell me true.”

 

Joe’s thought’s rushed quickly.  What should he say?  He had to be convincing.  He had to make it believable.  “Move to the horse, Joe. Keep your hand out and let him smell you.” He looked to the Stranger his voice very soft. “They’re dead.  It don’t matter no more how I feel.”

 

A Slap.  “Answer me!  How do you feel about them?  What you said was no answer!”

 

Joe’s head ached from the assault he took, but knew he had to go slow, not try too much too quickly.  “They raised me. I owe ’em.  They were not all bad.”

 

Joe’s response intrigued the Stranger.  “Owe them?  What I saw at your house was more than obligation. What do you mean, Pretty Boy?”

 

“You do what you gotta for blood.  You don’t give ’em up.  You stick with ’em ’cause they raised you.”  Joe watched as the Stranger studied him.  He wanted to know if the demon read minds.  Did this devil truly know his heart?

 

“Sounds to me like all was not peaceful in paradise.  I saw you jaw off on your brother in town.  That’s the brother you’d die for.  Just don’t get it, Pretty Boy.  You sounded mad and yet you go through what I did to you for him.  For HIM?  You hate him, huh?  You do don’t you?”

 

Joe watched the man’s fervor in him believing his own interpretation.  Joe knew it was much more complicated.  But to respond to the madness he had to think.  Adam?  How to describe Adam.  “I do what I feel is worthy. No more no less.”  Joe feared looking at the Stranger as he spoke.

 

“Worthy to who?”  The Stranger could not help but ask.

 

“To me.”  Joe watched the reaction.  Was he taming the animal or was he going to be bit?  “I don’t know what they do for me, but I know what I do for them.  I do it cause I know it is part of the bond… uh, part of the agreement at birth.”

 

“So why Pretty Boy?  Why die for him?”

 

Joe again paused as he thought – the answer?  What would be the answer?  “Not for him, for me.  I did it for me. I did it ’cause it was me bein’ questioned.  You wanted my loyalty.  No, you got it wrong if you think I got it in me to protect him. He don’t care ’bout me.  He is a self-righteous son of a bitch who don’t care ’bout what I did. You know I asked him after.  After you… uh… after all of it, why.  He says to me there’s no answer to none of it.  That’s him, though.  Give a nuthin’ answer. I tried to die for him.”

 

The Stranger looked to Joe and doubted.  This kid so willing to die for family now turning on them? No, it did not make sense.  “You’re lying Pretty Boy!  You think me a fool! You lie to me!  How dare you!”  The Stranger pounced on him. The anger out of wanting to believe and feeling he was being conned welling within the Stranger as he grabbed hold of Joe around the neck, shaking with rage as he screamed, “You think me a fool, Pretty Boy?  You think I’m stupid?  You’re lying to me!  You’re lying!  Admit it!”

 

The fierceness of the attack was alarming, as Joe could do nothing to defend himself.  The Stranger’s face was within inches of his own, spitting the words at him.  The Stranger was hitting Joe’s head back against the post and with every painful blow came the words, “LIAR!”

 

Joe did not know where the words came from within him.  He had to stop the man or he knew he would soon be dead.  “Think its Pa… oh God!  Fight him, Joe!”  Joe releases the words through gasps,  “I ain’t… lyin’ Pa… I swear!”

 

The Stranger immediately stopped.  The grandiosity within him grew as he heard what he wanted to hear.  He was winning.  He was creating his child in his image.  “Say it again, Pretty Boy.”

 

The demand was met as Joe coughed and tried to regain his senses, “I ain’t lyin’ Pa.  I swear.”

 

The Stranger stood over Joe, a grin on his face.  “That’s my boy.  You can learn.  You will be rewarded.  I bet you’re hungry and could use a drink about now.”

 

Joe wanted to smile, but resisted the urge.  “How’s that halter feelin’, you son of a bitch?”  He knew not to get overly confident.  The Stranger was very smart.  He prayed the man’s madness would cloud his thinking.  The mention of food brought back the realization he had not eaten in days.  He was beyond thirst, as his fear and rage had kept him so occupied. His throat was so sore and his voice raspy from the choking, but he realized it was from thirst as well.  “Yes sir.”  Came the response.

 

 

The Stranger moved over to his supplies and produced a bottle of whiskey.  As Joe watched he grew nervous.  He knew he would have to drink, but he needed to stay alert.  The stakes were too high.  He had to stay one step ahead.

 

The Stranger returned and sat across from Joe.  “Ask me for a drink.”

 

“Can I have a drink, sir?”  Joe inwardly cringed at having to ask for what he knew would make him at such a disadvantage.

 

“Beg me for it.”  The Stranger continued his wicked grin.

 

Please. I uh… I need a drink, sir.  Please can I have one?”

 

“Pretty weak, Pretty Boy.  You better work on it a bit.”

 

Joe longed to tell the demon his thoughts as he was forced to grovel.  He made himself do it in order to live.  He knew he had to have some liquid or he would die.  His focus on survival, he said,  “Sir, I gotta have it.  Will you please help me? You’re the only one who can.”

 

The Stranger removed the cork with his teeth and moved to Joe.  He knelt next to his captive and held the bottle to Joe’s mouth, upturned it quickly, pouring the liquid down Joe’s throat.  Joe gagged and tried swallowing as fast as he could, but he knew the Stranger was enjoying his discomfort so it would continue.

 

The Stranger stopped his assault to take a drink himself. “Fathers and sons should spend time this way, don’t you think?”

 

Joe was able to catch his breath as he was given a reprieve.  He was coughing and choking as the alcohol burned in his stomach. “Yes sir.”  He gasped.  He watched the man drink from the bottle and fantasized smashing the bottle in his face.  He felt comfort at knowing his thoughts were his own and what he could not do in real life he did in his head.

 

“Oh and I know you’re hungry, aren’t you, Pretty Boy?”

 

The response was, yes sir, as the thought was, “Oh this I just can’t wait for.  I can only imagine what loving treat you have brought me, father.”

 

The Stranger once again was in his supplies and then back to Joe.  Joe looked at the man’s hand and held back a groan.  Joe looked to the Stranger’s eyes, knowing once more that this demon was taking such pleasure in his reactions.  “Still hungry, Pretty Boy?”

 

“No sir.”  Joe replied looking at the mashed concoction, knowing there was a good chance he would be ill if he ate it.

 

“Yes you are, Pretty Boy.   You’re still hungry.”  The Stranger did not pause as he began feeding Joe the food he had brought.

 

Joe held down his revulsion as he focused on winning.  “I can take what you have got to give.  It won’t kill me.  I can do it.  It’s just Hop Sing’s rice pudding.  Just think of that.”  Joe allowed his mind to take him to being in the great room at home, lying on the couch and trying to heal from this monster’s last attack.  He was there with Adam and they were just talking.  He thought of the time and how Hop Sing had fussed about the cinnamon and almost smiled.  The thoughts of family, so cherished, so much a part of him stayed in his head.  He would make the man pay.  He would shove each death down the man’s throat.

 

The Stranger remained impressed as his son showed little reaction.  Was his son growing cold?  Was it working as he had planned?  He knew there were more lessons, so many more.  He wanted back to the teaching as he soon tired of feeding.

 

Once more the verbal barrage continued. Joe sat unable to do anything but listen, as the alcohol took hold and he fought sleep.  “Will you shut up!”  He thought over and over trying to make rage take over the draw to pass out.

 

The Stranger spoke endlessly of his beliefs and his desires for Joe as his son.  The words blended together as Joe half listened.  He felt lightheaded and nauseous, as he could not hold the rage through his deep tired. He fought to focus, but was losing the battle as sleep pulled him to give in.  His head nodded forward and for a moment there was quiet and peace.

 

Pain.  A hit to the head. The screaming.  Such screaming.  Joe woke to the Stranger’s slaps and screams, instantly alert.  He had no idea he had drifted off as the Stranger’s unrelenting reprimand brought him fully around. Returning to his senses, Joe knew he had to get the Stranger off of him.  He called out, “I’m sorry, sir!  I’m so sorry!  I’m so stupid and weak. I didn’t mean to do it!”

 

The Stranger continued to hit and slap, all the while chastising his protégé, the injury to the man’s ego, enormous.  “How dare you!  How dare you!  You don’t think what I have to tell you is important!  You waste of life!”

 

“I’m sorry, sir!  I won’t do it again!”  Joe cowered away, trying to protect himself as best he could from the Stranger’s wrath.

 

The hitting stopped as the demon once more gathered himself.  “You listen here you stupid idiot.  You do that again Pretty Boy, and I’ll kill you!  You listening boy?”

 

Joe noticed the Stranger was beginning to unravel.  He realized that just as he was being deprived of sleep, so was the Stranger.  It made the dance much more frenzied and probably a lot more dangerous, but Joe prayed it could give him an advantage.  “Yes sir.  I’m listening.  It won’t happen again.”

 

“See that it doesn’t.  Now where was I?  Your fear…” As the Stranger began speaking to Joe of fear he produced Joe’s pistol and sat unloading the weapon.  Joe watched and counted, five bullets removed.  The Stranger spun the chamber and then pointed it at Joe. “What you think Pretty Boy?  You trust me?  Do you trust me with your miserable life?”

 

Joe’s heart raced.  He had no way of knowing where the bullet was in the chamber. “Yes, sir.” Came the words and Joe held tight to the post behind him, knowing the gun would be fired.  He prayed if he were hit, it would take him instantly to his family.

 

Click. A laugh. Another spin. The Stranger never took his eyes from Joe as he tormented and tortured.  He continued the lecture as Joe’s head left to another time, another place of terror, but where there was comfort so lovingly given. He was in the loft, his brothers so near.  They wanted to help him rid himself of the Stranger.  He needed them so much to help him now.  He longed to have Adam talking him through the fear and Hoss’, his fearless protector, watching over him, willing to shoot dead this devil.  He tried to bring back the words of comfort he had heard, but they were distant and all he could bring forth were the faces of the ones he loved tied to chairs in the dining room.  The clicking continued as he sorted through images.  “Where are you Adam?  Talk to me please!  Hoss, please Hoss, kill him.  Please make it go away.”

 

The Stranger studied his charge. The kid did not move as the gun was aimed and fired over and over.  The kid was doing it.  He was becoming cold.  Nothing was touching him.   Joe had no way of knowing, but the horse had taken the bit.

 

*****

 

The search for their loved one was proving to be its own form of torture.  The trail was rough, as the Stranger had deliberately led the trail through the most arduous paths.  Ben’s mind assaulted him with images of his youngest child being harmed.  His mind could not leave the doctor’s office those weeks ago when he had to come so close to watching his child leave him forever.  He drove the others hard, wanting to feel his son back in his arms, away from evil.

 

No one spoke of their fear as they traveled.  On his way out of the ranch house, Adam had grabbed the gun he had seen his little brother fire in such frenzy.  He understood the rage in Joe so much more after witnessing the brutality of his brother’s captor.  Adam’s hand went often to the gun he carried in his waistband.  His thought repetitive, “Joe, you need this.  I’m bringing it for you.  Hang on, Joe.  Hang on.”

 

Hoss found signs where others would see only dirt or rocks. He focused all his thoughts on tracking and proved to be amazing as he worked.  The men realized by the direction they traveled that they were headed to Reno.  But to simply move to the town was too much of a risk.  The Stranger could be leading them towards that destination in hopes they would make an assumption and then change direction and head somewhere else with his hostage. However, the trail eventually did end in Reno, all signs then gone as traffic and time removed the lifeline to Joe.

 

Upon entering the town, Roy went immediately to the sheriff, as Ben, Hoss and Adam tried to form some type of plan.  No one wanted to voice how difficult it was going to be to find anything to help with the rescue.  Adam was the first to speak,  “We have to think like this man. It’s the only chance we have to get to Joe.  Where would he take Joe?”

 

Ben’s replay of his son’s abduction brought forth an idea.  The man loved games.  He loved hurting with his games.  A game?  Where would he take Joseph?  Reno made sense given the last time the man had his son.  “Hoss!  Take us to that cellar.  Take us to where you found Joe before.”

 

The three were to the saloon in seconds, running to the back and down the stairs.  They had not thought of a lantern as they ran, but Adam was quickly up and grabbing one, descending the stairs once more.  The cellar was dark and damp. The noises above muffled.  They frantically searched but it was soon painfully evident, Joe was not there.  In the spot Hoss had found his little brother hanging, was a paper on the floor.  Ben moved to it, and as he looked he saw a lock of hair.  There was writing on the paper.  He knelt down not wanting to disturb anything, as he knew whose hair was on the paper.  He picked up the hair and held it tight, closed his eye and said a quick prayer, as he feared the words he would read.

 

Ben Cartwright,

I like the way you think, but you find me that predictable?

Oh no, not that easy for you, I’m afraid. 

No, my son is still screaming for you.

Do you hear him screaming, Ben? 

 

Ben moaned at the words he read.  Joseph’s screams echoing in his own head.  This demon knew that was what he was hearing over and over as the time passed and Joe remained lost to him.  He could not move from where he knelt as he clutched his son’s hair to his chest.  Joe needed him desperately.

 

Adam and Hoss moved to their father, and as each read the words, each recalled such pain.  The three stood frozen in place as the unbelievable was occurring.  The silence was broken, as Ben’s fear cut through and he began to weep. The helplessness of having his son harmed by this man, knowing it was happening and being unable to do anything to stop it stripped him of his every defense.  He moaned repeatedly, “Joseph!”

 

Adam and Hoss were left to hear their father’s agony and feel their own.  Adam’s guilt struck him like blows as he heard his father call out.  He knew he was responsible for this torture as well, “If only I’d thought!  Damn it!”  He squeezed his father’s shoulder as he felt them shake from sobs.  “Pa, I’m so sorry.”  He said aloud, knowing it offered no comfort.

 

Ben eventually pulled himself together and stood.  He held fast to the lock of hair, as he believed it might have to sustain him when there was no more hope.  When Joseph was pronounced dead.  It might be his final remembrance of his youngest.  The three left the cellar, their pace showing their dejection.  Their thoughts asking but one question, “Now what?”  They would be left to follow shadows as the Stranger’s choreography played on.

 

*****

 

The words made no sense as the Stranger spoke.  Joe was beyond words as his body was so tired.  He sat reviewing his life, thinking of his mother and his love of her, thinking of her death and his pain, thinking of his boyhood and how much he had been able to live and grow in such love.  He thought of his family, each member and how special each were to him.  He spoke to his family in his mind, telling them the words he wished he had spoken aloud, but embarrassment or pride had held him back.

 

With each name came memories and words.  The thoughts came.  “Mama, I love you so much.  You’ve helped me through many problems by just being in my head.  I think I would a givin’ you fits growin’ up, but I wanted you there so many times.  You’re my first love, you know.  I guess it’s how it is with boys.  I’ll see you again, Mama. I know it. And you’ll tell me all ‘bout you.  You know ‘bout me cause I know you watch me.  I feel it.”

 

It was then to his father that Joe allowed his thoughts to travel.  “Pa, you’re my hero.  I guess you know it.  You’re the strongest man I know.  You made me so much of what I am and I want you to be proud of me.  I always wanted that.  You’ve guided me and when I made some mistakes, even whopper of ones, you helped me through ‘em.  Pa, I think you taught me what it is to be a man.  You’ll never know how afraid I’ve been to grow up.  I’ve made it look like I wanted it more than anythin’ but it scared me, ‘cause then I’d have to try an’ be you.  You’ve taught me lots Pa.  Lots.”

 

To Adam his thoughts moved.  “Older brother, you an’ me.  We don’t know what we’re doin’ with each other, do we?  I missed you when you left.  I think I’m mad at you for goin’ away.  Why couldn’t you stay and the ranch be enough?  Mama left, then you.  Why’d ya go?  I kinda like fighting’ with you cause it makes me know you care.  I know you don’t argue ‘less you care, so maybe I sometimes pick fights to see if you’re still there.  Adam, you ain’t to blame for this, none of it. I think it’s an honor to die for a brother and I’d do it again.  I’d do it for you.  I wish you knew it was okay.  Don’t worry Adam, stop bein’ so serious a second and just smile.  I think I’d love to make you laugh ‘bout now.  I do love you.”

 

“Hoss, you’re my best friend, you know that?  You’ve been there for so much.  I always know I have you to back me up.  I remember so many times, you an’ me playin’ or gettin’ in trouble.  Well more like me gettin’ you in trouble.  Do you know how smart I think you are?  How smart in the real life stuff that matters?  I saw lots a times you bein’ told you ain’t smart, but you taught me more ‘bout animals and survivin’ and makin’ do.  You gotta know Hoss.  You take good care a me. I know it.”

 

Joe’s thoughts returned to his current situation.  This vile and disgusting man wanted a son.  Wanted him to be that son.  There was nothing that would make Joe stop being a Cartwright.  Nothing.  This demon wanted evil; wanted him to move to the dark.  He knew the dark was in him, it had permeated every thought of vengeance.  He knew there was a bond, a connection to this devil, but to be his son?  No, he could never submit to that.  He was no one’s son now.  He would be Ben Cartwright’s or no man’s. Joe longed for the time when he would have his revenge.  He would draw it out and savor it as a fine wine.  This man would see all the cold in him, as he would reveal it in rage.  He would show the man how deep the hate lived.

 

The Stranger talked of training.  Of needing to know the art of the kill.  Joe perked up and listened as he wondered, “Tell me how to kill you, you bastard.”

 

The Stranger told of his thinking and Joe paid close attention.  “You kill them in a manner most fitting the opponent.  You do as they would least care for.  If the man hates water, you kill him in it.  If he fears the sword, you run him through.  If it is fire, then he burns.  You find the thing that they would not do even to an adversary because of their own fear, and you do it.  As your gift emerges, you will learn to know his terror and you will make him look at it.  With you Pretty Boy it is being marked you feared.  I knew this and I marked you.  You went on after the marking.  You didn’t let my marking make you weak.  You fought your own fears and you overcame your marking.  It is that strength that I saw Pretty Boy.  It made me know you were worthy of me.  You truly care of nothing, even though it appears you do.”

 

Joe listened attentively as he thought about what he was being told.  Find the weakness and use it.  But he knew of no weakness in this man.  He knew only of hurt and pain and power.  “I want you dead, you son of a bitch.” Joe thought as he studied his teacher.  “I want nothing more than seeing you gasp and beg and die.  You’re a demon and I don’t know if demons really die, but I want the chance to find out.  I want to know if you’re human.  I want to feel your neck snap under my hands.”

 

There was something the Stranger was waiting for.  Something he hoped had happened.  He would have to leave his student, but not before he knew his son loved him.  Not before he knew there was devotion. Then he would bring his surprise to his child – the child from him and woman in the picture, his Madonna.   “I will uncuff you and will sit there and not move.”

 

Joe looked at the man, knowing again that he was being tested, knowing he had to allow the lead to go to the Stranger. He felt the cuffs give way once more and waited to move. He appeared under the man’s total control and the Stranger reveled in it.  The Stranger grinned as he saw his son had indeed learned. His son loved him.  “Show me your love Pretty Boy.  Tell me what I mean to you.”

 

Joe knew he could not see the man as he was and praise him.  “Talk to Pa.  It’s Pa you are tellin’ it to.”  Joe cleared his throat and spoke.  “You made me strong.  You’ve shown me the right way. I was lost ‘til you found me.  You’ll make me strong.”

 

The Stranger smiled.  He was pleased.  “Take the gun, Pretty Boy.  Take it and hold it to your head.  Tell me you’ll die for me.  Tell me true.”

 

Joe did as instructed, holding his own gun to his head. He had no idea where the bullet was, but either way he gained power.  He looked into the Stranger’s eyes as he pulled the trigger.  Click.  No death. Only a laugh to greet him.  “You love me Pretty Boy!  You love me so much!”

 

Joe wanted to laugh himself. The saddle was cinched and soon it would be time to ride. He held the gun but it did not register until too late what he could do with the weapon.  It felt almost unreal to hold, as if it were all a dream. Soon he gave it back, but as it left his grasp he realized a lost opportunity.  He was tired, cold and hungry and giving the gun back made him realize his thinking was dulled. He could have turned and used the weapon. “Come on, Joe.  Think! You gotta look for that opportunity.  You gotta get him.”

 

The Stranger immediately moved back and cuffed Joe to the post once more.  He knelt a moment and caressed Joe’s cheek before speaking.  Joe held very still, knowing to pull away would undo all of the work he had done in taming the wild horse.  The man kept very close as he watched Joe’s eyes.  He smiled a wicked grin. “I am going out for a while Pretty Boy.  I am going to bring you a surprise.  Now your job is to stay awake.  If I return and you are sleeping you will be severely punished.  I will have to make you hurt. Remember the whip, son.  It will be used again.”  With that, the Stranger leaned in and kissed Joe on the forehead.

 

The Stranger patted Joe once more and walked away, carrying the lantern off into the darkness of the tunnel.  The sound of whistling echoed through the walls as the demon moved away. Soon it was dark and quiet and Joe was left with only his thoughts.  He tried to think of anything to fight the draw to sleep.  His mouth was so dry and as his mind went to the familiar, a ride around the Ponderosa and Lake Tahoe he had to stop the thoughts.  He felt as if he could drink the whole lake.  He tried to make himself swallow, but it was so hard as his throat felt like a razorblade and there was no spare moisture to relieve the suffering.

 

His thought then turned to the big house.  He knew every inch of the place. He walked across the great room, up the stairs and to his safest place. He went to his room in his mind.  He felt a peace overcome him as he walked through his possessions, recalling where each picture hung, where each dent was in the walls.  He could see it so clearly as he moved into a dream state.  He saw his bed calling him, the big fluffy down comforter, the soft pillow.  Joe moved to it in his head and was soon fast asleep.

 

*****

 

It had been three days since the man had stolen his son and Ben could not help viewing every hour passing as an hour closer to his son’s death. He would not allow himself to believe Joe was already dead.  It would be too much pain.  He had to believe that although he knew Joe would possibly be severely injured, Joe had held on before and would do it again.  He knew his youngest so well and his primary fear was his son’s rage.  He knew Joe had an enormous amount of anger in him – some of it Ben more than understood – some of it he did not.  He feared Joe would not be able to quell the rage and it would get him killed.  Not more than a few moments would pass before Ben was once more praying for his son to be delivered once more to him.

 

The Cartwrights had functioned on very little sleep or food.  The Sheriff of Reno and Roy had formed search parties and the town was being combed for any sign of Joe.  The men had taken time to have a sketch made of the Stranger so as to have those searching for Joe know what his captor looked like as well.  As the composite was drawn of his son, Ben had to excuse himself.  As he saw the image come alive on paper, his heart ached.  He had to have his boy back.

 

The three Cartwrights had decided to split up to cover more area.  The strength they gained working together was powerful, but the need to quicken the search overwhelmed them.  Their instincts said Joe was near.  The demon wanted to play and was probably watching as they frantically looked.  Each man hoped he would be the one to find the villain and dole out his own justice.

 

Adam had been assigned to go door to door through the shops near the saloon where Joe had been initially held.  He had meant to make it to Reno before Joe had been taken, but he had placed Joe’s recovery as his highest priority and had not wanted to leave his little brother until he was sure Joe was stable.  He severely reprimanded himself for not going after the man once he had known of his existence.  He would forever live with the knowledge of what he had done to his brother and his family.  It made it an almost impossible burden to carry.

 

As Adam walked into a mercantile, he did not realize he was being watched.  He was focused on the questions to ask in order to jog someone’s memory.  He hoped that there was some clue, some shred of information someone held that would give him some hope.  At each place had been the same story.  No one had seen anything, but they all promised they would keep their eyes open.

 

*****

 

He saw the one he wanted and could not contain his pleasure.  His smile transformed into a grin as he fantasized the next steps to be danced by his son.  This was almost more than he could ask for as he crossed the street and moved into place.  It would be as it was at the kid’s home, three drops and then nighty night.  Oh why didn’t they make this at least a little bit of a challenge?  Were they all that stupid?

 

Adam had no idea what happened as he exited the store, turned to move down the sidewalk and was grabbed from behind.  He struggled, but the advantage went to the Stranger and soon Adam was in a heap on the ground.

 

From town to the mine was some distance to travel with his latest victim, and he had to move through back alleys and stay in the shadows.  He walked Adam, so that if anyone were suspicious it would appear as if Adam had over indulged in alcohol and he was simply a friend assisting a fallen colleague home.

 

Once to the horses on the outskirts, he threw Adam over the saddle as he had done the younger one and was off to the classroom.  As he rode he talked aloud. “Pretty Boy, you will be so shocked, yes you will.  I have brought you a great gift.  You will become my son this day. You will cross over to greatness and we shall be forever connected.  This will be your destiny!”

 

They reached the mine and the Stranger dragged and carried Adam to the depths below. The travel was slow, as Adam was a more formidable size than his younger brother.  The Stranger played out the scenario in his thoughts. He saw the dance come alive and the musical score crescendo once more.  He was lost to the steps when he felt his hostage stir.  He threw the body on the ground.  “Perfect!  You met your mark just perfect.  Wake up, Socrates.  I’ve decided you shall make an entrance.  You need to see Pretty Boy’s reaction to you.  A sweet, touching family reunion awaits you.  WAKE UP!”

 

Adam stirred to screams and maniacal laughter.  There was a familiar ill feeling as the sedation remained in his blood.  He was confused and disoriented as he felt the kicks.  His face was in dirt and as he tried to move his hands to him, he realized he was restrained.  Again he heard more shouting, as he gained lucidity.  “Wake up, Socrates!  Wake up, no more sleepy time for you!  You must be ready to meet your executioner.  WAKE UP!”

 

Adam lifted his head and took in the sight of the demon.  He was momentarily thrown as he wondered if he were not having a nightmare.  All too quickly he knew what had happened.  He was in the lair of the demon.  He felt himself pulled to his feet and shoved forward.  The sedative kept him groggy with a throbbing headache, as he stumbled through the shaft.  He prayed as he walked he was taken to Joe and not to a corpse.

 

The room lit slowly, as the Stranger and Adam entered.  Against a post, in the center of the room, was a body slumped over.  The only clothing, torn ragged jeans.  The body covered in dirt and grime was not moving.  “Wrong way to be Pretty Boy!”  The Stranger growled.  The body did not move.

 

The Stranger quickly shoved Adam into the room as Adam desperately tried to see if Joe was alive. He feared the worst, as his brother remained unmoving.  The Stranger held a gun and pointed it to Joe.  “If you move, he’s shot.  You understand?”

 

There was hope as Adam heard this. At least when the man left Joe, his brother was alive. Adam was uncuffed and then told to reach up.  He did as instructed, keeping his eye on Joe trying to see if he were alive.  The stranger cuffed Adam where he had formerly held his brother and then went immediately to Joe.

 

The screaming filled the room as the Stranger let loose kicking and hitting.  The cursing was intense as Joe returned to the room.  There was no way to protect himself other than to try and curl up to avoid the painful blows.  He prayed the Stranger would soon calm as he said over and over “I’m sorry, Pa.  I’m sorry.”

 

“NO!  You’re not sorry.  What did I tell you!  What did I say!  You were not to sleep!  No sleep!  You weakling!  What did I tell you I’d do!  WHAT?”

 

“Oh no! Please, No!”  Joe begged in his head.  He gathered all of his resolve and said in a steady, flat voice, “You said you would whip me, Pa.”

 

“Damn right I said I would, Pretty Boy!  You least remembered that part! Why won’t you do as you’re told!”  The Stranger was slapping Joe as he spoke.

 

“’Cause I got weak, sir.  I want to be strong like you.  Help me be strong, sir. Please.”  Joe’s voice was raspy and very soft as he spoke.  He hoped his words would move him away from being whipped.

 

“Pretty Boy, you ruined your surprise by disobedience!  Do you know how angry that makes me!  Do you know you ruined my planning!”

 

Joe was becoming extremely fearful.  Had he lost the edge he had held?  Did he have to go back and re-lasso the horse?  He could not start all over again.  It was too much.  How could he calm the demon?  “You brought me a surprise, sir?”

 

The question brought the Stranger back to the dance. He held Joe’s head by his hair as he moved aside and Joe caught full view of his gift.  He was dreaming.  He had to be dreaming.  Adam was dead.  He was dead!  But there he was.  Joe wanted to cry out. His first instinct to get to his brother and feel if he were real. But no, he had to keep going.  Adam may not even really be there.  He did not trust his mind to think clearly, as he sat and stared at the man in front of him.

 

Adam had heard his brother’s attempts to speak and stood helpless, as he had to witness the treatment.  He feared saying anything afraid he would increase the man’s wrath and place Joe’s life in further danger.  He heard Joe call this man, Pa.  The revulsion grew.  He saw Joe’s face turned to him, but his brother was looking through him.  Adam’s heart broke. His little brother’s appearance was scary.  His face was covered in dirt and blood, and it was obvious he had been beaten.  Joe looked more like an animal than human, as he stared blankly.

 

“Are you pleased Pretty Boy?  Do you like it?”  The Stranger was surprised at the lack of emotion in his student.  He was surprised, but very pleased.

 

Was this really happening?  Was it real?  Joe held tight to the post, unsure if he was losing his mind.  “Yes sir.  Thank you, sir.”

 

The Stranger moved to Adam and laughed.  “You see.  I’ve created my son.  You like him?  I’m quite pleased.  Pretty Boy?  Do you love me?”

 

“Yes sir.”

 

“Do you really love me?” The Stranger felt the power.

 

“Yes Pa, I really love you.”

 

“Let’s show Socrates here how much you love me, shall we?”  The Stranger once more moved to Joe.  He undid a cuff and gave the command, “Pretty Boy, lay your arm out on the ground. Place your palm up.”

 

Joe knew he was now ready to sit the bucking horse.  He thought, “Brace yourself.”  Joe’s soft raspy voice said, “Yes sir.”

 

The Stranger stood up and looked at Joe.  He screamed, “You love me!”  As he stomped down on Joe’s wrist.

 

White-hot pain shot through Joe’s arm as Adam heard the crack.  Joe did not move as he fought passing out. He wanted to scream, but the words stayed only in his head.  It was surreal as he tried to ride it through and did not move for fear he would receive more pain.  His mind rushed with all the hurt of the past and present.  He was close to madness.

 

Adam was paralyzed in his own shock. He had watched as his little brother had taken the assault and never moved.  He wanted to cry out as he saw the Stranger kiss Joe on the forehead and then move Joe’s arm back into the cuffs.  This was vile and evil. Adam could imagine nothing more horrid as seeing what he had.  The snap of the bone echoed in his head.  He feared the worst as he watched Joe.  He saw his brother’s eyes transfixed on the evil man, thanking him for hurting him.  “Joe!  No!  You can’t be gone!”  Adam screamed in his mind.  He fought back tears as he saw Joe’s only focus being on the devil.

 

“Now boys,” The Stranger began. “I need to go get a few things.  I will leave you alone to reunite.  I’m sure you have lots to talk about. Oh Pretty Boy, before I go.  You thirsty?”

 

“Yes sir.” Came the flat response, as Joe now longed for the whiskey to manage the pain.

 

“Yeah, I bet so.  You’ve been without for quite a while.  Here.  You reach it, you can have it.”  The Stranger placed the whiskey bottle just outside Joe’s grasp.  Another game, Joe realized.  The man never stopped.