Tangled Loyalties (by Rona)

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Summary:  Helping out at a friend’s horse ranch, Joe becomes entangled in a nasty rivalry, which could cost him his life.

Rated:  T    (9,190 words)

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

 

 

Tangled Loyalties

“I swear, Charlie, you are going to get me killed one of these days,” Joe Cartwright laughed. He nudged Charlotte, who laughed, too.

“What have I done?” she asked, in an innocent tone that fooled Joe not at all. He and Charlotte, Charlie as she preferred to be called, had been friends from childhood. Charlie’s father was an old friend of Ben’s. They had met while traveling by covered wagon to the West, and had remained close ever since.

“A nice little mare that you wanted to keep as a saddle pony,” Joe said, rolling his eyes. “That ‘nice little mare’ is the kind of chestnut mare that gives chestnut mares a bad name!”

“Oh, Joe,” Charlie said, giving him a playful shove. “You told me you liked challenging horses. So I gave you one.”

“Yeah, but you didn’t tell me that she had tossed the bronc buster so hard she broke his leg.” Joe gave Charlie a long look. “Are you sure you want to ride this horse?”

“Only once you’ve got her broken,” Charlie returned. They both laughed.

Coming across to the corral, Charlie’s father, Jack Dixon, watched the two of them together. For a few years, he had hoped that Charlie and Joe would make a match of it, but they were more like brother and sister. Jack’s wife, Charlotte, had died shortly after Charlie’s birth, and she had been a late child anyway, born long after they had given up hoping.  Jack worried about Charlie, and thought that Joe would have made her a great husband.

“Hey, young Cartwright!” he called. “I thought you came down here to work?”

“Sure thing, Uncle Jack,” Joe called back. “I’m just waiting for them to get the saddle on Charlie’s nice little mare.”

Climbing onto the rails beside them, Jack looked at Charlie. “Are you still set on riding that little hellion?” he asked.

“Oh, Papa, she’ll be fine,” Charlie scolded. “Joe will get her broken no problem, won’t you, Joe?”

“I didn’t ask him down here to kill himself,” Jack protested. “He came as a favor.”

“Ready,” shouted one of the hands, and Joe jumped down from the rails.

“You two carry on arguing,” he said, walking away. “I’ll break the mare.” He laughed.

Easing himself down onto the mare’s back, Joe could see why Charlie wanted her. She was elegant and dainty, with a pretty head. She had a blaze and four white socks. In fact, she reminded Joe of a feminine version of Sport, Adam’s horse.

Joe had come down to Jack’s ranch to help out with the horse breaking, as the bronc buster had a broken leg. Jack ran a good horse farm, although Joe knew that he’d been having some problems from a neighbor, who had also started up a breeding place not far away. He loved being with Charlie, who he thought of as a sister. They had fought fiercely all through their childhood, until they both hit their teens. Then, suddenly, they were virtually inseparable, and to see one was to see the other. But there wasn’t a spark of romance between them. Joe could touch Charlie almost as impersonally as he could his brothers, and they teased each other mercilessly.

Putting his mind firmly back on the job, Joe took a firm grip of the rope, and nodded. “Okay,” he said, quietly, and the men opened the chute.

The mare shot out of the chute like a cork from a bottle, and Joe went with her easily. She began to buck in earnest, her legs as stiff as they could be. Joe went with her, but he knew this was going to be quite a battle. This mare had managed to get rid of riders before, and that always made them harder to break. Joe could sense her tiring, and she stopped bucking, and began to race madly round the corral. The outriders closed in, but Joe wasn’t ready to give up. He snatched one leg out of harm’s way as the mare tried to drag him along the rails.

Sweat was pouring down Joe’s face, but he still hung on. The mare was sweating too, the rope pounding the sweat into a white lather along her shoulders. She was tiring rapidly. Joe was really too big to ride her for long. Suddenly, the mare stopped stock still. Joe sat her warily, not believing that she had given up. He was right. She reared, higher and higher. Joe threw his weight forward, and she crashed to the ground. For an instant, she was still, then she began to buck again. Joe went with her.

When the mare did capitulate a couple of minutes later, Joe could hardly see for the sweat running into his eyes. He slid carefully to the ground, and watched as the mare was led off by a wrangler. He wiped the sweat from his brow with a shaky hand, and turned to totter back to the rails.

“Joe, that was wonderful!” Charlie squealed, and threw herself into his arms, landing a kiss somewhere close to his right ear. Joe, caught by surprise, was almost bowled over by the petite girl’s enthusiasm.

“Told you I was wonderful,” he murmured, almost too tired to talk. He didn’t know how long he had been sitting on that horse, but it felt like hours. His body was wrenched every which way, and he desperately wanted a cool drink and a lie down. He forced himself to focus on her. “I’ll school her tomorrow, and the next day. Don’t try and ride her until I say you can. She’s pretty feisty.”

“I won’t, I promise,” Charlie said.

“That’s enough for today,” Jack said. “Joe, why don’t you go up to the house and get a bath and some clean clothes?”

“Sounds good to me, Uncle Jack,” Joe agreed, and hobbled off, leaving Charlie to exclaim over her horse.

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

As Joe worked on Jack’s horses over the next few days, he became aware that Charlie wasn’t always on the ranch. She came and went, without telling anyone where she was going. Joe was intrigued, but whenever he tried to talk to her about it, she would deny any knowledge of what he talking about. After a time, Joe realized that he was going about it the wrong way. He had been asking when Jack was in the room, and whatever Charlie was up to, she didn’t want Jack to know about it.

So, he waited until the next time she came down to the corral to see him school her mare. Joe was finally getting the horse going nicely, and thought that another week’s work and she would be fit for Charlie to ride.

As he turned the mare out into the corral, Joe smiled at Charlie. “So, are you gonna tell me what you’re up to?” he asked.

“I don’t know what you mean,” Charlie denied, blushing furiously.

“Don’t try to fool me,” Joe said. “I know you too well. You’re up to something, and I want to know what it is. Don’t tell me you’re trying to break broncs yourself? Or roping some horses?”

“No, Joe, I’m not up to anything,” Charlie repeated, but she couldn’t meet his eyes. Gently, Joe raised her chin, till she was looking at him.

“Try again,” he ordered. “I want to know.”

“Its Mark,” she capitulated, which meant absolutely nothing to Joe.

“Who’s Mark?” he asked.

“Mark Whittier, he’s the son of John Whittier, who owns the other horse breeding outfit round here.” Charlie ducked her head again, her tone defiant. “We’re seeing each other.”

“And Uncle Jack doesn’t know anything about it, does he?” Joe said, understandingly. “And you think he won’t approve.”

“Well, he won’t,” Charlie declared. “He and Mr. Whittier don’t get on at all; they’re always fighting. I met Mark at a dance, and I ride over to see him. We meet at Dead Horse Canyon.” She flashed a look at Joe. “Aren’t you going to tell me off?”

“I’m not your father, or your brother,” Joe replied. “But I do think you ought to let someone know where you’re going, just in case you have an accident. Sure, I think you ought to tell your father, but I can see why you haven’t.” Indeed, Joe knew from experience exactly what Charlie was going through. “It’s not easy being Juliet,” he said.

“Or Romeo,” Charlie said, relieved that she had finally told someone. “This is like what you went through with Amy Bishop, isn’t it?”

“Yes, it is,” Joe said, briefly, hoping that Charlie wouldn’t push it. He still found talking about Amy quite painful, despite the passage of a few years.

With a sigh, Charlie laid her head on Joe’s shoulder. He put his arm round her and gave her a squeeze. They didn’t need to say any more. Joe knew that any platitudes he might come up with wouldn’t help, and she knew that Joe would be her ally, if she needed him.

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

It seemed to Joe that now he knew where Charlie was going, she slipped away more often. He sometimes hoped she would introduce him to Mark Whittier, but she never asked him to go along, and Joe could see why. If she was serious about this young man, and he about her, the presence of another young man, neither brother nor cousin, would only complicate things.

There was enough going on without more complications. Jack had been having troubles with horse thieves. They were highly organized, and only tried to steal the best horses. So far, Jack’s men had held them off, but the thieves were becoming more daring, and they seemed to know exactly where to find the horses, even though they were moved regularly.

“It’s almost as though they were getting information,” Jack complained bitterly to Joe one evening after Charlie had gone to bed. “I wish I knew who was telling them. Most of my men have been here a long time, and it comes hard to distrust them. How do I fight this, Joe?”

“I don’t know,” Joe replied, honestly. “I’ll take my turn on watch with the others, Uncle Jack. You go and get a good night’s sleep. You’ll hear if anything happens.” The horses were stabled in the barn by the house.

“You do enough round here as it is, Joe,” Jack objected, but Joe had his way, and went out to stand guard.

It was dark and quiet, and Joe found it difficult to stay awake. He looked round at the positions the other men were in, and wondered if any of them were selling information. He didn’t know any of them well enough to make any kind of character judgment, but he was concerned for Jack’s sake. This kind of thing wasn’t only unpleasant, it was dangerous, too. Out here in the West, feuds could too easily lead to murder.

The night wore on, and Joe woke from a momentary doze, blinking to clear his vision. The moon had disappeared, obscured by clouds, and the wind was picking up. Joe shivered in his thin jacket. The men on watch would be relieved about 3 am, and Joe wished that it was already 3 am. The thought of a warm bed was extremely appealing.

The attack, when it came, seemed to come out of nowhere. One moment, there was silence, the next, the air was full of gunfire. Joe snatched up his rifle and fired back at muzzle-flash. He had no way of knowing if he had hit anyone or not. He heard the sound of running feet, and fired at the sound. A bullet splintered into the wall beside him, and Joe ducked.

A dark figure moved by the barn door, and Joe immediately fired at it. He was rewarded with a cry, and he jumped to his feet, and dashed towards the intruder. The man was on the ground, moaning and clutching his leg. Joe stopped beside him, and clicked the safety back on his rifle. He reached down, and yanked the bandanna from the man’s face. “Who are you?” Joe demanded. He had never seen him before.

There was the tiniest of sounds from behind him, and Joe half turned. He had the impression of something moving fast towards him, then it struck him on the head, and he crumpled to the ground, unconscious.

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

“Joe?” a voice said, and Joe wondered who it was. It didn’t sound like Pa or his brothers, yet who else would be calling to him? He struggled to open his eyes, which each seemed to have hundred ton weights on the lids. He finally managed, and Jack’s face swam in and out of focus. Joe’s head hurt, and he couldn’t think why.

“Uncle Jack?” he said, puzzled, and tried to move.

“Stay still,” admonished Jack, too late, for the pain had hammered Joe back to the ground. “You took quite a knock on the head there, boy. Just lie still. We’ll get you inside.”

Surrendering to the blackness, Joe was unaware of when he was moved, but he came to again a short while later, to find himself lying on the bed in his room, with Charlie bathing his head with cool water. “Charlie?” Joe muttered.

“Oh, Joe, thank goodness,” Charlie cried, and threw her arms round his neck. The sudden movement set off a terrible hammering in Joe’s head again, but he managed to stay conscious. However, he couldn’t hold back a wince of pain.

“What happened?” he asked, as Charlie let go of him contritely.

Quickly, Charlie filled him in, and Joe remembered. “I shot someone in the leg,” he said. “The slug must still be in there.” He wished his head would stop hurting. Even thinking hurt. He closed his eyes again.

The room door opened, and Joe opened his eyes and looked over. Jack came in, looking concerned, but finding a smile when he saw Joe awake and aware. “Joe. I’m glad to see you looking better,” he said, warmly. “You gave us quite a fright out there. How do you feel?”

“I’ll be all right,” Joe said, but he didn’t sound convincing, even to his own ears.

“The doctor will be here soon,” Jack assured him. He leant over to look at Joe more closely. “Hmm, it’s still bleeding a little,” he said, and Joe became aware for the first time that he had more than just a bump on the head.

It was only after the doctor had been, and bandaged Joe’s head, that Joe remembered to tell Jack about the man he’d shot. This was news to Jack, and he was able to catch Paul Martin to tell him about it. Paul would keep an eye out for someone shot in the leg, and tell the sheriff. He also promised to alert Ben about Joe’s injury, and assure him it wasn’t serious. “That’s one of the draw backs, and advantages, of being the only doctor in the district,” he joked. “You meet your patients everywhere!”

“Twenty miles from home,” Joe complained to Charlie, “and I still can’t get away from Doc Martin!”

“You could’ve been seriously hurt,” Charlie protested. “Joe, when we saw all that blood on your head, we thought you were dead.”

“I’m sorry,” Joe said. “I was just making a joke.” His eyes drifted shut again. The pain medicine Paul had given him was starting to work, and the headache was going away. He felt incredibly sleepy. He tried to say something else to Charlie, but sleep claimed him.

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

For the next couple of days, Joe spent a lot of time sleeping. He had a mild concussion, but he was soon up and around again. There had been no further raids on the ranch, but Joe knew that Jack was still worried. He knew that whoever was harassing him wasn’t just going to go away.  Once Joe was up and around again, Charlie resumed her secret trips to meet Mark. Joe had tried again to persuade her to tell Jack everything, but she refused.

“How can I, when he’s arguing with Mark’s father?” she cried, and Joe couldn’t dispute her.

“I still think you should tell him, though,” Joe said. “I don’t want to argue with you, Charlie; I’m just saying what I feel.” He watched as she rode off.

That night, the raids began again. This time, the raiders didn’t get close to the house, thanks to the full moon that shone brightly out of a cloudless sky. However, the moon would be gone in a few days, and they all expected the worst.

There had been no word from the sheriff about anyone shot in the leg, and Joe had no real memory of what the man looked like. Thin, and perhaps tall, but that was all. He didn’t think he’d be able to identify the intruder if he saw him.

However, an unpleasant suspicion was now playing in Joe’s mind, although he didn’t say anything to anybody. But the next time he saw Charlie sneaking off to meet Mark, he mounted up and followed her. Dead Horse Canyon wasn’t far from Charlie’s home, and Joe circled around to get there before her. He hid in some brush, and waited.

A young, fair-haired man rode up, and Charlie appeared moments later. He jumped down from his horse, and helped her down from hers. He swept her into a passionate kiss, and Joe averted his eyes. He felt guilty for spying on them, but he knew of no other way to prove his theory. He desperately hoped he was wrong.

Before long, Charlie was chattering away to Mark, and Joe thought how it sounded as though she was talking to him. There was the same ease in her voice, and with a sinking heart, Joe realized that Charlie was in love with Mark. It was too late for her to back away from this relationship without a great deal of hurt, and the last thing Joe wanted was to hurt her.

Then, Mark began to ask Charlie about the raids, and where the horses were being kept now, and how many men there were guarding them. Joe knew at once that what he had feared was true. Mark was somehow in on the raids, and the person who had unintentionally been giving the information was Charlie. Joe put his heel to Cochise, and they burst through the foliage.

To say the young couple was startled was an understatement. Charlie gaped at Joe as though she had never seen him before. Mark jumped to his feet, and reached for his gun. His hand had barely brushed it before Joe’s gun was drawn. “Don’t bother,” Joe said, softly.

“Joe, what are you doing?” Charlie asked, jumping to her feet.

Holstering his gun, Joe stepped down from Cochise, and tethered him loosely to a bush. His gaze never wavered from Mark. “Don’t you know what he was doing, Charlie?” he asked, the pain evident in his voice. “He was pumping you for information. Your Pa wondered how they always knew where the best horses were. You told them!”

“Joe, no!” Charlie denied.

“Its true,” Joe said, watching Mark closely. “Why do you suppose there haven’t been any raids for the last two nights? Because you’ve been at home, taking care of me.”

“It’s not true!” she cried. “Mark, tell him!” She looked at the young man she loved, and saw on his face that every word Joe said was true. “No, Mark! Please, no!”

“Shut up, Charlie,” Mark snarled, glaring at Joe. “You’ll be Joe Cartwright, of the famous Ponderosa ranch.” He flicked a glance at Charlie. “She never shuts up about you, boy, but its me she loves.”

“I’m sorry, Charlie,” Joe said. “I hoped I was wrong. I never wanted to hurt you, you know that.”

Sobbing, Charlie looked at Mark. “How could you?” she sobbed. “Mark, I love you!”

“How could I?” he repeated. “Charlie, you are the heir to that ranch of your father’s. That’s how I could. I want that ranch out of business, and I was getting all I needed from you! Did you really think I loved you? Well, you were wrong.”

With a strangled cry, Charlie threw herself on Mark, determined to inflict some physical hurt, as he had emotionally hurt her. Joe, seeing her intent, made a move to stop her. Mark caught Charlie by the arm, and slapped her hard across the face. Joe saw red, thrust Charlie out of the way, and swung for Mark.

They battled back and forth, as Charlie sobbed on the ground. Mark and Joe were well matched for anger and determination. Finally, Mark tripped Joe, as Joe staggered back after a punch to the face, and Joe fell heavily to the ground, winded. Mark drew his gun, and Joe froze.

“No!” Charlie screamed, and launched herself at Mark.

As cool as a whistle, Mark changed his stance and shot her at point blank range.

“Charlie!” Joe cried, and scrambled to his feet. Mark swung round and pulled the trigger. Joe collapsed at his feet.

Not pausing to check either person, Mark calmly mounted his horse, and rode away.

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

Joe had no idea how much time had passed before he revived. He lay on the ground and stared at Charlie’s body in horror before he rolled over and vomited painfully. There was no question Charlie was dead. Joe had seen more dead bodies than he really wanted to, but Charlie’s shook him rigid. She was so young, and so small and dainty. It was obscene that she had been murdered like that.

It took four attempts to get to his feet. Joe glanced down, and saw that the right side of his jacket was soaked in blood. He felt strangely light-headed, but didn’t realize that he had been badly injured. He whistled, and Cochise came to him, and so did Charlie’s little chestnut mare. The sight of the mare almost reduced Joe to tears.

Awkwardly, Joe untied his bedroll, and dropped the rough wool over Charlie’s body. With the gaping hole in her chest decently covered, Joe felt a little more able to cope. He couldn’t seem to use his right arm properly, but he finally got the body securely over the mare’s saddle. The mare shied away from the smell of blood, but Joe was determined.

Mounting Cochise, Joe felt his head swim alarmingly. He leaned forward, and took some deep breaths, and gradually his head steadied. He heeled Cochise into a walk, and headed slowly towards Jack’s place. He didn’t allow himself to think about what he was doing, or the grief he’d have to face once he got back there. He just made Cochise take one step after another, and concentrated on staying in the saddle.

By the time he reached Jack’s place, Joe was barely clinging to consciousness. He knew they had been gone for a long time. When Cochise came to a stand still, Joe opened his eyes to see why. Jack’s anxious face swam into focus, and Joe couldn’t choke back the tears any more. “I’m sorry,” he gasped, and toppled off his horse in a faint.

The men rushed to pick up Joe, as Jack took Charlie’s body in his arms. He stood and sobbed, cradling his only child. But even at that moment, he couldn’t bring himself to wish that it had been Joe that died. He couldn’t wish what he was feeling onto another person. He stood there and sobbed, until his foreman came and gently led him into the house. Charlie’s body was taken from him, and after a single, sickened look, the man sent for the sheriff and the doctor. Jack sat in his chair, and cried.

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

“The bullet went straight through,” said a voice, so close to his ear that Joe flinched.

“Looks like it tore up the muscles real bad,” said another voice. “But at least the slug ain’t in there.”

“We don’t know when, or even if, the doc’s gonna get here,” said the first voice. “Let’s strap up his shoulder and arm in a sling, and hope for the best. I done cleaned it out.” Hands were on Joe’s shoulder, and the pain shot through his arm. He cried out.

After a moment, Joe’s eyes opened, and he looked at the two ranch hands who were firmly bandaging him up. Joe’s head swam, but he managed to focus on one of them. “How’s Jack?” he croaked.

“He’s pretty cut up,” one of them said.

Squeezing his eyes closed, Joe fought back the tears. He had shed enough of them on the long ride back from Dead Horse Canyon. “Must tell him,” Joe whispered, but one of the hands gave him a drink. Joe eagerly gulped the cool water.

“You’ve lost a lot of blood, Joe,” he said. “You just rest till, the doc gets here. Meantime, let us doctor you as best we can.”

“No,” Joe protested, but as the bandage was pulled tight around his shoulder, he couldn’t bear the pain any more. It felt like his shoulder had exploded, and he sank into welcoming darkness.

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

When he next woke, Joe felt better. His right arm was totally immobilized, and Joe struggled into a sitting position. Once he was upright, he discovered that he wasn’t as much better as he had first thought. His head was still inclined to swim if he moved too fast. He saw the glass of water sitting on the bedside table, drank it down.

Glancing at the window, Joe saw that it was growing dark. He wondered how Jack was, and felt a pang of grief. A few tears escaped his control, and he wiped them away. “Oh, Charlie,” he whispered. “Why did it have to happen to you?”

It suddenly occurred to Joe that he hadn’t told Jack who had murdered Charlie. He threw off the covers and slid to the edge of the bed. He still had on his pants, and his shirt, boots and gun were lying on a chair across the room.

Before he could attempt to get up, a shot sounded outside, and within moments, there was clearly a fight going on. Gritting his teeth, Joe made the attempt to stand. His head swam, and he sank back down, breathing heavily. His shoulder was on fire.

The bedroom door burst open and Jack came in, followed by his foreman. “Joe! Thank goodness you’re awake. You’ve got to get to Virginia City and get the sheriff.” Jack snatched up Joe’s shirt, and helped the young man thread his left arm though the fabric. He pulled the other side round Joe’s shoulder and buttoned one button. He didn’t seem to notice that the material was ripped and bloody.

“Uncle Jack,” Joe gasped, but Jack didn’t allow him time to speak.

“You’ve got to do this for me, Joe,” he urged, helping Joe into his jacket. He hauled Joe to his feet, and buckled on his gun belt. “Your horse is outside. You’ve got to get the sheriff, Joe. Do you understand?”

“Yes,” Joe breathed. His face was covered in a fine sheen of sweat, and his legs felt as wobbly as a newborn colt’s. Jack supported him downstairs, and outside, where Cochise was waiting. Joe wanted more than anything to rest, but he wasn’t offered the chance. Jack pushed him onto the horse, and handed him the rein.

“Get the sheriff,” he said again, and gave Cochise a slap on the rump. “Go, Joe.”

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

The journey to Virginia City was a nightmare for Joe. From behind, he could hear the gunfire, and he thought he ought to be back there fighting with Jack and the men. However, he had been charged with fetching the sheriff, and he was determined to do it. It didn’t occur to him to wonder why Jack should send an injured man to do this, when he had plenty of able-bodied hands available to him. He just set his teeth and rode on.

By the time he reached the city, he was running a good going temperature, and was barely clinging to consciousness. He rode up to the sheriff’s office, oblivious of the stir his condition caused. When he reached his goal, he pulled Cochise to a halt, and slid from the saddle. His legs refused to hold him, and he toppled to the dirt street.

“Joe?” said a voice, and Joe raised his eyes to see his father bending over him.

“Pa?” he said, and blinked the sweat out of his eyes. “Must… tell…Roy.” He swallowed. “Jack… under…attack.” His head bobbed, and he couldn’t bite back a groan. “Charlie… dead.”

By this time, they had attracted quite a crowd, including Roy Coffee, the sheriff, who had come out to see what everyone was gawping at, and had heard what Joe said. “I need a posse,” he shouted. He bent over Ben, who cradled Joe in his arms. “Get him over to the Doc, Ben,” he said.

“Joe, I’m going to take you to the doctor’s. I’ll try not to hurt you, son.” Ben looked worriedly at his youngest son. Joe’s face was pale, but for two spots of hectic color in his cheeks. He was covered in sweat, and was hot to the touch.

“Glad… to… see… you,” Joe muttered. Secure in the knowledge that Ben was nearby, Joe slid off into unconsciousness.

Sliding his arm under Joe’s knees, Ben prepared to lift him, and looked up in surprise when another pair of hands appeared on Joe’s other side. He looked into Adam’s concerned brown gaze, and nodded. Between them, they lifted Joe gently, and carried him across the street to the doctor’s office.

“Ben,” Paul said, in surprise. He was just reading a note, and frowning. “How did Joe get here?” he asked. “I was just reading a note asking me to go out to Jack Dixon’s place to treat him for a gunshot wound…” He jumped forward to peer at his patient. “Lay him down on the table,” he said, urgently.

It took them only moments to strip off Joe’s jacket, and Paul cut his shirt off, before doing the same to the sling and bandages round Joe’s shoulder. “Oh no,” Ben breathed, as he saw the damage to Joe’s shoulder.

“High caliber bullet, at close range,” Paul muttered to himself. “It’s done a hell of a lot of damage.” He immediately began to gather up the things he would need. “Ben, it would be better if you waited in the other room,” he said, firmly, and ushered both Ben and Adam out.

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

Later, Ben couldn’t even hazard a guess as to how long he and Adam waited. But finally Paul came out. “I’ve repaired the damage, and I don’t think his mobility will be hampered too badly. But there was a lot of damage, and whoever looked after him didn’t clean the wound out thoroughly. It’s showing signs of infection already, and Joe is running quite a temperature. If he rode here from the Dixon’s place that was about the worst thing he could have done.”

“Can we take him home?” Adam asked

“At this stage, he probably shouldn’t be moved at all, but he would be more comfortable at home, surrounded by familiar things, and it would be easier for you to nurse him.” Paul ruminated for a moment. “All right, take him home slow and easy. Keep his temperature down, and give him plenty of fluid. He’s lost a lot of blood, and is weak.”

“Thank you, Paul,” Ben said, fervently, and went to sit with Joe while Adam arranged a buckboard to get him home.

Sitting by Joe, Ben wondered what on earth had happened, that Jack had sent Joe, in the condition he was in, to get the sheriff. Had Joe really meant what he said about Charlie being dead? A shudder ran down Ben’s back, as he thought of the pain Jack must be feeling at the loss of his daughter. How had she died? How had Joe been shot? Who had shot him? They were all questions without answers, at least until Joe was well enough to answer them.

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

The questions were shelved as he and Adam took Joe slowly home, and transferred him to his own bed. Hoss had been shocked by the appearance of his youngest brother, and anxiously quizzed Ben as to what had happened. Thanks to the pain relief Paul had given him, Joe had slept throughout the long journey home, but he began to mutter and thrash about shortly after they got home. Ben put cold cloths on Joe’s head, noticing the healing scrape along his son’s hairline, and realizing that this was the head injury he had heard about from Paul earlier in the week.

“Pa?”

With a start, Ben realized that Joe had woken, and was looking at him. His green eyes were dulled with pain. “I’m right here, Joe,” Ben said, raising his son’s head to help him drink.

“Where am I?” he asked.

“At home,” Ben answered. “Paul has treated your shoulder. Just rest now and get well.”

“Hurts,” Joe said, his face tight with pain. “I’m hot.”

“I know,” Ben soothed, and wiped Joe down once more. He saw that Joe had drifted back to sleep again, and was thankful. The more Joe rested, the sooner he’d regain his strength.

All that evening and night, the Cartwrights took turns sitting at Joe’s bedside, fighting his fever as best they could. Joe muttered and moaned in his delirium, but the words weren’t coherent. The least touch or movement of his injured shoulder caused him to cry out. When morning came, all three were hollow eyed.

About mid-morning, Paul came out to check on Joe, and was so concerned by his condition, that he unwrapped the shoulder and looked at the wound again. It was red and inflamed, and there was a thick crust of yellow pus along it. He had no choice but to open it up again, and clean out the infection.

Finally, Joe was still once more, his face as pale as Ben had seen it in a long time. Sweat beaded on his brow and upper lip, and his curls were damp and tangled. He looked about 16. “Is he going to be all right, Paul?” Ben asked, as he stroked the damp hair back from Joe’s forehead.

“I hope so,” Paul answered, wearily. “He’s young, which is in his favor. Now that the infection is out, I hope his fever will break soon, and then he’ll be on the mend.” He eyed his somnolent patient. “Come with me, Ben,” he said, and drew him out of the room.

“What is it?” Ben asked, anxiously.

“Roy got back late last night from the Dixon’s,” Paul said, drawing Ben even further away from Joe’s door. He knew only too well that patients who appeared to be asleep or unconscious often heard things. “Jack was dead, his place burned to the ground, and the horses gone.”

Ben’s face was so white, that Paul pushed him into a seat. He crouched beside his friend, while Ben tried to absorb the news. “Charlie?” Ben said, at last.

“I’m sorry, Ben, she’s dead, too. She had been shot at point blank range. She must have died instantly.”

“Who could have done such a thing?” Ben whispered, savagely. “Who?”

“We don’t know,” Paul answered. “Perhaps, when Joe is recovered, he might be able to help us. I’m so sorry, Ben.”

“I must tell the boys,” Ben said. He got to his feet, and looked in on Joe for a moment, before resolutely squaring his shoulders and going downstairs. Paul followed him, and stayed until Ben had told both Adam and Hoss, and he was convinced that none of them needed treatment for shock. Then he quietly let himself out, and none of them noticed him leaving.

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

“Oh, Charlie,” Joe groaned. “Charlie, no. Don’t, please.” He writhed on the bed, and winced.

“Easy, Joe,” Adam said, changing the cloth on his head. “Take it easy.”

It had been 2 days since Joe was brought home, and his fever still burned high. Paul had been out twice a day, and had drained the wound again. It now looked better, and was starting to lose the redness around it. Paul was hopeful that Joe’s fever would break soon. However, in the meantime, he was still delirious, and needed constant attention.

“No, he’s not worth it,” panted Joe. “No, don’t tell him. NO!” Joe’s eyes flew open, and he looked at Adam without recognition. “Charlie!” Tears poured down his face, and Joe shuddered. Adam wondered if Joe was reliving Charlie’s death and fervently hoped that wasn’t so. “Mark, no!”

“Easy, buddy,” soothed Adam, wondering who Mark was. “Just rest, Joe.”

There was a sigh from the young man on the bed, and he clutched at the air. Adam caught his hand and held onto it. Joe clutched fiercely, and fell into a deeper sleep. After a time, his grip loosened, and his hand dropped back to the bed. Adam flexed his fingers, and changed the cloth again.

The door opened, and Ben came in. “How is he?” he asked, in an undertone. It was close to three am.

“A bit calmer just now,” Adam answered, stretching. “He seems to be sleeping.”

Putting his hand on Joe’s head, Ben stroked his hair for a moment. “I think he’s cooler,” he said.

Rising, Adam also put his hand onto Joe’s head. “Yes, I think he is,” he agreed, sounding pleased. “Let’s hope this continues.”

“Let’s hope so,” said Ben, fervently. He patted Adam on the back. “Get some sleep, son.”

“Good night, Pa,” Adam said. He hesitated in the doorway and looked back. Ben was sitting by the bed, stoking Joe’s arm in a soothing rhythm. Adam said a brief prayer for his brother’s recovery before going off to bed to fall into an exhausted sleep immediately.

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

Round abut mid-morning, Joe’s eyes fluttered open, and he looked round blearily. His shoulder hurt, but it didn’t seem so bad. Ben was standing looking out of the window, his arms crossed over his chest. Joe thought he looked tired. “Pa?” he said.

Turning instantly, a warm smile split Ben’s face. “Well, it’s about time you woke up, young man,” he said, cheerfully, and came over and sat down. “How do you feel?” He waggled a finger at Joe. “And don’t say fine; I want the truth, Joe.”

“I’m a bit sore,” Joe said. “And I feel real tired.” He looked round again. “How did I get here?” he asked. “The last thing I remember is Roy’s office.”

“We brought you home after Paul fixed up your shoulder,” Ben said. “You spoke to us after we brought you home. Don’t you remember?”

Mutely, Joe shook his head. He licked his lips, and Ben offered him a drink, which Joe took gratefully. He lay back on his pillows. Ben patted his arm. “I’ll go and get you some broth. Hop Sing made if for you. Try not to go back to sleep, all right?”

“All right,” Joe agreed. He sighed. The pain in his shoulder was constant, and he was glad it was immobilized. Even the thought of moving his arm made it throb more.

There was the sound of feet in the hallway, and Joe looked expectantly at the door. He wasn’t disappointed, because it opened, and Hoss and Adam came in. Hoss was beaming, and Joe felt himself responding, although his smile lacked its usual brilliance. “Hi there, Shortshanks,” Hoss boomed.

“Hi, Hoss,” Joe responded. “Hi, Adam.”

“Hi, yourself,” Adam said. He looked closely at Joe, while smiling warmly at him. “Last time I saw you, you were finally cooling down. If you’d just done it a little sooner, we’d have all got more sleep last night.”

“I’m sorry,” Joe said, contritely.

“I’m teasing, buddy,” Adam said, ruffling Joe’s curls.

By the time Joe had eaten the broth, he was very tired. He struggled to keep his eyes open, but it was a battle he was destined to lose. Ben helped him lie down again, and watched as sleep claimed his youngest again. He beckoned to the others to join him as he left.

“Has Joe said anything?” Adam wanted to know, as they went downstairs.

“No,” Ben said. “He didn’t even remember that he was at home. I didn’t want to push him. He’ll talk about it when he’s ready.”

“That might not be soon enough for Roy,” Adam pointed out. “We need to find out if Joe knows who might have done that to Jack.” Adam’s anger was apparent in his tone. “And besides, if the person who did this discovers that Joe is still alive, he might come after him.”

“Do you think I haven’t thought of that?” Ben enquired, no less angrily. “Jack was my friend, too. But we have to think of Joe’s well-being right now. He’s been very ill.”

“I reckon you have ta ask Joe next time he wakens, Pa,” Hoss said, earnestly. “It ain’t no good puttin’ it off.”

“I know,” Ben said, wearily. He sat down and rubbed his eyes. “When Joe wakes up again, I’ll ask him.”

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

“Whittier?” Ben repeated. “I don’t know them.”

“I never met the father,” Joe said, softly. His head was down, a sure sign of distress. “The son is called Mark. Charlie had fallen in love with him, and was meeting him secretly at Dead Horse Canyon.” His voice cracked and he swallowed hard against the tears that rose in his throat. Ben gripped Joe’s arm compassionately. “After I got hit on the head, Charlie stayed close to the ranch, looking after me. There weren’t any raids those nights. But as soon as I was up again, Charlie sneaked off. I followed her.” Joe looked up miserably at Ben. “I felt bad, but how could I tell her what I thought?”

“What did you think?” Ben asked, gently.

“I thought Charlie was telling them where to find the horses.” A tear slipped free and ran, unchecked, down Joe’s cheek. “I was right; she was telling him! She didn’t realize, Pa. She talked to him like she talked to me. She’d fallen in love with him, and was telling him all her secrets, and he was taking advantage of her.

“I confronted them. Charlie was hurt, as you’d expect, and she turned on Mark. He slapped her. I dove for him. We fought. I fell over, and he pulled his gun. When Charlie made to stop him shooting me, he shot her at point blank range.” Joe’s voice faltered and he broke down into sobs. Ben gathered him into a comforting embrace.

When Joe’s grief had run its course for the time being, Ben gently washed his face. Joe found it very comforting to be treated like a small child. He lay back, exhausted. “Do you want to rest now?” Ben asked.

“No,” Joe said, bravely. “I want to finish it, Pa.” He took a drink. “When he shot Charlie, I lunged at him again, and he shot me. When I came to, I took Charlie back home. Later, Jack came and said that I had to go for the sheriff. I didn’t think of it, but he must have wanted me gone when the fight started.” He looked at Ben, tears in his eyes again. “And he died. He saved my life.”

“You were like a son to Jack,” Ben explained. “He’d lost Charlie; he wouldn’t have wanted to lose you, too, Joe.”

After a time, Joe slipped back into a deep sleep. Ben rose stiffly, and left the room quietly. Downstairs, Adam was sitting at the desk doing the books. He glanced up, and saw by Ben’s face that Joe had told him what happened. “Was it someone we know?” he asked.

“No,” Ben said, sitting down. Adam rose from the desk and came over to join him. “Someone called Whittier, Joe thinks.” Slowly, Ben told Adam the story.

“Want me to go into town?” he asked. “Or do you want Roy to come out here?”

“I think I’ll send for Roy,” Ben said. “I just feel we all should stay close to home.”

“Any particular reason?” Adam asked. “Or just the feeling that Whittier might come after Joe to finish what he started?”

“It worries me,” Ben admitted. “It’s no secret in town that Joe is on the mend. Paul has said as much. From what Joe says, the Whittier ranch isn’t that far away from Jack’s place.” Ben’s face was heavy with sorrow as he thought of his friend.

After a moment’s silence, Adam asked, “Does Joe know that Jack and Charlie have been buried?”

“Yes,” said Ben. “I told him.” He sat for a moment longer, then got to his feet and went outside to send for the sheriff.

Gazing into the flames, Adam thought of Charlie and Jack. He could see the appeal Mark had for Charlie. She had always loved ‘Romeo and Juliet’, and had been very curious about Joe’s involvement with Amy Bishop. She had lived quite a sheltered life, and the idea of being Juliet for real must have been overwhelming. What tangled loyalties she must have felt when she realized she’d been duped. She loved and trusted Joe, as a brother, but she was in love with Mark, and must have given him her trust. It must have been difficult for her to believe he had betrayed her like that. It was a sad end for two very nice people. With a melancholy sigh, Adam returned to his paperwork.

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

They were sitting down to supper when there was a loud crash from upstairs. “What on earth?” Ben said, half rising.

Jumping from his chair, Adam grabbed his gun and raced upstairs. He threw open the door to Joe’s room and went in, taking in the situation at a glance.

His youngest brother lay on the floor, groaning with pain. He had landed on his injured shoulder, and was finding it difficult to catch his breath. Standing over him was Mark Whittier, gun in his hand. As Adam burst into the room, Mark whirled, and fired at Adam, who dived to the floor to avoid being hit. He fired back, but missed.

By this time, Joe had gathered his scattered wits, and threw himself across the floor at Mark, who was aiming at Adam again. It was a scenario that was horribly familiar to Joe, and he was determined that nobody else that he loved was going to get killed by this madman.

Caught by surprise, Mark crashed his gun into the base of Joe’s neck as Joe hit him about the waist. Blood spurted from the wound, and Joe fell unconscious to the floor. Mark regained his footing and looked round for Adam, bringing his gun up to fire again.

He was too slow. Joe’s impetuous rush had given Adam the time he needed, and he didn’t miss this time. Mark went down, and he didn’t get back up. Slowly, Adam crawled to his feet. He had cracked his elbow off the sharp corner of Joe’s bureau, and it was bleeding slightly. However, Adam wasn’t aware of any discomfort. All his attention was fixed on his brother, who was sprawled, bleeding, on the floor.

“Adam!” exclaimed Ben’s voice from the doorway. He hurried over to where Adam was tenderly lifting his brother. “Are you all right? Is Joe?”

“I think he’s all right,” Adam replied. “I’m all right. I think he might be dead.” He inclined his head to the young man on the floor.

“Hoss is checking outside,” Ben said, anxiously looking at the injury on Joe’s neck. It was just at the vulnerable bit where his neck and shoulder joined, and it was bleeding profusely. Ben snatched up a cloth and held it against the wound. The bleeding gradually stopped, and they saw that the gash wasn’t serious. Ben then had a look at Adam’s elbow. The cut there wasn’t deep, and had stopped bleeding already.

Heavy footsteps announced Hoss’ appearance. “There were riders a bit away, Pa,” he said. “But they rode off when they heard the shootin’.” He glanced at his brothers. “Are you all right?” he asked, anxiously.

“Fine, thanks,” Adam responded. “Hoss, could you get rid of him?”

“Sure thing, Adam,” Hoss said, and picked up the body and took it away.

Movement from the bed drew their attention back to Joe, and they looked at him in time to see his eyes opening. He focused on Adam. “Are you all right?” he asked, and then winced as the pain rocketed up his neck.

“Thanks to you, I am,” Adam responded. “But you scared me out of ten years’ growth!”

“It was like Charlie all over again,” Joe said, tears suddenly streaking his face as his relief overcame him. “I couldn’t let him kill someone else I love.”

“Was that Mark Whittier?” Adam asked, and Joe looked at him blankly for a moment.

“Who did you think it was?” he asked, puzzled.

Smiling, Adam shook his head. “Joe, you’re the only one who ever met the guy. I just wanted to make sure there wasn’t another homicidal maniac determined to kill you out there.”

“That’s not funny,” Ben reproved, but Joe was grinning. Adam’s comment had relieved the tension in the room.

A few minutes later, they heard hoofs in the yard, and shortly after that, Roy Coffee appeared in the room. He took statements from them all, starting with Joe.

“I was asleep,” Joe began. He leaned unconsciously against Ben as he spoke. “I felt a hand on my arm, shaking me. When I opened my eyes, Mark Whittier was there, and he had his gun in my face. He hauled me upright, and shook me. Then he pushed me, and I fell out of bed onto my sore shoulder. Mark laughed.  He was just aiming at me when Adam came in.” Joe glanced at his older brother, and was met by a steady, reassuring brown gaze. “He shot at Adam and missed. He went to shoot him again, and I dived at him. I couldn’t let him kill someone else I love, like he killed Charlie. I jumped him, and he hit me.”

“Joe was knocked out,” Adam took up the story smoothly, and Ben hugged Joe close, feeling him shiver with delayed shock. “I shot at Mark, and hit him. Joe was bleeding, and unconscious. I have no doubt that Mark was here to kill Joe.”

“It’s a clear case of self-defense,” Roy said. “No need to worry on that score, boys. I’ll get a posse out and round up Whittier senior, and see what I can find out. Thanks, Little Joe.” He nodded to Ben. “I’ll see myself out.”

As Roy left, Hoss looked at Joe. “I’ll get ya somethin’ warm to drink, Punkin,” he said, and went out of the door. He was back quickly with a pot of hot coffee, and they all sat around drinking the warming liquid in companionable silence. Joe’s shivers gradually abated as the warmth spread through his body, and he was soon stifling a yawn.

“We’ll let you sleep, Joe,” Ben said, taking the cup from Joe.

“Good night, Joe,” Hoss said. He ruffled Joe’s hair.

“Night, Hoss,” Joe replied.

“Good night, Joe,” Adam said. He leaned his arm on the bed head, and looked down at Joe. “Thanks for saving my life tonight, little buddy.”

“You haven’t called me that in a long time,” Joe noted.

“Aren’t you too big to be called Little buddy?” Adam asked, smiling. “It certainly wasn’t the little kid I remember in here tonight, fighting for my life. If I’m ever in a tight corner, Joe, I couldn’t ask for anyone better to be with me.”

Compliments from Adam were rare, and Joe treasured them more because of that. “I have to thank you, too,” he said. “You saved my life. I don’t know how you knew to get up here, but I’m glad that you did.”

“Perhaps it was that crash as you fell out of bed,” Adam joked, trying to lighten the atmosphere. “If Hoss hadn’t been sitting at the table with us, I’d have thought he’d fallen out of bed!”

“Thanks a lot, big brother!” Hoss said, trying to sound offended, but failing dismally. Joe was grinning broadly.

“I think that’s enough,” Ben said, ushering Adam and Hoss out. He knew what they could be like when they all got started. He sat down beside Joe again. “Are you all right?”

“Yes, Pa, I’m fine,” Joe asserted. There was still a shadow on his eyes, and Ben waited to see if Joe would mention whatever was bothering him. After a moment, he did. “It was just the way it had happened with Charlie,” he said. “I watched him murder Charlie, and I thought I was going to have to watch him murder Adam. I couldn’t have lived with that.”

“Charlie’s murder wasn’t your fault,” Ben said. He could see Joe didn’t believe him. “She was in love with Whittier. She thought he loved her, too, and it’s natural to tell things to the people we love. She would’ve found out eventually, Joe. There isn’t a good way to hear news like that, but it’s probably best if it comes from someone you know loves you for yourself, and has always loved you. That’s probably why she believed you at once. She knew that you didn’t have a hidden motive – you weren’t in love with her, and she wasn’t in love with you.” Ben sighed. “Charlie was young, and inexperienced. She loved the idea of being Juliet. You said so yourself. To her, it must have seemed wildly romantic to have a conflict of loyalties like that.”

“I suppose,” Joe admitted. “She wanted to be loyal to us all.” He thought about it some more. “What a tangle.”

“Not every tangle can be sorted out without hurt,” Ben advised. “You did what you thought was right.” He thought the conversation had gone on long enough. “You get some sleep, now,” he said. “Good night, son.”

“Good night, Pa,” Joe said. He snuggled down among the pillows. In the days that came, Joe would grieve for his friend, but he had made his peace with her death, by saving the life of his brother. Joe would never know quite why, but as Ben said, some tangles can never be sorted out.

*****End*****

 

 

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