THIS STORY IS WRITTEN FOR PLEASURE NOT PROFIT AND IS NOT MEANT TO INFRINGE ON ANY KNOWN COPYRIGHT

 

 

 

THE DARE

 

 

 

A Bonanza story

 

By Kate Pitts

 

 

 

 

“Come on Mitch.” Joe urged his friend. “Hoss will think it’s funny, honest he will.”

 

“You sure Joe?” Mitch was anxious. “Seems a bit risky to me and anyway your Pa said he’d skin you alive if you played any more of these jokes on your brother.”

 

“Hoss won’t tell and even if he did I bet I can get Pa to see the funny side of it.” Thirteen-year-old Little Joe Cartwright, good-looking, volatile and supremely confident of his ability to twist his father around his little finger, looked up at his partners in crime.

 

The two taller boys weren’t so sure, both Mitch Devlin and Johnny Chapman had seen Ben Cartwright’s wrath at close quarters and it wasn’t a sight they were likely to forget. Tall and powerful, with a deep booming voice, Joe’s father scared the living daylights out of his friends.

 

“All I’m going to do is loosen the girth on Hoss’ saddle.” Joe said, a wheedling note creeping into his voice. “Then when he goes to mount up the saddle will slip and he’ll end up on his behind. He’s not gonna get hurt.”

 

“It does sound sorta funny.” Johnny conceded, with a quick glance at Mitch. “I’ll dare you if you like.”

 

Joe smiled, pleased that one of his friends had capitulated. “What about you, Mitch?” He asked the other boy.

 

With school out for summer, once their chores were done, the trio of youngsters had found themselves with a lot of spare time on their hands. Between them they had devised the game of ‘Dare’ where each of the three was dared by the other two to play a practical joke or trick on the members of his family. So far, whilst the Chapman and Devlin families had pretty much fared equally in their share of the boy’s escapades it was Hoss that had borne the brunt of the tricks played on the Cartwrights. This could be easily explained by the fact that no body had yet plucked up the courage to attempt a dare on Joe’s father or eldest brother Adam, knowing that they were likely to end up in very serious trouble if they did. Hoss, however, with his equable temperament and well-known gullibility where his young brother was concerned, was fair game. It was when the Virginia City sheriff, Roy Coffee, had inadvertently opened a door upon which teetered a pail of water meant for Hoss, that Ben had found out what Joe had been doing.

 

“Don’t think you’re too old for a tanning.” He had warned his youngest son as the boy stood contritely before him. “It’s only thanks to Roy’s generosity that you’re getting off with a warning this time. Don’t let it happen again.” But Ben had been unable to disguise the gleam of amusement in his dark eyes as he glanced over to where his old friend stood dripping by the door.

 

“I suppose it could be fun.” Mitch said now, and Joe gave a triumphant grin. “Okay, I dare you as well.”

 

The three youngsters were standing by the corral where they had been watching Adam and some of the Ponderosa hands break a string of horses that Ben had bought from a trader near Genoa. When Hoss had arrived to speak to his older brother, dismounting and hitching his horse up next to Joe’s, it had seemed the perfect opportunity for a dare.

 

From where he stood on the other side of the corral, talking to Hoss, Adam glanced over at the boys. “Wonder what those three brats are up to now?” He said, an irritated frown settling on his brow.

 

“Aw, leave ‘em be Adam, they’re all right.” Hoss followed his brother’s gaze, watching as Joe left Mitch and Johnny and ambled off towards the horses. “Looks like Little Joe’s going over to see Cochise.” He said with a smile. “He sure does love that animal.”

 

“Yes, he does.” Adam agreed, his expression softening. “In fact I sometimes think he cares more for that horse than he does for me.”

 

“Now, that ain’t true.” Hoss declared, concerned that Adam should voice such a thought. “I know you two don’t get on so well sometimes but it don’t mean Little Joe don’t care about you.”

 

“I suppose so.” Adam said, though he didn’t sound convinced. Turning his attention back to Hoss he led him off to show him the mare that he considered the best of the string.

 

As Adam and Hoss turned away Joe quickly bent and loosened the girth on Chubb’s saddle. Straightening up again he was relieved to see that his brothers were paying no attention to him and he headed hastily back to his friends.

 

“All done.” He told them. “When Hoss mounts up we’ll see some fun.”

 

“Here he comes.” Mitch warned and the three turned to watch the action in the corral again, trying their best to look innocent.

 

“Hey, boys.” Hoss called, as he drew closer. “The new horses look pretty good don’t they?” There was a noisy chorus of assent and Hoss smiled as he mounted up and started to ride away. “See you at supper, Little Joe.” He said to his brother as he rode by, giving the boy a jaunty wave.

 

As Chubb and his rider disappeared in the direction of Virginia City the three boys stared at each other in dismay. “What happened?” Mitch asked.

 

“The buckle must have caught on something.” Joe told him with a worried frown. “What if it comes undone when Hoss is riding?”

 

“Come on.” Mitch ran towards his horse. “We’ll have to try and catch him.”

 

The three hastily mounted up and set off at a gallop, causing Adam to look round in annoyance. “Will the kid never learn?” He muttered to himself as he watched the dust clouds rise from the horse’s hooves. “If Pa sees him riding like that…”

 

The youngsters hadn’t got far when they saw Hoss’ horse ahead of them, but Chubb wasn’t moving and fear rose in Joe’s throat as he drew nearer and saw the motionless form of his brother on the ground beside the animal.

 

“Hoss!” Reining Cochise in behind Chubb, Joe leapt to the ground and ran to his brother, terror filling his heart as he fell to his knees beside the still figure. “Hoss, please be all right.”

 

Behind him Mitch and Johnny exchanged horrified glances. “Go and get Adam!” Joe yelled at them, anguish in his tone. “Tell him Hoss is hurt bad.”

 

Wordlessly Mitch wheeled his horse and headed back in the direction they had come, leaving Johnny to dismount and walk over to join his friend.

 

“Is he…?” The boys face was pale, his voice hesitant as he knelt down beside Joe.

 

“He’s breathing.” Joe told him, gaze fixed on his brother’s face. “Oh, Lord. I never meant this to happen.”

 

“His leg looks kinda funny.” Johnny observed shakily. “I think it’s bleeding, Joe.”

 

With trembling hands Joe reached into his boot bringing out the pocketknife that Adam had given him for his last birthday. Reaching over, he sliced through the leg of Hoss’ pants, a horrified gasp escaping his lips as the wound was revealed. The lower half of his brother’s right leg was at an unnatural angle and, penetrating the surface of the skin, was the broken end of a bone.

 

 

^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^

 

 

“You gonna ride this one, boss?” Adam looked up at the question. One of the hands was holding the reins of a spirited looking mare who was tossing her head as she tried to pull away.

 

“Sure, I’ll take her.” Climbing up on the fence Adam took the reins and was about to mount the animal when a frantic shout stopped him in his tracks. Glancing up he saw Mitch Devlin galloping towards him. Handing the mare back to the hand, Adam went to meet the boy as he reined in his horse.

 

“It’s Hoss, he’s fallen. Joe says he’s hurt bad.” As the words tumbled out of the youngster’s mouth Adam felt his stomach lurch with fear.

 

“Pete.” He shouted back to the young hand that had taken the mare. “Get up to the house and tell my father Hoss is hurt, bring a buckboard to…where is he?” He asked Mitch.

 

“On the Virginia City road.” Mitch told him, his face taut with anxiety.

 

Telling Pete where to bring the buckboard, Adam ran to mount Sport and followed Mitch back to where Hoss lay.

 

Pulling Sport up beside Cochise, Adam sprinted across to where Joe and Johnny knelt by the prone figure. Joe looked up as he saw him, his immediate feeling one of relief that his eldest brother was here to take over. “His leg’s broke.” He told him as Adam gently pushed Johnny aside and took his place beside Hoss. “It’s bleeding a lot too.”

 

Adam drew in a sharp breath as he looked at the damaged limb. He’d seen men lose limbs from injuries such as these, the open wound prone to infection. Tearing his bandana from around his neck he began to tie the cloth tightly just above the break to act as a tourniquet. “Do any of you have a clean handkerchief?” He asked the three boys who were watching him silently. “It has to be clean.”

 

“I do.” Mitch drew forth a neatly pressed square of linen and passed it to Adam. “Ma just gave it me this morning.”

 

“Thanks.” Adam took the cloth and pressed it gently to the wound, then requested Joe’s bandana to hold it in place.

 

“It’s broken real bad isn’t it?” Joe asked fearfully as his eldest brother stood up, having done all he could.

 

“It’s not good.” Adam said, turning to look at the youngster. Joe stared up at him, face white with terror. “Pa will be here soon and we’ll get the doctor to look at it.” He told him gently, trying to reassure the boy.

 

“I didn’t mean for it to happen.” Joe said quietly, dropping his gaze to the ground. “It was only meant to be a joke.”

 

“Only…” Adam’s mind whirled at the implication of Joe’s words. Grabbing the boy by the arm he pulled him roughly to his feet. “You had something to do with this?”

 

“I loosened the girth.” Joe’s voice broke on the words, tears springing to his eyes. “He was meant to fall off when he mounted, something went wrong.”

 

“Oh, Joe.” Adam closed his eyes for a moment in disbelief. “How could you be so stupid?”

 

“It was us as well.” Mitch put in, his voice quivering with fear but determined to stick up for his friend. “We dared him.”

 

“That stupid dare game!” Adam spoke through clenched teeth as anger shook him. “Pa told you not to play that any more. He’s going to be so angry with you.”

 

“I know.” Joe said softly, turning aside. “But I don’t care what he does to me, just so long as Hoss is all right.” Pulling away from Adam he knelt down again and gently touched Hoss’ hand. “I just want him to be all right.”

 

 

^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^

 

 

To Adam and Joe it seemed like a very long time until the buckboard came rattling into view, Ben, grey faced with worry, driving it as fast as he could. Behind the buckboard rode two ranch hands ready to help in any way that they could.

 

Quickly examining his middle son, Ben made the decision to get him back to the ranch house and await the doctor there. Instructing Adam to carefully lift Hoss’ injured leg and one of the hands to take the other side Ben knelt and grasped the unconscious young man’s shoulders. Gently easing him up off the ground the three men manoeuvred Hoss onto the buckboard, Ben climbing up beside him.

 

“Bring Sport with you.” Adam told Joe, preparing to drive his father and brother back to the ranch. “Mitch and Johnny had better get on home.”

 

Joe mounted up on Cochise, doing as his brother had told him and catching hold of Sport’s reins.

 

“I guess we’ll hear from you how Hoss is?” Mitch asked, turning his horse in the direction of the Devlin home. “I’m sure he’ll be okay, Joe.”

 

“Of course he will.” Johnny agreed, though his confident words didn’t match the worried look on his face.

 

Joe just nodded, too scared and concerned to talk. Raising his hand in a halfhearted farewell, he urged Cochise forward and set off after the buckboard, Sport beside him.

 

By the time they reached the house Hoss was regaining consciousness. He moaned as he woke, feeling the intense pain in his leg.

 

“Hold still, son.” Ben put his hand on Hoss’ shoulder, pressing him back, as the young man tried to rise. “We’re almost home.”

 

“What happened?” Hoss whispered weakly, blue eyes clouded with pain as he looked up at his father.

 

“You had a nasty fall from Chubb.” Ben told him, with a gentle squeeze of his shoulder. “You’ve broken your leg, but the doctor’s on his way and we’ll soon get you fixed up.”

 

Hoss nodded in understanding, his mouth clamping shut against the pain as the buckboard drew into the yard of the Ponderosa.

 

With the help of the hands, Ben and Adam soon had Hoss settled on his bed, Ben sitting down beside him to await the doctor while Adam went to meet Joe and help him put up the horses. Apart from telling Joe that Hoss had come round the job was completed in silence, Joe too worried to say much, Adam too angry with the boy to speak to him. They had just finished and were heading into the house when Doctor Martin arrived.

 

“Upstairs?” He enquired, alighting from his buggy and reaching back to pick up his bag.

 

“Yes, Pa’s with him.” Adam told him and the doctor rushed off. There was nothing the brothers could do now but await the doctor’s verdict and the following hour seemed more like a week as they sat silently in the great room. At last there were footsteps on the stairs and Ben and Doctor Martin came into sight, both looking solemn.

 

“How is he?” Adam asked anxiously, getting to his feet.

 

“It’s a bad break.” The doctor told him, putting his bag on the table and sinking down onto the couch. “I’ve got him splinted up, but the biggest problem with a compound fracture like that is the risk of infection. All we can do is wait.”

 

“Can I go and see him?” Adam asked, glancing up the stairs to Hoss’ room.

 

“I’ve given him something for the pain.” The doctor told him. “It’s made him a little sleepy, so you can sit with him if you like, but don’t try to talk to him.”

 

As Adam disappeared upstairs Ben looked over at Joe. The boy was seated on the hearth, his head bowed. “Joseph?” Ben said softly, going across to stand in front of his youngest. Joe looked up, his face a picture of misery, tears welling in his eyes. “I’m sure Hoss will be fine.” Ben reassured him, filled with sympathy for the boy’s distress. “Don’t you want to see him?”

 

Joe swallowed hard and stood up. Guilt filled his small frame and he knew that he had to tell his father what had happened. He had caused this injury to his beloved brother and he felt so very bad about it. “Pa.” His voice came out very small and weak. “It was my fault.”

 

“Your fault?” Ben said, his face darkening as he looked down at the boy. “How was it your fault, Joseph?”

 

Stammering a little, and trembling with nerves Joe managed to get out the sorry story of the dare and how it had all gone wrong. He kept his gaze fixed on the floor scared to look up at his father. He risked a quick look as he finally finished speaking and was devastated to see the look of disappointment and anger that had settled on Ben’s face.

 

“I told you not to play any more of these tricks.” Ben’s voice was dangerously low. “You heard me say that didn’t you, Joseph?” At Joe’s nod, his father repeated the question, his voice rising. “Didn’t you, Joseph?”

 

“Y…Yes, sir. I did.” Joe stuttered.

 

“Yet you wilfully disobeyed my order and it has resulted in an injury to your brother that could have the most severe consequences.”

 

“I’m sorry.” Tears began to fall, but Ben took no notice. For the past hour as he tended to his middle son memories had raged within him, memories of other injuries just like Hoss’, of blood poisoning and death. Now, faced with the fact that Joe had caused his brother to fall, Ben’s temper erupted like a volcano.

 

“If anything happens to Hoss you will be personally responsible.” Ben raged, hardly noticing as the youngster before him flinched at the words. “You have been irresponsible, disobedient and I’m very, very disappointed in you. Now, go to your room.”

 

With a gulping sob, Joe fled and Doctor Martin watched in concern as Ben sank down beside him on the couch and buried his head in his hands.

 

 

^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^

 

 

For the rest of the day Joe stayed in his room. At any moment he had expected a visit from his father and the administration of the tanning he’d been warned about.

 

Worried sick about Hoss and riddled with guilt Joe wished that Ben would hurry up, at least once the punishment was over he might be allowed to go and see his brother and apologise to him. He just hoped that Hoss would forgive him, because it looked like it would be a long while before Adam and his father did.

 

Night had fallen and Joe was dozing on the bed when the door to his room finally opened, jumping to his feet the boy prepared for the worst but was surprised when it wasn’t Ben who appeared in his doorway but Hop Sing, a tray of food in his hands.

 

“I bring supper.” The Chinese cook announced, laying the tray down on top of the dresser. “You eat.”

 

“I’m not very hungry.” Joe said miserably, the aroma of cooked meat that drifted up from the meal causing his stomach to churn.

 

“Eat.” Hop Sing ordered, his heart going out to the youngster as he saw how wretched he looked. “Your father say you must have supper.”

 

“Pa?” Joe looked up. “Where is he, Hop Sing? Is he with Hoss?”

 

The little man nodded. “He sit with him.”

 

Despite the calm tone of Hop Sing’s voice Joe could detect an underlying anxiety and his mouth went dry with fear. “Is Hoss worse?” He asked tensely and was terrified when, instead of answering the question Hop Sing just repeated his instruction to eat the food and left the room.

 

Flinging himself on his bed, Joe gave way to his emotions, letting the tears flow. How could he have been so stupid, if anything happened to Hoss he’d never forgive himself and, Joe’s misery grew even deeper at the thought, his father and Adam would hate him for ever. Eventually the boy wore himself out with crying and, despite everything, drifted off to sleep.

 

It was some hours later that Ben Cartwright entered his youngest son’s room. He stood for a while looking down at Joe, sleeping peacefully, his face still showing traces of his tears. Ben reached over and gently pulled the covers over the boy. Watching his child sleep, he thought back to what he’d said to him that afternoon. Ben knew he’d been harsh, fear and anger getting the better of him. He knew that Joe would never willingly do anything that would hurt his brother; Hoss meant the world to the youngster.

 

“Pa?” Adam’s soft whisper, loud in the silent room, startled him.

 

“What is it?”

 

“Hoss has woken up. He’s asking for you.”

 

Ben took a last look down at Joe before turning away to follow Adam. One look at Hoss showed him that the young man was developing a fever, his cheeks red with heat and his eyes overly bright.

 

 

^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^

 

 

The next few days were tense and worrying ones for the Cartwright’s. Ben hardly strayed from Hoss’ side, leaving only when Adam insisted that he take over for a few hours so that his father might get some sleep. Doctor Martin called every day, often staying for hours as they fought hard against the infection that invaded Hoss’ body. Nobody had much time to spare for Joe though Adam made a point of seeking out the boy each time the doctor called and letting him know how Hoss was faring.

 

“Do you want to see him?” He asked on the third day, after tracking Joe down in the hen house where he had been cleaning out the nesting boxes.

 

“Will Pa let me?” Joe asked anxiously. He hadn’t seen his father for more than ten minutes at a time since Hoss’ fall and when he had Ben had been preoccupied, hardly noticing him.

 

“Of course he will.” Adam told him, a touch of sympathy in his voice. “Come on up with me.”

 

Joe nodded and, stopping to wash his hands at the pump, followed the tall figure of his big brother. When Adam reached out and pushed open the door of Hoss’ room Joe hesitated on the threshold for a moment, scared to go in and see for himself just how ill his brother was. Taking a deep breath he finally forced himself to enter, seeing his father standing by window, his face drawn and pale. Eyes flickering to the bed, he saw Hoss. The young man looked terrible, his skin was almost as white as his pillows except for two spots of colour that burned along his cheekbones and, even from the doorway, Joe could see the beads of cold sweat that stood out on his brother’s brow.

 

“How is he?” Adam asked in a whisper, standing beside Joe and putting a hand on the boy’s shoulder.

 

“Not too good.” Ben’s tone was bleak. “Paul thinks we should know one way or the other by tonight.”

 

Joe looked up sharply at the words, his stomach giving a sickening lurch. He had known that Hoss was very ill but in that instant he suddenly realised that his brother, his best friend, might die from his injury. He felt himself grow cold, his hands beginning to tremble and a strange lightheaded feeling pervaded his mind.

 

“Joe!” Adam’s exclamation caused him to blink, and shake his head as his eldest brother bent down to look at him. “Do you want to sit down?” Adam asked, concerned as he saw that the blood had drained from the boy’s face, leaving him as pale and waxen looking as Hoss.

 

“No.” Joe pulled away. “I’m fine, I’ve got to go…got to finish the chores.” Turning he fled from the room, down the stairs and out into the warm sunshine.

 

“I’d better go and talk to him…” Adam said, wondering how Joe could possibly deal with the guilt if the worst did happen.

 

“I’ll speak to him.” Ben told him. “You stay here.” He began to follow Joe but had got no further than the doorway when Hoss emitted a sharp cry of pain and, his youngest son forgotten, he rushed to the bedside.

 

 

^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^

 

 

The grey light of early morning was just beginning to push back the night as Ben descended the stairs into the great room. He had spent all yesterday evening and most of the night with Hoss and he was exhausted and in need of a cup of strong coffee. The sight that met his eyes as he reached the bottom of the staircase brought a ghost of a smile to his lips. Joe was curled up on the couch, fast asleep. A blanket had been laid carefully over the boy, probably by Hop Sing, as Adam had spent the last few hours with his father at Hoss’ bedside. Kneeling beside the couch, Ben gently put his arms beneath Joe’s knees and shoulders with the intention of picking his son up and carrying him upstairs but the movement disturbed the boy and he stirred and woke.

 

Pa.” Sleep clouded eyes stared up blearily at Ben for a moment as Joe tried to orientate himself.

 

“Good morning, sleepyhead.” Ben smiled down at the boy. “Shouldn’t you be in your bed?”

 

Memory returning, a flicker of alarm touched Joe’s eyes and he pushed himself upright. “I waited up to see if Hoss was all right. How is he Pa?” The words came out laced with fear.

 

“His fever broke in the night.” Ben reassured him, gently stroking Joe’s arm. “I think he’s going to be okay.”

 

For a long moment Joe looked searchingly into his father’s eyes as though not quite believing, then with a sudden gasp, he covered his face with his hands as his body shook with sobs. “I prayed so hard.” He managed to say, the words coming out in gulps. “I didn’t mean it, Pa, I really didn’t mean Hoss to get hurt.”

 

“I know.” Ben gathered the youngster to him. “I know you wouldn’t want your brother hurt and I’m sorry I blamed you that way. You were wrong to disobey me, Joe, and it was a very silly prank but it’s all over now. We’ll put it behind us.”

 

“Aren’t you going to punish me?” Joe asked quietly, his sobs subsiding as he relaxed in his father’s embrace.

 

“I think all this has been punishment enough.” Ben told him. “Now, how about you go up to bed for a few hours and perhaps you can go in and see Hoss later on.”

 

A tremulous smile lit the boy’s face as he stood up. Half way to the stairs a sudden doubt assailed him and he turned to look at Ben again. “Hoss will forgive me won’t he?” He asked, worry creasing his forehead. “He will believe I didn’t mean it?”

 

“Of course he will.” Ben smiled, knowing that Hoss never held a grudge. As his youngest son headed up the stairs comforted by his father’s words Ben thoughts returned to his middle son and, raising his head, he sent up a silent prayer of gratitude. 

 

 

 

^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^

 

 

For the next couple of weeks all seemed to be well on the Ponderosa. A very contrite Joe managed to find the courage to confess his part in Hoss’ fall to his brother and beg for his forgiveness. He was immensely relieved when the young man gave a philosophical shrug of his large shoulders. “I ain’t gonna hold it against you, Joe.” He said. “Ain’t as though you set out to break my leg.”

 

As Hoss began his recuperation he soon found he had an eager slave in his younger brother. Joe willingly traipsed up and down the stairs fetching and carrying anything Hoss asked for. He spent long hours in his brother’s room playing checkers, reading aloud and chattering away about every subject under the sun. Eventually, even tolerant ever-patient Hoss had taken as much as he could of Joe’s ‘cheering-up’ and quietly asked his father to find the boy some chores to keep him busy. 

 

After a week, Hoss was allowed to spend the days downstairs, his father and older brother carrying him down between them and settling him into the blue armchair, his splinted leg extended before him, resting on the footstool.

 

As the weeks passed it was Adam who first became aware of the change in his middle brother, the young man seemed to be spending long periods lost in thought and several times recently, coming into the house after work, Adam had to call his brother’s name twice before Hoss responded. 

 

“Something wrong?” He asked eventually, returning from a trip to Virginia City to find Hoss alone in the great room an almost untouched meal on the table beside him. “It’s not like you to leave food.”

 

“I’m not sure.” Hoss confessed, turning worried blue eyes toward him. “It’s my leg. It just don’t feel right, Adam. I’ve had a couple of broken bones before and this just don’t feel the same.”

 

“I shouldn’t worry about it.” Adam told him stoutly, while privately his heart sank at his brother’s words. “You’ve never had a break like this before, that’s probably why it feels different. Still,” He continued with what he hoped came over as a nonchalant tone. “Wouldn’t hurt to get Paul Martin out to take a look at it.”

 

“That’s a good idea.” Hoss said quietly, looking down at the injured limb. “I think I’d feel better if the Doc saw it.”

 

Drawing his father aside after supper that evening, while his two younger brothers were occupied with yet another game of checkers, Adam told him of Hoss’ fears. Ben listened in dismay, a little guilty that he hadn’t noticed that his son was worrying.

 

“I’ll send a message in to Paul right now.” He told Adam, heading for his desk to find pen and paper. “Ask him to come out to the Ponderosa as soon as possible.”

 

 

^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^

 

 

“Hmmmm…” Doctor Martin carefully felt around the healing wound on Hoss’ leg, then moving his hand to the young man’s foot he applied pressure on the sole. “Any pain?”

 

“Hurts all up the leg.” Hoss told him, his gritted teeth revealing just how much.

 

“I see.” The doctor stood up and crossed to the dresser where he poured a little water from the jug into the basin and rinsed his hands. “Have you tried walking on it at all?”

 

“A coupla times when no one was about I tried standing.” Hoss confessed, looking nervously across the bedroom to where his father stood watching. “Hurt something awful. What’s the matter with it, Doc?”

 

“It doesn’t seem to have knit together quite right.” The doctor told him gravely, drying his hands on a towel. “That’s what’s causing so much pain.”

 

“So what can be done?” Ben asked anxiously.

 

With a heavy sigh the doctor looked from father to son. “I’m afraid there’s nothing I can do for it.” He told them. “Hoss will be able to walk on it, but it will be painful. A cane might help a little so the full weight isn’t put on the leg.”

 

“A cane!” Hoss exclaimed in horror and Ben’s face grew dark with sorrow for his son.

 

“You could have lost the leg.” Paul told him, trying to bring some perspective to the prognosis. “Or even died from the infection. At least you’re alive and you will be able to get around.”

 

“But only with a cane.” Hoss whispered, his blue eyes glistening with unshed tears. “Not going to be much good around the ranch am I?”

 

“Is there nothing at all that can be done?” Ben asked, moving across to sit beside Hoss and place a comforting arm around his shoulder.

 

“Not as far as I’m aware.” Paul said. “But I confess to not being an expert in this field. I’ll make some enquiries, there may be some treatment I’m not aware of.”

 

“Thank you.” Ben told him gratefully.

 

“Don’t get your hopes up too much.” The doctor cautioned. “It might be best to try to come to terms with things how they are.” Picking up his bag he bade the two Cartwrights farewell.

 

“I know he’s right and I should be glad I still got my leg.” Hoss said, turning to his father as the doctor left the room. “But I purely hate the thought of having to walk with a cane the rest of my life, Pa.

 

“I know you do.” Ben squeezed his son’s shoulder consolingly. Silently he vowed that if Paul’s enquiries were unfruitful he wouldn’t give up, he’d try everywhere he possibly could to find some treatment for Hoss. He knew that if Hoss was crippled he wasn’t the only one that would suffer.  Every time Joe looked at his brother walking with a cane he would feel guilty for having caused the accident and Ben feared for both his younger sons.

 

 

^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^

 

 

“Doctor Martin has heard from a specialist in San Francisco,” Ben told Adam and Joe at the breakfast table a few days later. “He thinks there is a possibility that he may be able to help Hoss.” He saw the expression of hope that crossed both his sons’ faces. “Just a possibility,” he warned, “nothing definite.”

 

“But a chance?” Adam asked.

 

“A chance.” his father agreed. “So I’m going to go with Hoss to see this man.”

 

Doctor Martin had sent word out from Virginia City late the previous evening that if Ben could get Hoss to San Francisco there was a surgeon there who had agreed to operate on his leg. The man had had some success with similar injuries and was willing to see what he could do for Hoss. Ben had talked it over with Hoss before coming down to breakfast and the young man had decided that he wanted to go. 

 

“Just the two of you?” Joe enquired hesitantly.

 

“Just the two of us.” Ben confirmed, understanding how much Joe wanted to come along, but feeling that he would be better off remaining on the Ponderosa. Since he had been told that Hoss’ leg wasn’t healing correctly Joe had become very quiet and introverted. Despite reassurances from his father and both his brothers Joe blamed himself and was carrying around an immense burden of guilt. “Adam will be needed here to run the ranch and you have school.” He favoured the boy with a stern look, quelling any protest. “You will stay here with your older brother and you will do exactly as he says, to the letter, understand me?”

 

“Yes, Sir.” Joe answered meekly glancing at Adam, surprised to get a sympathetic look from him. Adam knew that his father wanted to spare Joe the grim reality of the hospital and the operation, but couldn’t help thinking that it might be better for the boy to be with Hoss rather than fretting here at home.

 

“I’ve asked Hop Sing to start packing today.” Ben continued. “If you could go into Virginia City and get the coach tickets, Adam, we should be able to leave tomorrow.”

 

“I guess you’ll need enough seats so that Hoss can put his leg up.” Adam said, getting up from the table and going to get his hat.

 

“Get four seats.” Ben told him. “If that’s not possible we’ll take the next stage. Oh, and hurry back, I want to go over what needs doing around here while I’m gone.”

 

Adam nodded and left, keeping to himself a small sigh of exasperation at his father’s words. He knew as well as Ben did exactly what work was needed on the Ponderosa.

 

“Why don’t you go up and bring Hoss’ breakfast tray down, Joe.” Ben said softly, looking over at the hunched figure of his youngest son as the door closed behind Adam. “I think your brother might like to see you.”

 

Obediently Joe slid from his chair and started up the stairs. Ben watched him anxiously, this quiet, sad, young boy was so different from his son’s usual exuberant, cheeky self and his heart ached for him. Joseph could be such a sensitive child and he dreaded the thought of him having to carry this burden of guilt for ever.

 

 

^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^

 

 

“I’ll send you a telegraph as soon as we arrive.” Ben told Adam as they stood together watching the coach driver load the luggage the next morning. “Take care of yourself and don’t forget Mr. Andrews is coming next week to look over those mares.”

 

“Don’t worry, Pa.” Adam put a hand on his father’s arm and led him towards the stage, where Joe was perched in the doorway talking to Hoss. “I know exactly what needs doing. Just you concentrate on Hoss and getting him to this doctor.” He looked inside the vehicle to where his middle brother sat comfortably installed on one of the seats, his leg straight out in front of him, a bag of candy that Joe had bought him open on his lap. “You sure you’ll be able to manage?”

 

“I’ve spoken to the driver.” Ben assured him, with a quick glance up at the burly man taking his place at the front of the coach and picking up the reins. “He’s offered to help me with Hoss at the way stations.”

 

“Good.” Adam reached inside his jacket and withdrew a slim book, which he handed to his father. “Give this to Hoss, it might help to pass the time.”

 

“Thanks.” Ben took the volume, and caught hold of his son’s hand. “Goodbye, Adam.” He said softly. “God bless.”

 

“’Bye, Pa.” Adam shook his father’s hand warmly. “And don’t fret about Joe, I’ll watch out for him.”

 

Ben nodded then turned to climb aboard, catching Joe’s arm and pulling the boy down from the doorway and into a hug. “Goodbye, son.”

 

“’Bye, Pa.” Joe returned the hug, relaxing for a moment in the security of his father’s arms. “I’ll miss you.”

 

“And I’ll miss you.” Ben tousled his son’s hair fondly. “You be sure and mind what Adam says won’t you?”

 

Joe nodded fiercely, looking up at his father’s face. “I’ll be good, I promise.”

 

Ben smiled at the sincerity in the boy’s expression, knowing full well that despite his best efforts Joe always seemed to manage to find trouble somewhere. “Just do your best.” He told him. “And work hard at school.”

 

“I will.” Joe stepped back reluctantly and allowed his father to board. “’Bye Hoss!” He called loudly as Ben reached out to close the stage door behind him.

 

“’Bye.” Hoss called back and the coach lurched forward to begin its journey, leaving Virginia City in a cloud of dust.

 

Joe remained where he was for a long while after the stagecoach had left. He always hated it when his father had to leave the Ponderosa for any length of time, plagued by fears that he might not return. This time was even worse, his fears for his brother all too real. Lost in thought he jumped as he felt Adam’s hands on his shoulders.

 

“Better cut along to school now, Joe.”

 

“I guess.”

 

Adam watched sympathetically as his youngest brother headed slowly off along the sidewalk to fetch his horse, dejection apparent in his slumped posture. Joe had just put a foot in the stirrup to mount up when with a sigh Adam told him to stop. “You’re already late.” He said as the youngster turned to look at him. “Why don’t you give it a miss for today and come help me instead?”

 

“Skip school?” Joe asked in amazement. “Really?”

 

“Yes, really.” Adam smiled at him. “I’ll square it with your teacher. That’s if you want to?”

 

“Sure I do.” Joe said, with a grin, the dejected look vanishing as he contemplated a day away from the classroom.

 

“Then let’s go.” Adam climbed into the buggy he’d driven his father and Hoss to town in, and the two headed back towards the Ponderosa. 

 

 

^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^

 

 

“What’s up?” Mitch Devlin asked his friend anxiously, noting Joe’s pale face as he slid into his seat in the Virginia City schoolhouse. “Not bad news about Hoss?”

 

“No, Adam got a letter yesterday.” Joe told him quietly. “The operation went all right.”

 

Mitch let out a relieved sigh; he felt partially to blame for Hoss’ condition and had been fretting almost as much as Joe these last few weeks since the two Cartwrights had left for San Francisco. “Thank the Lord.” He said fervently, then frowned at the look of abject misery on Joe’s face. “Aren’t you pleased?” He asked.

 

“Of course I am.” Joe said quickly. “Real pleased.”

 

“So what’s the problem?”

 

“It doesn’t stop it being my fault.” Joe told him quietly. “It won’t stop my Pa hating me.”

 

“Hating you?” Mitch repeated, shocked. “Oh no Joe, you’ve got it wrong there, your Pa couldn’t hate you. Everyone knows how close your family is.”

 

“But what if the operation doesn’t work?” Joe asked, fighting back the tears that threatened to embarrass him in front of his friend. “What if Hoss never walks properly again? It’ll be all my fault, Pa and Hoss will hate me and I’ll deserve it too.”

 

“It was only an accident.” Mitch protested, dismayed at Joe’s distress. “They know that and anyway you said the operation went all right.”

 

“It did, but I think there’s something wrong, Mitch. Adam wouldn’t even let me look at the letter from Pa, he...” Joe stopped, dropping his head down to look at his desk as the door opened to admit Miss Jones.

 

“Get out your slates and we’ll start with some math.” The teacher announced, her eyes sweeping over the assembled children as she took her place at the head of the class. Her glance came to rest on Joe who sat, unmoving, head bowed. “Joe, your slate please.”

 

Dashing a hand across his eyes, Joe did as he was told and for the next hour the room was silent. Only Mitch noticed his friend run a finger across his slate from time to time, wiping away a fallen tear.

 

“I’m going home.” Joe announced to Mitch at recess as the children filed out into the schoolyard.

 

“Cutting school?” Mitch looked at him anxiously. “You’ll get in awful trouble and Miss Jones will likely tell Adam.”

 

“I don’t care.” Joe said, heading off towards the horses. “Tell her I felt ill or something. I just gotta go home.”

 

“Okay.” Mitch agreed reluctantly. “I’ll tell her.”

 

“Thanks.” Joe ran over to where Cochise waited patiently. Quickly mounting up he started back toward the Ponderosa. He knew Mitch was right, Miss Jones would be very angry and she would almost certainly tell Adam, but he would face that problem later. Right now he just wanted to go home and see if he could get a look at the letter Adam had got the day before. His older brother had told him that the operation was over and had gone well but he had refused to let Joe look at the letter, telling him it was just about work that needed doing on the Ponderosa. Worried, Joe had lain awake half the night, his imagination conjuring up terrible things that could have gone wrong, perhaps Hoss wasn’t going to be able to walk at all, perhaps they couldn’t save his leg, perhaps.... By the morning Joe had convinced himself that something was being kept from him and was determined to find out what. He’d gone off to school as normal but he knew that Adam would be at work by late morning and that Hop Sing would be in town collecting supplies, so when he rode back home around noon everything was quiet and still. Leaving Cochise tied to the hitching post he made straight for Adam’s room. He knew his brother kept the key to his father’s desk in the top drawer of his dresser when Pa was away and he had seen Adam put the letter in the desk last night. Moments later he was back downstairs, key in hand, standing behind his father’s desk.

 

Turning the key in the lock he pulled the desk drawer open, revealing the letter lying on top of a pile of other correspondence. Picking up the top sheet of paper Joe hesitated a moment before starting to read, unsure whether he wanted to know the truth. Eventually, with a trembling hand, he smoothed out the letter, sat down in his father’s chair and began:

 

 

‘Dear Adam,’ He read. ‘The operation is over and now it’s a matter of waiting. I’m finding this very difficult and it must be even more so for Hoss, yet he tries his best to remain cheerful and optimistic. I spend as much time as I can with him, but there are quite strict visiting hours. My hotel is very comfortable but I confess that when I’m not with Hoss I find myself fretting over him and am always glad to get back to the hospital. The nursing staff are all very pleasant and the place is scrupulously clean and well run. Hoss complains bitterly about the food though, saying that not only is it not a patch on Hop Sing’s cooking but that there just isn’t enough of it. I have promised that when he’s discharged I shall treat him to a meal in the finest restaurant in the city before we head home. Doctor Jacobs has been wonderful, very kind and reassuring both to Hoss and I. Even so he is compelled to point out that he can make no guarantees that the operation will be a success. I dread the result if it isn’t. Hoss will be devastated though I know he will face whatever happens with courage. I hate the thought of Joseph…’

 

 

Joe’s vision blurred with tears as he read the last few words. Hesitantly he reached for the next sheet of paper, dreading to find out what else his father said about him, but as he did he heard the sound of a horse in the yard and hastily replaced the letter and locked the drawer just as Adam walked in.

 

 

^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^

 

 

“Joe!” Adam called out as he came into the house, having seen Cochise in the yard and realising that the boy was at home. “Joe!”

 

“I’m here, Adam.”

 

Rounding the corner to the study Adam saw his young brother curled up in his father’s chair. “Why aren’t you at school?”

 

“I didn’t feel so good.” Joe told him quietly, his fingers closing tightly around the key that he held in his hand. “So I came home.”

 

“You do look pale.” Adam acknowledged, giving the boy a searching look. “What’s the problem?”

 

“I just feel a little sick.”

 

“You don’t feel hot?” Adam leaned over and placed a hand on his brother’s forehead. “No pains, headache or anything?”

 

“No.” Joe mumbled the reply, trying hard to keep his voice steady. “I just want to go lie down for a while.”

 

“Go on up to bed then.” Adam told him, with a worried frown. He hoped Joe wasn’t coming down with anything serious, there had been a couple of cases of measles in Virginia City and that could be a killer. “I’ll be down here if you need me, I’m just going to get a pot of coffee and then I’ve got some letters to write.”

 

Joe nodded and forced himself to walk slowly upstairs, feeling Adam’s anxious gaze following him. As soon as he reached the upstairs corridor he headed swiftly for his eldest brother’s room and replaced the key. Minutes later, safely in his own bedroom, Joe lay down on his bed and contemplated the words he had just read. Fearful suggestions crowded the boys mind as to how his father had continued the letter. ‘I hate the thought of Joseph now…I hate the thought of Joseph and so does Hoss…I hate the thought of Joseph and I wish I need never see him again…’ With these dire notions running through his head Joe finally fell into a light sleep where his dreams were haunted by nightmare visions of his father disowning him for what he’d done while Hoss looked on, leaning heavily on a cane, condemnation shining in his eyes. “No, Pa…please no…I didn’t…” He yelled and came awake to find Adam shaking him gently.

 

“It’s all right, Joe. It was just a bad dream.” Adam reassured him, sitting down on the side of the bed. “I heard you from downstairs, must have been quite a nightmare.”

 

“I don’t really remember.” Joe muttered, turning away from his brother’s gaze. “Anyway, I’m all right now.”

 

“Are you sure?” Adam asked gently. “If you’d like to talk about it…”

 

“I said I’m all right!” Joe snapped angrily, immediately regretting it when he saw a hurt look cross his brother’s face. “Sorry.” He apologised.

 

“It’s okay.” Adam stood up. “You don’t need to tell me if you don’t want to.”

 

“There’s nothing to tell.” Joe insisted.

 

“Are you feeling any better?” Adam asked, changing the subject. He and Joe had been getting on reasonably well these past few weeks and he didn’t want to upset the boy by forcing him to talk about his nightmare. “Up to a glass of milk and a few cookies?”

 

“No thanks.” Joe shook his head. “I think I’ll just try and go to sleep again.”

 

But sleep didn’t come easily to Joe. As the hours ticked slowly by he heard Hop Sing return home and the voices of some of the hands talking loudly in the yard. Later he smelt the aroma of roast pork drifting up from the kitchen. A couple of times his brother came upstairs and softly opened the bedroom door, but Joe kept his eyes tightly closed and his breathing even and Adam slipped quietly away, assuming that he was asleep. Eventually the sky beyond his window darkened and night fell on the Ponderosa.

 

 

^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^

 

 

Waking with a start, Adam lay still for a moment, wondering what had disturbed him. By the way moonlight flooded in through the window of his room he guessed the time to be somewhere around 2 or 3 a.m and he had only been asleep since midnight. He had checked on Joe before turning in, finding the boy still sleeping. It worried him a little that Joe had slept so long, but Pa often said that sleep was the best healer and Joe didn’t seem at all feverish or restless. Deciding that if the morning found Joe still feeling unwell he’d summon Dr. Martin, Adam had retired to bed. A slight noise from outside drew his attention and throwing back the covers, Adam got out of bed. Beneath his window all seemed still and empty, the moonlight illuminating the yard almost as brightly as daylight. Opening the window he drew a deep lungful of the clean, pine-scented air shivering a little as the cool of the night struck his bare skin. Just about to return to bed he paused, looking over at the barn. It looked as though the door hadn’t been closed properly and was slightly ajar. With a sigh he reached for his pants, pulling them on quickly and sliding his feet into his boots. Grabbing his shirt, he started downstairs, thrusting his arms into the sleeves as he went.

 

Reaching the barn he found he had been right, the door was partially open. He was reaching out to close it when he heard the whinny of Joe’s horse, Cochise.

 

“Hey, boy.” Pulling the door open he walked into the dark building, automatically reaching for the lantern that was usually kept hung on a nail beside the door. But his searching fingers met empty air, the lamp was gone. Puzzled, Adam pulled the door wide open, allowing the moonlight to illuminate the interior and the four horses in their stalls who looked up as the light washed over them. He saw immediately that Cochise had been saddled and realised why the lantern was missing.

 

“Joe, is that you?” Approaching Cochise’s stall he stopped, just able to make out the dim shape of his young brother in the gloom. “What in heaven’s name are you doing out here?”

 

“I…um…I couldn’t sleep.” Joe answered, pushing something aside with his foot.

 

“So you decided to take Cochise out in the dark?” Adam asked in disbelief. “Come on Joe, you can do better than that.”

 

“Just leave me alone.” Joe’s flash of temper startled Adam and he stepped back as the boy picked up the lamp from the floor and came rushing out of Cochise’s stall, brushing past him.

 

“Not so fast.” Grabbing the youngster’s arm Adam sat him gently down on one of the feed boxes. “Where were you thinking of going?”

 

“Away.” Joe told him sullenly, eyes fixed on the ground. “I was going away.”

 

“But why?” Adam asked, a perplexed frown creasing his brow.

 

“Because Pa hates me Adam.” The boy’s voice broke on a sob as the words tumbled out. “He hates me for what I did to Hoss. He’ll never forgive me.”

 

“Joe, this is ridiculous.” Adam knelt down in front of his brother, ignoring the small stones that dug into his knees through the fabric of his pants. “Pa loves you. Whatever you do he’ll always love you, that’s just the way it is with parents and children.”

 

“No it’s not.” Joe looked up miserably, eyes brimming with unshed tears. “I’ve seen lots of parents that hate their kids, Adam. Lots of fathers that beat their sons and…”

 

“And has Pa ever beaten you?” Adam asked angrily, annoyance at his little brother’s attitude beginning to take over. Joe shook his head mutely. “No, he may have tanned you a few times when you’ve been really naughty but that’s all. In fact he’s shown you nothing but love and kindness your whole life. And how do you intend to repay him? By running away, by making the rest of his life miserable because he misses you so much? Never doubt his love for us Joe, never.”

 

“But I know that he hates me.” Joe told him sadly. “I read the letter, Adam. You locked it away so I wouldn’t find out, but I unlocked the drawer and read it.”

 

“The letter?” Adam looked mystified. “But he never said anything like that in the letter, Joe.”

 

“Yes, he did.” Joe insisted, wringing his hands together. “He said ‘I hate the thought of Joseph’.” The words were imprinted on his mind.

 

“Carrying all that guilt around with him.” Adam finished quietly, remembering the words as Joe spoke them. “You never finished reading it, Joe. Pa doesn’t blame you and neither does Hoss, they’re just worried that you’re blaming yourself.”

 

“Really?” Joe looked up, a hopeful expression on his face. “You’re sure?”

 

“Of course I am, buddy. Pa knows you didn’t mean to hurt Hoss, he told you that.”

 

“But that was when we thought Hoss’ leg was going to be all right.”

 

“Come indoors.” Adam got to his feet and drew Joe up with him, putting an arm round the boy’s shoulders. “I’ll let you read the rest of the letter and perhaps that’ll make you feel better.”

 

“It’s still my fault though.” Joe said quietly. “If Hoss’ leg never mends then every time I see him I’ll know that I’m the one that hurt him.”

 

“I know you will.” Adam told him. “I’m afraid that’s something you’ll have to learn to live with, Joe. But you do know that you didn’t do it deliberately.”

 

“I wish I could go see Hoss.” Joe looked at his brother as they left the dark stable and walked out into the moonlight. “It’s so hard waiting here for news.”

 

“I’d kind of like to see him myself.” Adam told him with a small smile lifting the side of his mouth. “Think we ought to go?”

 

To San Francisco!” Joe exclaimed excitedly, eyes shining with anticipation. “Could we?”

 

“Well, I think Pa might have a few choice things to say to me when we get there.” Adam said wryly. “But yes, you and I are going to San Francisco.”

 

 

^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^

 

Disembarking from the steamer that had carried them from Sacramento to San Francisco, Adam smiled at the animated face of his younger brother. Joe had only been to San Francisco once or twice and to a boy that had been born and brought up in the wide-open spaces of the Ponderosa the big city was a huge and wonderful place. As the brothers headed down the gangplank Joe’s gaze darted this way and that, overwhelmed by the crush of people and the raucous sounds of the dockside. He paused for a while; attention caught by a couple of old fishermen sitting on barrels alongside their boat, deftly mending nets. A little further along he stopped again to listen to a white bearded English sailor singing a colourful song about a mermaid whilst accompanying himself on an instrument that Adam whispered to him was called a vielle a roué or hurdy gurdy. Eventually, Adam grasped the boy’s arm and pulled him away. “Come on, Joe.” He urged him. “I thought you were eager to go and see Hoss.”

 

Immediately a worried frown replaced the lively expression on the boy’s face and his shoulders drooped. Adam sighed, he had enjoyed the last few days with Joe, the uncomfortable coach ride and the boredom of the steamer trip made more interesting by observing his brother’s excitement. To Joe the whole journey was a great adventure and he had revelled in every moment of it, his concern for Hoss put aside for a while. Adam’s reminder had brought the youngster back to reality.

 

Hailing a cab outside of the docks Adam gave the address of his father’s hotel. As the cabby set off, wending his way expertly around the many other carriages that packed the roads, Adam found himself enjoying the noise and bustle of the city. “Look there.” He said to Joe, pointing out of the window. “That building is going to be the Ghiradelli chocolate factory.” Joe looked up obediently but showed little interest in what was going on outside the cab window. Even Adam’s enjoyment faded as they eventually pulled up outside the small hotel where Ben Cartwright was staying. He found himself a little apprehensive about facing his father who would no doubt be waiting for them, knowing the date of their arrival from the telegraph despatched on the morning they left Virginia City.

 

“Pa!” Joe spotted his father as soon as they entered the lobby. Ben was seated on a couch to one side of the room, a copy of ‘The Daily American’ newspaper open in front of him. Folding the paper as he saw his sons, he stood up as they approached.

 

“Adam.” He acknowledged his eldest quietly.

 

“Hey, Pa.” There was a distinct hint of nervousness in Adam’s tone and Joe looked at him in surprise. “How’s Hoss?”

 

Ben’s stern expression faded into a smile, which lifted both Adam and Joe’s spirits immediately. “He’s fine.” He told them. “Anxious to see you two, of course.”

 

“Can we go see him now, Pa?” Joe asked eagerly, a weight lifting from him at his father’s words. “Please?”

 

“In a little while.” Ben told him, putting an arm round the boy. “I just want to have a word with Adam first. Why don’t you take the bags upstairs?” He handed Joe a key. “Give us a few minutes then come on down and we’ll go see your brother.”

 

“Now.” Ben turned to Adam as Joe disappeared up the stairs. “What on earth possessed you to bring Joe here?”

 

Adam’s explanation of Joe’s misreading of the letter and the deep guilt the boy was feeling brought a frown to Ben’s face. “You let him see the letter?” He asked.

 

“Of course. I shouldn’t have hidden it away in the first place, only made him more curious about it.”

 

“But you still felt he needed to come here?”

 

“He needed you.” Adam told him softly. “I can tell him you don’t hold him responsible but he’s only really going to believe it from you. I made sure that Will had everything under control on the Ponderosa before we left, you don’t need to worry on that score.”

 

“I’m sure Will can cope.” Ben said, thinking of the Ponderosa foreman. “He’s been with us long enough to know the business inside out.”

 

“So you’re not angry?”

 

“No.” Ben smiled and clapped Adam gently on the shoulder. “I’m glad you came.”

 

 

^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^

 

The long hospital room, lined on both sides with beds, scared Joe and he edged closer to his father as they walked the length of it. Eyes drawn to an elderly man, with just stumps where his legs should have been, Joe couldn’t repress a shudder.

 

Hoss’ cheery grin greeted them as they drew close to where he sat in a straight-backed chair beside his bed. A silver topped cane rested against the arm of the chair and Joe’s heart sank at the sight.

 

“Hey, fellas.” Hoss grinned as his brother’s approached. “Didn’t think I’d be seeing you for another coupla weeks.”

 

“We just fancied a taste of city life, didn’t we Joe?” Adam joked, with a glance at his youngest brother. “How are you anyway?” He asked, sitting down on the bed.

 

“I’m fine.” Hoss told him. “They’re gonna let me outta here in a day or so.” He looked over at Joe who stood beside his father, looking crestfallen. “Ain’t that good news, shortshanks? Soon be back on the Ponderosa.”

 

“You’ve still got to have a cane?” Joe’s question was whispered, his eyes fixed on his brother.

 

“Well, yes.” Hoss said. “But…”

 

“Joseph?” Ben said, waving Hoss to silence and putting a hand on his youngest son’s shoulders. “You do know that whatever happens no one is blaming you don’t you?”

 

Joe nodded. “It’s still my fault though.” He said quietly. “I’m the one that unfastened that girth.”

 

“You meant it as a joke.” Ben told him. “It wasn’t done maliciously. Goodness knows there are plenty of times you boys could have ended up injuring each other over the years. Just lucky something like this didn’t happen before.”

 

“Sure is.” Hoss put in. “Remember that time I rigged that top fence panel to collapse.”

 

“Only too well.” Adam said wryly. “You knew I always sat up there to watch Pa with the horses.”

 

“I didn’t know you were gonna fall on a rock.” Hoss protested. “D’you know Adam I cain’t even remember why I did it now.”

 

“Because Adam had told you off for taking one of his books to read to Joe.” Ben put in with a smile. “Not a very suitable book either, if I remember rightly.”

 

“Not that Joe would have understood it anyway.” Adam grinned. “He can’t have been more than four.”

 

“The point is it was just an accident that Adam got hurt.” Ben said seriously, tilting Joe’s head up to look at him. “And it was just an accident that Hoss got hurt, understand?”

 

“Understand.” Joe said with a smile. “I’m sorry it happened though.”

 

“I know you are.” Ben said and put his hands on the boy’s shoulders, turning him to face Hoss. “Tell Joe the rest of the news, Hoss.”

 

“The cane’s just for a little while.” Hoss told him, a huge grin on his face. “Dr. Jacobs’ says I’ll be fit as a frog in a few weeks.”

 

 Joe let out a whoop of delight and launched himself at Hoss while Adam stood up to shake his brother’s hand. Ben watched the three, glad that everything was back to normal and wondering how long it would be before Joe forgot the anguish of the past few weeks and began playing tricks again. Probably not long, given his young son’s mercurial nature but hopefully next time he’d think before he acted. Ben shook his head slowly at the thought, since when had Joseph ever thought before he acted?

 

 

 

 

THE END

 

© Kathleen Pitts 2001