Summary: A WHN for the episode False Witness. For all those who felt deprived of a JPM.
Rating: K+ (7,375 words)
Testament of Friendship
“Joe.” Hoss’ voice was soft as he bent over his brother. “Joe, she’s gone.” He gently pried the dead girl from his brother’s arms.
“I know,” Joe replied, his voice hoarse. He let go and saw Hoss lay Valerie down in the dust of the street. He looked up at Hoss and the older brother saw tears standing in the younger man’s eyes. “She saved my life,” he whispered.
“I know, Joe,” Hoss replied, still gently. “I saw.” He reached down and helped his injured brother to his feet. Joe winced and his bad leg refused to hold his weight. “Easy now,” Hoss told him. “Let me help ya.” He glanced up and saw Candy standing there and jerked his head. Candy immediately got the message and picked up Joe’s abandoned crutch and handed it to his young boss.
Slowly, the three of them walked back to the hotel. It was no real distance, but Joe faltered part of the way there and would have fallen if Hoss hadn’t been there to catch him. “I’m fine,” Joe protested automatically, but his struggles to get down lacked strength.
“Sure ya are,” Hoss agreed, lifting Joe into his arms. “But jist let me do the walkin’.” Silently, Candy slipped away to fetch the doctor.
“I thought I told you no foot races, Joe,” the doctor scolded, gently.
“It weren’t ezzactly his choice, doc,” Hoss protested. “Them yahoos didn’ think ‘bout Joe’s bad leg.”
“Billy thought about it,” Joe replied. “That’s why he took me.” He winced as the doctor slid a pair of scissors under the blood-stained bandage and began to snip. His leg was extremely tender and when the bandages fell away, it was easy to see why. The sutures had all burst. “He wanted to make me pay for shooting him in the arm.”
Troubled, Hoss didn’t reply, as that was exactly what he had thought, too. Billy had been determined to get back at Joe and wasn’t too fussy how he did it. Hoss was pretty sure that as soon as the Slader gang had reached the outskirts of the town, and were sure they weren’t being followed, they would have killed Joe and Judge Wheeler. And Valerie would have gone with Billy to wherever they ended up next, still believing that he was stealing money so they could have a ranch together.
“Joe, I’m going to have to suture this leg again,” the doctor said, grimly. “And this time you really must stay off it.”
“It ain’t worse, is it?” Candy enquired from the other side of the room. He looked completely relaxed, but both Joe and Hoss knew that Candy was alert, ready to react should anything happen that might threaten Joe.
“Yes, it is,” was the reply. “The sutures have burst, and the leg is swelling. I know I played down the seriousness of the injury to Miss Townsend, but, Joe, this leg is in a mess. I meant it when I said you shouldn’t walk on it. Walking down the street to the courthouse wasn’t good for it and your fight in the street didn’t help.”
Grimacing, for Joe knew that his leg was worse – it felt worse – he asked, “Will this stop us going home tomorrow like we planned?”
When they had first been told they would have to stay in town to be witnesses, Sheriff Donkel had sent a deputy out to the trail camp to tell the other drovers. He had also sent a wire to Ben Cartwright, the boys’ father, to tell him what was going on. Since then, Joe had not thought about the herd they had planned to sell to the murdered Mr. Haskell, but they had planned to return home the day after the trial was over. Now, the trial was over, but Joe knew he wouldn’t be riding anywhere.
“I really think you should give it another day,” the doctor replied. “And you won’t be on a horse, so you’ll have to rent a buckboard.”
“I’ll see to that,” Candy interjected. He turned at once and went out of the bedroom.
For a moment, Joe wanted to whine like a child. He desperately wanted to get home and recuperate in his own home and sleep in his own bed and see his father. This last was actually the most pressing reason of them all. Hoss was a great nurse, gentle and thoughtful and patient, but Joe longed for his father when he was hurt. But his pride wouldn’t let him behave like the child he no longer was and he just sighed, instead. “Then I guess we’ll have to wait,” he agreed, but he didn’t fool Hoss one bit.
“I’ll give you something to make you sleep,” the doctor told Joe. “So quite likely you wouldn’t feel like traveling tomorrow anyway. Just be sure not to walk on it more than is absolutely necessary and you should have full use of it back within a couple of months.”
As the doctor reached into his bag for the chloroform, Joe looked despairingly at Hoss. A couple of months! he thought and winced. Hoss was looking at Joe and frowning, too, knowing how Joe hated to be laid up. “Joe…”he began, then didn’t know what to say.
“It’s all right, Hoss,” Joe replied. He summoned a ragged smile. “Why don’t you go and get something to eat while the doctor sorts my leg?”
“I’m gonna wait here till I know yer all right,” Hoss reproved him, gently. He twinkled gently at Joe. “An’ then I’ll git somethin’ ta eat,” he concluded and was relieved and pleased when his brother laughed at his joke. Actually, he thought, as he watched Joe slide into a drugged sleep, that wasn’t such a bad idea. He was a mite hungry…
Joe spent the majority of the next day in bed with his leg elevated. The doctor came in to check on him at night and proclaimed himself happier. “But I’m not thrilled with the idea of you traveling,” he admitted. “However, I know you’ve been here in Sand Dust longer than you ever expected, so just let me give you a little advice.” He glanced at Hoss and Candy, too, to make sure that they were listening. “Don’t walk anywhere you don’t have to. Elevate the leg as much as possible and don’t travel too far each day. See your own doctor when you get home.”
“I’m sure Doc Martin will be thrilled by that,” Joe commented, wryly.
Smiling, the doctor patted Joe on the shoulder. “Goodbye, Joe.”
“Bye, doc, and thanks,” Joe called after him. Hoss followed the doctor out to the living room of their suite and accepted extra bandages, so he could keep the bandage as clean as possible. Once the man was gone, Hoss returned to the room, where Candy once more had out his pack of cards.
“Well, I guess we’ll be on our way tomorra,” he mentioned, as he tucked the bandages away into a saddlebag. “That is, if’n Candy’s got us a buckboard.”
“Of course I have!” Candy retorted. “I told you I’d get one.”
“How much is it costing us?” Joe asked. “Remember, we didn’t get paid for the herd, either.” He frowned, wondering what on earth they were going to do with the cattle.
“Actually, we did,” Candy responded and stood up to dig deep into his pants’ pocket. He drew out a large roll of notes and handed them over to Hoss. “Some fella, I’ve forgotten his name, has taken over Haskell’s business. He offered us the same price as Haskell, so I accepted. And the buckboard ain’t costin’ us anythin’. Sheriff Donkel is lending it to us.” He watched Hoss count it. “Haskell’s nephew!” he exclaimed. “That’s who’s taken on the business. I still can’t remember his name, though.”
“I don’t care what his name was,” Joe replied, taking the money from Hoss. “As long as he paid us, I don’t care who he is.”
“I thought I did pretty good, too,” Candy replied, modestly. “You don’t need to thank me.”
Exchanging a look, Hoss said to Joe, “Give him his money, Joe. I think we should jist let him git on the train to Chicago.”
“No, that’s all right,” Candy averred. “I’ll come along home with you – just to make sure you get there of course.”
“Very magnanimous of you,” Joe commented.
“Gee, that’s a big word, Joe,” Candy gasped, looking wide-eyed. “Did you read a dictionary today?”
He ducked as Joe lobbed a pillow in his direction. “Just for that,” Joe told him, “I aim to relieve you of all your money playing poker.”
“You can try,” Candy sniggered. “You can try.”
It was still early as Sheriff Donkel helped Joe hop awkwardly down the last of the hotel stairs and outside to where the buckboard was waiting. Chubb and Cochise were tethered to the back of the buckboard and their saddles and other supplies were lying in the back. Hoss turned around and took Joe from the sheriff.
“I can get into the buckboard myself,” Joe told him, slightly embarrassed to have been receiving help from a stranger.
“I’m sure ya can,” Hoss agreed, catching hold of Joe around the waist, “but I ain’t got nuthin’ else ta do.” He watched to make sure Joe was settled, seeing him put his foot on the floor of the buckboard, then wince and move it to the front running plate. He turned. “Thanks again, Sheriff,” he added. “An’ thanks fer the buckboard. I’ll see ya git it back safe.”
“No hurry,” Donkel replied.
“Ya ready?” Hoss asked, picking up the reins.
Candy, who was mounted on his own horse, replied, “I been ready since we got here.”
“It’s a long way home,” Hoss nodded.
“And some people never get there,” Joe added quietly and the others said nothing, knowing that Joe was thinking of Valerie. Hoss slapped the reins on the team’s backs and the buckboard rattled quietly down the street.
“They was good people,” Jenson, the deputy, ventured.
“Sure were,” Donkel agreed. “If it wasn’t for them, the Slader gang would still be roaming around free.” He sighed. “I never thought of Valerie Townsend being a member of the gang. No wonder we couldn’t catch them! She was telling them our every move.”
“She done right in the end, though,” Jenson mused, as they walked back down to the jail house. “I never thought she had it in her.”
“I never thought she had it in her to go out with an outlaw!” Donkel snorted. He opened the door to the jail and went in, smiling briefly at Judge Wheeler. The two men shared an abiding respect for each other that had survived the Sladers’ attempt to escape. “Is that you ready to go, Judge?” Donkel asked.
“I’m leaving on the noon stage,” agreed the judge. “Did the Cartwrights leave?”
“Just a few minutes ago,” Donkel confirmed.
“That’s a family I’ve got a lot of time for,” Wheeler commented. “I’d heard of the Ponderosa, of course, but I’d never come across any of the Cartwrights before. Brave men, both of them. And Mr. Canaday, too. Joe handled himself very well.” He rose. “I’m going to get some breakfast before I leave. I’ll see you in a few weeks, sheriff.”
“Goodbye, Judge,” Donkel replied and sat down at his desk. It seemed to him that paperwork multiplied vastly whenever he was busy. Before long, he was hard at work and thought no more about either Judge Wheeler or the Cartwrights.
Frowning, Donkel looked up from his paperwork, surprised to discover that it was late afternoon. His stomach growled, as it had done a few times throughout the day and now he realized why. Breakfast was but a distant memory and he’d missed lunch completely. “What is it, Jenson?” he asked.
“This wire jist came in,” Jenson panted. He looked shaken and Donkel gave him a sharp look before reading the wire he was handed. He looked up, knowing his expression mirrored Jenson’s. “Oh lord!” he whispered.
In his hand, the wire read;
STAGE LATE STOP
RIDERS SENT OUT STOP
ALL DEAD INCLUDING JUDGE WHEELER STOP
PRISON WAGON OVERTURNED STOP
SLADER GANG FREE
“The Cartwrights,” Donkel murmured, when his tongue began to work again. “We have to warn the Cartwrights.”
“How?” Jenson demanded. “They weren’t plannin’ on stoppin’ in any towns.”
“Then we’ll just have to track them!” Donkel snapped. “Go and get the other men. You’ll come with me and we’ll leave the others here.” As Jenson hurried from the office, Donkel ran a hand through his thinning hair.
The Slader gang – or what was left of them – was free and Donkel knew only too well that Joe Cartwright was going to pay for what happened to Billy and Doug Slader. Judge Horace Wheeler had already paid the ultimate price for sending them to prison. Donkel meant to see to it that they didn’t get the chance to kill Joe Cartwright, if it was the last thing he did. He picked up his gun and began to load it.
“Tired?” Hoss asked Joe as he helped his brother down from the buckboard. Joe winced as his sore leg touched the ground harder than he had intended. “Easy now, I gotcha.”
“Yeah, I’m tired,” Joe acknowledged as he was eased to the ground by the fire. Hoss tucked a saddle behind his brother’s back for Joe to lean against and fetched a blanket, for the wind was chilly and the fire hadn’t quite taken hold. Joe sighed and smiled at Hoss. “Thanks.”
“Ain’t no need ta thank me,” Hoss replied.
“Yeah yeah,” Joe laughed. “I know; you ain’t got anything better to do!”
“Well, I ain’t,” Hoss replied in a reasonable tone. “Candy’s takin’ care o’ the horses, an’ the fire ain’t big enough fer me ta cook over yet.” He sighed. “Wish Hop Sing had stayed.”
“Yeah,” Joe sighed. “But we couldn’t deprive Pa any longer, could we? But your food will do for the few days it’ll take to get home.” Joe looked wistful. “How long do you think it’ll take?”
“Two-three days,” Hoss replied. “Depends on how ya hold out, Joe. We ain’t gonna push that leg. If’n ya need ta rest, that’s what we’re gonna do.” He wagged a massive finger at the younger man.
“Yes, mother,” Joe jibed. “But I’m all right, Hoss, honest.”
“I know ya want ta git home, Joe,” Hoss replied, seriously. “But I want ya to git there in no worse shape than ya are now. Pa’s gonna have a fit as it is when he sees that leg!” Although not usually squeamish, Hoss found looking at Joe’s leg quite difficult. The injury itself was not as bad as some Hoss had seen, but he wondered if the circumstances surrounding how Joe got it were affecting his thinking.
“I just want to get home,” Joe commented plaintively and Hoss knew that his little brother was more tired than he was letting on, for usually, he wouldn’t admit to anything that might be interpreted as weakness.
“Me, too Shortshanks,” Hoss murmured. “Me, too.”
“Where’s supper?” Candy demanded, coming over from the horse line. “Don’t tell me you two have been jawing and my supper ain’t made? I’ve been the only one working!”
“It’s comin’,” Hoss grumbled, rising. “Dadburnit, some folks ain’t got no patience!”
From the corner of his eye, he saw Joe and Candy exchanging a grin and hid a smile.
Morning saw a late start for the men from the Ponderosa. Joe had slept through the mild bustle of Hoss preparing breakfast and Candy hitching the team. By unspoken consent, the other two had let Joe sleep until the last possible minute, then Hoss gently roused him.
“Go ‘way!” Joe muttered.
“Come on, Joe, breakfast’s up,” Hoss coaxed. “Coffee’s ready.” He waved a cup close to Joe’s nose, which finally got his brother’s head out from under the blankets.
“It can’t be morning already,” Joe muttered, running a hand through his wildly tousled curls. He pushed himself into a sitting position, wincing as he did so and accepted the cup of coffee from Hoss. “Morning,” he grunted, glancing over at Candy.
“Mornin’,” Candy replied. He was nursing a cup of coffee, too. “Decided to wake up and join us after the work is done, huh?”
Grunting, Joe took a cautious sip and discovered that the coffee was very hot. “I wasn’t going to do any of it anyway,” he retorted and closed his eyes again for a minute. He opened them to find both Hoss and Candy looking at him with concern. “What?” he asked.
“Ya feelin’ all right, Joe?” Hoss asked, keeping his tone as bland as he could.
A smile crossed Joe’s face. “I’m fine, big brother,” he replied. “I’m just not quite awake, that’s all. I was letting the coffee work.” He reached out and squeezed the big man’s arm. “I’m fine, honest.”
“Good,” Hoss responded, emphatically and handed Joe a plate with some bacon and grits on it. He watched in satisfaction as Joe ate with relish and by the time the campsite was cleared up, Joe was feeling more human and was raring to go.
“I thought we might have caught up with them by now,” Jenson commented, as he and Donkel made camp on the first night.
“I hoped we would,” Donkel replied. “But knowing Joe Cartwright, I’m not surprised that we didn’t. If ever there was a man determined to get home, it was Joe.”
Jenson looked uneasily over his shoulder and moved closer to the fire. “You reckon they’re out there?” he asked and it was clear he didn’t mean the Cartwrights.
“Yes, somewhere,” Donkel sighed. “I wish I knew more about when the prison wagon crashed and where. That would give us a better idea of how far they might have got by now, but the details were sketchy. Of course, they might not go anywhere near the Cartwrights, but we’ve got to warn them.” He sighed again. “Let’s get some sleep. We’ve got an early start in the morning.”
“Ya all right, Joe?” Hoss asked, as another sigh escaped his brother’s lips.
“Yeah, I’m okay,” Joe grumbled. “I’m just tired, I guess.”
Glancing sideways, Hoss took in Joe’s too pale face and the way he tried not to wince as he moved his injured leg against the front of the buckboard. The speed they were traveling at was boring for them all, but it was as fast as Hoss thought Joe ought to travel. Although Joe hadn’t complained at all, Hoss knew that his leg must still be very sore.
“Let’s stop an’ have lunch,” he proposed, although it was still a bit early for lunch. “Ya can rest fer a bit.”
“I’m all right,” Joe protested, as Hoss had known he would.
“Sure,” Hoss nodded. “But I’m hungry.”
“So what’s new?” Joe teased and ducked as Hoss made a lunge for him. “Ouch!” Joe winced, as his leg slipped off the front of the buckboard.
“Serves ya right,” Hoss sniffed. “Ya all right?” He felt a bit guilty that he had caused Joe to move so much.
“I’m fine,” Joe assured his brother. However, Joe was relieved when they stopped a few minutes later and Hoss helped him out of the buckboard. He leant back against the tree behind his back and fought down yet another sigh – this one of relief.
“Hey,” Candy said, quietly, a few minutes later, nudging Hoss. “Look at sleeping beauty over there.”
Turning his head, Hoss saw that Joe had fallen asleep. “I thought he was needin’ ta rest,” Hoss chuckled. “But ya know Joe – he won’t never admit ta feelin’ less than fine. We’ll let him sleep fer a bit.”
“There!” Donkel cried and pointed to the slow-moving buckboard they could see about a mile away across the grassland. “Come on!” he urged and they both put their heels to their horses and began to gallop.
It was Joe who spotted them. He heard the hooves and twisted carefully in his seat. “Hoss, wait! That looks like Sheriff Donkel!” Joe was quite embarrassed that he had been allowed to sleep for over an hour at their lunch stop and was keeping an eagle eye on everything around him to keep himself awake.
“What?” Hoss pulled the team to a stop and turned to look. “Sure does. I wonder what he’s doin’ out here?”
“Glad we found you fellows,” Donkel panted, as he pulled up his lathered horse.
“What’s happened?” Joe asked. Donkel’s tension communicated itself to Joe at once.
Quickly, Donkel apprised them of the situation. Joe shot a look at Hoss, only to find his brother looking back at him grimly. “Ya reckon they’s gonna come after us?” Hoss asked.
“I don’t know, but it’s entirely possible,” Donkel admitted. “Judge Wheeler is dead.”
“It could have been an accident,” Candy suggested.
“That’s true,” Donkel replied, patiently. “But it might not have been.” He glanced round the three faces and saw acceptance on them all. They, too, were convinced that the remains of the Slader gang were going to come after them. “I’d like you to come back to Sand Dust with me.”
“No!” Joe’s reaction was instinctive. He looked rather startled by his own vehemence, but he didn’t want to go back. Traveling was hard enough without having to retrace their steps and face it all again. “No,” he repeated, more quietly. “I want to keep going.”
“Joe,” Donkel began, but it was Candy who interrupted him.
“Joe’s right,” Candy stated. “Those fellas aren’t likely to catch up with us yet. And in another day or so, if we push a bit harder, we’ll be safe on the Ponderosa.”
“We don’t know when the prison wagon crashed,” Donkel pointed out. “They could be watching us right now.” He was mildly amused when Jenson looked nervously over his shoulder. “And we can’t come with you all the way to the Ponderosa.”
“We didn’t expect you to,” Joe told him. “We can take pretty good care of ourselves.”
That was true, as Donkel knew from experience. He made a frustrated gesture. “So you’re going to go on, then?”
“I reckon that’s best,” Hoss agreed. “‘Sides, it’s a long way back fer Joe, and a shorter way ta go on.”
“All right, I guess I can’t force you to come back with us” Donkel capitulated. “Good luck. I think you’ll need it.”
“Don’t go rushing off,” Hoss replied. “Stay an’ have something’ ta eat. We were jist gonna make camp anyways.” He glanced at the sky. “Ya ain’t gonna git far afore it’s dark.”
“All right,” Donkel smiled. He hoped that he would be able to persuade them to change their minds if he stayed with them. He led his horse over to the sheltered spot that Candy had found and began to take care of it automatically, watching Hoss helping Joe and Candy seeing to the horses. He didn’t want anything happening to these people.
“There they are!” The man, grimy from his days on the run, crouched in the bushes and peered out at the camp.
His companion crept forward and squinted through the foliage. He was as filthy as his friend and smelt just as bad. “Good,” he grunted. “I’ve got a score to settle with Cartwright.”
“With both Cartwrights,” corrected the other man.
“Yeah, but it’s personal with the younger one,” retorted the other. He felt his jaw tenderly, although the ache in it was long gone. This was the man Joe had fought with, and knocked unconscious in the street.
“All right, you get him, an’ I’ll hold off the others.” He made to rise, but the other man put out his hand. “Wait,” he counseled. “The sheriff’s leaving!” They settled back to watch developments.
“I wish I could persuade you to come back with me,” Donkel tried once more, as he mounted his horse.
“Thanks, but no thanks,” Joe replied. He was still seated by the embers of the fire, waiting obediently for Hoss to help him.
“Good luck,” Donkel offered and nodded to Jenson. They wheeled their horses and rode off. Jenson looked back once and waved.
As soon as they were out of sight, Donkel reined in his horse. “We’re going to follow them for a spell,” he told his confused deputy. “Just until I’m sure they’ll be all right.”
“Yes, sir,” Jenson replied, grinning. They moved so that they could see the camp without being seen.
“Come on, Candy, what’s taking so long?” Joe complained, glancing over to where Candy was looking at his horse’s hoof.
“I’m not sure,” Candy responded. “Dusk seems to be lame, but I can’t see anything in his hoof. Hoss, take a look, will you?”
“Sure,” Hoss replied, and walked over. He bent over the hoof in question, too and Joe had to just sit there and wait for the verdict. He hoped it wouldn’t take long to fix, whatever it was, because he was already feeling a familiar soreness creep over his muscles. Riding the buckboard wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. “Look!” Hoss exclaimed and Joe twisted around as though he would be able to see from where he was. “It’s a little stone, caught just inside his shoe.”
The mystery solved, Joe turned round and started to settle himself again. A movement, seen only in his peripheral vision, caused Joe to glance up and he saw, to his astonishment, one of the Slader gang running towards him.
“Hoss!” Joe cried, scrabbling frantically for his gun. He wasn’t in a good position to draw, since he had been balanced on one hand while he used the other to settle his bad leg. And then his time ran out and the other man had Joe’s gun in his hand, and was holding it against Joe’s head.
“We meet again, Cartwright,” the man sneered. Joe didn’t try to say anything. The large hand around his throat tended to deter him from making smart repartee. He swallowed gingerly, feeling the hand scraping over his Adam’s apple. His eyes didn’t leave the other man’s. The last time they had met, Joe had knocked him unconscious. He knew he was about to pay for that.
Over by the horses, Hoss and Candy saw the man holding the gun to Joe’s head and stood absolutely still as their guns were lifted from their holsters. “Now what?” Hoss growled.
It seemed that that was a good question, and one which the men didn’t have an immediate answer to. Hoss shot a quick glance at Candy and saw that the other man was tensed and ready for action when the chance presented itself.
After a noticeable pause, the man with Joe, who was called Tyler, made a decision. “We’re takin’ Cartwright with us,” he told Hoss. “An’ we’re going to make him pay for what happened to Billy an’ Doug.” Slowly, Tyler let go of Joe’s throat and reached into his pocket. Joe swallowed and watched warily, not sure what was going to happen. He was in no way prepared for the heavy prison shackles that Tyler pulled from his pocket. The key, obviously taken from a dead prison guard, was stuck into the lock. “Put yer hands together, Cartwright, and don’t do anything stupid.”
Slowly, Joe did as he was told, feeling sweat popping into being on his forehead as the cruel iron cuff closed around his wrist. He resisted looking round at Hoss, not wanting to see his brother’s reaction to this. The second cuff closed firmly round his other wrist and Joe looked at the shackles expressionlessly. He was helpless now.
“Come on, Bob,” Tyler called, shoving Joe back on the seat as he stepped over the injured man. “Let’s go.”
“What do I do about them?” Bob whined. He turned his head to look at Tyler and Hoss and Candy both reacted instantly.
With a single blow of his arm, Hoss knocked Bob and his gun to the ground. Candy jumped on him, and punched him twice as Hoss began to run towards the buggy. He was terrified that Tyler would shoot Joe before he got there, but Tyler reacted more quickly – and differently – than Hoss expected. Snatching up the reins, Tyler put the team into a run.
Skidding to a halt, Hoss turned back to get his horse, and vaguely noticed two riders appearing from the trees. It was only as Jenson pulled up by Candy that Hoss realized who they were. He left Jenson with Candy, mounted Candy’s horse, which was the only one saddled, and set off after the buggy.
“Are you ready to die, Cartwright?” Tyler yelled as the horses galloped over the uneven ground.
“I’ll take you with me, if I go,” Joe shouted back. He was struggling to keep his balance, and pain was shooting through his bad leg at every bounce. He leaned over and grabbed at the reins, but Tyler was ready for him and pushed Joe hard. Joe lost his balance and almost fell from the speeding vehicle.
A shot whined overhead, making both occupants of the buckboard duck, although the bullet was long past and came nowhere near them. Tyler turned to look back, as did Joe, who squinted against the wind and saw two horses coming after them. He recognized the first as Sheriff Donkel and the second looked like Hoss.
With renewed hope, Joe again made a dive for the reins. The heavy shackles got in his way, but he persevered with the stubborn doggedness that his family frequently cursed. A blow from his clenched fists caused Tyler to drop his gun, which skittered away to become lost amongst their feet. Tyler punched back and suddenly they were engrossed in a fight. The reins dropped, but the team ran on.
Neither man noticed particularly. Joe was muscular, but hampered by injury and the shackles. Tyler was desperate and he had no compunction about killing Joe. He risked a glance up and saw the lead rider was closing on them fast. He threw a fast, dirty punch and the air whooshed out of Joe’s lungs. Joe crumpled forward.
As Tyler reached for the reins again, another shot sang past, nearer this time, and bit into the ground a few scant feet in front of the team. The off side horse shied and turned into its mate, forcing the other horse to make a sharp turn, and suddenly, the buckboard was running on two wheels.
With a cry, Joe and Tyler crashed to the ground as the buckboard overturned.
“Joe!” Hoss drove Candy’s horse even faster as he raced to reach his brother’s side. Joe had been flung clear of the buckboard and lay ominously still on the ground.
Reaching his goal, Hoss leapt down from the horse and dropped to his knees by his unconscious brother. “Joe? Can ya hear me, Joe?” He ran his hand through Joe’s hair and found, as he expected, a bump on Joe’s head. “Joe?” There was no response. Hoss gently ran his hands over Joe’s limbs, but none of them seemed to be broken.
“How is he?”
Flinching, for he hadn’t heard Donkel approach, Hoss glanced briefly over his shoulder. “He’s out cold, but I don’t reckon he were hurt much. Jist bruises an’ the like, I think. What about the other one?”
“He’s dead, Mr. Cartwright,” Donkel replied, soberly. “The buckboard fell on top of him. He might have lived for a few seconds, but that would have been about it.” Donkel didn’t sound in the least regretful, Hoss thought. He didn’t blame the other man; he felt the same way.
At that moment, Joe moaned and began to stir. Donkel disappeared again for a moment or two and came back with the key for the shackles. He swiftly removed them and Hoss set about gently chafing Joe’s wrists. “Joe?” he coaxed. “Ya gonna wake up fer me, Joe?”
A groan was his only reply for a moment, then Joe’s green eyes cracked open and he regarded Hoss with disfavor. “Lemme sleep,” he begged.
“Cain’t do that, Joe,” Hoss replied. “Ya jist were knocked cold agin, an’ ya cain’t go back ta sleep yet.”
At that, Joe’s eyes opened wide and he turned his head to look around without trying to sit up. “That man…” he began.
“Dead,” Donkel reported, briefly.
“What are you doing here?” Joe asked, frowning in puzzlement. That was a question that it hadn’t occurred to Hoss to ask, but now that Joe had, he was curious, too.
“Yeah, what are ya doin’ here?” he echoed.
“Keeping an eye on you,” Donkel replied, with the hint of a smile. “Good thing, too, by the looks of it.”
Candy’s arrival, along with Jenson, a few minutes later made the party complete. Joe was still flat on his back, but making movements towards sitting up. “You all right, Joe?” Candy asked, leaning over him.
“I’m fine,” Joe replied, although he had a headache.
“Stay here with him,” Hoss suggested to Candy. “An’ we’ll move that buckboard.” Candy glanced over, saw the grisly remains and nodded. He was in no hurry to volunteer his services for that chore! “Don’ let Joe go back ta sleep,” he told Candy, as he got to his feet.
“Yes, sir, boss,” Candy replied, jokingly. Joe rolled his eyes expressively. Candy stepped between Joe and the buckboard and sat down so that he screened the other man from the sight. A certain set to Joe’s mouth told Candy that Joe knew what he was doing and why and wasn’t too happy about being babied. It didn’t persuade Candy to move.
By the time the buckboard was righted, the horses checked over and the remains quickly buried, Joe was sitting up and feeling a bit better. His body ached all over from the hard landing he had had, but given the alternative, he wasn’t complaining. He allowed Hoss and Candy to help him to his feet, wincing as he put some weight on his bad leg. “An’ I’m checkin’ that afore we go any further,” Hoss warned him.
“Fuss, fuss,” Joe complained, but he didn’t really mind.
“Jist wait till Pa gits hold o’ ya,” Hoss replied, complacently. “Then ya’ll know what fussin’ is!”
“Ain’t that the truth,” Joe laughed. He caught his breath again as he was settled into the buckboard and Hoss decided that they were going no further that day.
Later that morning, Donkel and Jenson set off back to Sand Dust with their prisoner. Hoss had tried to persuade them to stay until after they’d eaten, but Donkel wanted to push on. Joe had wanted to push on, too, but Hoss had vetoed the idea and Candy had backed him up. Knowing that he was in no fit state to saddle his horse, never mind ride it, Joe had to content himself. And as Candy said, the buckboard horses had had a hard morning, and could use the rest. By the time Hoss had checked Joe’s leg and re-bandaged it, Joe’s desire to move on was subsumed by his desire to sleep. So they had a lazy day, lounging around the camp, which was very boring for Hoss and Candy, who ended up playing yet another game of cards.
Next morning, they packed up their gear and got ready to go. Joe looked better for the day of rest and Hoss vowed to force another rest day on Joe if need be before they got home. But they made good time that day and were much closer to home than Hoss had anticipated they would be and he guessed that they would reach the ranch by dark the next day.
“Yer tired,” Hoss told Joe bluntly, as they settled around the fire. “I reckon we should rest agin tomorra.”
“Oh no!” Joe protested. “I’m no more tired than you are! Admit it, big brother, we’re all tired. We’re tired of being away from home and we’re tired of sleeping on the ground and eating your cooking.”
“Not that there’s anything wrong with your cooking,” Candy hastened to assure Hoss. “It’s just not up to Hop Sing’s standards.”
“I reckon you’re right,” Hoss grumbled. “I sure have a hankerin’ ta sleep in ma own bed.”
“Of course,” Joe commented to Candy, “he’s not in the least interested in Hop Sing’s cooking. That’s just gluttons like you and me.”
“I knew that,” Candy teased. “Bet Hoss wishes he ain’t cuttin’ down, or he could enjoy Hop Sing’s cookin’.”
“Dadburnit, I ain’t cuttin’ down no more!” Hoss exclaimed. “It were jist them portions they gave us back in Sand Dust weren’t big enough ta fill a flea.” He glanced down at himself. “With all this liftin’ Joe, I’m gittin’ plumb puny,” he complained.
“We can sure see that!” Joe agreed and they all laughed, buoyed up by the thought that home was just around the corner.
Hearing wheels coming into the yard next evening just before supper, Ben Cartwright rose from his chair in front of the fire and went across to open the door. The buckboard and the team pulling it were unfamiliar, but he immediately recognized the passengers and the horses tethered to the back. He hurried out. “Hoss! Joe! Candy! Welcome home!”
“Hi, Pa,” Joe replied, trying valiantly to sound like his usual self, but he was desperately tired.
Diagnosing this at once, Ben shot a glance at Hoss, who shrugged. “I think he’s all right, Pa,” he assured Ben. “Jist plumb tuckered out.”
“Let’s get you to bed, then,” Ben proposed.
“What about supper?” Joe protested. “Pa, I’m starving! I’ve had to eat Hoss’ cooking…” He ducked as Hoss pretended to swing for him.
“All right, after supper,” Ben agreed, and helped Joe down from the buckboard. He looped an arm around his son’s slender waist and Joe put his arm around Ben’s shoulders and slowly limped across the yard. Joe was quickly settled on the sofa and Hop Sing came out to welcome them home, chattering disapprovingly when he saw how pale and tired Joe looked.
Over supper, they told Ben their story, taking it in turns. They all had seconds, for the simple, home-cooked meal seemed to them to be the most delicious thing they’d ever had. Ben listened, sometimes asking questions to clarify events, but the account was clear enough to let him understand the danger his sons had been in.
It was not a night when any of them wanted to sit by the fire. By the time the last pieces of peach pie were gone, Hoss, Joe and Candy were yawning. Joe looked over at the stairs with resignation, knowing how difficult it would be for him to get up them.
“C’mon, Shortshanks,” Hoss offered. “Let me help ya.”
Quietly, Ben put a hand on Hoss’ arm. “You’ve helped him up until now,” Ben said, gently. “And I thank you for that. But now you’re home, it’s my turn, and my privilege, to look after my own son. You go and get some much needed and well deserved rest.”
“Thanks for everything, Hoss,” Joe called, as Hoss smiled and mounted the stairs. “You, too, Candy.”
“Just don’t expect that kind of treatment every day,” Candy joked, for he had been unexpectedly touched by Ben’s statement.
Turning to Joe, Ben reached down and took his arm. “Ready?” he asked.
“Ready, Pa,” Joe replied and leant on his father’s strong arm to get to his feet.
The stairs were every bit as difficult as Joe had anticipated, but Ben was the soul of patience, taking more and more of Joe’s weight as his youngest son’s strength waned. He half-carried Joe into his bedroom and helped him carefully balance while Ben assisted him to remove his pants.
“I’ll put a fresh bandage on your leg for tonight, and I’ll ask Paul Martin to look out in the morning,” Ben told him. “Hoss said the doctor in Sand Dust gave you painkillers. Do you want one?”
“No, it’s all right, Pa,” Joe replied. In truth, his leg hurt quite a bit, but Joe had everything he needed at that moment. He was home and his pa was with him. He watched with interest as Ben took off the bandage and gasped, just as Joe had known he would.
“I can’t believe that doesn’t hurt,” Ben stated flatly, looking up at Joe.
“It does,” Joe replied, honestly, “but the painkillers make me sleep and I’m not ready to sleep yet.”
“Why not?” Ben asked, curiously, for Joe looked tired.
“Oh,” Joe replied and looked around his room. “I just want to savor being home and being with you.”
Tears sprang into Ben’s eyes unbidden at this declaration of love. He blinked them away and drank in the sight of his son. “I was worried about you,” he told Joe. “I was worried when Hop Sing came back and told me what had happened and I was even more worried about you when I got word that you’d been injured.”
“I’ll be all right eventually,” Joe assured him. “But the injury wasn’t the hardest part, Pa,” he confided. “I think it hurt more to learn that Val had been helping the Sladers out. That she had been part of the cause of Mr. Haskell’s death, and yet she pretended to be distraught.” Joe shook his head. “And then there she was, fawning all over Billy Slader!” He sighed heavily. “I should have known there was something up when she told the prosecutor that she couldn’t remember what had happened, yet seemed to have perfect recall when we spoke that night.”
“Nobody can really see into another’s heart,” Ben reminded Joe gently.
“She reminded me of someone I once knew,” Joe confided in a low voice. “She reminded me slightly of Louise.” He glanced at Ben and then away and Ben didn’t say anything. He knew that Joe didn’t tell lies, yet the town of Martinville had been a ghost town for many years when Joe wandered into it, delirious from lack of water and with a head wound. Ben knew that Joe still clung to the idea that he helped save the town from the curse that had been laid upon it and Ben really didn’t know what to say. He couldn’t disprove Joe’s story, but nor could Joe prove it. It was one of the few things that they couldn’t talk about.
“What about Sheriff Donkel?” Ben asked after a time.
“He was great,” Joe enthused. “The best sheriff I think I’ve ever met. You knew exactly where you stood with him. And it was nice of him to come after us and even nicer that he didn’t go away, even though we told him we’d be fine.” Joe sighed ruefully. “Good thing he didn’t, as it turned out.”
“That was a true testament of friendship,” Ben agreed. “I’m more than grateful to him.” He patted Joe’s arm, for his son’s eyelids were becoming heavier and heavier. “Joe, I think you should take a painkiller and I’ll sit with you until you’re asleep, how about that?”
“All right,” Joe agreed. “And you could read me a bedtime story, too, if you’d like,” he added, cheekily.
Grinning broadly at the sheer effrontery of the young man, Ben swatted his arm gently. “Bedtime story indeed!” he sniffed, but he couldn’t pull off his pretend disapproval.
Later that night, Ben knelt by his bed to pray. He gave thanks, first and foremost, that his sons had been returned to him safely, even if Joe was the almost-walking wounded. And then he gave thanks for the friendship of a sheriff he had never met, but for whom Ben prayed for the rest of his life.