Summary: An alternative version of the episode, The Trap. Joe accidentally shoots and kills Burk Shannon, but all is not what it seems.
Word Count: 8079
Disclaimer: All publicly recognisable characters, settings, etc. are the property of their respective owners. The original characters and plot are the property of the author. The author is in no way associated with the owners, creators, or producers of any media franchise. No copyright infringement is intended.
Joe kicked absently at the smattering of stones near his foot and tried to focus on the preacher’s words. There was a distinct chill in the air, but he barely noticed it as his mind wandered over the last couple of days. He felt his father’s steadying hand on his shoulder and barely resisted the urge to turn and embrace the man. As much as he wanted to hide his face, he knew that he needed to hold himself together. If for no other reason than Hallie was watching him. He felt sick to his stomach at the pain he had caused his childhood friend and yet he could find no answers to the questions that plagued his nightmares. Why didn’t Burk answer his calls? Why did he shoot? Why was the man dead?
As Joe stared at the dirt, he felt his father squeeze his shoulder and he slowly looked up. The small crowd was dispersing and he hadn’t even realised. He felt awash in the turmoil of his emotions and he could do nothing more than stare as Hallie made her way towards him. He knew he was being rude, but he could not bring himself to look away. Something about her held him tight in a web of recrimination and he found himself struggling to breathe. Black was not her colour and he sucked in a sharp breath as he recalled her love of gaily coloured dresses. When they had chased each other around the schoolyard, not that many years ago, he could not remember what she had worn, but suddenly it seemed that one day all that had changed. She had blossomed almost overnight and it had caught him by surprise. Once again, Joe became aware of his father’s solid presence beside him and he somehow reined in the cascade of memories. Hallie carried her son on her hip and he leaned his head against his mother’s shoulder, unaware of the cause of so much distress around him. He was too young to grasp his mother’s grief and the looks of sympathy meant nothing to him. He slipped a couple of fingers into his mouth and watched shyly as people came up to offer their condolences to the young widow. Finally boredom got the better of him and he nodded off.
“Joe, would you drive us home?”
His mind was still back on the banks of that gully when he heard her speak.
The question jolted him out of his maudlin thoughts and Joe licked at his lips, trying to form an answer to the unexpected request. It wasn’t that he didn’t want to take them home, but Joe wasn’t sure he could face returning to the family home where he been only two days earlier. That time, he had helped carry Burk’s body in from the gully and he had struggled to explain how he was the reason why his longtime friend was now a widow. Hallie had been overcome with the shock, or maybe the sight of so much blood and had fainted into his arms. By the time one of the hands had returned with the doctor and Roy Coffee, Joe had been pacing the kitchen like a caged animal. The adrenaline had long since subsided, only to be replaced with wave upon wave of guilt. That sense of guilt had plagued his every waking moment since, and most of his sleeping ones too if the nightmares were anything to go by.
He jumped at the touch to his forearm and managed to force a grim smile onto his face.
Joe could feel the eyes watching him as he looped his arm through Hallie’s and escorted her towards the wagon. He could imagine the wagging of tongues that lived for a little gossip in their dull lives. He forced himself to keep moving even as his mind screamed at him to turn back to his family and escape to the safety of the Ponderosa. He settled his friend on the bench seat and watched as she wrapped a heavy shawl about her shoulders and over the sleeping form of her son. As he urged the horse to a trot, he found the words he desperately wanted to speak would not come out. Instead, he settled for staring blindly at the road ahead.
Ben watched as his youngest son drove away before he nodded towards the other two. He was about to ask Hoss to collect their horses when he noted Roy Coffee moving towards them. The look on his friend’s face did nothing to settle his sense of unease. They had known each other for too long and could read each other well. Whatever Roy had to say, he was not going to be happy about it.
“Ben, was there any bad blood between Joe and Burk? You know how Burk could be at times.”
“What?” The question smacked of accusation and Ben felt his hackles rising. “Are you implying that this was something more than a horrible accident?”
“Now, Ben,” Roy raised a hand, as if to placate his old friend. “It’s a question that is going to be asked, so I need to know.”
Ben shook his head slowly, as if considering who would ask such a question and why. “Joe already told you what happened. Burk must have thought he was one of the cattle rustlers and he fired first. Joe thought that Burk was a rustler and he fired back. It was a tragic, awful accident. Nothing more! Do you really think that Hallie would have just asked Joe to take her home if she thought he was responsible for murdering her husband?”
“Ben, settle down. It don’t matter what I think. It’s Booth that concerns me now.”
“Booth? He’s coming here?” Ben felt a sense of dread rising from the pit of his stomach.
“I sent him a telegram and he replied, saying he’ll be here by tomorrow.”
“Is he still taming wild towns at the end of a gun?” Adam stepped closer to his father as he spoke and he noted the way Roy chewed at his lip before answering.
“He’s still a town marshal if that’s what you mean.”
Ben forced down his emotions and looked his friend in the eye. “Is he going to cause trouble?”
“You mean, is he still the same old Booth Shannon that we all knew?”
“I mean, does my son have anything to be concerned about?”
“Well, I guess that all depends on how Booth takes things when he gets here.”
By the time Ben was on his way home, he could feel his sons were just as concerned as he was with the newest development. Joe had been hard enough on himself without Booth coming back and pointing any fingers his way. He tugged at his coat and wrapped it a little tighter around himself. The winter snows were not too far away, but the chill he felt in his soul came from another source altogether.
Hallie crooned softly as she walked back and forth across her kitchen floor. Her son squirmed in her arms as she walked, but his energy was flagging and she smiled as he finally succumbed to sleep. Something made her keep walking instead of placing him into his crib and she watched his face intently. She knew that her son had inherited her eye colour, but his features were mostly his father’s. Soft wisps of curls framed his face and she gently traced a finger down his cheek. Her footsteps slowed as her mind wandered. Her son would grow up fatherless. Whichever way she looked at it, life as she had known it was over and the future was terrifying. Tears dribbled down her cheeks as she resumed her pacing and her breath hitched in her throat.
“Joe … please come back for us.”
Memories welled up in her mind and she began to pace faster in an attempt to silence them. She felt Joe’s arms around her waist as they danced all of the reels before collapsing onto a bench seat, laughing through their own breathlessness. She recalled his words whispered into her ear as she giggled and blushed like a child. The tears flowed faster as her mind dragged up the argument she had instigated all those years ago. The one where she had told him he was no longer her friend. The day that she had broken his heart and turned her back on him. It had seemed so serious at the time, but now it just seemed ridiculous. She had thrown away the best part of her life to prove a point. And then she had compounded her stupidity by marrying someone else to spite him.
She planted a kiss on the top of her son’s head as she gently lowered him into his crib and pulled the covers up snugly around him.
The words were barely a whisper and as she stood back up and turned towards the door, she wasn’t entirely sure who they were meant for.
Hoss watched as Joe did nothing more with his breakfast than push it around the plate. The dark hollows under his eyes told their own story and he glanced across to see his father taking note as well. Before he could say anything about either problem, there was an abrupt knock at the door. Adam swung out of his seat and was surprised to see Roy on the other side of the door.
“Sorry to bother you so early, Adam, but I was wondering if Joe is about.”
“He’s right here. Come on in, Roy.” He waved a hand towards the dining table before closing the door. The set of the sheriff’s face, along with the early hour told him it wasn’t a social call and he felt the tension rising in the room. Joe climbed out of his seat with his father and brother only a step or so behind him.
“I’m sorry to be calling so early, but I figured you needed to hear it sooner rather than later.”
“Hear what, Roy?”
Roy shifted his hat in his hands and considered how he should start without stirring up the young man in front of him any further.
“Booth is in town. He came to see me last night with a letter that Burk sent him.”
“What’s that got to do with me?” The anger in Joe’s eyes was barely contained and Ben had already stepped up next to him to keep him calm.
“I’m sorry, Joe. Booth has some ideas in his head that apparently there was something between you and Hallie.”
Joe surged forward at the accusation before his father pulled him back with a firm hand on his shoulder.
“Roy, that’s a lie!”
“Easy now, Joe. I’m just telling you what Booth is saying.”
“Saying? Who’s he been saying this to?” Adam had been listening and he frowned at the idea that Booth had slandered his brother. He’d heard a few whispers himself, but each time he’d heard somebody start to talk, they had quickly shut down when they’d noticed him watching them.
“Roy, what exactly is Booth up to?” Ben kept his hand on Joe’s shoulder, having felt the tremors of emotion under his fingers. To say his son was tightly wound was an understatement.
“I’m sorry Ben, I wish I had another answer for you, but Booth showed me this here letter from Burk.” He drew a crumpled piece of paper from his vest, but declined to open it. “It seems Burk convinced himself that Joe and Hallie were … well … that they had an intimate relationship and …”
Joe bristled at the words, but managed to keep his mouth shut. Raw fury erupted across his face as Roy finished off.
“He told his brother that he doubted James was his son.”
“What!” Joe heard the words and already knew the town gossips would be having a wild day.
“And this is what Booth is spreading around town ’bout Little Joe?” Hoss stared at Roy as he nodded reluctantly.
“I’ll kill him!”
As Joe’s anger got the better of him, Ben grabbed at his arm and spun him towards him. “You will not go near him! Is that understood?”
“But, Pa! Hallie has done nothing wrong and he’s …”
“I know that, Joe, but threatening him isn’t the way to handle this. You’ll only add fuel to the fire.”
“So it’s alright that Hallie’s reputation is destroyed? At least now …” Joe staggered back from his father’s grasp as his mind caught up with his swirling thoughts.
“At least, what?” Ben wasn’t going to be put off so easily and he followed his son across the room. When he got no response, he tried again. “Joe?”
Joe slowly turned around to face the room. “At least now it makes sense. I couldn’t figure why Burk didn’t answer me. I called out to him several times and I know he heard me!”
“Joe, what are you suggestin’?” Roy stepped forward, while putting the pieces together himself.
“If Burk truly believed what he wrote in that letter, it makes sense that he’d want me dead. He was setting me up!”
“It just backfired on him.” Adam scratched at his chin as he considered the idea and agreed it was plausible.
“So what now?” Ben turned towards Roy.
“I go and see Booth and have a talk with him.” As he edged towards the door and placed his hat back on his head, he pointed towards Joe. “And you stay here!”
“Like a child! Not on your life. I need to speak with him and set this thing straight.”
Hoss grasped at his brother’s arm before he could move any further. “You know Booth’s temper and how volatile he is. Best let Roy have that talk first, before he decides to take your head off, little brother.”
Joe bristled at the injustice of the situation. “It’s my head!”
Hoss tried to defuse things with a smile, “Yeah it is, and it’s a right nice lookin’ one too. At least it looks pretty good still attached to your shoulders.”
“Joe, let Roy do his job first and we’ll go from there.” Ben hoped he wasn’t going to have any further argument.
“What about Hallie? I need to see her and find out if Burk shared any of his crazy ideas with her.” Joe felt his stomach clenching tight at the thought the man could have taken out his misguided revenge on his wife. “She never let on if he did, but that doesn’t mean anything.”
Suddenly their conversation from the day of the funeral floated back through his mind. At the time, his mind had been in turmoil from his own guilt and he couldn’t clearly recall all that she had said. One thing sprang out at him and he groaned. Ben reached towards him as Joe sagged before his eyes.
“Son, what’s wrong?” Joe appeared to be in physical pain and Ben gripped his elbow.
“I just thought of something. I really need to talk to Hallie.”
“Pa, I just … I just need to talk to her.”
The look of pain on his son’s face tore at him, but Ben held his ground. If Booth found Joe visiting Hallie in his current state of mind then the results could be disastrous.
“Not until Roy has had a chance to talk with Booth.”
“But Pa, I need to …”
“Joe! Whatever you need to say to her can wait a few hours.”
Joe glared at the wall of faces in front of him and clenched his fists in frustration. He knew he was fighting a losing battle, but he needed to speak with Hallie.
“I tried to stop him, Joe. He just wouldn’t listen. He was like a man possessed.”
At the time, the words had floated over him like some kind of cloud and he had ignored it. His own guilt drowned out everything and he could not process anything else. Suddenly her words thundered through his mind again and he began to really pay attention. She had been trying to tell him something and he had been too consumed to hear it. As he stared at his father, he knew he would need to play the game and agreed to wait for Roy.
It was hours later that he dropped the axe he’d been swinging all morning and crept across towards the barn. His brothers had kept him busy since Roy had left and he knew they were all just worried about him going off half-cocked. All the delay had really achieved was time for him to stew over his worries. He knew that Hallie had been trying to confide in him and he’d been too stupid to hear it. As he saddled Cochise, he prayed that nobody intercepted him and tried to talk him out of going to see her. Ben and Hoss had left only a short time before and Adam was in town, but that still left Hop Sing and Joe was certain that Ben would have mentioned something to the foreman. He climbed up into the saddle and headed out towards the road.
Adam pulled his horse up to the hitching rail and slid from the saddle. He glanced across to the woodpile that Joe had been working on when he’d left. The axe sat to one side and he frowned. If Joe had finished, he would have put it away. He headed towards the door hoping his brother had simply gone inside for a drink, but his gut knew better. The huge pile of split wood showed the effort his brother had put into the job and he knew that a lot of that had been fueled by anger. As it turned out, Joe had every right to be angry. Booth had done a fine job of smearing his brother’s name in Virginia City and several drunks in the saloon were sporting bruises after referring to him as Uncle Adam. He sighed as he headed inside. Adam knew how much Joe had loved Hallie and just how heartbroken he’d been when she had left town. He never did get an answer as to what their argument had been about, but he’d seen his brother’s face when she had eventually returned. The few minutes of reignited hope had died when she awkwardly introduced her new husband. As reckless as Joe could be at times, Adam knew that his brother would never cross the line with a married woman. The rumours Booth was busy inflaming were simply not true and he bristled in anger as he considered how best to quash them before Joe did something stupid.
He called out for his brother and was surprised when Hop Sing came hurrying out of the kitchen.
“He not here. He ride out of here hours ago!”
Adam saw his own concern reflected on Hop Sing’s face and he didn’t need to ask any further questions. There was only one place Joe would have gone.
“Let Pa know when he gets back. I’m riding out to Hallie’s!” He was gone before the cook had a chance to answer, but he nodded anyway.
As Adam urged his horse down the trail, he felt a knot of fear growing in his stomach. Booth had been pretty insistent in his allegations and he knew the man had an ugly temper. His hot-headed brother would come off second best if he tangled with the man and Adam found himself wishing his horse could move faster. He felt the chill of the afternoon air washing over him and he glanced up into the sky. Dark clouds seemed to mirror his thoughts as he rode and he wondered if they would get the first snowfall soon.
It was almost an hour later that he saw it. A horse was moving towards him and he pulled up his own horse to see if it was the one he thought it was. At first, he felt a surge of relief to see that Joe was returning home, only to have it swallowed up moments later by a wash of fear. It was definitely Cochise heading his way, but the horse was riderless. He kicked his horse into a gallop and quickly caught up to his brother’s horse. As he leaned over and tugged at the bridle, the pinto pulled up alongside him. It took a few minutes before he spotted it and at first he wasn’t sure. Adam slid down off his horse and moved towards Cochise’s rump. He ran a hand down the horse’s flanks and sucked in a breath as he did so. Dried blood was matted into the horse’s hair. It was an odd place if Joe had been in the saddle when he was wounded and Adam scratched at his chin as he considered it. He ran his hands over the rest of the horse, trying to determine if it was actually the horse that was bleeding. Eventually he concluded the horse was fine, but he could not work out how the blood came to be there. If Joe had been riding and fell, it seemed almost an impossibility for him to have left a bloodtrail down the horse’s back leg. Instead of trying to figure it any further, Adam swung back up into the saddle and gathered Cochise’s reins in his hand before setting off again for the Shannon ranch.
Booth sat astride his horse and surveyed the darkening valley. He knew it would be a day or two before they found Cartwright’s body in the ravine and he smiled to himself as he turned his horse towards Virginia City. He had a murder to report to the sheriff, but it would need to be another day or so before he did it. Long enough for the brat to die from lack of water or exposure. In the meantime, he needed to be seen in town. There was a deep sense of satisfaction within him as he knew he had avenged his brother the only way he could. The law protected his brother’s murderer, but the two people who had betrayed Burk had paid for their duplicity and their vile offspring would be laid to rest alongside them. He pulled his coat around his chest and thought about a warm room back at the saloon.
Joe felt his mind shutting down and he struggled to make a decision. The weight tucked in against his chest felt like it was growing heavier, but his senses were growing duller. He could not remember how long ago he had sent Cochise on his way, praying the horse would find his way home quickly. As darkness closed in around him, he could hear Hallie crying. His last conscious thought was that that was impossible because Hallie was dead.
It was almost dark by the time Adam drew close to the ranch house and he couldn’t detect any sign of life. There should have been a light and smoke from the chimney, but he couldn’t make out either. The hairs on the back of his neck prickled as he slid from his horse and tied the two of them to a tree. He slipped his gun into his hand and cautiously made his way towards the house. The wood on the doorstep creaked as he stepped on it and he held his breath as he pushed forward. The sight that greeted him almost stopped him in his tracks. Broken furniture and china lay strewn across the room. As his eyes adjusted to the dim interior, he saw the body lying across the hearth. It only took a few steps to cross the room, but he knew the truth before he even dropped to his knees. Hallie’s lifeless eyes stared back at him and he could see her neck was bent at an unnatural angle as he lifted her towards him. He eased her back down to the floor as he gently closed her eyes. The chill of her skin told him she had been dead for hours.
Adam stumbled across the room, searching for a lantern. As he pulled one from the shelf and lit it with a match, he looked around the room. Signs of a struggle were all too obvious. If Joe had been on his way to see Hallie, had he arrived before or after her attacker? Had his arrival prompted the attack? As Adam swept across the room, he could see a blood trail leading to another room. He steeled himself as he moved forward, half expecting to find his brother in the next room. When he found nothing there, he sagged against the doorframe and breathed in heavily, trying to calm his racing thoughts.
The sound of horses approaching barely registered until he heard footsteps behind him. He swung around, waving his gun at whoever it was.
“Woah! It’s just us!” Adam pulled up short as Hoss barreled into the room and he quickly shoved his gun into his holster.
“Sorry, I just thought …” The words died on his lips and he couldn’t voice what he thought.
“Where’s Joe?” Ben had already seen Hallie laid out on the floor and he feared that Adam’s ashen face held bad news.
“I don’t know, Pa. I just got here.”
“But his horse is outside! Hop Sing said you had come after him.”
“I found Cochise heading for home. There’s blood on his hind leg.” Adam watched as his father and brother digested that information before continuing on. “Joe isn’t here.” Adam suddenly realised what he had been missing. “And neither is James!” He nodded towards the empty crib.
Hoss pushed his hat back on his head and frowned. “If none of us passed Joe on the way here, it’s a fair bet he’d head for Virginia City.”
“If he’s on foot he shouldn’t be too hard to find.” Ben was already heading for the door as he spoke. As much as he hated leaving Hallie’s body unattended, he had no choice. They would return as soon as possible to take care of her. In the meantime, he had no idea of his son’s whereabouts or his condition.
Something registered in his senses, but Joe could not make himself respond. His arms felt like they had detached themselves from his body. Something moved against him and he was vaguely aware of it. If he could just open his eyes, he might be able to make it stop moving. Instead, the pain that flowed over him lulled him back to sleep.
“You hear that?” Hoss reined in his horse and stared into the darkness. Somewhere off the road, he could swear he heard something. If he didn’t know better, he would have said it was one of the kittens from the barn. As Adam pulled his horse alongside and Ben reeled back toward them both, he heard it again.
“Over there! Beyond those rocks. Pa, bring that torch over here.”
There hadn’t been any more intact lanterns besides the one Adam had first found and Ben had quickly fashioned a torch from brushwood and strips of cloth before setting off. It wasn’t going to make it all the way to Virginia City, but he’d hoped they would find Joe before it burned out. As he passed it down to Hoss, he strained to hear what his son was chasing. Hoss had always had a better eye and ear for tracking than any of them and he prayed he wasn’t leading them astray. As he clambered up the rocks behind his sons, he struggled to see his way as the torch swayed wildly ahead of him. Suddenly he heard what had caught Hoss’s attention in the first place. It was faint, but it was definitely a child crying.
“Joe! Where are you?”
He climbed over the rim of the rock and staggered towards where Hoss and Adam were crouched on the ground with the torch wedged into a rock cleft. His heart lurched into his throat as he caught his first glimpse of his son. For some reason, Joe’s heavy winter coat was bundled in his arms and his back was exposed with just a flimsy shirt. Even in the wavering light of the torch, he could see a bloodstain soaked into the fabric.
“Joseph,” he breathed out his son’s name in some kind of desperate prayer that he would respond. Adam had peeled off his own coat and laid it on the ground before reaching and pulling something out of Joe’s arms. The weakened wail of a child jolted Ben as he realised it was James. He stared as Adam pulled the child towards him and quickly wrapped Joe’s coat back around him.
“Hoss?” Ben reached for Adam’s coat and began to wrap it around his son’s too-still form.
“He’s alive, Pa. But we need to get him into town right quick.” As Hoss hefted his brother into his arms, Ben tucked the coat back around him. It was an agonizingly slow climb back down to the horses and Ben measured every step as another second of his son’s life ticking away. By the time he reached his horse, he handed the torch to Adam and climbed into the saddle.
“Pass him up to me.” Hoss paused as he considered how best to do that. Joe was relatively light, but he had no idea of his brother’s injuries and he didn’t want to make anything worse. He was acutely aware that Joe had not even uttered a sound since they had found him.
Ben reached his arms around his son and prayed as he pushed his horse towards town. He had been witness to his son’s first breath and he prayed fervently that he wasn’t witnessing his last breaths. Whatever the case, he would hold him while he took them.
Adam shifted the small child in his arms and tucked the arms of the coat around his head. So far, they had been relieved to hear weak cries from the child, but he had no idea if he was injured or not. He felt rage rising up from the pit of his stomach that anybody could mistreat a child and he hoped his brother would not pay too dearly for protecting him. He turned his horse to follow after his family as they raced towards Virginia City.
Roy was about to pour himself a cup of coffee when the door to the jail flew open.
“Clem? I thought I sent you home hours ago.”
“You need to come over to the doc’s office. Now!”
As Roy followed his deputy across the darkened street, he heard the few details that Clem already knew. Once they made their way into Paul’s waiting room, he could see Hoss pacing the room with something in his arms. He was mumbling something and Roy would have smiled if the tension in the room hadn’t been so thick. Hoss was singing a lullaby and Roy suddenly realised he was carrying a child. He couldn’t make out whose child it was as it was swathed in a blanket, but he quickly guessed.
“Is Hallie in there?”
Ben strode towards him, his face looking like thunder. “Hallie is dead! Someone broke her neck!”
Roy pulled up short. A quick glance around the room told him who was missing and he knew before he spoke. “Then who’s in there?”
“Joseph has a bullet in his back.” The words were cold and full of anger. “Where is Booth Shannon?”
“He’s over at the saloon.” Clem stepped forward. “He’s been there all night, playing cards.”
“A perfect alibi.” Adam moved up beside his father.
“Now wait a minute, Adam. You don’t know that Booth had anything to do with this yet.” Roy knew he was most likely right, but he still needed proof of that before charging off. “Has Joe said anything about what happened?”
“My brother wasn’t conscious when we found them. He hasn’t told us anything, but it’s pretty obvious, Roy. Who else would want Hallie and Joe dead?”
Before anybody could answer any further, a small woman came bustling into the office. She dropped the shawl from around her head and smoothed it over her shoulders as she moved towards Hoss.
“I got the milk from the hotel. Just give me a few minutes to put it on to warm.”
Hoss nodded as he followed her towards the kitchen. “What if I do that while you … um … take care of whatever is causing that smell?”
Mary smiled as Hoss wrinkled his nose. She had been almost ready to head for bed when the men had hammered on the doctor’s door and she had scurried downstairs. She had brought four of her own children into the world as well as caring for some of those who crossed the doctor’s path. The sight of Adam trying to figure out what to do with the small child almost made her laugh. He might have helped raise his younger brothers, but this child was a stranger and he was more concerned about what was going on behind the closed door. It didn’t surprise her one bit that he had handed the child off to his brother and the image of the gentle giant crooning a lullaby did make her smile. If it was an animal, she had no doubt he would have known exactly what to do, but a dirty diaper was probably not in his range of recent experience.
“Good idea.” She smiled at his obvious relief as she tucked the child into her arms and headed for the stairs. “I’ll be back shortly. Now don’t make that milk too hot.”
“Yes ma’am,” Hoss nodded as he looked around for a pot.
“He’s not my son!”
Ben lurched forward in the chair. It had been several hours since Joe had first begun muttering. He had yet to fully awaken, but they had begun putting the pieces together nonetheless.
“Easy, Joe.” Ben squeezed his son’s hand and hoped he was aware that he was there.
“She did nothing wrong!”
The agony in his son’s voice brought his heart into his throat. Each time he had said the same thing, Ben could visualise his son pleading with Booth. He had been trying to protect his friend and it wasn’t hard to see how things had played out. Booth was as stubborn as Burk was and if he believed his brother had been betrayed, he would not have stopped in his quest for justice.
As Joe shifted on the bed, Ben reached a hand to his face. “It’s all right, son.”
“Let me go!” Joe surged upright as his eyes flew open. “Hallie, run!” The momentary burst of strength was quickly gone and he sagged sideways. Ben caught him before he could fall, but it seemed that Joe had no idea who he was as he fought against him.
“Get off me!”
Adam heard the commotion as he entered the room and was shocked to see Joe trying to fight off his father’s hands.
He rushed to the other side of the bed and made a grab for Joe’s wildly flailing hands. “Take it easy, Joe. It’s us!”
As the last of his energy drained from him, Joe sagged against his father’s shoulder. By the time Ben laid him back down, his eyes were closed once again.
“Is that the first time he’s woken up?” Adam looked across at his father’s worn face and frowned.
“No. He’s done the same thing a couple of times since you left. He keeps calling for Hallie.”
Adam closed his eyes as he considered how Joe would react when he really did wake up.
“Roy has got Booth in the jail. He admitted what happened after we told him that both Joe and James are still alive. He’s been charged with Hallie’s murder.”
Ben looked up to see his eldest son studying him closely. “It was almost three counts of murder.” He gripped Joe’s hands and forced down the bile rising up his throat. It had been far too close.
Paul tucked the end of the bandage back in under itself and slowly stood up from his patient. It had been a long night and his back ached. Before he could make any comment, he heard the sound of a child wailing outside the door. He smiled across at Ben as he jolted awake.
“I guess that means it’s time for breakfast.”
It took a minute for Ben to register where he was and he slowly stretched the kink out of his shoulder.
“I did suggest you went across to the hotel to sleep. But you are a stubborn old mule.”
Ben smiled at the insult from his old friend as he leaned back over the bed. “How is he this morning?”
“He’s asleep. Which is what he needs.”
As the doctor busied himself collecting the things he had used, he knew he needed to give more of an answer. “He’s pretty banged up, but he’s made of stern stuff. The wound is showing no signs of infection. He’s lucky it was so cold out there last night or he would have lost more blood.”
Ben shuddered at the thought. He’d seen Joe’s shirt and could not imagine how much more he could have lost and not be dead. The image stirred his thoughts even further and he frowned. His son had given up his coat to protect a child and he knew he would have done it without thought for his own needs. It seemed his act of mercy had unintentionally saved his own life.
Paul moved over to place a hand on his friend’s shoulder. “He’s going to be fine, Ben. Trust me. I know about these things.”
Ben smiled slightly at the attempt to lighten the mood and he nodded. His son would recover physically, but the other damage was much less obvious. He’d heard it in Joe’s anguished pleas for mercy.
“Now how about some breakfast? He’s going to sleep for a while yet and he isn’t going anywhere.”
As he followed Paul out into the hallway, Ben could hear Hoss laughing. He didn’t have to think for long before seeing what his son was amused at. Paul’s housekeeper had prepared a spread for them and he almost laughed himself as he walked into the cosy kitchen. Hoss was seated at the table trying to juggle a strip of bacon while keeping it clear from grasping fists.
“Now you ain’t got enough teeth to chomp on this just yet. Better leave it to Uncle Hoss.”
Ben pulled up at his son’s innocent remark. The child ensconced on his lap looked very happy to be there. It had been a side thought in his sleepless moments, but it suddenly presented itself front and centre. There was a small boy who needed a home and a family. He knew already that Hallie had no family as her father had passed away not long after she returned to Virginia City with Burk. As for Burk and Booth, he was sure he’d heard Roy say once they only had each other. As Hoss smiled at him over the child’s head, he wondered how Joe would feel about it. After all, it was the accusation he had fathered the child that had nearly cost him his life, twice.
Joe jolted awake. He felt the raw edge of the bullet wound rubbing against the bandages and he tried to shuffle into a more comfortable position.
“Need a hand there?”
Adam’s voice drifted across the room before he realised his brother was leaning over him.
“Help me sit up.”
As Adam shifted pillows into a pile behind him, Joe leaned into his brother’s shoulder. He breathed in his older brother’s familiar cologne and closed his eyes. Adam grasped at his shoulders to ease him back and frowned.
“Are you alright?” When Joe didn’t answer or open his eyes, he tried again. “Joe?”
“Hmmm. Just thinking.”
Joe scrunched his face in a vain attempt to block the flood of emotion that poured over him.
“He killed her. Because of me!”
“No! Joe, look at me.” As Adam reached out a hand to his brother, he was surprised to find he was shaking. He slowly looked up and the raw pain was reflected in his eyes.
“Joe, Burk was mistaken. Booth killed her because of his brother.”
“You and Hoss have always had my back.”
“Hoss and I have also kicked your backside plenty of times. Burk brought his brother into the fight, but Booth never knew the truth. All he knew was his brother’s accusations and he never stopped to get the truth.”
“I couldn’t make him see. I tried, Adam. God knows, I tried!”
“I know you did.”
It was enough to break the dam. His brother said he believed him and Joe found the torment tumbling out.
“I walked in and he was threatening her. He called her a whore. Said she’d sold her soul when she sold her body.” Joe clenched the sheets in his hand as he struggled to keep his emotions in check. “She … Adam she told him she wished she had married me when I asked her and that’s when he lost it. I couldn’t stop him!”
The memory slammed into him and Joe sagged back against the pillows. “He killed her, Adam. Because of me!”
Adam found his own anger rising as he watched his brother torture himself. He grabbed at his arm and shook his head. “No! Joe, no matter what he said, this is not your fault.”
Tears welled in his eyes as Joe considered his older brother. “It is. I made her leave in the first place. I asked her to marry me and then I let her leave when we had an argument.”
Adam stared at him as he recalled what he knew. Both of them were passionate and feisty and their relationship had never been dull. It had been assumed by many that Joe and Hallie would be married and it had caught everyone by surprise when she had suddenly left town. Joe had refused to explain why and Adam was pretty sure that not even their father knew the reason. Joe had held it tight to his chest until the day that Hallie had reappeared in Virginia City. As soon as he heard the news, he had raced into town, only to be slapped back into place by the sight of her with her new husband. Adam sighed as he remembered the sour mood that had engulfed his brother for the longest time. He had no idea when it had shifted, but somewhere along the line, Joe and Hallie had resolved things and somehow restored at least their friendship. No matter what either Burk or Booth may have maintained, he knew that Joe had never crossed the line, but a piece of his brother had been buried. As he watched the pain flicker across his younger brother’s face, he knew that another piece of him would be buried in the graveyard as Hallie was laid to rest.
Neither of them heard Ben enter the room, but as Adam looked up, he guessed his father had caught a fair amount of their conversation.
“Joseph, what happened after Booth killed Hallie?” He had speculated, but it didn’t quite add up. After all, if Booth expected Joe to be dead, how had he escaped?
Joe flinched at the directness of the question. “He was crazy. He told me that there wouldn’t be any shred of Burk’s humiliation left by the time he was done. He said he was going to kill me and leave James to die in his crib. He kept insisting he was my son and that he deserved to die!” As the memories threatened to overwhelm him, Joe felt his father’s hand wrap around his. He was struggling to breathe and Ben squeezed at his hand. “He called him vermin!”
Joe looked up to see his father watching him. He knew the gossips had been running on the juicy bone for days, but he needed to clear the air.
“Pa, I never …”
“I know, Son.” Ben squeezed his hand again and smiled. “I know my son.”
“He came at me with a chair leg and hit me over the head. I tried to draw him away. Outside. Away from the baby. I figured I could make him think I had run by setting Cochise loose.”
“So that’s how he had blood on his leg!” Adam nodded as a piece of the puzzle fell into place. “From your head.”
“I guess so. Probably. Anyway he wasn’t fooled for long and he came after me. He took a shot at me at the top of the gully and the next thing I knew, I woke up at the bottom of the rocks. He must have figured I was dead because when I got back to the house, James was still in his crib and Booth was gone.”
“Where were you planning on going?”
“I don’t know that I was planning much of anything by then. It was cold and I just knew I could bleed out before anybody found us. I had to try, Pa.”
“You did more than try, Joe. You saved Hallie’s child and helped bring Booth to justice. Roy said he planned to report Hallie’s murder in a few days and then your body would be found some time after that. It would be assumed you had been the victim of rustlers. James would have died of exposure in the meantime and Booth could carry on with his life.”
Adam drew in a sharp breath as he watched the emotions play over Joe’s face. “You need to rest, little brother. This can wait until later.”
Joe tried to object, but he felt the weight once again settling over him and was unable to keep his eyes open.
Joe leaned over the edge of the crib and stared at the innocent child sleeping there. His heart thundered in his chest as he considered what he had just done. Regrets competed with fear for his attention and he felt his breathing quicken.
“Your mama was beautiful. One day, I’ll make sure you know all about her.”
As he looked at the soft curls of downy hair, he felt a strange sensation wash over him. This child was half Burk Shannon. What would he tell him of his father?
“I don’t think I can do this!”
“Every new father feels exactly the same way.” Joe jumped as he felt his father’s hand on his back and he straightened up.
“But I’m not his father. Not really.”
“Well, I’m pretty sure there’s a piece of paper downstairs that says otherwise.” Ben smiled at his son as he watched uncertainty flicker across his face. “Being a father is not limited to biology.”
Joe swallowed as he stared at his father’s calm smile.
“You always look like you know what you are doing. I have no idea where to even start.”
“You loved his mother. That’s a good place to start. The rest will come with time.”
“Are you sure?”
“Joe, let me tell you a little secret. There were many days where I had no idea what I was doing. Especially with you!”
Joe smiled at the revelation and nodded. He always knew he’d been the biggest challenge to his father’s parenting skills.
“Besides, you have all of us to back you up and help you out. This little one will never lack for love and you will learn like any other new father does.”
“But what do I tell him about his real father?”
“One day, when you get to that day, you’ll know what to say. Trust me, Son. You can do this.”
Joe looked down at the child sleeping in the crib once again. How ironic that the very thing he had spent so much time denying had now become the truth. Hallie’s son was now his son. He wasn’t half as sure as his father was, but somehow he had been given a second chance and he would do his best to make her proud. He leaned down to brush a kiss across the baby’s head as he whispered, “Goodnight, Son.”
Other Stories by this Author
- The Long Way Home (by Questfan)
- Gone (by Questfan)
- The Wrangler (by Questfan)
- Redemption (by Questfan)
- Something Important (By Questfan)