Mercy or Murder (by JennyD & HelenB)

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Summary:  WHN for the episode The Quality of Mercy

Rating:  T  (21, 110 words)

 

Mercy or Murder

“Seth Pruitt,” the Judge said, “You have been found not guilty of the murder of Tom Miller. You are free to go.”

The courtroom erupted as people who either agreed or disagreed with the verdict started to argue with each other. “Order, order,” the Judge shouted, “I will have order in this courtroom, now!” The Judge waited until everyone was quiet and then said, “Mr Pruitt has been found not guilty. That is an end to it.”

After the Judge left the courtroom, everyone else started to leave, talking about the case as they went. The four Cartwrights sat in the first row. They waited until nearly everyone else had left the courtroom before they started to make their way out. Seth walked up to Joe and held his hand out, “No hard feelings, Joe,” he said.

Joe just stared at him for a moment and then said, “I know you’re guilty.” Joe then turned and walked away. Hoss quickly followed him out of the courtroom.

“Mr Cartwright,” Seth said, once more holding his hand out, this time to Ben. Ben hesitated before he reached out to shake the younger man’s hand. “I hope in time,” Seth said, “Joe will realize the truth. That I did what I did to help Sarah’s father. I didn’t want to kill him. I had no other choice.”

“There’s always a choice,” Ben replied quietly.

Seth nodded. “I know your feelings on this, Sir, but not everyone holds the same opinion as you. Sometimes it’s better to help someone to end their pain rather than letting them suffer when there’s no hope. You might not think so but I know I did the right thing,” he smiled, “and the jury agreed with me.” With that he turned and walked out of the courtroom.

Ben shook his head. “I don’t know what to make of him, Adam.”

“He’s sure a hard one to figure out,” Adam agreed, “I hope he doesn’t make trouble for Joe.”

“Do you think he might?” Ben asked, concerned.

“They used to be friends, good friends. I think in Seth’s opinion, Joe betrayed him. Not only was Joe the one who turned him in, he testified against him.”

“He was found not guilty though, surely he’ll just want to put all of this behind him now.”

“Maybe,” Adam said, but he didn’t sound convinced.

“Let’s go,” Ben started walking towards the door quickly, feeling a need to check on his youngest son.

**********

When Ben and Adam walked out of the courtroom they found Hoss and Joe standing outside waiting for them. Ben glanced up the street to where he saw Seth walking away from them.

“Did Seth say anything when he came out?” Ben asked.

“He just said he’d see me around,” Joe replied.

Ben frowned unable to know if that was a threat or not.

“Let’s go home,” Ben wanted to leave quickly and put some distance between Joe and Seth for a while.

**********

For the next two weeks, life went on normally for the Cartwrights. Joe had been to town a few times and Seth was always friendly when they saw each other. Ben was relieved that Seth had decided to just go on with his life and not make trouble for Joe.

One evening Adam returned to the ranch after a trip to town on business. “Adam,” Ben looked up and smiled at him as he came inside, “You’re just in time, we’re about to sit down to eat. How did the meeting go?”

“Fine, Pa,” Adam answered, “No problems at all. I’ll just wash up,” he said as he walked into the kitchen.

After Adam came back into the room and sat down at the table, he pulled an envelope from his pocket and handed it to Joe. “I picked up the mail. Letter for you, Joe.”

Joe opened the envelope and took out the letter. “It’s from Sarah.”

“What does she have to say?” Ben asked.

“She’s coming home,” Joe replied.

“Already?” Ben said, surprised, “she hasn’t been away very long. The sale of the mine isn’t even through yet.” Ben had held off selling the mine for Sarah until he got the best price he could for her. The contact for the sale was due to be signed in a couple of weeks. “When is she arriving?”

Joe quickly scanned the letter. “Sarah wants you to hold off on the sale, she has decided she doesn’t want to sell the mine yet. She’ll be here next month.” Ben frowned worriedly, he couldn’t help but wonder how Seth would react to this news.

**********

Ben had spoken to Seth occasionally when he was in town. He’d been worried when the trial first ended that Seth would cause trouble but he was pleased that he’d been wrong. A week before Sarah was due to arrive, Ben ran into him again. After they talked for a few minutes, Ben thought it would be better if Seth heard the news from him. He said, “Seth, we got word that Sarah’s coming back, she’ll be here next week.”

The smile slipped from Seth’s face for a moment but then it was back again and he said, “That’s wonderful news. I know we’ll never get back together again but I hope one day Sarah can forgive me. I really did only want to help her father.”

**********

Later, at the table that night, Joe flung down his fork and stood up after hearing what Seth had said, “And you believed him?” he said angrily, “He didn’t do it to help Mr Miller, he did it for himself. For the silver.” Joe’s voice had risen until he was shouting at his father.

Ben looked up. “Sit down,” he said, his voice was quite but everyone at the table knew it held anger, “and do not shout at me.”

Joe took a deep breath, trying to get his anger under control. Knowing he needed time by himself to think, he turned and walked away from the table and out the front door.

Hoss stood up and started to go after his brother. Ben put a hand on his big son’s arm. “It’s all right, Hoss. Let me go.”

Walking outside, Ben couldn’t see Joe anywhere in the yard and guessed that he’d gone to the barn to saddle his horse.

Going into the barn, Ben saw Joe standing with his head down and his hands tightly clenching the top rail of his horses stall. “Joe,” Ben called quietly. Slowly Joe’s hands released the rail and he turned to look at his father. “Are you all right, son?”

Joe nodded. “I’m sorry, Pa. I shouldn’t have spoken to you like that. I wasn’t angry with you.”

“I know, son,” Ben replied, worried by the anger he still saw in Joe. Anger, Ben knew, that was directed towards Seth Pruitt. Ben walked over and put his hand on his son’s back, feeling the tension that dwelt in the young man. Joe took a deep breath and Ben could feel him start to relax. “Lets go for a walk,” Ben said as he gently motioned Joe to go with him.

Walking outside the barn, the two men went over to the corral. “This has got to stop, Joseph.”

Resting his arms on the top rail of the corral, Joe stared out at the surrounding darkness. “I don’t know what you mean, Pa?” Joe replied, without looking at his father.

“You know very well what I mean. This thing with Seth. It has to stop. And it has to stop now.” Seeing his son was about to interrupt him, he held up a hand, “Let me finish and then you can have your say.” Ben leant on the rail next to Joe and continued, “The jury found Seth innocent, Joe. They believed him when he said he killed Tom Miller because Tom begged him to. They believed Seth when he said he wanted to spare Tom a painful death. They believed Seth when he said he did it for no other reason.” Ben felt Joe tense beside him and he laid his arm across the young man’s shoulders. “I know that’s not what you believe, son, but maybe, just maybe, you are wrong.”

Joe shook his head and Ben gently squeezed his shoulders. “There’s a possibility that you’re wrong, isn’t there?”

“When Seth first told me what he’d done, I believed him when he said he’d only been thinking of Mr Miller but later when Seth and I fought at the mine, it was like I saw a different Seth. It was then that I knew he’d killed Mr Miller because he wanted the mine. I didn’t want to believe it then and I don’t want to believe it now but I know it’s true.”

Ben shook his head at his youngest son’s stubbiness, “You can’t be sure of that. I am not saying you are wrong. But you have to accept there is a possibility that you are.” Ben believed that Joe was right in what he thought but he also knew there was a possibility that Seth had told the truth and he wanted to get Joe to accept that. Ben tried to choose his next words carefully, “It’s possible that Seth is telling the truth.” Joe frowned but before he could interrupt, his father continued, “It is possible, son. You can’t deny that.”

For all of Joe’s life, whenever he’d been confused or worried about something, his father had always been there to offer what advice he could and when Joe just needed to talk so he could try to work out the problem himself, Ben listened. Without even realizing he was doing it, once more, Joe opened up to his father.

“Seth and I have been friends since we were kids. I’d have trusted him with my life, Pa,” Joe laughed and Ben heard the bitterness in it, “That would have been a big mistake.”

“Joe,” Ben squeezed his son’s shoulders again. “We may never know for sure what happened that day but the jury found Seth not guilty of murder. You must accept that and put this behind you. I’m not saying you go back to being friends with Seth like you were before this happened. I don’t think that would be possible but since there will be occasions when you run into him in town, you at least need to try and get along with him.”

“I don’t think I’m wrong about what Seth did, Pa.” Joe looked into his father’s eyes, “But I won’t start any trouble with him. I’ll do my best to get along with him.”

Ben smiled. “That’s all I’m asking of you, son.”

**********

A week later, Ben and Joe watched the stage bringing Sarah home come down the street and stop in front of the depot. Joe opened the door and smiled at his friend. “Sarah,” he said, “It’s so good to see you again.” Reaching for Sarah’s hand he helped her out.

“You too, Little Joe,” Sarah said, smiling back. Despite the fact that it wasn’t considered proper, the two friends embraced, ignoring the frowns of a couple of women who walked past.

When they released each other, Sarah turned to Ben. “Welcome home, Sarah,” he greeted her warmly.

“Thank you, Mr Cartwright.”

“Which ones are your bags, Sarah?” Joe asked. “The buggy’s….” Joe’s voice trailed off at the sight of Seth Pruitt walking towards them.

Sarah turned to see what had caught Joe’s attention, the smile slipping from her face when she also saw Seth.

“Hello, Sarah,” the young man said, removing his hat, “You’re looking well. I’m glad you’ve come back. I’d like to talk to you,” he hesitated, “privately.” When the young woman started to shake her head, he said almost desperately, “Please, Sarah.”

Sarah stood there for a moment without speaking. Joe reached for her arm and started to lead her away as Seth called, “Please, Sarah, I love you.”

Sarah stopped and turned back to face the young man she had once intended to marry. Looking at Seth now, Sarah’s feelings were in turmoil. “I just want to talk,” Seth said. “I have to go away tomorrow. I have a freighting job, I’ll be away for two months.”

“Two months won’t change anything between us,” Sarah replied.

Seth shook his head. “I’ll give up the job. If I stay…”

“No,” Sarah interrupted, “I’ll see you in two months,” she said firmly. “If it’s all right with the Cartwrights you can come out and see me when you get back. We can talk then.”

Ben avoided looking at Joe as he said, “Of course it’s all right. We’ll see you then, Seth.”

Seth looked at Joe who simply nodded and turned away.

“See you then,” Seth replied as he looked at Sarah, before turning and walking away.

Ben patted Joe on the back, pleased at the maturity and restraint the young man had shown.

**********

That night after Adam and Hoss returned home from work and the evening meal was eaten, the family and Sarah sat talking.

Covering a yawn Sarah said, “Please excuse me. It’s not the company.”

Ben laughed. “You’re forgiven, my dear. You’ve had a long trip. Why don’t you go up to bed. They’ll be plenty of time for talking.”

“I think I will,” Sarah replied. The men stood and said goodnight. Joe escorted Sarah to her room. Pausing at the door he kissed her lightly on the cheek. “Goodnight, Sarah,” he said softly.

**********

Over the next few weeks Joe and Sarah spent many hours together and although neither would admit it to themselves their feelings for each other were changing; the bond of friendship they shared from childhood was blossoming into something more.

“Little Joe, will you take me to my house?” Sarah asked one morning. Ben had talked to Sarah to try and find out why she had decided not to sell the mine and the house that went with it, she didn’t want to live in her old house anymore but seemed unable to let it go. Ben felt they shouldn’t be left there to just deteriorate when she could get a good price for them but Sarah had been firm, she didn’t want to sell.

“Sarah, I … I don’t think you should,” Joe replied, hesitantly. “Are you really sure?” Joe knew visiting the house where Sarah and her father had lived would cause a lot of anxiety for her.

“Yes, Little Joe, please I need to go there,” Sarah was insistent so Joe finally agreed.

“I’ll take you today, if you’re sure that’s what you want to do.”

**********

Sarah stopped as she stared around the small room of the cottage she had called home for almost all of her life. Memories flooded back of her father’s sudden death.

Joe noticed her prolonged silence and gently held her around the shoulders in comfort. He felt Sarah lean into his embrace. “This house has such mixed memories for me, Little Joe. I just had to come back to see it. I can’t tell you what it means to me for you to be here with me now. Thank you.”

“I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else, Sarah,” Joe replied.

**********

Over the next few days Sarah and Joe were virtually inseparable. Joe would ask her to go with him on errands for the ranch or Sarah would offer to help Joe with his chores. On one occasion Joe found himself watching Sarah from the barn as she sat on the porch reading. He wondered to himself where all the years had gone from when they had been children, the time they’d spent together, fishing and riding and even on one occasion catching bears. His childhood friend certainly had changed into a beautiful woman right before his eyes. He couldn’t help wondering why he hadn’t noticed this before.

**********

One day Sarah accompanied Joe to town, as he was helping her down from the buckboard, Seth approached them. “Hello, Sarah.”

“Seth,” Sarah was surprised to see him, “We weren’t expecting you back for a couple of weeks yet.”

“I pushed hard. Got back last night. I wanted to get back to see you. Can I talk to you?” he looked pointedly at Joe, “Alone.”

“Get lost, Seth,” Joe said, “Sarah doesn’t want to talk to you.”

Seth glared at Joe. “Sarah can talk for herself. She doesn’t need you doing it for her.”

Joe took an angry step towards Seth and Sarah put her hand on his arm. “Little Joe, why don’t you go and get those things your father wants while I talk to Seth for a minute.”

Joe frowned not wanting to leave Sarah alone with Seth. “Are you sure?” he asked.

Sarah nodded. “I’m sure. I’ll meet you at the store.”

Joe reluctantly walked away, giving Seth a glare as he left. Just before he entered the store Joe turned back and saw Seth reach for Sarah’s hand and she allowed him to take it.

“How have you been, Sarah?” Seth asked.

“Fine, Seth. You?”

“Good. I’ve missed you. I’ve thought about you every day. Sarah about your father….”

Sarah cut him off. “I don’t want to talk about it, Seth.”

“We have to. Sarah, I have no right to expect you to forgive me, but I need you to understand. I need you to know the truth and believe it.”

“I do know the truth,” Sarah said quietly.

Seth took a deep breath. “I killed your father, Sarah,” he saw the young woman flinch away from him and he quickly continued, “and I’m sorry. But if I was in the same situation again, I can’t say I wouldn’t do the same thing. Your father was in terrible pain, Sarah. He begged me to end it for him. I couldn’t let him go on suffering like that when I knew there was no hope that he would live. Despite what you think, I did it for him. My conscience is clear.” Sarah wiped away the tears that had started to slip from her eyes. “I know it doesn’t change what I did but I can’t stand the thought of you thinking badly of me. Please say you understand.”

“My father….” Sarah paused and then began again, “My father would never have wanted to die.”

“He was suffering, Sarah. I’m sorry that I have to tell you how painful his last moments were. I wanted to spare you that. If I had been in his situation, I would have wanted the same thing. I would have wanted someone to end my suffering for me.”

Seth looked around and noticed that a few people were watching them. “Can we go somewhere and talk.”

“Not right now, Seth. I need time to think and Little Joe will be waiting.”

“You do believe me, don’t you, Sarah? About your father I mean?”

A strange look came over the young woman’s face and Seth asked, “Are you all right,” Sarah remained silent and just stared at him. Seth gently shook her. “Sarah, are you all right?”

Sarah blinked, “Fine,” she said quietly. “I’m fine. I have to go.” As Sarah started to walk away, Seth reached out and grabbed her hand. “Can I come out and see you again tomorrow?”

Sarah nodded, “Yes, I’d like that, Seth.”

**********

On the way home to the Ponderosa, Sarah told Joe of her plans to see Seth again the following day. Joe was furious and at a loss to understand why she would want to have anything to do with Seth. They barely spoke a word to each other after that for the rest of the journey home.

It was a quiet meal that was eaten at the Ponderosa that night. Neither Sarah nor Joe had told the family what had happened in town but the elder Cartwrights knew something had. When Sarah went to bed, Joe told his family and then said, “I don’t understand,” Joe struggled for control of his temper. “Why would she want to see him again?”

“Sometimes when you’re in love it’s hard to let go,” Ben said, watching Joe carefully.

“Sarah doesn’t love him anymore. It’s over between them,” Joe snapped.

“Maybe it’s not,” Adam said.

“I’m going to bed,” Joe turned and went upstairs without another word.

**********

For the next two weeks Seth and Sarah saw each other almost every day. The more Sarah saw of Seth, the less she saw of Joe. It seemed that now she could barely find the time to even talk to Joe and Joe was growing more and more hurt with each passing day.

Coming in the front door after work one day, Joe saw Sarah walking up the stairs. “Sarah,” he called.

Sarah turned and replied, “Hello, Little Joe. I’ve been out riding with Seth. I’m going up to bed.”

“Now?” Joe asked, he turned and looked at the clock, then back at Sarah. “It’s only five o’clock.”

“I know but I’m tired. Goodnight, Little Joe.”

Joe frowned as he watched the young woman go up the stairs. Ben, Adam and Hoss came inside and looked at him curiously, as he was still staring at the staircase.

“Joseph,” Ben asked, “What’s wrong?”

Joe shook his head. “I don’t really know. Sarah’s gone up to bed. I never even get to talk to her anymore. I know she’s avoiding me but I don’t know why.”

“It’s not just you, Joe,” Hoss said, “She’s avoiding all of us.”

“It’s Seth!” Joe said angrily.

“You don’t know that he’s the reason,” Ben said calmly.

“He has to be!” Joe replied, anger making his words sound sharp.

Ben ignored the tone and tried to reason with his youngest son. “It could be a lot of things. We’ll just have to be patient and wait until Sarah’s ready to tell us.”

**********

Ben was working at his desk the next morning when Sarah came downstairs. “Good morning, Sarah,” he called when he saw her.

“Good morning, Mr Cartwright,” Sarah said, walking over to the desk. “Is Little Joe home?”

“No, he left with his brothers a couple of hours ago. They’re doing some fence repairs today.”

Sarah seemed nervous as Ben watched her, avoiding his eyes the young woman said, “I’m moving into a boarding house in town today. Could you drive me in?”

“If that’s what you want to do, of course I will,” Ben said, surprised at the news. “May I ask why? I hope we haven’t made you feel unwelcome here.”

“Oh, no,” Sarah cried, “Please don’t think that. It’s nothing any of you have done. I can’t stay here forever though and I really should look for a job. I just think it’s time I moved to town, that’s all.”

“Are you sure?” Ben asked, when Sarah nodded, he said, “Why don’t you at least stay here one more night so that we can have a goodbye dinner. The boys will be sorry to see you go.”

Sarah shook her head. “No, it’s better if I leave now. I’m already packed.”

**********

Sarah was very quiet during the ride into town. Ben took her to the boarding house and carried her bags in. When Ben was about to leave, Sarah put her hand on his arm. “Thank you, Mr Cartwright. For everything.”

“We’ll miss you Sarah. I hope you’ll come out and see us sometimes.”

Sarah didn’t reply. Looking away from Ben she said, “Will you tell Little Joe that I want some time to myself?”

“Are you trying to tell me that you don’t want to see Joseph?” He couldn’t understand why the girl was acting so strangely.

“Just for a little while. I’m not angry or upset with him. I just don’t want to see him right now. Please make him understand.”

Ben walked to the door, before walking out, he turned back towards Sarah and said, “I’ll do my best but I don’t know how I’ll be able to explain something to him that I don’t understand myself.”

**********

Late that afternoon, Ben sat in his red leather chair waiting for his sons to come home. He held a newspaper in his hands but found he was too distracted to read. Hearing horses enter the yard, he put the paper aside and waited for his boys to come in after seeing to their horses.

The door opened, Hoss was the first one to enter, rubbing his hands together, he said, “I hope Hop Sing’s cooked plenty because I’m just about plumb starved.”

“Hoss,” Joe joked as he pushed past, “It would take you six months to starve.”

Adam laughed and Hoss frowned at both of his brothers as he sarcastically said, “Ha Ha, brothers, very funny.”

Ben smiled. He always enjoyed hearing his sons joking with each other. The smile didn’t linger long though when he thought of the news he had to tell his youngest son.

As his sons started to walk towards the kitchen to wash up, Ben called, “Just a minute, Joe. I want to talk to you.” Adam and Hoss looked at Joe curiously, wondering what trouble he’d gotten himself into now. After his brothers had left the room, Joe walked over to his father and asked, “What’s wrong, Pa?”

“Sit down, son,” Joe did as he’d been asked and waited for his father to continue. “Sarah’s moved into town, Joe.”

Joe sat in shocked silence for a moment and then asked, “Why?”

“She said she wants to try and find some work in town.”

“That’s sudden. She never said anything about doing that before. I’ll go in tomorrow to see her and….”

Ben cut Joe off. “Joseph, Sarah said that she wants some time to herself for a while. She doesn’t want to see you right now.” Ben hated saying those words to his son.

“I see,” Joe replied coldly, standing up he walked over to the stairs, “I’m going to bed.”

Returning to the great room, Adam and Hoss saw Joe walking slowly up the stairs.

“Hey, Joe,” Hoss called. When Joe didn’t answer, Hoss looked at Ben and asked, “What’s wrong?”

Seeing Hop Sing putting dishes of food on the table, Ben said, “You’ve had a hard day, let’s eat while the foods hot and I’ll tell you what’s happened.”

After hearing the news about Sarah leaving, Adam put down his fork and said, “You know, Pa, I think Joe has strong feelings for Sarah. Maybe he hasn’t even admitted it to himself yet but I think he loves her.”

Ben nodded slowly, “I think the same thing, Adam.” Ben slowly stood up, “Boys you finish eating. I’m going upstairs to talk to your brother.”

**********

Ben knocked quietly on the door and called, “Joe, can I talk to you?”

“Come in,” Joe answered. Ben walked in to find Joe sitting on his bed with his back against the headboard. Joe swung his legs off the bed and sat on the edge. His father sat down beside him.

“Joe, you must be hungry, why don’t you come down and have something to eat or I’ll bring something up for you if you prefer.”

Joe shook his head. “Thanks, Pa, but I’m not hungry.”

“Do you feel like talking about it?”

“There’s nothing to talk about.”

“I think there is. Joe it’s obvious that you love Sarah.”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Joe snapped, “I don’t love her. She’s a friend, that’s all. Anyway, I guess I should say that she was a friend.”

Joe stood up and started to pace the floor. Ben waited, silently. Joe stopped pacing and turned to his father. “I don’t, I…” the words trailed away as Joe looked into his father’s eyes. “I never could lie to you,” he said quietly.

Ben patted the bed. “Sit down.”

“I don’t even know when my feelings for her changed,” Joe said as he sat back down.

“Have you told Sarah how you feel?” Ben asked, Joe shook his head, “Why?”

“I don’t know. Sarah and I have been friends for so long. I guess I didn’t want to risk ruining that friendship.”

“That’s not the whole reason though, is it? Ben asked knowingly. When Joe didn’t reply, Ben prompted, “Seth?”

“Yes,” Joe said so quietly that Ben barely heard him. “I thought it was over between Sarah and Seth and I don’t consider Seth a friend anymore so I shouldn’t feel guilty but I…” Joe’s voice trailed off.

“Well, like Sarah, Seth was a good friend for a lot of years. I know how difficult it is with him now but I guess sometimes old loyalties die hard.” Joe nodded sadly and Ben put an arm around the young man’s shoulders. “I wish I had a magic solution, Joe, but only you can decide what you want to do.”

“There’s nothing to decide. Sarah’s already made the decision for me. She doesn’t even want to talk to me anymore. She obviously believes Seth’s version of what happened in the mine. You know how I told you what Seth said before we fought at the mine, about him knowing there was silver just below the surface but he hadn’t told Sarah’s father?” Ben nodded and Joe continued, “When I told Sarah what Seth had said and that I believed Seth had killed her father for the mine, Sarah didn’t want to have anything to do with him again. She didn’t want to see him. Now she’s behaving like Seth didn’t do anything wrong. I feel like she hates me for saying what I did about Seth.”

“No, Joe,” Ben said consolingly, “I’m sure that Sarah doesn’t hold that against you.”

Joe looked into his father’s eyes. “How can you be sure? There has to be a reason why she won’t talk to me.”

“Why don’t you do as she says and stay away,” when he saw Joe was about to interrupt, Ben held up his hand and continued, “just for a few days. Then, go and see her. I’m sure that once you talk it will all be straightened out and you’ll find Sarah holds nothing against you.” Ben hoped that what he was saying was true. His son didn’t answer but Ben knew that Joe was thinking about what he’d said.

“Now,” Ben patted Joe’s arm, “there’s no point in you brooding about this, that won’t do anyone any good, so why don’t you come down and have something to eat.”

Joe smiled slightly and stood up. “All right.”

“Good boy,” Ben said as he also stood and put his hand on Joe’s back as they left the room and went downstairs.

**********

Three days later, Joe went into town with Hoss. They had a few errands to do and Joe was going to go and see Sarah.

Stopping the buckboard at the store, Hoss climbed down. Jumping down from the other side, Joe glanced across the street and saw Seth and Sarah walking arm in arm. Sarah laughed at something Seth said.

“So much for wanting time alone,” Joe muttered.

“What’d you say?” Hoss asked.

“Nothin’” Joe replied, “Let’s go,” he headed for the door.

“I can get the supplies,” Hoss said, “Why don’t you go and talk to Sarah.”

“No,” Joe said angrily, “There’s no point.”

Hoss frowned, not understanding why his brother was suddenly so angry. Shrugging, Hoss started to turn to follow Joe into the store and he caught sight of the young couple across the road. Sarah’s eyes were fixed on the door that Joe had just gone through. When Hoss caught her eye, Sarah quickly looked away and continued walking down the street.

After the supplies were ordered and the other business attended to, Hoss turned to his young brother. “Let’s have a beer before we go back and load the supplies what do ya say?”

Suddenly Joe realized how badly he’d been treating Hoss all afternoon, he’d hardly said two words to him since seeing Sarah with Seth. Joe nodded, “Sure.”

Sitting at a table in the saloon, Hoss said, “I saw ‘em, too, Joe.” Joe didn’t have to ask who his brother was talking about. All afternoon Hoss had tried to broach the subject of Sarah with Joe but his brother had snapped at him every time he’d so much as opened his mouth.

“I’m sorry, Hoss,” Joe said, “I shouldn’t have taken it out on you.”

“That’s all right, little brother. I figured you’d cool off eventually. Do ya wanta talk about it?” As well as being his brother, Joe was Hoss’ best friend. The older brother had always felt a need to watch out for the younger, wanting to help whenever he could.

About to say no, Joe stopped. Looking across the table at his brother now, Joe remembered all the years of his childhood when Hoss was always there to make the hurt better. He doubted there was anything his brother could say that would ease this hurt but he felt a need to talk.

“Sarah, Seth and I used to be such good friends and suddenly it’s all changed. Things will never be the way they used to be between any of us again.”

“Joe, do you feel guilty about turning Seth in?” Hoss asked.

Joe looked down into his beer and answered, “I know I did the right thing.”

“That’s not what I asked,” Hoss persisted.

Joe nodded and blew out a deep breath before answering. “Seth and I have always stuck up for each other. Even though I know I did the right thing, it felt wrong testifying against him. Joe ran his fingers through his hair and shook his head. “But I know Seth killed Sarah’s father for the mine. I know I am right about that. I know it!” Joe shook his head again in confusion, “So why do I feel guilty? It doesn’t make any sense.”

“Seth was a friend and sometimes it’s hard to let go of a friendship. People change, Little Joe. Seth isn’t the same person you knew when you were kids.”

Joe nodded. “I said pretty much the same thing to him in the mine when we fought.” Joe shook his head and said quietly, “It’s just that I thought we’d always be friends.”

**********

Later as Joe and Hoss were about to climb up onto the buckboard they both saw Seth ride out of town. Hoss looked at Joe and said, “Go and talk to Sarah.” Joe started to shake his head but Hoss was insistent. “Nothin’ is goin’ to be settled between you both until you do. You know you want to. Go on. I’ll wait here for ya.”

Joe nodded. “I won’t be long.”

Knocking on the door to Sarah’s room, Joe called softly, “Sarah. It’s Joe. Can I talk to you?”

Opening the door, Sarah smiled hesitantly. “Hello, Little Joe.”

“Can I come in?” Joe asked.

Sarah shook her head. “It wouldn’t be proper. People will talk.”

“Let them,” Joe replied sharply. Trying to calm down he asked, “Can we go for a walk?”

“I don’t want to argue with you, Little Joe,” Sarah said sadly.

“I don’t want to argue with you either. I just want to talk to you.” Joe reached for Sarah’s hand.

Sarah pulled her hand away. “I know you don’t agree with me seeing Seth again,” at the look of disappointment in Joe’s eyes, Sarah’s voice rose, “It’s my life, Little Joe. I have to do what I think is right.”

“And you think it’s right to keep company with the man who killed your father?” Joe said angrily. At the look of hurt in the girl’s eyes he was immediately sorry. “I’m sorry, Sarah. I shouldn’t have said that.”

“You said you didn’t want to argue,” Sarah said.

Joe bit his lip in indecision. Now wasn’t the right time to say it but he knew he might not get another chance. Quietly Joe said, “I love you, Sarah.”

Sarah stared at Joe for a moment and then started to close the door. Joe put his hand out and held it open. “Aren’t you going to say anything?” he asked.

“I don’t love you, Little Joe,” she said and looked away when she saw the hurt in his eyes.

“Goodbye, Sarah,” Joe said quietly. “I hope you’ll be happy.” He turned and walked away.

Sarah closed the door and leant back against it, the tears streaming down her face.

**********

One look at his brother’s face told Hoss that things had not gone well. He waited for Joe to climb up and then started the team moving. When they were out of town, he asked, “It didn’t go well, huh?”

Joe shook his head. “I made a fool of myself.”

Hoss pulled the buckboard up and asked, “What happened?” After hearing what had transpired, he said, “I’m sorry, Joe. You ain’t got no cause to feel like a fool though. You just told her how ya feel, there’s no shame in that.” When Joe didn’t answer, Hoss looked at his brother sadly and got the horses moving again.

**********

Two weeks went by. Two weeks in which Joe avoided all mention of Seth or Sarah. Hoss had told Ben and Adam what had happened in town. Both had tried to talk to Joe but he had made it clear that he didn’t want to discuss it.

At the beginning of the third week, Adam was late returning from town and the other members of the family were sitting at the table when he came in. “Adam,” Ben called, “Come and sit down. I thought you must have decided to eat in town.”

“Sorry I’m late, Pa,” Adam replied as he sat down. “The meeting with Mr Dyson took longer than I thought it would. He’s signed the contract and wants the timber in four months so we have plenty of time.”

“That’s excellent news, Adam. We’ll get on to marking the trees for cutting next week,” Ben said.

“I have some other news,” Adam looked across the table at his youngest brother, “Seth and Sarah have announced their engagement.”

Joe’s hand froze with his fork halfway to his mouth, after a moment he continued eating as though he hadn’t heard what Adam had said. The others looked at each other but said nothing.

Later that night while he was playing a game a checkers with Hoss, Joe turned to his father and said, “Pa, I might make a start on marking the trees tomorrow.”

Ben knew it was Joe’s way of saying that he wanted some time alone. “All right, son,” he replied.

“Do you want me to give you a hand?” Hoss asked, letting Joe know he’d go with him if he wanted company.

“No thanks, Hoss,” Joe said, knowing his brother would understand and wouldn’t be offended, “I think I’d like to be on my own for a bit.” Joe put down the checkers in his hand. “I might go to bed. Get an early start tomorrow.”

After hearing the bedroom door shut, Hoss said, “You shouldn’t let him go up there alone, Pa. Not in the mood he’s in.”

“He’s a grown man, Hoss. We can’t force our company on him if he wants to be alone.” Ben didn’t like it any more than Hoss did but he knew there was nothing he could do to stop Joe from going.

“He’ll be all right,” Adam said, trying to ease everyone’s worry but not succeeding.

**********

The next morning, Joe was heading towards the trees he had to mark when he saw a rider coming. As the rider drew closer, Joe recognized him. “Seth,” he muttered under his breath.

“What are doing here?” Joe asked when Seth drew up next to him.

“I was on my way over to the mine,” Seth replied, “Sarah asked me yesterday if I’d go and check it out for her.”

“Why?” Joe asked, “I didn’t think she’d want anything to do with that place again.”

“Some of her father’s tools were left there. Sarah wants me to go and see if they’re still there. She said she’d like to have them.”

“You don’t need to come this way to reach the mine. What are you doing on Ponderosa land?”

Seth shrugged, looked away and mumbled something Joe didn’t understand.

“What?” Joe asked.

Seth turned back to his former friend. “I said, I guess I was hoping to see you. I think it’s time we settled things between us.”

Joe looked at Seth warily, wondering what he was up to.

Seth noticed the look and said, “We were friends once, Joe. Good friends. You were the best friend I ever had. I don’t want to loose that.”

“It can never be the same between us again. Too much has happened,” Joe replied.

“Maybe it can’t but then again, maybe it can. We won’t know if we don’t try.”

Joe almost laughed. “You sound like my father.”

Seth was unable to hold back his laughter. “Well, I had enough lectures from your father over the years, guess some of them stuck. Feel like going to the mine with me?”

About to say no, Joe stopped. The mine held a lot of bad memories for Joe now, the death of a man that he’d known for almost all of his life. That had led to a ruination of a friendship. He didn’t know if it was possible but Joe wanted to try and put those memories behind him.

Seth sat quietly waiting for Joe’s answer. Finally, Joe nodded. “Let’s go.”

Arriving at the mine, the two young men loosely tied their horses. Seth unhooked a lantern that he’d brought with him and lit it before they entered the mine.

“Let’s go this way,” Seth said, leading the way. “I think there are a few picks and things over here somewhere.”

“I still don’t know why Sarah wants this stuff,” Joe said, shaking his head.

They hadn’t gone far when suddenly Seth tripped on something, “What the….” He started to say, wondering what he had tripped over.

Both young men heard the rumble and knew what it meant. “Cave in! Run, Joe!” Seth shouted. Before they had time to take more then a step, rock and dirt was falling onto them.

When the rocks stopped falling, there was quiet and stillness in the mine. The silence was broken when someone started to cough. Slowly the young man sat up, checking to feel if he had any broken limbs. Finding only cuts and bruises, he pushed himself to his feet and carefully started to search for his companion.

“Joe!” Seth called, “Joe, are you all right?” The lantern had been broken, so the only way to search was with his hands. Finally Seth located Joe. He was shocked and dismayed to feel the beam that lay across Joe’s stomach and upper legs. With shaking hands, Seth felt for a pulse. He breathed a sigh of relief when he felt the movement beneath his fingers. It was weak but at least it was there.

Seth tried to rouse Joe but had no success. Reaching down he felt the beam again and decided to try and move it. At the first movement though, the mine started to creak and he immediately stopped not wanting to bring the whole lot down on them.

Seth stood undecided about what he should do next when he heard Joe groan.

Carefully sitting down by Joe, Seth reached out and put a hand on Joe’s shoulder. “It’s all right. Just lie still, don’t try to move.”

Slowly as more awareness came to him, Joe groaned again and whispered faintly, “Hurts.” Joe felt the weight of the beam pressing down on him and cried out in pain when he tried to pull away from it.

Seth put his hand on Joe’s arm. “I know it hurts, Joe, but I can’t move it, this place is too unstable. We’ll have to wait for help. It’ll be all right,” Seth wasn’t sure if he was trying to comfort Joe or himself, “When I don’t make it back to town, Sarah will know something is wrong. They’ll know where to look, Joe. They’ll find us.”

“I can’t wait that long, Seth. I….” Joe started, quietly.

Seth cut him off. “Don’t talk like that Little Joe. Don’t even think it. We’re not completely sealed in. We’re getting enough air. We know they’re gonna be coming.” Seth squeezed Joe’s arm. “Just hold on.”

**********

Hours passed, hours that felt like days to the two young men trapped in the mine. Seth wondered when Sarah would notice he was over due. He’d told her he would go in and see her in the dress shop where she now worked, when he got back to town.

Joe tried to move and felt a wave of pain wash over him. He bit his lip, drawing blood. Clear thought was lost to Joe now. The only thing he was conscious of was the unrelenting and overwhelming pain. He wanted to stop it. Anyway he could.

Joe slowly reached down to his side, his fingers questing for the gun at his hip.

Seth heard Joe’s movement and reached out to try and comfort him. Seth ran his hand down Joe’s arm in search of his friend’s hand. Seth frowned as his hand found Joe’s, clutched around the butt of his gun and trying to pull it free.

“Joe,” Seth asked, shocked, “What are you doing?” Joe fought against him but in his weakened condition he was no match and Seth easily pulled the gun from him and placed it out of reach.

“Please,” Joe begged, “I can’t stand it. It hurts too much. Please.”

For a moment, Seth was struck by the feeling of having been in the same situation with Sarah’s father. He knew this time though that it would not have the same outcome.

“No, Joe,” Seth said comfortingly, “You don’t want to do that. Help’s coming. They’ll be here soon.” Wanting to get Joe to think about something else, Seth said, “You know we’ve been in some tight spots before but we’ve always managed to get ourselves out of them. Do you remember the time we were about eight and we were following those deer tracks and got lost? We were out there all night and it took us all the next day to find our way back to your house. Your Pa had everyone out looking for us.” Seth shook his head and laughed, “And you told your Pa we hadn’t been lost, we just took the long way home.”

Joe grunted and Seth wasn’t sure if Joe was answering him or not but he continued, “Well, we always managed to get out of trouble somehow and we’ll get out of here,” Seth said confidently.

**********

As more hours slipped by, Seth began to wonder what was taking so long. It was hard to tell how long they’d been trapped there but he was pretty sure night had fallen.

Joe had slipped into a restless sleep and Seth heard him moan as he woke. Although still in a great deal of pain, Joe seemed more aware of where he was and what was happening than he had been before. “Seth,” he called, the word almost a croak as he desperately needed water for his dry throat.

“I’m here,” Seth replied, reaching out and touching Joe’s shoulder.

“Seth,” Joe whispered, “Can I ask you something?”

“Yes, Joe,” Seth replied reluctantly, knowing what Joe was going to ask and knowing that this time he was going to tell the truth.

“Did you kill him for the mine?”

“He was hurt bad. He begged me to end it for him, that’s the truth. But, there’s also more to that truth. You’re right, Joe. Old Tom, he didn’t think I was good enough for Sarah. I was worried she’d start listening to him. I put a lot of work into this mine. When Tom was trapped and begging me to finish him off, I knew that if he was dead the mine would belong to me. Me and Sarah. I did kill him for the mine. I did, Joe.”

Seth took a deep breath. “It was over in a moment, Joe. A moment I wish I could take back. I’ve lain in bed so many nights wishing I could turn back time and make it all right again.”
**********

Ben Cartwright paced across the floor. Adam looked up from the book he was reading. “I’m sure there’s no need to worry, Pa. Joe probably just decided to camp up there for the night. Adam was also worried but he wanted to try and allay his father’s fears.

Ben shook his head. “He didn’t even take a bedroll with him. He should be back by now.” Ben looked at the door, willing it to open. “I’m worried that Seth might have done something….”

“Pa,” Adam said, “Seth hasn’t given any sign that he holds bad feelings towards Joe.”

“What other explanation can there be?” Ben replied anxiously, looking at Adam and then back at the closed door.

“Pa,” Hoss said quietly, Ben reluctantly turned his eyes from the door and looked at his middle son, “There’s nothing we can do tonight. I’ll have the horses ready to leave first thing in the morning.”

Ben nodded and Adam stood, putting his hand on his father’s arm. “Try and get some sleep, Pa,” he said, although he doubted any of them would sleep until they knew that Joe was all right.

***********

As planned, the three elder Cartwrights set out early the following morning. They left before the first rays of sunlight lit the sky, wanting to reach the area where Joe had been heading, as soon as possible. When they arrived there, they were disappointed to see no sign of Joe.

Hoss shook his head. “Doesn’t even look like he’s been here.”

“Where could he be?” Ben said worriedly, his concern growing even more.

“Let’s go to town and see if anyone there’s seen him,” Adam said.

Ben frowned. “Joe wasn’t planning on going to town. It would be a waste of time to go there. He’s somewhere on the ranch.”

“Pa,” Adam said quietly, “It’s a big ranch and we have no idea where to even start looking. If Joe didn’t come up here like he planned to, he could have gone anywhere. We have to start looking somewhere. If we have no luck in town, at least we will be able to get some more men to help us search.”

Ben nodded reluctantly and turned his horse towards Virginia City.

**********

After riding into town, the three Cartwrights split up to ask around if anyone had seen Joe.

Sarah looked up from a dress she was sewing when the bell above the door signalled that someone had entered the shop. “Hello, Adam,” she said when she saw who it was. “What brings you in here?”

“I’m looking for Joe,” Adam replied, “Have you seen him? He’s been missing since yesterday.”

Sarah frowned and shook her head. “I haven’t seen Little Joe for about two weeks. We parted on bad terms that day.”

Adam nodded. “I better keep looking then.” He started to leave but then stopped and asked, “Do you know where Seth is?” Adam wondered about the look that appeared on Sarah’s face at the mention of Seth. The young woman appeared to be nervous.

“No,” she said, although the hesitation caused Adam to suspect that she was lying, “I haven’t seen him since the day before yesterday. You don’t think Seth has something to do with Joe’s disappearance, do you?”

“There doesn’t seem to be any other explanation,” Adam replied, looking into the young woman’s eyes, “Please, Sarah, if you know something you have to tell us.” When Sarah looked away, Adam said sharply, “We don’t even know where to start looking for him. If Joe’s hurt his life could depend on us finding him quickly. If you know something, tell me!”

“Seth was going to my father’s old mine yesterday,” Sarah said quietly.

“Why?” Adam asked, “Why would he want to go out there?”

“I don’t know,” Sarah replied, “He just said he was going up there.”

Adam frowned in thought. “He might have cut across the Ponderosa to go there. It’s possible that he ran into Joe. I better find Pa and Hoss and we’ll head up there and start looking around.” He walked quickly towards the door.

“Wait!” Sarah called, “I’ll get changed and go with you.”

**********

It didn’t take long for Sarah to lock the shop and get changed into riding clothes. Adam had found his father and Hoss and told them what he’d learned from Sarah. They had saddled a horse for her and soon the small group was riding towards the mine.

Upon their first sight of the mine when it came into view, Ben drew his breath in sharply. Joe’s horse Cochise and another horse were standing not far from the entrance that was blocked with boulders and rubble.

“No!” Ben shouted as he leapt out of the saddle and ran towards the mine. He quickly started to try and clear the rubble away. The others were right behind him.

As Hoss rushed to help his father, Adam grabbed his arm. “We need more help. You stay with Pa and do what you can here and I’ll get some more men.” Hoss nodded and set to work.

Adam turned to Sarah who was staring at the mine in shock. “Sarah, are you all right?”

“I didn’t mean for Joe to be hurt,” putting a hand up to her face she started to cry, “Oh, Adam, you have to believe me.”

“Of course I believe you. It’s not your fault,” Adam reached out and gently shook her. “I need your help, Sarah. Joe needs your help.”

The young woman’s head snapped up, “What do you want me to do?”

“I’m going to find some of our hands to help. You go back to town and tell Sheriff Coffee what’s happened. Tell him we need some men out here to help us.” Adam paused and then added, “And tell Doctor Martin we’ll need him.” Sarah blinked back tears and started to turn away to get her horse but before she did, Adam nodded towards the horse with Cochise and asked, “Is that Seth’s horse?”

“Yes, it is,” Sarah replied quietly before running to her horse, she was soon on her way back to Virginia City.

**********

Within hours more men had arrived to help but Ben, Adam and Hoss knew Joe must have been trapped in the mine for a long time. Although they didn’t want to voice their fears aloud, they all knew it might be too late.

The work continued for a long time. Adam had tried to get his father away from the mine, wanting him to go back to the house. The longer it took to reach the trapped men, the more Adam began to dread that they would be pulling his young brother’s dead body from the mine and he didn’t want his father to see that. Ben wouldn’t leave though. Dead or alive, Joe needed him and Ben was staying until they got his son out.

**********

Although they were able to get enough air to stay alive, it was stale and breathing was difficult for Joe and Seth. They were no longer talking, wanting to conserve the little energy they had left.

“I hear something,” Seth sat up excitedly. Looking around he tried to work out where the sounds were coming from. “Do you hear it, Joe?”

Barely conscious, Joe tried to make sense of what Seth was saying.

There was an ominous creak from above them as a piece of unstable rock moved, Seth threw himself over Joe seconds before it crashed down on them.

**********

When the men working to clear the blocked section heard the crash within, they stopped. Hoss stood there, breathing hard, his hands were bleeding but he didn’t notice. His thoughts were concentrated only on his young brother trapped just beyond him. When no further sounds came they continued working.

Finally Hoss called back to the others, “We’re almost through! We’re almost through!” Ben and Adam moved forward just as Hoss pulled another piece away, revealing the opening.

“I’m going through,” Ben said.

“No, Pa,” Adam put his hand on his father’s arm stopping him, “Let me.”

Ben shook his head and said simply, “I’m his father.” Ben quickly went through the opening but Adam was right behind him.

Both men held lanterns and as they turned searching the area, the light hit on a terrible sight.

Seth lay across Joe, a sharp piece of rock like a knife protruding from his back. Ben and Adam rushed over. Adam quickly placed his hand on Seth’s neck and felt for a pulse. “He’s dead,” he said, pushing Seth away to reach his trapped brother. With a hand that this time shook unsteadily, Adam once again reached to feel for a pulse. “He’s alive,” he said in a rush of relief. His father let out an audible sigh and Adam called, “Hoss, Joe’s alive! Joe’s alive!” He looked around and quickly assessed what would need to be done. “He’s pinned by a beam. I’m going to need help in here to get him free.”

“The hole’s nearly big enough,” Hoss called back, “I’ll be through in a minute.”

Ben was crouched next to Joe, holding his hand and stroking his face, begging his son to open his eyes but Joe remained unresponsive.

“Bring a canteen with you, Hoss,” Ben called out, “Joe needs water badly.”

Getting through as quickly as he could, Hoss went to his father and brothers and handed Ben a canteen. Adam carefully lifted Joe’s head as Ben tried to get some water into him. Ben was upset that most of it went unswallowed. Adam lay Joe back down, looking at Hoss and some other men who had come through to help, he explained what he wanted them to do.

Ben was running his hands and eyes over Joe’s body, looking for injuries.

“Pa?” Adam questioned.

“His right arm is broken but with this beam across him, I don’t know what else might be wrong. We need to get it off him,” Ben said urgently.

Adam nodded, already working out what they should do. “We are going to have to be extremely careful. Look at this,” he pointed to another piece of timber beside Joe that was under the large beam, “that is supporting the beam. It’s keeping a lot of the weight off Joe. We have to make sure we don’t dislodge it.” Ben and Hoss nodded worriedly as they looked at where Adam was pointing.

There wasn’t much room to move so Ben, Adam and Hoss were the only ones working to move the beam while the other men waited on the other side of the cave-in. They had to move carefully and it took a long time before they had Joe free, the family worried constantly that one slip could cause Joe’s death. They breathed a sigh of relief when the beam was finally off Joe and the last piece of debris was pulled away from the trapped young man.

Ben quickly checked Joe’s legs. He was relieved to find that they didn’t appear to be broken but he worried that there might be damage to Joe’s stomach that they couldn’t see.

The relief of finally freeing Joe from the beam that had pinned him to the hard ground was short lived. Next they had the difficult process of getting Joe out of the still partly blocked section. Slowly and carefully Hoss lifted his young brother into his arms and manoeuvred with him, through the hole and back into the other side. Once through, Joe was placed on a make shift stretcher and quickly carried from the mine. Other men followed carrying the body of Seth Pruitt.

**********

When Sarah had gotten back to town and told Roy Coffee what had happened, she then went straight to Doctor Martin’s office only to find that the doctor was out of town. Paul had gone out to a ranch and wasn’t expected back for hours. Word was sent out to him that he was needed back in town as soon as possible. Paul had just arrived back and was preparing to go out to the mine when Joe was brought in.

Ben paced the waiting room of Doctor Paul Martin’s surgery. Adam and Hoss sat waiting with their father, their nerves stretched as tightly as his. They had tried to get their father to sit down and rest but to no avail, Ben was too worried.

Ben continued to pace, his mind in a whirl. He prayed his son would survive. He was plagued by thoughts that after struggling so hard to free the boy, Joe would die before he even had a chance to talk to him again.

The door to the surgery finally opened and Paul Martin came out, closing it behind him. Ben practically pounced on the man. “How is he?” the worried father asked anxiously.

“As well as can be expected,” Doctor Martin replied.

“What does that mean?” Ben snapped, anger getting the better of him in his frustration and worry.

“After an accident like you described to me, I’m amazed that Joe’s injuries aren’t a lot worse. The bruising on Joe’s legs and stomach is severe but there are no breaks or even fractures in his legs.”

“And his stomach?” Ben prompted.

“There doesn’t seem to be any internal bleeding,” the doctor replied.

“Doesn’t seem to be,” Ben repeated and then said, “But you’re not sure?”

Paul shook his head. “Not completely. And even if there is no bleeding that doesn’t mean there is not some damage there.”

“When will you know for sure?” Hoss asked.

Paul looked at the clock on the wall. It was almost 6pm. “By Morning. If there is something wrong inside Joe, we’ll know by morning.”

Ben’s pale face signified his worry and Adam asked for his father, “What else?”

“His right arm, he’s also broken a bone in that hand, two broken ribs, a lot of cuts and bruises all over and he’s severely dehydrated,” the doctor paused for a moment, “and most worrisome at the moment, a head injury.” Seeing everyone about to ask the question he knew they would, Paul held up his hand and said, “I’m sorry but until Joe wakes up there’s no telling how serious that is.”

“I want to be with him,” Ben said, leaving no doubt that there was no possibility of the doctor denying him. Paul tried anyway, worried about the health of his old friend.

“It might be a long time, Ben,” Paul said, “Why don’t you go to the hotel and get some rest or at least go and sleep in my spare room. I’ll….”

Ben cut him off. “No, thank you, Paul. I’m staying with Joseph.” With that said he walked past Paul, opening the door and going into the room where his youngest son lay, followed by Adam and Hoss.

Joe lay on the bed with a sheet pulled up to his waist, the livid bruises standing out in stark contrast to the white sheets and bandages. Ben sat down in a chair beside the bed and took Joe’s left hand, squeezing it gently, he said, “Pa’s here, Joseph and your brothers are with me. Everything’s going to be all right, son.”

Joe’s body was glistening with sweat. Ben reached up to stroke the hair back from his son’s forehead and felt the heat burn his hand. “He’s very hot.”

“Yes,” Paul replied, coming to stand next to Ben. “Hopefully it won’t go any higher. Hoss can you come through to the kitchen with me and we’ll get some ice water to try and bring it down.”

“Sure thing, Doc,” Hoss said and left the room with the doctor.

Adam said, “Pa, I better go and tell Sarah how Joe’s doing. She’ll be worried.” Ben nodded, his eyes never leaving Joe’s face. Adam put a hand on his father’s shoulder before leaving. “I won’t be long.”

Sarah had returned to the mine with Roy Coffee and the men. She’d been distraught when Joe and Seth had been brought out. When they arrived back in town, Paul Martin had given her something to calm her down. Adam had then escorted Sarah to her room, promising he would let her know as soon as there was any word about Joe.

**********

After Adam had spoken to Sarah he returned to be with his family. Roy Coffee came to see them, to tell them what he’d found at the mine. He told them that he’d had a look around and it appeared that someone had set some ropes, rigged to pull down sections of rock when someone tripped over them. “Looks like Seth set out for a taste of revenge and got caught in his own trap,” the old lawman said.

“That lying, stinking pond scum,” Hoss spat the words furiously, “All the time he was saying that he wanted to put what had happened behind him, he was really plotting to kill Little Joe.” Hoss balled his big fists in anger. “It’s a good thing he’s dead because if he weren’t, I’d be seeing to it that he never drew another breath.”

There was nothing Ben or Adam could say to lessen Hoss’ fury because in truth, they felt the same way.

Ben didn’t take his eyes off Joe as he spoke. “Joseph was wary of Seth. I encouraged Joe to try and get on with him,” Ben swallowed hard, fighting the tears that formed in his eyes. “I should have been warning the boy to stay away from him but I didn’t know just how much treachery Seth was capable of.” He reached for Joe’s hand and squeezed it gently. “I’m so sorry, son. Please forgive me. I didn’t know.”

Adam put a hand on his father’s shoulder. “It’ll be all right, Pa,” he comforted and prayed that he was right.

Roy Coffee quietly left and the family settled in for a long wait, doing what they could to keep Joe comfortable.

**********

As a new day dawned and the shadows of the night left, the worry that had been with the family all night remained. Joe was still unconscious and showed no signs of waking.

Paul Martin came into the room to check on his patient. “Any change?” he asked, as he walked over to the bed. He’d gotten up a few times through the night to check on Joe.

Ben shook his head, “No.”

Paul checked Joe’s temperature and was relieved to find that it hadn’t risen. “His temperature hasn’t gone up any further.”

“But it hasn’t gone down either,” Adam said, worriedly.

“No,” Paul agreed, “but it’s understandable after everything Joe’s been through. His body is just taking a while to settle back down. I think we can rule out any serious internal damage. Joe would be showing more signs than this if that were the case.”

“Did you expect Joe to have woken up by now?” Ben asked. With each passing hour he had grown more concerned.

“I was hoping he would have,” seeing the anxious expression on his friend’s face, Paul tried to ease his fears, “He could wake any time, Ben.”

Ben nodded and turned back to his youngest son, continuing to do what he’d done all night. He put his hand on Joe’s arm and quietly talked to him as he stroked his arm, urging Joe to open his eyes.

Hours passed with still no change. No one wanted to admit that secretly they were all beginning to wonder if Joe would ever wake. None of them wanted to face that possibility.

“Here, Pa,” Adam passed his father a glass. They’d been forcing liquids into Joe on a regular basis. Although thankful that they were managing to at least get some water into him, they knew it wasn’t enough.

As Ben started to lift Joe’s head, his son moaned, startling them all. Ben quickly lowered Joe’s head and put the glass down. Leaning forward he bent over Joe and begged, “Joe, open your eyes. Please, son. You can do it. Just try. Open your eyes for me.” Ben continued to repeat the words, until finally after what seemed to be a monumental struggle, Joe’s eyes slowly opened. The curtains had been drawn to keep a lot of the bright sun out because they hadn’t wanted it to hurt Joe’s eyes when he first opened them.

“Hello, son,” Ben smiled as he gently touched the side of Joe’s face, “Welcome back.”

“Pa,” Joe said faintly and winced at the rawness of his throat.

Ben reached for the glass again and lifted Joe’s head. “Here you go, drink this.” Hoss took the glass from his father when Joe had finished and went to get Doctor Martin. Ben moved to carefully sit on the edge of the bed. “How do you feel?” he asked.

“Sore,” Joe answered, looking confused, “What happened?”

Adam squatted down beside the bed so he could look into Joe’s eyes and asked, “What do you remember?”

Joe frowned as he thought. “You came home and told us we’d won the contract with Mr Dyson and about Sarah and Seth getting engaged. I went to bed and ….” Joe paused, obviously confused.

“Do you remember what happened after that, Joseph?” Ben prompted.

“No,” Joe said quietly, “I remember I was going to mark trees the next day but I don’t remember doing it. Did I? Pa, what happened? Why don’t I remember?” Joe started to become agitated.

Doctor Martin walked into the room followed by Hoss. Seeing the distress on Joe’s face, he asked, “What’s wrong? Are you in pain, Joe?”

“Joe can’t remember what happened, he doesn’t remember that day at all,” Adam said.

“It’s all right, Joe,” Paul said comfortingly, “That’s nothing to worry about. You’ve been hurt and taken a serious blow to your head.”

Joe’s eyes started to droop, “My head hurts.”

“I’ll bet it does. You just stay awake for me for a few minutes while I examine you, then I’ll give you something for the pain and you can go back to sleep.”

When Paul had finished the examination and Joe was once again sleeping, he turned to the family, “Everything looks good. There is no sign of infection in any of the wounds. He’s going to be in a lot of pain for a long time while he recovers though. As I said earlier, there doesn’t appear to be any internal bleeding but Joe’s organs have taken a terrible blow. The pain while that beam was on him must have been agonizing. We need to keep him in bed and resting,” Ben slowly stroked Joe’s arm and Paul saw the worry on his friend’s face, and said, “With rest he will be fine, Ben.”

“And his memory?” Adam asked.

Paul shrugged. “We just don’t know enough about head injuries and the effects they can cause. Joe’s memory might return tomorrow or it might never come back, I just can’t say. After what he went through though, it might be a blessing if he never remembers what happened.”

“If Joe doesn’t remember, we’ll never know what happened in there,” Adam said.

“It don’t matter none now,” Hoss said, “Whatever happened, Seth was behind it and he’s paid for it with his life. He’s dead and Joe don’t have to worry about him none anymore.”

“I guess you’re right,” Adam agreed. “Do you think we should tell Joe about Seth when he wakes up again, Pa?”

Ben looked at Paul who replied, “It’s up to you. He’s still very weak but I think he’s out of danger and he’s going to have to be told eventually.”

Ben thought for a moment and then said, “It won’t hurt to wait a few days. We’ll wait until Joe’s feeling a little better.”

**********

Two days later, Joe asked about Sarah, he wanted to see her. The family knew there was no putting it off any longer. Joe had to be told about Seth’s death before he saw Sarah.

“Joe, there’s something I have to talk to you about, son,” Ben said.

Adam and Hoss quietly left the room, thinking it would be better for their father to talk to Joe in private.

“What is it? What’s wrong?” Joe asked anxiously, knowing immediately that it was something serious.

“I wish there was an easier way to tell you this, Joe,” Ben pulled his chair closer to the bed where Joe was sitting up, resting against pillows, “Seth’s dead.”

Joe shook his head. “No, he can’t be.” But looking into his father’s eyes, he knew the man was telling the truth. “How? What happened…..” Joe’s voice trailed away as he looked down at his own injuries and then back at his father.

“Was I involved, Pa?”

Ben was shocked at Joe’s question but he knew the young man was still very confused about everything. “Not the way you are thinking,” he replied immediately, “So you get any of those thoughts out of your head right now.” Ben leant forward, “I’ll tell you what we know,” and he started to explain to Joe what they knew about the day Seth had been killed.

When Ben finished talking, Joe was silent for a moment and then asked, “But why would I have gone to the mine with him?”

“We don’t know for sure, Joe. I can only guess that he forced you to go with him.”

“But if he’d planned to kill me, how come he’s the one who’s dead?”

Ben knew Joe was clutching at straws because it was so hard for him to accept what his former friend had done.

“We may never know for sure how it all happened, Joe, but something went wrong with his plan.” When Joe remained silent, staring at the wall in front of him, Ben asked, “Are you all right?”

“I don’t think I knew him at all, Pa. Not really. He killed Mr Miller and he tried to kill me. I just don’t understand how he could do those things. He got into some trouble when we were growing up but that was just kid stuff, you know. I’d never have thought he was capable of murder. I don’t know what happened to him, Pa. It’s like there was no good left in him. He was just bad.” Tears came to Joe’s eyes and he turned away, saying quietly, “And I don’t want to believe that of him.”

“Joe,” Ben reached out and squeezed Joe’s hand, “I’ve heard it said that there’s a little bit of good in the very worst of men and a little bad even in the very best. I think there was still good in Seth.”

**********

Ben was sitting talking to Joe when there was a knock on the door. Ben smiled when he opened the door and saw Sarah. “Hello, Sarah. It’s good to see you,” he said.

“Doctor Martin said it was all right for me to come through and see Joe,” Sarah said.

“Of course,” Ben moved aside to allow the young woman to enter.

Tears came to Sarah’s eyes when she saw Joe. She slowly approached the bed and then stooped down to gently kiss him on the cheek.

Joe fought to stop his own tears from falling. With his left hand he reached for Sarah’s hand, holding it tightly.

Joe’s feelings for Seth were mixed. He still hadn’t remembered what had happened in the mine, he didn’t know why he had gone there with Seth but the only logical explanation seemed to be that Seth had meant to cause Joe’s death there. But despite that Joe felt sorrow at the death of someone who had been a friend since childhood.

Joe hadn’t understood how Sarah could forgive Seth after what he’d done to her father but he had to accept that she’d loved Seth and he was sorry about the pain he could see that she was feeling at his death. “I’m sorry, Sarah. I wish there was something more I could say to make it better for you. I know you loved him.”

“Oh, Joe,” Sarah said gently as she sat in the chair that had been pulled close to the bed, “Don’t worry about me. I’m just so glad that you’re going to be all right.”

Joe’s eyes started to close. He blinked them open trying to stay awake, only to close them again tiredly. Ben who had been standing at the door walked over to the bed and said quietly, “Sarah, Joseph needs to sleep now. You can come back and see him again later.”

“I’m not tired,” Joe mumbled.

Ben smiled. “Well, just rest your eyes then,” Ben said as he gently stroked the hair away from Joe’s forehead, knowing Joe would be asleep within minutes.

When Joe’s breathing signalled that he was sleeping, Sarah asked, “Mr Cartwright, will it be all right if I just sit with Joe for a while?”

“Certainly it’s all right. Adam and Hoss have gone back to the Ponderosa for the day to check on things there and there are a few things I should do here in town. I’ll get that done now if you’ll stay here with Joe. I won’t be long.”

Sarah nodded. “Take as long as you want, Mr Cartwright. I’m in no hurry to leave.”

Sarah waited until Ben had left before she learnt forward and softly kissed Joe on the lips. Careful not to wake him, she whispered, “I love you so much, Joe.”

**********

Three days later, Ben helped Joe to get dressed after Paul finally said he could go home. Joe’s memory of the accident still hadn’t returned but Paul had explained to them that if and when some memory of it returned, Joe would probably remember it all. Adam and Hoss had brought the buckboard into town, it was well padded with a mattress and also contained blankets and pillows.

As they walked slowly out, Ben realized just how sick and weak Joe was still feeling when instead of insisting that he wanted to sit up front, he quietly allowed his father to help him into the back and lie down. Ben sat in the back with Joe. Adam and Hoss climbed up onto the seat and Hoss moved the horses on. Paul had given Joe something to help with the pain and he slept most of the way home.

Late that night the elder Cartwrights were woken by shouting. Three men rushed to one door. Adam and Hoss stepped back and allowed their father to go into Joe’s room first. They stood at the door to make sure their little brother was all right but they didn’t want to intrude.

“Seth. Seth. No, don’t do it, Seth!” Joe’s cries grew louder and more urgent, as he thrashed around on the bed.

Ben rushed over, fearing his son would hurt himself. “Joseph, wake up. It’s all right, Joe. Wake up, son,” Ben held Joe down as he talked to him. Joe’s eyes shot open and he stared up into the eyes of his father. Joe’s breath was coming in gasps and sweat and broken out all over his body.

“It’s all right, Joe,” Ben said calmly, hoping to settle him down. You’re home. It was just a bad dream.” Ben sat quietly with Joe, not breaking physical contact with him as Joe slowly calmed down and his breathing slowed.

“Feeling better?” Ben asked.

Joe nodded, not trusting his voice to speak yet.

Ben poured a glass of water from the jug on the dresser near the bed and pretended not to notice the shaking of Joe’s hands while he drank it and then handed the glass back.

Ben saw his two older sons at the door. “Joe will be fine, boys. Why don’t you both go back to bed.”

Reluctant to leave, Hoss asked, “Are ya sure there’s nothin’ you need?”

“No we’re fine. I’ll sit with Joe for a while. Go on,” Ben said.

Hoss nodded. “I’ll see ya later, Joe.”

“Night, Joe,” Adam added.

“Sorry I woke you,” Joe said quietly, embarrassed.

“Don’t worry none about that,” Hoss said, “You just try and get some sleep, okay?” When Joe nodded, Hoss and Adam quietly left the room.

Ben tipped some water from the jug into the bowl and soaked a cloth in it. Joe hadn’t bothered with a nightshirt and sweat glistened on his bare skin. Ben sat on the bed and pulled the sheet down to Joe’s waist. He gently wiped the sweat from Joe’s body, softly talking to him while he did it. “Do you feel like talking about it?” When Joe shook his head, he added, “It might help. You can’t keep everything bottled up, son. Talk to us. Let us help you.”

“There’s nothing to talk about, Pa,” Joe replied quietly, looking away from his father.

“I think there is. Seth tried to kill you. You can’t honestly expect me to believe that’s not on your mind.”

Joe refused to look at his father and didn’t answer. His eyes remained fixed on a wall, staring at nothing.

**********

The next morning, after washing and shaving in his room, Ben walked down the stairs and joined Adam and Hoss who were sitting at the table eating breakfast.

“You looked tired,” Adam said, noting the dark circles under his father’s eyes. “Did you get any sleep last night?”

“Some,” Ben replied, although in truth Ben hadn’t gone back to sleep after being woken by Joe’s nightmare.

“How was Joe last night? We looked in on him this morning and he was sleeping,” Adam said.

“I tried talking to him but got no where. He wouldn’t or couldn’t go back to sleep. He was just lying there brooding. I finally gave him one of those powders Paul said to use if he needed them. At least he got some sleep.”

‘Which is more than I can say for you,’ Adam thought to himself. “I’ll try talking to him.”

“You can try,” Ben replied, “although I don’t think you will get anywhere with him.”

“I’ll take his breakfast up,” Adam said as he stood up, “and see how I go.”

**********

Adam knocked and opened the bedroom door. Adam saw Joe open his eyes and turn his head away as he said, “I’m not hungry.”

“Too bad, you’re going to eat it anyway,” Adam said as he walked over to the bed. “Pa’s already missed out on a night’s sleep worrying about you. I’m not going to have him start worrying next because you won’t eat.”

Joe turned back to face Adam and Adam saw the anxious look in his brother’s eyes. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to worry Pa.”

“It’s all right,” Adam comforted, he hadn’t wanted to upset Joe but he was as worried as their father and he didn’t want Joe to emotionally pull away from them. “Don’t you go worrying about Pa now,” he joked gently.

Adam put the tray down and helped his brother to sit up before placing it on his lap. “Eat!” he said, pointing at the food.

Adam sat silently and watched Joe eat. He was relieved when his brother finished all the food on his plate. When Joe placed his empty cup back on the tray, Adam removed the tray and put it on the dresser. Pulling up a chair close to the bed he said, “We need to talk.”

Joe started to reply, “There’s nothing to talk about….”

Adam cut him off. “Don’t say it, Joe. You tried that line with Pa and he didn’t believe it anymore than I do. We’re all worried about you. Don’t shut us out.”

Joe was silent for so long, Adam didn’t think he was going to answer. Finally he said, “I don’t mean to. It’s just so confusing, Adam. It’s all mixed up in my head and I don’t know what to believe anymore.”

“You don’t believe that Seth tried to kill you?” Adam prompted.

“I guess the truth is that I don’t want to believe it.”

“You know, when all this first started, when Sarah’s father was killed, you were having nightmares. You finally opened up to me, Joe. I’m sorry I told Pa what we talked about. I think he had a right to know but I shouldn’t have broken a confidence with you. I hope you don’t feel like you can’t trust me. That you can’t come to me and talk.”

Joe shook his head. “No. You were right when you said Pa already knew. I think I wanted him to know but I didn’t know how to come right out and tell him. I don’t blame you for telling him. I owe you an apology for how I treated you when you told me that you’d told Pa.”

“You don’t owe me an apology. You were upset. I understand that.”

“I still shouldn’t have acted like that when you were only trying to help.” Joe thought about that day and suddenly remembered Hoss. Hoss had been treating a horse with a hurt leg. Hoss and Adam had thought that the horse had a good chance of recovering. Joe, his mind on Sarah’s father had told Hoss that the horse would always be crippled and they were just making it suffer. When Hoss had excitedly tried to tell Joe the horse had recovered, Joe had brushed past without a word. Now Joe remembered the hurt look on his brother’s face. “And Hoss,” Joe said quietly.

“What about Hoss?”

“I need to apologize to him, too. Remember the black horse that Hoss was treating, the one with the bad leg?” when Adam nodded, Joe continued, “Just after you told me that you’d told Pa about Seth killing Sarah’s father, Hoss tried to tell me that the horse was fine but I was so mad, I heard what he said but didn’t take any notice. I know I hurt his feelings. I didn’t mean to, Adam. I don’t know why I’ve been acting the way I have. I….”

“Joe,” Adam cut him off gently, “You’ve been under a lot of pressure. Anyone in your position would have acted the same way.”

Joe shook his head. “You would never have been in that position. I did the wrong thing when I went along with Seth in the first place. I should have told the truth from the start.”

“Don’t be so hard on yourself, Joe. Your intentions were good. It’s easy in hindsight to know what we should have done but at the time it’s not so easy. I don’t know what I would have done in your place, Joe. You thought Seth killed Mr Miller to end his suffering. You did what you thought was right at the time.”

“I just wish I could remember what happened when I was trapped in the mine with Seth.” Joe put his hand up to his forehead.

When Adam saw the movement, he asked, “Are you getting a headache?” When Joe nodded, he said, “Stop trying so hard to remember. Paul said you can’t force it. Joe, every time you do try you get a headache. That’s no good.”

Adam straightened the blankets and said, “Joe, why don’t you close your eyes and try to rest for a while.”

“Can you tell Hoss that I want to see him?”

Adam knew Joe wouldn’t rest until he’d spoken to Hoss so he nodded and said, “All right. I’ll go and get him.”

A few moments later, Hoss walked into the room. “Joe, what’s wrong? Adam said you wanted to talk to me.”

“I want to apologize.”

Hoss looked blankly at Joe. “What on earth for?”

“The way I acted when you were working on the leg of that horse Adam bought. And the day you tried to tell me he was better and I just brushed you off. I’m sorry, Hoss.”

“Joe that was months ago. Don’t go frettin’ over that.”

Joe looked upset and Hoss knew that his brother wasn’t just going to forget it so he said, “I’ll accept your apology on one condition,” Joe nodded and Hoss continued, “that it’s forgotten now. I don’t want you worrin’ about a silly thing like that when you should be concentratin’ on gettin’ better.” When Joe didn’t say anything, Hoss looked at him sternly and asked, “Do you accept that condition?”

Joe nodded and smiled and a smile lit Hoss’ face. “Good. Now go to sleep.” Hoss sat down beside the bed to make sure his brother did as he said.

**********

Two months later, Joe’s broken bones had healed and he was almost fully recovered, Doctor Martin had been out that morning and told Joe he could start back on light work in two weeks.

Usually boredom would have gotten the best of Joe by now and he would have been begging and conniving to get back to work but Sarah had been coming out and spending hours with Joe every day. She usually brought some sewing with her and worked while they talked.

Joe’s feelings were still confused where Sarah was concerned. He could feel his love for her growing more each day but every time he thought about Seth he felt stirrings of guilt.

One day Joe took Sarah out for a ride in the buggy. As they approached a secluded spot near the lake, Sarah asked Joe to stop. They both sat and looked out at the sight in front of them, until the young woman turned and looked at Joe.

“Are you all right, Little Joe?” Sarah asked, “You’re very quiet?”

“Just thinking,” Joe replied as he stared out at the water. “Do you remember all the days you, me and Seth spent here when we were kids. They were great times.”

“Don’t talk about him,” Sarah said sharply and Joe turned to look at her.

“We can’t pretend he never existed, Sarah,” When the young woman didn’t answer, Joe continued, “Sometimes when I’m with you I feel guilty, Sarah. Seth and I had an agreement that we’d never take the other’s girl,” Joe paused and then said quietly, “I feel like I took you from Seth.”

“You didn’t take me, Little Joe. It was over between Seth and I. It was you I wanted to be with.”

Joe frowned and shook his head. “But you and Seth just got engaged the day before he was killed. Adam told me that night. It’s still about the last thing I remember.”

“I said I don’t want to talk about him, Little Joe,” Sarah snapped, “He’s in the past. Maybe we can’t pretend that he never existed but we can do our best to forget him.”

Joe wasn’t surprised by Sarah’s reaction. For the last two months, any mention of Seth had produced a similar reaction.

“Let’s talk about something else, Little Joe,” Sarah said, trying to lighten the mood. “It’s such a beautiful day. Too beautiful to spend arguing.”

Joe smiled and tried to push away his thoughts of Seth. He learned over and kissed Sarah gently, his lips brushing softly against hers, making them both want more. To Joe’s surprise Sarah returned the kiss with more passion. Wordlessly they stayed together until darkness enveloped them, each one discovering a new level to their relationship.

**********

Finally, Sarah reluctantly pulled away, standing up she straightened her clothes. “We should be getting back, your father will be wondering where we are.”

“I’m sorry, Sarah,” Joe said, afraid he’d gone further than Sarah wanted to.

“Don’t be sorry,” Sarah’s cheeks flushed, “I want you as much as you want me.”

Joe grinned and jumped to his feet. “Well, I guess there’s only one thing we can do,” he said as he hugged her.

“What’s that?”

Joe pulled back and holding Sarah’s hands in his, he got down on one knee and asked, “Sarah, will you marry me?”

For a moment Sarah stared at him in shock and then she smiled brightly. “Yes, Joe. Yes.” When Joe got to his feet, she looked into his eyes and asked, “Are you sure?”

Joe nodded. “Very sure.”

“Oh Joe, I do love you,” Sarah said as she allowed herself to be pulled into Joe’s arms again.”

**********

The young couple rode back to the Ponderosa ranch house, the smiles never leaving their faces. After they got home, Joe grabbed Sarah’s hand and pulled her towards the house. “Let’s go and tell Pa.”

“Do you think he’ll be happy, Joe?

“Of course he will,” Joe replied confidently. Joe stopped walking and turned puzzled eyes to the young woman he’d just asked to be his wife. “Sarah, you’ve always called me Little Joe but now you are calling me Joe. Why?”

Sarah laughed. “I’ve called you Little Joe since we were kids. I guess the habit was hard to break but after today, by the lake, I realized that you were no longer the little boy I used to catch frogs with at the pond. No longer, Little Joe. Just, my Joe.” She kissed him softly on the cheek and pulled him forward. “Let’s talk to your Pa.”

Rushing to the door of the large ranch house and pushing it open, Joe called, “Pa!” as he came into the house. “Pa, where are you?”

“I’m here, Joe,” Ben said as he came from the kitchen carrying a cup of coffee. “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing’s wrong, Pa,” Joe grinned, “Everything’s right. I’ve asked Sarah to marry me and she said yes.”

With the cup half way to his lips, Ben paused and lowered it.

“Pa,” Joe prompted when his father didn’t say anything. “I thought you’d be happy for us.”

Ben put his cup down and smiled. “You just took me by surprise. I am happy. Are you sure though. Really sure this is what you both want. You’ve both been through a lot recently. There’s no harm in waiting a bit longer.”

“No,” Joe shook his head, “This is what we want.”

Ben shook Joe’s hand and then pulled him into his arms, hugging him tightly. “Then I couldn’t be happier, Joseph.” Releasing his son, he hugged his future daughter-in-law, “Welcome to the family, Sarah.”

**********

When Adam and Hoss walked into the house that night, they noticed the dining room table had food laid out as if in a celebration. Looking across to the great room, they noticed their father and young brother wearing string ties. “What’s going on?” Adam asked, “What are we celebrating?”

“My engagement,” Joe answered simply and watched shocked expressions appear on the faces of both his brothers. Once they had recovered from the surprise, they quickly congratulated the young couple.

**********

Later that night after the meal had been eaten and toasts made, Joe stood up and said, “Well, I better take Sarah home.”

Sarah smiled. “I’ve had such a wonderful day,” she said excitedly, “I wish I could turn back time and we could do it all over again tomorrow.”

Ben laughed and was about to comment on all the happy days Sarah had ahead of her when he heard Joe’s shocked voice.

“Seth,” Joe whispered suddenly and everyone’s eyes turned to him. Joe paled and closing his eyes, he rubbed at his head.

“Joe,” Ben went over to his son, placing a concerned hand on Joe’s back, “What’s wrong, son?”

“The mine,” Joe mumbled, “I remember when we were in the mine, Seth said he wished he could turn back time.” As flashes of memories started to come, Joe’s face, already as white as a sheet, paled even further and Hoss caught him as he swayed on his feet.

“Come on, little brother. Let’s get you upstairs,” Hoss put his arm around his brother’s slender waist.

“Sarah,” Joe mumbled.

“Don’t worry about Sarah. I’ll take her home,” Adam replied.

Ben, Adam and Sarah watched with concern until Hoss and Joe were out of sight and then Ben turned to Adam. “Ask Paul to come out.”

Adam nodded. “Do you think Joe’s memory of the cave-in is coming back?”

“I think it might be,” Ben replied and as he and Adam looked at each other, they failed to see the look of fear on Sarah’s face.

**********

On the way into town, Sarah asked, “Do you really think Joe’s memory is coming back?”

“Seems like it. Paul said that if it started to return, Joe would probably find it would all come back to him. He just needed that first piece to start it off. We’ll finally find out what happened in that mine.”

Sarah bit her lip and looked away, knowing the consequences of Joe’s memory retuning could cost her everything.

**********

“Hello, Joe,” Paul Martin said as he walked into the room with Adam. Joe’s eyes were bleary and he sleepily answered, “Hello, Doc.”

“How are you feeling,” Paul asked, reaching for Joe’s wrist to check his pulse.

“Not so good,” Joe replied, “My head really hurts.”

“Do you feel sick or hurt anywhere else?” Paul asked as he looked into Joe’s eyes.

“No,” Joe answered softly.

“He’s having some memories of the mine cave-in,” Ben said.

Paul nodded. “Adam told me. And that’s when the headache started?”

At Ben’s confirming nod, Paul reached into his bag and took out some powders. “Can you get me a glass of water?”

Paul carefully examined Joe and then reached for the glass of water Hoss had poured from the pitcher on the dresser. Paul mixed one of the powders into the water. “This should help with the headache, Joe, and let you sleep. You’ll feel better when you wake up.” Paul lifted Joe’s head so he could drink the mixture down.

Everyone waited until Joe’s eyes closed in sleep and then quietly left the room. Ben left the door open so he would hear if Joe needed him.

“Will he be all right?” Ben asked as he poured everyone a drink downstairs.

“I think so, Ben. I don’t know what caused the headache, I can only guess it was the shock of the memories starting to come back. I’ve left some more powders upstairs. Give them to him if he needs them and send for me.” He finished his drink and stood up. “I better be getting back to town.”

“Thank you for coming out, Paul,” Ben said, shaking the doctor’s hand and seeing him to the door.

“It’s no trouble at all, Ben. Don’t hesitate to call me if you feel Joe needs me.”

**********

Joe woke the next morning and found his father asleep in a chair next to his bed. Reaching out a hand, he shook his father’s leg.

Ben blinked open his eyes. “Good morning, Joe,” Ben smiled, “How are you feeling?”

“Good,” Joe smiled back. “My headache’s gone. Did you sleep there all night?” he asked, concerned that his father couldn’t have been comfortable.

“I was worried about you,” Ben said simply.

“We thought we heard voices,” Adam said as he came into the room with Hoss.

“You feelin’ better little brother,” Hoss asked. He was relieved when Joe nodded.

The elder Cartwrights wanted to know if Joe’s memory had fully returned but everyone was afraid to ask in case it caused a return of his headache.

When Joe frowned, Ben learnt forward, concerned. “Are you all right? Is your head hurting again?”

Joe shook his head. “No, just thinking. Pa,” Joe said slowly, “I can remember what happened.”

Ben waited patiently, not wanting to force Joe to talk. Joe closed his eyes as the images flashed through his head. Suddenly his eyes flew open. “Seth saved my life,” he said as he stared up at Ben. He tried to sit up. Ben pushed Joe back down onto the bed, worried that he was getting too upset. “Calm down, Joseph.”

“You don’t understand,” Joe clutched as his father’s arm. “Seth didn’t try to kill me. He saved my life!”

As Adam and Hoss looked at each other in confusion, Ben reached for Joe’s hand and squeezed it tightly. “Try to calm down, son. Start from the beginning of that day and tell us what you remember.”

Slowly Joe began. “I left early. I was going up to start marking those trees for cutting. I ran into Seth. We talked for a bit. He wanted us to try and patch up our friendship. I didn’t think we could but when he asked me if I wanted to go to the mine with him,” Joe shrugged, “I don’t know, I guess I thought if I went there it might help me sort everything out in my head. Seth said that Sarah had asked him if he would go and get some of her father’s things out of it.”

Adam and Hoss had pulled chairs up beside the bed and Adam learnt forward at this news and asked, “Are you sure it was Sarah who asked Seth to go to the mine?”

Joe nodded. “That’s what Seth said.”

Adam frowned and when Ben looked at him, he shook his head and mouthed the word ‘Later,’ leaving Ben wondering what was wrong.

Ben looked back at Joe as he started to talk again. “We went to the mine. When we were inside Seth tripped over something. I don’t know what it was but suddenly the mine started to cave in. I was knocked out and when I woke up, I found I was trapped.” Joe shuddered at the memory. “It was awful, Pa. I was so afraid that I was going to die in there.”

“I know,” Ben nodded understandingly.

“No,” Joe shook his head, “You don’t understand, Pa. It hurt so bad. I wanted to die. I don’t know what I was thinking. I was all mixed up. I had my hand on my gun,” Ben stared at his son in shock as Joe continued, “But Seth wouldn’t let me. He said help would come. I don’t know if he really believed that.”

Ben’s thoughts went back to a conversation he’d had with his youngest son not all that long ago. Joe had asked his father if he thought it was right to go along with a man’s wishes if that man was in terrible pain and going to die and he asked for his life to be ended. Ben remembered what he’d told Joe, that, ‘A man in bad pain really doesn’t know what he’s saying, his body is fighting for survival and his mind isn’t always aware of that, it’s suffering the pain, so he begs to die but he shouldn’t be listened to. A friend should listen only to the pulse of life, fight with it, not against it.’

Ben felt sick at the thought of how much pain Joe must have been suffering to have had those thoughts and he thanked God that Seth hadn’t listened to Joe. He squeezed his son’s hand again. “I’m so sorry you went through that, Joseph.”

Joe looked into his father’s eyes. “While we were trapped, Seth and I talked about a lot of things. I think Seth was worried we would die there and he wanted to clear his conscience. He told me that it was true that Sarah’s father did beg Seth to kill him but Seth killed him because he wanted the mine. He was worried that Mr Miller would talk Sarah out of marrying him.”

No one else spoke as Joe continued. Now that he had started talking, he wanted to tell his family everything. “When the mine started to creak and rumble, I knew it was going to come down again. Seth threw himself over me and then something hit my head and the next thing I remember was waking up and you were with me at Doc Martin’s. Seth murdered Sarah’s father for the mine. But he died saving me. He didn’t have to do it. He could have saved himself.” Joe looked into his father’s eyes. “You were right, Pa. There was still good in Seth.”

“Yes,” Ben agreed, “There was still a lot of good in Seth.” Ben knew that for the rest of his life he would forever be grateful to the young man who had given his life to save his son’s.

“I don’t know what happened to cause the mine to cave in but it wasn’t Seth, Pa.”

Ben nodded and then said, “That’s enough talking, Joe. You need to rest.”

Joe shook his head. “Can I get up?” Joe asked. “I have to go and see Sarah and tell her what I’ve remembered.”

“You can get up after you have something to eat. I’ll get Hop Sing to make you some breakfast,” Ben said.

“I’m not hungry, Pa.”

“You have to try and eat something,” Ben said, catching Adam’s eye, he continued, “I’ll go and see Hop Sing now.”

Adam stood up. “I’ll come with you, Pa. I want to make sure the men know what work needs to be done today.”

“Stay with Joe, Hoss. I won’t be long,” Ben said as he left the room with Adam.

“What is it?” Ben asked when they were downstairs.

“Joe said that Seth told him Sarah asked him to go to the mine that day. That’s not what Sarah told us,” Adam paused and waited for Ben to realize what that meant.

Ben frowned. “You’re right,” he said. “I wasn’t thinking about what Sarah had told us. She said it was Seth’s idea to go there.” Ben rubbed his chin in thought, “Maybe she just got confused.”

“I hope that’s all there is to it, Pa.”

“What are you thinking?”

“Sarah knows a lot about mines, Pa. Growing up, she spent a lot of time with her father over the years. I think she’d know how to rig one to cave in.”

Ben looked at Adam sharply and shook his head. “No,” he said adamantly. “Adam, that’s not possible. We’ve known her since she was a little girl. Sarah’s not capable of something like that.”

“Pa, I don’t want to believe it either but I think we need to accept that it might be a possibility. I didn’t think much of it at the time but you know, when Joe and Seth were trapped, Sarah said that she hadn’t meant to hurt Joe.”

Ben felt the dread rise in him at the possibility of what the young woman might have done.

“I’ll have to talk to Sheriff Coffee, Pa. Tell him about our suspicions.” Ben nodded in agreement. There was no other choice, Roy had to be told.

“We won’t tell Joe yet,” Ben said, “Not until we know for sure.”

**********

After riding into town and talking to Roy Coffee, Adam went with the sheriff to talk to Sarah. They went to the dress shop but Mrs Marks told them Sarah hadn’t come into work that day. Adam and Roy started to walk to the boarding house where Sarah was staying, when Adam looked across the street and saw her at the stage depot.

“Roy, look,” Adam nodded in her direction.

With her back to them, Sarah didn’t see the two men approach and was startled when she heard Adam say, “Hello, Sarah.”

Slowly Sarah turned around, her face showing her fear at the sight of the sheriff standing with Adam.

“Hello, Adam. How’s Joe?” she asked.

“He’s fine,” Adam replied. “He remembers everything, Sarah.”

“I need you to come to my office, Miss Sarah, so we can have a talk,” Roy said.

“I didn’t mean to kill him,” Sarah suddenly sobbed the words out, almost collapsing into Adam’s arms.

Aware of the looks being cast their way, Adam gently led the crying young woman over to the sheriff’s office and sat her down.

The two men waited patiently until Sarah got her emotions under control and then Adam asked, “What did you do, Sarah?” When she stared down at her lap, he said, “You rigged the mine, didn’t you?”

Sarah nodded. Taking a deep breath she said, “I don’t know what I wanted to happen to Seth. I wanted him to pay for what he did to my father but I didn’t mean to kill him. I just wanted him to experience some of what my father did.” She looked at Adam. “I never expected Joe to go there with Seth. I’d never have intentionally endangered Joe. You have to believe that,” she pleaded.

“I do, Sarah,” Adam replied, “But you did intentionally endanger Seth, didn’t you?”

Sarah shook her head, the tears streaming down her face. “I told you. I meant to frighten Seth, that’s all. I never meant to kill him.”

“You’ve been around mines all your life, Sarah. You know how unpredictable a rock fall can be. When you set those ropes, you must have known there was a chance that Seth would be killed.”

Sarah stared at Adam in shock as the truth of the words hit her. She had tried to fool herself into believing that wasn’t what she had meant to do. She’d managed to convince herself that she’d only meant to frighten Seth. Now that Adam had forced her to face the truth, she knew she could no longer deny it.

“God, help me,” Sarah buried her face in her hands and her body shook as she sobbed, “I’m no better than Seth.”

Adam and Roy Coffee looked at each other sadly.

“I’ll have to lock her up, Adam,” Roy said quietly. “I feel sorry for her but murder is murder and that’s what she’s done.”

Adam nodded. “I’ll have to go home and tell Joe what’s happened. I don’t know how he’ll take it.”

“Tell him I’m just doin’ my job, Adam. And right now it’s not a job I like doin’.

“He’ll know, Roy,” Adam said and patted the old lawman’s back, “He’ll know.”

**********

Ben had wanted Joe to rest for the day and had argued strongly against Joe going into town. Joe had finally given in to his father’s wishes. Ben had told Joe that Adam had gone to town to see Roy Coffee and would let Sarah know that Joe was feeling a lot better.

Ben had earlier told Hoss about his conversation with Adam and their suspicions. Hoss had wanted to stay around the house and wait for the news when Adam returned. Like his father, Hoss was worried how Joe would react if it turned out that Sarah was somehow involved in Seth’s death.

Joe knew something was going on but when he asked, his father and Hoss denied that anything was wrong. Hoss tried to distract him by playing some games of checkers. Ben pretended to read but found his eyes more often on the clock rather than the book he held in his hands.

When Adam arrived home and walked into the house, the look on his face immediately told the others that something terrible had happened.

Adam looked sadly at Joe for a moment and then at their father, wondering if he should talk to Ben privately first but Ben nodded and said, “Tell us, Adam.” Ben knew that whatever it was, Joe had to know.

Adam walked over to his blue chair and sank down into it. Focusing his eyes on his young brother, he said, “Joe, Sarah told us that it was Seth’s idea to go to the mine. When you woke up this morning and remembered that Seth had told you that Sarah had asked him to go there, it made me start to wonder about Sarah’s involvement in what happened.”

“Involvement,” Joe asked, looking at Adam in confusion, “What do you mean, involvement?”

“Joe,” Adam leant forward, “this isn’t going to be easy to hear, but Sarah caused that cave-in.”

“That’s a stupid thing to say!” Joe shouted, jumping to his feet.

Ben and Hoss both stood and Joe turned on them. “You believe him!” Joe shouted.

“Joseph,” Ben reached for his son’s arm, “Calm down and listen to your brother.”

Joe shook his father’s hand off his arm. “I don’t have to listen to his lies.” Glancing at Adam, he asked, “Where’s Sarah now?”

Adam took a deep breath, fearing a bigger explosion when Joe heard, “Roy has her locked up.”

Joe didn’t say another word, he just turned and walked out the front door, the others started to follow but suddenly they heard the sound of hooves.

“He’s taken my horse,” Adam said.

“We have to stop him,” Ben rushed out the door, “before he does something he may be sorry for later.”

**********

Riding up to the jail, Joe dismounted before the horse had stopped, he quickly looped the reins around the rail. Going to the door, he flung it open angrily. Roy looked up in surprise.

“Joe,” he said warily. “What are you doing here?”

“What do you think?” Joe snapped. “I want to see Sarah.”

Roy noticed that Joe wasn’t wearing a gun and allowed himself to relax a little. “All right,” he nodded, “Come on.” In the back room, Roy opened Sarah’s cell door and allowed Joe to go in.

Roy shut and locked the door. “I’ll leave you alone for a while.”

Roy had just gotten himself a cup of coffee and sat down when the door flew open again. Ben Cartwright walked in followed by his two oldest sons.

“It’s all right, Ben,” Roy said quietly, seeing the worry on all their faces. “He’s in the back talking to Sarah.”

Ben sunk down onto a chair in relief.

**********

Joe sat on the bed next to Sarah. She’d been crying since he came in and had refused to talk or even look at him.

“Please, Sarah. It’s going to be all right. It’s just a mistake. We’ll sort it out. Don’t worry.” Joe tried to comfort her.

Finally Sarah turned to look at Joe. “It’s not a mistake, Joe.”

Joe drew in his breath sharply and shook his head silently, not wanting to believe her words.

Sarah took a deep breath and willed herself not to cry. “I was only pretending that I’d forgiven Seth,” she touched the side of Joe’s face, “I knew what you and your family would think of me if you knew why I was doing it. I felt so guilty. I couldn’t face you. That’s why I spent so little time with you, back then, Joe. I was so afraid you would see through me and I couldn’t let that happen. I had to make Seth pay. I wanted him to know what it felt like to be betrayed by someone he trusted. Like he betrayed my father. I set those ropes in the mine. I knew it would cave in when someone tripped over them. I asked Seth to go and get some of my father’s things out of there.”

“Did you mean to kill him?” Joe asked, finding it almost impossible to accept what Sarah was telling him.

Sarah bit her lip. She knew Joe deserved the truth even if it destroyed his love for her. “Yes,” she whispered.

Joe stood and turned to face her. “He was truly sorry for what he’d done, Sarah. He really did wish he could turn back time.”

Sarah stood up and went to Joe, looking into his eyes. The tears that pooled in her own eyes, slowly slipped down her cheeks. “I know just how he felt, Joe. But there’s no way to turn back time. I’m so sorry for what I did.”

Roy Coffee came back into the room followed by Ben. “Joe,” Roy said, “It’s time to leave now, son. You can come and see Sarah again tomorrow.” Roy opened the cell door.

Sarah reached out and grabbed Joe’s hand, squeezing it. “I love you, Joe. Please don’t think too badly of me. When you think of me, think of all the good times we shared. Don’t grieve for me, Joe. I don’t deserve your sorrow.”

Joe was struggling to keep his own tears from falling. “Don’t talk like that, Sarah. I’ll come and see you tomorrow.”

“No, Joe,” Sarah said quietly as she stepped away from Joe and nearer to Sheriff Coffee.

“Sarah!” Roy shouted, alarmed as he felt her slip the gun from his holster, his hand moving too late to stop her.

“Sarah, No!” Joe shouted when he saw what was happening.

“I’ll always love you, Joe. My Joe.” Sarah held the gun in her hand.

Adam and Hoss rushed in at the sound of a shot and stared in shock at the body that lay on the floor.

Joe dropped to his knees beside Sarah’s body. Heedless of the growing pool of blood, he pulled her into his arms and whispered, “I’ll love you always, Sarah.”

Ben felt the sting of tears in his eyes. He’d been looking forward to having Sarah as a daughter-in-law. Now all the hopes and dreams were gone. Ben knew Joe would need all the strength his family could give him so he didn’t allow his tears to fall. He turned to his older sons. Quietly he said, “Hoss, go and get us a room at the hotel, have a bath drawn for Joe and buy him some clothes. He looked down at the blood on his own clothes and added, “And something for me, too.” Hoss nodded sadly and looked at Joe. “It’s all right, Hoss. Go on. I’ll take care of Joe.”

When Hoss left, Ben turned to Adam. “Adam, go and tell Paul what’s happened. Tell him I want him to look at Joe.”

Adam nodded solemnly before leaving, knowing his father faced the hardest task – getting Joe to leave Sarah.

Ben looked at Roy and slowly walked over to Joe, squatting down beside him. “Joe,” he said quietly, putting a hand on his son’s back. “We have to go now.”

When Joe didn’t move or speak, Ben motioned for Roy to help him. The Sheriff knelt down beside them and carefully started to pry Sarah from Joe’s arms.

When Joe resisted, Ben put his hand on Joe’s cheek and turned Joe’s face to him. “Sarah’s gone now. You have to let her go, son.”

Joe allowed the Sheriff to take the young woman from his arms and Roy laid Sarah on the floor. Ben helped Joe to his feet. Joe stood shakily and Ben put an arm firmly around his waist.

**********

Later that night, Ben and Joe sat on the settee back at the Ponderosa. Paul and Ben had tried to convince Joe to stay in town. They were concerned after the terrible shock he’d had but Joe had been adamant that he wanted to go home.

Sitting in the blue chair, Adam looked over at his brother. “Joe,” he said hesitantly, he was worried that his young brother would hold him responsible for Sarah’s death, maybe believing that Adam should have kept quiet about what he knew. “I’m so sorry. I wish I hadn’t had to tell Roy. I ….”

Joe shook his head, cutting Adam off, “You had no choice. There have been too many lies told. You did the right thing,” Joe’s voice broke. He cleared his throat, feeling he owed Adam an apology. “I’m sorry, Adam. I shouldn’t have accused you of lying when he tried to tell me what Sarah had done. Seems like I’m always needing to apologize to you lately.”

“I’ll tell you the same thing I told you last time, you don’t owe me an apology.” Adam could see the stress of the day’s events written clearly on Joe’s face.

Joe gave Adam a look of gratitude, thankful for his brother’s understanding and then he looked over at his father and said, “I have to make arrangements for Sarah….” Joe’s voice broke and he looked down at the floor.

“Joseph,” Ben put a hand on his son’s back and rubbed it softly, “You’re brother’s and I will see to everything. We’ll bury her tomorrow.”

“Thank you,” Joe took a deep breath and looked up into his father’s eyes.

The sadness and pain in his son’s eyes tore at Ben’s heart. “Joseph,” he said softly, “It’s a terrible, terrible thing that happened today and I know the pain of it will stay with you for a long time. I wish I could say something to ease the pain but I know there is nothing I can say that will do that. But I will say, Joe, that everyone makes their own decisions and everyone leads their own life. I don’t want you to burden yourself with guilt for the deaths of Seth and Sarah.”

Joe turned his face away and Ben said, gently but firmly, “Joseph, look at me please.” When Joe turned back towards him, Ben continued, “You are not to blame. Greed was responsible for Seth’s downfall, Joe. His actions and his actions alone started a chain of events that caused his own death as well as Sarah’s. I spoke to Paul about Sarah. He thinks her mind just snapped when she found out Seth killed her father. He said Sarah probably started thinking about a way to get revenge from that day, but she kept it hidden. She was unstable, son.”

Joe shook his head. “If I had told her the truth from the start….”

Ben broke into Joe’s words. “I don’t think that would have made any difference to how she felt, Joe. The reason for Seth killing her father, whether it be the lie Seth told at first, that it was to spare Tom the pain or the truth that was revealed later, that he wanted the mine, made no difference to Sarah. She hated Seth for killing him. Whenever she’d found out, her feelings would have been the same.” Ben put his hands on Joe’s shoulders. “You know I’m right, don’t you?” When Joe nodded, Ben said, “Then let the guilt go. You are not responsible for Sarah’s actions. Joseph, sometimes when we search for reasons for why something happened, we can search our whole life and not find them. We just have to accept that it happened and go on. As hard as it is right now, you have to accept Sarah’s death and go on with your life. Sarah loved you, Joe, and that’s what she would want you to do.”

Joe nodded and blinked his tears away. “I know you’re right, Pa, but I loved her so much and it’s hard to think of going on without her in my life now.”

“I know,” Ben said quietly, “I know.”

**********

The next day the Cartwright family stood alone in the graveyard after the service was finished and everyone else had left.

“I’d like to go to Seth’s grave, Pa. I need to,” Joe said.

Ben looked at Adam and Hoss and then back at Joe. “Your brothers and I said some harsh things about Seth when we thought he had tried to kill you. I think we should all pay our respects to Seth.” Adam and Hoss nodded in agreement.

The family walked over to Seth Pruitt’s grave. The headstone when first placed on his grave had been stark, simply stating a name and two dates. Yesterday, before leaving town, Ben had sent word to the engraver. At his request, an inscription had been added.

Joe reached out and gently ran his fingers over the words. He gave his life for a friend. “Thank you, Pa,” he said softly.

Thinking that Joe might want some time alone to talk to their father, after they’d said a prayer over the grave, Adam put a hand on Joe’s arm. “Hoss and I will wait in the buggy. You take your time.”

Joe nodded a silent thank you and Hoss patted his back as he left with Adam.

“Would you like some time alone, Joe?” Ben asked. “I can go and wait with your brothers.”

Joe shook his head, glad to have the comforting presence of his father with him.

Ben rested a hand on Joe’s back as the young man looked over towards Sarah’s grave, then back at Seth’s, saying, “I hope they’ve found peace.”

“I’m sure they have, Joseph. All that’s happened can’t be undone and the loss of their lives is a terrible thing but before Seth and Sarah died, they both told the truth about what they’d done and were sorry for it. I think they found peace before they left this world and I believe they will find forgiveness in the next.”

“It’s so hard to except that they both murdered someone,” Joe spoke the words so quietly, as if he were afraid the dead could hear, and Ben had to strain to hear him. “I’ve been thinking about all the things we did together when we were kids,” he shook his head, “and then I think about the way their lives ended and I ….” Joe broke off, unable to go on.

Ben moved his hand from Joe’s back to his shoulder and pulled his son close to his side.

“They paid a high price for what they did, Joseph. A life for a life. So put that behind you and let it go. Just try to remember the good times. The laughter, the fun, the happiness, the many years of good friendship you had with them. Don’t taint the memories of those years with what came later.” Joe nodded and Ben continued, “I know it seems hard now but like most things it will get easier with time, I promise.”

Seeing that his son was tired and feeling it was time that he got Joe home, Ben gently turned his son away from the graves of his friends and they walked to the buggy where Adam and Hoss waited.

On the way home, Ben turned to check on Joe who was sitting behind him. Joe was asleep, his head resting on Hoss’ shoulder.

Ben knew the coming days would be hard ones for Joe but he also knew that with his family beside him and their love for him to support him, Joe would get through it. And there would be better days ahead.

The End

 

Note. The segment where Ben thinks about the conversation he had with Joe about mercy killing is from the episode.

 

December 2006

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Author: JennyD

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