Choices (by HelenB)

Summary:  A WHN for First Born.  Clay returns to the Ponderosa. Will trouble follow him again?

Rating:  T  (8,330 words)

Choices

Ben gently led Joe over to the settee and sat down next to him, he ran his hand down his youngest son’s back and said, “What happened?”

“I went after Clay,” Joe said softly and then looked up to see his father’s expression.

 

“Go on,” Ben said encouragingly.

 

Joe was relieved that his father wasn’t angry, he didn’t think he could have handled that on top of everything else. “I caught up with him. I wanted to go with him but he didn’t want me to. Why did he have to go?”

 

Ben’s heart skipped a beat at the thought that Joe had wanted to go but now wasn’t the time to talk to him about that. He tried to clear his mind to think of the words that would help Joe understand why Clay had felt he’d had to leave. “I’m sure he thought he was doing the right thing, son. He felt responsible for what happened to you and he didn’t want to risk it happening again. I know it’s hard for you to accept the way he left. You must feel very hurt. But Clay did what he thought was right.”

 

“Did you want him to leave?”

 

“No. I told him he was family now and we’d work it out.”

 

“Family don’t just walk away like he did,” Joe said sadly.

 

“Don’t be angry with Clay. He’s lived almost his whole life alone. He doesn’t really know what it’s like to be a part of a family. We just have to accept Clay the way he is.”

 

Joe nodded. “I guess. I gave him my locket with Ma’s picture in it. I hope you don’t mind. I told him to bring it back someday.”

 

“I don’t mind Joe, that was a very nice thing to do. I’m sure he’ll think of you every time he looks at it. It will remind him he does have a family.”

 

“But what if he never comes back?” Joe said sadly. “He’s my brother and I hardly know him.”

 

“I know,” Ben replied. “But at least you got to spend some time with him. Isn’t that better than never knowing him at all?”

 

Joe nodded.

 

Ben ran his hand down Joe’s back again. “I think it’s time we got you upstairs to bed.” As Ben was helping Joe to his feet, they heard horses enter the yard.

 

“I’d say that’s Adam and Hoss. I had them out looking for you.” Just then Adam and Hoss walked through the open doorway, Ben having forgot to shut it when he’d helped Joe over to the settee.

 

Both older brothers walked straight over to the youngest one. Hoss sat on the table in front of Joe and asked, “Are you alright?”

 

Before Joe could reply, Adam sat down on the arm of the settee and said, “What on earth were you thinking?” Adam was clearly exasperated.

 

Joe put his head down and Adam was immediately sorry, he could see Joe was upset, he placed his hand on Joe’s arm and repeated Hoss’ question, “Are you alright?”

 

Joe nodded but didn’t look up.

 

Adam glanced over at their father, he could tell by the look on his father’s face that the man was worried, but Ben said, “He’s alright, he’s just tired, aren’t you Joseph.” Without waiting for an answer Ben helped Joe to stand up and said, “I was just taking him upstairs. I won’t be long.” Ben added as he looked at his two older sons.

 

Knowing that their father would want to talk to them later, Adam nodded and said, “We’ll just see to our horses.”

 

Upstairs Ben helped Joe over to his bed and quickly got him undressed and into a nightshirt. Ben helped him to lie down and pulled the blankets up. “You stay there this time,” Ben said as he smiled.

 

“I will,” Joe replied softly. Joe grabbed his fathers hand, “Pa, I’m sorry.”

 

Ben squeezed his son’s hand. “Shhh, there’s nothing to be sorry about. You just go to sleep and don’t worry about anything. I’ll leave your door open, you call me if you need me.”

 

Joe nodded and his eyes closed as he surrendered to sleep. Ben stayed with him for a while and then quietly went downstairs where he found his other sons waiting.

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

“So that’s what happened,” Ben said as he sat back in his chair after telling Adam and Hoss what Joe had told him.

 

Adam couldn’t contain his anger. “Joe was hurt and Clay just stayed there and let Joe make his own way home. Some brother.”

 

Hoss nodded his head in agreement. “Least he could’ve done was make sure the kid got home alright.”

 

“I agree with you boys but Clay thought he was doing the best thing for Joe by leaving here. He may have gone about it badly but he wasn’t to know that Joe would follow him. I’m sure Clay was upset about leaving. I think if he’d been thinking clearly he’d have brought Joe home. I’m angry too, but it’s done now and Joe’s home.”

 

“Guess you’re right, Pa.” Hoss said.

 

Ben stood up. “I think we could all use some sleep. Come on boys.”

 

The three men made their way to their bedrooms. Ben checked to make sure Joe was still asleep before going to his room and getting some much needed sleep himself.

 

Later that day when the family had woken, Ben, Adam and Hoss tried on separate occasions to cheer the young man up but it had been without success and Joe spent the day sleeping.

 

The following morning found the three older Cartwright’s downstairs at breakfast while the forth slept.

 

“Do you want me to wake Joe, Pa?” Hoss asked.

 

Ben shook his head. “No, leave him be. I checked on him, he’s sleeping.”

 

“I know he’s been through a lot, Pa,” Adam said, “but he can’t still be tired.”

 

“I agree,” Ben replied. “I think unconsciously he’s doing it to avoid talking to us.”

 

Adam nodded, “You’re probably right.”

 

“I don’t understand why he wanted to go with Clay,” Hoss couldn’t hide the hurt in his voice, “he hardly knows Clay and he’s spent his whole life with us, yet he was ready to just go off with Clay.”

 

“Hoss,” Ben patted his big sons arm, “I don’t think Joe thought any of it through. He didn’t take any clothes with him or anything. I think Joe planned on talking Clay into coming back here with him and when Clay refused well, you know how impulsive Joe can be. I think given time to think it over again that Joseph would have chosen to stay with us.” Ben stood up. “I think I’ll just go and check if he’s awake yet.”

 

After their father had gone upstairs, Hoss turned to Adam. “What do you think, Adam? Do you think Joe would have stayed even if Clay had said he wanted Little Joe to go with him?”

 

“I don’t know Hoss. That’s something I guess we’ll never know.”

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

Two months went by and things returned to normal on the ranch. No letter arrived from Clay. Joe’s family had tried to talk to him over the weeks about Clay but the conversations just upset Joe so his family did as Joe wanted and stopped talking about him.

 

One evening the family were sitting in the great room after their evening meal. Ben and Adam were reading. Adam had just taken a break to go and get some coffee from the kitchen. Hoss and Joe were playing checkers.

 

Just as Adam was coming back into the room there was a knock at the front door. “I’ll get it,” he said.

 

When Adam opened the door but didn’t acknowledge the person standing there, Ben looked across the room to see who it was. Hoss also looked up and the shock registered on both men’s faces. Joe had his back to the door and wondered at the silence of his family. Looking at the faces of his father and brother he knew something was wrong. Looking around Joe realised why his family had reacted so strangely.

 

“Clay,” Joe shouted as he jumped up and practically ran to the door. Joe embraced his brother and then pulled him inside and closed the door.

 

“Come in and sit down,” Joe said, as he pulled Clay towards a chair.

 

Clay looked around the room. “I don’t know if I’m welcome, Joe.”

 

Ben pulled himself together. “Of course you are,” he said as he reached to shake Clay’s hand.

 

Hoss stood up and also shook Clay’s hand, although he did so reluctantly. He couldn’t help feeling that Clay would only bring more trouble for Joe.

 

Adam felt the same way, he nodded across at Clay as he sat down. “Clay, what brings you back here?”

 

Joe shot Adam a glare, feeling that Adam wasn’t going to give Clay a chance.

 

“After what happened I didn’t intend to come back and if you think my being here will stir up trouble with the miners again I’ll leave but where ever I went I couldn’t get this place out of my mind,” he looked at Joe, “I guess I missed having a family.”

 

Ben did have reservations about the wisdom of letting Clay stay. He didn’t want Joe hurt again, physically or emotionally. But Ben was worried that if he didn’t let Clay stay he might drive Joe away. As well as that, Ben felt a responsibility toward Clay, after all, he was Marie’s child, so he said, “I told you before that you’re family now and that still holds.”

 

Clay sat down on the settee and Joe sat down beside him. “Where have you been?” Joe asked. “What have you been doing?”

 

“I’ve been traveling around a lot. I haven’t really stayed too long anywhere. As for what I’ve been doing, a bit of everything I guess.”

 

“Are you going to stay?” Joe asked.

 

Everyone waited for the answer. “I don’t know Joe. I won’t make any promises.”

 

Joe accepted that, it was the best he could hope for at the moment.

 

“I’m sorry I left the way I did,” Clay said looking at Joe, “and I’m sorry I never wrote to you. I really meant to. I just didn’t know what to say.”

 

“That’s okay. I understand.” Joe replied. Everyone in the room knew that was a lie. Joe hadn’t understood.

 

The family talked late into the night. Clay was so likeable that the older three Cartwright’s did find that some of their reservations melted away.

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

The next morning Ben assigned the pairs to check some fence lines. He paired Joe and Clay together. He wasn’t sure how much work they would actually get done but he knew they would want to spend some time together.

 

As Hoss and Adam rode along checking their section they talked about what the return of Clay could mean to the family.

 

“I like Clay, Adam, you know that but what happens when he decides to move on again?”

 

“We don’t know what Clay’s going to do. He may stay on here.”

 

“You don’t believe that any more than I do.”

 

“You’re right but there’s nothing we can do about it. We’ll just have to be here to help Joe pick up the pieces when Clay does leave.”

 

“Adam,” Hoss pulled his horse to a stop and looked over at his brother. Adam did the same and Hoss continued. “What if this time Joe goes with him?”

 

Adam kicked his horse into motion. “Let’s get back to work,” he said as he rode off. That was something he didn’t want to think about.

 

Two weeks went by and Clay settled into ranch life. Ben had worried the first time Clay had gone into Virginia City but there had been no trouble. Then the day Ben had dreaded came. Joe and Clay were riding back to the house after work one day. Joe looked over at Clay. “You’ve been quiet all day. Is something wrong?”

 

“Joe, let’s stop for a minute.”

When they’d pulled their horses up Clay said, “Joe, you know I like being here but…..”

 

Before Clay could continue Joe said, “You’re going to leave aren’t you.”

 

Clay heard the anger in Joe’s voice and could clearly see the disappointment on his brother’s face.

 

“I’m sorry Joe. I guess I’m just not ready to settle down in one place yet.” Clay grabbed his brothers arm. “It’s not you. I’ve loved spending time here with you. It’s just time for me to move on.”

 

“When are you leaving?” Joe asked quietly.

 

“I thought I’d stay on for another week.”

 

Joe nodded and then Clay said,” Joe, do you want to come with me?”

 

“Do you want me too?” Joe asked.

 

“Of course I do,” Clay replied quickly.

 

“You didn’t want me to last time,” Joe said bitterly.

 

“That was different. I’m sorry about that but I’d just made such an awful mess of every thing back then and I thought you’d be better off here.”

 

“What’s changed?” Joe asked.

 

“I missed you. You’re the only family I have Joe.”

 

Joe didn’t know what to say. He didn’t know what to do. Already he felt like he was being torn in half.

 

“You don’t have to decide now,” Clay said, “just think about it.”

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

That evening as the family was eating, Clay made his announcement. “There’s something I want to tell you,” Clay said.

 

Ben looked at Clay and then Joe, noticing that Joe was looking down at the table. Ben put his knife and fork down. “What is it?” he asked.

 

Clay looked around the table and then turned back to Ben. “I told Joe this afternoon that I’ve decided to move on,” he rushed on, “it’s nothing any of you have done. You’ve all made me feel very welcome here. I just feel it’s time.”

 

Ben nodded, “I see. Well, I hope you know you will always have a home here.”

 

Clay nodded, “Thank you, sir.”

 

“Are you alright, Joe?” Ben asked.

 

Joe nodded but still his head remained down, his eyes locked on the table. There was silence for a moment and then Joe looked up at his father and spoke, “Pa, Clay’s asked me to go with him.”

 

Ben flashed furious eyes at Clay and looking across the table Clay saw that same anger reflected at him from Adam and Hoss.

 

“Do you want to go?” Hoss asked.

 

“I don’t know,” Joe replied quietly.

 

Ben reached over and grabbed Joe’s arm. “No Joseph, I won’t allow it.”

 

Joe immediately jerked his arm free and stood up. “You won’t allow it,” he yelled, “I’m not a child Pa. If I decide to go you can’t stop me.” Joe turned and left the table stalking angrily to the front door, flinging it open and slamming it behind him when he walked out.

 

Ben drew in a deep breath and Clay said, “I’m sorry sir. Don’t be angry with Joe, it’s my fault.”

 

Ben nodded, “Oh I’m not angry with Joseph. It’s only natural that the boy would be upset. You dropped this news on us suddenly. You couldn’t have just decided this today.”

 

“No I’ve been thinking about it for a while. I didn’t want to say anything until I knew for sure when I wanted to go.”

 

Ben stood up angrily and paced the floor. “And your sure now,” when Clay nodded he continued, “when are you leaving?”

 

“In a week,” Clay replied.

 

“That’s why you came back isn’t it.” Adam slammed his hand down on the table, “that was your plan all along, you were never going to stay. You just came back to talk Joe into going with you.”

 

Clay didn’t deny it and the Cartwright’s knew it was because it was the truth. Clay said, “He’s my brother. I have a right to be able to spend some time with him.”

 

“I’m not stopping you from spending time with him. You can spend all the time you want with him. Here!” Ben said.

 

As they heard the sound of hoof beats leaving the yard Hoss stood up. “I hate you for doing this. I wish you’d never come here. Why couldn’t you just stay away,” he said as he walked out.

 

“I’ll go with Hoss it doesn’t look like talking is going to change anything,” Adam said as he glared at Clay before following his brother out the door.

 

Ben continued to pace, he couldn’t even stand to be in the same room as Clay at the moment. “We’ll talk about this later,” Ben said to Clay, “I’m going out for a while.”

 

Adam and Hoss were both sitting on the porch when their father came out of the house, he had his gunbelt in his hand.

 

“Where are you going?” Adam asked.

 

“To see if I can find Joe,” Ben replied.

 

“Pa, I…” Adam started.

 

Ben cut him off. “I handled it badly, I know that. It’ll be alright. Why don’t you two go back inside.

 

“Think we’ll just sit out here for a while Pa, don’t feel much like talking to him right now,” Hoss nodded back towards the house.

 

Ben patted Hoss’ leg. “It’ll work out, Hoss.”

 

“I hope so Pa.”

 

Ben went to the barn to saddle his horse and set out to look for his youngest son. It didn’t take him long to find Joe for he’d known where the young man was likely to go. As Ben approached Marie’s grave he saw Joe sitting beside it staring out at the water.

 

“Joseph,” Ben said as he sat down beside him, “are you alright?” When Joe nodded Ben continued, “I’m sorry son, you were right, I shouldn’t have treated you like you’re a child. I didn’t mean to.”

 

“I know Pa and I’m sorry too. I had no right to speak to you like that.”

 

“You don’t know what you want to do, do you?” Ben asked quietly.

 

Joe shook his head. “I’ve never lived anywhere other than here. I’ve never wanted to but Clay has no one else Pa.”

 

Ben put his arm around Joe’s shoulders and squeezed. “Joseph you can’t make this decision based on what Clay wants or how he feels. It has to be what you want.” When Joe didn’t answer, Ben continued, “I don’t want you to go Joseph but I have no right to try and force you to stay either. Just like I don’t want you to make the decision to leave based on what Clay wants you to do, I don’t want you to feel that you have to stay here because of me. I want you to do what is right for you. I want you to do what is going to make you happy.”

 

Ben rubbed his hand down his sons back and said, “If you choose to leave, no matter where you go this will always be your home and the door will always be open for you, never forget that.”

 

“Thank you, Pa,” Joe struggled to keep his voice steady.

 

“I’ll leave you to your thinking,” Ben said, patting Joe once more on the back as he got up.

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

When Ben rode into the yard, Adam and Hoss walked over to the barn. As Ben unsaddled Buck, Adam asked, “how did things go with Joe? Did you find him?”

 

Ben nodded, “He was at his mother’s grave.”

 

“He’s staying,” Hoss said, making it more of a statement rather than a question.

 

“He hasn’t decided,” Ben replied.

 

“You can’t let him go,” Hoss said worriedly.

 

“Hoss, if I thought it would help I’d lock Joe in his room but I can’t do that. If we try to force Joe not to go with Clay it will only drive him away from us. Maybe forever. I won’t take that chance.”

 

“We can’t just let him go,” Hoss mumbled.

 

“We’re not just letting him go. Joseph knows how much we want him to stay but I don’t want either of you to try and make him feel guilty if he decides he wants to leave. It’s his choice.”

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

Three days later the strain was showing on everyone. Ben looked around the table at the silent men who sat there eating. They were all on edge waiting for Joe’s decision. Ben himself dreaded it. He feared Joe would decide to go with Clay. Joe loved the Ponderosa and Ben had no doubts about how much Joe loved him, Adam and Hoss but Ben worried that being as young as he was, Joe would feel that going with Clay would be exciting. He was worried about what might happen if Joe did that. Would Clay’s way of life endanger Joe? Ben was now doubting his resolve about not trying to influence Joe.

 

With breakfast almost eaten, Ben tried to concentrate on what needed to be done that day. “Hoss, Clay, I want you to take that lumber over to the Johnson place. I told Sam Johnson that we’d deliver it today,” Ben said.

 

“Sure Pa,” Hoss said.

 

Turning to Adam and Joe he said, “you two can go into town and get the supplies.”

 

“Ben,” Clay said, “if it’s alright with you, I’ll go into town with Joe and Adam can go with Hoss.”

 

Ben frowned but nodded his acceptance. Clay was spending most of his time with Joe, the rest of the family was finding it hard to talk to Joe alone and Ben knew Clay was doing it on purpose. He didn’t like it but Ben knew there was really nothing he could do about it. Clay had been to town a few times since his return and there had been no trouble, Ben had asked Clay to stay away from the saloons though.

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

Half way to town Clay asked, “Are you coming with me?”

 

Joe felt terrible. He knew feelings would be hurt whatever decision he made. He really wanted to spend some more time with Clay but having the opportunity to think things over had made things very clear to Joe, in his heart he knew he wanted to stay.

 

When he received no answer, Clay nudged his brother, “Well?”

 

“I’m sorry Clay. I want to stay,” Joe looked at Clay and saw the hurt on his face. He quickly said, “It’s not that I don’t want to be with you, I do but I just don’t want to leave here. Can’t you stay?”

 

Clay shook his head. “I don’t understand you Joe. What’s changed? It was only a couple of months ago that you wanted to come with me.”

 

“And a couple of months ago you didn’t want me to.” The bitter words were out of Joe’s mouth before he could stop them.

 

“I thought we were past that,” Clay said, “you know I’m sorry about that. Don’t let your family keep you tied here Joe.”

 

“I’m not tied here. I stay because I want to.”

 

“It’s time you grew up, Joe. There’s a big world out there you know. There’s more to life than the Ponderosa.”

 

When Joe didn’t answer Clay pulled the horses to a stop, reached into his pocket and drew out the locket Joe had given to him. “Stay then and take this,” he thrust the locket into Joe’s hand, “I’d better return this, I won’t be coming back here again.”

 

Joe blinked back the tears, both surprised and hurt at Clay’s anger. Joe had known Clay would be upset at the decision but he hadn’t expected this level of anger. “Clay,” Joe started but his brother was in no mood to listen.

 

Clay’s only response was to get the team moving. The rest of the trip was made in complete silence. When they got to town Clay pulled the team to a stop in front of the store, jumping down he said, “You get the supplies. I’m going to the saloon.”

 

“Pa said you should stay away from them for a while after the trouble last time.”

 

“He’s not my father Joe. I’ll do as I please, I’m not under his thumb.”

 

Joe stared after Clay as his brother walked away. He sat there deciding what he should do. After a moment he jumped down and walked into the store, he thought he’d give Clay time to cool down and after he got everything done he’d go and sort things out with him.

 

By the time Joe had done some other errands for his father and had the buckboard loaded a few hours had passed since Clay had left for the saloon. As Joe was about to head over there he saw Clay come out the swinging doors so he waited for him at the buckboard.

 

“Ready to go?” Clay asked as he approached.

 

“Yes, thanks for your help in loading the supplies,” Joe replied sarcastically.

 

“You’re the rancher, not me.”

 

Joe turned away as he rolled his eyes, biting his tongue to keep from making another smart reply, he didn’t want it to go on like this.

 

As Clay was about to climb up to the seat of the buckboard he heard someone call, “Stafford.”

 

Joe and Clay looked over at the man standing in front of the saloon. “I say you cheated.”

 

Joe shot a look at his brother and said, “Not again. What did you get in another card game for?”

 

“It’s my life,” Clay said, “It’s none of your business what I do.”

 

“I’m your brother,” Joe replied, “I care.”

 

“Well don’t,” Clay snapped, “because I don’t care about you.”

 

Clay turned away from the hurt look on his brother’s face and looked at the man moving out into the street.

 

“Clay don’t,” Joe said, seeing what was happening.

 

People started to move out of the way, from the corner of his eye Joe saw a boy running in their direction, unaware of the danger he was in. In that same moment he saw Clay’s movement for his gun.

 

“Clay, No!” Joe yelled as he dived at the boy to protect him.

 

The sound of a shot echoed in the street. The man who had accused Clay of cheating still stood in the street, his gun in his holster. Clay’s gun dropped from nerveless fingers to the ground after he realised what he’d done.

 

Joe lay on the ground, a growing red stain spreading across his back, his body covering the young boy.

 

A woman screamed and ran towards them. Roy Coffee, who had heard the shot also came running.

 

“Timmy,” the woman screamed as she fell to her knees.

 

Roy gently rolled Joe off the little boy who scrambled to his feet and was pulled into the arms of his sobbing mother.

 

“He’s alright,” she cried.

 

Roy nodded, relieved, as he looked down at his best friend’s youngest son he wished that he could say the same thing about that boy.

 

“What happened here?” Roy shouted, “Who shot him?”

 

“I did,” Roy heard someone say. He stared in shock at Clay.

 

“Help me,” Roy said to his deputy, “we need to get Little Joe to the doc.”

 

“He’s still alive?” Clay asked, he immediately moved forward and dropped down beside his brother. “I’m so sorry Joe.” He gathered Joe into his arms and stood, making his way quickly to Doctor Martin’s office.

 

Paul was just seeing another patient out when Clay came running in with Joe.

 

“In here, in here,” Paul said as he opened the door leading to his surgery.

 

“What happened?” Paul asked as he started taking Joe’s jacket off.

 

“I shot him,” Clay said, his voice almost breaking, he grabbed Joe’s hand. “I didn’t mean to, he just stepped in front of me. I never meant to hurt him.”

 

Paul could see that Clay was on the verge of breaking down. “I need to get the bullet out and stop the bleeding. Wait outside,” he said, urging Clay towards the door.

 

“You have to save him,” Clay said, taking one last look at his younger brother.

 

“I’ll do my best,” Paul replied.

 

Once they were in the waiting room, Roy pushed Clay into a chair. Roy waited until the young man was able to get his emotions under control. Taking a seat next to him, he asked, “What happened?”

 

Clay rubbed his hands down his pant legs nervously while keeping an eye on the door behind which Joe lay. “I was playing poker in the saloon. I won a few hands and I guess someone didn’t like being a loser, he accused me of cheating.”

 

“What a surprise,” Roy said.

 

“I wasn’t,” Clay snapped.

 

“I’ve heard that before.”

 

Clay glared at the sheriff and stood up. He began to pace. “I left and he must have followed me out. He called to me and as we faced each other….”Clay broke off.

 

“What happened next?” Roy prompted.

 

“I don’t really know. It all happened so fast. A little boy must have run into the street. I really didn’t see it happen. I pulled the trigger as Joe stepped in front of me.” Clay sank back into a chair.

 

“I better go and tell Ben, he’ll want to be here,” Roy said, “under the circumstances I think it would be best if I told him instead of you.”

 

Clay just nodded.

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

By the time Roy Coffee rode out to the ranch, Adam and Hoss had arrived home and were inside with their father. It was Adam who answered the knock on the door, seeing the look on Roy’s face, he knew immediately something was wrong.

 

“What is it Roy? What’s wrong? Is it Joe?”

 

Ben and Hoss walked over and joined the men at the door.

 

“Yes, I’m afraid it is. Ben,” Roy said, looking at his old friend, “Joe’s been hurt. It’s bad.”

 

“What’s happened to him?” Hoss asked.

 

“He’s been shot?”

 

“Is he still alive?” Ben asked anxiously.

 

“Yes. Paul’s working on him now,” Roy said.

 

“Let’s go,” Ben said as he headed for the door, “who shot him, Roy? Do you know?”

 

The Cartwright’s all saw Roy’s hesitation. Ben had stopped as he waited for the answer.

 

“Who?” Ben said sharply.

 

“It was an accident,” Roy said, “Clay got into a poker game. He was accused of cheating.”

 

“Clay,” Adam said bitterly, “I might have known.”

 

“So the other fella shot Joe?” Hoss asked, “why?”

 

“No, Hoss,” Roy said, “it was Clay who shot Joe.”

 

“What!” Adam shouted, “How the hell did that happen?”

 

“Like I said, it was an accident. There was a little boy and Joe stepped in front of Clay to protect the boy. Clay didn’t see it happening. He’s very upset,” Roy said.

 

“He’s upset!” Hoss’ face was turning red with anger as he said again, “he’s upset. He’ll be more than upset when I’m finished with him. I’ll kill him!” Hoss slammed his fist against the door.

 

Ben fought down his own anger. “Let’s go. Joe needs us.”

 

As Roy followed the Cartwright’s out, he worried about what would happen once they reached town and met up with Clay.

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

When the Cartwright’s and Roy entered Paul’s office they saw Clay sitting on a chair. Hoss flew straight at him. Hoss was able to land one solid punch before he was pulled away.

 

“Stop it Hoss!” Ben shouted.

 

“He shot little Joe,” Hoss said. Hate filling his eyes as he looked at Clay.

 

“I know,” Ben said understandingly, “but this isn’t helping.”

 

At that moment Paul came out, taking in at a glance what had happened.

 

Seeing Paul, Ben asked, “How is he?”

 

“I won’t lie to you Ben, it’s bad but he’s got a good chance.”

 

“I want to see him,” Ben said.

 

“Yes of course,” Paul said as he looked meaningfully at Hoss and Clay, “but don’t disturb him.”

 

Ben and Adam followed Paul into the backroom, Hoss stood in the door blocking Clay from entering, “Joe don’t need you. He’s got us. You just leave him alone.”

 

“He’s my brother too,” Clay said. “I need to see him.”

 

Adam walked over to them. “Come on Hoss, I don’t want him here either,” he cast angry eyes at Clay, “but Joe needs us all right now.”

 

Hoss stepped further into the room allowing Clay to enter.

 

Ben was sitting beside the bed holding his youngest son’s hand, Paul said, “the next twenty four hours will be crucial.”

 

The family stayed with Joe all through the night and into the next day. They continually bathed him over with cold water, hoping to hold his fever at bay. There was great concern at one time when Joe started to bleed heavily but Paul was able to get it under control quickly.

 

It was late in the afternoon when Joe woke. Ben was sitting beside him, having refused repeated attempts to get him to go and rest. He was wiping a cloth over Joe’s face when he saw the young man turn his head slightly. Wiping the cloth across his face again he said, “Joseph, come on son. It’s time to wake up now.”

 

Joe’s eyes fluttered open and he groaned as he tried to move.

 

Ben immediately moved his hands to Joe’s shoulders and held him still, “Don’t move, just lie still.”

 

“My back hurts,” Joe mumbled, starting to pant with the pain that was beginning to wash over him in waves.

 

Adam went to get Paul who was seeing a couple of other patients in another room. Hoss knelt on the floor near Joe’s head, taking his hand. “It’s gonna be okay shortshanks, you just hold on to old Hoss.”

 

Paul entered the room and Ben reluctantly released Joe to move out of the way. Paul looked at Hoss. “Hoss help me turn him over so I can examine his back.” Joe groaned as he was moved. “Everything looks good,” Paul said as he made his examination. “Hold on Joe, just another minute and I’ll give you something for the pain.” Paul prepared a needle and injected it into Joe, watching as he relaxed back into sleep. “Help me turn him on to his back again Hoss, he can breath better that way.” When that was done, Paul moved allowing Ben to resume his place next to his youngest son.

 

Running his fingers through Joe’s hair Ben asked, “will he be alright?”

 

“I think so,” Paul nodded, “the wound looks good, there are no signs of infection and no fresh bleeding. I’ve given him something for the pain and that’s allowed him to go back to sleep. That’s the best thing for him right now.” As Paul left the room the Cartwright’s stayed gathered around Joe. Clay stood away from them, learning against the wall.

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

Joe spent three more days at Paul’s until Paul felt he was strong enough for the trip home.

 

Ben was worried that Joe seemed very quiet and withdrawn. Along with their father, Adam and Hoss had spent almost the entire last few days in the room with Joe. Clay had been there too but seemed reluctant to approach Joe although he had made a few attempts to apologise, Joe had brushed the apologies away as unnecessary. Ben noticed that Joe hadn’t seemed to want anything to do with Clay. Ben wondered why. He could only guess that although Joe said he didn’t blame Clay for the shooting, maybe in fact he did. But that wasn’t like Joe. Ben determined to talk things through with his youngest son when they got home.

 

Joe sat on the edge of the bed with pants and boots on, his father helped him on with a shirt and then stood in front of him doing up the buttons. “I don’t know why you need to get dressed Joe,” Ben said lightly, “you’ll be getting undressed to get into bed as soon as we get you home.”

 

Joe smiled. “I don’t want to ride around the streets of Virginia City with my nightshirt on, it might give the wrong impression.”

 

Ben laughed, pleased to see Joe smile. When Joe’s three brothers entered the room, Ben saw the smile immediately leave Joe’s face and he avoided looking at Clay.

 

“The buckboards ready,” Clay said, reaching for Joe’s arm, “let me help you.”

 

Joe brushed Clay’s hand away. “I can manage.”

 

Adam pushed in front of Clay and Ben watched as Joe willing accepted a helping hand from Adam. With Hoss supporting Joe on the other side they made their way out to the well padded buckboard.

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

Later that day after Joe had rested for a while, Ben decided that it was time that they had a talk about what was bothering Joe.

 

Entering the room, Ben saw that Joe was awake. Walking over he sat down in a chair next to the bed.

 

“How are you feeling? Do you need anything?” Ben asked.

 

“No, I’m fine thanks Pa. It’s good to be home.”

 

Ben smiled. “It’s good to have you home.”

 

“Where are Adam and Hoss?” Joe asked as he stretched.

 

“Downstairs. Clay too. Do you want me to get them?”

 

“No,” Joe shook his head, “I just wondered where they were. Seems like every time I’ve opened my eyes lately you’ve all been here.”

 

“You can’t blame us for that Joe. You had us all very worried.”

 

“I know. I’m sorry.”

 

Ben smiled as he patted his sons arm, “You have nothing to be sorry about. You certainly haven’t done anything wrong. Timmy Johnson and his parents want to come out when you are well enough to thank you.”

 

Joe shook his head, “There’s no need.”

 

“You saved that boys life Joe. They feel there is need.” Seeing his sons downcast expression Ben asked, “Joe what’s wrong?”

 

“Nothing.”

 

“I’m not blind son. It’s something to do with Clay isn’t it.” When Joe didn’t answer Ben continued, “are you angry with Clay for shooting you?”

 

Joe shook his head and looked away but not before Ben saw the tears.

 

“Then what is it Joseph? You can’t keep it bottled up. If you talk to me maybe I can help you.”

 

“You can’t.”

 

“Well we won’t know that until you tell me what it is.”

 

Joe took a deep breath and said, “Clay and I had an argument on the way into town.”

 

When Joe didn’t continue Ben asked, “What did you argue about?”

 

“I told him I didn’t want to go with him when he left, that I wanted to stay here.”

 

Joe smiled at the relief in his fathers eyes and said, “Well at least someone’s happy about it,” Joe was able to joke, “Clay sure wasn’t. I tried to explain but he was just so angry.” Joe told his father about the things that had been said between the two brothers that day.

 

“And that was the last thing he said to me, that he didn’t care about me.” Joe wiped the tears away.

 

Ben was so angry with Clay right at that moment that it was lucky the young man was not in the room but Ben tried to calm down and be objective for Joe’s sake.

 

“I’m sure he didn’t mean those things Joe. Clay’s not used to having a brother, he’s been on his own for a long time. I think sometimes he finds it hard to know how to deal with us. He uses his anger as a defense against being hurt. It’s just the way he’s used to living. Give him another chance. Try to talk things out with him.”

 

“I do want to, but…..” Joe started.

 

“No,” Ben shook his head, “no buts. It’s settled then. I’ll get Clay.”

 

Ben started to get up but Joe put his arm out to stop him. “When Clay was here the last time, we talked about the different places he’d seen, the things he’d done, I thought it sounded so exciting. We talked about going places together.”

 

“I know,” Ben said, hoping Joe wasn’t going to tell him that he’d changed his mind and was going.

 

Joe continued, “But now, when I have the opportunity to do it, I know I don’t want to. Clay’s lived such a different life to me Pa, but I’m glad it’s been his life and not mine. I’m happy with things just the way they are. I love you, Pa.”

 

Ben sat on the bed and pulled Joe into a hug as he said, “And I love you.”

 

Adam knocked on the door and opened it. He saw Joe pull back from their fathers embrace and was sorry he had interrupted. “I’m sorry. Is everything alright? I just wanted to check if you needed anything.”

 

Joe grinned, “It’s okay, Adam. We’ve finished talking.”

 

Ben smiled, “Everything’s fine, Adam. Joe does want to talk to Clay. Is he downstairs?”

 

“In his room, I think,” Adam answered.

 

“Will you tell him that Joe wants to see him,” Ben said.

 

“I’ll get him.”

 

A few minutes later Adam came to the bedroom door. “Pa, can I see you for a minute.”

 

“I’ll be right back, Joseph,” Ben said as he quickly walked out of the room wondering what was wrong.

 

Adam shut the door behind his father and said, “Clay’s packing, says he’s leaving.”

 

“No, he’s not going to do this to Joe again,” Ben said angrily, “Stay with Joe.”

 

Ben stormed to Clay’s room and flung open the door without knocking, seeing Clay in the midst of packing he said, “What do you think you’re doing? Running away just like you did last time?” Ben was livid, “well I won’t let you do it again, do you hear me! Not this time.”

 

Clay shook his head, “I wanted to stay until I was sure he was going to be alright but now that he’s getting better I can’t stay.”

 

“Why? Why do you have to leave now? Can’t you wait a few more days at least.

 

Clay looked away, unable to meet Ben’s eyes. “I’ve been on my own for a long time, I thought I liked it but when I discovered that I had a brother, all’s I could think about was him. He’s the only family I have. I left last time because I knew I was responsible for those miners beating Joe. I didn’t want to be the cause of him getting hurt again. That’s why I left. My coming back here was a mistake.”

 

“Why did you come back?”

 

“I missed Joe. It’s as simple as that. I didn’t think I’d miss him as much as I did.” Clay looked at Ben and then put his head down as he said, “I came back and look what’s happened. This time I can’t even blame the miners. This time Joe’s getting hurt is solely my fault.”

 

“It was an accident, Clay. Joe doesn’t blame you. He’s asking for you.”

 

“You blame me though, don’t you?” Clay asked.

 

Ben hesitated before answering, for in truth he did blame Clay, “As I said, it was an accident.”

 

“You told me to stay out of the saloons for a while but I didn’t listen. I shouldn’t have gotten involved in the card game but I just wasn’t thinking. That’s no excuse though.”

 

“No, you’re right, it’s not.”

 

“I said some horrible things to Joe,” Clay said.

 

“I know, he told me,” Ben replied.

 

“Did he tell you why?”

 

“Yes, he told me you got angry with him because he told you he was staying here,” Ben said.

 

Clay looked Ben straight in the eye and said, “I’d been trying to talk Joe into coming with me. I was so angry when he told me he wanted to stay here with you.”

 

“And are you still angry with Joe for making that choice?”

 

“No,” Clay answered quickly.

 

“I think you are,” Ben replied, “even after what’s happened you want to punish Joe.”

 

“That’s not true,” Clay snapped.

 

“What do you think your leaving like this will do to Joe? He’ll think you are disappointed with him. He’ll feel guilty. Don’t do that to him. Joe told me the things you said to him. I know they were said in anger but they still shocked me. You claim you love Joseph that your only concern is for him, you may not realise it but in Joseph’s mind you hurt him far worse with your words than you did with your gun. If you care for him as much as you say you do you will sort things out with him before you leave. If you don’t, then I want you to stay away forever. I won’t stand by and let you continually come into Joe’s life and do this to him.”

 

Clay looked away as Ben’s words struck home. He’d been pretending to everyone, even himself, that he was leaving because he didn’t want to hurt Joe again but the truth was he was leaving because Joe had hurt him by choosing his father and brothers over Clay himself and he did unconsciously want to punish Joe for that.

 

Clay looked over at Ben, “I was angry at him but I swear I never meant to hurt him.”

 

Ben nodded, “I know but you have. So what are you going to do about it?”

 

“What can I do?” Clay asked.

 

“Go and talk to him,” Ben said, “as much as we wanted Joe to stay with us we couldn’t force him. We love him so much that we wanted him to do what made him happy. If that meant going with you then so be it,” Ben paused and then continued, “you have to love him enough to let him stay now that’s what he’s decided.”

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

Clay made his way to Joe’s room. Adam was having a hard time keeping Joe in bed because he’d guessed that something was going on. Hearing the door, Adam looked up and saw Clay standing there. Patting Joe on the arm, he said, “See, I told you Pa would send him up.”

 

Adam stood up and walked to the door, as he passed Clay he quietly said, “Say anything to hurt Joe and you’ll answer to me.”

 

Clay walked over to the bed and sat down in the chair.

 

“Clay,” Joe said as he smiled.

 

“I’m so sorry, Joe. This is all my fault. It was a stupid thing to do.”

 

“Makes a change,” Joe said, “I’m usually the one doing stupid things.” Both young men laughed but then Joe became suddenly serious, “I’m sorry too, Clay. Please don’t be angry.”

 

“I’m not angry at you, Joe. The only person I’m angry at is myself. I almost killed you.”

 

Joe shook his head, “It was an accident.”

 

“I never meant to hurt you, Joe. I could never have forgiven myself if you’d died. And the things I said to you. I didn’t mean them, Joe. You have to believe me,” Clay reached for Joe’s hand and squeezed it, “I’m so sorry, I hope you can forgive me.”

 

Joe returned the squeeze, “I already have.”

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

Two weeks later, the family stood in the yard saying goodbye to Clay. Ben, Adam and Hoss said their goodbyes and then walked away a bit to give Joe and Clay some privacy.

 

“Well I guess we know now,” Adam said.

 

“Know what?” Hoss asked.

 

“Remember the first time Clay left. We wondered what Joe would do if he had the choice between staying and going,” Adam nodded to where Joe stood, “he made his choice.”

 

“Bye Clay, promise you’ll write this time.”

 

Clay nodded, “I will and I’ll come back and visit.”

 

“I have something for you,” Joe said as he reached into his pocket and then pressed something into Clay’s hand, “Pa got it for me to give to you. We don’t have to share the same one now.”

 

Clay stared at the locket he held in his hand and then opened it, on one side was a picture of their mother and on the other side was a picture of Joe.

 

Clay was trying hard not to cry as he pulled Joe to him and said, “Thank you, Joe. I promise I’ll be back.” With that Clay mounted his horse and rode away.

 

Joe’s family walked over to him and Ben put his hand on his youngest son’s back. “How do you feel, son?”

 

“I’ll miss him,” Joe said simply.

 

“No regrets about not going with him?” Ben asked.

 

Joe shook his head, “No. It was Clay’s choice to leave and my choice to stay.”

 

Adam and Hoss smiled knowingly at each other.

 

“I guess Clay was right after all,” Joe said.

 

“Clay was right about what, Joe,” Ben asked.

 

“When I went after him that night, he told me that just because we were brothers didn’t mean we had to think alike, be alike, do alike. He said it was that way with Adam, Hoss and me but Clay thought he and I were too different.”

 

“Well I don’t know, Joe. There’s sure been a lot of times when we haven’t thought alike and done alike,”Adam said laughingly.

 

“We sure don’t look alike,” Hoss added.

 

Joe laughed, pleased and comfortable with the teasing that had always been a part of his relationship with his brothers, he knew they were trying to cheer him up and he appreciated it. Joe knew he might never see Clay again. It was impossible to know where the wind might blow him but Joe knew that the two brothers who stood before him would forever be a part of his life. He looked at them and said, “But we’re brothers and I couldn’t have asked for better ones.” Joe flung his arms over the shoulders of his brothers, they put their arms around his back and together they walked into the house.

 

Ben smiled as he watched his three sons walk away and then he walked into the house to join them.

 

 

The End

 

May 2003

 

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Author: HelenB

8 thoughts on “Choices (by HelenB)

  1. Like a bullet fired from a gun, words said in anger can’t be retracted. You may be forgiven, but they will be remembered.

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