Summary: Joe becomes the victim of a series of attempts on his life. Why does everyone insist they have seen Adam around, when he is visiting a friend back east?
Rated: R (11,060 words)
Only Skin Deep Series:
Disclaimer: All publicly recognizable characters and settings are the property of their respective owners. The original characters and plot are the property of the author. No money is being made from this work. No copyright infringement is intended.
Toil and Trouble
The front door of the Ponderosa ranch house shut quietly and Ben Cartwright exchanged a glance with his middle son, Hoss. Supper had been on the table for over half an hour, and Joe, the youngest Cartwright son, was late again. However, this did not sound like one of Joe’s entrances, but it couldn’t be Adam, the oldest son, because he was away visiting friends back east. “Is that you, Joe?” Ben asked, for the front door was hidden from his view by the wall.
“Yes, it’s me, Pa,” Joe replied, and he sounded so subdued that Ben was instantly worried. Subdued was not the state Ben had expected Joe to be in, for he had been in town collecting the mail, and usually when he arrived back, having had a drink or two and a laugh with his friends, he would be in high spirits.
When Joe didn’t come into view immediately, Ben and Hoss exchanged another glance and Ben rose to his feet. Hoss wasn’t far behind. Rounding the wall, Ben stopped dead, his mouth hanging open in disbelief. After that horrified second, he was moving forward to put his hands out to Joe, as though to catch him. “Are you all right, son?” he asked, taking in the dirt that caked Joe from head to foot. “What happened?”
“There was a rockslide as I was coming home,” Joe explained. He dropped his hat onto the credenza and bent down to untie the thong that kept his holster strapped to his leg.
“Are ya hurt bad, Joe?” Hoss asked, seeing a streak of blood along one cheek.
“No, I’m not really hurt at all,” Joe assured him. “Most of the rocks missed me, but Cooch threw me and ran off.” He sighed. “I’m just tired and dirty, that’s all.” He summoned a smile for them both. “There’s nothing wrong with me that a hot bath and a good meal won’t fix, honest.”
“This isn’t dirt,” Ben persisted, running his finger gently along the blood on his son’s face. “Or this,” he added, touching Joe’s cut and bruised hands.
“I don’t need a doctor,” Joe insisted. “Pa, really, I’m fine. Just let me get cleaned up and have some supper. I walked part of the way home and I’m tired.”
“All right,” Ben capitulated. He eyed Joe worriedly for a moment before asking Hop Sing, the factotum of the ranch, to heat some water for a bath for Joe.
The meal Hop Sing put in front of Joe was simple but filling. The ham and eggs were cooked to perfection and the plate was heaped. Ben hid a smile. If anyone else had been late, Hop Sing would have grumbled loudly as he reheated the meal on the table, but for Joe, his favorite son, he’d made something fresh. Joe ate slowly, but he managed to clear the plate, which Ben found reassuring.
Joining his father and brother in front of the fire for coffee, Joe stretched. He felt much better now that he was clean and fed. He didn’t want to admit to his family just how close he had come to serious injury in that rockslide. The sudden clatter had spooked his horse, and despite Joe’s best efforts, he’d been thrown.
Winded, Joe had barely managed to avoid being struck by several of the larger rocks. He’d finally scrambled to his feet, and safety. After a short pause to catch his breath, Joe had begun to walk home. Luckily, he’d found Cochise, his horse, grazing further down the road, so hadn’t had to walk that far. All the same, after the fall he’d taken, it had been far enough. Joe knew from experience that the ache in his backside would get worse before it got better. With a lot of wriggling, he’d been able to see the embryonic bruise on his butt in the wash-house mirror. It was going to be a cracker that was for sure!
Glancing up, Joe caught Ben looking at him assessingly. “Pa, I’m fine,” he said, and smiled his heart-breaking smile.
“So I see,” Ben agreed. The scratch on Joe’s cheek was just that; a scratch. The cuts on his hands were a little more serious, but still came under the term ‘minor’. Rocks were notoriously sharp and as Joe had explained, he had had to move a few to get free. He didn’t tell his father how bruised and scratched his legs were.
“We’ll need to get a crew out and clear that road tomorrow,” Ben said. “Now is a bad time for this to happen, when we’re so busy and Adam is away.”
“Ah, we’ll manage, Pa,” Hoss put in. “We ain’t so run off our feet as all that. Joe’s done with them horses, an’ we can spare the men from watching the calving. Ain’t too likely we’ll run into too many difficult births this early in the season.”
“I guess you’re right,” Ben admitted. “It would be helpful to have Adam here…”
“We can mange without him, Pa,” Joe assured his father. “Besides, you told Adam to go and we can manage. And this is the first time his friend has been back in the country for a long time. If Adam hadn’t gone now, he might not have seen his friend for many more years.” He grinned. “Besides, there’s nothing wrong with me, so I’ll be out there working as usual tomorrow.”
“Now, Joe,” Ben started to object, but Joe interrupted him.
“Pa, I’m fine. I wasn’t knocked out, and I’m just bruised. I’m fine and I can supervise the clearing up of a rockslide just as well as my big brother!” He kept his tone light, knowing that Ben was missing Adam, but determined that he wasn’t going to spend the next day sitting around the house when there was work to be done.
“All right, all right, I’m convinced,” Ben joked, putting his hands up in surrender. “Supervise the rockslide, son. It’s all yours!”
Joe’s bedroom door opened next morning just as Joe got himself into a position where he could see his butt in the mirror on his dresser, so he could check on the bruise. It felt enormous and was very sore. Embarrassed to be caught peering at his naked butt, Joe cried, “Hoss! Don’t you ever knock?”
“Nope,” Hoss returned, leaning on the door handle and laughing. “Ain’t never knocked afore. None o’ us ever knocks, ‘ceptin’ Pa.”
“Well, it’s about time you started!” Joe squeaked. His face was burning with color.
“I’ve seen ya in the all-together afore, little brother,” Hoss reminded him. “You ain’t suddenly becomin’ modest, are ya?”
“No, I’m not!” Joe retorted, “I just…”
“Jist what?” Hoss asked, innocently.
Sighing, knowing he’d never hear the end of this, Joe said, “I’m just coming down to breakfast.” He pulled up his pants, tucking his shirt in as he went, his back firmly to his older brother.
“See ya at breakfast,” Hoss agreed. As he shut the door, he added, “Joe, ya got the biggest bruise I ever seed on your butt. Did ya know?”
Groaning, Joe wondered if it would be worth going back to bed and starting the day again.
“Good morning, Joseph,” Ben said, as Joe perched gingerly on his seat. “How are you this morning?”
“Just fine, Pa thanks,” Joe replied, shooting a glance at Hoss, who was eating with great concentration. But the suggestion of a grin on his big brother’s face told Joe that Hoss was relishing the memory of their encounter upstairs.
“Is your backside a little tender?” Ben persisted, seeing the way Joe was trying to sit on only one butt cheek.
Giving Ben a twisted smile, Joe admitted, “Just a little.” He glared at Hoss as the other boy choked.
Looking curiously at Hoss, Ben could see that there was something between these two. Whenever Ben looked at Joe, he stopped pulling hideous faces at Hoss, who was blandly keeping his gaze on his plate. Deciding that it would be better to ignore whatever it was, Ben went on, “And how are your hands?”
“Just fine, Pa,” Joe answered. “Just fine.” He started eating his breakfast, still eyeing Hoss.
“Joseph,” Ben said, sternly, and Joe flicked his eyes to his father at once. “Do you think we could have our breakfast without all this face pulling, please?”
“Oh, sure, sorry, Pa,” Joe responded, and gave Hoss one last glare that promised retribution at a later date.
Sighing, Ben shook his head. There was never a dull moment with Joe around that was for sure. He wondered if he would ever find out what was going on, then decided that perhaps he didn’t want to know.
Most of the hands that went with Joe to clear the rockslide were quite new to the ranch. They were just coming into the busiest time of year, and had been hiring men on. When Joe had protested at the number of new men he had working with him, Hoss had pointed out that the more experienced men were better off watching the herd, as they knew more about cows and calving than the new ones. Admitting the logic in that statement, Joe had said no more.
It was going to take several days for the rocks to be cleared, and Joe, after examining the slide more closely, knew that they would have to use dynamite to clear some of the bigger rocks. Climbing up to the top of the hill, Joe looked to see if he could see what had started the slide, but there was nothing obvious. In one place, he thought he saw boot marks, but the ground was quite messed up and he couldn’t be sure.
Slowly the backbreaking work began. The rocks were lifted into wagons, and driven away to be dumped where they wouldn’t cause another slide. Stopping to wipe sweat from his brow, Joe watched the men for a moment. They were all working well, but he wondered if any of them knew that once they had finished moving the rocks, they would have to do something to repair the road.
When he arrived home that evening, Joe was almost as filthy as he had been the previous evening. He knew that this time, there would be a bath waiting for him and he sank into the warm water with a groan of relief. For a while, he just lay there, letting the warmth of the water unlock his stiff muscles, then he sat up and scrubbed the dirt away. By the time he climbed out and got dressed, Joe felt almost human again.
This time checking to making sure Hoss wasn’t around, Joe checked on the progress of his bruised butt and winced anew when he saw the deep black and blue area on his butt. Small wonder that it hurt most of the time! Well, he’d just have to grin and bear it. Joe winced at the thought, for he’d unintentionally bared it to Hoss that morning.
Supper was a quiet meal that evening. Hoss and Ben had been out at the calving pens all day, and Hoss was planning on going back that night. So far, they hadn’t lost a single cow or calf, although it was early days yet. There had never been a year when they didn’t lose at least a few animals, but thanks to the care that Ben lavished on his herd, there were usually enough men around to spot when a cow was having problems, and that meant his mortality rate during calving was lower than that of his neighbors.
“Well, I think I’ll go to bed,” Joe said, as Hoss prepared to go back to the pens. “I’m bushed.”
“You be careful at them rocks tomorrow, Joe,” Hoss told him.
“I will,” Joe assured him. He began to climb the stairs, having bid Ben good night.
“An’ Joe, be careful climbin’ on that there dresser of yours.” You could have a nasty fall off of it.” So saying, Hoss vanished out of the door at high speed, while Joe let out a yelp of protest, turned around, pelted down stairs, across the room, yanked open the front door and dashed into the yard.
Ben could hear Hoss’ laughter above the sound of hoof beats as Joe shouted, “Get back here, you big lug! Hoss!”
As Joe trudged back inside and closed the door, Ben put down his book and looked at Joe. “And just what was all that about, young man?” he asked. “Climbing on your dresser? Why?”
Blushing furiously and heaping curses upon Hoss’ head, Joe told the story of that morning. Finally glancing up, he was instantly livid as he saw the grin on Ben’s face. Caught, Ben didn’t try to hold in his mirth any longer, and let go, guffawing heartily, his laughter fuelled by in indignation he saw on his youngest son’s expressive face. But Joe could seldom resist laughter for long, and he was soon sniggering away as he pictured himself perched on the dresser, trying to examine his butt.
“Oh, Joe,” Ben chortled, wiping away tears of glee. “I wish I’d seen that!” He laughed again. “And is the bruise that big?”
“Bigger,” Joe replied, ruefully.
“It could only happen to you!” Ben sniggered.
By the morning of the third day, Joe could finally see the light at the end of the tunnel, so to speak. He knew they could begin blasting the bigger rocks that afternoon, and when they broke for lunch, he rode back to the house to get the dynamite.
On his return, he was pleased to see that the men had had the sense to move the horses and wagons away from the blast area. Tethering Cochise securely, Joe walked over to the rocks to visually pin-point the areas where he was going to plant the explosives. He had already done that earlier in the day, but when working with dynamite, it didn’t hurt to be extra careful.
One of the new hands, Terry, walked over to greet Joe. “All ready to go,” he announced. “Should be goin’ up any minute, Mr. Cartwright. Better move away.”
“What do you mean?” Joe asked. “Going up any minute? But I haven’t set the charges yet.”
Looking puzzled, Terry began to back away. He’d heard stories about Joe’s notorious temper and didn’t fancy getting on the wrong side of it. “But your brother tol’ me it was all ready to go. He was jist waitin’ for you to get back.”
“My brother?” Joe repeated. “But Hoss is in bed asleep. He was up all night at the calving.”
“Not him,” Terry insisted. “Your other brother; Mr. Adam.”
“Adam?” Joe shook his head. “Adam’s back east, Terry.”
“I’m sure it was him,” Terry stated. “Sure did look like him.”
Alarmed, Joe said, “Get out of here, Terry. There’s something not right about this.” He turned to glance at the rock pile once more, backing slowly away, his mind racing. Who had Terry seen? It couldn’t have been Adam, because Adam wasn’t home. But who…?
Joe never finished the thought. There was a huge explosion and bits of rock peppered the earth as the remains of the slide were blasted into nothingness. Joe was blown off his feet by the force of the blast, landing flat on his back several feet away. Terry, too, was knocked flat.
Far away on the hillside above, a man in black looked down with a pleased smile on his face.
A frantic hammering on the front door roused Hoss from his slumber. He was slipping his robe on when Hop Sing burst into his room without knocking, and Hoss knew from that one thing that there was something seriously wrong.
“Lil Joe brought home, hurt,” the Chinaman reported. “Come quick.”
Hoss didn’t need any urging. He raced downstairs to see the hands laying Joe carefully down on the sofa. Joe was unconscious, his face streaked with dirt and a bleeding gash along his forehead. His clothes were torn and Hoss could see blood on the skin underneath.
Kneeling by Joe, Hoss touched his face gently, but there was no response. “One of you go git my Pa,” he ordered, looking up. “Another git the doctor.”
“We already sent for the doc,” Terry told Hoss. He was as white as a sheet, and had Hoss had eyes for anyone but Joe, he’d have made the young man sit down. Hoss was preoccupied with his brother, but luckily, Hop Sing had noticed and steered Terry to a chair. “Is he gonna be all right?”
“I don’ know,” Hoss replied. “Hop Sing, git some water.” Hoss stroked Joe’s hair gently. “You’ll be all right, Joe,” he told him. “I promise.”
Hurrying into the house, Ben went straight to Joe’s side. “How is he?” he asked Hoss, who had been gently wiping the dirt from Joe’s face.
“I dunno, Pa,” Hoss replied, worriedly. “He ain’t stirred since he were brought in.” He yielded his place to his father.
Sitting down on the table, Ben put his hand on Joe’s arm. The gash on his son’s head still bled sluggishly. “Joe, can you hear me?” he asked. “Joe?”
He continued to repeat that question over and over as they waited for the doctor to come. Joe finally stirred as Paul Martin came in the door. He’d been unconscious almost three hours and Ben’s anxiety was spiraling out of sight.
“Uh,” Joe groaned as he tried to open his eyes. He began to move, but Paul stopped him.
“Just stay still until I’ve checked you over, Joe,” Paul told him. “What happened, exactly?”
“I’m not sure,” Ben admitted. He glanced at Hoss, who had got dressed after his father came in.
“I dunno either,” Hoss shrugged.
“I can tell you,” Terry admitted, wretchedly. With many stops and prompts, he told his story, ending with Joe telling him that Adam couldn’t have set the charges. “I was sure it was Mr. Adam,” he concluded. “I only met him but once, but he sure did look like him.”
As Paul bent over Joe again, Ben and Hoss exchanged glances. Someone who looked like Adam? Who on earth could it be? As Joe groaned once more, Ben suddenly remembered the previous autumn and the man who had broken into the house and held Joe captive as he had robbed the place. In the end, he had escaped empty-handed. Could it have been him? Ben screwed up his face, trying to remember the man’s name. It came to him as he started to turn back to Joe. “Tom,” Ben said, quietly.
“Jist what I was thinkin’, Pa,” Hoss agreed. “It could be him. But what’s he doin’ back here?”
“I don’t know,” Ben admitted. He shelved the subject for the moment, turning back to Joe. “How is he, Paul?” he asked.
“He’s going to have a headache he won’t forget for a while,” Paul replied. “He’s covered in cuts and bruises. I’d like to get him into bed, and check to make sure there are no broken bones. I haven’t found any so far, and I don’t really expect to, but I’d like to be sure.”
While Ben and Hoss helped the dazed Joe to his feet, Paul had a quick look at Terry, and advised a good night’s rest, with an easy day the next day. He wasn’t hurt, just shaken by the accident.
Some accident, Paul reflected as he went upstairs to tend his other patient. Someone had deliberately set explosives and waited for Joe’s arrival before setting them off. That sounded like attempted murder to Paul, although he admitted he wasn’t a law man.
Going into the bedroom, Paul found Joe sitting on the edge of the bed, leaning heavily against Ben, while his father helped him off with his shirt, and Hoss tugged off his boots. Before allowing Joe to lie down, Paul felt his ribs carefully, and dabbed alcohol on each cut and abrasion.
“Nothing broken,” he concluded and Ben heaved a sigh of relief. “Keep him in bed tomorrow and keep him awake for a while yet. He was out a long time. Then, just keep him quiet until that headache goes. If there are any problems, don’t hesitate to send for me.” He patted Ben’s shoulder. “He was lucky, Ben. I’ll see myself out.”
Sitting down by the bed, Ben smiled at Joe. “You were lucky, Joe,” he commented.
“I know,” Joe agreed. Although he was more alert than he had been downstairs, Joe’s eyes still looked slightly unfocused to Ben’s parental eye. “Terry said he thought he saw Adam, but it couldn’t have been.”
“Joe, do you think it could have been Tom?” Ben asked, gently
“Tom?” Joe echoed. “Who’s T…?” He trailed off and looked at Ben. “I never thought of that,” he muttered. “Terry doesn’t know Adam, so he might have mistaken Tom for Adam.” He frowned, the movement making him wince. “I didn’t know Tom had been seen around here since last year.”
“He hasn’t – so far as we know,” Ben told him. “It was just speculation on our part. I’ll talk to Roy tomorrow and see if he’s heard anything.”
“Why would he come back here?” Joe asked, plaintively. Neither Ben nor Hoss had an answer.
Keeping Joe in bed the next day was easier than Ben had anticipated. Joe’s headache was severe enough to make even sitting up a trial, and Joe slept the day away, while Ben and Hoss got on with the running of the ranch. None of them mentioned the possibility of Tom’s return, but Ben couldn’t get the idea out of his head. Late in the afternoon, he finally rode into town and went to see Roy Coffee, the sheriff.
“Well, now, Ben, I ain’t had any word ‘bout anyone seein’ this Tom fella around again,” Roy said, slowly. “You sure it was him?”
“No, we’re not sure,” Ben replied. “The only person who saw him was Terry, who thought it was Adam. He’s only met Adam once, briefly, more than a month ago. The only person who saw Tom close to was Joe, last year. None of us got more than a fleeting glimpse of him. This is all speculation on our part, Roy.”
“Well, I’ll keep my eyes open, Ben,” Roy promised. “But there ain’t much I can do.”
“I realize that,” Ben replied, getting to his feet. “Well, I’d better get back and see how Joe’s doing.”
“Give him my best,” Roy said, as Ben left. “An’ I’ll let you know if I learn anythin’.”
“What are you doing up?” Ben demanded as Joe came down the next morning for breakfast.
“I’m hungry,” Joe replied. “And I’ve got to get that road mended and it won’t get done with me lying in bed.”
“Joe,” Ben began, but Joe over-rode him.
“Pa, I’m all right, really and I’m sure the fresh air will help the headache. Besides, the job needs doing and you have enough else to do without adding that. And if it is Tom, I’m not going to let him scare me off!” Joe’s jaw jutted in a manner that was all too familiar to Ben.
“All right,” he agreed, reluctantly. With Joe in that kind of mood, he wouldn’t get much work done around the house.
There was silence for a few minutes, then Hoss cleared his throat. “How’s yer butt this mornin’?” he asked, his tone one of brotherly concern. “You didn’t hurt yourself none climbin’ on the dresser, did ya?”
“Just wait, big brother,” Joe threatened. His eyes flashed as he glared at his sibling. “I’ll get you, see if I don’t!” Pushing his chair back, Joe threw his napkin down on his half-eaten meal and stormed away. The front door banged shut a moment later.
Meeting Ben’s eyes, Hoss blushed like a child and spread his big hands in a supplicant’s pose. “I jist asked,” he said, innocently.
Rolling his eyes, Ben didn’t know if he wanted to laugh or cry.
The road was mended by the end of the week and Joe had come through unscathed. No more attempts had been made on his life. His killer headache had finally loosened its grip and he was beginning to feel more like himself again. The bruise on his backside had toned down to a muted greeny-yellow and Joe was no longer charting its course with such interest as the pain involved in sitting down lessened. Hoss wasn’t twitting him about climbing on the dresser any more, but Joe was still awaiting his chance for revenge.
At breakfast, Ben usually gave his orders for the day. This day was no exception. “Joe, I’d like you to ride out and check the timber on the west ridge,” he said. “After that fire a year or two back, I’d like to know how the saplings we planted are growing, and if the area is re-growing. If it isn’t, I’d like you to take some men and re-plant.”
“Okay, Pa,” Joe agreed. It sounded like a nice easy job, after all his backbreaking work on the rocks and the road. He glanced at Hoss. “Do you want me to go down to the calving pens tonight, Hoss?” he asked. He didn’t have the touch with the cattle that Hoss did, but calving had begun in earnest, and every hand was welcomed.
“Sure,” Hoss agreed. “I could do with a night in ma bed.” He had been up all night the night before, and was planning on going back for a while that morning, against Ben’s wishes, who feared that Hoss would become so tired that he would get sick.
“I’ll get going then,” Joe offered. “That way, I can get back in time to have a sleep before I go out. See you later, Pa.”
“Be careful,” Ben cautioned him, as he always did.
“I will be, sir,” Joe assured him and left the table.
The sun was shining brightly, but there was a cold edge to the wind when Joe was in the shadows. Spring was a capricious season, but one that Joe loved. In fact, there wasn’t a season that Joe didn’t love, and he proclaimed each one as his favorite. He was looking forward to the long, hot days of summer, even though it was their busiest time of year.
The ride to the west ridge took a little over an hour. On his arrival, Joe tethered Cochise to a tree and set off on foot to inspect the saplings. He hadn’t been up to the ridge since they had planted after the fire, and then the ground had still been black and ashy, with almost no greenery visible.
That wasn’t the case now. Nature had softened the edges and the ground was a riot of spring flowers and budding bushes. The burnt out trunks of trees still lay at crazy angles here and there, but moss was now growing over them, making them green once more.
The replanted area was quite big and Joe covered a lot of ground. There weren’t many areas where the saplings had failed and Joe thought that a couple of days ought to see it all replanted once again. He stopped and had a drink from the river that ran down the ridge before heading back.
After a few minutes, he stopped, listening hard. His eyes grew wide with alarm and anger as he heard the unmistakable sounds of someone chopping down a tree. It seemed to be coming from ahead of him. Joe hurried his pace, but didn’t break into a run. He didn’t want to alert whoever it was that he was coming. He drew his gun in readiness.
But when Joe finally broke through to the edge of the trees, he couldn’t see anyone and the chopping had stopped. Cochise, grazing a little distance away, whickered a greeting when he saw his master. Frowning, Joe holstered his gun and began to walk towards his horse.
There was a sudden, ominous creaking from behind him and Joe glanced back over his shoulder to see one of the half-grown pines now toppling silently towards him. Joe took to his heels, but he was too late. The tree crashed to the ground, its topmost branches carrying Joe with it.
It was well into the afternoon before Ben realised that Joe hadn’t yet returned home. Initially, he wasn’t too concerned, for Joe had been working hard over the last week or so, despite the accident and was entitled to dawdle a little. But as time moved on, Ben began to grow concerned. Joe had intended to be home long before then, so he could catch some sleep before taking the night shift down at the calving pens. If there was one thing Joe was never late for, it was extra sleep.
Deciding against waking Hoss, Ben went out and saddled his horse.
The further he rode, the deeper his concern became. When the west ridge came in sight, Ben’s heart felt like it was beating at twice its usual speed. As he came closer, he could see Cochise, and it became apparent very quickly that there was something seriously wrong with the pinto. It put its head up and neighed when Buck came into sight, but made no attempt to join its stablemate.
Alarmed, Ben dismounted, and saw a huge gash running down the pinto’s flank. It had been bleeding and the animal was clearly very lame. Ben frowned as he gently smoothed the horse’s neck. Cochise had been sweating, but the sweat was dried, leaving the silky hair matted. Where was Joe?
Leaving the horse for the moment, Ben began to walk towards the trees. A half-grown pine had come down and Ben skirted around it, heading for the area Joe had been due to examine. He had barely gone any distance when he heard a groan. Whirling, Ben looked around frantically, for he had recognized Joe’s voice. The groan came again, and this time, he located his son, trapped under the branches of the tree.
Kneeling, Ben tried to move the tree from Joe, but it was too heavy. Joe was unconscious, but beginning to rouse. Ben hurried back to his horse to see if he had any tools, but he hadn’t. However, he found a small axe in Joe’s saddlebags and hastened back to Joe’s side.
Cutting the branches away while Joe lay beneath was hideously difficult. As Joe began to stir and struggle, Ben put aside the tool, terrified that he would injure his son. “Take it easy, Joe,” Ben soothed. “Lie still, son.”
“Pa?” Joe murmured. He tried to rise, letting out a cry of pain and frustration when he found he couldn’t move. “Pa?” he repeated, sounding panicky.
“Lie still, Joe,” Ben urged. “If you can lie still I can get you out. Can you do that?”
“Yes,” Joe gasped. He lay as still as he could, but he couldn’t repress a shudder as he saw the axe in his father’s hand. But he trusted Ben implicitly. As Ben began to chop at the branches, Joe closed his eyes. It didn’t help; in his mind’s eye, he could see his father working over him and could sense how close the axe blade sometimes came. He knew Ben would never hurt him and that knowledge allowed him to lie still until the job was done.
Ripping the last branch away, Ben knelt by Joe again, panting from the effort. He thought he’d been working for over an hour and he was exhausted. But his task wasn’t finished yet. He still had to get Joe home, and he had had no way of telling if Joe was injured or not. “Joe, can you move, son?” he asked, gently, stroking back his son’s hair.
“I think so,” Joe replied and gathered his strength. With Ben’s help, he pushed his upper body away from the ground. His right wrist buckled under his weight. Ben moved so he could hook his hands under Joe’s arms, and pulled his son’s legs free from the tree. Free at last, Joe slumped down with relief.
“Where does it hurt?” Ben asked, still panting. He was feeling Joe’s wrist gently, and Joe winced.
“My wrist,” he cried. He snatched the offending limb from Ben’s grasp. Tears stood in his eyes and he panted hard, trying to control the pain.
“I’m sorry, Joe,” Ben apologized. “Does anything else hurt?”
“My head,” Joe muttered, miserably. “And my back.”
Fear clutched at Ben’s heart, but he deliberately kept his voice calm as he asked, “Can you feel your legs?”
“Yes,” Joe answered. “My back hurts between my shoulders.” He rolled over onto his side and groaned. “And my ribs hurt,” he added.
Carefully, Ben felt down Joe’s back, but there didn’t appear to be any sore spots apart from between his shoulder blades. Easing Joe’s jacket and shirt back, Ben saw a huge welt rising on his back. “I don’t think there’s anything broken there,” he assured his son. “Can you sit up?” He helped Joe upright, and supported him until Joe had regained his equilibrium. “Let’s get you home, Joe,” he suggested. It would be dark soon. “You’ll have to ride with me, because Cochise is lame. Looks like he got hit by that tree, too.”
Turning his head, Joe looked across at his horse and winced when he saw the jagged cut. “Poor Cooch,” he muttered.
“Come on,” Ben said, and rose. He bent down and helped Joe to his feet, seeing how green he went for the first few seconds. There was a large bump on the back of Joe’s head, which had been bleeding. Retrieving Joe’s hat, he set it carefully on his son’s head and assisted him across to the horses.
Before long, they were heading for home, with Ben leading the injured pinto. It would be a slow journey home, Ben knew, but at least Joe was safe now.
“That dad-blamed Little Joe,” Hoss muttered to himself as he bundled on his warm coat. “Promised he’d be back to do t’night an’ then ain’t! I’ll teach that boy what a sore butt is!” he went on. “I’ll give him the tannin’ o’ his life, jist see if’n I don’!”
Yanking open the front door, Hoss was in time to see Ben’s horse coming round the side of the barn. Squinting, he realized that Ben had someone on the saddle in front of him and when Cochise limped into sight, Hoss realized who it was. His irritation forgotten in a rush of worry, Hoss hurried across to help Ben.
“What happened, Pa?” he asked, looking up at them. Joe was sagging against Ben’s encircling arm and appeared to be either unconscious of sleeping.
“Joe got caught under a falling tree,” Ben explained, easing his youngest son into his middle son’s arms. “He’s had a knock on the head and his wrist and back are hurt. Cochise must have been struck, too. He’s got a bad cut on his flank.” Ben swung down with relief. His arms were aching from holding Joe upright.
“Hi, Hoss,” Joe murmured. Hoss looked down into his brother’s face, and tried a smile.
“Dadburnit, little brother,” he responded. “Ain’t you never able ta stay outa trouble?”
“Doesn’t look like it,” Joe agreed. “Put me down, I can walk.”
“Who says?” Hoss demanded, heading over to the house. Behind him, Hoss could hear Ben talking to the hands who had come to take the horses. A few minutes later, as he laid Joe carefully on his bed, he heard hooves heading out of the yard and knew that Ben had sent for the doctor.
It was some time before Doc Martin arrived and Joe was dozing. Ben had had something to eat, but Joe had gone green at the very mention of food and nobody had pressed him. However, he had told them about hearing someone chopping down a tree, and Ben and Hoss both came to the same conclusion as Joe; the tree that had been felled had been the one that had hit Joe. The question was who had felled it? Rather, corrected Ben silently, that was the first question. The second question was why was that person targeting Joe? Was it Tom? And if so, why?
“What is it this time?” Paul asked, as he was ushered into Joe’s room for the second time in 10 days. He listened intently as Ben described the situation he’d found Joe in, and then began his examination. Looking up, he smiled at Ben and Hoss, then at his patient in the bed. “Well, broken ribs, a sprained wrist and a bumped head. That welt on his back will turn into a bruise in the next few days. Joe, you were incredibly lucky. You’re going to have a headache again, but I won’t take any stitches. Just let me bind up your wrist and ribs and then you can have a proper sleep.”
“Thank goodness,” Ben sighed. Joe had been so drowsy on the ride home that Ben had feared that he had a skull fracture.
“Where’s Adam?” Paul asked, as he helped Joe sit up so he could bandage his ribs. “I thought sure he’d be here, what with Joe being hurt, and him newly back. Or is he asleep from the journey?”
“Adam?” Ben repeated blankly. “Adam’s back east, Paul, you know that. He’s not due back for another two weeks.”
Pausing, Paul glanced over at Ben. “Well, I was a bit surprised when I saw him,” he admitted. “But I thought perhaps he’d come back early. I was sure it was Adam. A man dressed all in black, riding along the road at the other side of town late this afternoon. I assumed he’d hired a horse and was heading for home.”
“Tom!” Hoss exclaimed, bitterly. “It has ta be Tom!”
His hands never stopping their work, Paul raised an eyebrow. “And who’s Tom?” he asked.
Slowly, Ben explained about Tom while Paul moved on to bandaging Joe’s wrist. Paul nodded. “I remember you telling me about him last year when I patched Joe up. You think he’s behind this? Why?”
“I don’t know,” Ben admitted. He leant over the bed, looking down at Joe, who had remained very quiet throughout the whole examination. “Joe? Are you all right?”
“Yes,” Joe replied, meeting Ben’s gaze with sleep-shadowed green eyes. “I was just remembering that day when Tom was here.” He dropped his eyes and kept his thoughts to himself, but Ben was sure he was remembering the pain and the fear. “I’m tired,” he complained and Ben took heart from that.
“Well, you can get some sleep now,” Paul told him. “Here, Joe, drink this.” He gave the boy some doctored water and they waited for a few minutes for the painkiller to take effect. Joe drifted off to sleep and they left him in peace.
“You’ve got to tell Roy,” Paul commented, as they went downstairs.
“I already have,” Ben told him. “After Fred fetched you, he went over to tell Roy.”
“Well, Ben, you know the drill,” Paul said, as he left. “Call me if you’re worried.”
Nodding, Ben watched Paul until he was out of sight. He was worried, deeply worried, but this wasn’t something the doctor could fix.
“How do you feel this morning, son?” Ben asked, helping Joe sit up so he could eat his breakfast.
“I’m all right,” Joe replied. He smiled at Ben, but the smile lacked its usual wattage. “I’m hungry, which is more than I was last night.” His face suddenly clouded. “I forgot; I was meant to be down at the calving pens last night.”
“I wouldn’t worry about it, Joe,” Ben reassured him. “Hoss had had a long sleep yesterday, and he went down a little while after you went to sleep.”
“I’m sorry,” Joe apologized wretchedly. “I seem to be getting into all sorts of trouble just when you need me most.”
“It’s hardly your fault,” Ben protested. “Joe, don’t you know that all that matters to me is that you boys are all right?”
“I know, Pa,” Joe replied. “But I still feel like this is all my fault.”
“How do you work that one out?” Ben asked, pointing to Joe’s breakfast, as a hint that he should start eating.
Chewing the first mouthful, Joe thought about what he was going to say. “I think it’s my fault because I think its Tom behind this.” He took another mouthful.
“Go on,” Ben encouraged.
“Well,” Joe said, round a mouthful of bacon, “if I hadn’t annoyed Tom last year, he would never have come back and started trying to kill me.”
“I don’t follow you,” Ben admitted. “And don’t talk with your mouth full.”
Sighing, Joe finished what was in his mouth before going on. “When Tom was here last year, Pa, I think I made him feel guilty about robbing us. I think that might have been why he was so hard on me. I tried to get him to turn himself in, but he wouldn’t. I don’t know, but I kind of got the impression that I’d annoyed him. If he’s drifted back to this area, then he might well think that it’s worth trying to kill me. After all, I’m really the only person round here who can identify him. Neither you, Adam nor Hoss could reliably pick him out of a crowd, could you?” Joe took a sip of coffee. “After all, even Paul thought he was Adam from a distance.”
“I think I see where you’re coming from,” Ben nodded. “But, Joe, we still don’t know that it is Tom behind your troubles.”
“No, not for 100% sure,” Joe agreed. “But let’s be honest here, Pa. How many Adam look-alikes are wondering around this area with a reason to kill me?”
“When you put it like that…” Ben agreed, uncomfortably. “Joe, until this is sorted out, I don’t want you going around alone.” As Joe opened his mouth to protest, Ben simply raised his voice and carried on talking. “I know you don’t like the idea and neither do I, but I don’t want anything else happening to you, Joe.”
Seeing the worry in his father’s dark brown eyes, Joe subsided and agreed. He forked the last of his breakfast into his mouth as his bedroom door opened and Hoss came in. “Mornin’, Joe,” he greeted cheerfully.
“Hi,” Joe responded. He wriggled uncomfortably as Ben removed the tray and Hoss looked at him.
“What’s up?” he asked. “Ain’t that bruise on your butt all better yet? I thought it’d be long gone.”
He ducked hastily out of the door as Joe fired a pillow at him.
Almost a week passed before Joe was going about almost as normal. His wrist was still in a bandage, and his ribs were strapped up, but he felt well in himself. In deference to Ben’s wishes, he took things easy, his only trip out was to church on the Sunday morning and it passed peacefully.
By now, the family was looking forward to Adam’s return from his trip. He’d been gone now for 5 weeks, and although none of them begrudged him his break, they were all anticipating his return home. Ben was sitting with a book open on his lap, smoking his pipe, Joe and Hoss were playing checkers once more, and Ben smiled. He’d missed Adam, but they had managed admirably well without him. By and large, things had run smoothly, apart from the accidents that had befallen Joe. Calving was going very well and they looked like having one of their biggest crops of calves ever. Joe had broken the last lot of horses in record time and the work he’d done on repairing the road had been first class. In fact, Ben smiled to himself; Joe appeared to have done some more maturing since Adam left.
“What do you say you and I get the supplies and mail this morning, Joe?” Ben suggested as they ate the next morning. Joe had looked rather down in the mouth when Ben told him he still wasn’t fit to go back to work. Even allowing for Joe’s fast recuperative powers, he still had broken ribs.
“Sounds good to me, Pa,” Joe agreed, brightening up. He couldn’t bear the thought of being stuck in the house all day. He had spent a part of every day tending to Cochise, who was now sound again, but the gash on his thigh still needed some healing time and even gentle riding was out of the question.
They set off a while later. The weather was still warm and dry and they reminisced about previous springs when it had been either so wet or so cold or both, that they had thought summer would never come!
The journey passed quickly and Ben pulled the team to a halt outside the general store. “I’ll start loading the supplies,” Ben offered, “and you go and get the mail.”
“It’s a deal,” Joe agreed. He got down from the buckboard with more care than usual and began to stroll down the street. Ben watched him for a minute and shook his head as Joe stopped to talk to a young lady. It never failed, he thought. Bring Joe to town and within minutes he was talking to a pretty girl. He went inside the store, still smiling.
Joe met several people he knew on the way to the mail office, so it took him a while to get there. Collecting the mail, Joe leafed through it idly before turning back to meet Ben at the store. “Joe!” a voice called and he lifted his head to see Rudy, the telegraph clerk, waving to him from the telegraph office. Crossing the road, Joe went over.
“Hi, Rudy,” he called as he drew near. “What’s up?”
“Got a wire for you from Adam,” Rudy replied. “Glad I seen ya; its saved me a trip gettin’ it delivered to ya.”
“Thanks,” Joe replied and spent a few minutes chatting to the clerk. Someone came over wanting to send a wire, so Joe moved on, opening the wire and reading the message.
COMING HOME FRIDAY STOP
NOON STAGE STOP
“Howdy, little Joe,” said Roy Coffee’s gruff voice in his ear. “What cha lookin’ so happy about?”
“Hi, Roy,” Joe replied, looking up. “I just got a wire from Adam. He’ll be home Friday.”
Frowning, Roy protested, “Friday? That wire musta got lost, Joe. I seen Adam this mornin’ wi’ my own eyes.”
“You couldn’t have,” Joe stated, a frowning growing between his eyes. “Roy, Adam’s back east, you know he is! This wire was sent this morning, look!” He thrust the flimsy paper at Roy, who peered at the small print on it.
“That’s mighty queer,” Roy declared. “I’d swear it was Adam I seed. He was ridin’ out to your place.” Roy felt a pang of disquiet in his gut as he looked at Joe’s white, strained face. “You think it’s that Tom feller?” he asked and Joe nodded unhappily.
“Yes, I do.” Sighing, Joe tried to smile at Roy. “I’d better go and show this to Pa.”
“All right, Little Joe,” Roy replied. “I’ll have a look round an’ see if I can’t see this feller again. You be careful, hear?”
“I will, Roy,” Joe responded and walked away, his head down, not hearing the greeting one of his friends called from across the street.
There wasn’t much Ben could say about Roy’s news. His face was grave as he stowed the last of the supplies onto the buckboard. He bid the storekeeper goodbye as cheerfully as he could, but it was a strain. “Ready to go?” he asked Joe quietly, as his son stood gazing into space beside the team.
“I guess,” Joe replied. He climbed onto the seat in silence.
“What’s troubling you, Joe?” Ben asked, as they left the outskirts of the town.
“Both Paul and Roy thought that Tom was Adam,” Joe replied. “What if word of this gets out and other people start believing Adam is trying to kill me?”
“Nobody would believe that,” Ben asserted stoutly. “Everyone knows that Adam wouldn’t hurt you.” He glanced at Joe and could read his thoughts, so nakedly did they show on his face. But when Adam shot me accidentally, people believed then that he had tried to kill me. “Joe, everyone knows Adam went east last month. He talked about nothing else for weeks before hand.” That stubborn look didn’t move from Joe’s face. “Enough people heard your story last fall to convince them that Adam is not behind this. But the point is this, Joe.” Ben waited until Joe looked at him. “We know that it’s not Adam, and that’s all that matters, isn’t it?”
“You’re right, Pa,” Joe acknowledged, his face clearing.
Patting Joe’s knee, Ben chucked the reins to keep the team moving. He was especially proud of Joe at that moment, for his son had not been thinking about himself in connection to all this unpleasantness; he had been worrying about his brother. Joe was indeed becoming a man that Ben was very proud of.
As they drove beside the lake, Joe’s attention was drawn to something moving in the water. “What’s that, Pa?” he asked, pointing. He stood slightly to see better and gasped. “Its someone in the water,” he cried. “And it looks like they’re in trouble!” He began to rip off his jacket, but Ben put up his hand and stopped him.
“You’re in no condition to go in there!” he scolded, handing the reins to Joe. “I’ll get them. You stay here.” He jumped down from the seat and took off his boots and hat before plunging into the lake.
The water was still bitingly cold, fed, as it was, with the snow melt from the mountains. Ben was a strong swimmer and he made swift progress towards the struggling person. He could just see their head as they bobbed up and down and he spared a moment to wonder how on earth they came to be in this predicament.
When Ben was within about 6 feet of the person – he was sure it was a man – he disappeared under the water. Dragging in a deep breath, Ben dived under, too, opening his eyes in the hope of seeing him nearby.
Lungs burning, Ben was making for the surface for air when a hand grabbed his ankle and pulled!
Shock almost made Ben take a breath, but he fought the urge and tried to bend over to help the man. But his groping hand was yanked hard, and Ben sank a little deeper into the lake. He tried to shake free from the hands that were dragging him down, but failed. Through the murky water, he caught a glimpse of a dark-haired man, and fear shot through his gut.
Frantic now, for his breath was long gone, Ben fought off Tom. He managed to break free and shot upwards, breaking the surface of the water and gulping in a much-needed breath. Then Tom grabbed him again and Ben went under.
From his seat on the buckboard, Joe watched with horror as Ben broke the surface only to disappear again at once. He knew something was wrong. Ben was a very good swimmer. Joe jumped from the seat and ripped off his jacket, boots, hat and gun belt. Running to the water’s edge, he dived in and began to swim.
The cold and the pain hit him all at once. Joe gasped and spluttered, but kept on doggedly swimming towards the churning water a short distance away. “Pa!” he cried, as a head broke the surface for a moment. He swallowed a mouthful of water and choked.
Diving beneath the water, Joe looked around frantically before spotting Ben floating a few feet away. He swam over, grabbed his father and propelled him to the surface. Ben took a great breath of air and coughed out some water, but he didn’t open his eyes.
Rolling onto his side, Joe prepared to swim for the side, towing Ben with him. His every breath, every movement caused stabbing pains in his chest. But he kept going, knowing that if he didn’t, both he and his father would die.
By the time they reached the shore, Ben was conscious again and making an effort to help Joe along. Joe’s feet hit bottom, but he couldn’t stand. On his knees, he dragged Ben away from the water line before collapsing to the sandy ground, totally spent, and gasping for breath. He coughed up several mouthfuls of water, each cough causing untold misery. It took a few minutes before he noticed that loving arms were supporting him though each spasm.
Raising his head, Joe peered through his soaked hair into his father’s concerned eyes. “Pa?” he gasped. “Are you…all right?”
“Thanks to you,” Ben panted. He had vomited up a great deal of water and was consequently feeling much better. “Are you all right?” Ben was recovering much faster than Joe.
Too exhausted to lie, Joe simply shook his head. His ribs screamed in agony and he knew he had strained them anew.
“We’ve got to get out of here,” Ben told him. “Lie still, I’ll get the buckboard.” Joe put his head on the ground and closed his eyes. He began to shiver.
“Joe!” Ben shook him. “Joe!” As his son opened his eyes, Ben wished he didn’t have to say this. “Joe, the wagon’s gone.”
The green eyes that stared back at him were wide with disbelief and alarm. “I found your jacket,” Ben told him, and helped Joe to sit up and slip it on. It wouldn’t do much to warm Joe up, but it was better than nothing. “Joe, we’ve got to walk back. Come on, I’ll help you.”
It was going to be a struggle, Ben realized as they set off. Joe couldn’t stand upright and walked with both arms wrapped around his aching body. Neither of them had boots, and their soaking socks did little to protect their feet. The only thing in their favor, Ben reflected, was that the sun was still shining.
They had barely gone half a mile when Joe needed to rest. Ben sat beside him, with his arm round him, so they could share what body heat they had. But Ben wouldn’t let Joe rest for as long as he wanted, and urged his son on, knowing that if Joe stopped for too long, he wouldn’t get going again.
Glancing up, Ben saw something along the road that made his heart beat a little quicker. “Look, Joe!” he cried. “Look! The buckboard!”
For whatever reasons, Tom had abandoned it. Ben looked around, trying to see if he could see anyone near by, but the landscape seemed to be deserted. Urging Joe on a little faster, Ben practically dragged him up to their salvation.
The supplies hadn’t escaped unlooted, he noticed, but that was of minor consideration at this point. Sitting Joe carefully against the wheel, Ben checked that the team and the traces were all right and moved some of the supplies around so that Joe could stretch out on top of them. Once that was done, he practically had to lift Joe onto the back of the buckboard. Hurrying to the seat, he lifted the reins and set the team to a fast trot.
Behind him, Joe groaned as the buckboard’s motion added to his misery, but although Ben was sorry to cause Joe more pain, he wanted him home as fast as possible.
Back at the house, Hop Sing ordered Ben into bed as soon as Joe was settled. Ben refused. Joe was coughing steadily now and his breathing sounded strained. It didn’t matter to Ben that he himself wasn’t feeling too good by then. Joe needed him and he was determined to be by his son’s side.
It took the arrival of the doctor – yet again – and Hoss to make Ben go and lie down for some much needed sleep. Paul dosed Ben with a disgusting tasting syrup, which he assured the disgruntled patient would cure almost anything he might decide to incubate. What it did do was make Ben vomit up the last of the water in his stomach. Paul nodded in satisfaction before ordering Ben to get some sleep.
As for Joe, he had strained the muscles round his ribs, and one of the fractures had moved slightly. Paul soon had it back in place and Joe’s ribs bandaged up again. Joe got a sweet, thick syrup, which soothed his cough and eased his throat. The last thing Paul wanted was Joe vomiting.
“They should be all right in a few days,” Paul told Hoss. “Don’t let Joe get up until all the pain is gone. So I’d say at least a week in bed. As for Ben, well, keep an eye on him over night. He swallowed a lot of water and was knocked out. That must have been quite some fight he had. But don’t worry, they are both basically fine.” He patted Hoss arm. “And you make sure you don’t run yourself ragged looking after them,” he added. “I’ll let Roy know about this.”
“Thanks, doc,” Hoss replied. He saw Paul out, then went back upstairs. Joe was asleep, his exhaustion clear on his face. Ben, too, was sleeping. Nodding, Hoss went downstairs to have a quick nap before supper.
By morning, Ben had a raging head cold. He spent that day in bed, but insisted on getting up the day after to allow Hoss to get back to work. Joe had had a restless night and Ben knew that Hoss had spent a good bit of the night with Joe. He took on the nursing duties, although Joe improved over the course of the day, his cough dying back, thanks to the syrup Paul had left.
“Hi, Pa,” Joe whispered, as he opened his eyes. “You all right?”
“Just a cold,” Ben assured him. “And how do you feel this morning, young man?”
“Sore and stiff,” Joe admitted. He made no attempt to sit up, instead remaining snuggled down beneath the blankets.
“I’m not surprised,” Ben commented. “Joe, thank you. Thank you for saving my life.”
“I’m glad you’re all right,” Joe replied. “I couldn’t bear it if something happened to you.”
Blinking back tears, Ben ruffled Joe’s curls. “I’m sure you could, Joe,” he chided, gently, “but it’s nice to hear just the same.” He smiled. “I love you, son.”
“I love you, too, Pa.” Joe gave Ben that dazzling smile; the smile that soothed away his father’s anxieties and told him that Joe would be all right, given a little time.
Two days later, Hoss met Adam from the stage. “Hello,” Adam said, peering round for the rest of his family. “Where are Pa and Joe?”
“Thereby hangs a tale,” Hoss told him and as they drove home in the buggy, he told the tale. Adam listened in horror and amazement as Hoss went into detail about everything that had happened since Adam had left home.
“And you think its Tom?” he asked.
“Yup,” Hoss agreed, heavily. “Enough folks saw him an’ thought it was you to convince us. Pa even fought with him in the lake. It were Tom all right.” Hoss’ tone told Adam exactly what his brother would do if he ever got his hands on Tom. Adam felt exactly the same way.
“We’ve got to find him,” Adam declared.
“Roy’s bin out every day this week wi’ a posse,” Hoss replied. “He ain’t had much luck.”
“Have you been out with him?” Adam asked, for he knew how good Hoss was at tracking.
“Nope,” his brother answered. “I bin busy with calvin’.”
“Of course,” Adam responded. “Well, if you want to go out, I’ll deal with the calving.”
“I reckon Pa’ll still want us to stick close ta home,” Hoss remarked. “He weren’t none too pleased that I come inta town on my lonesome ta meet you.”
“I suppose I can’t blame him,” Adam muttered. “With all that’s been going on.” He shook his head. “And how is Joe?”
“He’s all right,” Hoss assured him. “Fed up of bein’ in bed, but that’s Joe for ya. But he’s been so danged worried about Pa that he’s done everythin’ he’s bin told without arguin’!”
“But Pa’s all right?” Adam asked, anxiously and Hoss nodded.
“He’s fine. Even the doc says so. Joe jist got a fright out there in the water an’ who can blame him? “
“Not me,” Adam agreed.
He was off the buggy seat and into the house in record time. Ben was sitting by the fire, reading a book and wiping his nose regularly. His nose looked red and sore. He glanced up as the door opened and a welcoming smile split his face. “Adam!” he exclaimed and hurried across the room to take his son into his arms.
For once, Adam clung to Ben for a moment longer than usual. “Are you truly all right, Pa?” he asked, breaking free.
“Apart from this cold, I’m fine,” Ben assured him.
“How’s Joe?” he asked, putting down his valise and taking off his hat and coat.
“Looking forward to seeing you,” Ben told him. “He’s still quite sore, but he’s going to be just fine, too.” He smiled. “Come on, let’s go up and see him.”
As the door to his room opened, Joe glanced up from the novel he was reading. “Adam!” he cried, dropping the book, and grinning broadly. “Welcome home! How was the trip?”
“The trip was good, Joe,” Adam told him, sitting carefully on the side of the bed so as not to jostle the still-sore ribs. “And what’s this I hear about you? ‘Double, double, toil and trouble’, huh?”
Rolling his eyes expressively, Joe groaned. “Not Shakespeare!” he moaned. “Please! I can’t bear it! You’re just back and you’re trying to civilize me already! Spare me! Spare me!”
“Its good to be back,” Adam commented and they all laughed.
On Sunday morning, they all made the trip into town to church. Joe had perked up a lot with Adam’s return and complained less about the pain. He had got up on Saturday and sat around the house all day and assured Ben he felt well enough to go to church with everyone else the next morning.
During Saturday evening, Adam had told them all about his trip east and his friend. It was only too easy to diagnose the faint yearning he couldn’t keep from his voice as he told them about the restaurants and theatres they had been to and Ben feared that the lure of the east might reclaim his oldest son. Not that he would ever stop any of his sons from leaving. The Ponderosa was their home, not their prison, and if they wanted to leave, Ben would not stop any of them going. But if Adam did leave, he knew he would miss him.
“It sounds like you had a great time, Adam,” Joe commented. He had heard the yearning in Adam’s voice too, but he wasn’t ready to deal with it just then and buried the thought deep.
“I did,” Adam replied, smiling quietly. He glanced at Joe in time to catch him yawning. “Look, buddy, if you’re serious about church tomorrow, I think you ought to go to bed.” As Joe began to protest, he said, “I’m still pretty whacked myself and I’m going up. Come on, you old crock, I’ll help you up the stairs.”
“Ya don’t need to worry none about him, Adam,” Hoss commented as they began to mount the stairs. “Joe managed to climb on his dresser to admire his butt the other week.”
“Hoss!” Joe squeaked, blushing furiously. He had totally forgotten about his revenge for Hoss embarrassing him like that, but he decided then and there that he would have to do something. He didn’t know what, but one of these days…
“Do tell me all about it,” Adam invited, as he all but dragged Joe upstairs.
The church service the next morning was pleasant, and it felt good to them all to be out as a complete family again. Many people came up to Adam to ask about his trip and a number enquired after Joe’s health. Joe was tired after his first trip out and soon retired to the buggy for a rest.
They were waiting impatiently for Adam to join them when Paul Martin’s buggy came into sight and pulled up alongside the Ponderosa buggy. Seeing Paul, Adam excused himself and went over to greet the doctor.
“Fancy seeing you here, Adam,” Paul commented after the initial greetings had been exchanged.
“What do you mean?” Adam asked, frowning. “I’ve had a couple of days to rest up from my trip.”
“That’s not what I mean,” Paul said. He eyed them all significantly. “You see, I just saw you riding along the Carson City road not three hours ago. You looked like you were leaving the territory in a big hurry.”
Shaking up his horse, he left the Cartwrights standing frozen. They all shared one thought. Could it be over, as simply as that?
Only time would give them the answer.
Next Story in the Only Skin Deep Series:
Quote from Shakespeare’s Macbeth
Thanks to my dear sister Claire for the title suggestion. You are the best, sis!
Other Stories by this Author
- Whenever You’re in Trouble (by Rona)
- In Silence and Tears (by Rona)
- Hate and Fear (by Rona)
- Betrothed, Betrayer and Betrayed – Part 2 (by Rona)
- Christmas Surprise (by Rona)