Borrowed Time

A What Happened Next Story to follow Bushwacked

The Tahoe Ladies

It was a profound relief to be headed home at last. He didn't care if the wagon hit bumps in the road as long as that road led towards home. He stretched out on the upturned saddles in the back of the wagon and let the warm sunshine of a late fall morning wash over him, lulling him ultimately into sleep. But just as it had been for the last two weeks, the sleep was an uneasy one for Joe. While not exactly nightmares, they had been disturbing dreams. And that was the overpowering reason he had for wanting to go home.

Almost three weeks before, he'd been headed home from the sale of some horses to the Army. Everything had gone smooth as silk until up near Lone Pine, he'd met, by chance, two men. They shared their meager fire with him and he had been about to ride away when he had spotted the running iron. What followed had become a jumble of memories and false dreams for Joe. But the fact that they had shot him twice, once in the leg and once again in the back and then left him to die was a reality. For three days, he had clung to the hope that his shots would summon help. Time and again, he had fired off rounds until he had one bullet left and no one had come to help him. Near dead from thirst, fever and blood loss, he had been found by a rancher out hunting for strays. The rancher had taken him to his home where his father and Hoss would ultimately come. He knew his father had been appalled that the doctor there had not even attempted to remove the bullet in his back and had simply stood by while his fever mounted and his life hung in the balance. Finally his father had convinced the man to operate and thus saved his life. By that time, the events had so devastated Joe's strength that he still fought an uphill battle. And the kaleidoscope of dreams that had led his father and brother to discover who had shot him had left an all-together different impact on him. Now, he prayed that once they were on their way home, it would all fade away.

The wagon hit a nasty rut and Joe slid a little in the back of the wagon and it awoke him easily. Looking to the rear of the wagon, he saw his beloved Cochise side by side with her stable mate Chubb. Tied there, they peacefully trailed behind, the pinto's nose just inches from Joe's leg.

"You all right?" his father asked anxiously. Alongside the wagon, mounted on his buckskin, Ben Cartwright was the picture of a concerned parent, despite the easy smile Joe gave him. "We can pull up and take a break if you need to stop."

"I'm okay, Pa," Joe said. How could he convince his father that with Ben just being there, Joe was comforted? He rubbed his cheek over onto his shoulder as though to wipe something away. In truth it was to once again feel that comfort close at hand. That morning it had become apparent that Joe's own shirt would not button closed over the thick bandages wrapped about his chest and padding his back. The solution had been for him to slip into one of his father's shirts. While riding in the back of the wagon, Joe realized that although the shirt had been freshly laundered, he could still smell his father's pipe smoke and Bay Rum in its roughness. As he had drifted off to sleep, he could feel the coarse fabric pressing against his cheek and he could tell himself that he was a small boy again and his father held him while he slept.

"Well, we're gonna need to rest these horses a spell anyway," Hoss called over his shoulder from the wagon seat. "And I got a hankering for some of that apple pie I saw Julie pack up back there. You ain't et it have you, little brother?"

Joe gave his brother a playful poke through the gap between seat and backrest. "Now just why would I do that? Julie said that was all for you. It was pretty obvious that she was sweet on you, you big galoot!"

Hoss turned sideways in the seat and took a long armed swipe at the head below him, missing it by a mere fraction of an inch. "Yeah, now ain't that a caution? First time I ever saw a gal turn you down and head for me! And don't tell me you didn't try and make a little time with her. Huh! Giving her that fancy braided leather belt. She knew I was the better man!"

"Well I do believe she had a problem, Hoss," Ben commented. "She was scared your brother was going to die in her bed."

"No, I don't think she could see all that well, Pa. Being farsighted, she just kinda aimed herself at the biggest thing she could find. Which just happened to be wearing that big ol' white hat. Made it easy for her, didn't ya, Hoss?" Joe teased back.

"Pa is right. That little gal had a problem with you, Joe. Seems she couldn't figure which time you was being sane: when you was talkin' out of your head about teepees and wagon wheels or when you were sittin' on the porch telling her all the fool things you done taught your horse to do!"

Ben merely shook his head. These two could go on teasing and joshing and joking with one another for hours but all their elder brother Adam had to do was say one thing, and Joe would drop the humor and become defensive and argumentative. With that thought, Ben sobered. He'd had two very worried letters from Adam that he had chosen not to share with his brothers. The first had come the day following Joe's first return to consciousness. In it, Adam had begged his father for some good news. He had pleaded that his father wire him if Joe's condition should worsen. Ben had answered the letter optimistically. The second letter, although it had expressed relief at Joe's improvement, still pleaded that Adam be allowed to forego the contract negotiations slated and ride to Lone Pine instead. To this missive, Ben had replied curtly that when Joseph was ready to travel, they would be home. And that he depended on Adam to secure the means of keeping that home by namely getting the timber contracts they needed. After he had sent it, Ben had regretted the harshness he had used to address his eldest son. Adam was just worried, that was all, and Ben had bluntly dismissed that concern. Now riding along side the wagon and listening to his younger sons, he realized he missed the older one.

Just about the time he was going to call a halt anyway, something happened that made Ben think something was deeply wrong with Joseph still. He and Hoss had been bantering back and forth with one another when Hoss turned in the seat, and smiling, pointed a big index fingers at his brother and grinned broadly about something. The expression on Joe's face as he looked up into his brother's eyes was one of horror. Joe whitened and his eyes widened in fear. He sucked in a sharp breath loudly enough that all heard it.

"Pull up Hoss!" Ben commanded at once and with one fluid motion was off his horse and into the wagon, beside Joe, leaning over him.

Joe waved his father away saying he was fine, but the voice he used to proclaim that fact shook just a little.

"Then let me take a look at your back so I will feel that you are fine," Ben countered. Joe allowed his father to pull him into a seated position and pull up the back of the linen shirt to inspect the bandages. There was no sign of bleeding and the bandages were still securely in place so Ben eased him back into his position, cradled by the saddles. "I wish you had let us get some pillows for you to rest on instead of these saddles."

"Aw Pa, there isn't room enough back here as it is. Like I said, I'm fine."

Ben snorted. "You weren't a moment ago."

"It was a muscle spasm is all," Joe explained, trying to dismiss the panic he had felt. It was just like part of the fever-induced nightmare that he had had. In it, Hoss had stepped down from a wagon to tower over Joe where he lay, badly wounded in the tall grass. Hoss had smiled just like he had moments ago, but in the dream, he had pointed a gun, not a finger, at his brother and pulled the trigger. Joe had felt the bullet's impact with his body and it had thrown him back to the ground. Although he had never had cause to question Hoss' love and care for him, Joe wondered upon waking what had induced the images. Now, that same question arose in him again.

Eyes narrowing and searching for a hint that what Joe had said was not the truth, Ben sat back on his haunches there in the wagon bed. Finally he heaved a deep sigh. Joe grinned impishly up at his father. Ben shook his head a few times then reached over and patted Joe's shoulder as if to say "all right, you win this round."

"We do need to rest and water the team, Pa. And as I recollect, there is a stream about another mile or two down the road. So, little brother, iffen you can hold up back there a little longer-" but in swift reply to his concern, Hoss got a stiff finger jabbed into his ample back.

When they stopped that evening to make camp, the first shadows were reaching out across the high desert. They brought with them the cool night breezes, quickly dissipating the minute warmth the sun had given during the day. While Hoss had tended to the stock, Ben had scrounged up the makings for a fire and prepared to cook something for their dinner. Joe had been allowed to do absolutely nothing. If he had been honest with his family about how he felt right about then, he didn't have a doubt in the world that his father would have thrown him in the back of the wagon and high-tailed for the nearest doctor. He didn't think there was a place on his backside that didn't ache from the jarring of the wagon. And he had purposely shut down that part of his brain that he felt was connected to his back and legs. So to do nothing, for once in his life, was okay with Joe.

"Sure wish we had brought Hop Sing with us, Pa," Hoss complained, prodding at the beans and thick bacon on his tin plate. Hoss often wondered how he had survived on his father's cooking for as long as he had. To say Pa was an inadequate cook was being kind. But long ago, Hoss had given himself over to the fact that some folks had better talents elsewhere and he had to make do sometimes on less. Pushing the tasteless beans around one more time, he calculated how long it would be before they would reach the Ranch. "Suppertime. Not tomorrow but the day after, most likely," he mumbled.

"Huh?" Joe asked, from where he reclined against a rounded boulder.

"When we'll be getting home. I figured day after tomorrow 'bout suppertime. You in a hurry for some reason, Joe?" Hoss crammed another forkful of thick bacon into his mouth.

"We will take all the time we need to get home," Ben retorted from across the small fire. "The last thing I want to see happen is that we get in a hurry."

Joe rolled his eyes, feeling the weight of his father's protectiveness pressing against him. The rebellion in him longed to complain and chaff under the burden. The need in him cherished the comfort it gave with its mere presence. "Pa," he started.

"Don't tell me you are 'fine', Joseph. I saw how you moved when Hoss was helping you out of the wagon. That was not how someone who is 'fine' moves! You heard what that doctor said. You are not even remotely healed yet and if I had listened to myself, we would still be back at the Griswolds'!"

"Pa-" Joe tried to interrupt but would have had more success in stopping a boulder headed down hill.

"And another thing, young man! You have been instructed to rest and that is exactly what you are going to do! Both now and when we ultimately get home!" continued Ben, his hand gestures matching his stern visage.

"Pa-" Joe tried again.

Hoss sat on the sidelines, burying his smile behind a hand. Usually with Joe and his father, it was like watching a little banty cock sizing up a big old Rhode Island Red rooster. All the strutting and puffing out of chest feathers the little banty would do would only be met with a swift peck of the Rhode Island's beak before the banty would find himself somewhere else better to be. The Rhode Islander would allow only just so much puffery from the banty then would show him just who not only ruled the chicken coop but owned it as well. Tonight, though, seemed to be the exception. His father kept up the barrage of instructions while Joe, although not exactly cringing, stayed silent.

"And another thing. Right after we get home, you are going in and have Doc Martin take a good look at the work that man did. If you have pulled stitches-" The free hand that had been waving in the night air became a closed fist with one long index finger extended and pointed at Joe.

"Pa-" Joe tried again.

"What?" his father thundered the single word.

Joe hung his head a little and quickly went over all the things he could say before he straightened up as much as he was able and said "Good night, Pa."

Hoss couldn't hold back any further and broke out laughing. If there was one thing his baby brother could do, it was knock the wind out of Pa's sails faster than a hole in the canvas. He quickly laid his plate aside and went to help Joe down onto the bedroll closest to the fire. Still chuckling despite the huffing noises behind him from his father, Hoss winked at Joe and got one in return.

"And, little brother, I'll make sure you get home in good time and in one piece," Hoss promised and playfully patted Joe's good leg.

"I know you will, Hoss. I know you will."

"Always have," Hoss said softly, "And always will. 'Night, Short shanks."

It wasn't long before the steady rise and fall of his chest signaled that Joe was asleep. Throughout those long minutes, Ben and Hoss had sat silent, both lost in thought. Finally Hoss broke the silence.

"We almost lost him, didn't we?" he whispered, still not looking away from his brother's blanket wrapped form.

Ben eased over to sit next to his big son and laid a soothing hand on Hoss' back, rubbing his palm against the thick muscles there. He stared at Hoss' profile a moment. There, where others would see a firm jawline that spoke of strength of body, Ben saw the faintest tremor that whispered fear. When Hoss turned to face his father, his alpine blue eyes caught and reflected the campfire flames in the unshed tears growing there.

"Yes, son. We did. Closer than I think we ever have. He still has a long way to go to get back to where he was. That is why I am so afraid -"

Before his father could finish his sentence, Hoss gently pounded his leg with his huge fist. "I ain't gonna let anything like that happen, Pa. You know that."

Letting his hand come to rest on the thick neck, Ben considered his next words carefully. "Sometimes, son, whether we want to or not, there are things that happen. And we have no control over them. All we can do is have faith that there is reason behind it all. That and give thanks for what you have in the 'now' of your life because tomorrow will change things. I know that is what I do. Each and every morning I thank God for you and Adam and Joseph. Without the three of you, I doubt if I could find much 'reason' in my life. No, Hoss, we can't control our lives to the degree that you could promise me that Joseph, or you or Adam will be here tomorrow."

Hoss looked to the fire, then across to his brother's sleeping form, and finally back to his father's face. "But I can promise you that I'll try."

His chest swelling with pride, Ben answered, "That is all a man can ever ask of another."

The following morning they all awoke to find the sky overcast with purple-gray clouds and a wind that heralded rain. The three Cartwrights hurriedly ate a cold breakfast, foregoing even coffee. Hoss hitched the team to the wagon while his father saddled his own horse. All the while they kept watching the sky.

Joe didn't try to hide the stiffness he felt that morning. Even though he had slept the closest to the fire the night before, he had been cold most of the night. He thought that was unusual as he was the one more liable to be found enjoying cold weather. Now, still feeling the chill in his body, he gratefully climbed with his father's help into the wagon and curled into the blankets. The day before he'd watched the countryside rolling past with a quiet fascination for the stark beauty of the high desert country. But that morning, with rain threatening, he had found the landscape depressing.

The first drops of cold rain came by mid-morning. Driving the wagon, Hoss had scanned the land, looking for shelter. He found none close at hand. Likewise, his father had sought a cabin or cave, ranging out far from the wagon. But there was none; only the scant brush, sand and battered rocks.

With the rain came a wind that cut through even Ben's thick coat, driving sand as well as rain with a cold intensity. He had ridden out away from the wagon but when the storm increased its fury, he turned Buck back towards his sons. As he crested a slight rise, what he saw made his heart lurch and he kicked Buck into a flat out run. The wagon sat at an un-natural angle, halfway onto its side, the harnessed team still thrashing, trying to regain lost footing.

Ben slid from his saddle before his horse even stopped, and he ran to the canted wagon. First glance showed Ben that his sons were moving and that was a good sign. Hoss was struggling to his feet a short span from the wagon. Joe was just sitting up, closer to the side of the wagon, obviously stunned by the toss from it. The two saddle horses stood, ropes dangling, off to one side, Cochise up close to the bigger Chubb, eyes rolling in fear.

"What happen?" he demanded, kneeling beside an awkwardly moving Joe. Over his shoulder he could see Hoss going towards the team.

"The team bolted, Pa." Joe explained as his father ran nervous hands over him. "Hoss couldn't hold 'em. Next thing I know, I'm flying through the air. Never thought sand was that hard. Hoss okay?"

"Sure am, Shortshanks. You?" Hoss asked at Joe's side.

Joe looked up and nodded, not trusting his voice any further.

"What about the wagon?" Ben asked and Hoss shook his head.

"Axle busted. One of the team has a busted foreleg. Gonna have to be put down."

Ben nodded grimly with the news. The wind chose that moment to change direction and the rain drove down on them in a cold sheet of misery. He could feel both of his sons looking to him for help and Ben felt a moment's panic. Just the night before he and Hoss had talked about controlling what happened and now he felt control slipping away from him.

"How far do you figure we are from a town?" Joe asked. He took a deep breath then wished he hadn't for the sudden stab of pain coming from his back. Thankfully his father had been looking at Hoss.

"No idea," Hoss admitted.

"Pa, I can ride. It might be a long one but we could make it home tonight. I know we could," Joe insisted.

The dark eye brows flattened out across his brows as Ben considered his son. "Fool-hardy" was the one word reply he gave.

"You got any better idea?"

"Yes! Hoss, saddle your horse. Head back the way we came. Joe and I will use the wagon for shelter as much as we can. At the very least the wood will burn. You just get back there to Lone Pine and get us some help as soon as you can, son."

To his surprise, Hoss shook his head. "Look around you, Pa. We're in a draw. Rain like this will turn this into a riverbed real fast." Hoss scrunched his face up then looked back at his brother. "Think you remember how to ride, Joe?"

His heart still not in it, Ben finally conceded that his sons were right. The only way to shelter was to put Joseph on a horse. Cochise was saddled quickly and as Joe struggled into the slicker his father gave him, Hoss dispatched the injured horse and packed their supplies onto the other. Determined not to show weakness, Joe was still forced to have help mounting the pinto. Once in the saddle however, a false sense of well being washed over him.

The road behind them had wound through the high flat desert. The road before them inched upwards, into the mountains. Giving his youngest a good going over with his eyes, Ben turned Buck's head back the way they came, expecting his sons to follow. When he had gone no more than ten yards and he still had not heard them behind him, he turned in the saddle. There the two of them sat like immovable stones, their horses turned towards the mountains in the distance.

"Pa," Joe called above the storm, "Home is this way."

Conspiracy, Ben thought. It is a conspiracy.

By mid afternoon, freed of the constriction of traveling a road, they had been able to make it into the mountains. Joe kept thinking that if he weren't holding them back, they would easily be able to make the comfort of the ranch house by midnight. But as much as he pushed himself, his father held him back. Sure, it hurt when Cochise broke into a full gallop but it was becoming just as bad when his father even allowed them the mile-eating lope all three mounts possessed. Finally, Joe gave in and pulled Cochise to a halt and leaned over the horse's wet neck.

His father was there instantly, chastising and pulling him from the horse. Joe pleaded that he just needed a short break. He tried to stand on his own but found his legs were rubbery and threatened to betray him. Ben was bothered that Joe felt so cold to the touch and decided that they should stop and try to warm the boy.

"How?" Hoss had asked, concerned as well by the turn of events. "There ain't a stick of dry wood between here and China. Much as I hate the idea, Pa, I think we have to push on."

Joe's weak agreement was ignored. He found himself being forced to lean heavily on his father just to remain upright. And the hissing noise in his ears was surely just the rain.

"Pa, how about this: We put Joe in the saddle with you up on Chubb. He can handle both of you. And you head out for home as fast as that black can take you. I'll follow with the other horses as best as I can. If you head over that far ridge, you can chop a good two hours off the ride."

Ben felt Joe sagging into his side and looked at the ridge Hoss pointed out. Hoss was right but Ben loathed to leave one son handling this increasingly poor weather condition, but if any of his sons could do it, it was Hoss. For a moment, he wondered if they could rig a travois to place Joe on then knew that would only delay them further. No, the sooner Joe was warm and dry, the sooner Ben would feel better as well.

"Help me get him up there."

He couldn't remember ever being as cold as he was. And the tiredness he had felt just a while back had returned. Even though he struggled to remain awake and aware, his body betrayed him and Joe leaned back into his father's strong embrace. He took solace that this time, as he drifted somewhere between light and dark, he could feel his father holding him. It was as he'd longed for the first time and been denied. He was safe.

The two men on the big black horse had crested the ridge and what lay before them was the broad valley . That valley would eventually give them access to the mountainside and the sprawling ranch house that backed into it. Ben nudged the horse forward and sent another prayer Heavenward for safe passage into the growing darkness. At any other time, he would have raked his sons over hot coals for riding over such rough terrain in such weather conditions in the dark. Forget about the foolishness of riding double with a man barely conscious! He tightened his free arm around Joe's slim waist, willing him to stay aware enough to stay upright.

Chubb's step slipped and Ben's first instinct was to correct the horse but Chubb did that himself. Ben pulled the horse to a stop, wanting to give the big horse the chance to settle himself. The horse was so much like the rider he usually carried: big and strong, patient with all the foibles of mankind. But, as Ben felt that cold rainy evening, the horse was ready, willing and able to support the ones who needed it most. It needed no guidance to do what needed to be done. Feeling Joe's body becoming more and more lax against him, Ben knew he couldn't risk holding him as lightly as he was, so he tied Chubb's reins together over the black neck and let them drop there. Wrapping both arms around his son, Ben gave the horse a nudge with his heels and told him to go home. The horse shook his head just once and headed down the slope.

As they headed out into the broad valley, Ben relaxed as much as he was able. He pulled Joe closer to him, turning Joe's face into the protection of his own. Even in the darkness, there was enough light that Ben could see the un-natural pallor of his son's cold flesh. A lump came to his throat that he had trouble swallowing around. What have I done? he thought and could find only one answer. I have jeopardized my child's life.

When the first clouds had gathered in the western sky, Adam Cartwright had been beset with the almost overwhelming desire to saddle his horse and head for the trail to Lone Pine. His father had written briefly that they would be setting out on the twenty-third. And today was the twenty-fourth. They would have been out in some of the most desolate country the state of Nevada could offer when the storm hit. What could he have done to help them? He had wondered then had to admit that there was nothing he could do except make his father angry that his orders were not followed. So instead, with the growing unease he attributed to the weather, he and Hop Sing had set about preparing the place for Joe's homecoming and bad weather.

"Why you want fire in father's room?" Hop Sing had complained when finding Adam laying a fire in his father's cold bedroom late in the afternoon. "He not be here until maybe late tomorrow. Waste wood."

Squatted on his heels at the fireplace, Adam turned and looked at the cook. He pushed his tongue into his cheek to stop himself from popping off the first thing that came to his mind to say: just because. Instead he thought he would fight fire with fire, so to speak. "Why did you make enough stew to feed a small army when there is just you and I?"

Taken aback though he was, the little Oriental was as fast as Number One Son. "Stew always better the second day. Humppphf." He quickly turned and left the room, his black braid swinging with his distinct walk.

Adam went ahead and finished laying the fire, smiling to himself.

Once all the wood boxes were full and all the barn chores were taken care of, Adam settled into his favorite chair and tried to read from his latest acquisition. Much as he tried, he couldn't seem to concentrate on Shakespeare. For a long time, he simply sat staring into the fire's bright flames, wondering how his father and brothers were. Outside, the storm rose in its fury, bringing the sense of unease to an uncomfortable level in Adam.

Pa knows a storm sky when he sees it. And with Joe still in the shape he's in, I can't see Pa doing anything foolish. They are holed up somewhere, probably some old cabin, burning the furniture. Hoss is complaining about Pa's cooking and Joe's telling Pa that he is all right.  But even after a while, Adam couldn't convince himself that everything was all right. Twice, he thought he had heard something and had gone to the door and looked into the cold inky night. But there was nothing there. He tried to return to his reading.

Finally he sauntered into the kitchen, ostensibly to get a cup of coffee. Hop Sing was washing the dinner dishes. Without turning around, he held out a cloth to Adam.

"Dry careful. No break dishes," he admonished and went back to his washing.

Adam pulled his mouth to one side then snorted and shook his head in amazement. He carefully picked up one of the plates and began drying it.

"Think I should ride out tomorrow morning? To meet them?" he asked.

Hop Sing ran the dish cloth around the inside of a bowl then looked at the man beside him. If Adam were asking his opinion it showed how worried Adam truly was. "Why you want to do that?"

Setting the dry plate down, Adam gave the question some thought and could find no answer that didn't sound crazy. "Well," he finally drawled and took the now clean bowl from Hop Sing, "Maybe just because."

And again Hop Sing harrumphed. With a flick of his wrist, he dropped the knife he had been washing onto the drain board. "Just because you not see family in long time? Just because you miss brothers and father? Just because you want to see for self that Little Joe still okay?"

Adam sucked in his breath between his clenched teeth and squinting his eyes almost closed, he tilted his head a little to one side. "Guilty as charged," he admitted, "To all of the above."

Hop Sing gave a little chortle and patted the big black shoulder beside him. He smiled broadly. "Me too."

He set his empty coffee cup down on the hearth beside his chair and closed his book once again. The little session with Hop Sing in the kitchen had made up his mind and Adam scolded himself for staying up late. Tomorrow morning early, he would saddle Sport, take a bag of cookies from Hop Sing for Hoss and head out to meet his family. Pa's warning to stay home and tend the home fires could be hanged. He figured that by cutting across the mountains and riding hard, he could meet them before they got onto the Ponderosa. But here he had stayed up late reading.

He stood and stretched, one hand in the small of his back to work out the "worry kink" as Pa called it. Adam chuckled softly. Pa was right. The only time his back acted up like that was when he was worried about something. Sighing, he went to blow out the lamp and head up stairs to bed.

And heard his father shouting his name. For a split second, he was tempted to dismiss it as his imagination. After all, they weren't due back until - then he heard it again, louder and clearer this time.

He spun on his heels and with long strides made it to the door before he heard it a third time. Adam yanked the thick door open and stepped into the full fury of the storm.

There was his father. Up on Chubb. And held in front of him, Adam could barely make out the shape of his brother Joe.

"Help me, Adam," his father commanded but Adam needed no urging. With the rain pounding down on him, he reached up to take Joe from the horse. The first sensation he had was that his brother had to be dead. His brother's body was cold and unresponsive and the face that looked back at Adam's was white, the eyes closed. Cradling the lifeless body in his arms, he stood rooted to the ground, his heart pounding, heaving mercilessly in his chest.

"Get him inside. Now!" his father shouted, cutting the roots Adam had grown with their intensity.

Easily carrying the burden, Adam made it into the warmth of the great room before he dared look down into Joe's face again. Shouting for Hop Sing to come and help him, he laid his brother on the sofa. He felt as the side of his neck for a pulse and rocked back on his heels when he felt it, faint and unsteady but there. Adam blew out the breath he had been holding in a quick puff.

Ben had followed Adam into the house and stood shedding his soaking jacket. It joined his wet gloves and hat on the floor. He crossed to where Adam and Joe were, watching Adam closely.

"Let me-" Ben started but Adam laid a hand on his shoulder, stopping him.

"Please Pa, let me take care of him. You need to get out of those wet things yourself. Get warmed up. I can take care of Joe but I can't take care of the both of you. Where is Hoss? Is he okay?"

"Hoss is fine. Had an accident with the wagon and your brothers-"

"Say no more, Pa. I can imagine with those two! But please Pa, let me take care of Joe. You take care of you for a little bit," Adam repeat his petition then turned and completely dismissed his father from his mind. Joe was still unresponsive and needed help.

Calling for Hop Sing again, Adam picked his brother up again and started up the stairs. Once upstairs he kicked open the door to Joe's bedroom, nearly colliding with Hop Sing. Laying him down on the bed Hop Sing had prepared, Adam smoothed the rain from his face. Swiftly, he pulled the drenched rain oilcloth slicker from his brother's slim form while the diminutive cook eased his boots off. Adam's fingers shook as he tried to unbutton the cold wet shirt, causing him to fumble with them. Unable to contain his frustration, Adam grabbed a hold and wrenched the fabric apart. The heavy bandages that nearly covered Joe's torso were wet as well.

"Get me the shears, Hop Sing. We've got to get these off him too and the fastest way-" then realized he was talking to thin air.

Within moments Hop Sing was back. "You lift him, I cut."

Gently, Adam pulled his brother up, letting the damp head rest against his chest. Joe stirred but what held Adam's attention was the expression on Hop Sing's face. Pulling his brother closer, he looked down his back.

The bandages were stained a watery crimson, feathering upwards to his shoulder and in long thick wide fingers down past the curve of his waist.

Once he had changed from his wet and cold clothes, Ben did indeed feel more in control of himself. Wrapped in his warm burgundy robe, he headed down the hall to Joe's room where he could hear Adam and Hop Sing talking.

"…And send someone into town. From the looks of it, it's gonna need to be cleaned out and closed again. And tell them to hurry. At the rate he's been bl-" and Adam stopped when he saw his father in the doorway.

What had stopped Ben was the pile of bloody clothes and bandages dumped on the floor. Adam sat on the side of Joe's bed, his hand pressing on a what looked like a towel folded and placed on his back.

Hop Sing brushed by Ben as though the patriarch wasn't even there. The movement brought Ben back to himself.

"Pa," Adam's free hand reached out and touched his father's arm.

"He's been bleeding for sometime, hasn't he?"

Adam chewed on his lip then answered the only way he knew, with the truth. "Probably. But I think its about stopped." He didn't want to think that the reason why the bleeding was stopped was that his brother was about bled out.

"We need to get fluid into him. Get him warmed up," Ben ordered. He pulled at the hand Adam had kept firmly planted on Joe's back. It looked as though he was right. There was no sign of blood under his hand. Carefully Ben pulled the towel away. The bullet hole with its surgical incision was open on Joe's back but there was no more blood coming from it.

Letting his father have his place beside Joe, Adam crossed quickly to the fireplace and threw another stick of wood on the fire there. With a quick glance over his shoulder, he left the room. Out in the hallway, he stopped and leaned against the wall, needing support. He had seen a man bleed to death once. He knew that once the level of blood got down just so far, there was nothing a doctor could do. The body would just shut down, little by little. Adam ran his hands over his face and pushed away from the wall. Not my brother!

The night wore on. Adam put his foot down and ordered his father to rest but knew that Ben would only rest for true when it was all over with, one way or another. In the thin hours of the morning, Hoss made it home. Still dripping wet, he had gone immediately to Joe's room. There he had found both his brothers, one pale and barely visible under the blankets and quilts that covered him; the other, haggard, an tired look on his face.

"He'd been bleeding for a good while, Hoss."

"Doc here yet?"

Adam gestured for them to step out into the hall to talk. Once there, he shoved his hands into his back pockets. "Sent for him put he hasn't gotten here yet. How are the roads out there? Can he even get here?"

Hoss shook his head, little droplets of water falling from him as he did.

"I'm gonna tell you the same thing I did Pa. Get out of those wet things. I got my hands full right now with Joe. I don't need to be dealing with you too."

"Where's Pa?"

"I sent him to rest but I doubt he is. Now go." Adam saw that being the oldest for once was paying off. At least for now.

He slipped back into Joe's room and moved to sit by his brother. He raised the blankets just enough so he could check the bandage as Joe laid nearly on his chest, propped by pillows to hold him still. He found no new bleeding but Joe's flesh was still cold to the touch. Adam eased the covers back down and tucked them in.

Joe came back slowly. He'd had the dream again. Twice now, he'd had the dream and each time when he had awoken, it was as though he was lighter than a feather. He felt no alarm, no panic. Only a great sadness. This time there was no confusion for him. He could remember every detail of the dream. He had stood within a halo of light there in front of the house. Beyond the light, there was nothing but blackness. No sound, no light, nothing. Within the pool of light, stood his father, his arms outstretched, calling to him, pleading for him to come back. Yet as much as Joe fought it, there was an overpowering desire to walk into the darkness. It seemed to beckon to him, offering freedom from the pain and tiredness he felt, the cold. Each time he had taken steps towards it, telling his father he was just so tired. But both times he had turned and looked back to see the tears on his father's face. He'd weighed his decision carefully each time. Do as his father begged and return to his arms, and pain, exhaustion and cold? Or take the last step into the darkness that stood just beyond the light? Tonight though, the dream had differed in one aspect. Just beyond his father, standing together by where Joe thought the door to the house should be, were Adam and Hoss. Hoss had also stood with his hands reaching for him. But Adam had stood with his arms crossed over his chest, his face impassive. This time, Joe had thought he would not return to his father's embrace but step into the waiting lightlessness. He looked into the blackness then turned to tell his father goodbye. That was when he saw Adam reaching for him as well. Joe had turned his back on the waiting darkness again.

"Welcome back," came Adam's voice right there beside him. Joe felt more than saw his brother's dark form then slowly Adam came into focus, his chiseled features just inches from Joe's face. Adam was softly smiling. "Are you warm enough?" but Joe couldn't find his voice to answer. "Hop Sing is gonna have something up here hot to drink for you in a minute. Think you can swallow some of it? Are you in pain?" Joe wanted to return the smile his brother gave him if only because of the naked concern in Adam's voice, but he found himself too weak to do even that. Instead he found himself able to move just his fingers beneath the blankets.

Adam saw the expressive green eyes held no fear or uncertainty but instead a longing but he had no idea for what. He saw the blankets move and slid his hand back under them and found Joe's hand there, moving feebly. Not knowing what else to do, he did however just what his brother needed him to do. Adam closed his long fingers over Joe's hand and held it fast.

Ben rose from an uneasy sleep and, dressing hurriedly, slipped from the warmth of his own room into the cold hall way. He stopped just outside of Joe's door and listened intently. From within he could hear Adam's deep voice and it sounded as though he were reading. Ben pushed the door open just a crack. There on the bed he saw Adam reclining against the headboard, a book of poetry in one hand. Beside him Joe lay still and silent. Hidden beneath the blankets, Adam's free hand rested on his brother's shoulder, anchoring is brother to this world. When Adam saw his father, he stopped reading. Joe's eyes snapped open. Ben stepped on into the room.

"Well, young man," he addressed Joe with mock sternness, "Just what do you have to say for yourself?"

Adam eased himself from his brother's side and allowed his father to that side so Joe wouldn't have to move to see his father's face.

"Pa," Joe weakly croaked, then stopped as he gathered his strength to continue.

His father's dark eyebrows raised, waiting for him to go on.

"Pa," Joe repeated and swallowed, "Fuss at me later?"

Ben dropped his head down to touch Joe's dark curls and chuckled. How could he tell this most willful of sons that he had no intentions of fussing at him either now or later?

When the moment passed, Ben stood back straight and grasped Adam's shoulder, hugging Adam to him briefly.

"Your other little boy got home in the wee hours this morning," Adam explained and nodded at the wall that stood between Joe's room and Hoss'. "And he's okay too."

Sighing deeply, Ben nodded. "Good. I'm going down for some coffee. Do you want some, Adam? You look like you could use it."

Before he could answer, Paul Martin pushed the door open and entered the now full room. "Well, I certainly could! Why don't both of you go get me some and leave me to my patient? What are you two looking at? Now go on. I have a patient to tend to."

Both of the older Cartwrights knew better than to fight with the doctor and as they left the room, heard Paul exclaim, "Now just what have you done to yourself now? And don't tell me you're fine."

Forty-five minutes later and Paul came back down the stairs, rolling his sleeves down. He crossed to the table where the three Cartwrights sat eating a quiet breakfast. He slid into the place where the youngest one usually sat and accepted the coffee Ben poured him. As he sipped it he felt the three sets of eyes on him. He cleared his throat. Make that four sets of eyes, 'cause I know Hop Sing is within earshot, even if I can't see him.

"Well, he needs rest, obviously. And lots of it. He needs plenty of good food. I am sure Hop Sing will see to that. Just keep him warm and comfortable for the time being. He lost quite a bit of blood and that is why he is so tired and cold."

"Any sign of fever? Infection?" Ben asked worriedly. Not two weeks ago those two ravages had nearly taken his son's life. That son then had been considerably stronger than the one laying upstairs presently.

"None, Ben. Just what I said before, blood loss, nothing more. Now if I can get Hop Sing to fry me up a few eggs for my breakfast, I'll be a happy man!"

There came a scurrying sound from the kitchen.

"Adam, can I ask you something?" Joe asked softly and Adam had looked up from his silent reading.

"Sure. What is it? You need something?"

"Don't say anything to Pa about this, okay?" Joe paused to study his dark brother's face. "I don't want him to get upset."

"Okay. I won't say anything to him if I think it would hurt him. But Joe, it might be something he needs to know."

"I don't think it is Adam." As Adam watched, Joe fingered the quilt that covered his legs. "Adam, in any of those books of yours, is there anything about what it feels like to die?"

Adam leaned back in his chair, his eyes widening. He took two steadying breaths before he responded. "That isn't something someone usually gets to write about, Joe. Why do you ask?"

"Promise you won't laugh?"

"Death isn't something I think I could even remotely find funny. Come on Joe, tell me what's this is all about?"

And slowly and haltingly, Joe told Adam about the dream, about the darkness. Adam listened carefully, his elbows firmly planted on his knees as he leaned forward in the chair beside his brother's bed, his chin held by his steepled fingers. For several long moments after Joe finished, Adam sat silent.

"What's this got to do with Death?" he softly asked.

He got the answer he knew he would and Adam could only agree with Joe's assessment. "Because I think I died. I don't think they were dreams. I died, Adam, but I came back. For whatever reason, I came back. Maybe because Pa still needs me? Because of you and Hoss? I don't know why. I just know that I came back. So, do you think I am crazy or something?"

Adam smiled at Joe's last question. "No, I don't think you're crazy. Incredibly lucky, maybe. But crazy, no. And I think you were right. We don't need to upset Pa by telling him this. He's been upset enough by all of this, both you getting bushwhacked and then with you almost dying on him on the way home."

Joe pulled the blanket up and slid down into the cocoon of warmth his bed offered him. Adam sat back in his chair and opened his book back up.

"You want me to read to you some more?" Adam offered and when Joe nodded, he began reading again from the book of Greek mythology the tales of gods, heroes and mortals. As had become the case, Joe grew drowsy and was lulled to sleep easily. After he was sure Joe was asleep, Adam grew pensive and silent. Then he found himself repeating an old bit of poetry.

"…And with her golden shears in hand,

Atropos cut the thread that was my brother's life.

"Take from my length!" I begged her,

"Tie it to that which you have cut.

Shorten mine, not his!"

Her sister Clotho, daughter of Night, stayed her hand.

"You would do this for another?" she asked.

"Yes, yes, for he is precious to me.

More precious than my own life."

And because she was a sibling too,

Clotho took the shorn ends to her staff

and spun them back together again.

"Because you love, I have done as you ask

But do not ask again, for this is Time

Only borrowed and must be repaid...'"

He let his soft baritone drop back down into silence, thinking of the words he had just repeated.

When his father cleared his throat from the doorway, Adam knew Ben had heard him. Adam looked at his sleeping brother before he turned to his father.

"Wordsworth? Coleridge?" Ben asked simply

"No," Adam sighed and let his hand come to rest on Joe's now warm shoulder. "Adam Cartwright, age twelve, at the birth of his brother Joseph."



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