Helping Hands    
Helen Adams  

The weariness of many miles traveled in the breathless, humid heat of summer showed clearly in the haggard face and drooping posture of the young cowboy.  He squinted and removed his hat, stroking perspiration off his brow and leaving a streak of dirt where his sweat had mingled with the thick dust of the road.  Reaching down to the side of his saddle, the young man pulled up a canteen, listening to the hollow swish of an almost empty container, then shrugged and lifted it to his lips anyway.  The water was hot and stale, but it was better than nothing.  Replacing the canteen, he nudged his tired mount back into motion.  "Just a little further, boy," he muttered.  "Another couple of miles and we can make the turn-off toward home."

His words of reassurance seemed to do little to inspire the horse to move any faster.  Trail dust and sweat covered him just as thoroughly as it covered the rider, making it impossible to tell what color the horse really was, though a keen eye might have been able to pick up patches of black and white beneath the crust of dirty brown.  They plodded along steadily, finally reaching the prom ised turn-off, and both horse and rider perked up a bit as the dry desert country and dried-out trails slowly gave way to green grass and trees.

The young cowboy sighed softly, grateful to reach something he could recognize as the beginning of the end of his long journey.  "You know what I'm gonna do when we get home tomorrow, Cochise?" he said to the tired horse.  "I'm gonna take this money I got from the sale of those horses and wave it right under Adam's nose before I give it over to Pa, just for doubting me when I said I could get $60 a head.  Then, I'm gonna take me one of big brother's specialty hour long baths and get rid of a few layers of grit.  Then I think I'll get Hop Sing to fix me up a steak, no, make that two steaks, with all the trimmings.  Then I'm gonna go up those stairs and sleep for about three weeks straight.  What do you think of that?"

Cochise rallied from his walking daze as he listened to the familiar rise and fall of one-sided conversation from the man on his back, and tossed his head with a derisive-sounding whinny. 

The young man laughed.  "You're right, I owe you a rubdown and some prime feed before I do anything about me, don't I?"

What sort of answer the horse might have been inclined to give, his rider would never know.  A sharp crack broke the surrounding silence, offering only a split second of warning before a bullet sliced through Joe's left thigh, gouging a deep, painful furrow as it tore its way through the meaty part of the muscle and passed through.  Joe cried out with a mixture of shock and pain, reflexively bending forward to grab hold of the injury.  That slight movement saved his life as a second crack of gunfire heralded another bullet, which rammed into his chest with enough force to slap him from his saddle and onto the hard ground with teeth-rattling force. The impact drove the breath from his lungs, combining with the pain to render him both blind and deaf as black spots replaced the scenery before his eyes and the rush of blood to his ears drowned out all other sound. 

Moments later, a rider approached.  Fighting the blackness threatening to close in on him, Joe struggled to focus his mind, knowing that if he did not he would surely die.  He pushed at the ground, attempting to rise and face his attacker; perhaps surprise him enough to at least gain time enough to get off a defensive shot.  The pain and weakness that washed over him soon made that hope a vain one.  Joe could do no more than roll over onto his back before his strength deserted him. 

Cochise's whinny as his reins were seized with an unfamiliar roughness and the creak and rattle of the buckles on his saddlebags, again pulled Joe back from the brink of unconsciousness.  A few crinkles and some grunts of interest told him that his bags were being searched, then he coughed as one of the horses shifted, causing a cloud of dust to sift into his face.  A deeper creak of leather and the jingle of spurs told Joe that the man had dismounted and again he struggled to focus his eyes past the haze of pain clouding them.  All he could make out at first through the narrowing tunnel of black closing around him were the legs of his assailant's horse.  Three white stockings, he noted dully, his experienced horseman's mind automatically noting the unusual coloring as his eyes followed the prancing limbs up to look at the big strawberry roan they belonged to. The horse shifted and danced, nervous at the scent of fresh blood, and tossed its head, pulling against the reins in the stranger's hand.  A curiously detached part of Joe's brain noted that the animal also had a very unusual blaze, shaped like a bolt of lightning, on its forehead. 

Joe blacked out for a few moments, only to be brought back again by the pain as his person was quickly and roughly searched.  The sun was shining straight into his eyes, making it even harder to pick out any distinguishing features in his attacker, who deliberately kept his back to the light.  He could see little of the man's face.  His hat was pulled low and a large bandana covered his nose and mouth, but Joe's eyes focused on that hat.  It was dark and plain, but the hatband was another story; turquoise and silver, which sparkled brightly in the sunlight.

Snapping a paper he had removed from one of the saddlebags along with the cash that had been inside of them, the man's voice, somewhat muffled by his bandana, began reading. "$1,800 to Mr. Joseph F. Cartwright for the sale of 30 horses."  Reaching down to pat the wounded cowboy's cheek with a couple of stinging slaps, the man laughed again, and tossed the receipt on the ground.  "Nice doing business with you, Mister Cartwright."

The struggle to remain conscious, to imbed every meager thread of information about his assailant into his memory to report later, faded as the other man rode away and Joe tumbled back into the blackness.




Thick scarlet liquid seeping slowly outward across the surface of his chest was the first thing Joe focused on as his eyelids fluttered open.  He stared at it numbly, his mind unwilling to recognize the gory sight for what it was.  His body felt heavy and tired and he closed his eyes again, ready to give in to the weariness.  Something soft and damp nudging at his face made him stir again.  He blinked up in surprise as he saw a horse's face looming inches above his own.

Joe raised a hand to touch the long muzzle of his beloved pinto and gasped as the motion sent a shock of white-hot pain through his chest and shoulder.  The animal shied away from both the motion and the strong scent of blood that rose as the human's movements caused the open wound to begin pumping faster.

Gritting his teeth against the onslaught, Joe clutched his hand against the wound and slowly rolled to a half-seated position on his right side.  His head swam at the motion and the pain nearly made him pass out again, but he took several deep breaths, coughing as the effort and the dusty air choked him.  He held on to consciousness through sheer will power, determined to find out the full extent of the damage. 

The fairly slow pulsing of blood and the simple fact that he wasn't already dead both assured Joe that the bullet that had buried itself in the left side of his chest had indeed missed his heart; lungs as well, if the clean result of his coughing was any indication.  From his elevated position, he could see more blood spreading out over the already saturated material of his left pantleg.  It pumped sluggishly, but left him in that much more danger of bleeding to death before anyone found him. 

Trying to shift a little, Joe was rewarded with blinding pain from both wounds.  Many long days in the saddle under the hot sun had worn his physical resources down to the nub, and the added complication of pain and blood loss completely sapped what little energy he had left, causing his body to flop back into a prone position again. 

Knowing that the chances of anyone finding him in this desolate area were slim at best, Joe struggled to lift his gun from its holster. 'Why did he leave it on me?' he wondered, his mind momentarily drifting back to the mysterious man with the fancy hatband.  Why hadn't the man killed him once he realized that the bullets hadn't finished him off?  'Guess he must've figured I was already near enough to dying that it wouldn't matter.'

It took both hands to lift the weapon up onto his stomach and cock it, but first one, and then two shots fired into the air rewarded his effort.  Joe lost his grip on the weapon as the blackness began to close in again, and despair washed over the young cowboy. There was nothing more he could do.  He had finished off what small portion of water was in the canteen, a fact that instantly brought a horrid parched feeling to his mouth and throat.  He had nothing to use for bandages or medicine, even if the bleeding were to stop on its own.  He was too weak to get up and go for help, even if there was anyone near enough to offer it.

Turning his head, he looked to Cochise and licked his lips, making a soft kissing noise.  The horse took a step closer, then backed away again, seemingly undecided.  Joe's eyes begged the animal not to go, an involuntary tear tracking through the dust on his face as he tried to croon soothing noises that came out as little more than a croak.  The pinto stepped forward again, and Joe was grateful.  At least he would not have to die alone. 

The two stared at each other until the dusty black and white blotches of Cochise's coat blurred together into a gray blob in front of Joe's eyes, and he passed out once more.




"I'm tellin' you, I heard a shot!" 

Katie Morgan sighed and shook her head.  Her nervous little brother always seemed to be imagining things like that; wolves snuffling at the door at night, Indians around every rock and tree, and now mysterious gunshots where there could have been none.  "Michael, there wasn't any shot," she told him.  "You know there's nobody around these parts but us."

"There's Ma," the boy pointed out defensively. 

"And I suppose Ma just took the notion into her head to pull out Pa's old handgun, ride the plough-horse all the way out by Mormon rock and start firing it, right?" she returned sarcastically.  "You probably just heard a rock tumbling loose from the ledge up there or something."

Suddenly a faint crack sounded in the distance, causing both youngsters to freeze in their tracks.  Michael bounced up and down, clutching at his sister's arm in excitement.  "You heard it that time, didn't you?  It was a gunshot!"

Slowly, Katie nodded.  "I think you're right.  It sounded like it came from the flats, maybe even as far as the crossroads."

"Do you think we should check it out?"  The boy sounded nervous at the prospect and his sister automatically wrapped a comforting arm around his shoulders.  "Maybe somebody's hurt."

"No," she said instantly.  "I'm sure it's just some drifter hunting for supper or something.  We should get on back home.  Ma wouldn't like us being out here with strangers about."

To her surprise, Michael resisted her attempt to lead him back to the dirt track that led to their homestead cabin.  He turned to look back toward the direction of the mysterious shot.  "I think we should look, Katie.  I don't know why, but I've got this funny feeling about it."

Katie groaned quietly.  For the last three years, ever since their father had died, bushwhacked on his way home from a horse auction for nothing more than a few dollars and an old watch, Michael had been getting these strange hunches.  Unfortunately for her peace of mind, those hunches often proved to be right, and she knew her normally timid brother would not give her any peace unless she agreed.  "Oh, all right, but if we go up to the flats and find just somebody spitting a rabbit over a campfire, I'm gonna let you be the one to tell Ma why we were late for supper!"

The boy grinned at her.  "Let's go," he said, already scrambling down the ridge they stood upon in his eagerness to solve the mystery.




"Do you think he's dead?" 

"I don't think so.  He's bleeding pretty bad.  Pa used to say that a man couldn't bleed once his heart stopped beating.  Maybe we should make sure."

"I don't want to touch him!  I'll get blood all over me! You do it."

"Oh, all right, scaredy cat.  Get back."

Through his battle with the fog filling his mind, Joe could hear the voices and feel someone drawing near.  A hand reached out and pressed against his chest, and Joe's struggle toward consciousness received an unexpected helping hand as his open wound flared with agony at the contact.  He gave a pain-filled groan and opened his eyes.

The children yelped and fell back several steps at this decided confirmation that the man they had discovered lying out in the middle of the road was indeed alive. 

Not aware enough to recognize anything except that someone had found him and was now moving away, Joe stretched out his bloody right hand.  "Please!" he whispered desperately.  "Please, don't go!  I need your help."

Michael and Katie looked at each other and nodded, slowly stepping forward to kneel, one on either side of the prone figure.  "We're not going to leave you, mister," Katie said.  "We'll help if we can, but I'm not sure what to do."

Joe squeezed his eyes shut tightly, then blinked rapidly, trying to adjust his blurring vision.  He realized for the first time that his saviors were two children, a girl no older than twelve or so, and a boy some years younger. "The wounds. Bleeding.  Have to stop it."

After a moment's thought, the girl volunteered, "My sunbonnet!" She fumbled to untie the knot that held the head-covering dangling down her back.  "If I roll it up and tie the strings around, it ought to be big enough to bandage your leg."

"Tourniquet," he rasped, nodding approval as the girl held up the bonnet for him to see.  "It'll s-stop the bleeding.  You'll need…a stick."

Seeming to understand, the girl searched the area.  Fortunately, there was lots of brush and a few dried out trees around, making it easy for her to snap off a stout piece of wood.  Carefully drawing the material of her bonnet around his thigh, she put the stick in place and began twisting it, tightening the material until the blood flow was cut off.  With a frightened glance at the stiffly clenched jaw and tight white-lipped line of his mouth as the wounded man fought to keep from crying out, she quickly knotted the bonnet strings tightly into place. 

Joe let out a long breath, forcing a grim smile as he looked down at her handiwork.  While not quite as neat as it could have been, it would be sufficient.  "Good job," he rasped.

The girl smiled in relief, then bit her lip as she pointed to the other, still-bleeding wound.  "We'll need something else for your shoulder.  We need to clean it up, too.  Do you have any water?"

"My horse," Joe mumbled.  "Canteen and saddlebags."

The boy scrambled to his feet.  "I'll get them!" 

Joe followed the child with his eyes, trying to ignore the sharp pain firing through his body.  With his head tipped back, he could see Cochise still standing watch over him from a few yards away.  The small boy checked the animal over, lifting the canteen off the saddle horn before running back to rejoin his sister. 

"The saddlebag isn't there, mister.  There was nothing but this empty canteen."

Reflexively, Joe licked his parched lips at the reminder of water, suddenly overwhelmed by need.  In his pain-filled confusion, he had forgotten the bushwhacker searching his saddle.  He had also forgotten that he had finished the last of his water. 

The girl saw the desperation filling his hazel eyes as he stared at the empty container.   "Michael, go down to the stream by Mormon rock and fill that, will you?  He looks thirsty, and we'll need to clean his shoulder up before we bandage it."

"What are you gonna bandage it with?" he countered.  "I just told you the saddlebag isn't there."

"We'll find something else," she retorted.  When the boy still did not move, Katie added, "I know you don't want to go off by yourself, but he needs water."

"But it's a long way to Mormon rock," he protested feebly.

"My horse," Joe repeated, drawing their attention back to him with his rasping words.  "Take him.  Please."

Michael drew himself up, visibly steeling himself as he was reminded of his duty as a rescuer.  Running back to Cochise, the boy held his breath and reached up, scrambling into the saddle.  He looked tiny and scared sitting there, but Cochise was surprisingly calm, seeming to recognize the uncertainty in his small rider.  He obeyed the child's tentative tug on the reins and broke into a light canter of his own volition. "I'll be right back," the boy called over his shoulder. 

A sharp rip drew Joe's sluggish attention back to the girl at his side.  She was busily ripping to pieces the hem of the petticoat she wore beneath her dress.  She grinned when she saw him watching.  "I hate these things, but Ma makes me wear them.  She says she wants me to be a proper young lady even if nobody ever knows about it but me.  Ma'll understand if I destroy this one, though.  She'd do the same if she were here."

Joe appreciated the cheerful prattle this girl was using to distract him as she balled up about half the material and stuffed it against the wound in an attempt to stop the bleeding.  He gritted his teeth against the urge to scream, not wanting to frighten her, but could not stop his heaving breath from giving away his pain. 

"I'm sorry," she cried, hesitating in her attempt to tie the second strip of material around the wad of bandage.

"It's all right," he gasped.  "Press harder."

"Are you sure?" Her voice was very small as she asked the question, and Joe struggled to bring his left arm up to clasp her hand in his.  He could no longer speak for the pain, but he managed a tight smile and a nod. 

Taking a deep breath, Katie pressed the material firmly against the wound.  This time, Joe could not stop the cry that tore from his throat, but the girl did not let go of the material under her right hand or of his hand, locked in a hard grasp around her left one.  Finally, he passed out again, leaving a frightened girl to watch and wait.




"Please, mister, you gotta hold still!" Katie had been sitting on the ground, staring off in the direction her brother had taken, when her charge had begun moaning and shifting in place beside her. "Please wake up. If you get sick, I don't know what I'm going to do. My brother will be back soon and then we'll get you back to our place, I promise! My Ma will know how to help you, but you gotta hold on."

Joe struggled against the hands trying to hold him still against the ground, his fogged mind believing it to be an enemy, perhaps the one who had shot him. The grip on his shoulders was not very powerful, but due to his injuries Joe was weaker still.  He found that he could not overcome that feeble strength. It was the unexpected sound of sobbing that broke through his daze and brought him back to reality as he opened his eyes to find not an enemy, but a child. He stopped squirming at once, raising a shaking hand to brush away the tears spilling down the little girl's face as recognition slowly returned. He saw the streak of blood and dirt his touch had left on her skin and pulled his hand back, whispering, "I'm sorry."

Not understanding the reason for the apology, Katie smiled, sighing in relief at seeing the sense return to his eyes. "That's okay. You scared me a little, though. Are you okay?"

"Tired," he mumbled. "Thirsty."

"I'm sorry," she said sympathetically. "I wish I could help you, but my brother isn't back with the water yet."

As he tried to nod his understanding, a wave of dizziness swept over Joe, leaving him light-headed and a little frightened. It scared him how easily he kept sliding in and out of consciousness, each moment a struggle just to keep his eyes open. He was afraid that one of these times he would give in to the blackness and never wake up. Trying to focus on the girl, he said, "Who are you?"

"My name is Katie. Katie Morgan and that was my brother Michael who was with me a little while ago. We live on a farm a couple miles away from here with our ma."

"Joe," he returned simply.

"Nice to meet you," she replied. A smile lifted one corner of his mouth at her automatic response, and she smiled back, daring to lay a hand on his forehead to check for fever. His face was pale and beaded with sweat; his eyes so tired and expressive with the pain he was trying not to show that Katie could not find it in her heart to ask what had happened to him, even though she was dying to know. His skin felt hot and clammy at the same time, and Katie bit her lip. "You're getting a fever, I think."

Joe nodded slightly, careful not to set off another round of dizziness. He could feel the heat building inside of him and was unsurprised by her diagnosis. "Talk to me," he said faintly. He retook the girl's hand in a tight grip, telling himself that if he could only hold on to her touch and to her voice, he would not slide back into the waiting darkness again.

Katie hesitated, the started talking about her home and family and anything else she could think of, all the while silently praying for her brother to hurry.

Joe's attention was growing steadily lax, as he became less aware of the child at his side and more aware of the needs of his body. His leg and shoulder fairly screamed with torment, and the rest of his body was being buffeted by waves of intense heat and cold, the combination making him feel a little nauseous.  Worst of all, though, was the thirst.

At last, the sound of hoof beats and a triumphant shout of, "Hey, I got it!" made Katie and Joe both turn their heads toward the west. Michael galloped up to them in a cloud of dust that started Joe coughing weakly again. The boy slid down almost before Cochise had come to a full stop, and fell to his knees beside Joe, grinning broadly as he held up a dripping canteen. "I got it," he repeated.

Weakness momentarily pushed aside by instinct, Joe snatched the container from the startled youngster's hands and yanked the cork out, gulping desperately at the cold refreshment that spilled over his face from the mouth of the canteen. In his prone position, he nearly choked on the water gushing down his throat, but could not make himself slow down.

"Easy, easy!" Katie cried, pulling the canteen away from him. "You're going to make yourself sick!" Joe scowled, though whether it was at the reprimand or the removal of his prize, no one was sure.

"Everybody knows you're not supposed to gulp water that fast, especially when you haven't had any for a long time," Michael offered helpfully.

Joe's only response was to make a weak grab for the container, his jaw flexing stubbornly.

"Help me, Michael," the girl ordered. Silently, he obeyed and together they slid their arms behind Joe's head and shoulders, lifting him a little as Katie gave back the canteen, keeping her own hand locked on it, ready to pull it away again if need be. "You can have as much as you want, but you have to go slow."

At last, Joe had slaked his thirst and consented to be laid back. He was panting hard but managed a slight grin as he asked, "You always so bossy?"

Michael laughed and answered in his sister's place. "She sure is. Ma has to work a lot, so Katie tries to pretend like she's grown-up, so she can take care of me."

"I do not!" the girl said indignantly.

"Do so!" he countered.

Joe tried to laugh at their banter, so much like what he often exchanged with his own brothers, then gasped and cried out as his chest once again flared with pain.

"Maybe we can get him on his horse and lead it back to our place," Michael suggested. "I could get up behind him, and you could steady him from the side to make sure he don't fall off, like Pa used to do when we were little. Remember?"

Impressed by the suggestion, and by the calm of the boy whom she would have bet anything would be thrown into a blind panic by a situation like this, Katie agreed, "That's a good idea." She looked down at Joe and asked, "You think you could get up there if we help?"

Joe nodded, gritting his teeth and holding his breath to prevent the sounds of pain from breaking loose as the children carefully sat him up. "Wait," he gasped, closing his eyes against the spinning dizziness that instantly assaulted him.

"Maybe we shouldn't move him," Michael said, looking to his sister for guidance.

"We've got to get him home," Katie said flatly. "He needs Ma."

"I can make it," Joe told them, pushing the weakness back with pure stubborn determination. "Just help me." It took several tries, particularly as his wounded leg was growing numb from lack of circulation, but clutching his right hand to the makeshift bandage at his shoulder, Joe struggled to his feet, while the children lifted from either side. Cochise held rock-steady as his rider half climbed and was half pushed into the saddle, Michael instantly scrambling up behind him to hold him in place.

Taking Cochise's reins in one hand, and laying the other against Joe's undamaged leg, Katie began leading the small party on the long journey toward home.



Kathleen Morgan glanced out her kitchen window for the third time in fifteen minutes.  Lips pursed in annoyance, she shook her head as she placed two tin plates on top of the stove to reheat.  "We won't be gone long, Ma," she muttered.  "We're just going down to the creek.  We'll be back in time to help you fix supper.  Well, missy, supper was ready an hour ago and you'd better have a good excuse why you weren't here for it, or..."

The muttered grumbling disappeared in a sigh of relief as she heard Katie's voice outside, calling, "Hey, Ma!" 

Michael's voice joined hers to say, "Ma, come out here, quick!" 

They certainly sounded excited by something, she reflected, wiping her hands on her apron as she hurried toward the door.  The sight that met her eyes as she opened it stopped her cold in her tracks.  A disheveled, blood-streaked Katie was leading a black and white paint horse into the front yard, and Kathleen could see Michael up behind the saddle, peeking around the back of a pale young stranger whose entire shirt front and left pantleg were drenched in blood. 

"Ma!"  Katie shouted, relief obvious in her voice.  "We found this man lying on the ground up by Mormon rock.  Somebody shot him!"

"He's bleeding awful bad, Ma," Michael told her, his bravely held composure breaking down into ready tears at the longed-for sight of his mother.  "Please, don't let him die."

Galvanized out of her shock by the pleas of her children, Kathleen hurried forward to help them transfer the man out of the saddle and into the house.  She was fairly sure he had been conscious when they rode up, but the body that slipped down into her arms, forcing her to kneel to the ground under his dead weight, was utterly limp.  She checked his pulse and breathing, fearing that he might have already slipped far past the need for help, but he was alive. 

"Michael, go open the door as wide as it'll go and brace it with something, then come right back here," she ordered.  The boy did as he was told and was back in a flash.  Sliding her arms beneath the wounded man's knees and back, Kathleen braced herself.  "Get on the other side with Katie and lift his head and shoulders up as best you can while she lifts his legs.  Katie, be real careful of that bad leg.  We'll carry him inside and put him in my bed."

Happy to have someone to defer to at last, the children scrambled to obey.  All three were strong from working their farm and the man in their arms was compact and lightly built, so among the three of them it was not too difficult to transport him inside the small house. 

As soon as he was settled, Kathleen removed his gun-belt, placing it safely out of reach in the far corner of the room, then returned and reached down beside the bed for her sewing basket.  Bringing forth a long pair of shears, she began at once to carefully cut away the makeshift bandages and tourniquet along with his bloody clothes. "Katie, fetch me a pan of wash-water and as many towels and bandages as you can find, please.  Then start some more water to boil; plenty of it." 

"Is he gonna die, Ma?"

Kathleen glanced up from her work at the softly asked question.  Michael was standing at the foot of the bed, his worried brown eyes locked upon the unmoving figure on the bed.  She had no answer, but as she looked into his thin tear-stained face her voice gentled. "I hope not.  Do you have any idea how long ago he was shot?"

"I don't know.  I heard shooting, then a little while later Katie and I both heard some more.  I was afraid somebody might be hurt, so we went to see and found him."

"That was about two hours ago, Ma," Katie offered, returning from the kitchen with a basin of water, an armload of towels, and bandages made from old worn bedsheets.  "He was bleeding bad for a while.  There was already a lot of it on the ground when we found him, but I think it's stopped now."

Kathleen finished cutting away the bloody shirt and the left leg of Joe's pants, deciding to leave the rest until a less urgent moment.  Then she began bathing blood away from his skin with cool water, trying to determine how bad the wounds were, past the filth and gore which covered them. The leg injury appeared deep, but reasonably clean.  It had begun trickling again as the blood flow was restored by the removal of the tourniquet, but the wound had mostly clotted by this time, making it fairly easy to treat and rebandage.  It was the chest injury that made Kathleen draw in a sharp breath.  Dirt and sweat had mingled freely with the fluid still seeping slowly from the ugly wound.  "He's still got the bullet in him," she muttered, as she searched for and did not find any matching injuries to his back as she lifted him slightly to pull the remains of his shirt out from under his body.

"Can you get it out?" Katie's tremulous question revealed that she, like her brother, had finally reached the end of her brave pose.  Tears tracked down the girl's face as she stood, holding more towels out to her mother. 

Kathleen regarded her with sad blue eyes, wishing she could shield both youngsters from this horrible experience.  She shook her head.  "I'm afraid it might kill him if I try.  We'll have to try and keep the wounds clean and the fever down until he's stronger."  

She did not speak the thought running through her mind, 'or until he dies'.




Joe felt himself falling.  He heard the crack of gunfire reverberating through the air, answering shocks of pain exploding through his body with every echo, robbing him of speech and of thought.  He screamed until it seemed his own ears would burst with the deafening sound of his cries as he fell, and fell, and fell…

He jerked half-upright with a sharp gasp that was echoed by someone at his side, as he came through the haze of dreams into full wakefulness.  "No, don't move," a voice said, pressing him back firmly into the softness of pillows as he tried to sit up the rest of the way.  Finding that he had no strength to fight, Joe lay back with a grunt that quickly became a moan as he felt the ache that thrummed through his entire chest area, centering into fire above his heart.  A glass of water was brought to his lips, and the same voice said, "Drink this.  You need fluids."

Joe gratefully swallowed the cool water, then looked up in confusion at the woman who was holding the glass and helpfully supporting his head to help him drink.  His thoughts were fuzzy and jumbled, but he thought the person offering him water should have been a child.  "What…?" 

The woman set the glass aside. "My children brought you here yesterday afternoon," she said, placing a cold, wet cloth over his forehead as she spoke.  "You'd been shot."

He remembered now, being helped aboard Cochise and hearing one of the children say they were taking him home to get help from their ma.  The journey itself was vague. "We…made it, huh?"

She smiled tightly.  "Barely.  It's a miracle you got here alive with these wounds.  You've still got a bullet in your chest, I'm afraid, so I don't want you moving around."

"Doctor?" he mumbled.

"I'm afraid there isn't one nearer than Virginia City, two or three days from here by wagon.  I don't think you'd last that long in your present condition."

Joe thought a moment, then remembered Katie telling him that her home was a couple of miles back from the road he'd been traveling on.  "Ponderosa?" he said hopefully.

Looking surprised, Kathleen asked, "You mean that big ranch on the other side of the flats?  The Cartwright place? Do you work there?"  Her curiosity was roused. She had never met any of the Cartwrights, but they had a far-reaching reputation as honest and discerning people.  She still knew nothing about the events leading to the shooting, but if this man worked for the Ponderosa then at the very least it probably meant she had not taken a murderer or other criminal into her home.

"Work there," he agreed in a whisper.  "Live there.  Home."

Her eyes widened.  Katie had told her that this man had called himself Joe, and wasn't one of the Cartwright sons named Joseph?  "You're Ben Cartwright's youngest?"

He nodded, not overly surprised by the question.  Most folks in the territory did know his family, at least by name. "You know my pa?"

Kathleen smiled, reaching down to tuck the blankets securely around him where he had pulled them out with his waking struggle.  "No, I don't know him.  I just remembered the name when you mentioned the Ponderosa.  Are they expecting you home?" 

"Pretty soon," he guessed.  "On my way when I was…shot."

"Well, I don't know how just yet, but I'll have to see if I can think of a way to get word to them.  They should know where you are.  Besides, you're going to need a doctor pretty soon to get that bullet out."

"Hate doctors," he mumbled.  Memories of other times when he had needed a doctor's care flashed through Joe's mind and he grimaced, then other memories, of the ready love and care of the family that had always been near to support and comfort him during those times overlapped the first.  Joe turned his face away to hide a sudden fierce stab of longing for his father and brothers.

Kathleen saw the struggle and the yearning in the tired eyes before Joe's lids drooped and closed.  This was the first time she had really taken a good look at her unexpected houseguest, seeing him not as a stranger on the verge of dying, or a possibly dangerous man she might have to protect her family from, but as a person.  He was very young, perhaps ten years older than Katie, if that.  Just a boy, really.  Her voice had gentled noticeably as she asked, "Is there anything you'd like me to get for you?"

He shook his head slightly, murmuring, "Tired."

"You just rest then," Kathleen said quietly, laying her hand over his forehead to gauge the level of his fever.  It was not high, but she was not fooled that the low temperature meant he was getting better.  He was in grave danger as long as that bullet stayed in his chest, but the question of how to get him the help he needed was a difficult one.  There were only herself and the children on the farm, and she could not leave them alone to tend him.  She would just have to give it some thought. 




"Can I sit with him for a while, Ma?"

Kathleen looked up from the pile of mending in her lap and smiled at her daughter. "If you'd like," she said, gathering the material up and vacating the rocking chair she had placed by the side of the sleeping man's bed. "It's time I bedded down the stock, anyway. Don't stay long, though. You'll need your rest tonight."

Katie took the seat, gulping at the reminder of her upcoming responsibility. "I know," she said softly.

"You don't have to go, you know," her mother said, stroking a callused hand gently over the girl's soft brown tresses. "We can think of another way."

Raising blue eyes that were a mirror of the concerned ones that looked down on her, Katie clasped the hand that had moved down to her cheek. "There isn't any other way, Ma. You said he'll die if we don't get him some help, and I'm the only one you can spare." She smiled at the worry in her mother's face. "Besides, I never get lost, you know that. Michael's the one with no sense of direction."

Despite her worry, Kathleen laughed at the cheeky grin on her daughter's face as she said this. "He does all right for an eight year old," she countered. They stared steadily at each other for a few long seconds, Kathleen reading the determination and plea for faith in the girl's eyes, and at last she smiled. "When did my baby get so grown-up?"

Smiling at the praise, Katie reached her arms up to hug her mother as she planted a kiss on her cheek. "Night, Ma."

As her mother left the room, Katie glanced over to the bed, surprised to find that two clear green eyes had been watching the tender scene.

"She loves you a lot," he mumbled, his voice raspy with sleep.

"I know," she said, sitting forward to pour some water from the pitcher on the bedside table into a glass. "Are you thirsty?"

He nodded once, then again gratefully after she had lifted his head to take a few sips then pulled the glass away. "Thanks." He contemplated her for a few seconds, a frown drawing a thin line between his brows, adding to the ones already etched on his face by fatigue and pain. "Did I hear right? You're going for help alone?"

"I have to," she told him. "There isn't anyone else to send, and Ma says you're too bad off to survive a three day wagon trip to Virginia City. She told me your ranch is only a day and a half away, on the other side of the flats, so I'm going to ride your horse there and see if your family will help."

Joe felt a little stunned by her statement. That was a long trip for a grown man, much less a half-grown girl. It was on the tip of his tongue to tell her she'd never make it, but he hesitated, seeing the confidence in her. Confidence, and the same sort of stubborn determination that he'd seen looking back from his own mirror more times than he could count. If he'd made up his mind to take a trip like that at her age, especially if someone's life had hung in the balance, he'd have let nothing stop him until he'd reached his goal. Something told him that Katie was no different. So, all he said was, "There's a short cut."

"Really?" Her face lit up eagerly. "Where?"

Her purely childish enthusiasm almost made Joe regret that he had spoken, but as he shifted and was forced to bite the inside of his cheek to prevent crying out at the stab of agony it caused, he knew that he also had no choice. Not if he wanted to live. "You know the turnoff past Mormon rock, where you found me?"

Katie had seen his reaction to the slight movement and also recognized the urgency in what he was saying. She moved closer, determined to memorize every word he told her as she nodded.

"There's a little grove of pines off to the south, right before you reach the flats."

"I know it," she said, "but there's nothing out that way. It dead-ends into a canyon."

Joe took a deep breath, fighting to keep his voice steady around the small gasps he was helpless to stop. "No, only on the west side. If you stay to the east, to the side facing Squirrel Ridge, and go straight ahead, you'll run into a path. It winds for a ways and looks like you're going deeper into the woods, but you're not. It thins out into a straight line."

"I didn't know that!" she exclaimed in surprise, forgetting her earnest purpose for a moment. "Michael and I have been through there dozens of times and I never found it. Are you sure?"

Joe smiled a little at the indignation in her tone. "My brothers and I used to use it when we came out hunting this way as kids. It's there. Runs straight through to the Ponderosa on the other side."

"Then your house is right on the other side of the woods!" she said excitedly.

He blinked sluggishly for a moment, trying to think how far it actually was. He shook his head, realizing that, of course, this girl had no concept of the size of the Ponderosa. "It's about a day's ride due east from the edge of the woods. Look for a big arrow shaped boulder. It points in the opposite direction from the one you want."

Katie nodded dubiously. It was good to know the shortcut might trim as much as half a day off her journey, but it still sounded like an awfully long way over strange territory.

Joe watched the doubt flicker across the little girl's face and felt defeat washing over him. It was too much for her.

Katie evidently read his thoughts, for she determinedly squared her shoulders and repeated, "Due east of the arrow. Got it."

Admiring her pluck, he added, "If you start to feel lost, let Cochise lead you. He knows the way."


"My horse," he clarified.

The girl giggled, amused by the idea of a horse that knew his way home without any prompting from a rider and Joe smiled at the sound. "I'll find it," she promised, sobering as she watched his eyes drift shut, then jerk open again weakly.

Joe fought against sleep, not wanting to surrender to it just yet. His eyes searching the area, needing a distraction. They settled on the pitcher. "More water?"

"Sure." Katie gave him another couple of sips, then asked, "You want some food? There's some potato soup on the stove, left over from supper."

Though not really hungry, he nodded, thinking that maybe a little nourishment would make him stronger. Katie leapt up to get the soup, and Joe tipped his head back to study the darkly weathered logs of the roof above his head. He wondered how much longer he could hold on. At the very least, he knew he was looking at two days before outside help might arrive. Could he survive for two more days with a bullet in his chest and only the most rudimentary treatments; medicinal alcohol and herb teas and poultices, to keep fever and infection at bay? He already felt so weak…

"Here it is!" Katie's cheerful voice brought his thoughts back to the present again, and Joe opened his eyes, surprised to find that they had drifted shut. Michael trailed behind his sister, a glass in his hands and a big smile on his freckled face.

Joe smiled back, touched by the child's obvious pleasure in having an excuse to visit him. Katie pulled her chair closer and put the bowl down carefully on the mattress, holding it steady with one hand to prevent spilling. "Smells good," he murmured.

"Ma makes really good soup," she agreed. "You'll like it."

"I brought you some milk, too," Michael announced, lifting the glass for Joe to see. "Ma's out milking the cow right now, so she won't mind me taking the last of it." He frowned as he studied Joe's position, flat on his back and slightly elevated behind the head and shoulders by two flat pillows. He looked to his sister. "Should we try and sit him up more?"

Katie shook her head. "I think it might hurt him."

Completely in agreement, Joe said, "This is fine."

"Okay," the boy agreed easily.

Over the next few minutes, Joe did his best to keep quiet and just swallow obediently as Katie and Michael hovered over him. Katie spooned in hearty mouthfuls of soup from one side of the bed while Michael offered sips of milk between every bite from the other. Finally, he begged, "Enough; please." The children set the half-full bowl and glass aside. Joe was panting a bit, the eager kindness of his two nurses having sapped his strength to an unbelievable degree. He looked over at Michael, noting that the boy was shifting back and forth in his chair and staring at him with an intense expression, and mumbled, "What?"

"Who shot you?" the boy blurted bluntly.

"Michael!" Katie scolded him, but then she too turned curious eyes to Joe.

He frowned. It was hard to think, the last minutes of his ride home flickering back through his mind in fragmented images. "Don't know, he murmured. "Bushwhacker, I...guess. Never…never saw him…clearly.  Had a hatband. Fancy...familiar.  Can't think where…"

The effort of talking suddenly overwhelmed him and Joe once again lost his battle to remain awake.

Katie and Michael remained with him for some time, silent and tense, their eyes speaking without words. At last Michael whispered, "What if it was the same bushwhacker that killed Pa?"

"It can't be," his sister said quickly. "That was years ago.  That man is long gone by now."

"But what if he's not?" the boy insisted.

"He is," she returned stoutly. "Besides, if I was a bushwhacker, I'd be miles from here spending whatever I'd stolen."

The boy nodded, allowing her assurance to comfort him. After a while, he spoke again. "Do you think God is giving us a second chance, Katie?"

"For what?"

He looked up with a deadly serious expression in his face, the one that his sister had often thought made him look like an old man in a child's body. "Pa got shot and he died before anyone could help him, but Joe got shot and he didn't. Maybe we're the ones that found him cause God owed it to us."

Katie shook her head, marveling as she often did at her little brother's strange way of looking at things. It sounded silly, but then, as she watched Joe moan and shift in his sleep and saw her brother reach out to stroke a small hand over his face, the gesture instantly calming the restless man, she was not so sure. Michael had been afraid of everything for the last three years. He not had the nerve to go anywhere near strangers in that time, much less talk to or help one. Maybe his idea was not so strange after all…




Spoons clinking against serving dishes and an occasional lip-smack or slurp from a water glass were the only sounds in the Cartwright dining room.  Adam and Hoss sat across from each other, each occasionally casting a glance at the other over their meal, but neither spoke.  It was not until Hop Sing came in to clear away the supper dishes, and serve dessert that the silence ended.

"Dadburnit, where do you suppose Little Joe can be?"  Hoss' abrupt question, accompanied by the slapping of two large hands on the tabletop, brought a startled twitch from his brother. "He wired that he was on his way home from selling them horses more'n a week ago.  I thought he'd be back two or three days ago."

Trying to be the voice of calm, Adam answered, "Hoss, you know he was riding back over some pretty desolate country.  He probably stopped to camp, and maybe do a little hunting or something.  I know I get pretty tuckered out when I go that way."

Hoss was not to be placated.  "So do I, and either one of us might've stopped to rest up a while someplace, but that ain't Joe's way.  You know he's always in a hurry to get everywhere.  Besides, he wouldn't likely have lingered long anyhow with all that money on him."

The frown between Adam's brows deepened as he drew his folded hands up to his mouth and nodded.  "I know.  I've been worried about that ever since I found out how much he got for those animals.  If he'd been selling that string to anyone other than John Mason up at Briar Hedge, he could've got a cashier's check, but they don't even have a bank.  Mason keeps every penny he gets in the safe of that fortress he calls a ranch."

"Yeah, well considerin' how unfriendly the locals are up that way, I don't blame him," Hoss growled.  "They'd shoot you for a hatband if they felt like it.  John always buys from us, cause we're about the only folks around here willin' to drive a herd up that way."

Adam sighed. "Sure wish Joe had been able to bring back those drovers we hired to help him take the herd up.  Pa didn't like the idea of his coming all the way back here alone, and frankly neither do I.  One of us should have gone with him."

Hoss agreed, but tried to alleviate the guilt he could hear creeping in around the edges of his brother's voice.  "With most of the men busy with brandin' and everything, and you and me trying to be half a dozen places at a time every day, we didn't have no choice.  Joe knew that.  That's why he volunteered to take that herd up himself.  He could just as easily have rearranged things to send ol' Charlie or one of the other men up in his place, but he didn't."

"He just didn't want to do the branding," Adam suggested, grinning a little at the mention of their little brother's most hated chore.

Hoss laughed.  "Well, he didn't exactly get no picnic in return.  Briar Hedge is along some of the driest, dustiest, roughest country around here.  Livestock pickin's must be mighty slim up there this year, too, if Mason needed the whole string as bad as he claimed in his letter.  Guess that's why Joe got such good money for 'em.  They were one of the finest strings I've ever seen him turn out, but I'd have bet my last dime that he wouldn't get more than $25 a head out of Mason, and probably less.  How he talked him up to $60 is a story I got to hear!"

Adam smiled at that. Joe had not only developed into a shrewd and well-practiced negotiator over the last couple of years, but his natural charm and persuasive gifts had more than once produced miracles of the sort Hoss was talking about.  "Me too," he agreed, then his smile disappeared again as he muttered, "Sure hope nothing's happened to the kid."

"Well, if he ain't here by morning I'm riding out toward the flats to meet him," Hoss declared.  Adam scowled at his words and he rushed to head off the objection. "I know that with Pa called away to San Francisco on business, you'd need me around here, Adam, but I'd feel a lot better if I went out and checked on him.  You can get along without me for a little while, cain't you?"

"I suppose," he agreed testily.  The determination in Hoss' blue eyes wavered a bit as Adam continued to stare dourly at him, but then the expression melted into a rueful smile.  "I just wish I was the one going."

Hoss grinned.  "You could come along."

For a moment, Adam looked tempted, but then he shook his head.  "We've got too much to do.  Besides, I'm sure Joe is just loitering somewhere along the trail.  He doesn't need both of us interrupting our schedules to go drag his sorry butt home."

Knowing full well that his older brother was simply trying to cover up his own misgivings, Hoss rose a bit in his chair, stretching across the table to thump him on the arm.  "I'll fetch him back, Adam.  Don't you worry none."

The sound of hooves pounding into the front yard at break-neck speed brought matching grins to the faces of both men.  "Looks like you may not have to go anywhere tomorrow after all," Adam declared.

They rose and hurried toward the front door, exchanging a puzzled frown as they heard someone thumping hard on the heavy wood.  Their brother certainly wouldn't be knocking before coming inside.  Hoss yanked the door open, and was forced to leap forward to catch the person on the other side as she fell forward, caught off-balance by the sudden absence of anything to pound on.

"Whoa, there, little lady," he said, the astonishment in his eyes turning to worry as he looked past her and spotted a lathered, heaving Cochise standing head-down in the front yard, Little Joe nowhere in sight.  He knelt down to look into the face of the child in his arms.  She was clearly just as exhausted as the horse in the yard, but was struggling to speak past her own panting. "It's okay, honey," he crooned soothingly. "Just calm down and tell ol' Hoss what's the matter.  Where's Joe?"




At hearing this large man asking about Joe by name, assuring her that she had finally found her destination, Katie was suddenly overwhelmed by tears of relief and exhaustion.  "H-h-he g-got shot," she blurted.

"Shot!" The two men shouted the word in chorus, the second man also kneeling before her, worry stark in his brown eyes.  "When?  Where is he?" he demanded.

Katie gulped back her tears.  She had come so far, she couldn't let Joe down now by breaking down like a little baby.  "He…he's at my house.  My b-b-brother and me found him a f-f-few d-days ago by Mormon Rock.  You know where that is?"  Both men nodded intently.  Katie took a deep breath to still the shaking in her voice.  "Somebody bushwhacked him.  Shot him twice, but he's alive.  We managed to get him back to my house.  Ma's looking after him, but we ain't got a doctor, and he needs one bad."

The shorter of the two men instantly reacted to her words, standing up to grab a gunbelt, black hat and tan coat off a rack beside the door.  "I'll get Paul Martin and bring him back here," he stated.  "How far away did you say your place was?"

Taken aback by his harsh tone, Katie hesitated, eyes wide.  The larger man, the one who had called himself Hoss, patted her back soothingly.  "It's okay.  My brother Adam just wants to know, so we can take the Doc out there.  You say you live up by Mormon Rock?"

"A couple miles from there, toward the flats," she answered, instinctively moving closer to Hoss.  "Joe told me to cut through the trail in the woods by Squirrel Ridge and head due east to find your place, so I guess you'd have to go the other way."

Hoss' eyebrows rose and he exchanged a look of amazement with Adam.  "That must be more'n a day's ride from here!  How long you been out there, little girl?"

"I dunno.  I started at first light," she said uncertainly.  "It took me a long time to find the trail but once I was on the other side, I came as fast as I could.  I was going to stop and make a camp when it started getting dark, but Joe was right about his horse knowing the way home so I let him go."

Adam's expression softened as he picked up on the fact that this little girl had apparently ridden all day without a break to help his brother.  "That was a very brave thing you did, miss...?"

"Katie," she supplied.

"Katie. We appreciate everything you've done." He looked at Hoss and said, "I'll have one of the hands put Cochise away, then I'll go get the Doc.  Get Katie some food and something hot to drink, will you?"

Hoss needed no such reminder, but he could hear the slight roughening in Adam's voice and knew that he was just covering his emotions with brisk orders.  He understood.  "Right away," he said, rising and holding out one large hand to the little girl as Adam slammed the front door shut on his way out.  "Come on, honey.  Why don't we get some supper, and you can tell me the whole story."



"Easy now, it's all right. You need to lie still, Joe, or you're going go hurt yourself.  It's going to be all right" Kathleen's voice droned the phrases in a soothing mantra, using the same tone with the restless, feverish man that she normally used to calm her children when they were ill.   

"No," he gasped, jaw clenched tight against the never-ending burning in his chest.  "Can't stand it.  Gotta…get…away!"

He started thrashing, trying to push up from the mattress, to go who knew where as his pain-tortured mind gave him orders that held no sense in the rational world. Kathleen felt reluctant to apply very much strength to the light grip she had taken on his shoulders, knowing that even that slight pressure was agonizing, but finally, deciding that his own struggle would hurt him worse, she pressed him firmly into the mattress.  "Joseph, I said stop!"

She had used his full name instinctively, letting the crack of parental authority ring through the words.  To her surprise, he stilled at once, the fight leaving him as he lay blinking up at her, his expression a curious mixture of trust and longing that she did not understand. The glassy green eyes stared at her with a look of such pleading that her heart gave a sudden lurch.

"What is it?" she asked gently.  "Is there something you need?"

For a moment, it looked as though he would answer, then he shook his head and shut his eyes, turning his face away to hide the naked emotion. 

Kathleen's maternal instincts told her to press, but she did not.  The truth was, she felt too worn out with two solid days spent looking after him to have much interest in the why of anything. The young man had been muttering and moaning, his temperature surging and ebbing like the tide, for hours.  She had begun to seriously believe that by the time help arrived it would be far too late.  The injured leg was doing well, showing no signs of infection, but the shoulder wound was another story. Lifting the bandage and poultice from his chest, she checked it again and grimaced. Vile yellow fluid and thick red blood had leaked into the bandages again, and Kathleen's eyes and nose both told her that she was losing her battle to keep the injury clean.

"How is he, Ma?"

Rubbing her eyes in a vain effort to erase the grittiness in them caused by too many sleepless hours, Kathleen smiled flashed her son a wan smile, then it faltered as she told him the truth. "The fever is rising again, and this wound is becoming infected." 

Michael crept closer, bravely sneaking a look at the ugly wound.  He blanched a bit at the sight of it, but smiled when he saw Joe watching him. "It looks pretty yucky," he told him bluntly, "but I had a gash on my knee last summer that got infected real bad and it looked yucky too, but Ma took care of me until we could go see the doctor and it was just fine.  You'll get better too.  I know you will."

Shifting his right arm out from beneath the covers, Joe took a weak grip on Michael's small fingers, smiling slightly at the sincerity evident in the boy's attempt to reassure him. "Do my…best.  Doc…better…hurry, though."

"He'll get here," the boy insisted, his eyes filling with tears. "He has to.  I don't want you to die, Joe."

Giving the small hand a light squeeze, Joe struggled to speak clearly. "I w-won't.  Pa'd say I'm too s-stubborn to let one or…two…tiny little…bullets…kill me."

The Morgans exchanged smiles at those words, each taking hope in the fact that Joe was clearly not ready to give up his life without a fight. 

As Kathleen changed the bandage with a fresh one and reached to wring out a rag in cold water from the basin next to the bed, she was suddenly overtaken by yawns. "Oh, excuse me," she apologized.  "I don't know where that came from!"

"Why don't you go take a nap, Ma," Michael suggested, his face full of sympathy.  "You've been up for days now.  I can stay here and keep Joe company for you."

Her lips twitched at the eagerness in his voice.  Over the almost three days that Joe Cartwright had been staying with them, her young son had developed a clear case of hero worship, and would haunt the room where the wounded man lay, using every excuse he could come up with to stop in and visit. She looked down at the patient and found him giving her a nod.  "We'll be…fine, ma'am," he whispered. "Go on."

Reluctantly, Kathleen acquiesced.  "Keep cooling him off with these wet cloths," she directed.  "If the fever starts rising too high, or you need help of any kind, wake me and I'll come."

"Yes'm," the boy agreed happily, taking his mother's place in the vacated chair and beaming at both of them.  "You can trust me."

Stroking a hand fondly over his mousy-brown hair, she dropped a kiss atop his head.  "Thank you, darling."

For a few minutes, Michael did as he had been directed, carefully wiping the beads of sweat away from Joe's face with the wet cloth.  He solemnly checked the fever, laying the back of his hand upon Joe's hot cheeks and forehead, fluffed his pillow, tucked him in more securely, then sat back, out of ideas. 

The exhaustion of constant pain, fever, infection and little sleep had taken their toll on Joe, and he had no energy to protest the actions of his young caregiver, even if he had wanted to.  In truth, he was enjoying letting the child fuss over him, knowing it kept Michael happy and helped assuage his worry, and for his own part, happy to have some distraction for a while. 

"Do you want to talk?" Michael asked hopefully.  Then he shook his head and answered his own question. "No, I guess I should leave you alone and let you sleep, huh?"

"S'all right," Joe murmured.  "Talk."

The boy grinned happily.  "Okay.  Ma says your family has the biggest ranch in the whole territory.  Is that true?" 

"Pretty close," Joe agreed.

"And it's just you and your Pa?"

"And my…brothers," he corrected.  "Two…Hoss and…Adam."

Michael hesitated, then asked, "Is your ma dead?" 

Joe nodded, sadness flickering across his face.  "When I was five." 

"I was five when my Pa got killed too," the boy confided in a low tone.  "He got bushwhacked out on the trail, same as you did.  I told my sister that God was giving us another chance by letting us save your life.  That's why I know you ain't gonna die."

Joe studied the solemn face, reading the conviction in it, and slowly a smile lifted his cracked lips.  "I believe you."




Kathleen Morgan stood in her small kitchen, staring down at the pan of boiling water and the clean dishcloth holding her two sharpest knives and a set of thin bullet tongs. Her husband had bought the latter tool, saying that in a wild country it never hurt to be prepared for anything. Ironic that he had been shot down soon after, dying before anyone could even try to use the small surgeon's tool to save his life.

Shaking her head to rid her mind of unwanted memories, Kathleen carefully set the laden towel on a tray and carried it into her bedroom. She had hoped, prayed really, that this would not be necessary. It had been well over 48 hours since Katie had ridden out in search of help, and a small frantic voice deep in Kathleen's mind still whispered that she should wait a little longer for the doctor. A more rational voice drowned it out. There was no way to know how long it would be before help arrived and she could not afford to wait any longer. The young man panting and groaning in feverish agony upon the thin mattress had simply run out of time.

Joe had held up well through the long day and night of waiting, bolstered by the cheerful chatter and constant attentiveness of his two caregivers. Kathleen had even managed to get in a few solid hours of rest while her son held the watch, but near dawn Michael had come to wake her, frantically reporting that he thought Joe might be dead. Fortunately, it had turned out to be a premature diagnosis. The young man had simply reached the point at which he could take no more and had fainted. The pallor that had overtaken his lax features as he passed out had indeed given him a deathlike appearance, but a check of his pulse showed that his heart was still valiantly beating. The infection to the wound was growing worse, however, and Kathleen had known at first glance that she had to take action if the coming physician was to find anything more than a corpse upon his arrival.

"What do we do now, Ma?" Michael asked nervously. He had been doing his best to help since his mother had told him of her intention to go for the bullet, carefully removing the pillows from beneath Joe's head and gathering a list of supplies his mother had asked for.

"You will wait in the other room," she told him. The upcoming task would be difficult alone, but she did not want her eight-year-old son to witness the horror of surgery, particularly given the obvious affection he felt for Joe. In fact, Kathleen wished fervently that she need not be a part of the operation either. She had delivered babies in the past, sutured cuts and disinfected wounds and burns, but those would be nothing compared to this. There was just as good a chance of killing her patient with the surgery as there was of saving him, but she had no choice. If she did nothing he would die for certain. In any case, this would not be a sight for children. When the boy began to protest his dismissal, she leveled a fierce glare in his direction and said, "Go."

Pouting openly, Michael slunk toward the door, then he paused to take one last long look at Joe and offered his mother a small smile. "You'll do great, Ma."

Trying to smile back, she nodded toward the door. "I hope so. Now, close the door and don't open it again until I call you."

"Yes'm," he muttered reluctantly.

The door clicked softly shut, and Kathleen drew a deep breath. She did not have much to work with. Those few poor tools, a bottle of old whiskey that had belonged to her husband, a stack of clean towels, her sewing kit for stitching the wound when she was finished, and two pans of boiled water. There was no ether or other sedative, and all she could do was hope that the well of unconsciousness that the young man had dropped into during the night would hold him fast until her task was through. She did not know what she would do if he were to wake up before she was finished.

After exposing and cleaning the area one final time, Kathleen braced her forearm across Joe's chest for leverage, poised the larger of the two sharp knives over his skin, closed her eyes for a moment in fervent prayer, then pressed the blade into the wound.

Joe gasped as he felt the burning in his chest grow more intense. The pain had never gone away completely since it had first begun, but it had never been so intense or so frightening before. The pain seemed to him to be a living thing, a demon taunting him closer so that he might experience it in full measure. Joe shrank back from the horrible siren call, retreating deeper into the safety of darkness, trying to find the place where the burning could not reach him.

Kathleen paused in her work, removing her knife from the opening as she finally finished paring away thin strips of dark corrupted tissue, and pressed a towel firmly over the wound to absorb some of the fresh blood flowing up from the healthy sinews she had revealed. She wiped her wrist across her forehead to remove the accumulated beads of sweat, and drew a shaky breath. So far, so good, she thought, but there was still no sign of the bullet. Grimacing at what she would have to do next, Kathleen removed the gory towel from the opening and inserted a finger deeply into the wound, flinching at the feel of hot blood and soft tissue as she carefully probed for the bit of foreign metal.

The pull to toward the pain grew stronger as it unbelievably intensified. Joe gritted his teeth and held on to his shrinking haven of darkness, unable to stop a rough yell from breaking past his defenses. He struggled hard against the draw of the demon, not wanting to feel the full measure of the agony he knew awaited him.

"Oh, God, no! Don't move!" Kathleen's voice rose, begging, as Joe screamed and began to buck beneath her hands as the pain drew him back up toward the waking world. She had finally located the bullet, but had only managed to pull it halfway out when he had started thrashing. Blood flooded from the open wound, over his chest and her hands as Kathleen tried to hold him.

"Ma!" Michael's voice called excitedly through the closed door.

"Michael, stay out of here!" she shouted frantically.

The door opened anyway. "But Ma! They're..." The boy's words died out, quickly replaced by a frightened exclamation that was half-scream and half-moan. "Ma?" he said again in a small, frightened voice.

Kathleen was too busy holding on to warn her son away a second time as Joe again bucked, his eyes coming halfway open, pouring tears of hurt and anger and panic as he fought against the pain and the hands that were losing their battle to restrain him. One of the two basins of water was knocked off the table by Joe's flailing limbs, shattering and splashing its reddened contents over the wall and floor.

Joe fought with all that was in him. He would escape this demon with its knives of fire and endless torture. He could feel the tide turning in his favor as the restraints holding him down loosened. He would escape and he would run until the pain could never find him again. Suddenly, the restraints tightened.  An immovable force, a weight upon his chest and uninjured shoulder that would not allow him to budge an inch, held him down. More restraints then fastened onto his legs, stopping him from kicking them free, and he realized that he could not move any part of his body except his head. That, he thrashed back and forth as hard as he could.

"No," Joe moaned, his open eyes fever bright and panicked, unseeing as he tossed his head from side to side. "No more. Please, no more!"

"Easy, little brother. You take it easy. Ol' Hoss is right here with you and he won't let nothing happen to you no more."

Joe's breath caught in his throat, the tension in his limbs slackening a bit as he heard a familiar soothing voice. Hoss? The crooning reassurances penetrated his fear and he clung desperately to the sound. Hoss had never backed down from anything or anyone that had threatened his little brother, not in their whole lives. He would not let the demons win. Joe stopped fighting, only tensing in momentary fear as he felt himself lifted slightly to the side and a sharp jab of pain enter his hindquarters. Then, mercifully, the greater burning pain faded away. The blackness returned and Joe fell into it gratefully. He was safe now.

"He's out, Doc," Hoss said, his voice shaking a bit with relief as he felt the muscles loosen beneath his hands. "You can get to work now."

"Thank you, Hoss. You too, Adam. Ma'am, if you'll just let me take your place next to Joe, I'll take over from here." Doctor Paul Martin spoke with calm business-like efficiency. He had already rolled up his sleeves and set his surgical kit in place, quickly preparing the syringe he had used to subdue the patient while Hoss and Adam had grabbed hold of Joe's upper body and legs to hold him still. "I'll need some more boiling water right away. We've got to work quickly before he loses any more blood."

The two men dashed from the room to get what he had asked for. Michael had fled from the room, but he had obviously kept more water heating on the stove for they returned almost instantly with two baking pans filled with clean steaming liquid. Kathleen had risen from her chair, turning it over to the doctor more than willingly at his request. She found that she could not make herself leave the room, however. Instead, she simply stood, out of the way but still attentive as she watched the doctor's capable hands carefully remove the small tongs that still protruded from Joe's wound. He replaced them with a clean set, which he had immediately placed in the boiling water as it was set down on the bedside table.

There was no sound but the click of surgical instruments going in and out of the dishes of water, and the heavy breathing of one unconscious man, one absorbed physician, and a small group of tense spectators. Kathleen and both Cartwright brothers jumped when Dr. Martin removed the small jagged hunk of metal from the wound and deposited it with a clink into the bowl. "Looks like a good clean job here," he muttered approvingly as he again flushed blood away from the sight and set a cloth against it to absorb the fluids. "Would one of you mind holding this while I prepare what I'll need to suture this wound, please?"

Adam Cartwright jumped forward before anyone else could move, earning a scowl from Hoss, who had not been quick enough to volunteer first. He did not even notice as he planted a firm hand against the cloth, his face grim as he gazed down at the slack features of his youngest brother.

Rummaging in his bag, Doctor Martin selected what he wanted and began preparing it with experienced movements. He looked over at the woman standing pale in the corner of the room, her eyes locked on the wounded man. "Mrs. Morgan," he said quietly. Her body twitched, startled at being spoken to by name as she transferred her gaze to his face. "Your daughter was telling us on the way here about what a fine job you've been doing tending to Joseph. I can see from the quality of the surgery you began that she wasn't exaggerating."

"It was much more providence than skill, doctor, I assure you." Kathleen's eyes transferred back to Joe and she murmured, "If only I had waited just a little longer."

"Then Joe may or may not have lived to thank you for all you've done for him," the physician said firmly, retaking his place beside the bed. "You saved his life, Mrs. Morgan; you and your children. You kept him alive until now, and with a little more of that providence you mentioned, I'll see about keeping him here. Now, why don't you clean up and get some rest while I close."

"I'm not leaving until it's over," she told him, her voice shaky but determined.

Adam smiled briefly at Hoss as he moved the towel away at the doctor's signal and added it to the pile of bloody cloths beside the bed.

Moving to the woman's side, Hoss gently pressed her into a chair he saw set back in the corner behind her. "Now I see where little Katie got the grit to be makin' two day long rides back to back." he commented.

"Katie!" Kathleen exclaimed, leaping back up, her concern for her daughter giving her tired limbs new energy. "Is she all right? Where is she?"

"I'm here, Ma." Kathleen looked past the large man blocking her view of the door and saw her daughter standing in the doorway. The child looked exhausted, but she too seemed unable to tear herself away from the sight of the doctor busily sewing up his patient. "Is he gonna be all right?"

The doctor glanced up briefly to offer a reassuring nod, then immediately became absorbed in his task again.

Hoss and Adam exchanged a long silent look. Neither of them wanted to leave until they knew for sure that Little Joe would be fine, but by mutual agreement each of them took one of the Morgan females in hand and drew them away from the room, leaving the doctor to finish his job in peace.



"Please God, please don't take Joe away. He's a real good man, so I know you won't be sorry. Oh, please, oh please, oh please..."

Hoss Cartwright carefully climbed a rickety wooden ladder, following the soft voice he could hear pleading in the semi-darkness of the barn loft.  Peered over the top of the ladder, his face softened into a sympathetic expression as he took in the sight of a small brown-haired boy kneeling in the corner. The child's thin hands were folded before him as he whispered his fervent prayers. Hoss cleared his throat deliberately and was rewarded by a startled look as the boy's tightly squeezed eyelids popped open.

"Howdy, little fella. You must be Michael. I told your ma I'd come out and find you for her."

Brushing the backs of his hands across his cheeks to banish the traces of tears left on them, Michael nodded warily. He watched as the big man climbed the rest of the way up to the loft and walked slowly over to sit cross-legged on the straw.  It was clear that he was deliberately making no sudden moves, and Michael relaxed a bit. "He…Joe's not dead, mister. Is he?"

Hoss gave him a reassuring smile. "No, little buddy. He ain't; not by a long shot."

Somehow, Michael knew as he looked up into the warm blue eyes of his new companion that the words were true, but still he asked, "Are you sure, mister? There was so much blood! I saw it. Ma couldn't keep him still, and Joe was…he was…screaming, and…and…"

Suddenly overtaken by a storm of sobbing, the boy did not resist at all as he was gathered into Hoss' arms. Hoss stroked his hair, his very touch conveying understanding. "It's all right, Mike," he said, patting the small heaving back under his large hand. "You just get it all out. You and your ma and your big sister been through an awful lot these last few days."

The boy cried for several minutes, but when the sobs slowed to nothing more than a few choked hiccups, he asked again, "Are you sure he's okay?"

Hoss nodded, his sincere smile causing the trembling he could feel in Michael's body to ease considerably. The big man laughed softly. "Michael, you ain't known him very long yet so you might not know this, but my little brother is about the toughest, orneriest little cuss that the good lord ever put on this earth. He ain't the type to just give up and die without a good fight."

As he thought again about what he had seen behind his mother's closed door, Michael bit his lip. "He sure was fighting hard against my ma."

Hoss winked. "He prob'ly thought she was the doctor. He can't rightly stand to let Doc get within a day's ride of him without kicking up a fuss."

The boy laughed softly, brushing his runny nose against his sleeve as he snuffled back a few remaining tears. "Is Joe really your brother?"

This time, Hoss' grin was full of pride. "Sure is."

"Are you Adam or Hoss?" Michael asked, then added, "I'll bet you're Hoss."

"Well now, how'd you know that?" Hoss asked him, feigning disappointment at the easily guessed answer.

"Yesterday, before he started getting really sick, Joe was telling me about his family. He described you pretty good. Said you were the biggest man in the territory, but I shouldn't be afraid of you when you got here, cause you were the nicest one, too."

Feeling enormously pleased by his brother's words, Hoss still chose to respond to only the physical part of the description. "I reckon I am kinda hard to miss." He stood, pulling the boy up with him and preening a bit at Michael's open awe of his full size. Taking a step back toward the ladder, Hoss held out a hand. "Let's go back inside."

Michael hesitated. It was not that he did not believe what he had been told, but he could not stop thinking of the horror he had witnessed. The blood spattered room alone would have been worth a few nightmares, but the mere thought his equally bloody mother fighting to hold onto the screaming, thrashing figure that his friend had become was enough to start the child trembling again. "I don't want to."

"I know what you're thinking," Hoss told him solemnly. "I know it wasn't easy for you to see what you saw, but it's all over now. I promise it is. Your ma and your big sister are both mighty worried about you, though, so why don't you set their minds at ease and come back inside."

"Why are they worried about me?" the boy asked quietly.

"Cause of what happened," Hoss told him simply. "Cause they know you were scared and because they were scared too."

"Ma wasn't," he contradicted. "Ma's don't ever get scared."

Hoss laughed, but it was a rueful sound that did not give the slightest impression that he was laughing at the boy's words. "Oh, yeah they do. Ma's get scared, and Pa's, and great big grown-up men like me get scared."

"Really truly?" Michael's eyes widened in shock at this new revelation.

"Yes, sir. I been scared every second since I found out what happened to Joe, and I know my brother Adam was too. Your ma was scared of what might happen if everything didn't go just right, and she was scared wonderin' if your sister Katie was okay out there on the trail, and she's scared right now, wondering if you're all right."

"I'm fine," the boy declared staunchly.

Before Hoss could utter another word, Michael crossed to the ladder and climbed down. Hoss followed, taking a bit more time to maneuver on the fragile old boards, but he was not surprised to see that Michael had waited for him when he reached the bottom, his expression belying his brave words. As they walked toward the house, the boy slid a hand inside of his. Hoss squeezed it and slowly escorted his young friend back inside the little house.




A joyous reunion between brother and sister and a tender embrace between mother and son took place the moment the two crossed the threshold. Hoss backed up to stand beside the doctor, who was carefully cleaning and packing his instruments. "How is Little Joe, Doc?"

Doctor Martin smiled reassuringly at the softly asked but very anxious question. "He's going to be just fine. I still need to properly treat that leg wound.  It shows some mild infection.  Nothing serious, but Joe broke it open again when he was thrashing around in there.  I've cleaned it and replaced the bandages, but the stitches can wait until he's had a chance to recover from the operation on his chest.  As for that, I wasn't just spewing idle comfort when I complimented Mrs. Morgan on her surgical technique. She tells me she's never performed surgery before, but it's hard to believe. Amazing natural skill."

Hoss sagged a bit with relief at the physician's admiring tone. Doctor Martin was not a man to give praise lightly. Despite his comforting words to Michael outside, Hoss had not been completely willing to believe that his younger brother would recover after such an ordeal. Glancing around, Hoss noticed that someone was missing. "Hey, Doc, where'd Adam go? He sitting with Joe?"

"He volunteered to clean up the sickroom."  He gestured to a bucket of soapy water and rags that Hoss had not noticed before, sitting on the floor next to the sink.  "I was just about to go in and help him get the linens changed when you came inside."

Patting the physician on the shoulder, Hoss hefted the bucket in his other hand. "Never you mind, Doc. You done enough. I'll help Adam."




"Hey, Adam," Hoss said softly to announce his presence as he opened the door.  His older brother was down on hands and knees beside the bed, busily scrubbing the last of a large splash of red off the wall.  He looked up at the voice and Hoss brandished his bucket, asking, "Where do you want me to start?"

"You don't have to," Adam said quickly.  "I've got it covered."

Knowing it was an attempt to protect him from the grisly task of washing away the liberal dousing of their brother's blood from the walls, floor and bedding, Hoss ignored the assurance.  Neither Cartwright was the squeamish type, but this was different.  The very thought of it made Hoss' belly tighten into a painful knot and he knew that Adam was no better off, no matter how stoic he acted. 

Setting the bucket of fresh water beside the bed, Hoss rolled up his sleeves and said, "I'll see about getting rid of these blankets and things and getting Joe cleaned up." 

Adam nodded grimly and returned to scrubbing.  "Thanks.  Mrs. Morgan told me I'd find a set of clean sheets and blankets in that trunk in the corner."

Both brothers were fully aware that the bed was the worst area in the room, for the sheets that swaddled Joe's somnolent body were drenched in blood, sweat and other fluids.  It was essential to get him cleaned up and get the grisly bedding replaced with fresh as quickly as possible. 

"Yep, here they are," Hoss announced, pulling the sheets out and setting them on the lid of the trunk. Pausing a moment to gather himself, he removed the soiled blankets from atop his brother as gently as he could, unable to help grimacing as he wadded them up and piled them on the floor.  He paused at the sight of Joe's exposed body.  The white gauze that Doctor Martin had packed around his chest and shoulder actually looked darker than the skin it covered.  The darkness of blood seemed almost like paint splattered upon a living canvas.  "My gosh, Adam.  If it wasn't for the fact that I can see his chest movin', I'd think he was gone."

Hoss' voice choked on the last word and Adam rose to place a hand on his shoulder.  "But he isn't," he said gently.  "He's strong, or he wouldn't have held on this long, and Doc says he's going to be fine.  He just needs some rest and a little loving care from his big brothers."

Looking into the understanding brown eyes, Hoss read the confidence there and drew a deep breath.  "Yeah. Let's get started then."



"It was awful, Ma.  I'd get going for a little while, just sure I was heading in the right direction, then suddenly I'd feel all turned around and have to get my bearings all over again."

Kathleen nodded, planting a kiss on the crown of her daughter's hair as she held Katie in her lap and listened to the tale of her adventure.  She needed to hear it, to allow the presence of her daughter, safe and warm in her arms, to dispel the horror of her own part in saving Joe Cartwright's life.  "You were so brave," she murmured.  "Joe's brother told me how you refused to stay behind an extra day at the Ponderosa to rest and insisted on showing them where to find our place.  I don't know how you managed it."

Smiling at the praise evident in her mother's voice, and basking in the comfort of being safe at home again, Katie nestled closer into the soft embrace.  She really was too old for sitting in her mother's lap, but it did feel awfully nice to be there. "I just kept thinking about what you said, Ma.  About Joe needing help as fast as possible.  I had to bring 'em."




Sticking his head back out into the main room, Hoss smiled.  Katie was curled up in Mrs. Morgan's lap, and Michael was the floor next to them, head resting against his mother's thigh as the woman stroked one hand over his hair.  He cleared his throat softly, not wanting to interrupt the tranquil scene, but needing to get someone's attention.

Lifting her head, Kathleen nudged her daughter to get down and rose wearily to her feet.  "Mr. Cartwright.  Is everything all right?"

"Yes'm," he assured her.  "It's just that Adam and me are about through in here and I was wondering where you wanted the dirty sheets and things put."

Moving closer to him, Kathleen grimaced at the sight of the blood-soaked material in his hands.  Though not a wasteful woman, and knowing that the material was barely a month old, Kathleen knew that neither she nor her children would ever be able to bear sleeping on those sheets again, even if they were to be erased of every trace of dirt and blood.  "Burn them, Mr. Cartwright.  There's a large fire in the front yard, where I plan to put the big iron kettle on to heat some bath water."

Completely understanding the unspoken part of the words, Hoss nodded and carried the soiled linen outside without comment.  Adam followed, his arms held out to either side as he carefully carried the two buckets of crimson water out after his brother. 

Hesitating just a fraction, Kathleen walked into the bedroom, letting her breath out in a slow stream of relief as she looked around and saw that the two men had done a thorough job cleaning the walls, floor and furnishings.  She moved closer to look down upon her patient, stroking his hair back from his forehead as she checked for fever.  There was some, but his skin did not feel as hot as she had expected.  "Thank God," she whispered, unsure if the thanks were for Joe's survival, her daughter's return, the fact that help had finally arrived, or simply that the worst of the ordeal was now over.  She was not sure just how long she stood there, staring at the injured man on her bed and thinking over all that had happened since he had first come to be there, but suddenly Kathleen was forced to put out a hand to catch herself as she began to sag to her knees.  A strong hand caught her elbow and steadied her, causing her to look up in surprise.

"Come on, now, Mrs. Morgan," Adam said soothingly, expertly steering her beside him as he helped her from the bedroom.  "I think you've done enough for one night.  It's time you got some rest."

"But, I," she protested weakly, not quite sure what she intended to say.

"No, no buts.  Hoss and I got the water heating for you, and as soon as it's ready we'll fill the tub up for you so you can get cleaned up more.  Meantime, you're gonna eat some of that stew your boy made.  He told me he kept some warm for you."  Adam maneuvered the woman into a chair in her kitchen, across from the two her children were already occupying.  The youngsters were watching with worried eyes, and Kathleen attempted a smile for them.  Keeping one hand on her arm, Adam reached out to accept the plate of stew Hoss had just dished up, and set it before her.  With a pat on the hand resting limply upon the worn tabletop, he said, "You just let us handle everything now.  Eat up."

Unable to resist the gentle command, Kathleen squeezed the strong forearm of the man beside her in silent gratitude.  Picking up her fork, she slowly began to eat. 



A low groan and grimace of pain were the first greeting the living world received as Joe Cartwright came back to join it. His eyelids scrunched then began to blink rapidly as he forced them up to view his surroundings. The by-now-familiar sight of the raw wood ceiling and neat but plainly decorated walls of his borrowed bedroom slowly cleared and Joe smiled a bit at a new addition to the scenery.

"Hoss?" he called, wincing as his voice came out as little more than a scratchy hiss. Clearing his throat he tried again.

Hoss Cartwright woke from his light slumber with a start, catching hold of the bottom of the wooden chair he had been slouched in before he could tumble off of it. Rubbing his face to erase the fog of sleep from his eyes, he looked at the bed and grinned broadly. "Little Joe! You're awake!"

"More or less," Joe answered with a yawn. He studied his brother for a long moment, indulging himself in the simple pleasure of having a part of his family with him again. "Guess Katie made it, huh?"

Scooting his chair forward, Hoss pressed the back of one hand against Joe's forehead and cheek, smiling at what he felt. "Your fever's gone down some," he commented, before answering the question. "That little gal is something, Joe. She rode all the way to the Ponderosa without stopping, then after just a little rest and some dinner she was rearing to go again. I think Adam and me would've had to tie her down to keep her from coming back here with us once Adam fetched the Doc for you."

The mention of the doctor brought his gunshot wounds back to the forefront of his thoughts again, and Joe sucked in a gasp of pain as he shifted against his pillows, craning his neck in an attempt to get a good look at his left shoulder. He could feel that his left arm had been bandaged firmly against his body to prevent him from trying to use it, but the wound itself was too well covered in bandages and gauze to gauge how it looked. Shifting his eyes back to his brother, he asked, "How am I?"

"A darned sight better than you were two days ago. How do you feel?"

Joe turned his head toward the voice, smiling as he caught sight of Adam looking in on him from the doorway. "Sore," he answered honestly. "Tired."

"Well, considering that you've just begun to recover from being shot and having surgery, that's not surprising," Adam told him agreeably. Pulling up another chair on the opposite side of the bed, Adam took a seat and followed his brother's example by checking for fever.

"Two days?" Joe raised his eyebrows in weak surprise as his brother's first statement finally registered.  Adam nodded and Joe closed his eyes again for a moment as weariness washed over him. "Two days," he repeated softly.

"Here, Joe.  Take some water," Adam ordered gently, moving closer to slide his hand beneath Joe's head and lifting it a few inches to aid him in swallowing from the glass that Hoss had just filled.

Joe swallowed the fresh, cool water gratefully, then lay still as his brothers continued to adjust his bedding and the bandages that covered his chest and thigh. Most times he would have protested, but for now it felt comforting just to know that his brothers were there to care for him.

"We gotta change your dressings now," Hoss told him apologetically. "They need it and Doc had to go back to town yesterday. He didn't want to leave before you came around, but some folks back in Virginia City needed him. He left us real strict instructions about takin' care of you."

"It's all right," Joe murmured, seeing the regret in his kind-hearted brother's eyes. Regret for the pain he and they would need to inflict in the doctor's place as they cleaned and rebandaged the injuries. A vague memory of someone holding him down flashed through Joe's mind suddenly, a memory laced with ghost feelings of panic and pain, and he shied away from it quickly. "Do what you have to."

Patting his brother's good shoulder, Adam moved to the corner of the room to retrieve a pair of scissors, a bottle of alcohol and a stack of fresh bandaging material from the bureau in the corner. Setting them down on the night table, he retook his seat and offered Joe a smile that was almost a grimace. "I'm afraid this is going to hurt. I don't have Mrs. Morgan's gentle touch."

"Just get it over with," Joe ordered, jaw setting in preparation as Adam began carefully cutting away the gauze.

Though Adam was as gentle as he could be during the process, leaving Hoss to distract the injured man with one-sided conversation, the youngest Cartwright brother could not help the gasps and grunts that occasionally escaped from his tightly pressed lips.

Hoss patted the hand that was holding his own in a vice grip. He was watching Adam's progress carefully, offering the occasional report along with his chatter. "We got the cleanin' all done now, Joe. It's lookin' real good. I don't see no sign of infection, do you Adam?"

Adam shook his head in answer, looking up long enough to offer his brothers a reassuring smile when he felt their eyes on him.

"Here's the bandage. It's almost over now, Joe," Hoss encouraged, using his free hand to stroke his brother's sweat-damp hair and pain lined forehead soothingly. "I'm just gonna lift you up a little again so me and Adam can put some more gauze around you. Gotta keep that arm still, you know."

Joe did know. Being predominantly left-handed, it was instinct for him to reach for things and move things, such as his covers, with that hand. Strapping it down made sense but he already hated the constriction. Joe's entire body tensed when Hoss reached under him and lifted him away from the mattress so that Adam could quickly wind the light cloth around his body, and he did not relax until he was laid back down again. He was breathing hard by the time it was all over, so caught up in trying to control the flames of hurt flaring in his shoulder that he barely noticed the smaller pain of the gash in his thigh being cleaned and wrapped.

"There, that wasn't so bad," Adam said brightly as he pulled the covers back up and tucked them carefully around Joe's body. The narrow scowl he received in reply brought a twinkle to his dark eyes. "I hardly felt a thing."

In spite of himself, Joe laughed at the quip. The sound was no more than the lightest puff of air through his chapped lips, but it brought smiles to the faces of both the other men. Reaching a hand out to touch his brother's face, Adam said seriously, "I know that hurt, Little Joe, but you did great. Think you could eat something now?"

He didn't feel much like eating, but Joe couldn't remember the last time he had done so, so he nodded his agreement. "Sure."

"Mrs. Morgan fixed up a real tasty chicken broth for you," Hoss told him happily, beaming over the news that his brother wanted a meal. "She left it warming on the stove in case you woke up while she was asleep. There's some fresh bread too, if you're up to it."

Joe nodded again, more to keep Hoss happy than because he thought he could eat it. "She's done so much for me," he mumbled. "She saved my life; she and the kids. I owe 'em."

"We all do," Adam agreed softly. Jutting his chin toward Hoss, Adam directed the bigger man to go to the kitchen while he put the medical supplies back where they belonged.

Hoss left, but was back in a flash with a tray. He had not missed the sleepy lethargy in Joe's voice, and was determined to get him fed before he could drop off again. Gently bracing the young man's head with his arm again, Hoss diligently spooned the broth into Joe until it was nearly all gone, even coaxing him to eat a slice of the bread along the way. He would have tried for another, but Joe refused to open his mouth for another bite. "Stubborn little critter," Hoss muttered. "You ain't changed a bit from when you was a baby and I used to help Ma feed you."

"At least he's not spitting it back at you anymore," Adam observed with a grin, bringing his handkerchief to Joe's face and dabbing away a little bit of broth that had spilled down his chin. Ignoring Joe's grimace, Adam pulled forth a bottle and spoon from the bedside table and poured out a spoonful of thick reddish brown liquid. "Doctor Martin left this for you. It'll help you sleep more comfortably, and don't think I won't force it down your throat the way I did when you were little if you fight me about taking it."

Though Joe seriously doubted his brother would use any kind of force on him in his present condition, he decided to give in easily and opened his mouth. The medicine tasted vile, as usual, but he was almost too tired to care. Muttering, "I'm glad you guys are here," Joe drifted back to sleep, feeling safe and protected in his brothers' presence.



With the removal of the bullet, Joe began to recover with encouraging speed.  He did little for the first few days except sleep and eat whatever was spooned into him, but a week after his surgery, Joe was well enough to sit up part way, leaning back on a pile of pillows.  He was alert and smiling as he animatedly talked with Michael and Katie. 

"Cochise didn't give you any trouble, did he?" he was asking Katie.  "He's the best, but sometimes he gets a little wild when anybody but me tries to ride him."

Katie grinned at him.  "Well, he did want to run a lot more than I expected.  I held him back sometimes so he wouldn't wear himself out, but mostly I just let him go.  Figured we'd get to your house a lot faster that way.  I think he would have run all the way back here if he'd had the chance, but your brothers put him in his stall and gave me another horse to ride back with them."

Shaking his head in admiration, Joe reached out to tweak one of her brown braids.  "I still can't believe you had the energy to come all the way back here after just a few hours' rest.  I can't thank you enough for all you've done for me, Katie. You're quite a lady."

Her grin became suddenly self-conscious and a bright blush tinged her cheeks at his words of praise, making Joe smile.  He had noticed lately that the girl kept staring at him, only to look away the moment she realized he was looking back.  He supposed he could hardly blame her for developing a little crush on him.  After all, living out here she didn't see many young men or boys her own age.  Besides, it wasn't every day that the fair damsel got to rescue the errant knight.  He shared the observation, pleased when it produced a fit of giggles. 

Frowning at the exchange, and what he felt was an unfair amount of Joe's attention being given over to his sister, Michael inched closer and announced, "I made something for you.  You want to see it?"

Shifting back toward the left side of the mattress, Joe grimaced when his young friend bounced in place, accidentally jarring his wounds.  "Sure."  The boy instantly produced from his pocket a small wooden whistle, made from a hollowed out twig.  Joe grinned as he accepted it.  He had made many of these during his childhood, and he was certain he knew where Michael had learned to craft it.  "You've been spending time with Hoss?"

Nodding happily, Michael shot Katie a triumphant look as Joe obligingly tooted on the whistle and admired its craftsmanship.  Katie stuck her tongue out at him, but her smile showed she did not truly object to sharing the limelight. 

A few minutes later, Joe raised an eyebrow as he observed Michael nibbling on his thumbnail.  He had only known these children a short time, but had already come to recognize that gesture as a nervous habit that came out whenever the boy wanted to say or do something and wasn't sure if he should.  "Something bothering you, pal?"

Michael's eyes widened, not realizing how he had given himself away as he asked, "How did you know?"  Joe did not answer, but his smile was encouraging.  "Well, it's just.  I was wondering if you remembered who bushwhacked you yet?"

"I was just about to ask that same question," a friendly voice interrupted from the doorway. 

All three looked up, the children instantly looking nervous at the sight of a stranger, and Joe breaking into a big grin as he said, "Hey, Roy! What are you doing here?"

Roy Coffee, sheriff of Virginia City, smiled as he strode into the room and shook the hand Joe held out to him.  The children had relaxed a bit at Joe's friendly greeting, but shrank away from the bed anyway as the lawman approached.  "Doc Martin filled me in on what happened to you when I saw him in town a couple days ago.  I came out as soon as I could."

"Have a seat," Joe invited, nodding toward the wooden chair sitting next to his bed.  He made quick introductions between Roy and Michael and Katie.  Three sets of curious eyes focused on Joe, waiting for the answer to Michael's question.  Leaning his head back into the support of his pillows, Joe began absent-mindedly running his fingers through his hair and rubbing at the scalp underneath, as though the stimulation might help the hazy memories become clear.  He had been thinking about his attack a great deal as he lay recovering.  "I couldn't get a look at the face of the man who shot me, Roy.  He was wearing a bandana over his nose and mouth, and he kept his back to the sun the whole time."

Roy nodded, an eyebrow arching curiously as he prompted, "Like he was afraid you might recognize him and didn't want you to get a good look, maybe?"

"I think that's likely," Joe concurred.  "Not real sure why it mattered since he obviously thought I was a goner anyway.  He didn't even take my gun.  If he thought I was going to live to identify him, why didn't he finish me off when he had the chance?"

"Good question.  Unfortunately, we ain't gonna know the answer to that until we find him and unless you can give me something to do on, I'm afraid that ain't too likely."

Closing his eyes, Joe tried hard to recapture the moment of his attack.  "There was something…" he said slowly, brow wrinkling as he slowly went over the incident in his mind.  With a small noise of triumph, Joe's eyes reopened and a glimmer of excitement filled them.  "His hat!"

"His hat?" Roy repeated the words in a puzzled tone.  "What about it?"

"It had a real fancy turquoise and silver band on it," Joe told him.  "I couldn't think where I'd seen it before, but now I've got it.  One of the drovers who helped me drive the herd up to Briar Hedge had a band just like it.  One of the other men was asking him about it.  I didn't think anything of it at the time, but I knew I'd seen that hat someplace before!" 

Roy nodded a bit as he mulled over the new information.  The drovers had all been strangers to the Cartwright family, from what he had learned questioning Hoss and Adam, and they certainly would have been in a good position to know how much money Joe got for the horses.  They would also have known that he had been paid in cash.  It made sense.  "You sure it was the same one?  You said you couldn't see him very well."

Joe sighed, his rush of excitement dimming. "I wish I could be sure.  Like I said, though, I never saw his face.  The hatband was catching the sun so I couldn't help noticing it."

"You know the feller's name?  The one with the hat?" Roy pressed. 

Looking disgusted, Joe admitted, "He gave us the name of Pete Smith.  Guess there's not much chance of that being his real name, is there?"

Despite the seriousness of the situation, the lawman chuckled.  "It ain't too likely, but you never know.  Anything else you can remember about him, Joe?"

"Not him," Joe said slowly, "but his horse.  I got a real good look at him. Big strawberry roan stallion with three white stockings and a lightning blaze.  The damn thing nearly trampled me, prancing in place like he was.  Kicked up so much dust I could hardly breathe.  Since I couldn't see the man, I tried to memorize whatever I could about the horse just in case I managed to get out of there alive." 

"Smart thinking," Roy praised.  He was not overly surprised to hear that Joe had noticed the horse more readily than the man.  The youngest of the Cartwrights had always had an affinity for fine looking horses. 

Frowning, Joe shrugged off the praise, sucking in a sharp breath as the instinctive motion pulled at his injured side.  "I wish I could remember more.  I'm sure none of the drovers had a horse like that, so I can't be sure the man who attacked me was Smith."

"Maybe he was already planning to bushwhack you when he hired on but figured that horse would be too easy to recognize," Katie conjectured, face flushing when both men looked at her. A bit defensively, she added, "Well, wouldn't it?  It'd be like somebody seeing Cochise.  I'll bet most people could identify him even if they never got a good look at you." 

Smiling his approval at the sharp observation, Roy grinned.  "That's a fact.  Half the people in Virginia City can spot Joe at 500 yards on that pinto."  Patting Joe's good leg, the sheriff nodded.  "You've given me a place to start looking, and that's a lot more than I had 10 minutes ago.  Think I'll take me a little ride up to Briar Hedge and ask a few questions."

Gesturing toward the open door, Joe suggested, "Maybe you should take my brothers with you.  That's a rough town and they don't like a lot of questions."

Roy stroked his mustache thoughtfully.  "I'll deputize one of them.  They're both champing at the bit to find the man who did this to you, though, so I don't think they'll take too kindly to hearing they can't both come."

"Why can't they?" he asked in surprise. 

Eyes twinkling, Roy told him, "Doc is arranging to have a wagon brought out to fetch you home.  One of your brothers is gonna be needed to make sure you stay in one piece along the way."

Joe's face lit up at the news that he would soon be on his way home.  "You sure?  Last time I saw Doc Martin, I asked him if I could go home soon and he just said, 'we'll see'."

The lawman chuckled.  "Well, maybe I'm letting the cat out of the bag by telling you, but I'm pretty sure you'll be back at the Ponderosa in just a couple days' time."

As the now buoyant Joe fell into casual conversation with the sheriff, Katie and Michael looked at each other and silently slid from the room.  They had not been happy to hear of Joe's impending departure. They stole outside, past their mother, who was fixing lunch.  Past Hoss who was chopping wood outside, and past Adam who was caring for the animals in the barn.  Finally reaching the safety of their secret place, a small valley a few dozen yards from the house they stopped. 

"I don't want him to go," Michael said flatly, plopping down to sit in the grass.  "I want him to stay here with us."

Katie wished the same thing with all her heart, but she tried not to show it.  "He can't.  He's got to go home.  It's really a nice place, you know.  I'll bet he can't wait."

Michael began nibbling the skin of his thumb again.  "I 'spose.  You think Ma'll be sorry he's going?"

"I don't know," Katie said with a shrug.  "Having him here does make a lot of extra work for her."

"You sound like you're glad he's going," the boy accused her.  "Won't you miss him?"

She scowled, but as she thought about Joe's warm smile and laughing eyes, the expression melted into a wistful one.  "Sure I will.  Lots, but there's nothing we can do."

Michael sighed and rolled onto his belly in the grass.  "I sure wish I could along and help catch that man who hurt Joe.  What if he gets away with it?"

Lying down on her back next to her brother, Katie told him, "He won't.  This is different than when Pa was killed.  That sheriff seemed kind of determined to catch the man who attacked Joe.  I think he'll do it."

"Yeah," Michael agreed.  He was not as sure as Katie seemed to be, but he was willing to have faith. Abruptly, he sat up.  "Let's go see what Hoss is doing." 

"Okay," Katie agreed.  Both children had taken a strong liking to Joe's big brother.  His other brother, Adam, had been very nice to them both and they liked him as well, but there was just something irresistible about Hoss.  Realizing that when Joe left, their new playmate would go as well, they hurried off to find their new friend.



"I can't take your money, Mr. Cartwright."  Kathleen's voice was firm as she held up a hand to block the cash Adam was trying to hand her.  "We didn't help your brother for any reward.  It was the only Christian thing to do."

"Ma'am, it ain't that," Hoss stepped in, clasping his hands lightly together on the table between his brother and the woman.  "We ain't offering you a reward.  It's just that you done an awful lot for Joe, and for Adam and me since we got here.  We ate your food, used your hay and grain for our horses, and your medicine stuff and bedding for Little Joe.  Not to mention the fact that you ain't had a decent night's rest, or slept in your own bed since all this started.  The least we can do is pay you for the use of all them things so you can buy what replacements you need."

Kathleen hesitated and Adam smothered a smile at his brother's clever tactic.  Taking up the argument, he added, "Besides, we'd like knowing that you bought Michael and Katie a couple of nice gifts on our behalf, as thanks for all they've gone through for Joe."

Finally, Kathleen stretched her fingers toward the bills Adam had set upon the table.  The money the Cartwrights were offering was substantially more than she would have to spent to replenish all of her supplies, even with the addition of presents for the children, but when she tried to extract only a portion of the cash, Adam quickly pushed the rest over as well.  The determined look in his face, and the encouraging one in Hoss' made it clear that they would persist until she gave in.  "Thank you," she accepted quietly.  "We can use it."

"You just be sure to take a ride over to the Ponderosa to pay us a call now and then," Hoss suggested.  "Now that we know you folks are neighbors, we'd like to see you sometimes.  'Sides, I know Pa is gonna want to meet you when he finds out all you done for Joe.  He's due home in a couple days and you're welcome any time."

This time, the smile on Kathleen's face was full and genuine.  "We'd love to.  I know that Katie is going to want to point out the trail she took to find your place, and Michael is already pestering me to let him visit Joe after he gets home."

"Good," Adam said, nodding in satisfaction.  He stood and held out his hand to her, taking her hand in both of his.  "Thank you again, for everything."

Hoss tipped his hat.  "Thank you, ma'am.  We'll be seeing you soon."

"You will," she promised, hearing the slight question in his words.  "Let me just see if the children are through saying their goodbyes to Joe.  I want to speak to him before you leave."

Hoss smiled brightly.  "Yes, ma'am.  I'll be out in a minute."  It had been agreed that Adam would accompany Roy to Briar Hedge, while Hoss escorted his brother and the doctor back to the Ponderosa.

Hoss turned to Adam, concern bright in his blue eyes.  "Adam, you sure you don't want me to meet you fellas up at Briar Hedge after I get Joe settled?  Hop Sing can look after him if you need me."

Adam clasped his brother's meaty shoulder.  He understood how badly Hoss wanted to help catch the man who had bushwhacked Joe, but he shook his head in denial.  "Hop Sing is going to need help until Pa gets home." He grinned suddenly. "Besides, I'll bet Joe is going to need somebody to defend him from all the hovering once those two get hold of him."

As he pictured the scene, Hoss threw back his head and laughed.  Adam was right.  Their father and Hop Sing were both extremely pragmatic and sensible men, but whenever one of the boys got sick or injured they became ruthless in their fussing.  "All right, Adam," he gave in, "But if you run into any trouble, you just send word and I'll be there quicker than scat."

"I will," Adam promised. 


Outside, Michael and Katie were finishing up a tearful goodbye with Joe, who had been comfortably settled in the back of the well-padded wagon the doctor had brought.  He had promised to visit as soon as he was physically able, and to have them out to the Ponderosa to visit him, and finally he had managed to coax smiles from them as they each gave him a careful farewell hug.

The children went inside to bid their other new friends goodbye and Kathleen stepped up to the wagon. "You go easy on those injuries, now," she ordered, fondly touching his arm.  "Don't go disobeying the doctor and undoing all of my hard work."

Joe's smile was sweet and heart-felt as he brought his hand up to clasp hers.  He could not tell her that her soft touch and the gentle way she spoke to him made him think of his own mother, or of how grateful he had been for her comforting presence during the long pain-filled hours he had spent in her small house. He was afraid those feelings would sound terribly foolish if voiced out loud, but he did not realize how much of that tenderness was given away in his face as he said, "I'll never forget what you've done for me.  If I can ever do anything for you in return, you just name it."

"You just come back and see us when you can," Kathleen responded.  She leaned into the wagon bed and kissed his forehead, letting her hand linger against his cheek as she added, "Take care, Joseph."

The small family said their final goodbye as the Cartwrights settled into saddle and wagon, then waved at the departing figures until they were completely out of sight.  After three weeks of constant company, their home and yard seemed very empty, but it was also a relief to Kathleen to have life going back to normal.  She looked down at the sad faces and tear-filled eyes of her children and gave them each a hug.  She was proud of all they had done over the past few weeks.  Michael seemed like a different boy now than the timid child he had been since his father's death and Katie had shown depths of strength her mother had never even suspected.  Looking back toward the direction of the departed wagon, Kathleen wondered who had been luckier that providence had brought them together, Joe Cartwright or the Morgan family.  

Hugging them again, Kathleen led her children back inside the house.




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Helen Adams

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