Phoenix Freed

Third, and final story, of the Phoenix Trilogy


The Tahoe Ladies

 Chapter One:

Sweet are the voices of all angels


            Ben couldn't help but smile. Around him that Christmas night the children of the mission had gathered and listened with rapt attention as he had read the story of the birth of the Christ child. As he had read it, he had caught the nods of understanding from the five nuns, especially the oldest one, Sister Immaculata. What made him the happiest was that there, with the mission children, were his own children though he struggled hard that cold night to not think of them that way. They were men, not little boys like Juan and Paco. Their being there had had a mighty effect on the children and Ben himself. Oh, it wasn't that little Chispa, a small wisp of a girl no more than five or six, had traded her affections from Joe to Hoss once the gentle giant had proven to be a ready source of sweets. Nor that Adam had taken the two boys under his wing and in the last few weeks, had taught them a good bit about building. No, it was something much deeper. More profound. Maybe it was something only a parent could feel.

            Their time was about over. With the coming of Adam and Hoss, following their father and brother to the desolation of the lonely mission, Ben had insisted that the chapel and all the buildings be put to rights. It was time, he had said, to give back to those who had been his and Joe's salvation. Looking back now, it was hard for Ben to recall the pain but he remembered the struggle through the desert following the stage accident and beating from desperadoes bent on more than just robbery. He looked to his youngest son and, while he saw the laughter on the young man's face, remembered that it had come at a price. It hadn't been that long ago when Joe had been told by the doctor in Saint Louis that his leg would never be the way it had been. It had crushed his son and during the dark days following the unsuccessful surgery, Ben had sought a way through to his son. While he still saw Joe limping, he did what old Sister Immaculata had suggested: pray.

            Closing the worn Bible, Ben looked again at the upturned faces of the children. Such innocence, he thought. Would that all children be so innocent. He closed his eyes momentarily and lost himself in another place and time, looking into the faces of other children. They had been the boys responsible for setting all of this in motion, months before. He felt again the cold fingers of anger creep across his heart when he thought of that early summer morning when he had returned home to find it in shambles. There had been blood on the walls, the floor, every place he had turned. Joseph's blood and it was spread like some obscene writing throughout the house, telling of the battle he had waged to save their home against five young boys bent on its destruction. Ben never had discovered why the Ponderosa had been chosen and had in truth, never wanted to find out. It was enough that in the end, the boys had confessed what they had done.

            But that confession and contrition had come too late. Two of the boys were dead by then, one by his own hand in a fire, the other mysteriously killed at the edge of Chinatown. As heartfelt and sincere as the confessions had been, they had not healed all the wounds either. Joe had stood before the remaining three boys, and almost pleaded with them to pull the triggers on the guns they carried. As far as Joe had been concerned at that moment, Ben knew, his life as he had known it was over. His left hand, crushed in the melee had not healed, crippling Joe in more than just the physical way. And his knee had been so severely damaged even that skillful surgeon had been unable to return it to anywhere close to normal.

            Now as he watched the small children scurrying into their new sleeping quarters, Ben smiled but his smile held little mirth. As he sat beside the woodstove and watched the five nuns go about laying out the small gifts they had some how gotten for their wards, Ben's heart pulled at him. There would be no lavish gifts for his sons this Christmas for him to place under the massive tree at home. When he had first voiced his sorrow, it had been Adam who had spoken up for all of them.

            "Pa, the fact that we are all together is the best gift we could give one another!" He had asserted and Hoss and Joe agreed. As he closed the worn Bible in his work-scarred hands that Christmas Eve, he silently agreed with Adam but longed again for the familiarity of the Ponderosa. He pulled his chair a little closer to the warmth of the stove, feeling the cold of the desert that surrounded the mission. From out in the yard, he could hear his sons as they came back from checking on the meager livestock. Their laughter, their deep voices calling back and forth to one another were in sharp contrast to the lilting, silvery voices of the nuns in the chapel as they began singing their final prayers for the day.  As always, Ben listened to the musical voices, feeling the tingle up his spine as though he had been touched by some otherworldly hand. Perhaps he had.

            "Pa?" Adam's voice called to him from the doorway of the mission. "Can you come out here a moment?"

            Ben stood from his place beside the stove and stepped from its comfort into the chill desert night. His saw his sons there, their hands thrust deep into pockets, their shoulders hunched against the cold, standing in a rough half circle. He supposed that it was his place to fill in the circle and he did so, looking out over the white sand into the night. "What's up?" he asked, his own hands searching for warmth in his pockets.

            "Well, seein's how it's Christmas," Hoss started then drew to a stop.

            "And we've been pretty busy here at the mission," Adam picked up on Hoss' thread but also found something halting his words.

            The silence drew out long between the four men. Ben looked from face to face, knowing that of the three of them, Joseph would be the one to voice it easiest. As a father, he knew what they were trying to say with their halting words. "Well?" he asked.

            "We just wanted you to know that we meant what we said. Being together, helping these kids who need our help, that's a great Christmas present," Joe finally spoke up.

            "Why do I hear a 'but' on the end of that sentence?" Ben asked, again searching the well-known faces in the night.

            The brothers traded sideways glances, finding their boot toes more interesting.

            "Well?" Ben pressed.

            Without looking up, Joe voiced the words for himself and his brothers. "We want to go home."

            Ben's brows raised at the same time his sons found the courage to look up. "There is work still to be done," he began but let his voice soften as he continued. "but I've been thinking the same thing. Do you boys think you can finish that new well by next week?"

            "You betcha!" Hoss blurted out, louder than he intended and his brothers chuckled softly.

            "But for now," Ben smiled then let his voice deepen. "For now, we say nothing to the children. I'll ask Mother Ruth and make sure there is nothing else she would like to see here."

            "You mean it?" Adam asked as his father turned back towards the warmth of the kitchen. "We'll all head for home when the well is done?"

            Ben paused and let his gaze linger on his youngest for a few heartbeats. He knew that Joe's original plan was to not return to the Ponderosa once he had healed from his unsuccessful surgery. There was something about the way he viewed himself among the bigger men who were his family that would always push Joe. That insecurity had been raised to another level when he had been told that his leg would forever remain weak and if there was anything Joe despised, it was appearing weak or sickly, even among his family. He had found ways around the damaged hand, ways to compensate that he no longer needed. The hand, although still not one hundred percent, was coming back rapidly to its former dexterity and strength. But his leg remained as it had for months: unstable, painful at times and fragile. Now as Ben looked at his son, he saw how he stood, his weight all on the good leg. At one time, Joe had told him that he would go back to the Ponderosa and stay but now, in the cold clear night, with the women's voices rising in harmony behind them, Ben sought reassurance.

            Catching his father's eye, Joe's lips tightened and thinned down into a single line, his eyes dipping once more then rising back to meet his father's steady glare. With a short nod, Joe told his father the truth: he too wanted to go home.

             "Sounds like a good idea to me," Ben replied to Adam's petition then he couldn't help himself. He threw an arm across Hoss' broad shoulders and Adam's as well. "But boys, you have to tell the children. I will not be a party to breaking hearts."



            "Got it?" Adam shouted and, with his head tilted back looking into the early morning sunlight, had to squint to make out his brother's nod. "Here you go then!" With that, he grasped the stout rope and pulled. Behind him, he heard Hoss grunt as he also applied his strength. Above them, they heard timber groan and feet shuffling on the clay tiled roof. There were faint voices that floated down then a mighty bong just before the rope went slack.

            "That's it!" Ben called down, leaning over the edge and wiping his sleeve across his face. "Joe's tying off the rope now, Sister Ruth. Want to try it?"

            Hoss and Adam both turned. Behind them, her fingers pressed to her quivering mouth, stood the Mother Superior of the little mission. Her usually brusque manner was missing that morning as they had re-hung the mission's brass bell in the tower. Her eyes traveled over the building as if seeing it for the first time. The adobe walls were now complete and whole, whitewashed and gleaming. The red tiles on the roof, made from native materials from the local hillsides, lay like solid soldiers against poor weather. And now -now!- in the open steeple, hung the bell. For her, it was a prayer answered to see the building restored.

            "Can we? Can we?" pestered the children about her when she didn't answer the big rancher on the roof. The older girls, Maria and Esperanza, had joined them, running from the kitchen with Sisters Mary Magdalena and Mary Katherine. The youngest child, Chispa, ran towards the open doorway where, even as they watched, a rope came to rest, suspended from the bell above. Laughing, she grasped the rope and hung from it but her slight weight would not ring it.

            Hearing the children's eager voices, Sister Naomi, tall and thin, made her way to the knot of other nuns standing in the yard. She paused at the kitchen's new doorway and helped aging Sister Immaculata down the single step and across the hard-packed sand.

            "Come here to me, you little varmint!" Hoss teased as he snagged up Chispa. She laughed, the bright tinkling sound made louder in the open entryway as he held her squirming in his arms. He looked up and saw Joe looking down at him. "She weren't heavy enough to even make a ting!" He shouted and heard the laughter peal outside.

            Again running his sleeve over his forehead, Ben Cartwright came to stand before the stout Mother Superior. "Well?" he asked, slightly out of breath from his climb back down the ladder from the roof. He could see the tears glimmering in the woman's eyes and sensed that somehow, he and his sons had fulfilled a long held prayer that the nun had shared with no one but God.

            She dropped her hands and buried them, trembling, in the folds of her habit. One step, then another and another she took until at last she stood in the entryway to the chapel. Looking inside, she saw all the trappings that made it God's House: the altar that now shone bright from hours of cleaning and polishing. There were four pews to a side, all but two of them newly made. To one side, a single candle burned before a restored portrait of the Virgin Mary. They had found it, soiled and frameless, beneath a floorboard as if someone had hidden it years before. The oldest son, Adam, had carefully cleaned it while Hoss had built a simple frame from a broken pew. He had apologized for its simpleness but, as she had beheld it the first time, she had replied that it was what the Virgin Mary had been all about: elegant simplicity.

            "Well?" the deep voice asked her again and this time, put the knotted rope into her hand.

            "Will ye help me?" she asked, her voice so low that he almost didn't hear her. "Right now, my soul feels about as light as Chispa's, and I've seen what she could do!"

            Ben laughed lightly, looking down into her once-stern face that now didn't look quite so forbidding. "It does take a fair sized soul, I guess, to make the bell ring."

            "No," came her softened thick Irish lilt. "It takes great faith. Here, your faith and mine, put them together and the bell will be heard for miles."

            Their hands joined together over the knotted rope and the two of them, a Nevada rancher and an Irish nun, pulled hard, sending the joyous pealing over the New Mexico Territory desert.



            "That should about do it, don't you think?" Adam asked, sipping the last of his coffee. The rest of the kitchen was dark, except for there around the table where a single candle burned.

            "How can we thank you and your sons?" Sister Naomi asked. She alone of the nuns did not sit at the table. Instead, she rocked beside the warm stove, her fingers dancing in the darkness as they went about knitting yet another pair of stockings.

            Ben cleared his throat and let his eyes roam briefly over his three sons who filled one side of the table. Over the past few weeks, they had worked hard together, without a harsh word and more laughter than he'd heard from them in many months. Even Adam, normally a taciturn individual, had a smile on his face that night, his deep eyes reflecting the candle's glow.

Hoss sat beside him, his face screwed into a question mark as clearly as if it were written on paper. "How you gonna tell the kids? I mean about us leavin'? Gonna break their hearts."

Ben wondered if it were the childrens' hearts or his own middle son's heart that would hurt more with their departure.

"Children are rather resilient. These orphans perhaps more so, Hoss," Mother Ruth said then sipped her own coffee as well. "They will miss ye as will all of us, but all we shall have to do is look around and we'll remember ye here. 'Twas the Lord's leadin' that brought you here, Mister Cartwright. Ye, and yer sons, be the answer to prayers. God will be good to ye, I am sure, for doin' what ye have."

The big rancher smiled. "He already has been good to me, thank you. Now, as for tomorrow," he directed the conversation back to its original path. "Hoss, you said that the saloonkeeper told you that we could have those doors. Mother Ruth, are you sure you want doors that were once on a saloon? I realize that you need to be able to close off the sanctuary in bad weather, but…" He let his voice drift away.

"Mister Cartwright," the woman said and lowered her gaze at him as she pursed her lips. "We've part of the flooring in the sleepin' rooms made from the siding of a barn. The altar was polished with wax intended for God only knows what purpose but given up to us as a means of paying a gamblin' debt. Thank you, Hoss, once again, for beatin' Broan Turner arm wrestlin'."

Hoss smiled crookedly then he caught his father's eye and ducked his head sheepishly.

 "And the whitewash, Joseph, I don't want to know how ye came about gettin' that. Nor the new bucket at the well. Adam, those books you gave us, I'm thinkin' that it wasn't a gift from some itinerant bookseller down on his luck, like ye claim. They's few and far between in this part of the world. So, ye see, Benjamin, we're not above takin' whatever is offered when it is offered- even if it do be from questionable sources." Her mocking tone chided his sons for their ingenuity in procuring the needed items to repair the mission.

Ben noted that she had said nothing concerning his "dealing". The local merchant, a wisp of a man known as Silas Turner, had stopped by last week, just before Christmas. In his wagon he had the dressed carcass of a butchered steer. He claimed he had taken it in payment for some long-neglected debt and that he had more than he could use. He would trade it to the mission if they could part with one of the boys to help him load his wagon this coming Tuesday. Every few weeks he took a load of hides into Maricopa Wells, the closest large town. He returned with items the townspeople, and now the mission, needed. Trade, he had said, was brisk and since Joe Cartwright had gotten him into the idea of needing help, he found he did need it. Paco and Juan eagerly stepped forward and said they both would help. The man had left with an amused smile. From his pockets, he had secreted lemon drops to everyone except the Mother Superior.

"But these doors, Mother Ruth, I've seen them."

"Do ye think that they'll fit the openin', Adam?" she asked and watched with her head to one side as Adam replied that he'd measured them and they would. "And Hoss, you're sure that Silas Turner will let ye use his wagon to bring them out here? Can't have ye draggin' them behind a horse. Nor bringin' them over that mountain pass by hand!"

"Yes'm," Hoss spoke up. "He told us we could and I'm gonna hold him to it."

"So, ye see, Mister Cartwright, yer sons have done all the work there needs to be done except for hanging the doors in fact."

Why Ben thought he could ever out-argue Mother Ruth escaped him. She reminded him sometimes of Hop Sing with her assuredness but there were never two people so different, he was sure.

"Okay then," he sighed and smiled tightly. "Tomorrow, boys, get those doors and get them hung. After that, Sisters, and we need to head to the Ponderosa or Hop Sing will sell it and move to San Francisco."

As the benches cleared, Ben watched from his end. With some minor jesting and jostling, his sons left the room. They would sleep again that night, since it was clear, beside the chapel out of the wind under a star-strewn sky. Their gentle laughter would seldom carry into the kitchen where Ben slept but when it did, it would make him comfortable. Yes, he thought as he watched them, listened to them. God had been good to him. He would still send forth a prayer that the same merciful God would help Joseph for even as he watched his youngest son leave the room, Ben saw that he fought that cursed weakness in his leg.


Chapter Two:

 Faith, while it can move mountains, must first move the soul's hands.


The team of mules stood waiting, the buckboard behind them shifting with motion not of their making. One shook his head, his long ears clashing together. The other yawned and waited patiently.

"That's it," Adam called out as he helped Hoss slide the last door into the wagon bed. He grimaced at the bright colored glass at the top of the door, forming a multi-hued arch when placed next to the other door. True, there were no words there to give away the fact that the doors once belonged on high-class saloon but the picture did depict a beer glass. Full. Complete with a head of foam. Just looking at it made Adam wish for one and he said so.

Joe nimbly jumped down from the wagon bed and used the rope he had brought with him to tie the doors down in the rear. "Be with you in a minute," he called after the swiftly departing backs of his brothers. He gave the rope another tug to assure himself that the doors weren't going to shift then he followed them into the cantina.

Three beers materialized and the bartender leaned towards the three men who picked them up. "Hear you folks are headed home soon." He looked from one brother to the other. "Gonna miss ya!" he prattled on when no one else spoke. In truth, he thought what he would miss was their easygoing way and ready ability to trade goods for services. He had benefited from the big one's woodworking ability and had himself a handsome bar to grace his establishment. The other one, the oldest brother he had heard called Adam, had played a battered guitar a few nights at the cantina. Everyone in the small town had delighted to his music and had joined in the festivities. That was everyone except the Doc and he had just glared at the man in black behind the beat up guitar, gotten his bottle of whiskey and gone home. Now it appeared that they were to be part of Lost Springs' past, not its future.

"'Fraid so," Hoss replied and tipped his mug up, letting the cold beer wash down his throat. When he sat the glass down, the bartender was looking past him. On his face was an annoyed expression. Hoss turned to see what the other man was seeing.

Out in the center of the town, next to the fountain, three men were dismounting from horses lathered and exhausted.

"Oh sweet Jesus!" the barman exclaimed then swallowed hard and moved down, away from the three brothers.

With his exclamation, Adam and Joe had also turned, looking out the open doorway. Quickly, Adam assessed the three men. They were dressed much the way he had seen Mexican peasants dress: loose baggy clothing and broad brimmed hats. Tattered and filthy serapes were thrown over their shoulders as they lounged beside the small fountain there in the center of town. One of them, the one with twin bandoleers full of shells across his chest, left the others and went towards the doctor's door. Adam shrugged and was about to turn back to the bar and his beer when something dawned on him. The three men he'd just seen weren't Mexican peasants. One's hair curled over his collar, and the one who had left his friends wore boots. High heeled, high topped boots with ornate spurs jangling as he walked. As Adam continued to watch, he heard Joe swear under his breath. Then Adam saw what had caught his brother's eye as well: a left-handed holster that held a pearl-handled revolver.

Joe moved away from the bar and instinctively, Adam put out a hand and stopped him. "Easy boy," the elder brother warned.

"Ain't no easy about it, Adam. Those are the men who beat Pa and me up at the stage accident. They took my gun. You see it, I know you do. One of the others has Pa's, I'm sure. They beat Pa. Beat him bad when he couldn't do anything to defend himself. Let me go, Adam."

Instead, Adam held his brother's arm tight and caught Hoss' eye. They had both heard how their father and brother, after having been stranded by a wrecked stage, had been set upon by bandits. They had been left, beaten, bloodied and without a way of protecting themselves in a desolate portion of the New Mexico desert, miles from civilization. Their father had taken a terrible beating and their survival had been left up to Joe. With his own strength ebbing and flowing like a storm's tide, Joe had managed up to a point. When his leg had again refused to hold him upright, Joe and his father had fallen-right into the Sisters of Charity mission. Adam understood why the muscles under his hand were trembling. He was sure it was not with fear but with suppressed anger.

Hoss swallowed the last of his beer and as he watched, the one man returned and together they came towards the cantina. He returned the glass to the bar behind him but never took his eye off the advancing men. He'd heard the exchange between Joe and Adam and had seen the revolver. Never once did it occur to him that it might belong to someone else. He had seen that holster and gun in his brother's possession for too many years to doubt now that it wasn't his brother's. What did strike him as odd was that the men coming towards them had a predatory manner about them even though they were laughing. One man was as tall as Hoss but not nearly as big otherwise. Hoss watched him carefully, figuring that man to be his target. He didn't like what he saw as they swung the batwing doors wide and came into the small cantina, shouting for drinks.

The three newcomers sidled up to the bar, barely giving the others a glance. They shouted for beer and it was delivered promptly then the bartender moved away, going into the back of his small establishment. The new arrivals lifted their glasses and, while continuing to talk loudly amongst themselves, seemed oblivious to the growing pool of silence they stood in.

"Let me go or so help me, Adam, you'll be the first," Joe hissed, yanking his arm from Adam's punishing grasp. "You!" he shouted and the others turned to look at him.

The tall man wearing the crossed bandoleers stood in the center of his friends and, when he heard the shout, shushed them to find its source. As he did, a puzzled expression crossed his features. Then slowly it cleared and was replaced by narrow slitted eyes and an oily smile.

"I remember you now, amigo. At the stage. You fought hard, as I recall. Remember him, compadres?"

One man touched the buckle of Joe's holster and nodded his head. "Yes, I 'member that gentleman, Virg. Always wanted to thank him for this rig. Finest gun I think I've ever owned."

"Give it back," Joe seethed, his shoulders squaring, his hands clenching into fists at his side.

The one addressed as Virg let one hand come to rest on the butt of his own gun. The other he left on the bar. With a sweep of his gray eyes, he took in the Cartwright brothers there. The one in the tall white hat was having trouble keeping from snarling and the remaining one, the one dressed all in black, had his right hand out of sight. He was sure it was close to the gun that the holster said was there on the hidden right side.

"Todd, Jimmy, refresh my memory but wasn't there another fella with this young pup? Old dude, as I recall." The other men, Todd and Jimmy, stepped away from the bar, fanning out to face the Cartwrights. Virg didn't wait for their reply. "Yes, there was. Remember how he screamed when we pulled him out of that overturned stage?"

Adam heard the breath Joe took and made a desperate lunge for him but came up with empty hands. Joe had launched himself at the one called Virg, heedless of the fact that he wore no sidearm. Although he had been unable to stop his brother's headlong plunge into the fight, Adam's gut tightened each time his brother struck the other. In secret he hoped that his brother would give up and, when knocked again into the dirt, would have the sense to stay there. Or that Joe would be able to knock the other man back and down.

The Cartwrights fanned out, watching as the tall desperado and Joe grappled. As Adam and Hoss watched, their hands caressed the butts of their revolvers. The warning was clear: there would be no interference from the other two men.

The one they'd heard called Todd, distinguishable from his companion only by the fact that he wore a red shirt under his filthy serape, watched the progression of the fight and didn't like what he saw. He and Jimmy, shouting encouragement, both edged further to their respective sides.

Adam and Hoss both followed the movements of the other men but only with their bodies turning, not their feet. Their attention returned again and again to the fistfight but their backs stayed close to the bar, the only protection to be offered.

Hoss saw the motion first. Although the fighting was close in, Hoss saw the man's right hand sweep back and lift the long barreled Colt from his holster. Panicked, he started to shout a warning to Joe but in the same instant, saw that the man on Adam's right was drawing his pistol as well. His hand swept back and grabbed the solid handle of his weapon and he brought it up, laying deadly fire across the room.

At the first sound of gunfire, Adam drew his gun and whirled at the source of the sound. His gun fired three times, each bullet finding its target in the man nearly hidden by Hoss' turning bulk. The man behind Hoss had pulled his gun as well and would have shot him in the back but for Adam's shout to get out of the way. A lifetime of following his brother's directions had saved the big Cartwright son, for one of Todd's bullets sliced through the air where a heartbeat before he had seen the broad back of Hoss Cartwright.

Still turning as he dropped, Hoss looked for the gun he had first seen drawn. Just from the position of the two combatants' arms, he knew where it was - between them. Through the thick gunsmoke in the little cantina he saw the shift in Joe's eyes and his lips pull back in a grimace. Then, even though his ears still rang from the previous shots, Hoss heard another shot, muffled, that was followed by yet another. Confused, his eyes swept the area. Adam stood, his back towards Hoss and his gun trained on the man his brother had shot. With a blossom of blood spouting between his fingers, the man lay on the dirt floor, grasping his stomach, his eyes rolling further up into his head just before he crumpled completely and lay still. Hoss spun, this time looking behind himself. There the third man, his back against a broken chair, panted as he also stretched out on the dirt floor. Without further concern for the man, Hoss centered his intention on Joe and his opponent, the only possible source of the muffled shots.

Some how, miraculously, Hoss guessed, Joe stood, his back to them with all his weight on his right leg as his foe slumped to the floor, wide-eyed, his mouth moving as though to speak. The desperado's hands, bloodied, were clasped around his thick middle. But Hoss wasn't watching the man beyond the first moment because he could see that Joe held the revolver. As if coming to life in that split second, the middle Cartwright pulled himself from the floor and was at his brother's back, reaching for the pistol, ignoring the blood that made its butt slick. Taking the gun, he rested his hand on Joe's shoulder, feeling it quickly rising and falling. Then, slowly, Joe turned his face to Hoss and a quiver of pain shot into his eyes and stayed there.

"It's okay now, Joe," Hoss said and caught the movement of Adam coming to join them out of the corner of his eye. Although he had said the words, he wasn't sure Joe had heard him. As he watched, Joe swallowed hard and turned, his hands reaching for Hoss. Then slowly, as if bit by little bit all of his bones had softened, Joe sagged.

Biting back the acid that rose, Adam moved quickly, grabbing Joe and easing him to the dirt floor that now ran red with blood. He had seen what Hoss hadn't and the first sight of it had turned his stomach. Joe's pant leg, the left one, was nearly torn away at his thigh. What remained was sodden with blood, a great hole gaping in the flesh laid bare. And with each beat of his brother's heart, Adam saw blood rise and spill out.

Without thinking, Adam yanked his own belt off and looped it around Joe's thigh and tightened it as much as he was able. Looking up, he saw that it had all finally registered with Hoss and he held Joe's shaking shoulders in his massive hands. He redirected his eyes and saw, with relief, that the blood flow from the leg had dropped off. But even as the flow slowed, Adam could see the damage done the leg, the thigh laid open, the muscles still quivering redly, the bone shards grisly white. Again his stomach turned and he yanked his eyes away, this time meeting Joe's and holding them

"Get the doctor!" Adam shouted and heard the flurry of footsteps from behind the bar. His eyes held onto his brother's whitening face. "Lay still," he hoarsely whispered and to underscore the order, placed his hand squarely on his brother's chest. Beneath it, he felt the thud of his brother's heart and silently willed it to slow down for with each beat, he knew more blood pooled to the floor. "Help's coming," he reassured himself as well as his brothers and saw Joe's eyes close sluggishly. He pulled his hand away, not wanting to feel the life beat fail completely beneath it. It left a crimson swath.

There were footfalls pounding across the hard-packed earthen floor of the cantina behind him as Adam rose to his feet. "Hang on to him," he instructed Hoss needlessly as he turned to face the sound.

The second man through the door, Adam couldn't remember seeing in town and immediately pegged him as the doctor. Flashing in his memory, he recalled what Joe had said about the man: a reclusive drunk, thin, with shoulders hunched forward as he coughed which in Adam's mind made him probably consumptive. Empty handed, the man stopped at the first body he came to and knelt there beside the one they had called Jimmy.

"He's dead!" Adam shouted. Just the sound alone was loud enough that the doctor jerked his eyes in the direction of it. But that was all that moved and he remained beside the dead man, his hands darting over the body.

Emotions roiling, the eldest Cartwright brother couldn't stand still and took the few steps to stand behind the kneeling physician. "Over here!" he seethed and grabbed the man's arm but the doctor yanked himself from the bloody, grasping hand, his eyes boring into the shadowed face.

"There are other patients here. Take your hands off me, sir." The words were spat out then he returned to the dead man's body. Dumbfounded, Adam watched as the physician continued to examine the already cooling body before him. When finished, the doctor rose and went across the room to where the other man lay.

"Doc!" Hoss shouted to get the man's attention. "My brother here, he needs you now! Them fellas is dead. You can't help 'em no more."

The thin doctor came slowly to his feet and everyone in the bar saw his shoulders sag and droop and his hands shake before him. He turned and looked down at Hoss where he still supported Joe's head and shoulders but it was as though he couldn't see them. What did catch his attention was the third man, the man Joe had fought.

"He's still alive," came the soft mutter as the doctor knelt beside the man who'd been called Virg. His hands, so tentative before, now sprang into life as his whole manner changed. He shouted for help, for the injured man to be carried to his office across the square as he pressed a restraining hand to the wound in the man's belly.

With downcast eyes, the bartender and Broan, the livery stable owner, gathered the other injured man up and carried him, following the doctor and disappearing into the far house.

"Damn it!" Adam shouted and the rafters shook with the sound.

"You don't know, do you?" Maude, the saloon's only girl asked as she slipped into the bar. The sound of guns had awoken her from her late bed and she pulled her robe tight around her as she looked down at the two dead men on the floor. "God," she moaned. "I never thought it would happen. How bad was Virg hit?" Her blue eyes finally came to rest on Adam's set face.

"Gut shot. Close range. He and Joe were fighting. He pulled his gun. The man doesn't have a chance! The doctor knows that! Why did he-?"

Maude held up her hand, silently pleading him to stop, which he did. She sank to her knees beside Joe and looked into Hoss' face. "Like I said, you don't know. How could you? Those two, Todd and Jimmy. They're the doc's nephews. Virg is his only living son."


The bartender, who went by the handle of Whiskey Will, showed Adam and Hoss into the back room of the cantina. These were his quarters, he explained, but under the circumstances…he had let his voice trail off into nothing more than a strangled whisper. Carefully, the two Cartwrights had carried Joe, now mercifully unconscious, into the small room and laid him on the hard bed there.

"Get over there and get that doctor!" Adam ordered and saw Hoss flinch at his tone. Nevertheless, the big man moved out. Wondering how long it had been, Adam loosened the makeshift tourniquet and swallowed hard when the blood again spurted rhythmically, soaking the quilt his brother laid on.

"Here, if these'll help," Whiskey offered and Adam pulled his attention reluctantly from the pooling blood. In his hand, the cantina owner offered several towels. Like everything else, it seemed to Adam, they were thin and none too clean but they were offered and he would not turn them down.

"Thanks. Tell me, that girl, Maude, she said that the doctor -" he began, pressing the towels onto Joe's leg before he wiped his hands and tightened the tourniquet again.

"She told it fair," came the answer. "Virg's two brothers were killed down in Mexico a few years ago. One of the hacienda owners caught them red-handed stealing horses and hung 'em. When they were good and dead, he tied 'em to their horses and sent 'em back across the border. 'Twas a message to the border runners. That's why Doc drinks, I do believe. To forget that his boys…well, that they ain't no more. And Virg, he always was a mean son-of-a-bitch. Would rather beat you to a pulp than look at you."

"Well, he's not going to be beating anyone any more. Surely the doctor knows that. A gutshot, close range- my God!- it's a wonder the man was even breathing a minute afterwards. He didn't have a chance. Not one." Adam turned and silenced his venom when he heard motions coming towards them. Hoss was first through the doorway. The doctor followed, and brushed Adam aside rudely.

            The doctor coughed once and pulled back the wadded toweling. He grunted and without looking at anyone, directed Whiskey Will to get the kitchen stove going good and hot. At first, the two Cartwrights thought that it was the man's intention to wash his hands since they were bloody and he hadn't yet touched Joe. In fact, as they watched, both saw the stains down the front of the man's jacket and shirt. When he removed his jacket, and rolled up his sleeves, both saw the lingering blood of another man.

            "Hurry up, Will!" he shouted over his shoulder then opened the bag he'd carried in. On the small nightstand, he spread his tools: a bottle that Hoss could see was chloroform, several clamp-like objects, and, chillingly, a saw.

            "You, big man!" the doctor barked and drew Hoss' attention from the bloodstained tools. "Get a hold of his shoulders. You!" He nodded at Adam. "Get a hold of his other leg. Ain't got time to do this pretty. Will, that fire hot? Gonna have to cauterize-"

            For some reason, and he could only claim that he was in a form of shock, Adam slowly realized what the doctor's intent was.

            "No!" he roared and reaching across, slashed at the doctor's hands, knocking the bone saw from them. It clattered into the shadows noisily. "You are not going to take his leg off!"

            The thin physician reared back and took in the fierce expression on the man's face across the bed from him. "You want him alive? If so, the leg has to come off. Too much damage." As he reached back and took a scalpel from his kit, Adam was totally ignored. "Will, gimme that saw."

            The bartender, swallowing hard, reached into the corner and picked up the saw. Holding it at arm's length, he laid it on the foot of the bed then backed away quickly. He took one last look at the young man who had helped him weeks before. Silently, he prayed for the boy and crossed himself then backed out of the room.

            When the doctor reached for the dirty saw, Adam again had to stop him, this time with a hard hand over the doctor's cold and clammy, trembling one.

            "There has to be another way," Adam insisted, his voice low. He feared if he spoke aloud, he would not be able to control his voice, his terror. "You've barely looked at the wound. Can't you stop the bleeding? See what else might be done?"

            Contemptuously, the doctor threw down his tools. With his blood-encrusted hands planted firmly at his waist, he glared at the man in black across the sanguineous bed from him.

            "You kin to this boy?" he asked, the words edged with animosity.

            When Adam said that he was and nodded to Hoss as well, the doctor merely snorted. Not looking at the injured man again, he gathered his implements and tossed them casually back into his bag, rolled down his sleeves and went to put his coat back on.

            "Since you're kin, you can make that decision. I'll stop in and tell Silas 'bout it. I don't expect to have any problem with the law over this but Silas'll have to tell the sheriff in Maricopa Wells. You gonna want to take the body home to Nevada?"

            "He ain't dead!" Hoss shouted, suddenly grasping what the thin doctor meant and that he was leaving to boot.

            "No, not yet. Takes about an hour for a man to bleed to death from a severed artery. If he survives that, gangrene will take him in a day. Very least, blood poisoning will kill him in two days, maybe three. Good day, gentlemen."

            One huge hand reached out and grabbed the stooping shoulder of the physician, swinging him around to face an exceedingly angry Hoss Cartwright. With the same motion, he was brought to his tiptoes, a fist beneath his jaw.

            "You ain't goin' anywhere. There's something you can do besides take his leg off and you're gonna do it." Although the threat was plain, the doctor showed no fear. He pushed himself away and brushed a hand down his chest, straightening his jacket.

            "I'll be in my office when you need the death certificate signed."

            Again, Hoss started for him but Adam grabbed his arm, telling him to stop. As Hoss faced his older brother, he saw a clear determination. They stood silently seething as the doctor departed.

            "Will!" Adam shouted and it brought Whiskey Will back into the room. "How far is it to the nearest doctor?" He emphasized the word doctor, making sure that his disdain of the local one showed since he felt the man failed to meet the definition.

            "Maricopa, but even with a good horse, it'd take four, five hours. I heard what Doc said. You ain't got that sort of time."

            The certainty of what the man said made Adam's stomach knot. Beside him, he could almost see Hoss shaking and that in itself made him all the more fearful. Gulping for a breath of fresh air, Adam tasted only the coppery tang of blood. Was the doctor right? Was the only way to save Joe's life to take his leg? He looked back at his brother's pale face. He was losing blood with every beat of his heart, despite the bite of the tourniquet. And soon, Adam knew, he would have to loosen it again.

            "Will you ride out to the mission for us?" Hoss was asking and within moments, Whiskey Will was gone, thankful, Adam thought, to be away from the scene.

            "Hoss, listen to me. The doctor may have been right-" Adam began but found Hoss' hand firmly on his shoulder, his eyes blazing.

            "You said so yourself, Adam, that doctor didn't even look to see if he could do anything else. Heard some of the fellas that came home from the War 'tween the States saying that the doctors there did the same thing. Just lop of the limb because a man healed faster that way. No. It's up to us since that man ain't gonna help us."

            "You don't understand, Hoss. This isn't just a case of taking a bullet out. You saw how Joe was bleeding. There's a major artery, a vein, something, that has been cut and it leads to his heart, Hoss. That's why it spurts like that." He wanted to shake Hoss and make him understand but Adam wasn't sure that he fully understood himself. One thing he did know was that a decision had to be made and there wasn't time. There wasn't time to get another doctor; there wasn't time to make the one they had understand; there wasn't time even to wait for their father to make the decision.

            "Adam, I got faith in you. You can do it."

            He whirled, unable to face his brothers, and looked out over the sere desert vista beyond the dirty windowpane. "It takes more than faith, Hoss. It takes knowledge. It takes skill. It takes everything that doctor across the street has but won't use because his own son is dead or dying and he thinks Joe pulled the trigger."

            "Then we'll just have to make him," Hoss snarled and before Adam could stop him, was gone.

            His hands shaking, Adam loosened the tourniquet, vowing it would be the last time.



            John Edward Brockman, MD. That's what the gold lettering on the door said as Hoss pushed it open. The tiny bell attached to it tinkled incongruously in the shadows. No one responded to it and he went on further down the narrow hallway. He paused at the first door and pushed it on open. Two white shrouded bodies occupied two long counters. From somewhere in the back part of the building, he heard a staccato cough and, closing the door on death, he followed the sound. The door at the end of the hallway was partially open and he nudged it fully open with his foot.

            In the bright late afternoon winter sunlight, he saw the desperado Virg propped up in a huge bed. Beside him, the doctor seemed dwarfed and insignificant yet he ministered to the man, wiping the continuing trickle of blood from the patient's lips. At the sound of Hoss' boots on the wooden flooring, the doctor turned, glanced at him, then resumed giving his son his full attention.

            "Huh!" he coughed out. "Went quick, did he? Lucky bastard. My Virg here, he's a tough 'un, aren't you, boy?"

            "No sir, my brother's still alive. And you, sir, are gonna come help him stay that way." Hoss drew his weapon and cocked it, the sound loud in the sickroom.

            The doctor stood up from the bedside and put down the bloodied cloth he had been using. Slowly, he turned on his heels and faced the big man holding the gun on him. He showed no emotion.

            "You think you can force a man to operate? Foolish. Why, boy, I could kill your brother faster than you could pull that trigger and no one would know it."

            "You took an oath when you became a doctor. Ain't that right? Something about being a healer?"

            Doctor Brockman tilted his head and looked up into the broad face before him. "Yes, I did. I took the Hippocratic oath but before that, I was a father. Are you a father young man? That's what I thought. You don't understand. My first duty, beyond being a doctor, is to my own flesh and blood. Now, if you will excuse me, I am going back to my son. I suggest you return and share with your own brother his last minutes on this earth." The physician turned his back and dismissed the other man.

            He longed to reach out and hit the man but Hoss knew that even if he were to drag the doctor back across the street to Joe, the man could just as easily make good on his word. Lost beyond reason, Hoss grabbed up the doctor's black bag from where it sat and left the room.


            Hoss blew into the cantina much the same way a winter storm would at the far-off Ponderosa. Pushing by a now-dressed Maude, he lumbered into the back of the cantina. As he went through the small kitchen, he noted that the fire Whiskey Will had stoked up now burnt strong in the kitchen stove and water in a teakettle was boiling. He noted these things and nodded to himself. They seemed to make up his mind for him and Hoss pushed aside the door curtain brusquely.

            His head shooting up, Adam's eyes were wide when Hoss plunged into the darkening room. He was about to ask about the doctor when he noted that his brother carried the physician's black bag under his arm. "That all of the doctor you could talk into coming back?"

            "Maude!" Hoss shouted, setting the bag down carefully, all the while staring at his older brother.

            With her mumbled "huh?" at the doorway, Hoss told her what he wanted: all of the lamps she could find. "Full of oil and lit," he added then went on. "I want all the sheets, the cleanest ones you got. Tear them into strips. I want a pan of that hot water in here pronto. And make the pan a clean one to start with!"

            The saloon-girl, her eyes wide in fright, nodded then scurried away.

            "What are you up to?" Adam hissed, grabbing his brother's brawny arm as Hoss began to roll up his sleeves.

            "That doctor, he as much as told me he'd kill Joe if he worked on him, Adam. You don't think it can be done. Well, by God, I am not gonna sit here and wring my hands and watch my little brother die. I'm gonna see what I can do. You don't have to stay but if you do, you're gonna help me." The words, the phrases, were short, cutting, full of recrimination but Adam knew he meant every last one of them.

            "No," Adam sighed.

            "You ain't talkin' me out of it Adam. Joe ain't gonna die without me puttin' up a fuss."

            Maude returned just then with a blue porcelain bowl full of hot water. Adam took it from her and asked if she couldn't find a clean cloth or towel. She skittered away but returned in seconds with an almost white piece of flour sacking.

            "I'm not talking you out of it, Hoss. I said 'no' because, as much as you want to, your hands, your fingers, are too big. No, you help me and I'll -we'll- see what we can do together." The last thing Adam wanted to do and here he found himself doing it. He had never shrunk from a task in all his life. Now was not the time to start, he reminded himself.

            "First things first. We clean this stuff. Would hate to save his hide then watch Joe get an infection from one of these durn knives." Hoss, mindful of just how big his fingers were, plucked a long scalpel from the bag and held it to the waning light. Down towards the handle, blood had dried.


            It became a litany to Adam, one sung over and over in his mind. Don't pay attention to the blood. Don't pay attention to the blood. But there was so much of it! How much did a human body hold? How much had Joe lost? How could he still be alive?  For the first time in his life, he felt stupid, clumsy, ignorant; yet, with Hoss there beside him, Adam felt so…full of faith, and so capable. But all the same, was he doing what was proper? When they had first pulled the sodden towels from the gaping wound, Adam had released the tourniquet, seen where the blood came from, tightened the belt back up and simply placed one of the medical clamps onto the source. Gritting his teeth, he asked Hoss to undo the belt and once it was loosened, saw that the flow of blood was reduced.

            "There's still too much," he moaned.

            Hoss had pulled away the rest of his brother's pant leg. For the first time, he realized that this was the leg Joe'd had the Saint Louis doctor operate on. Heedless of the blood there, he tracked one finger down what remained of the pink scar. "There ain't but one hole in his leg, Adam. That means the bullet is still in there."

            "I know that!" Adam hissed, his resolution faltering, his hands beginning to shake as the realization of what he was dealing with hit him full force. "The hell with the bullet!"

            "Well, you got to get it out. Feel him? Joe's startin' in on a fever. Come on, brother, you can do this. You got to do this."

            Hoss continued to talk, his voice soft, low, soothing. Gradually, Adam found his hands were no longer shaking but his brother's words did nothing for the feeling of inadequacy sweeping over him. He pulled out bone shards, recognizing them as such simply because they were hard when nothing else he touched was. He pulled torn gelatinous muscle tissue together, feeling it slide through his fingers sickeningly.

            "Help me roll his leg then hold it, Hoss. It looks like the bullet went down his leg, under his knee." As he asked, Adam again began to shake, afraid of what he was doing. Was what he was doing going to ultimately cost Joe his leg? The use of it? His thoughts whirled, his mouth went dry, his brow began sweating. Maybe he should just go ahead and amputate, as the doctor had wanted to in the beginning.

            He took a quick glance at Joe's face. Maude was there at his head, a pale blue piece of cloth held across his brother's mouth and nose. Only then did he catch the whiff of chloroform and he nodded to the woman, silently thanking her. He had never thought - a noise behind him distracted him for a moment and his hands, slick with blood, dropped the scalpel and clamp they'd held. Half panicked, he picked them back up, saw again that his hands trembled.

            "You were right, young man, to remind me of the Oath I took," a voice said at Adam's shoulder but he didn't turn to acknowledge its source. Instead, feeling the heat from the many lamps now lit, he moped at his brow with his forearm. When his hand dropped back to his brother's flesh, there was another man's hand there, the flesh pink. His own was covered with so much blood that it was red.

"My son is dead," the doctor said flatly then gestured again for Adam to give him the scalpel he held. "They're all dead now. I can't use my ability to exact vengeance. I can only use it to try and heal. Give me that scalpel, young man. Maybe, just maybe, if the angels are watching tonight, this brother of yours will live."

            Adam looked up into eyes made old with loss. "I don't know if what I've done-" he began but could find no words to speak further. The physician took the implements hanging limply from his hands.

            "Go on, son. You too, Hoss," came a deep voice there at Adam's ear. Instantly he recognized it as his father's and opened his mouth to protest. Before he could form words, across from him, one of the nuns took Hoss' place and another Maude's. Hands were pulling at him, insistently, but still he felt he couldn't leave. Shrugging off the hands, he grabbed the wrist of the doctor and squeezed it until the scalpel dropped from it.

            "You cut his leg off and, so help me God, I will kill you. Do you understand?" he demanded, his face right in the doctor's, smelling the blood and the stale whiskey that seemed so much a part of the man.

            "Adam!" his father's voice roared but Adam thrust aside both the voice, the implied demand and the hands pulling at him.

            "I will do the best I can but there are no promises." With that said, the physician turned his attention back to gruesome scene before him, putting Adam and his threats from his thoughts.

            His chest still heaving with pent up emotion, Adam allowed himself to be pulled into the front of the cantina. Even as he washed his hands and dried them, he could still see and feel the blood on them. Maude was pouring drinks at the bar. He found one in his hand but couldn't drink it. Instead he put it back down and wordlessly walked out into the last rays of a winter afternoon's sunlight.

            "How is your brother?" a soft, whispery voice asked him and Adam found himself looking into the deeply wrinkled face of Sister Immaculata, the oldest of the nuns from the mission.

            "I'm not sure, Sister." He was surprised that he could speak at all. Inside, he felt as though a thousand hornets were battling against his chest, demanding freedom, their stinging burning him from the inside out. "He's lost a lot of blood. We argued with the doctor when he wanted to take Joe's leg off. Oh God, what if that-" he slammed to a halt, no longer trusting his legs to hold him upright or his voice to command his thoughts. He found himself seated on the steps leading into Silas Turner's General Store. The nun wrapped her thin bony arms around his shoulders but he shrugged her aside. She was whispering something but he couldn't understand what she was saying. Yet the words were familiar. Then he remembered where he had heard them before. They were the same words his stepmother, Marie, Joe's mother, had uttered years ago at his own bedside when he had been ill. Stilled by the memory, he waited until she finished then carefully laid his arm across her bowed shoulders.

            "There is great pain within you, Adam. I feel it." Her hand rested, her rosary intertwining her fingers as it came to rest on his thigh like a small bird.

            "Pain?" he echoed her word. Then again, "Pain? Why should I be in pain, Sister? After all, I'm not the one who may very well die. I'm not the one -God, no! I can't even think about that." Even if by some miracle, he keeps his leg, what then? But I know how it makes you feel when you realize that you may have just crippled your own brother. I know it now for certain. For the rest of my life, and his, I'll watch him try to walk and know that every step brings him pain. I can't even begin to fathom what that'll be like. And that I have given it to him; I did it to him with my own hands. But when the choice is either cripple him or watch him die, what else is there to do? The first thought that ran through my mind is that living is better than dying but what if that living isn't the way he would want to live? What if the life you save him for isn't the sort of life he can deal with?

            "But you may have saved his life," Sister Immaculata insisted. Adam's arm tightened about her as she spoke. It was almost as though she could hear his thoughts. He snorted and looked away, out to where the sun was setting across the empty desert.

"Is the life I saved his? Or is it my version of what his should be? And why did I even try it at all?" So that I can have him still in my own existence? Me? Why? Am I keeping him alive so that I can show -what? To who? Me? Him? Why, oh why did I even try?

"You tried because he is your brother. His life is important to you, to your father, to your other brother. Oh, Adam, being the oldest son, it is your duty to guard the younger ones, is it not? And do you still fear your father's wrath when you come home without having protected him, as the older sibling you were told you must? You chastise yourself for these thoughts, but they are the thoughts from childhood and you are now a man. Yet the fears of childhood have followed you longer and are harder to dismiss, are they not?"

Adam tried to smile but it came out a painful grimace instead. "You don't understand. Lots of times in the last few years, Joe and I have been at loggerheads with each other. Some times, yes, I got carried away with being his surrogate parent and came down hard on him. Too hard at times and we would have words."

"Balance those times against when you told him how you honestly care about him. On the scales that are your lives, the first side, the one that speaks of anger, does it fall below the side that speaks of a brother's love?"

            "I'm just trying to think about what his life will be like. I won't be able to feel the pain the same way he will so don't even try to tell me otherwise."

She pounded her frail fist against his leg. "Walk the road of an everyday life with him. Can he still ride? Can he do the work he loves on that ranch of yours?"

 Sure but just watching him step into the stirrup, you realize that the leg falters and threatens him.

"Watch the people around him as he walks among them. How do they react with him?"

No, they won't see him. They'll see the cane or, God forbid, a crutch he's forced to use and move aside when before they'd step close and speak to him. They hesitate to even touch him, something they did before. And late at night, when the weather turns cold and damp, he'll fight with it only to be weakened by a fight he can't win because it is within him. "I wish I had your faith, Sister. I'm sorry, but I don't. And I don’t think now is time-"

"No!" she said sharply. "Now is exactly the time for faith. Faith in your brother. Faith in God. And, maybe most of all, faith in yourself. You have done what you could. There can be only one greater act of faith than what you have done today.  That is to pray. I will leave you now for I am needed inside." She rose stiffly and, on faltering legs of her own, walked slowly to the cantina.

So, I did it. Oh God, I still see my hand hovering over the blood and torn flesh that was his leg. I couldn't even look at him. In my hand, I had the instruments that will either condemned him to eternal pain or, by withholding them, would have given him death. And my hands shook like a leaf in a storm. I would have done anything to not have this choice before me. I begged him, silently, longing to have him make the decision one way or the other but he had placed himself into my hands completely. Oh, Sister Immaculata, that's faith! He trusted me but I didn't trust myself.  Those scales of yours, Sister, they waver, seeking equality, but there is none.

It is because of that trust, that loving and implicit trust that he gave me, that my hand steadied and my own resolve strengthened. No matter what else I did for my brother, I tried. And if it should fail, I'll stand beside him and give him not just my arm in support but, maybe, finally, my understanding.

 And maybe then, the scale will begin at last to balance.

            As Adam watched, the winter sun slipped behind the far western mountains, painting the sky red. He rose stiffly and headed back to the cantina, the still desert air chilling him.


            "Here, drink this," the wispy voice said in the darkness and into Ben's hand was pressed a tin cup, warm to the touch. He recognized both the smell of coffee and the soft voice of Sister Immaculata. He murmured his thanks and took the cup from the frail hands offering it to him. "Has he stirred?"

            "No," Ben answered flatly. He sipped the coffee as he sat there in the corner of the nearly dark room. Within arm's reach, Joseph remained almost motionless. Only the slight movement of his chest told his father that he still lived. With the light from a single lamp, and that turned down low, Ben had watched that rise and fall.

            At the far side of the bed, Sister Naomi knelt, her dark rosary beads falling one at a time through her fingers. With her shrouded head bent, all Ben could see were her lips, silently moving as she prayed. He didn't remember when he had first noticed her there but he would do nothing to dissuade her presence. If nothing else, he gained solace, knowing that he would not have to face the long night alone.

            Even as he watched numbly, Mother Ruth came into the room, carrying another lamp. She raised the patchwork quilt that covered Joe's left leg. The shake of her head told Ben what he would have seen. Over her shoulder she called softly for the two younger nuns to come. Ben rose from his chair to help but the old nun pushed him back down and shook her head slowly.

            As though they had done the same maneuver many times before, the three women changed the sodden bandage that ran from Joe's thigh clear down to almost his foot. Without exchanging words of direction, they moved surely, swiftly, each taking, holding, giving in her turn. When the dressing was changed, Ben found himself studying his son. It was as though Joe had felt nothing and had continued his restful repose, his face serene, unlined.

            "You should rest, Benjamin," the mother superior's Gaelic whisper caught at him and he looked up into her broad face, shadowed by the room's darkness. "There is a cot in the cantina for you. We will stay with him."

            "But," Ben started to protest, claiming that if his son should awaken, he wanted - no, he needed to be there. It was as though the woman knew his thoughts for she told him that if Joseph showed any sign of waking, he would be summoned immediately.

            "Go on," she encouraged, her hand sweeping before her. "Your other sons need you as well."

            "Maybe a short stretch, but-" he began again but the head nun patted his shoulder as he passed her.

            Out in the front part of the cantina, only one of the lamps was lit. The light it gave off did little to disperse the gloom, the same way that the meager flames in the small fireplace barely warmed the room. By the orange glow of the fire, Ben could see the shapes of Adam and Hoss. Hunched over in their chairs, they both held glasses, glasses that were not quite empty. As Ben watched, Adam tipped his up and finished it. When he turned to set it on the nearby table, he saw his father.

            "Pa!" he said, the single word a soft explosion in the dark night. He started to rise but Ben's hand pressed him back into the chair.

            "How's Joe?" Hoss asked, his face turning up to meet his father's. Even in the shadows, Ben could see the strain, the uneasiness, on his sons' faces.

            Ben swallowed hard and blinked, searching the dancing flames of the fire for an answer. There were none there so he answered, "Still alive." The words tasted cold, bitter, unfeeling.

            Softly, Adam cursed and looked into the fire the same way Ben had. On his shoulder, he felt his father's hand come to rest then, slowly, the fingers tightening, gently rebuking him. He mumbled an apology but couldn't look up. One glimpse had shown him the pain in his father's eyes and he couldn't bear to see it again. Not that night, nor any night to come, he told himself bitterly.

            "He's resting quietly. Hasn't even moved. Doc Brockman thought it best if he sedated him heavily. Said there was a lot of damage -". Before Ben could finish, Adam rose to his feet and shrugged his father's restricting grasp aside. Feeling the anger in the gesture, Ben tried to stop him from leaving the room but Hoss held his arm and his voice.

            "Let him go, Pa. You weren't here. You didn't see what we saw. Made me sick to my stomach, watchin' Adam. Knew what he was tryin' to do 'cause I told him I was gonna do it if he didn't." The big man sighed deeply and pulled his father back into the chair his brother had just vacated. "Joe gonna keep his leg? What did the doc say about it?"

            "First," Ben swallowed again, his throat closing over the lump his thoughts brought to it, "we have to make sure your brother lives. Then we'll think about his leg."


            With the coming of the first fingers of dawn, he stirred. Restless and heavy with the drugs pressed unknowingly upon him in the night, his motions were weak, disjointed. He could move but slowly and his eyes seemed reluctant to open but he persevered. His determination rewarded him with the smile of Sister Immaculata a few inches from his face. 

            Her hands, twisted with arthritis, nevertheless held a glass of water for him as he drank. At first, he struggled to take even a few sips, his throat tight in its parchedness. As she helped hold his head up, the old nun encouraged him with soft and simple words. Finally, his thirst slaked, she laid his head back on the hard pillow. With deft movements, she straightened the quilt, pulling it to his shoulders and wisping her fingers through his hair to push it back from his face.

            “My father? My brothers?” he asked, his voice a rasping croak that held no strength.

            “They are close. Do you need them?” she told him then asked, taking a seat beside him on the narrow bed.

            As she watched, his eyes slowly closed, dark smudges beneath them making him look even more exhausted. He stirred restlessly and opened his eyes once more. Again she offered up that his family was close at hand and asked if she should call to them. He shook his head 'no' just once. It seemed that the little he had done had exhausted all his strength and he needed to rest again. She understood this and brushed his cheek with the backs of her fingers, the motion soothing and gentling. Once that she was sure that he was again sleeping, she rose and left the room.



            When he had left the small cantina, Adam had gone to sit once more on the steps of the General Store. With his jacket pulled tight about him, he had stayed there for the remainder of the night, sometimes sleeping but mostly awake and staring into the bright moon and star-lit desert sky. For a while he had thought about how distant those stars seemed to him, compared to when he had studied them from his mountain home. They were the same stars, he knew, but here, now, they seemed foreign. He’d instinctively sought out the Big Dipper and other constellations he knew. They were just where he expected to see them but were different in some unfathomable way. He had just put that thought away again when he heard the first noises from the livery stable.

            That’s Broan, he thought, feeding his few animals. Guess he took care of the mules yesterday. I was too busy to even think of the poor beasts until just now. But the sounds from within the town’s largest building continued and, curious now, Adam got to his feet.

            Pulling the door open a crack, Adam put his eye to the opening. There he saw the big smith, his wiry hair and bushy beard giving him an unkempt appearance, over on the side next to his forge. He must have felt the cool morning air or heard the creak of the hinges because he called out, saying that he was there and that whoever was at the door was welcome to join him beside the warming fire.

            “How is your brother?” the other man asked, pulling on the bellows when he recognized Adam Cartwright.

            Coming into the barn, Adam realized two things. The first was that he was cold. Now, as he neared the warming coals of the forge, he felt the tingle, acknowledging it for the first time. Secondly, he could see by the faint gleam of the fire that there was a small pile of lumber in the center of the livery. When Broan lit the lantern, Adam nearly jumped away from the lumber since he could see then that the woodpiles were becoming coffins.

            “Joe’s still alive, if that’s what you’re asking,” Adam replied, more tersely than he wanted to. He mentally chastised himself, recalling the easy going way of the big man but then he also remembered that he had made himself available first to the doctor the day before, carrying the wounded man into the clinic while he and Hoss were left to deal with their brother.

            “I like your brother, Adam,” the other man said, the sound of his voice giving credence to his words. “He’s a hard worker. Never shirked any job I give him when he was workin' here with me. I understand that he might lose a leg over that business yesterday. Hell of a shame, but it could be worse.”

            Adam spread his hands above the now reddening coals, chaffing them to bring the blood flowing back. “I’m not sure that there could be anything worse, Broan. You don’t know my brother very well-“

            Broan hit his anvil with a ferocious swing of a hammer and the sound seemed to explode around them, showering both men with its naked brutality. “I know your brother pretty damn good!” Broan exclaimed, gesturing with his right hand, a hand that Adam saw was deformed, the fingers pulled into a grotesque fist. “When he came here, when I met him for the first time, I saw he had a hand like this one of mine. Without sayin’ nuthin’ ‘bout it, I tried to show him how to work around it. And he learned, by God, he learned! I heard him sometimes, talkin’ to himself, trying to get over feelin' sorry for himself. And he was tryin’ his damnedest to show other folks that he wasn’t a cripple to be pitied. Always had the feelin’ that some of those folks were his family. You maybe?”

            What else could he do but grit his teeth, look at the floor and nod? Yes, Adam silently conceded. Among others at the Ponderosa, they had dealt with Joe’s infirmity as though he were some child – no! more like a baby – to be coddled. Hadn’t he even nearly come to blows with Joe because of it?

            “I heard what happened and, while I ain’t much of a religious man, I think your brother got a miracle. At first, I teased him some, yeah. You heard me that day but you didn’t say nuthin’. When I found out who you were, I thought to myself that you kind of doubted it bein’ a miracle too, the same way I did. It didn’t matter then and it don’t matter now. Your brother got the full use of his hand back. Now this.” His head shook sadly, his beard whisking across his chest. “Yeah, it’ll be tough if he loses his leg but your brother, give him half a chance and he’ll survive. That’s a sight more than Virg, Todd and Jimmy.”

            “No,” a new voice spoke up from the doorway. Both men turned to face it, finding the doctor standing there.

            “Sorry, Doc, didn’t hear you come in,” the smith greeted sadly.

            “Are they finished?” he asked, gesturing to the half-built coffins with a nod of his head.

            “Not yet. Will be soon. I promise.”

            As though he hadn’t heard a word said, the doctor merely stood, one hand resting on the rough wood, a lost expression on his face.

            “I checked on your brother, Mr. Cartwright. I don’t understand how or why, but he may keep the leg. That is if infection doesn’t set it. He’s gonna be laid up for a long while, but he’s gonna live.”

            Chastised, Adam warred within himself then said the words anyway. “Thank you, sir. And as for your son, your nephews, I am sorry.”

            “Don’t be. Hate to say it but Virg, ever since he brought his brothers back dead from Mexico, he’s…” The words seem to hang up in the doctor’s throat and he had to cough to release them. “He’d been chasing death a long time. It was just a matter of time before he caught up to it. Don’t be sorry for what happened to my boys. I knew it would happen but I was always afraid that it would be somewhere else. I was always afraid that I would hear about it days, weeks, months maybe, later. Was afraid that he would never be laid in a grave, but maybe left to rot in the desert, food for the scavengers. As it was, I had time with him before he went. And he’ll be laid to rest not far from his brothers. When the time comes, I’ll be there too.”

            In the silence that followed, again Adam recalled the painful deaths and burial of his two stepmothers. Yes, the doctor was right. There was a certain amount of peace in knowing a loved one was cared for right when the end came. When death came.

            “How much more is there to do, Broan?” Adam asked, his question a mere whisper in the coming brightness of the day. “If you’ll let me, I’d like to help. I’m not much of a carpenter, but I can help that much.”

            With the double doors pushed open to the cool of the morning, the sound of hammers and saws echoed dully across the town courtyard.



            “Pa,” Hoss called, gently shaking his sleeping father’s shoulder.

            Immediately, Ben awoke, beginning to come to his feet even as his eyes popped open. Just as quickly, his son was trying to calm him, saying that Joe was all right, sleeping, resting quietly, repeating again that he was all right.

            “Just thought you’d want to go back with him for a bit. The sisters and me and Adam, we’re gonna be gone for a bit.” He paused, not wanting to continue with his explanation but seeing the expression on his father’s face, knew he had to. “They need somebody to help dig the graves. I told ‘em I’d help. Then,” again he paused and this time he knew his father understood. It was a hard thing, to help with something like this when you'd been the cause of it.

            “Go ahead, son.” Ben stood, his shoulders rotating as he shook off the effects of a too brief night’s rest.

            “The sisters made some coffee. They’re in the kitchen with Maude. Will and Silas and me, well, we’ll be back after bit.” Then Hoss was gone, leaving Ben running his hand back through his hair to settle his sudden nervousness.

            "Morning, ladies," he greeted, pouring himself a cup of coffee and nodding to Mother Ruth, Sister Naomi and Maude, the cantina's female entertainment. Ben felt he had stepped into the middle of a conversation, suddenly hushed, and it made him uncomfortable. "Where are the other sisters?"

            Mother Ruth raised her battered tin cup and spoke just before she sipped the bitter brew. "I sent Sister Mary Katherine and Sister Mary Magdalena back to the mission. The children will be worried and I thought they needed someone there other than Esperanza."

            Ben nodded and, leaning against the wall there in the small kitchen, sipped his own coffee. A glimpse through the gap in the hanging curtain that was the door into the bedroom area showed him that the oldest nun sat beside his son's bed. He could see that his son was still not awake. His worry must have shown on his face for the mother superior spoke up again.

            "The doctor was here briefly just at sun rise. He checked Joe's bandages. He seemed, I don't want to say that he was pleased, but I think he was relieved."

            "Relieved?" Ben echoed.

            "I also checked the bandages. There is very little bleeding now and," she smiled, her hand now dancing to her lips to cover her mouth," when I ran my finger up his foot, his toes moved and the flesh, although cool, was warm enough."

            Whatever it was that had curled tight around Ben's stomach released its merciless grip. If there had been a muscular reaction and the flesh wasn't stone cold, that meant, at least to his layman's opinion, that Joe had a fair chance of the leg healing. Ben's relief was vast.

            "We still gotta watch out for infection," Maude piped up and the other women nodded.

            "If you ladies will excuse me, I think I'd like to see if I can stir that young man. Maybe get a little something in him." As Ben turned to go into the other room, the women stirred, Maude saying something that Mother Ruth found humorous, for her full throated chuckle followed Ben.

            He nodded to the wizened nun sitting beside the bed. She smiled and. getting up slowly from the chair, shuffled into the other room, leaving Ben alone with his son. Tentatively, he touched Joe's cheek and was relieved to find the flesh, although warm, not feverish. Benevolently, he called out, as though awakening his son for a day of work. He was grateful that Joe stirred almost immediately. Slowly and sluggishly, his eyes opened and seeing his father, Joe smiled briefly.

            "Morning," Ben whispered and pulled the chair closer to the bed so that he could sit down and still be close to his son. "How you feeling?"

            "Tired," came the response after a few long moments. The single word came as though it were a great effort to speak. Again, Ben smiled for his son then asked if he wanted something to eat, something to drink. Joe nodded his head slowly, as though it took all of his energy to do so. "Don't go any where. I'll be right back once I see what Mother Ruth is cooking up."

            "I'll get him some beef tea in just a bit, Benjamin. The doctor left some pain medication and said he should be taking it every four hours. He'll be needin' it before I get his tea done so you might want to tend to that." In the small kitchen, Mother Ruth seemed to overflow all of the spare space there and Ben had quickly thanked her and returned to his son.

            True to her word, the thick liquid was in a brown bottle next to a spoon on the nightstand.

            "No," Joe croaked and weakly shook his head when he saw what his father was going to do.

            "But the doctor said for you to have it every four hours, son, and Mother Ruth said your four hours are about up. Come on, let's get it down."

            Joe refused. "No, Pa. I don't need it. Not now."

            He looked into his eyes, searching for the telltale signs that his son might not have been completely honest with him. Many times in the past, Joe had refused painkillers because of the stupefied state it left him in. Those were the times when Ben would glare at his son and enforce his parental will, saying it was for the boy's own best interest. But those were also the times when he saw the tendrils of pain in his son's expressions. There would be a too easy smile on his face while his eyes would narrow momentarily, signaling a spasm. Or he would look away quickly, his breath caught and held. But not now. Ben had no other choice to believe that at that moment, for whatever reason, Joe was not in the pain he should have been in.

            "Okay then," Ben conceded and busied himself making sure that the ragged quilt covered his son. That done, he settled back but nervousness and uncertainty made him ask again.

            "No!" Joe wanted to shout the word but had neither the strength nor the true desire to offend his father. "Where's Hoss? Adam?" his half-whisper asked, seeking to blunt his refusal.

            "They're helping the other townfolk some."

            Even as he heard the words, he knew his father was giving him only half the truth, evading. As he dug back into his memory, he knew the truth. "That man, the one I fought with. He died, didn't he?"

            Ben looked first to his knotted hands then resolved to face the matter head on so he raised his eyes to his son's face. "Yes. And the other two men, they drew down on Adam and Hoss. Your brothers acted instinctively."

            "They're all dead? Just like that?" He struggled, pushing against the coverings, trying to rise up. Exhausted by the scant effort, he dropped back down, Ben's restraining hand not having touched him.

            "Yes, son. But you rest, you hear me? There is nothing you can do for those men." When Joe looked away, not meeting his father's face any more, Ben reached out and drew him back. "They drew first, didn't they?"

            Joe closed his eyes, swallowed hard and nodded succinctly. It didn't change what welled up inside of him. "It was a stupid fight. Shouldn't have happened."

            With his hands again clasped between his knees, Ben looked down to the floor. He had asked Hoss the night before what had happened and his own reaction was the same as Joe's had just been: it shouldn't have happened. Yet he also knew that the past could not be changed.

            "Why did it start?" Ben asked, his voice soft yet insistent.

            "He had my gun, Pa, and I wanted it back. They were the men who'd attacked us after the stage accident. They'd taken our guns. They beat up on us. They hurt you."

            There, Ben knew, was the sum total of the whole reason why this had happened. Revenge. It half sickened him that his son had sought vengeance, killing another man because of what had happened weeks before. As he swallowed the thickening in his throat, Ben found no words with which to console his son. How could he hand his son platitudes when the boy had gone against everything Ben had tried to teach him?

            "Adam said the gun went off by accident," he replied, his only saving grace to his son's actions.

            "It did."

            Unasked and unanswered was why the gun had gone off twice. And which time had it killed? Which time had it maimed?


            Mother Ruth's beef tea more closely resembled broth than tea but, at Ben's insistence, Joe drank it all. Then, his bandages checked once more, he fell into a deep sleep. Ben sat the now empty cup aside and again settled the quilts over his son's body. He checked once more for any sign of fever, sure that one would soon appear. There was no sign and he said a quick silent prayer of thanks before he went to return the cup to the kitchen.

            To his surprise, the kitchen was empty. Stepping into the cantina, he saw that it was empty as well. Only out in the town square were there people. There were the nuns, their black habits pressed against them by the rising wind. Silas Turner, the general store owner and town postmaster, stood beside his brother, the large man whose name was Broan. Whiskey Will stood with Maude beside the buckboard, his hands shoved into his pockets. Behind the wagon stood the doctor, his head bent, the wind raking his gray hair forward but he didn't seem to care or to even know what was happening. On the other side of the wagon, he saw Adam and Hoss, standing with their hands crossed before them, holding their hats.

            Ben stepped to the cantina's rickety porch and as he watched, saw the procession begin to move down the single road that led out of town. With a jolt, he realized that what he was seeing was the funeral procession for the men killed the day before. He glanced back into the bar, straining to hear if Joseph was awake. He heard nothing. He gathered his courage and stepped off the porch and joined the procession.

            As they walked, the five nuns sang, the music reaching Ben in bits and snatches as he followed the rest of the town. He thought he recognized what they sang but he wasn't sure. He only knew that it seemed familiar. They stopped as the wagon turned into the small desolate cemetery there at the edge of town. He stepped forward and helped the other men unload the wooden caskets, dropping two immediately into their places. Then he stood back, aware for the first time that Doctor Brockman had not assisted them.

            "Mother Ruth?" the doctor called to the nun and when she looked up, addressed her. "I know that you can't say Mass but you're the closest we've got to a preacher. Would you say a few words for my son? Please."

            The request took her by surprise. For a moment, she looked panicked, afraid then slowly nodding, she stepped to the top of the grave and laid a hand on the casket.

            "For in that you came into the world, we thank the Lord. For the life that you may have lived while here on earth, we ask the Lord's forgiveness. For your death and parting of this world, we ask the Lord to accept thee. Virgil Brockman, Todd and Jimmy Lincoln, may God have mercy upon your souls and all of us here today. The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away." She made the sign of the Cross over the wooden box holding the remains of Virgil Brockman then stepped back. Ben could see that she was shaking as she recited the Lord's Prayer, but he was too. It had only been then that he knew the identity of the man they were burying, the man one of his sons had killed. The doctor's son? A thousand whys screamed in his head, demanding answers and he had none. As he watched, numbed, the coffin was lowered into the ground and his own sons picked up shovels and began to fill in the grave. The doctor remained stock-still, head down, lost, it seemed, in another place and time.

            Ben finally shook himself and stepped forward to the thin man. He took his arm and pulled gently, moving him from the graveside. He said nothing, for he would not and could not find the words. After all, how do you give consolation to a man who has buried his own son when he has saved the life of your own?

            As they returned to the tiny town, Ben heard the swish of the nuns' habits behind them; the steady thudding of dirt clods striking the coffin. From far off came the sigh of the wind as it sloughed across the desert. When they reached the center of town, Doctor Brockman turned towards his office and Ben let him go. Once he had gotten inside, the remaining, and watching, people turned as one into the cantina. Wordlessly, Whiskey Will set up mugs of beer for the men and offered to make something,-tea perhaps? -  for the ladies.

            "If you'd please, I'd like a beer, sir," Sister Immaculata requested, raising eyebrows around the room. Will smiled broadly and with a flourish, produced it for her as she sat down at one of the tables.

            "I wish I'd known what to say," Silas Turner began, "but I didn't. You can't say what is really in your heart, can you? Not at a time like that. No, you can't say that the bastard got what he had coming to him. Sorry, Sisters. You can't say that you're glad he's finally gone. Can't say that you wished you'd been the one to send him to Hell for all the times he rode in here with his bullyboys and roughed things up. No, you can't say that but I feel like I should have said something to Doc."

            "I wasn't aware that one of the men killed was the doctor's son," Ben spoke up, accepting his beer and remaining at the bar.

            "The one that Joe fought with, Mister Cartwright. Virgil. He was the meanest son of a gun I ever knew walked the earth." Broan accepted his drink as well and went to sit beside his brother, Maude already there at the same table.

            Now Ben's stomach cramped hard with fear, a unseen fist beating at him. The tangled lines snarled more and he had to grasp the bar to remain standing. No one seemed to notice, though, consumed as they were by their own talk.

            "They came out to the mission just once," Mother Ruth spoke up and all eyes turned to her, some wide in astonishment. "But when they realized that we had nothing, they left. Scared the girls and Sister Mary Katherine but that was all. That's why they were so afraid of ye when you and Joseph first showed up, Benjamin. Afraid, they were, that ye and yours were part of the gang."

            "Iffen I'd knowed that, Sister, I'd of been out there and-" Broan began, his anger rising even as he rose from his chair. Silas pulled him back down and scowled at him.

            "You'd have done the same thing you did here in town, Broan. Turned your back and prayed they wouldn't be bothering you!"

            There was a faint scraping noise on the porch that barely reached the assembled townspeople. Ben looked towards the door and saw nothing. Just the wind, he thought.

            Even as he listened to the continued talk, Ben found himself growing angry and finally he could not help himself. Slamming his now empty beer mug on the bar he spoke up, his voice cutting through the caustic words thrown at a dead man.

            "Virgil Brockman was a human being. From what I'm hearing, maybe he wasn't a good man but he was a man. More than that, he was a man's son. Silas, I've heard you belly aching about how he and his gang came into town but you sold him goods from your store, didn't you? You, Will! You sold them drink and Maude, I am sure, even though you didn't like the man, you cozied up to him, taking his money. Oh I am sure that every person in this town profited in some small measure from Virgil Brockman. You certainly have from his father. His father, a doctor. He could have gone anywhere, could have practiced his trade anywhere but he stayed in a little place like this. Why? Because he knows that you need him. And maybe because he knew that his son would need him to be here one day. Mother Ruth, what about you? When he came to the mission, did you offer him food and shelter the same way you did Joe and me? Why are you hiding your face? And not once have I heard you speak of this man, this terrible man, and say that you were praying for him."

            "Ye don't understand," Mother Ruth began, still studying the tabletop before her. "Some people, well, they'll understand and appreciate the kindness you hand out to them. Virgil wasn't one of them people."             

            "If nothing else, I would think that you would have doubled your prayers for him in that case. I'm sorry," Ben suddenly said, remembering who he was and where he was. These people had been kind to him and his sons and now, with Joseph wounded so badly, he would continue to need their support. Again, though, that fist of anger beat at him. "I guess I'm the only one here who is a father. I can understand what John Brockman, the man, the father, is going through. I haven't buried a son and I pray that I don't in my lifetime because I can't imagine any sorrow being greater than outliving your children, than burying one of them. It doesn't matter what sort of a man the son was, not to a father. To his father, he was a child learning to walk, speaking his first words. He was a young man full of life and promise. No, all that matters to John Brockman is that his son is dead. Excuse me." Hastily, Ben left the now silent room, going towards where his own son lay resting.

            "May God have mercy on all our souls," Sister Naomi said softly.

            Outside, on the porch, John Brockman shifted uncomfortably then turned back to his own door across the square.




            "How's my patient this morning?" the doctor asked, settling into the rickety chair beside Joe's bed. It had been a week since the shootings and everyone had breathed easier when no infection had formed by the third day. Steadily, Joe's strength had returned, buffeted and cosseted by Maude and Sister Immaculata. Adam and Hoss had returned with the other nuns to the Mission, more determined now to complete their work so that they could go home to the Ponderosa.

            "Fine, Doc," Joe chirped and set aside his empty coffee cup.

            "Okay, let's take a look see, shall we?"

            The physician laid back the quilt covering Joe's leg, keeping one eye on his patient's face, checking for reactions. This time, unlike the first time, Joe's expression remained impassive. The first time, the sight of the mottled and bruised skin, the twisting heavy red scar tissue that began on his inner thigh and disappeared behind his knee to end, finally at the ankle on the outside, all that had been enough to make the boy sick at his stomach. He'd wrenched away from his father's grasp and for several long minutes, breathed heavily, fighting nausea. Now, though, the young man stayed still as the physician untied the restraints that held the splints on either side of the leg.

            "How's this?" Brockman asked and pressed a thumbnail deep into the flesh of Joe's thigh. Again, he watched for a reaction. "Hurt much?"

            "Not really. Like before, like you're pushing on it through a heavy bandage or such."

            He grasped the knee itself, glad to see that the swelling was nearly gone. "How about here?" Keeping his hands hidden, he squeezed the joint hard. It should have caused a strong reaction but it didn't.

            "Same there. Hey, Doc, when can I get up? I'm getting tired of just layin' around," Joe began to put forth his habitual request that the doctor had been hearing since the first day, nearly.

            "Well, I'm sure the bones there aren't knitted together, Joseph. I told you a while ago that that would take time and lots of it. The muscles, too, need time."

            Joe rolled his eyes to the ceiling and sighed.

            "But," the doctor continued and Joe looked back at him hopefully. "Today, we'll put a plaster cast on it. That will hold the bones steady while they heal."

            "Yee haw!" Joe's shout echoed clear across to the livery.

Brockman chuckled at the exuberance. He didn't want to dampen it since he was sure that once Joe knew the whole truth, that enthusiasm would disappear and his recovery time lengthen.

When Ben joined the doctor and his son two hours later, both were coated with plaster; the doctor to his elbows and Joe from toes to hip on the damaged leg. A track of dried white casting material was smeared across his cheek.

"That should do it! Now then, young man, as hard as it may be to do, lie still for a while longer. That has to set good and hard."

"I will!" Joe chirped, all smiles for his father.

"Doctor, why is it…" Ben couldn't find the right word to describe what he saw.

"Bent like that? Simple, Mister Cartwright. If I'd straightened it out, your son here would have been putting weight on it much too soon. At that angle, all he can get on the floor would be his toes."

Again, the easy laughter from the three men and Ben reached out and wiggled the exposed toes just a bit, teasing.

"If you gents'll excuse me, there's some other things I need to attend to." The doctor closed his bag and rolled his sleeves down after he'd knocked the excess plaster off his arms. Catching Ben's eye, he gestured out of the room, silently asking Ben to follow him.

"What is it?" Ben asked anxiously as they stood on the porch of the cantina in the bright winter sunlight.

"I'm a blunt man, sir. I generally tell my patients the whole truth and nothing but the truth but, in the case of your son, I just can't seem to." Brockman looked away, across to where Broan was repairing the iron wrapped around a wagon wheel.

"What is it?" Ben demanded, grasping hold of the thin arm beside him and shaking it.

"While Joe seems to be able to move his leg, wiggle his toes, bend his ankle, he doesn't have any feeling in it. No, let me say that another way. He doesn't have full feeling in that leg. I would guess that there is too much nerve damage. Would be logical."

Swallowing hard, Ben asked what that would mean. "Will Joe be able to walk?"

The doctor nodded. "Yes, probably, and that's another reason why I put that cast on the way I did. He has got to stay off that leg. Not just for the bones to heal but for the muscles to rejoin in some fashion. Maybe then the nerves will grow back. I don't know, Mister Cartwright. I'm just a doctor, not a miracle worker. By bending the leg like that, I'm hoping too that his knee will stay in place. In a few weeks, we put a new cast on, straighten out the leg a little more. We keep doing that until the leg is straight. Hopefully by then, the bone will have healed."

"What then?"

"He starts exercising the knee, the leg. I'm sure he will have been putting weight on the leg before then. Every patient does and I can't see him doing any different. He might not get the full use and mobility out of his knee but hopefully he'll get some. Same thing with the ankle."

"How long is this all going to take? We wanted to head for home, back to Nevada."

The physician patted the arm of the rancher. "That's the nice part about this. With the leg immobilized, he can travel without concern. Any doctor can put a cast on and from the sounds of your Paul Martin, I'm betting he would be able to pick up where I leave off. Hell, he'd been there ahead of me in figuring this all out! I'll write a letter that you can take to him but I don't really think it'll be necessary."

"So we can make plans to leave? To go home?"

"Absolutely. More than anything else, that young man needs to be home."

There was a broad smile on Ben Cartwright's face as he thanked the doctor and went back to his son to tell him the good news. The smile on John Brockman's face slipped as the other man walked away. He shifted his bag to his other hand and stepped down from the porch.

"And if and when it all falls apart because I was doing something new and untried before, I want you folks somewhere other than Lost Springs." He shuddered as he walked away.



Chapter Three

Always carry an extra rope. You may run into something that's bigger than the one can handle.


            "I know. You told me that you'd have to go, but now that I'm learning my letters, can I write you?" Chispa, her hands twining around themselves, looked up into Hoss' round face as she sat perched on his lap.

            "I kind of expect you to! I'm gonna want to know everything you been workin' on and such." Hoss brushed a strand of her black hair away from her face. He wasn't sure who was sadder that they were leaving - him or her. "And maybe you can come up to the ranch and visit with us." He couched his words carefully, not wanting to give the child false hopes but hope all the same.

            "And just like Chispa, I want to get updates from you boys on how things are down here." Adam, his hands resting on the shoulders of Paco and Juan, also felt the tug on his heartstrings.

             "The children will all write, Adam. I will make sure of it!" Sister Naomi assured the two men as they loitered near the front of the cantina. Parked in the dirt street was the buckboard, a padded place in the back for their brother to ride as they went to Maricopa Wells, the first leg on their journey home. Behind them, in the cantina, there were other voices, their father's and the doctor's as well as Mother Ruth's. Some were loud enough to be heard distinctly but mostly not. Finally, the voices stopped and an off beat thumping caught Hoss and Adam's attention.

            "Come on," Joe encouraged, coming to the open doorway. He was still trying to find the right rhythm to using the crutches Hoss had made for him so he wobbled a little. His left leg, bent and held by the cast, pulled him sharply to that side. His trouser leg was split to accommodate the cast then laced back closed. "Help me into the wagon, Hoss, or we'll never get back to the Ponderosa!"

            Both older brothers moved forward and easily got the younger one settled in the wagon. Chispa hopped up and helped Joe get comfortable, handing him his hat. She looked into his eyes gravely for a second then smiled and threw her arms around his neck.

            "I told Hoss that I'll write to him but I'll add something for you too," she solemnly vowed then let Hoss lift her out of the wagon.

            Joe winked at her and when the wagon started to move, lurching forward, he raised his hand in farewell, unable to speak, to call out good bye even. The last view he had, the nuns had gathered the children all before them and they were waving in the bright morning light. Everyone had gathered there except Silas, who was driving the wagon, and the doctor. The calls gradually faded and a lonely sadness came over Joe. He knew without a doubt that he had left a piece of himself with those people and they with him. He promised himself, just before the curve in the road took them out of sight, that he would return to Lost Springs. Feeling a little better, he scrunched down and closed his eyes to sleep.


            Back in Lost Springs, everyone went on to their duties for the day. Maude began sweeping out the cantina while Will settled a new keg of beer in the rack behind the bar. Broan had a mule to shoe and he pumped the bellows to heat the coals again. The nuns and the children, a noisy and cheery pack, headed back to the mission on the mountain path.

            In the office of Doctor John Brockman, M.D. he sat at his desk, his hands sloppily pouring himself another shot of whiskey. He looked again at the creamy thick envelope that was laid on the blotter before him. His hands had shook as he'd addressed it and it showed in the unevenness of the penmanship. He thought about trying again but, after another sip of whiskey, decided that it would do. It was addressed to Joseph Cartwright, The Ponderosa Ranch, Virginia City, Nevada. From his vest pocket he pulled the locket. It was silver and heavy in his hand. For the first time, he opened it. On one side was an inscription. A small tintype was on the other side. He studied the picture of the beautiful woman and noticed the many similarities she shared with her son the same way others had done many times before. There was no doubt whose mother she was. He snapped the locket closed and finished his drink in one gulp. He shoved the locket into the envelope and sealed it in several places on the back with warm wax. Then he pushed it to the back of the desk and laid a silver dollar on it.

            "That way Silas won't have to pay for mailing it," the man muttered, his words slurring together.

            From one drawer, he pulled a Navy Colt, its barrel a burnished blue, the grip a dark walnut. Experimentally, he rolled the chamber and noted that each slot held a bullet then he snapped the chamber closed. Staring straight ahead, he raised the weapon and placed the barrel next to his temple. He never heard the click when he pulled the trigger. His lifeless fingers dropped the gun and his head fell to the desktop. Yet not a drop of blood fell on the envelope to mar the writing.



            "Don't worry. I've got it all figured out," Adam said, enlightening his brothers just before he returned to the open doorway. Behind him, Hoss and Joe studied his retreating back as they sat in the way station at Maricopa Wells. Behind and to one side, their father was arguing with the stationmaster, reminding the little man that at least two of their passages had been already paid for.

            "Now that makes me worried," Hoss agreed with Joe's grunt. "Any time ol' Adam says he's got it all figured out, he normally does."

            Now Joe snorted. "True," he conceded, "but then sometimes the plan has to be modified to make it work."

            Hoss looked over his shoulder at where his father's voice was raised again. "Well, in this case, I hope we are both wrong since it involves getting you into that stagecoach in one piece. That is if Pa'll quit hollerin' at that little fella. He's done told Pa twice now that you and Pa'll be ridin' fer free but Pa don't seem to be listenin'."

            The brothers chuckled quietly to themselves and delved into the basket of fried chicken that sat on the bench between them. Hoss moved the covering napkin aside and motioned with his head to the slices of pie nestled to one side.

            "I see Adam was thinkin' right when he got this here goody basket. Been ages since I had me a slice of pie," Hoss chortled. "But we gotta eat it careful like since there's only two pieces."

            "Stage is pulling in!" Adam called from the doorway and turned just in time to see the last of the pie disappear. Shaking his head, he thought about reminding them that the basket was supposed to have been their noonday meal. It was as clear as the smudge of berry juice on Joe's chin that the basket was most likely empty. He sauntered back, intent on helping Joe into the stage as well as checking the basket. "Leave anything?"

            Hoss, pulling Joe up and helping him get his crutches situated, smiled guilelessly. "Yep. We left the cheese. Come on, little brother. Home is a callin'."

            It galled them but Adam was right. He had it figured out and slick as a whistle, the three brothers were sitting in the stage waiting for their father to join them. There were no other passengers and that would make the ride easier on all of them, they were sure. Adam and Hoss, with their long legs, had room to stretch out and comfortably brace themselves on the bottom of the seat across from them. Joe, with his casted leg propped between his brothers on the opposite seat, wasn't quite as comfortable but he was determined to make do. After all, they were headed home.

            "Well, boys," their father cheerily called as he launched himself into the garish yellow coach. "Glad to see you got yourselves squared away. Should be over close to Griswell Station or even Peterman's by night fall."

            "Good," was the only response he got and that was grunted from his youngest. Suddenly, Ben figured they were a long ways from home.


            The rain began by early afternoon as a hazy mist. Without the leather window covers rolled down, everything became damp and chilled. Concerned for Joe, Ben made sure he was covered by the rabbit skin blanket that the nuns and children had presented him with just before they had left Lost Springs. It covered Joe well enough but even with that reassurance, Ben became more anxious. If the damp weather softened the cast, he was afraid that it would not hold.

            By nightfall, the stage had made it as far as Peterman's Station. While they had the option of continuing on with the stage, the Cartwrights, to a man, decided to spend the night at the small waystation. The wife of the stationmaster fixed them a thin stew, cornbread and gave them glasses of milk. After one sip of the milk, Adam had set it aside and softly cautioned the others of his family to leave it be. "Spoiled," he'd mouthed. Their resting places were no better than the meal they'd paid for: two cots, a chair and a ratty horsehair sofa with its stuffing coming out. Adam and Hoss decided that their night would be better spent sleeping in the barn and so headed there shortly after the meal was finished. Trying to make himself comfortable on the hard cot, Joe wished his father would have allowed him the same consideration. It wasn't to be. As it was, he lay there awake most of the night, listening to the rain hammer on the tin roof and the rats scurry across the warped floor.

            Even with his father's "bunny blanket," as they had taken to teasingly calling it, Joe couldn't get his exposed toes warm enough. Shifting carefully so as not to awaken his father, Joe tried first tucking the casted foot under his other leg. It didn't help and over on his side, the weight pulled hard on his lower back. He tried wrapping the blanket completely around the foot but couldn't manage to reach that far. With stirrings coming from the other room that signaled a coming day, he gave up and dropped for a short while into an unhappy, fitful and cold sleep.

            The stage headed west came through shortly after eight in the morning. By then, the four men wanted nothing else but to put the place behind them. They were grumpy and as the misty rain turned into a solid rain, they settled themselves for another long day.

            "Hey, Hoss," Joe pleaded, poking his biggest brother on the knee to get his attention. Beside him, Ben leaned against the far side of the swaying stage and slept.  Adam, his arms crossed over his chest had pulled his hat down over his eyes some time before. So, Joe was sure that the only member of his family who could help him was Hoss. Getting Hoss to wake up and not do the same for everyone else could be a problem though. Fortunately, Hoss awoke with the second jab.

            "What's a matter?" he yawned.

            "Do me a favor, would you?" Joe whispered.

Hoss blinked, waiting for him to continue.

"My toes," he began then paused. "My toes are cold. Tuck this blanket around 'em, would ya?"

At first Hoss thought about laughing. Cold toes! Of all the-! But seeing the earnest expression on his brother's face, he made a face and did as Joe asked, tucking the hair side of the bunny blanket down around the naked toes. He brushed them in doing so and found them to be cold indeed.

"Need to get a sock over them, little brother," he fussed. He mentally rummaged through his things and found a sock that, come nightfall, would be on that foot if he had anything to do about it.

"Still would need something as a heat source," Adam threw in, not moving his hat from his face. "Hung out there like they are, there's no chance of warming them up and keeping them warm."

"So what do we do?" pestered Hoss, his voice rising.

"Shhh! I'd rather Pa not know-" Joe started then felt his father stirring beside him.

"You'd rather I not know what?"

"Nothing, Pa," claimed Joe with warning glances to his brothers even though Adam wouldn't have seen it. He was relieved when his father grunted once, pulled his jacket closer to his chest and immediately fell back asleep in the swaying coach. Resigned to having the discomfort as long as he wore the cast, Joe sagged into his corner of the stage, twisting his back to settle the constant pull once more. Across from him, Hoss had finished placement of the blanket and settled back into his own corner.

Minutes crept by and still Joe could feel the burning cold of his foot. He kept his eyes closed and willed himself not to even think of them. The stage lurched once more and as it settled back into its swaying motion on the wet and rutted road, something warm came across Joe's toes. His eyes jerked open and he found himself looking into Adam's brown ones catty-cornered across from him. There, a small playful smile darted onto his brother's face that Joe echoed. He nodded his silent thanks and within minutes, was soundly asleep, Adam's hand beneath the furry blanket, covering the now warming toes.


For four days the rains kept up. While the Butterfield Line ran on time, it was with great effort on the part of the drivers and teams. Little consideration was given to the four men who rode as passengers. Each night, they rested while the westbound stages went on. Each night, the places they stayed were far from easeful or homelike. And each morning the trip continued. Few words were exchanged as they each feared a fight, an argument, would erupt and gain them nothing but their father's wrath. The scarcity of decent meals plagued all of them, not just Hoss. Finally, nearing the end of the western faring section, Adam spoke up.

"The next stop, Warner's Ranch, I think we need to stop there for a few days. It's a good place with decent food and beds. Hoss and I stayed there when we came looking for you and Joe and it seemed a right nice place." What he didn't add was that he saw the strain on Ben's face, the deep shadows beneath his eyes that spoke of lost rest. He saw too how his father's clothes hung on him. True, he'd taken a terrible beating not long ago so perhaps he wasn't as healed up as he had led everyone to believe? Indeed, looking at Joe, Adam couldn't help but want to shout at his father. Anyone would have seen how tired the boy was with just a quick look, but Pa didn't?

"Ain't that the place that's got that hot spring nearby, Adam?" Hoss added his voice. "By golly Pa, I can't think of anythin' else I'd rather be doin' than floatin' in that warm water."

"'Less it's eating! Remember the meal Warner put out for us that night? Venison, hot bread and butter. The peas just melted in your mouth, oh so sweet."

            Was it any wonder that the boys won that decision? And their description of the place and its amenities was dead on. Ben found himself sleeping until noon the following day. It hadn't been hard since the bed, with its warm blankets and clean linens, had lulled him into an easy sleep. When he finally arose, he was rested and refreshed for what felt like the first time in ages. He'd taken great pleasure in a hot bath, had shaved and then gone down into the main part of the sprawling inn.

Jonathan Trumball Warner was a New Englander like Ben and while they ate their mid-day meal together, compared places they had known. Both men, the lanky Connecticut Yankee and the solid bulky Nevada rancher liked the other and had much in common. Each had carved an empire out of a wilderness, fighting Indians, outlaws and Mother Nature herself.

"To new friends," Warner toasted Ben with a glass of sherry fit for a king's table. "I hope your sons are enjoying themselves while they're here."

Ben put his glass down carefully on the walnut dining table. "My older sons certainly are. Hoss thinks the sun rises and sets on your cook and that is saying something considering our cook at home! And my oldest son, Adam, when you offered him your library, I think he thought he'd died and gone to heaven. I have never understood that boy and books. Heard the two of them slipped off to that hot springs, what's the name of it? Eagle's Nest?"

Warner smiled. He'd heard the praises sung before and knew he was entitled to them. His thick adobe-walled ranchero, that now doubled as a stage stop for the prestigious Butterfield Line, he had built himself with help of twenty local peons. In the beginning, he had wanted to make his fortune selling beef cattle to the local Army forts. Now, he knew where the makings of his fortune lay. His was the only place along the southern Butterfield Line that merited the title of an inn, to his way of thinking. Many of the traveling patrons thought the same, staying with him for several days before continuing on their journeys.

"Yes, I am pleased to have made your stay here delightful but I don't think that includes your youngest son. I saw that he has a cast on one leg. Is he in pain? I can summon the doctor from the Army fort if you think he needs help." He ran his finger around the top edge of his sherry glass as he spoke, listening to the hum it made.

"No, I think Joseph just needs some rest. Like all of us."

Again, Warner smiled. "He's sitting in the main room, enjoying the fireplace. Or at least he was when I came to lunch. I offered to bring him something or to help him to the table but he declined. Should it be necessary, my offer of getting the doctor stands. Now if you will excuse me, another stage is due in and I must make sure the change of teams is ready. Good afternoon." With that, he stood up, bowed graciously then disappeared, his spurs rattling on the tiled floors.


"Son? How about some of this fine venison?" Ben put the tray he had carried from the kitchen down in front of Joe. There he sat, wrapped in a wool blanket, his leg propped on a hassock towards the fire. He looked at the tray his father had brought then looked up at him and shook his head. Mumbling about not being hungry, he returned his gaze to the fire.

Ben sat down on the hassock, mindful of the additional burden the furniture carried. He studied his son, searching for some sign that would tell him what his voice couldn't ask. What he saw was a blank. Usually Joseph was so easy to read that Ben had no difficulty. His eyes, Ben thought, they're ordinarily so bright. Not now. They were dull. Almost as if he was drugged but Ben knew that was not the case. Continually, Joe had refused the medication the doctor had pressed upon him. Remembering back to what the doctor had told him on the day the cast had been put on, Ben wondered if Joe had been told the same thing.

Suddenly, there was a small smile on his face and Ben took heart from it. "I'm just tired, Pa. A little cold but mostly tired. Can't sleep real good, sharing the bed with this thing." He gestured playfully at the cast. "As heavy as it is to lug around, makes me feel like I'm draggin' Hoss. When Adam first mentioned this place, I thought Yippee! Then I realized that it just ain't gonna be the same for me like it is you all. Can't go fall into the hot springs and warm up 'cause the cast can't get wet. I ain't into eatin' the way Hoss is so, basically, this place is just like any other for me."

The older man took a deep breath and held it; then, his head dropping to one side he measured his son. Joe wasn't whining and complaining. There was no temper behind the words, just…sorrow. "Did the doctor tell you about your leg before we left?"

Joe's green eyes darted away from his father's, seeking to lose themselves and him in the orange flames of the fire. "Yes," he whispered. "Seems no matter what, you're bound to have a crippled up son - me. Wish now we'd never gone to Saint Louis. Should have stayed home. Should have gone ahead and left by myself. Should have left well enough alone. Shoulda, shoulda, shoulda."

Ben tapped the good knee before him. "Maybe come spring we need to go back and see Doctor Gallagher." As he said the doctor's name, he remembered the little doctor, coming into the hotel room in Saint Louis, his words rattling off like shots from a Gattling gun as he assessed Ben as his patient. The fellow had been momentarily embarrassed to find he'd been getting ready to examine the wrong man but then his words had taken off again and they both been hard pressed to keep up with him. But in the end, there had been a deep and overwhelming sadness when he had admitted that he could do nothing to help Joe. His words had not just faltered, but stopped altogether. Who was Ben more sorry for, his son or the defeated doctor? He wasn't sure.

"No. In a way, Pa, I got part of the problem fixed. My knee doesn't hurt any more." He laughed but without mirth. "Maybe when the last cast comes off, everything will be fine and dandy. But then again, maybe it won't. I'm sorry, Pa. Ought to be glad we're headed home, right? And with two legs. Could have been worse, right? Ought to be glad I've still got two, right?" There was a brittle edge and even as he spoke, Ben could see his son valiantly trying to balance on that edge and losing. The fire's flames glittered in the unshed tears in Joe's eyes as he fought to hold them back.

"Son, let it go."

To Ben's surprise, Joe only shook his head. "That's just it, Pa. There isn't anything left. It's like blowing a hole in my leg blew everything away. Everything."

             "You can't mean that, Joseph."

            "Oh, but I can and I do, Pa." He shifted in the chair, the casted leg now falling heavily to one side as he did. He reached forward to right it and found his father doing the same thing. As both pairs of hands righted the leg, Ben caught at Joe's and held it for a moment, seeing himself dully reflected in his son's eyes. After briefly tightening his grip on the hand he'd held, Ben let go and sat back, afraid that perhaps his son was right. There was little left of what had been his child. The man before him almost seemed a stranger. There was no fight left, no temper, no bright flame that made up all that was his son. There was nothing there. He had given in. Beaten down by it all, Joe had accepted it as his due. Ben heard once again the words of the strange priest in the small Saint Louis chapel saying that he would be praying for Joseph to accept the way things were. This was not that acceptance, please God, no! Ben silently raged but outwardly showed the same concerned expression.

            "Guess this is how it is. Least ways for now. Think I'll go back to my room if you don't mind, Pa. Give me a hand getting up, would you?"

            He watched as Joe, now a little more adept at using the crutches, went through the entry way and down the short hall to his room. Still seated by the fire, Ben heard the door open and close. Then nothing except for the crackle of the fire beside him. He slammed one fist into the palm of his other hand.

            "Please, God, no!" he whispered but the fire didn't answer him.


            After two days, the Cartwrights resumed their journey. The route had swept south through the lower half of the New Mexico Territory then reached its long curving finger through the desolate northern Arizona desert on roads rutted and barely passable. But with the better roads they traveled on now as they arched into lower California, there came more passengers. The first morning out of Warner's found them in a full stage for the first time. Adam and Hoss cheerfully went to ride on the top so that they had the legroom they needed. Inside the coach, seven other people, one a small child, crowded in. Wet and muddy, the other passengers seemed worn out, grumpy. The child, not more than two years old, continually fussed and cried until he wore himself out and slept. His mother, a woman old beyond her years, seemed incapable of tending to the child in her own space and the other passengers seemed resentful of her. One, a portly gentleman who reeked of whiskey and tobacco, suggested that she wait at Warner's for the next stage but she ignored him. Another passenger, a timid man who said nothing, spent the entire morning pretending to read a book but all the while kept watching the two Cartwrights suspiciously. At one point Joe's hand brushed the other's sleeve and the man jumped as though he'd been struck.

            At any other time, the ride could have been pleasant but not this time. The rain, having slacked off for the morning hours, came back in the afternoon and while leaving the curtains rolled up allowed in necessary fresh air, it also let in the rain. By nightfall, Joe's jacket was as sodden as if he had taken a place beside his brothers up top. They checked his cast and found that the bunny blanket had kept it dry enough.

            Adam lifted Joe down to Hoss, all three heedless of the pouring rain. With a snap of the reins, the other passengers and the stage rolled on through the wet night, leaving the four Cartwrights at yet another deplorable wayside station. Not bothering with the crutches, Joe leaned on his two brothers and they managed to get him in the door and plunked in a rocking chair beside the cookstove.

            "I swear," Hoss protested, himself dripping onto the floor. "Ain't never seen so much rain in all my born days."

            "That's because we live high enough that the rain this time of year is snow, little brother," explained Adam, wringing out his jacket.

            "Doesn't matter. You boys get out of those wet things before you catch your death of cold. Ma'am, you have some place for us to sleep?" The sons all rolled their eyes as a certain parent's mother hen side became apparent.

            The room the pinched face woman showed them to was barely large enough to hold the bunkbeds, let alone the men who would sleep in them. Adam noted that there was no heat, let alone a stove, in the room while Joe fingered the thin blanket on a lower bunk. Hoss did the same.

            "Hey, Adam, suppose we could get our little brother interested in a game of poker this evening? Maybe get him to wager that bunny skin blanket of his?"

            The snort in the shadows belonged to Ben. "As I recall, that blanket is mine. The children made it for me."

            Joe gathered the blanket close to his chest. "Possession's nine-tenths of the law, right?"

            After a meal made forgettable by its lack of spices and coffee so thin it more closely resembled tea, the men retired to their room. Before the night had gotten too terribly old, all slept. Just before midnight, Ben awakened then had to lie there, trying to figure out what it was that had awoken him. Then, just as he was about to fall back asleep, he heard it again. A cough. He listened closer but it didn't come again.

            With daybreak, he knew where the cough had come from and had a fair idea what it foretold. Even while Joe still slept, Ben'd pressed his hand to his son's cheek, seeing the color. The fever was mild but worrisome to the parent who had raised his sons nearly single-handedly. But Joe ate the breakfast offered even though oatmeal was far from his favorite food.

            The son he should have been watching was his oldest. After loading their few pieces of luggage into the westbound coach, Adam had to step away from his father and disguise a cough. He cleared his throat, noticing the scratchiness again. He wondered how long he had before it would become obvious. It already was on Joe, Adam considered and hoped that with his father's attention directed that way, that he could escape detection for a while longer. Funny, though, when Hoss sneezed in the confines of the stage an hour into the day's travel, he could feel his father's attention pounce on him.



            "Just a cold, Mister Cartwright, that's all. Considering the weather of late, it doesn't surprise me. Only thing to be done is rest and lots of fluids. For all of your sons, sir, and if I am not mistaken, for yourself as well." The doctor snapped his black bag closed. The watery daylight streaming through the hotel window gave the physician a weak halo. Summoned at once by a concerned Ben, the doctor, one Doctor Marcus Beechum, had arrived barely before the Cartwrights had settled into the suite of rooms in the Plaza Hotel in the grandiose town named El Pueblo de la Reyna de los Angeles. 

            The doctor, a short rotund man sporting the most outlandish set of mutton-chop sideburns Ben Cartwright had ever seen on a living individual, had been prompt, courteous and thorough in his examinations. As Ben had stood by, the man had looked down throats, some of them rebellious at the intrusion, felt along jawlines and had, in general, done everything that Doctor Paul Martin in             Virginia, City Nevada would have done. His pronouncement was the same as well. So was his prescription: rest, and fluids, but Ben felt compelled to ask, "Are you sure?" To which the man had smiled and nodded his head, just before he slapped on his derby and disappeared out the door.

            Ben stood in the parlor, gazing at the now closed door. Behind him, the fire had been lit and it was doing all it could to dismiss the gray gloom and doom atmosphere. It was too bad that the only man there couldn't appreciate its efforts. Giving up on watching the door, Ben shoved his hands into his pockets and went to the window.

            "Rain," he muttered. "Never seen so much of it! And in the mountains, it's snow. We'll be lucky if we aren't snowed out of the Ponderosa until spring. Passes then will be washing away so it may be even later. This is January. One of the coldest months of the year up home and here I sit - here, all of us sit! Should have left sooner." He looked towards the closed door to his left. He could hear the cough of his youngest, followed by the groan of the bedstead as he moved. "And if we had left earlier, Joe wouldn't have been shot. Funny, at Warner's he was saying should of this, should of that and I chided him about it. Now I'm doing the same thing!"

            Giving up on the rainy vista, Ben returned to stand with his back warming at the small fireplace, his hands clasped behind his back. For just a moment, he closed his eyes and tried to pretend that he was home; that the fire behind him was in that massive hearth he had laid with his own hands.

            "I heard what the doctor said," Adam said and saw his father jerk at the sound so close to him. Apparently, his arrival had gone un-noticed, just as he had hoped it would. Now as he spread his hands to the fire, he saw the crinkles at the corner of his father's eyes. "I though for sure that he said you were included in that rest and fluids business."

            Ben grunted and eyed his son. "I know you were. What are you doing out of bed?"

            "I thought I would ring the desk and order us all something to eat. Soup? Some hot tea? Maybe some brandy?"

            Again, Ben merely grunted which Adam took as affirmative and stepped to the ornate cord and pulled hard. He stepped back to enjoy the warmth from the fire and waited. Within several minutes a smartly dressed young man appeared at the doorway.

            "Yes, we'd like some soup, four, no make that five servings, with all the trimmings. Several pots of tea. And a bottle of brandy." The young man listened closely to Adam's list then disappeared with a promise that he would have it all up to the room post haste. Adam really thought that Hoss' sneeze shaking the windowpanes encouraged the youngster more than the potential tip. He grinned as he closed the door but it fell away as he saw his father sink into the chair beside the fireplace.

            "Pa, go on. Get to bed. I'm sure that you haven't slept any better than the rest of us. Probably less, knowing you."

            Unwilling to give in to the small aches and pains, Ben glared at his son. "I don't recall having sent you to medical school, young man. Since when do you feel you can get away with giving your father orders?"

            The faint underlying hostility in Ben's tone shouted at Adam. Without a doubt, he knew once Ben took that stand and used that tone of voice, that there was nothing any of them could do to dissuade him. Adam raised his hands in surrender as he sat down in the adjoining chair, propping his booted feet on the hassock. He pulled his handkerchief from his back pocket and took a swipe at his nose as he cleared his throat. During the whole maneuver, he could feel his father's glare on him.

            "Pa, please," he softly pleaded, then, seeing the gentling wash over the older man, pressed his most succinct attack. "If one of us gets worse, we'll need you at your best. You know that. If you rest now, you'll be ready if we should need you. Please?" Again, he saw his father shift in the chair and knew his words had hit home. "I'll call you when dinner comes up."

            There was a deep sigh that Ben let loose as he stood. All the same, he pointed a blunt finger at Adam and shook it. "Do that! And once we have all eaten, you are to take some of your own advice and rest yourself."

            However, the door Ben went through did not lead to his own sumptuous bed but that of his youngest son. Outside in the parlor, Adam shook his head and muttered "Halfway there."

            The soup served to them was a hearty chicken soup, loaded with vegetables and thick noodles. Accompanying it was a loaf of bread, still warm from the oven, two pots of hot tea, one of which smelled faintly of orange, and a bottle of brandy, appropriately aged. The four men, three who came reluctantly to the table in the parlor, made short work of the repast then returned to their beds. Only Adam remained up long enough to summon the bellhop and have the dishes removed. Then he too, slipped into his overstuffed bed, pulled the downy blankets up close to his chin and fell asleep.

            Late in the night he awoke, the covers suddenly too warm and he pushed them to the side. As he lay stretched out and the sweat cooling on him, he sought sleep again but it fell beyond his grasp. Instead, he listened to the night sounds around him. In the room next to him, just like at home, he could hear Hoss' snores, a string of hearty pulls then a rough edged harrumph then back to the hearty pulls. Adam smiled in the dark. Just hearing his brother snoring was comforting, knowing he was close at hand. He let his senses reach out, but unlike at home, the distance to his father and other brother was too great. He closed his eyes and tried to imagine the sounds he would have heard in the night if he had been home. Hoss' snores, of course, but from down the hallway, he would hear the faint rustling of his brother moving about. Joe had always been a restless sleeper and Adam recalled distinctly how someone would always-or it at least it seemed to be always- get up in the middle of a cold night and make sure a young Joe was covered. Lots of times, it had been him. Other times, he would hear his father stirring then the door across the hall open and footsteps tread the carpet, stop, a door would squeak then the same noises in reverse. He wondered how many years' worth of sleep Ben had lost, checking on his sons in the middle of the night. Or worrying about them when they hadn't come home when they said they would.

            Finally, Adam knew that struggling to sleep was futile and he swept the sheet aside and dressed, only leaving his boots off. He opened his door and making use of the firelight, took the path across to Joe's door. He cracked it open and saw that although his brother was covered, it wasn't by much. He wanted to laugh; some things never changed. Adam was about to close the door when it dawned on him that there were green eyes watching him. He eased into the room, leaving the door open a little.

            "You warm enough?" he whispered and saw Joe nod.

            "Can't sleep," Joe confessed and Adam did so too.

            "You in pain?" asked Adam, feeling as though that should be the only reason Joe would be awake.

            Surprisingly, Joe shook his head. "If you mean my leg, it doesn't hurt. My throat, that's a different story!"

            "Don't tell anyone," he said, pointed to the adjoining wall for emphasis, "but mine does too! Think we caught this from that whining kid on the stage?"

            No one, Adam believed, could shrug as eloquently as his little brother. It said so much and when he did it, it made Adam chuckle, despite the soreness in his throat. He tugged the blankets back right on the bed, covering up more of Joe then sat down on the edge and sighed.

            "Haven't had the opportunity but I wanted to tell you thanks for working on my leg like you did. Pa said it kind of upset you. I'm sorry, Adam."

            "Sorry for what? It wasn't your fault the gun went off. And it certainly wasn't your fault that the doctor-"

            "No, that's where you're wrong. If I hadn't started that stupid fight, none of this would have happened, Adam. And what did I start the fight over? A damn fool gun. I had to have my gun back. So stupid." Joe paused, one fist pounding the mattress, then he went on. "Why did I do it? Why, Adam?"

            Adam sucked in a deep breath between his teeth. He figured he knew the answer and he could tell Joe but wondered if he should. Finally, seeing the little boy who had just lost his mother come to him for answers when his father turned him away, Adam nodded.

            "Guns, they mean a lot more than just a way of feeding and protecting us. They are extensions of us, Joe. They say so much about us to the world. What sort of gun they are, how we holster them, how we use them. Your revolver, riding in a tied down holster, slung low, that you can pull out faster than I can say it, that says a lot about you. You're quick and you want people to back away from you in a possible gunfight. Don't say it isn't true because it is. And I taught it to you, remember? Granted," Adam smiled ruefully. "You pull it out a lot faster and more often than I do."

He was rewarded by a soft chuckle from Joe. "I guess you could say that a gun represents our manhood. It's a symbol to the world that we have reached a certain age. That we have reached a certain level of adulthood. We're men, we carry guns."

            When the silence had stretched out for several ticks of the clock in the parlor, Joe urged Adam to continue with a "So? What's that got to do with all this?"

            Drawing his leg up onto the bed, Adam hooked the other over it and he leaned forward, resting his chin on his knuckles. "You took a hell of a beating from those boys, Joe, but the worst thing they did was take away your gun hand. You quit wearing a gun because you couldn't use it the way you wanted to: fast, sure, deadly. When that happened, you felt like you weren't a man. Don't interrupt me. You started this discussion; you asked the question. Don't try to stop me because you don't like the answer." Joe settled back and although the expression on his face was pained, Adam continued, knowing a wound must be lanced and drained sometimes in order to heal properly. "You had the appearance of a man but inside you felt like a kid again: unsure of himself and needing protection from his family. What did we do? Your family? We helped that feeling along. We did for you, even when we had to force it on you. We did it all in saying that we loved you and cared for you. Then you and Pa went to Saint Louis. Something happened there that had nothing to do with that doctor working on your leg. I don't know what it was but you started believing enough in yourself again that you were wearing your gun when the stage wrecked."

            Even as Adam spoke, he watched Joe. He saw the pain wash away from his face as Joe recalled silently the long private talks he'd had with the priest. That strange little man, whose voice Joe could still hear in his memory some nights. The man spoke of getting along in life and Joe had believed him and the words he'd said. It had been compounded when his hand had wrenched itself back to usefulness on a wet night when a life other than Joe's own had depended on it. Yes, the priest had given him a way back.

            "Then I guess you could say that Virg Brockman took it away again when he beat up Pa and me."

Adam nodded. "And when he walked into that cantina, you were ready to take it back. You were more than willing to yank your life back into what it had been before, weren't you? You weren't fighting Virgil Brockman, Joe; you were fighting the rest of the world. You lived, he didn't. Now, "Adam took a steadying breath, "now you have to deal with the results of that fight."

Joe snorted softly and Adam longed for more light so that he could see his brother's face more clearly. "Yeah, now I have to pay the piper. Isn't that the saying?"

"Every decision has its own consequences Joe. This," He tapped the casted leg, "is what it took for the world -"

"No!" The word exploded from Joe with far more force than he wanted. For a heartbeat, all was silent as they listened to see if any one had heard it. When there was no call from another room, Adam moved so that he could see Joe's face in the light from the moon. He could hear the ragged breathing coming from him.

"That's what you don't understand, Adam," he whispered and Adam could see the welling of tears in his eyes. "The world didn't do this." He slapped at his bent leg. "Virg Brockman didn't do it either. The finger on the trigger when that gun went off - both times- was mine. I killed him. That was the first shot but he was still hanging onto me and I was afraid, Adam, so I pulled the trigger again. Don't you see? I crippled myself."

With the last three words Joe spoke, tears spilled down over his cheeks for the first time.


Chapter Four

Even enemies have their uses for without them, friendship would have no meaning.



"That's four to you, Adam." Hoss pushed four matchsticks across the table, a peculiar glint in his eye as he did so.

Adam looked at the cards he held close to his chest, fanning them slightly to study them once again. He could barely make out the edge of two Q's, one red and one black. The other three cards in his hand amounted to nothing, a deuce, a red six and a black ten. He made a face at them, pursing his lips then narrowing his eyes dramatically, he shoved four matches into the pile in the middle of the table. "There's your four and I raise you four more." He slid another four into the pot then sat back and grinned.

Next to Adam, Ben studied his cards as well but with far less of a display of showmanship. He pushed the requisite number of matches into the pile and said firmly, "I call."

Hoss smiled broadly as he laid out his hand. A pair of tens. His big hands rested lightly on the table, a hair's breadth from the conglomeration of wooden matches.

Adam sucked his breath in and placed his cards on the table. "Pair of lovely ladies beats a pair of ten-spots, brother." To underscore his remark, he made to scoop the matches to his side of the table.

Ben grabbed Adam's arm and stopped him. "Hold on a second, son," he teased and laid his cards, one at a time on the surface. A deuce, followed by a three which was chased by a four, a five and finally, with a flourish, a six. "They are all the same suit, too. You do know what that means, don't you, boy?"

"Last time I checked I think it means that my father is a better poker player than he ever let on to be. You know, Hoss, if we weren't family, I might accuse someone of playing with a marked deck." Adam ruffled the cards that lay before him as if looking for some telltale mark. He knew there would be none but it still rankled to be beaten, again, by the older man.

"Adam!" Joe piped up from where he sat next to the fire. "Are you accusing our father of cheating?"

Laughter rippled around the room. For the first time in three days, they all had gathered together. Even though there were still a pair of runny noses and a persistent cough from the youngest, they all had rested. They felt better for it and it had shown when their father had suggested a game of cards.

"As I recall, the man who won was gonna take the rest of us to dinner downstairs in that fancy restaurant." Hoss nudged Ben just once and winked at Adam.

"All right. But we sit to one side so we don't give our colds to anyone else. Understood?"

At the entrance to the restaurant, they paused. There were two other diners present but the man and woman didn't even notice the four men as they entered the expansive room. With windows along one side that reached from floor to ceiling, the lit chandeliers seemed superfluous. The white table linens glowed like, as Hoss put it, like a field of snow right after it had fallen. The linens and the light reflected off the highly polished floor, almost as though it was made of water, not wood. The starched maitre d' who escorted them towards their table seemed haughty and disapproving of their rough clothing. He liked it even less when the young man on crutches had one slip away and fell with a loud clatter, shattering the quiet of the room.

Instantly, Hoss and Ben were to him, asking if he was all right. Joe, puffing out his cheeks, claimed he was all right; his crutch had slipped on the slick flooring, that was all. Hoss lifted him and put him on his one solid foot while Adam retrieved the crutches and positioned them carefully.

Once they were seated and the maitre d' had disappeared, Joe apologized to his family. Adam wanted to shout at him that it wasn't something that needed an apology. It was an accident but yet he recalled the words his brother had said not too many nights ago and wondered when Joe would stop blaming himself. He stayed silent, deciding to study the menu like it was a work of art, not a simple listing of fare. A waiter appeared, ready to take their order and Joe stopped, scrutinizing the menu now.

"You can eat crow some other time, Joe, but me? I'm gonna have me a steak, baked 'tater, fresh beans. Say, Pa, where would they get fresh string beans in January?"

"I can't rightly say, Hoss, but you go ahead and have some of them. Adam? What about you?" Ben's hand clamped down over Adam's arm and he felt color rise in his cheeks. If he ordered less than a full meal, it would be a dead giveaway that he still suffered from the effects of his cold. Yet, he didn't feel like loading his body down with foods that would not be burnt in some form of physical exercise.

He caved. "Steak and potatoes sound good too. But I don't think I'll have the big one Hoss is eyeing." A soft chuckle went around the table.

"Well, you all can eat all the steak there is. I am going to have some of that fried chicken. Mash those potatoes and smother them with gravy. Put some corn on the plate and I'll be a happy man."

Adam rolled his eyes at Joe's exaggerated voice, making him sound like some rube just come down from the hills.

Ben's brows raised. Could this be the same pack of young men that yesterday were complaining miserably about everything? The same ones who coughed and wheezed? The same ones who could be heard sneezing two rooms over? "Feed a cold, starve a fever. Or is it the other way around," he muttered.

The waiter leaned forward. "Pardon me, sir, but I didn't hear that. Could you repeat it?"

"Steak, well done. Mashed potatoes. With gravy, please. Green beans. Coffee all around. No appetizers. These boys of mine are obviously hungry enough that they don't need one," Ben barked and the little man bowed once and hurried away, still looking over his shoulder.

"Between Joe falling and you shouting at the waiter, Pa, they may never let us back in here," teased Adam, taking the snowy napkin from its perch on the table and laying it across his lap.

"They'll let us back in," Joe chirped, "long as Pa doesn't tip the waiter with his poker winnings. Don't think the man would appreciate that many matches."


When the meal was over, Adam finally decided to leave the confines of the room. Ben put up a token argument about being out so soon after being ill but when Hoss offered to go with him, the father had to concede. With the youngest one sufficiently cowed by a stern parental look, the two brothers took off.

"El Pueblo de la Reyna de los Angeles. Pretty pretentious name for the place, wouldn't you say?" The look Adam got from Hoss in response to his query told him that his bigger brother hadn't understood a word he'd said. He rephrased it. "Way the name sounds, you'd think it was as glorified as San Francisco!"

As they walked beneath the overhanging balconies, nodding politely to the gracious ladies they met, Hoss mulled over what Adam had said. "Just 'cause it ain't big don't mean it can't get that way! Why, they got some fine lookin' buildin's here, Adam. And these streets, I never seen streets as wide as these suckers. You could turn a twenty-mule team around with no problem. Wouldn't even have to find an intersection to do it, neither."

Adam chuckled. Leave it to Hoss to always find the best in a place. Or an animal. Or a man. His thoughts turned inward as they rambled through the town. The stately houses of San Francisco were missing in great quantity but there were some houses that met, or exceeded, their northern compatriots. They hid behind tall adobe walls the same way the young women would hide their smiles behind the lace mantillas they wore with such grace. In the business section of town, the shops were closed but that was fine with the Cartwright brothers. They understood "siesta time." They simply had wanted to escape the hotel for a few hours, to wander aimlessly.

A sharp whistle broke their mutual silence. "Railroad," Adam said the single word as though it explained everything and, by unspoken agreement, the two headed for the sound.

The station looked much like any other along the line of the Central California railroad: a single story clapboard building with an expansive roofed-over open area that was filled with benches. As they watched, the locomotive huffed billows of white steam that the wind played with, whipping it back along the two passenger cars and the three freight cars full of cattle. At the very end, the caboose was emptying out. Rough men, cowboys were dropping from it, legs stretching. They moved up alongside the cattle cars, peering in, calling to one another as they assessed their four-legged charges. Then with a sudden lurch, the train began to move again. The cars swayed and the cattle lowed and bawled but it was a short trip off to an unloading chute.

"Wanna go help 'em?" Hoss offered and Adam graced him with a look that said he could but he wouldn't.

"Last thing we need is to go back to that hotel dirty and muddy…or worse. Can you hear Pa? I can if you can't. Nope, them fellas are in charge of those cattle and they can handle it all. That's what they get paid for, Hoss. But we can sit on the fence and watch them."

Perched on the top rail of the fence around an unused portion of the stockyard, the two Cartwright brothers watched. Every once in a while, one or the other would make an observation concerning a cow, or a man and the other would chuckle. They were sure that they had been noted by the working cowboys but, for the most part, they were left alone and it suited them to a "T." Once the last white-faced steer was down the chute and into the holding pen, the two watchers slapped one another on the shoulder and prepared to hop down from their roost.

Dusting the rear of his britches, Hoss noticed that Adam was still on the fence and he looked up. "What is it?" he pestered, not seeing anything of any great importance in the direction his brother was looking at intently. Indeed, all he could see was a single railcar parked along an unused section of track on the far side of the rail yard.

"The way home," crooned Adam softly, a smile dancing playfully on his lips as he slipped from the fence rail. "Come on!" He headed across the tangle of tracks, trusting that Hoss would follow. He stopped when he reached the railcar.

"They don't move cattle in that, do they?" Hoss whispered, studying the car.

Although it was configured like other passenger cars on the outside, it obviously wasn't for the public. The olive green body was outlined with a thin gold line. There along the side, in the center, were the words, again in gold, "Central Pacific." Not able to see in from ground level, Adam slipped around to the rear of the car. An overhang made a small platform there where Adam could picture important men standing around smoking cigars as the train chugged through mountainous passes. He peeked into the car's interior. From his vantagepoint, he wasn't able to see much except for a small kitchen, more like the galley one would find on a ship, and a short hallway. The hallway ended in what appeared to be a sitting room.

"Ahem!" A throat behind Adam was cleared. He knew it wasn't Hoss so he heeded its unspoken request and turned around.

On the ground, looking up, was a heavy set man, dressed in an odd uniform with a short wooden baton bouncing in his pudgy hands. "Now I am bettin' that you're not a guest of the governor. Are you?" There was a heavy coating of British varnish to the words.

Adam swung down and caught Hoss' eye. "You'd be right, of course, but I do have a message for the governor that is quite urgent. Unfortunately, I forgot which hotel he was staying at so I thought if I came here…" His tone dropped and he appropriated the look of an overworked lackey. It was a good thing that the man with the baton wasn't looking at Hoss since the big man was about to bust a seam not laughing. In a small corner of his head, Adam could already hear Hoss telling the story of Adam getting caught as a "peeping tom."

"Ah," the uniformed chest expanded and the baton pointed back towards town. "The Imperial. He and the missus and the boy. Some sort of campaign business."

Quickly Adam thanked the man and, grabbing Hoss' beefy arm, hustled across the tracks in the general direction the baton had pointed. Once they were out of sight, Hoss pulled back on his brother and they halted. He leaned against the side of the building and laughed. The guffaws were loud enough that they echoed down the alleyway and those few persons on the street turned to look.

"You go ahead and laugh, big brother," warned Adam, a smile still playing tag with his mouth, "but that's our way home."


"You heard me. The train. Forget the stage. We can take the train home, or, well, most of the way home." He turned and looked back towards the railyard.

Hoss looked at his older brother as if the man had suddenly become crazy. "If you think the stage was hard on us, Joe in 'ticular, what do you think that there train is gonna be? Them hard seats with narrow spaces 'tween 'em? The jerkin' and carryin' on that them cars do? Even when I feel good, I hate ridin' the train."

Adam smacked his brother's chest with the back of his hand. "That's why we aren't going in just any train, Hoss. You didn't see the layout I saw in the car. I did."


"Now I just need to make a pact with the devil, Hoss." He saw the question clearly on Hoss' face and he answered it. "That car belongs to the governor of the state of California. He is also president of the Central Pacific. That man is Leland Stanford."

Even as he explained, Adam felt his stomach begin churning, a fist tightening deep within him. If there was single human being on earth that he, Adam Cartwright, hated with a passion, it was Leland Stanford. He stood for everything Adam stood against. As governor of the state of California, he had pushed through legislature that enabled him and his three partners, Collis Huntington, Mark Hopkins and Charles Crocker, to finance the building of the Central Pacific Railroad from Sacramento eastward with public money. While he gave the appearance of a thinking man with his dramatically paused speech pattern, Adam knew that the only thinking Leland Stanford did was how to make another dollar. When Crocker, the construction chief, had failed to convince the Cartwrights to sell their lumber cheaply, Stanford had stepped in. Adam still remembered the rankled feelings he'd had that day when Stanford had walked out of the Sacramento meeting. It hadn't helped that one of the passes through the mountains stood to go through on Ponderosa land and the Central Pacific wanted it. They had threatened to have the government take over the land with a decree of "imminent domain." The Cartwrights had stood firm and the Central Pacific had used another pass nearby, one more suited to their needs actually. No, Adam knew the reason behind the attempted land grab. It had more to do with the timber there.

Now, as he walked down the broad street, he fought the hatred.


It turned out to be quite easy to be admitted into the presence of the governor. At the hotel's main desk, Adam had simply asked for a piece of paper. He was going to write a short note, he'd told the desk clerk, requesting an audience with the man. The desk clerk had asked his name then sent a bellhop scurrying up the grand circular staircase. It seemed like only a minute before the young man was back and saying, "This way, please." They followed, Adam dusting his clothes and wishing he'd cleaned up before making this effort.

The room they were escorted into was a more opulent version of the suite he and his family occupied across town but it didn't matter to Adam. Despite the fact that Hoss was still with him, he felt exposed, weak and defenseless.

"Adam Cartwright!" Stanford's voice boomed out across the room, filling it to capacity. The huge man, his goatee freshly trimmed, strode across the room and grasped Adam's hand and then Hoss'. The handshake was just what Adam always thought a politician's handshake was: fast, firm, furious and false.

"Governor, I was hoping that we could talk for a few moments," Adam, his hat making nervous circles in his hand. Now that he stood before the man, he remembered all the things he disliked about him and had to force himself to center on why he had come.

"Of course we can, Adam but first, let's have us a little something to take the chill out of the bones. All right?" Without waiting for his visitors to respond he shouted for his manservant and instructed the black man to bring brandies. "Come on in and sit down, my friends." He waved them further into the room, directing them to the brocade-covered chairs. Hoss took one look and sat instead on the edge of the small sofa, his tall crowned hat looking very out of place on the satiny cushion.

"Please tell me that you boys are down here to add some clout to my southern campaign." Stanford settled his bulk into a facing chair and, his arms stretching across his ample girth, linked his fingers.

"I don't think the Cartwright name means much this far from home, Governor." Adam smiled wanly, fighting to keep a cough from erupting.

"You'd be surprised who knows your name. And where they call home! But I gather that there is something else on your mind. Let me guess, you want the Central Pacific to build another railroad spur onto the Ponderosa. For that, I'll have to direct you to the construction chief, my good friend and business partner Charles Crocker. Believe you've met him."

When Adam didn't speak up immediately, Hoss knew why. He distinctly recalled an altercation Adam'd had with Crocker that involved fisticuffs and a warning that should Crocker even be caught looking at a ponderosa pine growing on Cartwright soil, that Adam wouldn't bother with his fists but just shoot the man as a common trespasser.

"Yes, sir," Hoss spoke up. "We've met Mister Crocker but I don't think that's what my brother had in mind."

A sly smile came to Stanford's face and feral gleam lit his eyes that he had trouble disguising. "You're here to offer me Ponderosa timber, aren't you? Hate to tell you but the need for it is pretty much over. We've joined the rails. Did it last year, in case you hadn't heard."

"Oh we heard, all right but you and Huntington, Hopkins and Crocker, you aren't finished building railroads just because there is one that goes from Sacramento clear to the Atlantic." Adam had to clear his throat. Behind his eyes, a headache was forming and he offhandedly wondered if it had been brought on by his cold or by the man he spoke to. "But yes, I've come to make a deal with you."

George, the elderly black servant, entered the room, a heavily laden tray in his hands. He slipped the silver tray onto the oak table next to Stanford and proceeded to pour three glasses of brandy and distribute them to the seated men. Adam swirled his in the crystal snifter a few times then sipped it gratefully. Whatever it was that had threatened his throat fled.  Hoss too sipped his brandy and gave the governor a silent point for keeping good drinking liquor at hand.

"I'm waiting," Stanford broke the silence when Adam had fallen suddenly taciturn.

"It's like this," Adam began and keeping strictly to the facts, told the governor what had happened to the Cartwright family over the past nine months.

"As I recall, one of the boys was kin to the governor of Nevada, wasn't he? One of the others, James Fair's whelp." Stanford had leaned back in his chair and studied his visitors more carefully now, clearly weighing and assessing what he had heard. When Adam had said that both boys had been involved and started to go on, Stanford stopped him with an upturned hand. "Your brother, the youngest one, right? Joseph. Yes, I remember meeting him briefly when you came to Sacramento a few years ago. Very likable and personable a young man as I recall. Reminded me a bit of my own son, Leland Junior. I'm sorry, go on with your story."

Adam did. By the time he had gotten to the four Cartwrights being in Los Angeles, as the city was called by the Americans, Stanford had finished his first brandy and was working on a second.

"Very intriguing tale, Cartwright. Glad to hear, first off that your father and this younger brother of yours are in town. Secondly, I like hearing stories where right triumphs over wrong. Makes me proud to be not only an American but a Westerner as well. But," and he drew the word out slowly, "I still don't understand what it has to do with me and your being here."

The two Cartwrights looked at one another, Hoss seeking to understand the same thing their host did and Adam looking for understanding from Hoss. Since there would be no understanding without laying all of his cards on the table, Adam plunged on.

"I - no- we need to get my brother home. And quickly. I have reason to believe that the only way he will ever heal completely is by getting home." Inside his pounding head, Adam heard his brother's words from that night. Heal, Adam thought, not just in his body but in his mind, his spirit, as well.

"There are stage coaches headed north out of here nearly every hour of the day," the governor pointed out needlessly.

"Yes," Adam conceded, his head dipping, "and that is how Joe caught a miserable cold. I am afraid in his present condition," and mindset, that damnable surrendering attitude, "he wouldn't be able to fend off anything more serious. The ride in one of those is far from easy on a man with both feet firmly on the floor, much less one in a heavy cast. I even thought about the train but, as my brother here pointed out, that ride wouldn't be much easier on him. Cold, cramped, crowded conditions. You can't sleep, the food at the stations are hardly edible." Adam was ready to continue outlining the perils of travel but Stanford held up his hand and smiled.

"My private car," he oozed and saw both of the other men lean forward expectantly. "You saw it down at the railyard, didn't you? Get a good look inside? Or did Shaunessy, my watchdog down there, run you off?"

There was something condescending about the politician that made Adam lean back in his seat, away from him. For the first time, he had serious doubts whether he could pull it off, just watching Stanford.

"The little fella with a stick in his hand kind of let us know who it belonged to and that we weren't really welcomed to go snoopin'," Hoss brought up and, to his brother's amazement, his little explanation made the governor laugh.

"What are you suggesting, Cartwright? That I let you borrow my railcar so that you can take your brother to Sacramento?"

Adam took a deep breath. "If the passes are plowed, we could get even closer. Carson City or Reno. Either one. Does that answer your question?"

Stanford stood and walked a short distance away but Adam had turned and watched the man's every move. "How long?"

"Five days, a week at the most then back here to you." Adam's throat was dry, scratchy and he finished his brandy, hoping it would perform its miracle again and allow him to keep negotiating, for it was no longer a discussion.

"What are you offering?" The words were softly spoken but they may as well have been dynamite charges going off in the room for suddenly Adam was on his feet.

"You still need timber. Timber for ties for the lines the Central Pacific is building north out of Sacramento, south into the Mariposa gold fields, south here and San Diego. Timber for trestles to cross rivers, arroyos, canyons. Wood to throw into the fireboxes of your locomotives to keep them moving. Timber, Governor Stanford, is what I am offering." His hands dashed and danced before him as Adam had spoken, punctuating his words.

"At my price?" Stanford's eyes narrowed and even across the room from him, Hoss could feel the chill that seemed to burst from the man where before he had been warm and affable. "For, say, half a million board feet?"

Adam felt as though he had been gut-punched - hard. He couldn't help but let Stanford see him swallow hard and drag in a deep breath but with that deep breath, he drew his iron will back into himself and kept his eyes nailed on the governor.

"You really would hit a man when he's down, wouldn't you, Stanford?" Adam whispered but the other man only smiled.

"Where are you staying? I'll have my secretary prepare the documents and bring them over tomorrow morning. There is a ten o'clock northbound train that my car can be attached to tomorrow. And as for you being down, I'll give you this, Cartwright. Central Pacific won't expect to take full delivery until August. I'll see to it that it can be made right up there in your mountains, anywhere along our tracks. How's that?"

"I would love to have the time to argue with you, to haggle with you, but I don't. You win, Stanford, only because I'm desperate to help my brother, my father."

The governor smiled and put out his hand for Adam to shake but Adam refused to accept the hand. "Next time, Cartwright, I'll beat you down fair and square. Your hotel?"

"The Plaza. And so we understand one another, as soon as the papers are signed, the railcar is ours to use until we are as close as we can get to the Ponderosa then we return it to you." Stanford nodded and slipped his thumbs into his vest pockets, rocking back on his heels. "As far as I am concerned, Governor, there will never be a next time. Come on, Hoss."

Once their feet hit the broad avenue and started walking, Adam felt the shaking begin. It ran from his belly to his chest to his head. It made him dizzy and he stopped so fast that Hoss passed him by ten feet. When the big man swung around, Adam was leaning over, his hands pressed to his knees to keep himself from falling down completely. With Hoss' rough grasp of his biceps and no-nonsense attitude, he was forced to sit down on the steps of the hotel.

"You okay, brother?" the gentle voice asked, right in Adam's ear.

He nodded and took another deep breath. Beside him, he heard Hoss telling someone that they were okay; that his brother had been ill previously and had just overdone it a little. Even as he sat there, his head pounding ferociously, his throat alternately closing and opening, with Hoss' hand resting lightly on his shoulder, he began to regain his composure. Once the trembling had subsided, he stood, ready to go on but Hoss had other ideas.

"Over there, " and he jutted his chin out, showing Adam that there was a small saloon across the street. With one bicep held in his brother's vice-like grip, he felt compelled to go where Hoss took him. Once inside the saloon, he was plunked rather forcefully into a chair while Hoss went in search of their drinks. When he returned, he had a beer for himself but in front of Adam, he lowered a steaming cup of coffee.

"I could have used the beer," he contended but Hoss shook his head and sipped his own beer.

"I done come to the conclusion that you've already had too much to drink." He took another long swallow of his beer while Adam sipped his coffee carefully. "You gonna explain what happened or do I just gotta guess?"

"I just got a little winded, that's all. You know how it is when you have a cold." Adam turned, looking for someone to order a beer from, but the bartenders and waiters seemed otherwise inclined.

"I'll take that as an answer for what happened just now, but what I was really lookin' for was the take on what happened with Stanford."

All the elder brother could do was look over the rim of his white mug. He stalled for time, drinking his coffee but finally he knew he'd used up his allotment. How much would Hoss understand? More than most would probably give him credit for, certainly. How much did he himself understand? Less than what he gave himself credit for, he feared. Adam knew that he would have to explain the deal he had just made to his father and explain it before tomorrow morning. Studying Hoss, he decided that he would practice that explanation.

"I made a deal with the devil, Hoss," he opened and would have continued but Hoss butted in.

"Even I know that! How many times did you and Pa argue about doing business with the Central Pacific? About a million, I guess. You seemed to think that we could control them but Pa overruled you and he showed time and again that he was right! Now, you done sold a half million board foot of Ponderosa timber for a dollar figure that ain't been writ down. And why? So we could ride home in Leland Stanford's fancy railcar. It don't make sense, Adam."

For the next two minutes or so, the two men sat across the table from one another, saying nothing. Adam finished his coffee and played with the empty cup on the scarred wood of the table, trying to decide how he could explain what he'd done. He wasn't sure, now, that he could but he would try. He took a deep breath and let it all go then looked into Hoss' broad face. He let his own thoughts float free, not trying to order them into neat rows of logic.

"You remember when you were a lot younger and you cut your hand?" To underscore what he was saying, he tapped the middle knuckle on Hoss' right fist. On it, since he'd been about fifteen years old, was a scar he had gotten when he tried to use a knife to clean a fish he'd caught. It hadn't been too terrible a cut but it had left a scar.

When Adam tapped the white scar, Hoss grinned and chuckled. "Always did feel a little foolish over that. I mean how many times had I used that same knife to clean fish and that day, it just got away and sliced that knuckle open just as pretty as you please."

"Yeah, and I remember you telling Pa that you were sorry because Pa was going to make you see Doc Martin and have it stitched up. It wasn't really the cut you were sorry about. It was the doctor's visit, wasn't it?" Adam laughed light and low. Hoss nodded and fingered the scar. "Tell me something, Hoss. What do you think you would have felt like if you'd, oh say, cut off your finger?"

The reaction across the table was sharp and instantaneous. "Cut off my- what the devil? What's all this got to do with Stanford?"

When Adam spoke again, his voice was barely above a whisper. "Think, Hoss, think. Without your finger, you couldn't do a lot of things, could you? Grasp a handle with the force you do now. If it had been your index finger, how would you pull a trigger on a gun?"

The realization of what Adam was aiming at slowly came to the big man but with that came confusion. "But Adam, Joe's still got his leg. It's gonna be okay. That's what I heard that doctor tell Joe. It's gonna take time but it's gonna be okay." After his brother hadn't replied, Hoss added, "It is, ain't it?"

Adam chewed his lower lip for a moment, thinking of how to answer, decided then changed his mind once more. "Been a miserable trip, hasn't it? Cold, rainy, lousy food and lousier beds."

Hoss face scrunched in on itself as he tried to make the two conversations mesh. Confused, all he could reply was "Sure has. Worst trip I think I've ever been on."

"The stages bucking and swaying so much you can't stay in your seat unless you slam your feet into the bottom of the opposite seat. Even then, it doesn't always work. I think I have more bruises on my butt than I ever had when I was breaking horses! Thought about complaining but it never does any good."

"You are right there, brother," Hoss brightened then just as suddenly his face lost its smile. "On a trip like this, Joe is the one always throwing a fit."

"He's the first one of us to complain, no matter what," Adam interrupted then pressed forward. "He'd've had Pa fit to be tied long before we got to Warner's. The food, the beds, the rain, he would have been bitching to beat the band. But he hasn't, Hoss. When we played poker, he sat out. Said he didn't want to play. Does that sound like Joe? It doesn't to me."

Hoss swallowed audibly then narrowed his eyes and leaned over the table towards Adam. "What's one got to do with the other?"

"When you cut your hand, you felt -what? - stupid that you had done it, right? That you had done it to yourself? Hoss, what if it hadn't been a knife but a gun? What if it hadn't been your finger but your leg? What if it hadn't just laid it opened, but crippled you? What would you feel like?"

"But it was an accident, Adam," he insisted, his heart clenched tight against the sudden pain this realization brought him.

"Yes, it was an accident, born out of fear, but the results are still the same."

"But I heard the doctor, "Hoss began again then pulled his own pained thoughts to a halt. "You think the doctor lied, don't you?"

Adam reached across the table and took the beer from his brother's now still hands and, tipping it up, finished it in several swallows.

"What do you think is gonna happen? I mean, you think that cast is hidin' somethin'?"

He cleared his throat before he spoke but when he did, Hoss heard the raggedness behind the words. "Yes, I think there's more damage been done than that doctor could fix. And not just in Joe's leg, Hoss. His mind as well. He's not the same little brother we've always had and you know that. You've seen it but you've done like Pa, figured it was because he was tired or whatever. That's not the reason. I don't know how to fix any of this, Hoss. Maybe Paul Martin does and that's why I want to get Joe home as fast as I can. That's why I made the deal with Stanford."

Putting his black hat back on his head, Adam stood, rubbing his suddenly sweaty palms down his trouser legs. Across from him, Hoss also stood, his eyes still locked with his brother's. Uncharacteristically, Adam blinked first and headed for the door. He got by Hoss but Hoss put out a hand and stopped him, grabbing his arm.

"What if Doc Martin can't fix what's wrong with Joe? What then?" asked the big man softly, his jaws clenched tight once he'd finished.

"I'm not sure," Adam answered but to his silent thoughts came the idea that he'd saved a dead man in Lost Springs, that Joe had merely put off dying for a short while.


As the two Cartwrights rounded the last corner to their hotel, Hoss pulled up short. He gestured with a pointed finger at a small man getting out of a carriage and hurrying into the hotel lobby.

"Ain't that the doctor, that Doctor Beechum?"

Adam shrugged his shoulders and pointed out that it could be the hotel used that doctor exclusively and he was there to see another hotel guest. "Besides, quit looking on the dark side of things. Pa and Joe went back up to the suite, saying they were going to rest for a while." Even as he spoke, Adam wondered if he could get the doctor to look at his throat again, feeling the grittiness there every time he swallowed.

"You wanna explain that to me again, older brother?" asked Hoss, as they stood outside the suite's main door and heard their father shouting, mentioning the doctor's name clearly.

Inside the suite of rooms, Ben Cartwright paced, his face a dark, ugly, scowling mask that neither of the two brothers relished seeing. Indeed, they'd seen it often enough but to have it presented to them as they entered the parlor -whirling to meet them in fact- was bad enough.

"And just where have you two been off to?" he demanded and Adam wondered if somehow news of their meeting with Stanford had already gotten back to their father along with mention of the deal that had been struck. Highly unlikely as it seemed to both, it was still a possibility that neither wanted to consider.

"What's up?" Adam tossed his hat onto one of the hatrack's fingers and went to warm his hands before the fire at his father's back.

"Your brother!" Ben thundered, as if that were enough explanation. When he still saw the benign look of confusion on their faces, he continued. "When he fell down there in the restaurant, he broke his cast!"

Hoss, relieved secretly that there was nothing more wrong, twisted his mouth to one side and joined Adam at the small hearth. "Shucks, that can be fixed easy 'nuff."

"He didn't say anything about until I caught him! Sitting in there, he was bending it! Using both hands. Straightening it as far as the broken plaster would let him!"

The brothers traded wary glances. Hoss' eyes brightened, as much as saying that Adam was wrong about Joe's condition. However, Adam shook his head then looked away.

"Thought we saw the doctor-" Adam started but shut up when the doctor opened Joe's door, a perturbed look on his face while behind him, Adam could see Joe propped up on the bed, his arms crossed over his chest.

"I'll have to take that cast off, Mister Cartwright, and put on a new one. From what the young man said, there is a letter from the first doctor, the one who put the cast on? May I see it?" He read the produced letter, a finger to his lips, muttering softly. Finally, he folded it and handed it back to Ben. "I need to return to my office and get some things but I will return post haste. From what that letter says, this might be a golden opportunity to follow those instructions and straighten the leg a little. First, though, I'll remove the broken one. Please send down a request. I'll need some hot towels."

"Hot towels?" Adam's head canted to one side as he echoed the request.

"Yes. Once the cast is removed, I'll need something warm to help loosen the muscles so his leg will move easier. And he'll need some pain relief that they might offer as well."

"Hey, doc?" Joe shouted, making his father wince at the loudness.

The doctor rolled his eyes dramatically and returned, the other three Cartwrights trailing behind him, into the bedroom. Adam took up a place at the foot of the bed with Hoss beside him. Joe was doing his best to grin endearingly and both brothers recognized the "Joe-on-the-sly" look, used most often against their father when Joe was after something Ben had previously denied.

"I heard what you said. Gotta take the busted cast off and put a new one on. In between," and his green eyes danced, giving his brothers secret hopes, "don't suppose I could get a good hot bath. I mean a real good soakin'. Been chilled for so long."

The doctor's laugh started as a chuckle but then the little man finally burst loose with a full-throated, wholly amused laugh. It was contagious. Finally slowing down and wiping his cuff over his eyes, the doctor made some simple demands. "Absolutely no weight on the bad leg. You don't try to move it once in the tub, and you only stay in the water long enough for me to come back. I don't want the skin all wrinkly when I put the new one on. Think you can do that?"

"How are you gonna manage getting into and out of the tub without putting weight on that leg, Joseph?" Ben, standing by the bed, seemed doubtful it could be accomplished but Joe seemed to have an ace -or in this case, a pair of them- up his sleeve.

"That's what brothers are for, ain't it?"


With more help than he actually needed, good Doctor Beechum got the heavy plaster removed. He had admitted to himself that he was curious as to what lingered under it since he'd been told a little of what had happened. A close proximity gun shot that had ripped into the thigh, causing massive hemorrhaging. The damage must have been horrific but, as the doctor from Lost Springs had stated bluntly in his letter, he had repaired as much of the damage as he had been able to, removing bone shards but finding the bone and cartilage still somewhat functional. Muscles had been sewn together, layer upon layer. Only one of the Achilles tendons had been damaged and that only a nick but he had meticulously brought the ends together and joined them.

The cast parted slowly and if it hadn't been for his two erstwhile assistants, namely the boy's brothers, he doubted if he could have gotten it off at all. When it all finally came away, the doctor had to force himself to remain in control. What he saw made his stomach knot and, uncharacteristically, he felt nauseous, seeing the red scar that went from the inside of the thigh, behind the knee then curled around the calf to end just above the foot. Thank God, he thought, that I wasn't that doctor or I would have never made it. Just so much damage! But he said the bone was intact. Young man's got guts aplenty because that has to hurt like the dickens. Funny, no painkiller around that I see.

He thought a cursory exam was called for and he did so, asking leading questions but mostly gauging reactions. Yes, Joe could move the leg slightly, and he had some control over it. The flesh was warm to the touch and when he ran the handle of his scalpel across the boy's instep, Joe's toes curled. It was surprisingly positive but for one thing: when he put force against it, either a dull prod of his hand or the sharp prick of the scalpel, there was no reaction from Joe.

"All right, then, you have about forty-five minutes, young man. Enjoy your bath," the physician teased and left the three younger men in the room, closing the door respectfully behind him. "A word with you, Mister Cartwright," he begged of Ben, seeing the older man in the parlor. He tried hard not to hear the splashing behind the door.

"What is it? Something wrong?" Ben's heart fluttered, sure that there was damage done to his son's leg. For a fleeting moment, he let the idea of gangrene run through his thoughts then thrust it away sharply. There had been no sign, no fever.

"The doctor who tended to the wound first off, Doctor Brockman," Doctor Beechum began, wondering just how to approach the subject. Straight forward was his final determination. "What did he tell you?"

"He said Joe would keep his leg. There was no indication of infection. Why? There is now?" The rising panic in Ben forced him to seek a chair back for support. Surely, after all this time, there couldn't be, could there?

"I have no doubt but what your son will keep his leg for now, sir. What did the doctor say about using it? The reason I ask," he hurried his speech along, fearful,"is that there was obviously a lot of damage done to your son's leg. Yes, he put it back right as much as he, or any living physician, could. Your son has some motion, some control over it but he doesn't seem to have any sensation. I tightened my hand around his calf enough that he should have been howling in pain but -nothing! No, Mister Cartwright, I fear that there is extreme nerve damage to that leg."

His eyes narrowing, Ben still leaned against the chair and crossed his arms, trying in some manner to protect himself from this sudden onslaught of pain. "Can you do anything to make it better?"

The doctor shook his head, the floor suddenly more interesting to look at that the rancher father's face. "We, the medical world, we are just coming to understand what nerves are, sir, much less knowing enough to try and repair them. We can't see them to repair them. We do know that sometimes, nerves that have been severed reconnect through scar tissue." He paused, his finger tapping his lower lip. "What we don't know is how and to what degree. Your son, sir, suffered more than just a little damage. There will be scar tissue deep in the muscles; more where the muscle attaches to the bone. I don't know how else to tell you this, but your son may ultimately lose his leg anyway."

At that, Ben could no longer remain standing and turning, fell into the chair, his face going gray. "What," he fumbled with his words, trying to order his chaotic thoughts into sense, "what can we do now?"

"I'm going to do just what I said I would do with the new cast: straighten the leg a few degrees. When you get home to your Nevada ranch, have your doctor change the cast in about ten days, straightening it a little more. Get more weight on your son. He's too thin to face the rigors of this and not come down with something more harmful than a cold. Get him to strengthen what he can now: his back and arms and shoulders; they are going to have to carry him because that leg won't. Last of all, and I hate to say it, I don't think I would tell your son any of this. He may know it already but emotionally, it takes a while to settle in. I'd give him that time to believe he's going to heal. Now, if you will excuse me, I need to return to my office for some supplies."


"Pa," Adam's voice brought Ben back from the dark places his mind had gone to when the doctor had left. He looked up, seeing an uncertainty in his eldest's dark eyes. "Are you okay?" the soft baritone asked.

Ben nodded then took a deep breath that he held. "Just had a talk with that doctor." The breath he had taken escaped all at once and Adam heard it for what it was, a near sob. "He seems to think that Joe may ultimately lose that leg. Lot of nerve damage that will never heal."

"Did he say what we might be able to do?" Again, Adam's tone was soft, gentling, but for Ben, the pain remained.

"Help Joe exercise the muscles that he'll have to use once the leg's gone was his only suggestion." The vision that rose up in Ben's mind ripped at him. It was Joe, his liveliest of sons whom Hoss had once teased as being part jackrabbit, but it wasn't Joe because this son had one leg, the other trouser leg missing. And stood, leaning, hunched over, on a pair of crutches. The face in the vision was blank, the green eyes forever dulled.

"Here," Ben heard the word distantly but felt a glass pressed into his hand. He looked down, away from the sudden vision, and found a glass of brandy in his hand and Adam was telling him to drink it. He did and the vision retreated.

"You okay now?" When Ben nodded numbly, Adam continued, pulling a hassock over to sit at his father's knee as he spoke to him. "There's something I need to tell you. Something I've done, Pa." Again he waited until he saw he had his father's attention. "You talk about Joe losing his leg, but I think there's a bigger problem." Quickly, succinctly, he told his father what he had told Hoss, leaving out only the part Joe had confided to him the night before. "I don't know how to help Joe, help him understand it all but I think Paul Martin would. He'd take one look at Joe and be able to tell you pointblank that he's depressed, seriously so, where this doctor can't because he doesn't know Joe. The only solution I can see is to get him to Paul just as fast as we can. You agree?"

Ben had listened carefully, both to the words and the passion beneath them. "Yes, but how?"

Adam closed his eyes momentarily and mentally crossed his fingers for luck. Then, choosing his words carefully, he told his father about the deal he had made with Leland Stanford. When he finished, he sat back, expecting an explosion.

It didn't come. Instead, Ben rose from his chair and stepped to the closed door behind which he could hear Hoss laughing and water splashing.

"I can't say that I wouldn’t have done the same thing, son, but I wish you had spoken with me before you made the deal." Sensing the disappointment from Adam, he hurried on. "But we Cartwrights stick by our word. A half million board feet, huh? By August. Can we do it?"

Adam nodded, relieved. "I think so, yes. From the ridge above Crystal Cove. That's the closest to the Central Pacific Line that the Ponderosa comes so we won't be hauling it any great distance. I imagine that he will want it field dressed so we won't have to mill it. When the snow is off the ground, I'll take a swing through there myself. A crew of twenty men and there shouldn't be any trouble meeting his amount or his deadline."

Ben only pursed his lips and turned his back on his son, moving to stand before the bright orange glow of the fire once more.

"We won't make a profit, I'm sure, Pa," Adam went on. "But maybe I can do what I can to mitigate the damages. Whatever the difference is between what he wants and what we'd normally bid, I'll make up from my own money. That way the Ponderosa won't-."

"No," Ben said sharply and Adam could see the tight line of his father's jaw. "I don't care if we lose money on the deal. In fact, I can almost guarantee that whatever Leland Stanford wants to pay for that lumber, it will not even come close to its real value."

Inwardly, Adam breathed a sigh of relief. The explosion had finally come, even though it was smaller that he had anticipated. He turned just as his father did and they looked at one another. From where he sat, Adam could see his father fighting back tears, strong emotions.

"You're right, Pa." Beyond, they could hear more water splashing then a loud yelp from Joe and a hearty laugh from Hoss. The real value of the timber was not in dollars and cents but in life.


Chapter Five

Only the mind remembers pain yet its power over the flesh can make the body tremble


"He finally drift off to sleep?" The door closing softly had brought Hoss from his own half slumber as he sat in the chair before the fire. By its reddish glow he could barely make out his father's form but Ben came further into the room and into the light.

"Yes, finally." Ben sank into the chair opposite his biggest son and propped an elbow on the arm of it to hold up his own weary head.

"Don't know why but I thought it wouldn't have been that hard to pull his leg just a little straighter." Hoss prodded at the logs of the fire, coaxing more flame from them. A spray of embers rose quickly then disappeared up the chimney.

Ben's brows rose as he contemplated what his son had said. He, too, had thought the same but had been witness to the fact that it hadn't been true.


In the end, against Joe's own expressed orders, the doctor had loaded a syringe full of morphine and used it. With his lean body totally relaxed and his mind numb, Joe's leg had finally moved the few degrees the doctor had wanted but not without Hoss' gentle hands and brawny strength guiding it, holding it. The casting had been careful, the doctor meticulous. It had just been completed when Joe began to rouse from his medically induced stupor. Ben had immediately taken up a bedside post, talking with his son, telling him how Adam had arranged for them to get home faster. Hoss and Adam had slipped out, following the doctor's retreat.

"If I never go through that again, it'll be too soon," Hoss had confessed and while Adam agreed, he pointed out that it would have to be done again in few weeks. Both had flinched at the idea but Adam took heart, saying that then they would be home and Paul Martin might start with the shot, even over Joe's protests otherwise.

"Tough little cuss, ain't he?"

"That's not it, Hoss." Adam's words had made him look up sharply, his whole face showing his puzzlement. "The pain, Joe's punishing himself with it. I'm sure of it."

"But why? That's such a fool thing! I'm gonna have me a long talk with that young'un. Make him see the light. Make him understand."

"Hoss, you could talk to him until you're blue in the face and he would still be that way. Look in there. Right now, look at him!" As he whispered, Adam had pointed back into the room. "He's not hearing a word Pa says. I don't know where he's at, but Joe isn’t in that room."

There was truth in what Adam said; Hoss knew it. As he had stood looking into the room, he could see that while his brother's body was there, his mind had to have been elsewhere. His face was turned away; his eyes, while open, were unfocused. It had bothered Hoss enough that he'd stayed up after Adam had gone to bed, waiting, praying.

"You knew what Adam did this afternoon, I assume, since you were with him," Ben broke into Hoss' thoughts.

"Yes sir," he admitted. "And it bothered him somethin' fierce, Pa. He don't like that man any more than you do but he was willin' to do whatever it took. I felt sorry for Adam, havin' to ask a favor of Stanford but he did it anyway. I can't say I'd've been able to. Then havin' to come tell you what he done," Hoss shook his head, unable to finish his sentence.

"Didn't realized I'd brought you boys up to be afraid of your old man," teased Ben but then let the teasing drop out of his voice. "I do think that you would have done the same thing. Maybe not in the same way, but, given the opportunity, I think you would have. So would Joseph and so would I. It's what makes us a family. Above all else, we care about each other. We worry about the others, when they've got head colds, when they're hungry, when they're sad, when they're in pain, we care and we try to do something about it."

"Maybe that's what hurts so much about this, Pa. There ain't no way to help Joe. Adam says he thinks that the first doc lied to us, lied to Joe. What do you think?"

Ben took a deep breath and leaned forward, his hands coming together, draped between his knees. "This doctor, Doctor Beechum, said pretty much the same thing. A lot of damage but that it couldn't have been fixed."

"What do you think we ought to do? We tell Joe that and he's gonna fall deeper into that misery hole he's in already." Unable to sit still another minute, Hoss got to his feet and paced away, coming to a halt before the window. His hands shoved into his back pockets, he hung his head.

"I think we say nothing to Joseph about it. We help him, encourage him. We figure out a way to strengthen his mind, his spirit, as well as his body. Adam is right; we need to be home and the quicker the better. There, we can deal with this. We can surround ourselves with all the things that make us a family. And as a family…" Ben paused, remembering how not long ago, he had taken a handful of sticks and challenged Joe to break all of them at once. He had failed, as Ben knew he would. Then Ben had pulled out a single stick and broken it, repeatedly, while he had reminded his son that alone, any one of them could be broken. If they remained together, no one could break them. It had never occurred to him until that very moment that one of them might have to stand alone -might need to- in order to heal. He shoved the thought away forcefully, clinging to his previous belief.


It was just before eight the next morning when a firm knock sounded on the suite door. Getting up from where he and his father and brother were having breakfast, Adam went to the door, wondering who it could be. To his surprise, Leland Stanford stood there, his bulk filling the doorway.

"Morning, Cartwright," he greeted, his voice loud. "May I come in?"

Adam shoved the piece of toast he held into his mouth then opened the door wider to let the other man enter. He looked into the hallway, expecting to see someone with the governor but there was no one and he closed the door just as he heard his father and Stanford greeting one another.

"You look surprised, Adam. Told you I would have the contract documents drawn up for your signature by this morning. Don't tell me that you've changed your mind." Stanford filled the room with not only his words but his presence as well. "Did he tell you about the bargain he made with me, Ben? I am going to assume that you still allow him to contract business on behalf of the Ponderosa. If that isn't the case, then I am afraid the deal will be off."

"No," Ben said firmly, putting his napkin back onto the small table. "I trust my sons and the decisions they make, Stanford. While I may not be very enthusiastic about the deal, I understand why he did it. I would have done the same, in all likelihood. Where is the contract? I'll sign it."

From an inner pocket, the governor pulled a thin sheaf of papers, folded twice lengthwise. He handed them to Ben then went to stand beside the fireplace, his whole being screaming to the other men in the room that he was the better man, the sharper trader and that he had them over a barrel.

Quickly Ben picked up a pen from the desk to one side and dipping it in the inkwell, signed his name on the last page. He blew on his signature to dry the ink then refolded the contract and handed it back to Stanford.

"You never read it, Cartwright. Doesn't matter," it bounced in his hands, "since it's signed now. Say, before I leave, I would like to see your youngest brother, Adam."

With his teeth clenched tight, Adam escorted the portly man to Joe's room. The other man half bowed then opened the door and went in, closing it behind him, dismissing Adam curtly.

"You know, Adam, you were right. You made a deal with the devil," Hoss reminded them.

"You boys get your stuff gathered up, packed up, promptly. You said the train leaves at ten, Adam. I want to be at the station no later than nine-thirty. I don't think he'd try to trick us but I want to be sure. Go!" Ben ordered and his elder sons heeded his demands.

Leland Stanford spent no more than five minuets behind the closed door, talking with Joe. When he came out of the room, he was smiling faintly. Ben likened the look on the governor's face to that of a cat who'd gotten away with the canary but he held his peace. The governor advanced toward Ben and finally stopped less than an arm's length away.

"You look tired, my friend. Need to get yourself some rest."

"I'll rest when I get my boy home," Ben replied tersely.

"Some young man, that one," Stanford gestured behind him towards Joe's door then turned back and made the same gesture to where Adam stood behind his father. "So's that one. Three fine sons you have, Cartwright. I envy you." Emotion caught in Stanford's throat and his hand fumbled for the folded contract in his pocket. Pulling it out, he stepped to the fireplace and said, "Whatever else I may be, I am a man. I was a brother once." His eyes fell on Adam and all could see the growing sadness on his face. "And I am a father. I love my son, all my children and I would do anything for them, same as you, Cartwright." He tore the contract in half and dropped both halves into the fire. "Keep your trees. Take your sons home, Cartwright."

"But-" Adam erupted, seeing the papers curling and burning, taking away the easy ride home he had anticipated. His father held him back, one arm across his chest as Leland Stanford merely nodded his head and walked towards the door.

"The northbound leaves at ten after ten this morning. My private car will be hooked up and I have sent George, my own personal manservant, to help you. He's a decent cook but don't play poker with him. Good bye, Cartwright. Have a pleasant trip home."

Forever after that fateful morning, the Cartwrights would think differently of the Governor of the State of California. Through scandals and charges of election fraud, Leland Stanford would be governor, a political powerhouse that would keep lesser beings on their toes. He would ultimately become Senator Stanford in the U.S. Congress but only after the sudden death of his only son. He wasn't the least bit surprised when he received a note of condolence from Ben Cartwright. Both men were fathers first… and last.



"Woo-wee! Would you look at this place? Like a fancy hotel room on wheels!" exclaimed Hoss Cartwright, helping his little brother sit down in one of the armchairs then proceeding to turn a full circle, gaping and gawking.

There was a light chuckle behind him and it made Hoss jump since he could have sworn there was no one there. But there was. In a starched white coat and trousers of inky black, was a small black man. His hair was a snow-white circle ending just above his ears, the top of his head a glossy black. When he smiled up at the big man before him, his even white teeth glistened but then he quit smiling and it was as if someone had blown out a lamp in a dark room, his face was so dark of color.

"I'm George," he introduced himself, his head dropping to one side. "The governor said that I was to take care of you folks the same way I do him."

"Pleased to meet you, George. I'm Ben Cartwright and these are my sons Adam, Hoss and that one over there is Joseph. You don't know how glad I am to be here right at this moment."

Again, George smiled and the room lit up. "We'll be leaving the station in about ten minutes, and that first yank by the engine can be a surprise so I suggest you gents find yourselves a seat until we get rolling good. Give me your bags and I'll see to it that they're stored properly then I'll make you gentlemen a fine cup of coffee."

Looking around, Adam was astounded by what he saw. The opulence was beyond his comprehension. What he had glimpsed through the lightly frosted windows from the observation platform at the rear of the car had not prepared him for what was within. As Joe and their father settled themselves in the plush velvet armchairs that seemed to swallow poor scrawny Joe, Adam and Hoss stepped back into the hallway that George had disappeared down.

With a low whistle, Adam signaled his astonishment. On one side of the passage, there were neat rooms with beds covered in green damask under the windows. Beneath the beds, Adam caught a glimpse of storage compartments, the handles gleaming in the light of one of the oil lamps in the small room. He stepped into the room, feeling Hoss leaning over his shoulder for a better look as well. Inside the room, hidden by the hallway partition, was a sink, the bowl cool marble to Adam's tentative touch. There were faucets of the same marble.

"Gravity fed water system," Adam murmured and Hoss just grunted. "Tanks on top of the car hold water. Open one of these, " he twisted the gold and alabaster handle. The water flowed out and he returned the handle to the off position quickly. "Water. The excess drains away, probably onto the tracks."

"I unnerstand that, brother. But how come they got two handles?"

Again, the merry chuckle behind Hoss made him jump.

"I'm sorry, Mister Hoss. Didn't mean to bother you none. Heard what you asked and I can answer you, if I may, Mister Adam?" Only after Adam nodded did the black man continue. "We heat the car with that coal stove you saw in the parlor area. In the kitchen, which is right over here, there is a wood stove I keep going all the time while we're on the move." He gestured to the other side of the hallway but all the brothers saw was a solid oak panel. "There the smokestack, the chimney you might call it but it is a little longer and bends to run through the roof before it turns the smoke loose behind us. That long chimney, there are pipes attached to it, and those pipes are full of water. There's your hot water, Mister Hoss, and plenty of it since the Governor likes it that way."

"Interesting," mused Adam and turning, poked a long finger into the bed. The finger sank clear up to his knuckle and George laughed lightly again.

"Feather beds. The very finest. You'll find everything pretty much like that on this car. Missus Stanford, she worked it all out with the folks who built it. It was a present to her husband. Cost her nigh on to twenty thousand dollars to have it built but it is a beauty."

"Sure is," Hoss agreed, running his hand over the fine woodwork. "Only one problem. These beds is mighty small fer a fella like me."

"Come this way," George motioned to the two and led them further towards the back of the car. There he pushed on what Adam had first taken to be only an ornate mirror. The mirror slid aside, revealing itself to be a door instead. The room beyond was half again as large as the other bedroom and both brothers were able to enter it. The bed, standing in the center of the adjoining wall, was large and once again, as Adam's finger proved, extremely soft.

"This be Governor's bedroom. And he be like you Mister Hoss, a big man. This be your room, sir. For you, Mister Adam, I suggest that come nightfall that we make up the salon chairs. They fold out right nice and the hassock hooks on. Makes a nice long bed. This room next door, small as it is, maybe your brother, with his bad leg, ought to take it. And your father, well, he be a big man too so the other salon chair'll be the best, I believe."

"What about you, George? Where you sleep?"

"In the kitchen, Mister Hoss. I'll sleep in the kitchen. That way I can keep the stove warm and come tomorrow morning, I can get working on your breakfast without waking no one up. I'll fix you a big breakfast, gentlemen." The little man seemed to stand even taller as he spoke, his head erect, his speech clear and precise without the chopped words of other men of color. Had they been aware of his background, they might have been impressed by the ex-slave who now tended to the requests of an important governor. But George told few people of his poor beginnings, staying in the background and as the loyal attendant to the man who had freed him.

Just then, a warning bell rang in the forward room and George let them know that they were about to start moving and he suggested firmly that they find a seat. Back into the ornate parlor-sitting room, they went. As Hoss sank onto the settee, the train lurched and he wound up falling instead. Adam, finding himself still in the hallway, made do by grabbing the wall edges. Slowly the train picked up speed and in doing so, the ride smoothed out.

"You would not believe the beds in this place, Pa. Got the feeling that you lay down in them, not on them! Ol' Adam about lost his hand when he touched one!" Hoss explained.

"Well," Ben's head canted to one side and his eyes roved over the room they were in. "This is wealth used to show itself off. I'd rather have the money spent on this get-up either in the bank or invested in something where it could do some good." Even as he spoke, the crystal chandelier over their heads faintly swayed as the train's rhythm established itself. The silver mounted coal stove in the corner of the room warmed it so that the men began removing their jackets to sit in shirtsleeves despite the cold rain that fell outside on the dreary landscape. It wasn't long before delicious smells began wafting through the room where the four men talked, making their mouths water. As they watched, George would go from his tidy little kitchen to the room behind them, laying out china so white it looked blue. The silverware, like the curtains over the frosted glass of the doorway, bore the initials of their absent host. When George called them to lunch, they were just passing into a low valley, the gentle rocking of the train making them feel as though the sailed on a placid ocean, not wooden ties and steel rails.

"Thank you, George," Ben said, appreciatively patting his full stomach. "That was the best chowder I've had in ages."

The servant smiled his electric smile and nodded his head. "Governor does like his clam chowder too. Makes it so I can get the clams for it fresh every time we takes to traveling. For dinner tonight, you can either have fresh trout or a roast of beef. Which would you prefer? Before you make your mind up, let me tell you that I make the finest sauce a fish ever drowned in."

"I think that does it then. Boys? The fish tonight?"

George walked away, proud. He was also sure that the governor would be pleased as well. After all, wasn't he taking fine care of the governor's guests, just the way he had been told? Still, he decided as he placed the dirty dishes in the small sink, there was a certain satisfaction to be had when you did a job well and it was appreciated.


"Look there." Hoss nudged his father. Sitting in the warm rolling parlor, both Ben and Hoss had been reading the newspaper that had been left for them. Now, as Ben looked up, he followed Hoss' nod. Over by the windows, both slumping in the matching armchairs were Adam and Joe. Both had their heads propped on raised fists. Both were also sound asleep.

"How long before we get to Sacramento, Pa?" Hoss asked softly, never taking his eyes off his brothers. For some reason, he felt protective of those two. More so than usual if he'd wanted to admit it. He couldn't explain why, even to himself, so he had just fallen into doing what he was doing that afternoon: watching.

"I believe on the board at the station it said we'd arrive sometime late tonight. After midnight, I imagine. Four hundred miles is four hundred miles whether you do it in a stage or in a mansion on wheels."

"Then what?" the big man again asked, his voice still soft so as not to awaken his brothers.

"Then we find out how clear the passes are. If it hasn't snowed lately, they may have the line open and we can get to Truckee. The line to Carson is another possibility. We won't need to go clear to Reno. Either way, when we find out, we'll telegraph Roy Coffee. He can go out and tell Hop Sing and that way Hop Sing can meet us in either place. That's the part of this trip that I dread the most, to be honest."

Hoss turned his attention to his father quickly and Ben explained his words. "The Central Pacific built those blasted snow sheds over the tracks. They were suppose to keep the tracks clear in winter. Yet how many times have we heard about avalanches knocking them out? Or fires starting from a stray ember from the locomotive? Sure they have those ram things that they use to try and push the snow aside but more often than not, they can't get through if there's been a heavy snow."

"Maybe we need to stay in Sacramento till spring?" the son suggested, hating even the thought.

"No, we'll get home." That was simply… that. If a man ever moved a mountain on sheer faith alone, that man would have been Ben Cartwright that winter.



The dream had started out a pleasant one. There he was, riding his beloved Cochise across one of the broad meadows of the Ponderosa. The cattle had scattered before him, bellowing their discontent at having to stop grazing on the lush green pasture. As he rode, Joe could feel the strength of his pinto; the long even strides that gave a certain rhythm to his body that had been absent for too long. In the dream, the sky was cloudless and the winds blew warm against his chest. His hands loosely clasped the reins before him but he let one drift back to rest on his thigh, showing his faith that the horse would do nothing but run forever.

That was when the dream stopped being a dream and became a nightmare. His hand, about to come to rest on his thigh, felt nothing there. As he took his eye from the path he rode, he saw that there was no thigh, no leg. Only a broad smear of blood across the stirrup that also coated his hand gruesomely. He was startled and the fear passed to the horse and Cochise stumbled, throwing Joe into the grassy field that had suddenly become an icy cold empty desert. It took him a long time in the dream to fall and when he finally quit falling, he was looking into the startled eyes of Virgil Brockman.

"You may have killed me but you killed yourself too." The dead man spoke, his lips not moving but Joe heard the words.

He tried to turn away from the dead man and found hands reaching for him. There were too many hands, and behind them, the faces of his family. Their words overlapped one another so that he couldn't understand what they were saying but he knew the looks in their eyes. They pitied him. The hands clutched at him, picking him up against his will and he suddenly felt overwhelmed, suffocated, drowning. He lashed out, pushing, tearing, and fighting for his very life………

"Easy, son, easy."

In the darkness, desperation made the breath in Joe's throat rattle even as he sought it. He could feel his father's hands, clutching his arms, holding him against that broad chest, the words reverberating there. Once more he pushed away and this time, the restraining arms dropped away and beyond his father's shoulders he could see the wash of moonlight across a wide valley.

"Easy, son," his father repeated and Joe forced his breathing to slow down, swallowing his fear. He closed his eyes and turned his face away, ashamed that a nightmare had disturbed his family's rest as much as it had his. But his father wouldn't allow it and Joe felt the big work-callused hand on his cheek, turning him back, back to face his parent, back to…being a child, he thought and fought the urge to turn away again.

"Can I get you anything? A drink of water, perhaps?"

Joe shook his head. What he needed he was sure Ben wouldn't have understood since it was a devastating and overpowering desire to be alone.

"You want to talk about it?"

Again Joe shook his head 'no'. That was always his pa's way of dealing with a problem: talk about it. He just doesn't understand that there's times when talking about it makes the nightmare more real. Instead of voicing that thought, Joe swallowed hard and dropped back onto the soft bed, pressing his head deep into the pillow.

"Not right now. Maybe later. In the morning," he said, not trusting himself to speak in full sentences and complete thoughts. If he did, Joe wasn't sure but that he would have lash out cruelly.

"All right then," came the response and Joe closed his eyes, turning to face the wall even as his father's hand swept through his hair and the older man left the small room.

How long Joe lay there, awake, feeling the steady rocking of the train, he wasn't sure. The door had not slid fully closed and a sliver of faint light crept across his body. There were indistinct noises that reached his ears. The distant clatter of the train on the tracks was strongest. He could hear Hoss' indelicate snore but it was muffled this night. From across the hall, he thought he heard metal scrape metal but he wasn't sure. Then there came a soft knock on the door and George's equally soft "Sir?"

No longer trying to chase sleep, Joe reached back and was able to touch the door with his fingertips and slide it open a hair.

"I have something here that might help you sleep," offered the servant, gesturing with a white cup in his hand.

"Hmmm!" Joe exclaimed, keeping his voice low as his sipped from the mug. "Good hot chocolate."

"Made with the governor's special recipe," George whispered as he sat down on the floor. He knew the next question and he decided to answer it before it was spoken. "Got a hefty dose of rum in it."

The two chortled together. Joe went back to drinking his nighttime treat but without taking the deep swallows he would have otherwise.

"Tell me, something, Mister Joe," the servant began but Joe stopped him, asking that he leave off the "Mister" part. George pondered it but a moment then went on. "I see. I'm sorry. I thought you was older than that."

"Older than what?"

"Thought you was a man but now that I see I'm wrong, I'm sorry Master Joe. Took you to be in your twenties at least."

Confused now, Joe stared at the black man, nearly lost in the darkness of the night except for his smile and his white jacket. When Joe spoke, his words showed his confusion. "I am. What ever made you think different?"

"The way your family, your father in particular, treat you. Like you’re a boy, a youngster. Always helping you and such. Oh, I know about what happened to you. Terrible thing them other boys did to you. And getting shot like Mister Adam told the governor, now that's awful."

Even as the other man spoke, Joe felt a coldness creep up his spine and it stiffened him so that he sat up straighter in the bed, leaning now against the wall. That same coldness crept around his chest, squeezing, tightening then dropping to find a home in his belly despite the warm chocolate there. He recognized it for what it was for it had become an old friend to him in the last weeks. Fear.

"Like I said, I thought you was older than that."

Joe exploded but he kept his voice low. "What do you mean? I am a man."

"Don't act it. Man, in my opinion, takes control of his life. Even if something terrible happens, he don't let it walk all over him. He stands up to it. A man, a real man, don't lay down and give in to pity and such. You know the hardest thing in the world to do?" The smooth cadence of George's voice washed across Joe, soothing one moment, upsetting the next.

"Living. That's the hardest thing, George. Living like I am now. One minute I think I'll beat this problem with my leg. The next I'm sure I won't."

"No," the man said. "The hardest thing is following orders. Living? All you got to do to live is to breathe and even a man knocked unconscious breathes. That ain't hard. No, following orders is hard. You naturally don't want to. Want to go your own way. Do things the way you think they ought to be done. But, no, you got somebody always giving you orders." A train rushed by them, headed in the opposite direction and both men paid attention to it until it was gone. "You know what the easiest thing to do is? Follow orders."

"Wait a minute! You just said that it was the hardest thing. It can't be both."

George nodded and all Joe could see was the white hair moving in the darkness. "It is. It's both. When you follow orders, if something goes wrong, all you got to do is point to him what give you the orders and say that it's his fault, not yours. Been doing that a good bit of my life." He laughed at something that Joe couldn't fathom then went on. "So what's you gonna do, boy? You gonna follow orders so you got someone to blame if something don't go right? Or you gonna follow orders 'cause you think someone else has got the way down pat?"

"How about if I do neither?"

"You got to do one or the other, boy, long as you got folks like your pa and brothers giving the orders."

In the length of time it took Joe to take a deep breath, he recalled the conversation he'd had with Adam in the hotel room. He remembered how Adam had likened his refusal to wear a gun as his denial of his manhood. How he finally taken control of things when he resumed wearing the revolver strapped to his side. How when he had battled Brockman in the cantina, he was pulling himself back into the world of men. Had he turned his back once again on what it took to be a man? Over the past weeks he had slipped into letting other people lead his life, as though he was merely a spectator to it. George was right. There was a choice to be made but he wasn't sure he was ready to make it one way or the other.

"I guess for right now, I'll just follow those orders, George. It's easier on me."

George unfolded himself from the floor and took the unfinished drink from Joe's hands. "Then you don't be needing rum in your chocolate, boy."

Long after the servant had left, Joe watched the empty countryside pass by his window. He felt about the same: cold and empty. There was no way he could put together the pieces of his life that night. George had made him question himself again. Was he the man he thought he was? If that were so, why did his family, his father in particular, treat him like he was a child? Why did he allow himself to be dealt with in such a manner if he wasn't truly a child? A part of Joe longed to curl into a tight ball and cry, vent his misery in as childish a format as he could find. The other side of him thrust the desire away, realizing it for what it was. Pity.


Chapter Six

On a withered branch, the snow can only hear winter's silence.


            The sprawling cosmopolitan city of Sacramento lay behind them. As Hoss and Ben stood on the observation deck of Leland Stanford's private railcar, the capital of California slipped away. In the bright sunlight of a glorious mid-afternoon, it was hard to remember the rain and dreary dampness that had made their trip so miserable up until that day. They had been awakened just after dawn, not by the movement of the train but by the lack of movement suddenly. George had come through the length of the car, gently announcing that they had arrived in Sacramento and that breakfast was ready as soon as the diners could get to the table.

            While the Cartwrights delved into the creamy scrambled eggs, crisp bacon, hot toast and butter, and while they had drunk the strong, hot coffee, George had slipped out to make arrangements. When he returned, he eagerly reported that the passes eastward had recently been cleared of snowfall blockages. They would spend the morning on a side track and be connected just after lunch to a Central Pacific train bound for Salt Lake. Beside Ben and Adam, he laid copies of the latest newspaper then stepped into his kitchen, disappearing once more.

            Ben and Hoss had gone to find the telegraph office that was conveniently located inside the train terminal there beside the sprawling American River. They briefly argued about whom to address the telegram to then, with Ben pointing out that Hop Sing- despite his years in this country - could not read English, Hoss caved. The telegram was sent to Roy Coffee. They would go as far as Truckee and wait there since that was the closest rail stop to the Ponderosa. Hoss had been all for trying for Carson City but Ben, losing his patience, reminded his biggest son that the line to Truckee was assuredly open while the spur to Carson might not, as they had no reports on that line. Finally, completely exasperated, he had propped his fists on his hips, tipped his hat back on his head and glared menacingly up at his son, brows knit together. Hoss smiled weakly and shut up.

They returned to the railcar just in time to greet Adam as he was leaving.

"Thought I'd walk around town a bit. We have a few hours. How about it, Hoss? Want to join me?"

Of course, Hoss jumped at the chance. After all, Pa was obviously in a bad mood and the farther from him, the better, was his opinion at the moment.

With a shake of his silvered head, Ben had watched as his two older sons disappeared into the maze of streets on that fine bright morning. He watched until they turned a corner then mounted the steps into the railcar once again. He didn't realize how cool it was outside until he was greeted with the warmth inside. Easing by the small bedroom where he could see Joe was again resting, he went into the parlor, intent now on reading the paper George had procured for him.

"Coffee, sir?" Although he'd asked, George stood there with a silver tray and coffee service on it. With a faint smile, he placed it on the side table next to Ben then poured the thick black brew. "Your other sons? They out for a bit? Mister Adam says he knows Sacramento real well."

"Yes. We've been here many times. We drive cattle down here nearly every fall. My sons are quite familiar with Sacramento. Of course, they may know parts of it I wish they didn't!" There was a lilting but knowing tease to Ben's voice that made George smile broadly.

"I must apologize, sir," George said and crossed his hands before him, waiting until Ben's cocked head bade him silently to continue. "I didn't realize how young Master Joseph was until last night and I gave him - quite by accident, sir, I swear- some rum in his hot chocolate. I thought it would relax him and let him fall back to sleep. Like I said, I didn't realize how young he was. I should have but I didn't and I am sorry."

The surprise and bewilderment on Ben's face was just what George had been aiming for so he wasn't in the least put off when the silver haired parent said, "What? Yes, Joseph is young but he's old enough to drink alcohol. He looks younger than what he is, for certain, but not that young, George! What ever made you think he was too young?"

Still feigning a servile attitude, George shrugged his shoulders. "Guess it was how you treated him. First I was confused 'cause you treated him like a grown up man then, well, you didn't. But I already had his chocolate all fixed when I figured it all out. Like I said, I'm sorry and it won't happen again." With his chin still tucked down to his chest, he turned to leave.

"Is that how you see it, George?" The words were nearly whispered, so soft was the big man's voice.

"Well sir, I ain't seen the boy be allowed to do nothing for himself since yesterday. I don't mean no disrespect, sir, I surely don't. It's just that it's the same way the governor treats his son and Leland Junior ain't but a young sprout. Thought your boy was older but I can see -"

"No." That word was sharp, clear and spoken with such authority that George at first flinched from the sound of it.

The moments multiplied and George felt awkward, standing there, his back turned to the silent rancher. Finally, breaking the impasse, George calmly stated that he would be fixing lunch shortly and left the parlor.

Ben was lost in thought when George left. His thoughts drifted back to the harsh words he had spoken to his elder sons just before he and Joseph left for Saint Louis. He had relentlessly lambasted them for treating Joe with the same smothering sympathy he had. The words haunted him: how Adam had been the first one to call Joseph a cripple and how he had lashed out, telling them all that they way they dealt with the problem was what made their brother a cripple. He'd argued that if Joe had been left on his own to figure out how to do something, then he would have gotten beyond what he had faced.

"Then," Ben snorted the word. "Then it was all words, concepts. Now it's cold hard facts. Does it change what…what I've done? I've gone back to treating him just the way we did before. Given him pity when I should have given him strength. George is right. Last night, how did I deal with his nightmare? The same way I did when he was a little boy: gather him up in my arms and hold him until he stops shaking and fighting. Offer him nonsense, a chance to talk about what was bothering him when he has no idea what it is. Then when he tries to go back to sleep, run my hand over his hair to calm him. Just like I did when he was little. How can I give him strength without love? I can't. I'm his father!"

"He knows you love him because you are his father. That's not what he needs from you right now. Show him how a man deals with adversity, Mister Cartwright. Not by leaning on the sympathy around him but by standing on his own two feet. 'Course that might be a little hard on him, with that cast and all, but he can do some." Ben looked across the room to where George stood. "Yes sir, I heard what you said. The governor says I hear too good sometimes. Like right now, your son is stirring, waking up. Should I fix him some breakfast?"

"Coffee, black. That's all and wait until he comes out here, would you?"


Now as Ben stood with Hoss, watching the sun dance off the far buildings, he rested one hand on the thick muscular shoulder beside him. There was such strength in this son of his, but he knew it wasn't all strength of muscle. There was strength of heart in the man, sometimes so much that others saw it as a weakness. Ben never had and had never asked Hoss to hide it. Never until now, and now it would go against everything he'd taught this brawny son of his, but he had to do it.

"Son," Ben's voice almost cracked over the single syllable. "I need you to do something for me. For your brother Joseph as well."

Hoss turned to his father then, just as quickly, returned to watching the twin lines of rail disappear behind them. "What'd ya need?"

"Remember before Joe and I left for Saint Louis, how we talked about how we'd mishandled things for your brother? How we stepped in and did for him without him asking?" When Hoss' head bobbed once, Ben continued. "Well, we're doing it again."

"But, Pa, there's things he can't do and we gotta do for him," huffed the son, his brow pinched.

"Like what? Okay, so he can't carry a cup of coffee across a room because he's got his hands full dealing with his crutches. That's about all, Hoss, but you look at what we do for him without him asking. 'Here, Joe, let me help you sit down.' Sure we may not say it like that but we do it anyway."

"Because he needs the help, Pa," Hoss insisted and Ben was ready for the comment.

"No. We help him, but not for his sake - for ours. Son, look at it this way. Every time we step forward and do some little thing for Joe, he isn't using the muscles he has. If that Doctor Beechum was right and Joe does lose the use of his leg, or God forbid, the leg itself, we will have weakened him so that it will be even harder for him to come back. Don't you see that?"

"Sure I do, but it's so hard to stand aside and watch him struggle. It ain't in me, Pa. Don't ask me to do it."

Swallowing hard, Ben pulled his revolver and yanking Hoss' hand from the ornate railing, slapped it into his palm. "Fine," he hissed, "then go give this to Joseph. Tell him that he's going to be crippled for the rest of his life and see what he does with it. We've all tiptoed around it, not said it, for fear that we're right. If we don't stand aside and let Joe battle his own way out of this, he will do just what we're afraid of and use a gun on himself."

Hoss hefted the weight of the revolver in his hand a few times then handed it back to his father. "I can't stand aside, Pa but I can promise you this. I'll help him when he asks me, and only then. And," he sought his father's eyes and once caught, held them with his own, "if he goes to kill hisself, I won't let him. I swear it, Pa, as God is my witness."

"Thank you, son." Ben left his son standing on the deck, looking over the wide Sacramento valley but he was sure that Hoss wasn't seeing the rolling landscape.


Throughout the afternoon, the Central Pacific Eastbound huffed its way into the Sierra Nevadas. From the mere sixty-five feet above sea level of Sacramento, it climbed along gently, the maximum grade of two and a half percent making it seem more like a casual stroll. It wasn't. To reach the high point along the track, the train, with two locomotives pulling the four passenger cars and one private car would have to climb to more than seven thousand feet in elevation. That station, known for the town of Truckee, was the highest point anywhere along the CP line. Along that path, storms raged during the winter months, often dumping feet of snow in short time periods. Early on, snow sheds had been built along it, trying to protect the vital lifeline that the railroad had itself created. The first sheds had collapsed under the gargantuan weight of repeated Sierra snows when not knocked aside by avalanches of equal ferociousness. Herculean efforts by the linemen, the station masters along the way  - and ordinary citizens who made their livelihoods from it - were required year after year. Trains were ensnared at astounding rates but were freed by the conscientious railroad men wielding shovels, axes and all sorts of mechanical means imaginable to keep the flow of traffic moving. In the past few years, a huge ram-like device had met with some success, throwing the snow from those precious steel rails when deep snow covered them. The nearly twenty ton device, known as a Buckler Snowplow, required as many as eight or nine steam locomotives to force it through drifts of snow that often measured in double digits. Its success rate was, at best, break even but it was better than closing down the line completely with the first storms of winter. What it left behind when it was successful, was very akin to a tunnel, open topped, with icy white sides as high as the railcars.

To Ben Cartwright, his thoughts ranging continually over what to do with his youngest son, the ride was much the same. Light one moment, able to see clearly but only in one direction. The next moment, plunged into the darkness of the tunnels created by the snowsheds where the very air seemed to press around, limiting motion and thought.

"Look at that, would you?" Adam exclaimed, catching everyone in the private car off guard. He rose to his feet, his hands pressing against the window then just as quickly, raced to the back of the car, throwing the door open.

Ben shouted for him to close the door. He was letting the warmth of the car escape, the chilly blast roaring up the hallway into the sitting room where the others were gathered.

It took Adam a while to return and when he did, George met him at the door to the kitchen.

"Awesome, isn't it, sir?" George's eyes twinkled at Adam's gaping expression. "They say that's gonna replace the plow some day. They call it a Leslie Rotary Plow and the CP is testing it up here. I heard the governor say that them whirling blades on the front could chomp their way through more snow in an hour than the big Bucklers' do in a day."

"Is that what's cleared the way? I mean, now? Today?" Adam asked, scratching his chin thoughtfully.

"Most likely. Haven't seen anything else, have you?"

Adam shook his head and went back to the sofa he had been reclining on, staring now at the way they had come. Accepting a cup of hot coffee from the servant, he smiled ruefully.

"Guess I got a little carried away," he apologized, the half smile still on his lips.

"Oh, I seen many a man get excited like that, Mister Adam. It’s the future." George continued to serve coffee around the room. "Mister Cartwright, when you come west, you come in a wagon. Real slow, weren't it?"

Laying aside his paper, Ben accepted his coffee and nodded his head. "Too slow just about! Took months and months."

"The railroad, it's made it so folks can come to this new land so much faster. Then it  takes what we grow here back to the east."

About to fall into a discussion about the importance of the railroads, Joe's soft call was nearly lost. When he called to his father the second time, Ben turned and looked.

On the same sofa Adam sat on looking behind them, Joe sat, facing the direction they traveled, his casted leg pulled up onto the plush velvet cushion. When Ben and Hoss looked over at him, he pointed at something slightly ahead of the train and said, "Look."

Everyone moved to see what he saw. On that side of the tracks, the snow tunnel that had once blocked their view of the resplendent countryside had broken and now lay the whole panorama at their feet. Adam, as he turned to the window, was searching for another possible mechanical snowplow. Ben sought the signs of their stopping place, Truckee, which would signal the end of their journey. Hoss looked out over the snowfields, his eyes keen for a glimpse of some natural beauty. But none of them saw what had caught Joe's eye. Finally Ben asked.

"Over there. See? That ridge? That's home, ain't it?" whispered Joe, his finger still against the glass but clearly pointing to the tall crystal white mountains just to the south and east. With the late afternoon sun on them, they looked as though they were made of the stuff of fairy tales: so white with snow that it hurt to look at them for long, towering so high into the clear blue of a winter sky that they demanded attention.

"Yes," Ben said, his voice melodious. "That's home." His hand dropped and lay gently across his youngest son's shoulders. Beneath it, he felt those shoulders rise and fall and he was tempted to pull it away. He didn't. He couldn't. As he stood there behind his sons, they crowded the window, in awe of a sight they had seen many times. He felt the rise of emotion in all of them at just the thought that they were that close to home but that wasn't what claimed his attention. No, it was the fact that as his hand stretched across a pair of slim shoulders, he was aware that Joseph had leaned into his touch and even now, pressed back into his father's hands.


The train pulled into the rambunctious town of Truckee just before the sun fell beyond the mountains and plunged the station, and the town, into the thick cold darkness that was a mountain winter night. The Cartwrights had begun to plan their immediate future: a meal at some restaurant then a hotel room for the night. At best, they figured that Hop Sing would be there the next morning and that they would be back at the Ponderosa by late afternoon.

George, however, pre-empted their plans. The train had barely pulled to a stop beside the icy station platform when George swung down and, huddled against the cold, spoke with the conductor who nodded once. The little black man got quickly back into the car and hurried to the warm stove in the sitting room.

"No need to be grabbing your jackets, gentlemen. My instructions from the governor were clear. Your man isn't here with your way home so the best thing would be for you gents just to sit back and enjoy the governor's hospitality for one more night. The railroad folks will get us over onto a side track where we can wait-."

A pounding on the glass door at the end of the car interrupted George and he'd just made a move as if to answer it when the door was flung open and a gruff voice asked if there was a Ben Cartwright aboard. When Ben called out that he was there, a man swathed in a heavy coat, gloves, hat and muffler wrapped around his lower face entered and thrust a small white envelope into Ben's hands and departed abruptly.

"It's from Roy," Ben read, happy and beaming with the news. "He says he'll be here tomorrow morning. Listen to this! He says 'Need a vacation. Truckee's good.' Then he says he'll be here in the morning."  No one cared that Ben had repeated himself; all basked instead in the thoughts of being home for the first time in months.

"I think this calls for a celebration, don't you, Adam?" Hoss asked, his conspiratorial grin about a foot wide. He nodded towards the door when he saw Adam look at him as if he'd lost his mind but Adam gestured towards Joe and raised one brow.

"If you two have in mind what I think you do, you can leave me out! Unless you missed something, it's cold out there and my toes are still hanging out the end of this cast." He'd caught the silent exchange between his brothers and while he would indeed miss the frolic promised in the local saloons, he knew the dangers of frostbite were real. Joe gave his brothers a shrug when they studied him then pointedly looked at his cast. What he told them without words was that he wouldn't. Not couldn't but wouldn't. The implication to the brothers was heartbreaking. They struggled into their coats and disappeared without further communication out the door and into the cold night.

"Maybe we should send out for something for supper instead of bothering you again, George," offered Ben as Joe left the larger room for his sleeping quarters. Ben watched him go, not hearing that it didn't matter to the servant as he had a roast cooking and it would be ready soon. He'd expected all along that the Cartwrights would spend one more night under his care.

The door slid shut behind Joe and he slumped to the downy plush bed, his heart twisting in his chest cruelly. How could he explain that he'd wanted his brothers to pester him and cajole him into going with them and they hadn't? He felt betrayed, not by them, but by himself.



Dinner was quiet with only Ben and Joe partaking of George's marvelous cooking. Ben teasingly offered him a place at the Ponderosa if he should ever feel the urge to leave Governor Stanford but the small black man just smiled his dazzling smile and removed the plates before pouring them coffee.

"How come you didn't go with your brothers?" queried Ben finally, watching Joe simply play with his coffee.

"They didn't really want me to go with 'em." When Ben's attention was narrowed down upon him, Joe shrugged and went on. "I saw that look in their eyes. I know what it means. Seen it enough in my life."

"What look?" Searching his memory, the father could only recall the pained look of disappointment on his older sons' faces as they had slipped into their jackets.

"That look that says the last person they want with 'em is their baby brother. I imagine if you could wrangle the truth out of Adam, he'd tell you that since I got out of diapers, I don't help him catch many girls."

Ben cleared his throat. What he heard coming from his youngest son was far from what he wanted to hear. He knew his son was wrong about his brothers but how to convince him of it?

"Why are you so sure they didn't want you with them?"

Joe snorted, looked once at his father then back to his cooling coffee. "Pa, let's face it. There isn't a whole lot of fun to be had when you're playing nursemaid to some fool on crutches. Known times in Virginia City when fights happen over much less. Besides, someone calls me a cripple and Adam and Hoss would feel like they have to defend me. But the thing is, I am."

Ben's head lifted regally and his eyes narrowed before he spoke. "You're what? A cripple? Only if you think you are, Joseph."

Before Ben could continue, Joe's hand was flashing down, striking the table, his face contorted as he tried to maintain what he felt were his last shreds of dignity. "For God's sake, Pa, wake up! Look at me! Even if they took off this damn cast tomorrow, we both know what's going to happen! I'm crippled, Pa! Can't you understand that?"

He hand darted out and caught his son's when it struck the table again. He held it, flat to the table even though Joe tried to pull it away, and he looked into his son's face with such determination that the young man was forced to drop his hostile gaze.

"None of us know what's going to happen when the cast comes off your leg for good, son. None of us. Not that doctor in Lost Springs, the doctor down south and probably not Paul Martin either. You don't know and I don't know. But there is one thing I do know. If you don't try, if you don't give yourself the chance to be whole, you will be crippled for the rest of your life. Not necessarily in your leg but in your mind, son. Ever since this accident happened, I have tried to help you but-" The look on Joe's face made Ben's words fumble to a halt.

"You don't know, do you?" Joe stated, his tone softened with awe, disbelief.

"Know what?"

The short bark of laughter that his son gave made Ben ask again and this time, Joe answered him, his face taking on a cruel cast.

"Adam didn't tell you; he didn't come running to you and tell you. I thought you knew. I thought that was why you were…that you were ashamed of what I'd done. Oh God, this makes it even worse."

Ben couldn't fathom what Joe was saying so he remained silent, urging with his heart that Joe explain what he had begun to ramble about. Finally Joe stopped and easily pulled his hand from his father's grasp. He leaned down and picked up his crutches then stood, pulling the wooden handles into his grasp. Before he could swing his leg free of the table linen, he looked down at his father once more, half grimaced then began to move away.

Joe stopped after a few halting steps. "You don't know, do you?" His words were a choking whisper, full of pain.

Turning in his chair at the table, Ben could only say that he had no idea what his son was referring to.

"This," Joe waved a hand at his casted leg but he didn't turn back to face his father. "When this happened, the finger on the trigger…it was mine, Pa. With the gun between us, I managed to pull the trigger and I shot Virgil Brockman. In cold blood, I shot him. But then, because he was still looking at me, I wasn't sure if I'd killed him, so I pulled the trigger again. But I felt the bullet hit me. He fell away and I was standing there realizing that I had just shot myself. What those boys last summer couldn't do, I did for them. I made myself a useless cripple."



Adam had to hang onto Hoss' shoulder as they crossed the intricate maze of icy tracks and packed snow. In the stygian darkness, with only the pale light from the lantern hung high on a pole to direct any train traffic, the two men slipped and slid across to the dark private car sitting on the far siding. The fact that they were mildly inebriated didn't help matters much. Once they gained the rear of the car, Hoss pushed Adam ahead of him, up the steps and across the little platform to the door. There, the older brother fumbled with the door then they both nearly fell into the corridor, causing them to laugh at their predicament.

"Least my bed's right here," Hoss chuckled right at Adam's ear. He tried to open the door but couldn't remember if it slid to the right or left.

"Hope I can find mine," whispered Adam and Hoss could hear him making his way down the aisleway.

Then, just as Hoss got his door to go the right direction, he heard Adam's "huh!" He stepped back and saw a pallid glow from the room next to his. Adam had apparently opened the door to Joe's room for some reason but now, he just stood there, his hands pressed to the doorjambs. Hoss scowled and joined him, asking what it tarnation was he up to.

"I thought I heard Joe, you know like he was having a nightmare again. But he's sound asleep," explained the older brother.


"For someone who keeps saying that he's not in any pain, would you think that much of that laudanum would be gone?" He indicated the brown bottle that rested on the marble-topped sink, barely visible in the light cast by one of the room lamps. "And Joe was never one to need the lamp lit when he slept."

"Maybe he banged his leg and it begun to hurt," Hoss suggested but he and Adam both knew he was fishing in an empty stream.

The pleasant glow left by the whiskey he'd drunk that night fled Adam. He forced himself on into the little room and kneeling by the bedside, grabbed at Joe's shoulder, forcing him to lay flat, not curled on his side facing the wall. For Adam, he wasn't sure his heart hadn't stopped. He wanted to grab him and shake him. He glanced back at the bottle and judged how much was gone. Was it enough to overdose on? Had Joe…?

Finally, slowly and sluggishly the green eyes opened. From the depth of his medicated slumber, Joe roused, uncertain why he was being manhandled. He could make out Adam beside him and Hoss behind him but the sense of what he saw didn't come.

"How much?" Adam was saying, his voice cutting edge hard.

Joe, his eyes beginning to close again, felt himself being shaken and he fought the urge to return to sleep, but his eyelids felt so heavy.

Hoss stepped forward, reaching for Adam's arms to pull him away but Adam lashed out, pushing him away instead. He returned his attention to Joe and roughly pulled on him, making him sit up, forcing his back to the wall. His heart slammed painfully in his chest as he shook his brother then slapped his face shouting his question again. When still Joe hadn't responded, Adam bellowed for Hoss to get their father. He heard the big man move away, sure that within moments, his father would be there but also sure that it may be too many moments. Without realizing its intensity, he shouted his brother's name, slamming him into the wall with enough force that the lamp shook above them. Again, he struck Joe's face and was appalled that his brother's head merely snapped to that side and stayed there, the features dull, relaxed, uncaring.

The hands pulling at Adam were his father's and he gave in to them but backed only far enough that Ben could get between him and the bed. To his father's demand to know what was going on, Adam, breathless, could only point to the half-empty laudanum bottle. His chest heaving as he fought for control, Adam watched as Joe's head rolled listlessly against the wall.

Unsure of what was truly going on, Ben could only watch Joseph's reaction to what had happened. Certainly, Ben thought, Adam's slap would have elicited a response but there didn't seem to be one. He reached out and gently pulled his youngest son's face toward the feeble light. It came easily. With the long experience of a parent, he brushed back the tousled hair and ran an imploring hand over his son's cheek. His voice soft, yet urgent, he begged his son to wake up.

"Hoss, get a doctor. Pa! Can't you see what Joe's done?" exploded Adam, demanding action that he seemed to think his father incapable of directing. He grabbed up the offensive brown bottle and thrust it at his father's face. "Half a bottle of laudanum, Pa. That's enough to kill himself!" Again he shouted for Hoss to get help and tossed the bottle onto the bed, letting it bounce once on his brother's chest.

"No," Ben said, barely loud enough to be heard above the bedlam. He gazed over his shoulder at his two sons. He picked up the bottle and stood, slowly, commanding their attention and their obedience. "You're right; it's enough of an overdose to kill. But," he held it to the light to make sure then, "he hasn't taken it all tonight. Yes, the level is down some from the last time I saw it." He turned his attention back to Joe and called his name softly, tenderly. Behind him he could hear Adam's ragged breathing and Hoss shuffling his feet but he kept his attention focused.

Lethargically, Joe's eyes opened but they seemed unfocused until his father grasped his chin and called to him again. His vision blurred and his senses dulled, Joe only wanted to curl back down into the warmth and softness of the bed. He groaned as his father again demanded his attention, both with word and hand.

"Joseph," he heard his father say again and this time, he seemed a little impatient so Joe pushed away from his overwhelming desire to sleep. "You took some of this tonight?" he was asked and the bottle of laudanum came into his line of vision. He nodded, a far distant portion of his mind wondering what was happening but understanding all the same. Again his father's hand caressed his face, bringing him back to face him. "How much?" his father seemed to ask but Joe couldn't understand all he was saying. He closed his eyes briefly then opened them, hoping that a sense of understanding would come but it didn't.

"Why?" he managed to get out the one word. He saw the confusion in his father's eyes and understood that he hadn't answered the question put to him. "Some." That seemed to satisfy the older man for he smiled then insisted that Joe lay back down and covered him with the warm blanket when he did.

Ben stood up, pulling himself to his full height as he turned and faced his sons lingering in the doorway. "Does that satisfy you?" he hissed, his brows flattening. Although he had considered the awful possibility before, he would not allow himself to think that his son would really and truly - no! - he wouldn't even think about it.

"I'm sorry," was all Adam could think to say. "I thought-"

"Never mind what you thought," interrupted Ben then pushed out of the room and into the dark parlor area. "Get to bed, both of you. Tomorrow is going to be a long day."

As the three men slipped into their respective beds, only Hoss would recall that Joe hadn't answered his father completely. Upset by the mere thought that his beloved brother might have attempted to end his own life, Hoss would not sleep that night. He waited until he was sure his father and older brother were asleep then, making no sound at all, slipped from his room and into Joe's. The lamplight, still feeble, let him see that Joe was still breathing, timed oddly enough to the dripping faucet there in the room. Three drips and Joe inhaled. Three more and he exhaled. Hoss settled himself on the floor, situated so that he could watch for any sign that said his brother was in some sort of physical difficulty and listened again for the steady drip of water. He wasn't sure what that sign of difficulty might be but he would be ready for it. Oddly enough, as he watched, he never once thought of the ugly, repugnant word "suicide." To him, it never fit with what he thought of his brothers.



Chapter Seven

Today's understanding is yesterday's query and tomorrow's wisdom.


"By gosh and by golly! I swear, Ben Cartwright, you've got more white hair now than when you left town!" Even though the sheriff's remark was a little cool, his handshake was warm and Ben welcomed it.

"Roy, it's good to see you too!" boomed Ben, his voice carrying despite the clamor of the busy town just beyond the railyard.

"And you come up here in this palace?" There was a touch of awe in the lawman's voice. Ignoring the others around him, Roy Coffee stepped up onto the observation platform and peeked in the door. Just about then, the backing train caught the hook and pin of the private car that would weld it together for the return trip down the mountain. It rattled the car and Roy, who promptly got down.

"You want a quick tour?" Hoss jested but Roy gave him a playful swat on his shoulder and gestured to the waiting sleigh at the edge of the train station platform.

"We'd best be getting you folks on home."

Bundled into the sleigh, with Hoss guiding the tall draft team, they started off. They were thankful that Hop Sing had sent along their heavy coats and even more glad that he had included the buffalo robes the Cartwrights huddled under. In the second seat, Adam sat on one side and Ben on the other with Joe jammed between them. Roy sat with Hoss but for most of the thirty-mile trip, sat sideways. He kept up a fairly constant stream of talk, telling them what had happened in Virginia City and Storey County since they had been gone. It was remarkable the amount of gossip the sheriff possessed and Ben stored that interesting bit of information away since Roy would claim that he didn't listen to gossip.

As they drew to within a mile of the sprawling ranch house, the sun was dipping below the far mountains and throwing the landscape into deepening shadows that ran like too-wet watercoloring across the blanket of snow. At Ben's request, Hoss had slowed as they passed the lower pastures where Ponderosa cattle stood. The piles of hay at their feet showed that they were being cared for and there were no signs of predators. Satisfied, Ben had told Hoss to hurry on.

They pulled into the front yard. The house was dark but the smell of burning pine hovered over the beaten snowpack like a warming welcoming blanket.

"Don't suppose Hop Sing really did get tired of waitin' fer us to come home and went off to 'Frisco, do you, Pa?" Hoss moaned and the others laughed when Ben's comment was that one never knew for sure with the little Oriental.

Adam was first out of the sleigh and he offered to help Joe but Joe pushed his reaching hands away. All afternoon, Adam had kept close scrutiny on his baby brother and Joe had felt it and resented it. It was on the tip of Adam's tongue to tell him just what he thought but Ben's call for Hoss and him to put the team up intercepted his curt words.

"Ben, iffen you don't mind, let Johnny here," and Roy gestured to one of the Cartwright hired men coming towards them from the bunkhouse, "Let him take care of the team. Hop Sing's got something for you inside."

Perplexed, Ben led the way into the darkened house, his sons lined out behind him. Inside the door, he stopped in his tracks. It wasn't the blazing fire in the hearth that made him pause. It wasn't the welcoming warmth. With small candles lit, the tall Christmas tree in the corner by the gunrack was astoundingly beautiful. Ben heard Hoss catch his breath the same way he had.

Adam's exclamation followed quickly. "Guess Hop Sing's trying to tell us something."

"You no home for Christmas. Hop Sing all alone. Very sad. Very happy now!" the singsong words came from off to one side and as they did, the whole house seemed to come alive as lamps were lit.

Gathered in the house were friends and neighbors. Paul Martin edged his way forward and grabbed Ben's hand and shook it firmly. Voices called happily back and forth as the Cartwrights were welcomed home. Ben found himself suddenly holding a glass of punch and talking with the mayor. Music swirled into being as if on a magic carpet and a belated Christmas party erupted as if brought to life by some of Santa Claus' magic. A plate of food was pressed into Ben's hands and while he ate, he listened to Paul Martin complain about how Roy Coffee cheated at checkers.

After an hour or so, the party began to wind down and Ben was able to seat himself in his favorite chair. It felt so good, so welcome and he didn't realize how much he'd missed it.

"Would you mind? I know it's not really Christmas, but in a way, it is. Please Ben?" Roy handed him the Cartwright family Bible, opened to the story Ben had read aloud every Christmas since the house had been built. "It ain't Christmas 'lessen you do and we been waitin' a spell."

The entire house had gone silent, waiting expectantly. Ben let the Book lay on his lap as he studied the people gathered around him. Old friends, some of the ranch hands and their families, Hop Sing beaming in the background. Instinctively, he sought out the faces that meant the most to him: his sons. Adam was across the room, one hip propped on the desk while he ate a piece of pie. Ben smiled and saw Adam's tiny, satisfied and contented smile in return. Hoss was by the Christmas tree, a loaded plate in one hand and a fork in the other. He didn't wait for his father but nodded, eyes twinkling. There within reach on the settee was Joseph, the casted foot braced against the low wooden table as if it were the only thing keeping him upright. When Ben's smile caught him, Joseph turned away, pretending not to have seen but Ben knew he had and his heart broke a little more.

"Well, then," Ben began and for the first time, the story of the birth of God's son failed to touch something deep within him. He let his voice soar then plummet dramatically but was only by memory that he did it. As the story drew to a close, he had difficulty maintaining his composure. The thought had come somewhere during the reading that while his voice spoke of a son's birth, his heart was experiencing a son's slow death. Again, he wondered if he'd been wrong last night and Adam right. He'd given the bottle of laudanum just a cursory glance, believing that no son of his would commit suicide yet looking at Joseph now, he wasn't sure that the boy wasn't slowly dying. But for now, he lived. Damaged, yes but he was alive and that bolstered the father's heart.

Tomorrow, Ben thought, even as he smiled and wished the party a hearty Merry Christmas, tomorrow things would change. Too long had he let circumstances dictate life. Tomorrow, life began anew.


"I want you boys to check the stock. I know that the hands have done a good job seeing to them while we've been gone but there is nothing like one of the bosses checking up on what's been done." As he handed Hoss the platter of flapjacks, Ben made his orders clear and firm. There was but one problem. The youngest of them was still upstairs and not at the breakfast table. His "Joseph!" made the beams overhead quiver.

"I'll go get him up," sighed Adam and started to rise.

Ben's sharp "no!" made him sit back down abruptly.

"I don't think he can ride just yet, so I am going to assume that you didn't include him in checking the stock," offered Adam as he replaced the napkin across his lap. Just a glimpse down the table and Adam longed to be out in the far pastures himself.

"I have something I want him to do," Ben growled and again raised a shout.

Overhead, there was no noise and that could only mean that Joe was still asleep. Frustrated, Ben threw down his napkin and took long strides towards the stairs.

Before their father was completely out of sight, Hoss and Adam were headed for their coats and the door.

When they returned just before lunch, they noted that their father's horse was not in the barn and they breathed easier. Adam even chuckled to himself as they cared for their horses, blanketing them against the cutting cold.

"Whatever that burr was that got under Pa's saddle this morning, I hope he got rid of it," Hoss muttered as they slipped and slid across the yard, trying hopelessly to miss the icy spots.

"That burr has the same name as our baby brother so I don't think he got rid of him."

"Glad you two can laugh about something!" Joe seethed as his brothers came in doing just that: laughing. He sat at the desk, ledgers open, mail scattered about, and a yellow pencil between his teeth.

"Guess things did get backed up, didn't they?"

"Well, Adam, since you are so damned observant, why don't you take care of this? I can't make my numbers small enough to please Pa. And he says he can't read what I write so why bother?" Joe not only threw the pencil down, he threw it across the room.

"Temper, temper, little brother," cautioned Hoss, coming around the corner into their father's office.

Joe slammed a ledger closed so hard that the glass in the bookshelf beside the desk rattled. "Oh, you just shut up!"

"Sounds to me like someone got up on the wrong side of the bed this morning. Doesn't it to you, Hoss? By the way, how did Pa get you out of bed this morning? Reason I ask is that Hoss and I have a bet going."

"You can shut up too!" Joe seethed back. The last thing he needed, as far as he was concerned, were two mocking brothers.

"You gonna make me?" Adam challenged, seeing the dark look lurking on his youngest brother's face.

Joe struggled to stand, the cast pulling him to one side as he leaned across the desk to grab a handful of his Adam's shirt.

"Enough!" The single word was not spoken; it was roared and in the Cartwright household, only one voice had permission to be that loud. Joe turned loose of Adam but remained leaning against the desktop. Hoss and Adam had both turned, surprised to see their father in the great room with them.

"I was going to wait until tonight but I guess now is as good as any. Hop Sing!" When the cook appeared in the living room, Ben told him to hold lunch and he shrugged out of his coat and threw it towards the front door. Hop Sing meekly picked up the coat, hung it up and left the room.

"Sit!" Ben ordered and pointed a no-nonsense finger at the settee and Adam's blue chair. His sons did as he demanded, Adam to his favored chair, Hoss in the red leather one and Joe on the settee. Hoss would have rather sat with his back to the warming fire but their father was pacing before it, agitated beyond description. They waited in silence.

"It isn't easy for a man in my position to admit it, but I will. I have made a mistake. A very tragic mistake." Adam started to speak but Ben's sharp glance stilled him. It was clear. Ben would have his say, uninterrupted. "I have brought you up to be honest, forthright men. At the same time, I have tried to teach you and show the importance of being a family. Of loving and caring for one another no matter what. No matter what." Those words he repeated softer then he swallowed hard and, placing his fists on his hips, continued. "Now, this winter, I find that there have been outright lies told. There have been half-truths that have been presented as truths. There have been things not said that should have been, but, the name of being family, weren't. I don't intend to single one of you out because we all are guilty. To one degree or another, we are all guilty."

He returned to his pacing before the fire, letting his words sink in to their fullest extent. When he felt the time was right again, he swung around and glared hard at his sons.

"But perhaps I am the guiltiest because the lies I have told have been to the world. I tell the world that my sons are men but I treat them often times like they are still children. I have told my sons that they are men and can make up their own minds, make their own decisions, when in truth, I force my will on them. And I have told myself that it is because I love my sons that I do this, that I keep them close to me because I love them."

Again, he let silence reign as he paced but now, he studied them from the corner of his vision. Adam looked the most uncomfortable of the three and Ben wondered if he had said too much. Then he decided that it had struck Adam the hardest because he was the oldest. Ben knew that Adam had longed for more freedom and he'd thought that making him a partner in the ranch had allayed much of that feeling. Maybe it hadn't.

Hoss, on the other hand, looked the most at ease and Ben longed to reach out and hug the big man but then the blue eyes clouded over and Hoss looked away. This was the son that he'd felt was least guilty of anything but yet, when he'd looked away, Ben had caught the sadness in him and knew Hoss was also blameworthy.

The emotions washing across Joseph's face were fast and furious. Ben could feel the anger rolling off him and if he'd been allowed to speak, Ben knew he would claim first that he'd hadn't lied then crumple, knowing that the admission itself was a lie. He was certain as well, that Joseph deserved an apology. He would offer it.

"Joseph, I'm sorry. Your brothers and I have lied to you. Repeatedly. I have been warned over and over by the doctors who have tended to you that you are very likely going to lose the use of your leg, if not the leg itself. There is a chance otherwise, they've all said, but it is a slim chance. Please forgive me, son, but I wanted you to dwell on that chance; not the other. I thought if you did that…well, I hoped then and I do now, that you'll concentrate on that possibility."

It seemed to all that they could hear the flakes of snow falling outside, it was so quiet in the house when the words were said. Joe couldn't look up, couldn't face the truth his father had just given him, so while his mind whirled, he stayed silent.

Finally, the emotions in him settled and he found his voice. "I've known all along, Pa. I didn't want to, but I've known. I don't know how, but I have. Maybe I figured if you and Adam and Hoss kept saying it enough times, it finally would be all right. That I'd be okay.  I didn't mean to ever lie to you, Pa but I did when I let you decide how the shooting came about. I didn't want to tell you that I'd killed a man that easily, that coldly so I just never said anything. It was a fair fight, not murder, Pa, if that's what you're thinkin'. I just didn't care that the man was dead."

"That's a sad thing about this whole affair, Joe," Adam's baritone floated across the room. "None of us cared that three men died that day. But Pa, you're wrong. You did a good job in teaching us what being a family is about because while we didn't care about Brockman and the others, we did, and still do, care about each other. The problem may be that we care too much some times and forget that we need to let the other guy do it his own way."

"And then there's times when we go to the opposite extreme, ignoring a cry for help." Hoss stood as he spoke and standing before the fire, spread his big hands to catch the warmth there. "We did the other night, didn't we, Joe?"


Mortified now, Joe's shoulders slumped. "How'd you know?" he whispered, so sure that his secret was just that: his secret.

"Your water faucet was dripping and George said he thought he heard you being sick to your stomach in the night 'fore Adam and I came back. Got to thinkin' while I sat there with you all night long how a person would go about changin' their mind once they'd done something like take way too much of that stuff. Figured the only way would be to throw it up. Had to have left an ugly taste in your mouth."

"I'd like an explanation, son," Ben pressed. "That bottle of laudanum was full in Sacramento, wasn't it?"

"Yeah, it was. I - I saw the look on your face when I told you how the shooting happened, Pa, and things just finally fell apart on me. I went into my room and…" Joe struggled to continue but Hoss did it for him.

"I'm glad that you changed your mind, little brother. You and me's still got to figure out ways of getting around ol Adam. I can't do it by myself. You gotta help me."

A pained smile came to his youngest son's face that Ben hurt to see. He'd come to the conclusion that indeed, Joseph had thought about taking his own life, but hadn't realized how close he'd come to doing it. Yet Hoss had known and Adam had tried to tell him that night but he hadn't listened.

"No," Joe said, "You gotta help me."

Warmth spread through Ben. The conversation hadn't exactly gone the way he planned but, watching his sons, he decided it didn't matter what path was taken as long as the destination was the same. After Hop Sing said that lunch wouldn't hold any longer and they had started to move towards the table, Joe, ignoring his crutches, held out a hand for Hoss to pull him to his feet. The big man grinned and did so with Adam catching Joe by the belt to hold him upright while Joe got his crutches situated.

Yes, Ben thought, it seemed to him that they were headed all the same direction now and that direction was towards recovery.


Throughout the rest of the month of January and all during February, Paul Martin made weekly trips to the Ponderosa. On one week, he would simply check on the condition of the cast. He'd devised a series of exercises that he thought Joe would benefit from and he made sure the whole family knew how often they were to be done. On the other week, the cast would be soaked and removed; the leg would be gently massaged by the good physician, checking for any problems, then straightened a little more. By the first of March, the cast was fully straight.

"Joe, I want you trying to put resting weight on the leg. Know what I mean?" asked the doctor, studying his handiwork as the cast hardened. Seeing his patient chewing his lower lip, he explained. "When you're standing, let the foot touch the ground. Don't try to walk or even put your whole weight on the leg. Resting weight only. Understand?"

The grin on the young man's face was infectious and Paul Martin left the Ponderosa feeling better than he had in quite some time.

When it came time to remove the last cast, he wasn't surprised to see all of the family at the house that afternoon. Even though the winter snows were melting and there was plenty of ranch work to be done, every last Cartwright was within hollering distance.

"Can I stand up?" Joe asked cautiously when the last of the plaster fell aside.

There was latent fear in the words that Paul heard and he thought it more than justified. "You mean as in walk? Not without the crutches still. Your leg muscles aren't strong enough, Joe. You yourself said that you don't have the feeling down your leg completely."

"But I can move it! Look!" He proceeded to move his leg on the bed, even so far as to start to flex his knee but the doctor's hand stopped him.

"Movement isn't based on feeling, Joe. Right now, without a lot of feeling in that leg, you could walk around on it and damage it and you wouldn't know you were hurting it. That's why we have to go slow."

"Then when can I start trying to walk without the crutches?"

"Resting weight still for another week, all right? Then next week, when I come out, we'll see about putting that foot on the ground."

"Gonna be a long week."

Paul Martin rolled his sleeves down and picking up his bag, headed downstairs. He wasn't in the least surprised to find Joe's brothers and father waiting at the foot of the stairs.

"No cast," he chirped and saw the smiles on all the faces. "But I don't want him trying to walk on it just yet. He's got to build up the muscles he's got in that leg. Work with him some more, Ben. Start getting him to bend his knee, flex his ankle but for land's sake, don't let him overdo it. I realize that may be next to impossible but try, please? He's come so far that I don't want to see a set back."

"Don't you worry, Doc. Me and Adam'll take care of him."


Every night after supper, no matter how tired Hoss and Adam were, they would be in barn, Joe in tow. Ben had been told in no uncertain terms by his eldest son that he wasn't required and - ahem! - wasn't wanted. He still could hear the three of them laughing while he read the paper in his red chair. After about an hour, the three would reappear in the house. There'd be a rousing game of checkers between Hoss and Joe with Adam volunteering moves to the luckless and apparent loser then they'd be off to bed. Only one night, and that in the middle of the week, was Ben was forced to intercede. That night, about midnight when everyone else was sleeping, he heard strange noises and gone into Joe's room to investigate.

"It's just a charley horse, Pa," Joe spit out through clenched teeth as he tried to massage his leg.

"Didn't Paul warn you about overdoing it? Here let me see if I can help it." Ben took over using blunt fingers to work down the length of his son's leg. Beneath his hands he could feel the muscle and was shocked by what he felt: stone hard flesh. Taking a moment, he lit the bedside lamp then resumed working on the leg lying on the quilt. It was everything he could do not to gasp aloud. It was the first time he'd seen what remained of his son's leg.

"It's called atrophy, Pa. It happens when muscles don't work for a while. They tighten up and get hard. If I don't work on them, they'll stay like this for the rest of my life, Doc Martin says. That's why I'm workin' hard on 'em. I've beaten the odds those other doctors gave me and kept my leg and I'm gonna go 'em one better. It's gonna be as close to the old leg as I can get."

"But Joseph, this-"

"No!" Joe said forcefully. "I can't do anything about the scar but I can do something about my leg. There was this priest in Saint Louis I visited a few times and he told me 'Don't let a single act of violence control the rest of your life.' He meant the boys last summer but his words are just as true now. I didn't think so a couple of months ago but I know they are now."

"Wise words," agreed Ben for he had listened to the priest's words. With a remembering smile, he thought of how much George, Leland Stanford's manservant, had been like the nameless priest: calm in the face of a storm, sure of himself and full of faith. And able to see the truth in a man.

"But Pa, if you can't stand to see it like this, I'll understand. I have trouble looking at it myself but it's part of me and it's made me what I am right now. So you go on back to bed, I'll get this knot worked out somehow."

"No, like you said, son, it's part of you and as your father, it's part of me as well. Let me see what I can do. But I want to know what the three of you are doing in the barn every night."

Joe laughed, his raucous cackle rippling through the still night. Nothing that Ben could say or promise would get the information and once Joe said that the knot was gone, his father left the room, none the wiser. Yet wiser all the same.



It was then, with the coming of spring, that an envelope came, addressed to Joe with no return address. Curious himself, Ben handed the heavy envelope over to Joe who studied it for a moment then opened it. There was no letter, no written explanation inside. As Joe tipped it up, his mother's heavy silver locket fell into his palm. The last time he'd seen it, he'd paid Doctor Brockman for his father's care. He had never expected to see it again, especially after he'd killed the man's son. He couldn't explain, couldn't even begin to understand so he merely slipped it back into his jacket pocket. Later that day, he'd taken the buggy and rode to his mother's grave. He sat beside it and cried, wishing he could thank the man for having saved not only the locket, but his life.


Joe's first steps were hesitant ones that April morning. Paul Martin stood on one side and his father on the other as he tried, his stomach quaking in fear. The leg held, the knee flexed as it should and the ankle moved so the foot rotated properly. He took another step, thinking through the process and moving cautiously. Again, everything worked as it had before.

"Well, would you lookee there? Hey Adam! You better come see this!" Hoss hollered, catching the moment. Ben looked up at him sharply, telling him to stop the fuss but Hoss waved his complaint away.

When Adam came into the house, he leaned against the credenza, shoved his hat back on his head and crossed his arms. "Not quite but almost," he crowed and smirked when he saw his father's questioning look. "Years ago, I recall just such a sight, don't you, Hoss? Pa so proud of his little boy learning to walk."

Joining him leaning against the credenza, Hoss asked, "How long before you figure he starts tailin' us around this time?"

Adam rolled his eyes and shrugged his shoulders but when Joe looked up at him, no longer studying his own feet, Adam winked and smiled. "Probably not long at all."


Before the month of April was over, Joe Cartwright was walking without the hated crutches. His stride was no longer hesitant and that in and of itself made Ben stop worrying so much. The first time Joe had gone out on his beloved pinto for a ride, Ben had enforced a "walk only" decree but within the week, Joe and the horse would be seen hustling across broad pastures, chasing cattle that weren't walking.

Adam thought he'd seen it first but he wasn't sure and he'd roped Hoss into it when he asked if Hoss saw anything different about the way their brother now walked.

Watching Joe walk away from them towards the barn the next morning, Hoss agreed and then added his own comment. "That leg, Adam, it don't swing like the other one. Remember how he used to almost swagger when he walked?"

"Like I said, you think it's because-"

"I know just what it is, Adam. That leg's a little shorter now. He's got less length to his stride."

Ever the engineer, Adam thought for the better part of three days before he came up with the answer. When the house was empty one afternoon, Adam sat down and wrote a long letter to Lem Fonda in San Francisco. Lem Fonda had made the Cartwrights boots since he'd come to California in the early 1860's and taken up a small corner lot on Church Street doing boot repairs and turning out well-made and lasting boots. If anyone could do what Adam suggested, he figured Lem would be the one. He bundled the letter into an envelope with a rather sizeable sight draft for his bank account in San Francisco and made sure it was mailed the next time someone went into Virginia City.

The spring progressed, the days turning sunny and warm and the last of the snows melting from the deep shadowed gullies. Newborn calves and colts were commonplace now and were allowed to stay in the pastures with their mothers. There had been some trouble with flooding in the early spring as the large snowmelt rushed for the rivers and streams but as May was about to turn into June, it was no longer a concern.

The package from Lem Fonda, addressed to Adam, showed up propitiously the day before Joe's birthday. Because Joe was around, Adam took it up to his room and left it there for the day. It wasn't until the next morning, in the privacy of his room, that Adam had dared open it and carefully look at its contents. His hesitancy was not needed.

"Lem, you earned every bit of that money if these work. Let's go see." He picked up the box and went down the hallway to Joe's room.

Joe, still working on waking up that early morning, stood before his mirror, his hairbrush still in his hand when Adam tapped on his door and walked in.

"Thought I'd give this to you now," greeted Adam.

"You can wait 'til tonight's party, you know." Joe teased back, but eyeing the unwrapped box speculatively.

"It's not a birthday present, Joe, not really. Just something I thought you …needed." Uncharacteristically, Adam floundered while looking for the right word to use.

With eyebrows raised, Joe opened the box. Inside was a pair of boots. Tan leather with the slightly squared toe Joe usually went for. "What? There's nothing wrong with this pair of boots I got on now." He pointed to the boots he was wearing.

"Just do me a favor, little brother. Put 'em on," insisted Adam and to make sure his request was heeded, pushed Joe to sit on the bed.

Sure that something in poor Adam's head had finally broken loose, Joe did as he asked, pulling off the old boots and pulling on the new ones. There wasn't anything different, he thought and would have said so but Adam pulled him up, a handful of shirt as the handle. Following that, Adam turned him loose and pointed to the door and said, "Walk."

With the first step he took, Joe knew there was a difference and he turned back to say something to Adam but Adam still had one long finger pointing towards the door and that "don't cross me" look to his face. Joe went on, each step becoming easier, more natural.

At the closed door Joe stopped and turned around. "Geeze, Adam. Where did-? How did-? I mean-"

Adam chuckled then contently crossed his arms over his chest. "Let's just call it my secret, Joe. And from what I can see, no one would ever know. You felt it, didn't you? There's no limp to your walk any more."

"It's like I used to walk?" Joe asked and Adam nodded truthfully.

"Granted, I think the swagger is a little rusty but you can get it back."


Downstairs, Ben was about the send Hoss back upstairs for his wayward brothers when the two of them descended the stairs laughing with one another.





"He's got to be stopped. The sooner, the better." Listening to their father, the Cartwright boys would have sworn that the rogue mountain lion had eaten a hundred head of cattle instead of the two they had proof of.

"Well, I've got to finish shoeing them horses so it looks like you and Joe are gonna go after him, Adam." Hoss handed the succulent corn on the cob to Adam the same way he did the hunting trip…on a platter.

"How about it, Joe? We leave first thing in the morning and we should be up to the back side of the Crystal Range by noon. That's where he's been spotted more times than any place else."

"Anything but pulling dumb cows out of bogs. You realize how many have decided to beat the heat this summer that way? I swear, I pull 'em out and they're back in it before I get back on my horse!"

So in the early coolness of the next morning, Adam and Joe rode out from the house. They were bound for the far slope of what they called the Crystals. On the east-facing slope of these rugged peaks, the mountains dwindled down into the high plateau of the Humboldt Sink. In the process, the worn hills had become nearly barren of foliage. One place in particular was the known hangout of the mountain lion they sought. Called by the locals "The Knuckles," that is what they looked like: four bent fingers that were pressed into the earth with narrow spaces between them. These fingers though, they splayed off a flat too narrow to be the back of a hand since it was barely a hundred yards wide at the most. It was here that the lion had been seen and it was here that Joe and Adam found themselves late in the afternoon.

The heat had worn much of the enthusiasm off the men. The lukewarm water in their canteens had done little to dampen their throats. The prospect of sleeping on the rocky ground dimmed even Joe's excitement although he told his brother it was because he didn't want to eat Adam's cooking.

But fortune smiled on them at just the right moment. The mountain lion darted into one of the gaps between the fingers. Both saw him and pulled their rifles.

"It's too rough in there for the horses, Adam."

Adam nodded towards one of the bare rocky knob. "I'm going up there. Can see him easily from there."

To his surprise, Joe told his brother, "No you don't, old man. That sort of climbin' for us young fellas. You stay down here and make sure that old sack of fur don't come back out."

Before Adam could berate his brother, Joe was off his horse and headed up the steep side of The Knuckles. Small rocks and sand made the going slippery and Adam didn't start breathing again until Joe reached the top, about twenty feet up. With Sport
now nervously dancing because he'd caught scent of their prey, Adam eased around the blunt rocks. There, the sage grew and he had to study it to make sure it didn't hide a big cat. He was about to go on when he thought he saw the cat. There wasn't time to shout for Joe before a rifle shot ripped through the stillness of the hot afternoon. While the sound still echoed through the narrow canyons, Adam eased forward. He had seen something move off the face of the rock just before the shot.

"You got him!" he hollered, seeing the big tawny shape stretched out and bloodied on the ground.

Joe's voice above Adam called out. "You sure?"

It was on Adam's lips to shout back that of course he was sure but first he looked up.

Time tumbled backwards for Adam. The Phoenix, he thought, that night I saw Joe and Pa talking, after those boys had come to kill Joe, I thought of him as the Phoenix, rising from the flames to begin a new life. As he looked above him now, he saw Joe, his lean body darkly silhouetted against the blazing orange of a dying sun. He had his rifle raised in one hand triumphantly, his feet spread, his head thrown back. I was wrong. Then he was still trapped. He had to fight his way out, to rise above those flames, in body and spirit. He did it. Now, yes now, the Phoenix is free.

Adam whispered with a small smile playing with his lips, answering both his brother's question and his own thoughts "I'm sure."



The End


The names of those who have helped us in writing this story would fill a page, easily. We thank you, for you know who you are and what you have done to help us reach this joyous conclusion. We still dedicate this story to the one among us who, like the mythical Phoenix, still struggles within the flames. We, too, have felt their touch and know that they have made you stronger, wiser and more determined. May you, some day, be freed.  


Historical Notes for Phoenix Freed 

The Places: With the exception of the Ponderosa, the Mission and Lost Springs, all of the places in the story are real places. Maricopa Wells and Warner's were stopping places of note along the southern route of the Butterfield Stage Line. Warner's is still a fine place to spend time if you are in Southeastern California. The two hotels in Los Angeles (El Pueblo de la Reyna de los Angeles is it's Spanish name) were real hotels although neither survives to this day. As for Lost Springs, it is based on a small ghost town somewhere in the New Mexico desert that one of us visited as a child. The Mission is based on many of those humble adobe churches in the American Southwest that were built, used, abandoned then rebuilt.

The People: The Sisters of Charity were, and still are, real. The ones presented here are based on some of the most gentle people we have ever had the pleasure to have known. Their historical significance to the taming of the West is impressive as they came as teachers, nurses and caregivers extraordinarie. Doctors Gallahger, Brockman and Beechum are based on those physicians who, following the aftermath of the Civil War, began the study of rebuilding shattered limbs, better known now as orthopedic surgery. Sometimes they were successful, as seen here, but more often they weren't but they had to start somewhere. Leland Stanford and George were real people. Stanford was governor of California and dealt with the state and, as part of the Big Four, the Central Pacific railroad (of which he was President as well as part owner)all of it as if it were his medieval fiefdom. As much as he was a scoundrel, he was also a saint. When his only son died just short of his sixteenth birthday, Stanford began the endowment that ultimately created Stanford University, one of the leading universities in the United States, if not the world. George, whose real last name is lost to history, was a freed slave from Georgia who served the Stanford family for over four decades, surviving the governor by twenty years, as well as Mrs. Stanford.

Other things: The Butterfield Stage Line was real. Its contract with the US government was for mail delivery so they really were more careful with the mail than their passengers. The Central Pacific Railroad was also real, joining with the Union Pacific at Promontory Point Utah in 1869 to make the first Transcontinental Railroad. Leland Stanford drove in the golden spike (or tried to but that's another story). His wife later presented him with his first private railcar. No interior descriptions or photographs survive to this day but it was as sumptuous as 19th century wealth could make it and it was one of the first to have hot and cold running water (as well as toilet facilities - non flushing). The snowsheds, Buckler Snowplows and Leslie Rotary Snow plows were also real and were the technological marvel of their time even though their time frame was a little beyond where Bonanza had us. Likewise for the Southern Pacific railroad that brought the Cartwrights up from the south into Sacramento. It wasn't a fait a'comple until 1871. These rail lines still exist, traveling the same courses set down by their engineers more than a hundred years ago. 


The Tahoe Ladies

August 2001 to January 2004


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