Author's Choice - Irish
Phoenix Rising
Part Two of the Phoenix series

The Tahoe Ladies

The driving force of the Tahoe Ladies, one of the founding members and still our most prolific idea-woman, Irish is a perfect combination of loving heart, helping hand and boot in the ass. You'll notice her glaring out from the wimple of Mother Superior Ruth but it is really in Ben Cartwright that you discover her spirit. Ever seen a mother hen with a cattle prod under one wing? Well, Joe Cartwright and the Tahoe Ladies both have. It is truly an awesome thing. ~CTL

Authors' note: This story is the second in a trilogy that began with Phoenix Chained. If you have not read Phoenix Chained, some of the references may be confusing to you and we suggest that you read it first. It isn't necessary but we would suggest it.
As before, we dedicate this story to the one amongst us who has felt these flames most keenly and still struggles to escape them.

Chapter One,
The journey of a thousand miles often begins with a single argument

    T he little white-faced calf bawled once for his mother then, tail high, ran back towards the rest of the herd. As he ran, he shook his right rear leg, the new brand there giving him cause to wonder about the reason the humans did such things. Once he found his mother, he nuzzled her udder, hoping for liquid solace. His mother, aware that her offspring had returned, nudged him, smelling the familiar scent of man, burnt hair and hide. Like her, he now wore the simplistic pine tree symbol of the Ponderosa.

    With a grunt, Hoss Cartwright dropped the next calf onto its side, readying it for the branding iron his brother Adam wielded. With a hiss, the brand burned and the little calf bawled piteously.

    "Cow? Or bull?" Adam asked, looking to his tally book. He had dropped the iron back into the fire behind him.

    "Cow," Hoss replied and loosened the rope around the little calf's neck, turning her loose to run back to the herd.

    "Good! That means we are getting more breeding stock than sale stock," Adam smiled lazily, then spotting a familiar buckskin horse headed their way, turned his attention back to the job at hand.

    Ben swung down off his horse and handed the reins to a young wrangler before walking over to where he saw Hoss and Adam working. They had just branded another whiteface.

    "How is it going? This herd any better than the ones up on the North range?" he asked.

    "Well, all the little lady calves seem to be down here," Adam chuckled shortly, handing the tally book to his father

    "Take a break, boys!" Hoss shouted and waved off the advancing cowboy dragging up another calf to the pits.

    Adam twisted his back for the hundredth time that warm afternoon and following his father and brother to the coffeepot, rubbed at the small of his back once more.

    "You didn't answer my question. Are they in any better shape than the North herd?" Ben asked again, pouring himself a cup of coffee and handing it over to Adam.

    "They seem to be in better shape but the numbers just aren't there, Pa," Adam explained, blowing on the bitter brew, wishing it were cold beer instead.

    Ben sighed once then turned to look over the herd of white-faced cattle that were quickly becoming his pride and joy. Adam was right. The herd did seem to be in good physical shape but there weren't more than two hundred out there and there should have been closer to three hundred.

    "How many men you got out poppin' the bushes for more?" Ben asked. Sometimes, the herd, once gathered, would tend to stay together. Other times, they would drift back into the bushes and no amount of surveillance would keep them from it. So men were always out meandering in the bushes, "popping" or flushing the wanders back to the main herd.

    "You mean how many riders or how many out there working?" Adam drawled then immediately wished he could take the words back. He wondered if his father would pick up on it but Ben apparently didn't.

    "Where is Joe? He out in the bush?"

    Hoss and Adam exchanged long looks behind their father's back before Adam answered him. "Yeah, Joe is out there somewhere."

    Ben shook his head, distracted by a thought he wouldn't share with his elder sons. For the past few weeks, he had become increasing disturbed about his youngest son and his behavior. There had been more nights of late that Joe didn't come in until well after dark. Add to that was the fact that Joe looked continually tired, as though he wasn’t sleeping well.

    "Well, tell him to get home in time for supper tonight. I want to talk to him." With that said, Ben turned and gestured for his horse. Without a glance back at Hoss and Adam, he swung into the saddle and rode away.

    "I think I'll go to town tonight. How 'bout you, Hoss?" Adam rubbed the back of his hand across his chin, wiping away a trickle of sweat.

    "Yeah, good idea. Any place but home tonight."

    Not far from where his brothers were making their own plans, Joe Cartwright sat his pinto, rubbing one hand down his thigh and gently massaging his knee. It was something he had caught himself doing more and more recently. But not out of habit. No matter how he rode or the horse he rode, by early afternoon, his knee ached. It was the same knee that just a few months before had taken a beating when Joe had returned home with Hop Sing to find the house being torn apart by a group of teen age boys. It hadn't been just his knee that had been hurt but the bruises and cracked ribs had healed, as had one hand that had been broken in the melee. The other hand, his left, he still wondered if it would ever return to normal. Still, it remained weak and continually cramped and spasmed at the oddest times.  Joe had for once done everything the doctor told him to do but he still remained in constant pain, whether from the damaged knee or his hand. Like now as he sat his horse.

    A brief flurry of motion off to his left caught Joe's attention and he turned the horse's head in that direction thinking it was a calf. It wasn't. Instead he caught just a glimpse of his father's horse moving through the high brush. Quickly he swung Cochise's head and gave a kick to the horse's sides that sent the black and white further into the brushes and away from his father. As luck would have it, there a little calf stood, drinking from the small stream. Joe checked it and found no brand. He sighed and nudged his horse over to the calf, intent on moving it back to the herd.

    Ben thought he saw the flash of a horse's white tail dive into the deep brush and decided to follow it. He caught up with Joe just as his son was pulling the calf back out of the brush and towards the branding pits.

    "Did you have to pull him out or is the mud that deep back there?" Ben's eyes were alight with his teasing.

"Huh?" Joe asked and gave the roped calf another tug.

"You have enough mud on your boots to fill Tahoe," Ben teased again and gestured to Joe's muddy boots.

Giving the rope another tug, Joe gave his father a half smile as he rode by him. There was no sense in admitting to his father that more than once, unable to use his hand properly to lasso a calf, Joe had simply walked over to it and dropped the rope over the youngster's head. Let Pa think whatever it is he needs to think. I ain't gonna tell him the truth. He's worried enough about me this year. Let him worry 'bout somethin' else.

Without another word passing between them, Joe rode on, leaving his father more concerned than ever. As he watched the green-jacketed back disappear through the brush, Ben again felt something was wrong but he couldn't put a finger on it. Joseph was working. Everyday up before dawn and home late. Totally unlike the son of just six months before who'd had to be dragged, sometimes physically, from his bed. And if he were home late to supper, it was usually because he had dawdled in town. With almost a jolt, Ben realized that Joe hadn't been to town that he knew of for nearly a month. For all intents and purposes, Joseph was behaving himself apparently and that was enough to worry Ben no end. Well, tonight, I will get to the bottom of this, young man, he thought and turned Buck's head towards home.

As Ben sat on the porch that evening in the thinning light, he watched the dip and dance of the barn swallows. He thought of how they seemed to be able to fly in the most remarkable of patterns, never clashing with one another, always aware of things and others around them. It was too bad that men aren't more like barn swallows , he thought. The world would be a more peaceful place. And peace was in short supply in his world that night. He had done as he had promised himself and tried to speak to Joe when the young man returned home from the day's work. But he gotten absolutely nowhere.

"I sure wish you would decide what you want out of me, Pa. Here I am trying to be the 'good son' you have always wanted me to be and you're lecturing me! Back in the spring, you were mad because I wasn't working long hours. Now you're upset that I am!"  Joe's hands thrown into the air demonstrated his exasperation.

"I am simply concerned that all these hours may be too much for you right now." The placating tone in Ben's voice was evident but it sounded more to Joe like his father was being condescending.

"What do you mean by that? You heard Doc Martin three weeks ago saying I could go back to work!"

"Yes, I did but I am concerned -" Ben started but Joe quickly interrupted.

"Pa, my side is healed. So's my shoulder. This hand," and Joe held up his right one, "is just about back to normal. So if I say it and Doc Martin says it, don't you think you can believe at least one of us?"

Brows furrowing, Ben jammed his hands into his pockets before he completed the sentence Joe had cut into "- that you are pushing yourself just a little too hard, son."

"Here we go back to making up your mind, Pa. Now tell me the truth! If I had been working like this last spring, would we have been having this discussion?"

"Last spring, I didn't have a son who had been nearly beaten to death either," Ben pointed out with more heat in his voice than he wanted.

Joe exploded, unable to contain his temper any longer. "Last spring," he nearly shouted into his father's face, "Let's face it, Pa. And let's say it. Last spring you had a son who was whole and now you don't. That's what's behind all this new-found concern, isn't it?"

"That was totally uncalled for, young man and you know it." Ben erupted as well, towering over his son now as they stood in the great room of the house. In his mind's eye, Ben still saw places where the house had been ravaged although Adam and Hoss had been most meticulous in their repairs. His memories still shot back to the blood that had been found on the floors, the walls and even the furniture, all mute testimony of the price his son, the one before him now, had paid trying to protect their home.

"But it is true and you know it," Joe seethed, flinging his father's own words back at him.

"Is that why you're pushing yourself day in and day out? This feeling like you aren't whole?" Another track, Ben thought, try another way to reach him.

"No! It's trying to convince you and the rest of the damn world to let me work this out myself! So what if I'm not whole and I never will be again? What difference does it make? So what if I can't write my own name? I still know it. So what if I can't use my gun? I'm still pretty damn good with a rifle. So what-" and Joe never finished his words, seeing the stunned look on his father's face. Unwittingly, he had been wildly gesturing with his left hand, the one still weakly curled and nearly useless to him. Ben had reached out and grabbed it, holding it trapped in his own massive fist between them and in front of Joe's face.

That was it. The fact that he isn't "perfect" any more that has him bothered. He's hiding. In plain sight, he is hiding. Cover over the feeling of inadequacy with long hours of work. Don't go into town where people look at you and express their pity at what has happened, Ben thought to himself but then aloud asked, "Yes son, what difference does make? You are still my son. And it doesn't matter to me what you can or can't do. What matters to me is that you are alive. Anything else is of absolutely no consequence." And with that said, Ben let go of Joe's hand.

"Maybe to you, that's enough, but it isn't enough for me, Pa," Joe said, the fight now gone from him.  Slowly, weary not only from the long day in the saddle but now this argument with his father, Joe pulled his hand from his father's grasp, then turned and headed for the stairs.

"Maybe it needs to be, Joseph. For now at least?" Ben said to his son's back and saw Joe pause at the landing. Joe shook his head once, never looking back at his father, and just continued on up the stairs.

Now as Ben sat on the porch watching the stars pop out onto the dark velvety sky, he wondered just what he could do to convince Joe. Nothing, he mused, could convince a man of his own worth. Nothing but time.

    The entire trip into town had been made in absolute, stony, cold-edged silence. Not that it bothered Adam Cartwright. What made it so hard to take was the fact that Joe rode beside him on the buckboard seat. They weren't fighting so Adam had decided early on that the silence wasn't a hostile one. At least not towards him. Several times he had tried to start a conversation with his normally ebullient brother only to have Joe merely grunt in reply. So finally he had quit trying and they rode on, the sun warming their backs that fall morning.

    Hop Sing had supplied them with a list of items to stock up the home pantry reserves. Winter was around the corner and everywhere one looked, the signs were there that it would be a hard one. And Hop Sing, ever diligent, had wanted to make sure there was plenty of everything on hand before the first flakes of snow started to fly. Adam had chuckled as he had taken down Hop Sing's list the day before, noting how many times the little oriental had upped the amounts previously requested. He had nearly made mention of it then decided that a happy Hop Sing meant better things on the table for meals. And although Adam Cartwright didn't have Hoss' legendary appetite, he did have a healthy one.

    So the two brothers had been dispatched to town with instructions to not forget anything. From the looks again at the long list in his hand as he stood in the mercantile, Adam couldn't for the life of himself imagine that there was anything to forget! Finally, he turned the list over to Laf Johnson who ran the store, telling him to get the stuff to the walkway and they would load it into the wagon.

    The wagon was nearly overflowing by the time the brothers finished and once again, Adam marveled at what it took to keep Hop Sing happy.

    "Well, little brother, I've got some banking to take care of for Pa before we head back. You want to tag along or what?" Adam said, wiping his forearm across his chin, where a tiny rivulet of sweat ran.

    Joe leaned back against the side of the wagon and glanced to the sky. "Tell you what, I got some things I need to see about. Should take me about as long as it'll take you at the bank. I'll meet you at the Bucket of Blood and let you buy me a beer before we head home. How's that?"

    Adam's smile was hidden behind the stalled motion of his arm. When Joe said "some things" it usually meant there was female involved. The fact that his brother was considering such things again gave lift to his older brother's heart. It had been a long time since Joe had even mentioned a girl's name.

    "Sure. Okay, Bucket of Blood, say in forty five minutes?" Adam half asked, noting that Joe was looking across the street. What Adam saw across the street were two very pretty young ladies sauntering passed windows, shopping.

    "Make it an hour," Joe said and, without looking at the bemused expression on Adam's face, headed across the street.

    Pulling his hat down over his forehead, Adam turned and headed the opposite direction. "And Pa is worried about him?" he asked himself and chuckled. He had taken maybe a dozen steps when it dawned on him that they would miss lunch so perhaps they should change their meeting place to the Cattleman's where he would treat Joe to a steak. Adam turned back to holler out to Joe, but Joe was nowhere in sight.  The two young ladies were still on the street but where was Joe?

    Curious, Adam walked back along the broad walkway, searching for a glimpse of his brother. He found it finally in the one place he never thought he would see his brother willingly go. There, through the large plate glass window of Paul Martin's office, Adam could see Joe's back. And he was talking to the doctor.

    Adam's first thought was to head across the street and confront his brother there in Paul's office. He would wrestle the truth out of Joe then and there. But I wouldn't want him to do that to me. No, don't do that. Whatever is bothering him, if it is enough that he is going to seek Paul's help, it has to be serious. But he has a right to his privacy. Adam leaned against the upright, his hand closing over his mouth as he thought. How serious is it? He wondered then got his answer when the two figures disappeared through the door leading into the doctor's examining room. Serious enough.

    Exactly one hour later, Adam Cartwright had his bootheel perched on the lower rung of the bar railing at the Bucket of Blood. He had been nursing the same beer for a good half-hour when Joe strolled through the swinging doors, the nonchalance rolling off him.

    "Hey, Older Brother. You're starting without me? Bruno! Gimme a beer and take Adam's money for it," Joe called and Adam hunted for some sign of discomfort from his brother.

    Beer in hand, Joe leaned with his back against the bar and surveyed the scene in the saloon. A couple of hands from a neighboring ranch were playing poker at one of the back tables. There was a barmaid, Joe thought her name was Kelly, or something like that, over by them, trying to get them to buy her a drink. When he finally caught her eye, he winked at her and saw her head in his direction.

    From the reflection in the mirror over the back of the bar, Adam had watched as the girl detached herself from the poker table and surmised correctly that she was headed in their direction and at whose behest. Languidly, he rolled around and leaned against the bar the same way Joe was, intent on heading her off.

    "My, my, my!" she drawled softly and stood between the two. "What do we have here but the Cartwright boys! The handsomest pair of 'em a girl could see. Goodness! Just makes my heart pound." She let her brown eyes rove over them, not missing a thing. Both were well known among the girls in all the saloons. And fought over upon occasion as well so to have no competition in sight and the two of them all to herself was indeed a rarity.

    "Hello, Kelly," Joe crooned easily and she leaned in his direction just a hair.

    I can see I was worried about absolutely nothing! Looks like the little charmer - Adam was thinking then abruptly changed his train of thought. Before Joe had turned to face the saloon, Adam had seen him use his good hand to carefully position his left one so that the thumb caught in his belt. Then Joe had turned to face the rest of the saloon, looking the lazy relaxed cowboy. But Kelly, playing the coquette, had reached out and had started to stroke his brother's left arm. In just that short a time span, Adam watched as Joe went from self-assured, cocky young man to something considerably less.

    "Kelly, is it?" Adam reached over to remove her hand from his brother's arm, drawing her attention to himself instead. "Kelly, sweetheart, we really would like to stay and - what?- discuss the weather with you, but we need to be getting home." Adam cajoled and with his own disarming charm and smile, pulled her away from between them. Under his breath, he hissed, "Let's go, little brother. Now."

    Joe took another swallow of beer then set the mug back onto the bar, next to Adam's empty one. He had just for a few moments there felt like himself again while he had considered the woman and her obvious endowments and eagerness to please. Then she had touched his arm and recent events flooded back into his reality. He tried to smile at her as he tugged his hat brim down but the smile failed to reach his eyes.

    "Later, okay?" Joe suggested half-heartedly and headed out the doorway.

    Adam gave the girl a meaningful smile and a little nod then followed his brother.

    "Damn!" she swore under her breath once the two were gone. "What did I do wrong?"

    The ride home was going just like the ride into town had been: silent. Joe had withdrawn into himself and Adam's mind whirled about with all he had witnessed. Finally he decided that he had to know and pulled the team to a halt. Joe immediately came uncoiled and looked at Adam, wondering why they had stopped in the middle of the road.

    "I saw you, Joe," was all Adam said, keeping his eyes straight ahead even though he longed to see the effect the words would have on Joe.

    "Saw me what?" Joe asked defensively, trying for a bluff.

    Adam carefully considered his next words before he spoke them. "I saw you in Paul Martin's office."

    "So? What of it?" Joe asked heatedly, but also considerably more wary.

    Turning to face his brother square on, Adam saw the fleeting expression of fear on Joe's face. Just for that split second, Joe looked so much younger than his twenty plus years that it made Adam want to kick himself for the mere knowledge he had. "In all your life, you have fought like a wild cat to keep from going into that office. You have denied busted ribs, pounding headaches and God only knows what else just so you wouldn't have to go in there. Now today, you go willingly. I want to know why."

    Joe swallowed hard, trying to decide how to handle this situation. "You followed me?" he stated more than asked.

    "Not exactly. I had the thought that maybe we should have lunch together instead of the beer. I turned around to tell you but you were already gone. I thought I would see you further down the street so I walked back that way. That's when I saw you there. Come on, Joe. What is it? Tell me. Please?" Adam explained then pleaded.

    Joe crossed his arms over his chest and leaned back into the wagon's hard seat, his feet propped up on the edge in front of him. "You're Mister Know-it-all. You tell me."

    "I'll tell you what I do know. I know you are keeping something from everyone. Or at least trying to but you need to polish up on your style, Joe. I saw you in the saloon. When that girl just touched your arm, you stiffened up like she was going to bite you. The other day when we were out working the round up and branding, I saw you when you got down off your horse at lunchtime. You could barely walk, Joe. And how long have you been just stepping into the stirrups and swinging onto your horse? The brother I know rarely put his boots in the stirrups before he hits saddle leather and his horse is off. Nowadays, I bet Cochise doesn't even get beyond a trot before you are reining him in. You want me to go on? I've got a list longer than Hop Sing's!"

Joe sat fuming. All his hard work to hide his problems had been useless. He couldn't find his voice to answer Adam.

Adam continued. "I also know you can't use your left hand for anything besides a prop. You don't even wear your revolver anymore. You haven't lassoed anything. And when I tried to give you the easy job of using the branding iron, you acted like I was giving you the worst one in the world. I know that you have tried writing with your right hand and you can't get beyond a crooked scrawl. For God's sake, Joe!  I can help you but I need to know how to help you and to do that, I need to know what is wrong!"

For the long, long moments that followed Adam's final plea, all that could be heard was the gentle movements of the team as they stood in their traces, waiting to go on and the breeze that whispered through the pines beside the road. Finally Joe reached into his inside jacket pocket and withdrew an envelope. He held it in his hand for a moment, considering its importance in his life, then gave it to Adam.

It was addressed to Doctor Paul Martin from a doctor in San Francisco, California. As Adam pulled the one thin sheet of paper from within, he looked at Joe's grim expression. Joe's eyes were closed, his lips tight together, his head down, as he fought for control. Adam skimmed the letter quickly. Obviously, at some point in time, Paul had written to this doctor about Joe's mangled left hand, asking for advice on how to right the damage done when the hand had been crushed by the teenage boys who had ransacked the Ponderosa, tormented Hop Sing and nearly killed Joe, all in the name of "having some fun". The hand had not healed well enough for Joe to regain much, if any, movement or use whatsoever. It was the next to the last lines that snagged Adam's eye as he read them. "I suggest that you simply tell the young man to live with this disability because, barring a miracle, he is stuck with it. To my knowledge, there is nothing that can be done." Slowly and sadly, Adam refolded the letter and handed it back to Joe.

"Have you told Pa?" Adam whispered and saw Joe give his head a little shake, his lips not able to form the word "no."

"Maybe another doctor-" Adam started but Joe cut him off.

"Doc already tried. That was why I was in his office today. He wrote to some fancy hospital back east. I was there to get their answer. Doctors there said basically the same thing." Joe's voice quivered as he spoke.

At a complete loss for words, Adam put a long arm across Joe's shoulders. "I'm sorry, Joe," he whispered, feeling his own heart cry. "I shouldn't have said what I did. I'm sorry."

    "No, it's okay, Adam."

    Sighing, Adam pulled his brother a little closer to him. "No, it ain't okay. Is there anything you think we can do?"

    Joe looked across to see Adam's face, trying to gauge his reaction to what he was about to ask. "Just one thing. Don't say anything to Pa about this. Let me," and gestured with the letter before he tucked it back into its hiding place.

    For a brief moment, Adam thought about arguing it out with Joe. But if there was one thing that Adam understood, it was a craving for privacy. He nodded briefly then pulled his arm from his brother's shoulders, only to find himself patting Joe's leg. "On one condition. That you tell Pa everything you just told me."

    A quick smile crossed Joe's features and Adam thought he had won a round.

    Everything I just told you, Joe repeated to himself, but when is up to me and I don't think I can do that just yet.

    The big Rhode Island Red rooster walked the narrow top railing of the corral, placing his feet carefully in the predawn mist. He stopped when he got to a post and hopped onto it, fluffing his wings and stretching his neck as he surveyed the barnyard.

Blinking in satisfaction, he told the world that the sun was about to rise on his kingdom and wanted all to greet the sight with him.

    Inside the house, Hop Sing cheerfully puttered about the kitchen, getting breakfast going. This morning was the first truly chilly one they had had this fall so he decided that fresh hot biscuits would be a good idea to go with the meal. That and it would warm the kitchen! He hummed softly to himself as he prepared the dough, rolling it out then cutting it into large circles. Just as he slid them into the oven, he heard the first footfalls on the stairs. Ah, Mista Ben up, he thought and pulled the coffeepot from its perking spot on the back of the stove.

    Just as Ben was seating himself at the head of the table and Hop Sing was pouring him a cup of coffee, Adam came down the stairs stretching.

    "Mornin' Pa," Adam greeted then sat down himself, yawning and trying to resist the urge to head back to bed. There was a definite chill in the air that morning, making a warm bed far more appealing than chores.

    "Good morning, Adam. Sleep well?" Ben asked as always.

    Before Adam could respond at all, Ben addressed a set of heavier footsteps coming down. "Hoss, please go back and see if Joseph is up yet." And the heavy tread returned to overhead, followed by Hoss' bellow for Joe to "Rise and shine, short shanks!"

    "Little Joe up and out all ready this morning," Hop Sing exclaimed while he poured Adam's first cup of coffee. Ben smiled at the cook's choice of words.

    "Well, holler out the door, Adam, and tell him breakfast is on," Ben directed and snapped his napkin open.

    Adam started to rise to do his father's bidding when Hop Sing stopped him. "Little Joe all ready eat breakfast this morning. He eat in kitchen vely early. Say he need to go to town."

    Ben smirked while ladling eggs onto his own plate. "He was just in town yesterday with you, Adam. I swear I don't understand that boy. For the better part of a month, he doesn't go near town. Now he goes two days running."

    Adam settled back into his seat and kept his eyes on his plate.

    Hoss returned down the stairs and crossed to his place at the table. "Joe ain't there, Pa," he explained then proceeded to dive into the platters on the table before him, hopefully forestalling any grilling from his father as to the whereabouts of his brother. Hoss thought he had heard Joe the night before, moving around his room quite late. The last thing he had wanted to find that morning was his brother's empty bed.

    "We figured that out when Hop Sing said Joe got out early," Adam mumbled around his biscuit.

    "Did he say anything to you yesterday about forgetting something in town?" Ben asked Adam, his brows knitting together.

    Trying to look as though he were thinking on his father's question, Adam studied his plate. He could easily just go ahead and tell their father about the letter but that would have betrayed a confidence. Sure, he hadn't promised Joe anything but still Joe had trusted him enough so he, in return, had to trust that his brother would do the right thing.

    "No, not a thing. Fact is yesterday he was pretty quiet both on the way into town and on the way home." Adam quickly picked up his coffee and took a long pull on it, trying to finish his meal and be gone before his father caught wind that he wasn't being completely forthcoming with all that he knew.

"Well, he does have some time coming to him, I guess. Just wish he-" Ben started to say something else but stopped himself. There was an odd expression on Adam's face. "Is something wrong, son?" he asked, directed to Adam's end of the table.

Adam thought the best way to answer his father was with the truth. "No, Pa, I'm fine. Come on Hoss, knowing our dearly beloved little scamp of a brother, he left chores undone. I'll take the barn chores. You get the others." And rising, he hurried from the table.

Not about to be rushed through one of his favorite times of the day, Hoss simply ignored Adam's words. There were more important things than chores to concern him at that moment. Namely the crisp bacon and fluffy eggs on his plate. And the basket of biscuits was right in front of him, wafting their mouth-watering perfume towards him. He smiled, reaching for one.

Ben was able to grasp the big hand just as it closed over its target but before it made its way back to the side of the table. "What do you know about your brother's behavior of late?" he asked.

Hoss screwed his face into a wounded expression. His father's vice-like grip held him fast. "Aw Pa, Adam is just kind of-" he began.

"Wrong brother. Try the other one. What is going on, Hoss?" Ben continued to restrain Hoss.

Hoss pulled at his arm just once and when his father refused to let go, didn't try again. "I just don't know, Pa. He's always been moody and such."

"Tell me something I don't know! Has he said anything to you about what is bothering him?" persisted Ben.

"No sir, he ain't said nuthin' at all. But I will tell you something I do know. It ain't got nuthin' to do with a girl."

Exasperated, Ben let go of Hoss' hand. "For once, I wish it did."

"Me too," Hoss confessed and snagged another biscuit before his father could give a repeat performance, "Then he would be over it in a week." Hoss took his biscuit and left his father staring at the now-empty table.

"That has to be the shortest meal we have ever had," Ben muttered to himself.

Out in the barn, Adam had just finished saddling Sport when Hoss ambled in, the last of a biscuit still in hand.

"Pa on you too?" he asked, backing his horse out his stall.

"Sure was. Adam, what gives?"

Adam shook his head and led his horse passed his brother, snagging the last of the biscuit from his brother and swallowing it quickly.

"I got an idea but I ain't exactly sure," Hoss confessed, looking at his empty hand.

"Okay," Adam drawled and stopped in his tracks, "Let's hear it." He wanted to know just how much Hoss had surmised. Not the most brilliant of the Cartwright sons, Hoss was the more intuitive of the three and often saw things the other two missed. Especially when it came to people.

"Well, I been watching Joe the past couple of days. He ain't as healed up as he lets on he is."

Adam shrugged. "That's typical Joe."

"No," Hoss insisted, "It's more than that. You seen him riding lately?"

"So?" was Adam's noncommittal response.

"Joe always flowed with the horse. Now it's like he can't wait to get off. And more than once I seen him when he thinks no body is watchin' him, lean down and rub his left knee. Like it is still sore."

"It just might be. After all, you saw the kind of shape it was before." But it isn't his knee, it's his hand.

"But it is deeper than that I think. I can't put my finger on it though." Hoss moved to his horse's side and picked up the big currycomb.

Blowing his breath out in a long sigh, Adam considered sharing with Hoss what he knew but he couldn't. He just couldn't. "Maybe, just maybe, Joe has decided to grow up some? I mean, look at the way he handled those boys when they came here to kill him, for God's sake! Pa said it scared him bad to hear Joe eggin' them on, his voice all cold." When he said those words, Adam felt as though he had been kicked in the stomach by a bronc. With a certainty he had not had before, Adam felt he knew what had bothered his brother for so long. Between the travesty of a trial for the three boys, his father's reaction to him in the judge's chambers and then the boys' admission of guilt, Joe had lost something of himself. Faith in the way the law had dealt with the whole desperate situation? Faith lost in how his family cared for him? And finally, and worst of all, faith in himself? Suddenly the scene his father had described to him when the boys had come to kill Joe took on a whole different aspect. Adam had to hang onto to Sport as the impact of it hit him. Could Joe have truly wanted the boys to kill him?

"Hey, you okay, Adam?"

He felt Hoss beside him, supporting him briefly."Yeah, yeah. Just a little dizzy there for a moment. Tell you what. Get that old nag of yours saddled up and let's go find that brother of ours." Before he does something we can't fix.

    The ride into town brought them nothing. Hoss and Adam had searched high and low for their wayward brother and come up empty-handed repeatedly.

Standing in the nearly empty Bucket of Blood, Hoss turned to his brother. "What now?" he asked then ordered a beer from Bruno even though it was still morning.

Adam turned slowly on his heels and called for a whisky. "I am open to suggestions."

"Go home without him?" Hoss suggested, sipping his beer.

"Not on your life. I have the very distinct feeling that we would regret doing that for a long, long time. We know he didn't leave on the stage 'cause there hasn't been one. We checked all the stables and Cochise isn't there. And it ain't like you can hide a horse that flashy down a side street or alley. We've checked all of his favorite haunts and hideouts and he just isn't there. And here we are in his favorite watering hole."

"Well, how about the jail?"

"Checked it and Roy hasn't seen him either."

"The bank?"

Adam gave Hoss a look that spoke volumes. "What would he be doing in the bank? He never puts any of his pay in the bank. How about that girl's place that he was seeing last winter. What was her name? Winthrop? Was that it? Did you check her place?"

"She moved, Adam. That was why Joe quit seeing her. How about them other places? You know the ones I mean."

A slow sad smile spread over Adam's dark features. The 'other places' Hoss referred to where the houses of ill repute that had sprung up over the years down the side streets of Virginia City. Hoss didn't venture there and was embarrassed that his two brothers did. But he would have never mentioned it to their father, knowing how Ben felt about such places and the men who entered them.

"No, I looked there first but I do believe I missed one possibility. Bruno," he called out to the barkeep. "Where is that little gal that was so intent on us yesterday? Kelly, I think I heard Joe call her?"

With his rag, Bruno gestured up the stairs. "Third door on the right. But Joe ain't with her if that's what you're thinking."

Smiling without mirth, Adam headed up the stairs, praying Bruno was wrong.

He wasn't.

As much as he hated to admit it, Adam had to consider that Joe had indeed given them the slip. Once again sipping a whiskey, he thought of the ramifications inherent in what had happened. He doubted that Joe would actually commit suicide but then again, why not? The brother who had set next to him on the wagon seat the day before had not been the life-loving brother of just a few months before. Looking back, Adam was coming more and more to the realization that Joe was deeply depressed. And as such, would, and could, do just about anything. But did that included taking his own life?

The sound of a throat being cleared pulled Adam from his dark thoughts. Not just any throat, either. For standing next to him, feet shoulder width apart and gloved hands planted firmly on his hips stood Ben Cartwright. The look on his face would have curdled milk.

"I am going to assume that there is a good reason I find my two oldest sons in town, in a saloon, drinking, before noon. On a workday." Adam inwardly cringed, hearing that quiet tone of voice his father used. "I'm waiting for that explanation."

"Pa, you see, we thought that maybe we should find Joe and drag him home before he got into any sort of trouble here in town. I mean after all, you were concerned about him this morning." Adam rationalized quickly and tried to sell his father on the idea. But one look at his father's dark brows told him that Ben wasn't buying.

"Well, if you are looking for your brother, you might start down at the branding pits on the Ponderosa. That's where I found him about three hours ago. Working. Which, I might add, is what I thought I would find the two of you doing as well!" Ben's voice had continued to rise in volume until, with the last words, he was fairly shouting.

"Yes sir, we're headed there right now," and as he spoke, Hoss grabbed Adam's arm, dragging him away, muttering under his breath about Adam's most recent use of the word "we".

Closing his eyes and shaking his head, Ben sighed as Adam and Hoss disappeared out of the saloon. He had no idea what to make of recent events.

"Bruno, give me a beer," he ordered.

"Before noon, Mr. Cartwright?" the saloonkeeper teased but then wished he hadn't when Ben gave him a withering look.

"Yes, before noon!"

"I swear, Adam. I'm gonna pound that boy into the dirt up to his eyeballs!" Hoss seethed as he swung down off Chubb. Across the black's back, both brothers could see Joe working over in the branding pit. And obviously hard at it.

Adam checked the cinch on his saddle and patted the big stallion. "Better not try it. Way he's been acting, he could very well bite your head off before you got within arm's reach of him," he warned, with a nod of his head to the pit.

"I'm still gonna have somethin' to say to him! Make us look like fools!"

Taking a deep breath, Adam reseated his hat and grimacing, he slapped Hoss' shoulder beside him. "No, little brother. We did that all on our own. We made an assumption that's been proven wrong."

Hoss shrugged off Adam's hand and started with long strides towards Joe. Adam could only follow and hope that Hoss' better instincts caught up to him before they reached Joe.

The disarming grin Joe gave his two brothers threw Hoss' intentions of a pounding completely to the four winds. With a flip of the wrist, he unlooped the lariat from the calf's head at his feet and set the little fellow free. He tossed the rope back to the wrangler before he turned to face his brothers, the grin still in place.

"Wondered when you two were goin' to show up for work! It's almost noon! What took you so long at breakfast?" he teased.

"Well, there was a little detour to town we felt we had to take," Adam explained as he pulled his gloves out of his hip pocket and put them on. Expertly, he dropped the next calf drug into the branding pit, resting his knee on the calf's side to hold it down while Joe laid the hot branding iron to the animal.

Joe snorted just once. He turned to drop the cooling iron back into the fire only to run into Hoss' broad chest. It rocked him back a step but Hoss grabbed his upper arm in a firm grip and kept him on his feet.

"Come on, Joe, we gonna go have us a talk!" Hoss proceeded to easily manhandle his slighter brother towards where the horses were tethered. Joe, of course, balked but when Adam gripped the other arm, Joe gave in. As he allowed his brothers to escort him to the shaded grove and the horses, he prepared himself mentally for the coming onslaught.

Roughly, Hoss propelled Joe towards his horse and told him to mount up. Every nuance and fiber of his being told Joe to bolt into the saddle and ride like the Devil was chasing him. The way Hoss and Adam were acting, he wasn't sure but what the Devil wasn't already there and wearing their faces that morning. But instinct won out and Joe simply stepped into the stirrup and swung aboard the waiting pinto, gathering the reins into his hand. Wisely, he waited for his brothers to mount as well before he nudged the horse from the sheltering shade and into the bright sunlight.

    Atypically, Adam wasn't sure of where they wanted to be when they had their discussion with Joe. He did know that they wanted it far from the prying eyes and ears of the ranch hands. Since it could get ugly real fast, he also wanted it in as private a location as they could easily find. He led out at a swift lope, letting his mind shift quickly through the possibilities. Not back to the house, Pa could get home at any time. Too far to the lake. Where?

    "This is far enough!" Joe shouted and pulled his horse to a stop even though they sat in the middle of the road. Quickly, Adam circled back. Hoss had reined in then pulled his horse around to the side of Cochise so he could look into his brother's eyes. Adam took up the same position on the opposite side.

"What the Hell is this all about?"

    "For starters, you watch your language, Joseph!" Adam shouted, a long index finger right under Joe's nose.

    Joe batted the hand away with an angry flick. Hoss grabbed Joe's right hand and held it, afraid that Joe would curl it into a fist and his two warring siblings would be at it again. With a venomous glare, Joe tried to pull the hand back but Hoss refused to let go.

    "Both of you settle down!" shouted Hoss, surprising himself as he did since not five minutes before, he was the one ready to pound the youngster into the ground. Now just the looks that Joe and Adam were trading were enough that his anger looked pale in comparison.

    His eyes darted from one to the other as once again Joe took an assessment of his situation. He kept his jaw clenched even though every part of him wanted to shout angry words at these two. For long moments, each of them struggled within themselves to gain composure. Adam regained his equilibrium first. Leaning down from the taller horse, he laid a hand on Joe's knee and felt the muscles and sinew there quickly tense and pull from the touch.

    "What I wouldn't give," Adam started softly, "to get inside that head of yours, Joe, for just a few minutes. Find out what is really in there."

    "Why? You're always claiming that there's nothing there!" replied Joe hotly, and just the sound of his voice made Cochise dance within the confinement of the other two horses. But Hoss held fast to the one hand and Adam kept his restraining hand on Joe's leg. It told Joe one thing: there would be no escape from these two.

    "Oh, there's a whole lot there. It's just that right now it isn't making any sense. Like I told you a while back, I want to help you! But I have to know what's bothering you before I can! Hoss too!" Adam tried his best to keep his voice from rising in anger but one look at Joe's face showed him he had not succeeded.

    "Maybe I don't want your help!" Joe shouted and finally pulled back his hand from Hoss. "Maybe this time, all the well-meaning help in the world isn't going to do anything! Did that ever occur to you, Adam? That maybe, just maybe, this is something that you can’t fix? That you can't help?"

    "Don't say that, Joe. You just have to-" but Joe cut Hoss' words off with a laugh so full of sarcasm that it wounded the big man.

    "I just have to what, Hoss? Be a good boy and do what I'm told? I did that! And look what it got me!"

    Joe froze in the horror of what he had just shouted and what was on his lips to say further. His breathing grew ragged and loud in the following silence he forced on himself. He could feel the compassion rolling in waves from his brothers as they sat there, watching him, and he hated it. He was sick and tired of being pitied and babied and coddled. If he could have had his way, he would have kicked Cochise into a flat out run and left them sitting in his dust. But they had him hemmed in and there was no escape.

    Hoss and Adam spared just once glance between themselves. They could sense the flood building behind the dam in Joe and both wanted its release and feared it all the same. For the flood could very well completely destroy what it touched, it seemed so overpowering in its intensity.

    Finally Joe regained control but only by making himself go cold within. He had done the same thing while held at gunpoint by three of the boys who had made him what he saw himself as right at that moment: a pitied cripple. And his loving family had simply gone on and compounded that vision. Their care and concerns about his well- being had merely reinforced what his body told him day in and day out. He was a cripple. Even though just the evening before he had claimed to his father that he was capable, his body took every opportunity to tell him differently. He longed for a release from the constant pain and discomfort. Where was there freedom from the pitying looks and words of consolation his family would heap upon him if they knew of it? His thoughts flew back to just the day before when he had told Adam and allowed him to read the letter. And what had been Adam's response? To reach out and touch him even though Adam disdained that sort of physical display of emotion. Adam had showed him clearly just how much he pitied him. And that was not what Joe wanted. Ever.

    Responding to the quick jerk of the reins, Cochise shoved Sport aside and put distance between them. As Hoss watched, a small part of him longed to shout out but he didn't. His brothers were now openly glaring at one another, one with hostility, the other with sympathy. Joe looked back over his shoulder and Hoss did his best to let his face show his love and concern for his baby brother. He didn't realize it but that was the last straw for Joe. It was as though a door had slammed closed, shutting he and Adam out. Joe pulled back hard on the reins and Cochise half reared before feeling Joe's heels ram into his sides and he leapt forward to freedom.

    "I think we just made a huge mistake, Adam," Hoss allowed, watching Joe disappear into the tall pines.

    "You're right, but for the life of me I have no idea what it was."

    The strain at supper that night was so evident that Adam thought they should have set a place at the table for it. Beyond the perfunctory asking for the bread or the vegetables, there was no talk. Each kept his eyes to his plate and once the meal was over, arose and went to find solitary diversions. Ben, angry with all of his sons for what he considered a missed day's work, returned to his ledgers. Adam did his best to concentrate on the book he held in his hands as he sat by the fire. Hoss had brought in an axe head and was busy fitting a new handle to it. Joe sat at the table at the foot of the stairs, his back to the rest of the family, cleaning his rifle. The house was so quiet that all could hear Hop Sing in the kitchen cleaning up the dinner dishes.

    Just about when Adam thought the room was going to cave in from the weight of the silence, Joe dropped his bombshell. In five short words, spoken calmly to no one in particular, they exploded.

    "I'm leaving in the morning."

    “Where you headed? Going huntin’?” Hoss asked innocently

    “No. I’m just leaving.”

    Suddenly the room was alive. Ben shot to his feet and with a few long strides was standing beside Joe who had remained where he was and still continued to work on the rifle. At his back, Adam and Hoss had also instinctively risen but only Adam had moved.

    "What?" Ben demanded, exploding himself.

    "You heard me, Pa. I'm leaving in the morning." Joe repeated.

    "You listen to me, young man! Just what do you mean, you're leaving?"

    "It's real simple, Pa. There's something I've got to do. And I can't do it here." Joe fought to keep his emotions cold and in check.

    Again Ben charged back angrily with a sharp request of "What?"

    Joe bit down hard on his lip and remained silent except to reiterate that he was leaving in the morning.

    Pushing past his father, Adam reached down and grabbed Joe's arm and hauled him roughly to his feet. He had lost all semblance of control but didn't care. All that he knew and most of what he suspected was going on with his brother was having one affect he wanted to see stopped. Even if he had to physically beat it out of the boy, Adam was going to have his answer that night.

    "You listen to me you sanctimonious little brat!" Adam began and heard his father's sharp rebuke but he plunged on. "I have decided I don't give a rat's ass about what it is you are feeling or thinking, you self-centered miscreant! There is only one thing I care about where you are concerned right now and you are going to hear me out even if it is the last thing you hear in this house! I don't care if tomorrow morning you pack your bags and head out of here with your tail tucked between your legs! I don't! What I do care about is that you are hurting other people! Namely Pa! Do you understand me? You will not hurt our father! And if you up and leave like this, you hurt him!"

    "What do you want out of me, Adam?" Joe shouted, ignoring and shrugging away his father's hand that would have kept him from being where he was: right in Adam's face.

    "A simple confession would do wonders. Like what is so wrong with you? And I don't mean about your hand!" Adam shouted back, deciding to meet anger with anger.

    That did it. Joe rocked back on his heels and his father was able to separate he and Adam. Ben wisely interposed himself between the two, knowing that they would not reach over him to strike the other.

    "What about it, Joseph?" Ben asked, his eyes searching for a signal from his youngest that he was regaining control as well. What he saw instead was a chilling green fire in his son's eyes.

    "You mean to tell me that old high and mighty Adam didn't come running and tell you already? I knew I shouldn't have told you!"

    Ben took a deep breath and held it, willing himself to remain calm in the face of the again rising storm. "Adam has told me nothing but it sounds like he should have! One of you, and at this point I don't care which one of you it is, tell me what this is all about."

    "Tell him, Joe. Tell him about the letter from that doctor in San Francisco," Hoss said softly and felt them all turn to look at him. "I talked with Doc Martin this morning, Joe. Had to trick it out of him but he told me any way. Seems Doc had written to this fancy surgeon fella wanting to know if there was anything that could be done to help Joe's hand get better."

    Ben turned back and let his gaze fall on Joe's face. There, he read the answer to what the doctor's reply had been.

    "Why didn't you say anything about this, son?" Ben asked, pleading gently, hoping for a softening in Joe's countenance. There was none.

    "Because it's only half of the whole story, Pa. Why don't you go and finish it Hoss, since you know so much," Joe hissed, the words like hot stones falling into cold water.

    "'Cause that's all I know, Joe. Except that somethin' else is botherin' you somethin' awful. Somethin' that you don't think you can share with us. Somethin' that makes you want to leave home."

    "You don't want to know," Joe whispered and brushing by his father, took the stairs two at a time.

    Ben stood in the pool of silence, the only ripple, the sound of a door upstairs closing. He let his gaze slip from Hoss to Adam then to the floor. Adam started to head up the stairs but Ben stopped him abruptly with a single soft "No."

    "You knew about this letter?" he whispered and saw Adam's eyes dip in regret and assent. "And you said nothing about it to me? Why?"

    "Because Joe told me he would tell you about it. He just never said when he would, is all. I guess I should have said something to you. But I understood-"

    "It doesn't matter what you thought you understood, Adam. What about you, Hoss? You have anything to add to this?" Their father's voice had taken on an accusing tone that made both men look to the floor. "Either of you want to say anything on this issue before I go upstairs and see if he will talk to me?"

    "We've tried talking with him, Pa. He's stonewalled us every time," Adam admitted.

    "I see," Ben said simply. "Rather than come to me with your concerns about your brother's welfare, the two of you try your hand at parenting. I know just what happened too. Joseph got mad, didn't he? I know he did because he felt you were meddling where you didn't belong!"

    "But Pa, we could see he was hurtin' and we were just tryin' to help him," Hoss moaned, his hands now tucked into his pockets.

    As much as Ben longed to reach out and console his middle child, he knew it would be wrong to do so and held back. "The road to Hell is paved with good intentions. Anything else the two of you want to fill me in on?"

    Neither son looked up to meet their father's stare nor give an answer to his question.

    Ben knocked once on the bedroom door then pushed it open. What he saw was just as he suspected. Joe was sorting through things and had his saddlebags open on the bed. Ben's heart stammered in his chest. Joe was packing. He was making good on his decision to leave the next morning.

    "You are not going to talk me out of it, Pa, so don't even try."

    "I wasn't going to, son, but Adam is right. I want to know why."

    Joe paused before he slid another shirt into his saddlebags. "I told you that you didn't want to know why."

    Ben fought a battle within himself at that moment. It would have been so easy to slip over to Joseph's side and lay a loving hand on those slim shoulders. But the set of those same shoulders spoke of anger and, rather than be rebuked, Ben leaned against the closed door at his back, pinning his hands behind him with the motion.

    "Why not let me be the judge of that?" he asked. "I think I deserve an answer before I let you walk out of my life, Joseph."

    "It's complicated. I don't know where to start." Another shirt found it's way into the bulging saddlebags.

    "Try the beginning," Ben encouraged and found his body moving towards his son as though propelled by some hidden force. Joe forestalled any contact by moving to the bureau for more of his things. Ben took a seat on the side of the bed, trying to give his son space.

    Joe snorted derisively. "I do that and older brother Adam will take a piece of my hide. He as much as said he would downstairs."

    "I didn't hear him say anything like that."

    "He said he wouldn't let me hurt you, Pa. To do that, to not hurt you, I can't-" Joe paused then slammed the drawer closed sharply. When he turned, Ben had expected to see his most open of sons beginning to give freedom to the strong emotions he knew were there. Instead he saw a face controlled by anger.

    "I deserve to know, Joseph. Tell me."

    There was something in his father's face that made the walls Joe had built around himself begin to give way. Was it the love he saw there that loosened the first timber of rage? Was it the open concern and caring that scraped at the mortar of self-loathing?  Or maybe it was the look that spoke of true understanding that pried at that brick of self-pity. It didn't matter. Yes, he deserves to know the truth but can I tell him the truth? I have to, Joe thought then dropped onto the bed beside his father.

    "You may not like what you hear," Joe whispered softly.

    "Let me decide that, okay?" Ben gave in to the impulse, letting his hand reach out to touch the hard shoulder next to him.

    Joe looked to ceiling then the floor. Then in a voice tightly controlled, he began. "Since the first day you let me work the ranch full time, I've done what I could to pull my own weight. Because I was the boss' son, sometimes that meant going beyond what other hands were asked to do. I've worked harder and longer than most of the men on our payroll because I thought I had to in order to be considered an equal. Because I wasn't as big and strong as Hoss or as smart as Adam, I've struggled and fought harder. Then I got to the point where I was holding my own, so to speak. I was fast with a gun and good with a horse. I could hold my liquor and stay in a fight until the other man was out cold. I guess you could say I was accepted and not just tolerated because I was the boss' son. But all that changed when Brian Fair and his little friends decided to take me apart. All of a sudden, I was back to square one: I couldn't even saddle my own horse and a fistfight was out of the question. And handle a gun? No way. So I guess you could say I was back to before square one. Not only that, everyone who knew me before, well, they all looked at me with pity in their eye. I can’t handle that any more, Pa. That pity on their faces. But all the same, I've got to admit what I've become, Pa. I’m a cripple. I can't work the ranch like I did before. I can't throw a lasso. I can't handle a branding iron for long. Fix a fence? How? With only one hand that works and that's the wrong one? I don't even trust myself to chop wood. Then you add a leg that won't work like its suppose to half the time. Why, that's real fun at the end of the day when you ride home and go to dismount and your leg gives out under you and you wind up on your butt in the middle of the yard! Guaranteed to make people respect you! Good for a laugh from everyone but what about when you know it will happen again and again?"

    "But why leave, Joseph? Maybe-" Ben started but Joe's contemptuous snort silenced him.

    "Go ahead Pa and you will finish out why I have to! You were about to say something like 'We'll help you' or whatever. That's the thing that hurts more than my leg and more than the realization that my hand will never work again. It's the pity I want to leave behind here. The sympathy that smothers me. How will I ever know what I can do with what I have left if I don't go? I need to go some where that no one knew me before this happened. Maybe there I can sort out what’s left of me."

    "And what happens then? After you have found a new way of looking at yourself? Do you come home?" Ben asked, his voice struggling.

    "I won't know until then. But before then I have something else I need to do. And that's why I said it was only half of the whole reason why I want to leave tomorrow. Doc Martin wrote to a doctor in Saint Louis about my knee. That doctor was a little more conservative in his answer than the doctor in San Francisco. He said "maybe." He wouldn't say he could fix it but then again he didn't say he couldn't. He wants to see it first then make his decision. Doc Martin said at best, it's an outside chance. And it's my last chance, Pa. I rode into town this morning and bought a ticket on tomorrow's stage east."

    "I'll go with you," Ben offered simply but Joe shook his head no.

    "No, Pa, please," he pleaded and beneath his hand, his father felt the shoulder begin to soften and for just a brief moment, Joe leaned into his father's touch.

    "Why not? You are my son and I love you."

    "Because I don't want-" but his words caught in Joe’s throat.

    "Don't want what?  My help? I can't believe that. And I can't help you, Joseph if you are a thousand miles away."

    "No!" Joe shot to his feet and away from his father. "I don't want anyone to see me like that. Can't you understand that?"

    Ben sent a quick prayer heavenward as he stood and took the single step that put him at Joe's back. "See you like what, son? I was there when you were born and I understood what you needed then. Help. For there is nothing more helpless than a new-born child, cold, naked, unable to take care of itself. I was there when you took your first faltering steps and stood but for an instant before you fell back down. And I recall clearly leaning down and picking you up so that you could try it again. I have nursed you through fevers and broken bones and more than one broken heart. Tell me, Joseph, when have I ever not helped you and understood what you needed? When have I never not leaned down and picked you up so that you could try again?"

    "Never," Joe whispered but after taking a deep breath, he plunged on. "What if this doctor can't help it? What if this leg stays weak the same way my hand is? That's what I meant by I didn't want anyone to see me that way. Can't you understand that, Pa?"

    "I understand, son. I understand pride. And stubbornness. And I know that you have both of those characteristics in abundance. They are what has carried you this far. But they can only take you so far and you have reached that limit. All you can think of is that you are going to fall. So now you want to hide. Before you have even fallen, you want to hide! I can’t let you do that, Joseph. Despite what you see as physical limitations, there is still more of you than a mangled hand and a crippled leg. There is a keen mind and a sharp wit. There is a strength of character within you that will not let you just accept these limitations and let them rule your life. Give that strength half a chance and it will overcome your self-pity and make you more of a man than you were before. But not if you hide."

    "I'm not hiding, Pa! I'm trying to face reality."

    "I know you are but you are ignoring one part of that reality. That you can't do this alone, Joseph."

    "I have to!" Joe shouted, then stepping away, leaned and looked out the window at the rising moon.

    "No, that's just it. You don't have to, but you want to. Just like that little boy years ago that tried so hard to walk on his own before his strength would let him! Just like that young man who fought for acceptance by throwing himself into life. You don't have to take this trip on your own but you want to. And I know why. You don't want anyone to see you if you should fail. I don't want to see you fail, Joseph, any more than you do. But if you try to do this on your own, and you do fail, you will never know if having help might have made the difference. Let me go with you, son. It might make the difference. And I can promise you the same support I gave that little boy trying to walk. I will set you back on your feet so you can try again," the father urged and when Ben felt the shoulders beneath his hands both slump forward, he prayed he had won the battle.

    “It’s a long trip Pa. Three weeks minimum. You can’t be away from the ranch that long,” Joe tried again to dissuade his father.

    “You seem to have forgotten that I came across that section of country in a wagon with two little boys a number of years ago. And it took considerably longer then. I think I can manage a ride in a stagecoach for that long. As for me being away from the ranch that long, it seems to me that your two brothers can take care of things for a while.”

    Joe snorted and subconsciously, leaned back into his father’s touch. “Well now that’s a sure guarantee to tick them off. Not only do I leave them my chores to do, but you tell them they have to run the ranch while you’re gone? That’s gonna go over real well!”

    “I have left things for you boys to run before. I have faith in two things concerning when we come back. First, that Adam and Hoss will be glad to see us, if only to take a part of the load back. And secondly, no matter what, the Ponderosa will still be here. So what do you say? Can I come with you to Saint Louis?”

    “Don’t think I could stop you at this point,” Joe moaned, the truth he spoke like a bitter draught of medicine. I should have just ridden out and disappeared. Left a note, maybe, he thought. Now, if Pa goes with me and things fall through, how do I just keep on going? How do I convince Pa that’s what I need to do? But is he right in saying what he did about my failing- that if I fail alone, will I question whether he would have made the difference? This was easier to do when it was just me knowing about it.

    Ben gave the neck under his hand a gentle shake. “No, if you want me to stay here, I will but I would rather come with you.” And if you say you want me to stay, it will break my heart because I know you won’t come back if it doesn’t work out. Please God, let him—help him—help me to help him.

    “On one condition,” Joe whispered, afraid that speaking aloud would shatter what remained of his control.

    “Why do I find it hard to take ‘conditions’ off my youngest son?” Ben challenged then seeing the grim look on his son’s face reflected in the window, plunged on and conceded. “Okay, but what's the condition?”

    “That is if things don’t work out, I can go somewhere else for a while. Alone.”

    Exasperation escaping with his sigh, Ben threw his hands into the air. “I don’t understand this need you have to run away from this!”

    Chewing on his lip, Joe turned to face his father fully for the first time. “You don’t understand because you have never ever been like I am now. It’s like the old Indian adage: once you’ve walked a mile in my moccasins, you know what I feel like.”

    “Explain it to me then.”

    When the slight smile came to Joe’s face, Ben thought he had won. When Joe shook his head slowly and said, “Why don’t we save that conversation for the stage?” Ben knew he had won.

    The two elder brothers watched as their father slowly descended the stairs. They traded glances between themselves that spoke hugely of confusion.

    “You gonna let him go off?” Adam finally drawled once his father had taken up his place behind his desk.

    Ben picked up his pen and made a few marks on the page before him. Then he took a deep cleansing breath and let his eyes meet the ones across the room from him. “I’m going with him,” he announced and saw those same eyes go wide in astonishment.

    “What?” Adam nearly shouted and came to stand before his father’s desk in what appeared to be one single movement. For a brief moment he considered that perhaps his father had completely lost his mind.

    Calmly, Ben laid aside his pen and addressed the concerned son across from him. “You heard me. I am going with Joseph in the morning. Seems there is a doctor in Saint Louis that may be able to help him.”

    “Whew! I thought there for a minute-“ Hoss started but looking at his father’s face he halted his words. “There’s somethin’ more, ain’t there?”

    “Yes, Hoss, there is a whole lot more. And I have to agree with Joe about some of it. He says he’s being smothered by the pity and sympathy. He’s right. How many times in the past few weeks have we let him even try to do something he used to do without making a big fuss over it? Or worse yet, stepping in and doing it for him?” The hung heads answered Ben so he continued. “And something else struck me. We have dealt with Joseph like he is a cripple-“

    “Because he is, for God’s sake, Pa! He can’t do-“ Adam smacked the desk to emphasize his point only for his father to cut into his words the same way he had his father’s.

    “He can’t do a lot of things the way he used to, Adam. You are absolutely correct. But maybe, just maybe, if we had stopped looking at him and dealing with him like that, he would have found another way to do those same things. As it is, he has come to look at himself as just that: a cripple who has to rely on other people to do things for him. Tell me something, Adam, how long would you want someone else to button your shirt? To pull on your boots? Hoss, how many times would you tolerate someone cutting your meat for you?” Ben leaned well back in his chair as he spoke then waited for their reply.

    Hands planted palm down on the mahogany surface, Adam straight-armed himself away from the desk, and then looked back over his shoulder at Hoss. “I’ve tried to help him, Pa, but he just keeps pushing away.”

    “Tried to help? Or tried to do for him? There’s a world of difference, son. If this had been just a short-term problem, then I doubt that we would have been having any of these discussions. It is the mere fact that Joseph thinks that it is going to be a way of life for him now that makes him want to lash out. He thinks this pity, this sympathy, is going to go on forever. That we are always going to do for him what he once could do for himself.” Ben gave a soft chuckle. “I might rebel too, if it were me. But to get back to what started this, I am leaving with Joseph in the morning. I don’t know how long I’ll be gone but until I come back, you two will run the ranch.”

    Hoss screwed his face around. It didn’t matter to him who ran the ranch. One thing did. “Pa, when you come back from Saint Louis, will you bring somethin’ back fer me and Adam?”

    Ben leaned back further in his chair, a bit surprised. “Aren’t you a little old for that?”

    “No sir,” the big man explained, finally stepping closer.

    “What would you two like your pa to bring you back when he comes home?” Ben teased, relieved now that the mood had changed in the room. He didn’t think he could have tolerated the heaviness another moment.

    “Just one thing. Bring us back a little brother. Bring Joe back with ya.”

    “I’ll do what I can, boys.”

Chapter Two,
An ounce of acceptance is worth a pound of pity, but you can't buy either.

Saint Louis Missouri
Three weeks later

    Weary beyond belief, Joe blew out a long breath as he dropped full length onto the hotel bed beside his carpetbag. He laid looking up at the ornate ceiling as the mid-afternoon sun streaked across it. He closed his eyes and listened to the sounds outside the window of cursing draymen, rumbling wagons and the general noise of a sea of humanity. The long stagecoach ride was over. Totally uneventful, Joe and his father had had the coach to themselves most of the time as it had swung down the California coast to just above the Mexican border then crossed the southern route for the Butterfield Line through the Arizona and New Mexico Territories. Once they had crossed into southern Kansas then into southern Missouri, the terrain had lifted from the oppressive desert vista to that of the grass plains dotted by small homesteads. As they had neared Saint Louis, the land became greener although it still stayed depressingly flat. Joe wondered any number of times how folks traveled out there without the mountains and trees to guide them. His father had laughed and reminded him of the lessons he had been taught as a child about navigating by the stars. But Joe still wondered how they gave directions to strangers since back home every time he gave directions, they would include a certain tree or rock formation as a landmark. And how in the world could a tuft of grass be a landmark? Now lying on the soft bed, he decided it didn’t matter.

“Now who’s the better traveler?” Ben teased, smacking the sole of a boot threatening the white coverlet.

    “Okay, okay. I give,” Joe groaned and rolled over to bury his face in the softness. “Like I told you in Monterrey then Tucson then Santa Fe then even in that horrible little place in Kansas: You are the better traveler and I should have never doubted your ability to withstand the rigors of a long trip, Pa.”

The bed sagged then the springs groaned as Ben sat down next to his son. The softness there did seem rather inviting and he finally gave in to impulse and laid on down beside Joe. It certainly was a welcome change from the stiff seats on the constantly moving and jouncing stage. He closed his eyes.

“What’s the matter with your bed?” Joe’s voice taunted him with just a hint of a laugh. “Not hard enough? Or not enough varmints in it like that way station at Chico Wells? Ouch!” He yelped as his father’s hand found its mark on his upturned posterior.

“Nothing is wrong with my bed. I just came in here to tell you that I sent a message around to that Doctor Gallagher that we had arrived and would appreciate seeing him at his earliest convenience. That’s all.”

Never lose track of the goal, do you, Pa? You want this over and done with as soon as possible. Well, so do I but don’t you think we could just take a day or two to get used to the area?

“How ‘bout we have an early dinner? Pa? Pa?” but all the answer Joe got was a soft gentle snore beside him. He smiled and gave himself over to sleep as well, wishing there was some way he could use this last little turn of events to his benefit. Better traveler, huh?

Ben was enjoying the breakfast he had ordered from the hotel’s restaurant. The eggs were done to perfection and the bacon was crisp but not overly hard. The coffee, and he was well on his way to drinking the whole pot, was also perfect. The only thing that wasn’t perfect was the fact that Ben found himself eating alone. Even though he had called him twice, Joe still remained in bed and from the soft snores coming from behind the door, was still asleep as well. Wiping his hands on the white linen napkin, Ben arose from his place at the parlor table and, carrying a cup of coffee, pushed open the door to Joe’s room with his foot. The sight that greeted his eyes was one he would have liked to carry in his heart forever. There Joseph laid, sprawled at a diagonal across the full width of the bed. One foot hung over the side and out from under the blankets but everything else was covered. Except of course for the mass of curls peeking out. Ben wondered for the hundredth time that morning how to awaken his slumbering little boy and turn him into an adult without the benefits he had at home: a great deal of open space that would swallow up the shouting and two other sons to do his bidding. But beneath it all, Ben knew the reason why Joe still slept and it had nothing to do with being worn out from traveling. It had everything to do with the uncertainty both felt in regards to the upcoming meeting with the doctor.

Ben had tried very, very hard all during the trip to not show any special attention to Joe. But it had been difficult to stand by and patiently wait as Joe tried to do for himself without wanting to interfere. It seemed to be the simplest things that gave him the most trouble: buttoning his shirt or his jacket; pulling on his boots; buckling closed his carpetbag; cutting up his food; pulling the stopper from a canteen.  He had never paid attention back home to the difficulties Joe seemed to be having but as he had watched during the trip, it had become painfully apparent. Joe’s assessment of his own situation had been more on the money than Ben had wanted to admit. Joe’s left hand, his dominant one, crippled him severely. When his weakened knee was added into the picture, it became even more obvious. And more than once during the long trip Ben had wondered why he hadn’t seen this before and done something about it. But he had finally come to the conclusion that he had done just what Joe said he had: done for him at the least sign of difficulty then turned away and expect everything to be all right. That Joe would pull through like he always did. This time though, he hadn’t.

Now they were both on the edge of something far more difficult to handle. In the next few days, they would meet with this Doctor Gallagher and his words and diagnosis could either raise their hopes or dash them completely. With Joe’s frame of mind being dark and foreboding, Ben was hard pressed to maintain a more positive outlook, especially after watching Joe more closely over the last few weeks. Slowly, Ben had felt himself being pulled down emotionally until that morning as he sat down on the side of Joe’s bed and called to him once again.

This time, his father’s gentle voice as well as the smell of coffee close at hand, roused Joe. Slowly, the covers came down and a hand went to brush the cobwebs of sleep away. He groaned just once and thought about rolling away and going back to sleep, but his father’s hand on his shoulder stopped him. Ben shook his shoulder gently and called to him again.

“Come on, sleepyhead. There’s breakfast out there waiting for you.”

Joe yawned and rolled onto his back and finally opened his eyes to the morning sun. “Don’t want breakfast. Just coffee,” he mumbled, running a hand through his hair to push it back from his face.

“Okay, then sit up.”

Getting his legs untwisted from the sheets and blankets took a few moments but finally Joe got himself pulled upright and with a smile, greeted his father. “Good morning Pa.”

Ben chuckled. Gone was the sight that he had captured of his slumbering youngest son. Now, hair awry and still brushing sleep from his face, the boy was transforming before his father’s eyes into a man, well muscled and tan, reaching for a cup of coffee. “Good morning, son. You obviously slept well since this is about the third time I have tried to get you up!”

Sipping his coffee, Joe first wished his father remembered that he took cream and sugar in his coffee. He’d drink it any way it came to him but preferred it other than black. “How come I gotta get up? You ain’t heard from that doctor, have you?”

“No,” Ben sighed, “but that doesn’t mean you can stay in bed all day today, young man. Thought we would see the sites while we still could.”

Joe smiled lazily and thought back over the various saloons and gaming parlors he had seen from the stage on the way into town. It was as if his father could read his mind though.

“That isn’t what I had in mind!” chastised Ben and to further emphasize his remark, slapped playfully at the blanketed leg closest to him. Unfortunately for Joe, it was the wrong one and unbeknownst to his father, Joe had gone to bed the night before with it swollen. When Ben’s hand connected with the engorged tissue, Joe’s first reaction was to pull it away. But it was held down by his father’s weight on the blankets, trapping it in place. The hot coffee cup Joe had been trying to hold in his left hand went flying as did Joe’s temper. The word he used to express his discomfort was one that would have normally gotten him reprimanded but his father was too busy being shocked and instantly remorseful.

“I’m sorry Joseph! I forgot! I’m sorry. Here, let me help you!” Ben stood up but he was at a complete loss as to what he could do to help.

Joe clung to his painful knee, unmindful of the scalding coffee now soaking into the coverlet and blankets. He clenched his jaws together to avoid saying anything that he knew would only aggravate his father’s sense of proper speech.

Finally Ben was able to raise the blanket covering the knee Joe now held with both hands as he leaned over it. Ben’s first thought was that he was seeing things. The knee was swollen to half again its normal size and the mottling of bruising showed that the flesh had been repeatedly stretched then relaxed. The purpling extended halfway up Joe’s thigh then down to almost the ankle.

“How long has it been this bad, son?” he asked sharply and got first a glare then a look of remorse from his son in reply. “How long?” Ben asked again.

His head shaking and his eyes closed, Joe tried to massage the painful joint. If he could just find that one little place, he knew he could make the immediate pain stop but finding that spot this morning was close to impossible.

Again Ben asked, this time placing his large hands over Joe’s smaller ones and stopping the frantic rubbing he saw happening, “How long, I asked?”

“Off and on since those damn brats beat me and Hop Sing. But most recently,” Joe stated vehemently then his voice dropped to just above a whisper, “since I missed the step outside the hotel in Tucson.”

Ben inhaled sharply. Almost two weeks? And I haven’t noticed- wait I did see him start to limp just a little but I thought it was from- what? But I was there! He didn’t fall on it! Didn’t even twist it I don’t think, he thought then considered that however it happened, it didn’t matter. “And it’s been like this ever since?”

Joe just nodded, moving his hands out of the way of his father’s questioning touch.

“Why didn’t you say something, son?” Ben rose and went to the shaving stand there in the room where a pitcher of cold water waited next to a basin.

“Because this is pretty much normal any more, Pa. End of a long day, it’ll swell up and get hot and cranky. Actually some times it feels better like this. Feels like nothing is gonna move when I walk on it. Usually after an hour or so with a cold compress and lying down, it’ll start to go down in size. Haven’t been able to do that on the trip so I guess it looks worse.”

“Why did I have to travel eighteen hundred miles to find this out?” Ben queried softly as he dipped a cloth in the cold water he had poured into the basin. He twisted it enough to get most of the excess water out then returned to the bed and laid it gently across Joe’s exposed knee.

With an elegant shrug of his shoulders, Joe said that he thought it didn’t matter.

As gently as he could, Ben tried to tuck the cloth around the swollen joint but it wasn’t large enough so he draped across the top. “What made you think that, Joseph? That it didn’t matter?”

“Pa,” Joe sighed and leaned back onto the ornate headboard, “it’s like this: I have had this same problem now for the better part of five, six months. After that long, it’s just old news. Like when your arthritis kicks up. It’s just something I have come to live with.”

“But you want it to stop, don’t you?”

“That’s what this trip was all about from the get-go, Pa. I want it to stop.” The sorrow remained heavy in the words Joe spoke.

“But what if this doctor can’t make it stop? What then, son?”

With nervous fingers, Joe picked at the coverlet, now spotted with spilled coffee. “I keep thinking about that, Pa. I ain’t come up with an answer yet. I try to tell myself that this man is gonna make it all right again but then if he could, why couldn’t Doc Martin? Doc’s a smart man and he stays up on new medical stuff. But he told me months ago that he couldn’t fix it ‘cause he didn’t know what was wrong. I’ve told myself every night while we been travelin’ that this Doctor Gallagher is gonna take one look at my knee and say ‘That’s what’s wrong!’ and then fix it! But every morning I wake up and think that maybe no one can fix it.”

“I understand, Joseph. Let’s get you something to eat then I think we are going to go find this Doctor Gallagher.”

“Thought you wrote him a note?” Joe asked, pushing the blankets aside to get up.

“I did, but I think we need to step up the pace a bit. Maybe if he saw your knee in this shape, he might have a better idea of how to help us with it. So come on, get up and get dressed.”

Running his fingers back through his hair, Joe took a deep breath and mentally prepared himself for the coming day. The fact that his father had used the words ‘help us with it’ hadn’t escaped Joe’s attention either. But he waited until his father’s back was turned before he reached out with both hands to move his leg.

Joe was just finishing his last cup of coffee when there came a knock to the room door. Out of habit, he started to rise and answer it only to be scowled at by his father. “You will not get on that leg any more than you have to, young man. Do I make myself clear?”

The younger Cartwright said nothing but thought plenty. Here his father was getting ready to smother him again, he just knew it. The rebellion, ever close to the surface, rose in Joe but so did years of training growing up in a household dominated by the man who was answering the door. He beat down the rebellion.

At the door stood a small man, his tall hat held in incredibly small, white hands. His clothing, although clean and pressed, was nothing remarkable: a simple black broadcloth coat and striped gray trousers. His white shirt was closed at the neck with a cravat of burgundy. His round head reminded Ben instantly of Father Christmas with its fringe of white hair just above the ears. But what held Ben for that moment were the other man’s eyes: large brown eyes that had such a look of sadness to them that it seemed to overflow onto the man’s face. Ben had to pull himself back or he felt he would have drowned in those sorrowful eyes.

“Yes? Can I help you?” Ben asked when he found his voice again.

The little man gave Ben a slight smile and stuck out his hand. “Mr. Cartwright, I presume? I am Doctor James Gallagher and I am most eager to make your acquaintance! It seems that Paul Martin didn’t tell me everything I needed to know about you! But no matter! I got your message that you had arrived and was so anxious to get started on this interesting case that I wasn’t going to wait for you to come to me. No sir, and I can see now that was a wise decision. A gentleman of your bearing, out on the streets of Saint Louis in this weather, with a bad knee! Very dangerous, very dangerous indeed! One slip and you could do far more damage! Maybe break a hip and that would be very bad. Very bad indeed!” The man rattled off his words like a rushing stream, not allowing Ben to get a word in edgewise until the man stopped to take a breath.

“I am pleased to meet you as well, Doctor Gallagher,” Ben started and finally got his hand back from the furious shake it had gotten. “but I am not your patient!”

The little man stood there in the hallway blinking rapidly. He suddenly blushed a deep crimson and made a little surprised noise, his hand to his lips. “I am sorry, sir. I must have misunderstood the clerk downstairs. I thought he said Mr. Cartwright was in room 111. My apologies, I hope I didn’t interrupt anything. Please excuse me.”

Ben laughed and behind him, he could hear Joe’s chuckling as well. “No, Doctor Gallagher.  You have the right room, just the wrong Cartwright. Come in, please,” Ben invited the now confused little doctor into the room with a sweep of his hand.

Joe had stood when the doctor entered the room and knew just when the doctor spied him. The man’s face immediately cleared of any confusion.

“I’m Joseph Cartwright, Doctor Gallagher. That is my father, Ben Cartwright,” Joe explained and held out his hand to the physician. There was something about the little doctor that appealed to Joe and he decided instantly that he liked the man. Trust him? Joe would hold out for longer on that issue before he made up his mind.

“This is looking much better all the time!” the doctor exclaimed, sizing Joe up and down. “Don’t get me wrong, Mr. Cartwright,” he quickly went on, looking back over his shoulder at Ben, “it’s just that a younger patient invariably does better than an older one! Oh my! That didn’t come out the way I wanted it to!” His eyes went wide and his hand danced again to his lips to cover them. To his surprise, both men laughed at what he perceived as a major gaff on his part.

“I seem to be putting my foot in my mouth time and time again this morning. Thankfully I am a doctor who specializes in orthopedics so I can safely remove said foot from said orifice!” Again, his words tumbled out almost faster than they could be heard.

Joe, his hand still in the doctor’s grip, could only utter a confused “huh?”

“Orthopedics, young man! That is the branch of medicine that deals with the bones, muscles, joints, ligaments of the human body! Don’t they teach you anything in the wild west? I mean, besides how to rope cows?” the doctor asked, peering up into the face before him. Then, just like a streak of lightning, he was off again. “Well now, let’s get a good look at the problem, shall we? Paul Martin’s letter said you had problems with a knee. That right? Which knee? Let’s take a gander at it, shall we?” He tugged on Joe’s hand towards the open bedroom door and Joe, taken off-guard, allowed himself to be pulled along, closely resembling that ‘roped cow.’ Ben started to follow, only to have the door closed in his face.

For the better part of an hour, Ben paced the floor of the small parlor. Several times, he stopped at the closed door and tried to hear what was being said just beyond it.  But each time, he heard nothing, so his pacing would continue. Finally, the door sprung open and the doctor bustled out, smiling broadly. Behind him, Ben could see Joe sitting on the side of the bed.

“Like I said, young man, make up your mind then send me a note!” the doctor called back over his shoulder and then clapping his hat onto his head, scurried out the door without a backwards glance.

Ben stood there, looking from the door to Joe and back again, searching for a clue as to what had occurred. Finally he decided to take the bull by the horns.


Folding his hands together, Joe leaned his elbows onto his thighs and buried his chin in his hands. As Joe chewed on his lower lip nervously, Ben entered the room and sat down beside his son, his hand instinctively going to the rounded shoulder beside him. It took Joe a long time to find his voice, preferring to seek consolation in not only silence but also his father’s touch.

“He thinks,” and Joe put heavy emphasis on the word, “that he knows what’s wrong. He wants to operate on it, Pa. He wants to cut into it to see.”

“And you don’t want him to? Is that it, son?” Ben asked softly, feeling the shoulder beside him start to quiver.

“It’s not that I don’t want him to cut into it. He said,” Joe's words stumbled and halted but then he took a shaky breath and went on. “He said that there was no guarantee he could fix whatever it is. He said that it might be so torn up that he can’t do anything to help it and that the surgery could mess it up even more. I’m not so sure what to do any more, Pa.”

“But there is the chance he can fix it, isn’t there?”

All Joe could do was nod his head to answer his father.

“Then I think you owe it to yourself to take that chance, Joseph,” Ben encouraged, his hand slowly smoothing over Joe’s back and shoulders. He could feel the shaking intensify beneath his touch and longed to still it completely. “That’s why you came here, wasn’t it? To give yourself that chance?”

The green eyes that looked into his face showed the trace of fear Ben knew was there in Joseph. It was the same fear he held in his heart but for the sake of his child, he would not let it show. So as the silence stretched out in the room, all Ben knew to do was give his son comfort. The ultimate decision would have to be Joe’s and Joe’s alone. As the parent, all Ben could do was pray that the decision was the right one. Either way.

“If I go ahead with letting him do this, this surgery, you’ll stay, right?” Joe pleaded, and Ben heard the small child within the man.

“I told you I would when we first talked about coming here together. I meant it then and I mean it now: I will be here to help you any way you need me to, son.”

Joe nodded and Ben felt the trembling under his hand stop.

From the time Joe made his decision to allow the doctor to do what he wanted to do until the time came for the actual surgery, Ben watched his son struggle with the possible ramifications of that decision. Throughout the two days it took for Doctor Gallagher to arrange things, Ben held back his own fears. Joe obviously had enough of his own and more than once, Ben wondered if he hadn’t come, would Joe still have made the decision he had? Ben doubted it.

Together father and son tried their best to take their minds off the impending surgery. They spent a cold afternoon at the Fountain Park there in Saint Louis, enjoying the outdoors as only those who live in the outdoors can. The next morning found the two of them down by the docks, watching the paddle wheelers gliding gracefully up and down the broad river. While they had watched, Ben had told his son about the trip he had taken with Joe’s mother right after they were married. Both chuckled at the way Ben had described Marie’s fear of the dreaded boat but it was only Ben who realized that he was allaying the fears of the son the same way he had the fears of the mother: with an arm about slender shoulders and a distracting story.

The night before Joe was to report to Doctor Gallagher’s clinic, they made an early night of it, going to bed right after supper. It was of absolutely no surprise to Ben that just before midnight, he heard Joe’s bedroom door open and the tiny squeaks that said Joe was leaving the hotel room. He quickly dressed and decided to follow at a distance to monitor his son’s behavior. He was surprised by where Joe went. Not to any one of the many saloons and gaming parlors they had seen over the past days. Instead, Joe made his way to the church just down the street from their hotel. Ben hung back, not wishing to interfere, hiding in the shadows as he watched Joe limp into the candlelit sanctuary. As he watched, Joe slid into a pew and rested his head on the back of the one before him.

It wasn’t long before Ben was joined by a priest and with a start, he realized that Joe had, however subconsciously, chosen a Catholic church. It was faith of his mother, not that which he had been raised in. Ben decided it didn’t matter as long as it gave some peace to his son. God was God, no matter how and where you addressed Him.

“Can I help you?” the priest asked Ben softly and when Ben shook his head ‘no’, he gestured towards the bowed form of his son.

“Yes, he’s with me. He’s my son and tomorrow-“ but the priest held up his hand to silence the whisper. His dark robe making him a shadow within a shadow, the priest glided down the side aisle and slid into the pew next to the other man. It wasn’t long before Ben heard soft muffled voices talking and decided to leave. He had the feeling that come tomorrow morning, things would be different for Joe. That Joe would be able to face the surgery without fear but Ben knew he wouldn’t have the same ability.

The sun was slipping passed the halfway point in the gray winter sky before Doctor Gallagher entered the room and found the elder Cartwright, hands shoved into his pockets, staring out the window into the courtyard beyond. But the man instantly turned his attention to the doctor when he heard the door open behind him. At first his face was bright with anticipation but Doctor Gallagher knew his own expression gave the father the news he dreaded and he watched the father’s face slip.

“I’m sorry, Mr. Cartwright. There wasn’t much I could do to help your son. I wanted to in the worst way. Maybe if he had come here months ago, I could have done something but it just got too far out of hand.”

Ben found himself reaching for the back of the chair before him. His own knees began to give way and he quickly sank into the chair instead. “What—what did you find? I mean-“ but then his voice gave out all together.

“Your son’s knee had been broken. The little sack of tissue that holds the kneecap out away from the joint, that’s called the bursa. It’s ruptured. And because it is ruptured, the kneecap keeps grating on the ends of leg bones. That’s why he has trouble going up and down steps and the like. Without that cushioning, he is literally eating the bone away with every step he takes. I did what I could but I doubt if it’s going to help him very much in the long run. I took out the little shards of bone I found there but beyond that, I couldn’t do much,” the physician explained and the sorrow in the eyes Ben had noted just a few days before took on new meaning.

“How long?” Ben stammered.

“Joe should be back here in the room in about another forty-five minutes. He will be in and out of consciousness for probably the remainder of the day.”

Ben rubbed his hand over his face. “No I mean how long before Joe can walk on that leg again?” In his heart he heard the words ‘before he decides to leave forever?’

“About a week. Like I said, I really couldn’t do that much so it is just a matter of the incision healing enough so I can remove the stitches,” Doctor Gallagher went on but as he did so, he realized the effect of his words on the man before him and laid a gentle touch on the father’s arm. “I am sorry, Mr. Cartwright. There has never been anyone I wanted to help any more than your son. I don’t know why I feel that way, but I do. And it pains me greatly that I have not been able to perform a miracle for him. And you. Do you need anything? I’ll have one of my staff-“ he offered.

Ben quickly shook his head ‘no’. What he needed was time to pull himself together before he saw Joseph again. He needed time to figure out how to tell his son the awful truth. He needed time to face the possibility that his son would now leave him and seek out a different life from what he’d had before. He needed time to face reality and cope with it. He wasn't sure he would ever have enough time.

Joe had been back in the room only a short time when he stirred, his head and shoulders pressing into the pillows. He didn't even open his eyes but called for his father weakly. Ben shushed him and told him to rest as he gathered his son's good hand in his own, letting Joe feel his presence as well as hear his voice. For the longest time that afternoon, Ben sat just like that; holding his sleeping son's hand in his own and lost himself in memories of far better times. But for every pleasant memory, there was one far more ominous and threatening. Ben fought against them but he kept reliving the events of the months before: how he and Hoss and Adam had returned home to find that home nearly destroyed by vandals; the sight of Hoss standing in the doorway with Joseph's beaten and bloody body lifeless in his arms; of Joe, one hand still casted as he lashed out in the courtroom at the three young men who had caused all the harm and hurt. And lastly, the vision that clung most voraciously was the one that Ben had seen when he had heard voices raised behind the barn and gone to find Joe standing, arms outstretched before the three boys who held guns on him, ready to gun him down in cold blood. He had listened how his son coldly urged them to pull the triggers. Then a gun had discharged and Joe had crumbled to the ground. Joe had been unhurt, the bullet plowing into the ground off to one side but it had terrified Ben with the realization of just how close Joe had come to be killed by three teenage boys.

"Excuse me," the whispery voice said at his shoulder and Ben jumped, startled. He'd not heard anyone enter the room but beside him was the priest from the night before.

"Oh, Father, you caught me off-guard! Surprised me, I guess you could say!" Ben quickly pulled his wavering thoughts together as he spoke.

The priest, an older man with steel gray hair and a narrow face, simply smiled and asked "Do you often do that?"

" Get caught off-guard, honestly, no," Ben admitted and saw the clergyman smile.

"No," the other murmured, "hold onto your son that way?" He eased himself down onto the side of the bed, his scant weight barely making an impression on the mattress. He sat so that he could see both the father and son and within easy reach of either man.

Any other man may have been embarrassed by the display of affection but it came so easily to Ben Cartwright. His lips quirked into a half smile as he once again took Joe's hand in his own. "Actually, yes. Joseph is a very touchable young man. He's my youngest and I guess it just comes natural to me any more."

The priest smiled again. "I spoke with him for a long time last night. He was very worried about today. How did it go for him?"

With a heavy heart, Ben repeated what the doctor had told him. All the while, the priest just kept nodding his head. It struck Ben that somehow this man had known when he walked into the room just what the outcome had been. But as Ben said the words, the anguish he had felt earlier for Joe was gone. It was as though speaking the truth was letting him travel beyond the pain he felt for his son and onto another level. It was with an acceptance he found in himself.

"Does he know yet?" the priest asked and gestured towards the sleeping Joe. When he had seen the simple shake of the father's head, he did what came naturally to him: he reached out and covered the joint hands of father and son with his own gaunt hand and bowed his head in prayer.

The priest spent the remainder of the afternoon with Ben, letting him talk about anything and everything. Occasionally the cleric would nod and by asking a simple question, launch Ben into more memories; more stories of his sons and his life in Nevada. At no time did he ever pressure Ben into talking about anything but allowed the nervous father to ramble. Finally, as a nurse wearing a starched white apron came in to light the lamps there in the room, the priest stood and said that he had to go.

"I will say a special prayer for your son. And for you as well," he promised as he patted Ben's shoulder.

"Thank you. I have the feeling that it is going to take a miracle to heal Joseph this time." Ben said, a faint smile crossing his face.

But the priest did not smile. "I will pray that your son accepts his condition, first. Then, and only then, will I pray for a miracle, Mr. Cartwright." And with that he left.

It was not his words that bothered Ben. It was something else. Not once during the whole afternoon had he told the priest his name. Yet the priest had just called him 'Mr. Cartwright'. Perhaps Joe had told him the night before? It was possible. But then again, the priest had never told Ben his name. He quickly stood up and went to the door and stepped into the hall, wanting to catch the priest before he got too far away. But looking both ways up and down the dimly lit hallway, Ben saw no one.

As he dropped back into his bedside chair, Ben was puzzled. Looking at the bed where his son lay, there was no sign that anyone had sat there most of the afternoon. No rumbled or creased bedding. No indentation. The only thing that seemed to indicate that the priest had been there that afternoon was the peace Ben felt in his heart. And the feeling that he could help Joe get beyond the next few days.

The only way he knew he was awake was the sliver of light he could see coming from the edges of the doorway. Slowly his other senses returned to him and he could hear the tiny sharp pricks of an icy rain on the dark window somewhere off to his left. His mouth was dry and he longed for a drink but he couldn't get his body to move. There seemed to be a breakdown in getting the message from his drug-fogged brain to the rest of him. Cautiously, he took a deep breath and caught just the barest scent in the darkness. Joe wanted to smile but didn't have the time before he slipped back into sleep's embrace. The scent of Bay rum and pipesmoke told him his father was near. And with that knowledge came the understanding that he would be protected as he slept.

When he awoke again, there was watery winter sunlight coming from the window. Beside his bed stood a rather large woman, dressed in a white apron and she was checking the dressing that wrapped around his leg. Joe's first instinct was to slap the sheet that covered him back down since he knew there wasn't much distance between where her hands were and other more delicate areas of his person. She must have seen the panic in his eyes and lowered the sheet with a smile.

"Good morning. How are ya feeling this morning?" she whispered, her voice carrying more than a hint of the Old Sod in it.

"Thirsty," Joe managed to croak out.

She slipped over to the sideboard there in the spacious room and poured water into a glass then came back to help him sit up while he drank. As he had pulled himself up, Joe had felt the burn and pain down his leg and it helped to disperse the fog in his head.

"Thank you," he said as she eased him back down onto the pillows.

"Any thin' else ya need?"

"No," Joe replied closing his eyes to the continued burning sensation in his leg. Yes, how about a new leg? Got one of them around here anywhere? While you're at it, how about a new hand too? Joe mused.

"Your father said to tell ya that he'd be back shortly. That's a good da' ya got there. He was here most of the night with ya, holding yer hand and talkin' to ya so's you'd not be alone when ya woke up. We don't see much o' that here, ya know. Are ya in pain? The doctor said we could give ya something iffen ya were."

Joe smiled at not just her words but the soft cadence of her voice. He thought he could listen to her talk forever so musical was it.

"No, I don't want anything for the pain, thank you. Do you know if Doctor Gallagher was able to fix my leg?"

She brushed the hair back from his face with soft hands before she answered him. "I'd not know that. But the doctor will be here afta bit so you can talk to him. Are ya sure you won't be takin' somethin' for the pain? There's no sense in tryin' to be brave about such thin's. We all understand what yer goin' through and don' want to see a body cravin' release that the pride won't give it." As she spoke, she used a warm wet cloth from the basin beside the bed and stroked it across his shoulders and chest.

"Thank you, but I don't care much for that stuff. Makes it hard to think, know what I mean?"

"And just what is it that you haf ta be thinkin' of right now?" the nurse asked, her eyes twinkling in silent delight. "And don' be tellin' me, Nurse Fennigan, with more years o' takin' care of the likes o' ya than ya got years, that yer not hurtin', lad."

Joe surprised her and chuckled. The thought had crossed his mind that here stood an Irish female Ben Cartwright! Right down to the fact that she stood there with her hands propped on both hips the same way his father did. "Okay, Nurse Fennigan, but on one condition."

She drew back and eyed him narrowly. "An' what would tha' be?"

"That you don't call me 'lad' or 'boy' or whatever it is in your language. 'Cause I'm not a boy any longer," teased Joe, with a wink at the woman.

"'Tis true enough and 'tis a fair bargain ya make. I'll get it for ya now."

She watched as he closed his eyes to the burning of the morphine as it entered his arm then, withdrawing the needle, laid it carefully aside. The nurse rubbed down the length of the tan and muscled arm but it was more to let him know that it was over than to help the medication enter his system. "Do ya' need anythin' else?" she asked, keeping her voice soft and low.

To her amazement, he snagged her hand in his and held it a moment then turned it loose. "Stay with me a while? Talk to me?" he asked with a hint of pleading in his voice.

"Aye, 'twill be a pleasure. And wha' would ya have me say to ya?" but already the sleep inducing effects of the morphine was having its way and as she held the hand, she felt it go limp and watched as his chest rose and fell steadily. When she was sure that he was asleep again, she freed her hand and adjusted the blanket and sheet covering him. She turned and picked up the now empty syringe and cast her eye about the room for anything that she may have forgotten that she would need to take with her. As she did so, her eyes fell across his face again and the expression of trust she saw there pulled at her.

"Aw," she muttered and pulled up the chair closer to the side of the bed, "'twas a promise I made to ya so I suppose tha' I should honor it. There never was a Fennigan to go back on their word and I'll not be the first." She plopped her ample girth into the chair and took up the hand laid there in front her before she continued. "Tha' 'tis exceptin' Uncle Seamas. A more lyin', cheatin', ornery son of the sod ya'll never find. 'Twas said tha' he had more than one wife, tha' bastard, and more brats than you could shake a stick at. But he was on my da's side of the family and we'd not much to do wit' 'em."

He splashed the water over his face to remove the last vestiges of lather from his shaving. The face that looked back at Ben Cartwright that wintery morning in Saint Louis showed the after-effects of a long night spent at his son's bedside. There was nothing he could do about the dark circles he saw there beneath his eyes but he tried a smile then saw that there was something missing in it. Sincerity, he thought. Will have to do better than that when I go back to see Joe this morning. Maybe some coffee will help.

He shrugged into his coat and settled his hat on his silver hair. Just before he opened the door, he recalled the letter that he needed to send and retrieved it. He stood there, the envelope tap-tapping in his hand, wondering if he should discard it and write another one. This one had been written late last night as he'd sat beside Joe and in it, he had poured out his heart and soul. He knew he had rambled unmercifully and again wondered if he should destroy it and write a new one. Finally, he came to the conclusion that first efforts were worthy ones and he pocketed the letter and left the hotel room. Adam would understand .

Through the cold damp morning Ben made his way on foot to the small café they had had dinner in the other night. Sitting down at a corner table, he ordered coffee while he perused the menu. As much as he told himself that he should eat something, there was just nothing there that struck him as being what he wanted. When the waiter asked him for the third time, he tossed the menu aside and asked for a bowl of oatmeal.

Looking down into the brown gruel, Ben lost what little appetite he did have and shoved the bowl away untouched. He picked up his coffee and held the cup in his hands for several long moments. Why? came his unbidden thought. His beloved son would soon have to face a reality full of pain and suffering for the remainder of his life. He had managed to get Joseph through so much in his life but this past year had brought more and more. Joseph was strong, yes, but was he going to be strong enough to handle this? As much as Ben hoped so, he wasn't sure. Yes, Joe had overcome much in his twenty odd years but this would follow him forever. There would be no end to it and as such, Ben doubted his ability to handle it alone. But would Joe let him stay close enough to help?

With an angry toss of coins onto the table, Ben Cartwright left the café and headed down the street. All about him, life swirled in its haphazard fashion but he felt and saw none of it. He was intent on being back at Joe's side when he awoke. Ben knew he couldn't let his son be alone when the doctor would tell him that he would be crippled for the rest of his life.

Ben nearly knocked the man sweeping the steps in his headlong tramp down the street. He grabbed at the dark shoulders with a hasty apology on his lips when he realized that it was the priest from the day before.

"Why, welcome, Mr. Cartwright!" the cleric greeted and taking Ben by the arm, led him into the foyer of the massive stone cathedral.

Putting up his hand to signal a stop, Ben spoke sharply. "Excuse me, but I was on my way down to the clinic. Joseph should be awake and I don't want him to-"

"To be alone when the doctor speaks to him? That's what you were going to say, isn't it? Come and sit with me a moment and listen to what I have to say. I listened to you yesterday so it is my turn today." The priest's hand on Ben's arm tightened as he directed him to a stone bench at the side of the foyer. Something within him would not allow Ben to break the grasp and defy the request even though it was on his mind to do so.

Settling onto the cold stone, the priest's face took on a peculiar light as he spoke, his words barely above a whisper. Ben sat entranced, unable and unwilling to move. "Why do you lack faith in your son's abilities? From what I gathered yesterday, you have done a good job in raising him. And if the father is any indication of the son, Joseph is strong not just in body but in his soul as well. How would you handle such news as Joseph will get today?"

Ben looked to the tiled floor, feeling the near to overwhelming despair rise in him. "I would probably get angry."

"Yes and would you not be justified in your anger? Would you want someone to tell you that you have no right to be upset by this turn of events? I think not. Every man must face times like this and face them alone so that he can feel the anger. He must feel the anger so he can get beyond it and into an understanding of what his life is to be. To be told not to feel anger is to put it aside. And that only delays it, and the understanding it will eventually bring."

"You don't understand!" Ben exploded and would have risen to his feet to leave if it were not for the priest's hand on his arm stopping him.

"No, my friend, you do not understand what is happening to your son. God is asking your son to do something that only he can do."

"What?" the single word ripped from Ben like a bullet from a rifle.

With a tilt of his head, the clergyman merely smiled. "That, even I do not know. But rest assured that God never asks us to do more than we can do. I think the real fear you feel comes from Joseph's threat to leave his home and seek another way. Once again, look to the father and find the son there. If you were Joseph, would you leave such love and devotion as you have given him? No. His words of leaving you were merely a wish cast upon troubled water. An escape, if you will, but he knows that there is no true escape. He merely wants the possibility there, not the reality. Now, go on and be with him. Joseph needs the love and protection of both his earthly father as well as his heavenly One." With a swirl of his dark robes, the priest was gone, leaving Ben alone in the foyer of the church.

When he opened the door to Joe's room, Ben knew immediately that the doctor had been there and left. Joe was rolled onto his side, his face away from the door and towards the window but the curtain was drawn and the room in dark shadows. His heart tightening, Ben took off his coat and hat, laying them aside then went around the end of the bed. He didn't need light to see that Joe had been crying but Joe had turned his face into the pillow to hide the fact from his father. Careful not to move the injured leg, Ben sat down on the side of the bed. The words of the priest that Joe needed the love and protection of his father echoed in Ben's head and he easily pulled his son into his arms. Wordlessly, he held Joseph, feeling the trembling rip at his soul. His hand caressed the head held to his chest and, like his son, Ben allowed himself to cry.

Chapter Three
Give a man food and he can eat;
Give a man hope and he can conquer the universe

Ten days later, Joe sat looking at the long angry red line that extended from mid-thigh to below his knee. Absently, he ran a finger down it. He wondered how long it would remain red but then decided that it didn't matter since the reminder would be with him always. He hadn't talked much to his father about it, not really knowing what to say and his father hadn't pushed him either. That afternoon, Doctor Gallagher had come to the hotel room Joe had locked himself into after being released from the doctor's immediate care. Without further discussion, the doctor had removed the stitches and examined the flesh mending beneath them. With a nod to Joe, he had proclaimed him well enough to travel but warned him about doing a lot of unnecessary walking. Joe considered that perhaps even taking another step in his life might have been considered 'unnecessary walking'. But he had only nodded silently. There had been a few brief words with Ben he had overheard when the doctor left the room then his father had slipped into the room to check on Joe.

    "You want some lunch now?" Ben asked. He kept his fingers crossed that Joe would answer 'yes' since even to his eye, he could see how much weight Joe had lost in the last days. But Joe had merely shook his head and lay back down on the bed in the darkened room. "Okay then, we'll have an early dinner," he encouraged but it got no response and Ben sighed and closed the door.

    Now, an hour later, and unable to withstand the silence and oppression in the room any longer, Joe dressed and went into the parlor where his father sat writing.

    "I'm going out for a while, Pa. I'll be back in time for us to have dinner together," he allowed, shrugging into his jacket. "And, no, I don't think you need to come with me. I'm a big boy now and I think I can handle myself okay. Besides, you need to be writing and telling Adam how to run things back home." Then he slipped out the door and was gone before his father could comment.

    The sidewalks had only a skiff of snow blowing across them but Joe limped slowly and cautiously anyway. He had a destination in mind and knew it wasn't far from their hotel. He had stumbled across it only once but his sense of direction, honed by years of wilderness living, would direct him there again. He was right. And he slipped open the church's heavy door and went inside, out of the cold. The light coming through the stained glass window at the far end of the sanctuary made bright shadows on the tile floor, splintered into shards of color that caught Joe's eye. His leg now throbbing, he made his way up the center aisle and sat in one of the pews. Leaning back, he pulled his coat open to the warmth and closed his eyes.

    "I'm glad to see you up and around. I wondered when you would be back," the little priest greeted as he sat down beside Joe.

    "You remember me?" queried Joe, surprised that the man would.

    "Of course I do. You came in very late one night and we talked about a good many things. I remember you saying you were going to have your leg operated on and I was wondering just the other day how you had made out."

    "Not very well, I guess you could say," Joe admitted and without thinking, began rubbing his hand over his damaged knee.

    The clergyman pursed his lips and tapped them with a long index finger. "And what now? What do you do now?"

    Joe's first impulse was the jump and run from the man and his questions but something stopped him. "I guess that's what I came here to find out. What do I do now? I had told my pa before we came out here that if it didn't go right that I wanted to go away by myself for a while."

    "And do you still want to do that? To go away?"

    Joe laughed hollowly. "I'm not sure any more. I know I can't go back to the life I had before."

    "Why not?"

    Pausing, Joe tried to decide how to answer then he plunged on with what for him were bitter words to say. "I can't do the things I was meant to do, Father. I grew up on a ranch and I love it there and I always wanted to be a part of it. But now, because of my hand being useless and my leg never going to be right again, I wind up just sitting and watching while everyone goes about the business of working the ranch. That isn't for me. Why, I even fought with my father when I was 12 or 13 to let me work. Now I can't."

    "Surely there is something you could do on your father's ranch to make you feel useful. And that is what you truly want, isn't it? To feel useful and a part of the ranch?" Again the priest pursed his lips and leaning into the bright shards of light, touched the young man at his side. "What makes you think that you won't be? Because you are not physically able to?"

    "That's kind of obvious, ain't it?" Joe snorted derisively and crossed his arms over his chest defensively.

    "But there are other ways of being useful, aren't there?"

    A corner of Joe's mouth jumped, giving him a half smile. He turned to address the man at his side. "Do you always answer a question with a question?"

    "No, not always. But sometimes when we search for an answer in life, it helps to start with a question." The cleric smiled and leaned back against the pew. "So tell me, what do you do now that you are convinced that going home isn't going to work for you? Is there someplace you have in mind to run away to?"

    Instantly, Joe became defensive. "I am not running away!"

    "Then what would you call it? Oh yes, you said something about 'finding yourself' that night didn't you? Call it whatever you like, young man, it is the same thing. But do you know what you will find? Wherever you go and whatever it is you do, one thing will remain constant. You. You will always be just what you are. So it doesn't matter if you return to your beloved ranch or go off to the far ends of the earth. You will still be a man who has allowed one act of violence rule the rest of his life. Think on that. Do you want that one act to govern your life forever or are you more than that?"

    Joe looked to the floor, then at the light streaming through the colorful window. When he looked back, the priest was gone. Slowly, gingerly, he got to his feet and limped back down the aisle, pausing only once to look back. He saw no one there.

    For the rest of the afternoon, Joe wandered the streets of Saint Louis but he may as well have been in some foreign country. None of it seemed to touch him and he could understand nothing of what was happening around him. He didn't look at any of the people he passed by and the only thing that snagged at him was the sight of a pinto standing at the livery stable waiting to be shod. That brought back thoughts of his own Cochise and he wondered what the horse was doing. Probably getting fat, eating his fool head off in the barn, not wanting to go into the paddock because of the snow. Snow, I hadn't thought about that. Wonder how much is on the ground now? Hoss and Adam have a snowball fight yet? Like last year when they wound up in the kitchen with Hoss trying to hide behind Hop Sing? Adam nailed him anyway. Then Hop Sing chased them both out of the kitchen with his meat cleaver. I can still hear him hollering at them. Oh God, how I miss them!

    When he lifted his eyes from the sidewalk, the sign in front of him made him smile. He recalled the words the priest had said about finding answers to life's questions and finding himself the same wherever it was he went. He reached into his jacket pocket for his wallet and counted out the money he had there. Right down to the last dollar he had, it was enough and with a lightness to his heart he had not had in a very long time, he knew what he had to do.

    Ben was dozing by the small fireplace in the parlor of their hotel room when he heard Joe's now distinctive limp stop beside him. Opening his eyes, he caught a glimpse of bright green eyes that were smiling. Joe dropped something onto his chest and promptly left the room. Ben picked up the envelope and opened it. Inside were two tickets, one way each, to San Francisco, on the next stage out. His face split wide with a smile, Ben chuckled then raising his eyes to the ceiling, whispered,  "Thank you, Lord."

Chapter Four
A cat will either hiss at you or purr.  The choice isn't yours.

    The coach took another jolt to the opposite side. Inside it, Ben's shoulder impacted, again, with the wall and it stirred him from his light doze. For the past week, the uncomfortable coach ride had swerved and jounced, rattled teeth and nerves then would inexplicably smooth out for long enough that he would drop off to sleep before it started its ominous swaying again. Even with his feet braced against the opposite seat, he would feel like he was going to be tossed to the floor. That is if the floor didn't rise up and grab him first. Rubbing his sore shoulder, Ben glanced across the enclosed compartment and wondered how in the world Joseph could sleep. But there again, Joe was short enough that he could put his back to the side and stretch his legs out along the seat to ride sleeping sideways, wedged between the sides.

    "Maricopa Wells comin' up!" the driver shouted down, announcing the next stop.

    Groaning, Ben reached over and shook the arm of the only other passenger to wake him. "Station coming up, son. You gonna get out and stretch?"

    Joe lifted his tan hat from over his face and grimaced as the coach took another lunge to the left. Why couldn't I have stopped in front of the Overland Stage?  he thought again. Or better yet? Why didn't I do this in the spring rather than winter? The Overland Stage took a more direct route across the open plains from Missouri into Denver then dropped down into the flats of Utah and Nevada before climbing back up into the hills and gullies then the high desert before reaching Virginia City. But this time of the year, travel was uncertain once the stages reached the higher elevations. The southern route, commanded by the Butterfield Line ran further south and while it ran into mountainous territory, snow was not always an overriding concern there. While Indian attacks plagued both routes, and both were not necessarily known for seeing first to the needs and comfort of their passengers, the Butterfield held a better on-time record. And for one simple fact: determination by the drivers to get the mail through, since that was their first concern, not passengers. Since there were several offshoots to the southern line, if trouble plagued one route, the stages could shift their runs easily for a time while whatever the difficulty was taken care of. But right then, both Cartwrights would have considered a softer ride a better deal.

    As the stage rolled to a stop in a cloud of choking dust, Ben looked out the open window. Maricopa Wells was one of the bigger way stations on the route. It boasted not only a place for the weary traveler to eat and rest but also, should they so desire, a place to lay over for a few days to rest. But, like most other travelers, the Cartwrights would go on with the next stage.

    "Half an hour, gents, then we roll again," the driver called as Ben and Joe dropped wobble-legged from the coach. Rolling his head around on his neck did little to relieve the tightness in Ben's back and shoulders but he tried any way. He brushed passed Joe without a word, headed for the facilities out back. When he returned, he found his son sitting on the bench in front of the small eatery, a basket at his feet covered by a cloth.

    "What's that?" Ben asked sharply.

    Joe smiled up at his father and nudged the basket with his foot. "Something for later on so you won't be so grumpy. I see now that being the better traveler only works when you are headed east."

    "I am not grumpy!"

    Joe merely raised his eyebrows but they spoke volumes. Standing quickly, he strolled from his father's long reach, headed out back.

    The shotgun rider and another man were standing and talking with the driver when Joe returned. From snatches spoken loud enough to be overheard, he concluded that the road ahead had some serious breeches caused by the early winter rainstorms that had attacked the area recently. The driver was making motions with his hands of how he would travel, his arms dipping and swerving much the way Joe thought the stage actually went. Joe looked around for his father then seeing that his goodie basket and his father were nowhere in sight, peeked into the bright yellow stage.

    "Not bad cookies and the milk is nice and cold," and Joe rolled his eyes much the same his father would when Hoss was diving into food he knew better than touch. Ben handed Joe back the now empty basket with instructions to get them some more.

    He barely made it back to the coach when the driver, taking and giving one last set of instructions climbed onto the high seat. As Joe yanked the door open and handed in the basket of cookies to his father, he heard the third man holler the reminder to take the south fork at Split Rock. The driver cursed loudly, calling the other man a scaredy-cat. Joe barely made onto the seat before the stage lurched forward.

    In the fading twilight across the far sere mountain peaks, the stage rolled on. From Maricopa Springs, it was a long ride to the next way station even at the breakneck speed the driver pushed the six-horse team. The sky held slate gray clouds and the promise of at least rain soon. Ben pulled his jacket closer around himself to ward off the growing chill to the high desert air. On the seat across from him, Joe had resumed his normal stretched out posture but he had closed his jacket and had his arms wrapped around himself for warmth. Seeing the coming night, Ben dropped the rolled leather curtains of the coach, dropping the interior into near complete darkness.

    Since Joe had returned to their hotel room with the stage passes, Ben had tried to see a change in his son. The more he looked, the less he saw. Gone was the easy smile, the casual chuckle over something. It seemed to Ben that it had disappeared with Joe's languid walk for now Joe walked as though each step would be his last, carefully watching where his feet went, guarding against any untoward step that could make him fall. Ben had watched Joe, on more than one occasion, lift his damaged leg with both hands, positioning it on the seat of the stage, keeping it to the inside. Even when they had sat down to eat at the various restaurants and café's along the way, Joe had cautiously placed his hurt leg to the wall. But the worst part of it had come one night as they had headed back to the stage for another long night's ride. Stepping out of the grimy way station kitchen, Ben had gone to walk on Joe's left side. And as he had so many times, he started to put his hand on Joe's back as they walked. Somehow, Ben's leg had brushed against Joe's and Ben had felt him stiffen and move away. After that, Ben had made it a habit to walk on the other side of his son.

    But more than the physical change he had watched occur with his son, Ben had hoped for an emotional one. Joe had withdrawn into himself following the disastrous surgery and had stayed there, much to Ben's own silent dismay. Even though Joe had decided to return with him to the Ponderosa, Ben wondered how long he would stay there. He had tried to talk with Joe of future plans but beyond wanting to spend Christmas with his brothers, Joe would pass off any such talk with a noncommittal shrug and go back to watching the boring countryside go rolling passed the stage's open windows. Ben wondered back to the words the priest had spoken to him about Joe needing to get angry in order to get beyond it. Ben had never seen the anger in Joe. Instead the look on his son's face was resignation. Ben really wished that at some point, Joe would get angry. It would have been easier for him as a father to handle.

    For most of the trip they had been the only passengers. It was late in the season, pushing mid-November now. Travel over any of the high mountain passes, by the southern or northern route, could become treacherous at a moment’s notice so most folks would stay put until the spring. So for now, the only traveling companions the Cartwrights had besides themselves were sacks of mail.  Ben was beginning to think that it was more a curse than a blessing. Yes, it allowed the both of them to stretch out and travel with a bit more comfort but it also meant no one else to talk with to pass the time. Ben had tried time and again to draw Joe into a long conversation about what he wanted to do with the horse operation next spring. Joe easily saw his father’s ploy and said that he had no idea and it was on the tip of his tongue to say that he didn’t care either. But that would hurt his father and even though in his mind he said he didn’t care if he did or not, his heart would not let him give pain to the man who had raised him and loved him as no one else ever would. So on that evening they rode, listening to their own silence that seemed louder than the sounds of the stagecoach, team and driver.

Ben had no idea how long he had catnapped when he was startled awake by the sensation that he was flying. In the dark, he could not see the side of the coach but felt it when it slammed against his shoulder painfully. He was tossed then to what he thought was the ceiling but he had no time to react and the impact knocked the breath from him. He hit something soft and figured that it had to be Joe since there followed a sharp yelp that sounded like him. Then the rolling and tossing motion stopped and Ben lay on his back, dazed, breathless and shocked. Above and around him he could hear the groaning of wood and metal stressed to bursting. Beneath him, he felt both the hard surface of what he took for the floor of the coach as well as something soft. Cursing roundly, he tried to get up but found himself confined under more wood. As he lapsed into unconsciousness, he prayed that Joseph, lying trapped beneath him, was not hurt too badly.

    There was something cold dripping onto his face. Ben tried to turn from it but found his motion stopped by something. His body shivered from both cold and shock and he was unable to halt the involuntary moan that escaped him. He would have lifted a hand to his aching head but that motion also was impeded so he simply lay there, willing the only part of himself he thought he could move, his eyes, to open. They did so slowly but once they were open, all he could see was continued darkness. Then a deeper darkness moved across his field of vision.

    “Just lay still, Pa. I can’t see well enough to move this stuff off of you and I don’t want to hurt you. So just lay still,” Joe’s voice came to him softly there right beside his ear.

    “Are you all right?” Ben asked, doing as Joe asked and coming around enough to realize that all around him were hard edges and surfaces. In the dark, he heard Joe’s low chuckle.

    “’Bout as all right as I can get at the moment, I think.”

    “I’m not going to ask what happened,” Ben whispered, feeling a warning twinge along his chest that spoke of at least a few cracked ribs.

    “Feel like we been tossed around in Hop Sing’s butter churn. And it is so damn dark, I can’t see a thing. Don’t know what happened to the driver and shotgun. Ain’t heard a single sound I can label human except us.”  Hearing the macabre sense of humor from his son made Ben smile. “Should be daylight soon,” Joe continued. “Once I can see what I’m doing, I’ll see about getting us out of this butter churn.”

    Ben felt something warm drop across his upper chest then the shadow he knew to be Joe crossed his limited field of vision again and the cold dripping stopped falling on his face. He gave himself over the waiting darkness, knowing there was nothing that could be done about their situation until morning.

    With the coming of daylight, Joe surveyed the area both inside the wrecked coach and outside of it. He wasn’t sure which he felt less capable to handle. As he stood looking at what remained of the gaudy yellow stage, he wondered how he managed to come out of it alive, much less, relatively unhurt. Walking unsteadily, he checked on the driver and shotgun rider. Both were obviously dead, killed upon impact, the driver’s body pinned beneath the wreckage. The team, those that weren’t dead already, Joe mercifully dispatched with the rifle pulled from the cold hands of the shotgun rider, knowing that broken limbs and tangled harnesses had spelled their demise even in the best of situations. Looking around, he saw what had caused the accident: the road. Or more correctly, the lack of it. In the near total darkness, the driver hadn’t seen the washout and the team had plunged into the wide gap, pulling the stage behind it into oblivion, rolling down over the steep embankment until the coach ended up nearly upside down, half in the small stream, half out.

    Joe wiped the rain that had continued all night from his face again as he clambered back into the coach. With the coming of light, he saw that he could free his father but he had to work carefully. Half of the undercarriage had crashed through the floorboards and those weakened boards threatened to give up entirely. If that happened, his father would be crushed. Swiping at the rainy blood that continued stubbornly to run down the side of his face, Joe wished he had Adam’s engineering abilities and Hoss’ strength. He could have used his brothers for far more than that, he felt, as despair seemed to be creeping up his spine that morning. But then his father stirred and Joe heard him moan in pain.

    Ben didn’t know whether to be relieved or shocked when he saw Joe’s face over him. Even though Joe gave him a tight smile, Ben saw the blood seeping into his shirt collar. And where was the boy’s jacket?

    “You got to lay real still Pa. If not, this whole mess is gonna come down on top of us. I’ve got to shore up the floor. That’s what is over us, okay? I can’t get this door open any further until I do. Are you gonna be okay?”

    Ben bit back a groan. “Can you get us some help? Any idea where we are? Maybe you could walk to-“ he started to move, trying to relieve the pressure on his chest. The groaning of the wood alarmed him and he quit.

    “No, Pa. I can’t leave you like this. And I have no idea how far help is from here. Like I said, stay still and I’ll see about getting you out. Then we can decide what to do next. Are you cold? Let me see what I can find.”

    Going to the back of the twisted coach as it lay half on one side and half on its top, Joe dug through the boot, searching for anything he could find to cover his father. Beyond their own scant luggage and the mail sacks, there was nothing. He had already given his father his own jacket but he knew that wasn’t enough. Grasping the canvas boot covering with both hands, he tried ripping it away but it was firmly attached. He went to the front and grimly turned the body of the shotgun rider over, searching the man for a knife or something to cut the canvas. There was nothing. Steeling himself, he went to the driver’s trapped body. Joe was sure that he had seen a knife in the man’s waistband but wasn’t sure if it remained with the body considering the accident. Joe tried to just reach under the coach but couldn’t get the right angle. He dropped to the wet sand and extended his arm as far as he could reach along the body, praying for just a little miracle. His hand closed over something hard and he pulled. It was the knife. Quickly he jumped to his feet and away from the body. He muttered a “thank you” to the dead man then reflected that the driver had no use for the blade any longer. The knife made easy work of removing the canvas from the rear boot and Joe tucked it into his own waistband when he finished.

    Joe dropped down to look into the wreckage at what he could see of his father. By easing into the tiny hole he had managed to create around his father’s head and shoulders the night before by feel, Joe was able to drag the unwieldy canvas behind him. The sight of his father’s face bothered him, still and white, the lips pressed tightly together in pain. Joe felt at the side of Ben’s neck and feeling the pulse there, however thin and thready, gave him renewed hope.

    Okay, now, you got to get him out of there or the shock alone is gonna kill him. Think! Need something to hold up that roof just long enough you can pull him out.  But what if it caves in more? As he thought, Joe pulled back out of the coach and glanced around him. The mail bags! Use them for protection around what of him I can reach.

    After squeezing the canvas bags around his father’s head and shoulders, Joe finished pulling the broken brake handle away from the side of the coach. As much as he was able to, he braced the section of the coach directly over his father’s chest. Joe knew he wasn’t strong enough to lift away the undercarriage from the top of the wreckage but he wondered if he were strong enough to roll it off. Chewing on his lower lip, he appraised the situation. The angle was enough that he thought if he could get it moving just a little, gravity would take over and the undercarriage would drop away from the body of the coach. The only problem was that it would be in the direction of Joe’s only access to his father.  And what if it were enough motion that the whole thing would continue on into the stream? He had to find someway of anchoring the body of the coach. His glance behind him up the slight slope revealed nothing big enough he could use as an anchor. But to the rear of the wreckage was a fair size boulder and to the front, the bodies of six dead horses. The harnesses would hold the horses’ bodies to the coach but he needed something to hold the coach to the boulder. He returned to the boot. There was nothing there. He racked his brain, trying to remember if he had seen anything on top of the stage or by the driver’s high seat. Nothing again.

    Then it struck Joe! He didn’t have to move the undercarriage all in one piece. Again he went to the rear boot and grabbed the wheel wrench he found there. Within minutes, he had one wheel off and was headed for the next. He cursed silently as he barked his knuckles on the splintered wood more than once. The wrench was a big one and he would have normally used both hands on it but he only had one hand that worked and it galled him. But it was the only chance he knew they had so he clamped down on his anger and went at the hubs like a man possessed.

    The last wheel dropped to the side of the carriage and rolled down into the streambed. As he had done each time, Joe slipped to the side of the stage and checked on his father. Ben hadn’t moved or even made a sound in so long, Joe was beginning to panic, afraid his inability to move any faster was robbing his father of survival. But each time, Joe found his father’s pulse still there.

    Now all he had to do was move the axles and what remained of the center hitch. The iron springs that had held the carriage itself when upright were another matter.  Joe managed to unbolt only one end of each one, the other end being bent in on itself and through the floorboards. At first he tried twisting them aside but it rocked the entire wreckage. He sat back on his haunches there on the top of the wreckage and buried his head in his hands.

    Through his own ragged breathing, Joe heard a sound he cherished: hoof beats and close by. Climbing down off the ruins of the coach, Joe headed up the slope towards the road. He hadn’t made it to the top when four riders pulled to a stop and looked over the edge.

    They were a mangy batch to look at but to Joe, would a band of heavenly angels have been a more welcoming sight? Their horses, sad looking animals, were blowing hard and were lathered despite the cold rain that fell. The men themselves appeared to be Mexican, wrapped in serapes and wearing broad brimmed sombreros. One man, who held his hand up to halt the others, Joe took to be the leader. If it had been under any other circumstances, Joe’s instincts would have been screaming dire warnings to him but his need to help his father far outdistanced any other.

    “God! Am I glad to see you fellas,” Joe greeted heartily. “The stage ran off the road last night and overturned. My father is trapped inside. You gotta help me get him out and to a doctor.”

    To his surprise, three of the men quickly dismounted and ran to the carriage. The fourth man, the leader, pulled a gun from under his serape and leveled it at Joe’s head.

    “Si, senor, we will help you. But first you will help us, no?”

    All joy disappeared from Joe, replaced belatedly with caution. He slowly raised his hands, showing he wore no gun. “What do you want?”

    The man still on horseback grinned evilly and while still holding the gun on Joe, dismounted. “What we want, senor, is anything of value. Come, let us look together, huh?” and gestured to the coach, an oily smile creasing his dirty features.

    Joe fought the urge to fight the men. There was only one way he knew he could get them to help him and it would be taking a major risk. But he had to do it.

    “Listen, the man trapped in there is my father. He’s carrying a good deal of money on him. You help me get him out, and it’s yours.”

    “How do I know that you tell the truth? That you do not have the money yourself?”

    “Search me! You’ll find nothing but a couple of dollars! But help me get my father out and you can have what he has!”

    The other man stroked his bristled jaw as he studied Joe. There was a look of desperation to the man. But still, one had to be wary. “How do I know you tell the truth?” he asked again.

    “Would you bargain with your father’s life?” Joe ripped back and watched in horror as the other three men began to swarm over the wreckage.

    Something made the leader’s face twitch then he shouted something in his native tongue. Joe knew just enough Spanish to know that the man had given an order for his men to stop. When Joe turned to say “thank you” the gun the other man held crashed down onto the side of his head and Joseph Cartwright dropped like a stone to the wet sand, unconscious.

The coarse sand grated at his cheek as he came back to consciousness. Slowly, Joe pushed at the cold ground with one hand, raising his head. Bright shafts of pain shot through his skull and he dropped back, breathing heavily. Again, he tried to push himself over and this time succeeded but only because it was slightly down slope. On his back, he was able to look towards the streambed and the remains of the bright yellow stagecoach. Through the dank heavy mist in the growing dusk, it shone like a macabre light, beckoning to Joe. He raised his head to look further and was rewarded by a bout of vicious nausea. Fighting his heaving stomach, Joe dropped back again to the wet ground and took long slow breaths trying to convince his body that he was all right. Finally, it subsided enough that he was able to sit up. He had to sit there while his head finished spinning before he stumbled to his feet.

As he pulled himself to the far side of the coach, his heart went to his throat and he forgot about his own physical condition. His father lay sprawled on his back, blood pooling into the sand at his shoulder. Dropping to his knees painfully, Joe went up over his father’s body hand over hand, screaming to his father. Touching his father’s face he found it to be hot and feverish. Joe had to take several deep breaths to slow his panic. His father was alive and for the moment, that was enough. Joe sat down and let his head drop forward, shaking as the adrenaline coursed through him.

Beside him, Ben heard the ragged breathing and prayed that they would finish him off quickly. The three men who had pulled him from the wrecked stage had not been kind about it. His body reeling in shock and pain, he had been unable to stop them from stripping off his gunbelt. The wallet in his jacket had followed the jacket onto the back of one of the men. He could hear their harsh laughter as they called back and forth, going through the stage looking for more things to steal. When they were satisfied that they had everything of value, they had tormented him. For what seemed like ages, they struck at him repeatedly. All he had been able to do was curl up and try and protect his damaged ribs. Through it all, he feared that Joseph was already dead since he could neither see nor hear him. Then finally unconsciousness had caught up with him. Now though, the sound at his side made him think that they weren’t finished.

When no blow had come, Ben tried to open his eyes but one eye was too swollen to open at all and as much as he tried, the other seemed to be glued shut. He started to raise one hand to wipe at his face when another’s hand stopped him. If his battered face had let him, he would have smiled. He knew it was Joseph’s hand that was rubbing something wet and coarse across face.

“Easy there, Pa, let me do this, okay?” Ben heard the words as though from a far distance but the gentle hands were touching him. Finally Ben was able to open up one eye. He knew that he had fared worse than Joe but the expression on the younger man’s face was hard for Ben see and not because of the waning light.

“I’m gonna see about starting a fire so we can warm up some. But until then,” Joe said softly then spread the torn canvas over his father’s body. There was just enough.

Efficiently, Joe went about the wreckage site, scavenging board and wood, pulling it back to where his father lay close beside the stream. He steeled his nerve again and dug into the pockets of the dead driver, finding finally two matches. He gathered pieces of the mail from the inside of the coach to use as kindling. Finally, after carefully placing the smallest chunks of wood on the damp paper, Joe got the fire started. It sputtered and for several minutes, Joe let it build until he was satisfied that the damp wood was going to catch after all. He added a few large pieces then turned his attention back to his father.

“How about some water? Can you drink something?” Joe didn’t wait for a reply from his father but picking up the canteen, poured a little into his father.

With his throat dampened, Ben was able to finally croak out Joe’s name and in the flickering flames of the fire, saw that the smile Joe gave him went clear to the young man’s eyes. The fire beat back the oppressive darkness and warmed Ben but a little.

“We’re in bad shape here, aren’t we?” Joe asked, chewing on his lip as he sat beside his father, staring into the fire. “Come daylight, I’ll take a look and see what I can do to get us some help.”

Ben carefully took a deeper breath. “You said that this morning, I thought,” he teased but wasn’t sure if Joe understood him.

Leaning over his father’s form, Joe urged him to be quiet, his hand lingering as he cleaned the battered face a little more. Thankfully, his father closed his eyes and seemed to drift off to sleep, warmed a little. Joe looked to the inky black sky, praying for a glimpse of stars or moon but there was nothing but more darkness. He sat there, beside his father, feeding the fire to keep it going, giving Ben water when he roused but mostly just sat and wondered what tomorrow would bring.

There was a little lightening of the sky the next morning but the rain continued to make the two Cartwrights miserable. The cold heavy mist would only stop long enough to become a brief downpour then return. Joe had considered trying to turn the coach into some sort of shelter but having spent the night watching the stream rise gradually, he knew that staying where they were was not an option any longer. With the coming of daylight, he could see heavier clouds looming in the west where the rain was coming from. If they stayed where they were, they risked being swept away by the rising water. Where they went and how fast they got there would depend on what sort of shape his father was in.

As his father had slept, Joe had pulled aside the canvas blanket and sought for broken bones. Sighing, he was almost glad when he found the only possible ones were ribs. But the laceration on his father’s upper arm continued to bleed slowly even though Joe had bound it tightly in strips torn from his own shirt. But that morning the fever seemed to backing down. Joe was carefully feeling along his father’s chest when he felt his father’s eyes on him.

“Morning!” Joe greeted with far more cheerfulness than he needed. “Want some breakfast? Some coffee, maybe?”

The arch to the dark eyebrow asked ‘how?’ and to that Joe’s mouth jerked to one side in a half smile. “Yeah I would like some too. Sorry, best I can offer is some jerky I took off the driver and a little water. Think you can chew the jerky?”

Ben fumbled but did manage to get a sliver of the dried meat into his mouth to chew carefully. As he chewed, he watched as Joe began splitting the mailbags into strips as long as possible. He stacked the mail in the coach as he emptied sack after sack; the strips tied to one another began to form a fair pile at Joe’s feet. When he thought he had done enough damage to the United States Mail, he snatched up the pile and strips and limped to where his father lay.

“Funny, shoe’s on the other foot here, Pa. It’s usually you telling me to take a deep breath so Doc can wrap my ribs. Well, I ain’t Doc Martin and I know that you know that this hurts like Hell but I don’t have to tell you it has to be done.” Joe smiled tightly, as he helped his father to sit upright. Quickly, he stripped off his father’s leather vest but left the shirt in place, noting that there were other small places where there was blood but none serious. “Here, this always helps,” and he placed Ben’s arms around his neck as he faced him. Gently, speaking all the time, he used the stiff canvas strips to bind Ben’s chest then slowly let him lay back down.

“Feels better already,” Ben admitted softly.

“Well that’s good, ‘cause we have to get out of here.” Joe gestured with his head towards the stream. “That’s been rising steadily all morning. And I got a good look at the territory earlier. Our driver took the wrong road.”

Ben’s head canted to one side. “How do you know this?”

“I heard that guy at Maricopa Wells tell him to take the south fork at Split Rock. When I climbed up to the road this morning, there’s a rock I would bet is Split Rock to our south. It should be north of us. Like I said: the driver went the wrong way. That also means if we are going to be rescued any time soon, we better get closer to where they’re looking.”

Ben grunted his agreement.

“Well, if breakfast is done?”

As much as his battered face would allow, Ben smiled. Joe went about the area gathering items into one of their carpetbags. Ben watched him. Here was the son he had raised. This one was not sunk in the depths of his own misery but making poor jokes concerning their situation. It was almost worth the beating both the stage and those hoodlums gave me, he thought. Almost.

“Ready?” Joe asked, extending his hand down to help his father. Ben sucked in his breath and clamped down on his urge to moan as Joe slowly pulled him to his feet. For a moment his head spun and he hung with grim determination to his son’s shoulders until it passed. He squeezed his eyes closed and concentrated on making his body do what he wanted it to but it wasn’t until he heard Joe’s softly voiced concern that he pulled himself further upright.

“Let’s go, son,” Ben said through clenched teeth, accepting the shoulder Joe offered him to lean on as they climbed the slope to the road above them.

It became a litany that allowed Joe to continue, one step following another. He struggled under the weight not only of his father’s body but also the weight of doubt that assailed him. Until the sun rose high in the wet sky, he fought to keep his father moving, one arm wrapped around his waist, his father’s one good arm across his shoulders. But then his knees buckled and when he tried to rise again, found he couldn’t.

“I think we need to rest a while, Pa,” Joe wheezed and didn’t wait for his father to nod before he rolled onto his back and closed his eyes.

“You need to go on, Joseph.”

Wondered when you were going to say that, Joe chuckled to himself. Out loud he told his father that there wasn’t a snowball’s chance in Hell of him doing that. When Ben insisted that that was their best of chance of getting through this alive, Joe merely shook his head as he lay in the cold sand. Finally, he shoved himself into a sitting position and looked to sky again. The clouds were gathering again, threatening. They had to have shelter and soon. His father was back to shivering, despite the canvas Joe had draped across him again.

Joe surveyed the area carefully. Off to one side, some rocks heaved to the surface by some cataclysmic happening eons before offered the Cartwrights the best possible shelter. Without a word to his father, Joe struggled to his feet and staggered in that direction. He was so intent of getting there that he never saw the stone that threw his foot to one side and his body to the ground. Swearing under his breath, Joe tried to get up but once again, his knee gave out and sent him back to earth. He looked around for something to use as a crutch but there was nothing more than cactus and sand. Get up, boy. You’ve got to or both you and Pa are going to die right out here. Get up. You can do it. Just ignore the pain. You’ve done it before, you can do it again. Get up. You stay here and you’re gonna die. Get up. Help Pa. Get up. Once again he tried to rise but with the first step, a shaft of white-hot pain shot from his heel clear to his hip and he gasped out loud involuntarily. This was more than he had felt in that leg in ages and it surprised him.

Reluctantly, he turned from the rock outcropping and dragging that leg behind him, crawled back to where his father still lay.

“Joseph?” his father croaked when Joe finally made it back beside him.

“You expecting someone else out here?” Uncorking the canteen, he lifted his father’s head and gave him a long drink. “Listen Pa, we’ll rest here for a bit then go on. Okay?”

“No,” Ben’s head moved minutely as he spoke, “You need to go on. You can find help and come back.”

“I remember a certain conversation we had back a few months ago in my bedroom at home. You said something about helping me, remember?” Joe continued when he saw his father’s faint smile. “Well, I could use that help right now, Pa. And the only way I can get that is if I take you with me.”

“But Joe-“ argued Ben through clenched teeth as he tried to move.

“How come you get to argue your way and I don’t get to argue your way? If it made sense then, it makes more sense now, Pa. Face it, you aren’t getting me to leave without you. So rest up a bit so we can go on.”

I forget sometimes that you have a good memory, Ben thought as he gave over to the crushing weariness and slipped into a light doze.

Joe had intended to rest just a few minutes but when he opened his eyes again, the sun was sliding into the western horizon. He flexed his leg and felt the tightness at the one knee, signaling that it was swollen and he smiled to himself. If it were swollen, it might hold him up a little longer. Without getting up, he rolled so that he could see his father. Ben was ominously quiet but Joe could see that the canvas covering moved over his father’s chest so he knew he was alive. Stiffly, Joe got up. It only took two calls before Ben aroused enough that Joe was able to get him to his feet. But this time, Ben hung onto Joe more desperately, barely conscious of what was happening to him. Taking a deep breath, Joe’s silent litany began again: One more step. Hold on. One more step. One more, one more, one more…

Time lost all meaning to the two men struggling through the deep cold sand as the bright yellow moon rose higher into the sky behind them. It bathed the white sand in its light, making the scenery nearly glisten like ice on a bright morning. But neither man saw the beauty there, so intent were they on their feet as they slipped and slid through the sand. Increasingly, Ben became less lucid as his fever ebbed and flowed through his body. Only because Joe kept at him did he keep moving. But every man has his physical limit which pure determination and guts cannot overcome. As the moon reached its zenith in the ink-black sky that night, Joseph Cartwright reached his and under the weight of his father, collapsed just as he reached the crest of a small rise. He lay there, looking over the flat plain that stretched out before him endlessly, his slender body’s strength completely spent. Just before he fell into the waiting void of beckoning darkness that was exhausted sleep, he prayed for help. I can’t do this on my own, God. Help me. You know if it was just me, I could give it up and die right here but Pa…I can’t give up on him. He wouldn’t give up on me.

The moon had dropped from the sky when Joe awoke again. In the pre-dawn cold, he shivered and sat up. Somehow in the night, his father had covered them both with the canvas and as it fell to the side, Ben stirred as well. Quickly Joe covered his father back up then cautiously pulled himself to his feet. He could still feel that his knee was swollen and as he leaned down to tug his trouser leg down to a more comfortable position, he caught sight of something down the hill. There below him another hundred yards he saw the glow from a light. He smiled and nearly started to laugh aloud. Salvation was close at hand but then, just as quickly as he had seen it, the light disappeared. His mirth disappeared with it. Joe wondered if he had imagined it but then he saw it again. And heard from the same direction, the gentle clang of a cowbell.

Joe stooped and lifted his father upright, all the while petitioning heaven for help as his father was completely non-responsive and a near dead weight. Struggling down the slope, he more half fell than walked and once he gained the flat ground there, fell completely, his body once again giving out. But his soul screamed “no”.

Their claws and beaks tore at him as he lay in the hot sun, sweltering. He tried to protect his face but they pulled down his arms, seeking him anyway. They were strong, these scavengers, the vultures as they feasted on his flesh. But he felt no pain. At his side, the huge black birds hovered over his father, obscuring his view until suddenly one of them backed away and Joe saw his father’s face, bloodied strips of flesh there but his eyes bore into Joe. And although his lips didn’t move, Joe heard his father’s voice condemning him as weak. Completely crushed Joe cried out and gave himself over to the grasping tearing talons, willing himself dead for his failure.

Chapter Five
Mercy comes in many forms. A wise man doesn’t argue with any of them.

“Well, he’s not goin’ ta get any better just layin’ there, ya know!” With that admonishment, the other three nuns glared wide-eyed at their Mother Superior. “Take his arm, Sister Mary Katherine. You, Sister Mary Magdalena, take the other. I’ll take his legs. Just don’t drop him. He looks like he has been through enough already without yer bumbling making him worse. We’ll put him in the corner of the kitchen for now so’s we can tend him.”

“But Mother, I’m not sure about this. What if these men are bandits?” the one addressed as Sister Mary Katherine hesitantly asked, not willing to even touch the dirty arm of the man who lay prostrate at her feet.

The Mother Superior snorted once, then planted both fists on her broad hips. “D’ye see a gun on either of ‘em? And from the looks of the pair o ‘em, I doubt that even one of the children couldn’t do more damage than them. Now, do like I told ye!”

Swallowing their disobedience, the two younger black clad nuns, bent and picked up an arm each of the younger of the two men they had found there in their yard that morning. The older man, the two other nuns had already taken into their small dwelling with Mother Ruth’s help. They were already tending to him and Mother was right, there had been no weapons of any sort on him.

Through the doorway of the chapel they went, awkwardly carrying the man between the three of them as Mother Ruth continued a barrage of instructions. Off to the side they went into a small antechamber and from there into the kitchen of their home. There they settled their burden on a pallet made of old feedsacks and it was none too soon for the younger women.

“Sister Naomi, are ye’ makin’ any headway?” Mother Ruth called out, her voice making the other black-robed women jump.

From where she stood, the tall thin woman addressed as Sister Naomi just glanced back over her shoulder at her Mother Superior. Under her thin hands, the older man stirred as she wiped away an accumulation of dirt, sand and blood.

“He’s comin’ to, I think,” the fifth nun spoke so softly that unless you were close by, you didn’t hear her. She was Sister Immaculata and the oldest of the five nuns there. Like the others, she wore a black habit and white cowl of her order. At her waist hung her rosary beads. Her black wimple covering her head framed a wrinkled face, a few wisps of gray-white hair escaping its confines. But her blue eyes were snapping, full of life and seemed to smile even when her mouth didn’t. And yet, all around her was the aura of dignity.

It was that dignity that Ben Cartwright first noticed when he came around. Glancing quickly from one dark robed figure to another, he tried to comprehend where he was and what was happening but it slipped beyond his grasp. The figure at his head laid a cool cloth against his cheek and whispered that he was going to be fine and he had no choice but to believe her. The gentle voice bid him to sleep and it came easily to him to do so.

When he awoke next, he found himself in a narrow bed in the corner of a large kitchen. There in the center of the room was a long table and beside it, two long benches. To one side, a black cookstove belched forth warmth. Along a wall opposite him, hung on pegs what Ben first took to be bright splotches of colors but they soon quit wavering and became a variety of clothes: a girl’s bright blue dress, a boy’s dirty white hat, a green shawl. And all of the pegs were low on the wall as though meant for the reach of someone of short stature. As he lay there trying to sort out what and where he was, a small woman in a black nun’s habit came bustling back into the room and over to the stove. When she saw that he was looking at her, she scurried over and laid a cool hand on his forehead.

“You’re back with us, I see,” she said and Ben remembered her voice from before.

“My son,” was all Ben could force passed his dry lips.

“If you mean the young man who brought you here, he’s over there.” She nodded to the corner just beyond Ben’s line of sight. He started to rise but she pushed him back easily. “He is fine. Resting as you should be.”

“Where-?” Ben started to ask but found her giving him water instead.

“You and your son have made it to the Sisters of Charity mission at Lost Springs. I am Sister Immaculata. Our Mother Superior, Sister Ruth, found you and your son when she went to milk the cow yesterday. Seems the two of you have had yourself quite a time of it!”

“You don’t know the half of it, Sister,” he admitted, then, as she continued to simply set beside him, he fell into a deeper and more restful sleep.

The voice calling him to wake up was thick with the lilt of the Emerald Isle and far more demanding in tone than the voice of the other nun. He pushed with all his might at his eyelids before he found his eyes would open. There before him stood a stout figure of a nun that could have been no other than the Mother Superior.

“Good!” she fairly shouted the word, “Would you care for some of our famous broth?” Before Ben could react, she was pulling him upright and stuffing something behind him to keep him that way.

A young nun, Ben decided later that she couldn’t have been more than twenty, brought the Mother a bowl and spoon which the older woman proceeded to half force down Ben’s throat. Unable to get a word in edgewise while she ladled it in fast and furious, he had to wait until the bowl was empty before he could speak.

“Is he all right?” he asked, nodding towards where he saw Joseph still prone. He didn’t think that the boy had moved from the last time he had seen him and was concerned.

Her movements deft and quick, the nun wiped at Ben’s chin before dropping her spoon and napkin into the bowl. “Aye, as much as we can tell. But the lad just won’t wake up! I checked him all over meself and found only some ugly bruises, a couple of knots on his head and a knee that looks like it should belong to an giant, it’s swelled up so big. Now you on the other hand, have taken a fair more beatin’ than he has! Want to tell me about it or should we just let it go?”

Haltingly, as each breath reminded him of the damaged ribs and the bruises he knew covered him, Ben told the story of just how he and Joe had happened to be lost in the desert to be found by these women. As he spoke, the other nuns drifted into the room to hear him. Not once did they interrupt, but would look from one to another with a glance that said they understood what had happened.

“Well, ye’ve come to as good a place as ya liable to find, Mr. Cartwright. We’ve not much but our vows command that we take in any and all who come to our door askin’ fer help. And although, technically, ye didn’t make it to the door and ye didn’t ask, we not be for turnin’ ye away. From the sounds of it, ‘tis about time the milk of human kindness flowed in yer direction. So ya just lean back and rest now. We’ll take care of ye and yer boy.”

“Thank you, Sister Ruth, is it? I do believe you are an answer to prayer.”

In that space of time between being awake and being asleep, the mind can make everything and nothing out of the things it comprehends. It was in that state that Joseph Cartwright found himself looking into the eyes of what he perceived to be a rabbit. The rabbit’s eyes grew large with fright as he watched it, their eyes locked together. When he saw the talons of the vulture reaching for the little rabbit, he tried to free his hand to grab the defenseless rabbit away but found he couldn’t move to save it. With a shout of “no!” bursting from him, he watched horrified as the little rabbit was carried away. Then somehow, he became the rabbit, caught in the viselike grip and carried aloft only to be turned loose and tumble back to earth.

His eyes popped open as he impacted with the solid ground beneath him. As he struggled to make sense of his surroundings, he panted heavily then turned to his head to see a pair of wide brown eyes set in the small face of a child watching him. Wordlessly, she offered him the biscuit she held in her hand.

“Here now, Chispa, he needs something other than a cold biscuit,” a light voice from somewhere behind the girl laughed.

The little girl, Chispa, turned towards the other voice and at first Joe half recoiled. The young woman of the laughing voice was dressed all in black and with the effects of the lingering nightmare, Joe saw her first as the vultures of his dreams. But she laughed again as she knelt beside him, her face aglow.

“We’d been wondering when you would wake up,” she said and wiped a hand across her cheek, leaving a trail of flour across freckles. “Sister Maggie, a bowl of your broth if you would, please. Do you think you can sit up a spell?”

“My father?” Joe asked in a voice barely above a whisper.

The young nun laughed again as she handed the quickly emptied bowl back to the other woman there who, for all the world to Joe, looked identical. “You must be family!  He asked about you first off!” She smoothed the coarse blanket over Joe’s chest before she went on. “Your father is doing alright. When you were found, he was running a good fever but it is down now. Mother Ruth said that he told her that you two had had a terrible accident then been set upon by thieves. Is that so?” As she spoke, her eyes grew larger until Joe thought they would fill her face completely.

“I think that about sums it up,” he strained to speak. Seeing his continued need for nourishment, the other nun handed the one at his side a large glass of milk. Once he had drunk it, he felt a little better and thanked the women, calling them ‘ladies’.

“Oh,” the one giggled behind her hand, “we’re not ‘ladies’. We’re nuns. Sisters of Charity. This is Sister Mary Magdalena,” and the nun standing who had brought the broth and the milk dipped her head. “I am Sister Mary Katherine. Sister Naomi and Sister Immaculata are out with the children right now in the garden. Our Mother Superior is Sister Ruth, but she prefers to be called Mother Ruth. She’s in the chapel praying.” Sister Mary Katherine rattled and for a moment, Joe recalled Doctor Gallagher talking just like that, spitting words out like bullets from a Gattling gun.

“Wait a minute. You’re telling me that we wound up in a convent?”

The nun at his side giggled and Joe found the sound to be infectious and grinned at the sound of it.

“No, we’re part of a mission. We’ve been here about two months, taking in orphans and children no one wants any more. We were on our way to Santa Fe when our mule died. There’s a small chapel here and the folks on the other side of the hills say that there was a mission here once. Mother Ruth decided that it was the Hand of God directing us here so we stayed. Next thing we know, there's a little boy and his sister that need someplace to stay. Then another child and another and another until we have almost a half dozen now!”

“How do you care for all these kids?”

Again she giggled behind her upraised hand. “We just trust in God and let Him do the rest.”

“Sister Mary Katherine!” boomed out a voice so loud, Joe thought at first that it had to be the voice of God. But only if God were an Irish woman would that have been true. The black-gowned nun who sailed into the kitchen immediately reminded Joe of the nurse in Saint Louis but it was only in her appearance since everything else about her was way off the mark. “Just what are ya two up to?  I thought I left specific instructions that these gents were not to be disturbed by the likes o’ ye. Now didn’t I?”

“It’s okay,” Joe spoke up and felt her beady little eyes bore into him. “I just woke up and they gave me something to eat. And then I asked them how I got here. Thank you, very much, ma’am. I understand that my father and I probably owe you our lives and I am grateful.” Joe knew he was laying it on thick but as he watched the Mother Superior, he knew it was worth it.

She sank down next to his pallet on the floor and proceeded to pat his hand. “Dear me, lad, ‘twas not you I was upset with but these lazy girls. If I didn’t keep after them, they would while away the day. And there are too few hands here to do the Lord’s work already to be pullin’ four away just so’s they could talk to a poor weak lad like you!”

Joe fought hard to not laugh. Behind the Mother Superior, both of the others were silently mimicking her, right down to the facial expressions. It was obvious that they had been on the receiving end of her sharp Celtic tongue more than once. But when she twisted her head and looked back at them, their demeanor instantly changed and their eyes sought the floor quickly.

"Well, I'm still very much in your debt. My father, how is he?"

Once again the Mother Superior turned her face to the two waiting younger women and told them to leave the kitchen at once. "Here," she offered Joe the carpetbag he had been carrying. "I looked through the things there. To make sure you weren't wanted by the law or anything like that, ye see? Sister Imaculatta and I, we, uh, we felt it necessary to remove yer trousers 'cause we could see yer leg was swollen. We were afraid ye'd been snake-bit or the like. And well, we weren't too gentle with the fabric. And seein's how there's more than one young impressionable girl here, ye might want to slip into the pair that's in that bag."

"I'd feel a whole lot better about that too," Joe teased the woman, smiling mischievously at her. She blushed and Joe nearly laughed out loud at her self-made predicament. Never moving the blanket that covered him, Joe managed to get the trousers on after the woman had turned her back over by the stove.

"Can you help me get up? I seem to be awfully stiff this morning."

The stout nun returned to his side and almost lifted him by herself. Looking down at himself, Joe knew why he was stiff and sore. He didn't think there was one square inch of himself that wasn't bruised. Reaching back down into the carpetbag, the only shirt he found there was his father's but he put it on anyway, telling himself that it was because of the chill in the room, not because of the icy and disapproving stare of the nun beside him. Leaning heavily on the arm of the nun, Joe was able to hobble to his father's bedside and he quickly and thankfully dropped into the chair there at his father's head.

With just a touch of his son's hand to his fevered brow, Ben awoke. Every breath he took, he felt as though tiny knives were driving into his flesh and every movement of his body made his head spin. Joe lifted his head and gave him a drink of water and even that motion made him nauseous.

"Mother Ruth," Joe asked anxiously, "That town that's nearby. Has it got a doctor?"

"Aye, he be a poor excuse for a doctor but that's what he calls his self. We've not had call to use him ourselves. But lad, if ye think ye'd feel better with him looking to yer da, then I'll send one of the boys to fetch him," she offered and with a single glimpse into green pools looking up at her, she turned and hurried away.

In the gathering darkness, Joe sat outside the crumbling wall of the mission chapel. The doctor one of the boys had brought from town was no Paul Martin. As he had went by Joe, Joe could smell the whiskey on him and it turned his already quivering stomach. He had tried to follow the man but had been told brusquely to wait outside.

The door behind him opened and again Joe smelled the whiskey that seemed to be a part of the man.

"Your father needs to rest, boy. Got some busted ribs but I wrapped 'em and they'll heal good enough if he just stays put for a while. And he should with the concussion he has. Everything else is just bruises. Little dehydration but the sisters'll fix that. Now how about you? The Mother Superior in there says you got a bum leg."

The words 'good enough' echoed in Joe's thoughts. It seemed to him that he had heard those words pronounced over his broken hand and damaged knee more than a few times in the past few months. He didn't like hearing them said about his father.

"I'm all right. Just got a leg that isn't much good any more. My father and I went to see a doctor in Saint Louis but there wasn't anything he could do," Joe explained, trying to sound casual about it.

Nodding, the doctor pulled on his coat. " Okay, then. I'll be back in a couple of days to check on him. That'll be two bits for tending to your father today."

    "You'll have to wait until I can get into town and get a wire sent off to my brothers in Nevada. The same men who beat up my father and I and left us for dead took all the money we had."

    The doctor's eyes narrowed. "You mean to tell me you can't pay me? I come all the way out here and you can't pay me?" he began ranting.

    "Not right now, I can't. Like I said, soon as I can make it into town and send a wire-" floundered Joe, startled by the tack the man was taking with him. Never in his life had his word not been enough.

    "That won't happen! There ain't a telegraph in town! Bank neither! Closest one is in Maricopa. And you ain't gonna walk there! Got anything of value? I'll take trade!"

    "Listen, Doc, just give me a few days-"

    "I ain't givin' you nothin'! You got anything to trade?" the doctor, now in Joe's face with his hideous whiskey breath, demanded.

    There was only one thing Joe knew he had that was of any value that the four thieves had not found and taken. Deep in the inside pocket of his jacket, he carried that which was most valuable to him: the silver locket that held his mother's picture. For him to give it to this poor excuse for a doctor for his father's treatment galled him. It was worth far more than the two bits the doctor was asking but it was all he had. And if there was one lesson that had been drilled into him since birth, it was that you paid your debts. No matter what it cost you personally, no matter what it deprived you of, you paid your debts. And Joe now owed this man.

    "Tell you what. This is all I have. Take it and hold onto it until I get you your money, okay?" Joe pleaded and reluctantly, pulled the locket from its guarded pocket.

    The doctor's eyes lit up when he found the heavy silver locket in his hand. Just from the weight of it, he knew it would keep him in drink for a long time to come. He had no intention whatsoever in keeping it until this poor kid could supposedly come up with the money to retrieve it. He figured it was probably stolen in the first place since somehow the looks of the kid and his old man didn't match the wealth of the locket. He hefted it in his hand a few times then pushed passed the young man and went to his horse. Swinging into the dusty saddle, he then tied his bag on. The young man still stood there in the doorway, waiting for what, the doctor had no idea.

    "If you need any more doctorin' done, get yourself something else to barter with, boy," the physician spat and shoving his heels into his horse's sides, left the yard and the young man.

    For a long time, Joe just stood there, looking out at the dusty yard, his mind in turmoil with what he had just done. A hand touching his shoulder brought him back to his senses and he looked down to see that it was Sister Imaculatta touching him.

    "Tell me what troubles you," the nun asked.

    Joe's harsh single burst of laughter rang out from somewhere close to his soul into the shadows of the desert night. "It would be easier to tell you what doesn't trouble me, Sister. Shorter list too!"

    Her fingers left him but it was as though he could still feel her touch. He immediately regretted his outburst, but couldn't find words to express his feelings.

    "I may be an old woman, but I am sure God will give me enough time to hear your list of troubles. And I can see that you need someone to talk to tonight. A lot of it has nothing to do with that doctor."

    "You're right. I'm sorry, I shouldn't have taken that tone with you, Sister. It's just that the doctor was the last straw, if you know what I mean," Joe admitted and put his arm across the shoulder of the small woman at his side. As he did so, he felt her warmth and a bit of her peace flow into him. For just the briefest of moments, he wondered if this would have been what it felt like to hold his mother.

    "No, I don't know what you mean. Tell me," she encouraged, feeling the not only the physical strength of him but also the emotional upheaval that threatened him that night.

    With words first guarded then slowly more open, Joe told the nun all that plagued his soul. He spared himself nothing as he told of what he felt like being handicapped by his hand and his leg. How it had affected more than just his body but his outlook as well, preferring to see the world now through a dirty window. With ever more painfully truthful words, he exposed his inner most feelings of inadequacy to handle the way he was now, voicing over and over how he felt he had let his family down, as well as himself.  Finally, he came to the part most recently held to his ridicule: how he had parted with his most cherished treasure for next to nothing. Through it all, Sister Imaculatta had stayed silent beside him, his arm around her shoulders. When he was finally finished, she felt him start away from her and she held him there with her hand on his arm lightly.

    "Some times," she said, soothingly, "the most costly thing in the world is peace of mind. Then other times, it is free. You have paid a high price for this. Don't you think that now that you have nothing but the love of your father, you can accept it?"

    "I don't think you understand, Sister Imaculatta," Joe started but she shushed him with a gentle shake to his arm.

    "When you have fallen to the ground, that is as far down as you can go, yes?" she queried then continued when she saw him nod in agreement. "You have two choices while you are there on the ground. Stay there and feel sorry for yourself, thinking that you are a miserable failure. Or, look at it as a way to start over again, fixing what you can and accepting at face value that which you can't. From what you have said to me, you can 'fix' your father's and your conditions. You can help your father heal. You can figure out a way to get word to your family."

    "But what if I want to stay there on the ground? I'm tired of getting kicked every time I get up."

    With her own crooked hand, she lifted his chin from his chest where he had let it drop. "Because you stay on the ground is why you get kicked. Take your life back into your own hands, Joseph. It will be a different life than what you may have dreamed of once. But it will be your life, not what you allow others to make you into."

    "Don't let one act of violence rule my life, huh?" Joe asked wistfully, remembering another conversation with someone of the cloth not long ago, the strange priest in Saint Louis. "Oh, sorry. Just something someone said to me a while back. Thank you, Sister. Now if you don't mind, I think I need to talk with my father some."

    Sister Imaculatta smiled and as Joe walked from her, she patted his broad shoulder. She waited until the door had closed behind him before she turned and looked out over the nighttime desert vista before her. Fingering her rosary absently as it hung at her waist, she asked for God's forgiveness, feeling she had meddled where she shouldn't have been. But just as she turned to go back into the chapel, she felt a familiar pull to her heart. Yes, sometimes peace of mind is freely given, and she hummed joyfully as she walked into God's house.

    With the coming of the new day, Joe pulled himself from his spot in the corner of the kitchen before anyone else was awake. He slipped out the side door and with the small axe he found there, split some kindling from the meager pile he found there. He took the small armload back into the kitchen and left it beside the stove. Then he took the pail from its hook on the wall and went out to the lean to where the cow stood placidly. Awkward at first because of the weakness in his left hand, Joe finally managed to get the cow milked. He forked some hay into the manger there and made sure the small water trough had enough water in it. There in the corner of the lean-to, he spied a well-used nest with a few eggs in it. He glanced around and made sure that there were no chickens ready to attack as he scooped up the three eggs he found there. These he carefully slipped inside his shirt then proceeded on into kitchen again.

    Sister Mary Katherine, or was it Sister Mary Magdalena, was in the process of starting the fire in the stove when Joe made his way back in. She greeted him warmly and took the pail of milk from him. Her eyes grew wide in surprise when he handed her the still warm eggs.

    "I think we can have more than oatmeal for breakfast this morning!" Joe said and the sister bobbed her head.

    "I think so! Could you get me some water from the well?" she asked and turned back to her stove, leaving Joe with no option to turn her down.

    With a quick glance to where his father still lay sleeping, Joe went back out the door. As he stood at the side of the well, Joe looked over the mission with a critical eye and was appalled that he had been there three days and not once had seen it for what it was: a few ramshackle buildings that needed repair desperately. The most intact of the buildings was the chapel but part of the roof was missing. The connected kitchen where he had spent so much of his time had windows missing completely and the door facing the courtyard hung from a single strip of leather meant as a hinge. The fence around the cow's small pasture was made up of a whole variety of mismatched boards, rope and a wagon tongue. Just beyond the buildings was a small garden that had obviously been planted too late to produce much except hope. Even the well where he stood needed attention, the rope from which the small bucket hung being rather frayed. He filled the pitcher and walked back into the kitchen, trying to decide what to do.

    In the warming kitchen, the two younger nuns were busy starting the morning meal. With them was a younger girl of about thirteen who wore a clean but ragged dress. At the table already were several other children, including the little girl of big eyes Joe had awoken to and thought she was a rabbit. The children looked to be anywhere from four or five years old to the oldest, a boy, of maybe fifteen. But they all had one thing in common about their appearance: they all wore clothes that had obviously seen better days. But they all also appeared to be happy children, laughing with the sisters cooking.

    The little girl, Chispa, Joe remembered her being called, saw Joe and ran to greet him, gathering his hand into her two small ones, tugging him to the table. At first Joe was self-conscious about the contact as she had grabbed his curled left hand in hers but then decided if it didn't bother her, why should he let it bother him? He sat at the table and soon found himself being pelted by questions from them. Where was his home? Was that man really his father? Where was his mother? Did he have brothers and sisters? What was his house like? What did he like for breakfast? Joe tried as best as he was able to keep up with them and answer each one but an amused snort from behind him stopped both questions and answers.

    Eyebrows lifting comically, Joe looked around the table. Chispa slid from her place beside one of the other girls and climbed up beside Joe and leaned over to whisper rather loudly that his father was awake.

    "What do you think we should do about it?" Joe asked her.

    She shrugged her shoulders. "Dunno. Does he wake up grumpy like Mother Ruth?" Chispa whispered, her little voice full of sincerity.

    Joe was about to answer when Ben's voice, rusty from lack of use, filled the now silent kitchen. "He wouldn't know. He's always the last one up."

    As they all shared in the joke, Joe turned from the table and went to sit beside his father, shaking his head.

    "Good morning, Pa. I can see you're feeling better," Joe greeted and when he had helped his father sit up and rest against the wall behind him, gave him the coffee Sister Mary Katherine had waiting.

    Ben sipped carefully at the coffee. It was bitter but the warmth and the liquid were welcome. Slowly it dispelled the fog from his brain and allowed Ben to assess his surroundings. But first he had to know one thing: "Are you all right, son?"

    The smile Joe gave cheered Ben clear to his soul. It was the bright one, the one so full of life and all the happiness possible that it made others smile with Joe. And it had been the one missing from Joe's face for so long that Ben had thought he would never see it again. He had no idea what had made it return, but Ben didn't care. Joseph, his curious mix of boyishness and maturity, his flamboyant personality, but most of all, the simple joy that seemed to be a large part of him, it was all there in that smile. Just seeing its return, Ben knew that Joseph was all right.

    After breakfast, Joe talked with Ben for a while. They never touched on the subject of Joe's rejuvenated attitude. Joe chose not to and Ben didn't care as long as it stayed. Instead, they discussed their situation and the best way to handle it.

    "We have to do something, Joe. Look around you. These nuns have next to nothing to take care of these children, much less us! You said that there was a town close by. Can you get there? Get a wire off to Adam and Hoss? I don't want them worrying-"

    "Pa," Joe cut in quickly, "from what that doctor said, the nearest telegraph office is in Maricopa Wells and that's more than a day's walk from here. Not only that, Pa, we don't have any money to pay for a wire. And I don't think the Sisters here can loan us any, do you? But I have an idea."

    After waiting more than a few heartbeats, Ben, his hand rubbing his still sore jaw, said that he was waiting.

    "One of the boys, Paco his name is, tells me that the guy who runs the mercantile in town goes to Maricopa Wells every other week or so for supplies. I may be able to hitch a ride with him."

    Ben's eyebrows danced up then flattened out. "That solves the question of how to get there, son. But the wire-"

    "I'll figure something out, Pa. That's my job. Yours is to heal up well enough we can travel." Joe patted his leg and rose, turning to leave.

    "Joseph," Ben called out, stopping him. As Joe turned back to face his father, a thousand different words shot through Ben's mind to say: Be careful, son. Don't go. Watch out. Don't do this. Stay here with me. Find a way. Let's talk about this some more. Are you sure you can do this?…but he guessed that it was the last thought that Joe read on his face.

    "I know you do, Pa. And I will be fine," Joe smiled again and the wink he gave Ben relayed the same message: I love you.

Chapter Six
A hand up is different from a hand out.

    To call Lost Springs a town was someone's idea of a sarcastic joke, Joe thought when he and the young Mexican boy Paco, walked into the town square late that morning. There was a cantina across the street from the livery stable and blacksmith's shop. The other two sides of the square were made up of a few adobe houses and the mercantile. As Joe poured water from the town fountain over his head, he wondered if he had been overly optimistic in his statement to his father about figuring something out. He had hoped at least for a sheriff's office where he could report the opportunistic stage robbery that had reduced he and Ben to their current poverty level. Barring that, he looked to the livery stable, hoping for a glimpse of a horse he could borrow but he saw that the four stalls were empty.

    "We go see Mr. Turner," Paco encouraged in his broken English that Joe was just getting to the point of understanding.

    If he had hopes for better luck inside the mercantile, they were hopes unfulfilled for Joe. The counters were nearly bare, the shelves holding little as well. The curtain that divided the store from living quarters moved languidly in the faint breeze. When Paco shouted "Mr. Turner!" Joe heard a gruff voice say that he would be there in a moment.

    When Joe heard the shuffling footsteps behind him, he turned, a ready smile on his face for the man he hoped could help him the most. Joe blinked twice, not sure but what the heat and the long hike that morning wasn't affecting his vision. Mr. Turner looked a lot like the priest Joe had talked with in Saint Louis but the quality of his voice was decidedly different! Gruffer and more 'worldly' was the only phrase that came to mind.

    "I said 'what do you want?' How many times I got to ask 'fore you answer me, boy?"

    Trying not to let the 'boy' epithet get under his skin, Joe stuck out his hand and introduced himself. The shopkeeper didn't shake his hand, seeming to prefer to look down his nose at Joe.

    "So what is it you want, Joe Cartwright?"

    He decided to come right to the point. "I need a ride to Maricopa Wells next time you go."

    "That'll be next week. Wednesday.  Ride'll cost you a dollar. You want to come back, it's another dollar. Pay in advance."

    "Mr. Turner, listen I need help. I don't have the dollar but maybe we can work something out. I need to get to Maricopa Wells to send a wire to my brothers in Nevada. You get me to Maricopa Wells and back and when they show up, I'll make sure you get your dollar and ninety-nine more! That's a hundred dollars, Mr. Turner! More than you probably make in a year here. And all you have to do is let me ride along with you. If that isn't enough, then tell me what is. I'll do whatever I need to do."

    The shopkeeper looked over the man making the big speech. He sure didn't look like much. His hair was long and wild looking, his eyes bright even in the shadows of the mercantile. He didn't look much more than seventeen or eighteen but he sure talked older. Even though his body was slim and covered with dust from his long walk, there was a certain air to him that made Turner think that he could be one tough hombre if riled. But then, thinking that, he looked to the hands. One hung at his side kind of funny, the fingers all curled in on themselves. The other hand resting on his countertop was slender, and Turner's thought was that the man-child was a gunslinger. But he wore no sidearm. And when he had turned to greet him, the shopkeeper had noticed that he favored one side.

    "Can you work?" the shopkeeper asked. "And I don't mean shuffling a deck of cards or pouring a whiskey down your throat."

    His shoulders straightened and Joe looked the man in the eye, knowing that the other man had taken in his hands. "Mr. Turner, I grew up working the biggest ranch in Nevada. I've held my own since I was knee high to a grasshopper. Can I work? Tell you what, you tell me what you want done. I'll do it and if you aren't happy with it, you don't need to pay me one red cent. Deal?"

    Turner tilted his head back and re-appraised Joe. He'd never heard a fairer deal and said so. "But I ain't got anything for you to do right now. Go over to my brother Broan's, he's the smithy. See what he needs. He'll let me know how you work out. We'll go from there."

    With a tight smile, Joe thanked the man and stepped out into the bright sunshine with Paco.

    "I can find my way back on my own, Paco. You go back and tell them I'll be in later. Let my father know what's happened, okay?" Joe asked, his hand resting on the boy's shoulder.

    "I can stay and help you, Joe!" Paco offered but Joe shook his head no and Paco's shoulders drooped.

    "I've got to do this on my own. Now get! You got just as important a job as I do today!" Joe sent the boy on his way with a gentle swat to his rear end, much the way his own father would send him off.

    The work in the smithy that afternoon was hot and tiring work. Broan Turner was a big man, with muscular arms that reminded Joe of Adam's. But the man lacked the agility of his brother. At first the smithy had instructed Joe just to keep the forge hot as he worked iron into a flat strip to be bound around a wagon's wheel then to bend it into shape. Throughout the whole process, Joe had cheerfully done as the smithy asked but he knew all the steps involved himself. There had been enough wheels to keep fixed at the Ponderosa during his life and one of the very first memories he had was watching his pa do just this same work. As he had gotten older and begun to fill out his scrawny frame with muscles, Joe had done the same work. But this time, he wisely let the smithy tell him what to do and was praised for following directions so well.

There had been but one drawback. At one point, the smith had asked Joe for a hammer he had left in another spot. Instinctively, Joe had turned and tried to pick it up with his left hand, scooping it into his palm. But the fingers would not close over and grasp the handle of the hammer and Joe had dropped it. The smith picked it up.

    "How long ago?" Broan asked, hefting the hammer and beginning to pound the strip of iron into a rounded shape to fit the wheel.

    "Sorry, little clumsy still with it. I was always left handed and this kind of hampers me some." Joe admitted and readjusted his grip on the cooling metal.

    Broan laid aside his hammer and the tongs he held in the other hand then slipped off his heavy leather gloves. "It will be that way all your life." The smith held up his right hand and Joe saw that it looked much the same as his left, the fingers curled, the muscles there thin. "A horse stepped on mine nineteen years ago. I learned to get beyond its weakness. You will too. Now come on, we need to get Silas' wheel fixed 'fore he comes ranting and raving over here about how lazy we are."

    The sun was setting as Joe finished out the last mile back to the mission. His shoulders ached and his legs were beginning to feel like rubber but there was a smile on his face. He and Broan had not only finished fixing the wheel but had taken in another job to do. When he was preparing to leave, Broan asked if he could return the next morning as he had an order for some nails. Joe had quickly agreed. He had been just about to step out of the smithy when Broan called him back and handed him a small sack.

    "You got to be hungry. You didn't stop once today to eat. So take this and eat it on your way home. Go on now. I'll see you in the morning." Joe had looked into the sack and found what he knew was Broan's own uneaten lunch of a round of cheese, some cold fried chicken and a hard twist of bread. He was about to bite into it when he remembered the thin meals he had seen at the mission, the stew watered so it would stretch to feed two more mouths, the delight on Sister Mary-who-ever's face when he had come up with the eggs that morning. Grimacing, he closed the sack and walked a little faster.

    Out in the mission yard, the children were playing a game of hide and seek with the two younger nuns when Joe half stumbled into it. He handed the sack of meager food to one of the Sisters then went to the well for a much-needed drink. Chispa ran from her hiding place and hugged him around the knees. It nearly made Joe fall but he squelched the hard words on his tongue and picked up the child to carry her into the kitchen instead.

    "Paco told us you had work today," Sister Naomi greeted him, her thin gaunt hands rubbing over and over themselves as she spoke. "Is this how they paid you? With this food?"

    Joe slicked his wet hair back. "No, that was a gift from one of the folks in town."

    Mother Ruth huffed and gave him a look that said he had to be lying. "Those folks in town ne'er give us a thing. I can't see how'd they be doin' it now." Sister Naomi concurred.

    Joe shrugged his shoulders just once and went to sit beside his father. The two nuns moved away to give them a little privacy.

    The sparkle in his eyes, told Joe just how happy his father was to see him. Joe concentrated on those dark eyes as he told him about what he had done that day. "And I've got to go back tomorrow morning. Didn't I tell you I'd figure something out?"

    Ben's hand lingered on Joe's arm after he had agreed that Joe had done well that day. "But son, please don't over do it. If something should happen-"

    "It won't, Pa," Joe interjected quickly. "I know how much is riding on all of this and I know I can't screw it up. Trust me. Okay?"

    That set the pattern for Joe for the next several days: up before dawn to handle the milking chores at the mission then the two hour walk into town. He worked for Broan the next two days, making nails, helping to shoe one of Silas Turner's horses and other odd jobs around the smithy. The third day, Broan had sent him to the cantina. Joe had repaired a door there and helped the bartender move the heavy whiskey casks from the storage room into the cantina. By the fourth day, even Silas Turner had to admit that the young man knew what work was and could do it. But never once in the four days, did someone offer as much as a nickel for the work he had done and Joe was beginning to feel a touch of despair that he would ever earn the dollar for the ride to Maricopa Wells. Rather than money, before he left, they would give him a sack of foodstuffs. The bartender gave him some worn clothing, saying his children had outgrown it but Joe saw no sign of any children. When he had delivered the nails to Turner, the mercantile owner said that there were too many for his use and for Joe to take the extra to the mission. So every night as he headed for the mission, Joe had something for the mission's use but nothing to help he and Ben get home. Every night he would speak enthusiastically of what he had done that day before falling into a dreamless, exhausted sleep.

    But the fifth morning when Joe awoke, he knew he couldn't do it any longer without rest. He had lain there, trying to make his leg work but it refused to even bend. One step and Joe knew he would wind up on the floor. He tried every mental trick he could summon from his life of being 'fine' when he wasn't. But each time he had convinced himself to move, his body betrayed him and wouldn't do as he asked it. When Sister Mary Katherine came into the kitchen that morning, Joe asked her to get Paco for him.

    "What you need Joe?" Paco asked, waking Joe again.

    "I need you to help me, Paco. I need you to go into town and tell Mr. Turner, the one in the livery, that I can't work today. My leg won't let me. Can you do that?"

    Paco nodded vigorously but then sat back on his haunches. "But explain to me, Joe, why they would make you work on Sunday when they don't?"

    With a relieved laugh, Joe told Paco, "Never mind. Guess I lost track of what day it was. Glad to know I get day off 'cause I sure can use it today." He dropped back down and with a lighter heart, fell back asleep.

    When Joe awoke later it was to the sound of Ben's voice in the corner of the kitchen. Before he even opened his eyes, Joe could see the scene in his head. The children were gathered around as Ben was reading to them. Off to one side, the Sisters were cooking something that smelled awfully good and there was a steady click, click Joe had come to associate with Sister Imaculatta's knitting needles. Beyond those sounds that spoke of peace and contentment was the hiss of rain outside.

    Propped up on his narrow bed, Ben Cartwright would’ve had to admit that he was enjoying his Sunday. Surrounded by the children, he had read to them stories from the Bible then told them stories from his own life as a sailor. They had listened, at first with respectful silence then had gotten caught up in the magic he wove with his voice. Ben wasn’t sure who was having a better time, he or the children. Or even the Sisters, for that matter. But through it all, he had watched a certain roll of blankets in the corner of the room and wondered what kept Joseph from rising. When Paco had caught his glance, the boy had finally told Ben about his conversation with Joe earlier in the day and Ben had decided to let sleeping son’s lie. There wasn’t a doubt in his mind that Joe was exhausted and that the day of enforced rest would be good for him.

    As Ben was winding down, he felt a pair of green eyes studying him. Then a long arm snaked out from beneath the blankets there and the hand scrubbed away cobwebs of sleep. Ben almost chuckled aloud, thinking how Joe still came awake so much like he had as a child: reluctantly and slowly.

    “Would you tell us about your ranch, Senor Cartwright?” the oldest girl Carmalita asked, and favored Ben with a slight smile, the first Ben had seen her give.

    “Well, it’s a big ranch and I run it with the help of my sons Adam, he’s the oldest, then there’s Hoss. And you all know Joseph, sleepyhead over there,” and Ben gestured with a nod of his head and saw a faint smile break out on the sleepyhead’s face. “We have cattle and horses but we also do some logging. It’s a lot of work but we enjoy it.”

    There came a high-pitched ‘hmmphf!’ from the corner and the children laughed at the sound. Even the nuns smiled. Ben simply raised his eyebrows.

    “What he means to say is that he enjoys telling us boys what to do!” Joe teased and stretched, reminding Ben of the lazy tomcat in the barn back at the Ponderosa. The little girl Chispa squirmed from her place tucked into Ben’s side and scurried over and plopped herself down next to where Joe was stretched out. With her tiny little hand, she patted his cheek. It was abundantly clear where her loyalties lay.

    “It seems to me that I do a lot of work back home, young man!”

    Joe hooted once, picking up the verbal gauntlet. “Oh yeah, don’t believe a word he says, kids! It’s Adam and Hoss and me that do it all! Pa just stays in the house and takes care of the bookwork! Especially when there’s hay to be cut! Or when it’s round-up time.”

    “Joe!” Ben’s voice rang out in warning but even the children recognized the lack of parental authority in it.

    “And what horse did you break last, Pa? And every time there’s fencing to be fixed, well, Pa has an errand in town he has to attend to ‘right away’,” Joe continued.

    “Joseph!” The children began to laugh at Ben’s pretended affront.

    “And don’t even mention chopping wood. Juan,” Joe called out to one of the littler boys sitting at Ben’s side, “check out his hands. See any calluses there?”

The little boy, smiling shyly picked up one of the big hands and turned it over in his tiny ones. His eyes dancing with delight, he touched the broad palm and smiled up into Ben’s eyes. “Si, Senor Joe, there are calluses here but I think they come from giving smart mouthed sons a whipping.”

The laughter than rang out through the warm kitchen was a soul refreshing experience for all who heard it. Even Mother Ruth leaned back in her chair closest to the stove and laughed. The joyous peals of the children's laughter, the alto counterpoints of the nuns and Ben's deep bass sounded much like a symphony of contentment that it was. There were only two not laughing and Joe was having a good deal of difficulty not joining in. Only little Chispa remained stoned face and it tugged at Ben's heart that she didn't.

Ben hugged Juan's thin shoulders to his side and watching his son across the room, challenged him. “What? No answer to that one, young man?” he asked, an eyebrow reaching towards his hairline.

Joe heaved a deep sigh. Chispa snuggled back against him and mimicked him. “He does not whip you, does he, Senor Joe?” she asked, a note of real fear in her voice.

Joe had to laugh. “No, Chispa, not for a long time now. And when he did, I usually deserved it,” he reassured her but his words were really for his father.

“But you have not deserved one for a long time? Si?” she asked again, the worry and concern making her sound much older than her tender years. Something about it made Joe sorry the whole discussion had ever taken this turn. He rubbed the little girl’s shoulder and smiled broadly for her benefit.

But it was the father who spoke up, “No, not for a while. Although I am sure there were times that he deserved it and got away without one.”

Joe flinched inwardly. Yes, there had been times when he had let his father down, when he had been given specific instructions on how not to do things and went ahead and did them his way anyway. But the times that bothered him the most were when he had made promises and broken them. And one of those times, he needed to speak with his father about that afternoon. He knew with a sure certainty that he would not be going into Maricopa Wells in three days time. All though he had worked hard in the past few days, no one had paid him in anything other than foodstuffs, clothing and the like. Even though the Sisters had gratefully received these items at the Mission, it didn’t help their situation. And Joe had promised his father that he would find a way out of it.

Mother Ruth had watched the silent and nearly invisible change come over the young man. Instantly, she clapped her hands and told the children that there were chores that needed doing and that she wanted them done immediately. In less time that it would have taken normally, the room was cleared of all but Ben and Joe.

The younger man rolled out from his rumpled bed and stretched more luxuriously. Barefoot, he limped over to the mirror that hung next to his father’s bedstead. He ran his hand over his chin, deciding he didn’t need to shave after all. He splashed some water on his face and bare torso and dried himself with the bit of sacking hanging below the mirror. He was about to turn and head into the kitchen when he felt his father grab his hand and stop him. One tug was all it took before Joe was seated beside his father.

“You can’t fool me, Ben Cartwright, you were enjoying all those kids. Telling your stories, watching their eyes get big when you got to the part about the whales coming up beside the ship.”

“I won’t deny it. Those children need something like that in their lives. I don’t think any of them has had a very good life. And I saw the expression on little Chispa’s face. Something tells me she got a tanning a time or two that she didn’t deserve,” Ben admitted, letting his hand run up the bare arm beside him and feeling how cold is was beneath his touch.

“Yeah, I got that feeling too,” Joe said, twisting his bare toes on the cold plank floor. “Those kids deserve better than this, Pa.”

“Is that why you have been trading your wages for food and clothes for them?”

His head came up as though he had heard a rifle shot. How had Pa known? But then, when doesn’t he know things like this? “It’s more like this is how I’ve been paid, Pa. So I guess I deserve one of your famous necessary little talks. I told you I would figure out how to get us out of this mess I got us into and I haven’t.”

“Not yet, you haven’t. But I’ll withhold that necessary little talk for a while yet. And what makes you think I hold you responsible for any of this? Because I don’t, son. If I recall, I kind of backed you into a corner to come, didn’t I?” Ben teased then tensed, afraid his words would be taken wrong.

One corner of Joe's mouth quirked up and stayed there. "That's right! You did kind of invite yourself along, didn't you?"

"Yes," Ben said, nodding his head slightly even though it made his vision slightly roll. He swallowed down the tiny bit of nausea it brought and continued. "I did it because I wanted to. And don’t sit here and tell me that it wasn't a good idea."

Patting his father's restraining hand on his arm, Joe hung his head and smiled for him, one shoulder lifting in a tiny shrug. It was as close to an admission that Ben thought Joe would ever need to make to his father. Yes, in the end, Joe had wanted Ben to be with him. When fears had become realities, the first instincts Joe had were to find comfort and understanding in his father's arms. The hand that he had always trusted to wipe away his tears was that of his father. There was still a longing in Joe to leave his family and the life he had known behind him. It was an unrest that nagged at him, and until recently with the onset of his grueling and exhausting schedule, kept him staring at the ceiling long after he would have normally been asleep. When he and his father had boarded the stage headed west, it had been Joe's plan to go home just for Christmas. To see his brothers once more and sleep in his own bed just a few more times. Then he would have packed his things and supplies, saddled Cochise, and left with only a promise to return in some unspecified future. Now he wasn't so sure. Funny, when everything about my hand and leg were so up in the air, I knew what I wanted to do. Now that I know I'm going to be crippled like this the rest of my life, I don't really know what I want to do, he thought and that was the smile his father saw, never knowing what was behind it.

"Well, sleepyhead," Ben teased again, "better get yourself something to eat! Smells like a good stew Sister Mary Katherine has going over there."

When the sun was struggling to get from behind the eastern cloudbank on Monday morning, Joe was already pulling on his jacket, ready to head down the dirt road and into town. He had it in his mind that he would talk with Broan about getting paid. In two days, Silas Tuner would head his wagon to Maricopa Wells and Joe was determined to be on it. By his way of figuring, in another two days, his brothers would be waiting at the stage depot for Joe and his father. He could envision the look on their faces when they didn’t get off, but his first hurtle would be getting the dollar fare to Maricopa Wells.

He took a deep breath and started out only to have Paco call his name and ask him to stop.

“Senor Joe, there is a faster way to town. You have been going the way I show you the first day, yes?”

“Paco, I only see one road out of here,” and Joe’s gesture with one hand indicated the one that led passed the mission’s doorway and disappeared into the waiting desert.

“I did not say it was a road. It is through the mountains. Sometimes it is very steep and the path narrows but town is just over them. Cuts about a mile off your path. That is if you want to take it.”

Joe looked down the road. Although the road was clearly defined, it was hard walking. In boots that had been designed for riding, walking could be said to be uncomfortable. When the deep sand of the desert road was combined with a tired aching knee, some nights it had been all Joe could do to get back to the mission. He looked at the hills Paco had indicated, those directly across from the mission. They were steep and for the most part, treeless knobs that rose from the sand like knuckles on a hand.

“Takes a mile off it, huh? Can you show me this path of yours? And by the way, Paco, where I’m from, we call these ‘hills’. Now if you want to see mountains-“ and with a companionable arm across the young Mexican boy’s shoulders, the two started out.

    By the time the Joe and Paco had made it across to town, Joe wasn’t sure but that maybe they should be called mountains. The path Paco had led him on had been marked haphazardly. At places, it skirted declines and dropoffs that Joe, hugging the opposite wall, feverently wished hadn’t been there. One glance over the edge into the rocky splits had been enough to keep him away from the crumbling edges and moving towards his goal. Other times, the path would broaden inexplicably. Then it would return to the two-foot wide way that it was most of the time. Finally, town appeared and inwardly Joe heaved a huge sigh of relief as he looked over his shoulder at the way they had come.

“See! I tell you! You get to town much faster now! Much easier too!” Paco crowed.

Joe muttered that it was faster but would keep the ‘easier’ part out for a vote a while longer.

‘Hey Joe!” Looking up, he saw Silas Turner standing on the front walkway to the mercantile, waving his arm and motioning for Joe to come there not the blacksmith shop that had been Joe’s target.

“Wagon going out to Maricopa Wells this week, boy,” Turner started.

“Wait, Mr. Turner. I know that I told you I was gonna be ready to go with you to Maricopa this week, but truth of the matter is, I don’t have your dollar fare. At least not yet. I need to get over and talk with Broan about paying me for the work I’ve done. I’ll be right back, I swear I will,” Joe called over his shoulder as he walked quickly across the square. He had wanted to run but knew his knee would not stand for it. Once into the livery stable, he shouted for Broan and heard the big man’s reply from out beyond where he kept two horses in an open paddock area.

“Morning, Joe,” he greeted, stepping though the corral railings. “That mare you fitted with that fancy shoe seems to be walking better this morning.”

“Glad to hear that. But what I really wanted to talk with you about was my pay for the work I did for you last week. See I’ve got to get a message to my brothers-“

“Yer pa ain’t took off bad has he?” the bigger man, his head thrusting forward asked, genuine concern on his face.

“No sir, it’s just that they are expecting us and I don’t want them to worry needlessly.”

“I see. Let’s have us a sit-down over here and think this through.”

Impatience rose and nearly bubbled out of the pot that was Joseph Cartwright that morning.

Settling himself on a wooden crate that had held freight at some time, Broan pulled off his heavy gloves and shoved his dirty gray hair back from his face. “It’s like this, Joe,” he started, not looking at the young man as he spoke. “This part of the country is hard country. Out here, you get to where you either trust your neighbor or you move on. You learn to do without some of the things city folks think they just got to have. You figure out a new way of living if you can. If you can’t live off what the desert gives you, you find some other way. We here in Lost Springs, we’ve found that one of the things we have to do without is money. Look around you. You see anyway of making a living besides scraping by? Can’t remember the last time I saw a five-dollar gold piece. Nope, round here we use the barter system. I do something for Silas and he does something for me. Same way for Tuck, the barkeep. And Maudie, his girl. When we do get hard currency, most times it winds up going to Maricopa to buy us something we can’t make ourselves: fabric so Lindy, the dressmaker, can make a shirt or two; a little scrap iron so’s I can make horseshoes; some sugar for Tuck’s still. Stuff like that. Silas takes in hides that we’ve all pitched together and tanned from stray cattle. He uses those hides to get things too. Things we all share. The bucket at the fountain. Lumber for fixing doors and walls. So it ain’t that I won’t pay you what you're asking and it ain't that you aren’t worth it either. It’s just that I ain’t got anything other than what I done give you to pay you. You understand, son?” Broan squinted into the morning light, trying to see Joe’s face to judge the effect of his words.

Once, a long time ago, Joe had seen a steer run full bore into a tree. The impact had shook the tree and rocked the steer back onto his rear haunches. But what had stayed in Joe’s memory about the entire incident was the rolling eyes of the steer just before it had tried to stand back up. The expression that came to Joe then as well as now was that the whole thing was incomprehensible. He figured now that he probably looked the same way the steer had.

    “So you mean that the stuff folks have been giving me, the cast off clothes, the food, that was payment for the work I’ve been doing?” It was all Joe could do to keep from walking away in total disgust. He felt used. He understood barter and he understood charity. It had never occurred to him that the things he had taken in the past week were not charity towards the mission. But looking around him, it all fell into place. While the small town was kept up to a degree, there were signs of needing everywhere. From the blanket hung door at the Mercantile that should have been a wooden one to the paneless windows of the cantina. The only place that looked half way prosperous was the doctor’s office. There Joe saw curtains at glassed in windows, a solid door with faded gold leaf lettering on the frosted glass and a small sign hung there that said the doctor was out.

    “Don’t think that we don’t appreciate it, son. We do! We just can’t pay you in hard cash like you want. But I done talked to Silas-“ Broan’s speech was interrupted by Silas’ high pitch nasal twang coming through the livery stable calling for Joe.

    “There you are, boy. Come on, we got work to do ‘fore we head off to Maricopa Wells. Got a load of hides to get onto the wagon. ‘Magine Broan has some nails to load up too.  So come on, we got things to be done!” Silas was hollering, his hands waving in the air more like he was swatting flies around his head. He reached over and snagged Joe’s arm and began to head back through the livery, dragging Joe behind him.

    Instinctively, Joe dug his heels in and the anchor he created pulled them both to a grinding halt. “Mr. Turner!” he shouted to stop the tirade from the little man. “We’ve got to come to an understanding.”

    Silas Turner stopped and pushing his gold rimmed glasses up his nose, turned to the young man.

    “I have to get to Maricopa Wells to send a message-a wire- to my family. They are going to be worried if my father and I don’t get off that stagecoach in Virginia City in a few days. I need to let them know what’s happened,” Joe explained, his temper rising. Had no one listened to him last week?

    “Well, you can’t do that standing in the middle of the livery! You come on. Get the wagon loaded up and I’ll take you to Maricopa when I go. You help me load up there and I’ll bring you back too. How’s that?” Turner offered, hands waving again.

    “But I still need money to send a wire to my family!”

    Turner buried his chin in his hand and thought for a moment. “Ain’t got money for no wire. Can you write ‘em a letter? Seeings how I am post master for Lost Springs, I get to mail my stuff for free, ya see? But there ain’t nobody I’d write to but Broan and that’s kind of silly now, ain’t it? Seein’s how he can’t read!”

    “Mr. Turner, Silas, there has to be some way I can get my hands on some cash to send that wire! There isn’t enough time for a letter to get to them and let them know Pa and I aren’t gonna be on that stage.”

    “Boy you sure know how to throw a conniption fit, don’t ya? Let’s handle one thing at a time. Get the wagon loaded so that first thing Wednesday morning we can head out. Tell you what, I’ll even throw in some paper so’s you can write to them brothers of yours. But let’s get started now.”

    Deciding to make the best out of a bad situation, Joe shook his head slowly from side to side and followed Silas Turner back to the Mercantile. Once into the dim room, Turner handed Joe a pencil and several sheets of flimsy paper. For a few long moments, Joe simply looked at the pencil he held awkwardly in his right hand. This was the first time he had had to face this problem in public alone. He took a deep breath and let it out slowly.

    “You were so anxious to write that fool letter! What are you waiting for?” The other man put his face right into Joe’s. “What? Never learn to read and write, did ya? Here I thought you were some smart ass! How about yer pa? Can he write?”

    Righteous indignation rose up in Joe, forcing aside his reticence. “Yes, I can read and write. Probably better than you, old man! It’s just that-“ and the admission caught in his throat, nearly strangling him, and the hard words came to an abrupt halt. Again, he saw the bootheel dropping with force onto the back of his left hand. He felt the room revolving slowly around him as again Doc Martin pulled the cast from it, revealing the solidified damage that would not allow him to fully use the hand. He heard the words Doc had spoken so softly: “sorry”, and “not well enough”. Joe closed his eyes at the pain the forced memories brought. But then he could almost feel his brothers as they had stood there with him that fateful morning six months before; how they had supported him, their hands pressed to his back, giving him the strength to walk out of that office and into the light of day. And into public a different man. Joe thought back to how they had always stood with him, supporting him and how he had gotten angry with that support, preferring to call it pity. I could do with some of that support right now, he thought then grimaced, tapping the pencil onto the plank board countertop.

    “Sorry, Mr. Turner. I didn’t mean to shout at you. It’s just that I am still trying to come to terms with this,” and Joe lifted his mangled hand. ”Back in the spring, some boys worked me and a friend over real good, busted my hands up. I was left-handed until then. I haven’t gotten the knack of writing with my right one yet. So, could I go ahead and have the paper and such?  Paco can take it back to my father and he can write the letter.”

    Silas nodded his head slowly and Joe handed the pencil stub and few sheets of paper to Paco. Paco held them like they were made of glass until Joe patted his shoulder and told him to get them to the mission right away.

    “You trust me with these things, senor?” Paco whispered, looking at what he held as he walked towards the doorway.

    “Probably the first time he’s ever had his hands on the like, poor kid. Seems like a bright kid every time he’s come in here with the Sisters,” the storekeeper said, watching the boy run across the square, headed for the hills that separated him from his destination.

    “All those kids out there seem like nice kids. Just somebody forgot them along the way and they are the ones paying for it now.”

    “Well, let’s start loading the wagon!” Turner exalted, rubbing his hands together. “But tell me, them that done that to your hands and your friend, they pay for it?”

    “You mean legally? No, but later,” and Joe saw again the faces of the Taylor brothers and Brian Fair as they held a deadly assortment of firearms trained on him. He remembered how afraid the Taylors had been, not of him, but of what they were being forced into by Fair. And then how Brian Fair’s father had hit the boy so hard that the gun he held went off, the bullet plowing into the dirt not an inch from Joe. But there had been others involved who had paid the ultimate price: one by committing suicide, the other an unsolved murder down in the Chinese quarter of town. “Well, I guess you could say that they are gonna pay for it forever.”

    "You mean to tell me that you didn’t go after ‘em? Do the same to them that they did to you?” Silas asked, coming to a stop beside the large freight wagon at the side of the adobe building. When Joe had not answered him, he turned back and studied the young man now looking at the dirt. “Well?”

    Somewhere in his head, Joe heard Adam’s voice promising Hoss that morning in the barn that he wouldn’t stand for the boys hurting anyone else without him stepping in, using a bullet if he had to in order to protect his family. It had been so clear and evident that morning just who Adam was out to protect: Joe. And all Joe had promised was that he wouldn’t lay a hand on them. Hoss had reluctantly agreed to the plan of following the boys until they cracked and confessed.  But in the end, Joe had faced them alone, with nothing but determination.

    “I thought about it, Mr. Turner. In fact I went so far as to follow them around, waiting for a chance. But in the end, I couldn’t do it. They were teenage boys, kids really. They didn’t need one act of violence to damn their lives for eternity any more than I did.” For a few heartbeats, Joe considered what he had just said. Rubbing his right hand over his left, he studied the misshapen structure that was becoming more and more a part of him, accepted now.  He closed his eyes to the pain looking at that hand gave him one last time. When he opened his eyes again, the hand was the same but it was like a weight had lifted from his shoulders.

    “Don’t we need to get these hides loaded?” Joe teased, stooping to pick up the first unwieldy hide.

    “I swear, you beat all, cowboy,” Turner admitted and went to help, still shaking his head over what he had heard.

    Manhandling the stiff hide into the high-sided wagon, Joe paused and looked over his shoulder at the storekeeper. “Hey, say that again, will you?”

    His face a mask of confusion, the little man stumbled over “What?”

    “What you just called me. Say it again,” Joe requested and shrugging, Turner looked at the young man like somewhere in the last few minutes he had lost his mind.

    “I called you ‘cowboy’. Didn’t mean any disrespect by it, Joe, I truly didn’t.”

    Joe smiled and, bending to pick up another hide, told Silas that he knew that. “I just like the sound of it.”

Chapter Seven
There are many synonyms for “home” but only one emotion.

By the time Tuesday evening had rolled around, the freight wagon to Maricopa Wells was loaded to nearly overflowing. Not only were there hides on board, but several kegs of nails from Broan’s smithy. The barkeep was sending back several empty casks to a friend of his in Maricopa. With them went firm instructions to return with one cask of “good stuff”. Lindy, the dressmaker, had in her order for several bolts of fabric that she needed. The only one not seeming to make this whole ordeal a party was the doctor. Joe mentioned his absence to Broan.

Broan shrugged his big shoulders. ”Doc, he’s different from us. He don’t take barter much, except for what it gets him in the cantina. Only time you ever see him is when he’s either comin’ or goin’. His boys come and go. We don’t ask where ner when about them. They’s bad seeds and I think Doc is ashamed of ‘em but he don’t say nothin’. Fact is, he don’t socialize much with us.”

Joe, recalling his own experience with the doctor could see just how right the smithy’s statement was. “I’d say he doesn’t socialize with you at all. Why does he stay around?”

“Same reason Maudie does. Same as me and Silas and the rest of us. Because something here feels like we belong. Something here makes us feel comfortable. We don’t have to explain ourselves to no body here, unless we want to. Don’t you got a place like that? Everybody needs some place like that or they just get lost and stay that way.”

Joe leaned against the side or the wagon and drew his arm across his sweaty forehead. The place Broan had described for Joe was the place he had grown up in. It had a name, The Ponderosa. Joe realized that since this whole part of the journey, from the stage accident on to right where he stood in the dusty street of a near-abandoned town, he had yearned for it. More than that, every action he had taken had but one goal: to return there with his father. Without even consciously thinking about it, Joe looked northward, towards the Sierra Nevadas that sheltered his home. “Yeah, I do. And right now, it’s a whole lot cooler than here!”

As Joe walked back to the mission that evening, using the new path Paco had shown him the day before, he couldn’t help but go back over those past few days. He had changed, he knew he had. From the discussion with Silas, from listening to his own heart and finally hearing what surrounded him. As he walked the narrow path in the thinning daylight, he felt at peace with himself for the first time since walking into the Ponderosa Ranch house and finding the five boys there who had beaten him and Hop Sing. It wasn’t that the residual pain was gone. That, he had come to realize would be with him forever. It was the understanding that he couldn’t change himself and what had happened to him. That he had to accept it and go on with his life, not be consumed by it. And the final acceptance that where he needed to be to do that was home. Home, with all the people he loved and cared about and who loved and cared about him. Home, where he was teased by bigger brothers. Home, where he rankled his elders and got on nerves. Home, where life was a never-ending stream of chores and work. Home, where sunrises and sunsets were bright explosions behind tall mountains. Home, where he was loved and accepted no matter what. Home, where he could love and accept everyone at face value because there was no ulterior motive. Home.

Ahead of him he saw a flash of movement, a spot of white that came running down the path towards him. He stopped dead in his tracks, letting the motion come to him on the narrow path. Just as Joe recognized the white object as being human, Chispa literally flung herself into his arms. She was out of breath and crying all at the same time. Her words, tumbling out in a mix of her native tongue and English confused Joe. He knelt to the ground to get a better grip on the child and to calm her if he could. He smoothed her dark hair back from her tiny tear-stained face all the while hugging her to him.

‘What’s the matter?” he asked, when her gulping finally calmed down enough.

“Paco, he told me that you are leaving! Don’t go. Please? I will be a good girl. You stay and I will do what the Sisters tell me to do. Please don’t go!” and again she wrapped her thin arms around his neck and clung to him fiercely.

Chuckling, Joe stood up and began down the path towards where he could now see the mission lights. Little Chispa buried her face in his neck and continued to assure him that she would be good.

“Chispa,” he said, finally getting her attention. “Yes, I am going away but only for a few days. I have to go to Maricopa Wells with Mr. Turner. But I am going to be back. I have to come back. My pa isn’t well enough to travel yet and I wouldn’t leave him. Nor would I leave without telling you good-bye. I do every morning, don’t I?”

Scrubbing at her eyes, Chispa hiccoughed once and nodded her head but still held on to Joe like he was the last person on earth. It felt good to the child when she felt his strong arms tighten around her, holding her close to him.

“But Paco said that when your hermanos got the letter from your father, that they would come and take you away. Is true, no?”

“Oh, Chispa. Paco is only telling you half the story. Yes, there is a letter that tomorrow I am going to send to my brothers. But it will take a while to get to them and another long while before they come here,” Joe explained patiently to the child as he walked down out of the rough terrain and onto the small valley floor where the mission was situated.

“But how long is a long time, Joe?” she asked, squirming now and he let her drop to the cooling sand. She reached up and took his left hand in both of hers as she walked beside him.

“How long is it to you?”

“A week,” came her little voice from his side, so full of innocent confidence that Joe smiled. He wondered for a moment if his father had thought the same thing about him sometimes. Probably.

“Well then, you have several ‘long times’ before that happens,” Joe assured her.

For several paces, the little girl remained silent, her hands still clutching at Joe’s hand. Then she stopped and with a little tug, pulled him to a stop as well.

“But you are going to leave some time, aren’t you? I don’t want you to leave. You or su padre, I mean, your father. Not in a few long times or ever. Please Joe, tell me you will stay.”

“Chispa, I need to go home. My father needs to go home too.”

The little girl would have none of his explanation. “But this can be your home now. You can stay here and work. The Sisters will let you, you and your father.”

“I need to go home. There are people who need us and want to see my pa and me again. They love us too.”

“We love you too! We all do. Except maybe for Sister Naomi but I don’t think she loves anyone but God. Please, Joe, make this your home now.”

Joe scooped the tiny little girl up into his arms and headed on towards the mission door. “For now, okay, we can call this home. But remember what I said about other people needing my pa and me.” This seemed to placate the youngster but it surely didn’t him.

Just before he stepped through the doorway into the mission’s kitchen he mumbled to himself that he sure hoped his father had an answer to this one.

After the meal of inevitable stew that was accompanied by hot biscuits and a glass of milk, the younger children were scooted off to bed. The oldest girl, Maria, stayed to help clean up while Paco and Juan went out to check on the cow. Joe helped his father back onto his cot than sat down with him to talk for a while before turning in himself.

“So, my father is now a teacher, huh?” Joe quipped, referring to the revelation during the meal that his father had spent the last few days teaching the children their letters and numbers.

“I wouldn’t make light of it, if I were you, young man. I seem to recall a session or two on the dining room table with you. And you were about the same age as some of them too- maybe even a little older!”

Quickly, Joe amended his statement. “I think it’s a good thing. Both for you and the children. Gives you something to do while you finish healing up and the children get the benefits of an education. Course, I do recall more sessions with Adam than with you. Maybe we need to get old Ponderosa Plato down here to teach these kids. Would really get your money’s worth out of that college education of his!”

Ben’s lips tightened and as much as the bruises and scrapes on his face would allow, he flattened his eyebrows out in the eternal expression that he was about to take his youngest to task. He had had the same thought: that a winter down here for Adam might be a good thing for these children. But then he had also considered something else entirely. That if something wasn’t done soon to the mission, it wouldn’t matter how well they were educated. The Sisters and older children had been doing what they could to hold things together but the buildings were falling apart.

“Actually I had been considering asking Adam and Hoss to come down here for a while. This place needs fixing up and I think they are just the two to do it. Get a roof over the chapel, doors and windows fixed, put a floor in the children’s room, dig a new well. That sort of thing. What do you think?”

Leaning over with his hands together and his elbows planted on his knees, Joe raised the question of what were he and Ben going to be doing.

“I will be doing what I do best: telling my sons what to do. As for you, I would hope that you would be helping them.” There, Ben had thrown out the challenge. If Joe were still of a mind to leave the love and comfort and support of his family, he wouldn’t reply to the challenge. Ben’s heart refused to beat until he saw the twinkle in the green eyes studying him.

“How about if I supervise for once?” Joe taunted.

“That is my job. And until you decide to quit playing around with the affections of young ladies, get married and grace my presence with grandchildren, it will always be my job. “

“Not to change the subject, but speaking of those young ladies you say I have been playing around with their affections, I need you to talk to one of them.”

Immediately, Ben became serious. It came to him that perhaps Joseph had not been working as he had claimed. Had he spent his time in town chasing whatever women were available? Then just as quickly as the though had come to him, Ben put it aside. If nothing else, Joe of late tended to be more brutally honest than was necessary.

“It’s Chispa, Pa. Talk to her, will you? She is scared about our leaving here. She was begging me to stay on our walk home this evening. Talk to her? Please?” Joe pleaded and Ben heard the earnestness in Joe’s voice.

“And what do you want me to tell her, son?”

“That when the time comes, she has to let me go home. That my home is the Ponderosa, not here.”

Ben would have leapt for joy if his broken ribs would have allowed it, but still he had to make sure of the determination he thought he had heard.  “And is that the truth, Joseph?” He did not continue until Joe’s eyes leapt to his father’s face. “That you are going home when the time comes? And that your home is the Ponderosa? I won’t lie to the child, Joseph.”

Belatedly, Joe realized what he had just said to his father. He leaned over until his head rested against his father’s shoulder gently. “The Ponderosa will always be my home, Pa. And, yes, once you can travel, that’s where I want to be,” he whispered.

“Always?” Ben asked softly, his free hand coming to rest on the dark silken curls at his shoulder.


Chapter Eight
A man at peace with himself is capable of moving heaven and earth

    “So what do you want to do now? We don’t know this country, Adam,” Hoss said, shielding his eyes from the glare of the noonday sun. Looking out over the main street of Maricopa Wells, he sought for something familiar and came up empty-handed.

    They had been so sure. In Virginia City two weeks ago, a shared beer with Dan DeQuille, the editor for the Territorial Enterprise had first alerted them to trouble. The pressman had no idea of the impact his words would have when he mentioned that the Butterfield Stage Company would most likely be losing its stranglehold on mail delivery contracts to the west.    Adam had cocked his head to one side and asked why.

    “That debacle down in Maricopa Wells. Any time you lose a shipment of mail like that because the driver takes the wrong road, someone’s head is gonna roll.” Dan explained then took another long pull on his beer.

    “What do you mean? They lost a shipment of mail? How can they do that?”

    “Like I said. The driver had been warned that the road in a particular area had been washed out. Apparently he misunderstood the directions. Went the wrong way, Stage ended up wrecked. Mail washed away in the river there at the accident site. Officials are suspicious though. What was the mail doing out of the bags? Some of the bags were missing entirely.” De Quille had chuckled. “Yep, you go losing the U S mail and something is bound to happen.”

    “Can’t they question the driver? The shotgun? How about the passengers? Surely someone knows something.” Adam took a swig of his beer, letting the problem roll about in his head.

    “Can’t. Driver and shotgun both died in the accident. The two passengers, first reports say an old man and a kid, are missing and presumed dead.”

    “Well, Danny, I guess that means just one thing: you were right to back Overland. They get the contract and your stocks will double. You did buy into it, didn’t you?”

    And on through that afternoon spent discussing politics and other happenings of the world, a little niggling thought kept creeping around in Adam’s head. It had to do with the debacle, as he thought of it, of the stage taking the wrong road. It wasn’t until he was on his way out of town when it came to him and he quickly yanked Sport’s head back around and headed at a dead run for the stage depot.

    Banging on the closed door, Adam roused Gil, the station manager. After a few quick and succinct questions that the answers made the bottom fall out of his stomach, Adam fired off a telegram to Maricopa Wells.

    Station Agent (stop)
    Butterfield Stage Co. (stop)
    Maricopa Wells, New Mexico Territory (stop)
    Two passengers listed missing in accident. (Stop)
    One young man with crippled hand? (Stop)
    Reply with haste (stop)
    Adam Cartwright
    Virginia City Nevada
    (All stop)
    “And bring the reply to the Ranch. If the agent doesn’t answer in an hour, send it again. Keep sending it until you get an answer back. Understood?” Adam demanded tersely and whirling on his heels he headed back to his horse and home.

    The telegram with the answer showed up just as Adam was finishing explaining to Hoss.

    “The timing is just too close, Hoss. If Pa and Joe left Saint Louis when Pa’s letter said they were going to, and they traveled night and day, then they were on that stage. Either way, we are going into Virginia City tomorrow morning. We either get Pa and Joe off the stage or we get on it. Get packed!” As he turned to go up the stairs, the pounding at the front door began.

    After paying the breathless young boy for his trouble, Adam returned into the main room and opened to sealed telegram. He looked at it for just a moment then handed it to Hoss. There was one word written there. “Yes”.

    So the next morning and all the mornings thereafter until they found themselves standing in the bright cold winter sunlight at Maricopa Wells, they had been on the stage. At every way station, Adam had relentlessly asked the same question. “Have you seen a pair of travelers headed west?  One an older man, silver hair, distinguished looking. The other is a younger man, slender, good-looking with dark curly hair and,” reluctantly, Adam would add, “walks with a decided limp and has his left hand crippled?” Time and again, the answer would be “No. Saw ‘em a while back but they was headed east.” That was until that morning when the station agent, the one who had sent the reply to Adam’s telegram claimed to have seen them get on the ill-fated stage.

    “Mister we searched for two whole days but didn’t come up with nary a sign of ‘em. Was they kin o’ yourn’s?”

    The headache that had lingered right behind Adam’s left eye exploded into a full-grown monster. He felt like the edge he and Hoss had been standing on had crumbled, tossing them into the wildest ocean current. And he doubted if he could swim back to shore bringing Hoss with him.

    “You say you searched? Why? What led you to believe they were still alive?” Hoss asked while trying to surreptitiously support Adam as they stood there in the way station main room.

    The station agent scratched his scrawny beard and took a moment to spit a long brown stream of tobacco juice out the open doorway. “Because we didn’t find no bodies there at the crash site. That and somebody had taken the wheels and such off the wagon and left them laying ‘side the wreck. The emergency canteen of water was missing along with the canvas boot cover off the rear. That could be enough reasons for ya?”

    Both brothers took a deep sigh. Hoss thanked the man then followed Adam out onto the porch.

    Tucking his hands into his back pockets, Adam, like Hoss viewed the town as it spread out before them: a few side streets, a main street and another street that ran parallel to it. The livery stable faced them, the open doors showing through to the other street.

    Adam gestured with a nod of his head towards the livery. “I guess we get ourselves a couple of horses and start looking. What do you say?”

    Hoss screwed his mouth around, and anyone could see he was waiting for the right words to come to him to tell Adam something distasteful. Finally, he decided the best ones to use were the simplest ones. “First things first, big brother. We been pushing ourselves hard for the best part of ten days. We need a good night’s sleep, some decent grub and, I don’t know about you, but I could use a bath and a shave. We get all that under our belts, and we can do a better job of finding Pa and Joe.”

    “I suppose you’re right. We’d no more than get started then we’d have to stop for the night anyway. Tell you what. You go get us a room and find out about the bath and shave. I’ll see about getting us a couple of horses and gear. Then I’ll meet you over at that cantina for a beer and something to eat.”

    Both men stepped off the porch and headed across the street, sidestepping a freight wagon and sorry team of mules rumbling by. It was a shame that neither man even glanced in the back of the wagon. Their search would have ended right there if they had. For stretched out in the back of the wagon, his head propped on a few wrapped bolts of fabric, was their brother, Joe, asleep.

    There is nothing any darker than the desert at night before the stars and moon come out. Step away from the light of a lamp and a person is swallowed whole by the umbra that is the shadow of day. A wise man stays close to his light, letting those creatures that are the denizens of the night have their way. So, as the coyote pulled himself from his den, and the owl flew from her nest high in the arm of the saguaro cactus, Silas Turner’s freight wagon pulled into Lost Springs.

    “Better sleep in the livery, Joe. Rather than try to find your way back to the mission tonight. You take care of the mules and I’ll see to getting the stuff out of the wagon,” Silas directed and Joe, shivering in the cool of the desert evening was only too glad to oblige.

    Joe unhitched the mules and led them into the livery stable and their appointed corner stalls. He curried and brushed them down while they ate their ration of barley and corn. He carefully wiped down the old harness they had worn and hung it back up. Across the way, just as the moon was making its way from behind the high cloud, Joe saw the Silas had finished unloading the wagon and was disappearing into his dimly lit store. With a glance to the lightening sky, Joe thought about returning to the mission then decided against it. Going back into the livery, he climbed into the hayloft and wrapped himself in an old horse blanket and promptly dropped off to sleep.

    Just over the ridge of hills from where Joe slept, Ben Cartwright sat transfixed by the silvery moonrise. Today had been a good day, he decided. He had been able to stay up most of the day before his aching body demanded a break. At the dinner table he had talked animatedly with the children and once they were dismissed, had gone to set at the chapel doorway. Behind him as he looked out, he could hear the crystal clear voices of the nuns as they sang their way through the last prayers of the day. It had comforted Ben every time he had heard them singing and tonight was no exception. When he heard the last lilting note die away, he started to rise but a hand on his shoulder held him down. It was Sister Naomi and as she floated down like some dark bird come to roost at his side, she offered him a corncob pipe and shared a twist of tobacco with him. With their pipes lit, they sat and watched as the stars popped out into the velvet sky.

    “Your boy didn’t make it back tonight. You aren’t worried, are you? I mean about him comin’ back,” she offered and pulled another draw on her pipe.

    “No, not really. Joe is a rather resilient young man, if you hadn’t noticed.”

    “But when you first came here-“ she started then Ben cut her off.

    “When we first came here, yes, I was afraid I was about to lose my youngest son. But not now. Something,” Ben paused, searching for the right words.

    Sister Naomi finished for him, “Something changed in him. We have been praying for both of you since you got here. I think God answered your prayers and ours.”

    Ben chuckled and pulled a deep draught from his pipe before he answered. "Well, He answered one of mine. I am still hoping He'll answer the other one as well."

    "Which one would that be?"

    He looked at the thin-faced woman beside him. Her features although it was dark seemed to have a glow about them and he could readily see the slight smile on her face.

    "The one where you asked God to heal your son? To make him whole again? Is that the one you are waiting for an answer to?"

    Casting his eyes down, Ben wondered if he was always that easy to read. But the sister didn't wait for him to reply before she plunged on, occasionally taking a pull on her pipe, making it glow brightly in the night. "You know that the answer to that prayer might not be the one you want to hear. Maybe you have your answer already and don't realize it. I've watched your son, Mr. Cartwright. He is a lively thing, isn't he?" Both Sister Naomi and Ben chuckled at the apt description. "But he is also a very prideful young man. Very proud of his good looks, his family's position in the world." Ben swallowed hard. She was hitting the nail on the head repeatedly. "Maybe God has answered your prayer by allowing this to happen. He has changed your son's appearance so that perhaps he will learn some humility. God has stripped you of your earthly wealth so that your son will learn the true meaning of work. Perhaps God is teaching your son, and you, some valuable lessons about Life."

    "I had never looked at it that way, Sister Naomi," Ben admitted softly, his pipe now grown cold in his hand. "A priest in Saint Louis made the observation that God may have been giving Joseph a 'task' to do, something that only he could do."

    "And do you not think that learning these lessons on humility and the true value of work are not the 'tasks' God would want your son to master?"

    "My son has always known what hard work was, Sister. He has always been right there working with his brothers and myself!" complained Ben and he would have risen to his feet but her hand on his arm stopped him again.

    "But every day after he worked hard, as you say he did, he came back to a table laden with the bounty of the land, did he not? No, the lesson on work goes deeper than knowing how to work hard. The lesson God has been teaching your son these past few weeks has to do with what it takes to put that food on the table. I would wager that this is the first time in his life that your son has had to work to be able to eat. It is as simple as that."

    "Sister, I see what you are getting at and you are right. But I can't agree with you. You have no idea how hard Joseph has worked in the past, just so that he would even consider that he was worthy of his position in the family."

    "Tell me, then, if your son did no work on your ranch, would you continue to feed him? Clothe him? Shelter him?"

    "Of course I would, for the love of God, he is my child. And no matter what, you care for your children."

    Sister Naomi smiled and dumped her now cold ashes into the sand there at their feet before she spoke again. "My point precisely. He never had to worry about those things in his life. He never had to be the sole source of their provision. He always had the love of his father and the wealth of his family to support him. Now, he has learned differently. Granted, it seems a cruel way to be taught but perhaps this was the only way God could get through to him. And you. Good night, Mr. Cartwright." Her habit rustled in the dark and she was gone.

    For a long while that evening, Ben sat in the desert moonlight and thought about what the sister had said. He added that to the strange priest in Saint Louis and the many things he had said to Ben. It all boiled down to two simple things: faith. Faith in not only a higher power but also faith in yourself. And acceptance. Ben felt that Joe had finally reached deep into himself and reluctantly accepted how his life would be with a crippled hand and damaged knee to deal with for the rest of his days. It had been a bitter pill for Ben to swallow but he had and Ben knew it had been harder yet for Joe to do so. But there was something else the priest had said: that he would pray first for acceptance and then for a miracle. Ben hung his head. He certainly hoped that the man was good on his word and was now praying for a miracle.

    At first light, Ben pulled his aching body from the narrow cot there in the corner of the kitchen. A glance to the opposite side showed him that Joe had still not returned. He hadn't expected him to but still made the motion anyway. As Ben cleaned up and shaved off his coarse stubble of a beard, he did some quick calculations in his head. He figured that the letter would reach Adam and Hoss in about two weeks. Give them another two weeks to get there and there was a month gone. He wondered if he had made an error in judgment by asking them to come to Lost Springs. His plans for repairing the mission were well-intentioned ones but as he looked around him that morning he realized that something else would need to be addressed far more quickly. The mission was surviving but only by the skin of their teeth. The meals, Ben had noticed were always the same. Many meals one or more of the sister would not eat, saying that she was not hungry or that she was fasting for whatever reason. Ben knew it was more to make the scant supplies go further. What Joe had been able to procure in town had helped, but how much longer would there be work for him? So as he sat down at the table and the blessing intoned over breakfast, he came up with an idea.

    "Paco, Juan, I think we need to catch us some rabbits today," he suggested and the dark heads of the two boys rose sharply, their eyes bright with anticipation.

    "But we have no bullets for the rifle, Senor Cartwright," groused Juan.

    "I didn't say 'shoot' now did I? No, we're gonna trap them."

    Talk around the table became animated with how to go about trapping the wily jackrabbits that were abundant in the desert. Ben listened, amused that for every child, there seemed to be a different way to accomplish the task. That is all but Chispa. She sat there beside Ben and said nothing. Even when Ben tried to cajole her into the discussion, she stayed mute.

    Once the meal was over, Ben gave Juan and Paco a list of things to find. Some twine, a hammer, something to use as stakes. Once they had the things gathered, he took them out into open area behind the mission. Just as he had shown his own sons years before, he fashioned a snare and showed the Paco and Juan how to position it for the best effect. Throughout the morning, all of the children drifted in and out of the lesson, but Paco seemed to take the lead, even going so far as to show Maria how to tie the slip knot properly. All of the children but little Chispa, that is. Resolutely, she would not stray far from Ben but not join in the activities. Stopping to take a break from setting the snares, Ben dropped down onto the warming rocks and with a pat to his leg, offered Chispa a place to sit. Solemnly, she obeyed.

    "Now then," Ben addressed the children as they also settled down for a short respite. "You must promise me some things. First, that one of you will check these snares religiously at least twice a day. That way the animal doesn't suffer needlessly. If you can't bring yourself to mercifully kill the rabbit, let him go. Or don't take the job on to begin with." Ben saw Maria's eyes drop. He knew she would have trouble with the dispatching of the animal. Her heart is kind, he thought, just like Hoss'  "Next, never take more than what you need."

    "Don't be greedy!" Juan piped up eagerly.

    "Exactly," Ben agreed then went on to explain. "If you wipe out all the rabbits in this area needlessly, then when you really need some, they won't be here."

    "Will they have gone elsewhere to live?" Chispa asked, her small hands twining into themselves.

    Ben raised his eyebrows and looked down at the child on his leg. Her eyes looked up at his so trustingly that he felt his heart melting again. She was a charmer, that was for sure. Just like Joe, he thought then pushed the thought aside as he answered her. "You might be able to say that they go someplace else to live."

    "Si! In your belly!" Juan laughed.

    "That's not what I meant," she pouted, but all the children were laughing now.

    Ben urged the children to return to the mission since he was sure that it was close to noon. Scattering like brightly colored leaves before a strong breeze, they all ran ahead. But once again Chispa remained at Ben's side, holding his hand.

    "What's the matter, little one?" he asked the child, smoothing back her long black hair from her face.

    "Has he gone someplace else to live too?" she asked, her lower lip quivering.

    "You mean Joe?" When she nodded Ben reached down and even though his ribs let him know it wasn't smart, he picked up the little girl to carry her back with him. "No, you heard us talking about it. Joe had to go to Maricopa Wells with Mr. Turner. We knew it might be late when they got back. I am sure Joe stayed the night in town and is working today. He'll be back tonight, you wait and see!" For good measure, Ben tapped the end of her nose.

    "Senor Ben," she whispered, hanging onto his neck now, "Is Joe old enough to take a wife?"

    "Am I to gather that you think you might like that job?" Chispa nodded eagerly and Ben went on. "Oh, he's old enough but that's a mighty big responsibility for someone your size," he warned playfully.

    "But I could do it!" she assured him with a solemn nod.

    By this time, they were close enough to the back of the mission buildings that they could hear the clatter of plates and shouted instructions from Mother Ruth to get washed up.

    "I bet you could!" Ben smiled as he spoke and set the tiny girl on the ground. She immediately scampered into the mission kitchen, leaving Ben shaking his head in wonder at the nature of children. "Make you another twenty years older and I would have to pry my son off your arm."

    The shadows were lengthening that afternoon with the promise of rain in the air. The children had taken their lessons at the kitchen table until it was time for the boys to check the snares. The older girls, Marie and Esperanza, stayed to help begin preparations for dinner. The other girl, Carmelita, went with the two younger nuns out to milk the cow. It was then that Ben realized he had not seen Chispa since lunchtime. Asking around, no one seemed to have seen her. At first it seemed nothing to be concerned about but as the afternoon wore on and the boys returned, carrying two jackrabbits to add to dinner, Ben began to worry. When he took Mother Ruth aside to voice his concern, she said that there was nothing to be worried about.

"Chispa's probably taking a nap in the sanctuary. She does that when she's troubled. I'll go check on her," and the broad back of the mother superior disappeared through the conjoining way. She was back quickly. "Have any of ye children seen little Chispa this afternoon?"

"Not since we were working on reading," Maria offered, rolling bread dough out.

Ben and the Irish Mother Superior traded cautious glances.

"Lots of times right about now, she heads off to meet Joe coming home," Juan volunteered. "You want me to go look for her?"

"That would be an excellent idea. Both you and Paco go. Don't go beyond the halfway point on the ridge though. The way the weather's brewin' up out there, I want ye back before it gets too bad, ye hear?".

With a complacent feeling in his belly, Joe Cartwright headed out of Lost Springs. The past two days had brought more than just a little contentment to him. Now as he swung his aching leg around the first curve of the rocky path, he felt he could tell his father some good news. The letter Ben had written was on its way and Joe was certain that it would reach his brothers in good time. Ben had even told him that he had suggested that Adam and Hoss come here for Christmas. Not that he would not be able to travel long before that. Far from it. He wanted them here to help renovate the mission. Joe had smiled at his father's generosity but had made no comment. It was so much like his father to want to help these people. But then again, Joe had had the thought to do the same. Only he would not have been so bold as to volunteer his brothers.

The sudden gust of wind from behind him made Joe shiver slightly. He wished he had his jacket to ward off the coming night chill but he had found that if he kept his pace steady two things would happen. He would stay warm enough to reach the warmth of the mission and his leg would only moderately complain about misuse. It was the ache that he had come to accept as just being there all the time. Ruefully he had thought more than once that without the ache in the leg, he might not know if he were awake or asleep. But there again, many nights it had kept him awake with its throbbing. He had learned to change his gait, to use his right leg to lead off with, especially now as he headed up the incline. Leaning into his stride, the wind bit at his back and brought with it the first fat drops of cold rain. He shivered again and picked up his pace.

As he rounded on of the last high curves, the rain pushing him hard now, he saw a flash of white. Chispa, he thought, out in this weather. Come to meet me! She is gonna be soaked to the skin. Ha! Look who's talking! And found her arms tight around his legs in greeting.

"I was afraid you weren't coming back! But your padre, your father, he explained it to me again. I'm not afraid any more, Joe. Really." But as a rumble of distant thunder rolled across the hills, she tightened her grip on his legs.

Laughing lightly, he unwound the child's arms and took her hand in his. "Come on, we need to get back to the mission before we both catch our deaths of cold. You'd never guess what I have in this bag!" he exclaimed, then headed on down the narrow path, the child alternating leading then hanging back beside him as she chattered away happily.

There at the curve where the path narrowed the most, Chispa skipped out ahead of Joe and turned back to urge him to hurry. As he opened his mouth to warn her to be careful, the little girl stumbled. At first, Joe reached out to grab her but she righted herself before it became more than a thought to Joe. But the wind chose that moment to increase in fury and the rain slicked path made her feet go out from under her and before Joe could react a second time, she fell over the edge. The scream pierced the air as sharply as a knife would have cut flesh. Horrified, Joe watched as the small child rolled down the steep incline and finally came to rest against a boulder there. He dropped his bag and slithered down the embankment, heedless of the danger.

Quickly he knelt at her side and checked for broken bones. There were none but by the waning light, he could see a large bump forming at the side of her head. He called her name several times but she did not answer him. Joe looked back up the slope and caught a face full of rain as he did so. The slope was steep and, at intervals, there were rocks and the occasional scrubby bush to give him a handhold. If he didn't have to carry the child up, he knew he could make it on his own but he knew that he couldn't leave her there.

The cold rain on her face brought Chispa around enough that she could hear Joe calling to her. Instinctively, she reached for him. When he picked her up, she tried to do as he asked and put her arms around his neck but she felt sick. She wanted to curl up and find someplace warm and dry. With a sob, all Chispa could do was lean into Joe's body.

He pulled her tighter to him. Joe shifted her to his stronger right side and started up the slope. He tried at first to just hold onto the child and walk but the rain was making the sloping sand slide beneath his feet. He had gone maybe five feet when the sky opened up and began to pummel them both with unrelenting rain. The intensity and the cold finally reached that part of Chispa's mind and she reached her arms around Joe's neck. Every time she felt his arm move away from her, she cried out.

His chest heaving with the effort, Joe finally turned and sat on the slope, holding Chispa to him. The rain and wind pulled at them ferociously, as the two demons sought to send them further down the slope and over the edge into the waiting crevasse below. Joe shuddered with just the mere thought. Once, back when Paco had showed Joe this route, Joe had glimpsed over the edge from above and his sense of self-preservation had kicked in, forcing him against the rock wall on the other side of the path. Now it felt like the gaping maw was reaching for them, hungry for their sacrifice. Gathering every bit of courage he had, Joe rolled to his side, taking Chispa with him. He stood, leaning into the slope on one hand, holding the frightened child close to him. Joe looked above him. The path was only twenty or thirty feet above them. He could make out a zigzag route from rock to bush to rock for handholds. His decision was made in half a heartbeat.

"Chispa, sweetie, listen to me. You have to hang onto me real tight. Can you do that?"

"My arm hurts, Joe," she cried and balancing her before him, Joe could see a swelling at her wrist.

"Okay then, you hang on as best you can and we're gonna get up this ol hill together okay?" Once again, Joe put her arms around his neck and using his strong right arm, held her close to him. He threw a prayer to heaven and began the climb that would take them to the path.

From one rock to another, Joe struggled, the sand forever slipping from under his feet. When he thought about reaching and pulling them up to the rock, he would shift Chispa over to his left arm and use his right hand to grasp and pull. A rock, then a bush then another rock, he wound his way carefully up the incline. Then came the bush that didn't hold beneath his grasp and with a horrifying wrench it came free and they fell back to a group of rocks. With the breath knocked out of him by the short fall, Joe pushed Chispa to sit at his side. He tried sitting up but a shooting pain in his right shoulder forced darkness upon him and he dropped back to the cold sand.

When he came to his senses again, Chispa, her face white with fear and panic was patting his face and calling to him. He reached and touched his right shoulder and his hand came away with a trail of blood on it. Moving that arm carefully, he wasn't sure if it was his imagination or not that he heard bones grating together. What he did know was that there was no way he was going to be able to use that arm for much.

"Chispa, listen to me. We're gonna be all right. You remember going for a piggyback ride on Paco? Well, you have to do that here with me, okay? You just get up on my shoulders and put your arms around my neck. Hang on to your bad arm with your good one. You can do it and then I can carry you up this slope. Can you do that, Chispa?" Joe encouraged, and finally the child did as he asked.

"But your shoulder is cut. It will hurt you," she hesitated.

"It's okay Chispa. It's just a little cut. The rain makes it look like it's bleeding a lot but it isn't." A part of Joe's mind heard his father telling him not long ago that he would not lie to the child. He knew he had lied to the child about his shoulder but figured that was going to be the only way to get her to do what he wanted her to do.

Once she was settled and had her legs wrapped tightly around Joe's waist, he staggered to his feet. Cold and exhaustion were setting in and Joe understood that this was the last time he could make the effort before his body would refuse to obey him. Again he fought his way up the sliding sand slope. When he could wrap his left arm around a rock to pull them forward he did so until his forearm was scraped raw from the effort.

Joe's heart was pounding furiously in his ears as they neared the upper most part. But here lay a problem. This was the steepest part of the slope and there was no way he could loop his arm around the protruding rock to pull them forward those last few precious feet. There was no room for anything but a fingertip grip. Grimacing with the motion required, Joe lifted his right hand to the slippery rock. He tested the rock to see if it would hold their weight and the waves of pain that went though him threatened to push him into unconsciousness. There was no other choice for him. In utter desperation, he crammed his left hand into the tiny crevice just above his head, and reaching behind him, grabbed a hold of Chispa and literally flung her over the edge to safety.

The pain Joe experienced when he did that did not come from his right arm and shoulder. It was as though he could feel what was happening in a very small but overpowering way as each individual tendon in his left hand was stretched. As the tendons stretched, they wrenched themselves free of the bone mass beneath them one at a time, much the way icicles break loose from the overhang on bitterly cold windy days. The searing pain that went up his arm made him cry out sharply and for a panic-filled instant, Joe thought he would lose his grip and fall back down the slope. But he didn't. His fingers held. More than held, he could feel his hand tightening, giving him the slim purchase he needed to make it over the edge.

Panting, Joe lay on his back, letting the rain pour over him in cold sheets. Chispa crawled to his side and took his face in her small hands. He reassured her that he was okay and patted her back. And he marveled that he could move the fingers out to make his left hand flat to do so. Lifting the hand to the sky and rain above, Joe looked at it and smiled. Once, twice and then again, he flexed it, making a fist then just as easily, flattened it and spread his fingers wide.

Chispa, for the life of her could not imagine why Joe was laughing.

Ben was looking out the chapel door when he saw a flash of something small and white across the yard. The pouring rain made it hard the distinguish what is was but as it neared, he was able to make out Chispa's pale dress then the darker shadow beside her came into focus. He caught his breath for he could clearly see that Joe was limping badly and that the right side of his shirt was darker than the other side. Heedless of the rain, Ben headed for them, first at a walk then as panic built in him, he started to run.

"Joseph! Are you all right, son? Here let me help you inside. Chispa, are you okay? We have been worried about you, child!" Ben honed in on Joe's right side and would have put Joe's arm across his own shoulders to help him but just in time, he realized that the arm hung at an awkward angle.

"I can make it to the door, Pa, I swear it," Joe claimed but leaned toward his father any way.

"Chispa, run in the house, tell Mother Ruth we need some help," Ben instructed and the little girl took off running.

"Pa, wait a minute," and Joe reached out and snagged his father's arm. Looking at him, Ben saw the glitter of what he took to be a beginning fever in his son. But as Joe stood there, his chest still heaving with the exertion of walking and the rain pouring over him, he smiled at his father. "Remember, Pa? Remember the letter from that San Francisco doctor?" Ben heart lurched in his chest, constricting his breathing suddenly. "He was right."

"You aren't making sense son. We need to get you inside-"

"No Pa. Wait." The only thing Joe could think about went back to months before. He had stood down by the lower corrals the evening after Doc Martin had removed the cast from his right hand. With that hand, he had tried to hold his revolver but the hand was too weak, and he was too awkward with it. His father had found him frustrated and nearly beyond control. Joe had ranted about being able to protect himself but his father had taken his hand, carefully and deliberately opened it as much as it would allow and placed it against his own chest. "As long as this beats, you will be protected," his father had vowed. That memory had burned itself in Joe's being so much so that now as he faced his father, it came again to him.

Slowly, he lifted his left hand and spreading the fingers as wide as he could make them go, he let it come to rest on his father's broad chest. Beneath it, Joe could feel the pounding of his father's heart.

"That doctor in 'Frisco said only a miracle would help my hand, Pa. I think I got one."

Ben closed his own big hand over the wide spread one on his chest and held it there. Yes, the fingers felt stiff and cold but they were straight and he could feel them begin to move.

Late that evening as the rain continued to pour down outside the mission's kitchen window, Ben eased himself down onto the side of the narrow bed that now held his sleeping son. Joe had refused to allow Ben to send anyone out into the harsh night for a doctor and for once, Ben agreed with his son's assessment: it was just a rough cut along the top of his right shoulder. There seemed to be no other damage and they had cleaned and bandaged it.

Chispa had been cared for as well. Her swollen wrist, Sister Naomi proclaimed to be only sprained and not liable to keep the child out of mischief for long. She had hung her head as Mother Ruth had berated her for leaving the mission without telling any one. But then the Mother Superior had gathered the little girl to her ample breast and held her close until she had gone to sleep.

    As Ben settled himself with his back to the wall for support, he reached out by force of long habit and touched Joe's forehead. There was no sign of fever and the sleep Joe slept was untroubled and deep. Ben reached out and with one finger, traced the ridges and valleys on the back of Joe's left hand, from wrist to fingertip of all four fingers. Yes, it looked weak and it most likely was, but with exercise, Ben thought it would come back in strength. Just the mere movement of it had brightened his soul. It was a miracle, Ben said to himself again. For whatever reason, God had shown mercy and given them a miracle.

    "No," Ben whispered and gently brushed down his son's cheek with a single stroke. "Two miracles."

Chapter Nine
When looking for a needle in a haystack, the best tool is a magnet.

    "You know, Hoss, that bed was just half a step above a rock," Adam complained morosely then tossed back the last of his bitter coffee. He looked out of the open cantina window at the center of the little town and sighed. Last night, driven by the cold wind and rain, they had pushed on rather that bed down for the night out in the elements. It had, at first to Adam, seemed fortuitous that they had found this little town since as far as he could tell, it didn't even appear on the map they had. The man behind the bar in the cantina had rented them the single room he had available and promised to wake them at dawn.

    But the bed, as Adam had pointed out, had been especially hard and with two of them trying to share it, well, getting up early was not a problem.

    Hoss continued to eat the meal the cantina owner had made for them, tortillas, beans and something that vaguely tasted of beef. He didn't really care as long as he didn't have to cook it and there was plenty of it.

    "Nope, no self respecting rock would have that sort of wildlife living on it. Adam, you want to explain to me again about finding Pa and Joe?"

    "Simple, we know that they left the wreckage. They couldn't have gotten far so all we have to do is keep riding in bigger circles until we find them," he explained again for what felt like the one-hundredth time. "And it's time we got to it. Come on." He tossed a few coins onto the table and went out into the thin winter sunlight.

    "I'll see to the horses," Adam offered, "You see about getting us some directions. I think we lost the trail last night."

    Hoss had to duck his head to get into the small general store. Inside, he noted that the shelves were nearly bare but the shopkeeper, a little fella, stood behind his counter and in his shrill voice asked what he could get for Hoss.

    "Well, some information for one thing. My brother and I been on the trail for a few days out of Maricopa Wells. We kinda got lost in that storm last night and need to get our bearing straightened out." Hoss watched the man's face fall as he spoke so he added, "and I think we need some supplies as well. Maybe some coffee beans, some sugar and the like." It didn't surprise the big man that the other's face lit up.

    "Yes sir, let me get it together right away for you!"

    Hoss was just paying the man when Adam came in behind him. "Did you find out where we are yet?"

    "Not just yet. This fella here is gonna show us on the map so give it here."

    As the three men stood studying the map, Hoss noticed a shabbily dressed Mexican boy slip into the store. Patiently the boy stood off to one side, shifting from one bare foot to the other as he waited. Finally the merchant noticed him.

    "What is it, Paco?"

    "I come to tell you that Joe will not be in for a few days. Last night, in the storm, Chispa fell while walking along the path home and Joe hurt his shoulder trying to help her."

    The merchant swore under his breath then told the boy that it was all right and to go on home.

    "I hate that. We get someone reliable and smart to work and then something like this happens."

    "We know how that goes, don't we Hoss? We have a spread up north, Nevada Territory."

    "Where abouts in Nevada? Reason I ask is that there's a couple of fellas out at the mission."

    "We're from Virginia City. These two fellas out at the mission: one an older man, silver white hair. The other a young man, real slender build, got a crippled left hand?" Adam asked cautiously, barely daring to hope it was Ben and Joe.

    "Why you looking for them? You the law or somethin' like that?"

    Hoss smiled for the man while Adam explained the relationship and why they were looking for them.

    With that information, the shopkeeper said, "Well, I ain't ever met the older man but the younger one, sounds like the fella I've had workin' for me for a week or so. Real personable."

    "That's our little brother, all right. Now can you give us directions on getting to this mission?" Adam asked smoothly. He could feel the energy bouncing off Hoss behind him and wasn't in the least surprised to find his own smile nearly as broad as his brother's.

    "Do better than that. Wait here." Quickly the man scurried to the doorway and hollered out the name of the young boy who had just left.

    "Paco, those fellas in there claim to be Joe's brothers. Can you take them over to the mission?"

    Paco looked from Mr. Turner to where the two big men stood by a pair of horses at the town fountain. He chewed his lip nervously. These were big men while Joe was not so. The one in black did not have the smile that Joe usually had. And the other man, even though he looked friendly enough, Paco had seen mules that looked that way to until you tried to harness them to work. Cautiously he approached the men, ready to run for the path through the hills where the men and their horses could not go. He figured if he ran hard, he would arrive there in time to warn Joe and Senor Ben of the men.

    "Buenos dias, senores," he greeted them, looking up into their faces, shading his eyes with his arm. "Senor Turner says you seek a way to the mission?"

    "Yes, " the one in black said as he knelt down. " We are looking for two men. One is an older man, silvery white hair. A big man. That's our father. The other man with him is younger, had brown hair and green eyes. His left hand is kind of crooked and he can't use it. He walks with a limp too."

    Paco swallowed hard, afraid for the descriptions fit Joe and his father. But what if these men were bad men, chasing the Cartwrights for some unfathomable reason? He had but one choice, he felt, and that was to lie. To tell them that Senor Turner was mistaken. but Mother Ruth had taught them that it was a sin to lie. Then he hit upon it. The man in black had said that the man's hand was crooked and he couldn't use it. Last night, he had seen Joe's hand and it was no longer bent and curled but straight. He had heard the Sisters and Mother Ruth say that it had been a miracle. So would it really be a lie?

    "No senores. They are not the men you seek," and he turned to head over the hills.

    Behind him, he heard the man in black rise and speak to the other man and he called him 'Hoss'. Paco paused. He had heard both Senor Ben and Joe both speak of a brother by that name. It was such an odd name that there couldn't be two men, big like this man with a friendly enough smile, with it could there be? Praying that he wasn't making a mistake, he turned back to the two strangers.

    "Senores," he whispered and it stopped the men as they were about to mount their horses. "I lied to you. I believe the men you are searching for are at the mission, but they are good men and help us. If you will promise me that you mean them no harm, I will take you there."

    The man the other had called 'Hoss' slapped the black clad shoulder beside him and made an exclamation of surprise and pleasure that Paco was not familiar with in English. Paco stood his ground as the slimmer man pulled his rangy horse over next to Paco and extended his hand down to him.

    "You can ride with me. Paco, that's what the storekeeper said your name was, right? I'm Adam Cartwright and this is my brother Hoss. And we are real glad to make your acquaintance."

    Hoss rode up beside them and extended a hand that Paco felt would swallow half his arm but he shook hands with the man anyway. "And we can promise you that we mean no harm to either our Pa or our little brother. Well, now we might thump our little brother some but he probably deserves it."

    The boy gestured to the road south out of town and they rode in that direction. Adam could feel the tenseness of the youngster behind him as he struggled to stay on the horse's back. He felt it had more to do with the words Hoss was saying so he gestured for Hoss to stay quiet.

    "Tell me how you know our father and brother," encouraged Adam and as the boy spoke, felt him begin to relax.

    "But, senores, do not use those words you said back in town about Joe's hand. They are not true. Last night, when he was helping my sister Chispa, the hand came straight and he can use it. I swear this! I saw it with my own eyes last night. Mother Ruth said we should all give thanks for this miracle!"

    With an eyebrow creeping towards the brim of his hat, Adam cast a glance at Hoss, wondering if he felt the same way. An excitable boy, obviously. But a miracle that healed Joe's hand? That, he sincerely doubted and would reserve judgment until he lay eyes on Joe again to see for himself. Again, he scoffed silently to himself. Who believed in miracles any more?

The end

This story will continue in the third, and last, part of the trilogy,
Phoenix Freed.

The Tahoe Ladies
December 2000 to August 2001

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