Notes: Thanks as always to my patient beta, Daydreamer, for catching my mistakes, Kimba for keeping me from killing the boys without knowing it, and Shorty for last minute episode summaries. This story directly follows the events of "The Eye of the Hunter", although it's not necessary to read it to understand most of the story, it does help understand how the boys got into the situation they're in.
It's finally over, I think to myself as I lose the war with gravity and come crashing to the ground. He's dead, and he won't hurt us anymore. But I can still see his dark and cold eyes, glittering with the promise of more blood and pain. I can still feel his weight on my chest, too heavy for my shredded arms to push off. I try kicking out at him, but hot agony replaces any other feeling. His jaws move closer, until I can feel his teeth pricking my skin, forcing me to open my eyes, ignore the pain, and face him again. Face my death.
I open my eyes, but instead of the cold and cruel eyes of the cougar, all I see are the glassy eyes of death. I killed him... he's dead...
"Hey..." a voice next to me wheezes, and I loll my head to the side to see a dark haired man, bleeding from wounds too numerous to count. It takes me a few moments until my confused, pain-numbed mind is able to place a name to the face.
"Candy." I grunt and try to pull myself up, but spikes of pain force me to drop back to the ground. With no other choice I stare up at the trees, unimpressed by the streams of moonlight painting the leaves blue and silver. "God, I hate cats."
I hear a grunt of effort and a hiss of pain before I feel two hands gently slide under my back, pulling me into a sitting position. I think I might've muttered a thanks, but my eyes have found the corpse of the man-killing cougar, or as Candy has dubbed him, the Devil Cat. I look for the slightest twitch, the tiniest movement, just in case.
"You're welcome." I hear a thump follow by a quiet moan. "You know what? I hate them too."
I look over at my friend, and start to take in the full extent of the damage done by our final encounter with the beast. He's dazed and dirty from the tumble through the dirt; no doubt I looked much the same. Several gashes decorate his chest and shoulders, and three ugly streaks adorn his right cheek. The part that worries me is the stomach he's clutching rather tightly, and I can see the blood welling up through his fingers.
There's another groan, and it takes me a moment to realize it came from me. I look down, amazed to see that my arms have been reduced to red ribbons. No wonder I can't even push myself up. I sigh in disgust as I realize I've ruined another perfectly good jacket. I really hate cats.
If I move, which isn't a good idea, I feel pricks and bites of pain race over my shoulders and chest. I try to look down, but at the awkward angle I can only see another tear in my jacket and shirt.
"Hey Candy..." My voice sounds a little distant and filled with pain, probably not a good sign. "...we match."
His head lolls to the side, as it's easier than another attempt to sit up at the moment. A small humorless laugh escapes him, which quickly ends in a hiss. "Don't... don't make me laugh."
"I guess this wouldn't be very high on a list of things we'll look back and laugh on." I sigh and let my gaze drop again, this time to the pounding in my leg. Has it been doing that the entire time? I try to move it, and immediately regret it. Hot white pain flashes before me, and for those few seconds, I start to wish I was in the same boat as Kitty.
"Joe!" Candy's voice, and the suspicious sound of wheezing, breaks through the pain. It returns to that dull, pounding ache, and I blink my eyes to clear my vision. I due to think tears of pain, and hope not some head wound that will make itself known later.
The painful wheezing continues and finally I see Candy struggling to sit up. I close my eyes and take a deep breath, then exhale it. "Candy, lay down before you kill yourself."
"Un—" a deep shuddering breath, "—grateful..."
"Shut up and stop hurting yourself." I open my eyes, and find the dead carcass still directly in front of me. I really hate that thing. The harsh breathing next to me finally subsides, and I'm thankful he's taken my advice for once. We can't just sit here all day though. We've got a long ride back to the ranch, and I can hear Cochise and Dusk a distance away from us.
"We're gonna have to get the horses y'know," I sigh, and feel a quiver of pain radiate through my chest.
"Yeah... just give me a moment... to catch my breath."
I look at the long distance separating us from our horses, and with my busted leg, I've got the feeling I'm not going to make it. Candy's head flops to face me, and I see that determined look in his eyes, for the moment hiding the pain he's feeling. "I'll get 'em."
I want to protest, but I can't find a good argument for that, other than him aggravating that wound on his stomach. If we don't get the horses though, it'll definitely get worse. I nod tiredly, and see him eye me suspiciously. Ah, to be known too well. It's not always a good thing.
"Don't look at me like that. I've got plenty to do watching our dead friend here."
I hear his labored breaths as he struggles to first sit up, then stand. I feel guilt lance through me. My eyes are still firmly focused on the cougar, but I start to move to get up.
"Don't." The order is sharp, and brooks no argument. I wonder if Candy would find it amusing or horrifying that he sounds just like my father. The thought of Pa makes me want to start trying to stand again. I can see him pacing the big room, glancing at the clock every five minutes, and shaking his head. When the sun rises, that'll make it five days we've been gone. We packed enough supplies for a week though. I frown. Maybe he's not worried yet. Maybe he's still assuming everything is okay.
I finally glance over my shoulder to see Candy has made it upright, but his balance is wavering, and his face is pinched with the pain. I feel that horrible gnawing in my gut, and once again make a move to stand. As if our thoughts were connected his eyes snap open and he glares at me.
"Now if I'm going to go through the trouble of getting the horses, the least you could do is not move that busted leg and try to deafen me again with that scream of yours."
My brow furrows. I was screaming? Since when?
He shakes his head lightly, and I see his eyes tighten for a second, before that familiar poker face of his slides into place. If he wasn't bleeding like a stuck pig, it might've been halfway convincing.
"Go on," I say reluctantly, as he has a point. "I promise to stay still like a good boy."
"No need for sarcasm." He raises his eyebrows and starts hobbling towards the horses. It's now I notice that the bottoms of his pant legs are shredded, and can see deep gouge marks, some even nicking the boots. I count down from ten to try and control my frustration. If the idiot wants to kill himself, then I shouldn't bother myself with getting angry.
Instead of plotting ways to throttle my best friend, I decide to try to map out the trip back in my mind. I try not to think about how I'm going to get, much less stay, on Cochise. That'll have to be dealt with soon enough. Instead I try to focus on the quickest route, but my thoughts keep straying. Hoss is probably going to start the round-up today; and Pa has that timber contract he's suppose to start filling. Adam will be spouting poetry as he hammers down a fence post, trying to educate me as we break our backs. And Candy damn well have not tried to break that mustang while I've been—no wait, that's not right.
I shake my head, hoping it will magically reassemble my jumbled thoughts. I can't even keep straight who I'm out here dying with. Really not a good sign. And Adam left years ago.
I miss him, and Hoss and Pa too, and wish they were here right now. I wouldn't feel so alone, so hopeless. Home has never seemed farther away.
At that, once again my thoughts start flying every which way. I stop trying to corral them, and instead let them run. I wonder if Adam will ever come back, or if he's going to sail the world until the end of time. I wonder if I'll see him again, or Hoss and Pa for that matter. I've never been a pessimistic person, but the thoughts won't stop flittering, each one assaulting me every time my leg throbs.
It's then I realize I'm taking too shallow of breaths, too fast. I suck in on the pounding of one beat, and exhale on the pounding of the other. The wounds on my chest burn, and I distantly wonder if this is how it feels before you die.
"Joe! Joe! Damn it! Listen to me!" Beyond the throbbing and the burning I can feel someone take a firm grip of my shoulders. Right where that damned cat dug his claws in. I'd tell him so, except that I can't breathe, and I'm pretty sure my head is going to explode.
"Deep breaths, with me! Breathe in—" when I don't respond whoever it is gives me a rough shake. Damn it! That hurts! "Breathe in now or so help me God—"
I suck in a breath on his command, and hold it. I want to let it out, but it's stopped the shaking. I feel as if I'm going to drown when I hear the command to breathe out. A few more times and the world starts to return.
As awareness takes hold again, I see that the damnable mind reader still has his grip on my shoulders, so tight I can feel his fingernails digging into my skin. It hurts like hell, but I'm able to catch that look of panic before he once again shuts his deeper emotions off to the world. With a grating smile and my breathing back under control I kindly inform him that he's digging into my cougar bites. Scratches. Whatever.
He drops his hands quickly, as if he'd been burned, and I feel a flash of remorse. My anger slides away as I see he's barely holding it together himself. One arm returns to holding pressure on his stomach, and he uses the other to balance himself as he pulls himself back to his feet. A bead of sweat rolls down his forehead, past his clenched eyes, and down to his unshaven chin. Standing should never have to be that difficult.
"Hey," I speak softly this time, as if he were one of Hoss's injured strays, "take it easy. It's not like there's a race to get back home."
He graces me with a little half smile and swings his free arm about, almost drunkenly, bringing back the reins to my horse. "Got you a present while you were taking your little vacation."
I return the smile and clumsily shift on the ground to try and get my good leg under me. It's a struggle but I finally manage to get myself into a better position. A red-soaked hand is flung into my face, and with a small amount of trepidation I let him help me up, valiantly trying to ignore how much of my friend's blood is now on me by such simple contact.
Standing accomplished, I grab Cochise's reins and pull the horse towards me. He nervously glances at the cougar's body, but seems willing to stay by my side. Good loyal friend. I move to give him a small pat, but realize my hand is still trapped in Candy's grasp. With as much patience as I can muster, I look at him again, only to see he's staring vacantly over my shoulder. Maybe I've just noticed it now, but he looks about ten shades too pale to be considered remotely healthy.
"Hey," I give the hand a small shake, hoping to jog him back to reality. "I need this back, unless you're asking me to the barn dance next week."
He blinks several times and sheepishly withdraws his hand, and gropes behind him for Dusk's reins. He manages to catch them on his third try, and brings the bloody clenched fist back in front of him. He stares at it for a moment, morbidly fascinated. "You know, we may have just become blood brothers."
He titters a little, and I can feel him fading from where I stand. I humor him though. "That old Indian thing?"
"Yeah," he brings the fist up to eye-level, unconsciously clutching his stomach with the other arm. "Me an' Angel were blood brothers y'know, took a vow and everything. Not much of a brother in the end though."
An image of Angel Montoya flashes through my mind, as I recall those tense few days as Candy dealt with both his former best friend and his former wife. "It's not your fault he turned out rotten."
"Not him," he stops staring at his bloody fist and looks at me with one of the most heart-broken looks I've seen on him. "Me."
"What kind of brother blows the other one up?"
And here I thought it was just Anne leaving him again that was bothering him. I promise myself we'll this conversation better later, but right now my head feels as if it's going to float away. If I let myself drift off again, I might not be able to come back. "Hey, look at me."
He does, with that same look still in his eyes.
"I've blown up Adam and Hoss plenty of times, and they've forgiven me."
He frowns. "What?"
"Okay, maybe I haven't, but still..."
He continues watching me, waiting for me to finish that line of thought. I come up blank, and switch to a different tactic. "If I become all evil and start up my own band of Comancheros, promise me you'll blow me up?"
He takes a moment to consider my request. "I guess... if that's what you really want."
This is the most ludicrous conversation I've ever had in my life, and I decide to blame it on the blood loss.
"It's what needs to be done. But until then, you can't blow me up."
"Sure," he looks confused, trying to figure out why he'd blow me up in the first place. "Can I use dynamite?"
It's my turn to be confused. "What?"
"Well, do you have a preferred method of being blown up? Because I like dynamite better than nitroglycerin. I've had some rough dealings with it in the past."
From the ludicrous to the bizarre. "Hey, when blowing me up, use whatever makes you feel comfortable."
"Thanks, and don't get mad at me, because you asked me to do it."
"I won't, I promise."
"Get on your horse."
The direct approach apparently works, and he starts his struggle up into his saddle. I let him be and worry about myself for the moment. I think through a few different ways to go about getting up myself, before I finally decide the best option would be using my arms as levers and hopping on my good leg, and hopefully I don't bang the bad one.
It almost works too, except as I swing my bad leg over I miscalculate, and nearly slip over the other side. Countless years as a horseman causes me to right myself instinctively, grabbing a firm hold of the saddle horn and tightening my legs around the horse's torso. Except one leg doesn't like it too much.
I suck in a breath through clenched teeth, trying to ride out the pain with no more than a mere grunt. Thankfully it fades back to that dull pounding ache. Candy has finished mounting up, and is now watching me somewhere between that half-drunken state of a few moments ago and his usual alertness. I give him a nod and indicate what I hope is the direction back home.
"I think we left a fire burning back at camp," he says more to himself than me.
I can hear the lecture from Pa now, but somehow I think we'll be allowed just this once to ignore the Don't-Burn-Down-the-Ranch rule. "It should be all right, it was a pretty small one."
He nods and turns Dusk the opposite direction from me.
"Where are you going?"
"I thought home."
"Home's this way." I point in front of me confidently.
"No," he insists, flinging out his own finger, "it's this way."
"I think I know the way back to my own home."
"It's my home too—"
"I've lived there longer than you!"
"Which makes it that much sadder that you can't find it."
I growl and turn Cochise to face him. "I can find it, and it is right there!"
I point again and he cocks his head to the side. "You know that's a completely different direction than the last one you pointed at?"
I look, and he's right. "Shut up."
He gives me something akin to his usually cocky grin. "Well, since I haven't gotten us lost up to this point, I think we'll be taking my directions."
"When have I gotten us lost?"
"Do you really want to open that can of worms?"
I'm not going to give him the satisfaction of responding to that, and instead try to take count of how many times he's been right tonight. I think there's some kind of law against that. We start out at a gratingly slow pace, that's still too fast in my opinion.
About every other step Cochise takes, I feel my leg lightly bang against his side. Each one sends a tiny jolt up my spine, that lets me know that yes, my leg has just been mauled by a hundred and fifty pound cougar.
On the bright side, each of those lovely little taps brings me right back to reality, so my thoughts don't start down that straying path again. In front of me Candy is hunched over, and I have the distinct feeling Dusk is leading us back more than he is. I urge Cochise to catch up to them, and he glances up at me briefly, before turning his miserable gaze back to the road ahead.
We plod along in silence for a while, me with the constant reminders of my leg, and him, I don't know. Usually we can read each other pretty well, sometimes where I think we don't need to talk at all. (Somewhere in my head, I hear Pa snorting in disbelief.) Times like these, I can't be too sure. First time he got like this was after Laura died. Cold, despondent, and would volunteer for jobs where he could just stew in his own thoughts. I tried not to let him, but even if I did tag along, he would just ignore me. Two weeks later, it was like it had never happened. No big talk, there were no tears, except for the moment we found him with her dead body, it was like he had just shoved her to some part of his mind, and simply forgot about her.
Now me, I've seen plenty of death in my lifetime. I can hardly recall my mother, but Adam would occasionally mention, if I brought it up, the nights I would literally cry myself to sleep. I've lost many loves. Every girl I've tried to marry has either died or run out on me. I try not to think about it too much, or I might start to think I'm cursed. I move on though, but I never forget them. I guess Candy doesn't either, but his abrupt return to normalcy never fails to surprise me.
After that incident with Ann, Angel, and the army, he had a much shorter, but just as intense, fit of hermitness. He was silent on the ride back to the Ponderosa, followed by a few days of avoiding me and everyone else on the ranch. Then he was back again, as if he hadn't just lost his wife, again. Or as if he hadn't blown up his childhood friend to save the man who had married her.
I look over at him, and hope that's not what that he's thinking about. There's no way to know, unless I ask, but that's the thing. You don't ask questions about Candy Canaday. You don't ask what his real first name is without receiving the glare of death; you don't ask where he came from, or what he did before he came to the Ponderosa. Usually he'll distract you with a joke or anecdote. Instead you find out from strangers coming to arrest him for crimes he didn't commit, or you have old ordinance sergeants who just so happen to be with the same unit as Candy's ex-wife tell you about his childhood. You don't ask things, if you're lucky, you'll just find out.
I'm hoping this is one of those times when he'll just let his thoughts slip out, but he just keeps staring ahead. His eyes occasionally tighten, and his lips press into a thin line as his horse jostles him too much.
I decide that yes, he is thinking about Angel, despite my giving him full permission to blow me up earlier.
"Now that I think about it, I once had a blood brother too."
He glances at me, and I can see the surprise on his face. Ha! I knew it!
"Really?" He asks, narrowing an eyebrow at me when he sees my smugness over figuring out his thought processes. Nothing gets on a private man's nerves like reading his mind.
"Yeah, really," I shift in the saddle and try stretching my leg out, seeing if that will stop the jolting. "His name was Sharp Tongue."
He raises an eyebrow. "Indian?"
"Yeah, and no, I'm not copying you. I met him back in school, stepped in to help him with a fight."
"I'm assuming that's not where the story ends."
"Well yes, we became blood brothers, and ten years later, he tried to kill me."
"Now you're making it up."
"I am not," I huff. "I had to outrun the whole tribe, spears, lances, the whole nine yards."
"And what exactly prompted him to try and kill you?" Candy rolls his eyes, as if he's just playing along with me.
"What else? A girl."
"Indian girl? I thought your Pa would have warned you about that."
"Oh he did, and didn't let me forget it after the whole thing with Sarah Winnemucca."
His eyes do widen at that, I guess maybe I don't share everything either. "Chief Winnemucca's daughter?"
I nod, and he grins.
I can't help but grin a little as well. "Yeah, you know, the Cartwright charm never fails."
"Except when the Canaday charm is at work."
We break the tree-line, and I can see dawn's fingers creeping up over the horizon. We're still hours away from the house though; at our pace I doubt we'd make it there earlier than noon. We've fallen back into our easy routine of trading barbs, and I'm pretty sure he's not thinking about Angel anymore.
The sun continues to rise, first slowly creeping up with tinges of pink, followed by a swath of purple. And as the midnight of the sky brightens to the more subtle shades of blue, I don't feel as tired, and an unexpected feeling of gratitude washes over me. I'm alive, so is Candy, and once we get home, everything will be fine.
Two minutes later Dusk rears up as he spies something on the ground. Candy has a difficult time staying in the saddle, and this would be the point where I would reach over and grab the reins, except I'm having enough trouble with Cochise dancing around nervously. There's a loud thump as Candy loses the battle to stay seated. Dusk takes off in the direction of the house as fast his legs can carry him, and I'm still having difficulties keeping Cochise still. I back him away and he calms down slightly.
I look over to see if Candy's all right and I see him crouched in what has to be a painful position, perfectly still. A sliver of fear races up my spine as I start to add it all up.
"Candy?" I ask cautiously.
He glances at me, but keeps his rigid position. He then quickly looks at me, to a spot on the ground in front of him, then back to me. I lean forward in the saddle, trying to figure out what it is when I see it. The white diamonds against the olive-green scales leave no doubt that we just encountered a rattler, and the sound its making, tells me he isn't happy with us either.
I pull my sidearm, thankful I strapped it on as an extra precaution against Kitty, even if I never got to use it. I take careful aim, and there's a loud roar, followed by silence. Candy slumps to the ground with a sigh of relief and I prod a reluctant Cochise towards him.
"You can't tell me that's not painful," I remark, and he lifts his head up enough so he can meet my gaze.
"That was close."
"A little, yeah."
"Was bitten by one of those things once, would rather not have to go through that again." He remarks, and slowly and painfully stands up, leaning on Cochise for support as he takes in a few harsh breaths. "Thanks."
"No problem, except for one."
"What?" He doesn't even look up.
"Your horse ran off."
"Probably half-way home by now, knowing how he is when he gets spooked."
"I swear that horse has left you high and dry more times than I can count."
"Only when absolutely necessary."
"Which seems to be a lot."
He nods. "Yeah, you'd think the Ponderosa would be a safe place to live, what with all this land and no angry neighbors. But I've nearly been killed how many times since I've come to work for you?"
"As many times as I've had to save your sorry butt from the trouble you start that nearly gets you killed." I lean down and offer him a hand.
He sighs as if I was asking him to climb a mountain and not mount a horse, and looks off towards the forest. "I'm starting to think walking would just be easier."
I sigh and shake my still proffered hand. He rolls his eyes at me, and starts to climb up, but it's not easy. It is several tries before he can even get a foot in the stirrup. He lets out a strangled whimper as he swings his leg over. Before I can comment though his boot connects with my injured leg, and I can't stop the yelp it elicits.
"We're a pitiful pair," he breathes harshly, his breath tickling my ear, "aren't we?"
"You think Pa will throw us back?"
"Your father? Nah. He's worse than Hoss when it comes to strays." Candy wheezes what sounds like a laugh. "I mean, look at me."
I smile sadly, although he can't see it. "Yeah, you mangy scoundrel."
"Let's..." his breath hitches for a moment, "let's just get back. I don't like it when the world gets all gray and fuzzy at the edges."
I nod and start Cochise off again, this time much faster. My leg bangs against his side constantly now, and I start to see stars and spots dance in my vision. I can't pass out now though, because I haven't been able to perfect staying in the saddle while unconscious.
I try taking deep breaths to focus, but they're knocked out of me as Cochise avoids a rock, a dip, or a blade of grass. I feel the hands around my stomach, tightly clenched up until now, start to lose their grip, and the harsh panting in my ear has slowed considerably. I take a hand from holding the reins to try and hold onto him, but I can't keep myself and him in the saddle while trying to steer Cochise. I decide to let Cooch lead the way, since he probably knows it better than me at this point. He won't leave me behind...
I don't know how long we ride like that, me barely holding onto consciousness and my friend. I can feel his full weight as he slumps into my back, the pressure aggravating already irritated cougar scratches. I try to keep focused, but now even the dots are swimming, bouncing all over the place.
I mutter a prayer to God, although I'm not sure it makes complete sense. I hope he gets the gist of it anyway. I have to slow down Cochise's pace as I start sliding out of the saddle, lest Candy and I wind up eating the dirt. I feel that hope from earlier start to fade. The sun has risen fully, and for the life of me I can't tell where we are. I pray again, this time that I haven't gotten us lost, taking another direction.
We plod on, and the weight on my shoulders starts to list to the side. I scramble to hold on to him with both hands, but it only helps me in loosing what grip I had. We both hit the ground in an ungracious heap. Pain flares, breath leaves me, and I decide that I really hate cats.
I look at Candy once again, but he doesn't look back. For a moment my breath catches in my throat, and move my sliced and abused arms to try and shake him. He won't be dead. He can't leave me, not after all that.
With more strength than I should have I toss him onto his back, patting his face lightly. He doesn't stir. I clench my eyes shut, trying to chase away despair, but it's coming fast, and there's nothing that can stop it. It washes over me, and I let my eyes open, seeing the world waver through unshed tears.
It's then that I see that he's breathing, and just unconscious.
I start laughing, and I can't stop. I wish it was because I'm relieved, or so happy that I'm not out here alone. But I'm laughing because it's not funny. And I can't stop.
I feel a push on my shoulder, and see Cochise's worried eyes staring back at me. But that just makes me laugh harder. We're out here, and we're going to die, and we're not but a few miles from home.
I try to choke back a giggle, but it comes out a sob, and I wonder if I called out for Pa if he would come. Maybe Hoss would come save me, like he always does. Or even Adam, on a surprise visit home as he just so happens to cross our path.
I reach out for Cochise and he pushes his nuzzle into my hand. I lean in and hold onto my last lifeline, and he stands there patiently. Good friend, loyal friend. Just like my other one.
Maybe I can stand up, get both me and Candy back on Cochise. That wouldn't be giving up, because the sons of Ben Cartwright aren't allowed to give up. Even if they're slowly bleeding to death with their best friend not far behind. They're not suppose to give in without a fight. They're not suppose to let the devil disguised as a man-killing cougar win.
So I take a firm hold of Cochise's neck, and let him help pull me up to my feet. I can stand... now I just need to get Candy up as well. No problem. I can hop over to him, use my arms to heave him up.
I collapse to the ground on the first try. Candy's a dead weight, and I have no strength left. I get up again, this time putting more weight on my injured leg. I can feel the cracked bones grating together as pain explodes behind my clenched eyes, but I keep pulling. Because he won't win, not if I have any say in it.
I sling one of Candy's arms around my shoulders and rise. Cochise is still by my side, and I lean into him for a second, so I can take the weight off of my leg. I know I've found heaven as I feel the agony ebb back into that familiar throb.
Over my labored breaths, I think I can hear the soft clopping of horse steps. With how far gone I am, who's to say I'm not imagining it?
Cochise nickers what I know as his hello to a barn mate. I struggle to see around him, hoping it's not just Dusk, coming back to check on us. I think I make out the shape of a man in a saddle, but it could be an angel come to greet us. I don't think angels wear cowboy hats though.
"Joe? Candy?" The voice sounds a bit horrified, and I'm guessing that since God's messengers are probably used to bloody messes of people by now, our visitor is of the more earthly kind. The rider dismounts and comes around. I think it's one of our hands, Hanes. "Jesus..."
"Hey Bob," I smile, genuinely and brightly, "fancy meeting you here."
He nods mutely, still shocked by our state.
I continue grinning stupidly at him, and he finally finds his voice. "What—what—?"
"What happened? Well it's a funny story. And I'll tell you—"
I never do get to tell him, as I finally lose my battle with unconsciousness, and the blackness rolls up to greet me.
A powerful jolt of pain in my leg brings me back, and I see the sky and wispy clouds strolling above me. The ground below me disappears for a fraction of a second, and then slams against my back, jostling my injuries. I glance to the side and see wooden walls, I glance to the other side of me, and see Candy's supine form and another wall. Another rumble and a jump and I realize that I'm in the back of a wagon.
I try to sit up and see who's driving, but the rumbling voice in the front seat answers that question easily enough. "Easy Hoss, easy... we don't want to lose them out the back."
I want to laugh, this time for the right reasons. I settle for a half-sigh, half-chuckle. They found me, just like they always do.
I glance over to my right and see two blue eyes watching me. I give him a grin, too tired for words. He understands though, and gives me a small smile before his eyes slide shut again. I decide to join him in the realm of unconsciousness, as my brother's driving leaves a lot to be desired.
"I think he's coming around."
I hear the bustle of activity and the buzzing of conversation, and a phrase or two, before I actually understand any of it.
"Come on Joseph, time to wake up."
I sigh tiredly, as I think sleeping for a week sounds more agreeable.
"Little Brother's just playing possum like usual, ain't that right?" I feel a light poke in my arm, and I crack open an eye so I can glare at my big brother.
"See?" Pa sounds amused, and not overly sympathetic. "That wasn't so hard."
I grunt rather than say what I'm really thinking. My head feels fuzzy, as if someone wrapped a warm blanket around my mind. It's nice, and I don't think I want it to go away. The pain is gone too. Everything is warm and hazy.
"You gave us quite a scare there for a while. Doctor says you're lucky, both of you." Pa sits on the bed next to me, and I try to sit up so I can face him. He narrows an eyebrow and shakes his head lightly at me, and I drop back to my pillow. Mother hen.
"I think he scared Hanes a bit more, came to us hollering about ghosts," Hoss grins, hovering right behind Pa.
"Nah, not ghosts," I say, my dry throat makes it come out a whisper. Hoss moves to get me a glass of water, and the but almost hangs in the back of my mind.
I'm allowed just enough water to make talking easier, but they spout that whole business about making yourself sick if I drink it too fast. I know they just want it for themselves though. Can't fool me.
My mind pulls at me, and I know there's a question I should be asking. Its right beyond my reach though, trapped in that fuzzy haze. I try to grasp at it, but it just dances away.
"Candy's fine too," Pa says, and I'm guessing Candy's not the only one who can read my thoughts. "It was a little touchy there for a while, but you know him. Won't give up too easily."
I lean back into my pillows, feeling as if a huge weight had just been lifted off my chest. I see the corners of my father's lips lift into a smile, and I wonder if Candy truly knows that he's not just another stray. Which reminds me that I need to finish that talk with him about Angel.
"Where is he?"
"In his room, still sleeping. Paul gave him a bigger dose than he did you." He leans forward, apparently reading my next thought. Now I can see why it annoys Candy. "And no, you can't see him right now. You need to stay off that leg. I promise to tell you when he wakes up though."
I nod a little petulantly, and I hear Hoss laugh.
"Looks like you're wasting no time getting back to your ornery self Little Brother." I give him my best glare, but he just grins back.
I decide to give up, and address more important matters while I'm still awake. I can feel sleep start tugging me back down.
"We got the cat Pa. He won't hurt anyone again." I can see the weight lift off his shoulders, knowing that the killer cat is gone.
He looks back at me and gives me that gentle smile that always somehow reminds me of my mother. "Get some sleep, Son."
I nod and slip off again.
I'm back in the forest again, trapped against the ground, held down by some invisible weight. I try to push it off, but if anything it gets heavier. Gasping for breath I look around for help, and see those cold, cruel eyes staring back at me. This time he's not on me, but he's got Candy pinned to the ground. I struggle more with whatever's holding me down, but it just keeps pressing down harder.
I can't help but watch as the beast opens its wide maw and descend on my friend. I scream at it to stop, but it just seems to take more pleasure in my pain. I close my eyes, and when I open them again it's not Candy that's pinned down anymore, it's Pa. He stares at me with wide eyes, mouthing my name, before the cat finishes him off. I scream out his name and suddenly the weight on my chest is gone.
I sit up, and I'm in my room again. I rub my eyes as I try to chase away the lingering visions in my head. When I no longer see the dead eyes of my father haunting me I look around the room, seeing that the tray of food Hop Sing brought me earlier is gone and a leather bound journal is in its place.
I reach for it, and read the note inside, not bothering to hide the smile that creeps up.
True to his word, Pa let me know as soon as Candy woke up, but apparently whatever Paul's miracle pain medicine is this time, it's doing a heck of a job. We've both been sleeping for almost a week it seems, but are never awake at the same time. We've been writing notes back and forth in the journal, as if we were school kids. I have to admit, it's kind of fun, if a little stupid.
It's the middle of the day now, and I can hear Hop Sing juggling our trays as he goes down the stairs. Pa is downstairs pretending to balance the books, but I think he's playing watchdog. Hoss is out running the ranch, as he has triple duty with both me and Candy laid up.
I manage to sit up with far less effort than before, and only have the ache of still healing wounds and sore underused muscles to deal with this time. I cautiously swing my legs out over the edge of the bed, and glance around conspiratorially, just in case they've got someone hidden in the room waiting to sound the escaped patient alarm.
There's no one there, so I let my good leg slide off the bed, and lightly rest my bandaged leg on the floor as well. I push myself up, and wobble for a moment as my head tries to catch up with the new height. Freedom though, is just beyond that door, and I won't let a broken leg or a spinning world keep me from it.
I hobble out of my room, catching myself at the door. Once I reach the hall, I check again. Just in case. Fathers and cooks are tricky like that; make you think they're somewhere, when they're really just lurking outside your room.
With the coast clear, I use the wall to support and guide me to my goal, and see that door cracked as well. Candy waves to me jovially as I hop my way to the chair next to his bed, and practically collapse in it.
"I didn't hear that the wardens had released you yet," he cocks an eyebrow. "Is this a prison break? And can I join?"
I wave my hand in the air lazily, "What Pa doesn't know..."
"Oh, he'll know," Candy nods confidently.
"Yeah, but it'll be worth it. I'm going out of my mind in there."
"I hear ya," Candy thumbs a leather bound book on his bed. "I'm tired of pretending I'm interested in that."
"Are you supposed to be sitting that much up?" I indicate his back firmly rested against the headboard.
"Hey, you have your way of bending the rules, and I have mine."
"You have to admit, this beats making Hop Sing play courier, passing our notes back and forth."
"Yeah, I've run out of things to tip him with," Candy shrugs. "He didn't find the picture I drew him of a duck very compensating."
I shake my head softly. "You're going to pay for that with a week's worth of cold dinners once you're better."
"What can I say? I'm really bored."
He shifts uncomfortably and winces as he moves his stomach too much. Like me, he's had to go without a shirt, but he might as well be wearing one, as the bandages cover most of his torso and chest. The ugly three slices on his cheek still stand out, and I wish they had bandaged those too. At least with the bandages, there's not a constant reminder.
"Hello? Joe?" He waves a hand in front of my face and I return to the present, where we're safe, and the blood is gone.
"Sorry, drifted off for a second there." I shake my head lightly and try to pretend I was looking through him, instead of at the scars.
He lightly fingers them, and I wonder if I'm really that obvious about what I'm thinking. "All right, you need to stop that."
"Reading my mind. Not only is it unnerving, it's annoying."
"If I have to stop, then you do too. A man has to have his own private thoughts." He gives me a half-serious glare, and I'm finally reminded of my ulterior motive for risking a lecture on disobeying doctor's orders.
"While we're on the subject of private thoughts, I've got to say, it'd be a lot easier if you shared them, you know, just every once and a while."
He sets his chin stubbornly, and I know what he's going to say next. "I don't have to share everything with you. We're not joined at the hip."
"Not everything," I agree, and fold my hands casually and rest my chin on them, "but I'm tired of you avoiding me and everyone else when you have something weighing on your mind."
"What does it matter?" He bites back annoyed.
"It matters because Cartwrights don't let each other stew over bad feelings."
"I'm not one of you," he says casually, but it's betrayed by that same haunted look from earlier.
"That's where you're wrong," I smile and lean back in the chair, "because as you said yourself, we're blood brothers now. Meaning like it or not, you're in with us now."
Annoyance and hope war on his face, but the latter wins out. He tries to smother his smile with a frown, but it winds up just looking goofy. "I don't know... you Cartwrights seem to have awful luck with women."
"And you share that luck, so that excuse won't work."
"You're not helping." He manages to wipe the smile away and continues to frown at me.
"I'm supposed to help you disown yourself?"
"Let me guess, 'Cartwrights don't do that' either," he raises an eyebrow in challenge.
"Nope," I chirp happily, not able to hide the smile at his annoyance.
"Sometimes, you're just plain mean."
I heave a heavy dramatic sigh. "But what am I to do? You leave me no choice but to manipulate you."
A mischievous glint lights in his eye, and I hear the warning bells sounding in the back of my mind. "One could almost say that's evil."
"Yeah, you could," I agree hesitantly.
"Well it's settled then," he flops back into the pillow with an air of finality.
"As soon as I'm cleared by the doc, I have to go track down some explosives."
"You wouldn't!" I sit up straighter as I see where he's going with this.
"You just admitted yourself that you're evil."
"That was only half of the agreement! I have to go evil and get a band of Comancheros!"
"Wouldn't someone who's an evil leader of a band of Comancheros lie about having them?"
"Fine. Blow me up. But you have to use nitroglycerin."
"I don't want to use nitroglycerin!"
"I don't want to be blown up, but you're not letting up on that one."
"You said I could use whatever I wanted to blow you up though!"
"I also remember something about a band of Comancheros, which, by the way, I still don't have."
"You can't just go changing the rules of a bargain like that."
"You changed them first!"
"I did not!"
"You did too!"
A throat being cleared from the doorway grabs our attention, and both of us turn to see Pa leaning against the doorframe, with an amused expression on his face. "Do I want to know?"
"Not... really," Candy says lamely.
Pa nods as if to himself then looks at me. "Joseph, you appear to be out of bed."
I flush. "Um, well you see—"
"Busted," Candy whispers smugly.
Pa then looks at Candy. "And aren't you supposed to be lying down ?"
Pa raises an eyebrow.
"Not all the way," he continues defensively.
Pa sighs annoyed. "Candy, lay down. I'd hate for you to be here longer because you couldn't follow doctor's orders."
Candy grumbles something distinctly un-Cartwright as he winces and returns to his semi-propped position, and I feel Pa's gaze burn into the back of my head.
I rise awkwardly and hop over to the door, giving Candy a farewell wave. "I guess I'll write."
I feel his hand clamp down on my shoulder as he forcibly steers me back to my room. After I'm settled back in bed, I wait for him to read me the riot act, but he just shakes his head softly. "Get some sleep son. I'll see about getting a cane or something to help you around."
Bewildered I watch him leave, then grab the journal Candy and I have been passing back and forth. I write him a small note to watch his un-Cartwrightish language, and toss it back on the night stand for Hop Sing to pick up on his next round. I lean back against the pillows and close my eyes. As I drift off to sleep I hope that my dreams don't have cats or claws this time. As the world fades away, I can see dawn creeping over the horizon.
I dream of sunrises.
The next morning I awaken to find a new note in the journal:
If I were to find evidence of this "band of Comancheros" in your employ, would I then be allowed to use dynamite? I really hate nitro.
I snicker and shake my head as I pick up the pencil that was left next to the journal.
If you were to somehow magically find evidence of this non-existent Comanchero band, then I might consider it. But the evidence needs to be real, and not a couple of prints in the ground that you've stomped out. You won't get off that easy Brother.
I lay the journal back down and watch the door impatiently. If I'm right, sitting up won't be breaking the rules enough. So, he should be by in about...
I see a hunched figure dart past my door, and hear a shout from Hop Sing in the hall.
I grin and lay back against the pillows. Maybe knowing someone too well isn't such a bad thing.
I see him rush past my door back towards his room with a broom-wielding Hop Sing not far behind. That boy has a lot to learn about being a Cartwright, like when to time your escapes. I guess I could teach him. I've got nothing better to do with my time.