A WORLD OF HURT

The sunlight kept flickering hard and fierce in Joe's face, and his eyelids fluttered in an attempt to keep the searing brilliance of it at bay. Something large and dark kept moving across the sun. It blocked the light out, then moved aside to bring it back. Blocked it out, brought it back, blocked it out, brought it back.

All that bright oscillating light and the loud pops in his ears made him think of the Chinese fireworks Hoss had once ordered for a party they'd thrown on the Ponderosa. The fireworks hadn't lasted until the party, of course. A stray bullet had set them off before they'd even been unloaded off the wagon and the noise and shooting rockets had sent every hand on the Ponderosa scurrying for cover. Hoss had been fit to be tied, but Joe had laughed until his sides hurt. He remembered that Pa hadn't thought it was all that funny.

Joe frowned, trying to figure out why fireworks were going off in Johnson's Pass and watching the large object looming over him as it continued to cover and uncover the light from the sun. He squinted to try to better make it out and he was startled to realize that he was looking up at the underside of his horse. He was lying on his back in the dirt and Cochise was rapidly sidestepping all around him, lifting his feet high in a nervous dance of agitated fear.

He'd been thrown from his horse, and now he was just lying here like a half-witted fool waiting to be stomped on. Self-preservation kicked in. Joe scrambled to scoot backwards out of the way, but his head was pounding loud enough to almost drown out the popping of the fireworks--and why were there fireworks? His movements were clumsy and slow—way too slow.

Cochise reared and came down again, and a hoof smashed into Joe's right thigh. He shouted out in pain; in desperation he rolled onto his side to try to get out of the way of the horse's feet. It was then that he realized he still gripped a tightly stretched rein in one hand. He let go, and Cochise galloped away, the loose reins whipping through the dust as he went.

The pain expanded in rapidly increasing throbs in Joe's thigh, and he sucked in a hiss of air at the intensity of it. He raised his head and stretched a trembling hand down to press against his leg, and his fingers brushed against torn fabric and warm, sticky blood. He let his aching head fall back into the dirt, stunned by both the pain and what had happened. How had he managed to get himself thrown? Cochise hadn't pitched him off in years. Hoss and Adam would never let him hear the end of it.

Hoss and Adam. As if conjured up by his thoughts, he heard his brothers shouting. Shouting at him, as a matter of fact, yelling his name over the loud popping of the firecrackers—no, not firecrackers. Gunshots.

Gunshots.

He rolled over onto his belly and raised himself up on his elbows, shaking his head to clear his blurred vision. His brothers were jumping off their horses and were running toward him. As they ran, they fired their guns at something off to his right, and answering shots echoed against the rocks.

Damn, somebody was trying to kill them. Something niggled at the back of his brain, but he still couldn't seem to recall exactly how he'd come to be lying on the ground underneath his horse. Struggling, he got himself up onto his knees, ignoring the screaming protests of his right leg. Dizziness assailed him and he shut his eyes against it.

"Joe!"

He opened his eyes again. Hoss and Adam were still yelling at him. They wanted him to do something, and they wanted him to do it now. He was trying to move, really he was, but for the life of him he couldn't seem to get his body to cooperate. He must have landed harder than he'd thought, because he was starting to hurt everywhere. He struggled to get his bearings, kneeling there in the dirt, bracing his hands against his knees. His right hand came back wet, and he looked down in surprise at the red stain covering his thigh. Cochise had really managed to open him up. Not good.

"Joe! For God's sake, stay down!" This time Adam's voice was hard and clear. He and Hoss were a lot closer now. How had they gotten that close so fast? Surely only a couple of seconds had passed since Joe had seen them jump off their horses, and they had been a good hundred yards off then.

Hadn't they?

He wasn't sure; time had somehow acquired a strange, warped quality.

"Joe! Get down, boy!" Hoss this time, closer yet. He was crawling on his belly toward Joe, hauling his big bulk along with his elbows and ducking his head when a bullet came too close.

Bullets. The realization that he was in danger was there, but it was a dim and misty feeling, like looking through a frost-covered window. Even so, Joe knew he needed to move deeper into the rocks where his brothers were. He couldn't stay out in the open like this. Digging deep, he made a harder effort and stood up. Hoss yelled at him again, and Joe staggered in his direction.

Something hot and heavy slammed into his left side and bore him to the ground. He lay on his belly in the hot sand, panting, dirt in his mouth and eyes and hair. Over the noise of gunfire he listened to his brothers' shouts. Adam was shouting orders, but he wasn't calling Joe anymore. He was yelling at Hoss now.

Joe tried to listen. Adam was always giving orders. It was kind of unusual, though, for him to be yelling while he told them what to do. When Adam wanted to give an order, he rarely had to raise his voice to do it. He could get more done in a quiet voice than most men could by yelling their lungs out. It was funny; sometimes the quieter he said something, the more Joe jumped when he said it.

How bad was he hit? He reached a hand down along the sand to feel his side. He pulled in an alarmed breath when his fingers came back wet with blood and he briefly closed his eyes. More blood. "Joe, you idiot, you've really messed things up," he whispered to himself. There was Adam again, still yelling, and Hoss yelling back. Adam's voice was higher-pitched than normal, and he sounded angry.

Adam had a right to be mad. They'd been granted a rare day off, and now he, Joe, had ruined it.

While the shouting and the gunshots went on around him, Joe lay calmly in the dirt, as if whatever happened wouldn't have much effect on him at all. He felt oddly detached, and he wondered idly at his disinterest. While everyone around him shouted and shot back and forth at each other, he lay still upon the hot sand and shook his head at his own foolishness.

How far the day had gone wrong. It had started off so well. Pa had had business to attend to in Virginia City and when Adam had asked if he wanted him along he'd waved a hand in refusal. "No need. It's just a tedious pile of paperwork that has to be tended to. Besides, it's too beautiful a day for both of us to spend inside a gloomy bank office."

Adam had shrugged. "Well then, you want us to start breaking that new string of horses while you're gone?"

Pa had considered and then shook his head. "No. Several of them are somewhat on the scrawny side. I'd like to feed them out a bit before we start working them too hard."

"All right. What about cutting those younger heifers out of the herd in the west section—"

"No, Adam." Pa had shaken his head again. "I'll tell you what I want you to do. Take a day off."

"A day off?" Joe and Hoss had repeated the words in joyous unison.

"A day off?" Adam sounded as if he didn't know what the words even meant, and Joe had wanted to slap him against the side of his head for it.

Pa was nodding as if the idea grew more logical the longer he thought about it. "Yes. A day off. Tell you what—why don't you take these two brothers of yours and go fishing?"

Adam had blinked. "Fishing?"

"Aw, for cryin' out loud, Adam!" Joe had shouted. "Pa's offerin' us a little break and all you can do is stand there repeatin' everything he says!"

Hoss had chimed in. "I don't know about you, older brother, but I could sure go for a day of doin' nothin' but waitin' for the fish to bite. Come on, it's been months since we've done that."

"Besides, we're going to be busy as all get-out here pretty soon," Joe broke in, worried that Adam might possibly convince Pa to change his mind about them needing that day off. He hurried on. "We're going to be rounding up those summer calves starting tomorrow, and then we'll be busy putting up hay for the next several weeks, and then—"

Pa had stopped his litany with a raised hand and a gentle scowl. "Joe's right, Adam. Why don't you take advantage of the bit of slack time you've got now? I know I don't have to remind you that there won't be many more slow days between now and first snow." Pa had smiled at his son's considering frown. Adam knew as well as he did that there were no slack days on a spread the size of the Ponderosa. It didn't matter. "You know, Adam, sometimes a man needs to be reminded to stop and just…enjoy what life has to offer."

Adam had stared at their father as if he was speaking Greek, and Hoss had jumped in. "Yeah, Adam," he said. "You know what they say. All work and no play—"

"—makes for a well-run ranch," Adam broke in, but he grinned at his brothers' affronted outburst and threw up his hands in surrender. "Fine. Fishing then, if that's how Pa wants it."

So. A day off. Fishing.

They'd decided to spend it in a sweet little honey-hole of a cove on Lake Tahoe. It was a pretty long ride just to go fishing, but Hoss had convinced them that the trip was well worth it.

Hoss was excited; fishing was the only arena in which his competitive side chose to assert itself. He loved fishing, and prided himself on reeling in the biggest and the most fish of any of them. It was a big game to him; on this day he'd even tucked a folded up sheet of paper and a pencil stub into the pocket inside his vest. He planned to keep a tally of how many fish each of them caught, just so there was no mistaking who the king fisherman in the family was.

"We'll need that whole sheet of paper to keep track if we go up to this little cove," he promised when they laughed at him. "Cutthroat trout as big as a man's arm, swarms of 'em." Adam and Joe had agreed on the location just to see the size of their brother's exaggeration.

They'd never made it that far.

Half the morning had passed when they'd run across the tracks just this side of Johnson's Pass. Hoss had pointed out one set of prints that showed the indentation of a bent nail on one shoe.

"It's the same one we saw out in the northeast section last week," he said softly.

They'd all stared at each other, considering the implications. Ten days ago they'd seen those prints, along with the tracks of several other horses, all over that section of the ranch—the same section from which twenty head of prime shorthorn breeding stock had disappeared without a trace. The Cartwrights and several of their hands had trailed the rustlers for miles, only to lose them when a heavy rain washed away all trace of the thieves. By the time the wet spell ended, they'd counted up another thirty head of vanished cattle, and the rain had been the best accomplice the rustlers could have asked for.

Apparently, though, they'd just turned up again, holed up in the boulder-and-sand-filled terrain of Johnson's Pass.

All thoughts of fishing disappeared. "What are we waiting for? Let's go after them!" Joe had urged, and was flabbergasted when Adam shook his head.

"Bad timing," Adam had murmured, staring up into the house-sized boulders littering the pass.

"What the heck difference does it matter what time it is?" Joe had sputtered. "We've got a chance to get them if we move now!"

"What we've got is a chance to get ourselves ambushed," Adam had retorted. "Not only does the number of tracks tell me we are badly outnumbered, but we're also at the wrong end of the pass. They'll be up above us somewhere, hiding out in those rocks, and they'll be able to see us coming."

"Adam's right, Joe," Hoss had put in, his blue eyes reflecting the sky as he swept his anxious gaze along the craggy granite horizon. "A man's got to choose his battleground, and this just ain't the right one for this particular fight. If they're up there—and judging from the freshness of these tracks, I'd say they are—then they've got us at a disadvantage. We'd be better off going back to the Ponderosa, picking up some of the men, and coming back in at the top end of the pass."

Joe had snorted. "Oh, yeah, right. I'm sure the rustlers will kindly sit around and wait for us to get back. More likely, while we're running back to the ranch like a litter of skittish coyote pups, they'll be heading out to hit our herd somewhere else."

"If you've got a better idea I'd like to hear it." Adam's rebuttal was cool and quiet, but it still managed to stir Joe's temper.

"As a matter of fact, I do," he shot back, "and it doesn't include running back to the Ponderosa with my tail between my legs." Adam's face was getting that closed-up look, and Joe made an effort to calm his temper. "Look. Let's at least follow the trail just a ways up. Just to make sure they're still up there."

He held his breath, trying to be patient while Hoss and Adam looked at one another and communicated in that wordless way they had. He felt left out sometimes when they did that, like they belonged to a world where they spoke the language and he didn't. Right now, though, he didn't care, just as long as they went after those rustlers.

When he saw the corner of Hoss's mouth quirk up and Adam's shoulders drop in resigned acquiescence, he barely held back a whoop of relief.

"All right," Adam said, "we'll trail them, but only far enough to be sure of their direction. Then we're getting out of here."

A compromise from Adam was almost as rare as a day spent fishing, and Joe grabbed at it.

They'd headed up the pass, winding their way through the granite boulders, going easy and quiet. At the pass's opening the ground was covered with loose shale and gravel, but it eventually gave way to deep sand. It was there that they'd found another mess of tracks, obviously leading straight into the upper reaches of the pass.

"Okay, we know where they are," Adam had said, reining his horse in. "Now let's get on back to the house. With any luck they'll still be up here somewhere when we get back."

Hoss had pulled up, too, but Joe had kept urging Cochise up the trail.

"Joe…" Adam had said warningly, and Joe could hear the ire in his voice.

"I know, I know," he'd grumbled, but he still didn't stop his horse. "Turn back before they catch sight of us. You told me. Let me just ride up a few more yards, just to where those rocks split. I'm thinking I might have a pretty good vantage point to look around from up there. Then I swear I'll give it up. You two just sit right there and wait for me. I'll be right back."

Joe had cast a quick glance over his shoulder at his brothers and tried not to let the aggravated expressions on their faces change his mind. Regardless of the danger, it was important that they stop these men. The cattle they'd stolen hadn't been simple range stock; they'd been top-of-the-line shorthorns specially purchased for the bloodlines they would add to the Ponderosa's predominately Hereford herd. The thought that the thieves might still slip away had Joe's blood simmering.

He was some distance away from his brothers when he glanced back at them again. They sat on their horses in the shade of a jumbled mass of giant boulders and Joe could see the easy set of Hoss's shoulders as he leaned back in his saddle. Adam said something, and Hoss threw his head back in a chuckle at whatever it was. Joe was too far away to hear the joke or Hoss's laughter, and he made a mental note to ask when he got back to them. It was a good day, even if the slow contentment of fishing had given way to the less pleasant task of tracking cattle thieves. He was with his brothers, and that was good enough. He suddenly felt glad that the difference in opinion between himself and his brothers hadn't escalated into a full-scale argument, and he felt guilty about shooting his mouth off at Adam for not wanting to follow the rustlers. Adam didn't want to lose them any more than he did. Joe made up his mind to apologize as soon as he got back to them.

Joe had turned his eyes back to the trail, and then he'd seen the tracks again, just as he reached the split in the rocks that he'd pointed out. He sighed, the urge to follow so strong he could taste it, and chewed his lip as he thought about the ever-present caution in his oldest brother that prevented him from giving in to his urges. They were spitting into the wind hoping the thieves would still be here by the time they got back. He knew it, Hoss knew it, and Adam knew it. He'd be telling Adam 'I told you so' for sure.

He shrugged, the battle with his brother conceded. "Come on, Cochise, let's go back."

Before he could rein the horse around, though, all hell had broken loose, and he'd ended up underneath his horse instead of on top of him.

A good day had first taken a bad left turn; now it was headed straight downhill, and Joe had only his own hard-headedness to blame.

"Went and got yourself shot," he mumbled again, and he wondered at the fact that every minute that passed, the wound seemed to bother him less and less. The sand was growing uncomfortably hot against his cheek, but the trouble of lifting his head hardly seemed worth it. Joe sighed, thinking of the chewing he was going to get from his brothers. The rustlers would get away for sure now, just because he'd gone and gotten himself hurt.

The rustlers. It was surely them that were doing the shooting, although he had yet to lay eyes on a single one of them.

He lay still and listened to more gunshots and more shouting, and when he blinked some of the sand out of his eyes he saw Adam running in a low crouch, firing over Hoss's head. "Go!" Adam shouted, and Hoss jumped up and ran, leaving Adam to fire one shot after another.

Hoss was coming for him.

He tried to watch his brother, but the sun still shone bright and warm on the sand, and his eyes were heavy. He couldn't help but let them drift shut, even though he could still hear gunshots peppering the air. His leg didn't hurt any more at all, and neither did his gunshot wound. As a matter of fact, he didn't hurt anywhere. He felt weightless, as if he could float away if he just let go.

Then he felt Hoss grabbing him with his big hands, turning him over, yelling his name, and some of the pain came back. He wanted to answer his brother, but he was so tired. He couldn't even force his eyes open to look at him. But he listened, holding fast to his brother's voice.

He heard the whine of a bullet close overhead and Hoss threw himself across him, swearing. Joe was surprised at that, almost surprised enough to say something about it. Hoss never swore, not even when Pa wasn't around to hear. He must be either awfully mad or awfully scared to say a word like that.

He couldn't breathe, and he wished Hoss would move. It was as if his brother could hear his thoughts because, just like that, Hoss was off of him again, dragging him backwards through the sand and rocks. Joe's eyes did open then, because the dragging hurt his leg so bad. He could see his right foot bouncing along the sand like it was connected to somebody else's leg, and he tried to lift it but couldn't. Looking past his foot, he could see Adam still running and shooting behind them. Then Adam jerked and fell, and when he got up again there was a dark red stain blooming on his arm.

"Adam's shot," Joe tried to shout, but his voice came out in a whisper; he didn't think Hoss heard him. Hoss was too busy dragging him into a narrow crevice tucked back in the rocks. A rocky ledge overhung it about ten feet up, blocking out the sun's rays and casting a cold shadow on the sand below. It wasn't quite a cave, not much more than a depression in the rocks, really. Once they were underneath the ledge, their field of vision was narrowed to what little was directly in front of them and a narrow margin to their left, but it meant the rustlers couldn't see them, either, unless they moved right out into plain sight.

Joe tried again to let Hoss know what had just happened. "Hoss, Adam's shot." He knew his lips were moving but he didn't think any sound was coming out. It didn't matter though, because Hoss pulled him in under that ledge and laid him down onto the cold sand and immediately ran out again. Joe struggled to lift his head, desperate to know if his brothers were all right, but the movement caused a wave of dizziness crushing in its intensity. He fell back and heavy darkness weighed him down. He drifted off to the noise of more gunshots, and he knew the sound meant nothing good. He wondered if his brothers had gone ahead and died without him.

… … … … … … …

When the world came back, the sound of gunshots was gone, but he could still smell the acrid scent of gunpowder floating on the breeze. The guns hadn't been silent for long.

He heard swearing. Somebody was ripping at his clothes and...and swearing. He made himself concentrate and was astonished to realize that it was his brothers saying those things. Swearing for the second time today, only this time it was both of them, their voices tight and scared, uttering curses that shocked him enough to open his eyes a slit. Adam was bent over him yanking his shirt open and Hoss was cutting his pants leg open at the thigh. Then Hoss called Adam and they both bent over his thigh and swore again. Pa would have a conniption fit if he ever heard them talking like that, and Joe told them so.

They stopped, just like that, and looked at each other and then back at him. He heard a little huff of air come out of Hoss.

"Well, little brother," he said, "we weren't altogether sure if you was still with us or not. Do us a favor and just don't tell Pa about our choice of language, would you?" He grinned, but his smile was wobbly enough to look like it could fall right off his face. Perspiration glimmered across his wide forehead.

"I won't tell him, but it's gonna cost you," Joe whispered. He worked his mouth up into a smile just to make Hoss feel better. His big brother didn't look good. Even with that wobbly smile, his face had that pulled-down look it got whenever something bad had happened, and he looked slightly green, as if he had eaten something that didn't set well in his belly.

"Cost us, huh? Just name your price, Little Joe, and then I'll tell you if we've got a deal or not," Hoss said, and then he turned away and went on cutting a longer slit in Joe's pants leg. At the same time, Adam unfastened Joe's gun belt, sliding it out from under him and tossing it to the side. Hoss and Adam both seemed to be in some kind of all-fired hurry to get his clothes off, and he wished they wouldn't. The sand was awfully cold here in the shade, and he was beginning to shiver.

He noticed that both kept glancing out at the open area in front of their little cave. Their guns lay on the ground right beside them, where they could pick them up in an instant.

"Did we get any of them?" Joe asked. He wasn't sure he had spoken loud enough to be heard, but both his brothers shot him a quick look.

"The rustlers? Sure 'nuff. I got one and older brother here managed to drop three. I'm pretty sure I winged one, too," Hoss said.

"That leaves…what, five or six more?" Adam asked, glancing outside.

"I reckon that's about right. 'Course I didn't exactly have time to count 'em," Hoss grunted, gripping the fabric of Joe's pants in his hands and tearing it apart.

"They'll sneak up on us if we're not careful," Joe murmured, and Hoss shook his head.

"Lots of loose shale on those rocks above us," he said. "If they come down, we'll hear them."

Joe couldn't tell if Hoss really believed that or if he was just trying to make him feel better. He started to ask, but then Adam jerked at his shirtfront again. The buttons went flying and, irritated, Joe pushed at his hand and told him to cut it out. "I paid a half day's wages at Brandt's Mercantile for this shirt, Adam, and you're rippin' it to pieces."

Adam smiled and shook his head. "A half day's wages? Mr. Brandt sure saw you coming, little brother. Now hold still. We've got to find out how bad you're hit."

Joe supposed Adam's ripping his shirt didn't matter so much anyway, now that he thought about it. After all, the shirt was covered with blood and had a bullet hole in it. No, it didn't much matter if Adam was in too big a hurry to spend time unbuttoning it.

Then he remembered that Adam had been hit, too, and he wanted to ask about it, but Adam looked so worried that he decided to skip it for the time being. Besides, that heavy weariness was moving over Joe again, and his thoughts were all cluttered. He shut his eyes and listened to the familiar murmur of his brothers' voices moving back and forth. He felt the last of his shirt fall away and when it did, he heard Adam curse yet again, his voice low and desperate.

Again, the swearing caught him by surprise. Adam didn't curse much more than Hoss did. Joe could count on one hand the times he'd heard his oldest brother use words like that. The first time was when Joe was just a kid, no older than ten or so. He drifted off again, remembering.

They'd ridden into town for supplies. The wagon was loaded and Joe was trying to climb up onto the seat beside Pa. He was having a hard time of it because one sticky hand was wrapped tightly around a chunk of rock candy he'd been allowed to choose from the mercantile. Adam laughed and gave him a boost up before turning away to mount his horse.

A loud burst of noise startled the horses, and Pa and his brothers struggled to bring them back under control. The candy flew from Joe's hand as the wagon jerked, but he hardly noticed. His attention was on the mob of drunken, angry men that had burst around the corner. They surged in front of the wagon and down the street, and they were dragging a man with them. They kept dragging him down the street until they stopped in front of the big oak tree in front of Hill's Livery. Someone pulled out a rope and a shout went up, and they threw one end of the rope into the high branches of the tree, and then they started wrapping the other end of the rope around the struggling man's neck.

For a few frozen seconds, Joe and his family had stood watching the proceedings with open mouths. Then Adam had proceeded to curse up a blue streak, using words that Joe knew without being told were just plain wicked. Those words weren't even finished coming out of his mouth when Adam took off and ran right into the middle of that mob of angry men and tried to get them to turn the man loose. Pa had run, too, and so had Hoss. Joe had jumped down from the wagon and tried to follow, but Hoss had turned around and thrown him back into the wagon and told him to stay put. Joe had sat on the wagon seat and watched as the three of them dove into that pile of men and shouted and argued and fought.

There had been too many of them, and they'd gone and hung that man anyway, right there in front of the livery. The ride home was terrifyingly quiet. Joe's brothers and his pa all had bruises and cuts from the scuffle and Pa's face had been dark and angry. Joe had been frightened, remembering the words Adam had used and wondering if Pa was mad at Adam for using them. Pa always said the amount of cursing a man did was in direct correlation to his level of ignorance. He said using swear words was a lazy man's way of trying to express himself.

Adam had never been lazy, and he sure wasn't ignorant, but he'd used some mighty rough words when he'd realized what was about to happen, words that Joe knew Pa didn't allow any of their hands to use as long as they were on Ponderosa's land. He sure wouldn't like hearing that kind of thing coming from one of his own sons.

But Pa never said a word about Adam's swearing that day, at least not that Joe heard, so Joe figured cursing was maybe something that could be overlooked if you were in the middle of something really bad.

He tried the theory out the next time his pony gave him a hard time. The horse refused to be caught, and when he dodged Joe for the third time, Joe stopped and threw down the halter he carried.

"Damn it!" he shouted, and was right proud of how manly he sounded. Pa hadn't agreed, though, and Joe's backside was sore for two days afterwards. Apparently dealing with a balky pony wasn't considered bad enough to warrant swearing. He didn't think he'd ever try it again, at least not when he was within hearing distance of Pa.

… … … … … …

Voices. He became aware of his brothers talking to one another again, and although their voices were low and troubled, at least they weren't cursing. He felt a smidgeon of relief. All that swearing was beginning to scare him. Maybe things weren't as bad as he'd thought.

He opened his eyes to see them both bent over his hurt leg. "I can't believe Cochise threw me," he grumbled. Their faces swung toward him, their expressions registering surprised relief.

"He didn't throw you, Joe," Hoss said. "Those varmints we were trailin' shot you right out of the saddle."

His eyes widened at that. They'd shot him off his horse? He remembered getting shot, but only after he was already on the ground. He concentrated as hard as he could. "I don't remember," he shrugged, and a twinge of pain bit at his right shoulder. He looked down and saw a piece of Adam's shirt wadded up against his collarbone. The dark fabric was wet with blood, and more blood was trickling out from beneath it.

"Remember now?" Adam said quietly, and Joe looked up to find his oldest brother's eyes on his, dark and intense.

He nodded, thinking how funny it was that up until now, he'd never even felt the first gunshot wound. How could you not feel something that knocked you clear out of your saddle? Now that he knew, though, it was hurting like the blazes.

"I wish you hadn't reminded me. I was just fine before I remembered," he muttered, and the sight of his brothers' fleeting grins made him feel better for a moment. Then a spasm caught him low on his side and he caught his breath, reaching down. The first gunshot wound was a mite hazy, but he remembered the second one, and it was definitely making itself known again.

Hoss caught his hand before he could touch it.

"It ain't gonna feel no better with you pokin' your grubby fingers at it. You managed to get about a bucket of sand into it. We just got through washing it out, so keep your hands away," Hoss told him, and wadded up another piece of Adam's shirt against it. It stung, and Joe tried to turn his attention away from it.

"What did you wash it out with?" he asked, genuinely curious.

"What do you mean, what did I wash it out with? I washed it out with water. I couldn't hardly just spit at it, could I?" Hoss was keeping his tone light, but Joe could tell it was forced.

"Where'd you get the water?" He knew his own canteen was still tied to his saddle, and he'd assumed his brothers had lost theirs the same way.

"Mighty full of questions, aren't you?" Hoss said, but the slight relief on his face told Joe that he was glad to hear Joe talking. It didn't much matter what about. "I happened to be takin' a drink when the shootin' started," Hoss explained. He held the canteen up for Joe to see and then moved down to pour some on his thigh.

"Pure reflex, that's what kept him holding onto that canteen," Adam added even as he held Joe's leg still. "Lucky for us he did, too. Held onto it and then slung it over his shoulder without thinking about it. Kind of like you holding onto those reins when you hit the ground."

"Yeah. Sure wish I hadn't done that. Held onto the reins, I mean." If he hadn't held onto the reins, Cochise would never have stepped on him. He licked dry lips. One canteen between them, and part of that was gone, running off his leg and into the sand in dark rivulets. His brothers were still busy moving back and forth between his shoulder and his side and his leg. They kept tossing looks at one another, and he found himself wishing they'd slow down. They acted like time was running out, somehow. From what he could tell, they were going to be stuck here for awhile, so he didn't know why they felt like they had to rush so much. He sighed and lifted his head to get a better look at his leg and was surprised at the amount of blood spattering the ruined fabric of his jeans. "Is it broken?"

Adam looked up at him and shook his head. "No, I don't think so. Just a really nasty gash. You've got some torn muscle that's going to hurt like nobody's business when the numbness wears off."

"It's already wearing off," Joe said, and tried to wiggle his foot. The pain that shot up his leg had him hissing in pain, and Adam pushed him back down onto the sand.

"Don't try to move it yet," Adam ordered. "I'm going to have to try to sew it up, and then we'll see."

"With what?" Joe asked. They all knew Adam kept needles and thread in his saddlebags. It was a habit he'd started years ago because of what he called the "accident-prone tendencies" of his younger siblings. At first Joe and Hoss had laughed at him and asked if he was going to take up needlepoint during cattle drives, but the truth was, both their hides had been saved more than once by Adam's preparedness, and they no longer smirked at the contents of his bags.

The problem was, those bags were still attached to Sport's saddle, and Sport was somewhere out in the surrounding boulders, or worse, headed for home. They had nothing on hand to use for doctoring.

"With what?" Joe asked again.

"You just don't worry about it," Hoss said. "Adam'll think of something."

Joe sighed. Shot twice and a banged up leg. Adam wounded. No horses, no supplies, limited ammunition, very little water. He'd gotten himself and his brothers into a real mess, all right. Nobody could say Joe Cartwright ever did anything halfway.

The ache in his left side was spreading across his abdomen, and he shifted uncomfortably.

"I know you're hurting, but try to lie still," Adam told him.

You're hurting, too, he wanted to say, but I don't see you trying to be still.

But he said nothing. For once he did as he was told without argument and watched his brothers work at pressing pieces of Adam's shirt against his wounds. Their movements were still hurried and the cloth kept filling up with blood and Adam kept ripping off more strips of fabric. He would be out of shirt before much longer. Joe wondered idly if they would start in on Hoss's shirt when that happened.

So much blood and still not that much pain, not as much as he would have expected anyhow. His leg bothered him more than anything else, and even that was bearable.

His eyes fell on his brothers' faces as they worked, and he was struck at how tight and drawn their expressions were, as if all their hurrying was barely keeping the devil himself off their heels.

"Adam," he said, and when his brother's face jerked up toward him, the haunted expression in his eyes caught Joe by surprise. The alarm of it caused his head to clear like nothing else had. He'd never seen Adam look like that, like he'd stared into the face of doom and had resigned himself to being swallowed by it. His eyes held Joe's, and within their whiskey-colored depths was such a world of sorrow and guilt and regret that Joe feared for his brother as much as he suddenly feared for himself.

Joe swallowed. God, what had he missed? He looked away from Adam's face to stare at Hoss. Hoss's red-rimmed eyes stood out in stark relief against his unusually pale skin, and Joe felt his heart begin to hammer.

The realization hit him like a bolt out of stormy skies.

His brothers thought he was dying.

They thought he was dying and they were trapped in this crack in the rocks with no way to save him, and they didn't know what to do. Joe looked back at Adam and his suspicions were confirmed by the expression on his oldest brother's face. Adam looked lost, like he didn't know which way to turn. Adam not knowing what to do—that scared Joe senseless, even worse than the fact that they thought he was dying.

Suddenly, Joe desperately wanted his brothers to talk to him, to reassure him that everything would be okay, but they were both already bent over him again, still pressing hard against the wounds in his side and shoulder and leg. Almost afraid to get a better look at how bad off he was but more afraid not to, Joe raised his head to see. The amount of blood spread across his leg and abdomen was much more alarming now that he knew how scared his brothers were.

After one quick look he let his head fall back and his fright almost immediately began to be nudged out of the way by anger. He felt his temper rise up within him, making his blood hot. He thrust his chin out. He wasn't done yet, not by a long shot, not from a cowardly strike by a bunch of low-down cattle thieves. He was Little Joe Cartwright; he had been shot before, and he'd lived to tell about it, and the thought that this time could be different was inconceivable. After all, he was only twenty-one; his adulthood had barely gotten underway, and he still had a lot of things to do.

A day of fishing with his brothers, for one thing.

He looked up to find Adam staring at him again with that same strange look. The anger and fear erupted out of Joe; he gritted his teeth and shot out one hand and gripped the front of Adam's shirt, yanking his brother's face close to his own. "Don't you look at me like that, Adam," Joe said fiercely. "Don't you look at me like I'm already gone."

Adam's lips parted, and he gave his head a tiny shake as if to deny Joe's accusation, but it was Hoss who spoke up.

"Joe, Adam ain't lookin' at you in no such way. Don't get yourself all riled up, boy." His voice was soothing, but the slight crack at the end gave him away and Joe glared at him.

"You, too, Hoss," Joe said as loud as he could. "I can see it. You're both ready to throw in the towel on me, like I ain't got a chance. Well, I'm tellin' you both now—I ain't through! Do you hear me? I ain't through."

Joe welded his eyes back onto Adam's. He could hear Hoss's breathing, quick and hard and loud, like he'd been running a long distance. Joe still had a tight grip on Adam's shirt, and Adam's face was scant inches from his own.

"I ain't through, Adam," he said again, and he yanked hard at his shirt just to make sure Adam knew he meant what he said.

Adam stared at him and then, to Joe's surprise, one corner of his mouth twitched into a smile. "Damn right you're not," Adam said.

Adam's easy agreement took the wind out of his sails. His anger spent as abruptly as it had begun, Joe's hand fell from his brother's shirt. His outburst had sapped his energy and he felt himself falling backwards once again into soft darkness. As he fell, the hazy thought drifted through his mind that he was really going to have to have a talk with Pa about the language his brothers were using as of late.

Of course, since he was the cause of that language, he reckoned he'd better keep quiet about it after all.

… … … … … …

He was twelve years old, and he had climbed high up into the ponderosa pine that stood outside the dining room window. He had been told numerous times by his pa and brothers to stay out of that tree.

"The branches are too high and sparse," Hoss had said. "There's plenty of other trees for you to monkey around in, Joe. Do yourself and the rest of us a favor and stay out of that one."

Joe had thought about climbing the tree often enough, though, regardless of how many times he was warned against it. He'd been standing there at the base of its roots today, staring up into its feathery canopy and wondering how far a boy would be able to see if he got himself up that high. Adam had walked around the corner and caught him staring and he'd immediately put a hard hand on his shoulder.

"Get it out of your head, Little Joe," he had said. "I mean it. If I catch you trying to climb that thing, you'll be doing kitchen duty with Hop Sing for a month."

Joe had glared at his brother but the look on Adam's face stopped him from saying anything smart.

"I mean it, Joe," Adam had said again, and he had that no-nonsense tone in his voice that meant Joe would lose any argument he tried to use. Adam had walked back out to the barn then, apparently convinced that Joe would do as he'd been told.

It made Joe beyond angry, the way Adam treated him like a baby who couldn't take care of himself. He was twelve years old, gosh darn it, and he reckoned he was old enough to decide whether or not he could climb a silly old tree.

The first several feet had been so easy that he'd been smirking over his family's warnings. It was just a tree, no more dangerous than any other he might choose to climb. He went hand over hand, moving toward the clouds, the scent of pine and the headiness of following his own orders strong in his nostrils.

As he continued to climb, though, it occurred to him that there was something to what Hoss had said about the tree's widely spaced branches. The higher Joe got, the further apart the branches were spread, and it got harder and harder to stretch from one handhold to the next.

Then his foot slipped, and only a wildly flung hand prevented him from falling. He held onto the branch over his head with all his strength as his toes scrambled for purchase, but he couldn't seem to find the branch below him; when his fingers began to slip from the rough bark above his head, wild fear surged through him.

He screamed for Adam as he fought to hold on. He saw his brother come bolting around the corner just as he lost his grip, and as the ground rushed up to meet him he screamed his brother's name once more.

His leg exploded in a burst of pain. He lay there trying to suck the wind back into his lungs and saw Adam move in over him, his face pale and angry. Joe didn't care if Adam was angry or not; he was just relieved that he was there. Somehow his oldest brother always seemed to absorb some of the fear skittering around in Joe's head, making it seem that things were not quite as bad as they first appeared.

He moved toward unconsciousness with the sound of Adam murmuring to him in his ears. "Hang on, Joe. You'll be all right, boy."

His leg hurt so bad he couldn't even breathe right, but he believed his brother. If Adam said he'd be all right, then he would be.

… … … … … … …

He woke up to pain, harsh and all-consuming.

"How you doin', little brother?" Hoss asked softly.

For an instant he considered telling him. I hurt. God, did he hurt, so much more than when Hoss had first drug him into this little hole in the rocks. Seemed like he was made up of one big ball of pain, shooting up one side and down the other. But saying it out loud wouldn't help him, and it wouldn't help his brothers.

"Fine as frog hair," he said instead, his voice rough and husky. Hoss smiled at the lie and he smiled back before taking a sip from the canteen Hoss offered him.

"You'll be even finer when I tell you that we got the bullet out of your shoulder," Hoss said, and grinned bigger at the surprise on Joe's face. He held up a small pocket knife. "Had it in my pocket. Reckoned I'd be using it to gut trout, though, not doing surgery."

"You used that dull old knife of yours? Darn it, no wonder I hurt so much." He started to raise himself up, but Hoss laid a restraining hand against his chest.

"Stay still. We got the bullet out all right, but you're still bleedin' an awful lot, especially out of your leg. That hoof really opened you up."

Still bleeding and no way to stop it. Hoss didn't say it, but Joe didn't have to be told. Despite the bandaging his brothers had done, he could feel the dampness on his shredded jeans and in the sand beneath the leg. He wondered briefly if breathing slower would make him bleed slower, too. He shook his head and sighed in frustration.

"What about the bullet in my side?" he asked. "Did you get that one, too?

Hoss's eyes skittered away from his face, and he shook his head. "Nah, not yet. Tried, but it was too deep, and you started bleedin' so much…well, we just pulled out. We'll try again just as soon as we get our hands on some needle and thread. We'll get you fixed up, don't you worry none."

He was worried, all right, but that was another thing that wouldn't help to talk about. "What about Adam? How's he doing?" He looked for his older brother and found him hunkered down with his gun at the mouth of their tiny cave. Late evening shadows threw blue fingers across the sand outside.

Hoss nodded. "Got the bullet out of him, too." He grinned again. "Although I got to say, he was a mite whinier about it than you was. Probably had somethin' to do with the fact that he was awake while I was diggin' around in his arm."

Adam threw a glance back at them and rolled his eyes, but he smiled as he turned away again.

"What's he lookin' at out there? We got trouble?" Joe asked, and Hoss shook his head.

"Nope. We're just checking things out to see if we can spot the rustlers." Hoss hesitated. "One of us is going out, Joe. We're going after the horses." He started shaking his head as soon as Joe started shaking his. "We ain't got no choice, Joe."

"They'll cut you down as soon as you get out in the open," Joe argued.

"It'll be night soon. We'll wait until it's dark, and then we'll go."

"The horses might be long gone. You might be going out there for nothing."

"Maybe. But we still gotta take a chance. We can't just stay holed up in here. We ain't got the time…" Hoss trailed off, but Joe knew the rest.

They didn't have the luxury of waiting until Pa came looking for them. For one thing, Pa didn't know where they were. He had no reason to believe they would be anywhere other than the cove Hoss had talked about. When he set out looking for them, it would be at the lake, not up here in Johnson's Pass.

For another thing, the rustlers might get brave and come busting in on them, so the quicker they got out, the better. It was possible that the thieves might have already hightailed it out of the pass, but they couldn't take the risk of assuming that.

The biggest portion of the sand in the hourglass, of course, was his own condition; he knew that it was the driving force behind his brothers' decision to move out of hiding. He tried to ignore the guilt that swarmed over him at the thought, but it came anyway. One of his brothers would be putting himself into harm's way, all to save his own careless hide.

When night began to fall a short time later, there was some argument over who exactly would make the run.

"That wound's got you a mite unsteady on your feet, Adam," Hoss said decisively. "I'm not hurt; I'll do it."

Adam clamped his lips tight and shook his head. "You're too big a target and I'm faster. I'll go."

Hoss hadn't given up, of course, but in the end it was Adam who won.

Adam stood and clamped his hat tighter onto his head, straightening it carefully. Joe couldn't help it; laughter bubbled out of him even though it hurt, and his brothers turned to look at him, confusion furrowing their brows.

"Look at him, Hoss," Joe said. "He's a mess, and he still insists on making sure his hat is on straight!"

Their oldest brother stood there in the deepening gloom and looked down at himself. He was dirty and bloody and bare-chested, his shirt having been sacrificed to the medical needs of himself and his brother. A black strip of fabric was wrapped tightly around one muscular bicep, and his dark pants were liberally spattered with more blood, both his own and Joe's. The only portion of his attire to retain its normally fairly clean condition was his hat, cocked precisely at its usual angle.

Hoss started to laugh, too, and Adam looked up, his dimples heralding a wide grin.

"Well," Adam said in his best gentrified accent, "one must always take care in his appearance when he steps out, don't you think?"

He sounded so dandified that they all laughed again, and it struck Joe that their laughter was one of the happiest and yet saddest sounds he'd ever heard.

He stopped laughing and looked at Adam. "I'm sorry, Adam," he said, and both his brothers stopped laughing too. "I'm sorry I got us into this. If I would just have listened to you—"

Adam broke his apology off with a quick shake of his head. "Save it, younger brother. You'll have plenty of time to tell me you're sorry when we get home, and I'll see that you don't forget."

Joe opened his mouth to apologize further but then changed his mind. Adam was already turning away to talk to Hoss, doing what he always did—getting things in order. It occurred to Joe that Adam was always too busy ironing things out to be able to spend time on something as wasteful as a grudge. If Joe's mistake were brought up in the future, it would be by Joe himself, not by Adam.

"I'm not sure how long this will take," Adam said. He looked at Joe and then back at Hoss. "If I don't come back right away, don't leave him."

Hoss nodded. "What if you can't find the horses?"

"We'll cross that bridge when we come to it," Adam said, and Joe felt a shred of tight unease from the fact that Adam didn't know exactly what his next step would be. Adam's entire life was carefully planned, each and every day, from sunrise to sunset.

But not today.

Joe stared harder at his oldest brother. Even in the failing light Joe could see that Adam's face was pale and his eyes shone with an unnatural brightness.

Hoss noticed, too. He grabbed Adam's hat off his head with one hand and felt his forehead with the other.

"Fever," Hoss said, and shook his head. "High, too. You sure you're up to this? I could still go, and you could lay here with Joe and rest up—"

Adam grabbed his hat and set it back on his head. "I'm sure." Again he ran his hands along the hat's brim, resetting it just so, but this time none of them laughed.

"Well, then." Hoss nodded and reached out to shake Adam's hand. "Good luck, brother."

Adam touched a finger to the rim of his hat in farewell. Then he stepped out into the falling night and was gone.

The hours went by slowly. The moon threw weak light across the sand outside, but inside the cleft in the rocks there was nothing but inky blackness. The air grew colder, and Joe couldn't stop shaking even though Hoss lay wedged up against him with one big arm thrown across him for warmth. Hoss took off his leather vest and covered Joe with it, but still his teeth chattered together. He knew that he was still losing blood; the sand beneath his thigh was muddy with it. Several times Hoss tightened the bandage, but it didn't seem to help much.

Hoss talked incessantly to him through the night. Every time he drifted off, Hoss was back in his ear, talking about everything from the rising price of beer at the Silver Dollar to how good the hay crop would be this year. The night continued to creep by until at last even Hoss's low, booming voice failed to keep him from sliding into sleep, and when that happened, Hoss began nudging him awake.

"You need to stay awake, Little Joe," he said. "You slept most of the day; it ain't good for you to keep doin' it."

Joe struggled to do as he asked only because Hoss sounded so fearful, but when next he opened his eyes, he saw that the sky outside was a touch lighter.

"Dawn's coming," he whispered, and he felt Hoss nod beside him.

"I know," Hoss said, and his voice was grim.

"Something's wrong," Joe said. He turned his head to look at Hoss. He could barely make out his brother's face in the dim light. "You've got to go after him."

Hoss sat up slowly and shook his head. "I can't."

"Hoss, he's in trouble. He's—" Harsh coughing cut off Joe's words, and Hoss hurried to lift his head as he tipped the canteen into his mouth. As soon as Joe got his breath back, he started up again. "Hoss, come on. You know he'd be back by now if something hadn't happened."

"I can't leave you here, Joe. You know that."

"You have to. The rustlers could have gotten him—"

"We would have heard the shots. Now, just calm down, Joe. Adam told me not to leave you and I ain't inclined to argue with that."

"Forget what Adam told you. He's in trouble. You've got to go, Hoss, and you've got to go now, before it gets light."

Hoss's distress was evident in the hard shake of his head. "I can't leave you here. Don't ask me to."

Joe pulled in a hard breath, hating the fact that Hoss had been thrust into a position of choosing which brother to protect. One more thing for him to feel guilty about.

"Adam was sick when he left here, Hoss; you know that. Maybe he got worse; maybe he's even passed out somewhere." Joe lifted himself up onto his elbows, and when Hoss tried to coax him back down Joe shoved his hand away, his agitation in full bloom. "Something's wrong. Something's happened," he insisted.

Before Hoss could answer, distant gunshots rang through the air. He and Joe stared at each other, and then Hoss hurried to the opening of the cave. Two more shots were fired, then nothing.

"It sounded pretty far off, like it came from somewhere down in that gully we passed through," Hoss said. He stared out into the cold light of the rising morning, and Joe watched him struggle with indecision.

"Hoss." When Hoss turned around, Joe fixed him with a hard look. "Go."

Hoss hesitated and then gave a curt nod. He picked up Joe's gun, made sure it was loaded, and then placed it along with the near-empty canteen next to Joe. He laid a big hand on Joe's good shoulder. "I'll be back as soon as I can, Joe. Try to stay awake, and don't go anywhere, you hear?" He stood up.

"I hear." Joe smiled for Hoss's benefit, but the smile slid away as he watched his brother move out into the open and disappear into the rapidly lifting darkness.

He struggled into a sitting position and gingerly lifted the edge of the piece of shirt tied around his thigh. What was left of his pants leg was parted to expose his leg, red and swollen. A gash almost as long as his hand gaped open halfway up his thigh, steadily seeping blood. The leg of his pants was stiff and sodden with it. He reached out a trembling hand to touch the leg and was shocked at the heat that jumped up to touch him back.

He fell back, not having the heart to check out his other wounds. No wonder his brothers were frightened for him. He was running a race against infection and blood loss, and his time was obviously running out.

… … … … … … …

Night turned into morning, and the hours crawled by. He struggled to stay awake but found it increasingly difficult to do. Despite his best intentions and his constant shivering, he began drifting away again.

He was fourteen years old, and he was lost in the driving snow.

They had been rounding up calves in the northern most section of the Ponderosa, preparing to take them to lower ground for the winter. They were aware of the approaching storm and were rushing to beat it, knowing that any animals left behind would be in danger of freezing or starving to death once the grass was covered with snow.

Joe had been given the task of tallying the number of calves and calves that were pushed through the gate of the pasture. He'd sat on Red's back with a pencil and scrap of paper, carefully making a tally mark for each animal as they passed by.

They were almost finished when the snow hit with sudden, punishing fury.

"That's it!" Pa shouted. "Shut the gate!"

Joe kicked the gate with his foot, but the wind caught it and blew it open again. Two cows, their eyes wild with fear, made a dash for the opening and ran through, their calves at their side.

"I'll get 'em!" Joe shouted, and he dug his heels into Red's flanks and shot through the snow after the runaways. He thought he heard Pa shouting at him but he couldn't be sure with the high-pitched whining of the wind in his ears.

He hadn't gone far when he realized he couldn't see far enough to follow the cattle. They were gone into the swirling white wind, and he was alone.

His visibility was limited to a few feet, and the first fingers of fear crept upon him. He turned Red around to head back to Pa, but then was confused as to what was north and what was south; everything was white and blinding. It seemed that he couldn't possibly be that far from where he had left his pa and brothers, but he couldn't hear or see them.

He didn't know how long he and Red wandered around in the snow, but his despair grew with every step. Very quickly he was numb with cold, and as the snow piled deeper on the ground he realized that the amount of time he could stay out in the open like this was limited. When Red stumbled into a deep drift piled up between two lone pine trees which leaned against one another, he remembered something Adam had read to him years earlier about Eskimo people living in the frozen north.

"They really live in houses made of ice?" Joe had asked, his disbelief evident in the tone of his question.

Adam had nodded. "Snow and ice is really very insulating if it is piled up over a pocket of air. The Eskimos crawl in and stay quite cozy and warm."

"Mighty strange folk if you ask me," Joe had mumbled, still not quite sure if Adam was joshing him or not.

"Animals do the same thing," Hoss had chimed in. "I once saw a fox jump out of a snowdrift one mornin', pretty as you please. The snow was all melted where he had been layin' all night. I don't reckon it was the warmest place to spend the night, but it sure kept that little critter from freezin' to death."

Now Joe stared at the snowdrift between those two leaning pines and wondered if he could last out the storm the way that fox did. He had no choice but to try.

He took out the sheet of paper that he'd been using to tally cattle, and he wrote a quick note on it before putting it in his saddlebags. Then he slapped Red on the rump and began to dig furiously into the snowdrift.

They'd found him the next morning after the wind and snow had died away, asleep in his little iced-over burrow, curled into a ball with his heavy wool scarf wound tightly around his face. When Pa hauled him out and held him close, Joe had been surprised at the thick ice coating that had covered the drift.

"Good thing you came along to dig me out," he'd chirped. As can only happen in a young boy's eyes, a terrifying experience had become a grand adventure now that it was over and done. "I would've had a heck of a time breaking through that ice."

"Good thing you had the sense to put that note in Red's saddlebags," Hoss had said, and held up the piece of paper to read it out loud. "Two lone pines leaning against each other. I'm here."

"Good thing Red had the sense not to wander too far, too," Adam said. "We knew the general direction you had to be in, but we still had to check an awful lot of leaning pines. Good thing, too, that this section of the ranch isn't more heavily timbered. You could have been a little more specific in your directions." But he smiled, and Joe grinned back, glad to be within the warm circle of his family's arms again. Good thing, good thing, good thing. So many good things had conspired to keep him safe, and he was grateful.

He dragged himself from sleep. The weightlessness was gone again; every part of him felt thick and heavy. Pain rolled over him in all-consuming waves. The walls of rock shimmered around him, refusing to come into focus. He rolled his head to the side and saw that deep evening shadows once again fell across the sand outside the cave. The shadows shimmered, too, and he squinted to see if Hoss and Adam walked among them.

No one was there. Something, everything, must have gone wrong. His brothers would have come back to him if they were able.

His mouth was dry as cotton, and he looked at the canteen lying on the sand beside him, considering. Should he go to the effort of drinking only to prolong the inevitable, or should he just let go?

He shut his eyes again. It would be so easy. He could just go to sleep and stay that way, and it would be all over. If his brothers were gone, there was no reason to keep struggling.

A sudden picture came into his mind. Hoss and Adam, finding him dead within this cold cleft in the rocks. They would be devastated, guilt-ridden. Even though it was Joe who had brought them into this situation, they would blame themselves, and the blame would never cease.

And then there was Pa. Alone and broken.

He jerked his eyes open. He couldn't do it. If there was a chance his brothers still lived, he couldn't stand the thought of leaving that blame behind for them. Nor could he leave his father to grieve alone. He had no choice but to try to hang on, and he would.

His teeth chattered together and he pulled Hoss's vest closer under his chin, and something rustled. He lifted the shirt up, and the short stub of a pencil rolled out of the pocket.

Joe smiled to himself as he thought about Hoss's plan to keep track of all the fish they were going to catch. He dug deeper into the pocket and drew out the folded square of paper and stared at it for several moments before finally placing it very carefully, along with the pencil, on the sand beside him. Then he turned his face back out to the dying sun to watch for his brothers.

… … … … … … …

A sudden sound jerked him back to wakefulness. The rocks overhead remained stubbornly out of focus no matter how hard he blinked. A quick glance outside told him that not much time had passed; the sun was gone but it was not yet dark outside. He heard the sound again: a quick, hard scrabble of rock against rock. Crumbs of shale showered down from the rock ledge overhead to scatter across the sand below.

Somebody was coming, and he didn't think it was his brothers.

He reached for his gun and lifted it into position, stricken by how heavy it felt in his hands. He whispered a quick prayer that he'd be able to hold onto it when the time came. Then he carefully pulled Hoss's vest over it and waited.

When a pair of legs suddenly came scrambling down into view, he almost jumped but managed to hold himself in check. He opened his eyes only a narrow slit, just enough to see from beneath his lashes. A second man joined the first, then a third. They crouched, peering in at him.

"See? I told you there was only one of 'em left, the little 'un. Thompson said he managed to shoot him twice, and I guess he was right. He looks dead to me."

"Yeah, sure does. You sure there were only three?"

"Yep. If Thompson and Williams can just roust those other two out of that ravine, we'll be free and clear."

Roust those other two out of that ravine. Hoss and Adam were still alive. They were still out there. New resolve strengthened Joe's grip on his gun.

"Well, shoot this one anyway, just to make sure."

Joe watched one of the men draw a gun and move in under the ledge toward him. His silhouette was vague and wavy and out of focus, much like the surrounding rocks. Joe concentrated on the gun in the man's hand, watching its nose rise…

The sound of his own gun going off inside the tiny cave was astonishingly loud, ricocheting across the rocks and back against his head like cannon fire. The man with the gun dropped like a stone. Startled, the other two men drew their guns and fired at him, and Joe wrenched his body to the right and pulled the trigger again. Another man went down. Joe lunged upwards; his leg gave way and he fell with his back against the back wall of the cave. He braced himself against it as he fanned his hand rapidly over the gun's hammer, firing every shot he had.

It was enough. The third man slumped to the ground.

Joe's raspy breathing was the only sound filling the cave. He let the gun fall from his grasp and slid down along the granite wall until he was sitting down. His bad leg was stretched out in front of him and he gazed at it dispassionately. All his twisting and leaping hadn't done his leg any good; trails of fresh blood ran from beneath the bandage and dripped onto the sand below.

He crawled the few feet to where some bloodied, dislodged scraps of shirt lay in the dirt and pressed them back against the wound, tucking them beneath the bandage. The fabric did little to staunch the flow.

"So much for cleaning the sand out, Hoss," he muttered, letting himself fall back against the rocks again.

The gunshot wounds were bleeding again too, though not as bad as his leg. He didn't bother trying to do anything with those. Hell, he didn't know why he bothered with the leg, for that matter. He could feel the life draining out of him with every drop of blood that hit the sand. It was a pretty sure bet that he wasn't going to make it, despite his earlier declarations to his brothers.

He wasn't sure how long he sat there. Time seemed to ooze slowly along, like blackstrap molasses dripping off of one of Hop Sing's biscuits. His vision grew more unfocused; the rocks and the sand and the bodies of the rustlers rippled in front of him like the waves on a lake, and it made him think again about the fishing trip that would never happen.

He wasn't scared to die anymore, but he was worried about his brothers. They were trapped in a ravine somewhere down below him, held down by the two remaining rustlers. Since nobody else had come down to shoot him dead, those two must be the only ones remaining.

The thought of going to his brothers' aid briefly ran through his mind and he snorted. He wouldn't make it ten feet, and he knew it. Still, only two rustlers left; he had no doubt that his brothers would be able to handle those odds.

Yes, they'd make it, even if he didn't. He refused to believe otherwise.

He frowned, thinking again of the guilt and sorrow he knew they would feel when they found him dead. It was his biggest regret. None of this was their fault. They weren't to blame for his hardheadedness. Nor did he want their thoughts of him from now on to be sad ones. He wanted them to think of him and have their thoughts turn to…well, fishing. Checker games. Warm evenings and cold beer at the Silver Dollar. Winter nights in front of the fire in the room that had gathered them close for so many years.

His eye fell on Hoss's pencil and paper, and he smiled slightly as an idea came to him. It wasn't much, but it was something. A few last words; it was all he had the strength for, and all he had to give.

He crawled over and retrieved the paper and pencil. The effort drained what remained of his energy, and he had to lie still for several minutes before he could hold the pencil steady enough to write. The paper faded in and out of focus, but he struggled to finish what he had started.

Dear Pa and Brothers,

If you're reading this, I'm already home.

I have a lot of regrets, but spending my last days with my brothers isn't one of them, even if I had to die doing it.

I could say I'm sorry a thousand times over, and it wouldn't be enough. I've gotten us all into a lot of scrapes over the years. Seems I never could learn, and this time it was just too big for me to get out of. My fault, all of it. Please forgive me, all of you.

Lay me down beside my mama, and I'll be near you all.

Don't feel sad for me. Like I said, if you're reading this, I'm already home.

All My Love, Joe

His breathing was coming hard, like he had to think about each breath before he took it. His eyes began to shut of their own accord and his body slumped. The pencil slipped from his hand, and he let the darkness take him.

… … … … … … …

Light and sounds whispered in and out of his mind. He thought he could hear his brothers talking, but of course that was impossible, since he was dead and they weren't.

But he heard them, just the same. Maybe his spirit was back at home on the Ponderosa, just like his letter had said. Maybe he was standing behind his family, unseen, while they sat before the fire.

He couldn't see, though. Could spirits see? He realized then that his eyes were closed. He supposed that it only stood to reason that even spirits would have to open their eyes to be able to watch what their family was doing, so he tried to open them. It took more strength than he ever would have thought possible, but at last he managed to open them just a crack.

He was disappointed to find that his vision was still badly blurred. He had hoped that dying would have taken care of that problem. He thought surely they were in the great room, though, because he could make out the fire. He was lying down next to it. His eyes fell shut again.

Lying on the hearth? Dumb place for a spirit to be, when he could be floating around like air. How did a spirit go about floating? Was it something you had to learn, or could you just start doing it whenever you felt like it?

He was suddenly anxious to find out. He struggled to sit up but strong hands held him down. More disappointment. So far he was turning out to be a mighty weak spirit.

A searing pain suddenly engulfed his leg, and he heard himself scream. Well, that was a revelation. He hadn't figured out how to float and he couldn't see worth a darn, but he could yell as well as he ever could. He didn't have time to think about it, though, because the pain was unbearable. The same fierce burn hit him in the shoulder and the side and he screamed again, straining to pull away from the pain, but someone was holding him down.

It didn't seem fair that he should be hurting like this when he was already dead. Maybe he was being punished for everything he'd done wrong while he was alive.

The pain came again, a beast with teeth of fire chewing at him. His body bucked against the hands holding him down. His temper began to build and he fought against that beast just as ferociously as he would've had he still been alive. Punishment? No, surely this wasn't his punishment; he'd made plenty of mistakes in his lifetime, but he was pretty sure he hadn't ever done anything bad enough to warrant this.

Then he heard his brothers' voices again. They were calling to him, their voices cajoling, soothing, low and tinged with desperation. They were telling him to hang on, that he'd be all right, that they were here with him and that they'd take care of him.

How ironic that his brothers still felt the need to be in charge of his welfare even after he'd gone and gotten himself killed. All his life, and now even into his death they were looking after him.

"It's hurting him too much, Adam..."

"He's still out."

"But he's screamin'..."

"But he's not conscious. We've got to do it now. If he wakes up..."

Adam?

"It won't be long now, Little Joe. Just a few more minutes, and it'll all be over. Just hold on. Try to hear what I'm telling you, Little Joe. Just hold on."

Adam. Surprise took hold of Joe. His oldest brother rarely used the 'Little' attached to his name, and now he was using it twice in one short string of words. Maybe it wasn't really Adam at all. Maybe it was only an angel with Adam's voice, come to take him up to heaven.

Joe forced his eyes open at that thought. If he was going to heaven, he didn't want to miss anything. He wanted to see it all. Pa had always said heaven would have to go some to beat the thousand square miles of the Ponderosa, and Joe was of the same opinion. If there was some place more beautiful than the Ponderosa, then gosh darn it, he was going into it with his eyes wide open.

But there was no angel, only Adam, and he looked tired and sick as he leaned over Joe, holding him down with a grip that might have hurt if it weren't for all the other pain sweeping across Joe's body. Adam's face was turned away; he was looking toward Joe's feet, and Joe followed Adam's gaze to see Hoss, straddled across Joe's good leg and bent low over his bad one. Close by a small campfire burned, lighting up the cave; it was a welcome gift after the damp cold of the last two days, and Joe wished he felt good enough to be able to enjoy it.

"I've almost got it," Hoss grunted. "A few more…can you hold him?"

"I'm trying." Adam's voice was strained with exertion.

Adam was saying something else but Joe couldn't hear it. Piercing pain had begun running up his thigh, and he was too busy trying to escape it to pay attention to what his brothers were saying. He thrashed and bucked even as Adam shouted at Hoss and Hoss shouted back. The pain didn't stop, though, and Joe cried out in desperation.

"Adam, please!" Joe rasped. "I can't—"

Joe saw the shock in Adam's eyes as they shot toward his face.

"Hoss, he's awake," Adam said, and Joe heard Hoss hiss an expletive.

"Should we wait—?"

"No! No, keep going. We've got to finish." Adam's eyes never left Joe's.

"But Adam—" There was a tremor in Hoss's voice. He sounded exhausted and scared out of his mind, and Joe's own terror began to rise accordingly. Well, it seemed he wasn't quite dead after all. The downside of that discovery was that he knew that more of that terrible, strangulating pain was on its way.

"Keep going," Adam said again, and when Hoss tried to argue, Adam bared his teeth.

"Hoss. Do it." Adam's words were clipped and hard, like they were breaking off inside his throat. Joe wanted like everything to ask them both to stop, to let him lie there in peace, but the expression on Adam's face kept him from saying anything. Adam wasn't the one getting his leg hacked on—dear God, what exactly was Hoss doing down there?—but he was suffering all right, and so was Hoss. No, Joe couldn't beg them to stop; they had to do this and he had no right to make it harder for them.

So he lay there while the driving pain in his leg went on and on and he kept his teeth gritted so hard he thought his jaw would break, but he never pulled his eyes off of Adam's. Joe lay there and wondered when the pain would suck him under and crush him, and while he wondered, he watched pain of a dozen different flavors wash over Adam's face. Adam didn't say anything; he just held Joe down, his arms trembling with exertion and grief.

Joe knew closing his own eyes would spare Adam at least a portion of that grief, and he knew he should do it, but he couldn't. He just wasn't brave enough. His oldest brother's steady gaze was a lifeline that he didn't dare sever, and he held onto it like a drowning man.

When at last the pain ebbed into a low burn, Joe let out a long breath and felt his body go limp. As he did, Adam's hands released their grip on his arms. Adam sat back and heaved a silent sigh, and Joe swam up out of the pain, looking past Adam to find Hoss. Hoss had moved off his legs and was sitting with his wide shoulders slumped and his head dipped forward into one hand, looking as if he'd just crossed the desert while carrying the weight of the world on his back.

The sound of his brothers' heavy breathing was as loud as his own; they all sounded as if they had been running a long race. But they'd made it. His brothers had made it, and so had he. Relief surged over him only to be blasted out of existence by Adam's next word to Hoss.

"Ready?"

Hoss nodded grimly, and Joe jerked his face back to Adam. Dear God, not more, surely…

"I'm sorry, Joe," Adam said, and there was a world of hurt in his voice. "We've taken care of your leg, but the bullet is still in your side…we've got to try to get it. The infection is getting worse; it can't wait."

The bullet…Joe gave a jerky nod and braced himself as he felt Hoss move around to his side. Once more Adam leaned into him.

The first slices of pain came and Joe tried to hold himself above it, but he found he couldn't do it. He heard himself crying out, and he tried to stop it, but he couldn't do that, either. When darkness came rising up to greet him, he turned to it like a suitor greeting a lost love, sinking down into its depths with fervent gratitude. As he fell, he thought he heard Adam crying, but of course that couldn't be true.

Adam never cried.

… … … … … … …

When Joe woke the first thing he saw was Adam's face. It was inches from his own, pale but peaceful with sleep. How much younger Adam appeared when he was asleep, Joe thought, and sighed. It must get awfully tiring, having to keep doling your strength out to other people all the time. Sometimes Joe thought it was a wonder Adam had enough of his own left to keep going.

He turned his head and looked up to see Hoss staring back at him. While Adam looked younger and at peace, Hoss appeared aged and tired. Dark shadows lay beneath his blue eyes, and the lines of his face were taut and weary. He gave Joe a grin anyway, though, and Joe felt himself smiling back.

"How you feelin', Punkin'?" Hoss asked.

"Like I've been rode hard and put up wet," he said, but the smile didn't leave his face. He hurt like nobody's business, but his vision had cleared and his breathing was easy. He was alive, and so were Hoss and Adam, and that was a heck of a lot more than he had expected. He had a lot to be grateful for, and he was.

He noticed the campfire still throwing its warm glow around the cave and he wondered where the matches to light it had come from.

"You found the horses?" he guessed.

"Just Chubb. Cochise and Sport must've hightailed it toward home. Soon as Adam wakes up I'm goin' to ride out and see if I can connect up with Pa. He's bound to be worried sick by now, not knowing where in tarnation we are. Might take awhile, but we'll get a wagon in here and get you home."

Joe nodded and stretched out his bad leg. His wince had Hoss wrinkling his nose in sympathy.

"Hurt a lot?"

"Not so much." They grinned at each other again, knowing Joe's answer was far from the truth. Joe lifted himself onto his elbows and stared down at the leg. "You sewed it up?"

Hoss nodded, and something shot across his face that made Joe think that maybe he had suffered more through this than any of them.

"What did you sew it up with? You said you didn't find Sport…"

Hoss hesitated and then reached into his shirt pocket. He pulled out a fish hook and held it up so Joe could see. The barb was broken off and the hook had been bent into some semblance of a straight line. The end of it had been honed to a sharp point.

Joe felt his jaw drop. "That? You sewed me up with that?" he squeaked. "A fishhook?"

Hoss stiffened with mock offense. "It was all I could find. 'Sides, I didn't see you comin' up with no better ideas."

Joe glared at him and stared back at his leg. "So I've got fishing line holding me together."

"Yup." Hoss nodded. "One of those varmints you shot had a bottle of whiskey on him. I got to admit, I was sure happy to see it. We doused you pretty good with it."

Doused in whiskey, sewed up with a fishhook and fishing line. Joe let it sink in. "No wonder I feel like somebody worked me over with a pickaxe handle," he grumbled. He shook his head, and then remembered something. "Hoss, there was a note…I wrote it when I was here by myself…and I didn't know if I was going to make it or not…"

"Yeah, we found it. You were holding it in your hand when we came in."

When Hoss didn't act as though he intended to elaborate further, Joe asked, "So where is it?"

"What? The note?"

Joe's eyebrows raised. "Yes, the note," he repeated patiently. "What did you do with it?"

"We burned it."

"You—you b-burned it?" Joe's voice was all high and squeaky again but he was so shocked he didn't care.

Hoss shrugged. "Yeah. We burned it." He cocked his head and looked surprised at Joe's sputtering attempts to answer him. "Why?"

"Why? Why?" He was shouting now, or at least yelling as loud as his weakened state would allow. "I wrote that when I thought I'd never see any of you again, you big, lop-eared, hardheaded—"

Hoss was laughing, and as far as Joe could see, it was no laughing matter. His brothers had found a note with what was essentially his final words to them all, and they had burned it—burned it—and now Hoss was laughing?

He started shouting again and started trying to sit up, and that got Hoss's attention.

"Now, Joe, just calm down," he said, still holding the traces of a smile around his lips. "I'm only laughin' because it's so good to see you up to havin' a temper again."

Joe continued to glare at him. "I can't believe you two would throw my last words away."

"Well, now, that was mostly Adam's idea." Hoss smiled even as Joe's expression grew more livid. He put a hand on Joe's good leg and his face grew more serious. "Do you remember yesterday, when Adam and I thought you were a goner, and you grabbed holt of Adam's shirt and told us both that you weren't through?" At Joe's hesitant nod, he continued. "Well, when we found your note, Adam said if you weren't through, then neither were we."

Joe stared at Hoss, trying to absorb what he was saying. "But how did you know I would make it?" he asked. "How did you know that note wouldn't be my last...my last..."

Hoss shook his head. "I didn't. I hoped, I prayed, but I didn't know. Not for sure. But Adam—he just refused to give up on you. To him, that note was a sign of giving up, and he didn't want it anywhere around. He wadded it up and threw it in the fire right after we got done sewing you up and getting the bullet out. Said there wouldn't be no need to keep it."

Joe chewed on that for awhile. "Awfully sure of himself, ain't he?"

"Always is."

They stared at one another, and then they started chuckling, then laughing. They laughed so hard and so loud that they woke Adam, and they kept on laughing even as he rolled his eyes and glared at them.

Finally the laughter slowed into fitful snickers and chuckles and Adam sighed a long-suffering sigh.

"Look, I'm beat. It's been a long night, and the sun's not up yet. I'd like to get a little more shut-eye if you two are finished," Adam said, rubbing his hands over bleary eyes.

Joe looked at Hoss and then grinned at Adam. "But we ain't through, brother," he said softly.

Hoss smiled and nodded. "No, we ain't through, none of us." Then he stood up and moved to the mouth of the cave to watch the dawn deliver the promise of another day.

"No, as a matter of fact," Hoss said quietly, looking back at them and grinning, "we're just gettin' started."

The End