Timeframe: Early seasons, at a time when Joe was trying to gain respect as an adult despite his "Little Joe" moniker.

Summary: A man from one of Ben Cartwright's previous lives has come to take revenge on Ben's oldest son, Adam – but it's Joe who pays the price. H/C; Angst.

A Son for a Son

One

Joe Cartwright pulled a bandanna from where he'd tucked it into his belt and used it to wipe sweat from his brow. The sun was growing hotter by the minute. He would have to hurry if he had any hope of finishing the repairs to the front porch before his self-imposed deadline of high noon.

Fortunately, the youngest Cartwright tended to thrive on just this kind of challenge, even when he was competing with no one but himself. He put everything he had into sawing the final cuts in the wood plank affixed to the saw horses in front of him.

Unfortunately, since he was so fully engrossed in the activity Joe gave no notice to an approaching rider until the man was just a few feet in front of him. Joe looked up in surprise when the stranger's horse kicked up a cloud of dust.

"You a Cartwright?" The stranger asked.

Dressed like an easterner, his thick, gray hair was unkempt and his cheeks and neck were dark with stubble. Like his now tattered clothes, he seemed too fine for the west, unprepared to face its cruelties. Nonetheless, he held himself high in the saddle, clearly unconcerned with the incongruous nature of his appearance. He even offered a pleasant smile.

Joe nodded and stepped out from behind the wood. "I'm Joe Cartwright," he answered, smiling back at the stranger as he wiped his hands on the bandanna. "What can I do for you?"

"I'm an old friend of your father," the stranger answered. "From back east."

"Then I'm sure he'll be sorry he missed you. He's out on a cattle drive with my brothers. But if you come back—"

"No," the stranger interrupted. Locking his gaze unnervingly on Joe's, he still wore that smile. It looked out of place, overshadowed by something cold, maybe even cruel in the man's dark eyes. "I'm here now. Here for a reason."

"What reason?"

The stranger's smile broadened. Instead of putting Joe at ease it set the youngest Cartwright's blood cold. That smile was not right – not right at all.

"We've a debt between us, your father and I," the stranger offered. "An old debt." He spoke slowly, as though in deep thought. "I'm here to finally take care of it. Your father, you know, he won't care whether this debt ever gets paid or not. Probably even forgot all about it. But not me. I've been living with it for too long. Far too long."

When the stranger was finished, Joe shook his head. "I'm sorry. I can't help you. I never heard my pa mention an old debt." His answer was polite, but firm. "Whatever it is, it will have to wait until he and my brothers return. Why don't you come back in about a week, and then—"

"A week." The stranger cut Joe off with what could almost have been a gleeful shout. Then he nodded, his smile widening. "That's good. Plenty of time." He tugged the reins to turn his horse sideways.

Believing he had accepted Joe's offer to return and was preparing to ride away, the young Cartwright breathed a sigh of relief. The stranger made him nervous. Joe had been doing everything he could lately to prove he was old enough and capable enough to take care of the ranch on his own. But this man made him feel so unsettled he actually found himself regretting the fact that his father and brothers had chosen this particular time to finally leave him alone.

"What's your name, mister?" Joe asked despite his apprehension. "So I can tell my pa you called."

A sudden jerk of the reins and a boot planted firmly into Joe's chest was the only answer the stranger provided.

Joe flew backward, crashing onto the wooden plank and knocking the entire saw horse contraption into a pile beneath him.

"I'm afraid you won't be telling him a thing, son."

Winded and fighting to refill his spent lungs, Joe could not see the smile behind the man's words, but he knew it was still there, wide and wild and dark. He's not right in the head, Joe realized. That thought was enough to temper a sudden burst of his all too common youthful rage with a healthy dose of fear. He prepared to push himself back to his feet, grabbing for the only weapon close at hand: an old floor board he had already removed from the porch.

The stranger seemed to anticipate the move. A second before Joe's left hand curled around the wood, the loud crack of a rifle shot punctuated the searing pain of the bullet already digging through Joe's forearm. Reflexively grabbing the fresh wound, Joe noticed how the warm, sticky feel of blood coated both his arm and the wood beneath. The bullet had gone clean through.

Anger finally overruled fear as Joe swiveled around to face his attacker. "Who are you?" He shouted. "What is it you want?"

The stranger said nothing. Still mounted on his horse and still smiling, he had his rifle aimed at Joe's head.

Joe glared coldly back. "Well go on, then," he coaxed. "If you're going to kill me why don't you just get it over with? What are you waiting for?"

"Not so fast," the stranger answered. "Has to be slow."

He moved the rifle lower and pulled the trigger, putting a bullet into Joe's right thigh.

Struggling to stay focused through pain and shock, Joe was dimly aware of the stranger dismounting. He could feel and hear the man approaching. When the man was right beside him, Joe blinked blackness from his eyes and looked up at the smiling stranger.

"Just tell me why," Joe demanded in a harsh whisper.

His answer was lost in oblivion when the stranger slammed the butt of his rifle down onto Joe's forehead.

Two

By mid-afternoon, Ben Cartwright's restlessness had become unbearable.

"I'm heading back," he announced to his sons, Adam and Hoss. "You two can handle things from here."

"What's wrong, Pa?" Adam asked, grinning. "You're not worried about Little Joe, are you? I mean, he may be young, and foolish, and hotheaded, and—"

"He can handle things," Ben shot back. "I just, I've got to…" Uncertain how to explain exactly what it was he had to do, Ben let his words trail away.

"Look, Pa," Adam offered more seriously. "I know we tease him a lot, but he is perfectly capable—"

"Of course he is," Ben cut him off, his voice booming with unchecked – and unnecessary – anger. He cleared his throat before continuing more softly. "There are just some things … things I need to take care of. I'll see you both in about a week. Just remember to—"

"You don't think somethin's wrong, do you, Pa?" Hoss asked.

Ben studied his two eldest sons. A moment later, he admitted, "I don't know. I just keep thinking I need to get back."

"Then why don't we come with you?" Adam suggested.

"No, no," Ben's mind roamed far afield as he answered. "You boys are needed here."

"The men can handle this. We can catch up with them again in Copper Creek."

Ben gazed at Adam, uncertain how to reply. It seemed foolish, but he could not ignore the warnings in his mind.

"Look, Pa," Adam added, "if you really do think something's wrong, then three Cartwrights are better than one, don't you think?"

Surprising himself – and worrying his sons, judging by the concerned gazes they exchanged – Ben accepted the offer.

Three

Pain was the first thing that registered in Joe's mind as he came awake. His right leg throbbed. His left arm felt as though it was on fire. He could almost believe everything from his elbow to his wrist had been ripped open. As he tried to blink the world back into focus, a mixture of sweat and blood stung his eyes.

Pure instinct caused him to try to lift his right arm, expecting to wipe the harsh moisture away. Pure agony resulted. He found that his wrists had been tied together; every movement of his right arm awakened searing agony in his left. More subtly testing his legs, Joe discovered his ankles had been similarly trussed.

The second thing that cued Joe's awareness was the sound of whistling. Shifting his attention and blinking through the dark fog of thick, salty moisture, he found a blurred image of the stranger busily at work. Moments later, as his mind came back into focus to compensate for his obscured vision, Joe realized the stranger was pounding wooden stakes into the ground.

Why? He tried to ask the question aloud, but his throat was dry. Coughing, he tried again. "Why?" He rasped.

The stranger paused for just a second before returning to his work.

"For Ed," he replied an instant later, not bothering to look Joe's way. "An eye for an eye. A life for a life."

"What are you talking about?"

The stranger froze, his shoulders growing taut. A slow, deliberate turn brought his attention back toward Joe. Even through the fog, Joe could tell the man's entire demeanor had changed, his posture gone rigid.

"Don't you dare tell me you don't remember him, Adam Cartwright. Don't you dare."

Adam? Joe mouthed the name, but did not say it aloud. "I'm not … I'm not Adam."

The stranger's posture changed again as he relaxed. "Yes." He might have nodded; Joe could not be sure.

"Yes," the man repeated, "well, a son for a son, anyway. You were here. He was not."

"What is this all about? Why are you here?"

"A life for a life," the man replied as he wiped dirt from his hands. "A son for a son."

He moved forward and grabbed Joe's bad arm, pulling Joe toward him as though the young Cartwright was nothing more than a sack of dry goods. The agony of the movement made it impossible for Joe to fight back or even try to pull away. Seconds later, the rope was pulled from around Joe's wrists but he was given no reprieve. The man tugged Joe's right arm outward, and tied it to one of the posts that had been driven into the ground.

"What are you…?" The thought died as the man grabbed Joe's bad arm, pulling it toward the other post. Joe cried out at the blinding agony the move awakened. Before the echoes died in his sore throat, the world went black once more.

Four

Ben rode hard through the afternoon, stopping only to prevent his horse from collapsing beneath him. Through the course of the ride, his desperation to reach home seemed to have afflicted Adam and Hoss as well. They were now as eager as he was to make it back; hot words were exchanged at each and every stop. Ben would feel like an old fool – and Joseph would probably be indignant by the insult – if they arrived home and all was as it should be. So be it. In fact, Ben prayed that would be the case. But his gut told him differently. It also told him he had no time to spare.

Adam appeared to be of a similar mindset. "You two stay here as long as you need," he said, refastening the straps on his saddle. "I'll strike on ahead. My horse is ready to go."

"We go together," Ben demanded coldly.

Adam swiveled around, his eyes dark. "I can't wait around here any longer doing nothing," he shouted back.

"Use some common sense, Adam," Ben said. "We don't even know what we're riding into."

Apparently dumbfounded, Hoss shook his head. "Whatever is goin' on with you two, I shore don't like it. You're all fired up to head into a fight, and you don't even know why. I don't see no common sense any way around any of this."

Ben sighed and took off his hat to run his hand through his hair. Suddenly weary beyond words, he felt his shoulders droop. "Neither do I," he admitted. "I can't explain it; I just know we've got to get back. But it won't do any of us any good if we lose our horses along the way." He looked to Adam and saw his oldest son's tension drain away as well.

"I can't explain it either, Pa," Adam added. "But whatever got to you seems to be contagious. I just can't sit around here doing nothing. I feel like I have got to get back to the Ponderosa."

"Somethin's wrong all right," Hoss said then, "and I don't need no weird feeling to tell me that. All I need to do is look at the two 'a you. But I just can't figure what's got you both so riled up."

"Yes, well," Ben checked the straps on his own saddle. "I may be a foolish, old man, but I'd rather be that than…." Than what? Ben wondered. Than a mourning father? But what reason could he possibly have to even imagine a thing like that? Common sense certainly had nothing to do with any of this.

What if it was something more along the lines of divine intervention?

Adam smiled. "You're no more foolish than me, Pa," he offered.

Ben forced a small smile in reply. "Let's just get back and then we can do whatever figuring we've got to do."

Five

Joe's latest flight back to consciousness was heralded by a steady, rhythmic creaking sound. Creak-creak … creak-creak … creak-creak…. It took him a long while to filter through the clouds in his brain before he realized it was the sound of a rocking chair on the front porch of his family's home, the Ponderosa ranch.

But if it was a sound of home, why did it bring fear instead of comfort? And why was it so hard for him to catch his breath?

Slowly, painfully, Joe struggled to come fully awake and to understand his predicament. He was home, yes, but he may as well have been in the middle of the desert. He was lying spread-eagled on the ground, his wrists and ankles tied tightly to posts that had been pounded into the hard, dry earth. The sun, a blinding white flame directly overhead, was already baking his skin and searing his throat raw. He could almost feel the blood in his veins thickening, drying, becoming dust.

Turning his head to his right, Joe was able to glimpse where the blood from his injured leg had muddied the sand beneath him.

Dust to dust, the preacher said. Ashes to ashes and dust to dust.

Creak-creak … creak-creak … creak-creak….

It took a few moments for Joe to realize it wasn't a preacher talking at all. It was the stranger, the rumpled easterner with the wild smile and cold eyes. He was rocking in Ben Cartwright's chair, on Ben Cartwright's porch, while Ben Cartwright's youngest son was turning to dust.

"Hey." Joe tried to shout, but the sound was small, ineffective. And the effort burned his throat.

"An eye for an eye," the stranger said then. "A life for a life, and a sun for a sun."

A sun for a sun? Joe wondered at that. What did the man mean, a sun for a sun? There was only one sun, and Joe was desperate to get out from under it.

"Hey," Joe tried again. This time, his voice was even smaller than before. He turned his head to the side once more in a useless effort to shield his eyes from the sun's merciless, blinding rays.

"Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of Death," the preacher's voice sifted through a cloud of dust.

A son for a son, Joe realized then. Was that why he was being left here to die? To compensate for another man's dead son? The thought provided little comfort. Joe Cartwright was going to die in the sun for the sake of someone else's son, a boy named Ed whom he never even knew.

Pa? He called out silently somewhere in the depths of his soul. Adam? Why?

Creak-creak … creak-creak … creak-creak .

Six

The sun was low and the shadows long by the time Ben and his oldest sons rounded familiar corners to home. And the house was dark. Too dark.

"Pa!" Adam's shout drew Ben's attention toward a figure lying on the ground some twenty feet from the front door.

As one, the three men jumped from their horses and hurried forward until a single rifle blast stopped them cold.

"Far enough," a voice called out from the shadowed porch. "Isn't over yet."

"Who are you," Ben shouted back while he continued to move slowly, purposefully forward. "What have you done?"

Another bullet hit the ground at Ben's feet. He paused, but did not stop. The gunman would have to do more than that to keep Ben from reaching his son.

"You owe me, Benjamin Cartwright," the voice on the porch shouted. "You owe me a son!"

"What are you talking about?" Ben shouted back. He was almost to Joe's side. "And who are you? Show yourself!"

"You don't know," the stranger answered. The crack and creak of footsteps across old floorboards cued Ben in to his seemingly aimless movements. He might have been pacing "You really don't know." It sounded as though he was laughing.

Ben ignored him. Reaching Joe, he bent to the ground. "My god," he said softly as he took in the condition of his youngest child. Dried blood covered Joe's face, and pools of it muddied the ground under his right leg and left arm. "Joseph? Can you hear me, son?"

But Joe lay still – deathly, frighteningly still. He was barely even breathing. At least he was breathing; Ben could see that much was true.

He heard a crashing sound coming from the porch and was dimly aware of his other two sons rushing past him. None of it mattered. Adam and Hoss could handle the intruder. Joe was the one who needed Ben now. The elder Cartwright used his knife to cut the ropes from Joe's wrists and ankles, and then he drew the young man into his arms, pulling Joe close to his chest.

"It's going to be alright now, son," he promised, speaking around the painful boulder that seemed to have lodged in his throat. "It's over."

A single gunshot rang out from the porch. Tensing and protectively cradling Joe, Ben reached for his own gun, but Hoss's voice stilled his hand.

"Stranger's dead, Pa," Hoss said. "Tripped over this missing floor board here, and…."

Relieved, Ben lifted Joe into his arms. Yet the relief faded swiftly, weighed down as he was by a burden that went far beyond the slight form of his young son. Ben found it a struggle to get to his feet and drag his weary soul to the house where his other sons were puzzling over the stranger's corpse.

"He shot himself, Pa," Adam said, his voice pitched higher than usual, shock and disbelief apparently confounding his natural ability to control his emotions.

Hoss also seemed perplexed. "What would he go and do a thing like that for?" He asked, shaking his head in confusion.

Ben glanced down at the dead stranger to see the man's face had been ruined by his own bullet. The senior Cartwright found he didn't care. "I'm more interested in knowing why he would have done this to your brother."

Seven

It seemed to take an eternity for Adam and Hoss to return with the sheriff and the doctor. Ben spent the time administering to his youngest boy's wounds to the best of his ability. He feared Joe had lost too much blood. That fact alone was chilling, but there were also troubling signs that infection might already be settling in. When Ben considered the dehydration and raw, red patches of skin from the merciless sun, it seemed impossible to believe Joe was still alive.

"Stubborn," Ben muttered as he cleaned the wound in Joe's arm. "Mule-headed. You hear me, Joseph? That's why you're still alive, because you're so stubborn. Well, you can't stop now. You just keep being stubborn and willful and mule-headed. You just keep fighting, son. You just ... you just keep..."

Ben closed his eyes around the tears he could no longer contain and sank to his knees at Joe's bedside. "You just stay with me, son."

"Pa?"

Startled, and not entirely sure what he'd heard, Ben allowed himself to look hopefully toward the burned and bruised face of his son. But Joe's swollen eyelids remained closed.

"Joseph?" Ben smoothed Joe's hair. "Can you hear me, son?"

There. Ben saw a slight tremor around Joe's eyebrows. Though the young man's eyes refused to open, a moment later one small, hopeful word escaped Joe's barely parted lips. "Pa?"

"I'm here, son. I'm right here."

Ben closed his eyes in silent, grateful prayer.

Eight

A few days later, Sheriff Coffee paid the Cartwrights another visit. A frequent guest since their encounter with the stranger, Roy was clearly doing everything he could to puzzle out just why it was the man had so cruelly victimized Little Joe. Ben was grateful for his efforts.

"Well, Ben, I finally put a name to that stranger," he explained in the doorway of the Cartwright's ranch house. "George Edward—"

"Thornton," Ben provided as he silently invited the sheriff into his home. "Yes, I know him." Ben shook his head. "I … knew him. Back when Adam was just a boy."

The sheriff took a seat in the house's main room. "If you knew this already, then what'd I come here for?"

Ben offered a small smile. "Joe said some things in his sleep. Enough to help Adam and me put the pieces together. George's son, Edward was a friend to Adam when we lived out east. One afternoon Edward went looking for Adam. He had something to show him or tell him or … something. I don't really remember what it was. Someone told him Adam was at the schoolhouse. And he would have been if it hadn't been for me. He disobeyed me so I kept him home as punishment." Ben took a deep breath before continuing. "When Edward was in the schoolhouse, there was an accident, a fire. The boy never made it out. Not long after Edward died, his mother died too. They said she was broken-hearted. And George … he just needed someone to blame. He blamed me; he blamed both of us. You would think after all these years…." Ben shook his head sadly.

"At least we can spare everyone the trouble of a trial." Roy Coffee started to get up, and then seemed to remember something. "Oh," he said, reaching into his pocket, "I found this in Thornton's saddlebag." He handed Ben a faded daguerreotype photograph of two small boys. "I suppose that one there is Adam." He smiled, shaking his head. "I knew he looked familiar. Now I guess I know why."

The image gave Ben only an instant of happy recollection. When the instant passed, it filled him with sorrow. He handed it back to the sheriff.

"Don't you think Adam might want that?" Roy asked.

Ben shook his head. "It will only make things worse, I'm afraid. Adam feels responsible for what happened to Joe. I think he's even feeling some responsibility now for Edward. No. I'd rather he never saw this."

Roy accepted the photograph and placed it back into his pocket. "How is Joe?"

"A little better every day," Ben answered. "The worst is over. He's going to be just fine."

"Why that's good to hear, Ben. Nasty business that. It takes a mighty sick mind to do a thing like that to anyone, let alone someone he never even met."

"I'm afraid George Thornton died along with his wife and son years ago. All that's remained on this Earth has been his festering sickness."

"Well, that's done with now, too," Roy said.

Ben nodded. But as he glanced up the stairs to where he knew Adam was fueling a guilty conscience at Joe's bedside, Ben couldn't help but wonder if that was true.

Nine

So many people were running and shouting in the street. Why? Adam was confused and frightened. When his pa came into his room, Adam looked to him for comfort, but there was none to be found in Pa's dark gaze.

"There's a fire, Adam," Pa said. "I have to go. You stay right here. You hear me, boy? Stay here."

But how could he? How could Adam sit alone in his room with all that yelling and screaming going on outside? He had to see for himself what was happening. Cautiously following after his pa, Adam was soon caught up in the wave of people moving toward the schoolhouse.

"There's a fire, Adam," Pa said again – except Pa was nowhere to be seen. He had gone to fight the fire. And the fire was at the schoolhouse.

The schoolhouse … that was where Eddie was supposed to be. Adam's friend had gone there to set off a handful of firecrackers. Adam had tried to talk him out of it, had even attempted to follow the other boy, hoping to get the firecrackers away from him. But Pa had caught him.

"Have you finished your chores, son?"

"Not yet. But Pa, I have to—"

"I'll have none of your back-talk young man. You just do as you're told. You get inside this minute and get your work done."

"But Eddie's at the school," Adam tried to explain – until he realized there was no one listening. His pa was gone.

"Eddie!" Adam shouted hopelessly. His voice was too small, the roar of the flames too fierce. Adam was alone in the middle of the crowd in the middle of the street; and not a single soul seemed to hear him. He fell to his knees, tired and lost. And then he heard someone else calling to him.

"Adam!"

Again giving his attention to the schoolhouse, Adam caught a glimpse of his friend standing just outside the building.

Eddie?

Strangely, the other boy seemed oblivious to the flames raging so close behind him. And the crowd of men trying to douse those flames seemed oblivious to the small boy. It was as though no one could even see Eddie. No one could see him but Adam.

And as Adam watched, alone and afraid, Eddie started burning. Like the schoolhouse, Eddie was on fire. The burning boy reached out his hand, begging and screaming for Adam to help him. But how could Adam help? If he took Eddie's hand, Adam would burn too.

"Adam!" Eddie cried out. "Adam!"

Then the voice changed. It wasn't Eddie anymore. It was Little Joe. Joe was burning, and reaching out his hand, desperate for Adam to save him. Somehow Adam found the courage to reach forward, but his arms were leaden. The air itself was thick, impermeable. It took everything he had to simply touch Joe's fingertips. It wasn't enough. He could not seem to grasp Joe's hand. He could not get close enough.

"Adam!" Joe shouted again.

The street changed then. It closed in around him. And Adam was no longer standing. He was seated in a hard, wooden chair.

"Adam, wake up!" Joe called out urgently.

Adam blinked the sleep from his eyes to find himself in his brother's room, seated at Joe's bedside. Adam had his legs stretched out on the floor, with his toes jammed up against the bed frame. Forcing himself fully awake, he pulled his feet back and straightened himself in his chair.

"You all right, Joe?" He asked quickly.

But Joe could not answer right away. Clearly fighting off a wave of pain, he was grimacing and biting down on his lower lip.

Adam jumped to his feet. "I'll get you some—"

"No," Joe said through steadily slowing gasps. "No, Adam." He finally took one, deep breath, and then added, "I'm fine."

"Yeah," Adam said. "Sure you are."

"Just do me a favor." Joe took another breath. "Stop shaking the bed, will ya?"

Remembering how his feet had been pushed against the bed frame, Adam felt an immediate and intense pang of guilt. He, himself had caused his little brother to suffer because he had been careless enough to fall into a fitful sleep so close to the bed.

"Joe, I'm sorry." He shook his head and rubbed his eyes. "I don't know how I could have been so—"

"When was the last time you slept, older brother? In your bed?"

Adam saw Joe's small, impish smile and could not help but offer up one of his own. He sighed heavily, feeling his tension relax. It was good to see Joe smile.

"That's not important," Adam answered.

Joe gazed at him incredulously for a moment. Then he gave another quick smile and closed his eyes. Adam had the distinct feeling that Joe was not indicating a desire to return to sleep. Instead, he seemed to be trying to puzzle something out in his head.

"How long have I been here, in mine?" Joe asked finally.

"Four days. Not counting the night we found you."

"Adam?" Joe opened his eyes again, his gaze reaching for his brother's. "Who was Ed? What happened to him?"

Feeling his entire body go rigid, Adam sank back into the chair by the bed, the movement emphasizing the weariness that every moment of the past four days had suddenly sunk deep into his bones.

"I'm sorry, Joe." He leaned forward, resting his arms on his knees. "None of this should ever have happened. Thornton was after me, not you. You should never—"

"I'm not asking about me. I want to know about Ed."

Adam closed his eyes, looking inside for memories he wished had never had to surface. When he found what he needed, he gave a sad shake of his head and started studying his right hand.

"Ed was a friend of mine back in Boston. He was older than me. For a while I guess I sort of looked to him like an older brother. It's hard to imagine I could have forgotten about him, but until this whole … until Thornton attacked you," Adam looked to his young brother, "maybe I just didn't want to remember. You see Joe, Ed was a good friend, but he was also a trouble-maker. And one day he got himself into a mess of trouble he couldn't get out of."

"What happened?" Joe prodded softly.

"Some of the older boys had been bullying him. He thought he'd get back at them by setting off fire crackers in the schoolhouse and somehow pointing the blame to them. I really don't know how he planned to do that. All I do know is something went terribly wrong. He ended up starting a fire. It spread fast. He never made it out."

"Why did Mr. Thornton blame Pa and you?"

Adam took a deep breath. "Someone told him Ed was only in the schoolhouse because he was looking for me. I don't know who told him that, or why he refused to believe my story. Maybe he just couldn't face the fact that Ed was responsible for his own … death." It was strange how difficult Adam found it to say the word. Death. It was as though the word itself created a sense of finality he would rather have avoided.

"And Pa…," Adam rubbed his hands together, gazing down at the floor. "Pa saw me with Ed when I was supposed to be doing chores. I was punished." He gave his attention back to Joe. "If Pa hadn't ordered me inside, I would probably have gone with Ed. I would have been in that schoolhouse, too. Maybe I would have been able to stop him."

"Or maybe you would have been caught in that fire."

Instead of replying, Adam merely shrugged and cocked his head to the side.

"Adam, it wasn't your fault. Not back then, and not now."

He looked at Joe, but found himself unable to respond. Adam knew what his brother said was true. Still his heart refused to deny him a heavy, burdensome sense of responsibility.

"It's true, Adam. You know it is. You were a boy, a child. And Ed was older than you. He would have had more control over you than you could possibly have had over him. Trust me; I know what it means to be the younger brother." Joe added, smiling.

Adam raised his eyebrows. "If I just heard you right, younger brother, you're saying I should actually be able to get through that thick skull of yours."

Joe's smile widened, though his eyelids began to drift closed. "Sometimes," he said drowsily.

Adam watched his brother begin to slip back into sleep, and as Joe's breaths grew heavier, Adam allowed his own eyes to close. He found it comforting to hear the ease of Joe's current slumber. Maybe the worst really was over.

"Adam."

Joe's voice startled him awake once more.

"Sorry, Joe," he offered quickly, though he was not entirely sure what he was apologizing for.

"Go to bed."

"What?" Now it was Adam's turn to give his brother an incredulous look.

"You don't need to sit with me," Joe said, smiling with that impish grin of his. "Not that I don't appreciate the attention, older brother, but I think I can handle being on my own for a little while."

Adam smiled back at him, grateful to feel the weight of the world begin to slide off his shoulders. "Now who's trying to control whom, younger brother?"

"Just get some sleep, will ya? I'll be fine."

"I suppose you will be at that." Adam gave a gentle squeeze of his brother's good leg before rising to leave the room. "I am glad to see you're feeling better."

"Adam?" Joe called out as Adam reached the door. He waited until Adam turned, and then added, "Thank you."

"What are you thanking me for?" Adam asked, confused. "If it weren't for me, you wouldn't be lying there."

"If it weren't for you and your occasional ability to get inside this thick skull of mine, I might have done something worse than this all on my own years ago. No, Adam. I'm thanking you for being my brother, the kind of brother who's always there for me when I need him."

Adam shook his head, feeling that weight return. "I'm afraid I wasn't there this time."

"You were there when it really counted, Adam. You were there when it mattered. And from the looks of those bags under your eyes, you've been here ever since."

"Well, I guess that's just what older brothers do."

"No. Only the ones who matter."

"You know, Hoss and Pa have been here a good while, too."

"I know."

"Yeah," Adam said softly. He leaned back against the door after closing it behind him. "Thank you," he added, his gaze focused far beyond the ceiling.

Ten

It was mid-day and the house was quiet, as it should be. No one should be holed up inside when there were always chores to attend to, especially on a clear day like this. Adam, Hoss, and even Pa were all outside somewhere, doing something useful, something important. Yet the only thing Joe could do was lie in bed.

No, he decided. He was not just going to lie there, not anymore. He'd had enough of this bed, and this room. He needed to get up and move around. He needed to get outside – so that was exactly what he would do.

It was a struggle just to sit up. He had to roll to his left side without putting weight on his left arm. Sheer strength of will got him to where he needed to be. He slid his legs over the edge of his bed, careful to avoid any unnecessary pressure on the wound in his right thigh. And then he stared at the cane Pa had brought in for him earlier that morning.

"Now don't argue with me," Pa had said. "You'll need this when you're ready. Don't even think about trying to walk without it."

Pa had set the cane against Joe's dresser. Now there it was, just a few short feet away.

It seemed an insurmountable distance. Joe stared at that cane, realizing it was a lifeline to mobility, his only hope of getting outside. Despite Pa's expectations, the warning had been unnecessary. Joe knew he needed that cane. He knew perfectly well his leg needed more healing before it could support his weight. He had no intention of trying to walk without it -- trouble was, Joe would have to walk without it just to retrieve it.

Sighing, Joe called upon some of that willful, mule-headed determination Pa was always chiding him for...

No. Not always, Joe realized.

"You just keep being stubborn and willful and mule-headed." Pa said somewhere in the depths of a fading dream. There had been pain in Pa's voice, but the message had been clear. Joe's stubborn determination had kept him alive long enough for his family to reach him. Now that same determination was going to get Joe outside.

He smiled, recognizing that neither Pa nor Joe's brothers would accept such an argument.

"You know perfectly well what I meant," Pa would say.

Well, go ahead and say it, Pa. I'm just determined enough to do it.

Still smiling, Joe pushed himself up off the bed with his right arm and bared down with his left leg until he had achieved a primarily upright position. From there he managed a series of slow, cautious hops toward the dresser. It took a great deal of effort and no small amount of coordination. He had to stop to steady himself more than once. And each hopping step caused his still healing wounds to throb. But Little Joe Cartwright's willful, mule-headed determination was rewarded when he reached the end of that short trek across his room. He had made it to the dresser.

Feeling triumphant, Joe grabbed for that cane as though it was the most important thing in the world. Nothing else mattered at that moment -- not even his need to focus on balance. He very nearly toppled head-first to the floor. Fortunately, Joe caught himself at the last possible moment by throwing out his injured arm and grabbing the edge of the dresser. He let out a soft grunt at the resulting pain, and then, gritting his teeth, he waited for black spots to stop muddying his vision.

It seemed to take an eternity, but Joe eventually managed to perform the most astounding feat of all: he got dressed.

The entire effort wore Joe out enough that he considered going straight back to bed; but that would mean surrender, and Joe Cartwright was never the type to admit defeat. Gritting his teeth once more, he took up his prized cane in his right hand, pressed it to the floor, and hobbled steadfastly forward.

By the time Joe reached the bottom of the stairs, he felt on the verge of collapse. Still, he had yet to achieve his goal. None of this would have been worth the effort if he failed to make it outside.

Somehow his willpower gave him the strength he needed to finally cross the threshold.

He made it!

But either the sun was growing dimmer or his vision was growing strained. Using the last bit of his strength to reach the closest chair, Joe dropped wearily into it and promptly fell asleep.

Eleven

Creak-creak … creak-creak … creak-creak …

"Yea though I walk through the valley in the shadow of Death…."

Mr. Thornton was rocking in that chair on the front porch and preaching to the world at large. But his Bible verses were jumbled up and often seemed to be mis-quoted. Was he reading them or simply remembering them aloud?

"A sun for a sun…."

Joe's leg was throbbing. The sun was blistering his face. And he could feel that rocking chair swaying back and forth.

Creak-creak … creak-creak … creak-creak …

No. Please Pa, help me. Adam … Adam help me.

"A sun for a sun…."

Joe was rocking in that chair on the porch, creaking across the loose boards he had failed to fix.

Creak-creak … creak-creak … creak-creak …

He could see Adam. Joe's oldest brother was lying on the blood-soaked ground, his arms and legs outstretched, his face blistering in the sun. Joe could even feel the wound in Adam's leg. It throbbed with each back-and-forth motion of the chair.

Adam? Adam, don't … don't make me do this. Please. Adam?

"A son for a son…."

Creak-creak … creak-creak … creak-creak …

But those weren't Joe's words. Joe was not Mr. Thornton. And how could Adam expect him to just sit there?

Adam? Joe called to his brother, but Adam could not hear him. Adam? Don't, Adam.

Joe had to help him. He could not sit there on the porch and watch his brother die.

"A son for a son…."

"No!" Joe shouted. He pushed himself from the chair, ready to run to Adam's side. But all he managed to do was fall face-first onto a freshly-cut and sanded wooden plank.

Blinking the cobwebs from his brain, Joe realized he had launched himself right out of the rocking chair and onto the floor of the porch. He studied the planks for a dazed moment, noticing how clean and smooth they were until it occurred to him that someone had finished his chores. Fixing the porch was supposed to have been Joe's job, Joe's responsibility. His Pa had entrusted him to do it. And Joe had failed.

Anger surged within him. Using his good right arm and ignoring the awakening agony in his left, Joe pushed himself up onto his good knee. When the effort made him dizzy, he held that awkward position for a good, long while.

"Joe!" He heard Hoss call out.

He felt strong hands grab him under the arms and lift him up.

"Leave me alone!" He shouted back. He wanted to struggle, wanted Hoss to just let him stay there on the floor where he could revel in his anger. It was useless. He was too weak.

But when Hoss started to set him down onto the rocker, Joe somehow found a tiny scrap of strength, just enough to grab the edge of the chair and throw it sideways. "No, Hoss! No!"

"What in tarnation is wrong with you, Little Brother?" Hoss countered as he set Joe down into a more stable arm chair.

Joe just shook his head, unable to speak as he used what little energy he had left to fight against a threatening barrage of tears.

"Joe?" The sound of Adam's voice struck like an ax at the bottom of a rain barrel. Joe could no longer stop the tears from flowing. He felt like an idiot, a worthless, useless little boy. He had actually believed he could handle the ranch on his own, yet here he was, crying like a baby for his whole family to see.

And then Adam was kneeling beside him. Joe looked away, but could not ignore the hand resting gently on his knee.

"It wasn't your fault either, you know," Adam said.

Epilogue

Joe's story was a sobering one, and the elder Cartwright's all found themselves struggling against disturbing emotions with each new revelation. Certainly they had known what happened. Joe had been brutally attacked and left to die. Yet that was only part of the story. What Joe told them that evening on the porch in soft, pained words provided so much more. He gave them horrific glimpses into the agonized thoughts that had haunted him while he lay dying.

It was almost impossible to imagine feeling such an utter sense of abandonment as Joe had felt during those terrible hours -- even as one man stayed close, close enough to hear Joe's tortured cries begging for mercy. Yet that one man, that one person who could save him chose instead to quote Bible passages he had no claim to, while he rocked back and forth across loose floorboards, tormenting Joe with that incessant creaking, proof that help was just a few steps away and completely out of reach.

Still, somehow Joe had held on. His stubborn refusal to abandon hope, to simply give up had kept him alive – and the longer he stayed alive the more his suffering had intensified.

"I just … I kept thinking of all of you," Joe said, his voicing breaking under the weight of his recent words.

Hoss shook his head, clearly puzzled. "Yeah, but as far as you knew, we wouldn't be back for at least another week."

"I guess I just hoped by some miracle you'd be there."

"I guess that's just what it was, then," Hoss decided.

"What?" Joe asked.

"A miracle. I swear Little Joe, it was like an angel was whisperin' in Pa's ear, telling him to come home. He started whisperin' in Adam's ear, too. Funny though, I never heard a thing."

"Well if it was an angel," Adam added, offering the small quirk of a half-formed smile, "maybe he was just trying to make sure at least one of us stayed level headed."

"Then oughtn't that be you, Adam?" Hoss asked. "Or Pa?"

Pa smiled. "Well, Hoss, if I were a betting man I'd bet that angel knew you were the only one who wouldn't need as much convincing as Adam or I, and that's precisely why you didn't hear him: because you didn't need to."

"But I still don't get it, Pa."

"All we had to do was suggest Joe might need us, and you didn't even question it. You didn't try to reason with us. You just did what you had to: you came home." He stood up and stretched. "Now I suggest we all head upstairs and get some sleep. It's been a long, trying day for all of us."

His gaze landed on Joe, but his youngest son did not look up. Instead, Joe glanced around, seeming uncertain about something.

"You all go ahead," the youngest Cartwright said then. "I think I'd like to just stay out here for a while."

"Ain't you had enough fresh air for one day?" Hoss asked.

Joe shrugged and avoided locking onto anyone else's gaze.

"You're crazy if you think we're going to just leave you out here," Adam added, his crossed arms emphasizing the uncompromising nature of his statement.

"What?" Joe asked, apparently trying his hardest to appear lighthearted. "I'll come up when I'm ready."

Adam nodded. "Just as easily as you came down earlier, right?"

Another shrug.

"Need I remind you that you've been sitting there in that hard, wooden chair for the past several hours? You're leg is going to be as stiff as one of these boards here. Not to mention the fact that you're about 50 times more tired now than you were when you—"

"Just leave me be, will ya'?" Joe shouted.

"No."

Joe's gaze shot up toward Adam's. "N…no?" He asked, seeming shocked and confused by his oldest brother's response.

"No," Adam repeated. "There are times when I will admit you deserve to have us leave you be. This isn't one of them."

"Adam's right, Little Joe," Hoss said.

"We go together," Pa added, flashing his oldest son a warm smile.

Apparently realizing he was outnumbered, Joe sighed, his shoulders sagging in weary resignation. He didn't even argue when his brothers decided to take the place of his cane, supporting him every step of the way.

Nor did he ask questions the next day when he saw that the rocking chair had disappeared from its traditional place on the porch.

~ end ~