With a sinking, sick feeling, Adam rushed over to Joe. There were hoof-prints all over his back and a large gash on his thigh was bleeding freely.
"That's a good sign," Adam told himself. "Dead men don't bleed." It was scant comfort, but at least Joe was alive.
Joe stirred slightly and then winced as his battered body protested and pain coursed violently through ever fibre and sinew. A gentle hand touched his head and he heard his brother's voice, although it seemed a very long away.
"Keep still. Don't try to move," Adam said and, if things had been different, Joe would have laughed out loud. Moving was the very last thing he felt like doing. He was quite content to lie still and concentrate on trying to control the nausea rising in his throat. Breathing shallowly, he began to isolate the different injuries: thumping pain in his head, a searing agony in his leg and an insistent throbbing running from his shoulders to his hips.
"Don't do that!" he yelped, as Adam tried to staunch the bleeding coming from his gored thigh. The slightest touch was excruciating agony. Fighting against the pain, Joe struggled violently, pushing Adam away and struggled to turn over and face his tormentor.
"Don't touch my leg!" he pleaded, grabbing onto Adam's hands, trying to fight the dizziness.
With infinite tenderness, Adam gently pushed Joe back down. "Sorry buddy, but this has to be done." He pressed down firmly on the wound and Joe gave a strangled gasp and then fell back, limp and unresisting.
"Always have to do things the hard way, don't you little brother?" Adam thought grimly, as he started to assess Joe's wounds. By some miracle, the only major damage appeared to be the leg wound, a blow to the head and some broken ribs. But the leg wound was long, ragged and deep and although the bleeding was slightly slower now, it was still not clotting. The only positive thing to be said was that at least the haemorrhage would have washed most of the dirt out of the wound.
At least he had something that would help Joe with the pain, Adam thought, knowing the journey back home would take at least a day. He reached into his hip pocket and then winced as something sharp cut into his finger. Sucking the digit ruefully, Adam realised that his precious bottle of laudanum had been broken at some point during the stampede.
By the time Joe struggled back to consciousness the rain had stopped and the sun was rising. Conscious of the need to get his brother home as soon as possible, Adam waited just long enough for Joe to drink a cup of coffee before helping him into the saddle and then mounting behind him.
"Cooch?" Joe's voice was faint, but urgent.
"He's fine. A couple of scratches, but that's all. You're the one who came of worst, buddy." He'd tied Cochise's reins to his saddle horn and the pinto was trotting alongside them, but Joe did not seem to be aware of this.
"Glad Cochise is alright." Joe forced the words out. He wanted to reassure Adam that he was all right, but he simply didn't have the strength to say anything else. He remained silent during most of the torturously slow journey, except for those moments when the pain became too much too bear and a choked gasp of agony would force its way out. Adam pushed on relentlessly, keeping an eye on the still-bleeding wound and watching as the bloodstain on the bandana he had strapped around Joe's leg grew ever larger. He wondered idly how much blood a man had in his body and how much he could afford to loose…
Twice that day, Adam had to bind the wound with fresh dressings and his spare shirt was reduced to a tattered remnant. By mid-afternoon, it was obvious they would not reach the Ponderosa by nightfall and he reluctantly looked around for a spot to set up camp for the evening. Joe was barely conscious and he almost slipped to the ground when Sport came to a gentle halt.
Tending to the ugly wound, Adam noticed it was turning a dark reddish-purple, raised proud against the swollen and bruised flesh that surrounded it. Joe was feverish, with a fierce heat radiating from his body. After tending to his brother, Adam sat back on his heels and surveyed the empty landscape. He had never felt quite so alone in his entire life.
The night's rest appeared to have do Joe some good, as the wound had finally stopped bleeding. But he had an inescapable look of fragility and was still tormented by pain.
"I can't go on," Joe said, his voice faint, but determined. Adam started to protest, but Joe interrupted him, his dogged determination reasserting itself, despite his weakness. "I can hardly lift my head off the ground, far less stay on a horse. You go back and bring help."
"I can't leave you!" Adam cried wretchedly.
"You have to." Joe's fragile store of strength was waning fast and he shut his eyes, not wanting his brother to see the tears that were threatening to spill out. He would not let his brother watch him die. How could Adam ever live his life after that?
Adam knew Joe was right. He had to ride on alone and get help. It was the logical thing to do - he knew that. So why did it feel so wrong?
"I'll be as quick as possible, Joe. I'll be back with help."
"I know you will." Joe managed a half-smile, which sat like a mocking echo of his normal insouciant grin. He managed to wait until the hoof beats faded into the distance before he would allow the sob escape from his throat.
"He's a remarkably lucky young man," Paul Martin observed wryly. He used to wonder if Joe would ever reach his twenty-first birthday, the boy was that accident-prone. He turned to Ben, who had refused to leave his son's side since he was brought home, still and unmoving, seemingly more dead than alive.
"The leg wound is deep and it took me over an hour to stitch it up, but it should heal without too much trouble. As long as he stays off it for a couple of weeks."
"He'll do that alright, iffen I have to sit on him myself!" Hoss solemnly stated, with only the merest hint of a smile playing on his lips.
"He's got five broken ribs and a lump the size of hen's egg on the back of his head, but apart from that…" Paul let his sentence tail off. Only Joe Cartwright could be caught in the middle of a stampede and come off so lightly. The boy must have a whole host of guardian angels working overtime on his behalf.
"You did a fine job, tending to that leg wound Adam. If you hadn't acted so promptly, there was a real danger Joe could have died from blood-loss."
Adam nodded abstractly, never raising his gaze from the wan, bandaged figure lying almost motionless in the bed. From time to time he caught himself leaning forward, straining to hear if Joe was still breathing.
"Joseph will be alright, Paul, won't he? I mean, he's got a bit of a fever and…"
Adam glanced up and caught Hoss' eye and they exchanged a knowing smile: no matter how old Joe grew, to his father, he was still his little boy and therefore in need of love and protection. They foresaw some relentless coddling in the days ahead.
"He aint no different when it's you and me neither, brother," Hoss said meaningfully. "Guess we're all like that. What hurts one of us hurts all of us."
For all his own gift with words, Adam often envied the way Hoss could express the most complex thoughts with such immediate sensitivity. He nodded, realising that it was time to move on.
The familiar tones of Ben Cartwright exerting the full force of his personality upon his youngest son could be clearly heard downstairs.
"Looks like Pa could do with a break," Adam observed dryly and loped upstairs. Just as he thought: Joe was assuring his father that he quite well enough to get up. Not to be outdone, Ben was informing his recalcitrant offspring that he most certainly was not. It was an all too-familiar scene and generally indicated that Joe was well on the road to recovery.
Adam entered the room to find father and son glaring at one another, and tried not to burst out laughing at their resemblance to one another.
"Why don't I sit with Joe for a bit?" he suggested smoothly and Ben gave him a harried smile and left the room with evident relief.
"You're obviously feeling better if you're up to fighting with Pa," Adam remarked. "You should have learned now that he's the original immoveable object when it comes to obeying doctor's orders." Joe just grunted and continued to look put out.
Sitting down beside the bed, Adam clasped his hands and leant his chin on them. "I've been wanting to have a talk with you – about what happened the other week."
Joe looked embarrassed. "Yeah, me too," he agreed. "I never thanked you for looking after me and getting me home. Sorry."
This was the last thing he would have expected Joe to say and Adam jerked upright. "That's not what I meant. Not at all. Quite the reverse in fact." He could feel his face redden. "I've apologised to Pa and Hoss for the way I acted and the things I did, but you were the one who suffered the most."
Joe toyed restlessly with the fringe of his bedspread, unable to look at his brother. "S'alright," he mumbled, in an embarrassed voice.
"No, it's not. It's not alright at all. I acted without thinking and caused that stampede. You could have been killed. I thought that I'd gone through the worst thing on earth, when I found out about Luther, but if you had… if you… "
"Adam, I'm fine. I'm here right now because you looked after me and brought me home. And if took an accident to bring you back home to all of us, then it was worth it."
Fumbling in his pocket, Adam pulled out a letter. "I got this from Mrs Evans. She wrote to tell me that I wasn't to blame myself. Luther had a long history of hurting himself and as he got older, he made several attempts to take his own life. When he was arrested for arson and murder, he refused to say a single word in his own defence. Not one word. Mrs Evans says he welcomed death, as a release from his father's dominance. And she said she's happy to think he's finally at peace."
Joe looked stunned. "Poor Luther! I knew he was unhappy, but I never thought it was that bad. Still, it was nice of his mother to write. I often thought Luther could have been real nice too, if he'd just had a chance to be normal."
Adam looked back at the letter. "His mother wrote something else. Remember that afternoon you and Luther spent fishing? He told her that was the one time he felt totally happy, the only time he ever felt like a regular kid. That's a good memory to have."
"He must have been very lonely," Joe said sadly. "All those facts his father stuffed into his head, when what he was needing was love."
"Love and the freedom to make your own mistakes and learn from them. We can't ask for more than that, any one of us. Oh, and the support of your family, through good times and bad."
Ben had been standing at the door listening for a few moments, relieved beyond words to realise that Adam had fought his inner demons and emerged a stronger man. "That's a good creed to live life by, son. Wise words indeed."
Adam looked up at the tall, beloved figure of his father and smiled. "Oh, I had a good teacher."
"The very best," Joe agreed contentedly. It was comforting to think that some facts were constant and immutable, like the love that bound the Cartwright's together.