Thank you so much for all the lovely reviews - they are very much appreciated.

And here is the final installment...

Hoss rode on ahead into Virginia City to bring Paul Martin out to the Ponderosa while Adam pushed on home. He started telling stories out loud, relating long-forgotten instances from childhood and every so often gave Joe a little shake, grateful to get a mumble or any other sound out of him. After what seemed an eternity, he rode into the yard, dismounted carefully, took Joe into his arms and rushed into the house.

Ben was working busily at his desk and didn't look up.

"Glad you're home, son. Busy day?"

"Pa! Am I glad to see you! There's something wrong with Joe …."

The words were hardly out of his mouth when Ben sprang up and rushed over, taking Joe's limp body into his arms with infinite tenderness and carrying him over to the couch.

"Joseph! What's happened to you son?"

There was no response. Joe lay pale and unresponsive and Adam began to explain what had happened.

"I think …" It was difficult to vocalise, but Adam knew he had to say it. "I think it's that bang on the head he got when I walloped him the other night." His voice quavered and he looked down at the floor, unable to continue.

Ben tore his eyes away from Joe and looked up at Adam. "Well, you could be right. Then again, perhaps I should have insisted he stay home today, or I could have listened more carefully to Joe's side of the story yesterday. If we hadn't been so upset at seeing poor Malcolm Henderson, maybe we would have remembered to talk to Paul Martin. But nothing's ever simple in life, is it? There are so many things we wish we could do differently."

"But it was me that punched him!"

"Yes, but I seem to remember that Joe threw the first punch. Adam, you hit him in anger, but you didn't do it deliberately. Don't punish yourself over this, son. Right now, the best thing you can do for brother is to help me get him upstairs and into bed. Hoss and Paul should be here soon and I want to get him settled."

Brought fully up to date on Joe's latest mishap, Doctor Paul Martin drew his buggy up in front of the house. He had come to regard the Ponderosa as his home away from home, due to the frequent calls he made to the Cartwrights. Mainly, his visits were on a professional basis, but over the years he had got to know the family very well and enjoyed a rewarding friendship with them. Joe was especially accident-prone and the moment Hoss had burst into his surgery, uttering the all-too-familiar, but nevertheless dramatic words "We need you out at the Ponderosa real fast Doc! Little Joe's real sick!", Paul had begun to gather together a formidable array of bandages, splints and opiates. It was always best to be well-prepared where Joe Cartwright was concerned.

If there was one thing which Paul had learnt through long years of association with the family, it was that Joe Cartwright could be relied upon to be unpredictable. This latest ailment was certainly something new for a boy who had previously taken several hard knocks to his head with no discernible effects. However, there was a first time for everything, he ruminated and went up the familiar staircase.

Joe was semi-conscious, lying quietly in bed with his eyes shut. It was easier that way, for whenever he opened his eyes, it caused the room to start whirling around in an alarming fashion, making him feel sick again. Ben and Adam sat on either side of the bed, murmuring quietly to Joe and getting an occasional, monosyllabic response.

"Good afternoon gentlemen. I believe Joe is feeling slightly under the weather?" Without waiting for a reply, Paul continued, "Perhaps you could arrange for a cup of tea for me Adam? The drive has made me rather thirsty. And Hoss, could you see to my horse for me? Thank you." With that, he ushered them swiftly out of the room. Dealing with one injured Cartwright, plus an anxious parent was bad enough, but even Paul Martin had his limits. The prospect of Ben, Adam and Hoss hovering around and fussing would drive a saint to temptation.

He bent over Joe, concern showing in his face and touched the boy's cheek gently.

"Joe? It's Doctor Martin here. I understand you're not feeling too bright just now. Can you open your eyes for a moment?"

Joe obeyed groggily and Paul began to examine him carefully. He noted the unfocused, rather glassy stare, and general disorientation. He bent Joe's head forward and examined the scalp wound carefully, noticing how tender and swollen it still was. Joe winced sharply when Paul probed a little too hard and struggled to hold back another bout of nausea. The colour drained rapidly out of his face and, recognising the signs, Paul quickly grabbed a bowl from the dresser.

After Ben had cleaned Joe up and lain him back against the pillows, Paul continued his examination. Joe was very tired now and his answers became shorter and more grumpy. When the doctor enquired innocently "Any pain elsewhere?" he snapped back.

"Just my butt and I'm not showing that to anyone!"

Paul and Ben exchanged amused glances, although Ben was quick to say "Joseph!" in a reproachful tone of voice. By this time though, Joe had fallen into an exhausted sleep. Paul motioned Ben towards the door and they went downstairs, where Adam, Hoss and Hop Sing waited anxiously.

"Ah, tea! How wonderful." Paul sat down and poured himself a cup, before setting their minds at ease.

"There's nothing seriously wrong with Joe that time and few quiet days in bed won't cure." He took a long, luxurious swallow, savouring the delicate fragrance and nodded his appreciation to Hop Sing. "That knock to the head was pretty nasty and it probably caused a small fracture to Joe's skull. It certainly gave him a nasty concussion. That would account for the headaches, nausea and general disorientation he's been experiencing. What he needs now is to be kept still and quiet, with no more moving about than is absolutely necessary."

The Cartwrights looked worried. It was all very well for Paul to say that, but actually keeping Joe in bed was an almost impossible task.

Paul almost laughed outloud when he saw the dismayed expressions on their faces. "Don't worry! Joe's still feeling pretty rotten and he'll probably sleep a lot for next few days, so it shouldn't be too bad."

Adam stood up and shook Paul's had. "Thanks, Doctor. We've all been rather concerned. I'll just go up and sit with him for a while, if that's all right?" Paul nodded his agreement and returned to his cup of tea.

Adam sat down at the side of the bed and studied the sleeping boy carefully. What was it about Joe that affected him so deeply? The boy could make him so angry and yet he could draw up the very emotions that Adam tried so hard to keep hidden. He reached out and took Joe's hand, noticing that it was still smaller than his own and feeling strangely protective.

"Hi Adam." Joe's voice was clearer now and he smiled weakly up at his brother. "Glad you're here. Just wanted to thank you."

"Thank me? Whatever for? Joe, I need apologise to you. I never meant to hurt you. You do know that, don't you?"

"I know, It's okay Adam, really. And I wanted to thank you …" His voice trailed off slightly as a wave of tiredness swept over him. Joe struggled valiantly and he said "Thank you for bringing me home," in a small, tired voice before sleep finally overcame him. Adam remained at the bedside for a long time, holding Joe's hand and watching him sleep.

A few days later, Joe was back to his normal rambunctious self, bemoaning the fact that he was confined to bed, begging to be allowed up and generally driving his loving family to distraction. Finally, he crept downstairs one afternoon, figuring that everyone was busy with chores, only to be chased back to his room by Hop Sing, who proved surprisingly accurate with a wooden spoon. Rubbing his butt ruefully, Joe inspected the damage in his mirror and decided that if was ever going to ride Cochise with any degree of comfort, he'd better stay in his room.

Running the Ponderosa was a full-time job, but Ben did not forget his promise to Ian Henderson and arranged for two enormous Beltane fires to be built on the sandy shores of Lake Tahoe, well away from the tree line.

The evening of May Day was fair and clear, with only a light wind in the air. Dusk was beginning to fall as they rode down to the lakeside. Joe had persuaded his father that he was well enough to ride and had swung up into the saddle with only a slight wince of pain.

Ian Henderson lit two torches and passed one to Ben. They walked in step towards the bonfires and thrust the torches into the kindling placed around the perimeter of each fire. Within seconds, the tinder-dry wood was ablaze, lighting up the darkness and sending sparks and smoke high into the night air. Even at a distance the heat reached the onlookers, who stood mesmerised by the primal beauty and power. Adam looked down at Joe's eager face and smiled to himself. Once again the kid had bounced back and was enjoying life to the full.

To his left, Malcolm Henderson stood, supported by his father and brothers. The flames cast a false glow of health on his thin face, but like Joe, he was invigorated by the majesty of the fires. Malcolm was very frail now and this would probably be his last excursion out of the house, but he was enjoying the occasion with all his heart.

There was a path between the fires, ten feet wide and covered with dampened earth. Ian Henderson stepped forward and held out his hand to his wife, Agnes. Slowly and solemnly, they walked between the rising flames. Ben followed next, amazed at the heat which reached out to him. He joined Ian and Agnes at the far side and linked arms with them.

Malcolm, Hugh and Donald came through next, walking slowly but purposefully, savouring the moment. They stood, staring back through the flames as Adam, Hoss and Joe stepped forward.

With one accord, Adam and Hoss pushed Joe in between them, instinctively acting like older brothers and protecting their younger sibling. Joe's eyes danced with mischief as he realised what they were doing, but for once he didn't object. He put his arms around their waists and together the brothers walked along the path between the flames, feeling the power of the Beltane fires and sharing in a sense of renewal and hope.