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Joe knew his leg was broken and that it was broken badly. The tearing nose had been evidence enough. But this pain was different and much worse then any broken bone he'd had before. His left leg lay straight out in front of him, but the foot was at an awkward angle. It looked as if someone had tried to wrench it the wrong way around. The top of his foot was almost touching the ground and the sight made him feel sick. Joe knew that in order to lessen the pain he would have to pull his foot back into position.

Gritting his teeth, he took a deep breath, grabbed his foot with both hands forced it around. He heard himself screaming again and again, before falling back to lie exhausted on the canyon floor. His body began to react to the pain and shock and his breathing became shallow and rapid. Everything ceased to matter, except for the pain in his leg. Joe felt very detached from everything; the only thing that existed was the pain.

Struggling back to consciousness he moaned "Help me, Pa, please help me … Adam … Hoss … please …" The effort was too much and he lapsed back into unconsciousness.

The horse ran for a while and then stopped. The storm clouds were clearing and the animal stood for a moment, sniffing the air, before turning around and trotting back to the boy. Joe was vaguely aware of a soft whickering, but he was too tired to care and in too much pain to do anything.

As they rode up the canyon, the Cartwrights searched the rocks and outcrops anxiously. Then, as they rounded a corner, they saw a roan colored horse gently nudging a small figure that lay prone on the ground. "Joseph!" Ben yelled, his desperation evident in his voice and kicked the horse forward. The anguish in his cry tore through Adam and Hoss. They rode forward, praying that the boy was still alive. Ben pulled his horse to a halt and leapt off, running across the shingle towards the bedraggled boy.

Joe was very pale and still and, for a moment, Ben feared he was dead. Ben Cartwright fell to his knees and searched for a pulse, finding a faint but steady beat. He gently stoked the boy's pale cheek and to his relief Joe's eyelids flickered open.

"Hi Pa," Joe said softly and then looked across and smiled as he saw his brothers "I knew you'd come". Joe was so pale that even lips looked white. The only color in his face was the intense green of his eyes. Gentle hands started to move over his limbs, searching for injuries and he lurched upwards, clutching his father's hand and pleading "Don't touch my leg! Please, don't touch my leg!" His warning came too late, for Adam was already probing the injured leg as gently as possible. Joe screamed terribly, the sound echoing around the canyon; he screamed again and then collapsed back into his father's arms. His eyes rolled back into his head so that only the whites were showing and he passed out.

Taking advantage of this, they acted quickly, wrapping him in a bedroll. Ben mounted Buck and Hoss carefully handed Joe up to his father's tender care before saying "I'll get the doctor and meet you back at the house."

"Be careful, son," Ben called out, as Hoss rode off as fast as he dared. Then he and Adam began the journey home at a slow pace. For much of the time, Joe remained unconscious, rousing only for brief periods. Ben was reluctant to stop, wanting to get his injured son into his own bed as soon as possible, so they pushed on, going as fast as they dared.

Everything was ready back at the Ponderosa: a fire was burning in Joe's room, where a pile of towels and clean linen lay beside the bed. Downstairs, water bubbled on the range and Paul Martin sat waiting for his patient to arrive. Hoss paced up and down the great room, pausing only to stare anxiously to stare out of the window. At last he saw two horses appear and cried "They're here!" before running into the yard.

He reached up and carefully took Joe into his arms and rushed into the house and up the stairs. A ranch hand came forward to take care of the tired horses, allowing Ben and Adam to go upstairs. Hoss laid his little brother on the bed and began to unwrap the blankets. Joe moaned and opened his eyes slowly.

"You're home, son. You're safe at home." Ben took Joe's hand in his own, speaking in a reassuring voice, forcing his own worries away. The boy was so cold! "Joseph? Can you hear me? Little Joe?"

The boy smiled briefly and said only "Pa, don't let them hurt my leg, please?" in a small, worried voice before closing his eyes again. Paul Martin pushed forward and spoke in an authoritative voice which brooked no argument

"Ben - you and Adam are exhausted. Go downstairs and get something hot to drink and eat. You're no help to me or to Joe in this state." They realized the truth of this and left the room, pausing only take one last look at the beloved figure lying silently on the bed.

Hoss started to strip the cold, wet clothes off his unconscious brother and gently washed him with warm water. Meanwhile, the doctor took a sharp knife and cut off Joe's left boot, revealing his injured leg for the first time. He drew a sharp breath when he saw the extent of the injury. The ankle was misshapen and grotesquely swollen. Dark bruising stretched from the sole of the foot to half-way up the calf.

Downstairs, Ben flinched as he heard his son scream in agony. Adam sat staring into the fire. Joe screamed again and then there was silence. "I hope he's passed out again" thought Adam. Then he looked at his father. "Pa?" he said hesitantly. Ben had hardly spoken since they had found Joe and he could only imagine the pain he felt at hearing his son's anguish.

Ben turned to look at Adam. "Son, I owe you an apology - and your brother Hoss too." At any other time, the incredulous look on Adam's face would have been laughable. "I know it was just a silly joke and that you never dreamed anything like this would happen."

It would have been easier if his father had yelled at him, bawled him out, told him how irresponsible he was. But this understanding was too much. Adam went over to his father's chair, sat at his feet, buried his head in his arms and wept. He wept for his father's love and wisdom, he wept for his own callous stupidity, but most of all, he wept for the pain he had inadvertently caused his brother. Ben ran his fingers through Adam's silky black hair.

"Adam, I know how much you love your brother and I know you would never do anything to hurt him. But we all have to be strong now and help Joe." Then Ben leant back in his chair, bowed his own head and began to pray. He prayed to God and to his beloved late wife, Marie. He even used the words Marie had said every day: "Ave Maria, gratia plena …". They provided some small measure of comfort.

There was a sound of footsteps and Ben and Adam looked up to see Hoss standing at the foot of the stairs. He was alternately wringing a large white handkerchief between his hands and using it to wipe his eyes with. His mouth was quivering and he was obviously struggling to gain control of his emotions. Ben knew. He looked at Hoss and he knew. He knew without a single word being spoken. He knew before Paul Martin appeared at the top of the stairs and before he saw the smile on his face. Ben knew that his youngest son had an indomitable spirit that was not be easily quenched.

The doctor explained that Joe's prompt action in reducing his dislocated ankle had undoubtedly saved his foot. Otherwise, the circulation would have been impaired and he would have had no choice but to amputate. Joe had broken both bones in his leg, but the boy was young and strong and Paul predicted he would make a full recovery.

He allowed them to pay Joe a brief visit. Ben's heart constricted with joy as he saw his son lying peacefully, the broken leg propped up on a pillow. He sat down beside the bed and ran his hand gently down Joe's cheek. "Joseph! It's Pa! Come on son, look at me."

Joe had been given a large does of laudanum before Paul had set his leg. He was vaguely aware of voices calling to him, but he couldn't summon up enough energy to answer them. He was so tired and he just wanted to sleep. "Joseph!" The voice was louder this time and difficult to ignore. "It's time to wake up."

Joe forced his eyes open a crack and squinted at the beaming faces leaning over his bed. "Hi Pa. You're home early, aren't you?"

"Well, I just wanted to see how my boys were doing. How do you feel?" Ben tried hard not to sound anxious. By this time, the laudanum was kicking back in and Joe merely said "I'm tired and I wish everyone would just let me sleep", in a grumpy voice, before closing his eyes and doing just that.

The next few days were full of pain and punctuated by doses of laudanum. Joe developed a high fever and began to babble incoherently, crying for his father and screaming in terror as he relived the accident over and over again. In his delirium he heard the bones in his leg shatter over and over again. During this time, his father and brothers never left Joe's side, comforting him through the nightmares, cooling his hot body with cool water. Eventually, the fever broke and Joe began to make one of his characteristically speedy recoveries.

Ten days after the accident, Paul Martin found his patient sitting up in bed and loudly demanding to be allowed downstairs. Knowing Joe of old, Paul wisely agreed to allow him a couple of hours out of bed, on condition that Joe did not attempt to stand, walk or even move too much! Ben helped Joe into a fresh nightshirt and robe, wrapped in his quilt and then carried him down to the great room, laying him carefully on the sofa and gently propping up the injured leg on a cushion. Joe looked at his brothers and said "Hey, it's great to be back!"

Ben settled himself on the couch and drew Joe's shoulders back to rest against his chest. Normally, Joe would have protested against being babied in this manner, but he still felt quite unwell and rather enjoyed the pampering.

"I think your brothers have something to say to you, Joseph" Ben said, looking meaningfully at his two elder sons, who were studying their boots and looking remarkably sheepish. Joe listened with evident interest as they explained how they had plotted and schemed. His eyes grew wider and rounder the details were explained. Finally, the story came to faltering halt.

Adam and Hoss looked anxiously at Joe, wondering how he would take the news. He regarded them solemnly for a long moment and then broke into a wide grin. "Well, I suppose I should mad at you, but the end result is probably worth it!" he said enigmatically. His brothers gaped dumb-foundedly at him

A pair of dumb-founded brothers gaped back at him. "Go on, son," urged Ben. "Put them out of their misery."

"When I was getting ready this afternoon, I noticed …" He paused for dramatic effect. "I noticed my nightshirt and robe were far too short! Pa reckons I've growth at least an inch!" He sat back, delighted with himself, as whoops of joy greeted this announcement.

"There's something I have to confess as well, Joe," added Ben, causing everyone to look at him in astonishment. "I discovered how wrong I can be. You see, for more years than I care to remember, I have tried everything in my power to get you to have a proper haircut, only to discover that I greatly prefer you with your old, unruly curls!" He leant forward and dropped a fond kiss on his son's head.

Joe squirmed with embarrassment. When would his family ever let him grow up?

The End