Keeping to the darkening shadows as much as possible, Joe crept along as silently as possible until he was directly behind Vardon. Then, with a wild yell, he flung himself at the man's unprotected back.
Vardon had astonishingly quick reactions. In one smooth movement he whirled around and let off two shots in rapid succession, as the other men rushed forward, horrified at Joe's precipitous actions. Joe heard the first shot scream by his ear as a cacophony of shouts, footsteps and gunfire erupted around him.
The second bullet found its mark, and its propelled Joe backwards. As Adam ran forwards desperately towards his brother, Ben let loose an almighty cry and shot Vardon in the chest. The man went down like a stone and was dead before he could comprehend that he had lost the same fight twice in one day.
The impact of the bullet seemed to knock all the breathe out of Joe's body and sent him stumbling to the ground. His chest hurt dreadfully, it was difficult to breathe and the world seemed to be retreating gradually away from him. Joe was vaguely aware of people calling his name and of someone holding closely, but nothing really seemed to matter very much. All of a sudden, Joe felt very tired and closed his eyes.
"Joe?" This voice was much quieter than the others and there was something oddly reassuring about that. "Joe, stay with me. Stay right here. Open your eyes and look at me." Joe struggled to obey, but his eyelids felt so heavy. There was a hard pressure on his chest and he tried to push it away, but someone caught his hand and held it firmly.
"Just lie still," the voice continued. "Everything will be fine. I'm right here. Just stay with me."
In the background, Joe could hear the voices of his Pa and Adam and Hoss. They all sounded concerned and he wished he could see them. But it was too dark now, everything was black, and besides which, the pain was growing again. The soft voice continued to talk to him, but Joe could no longer make out the words. Nothing seemed to exist except this unbearable pain. His breathing became rapid and shallow and Joe retreated from the world.
"It does SO count!" Mike was quite adamant. "In fact, it should count double. One broken finger, plus a possible skull fracture and concussion."
Joe lay in bed, propped up on a pile of pillows. His chest and shoulder were swathed in bandages and he looked pale and thin. It was than two weeks since they had brought him back home, covered in blood. He had little recollection of the first few days after the shooting. After that, Joe had felt too ill to take much interest in anything and found that he was sleeping most of the time. Mike was his first visitor outside the family and it was good to see a new face, but after only a short time, Joe began to feel exhausted.
"Hardly compares with a bullet to the chest," he said languidly.
Mike looked at him suspiciously. "You feeling bad again Joe? You sound kind tired there. Do you want me to go to get your Pa?"
Joe shook his head feebly and instantly regretted it, as the movement sent shivers of pain right down into his chest again. "No, don't do that - they'll just fuss over me again. That's all anyone does and I'm fed up with it. And it still hurts so much." Joe's voice was shaking by the end of this statement, so Mike decided he'd better seek some help. By now, the pain in Joe's chest had grown to epic proportions and the radiating waves of agony forced all coherent thoughts out of his head.
Mike was able to slip out of the room unseen. He walked along the corridor and slipped quietly into Adam's room, disturbing him as he shaved.
Adam had slept late that morning. In truth, it was the first decent sleep he had since Joe was shot. The first few nights had been the worst: he would never forget how Joe had screamed as the doctor probed ineffectively for the bullet, afraid to give sedative that might interfere with the function of an already damaged lung. It had taken Paul Martin three separate procedures until he had finally located and removed the bullet.
Adam closed his eyes for a second: Joe's pleas still echoed in his head. In the end, they had to pin Joe down onto the bed to stop his desperate attempts to escape from the source of his misery. Joe had screamed and screamed in agony. He had even screamed when he was unconsciousness.
The removal of the bullet was not the end. Paul was worried that Joe continued to struggle for breath and was concerned to see a bluish tinge to his lips and finger tips. Joe was too weak to sit up, so Ben lifted him gently and held him as Paul listened carefully to his chest.
"Please, no more," Joe pleaded weakly, his breath coming in short, shallow gasps.
Paul Martin looked grave and shook his head sadly. "I'm sorry Joe, but your lung has collapsed. That's why you can't get enough air in to breathe properly. I have to put a drain into your lung to let it re-inflate. I won't lie to you: this will hurt like the devil, but afterwards you'll be able to breathe properly."
Joe had eyed the scalpel in Paul's hand suspiciously and then demanded to see the chest drain too. Ben had been shocked beyond words at the sight of the metal tube Paul proposed to insert into his son's body. He'd reached for Joe's hand and then held it firmly throughout the procedure, driving back his rising nausea. After making a small incision under Joe's arm, Paul had thrust the chest drain firmly into place. Adam remembered how Joe's back had arched sharply off the bed in response to this new torture.
A sharp pain brought him back to the present: carried away by his memories, he had cut upper lip with the razor and a thin trail of blood snaked down his cheek. Adam wiped it away and turned to ask Mike, "How did he seem to you?"
Mike considered this carefully. "Pretty tired and sore and kind of subdued. Not really like himself, I suppose." He chewed his lip for a second, and then confided "I think he was crying when I left him. Could you …?"
Adam thrust his arms into a shirt and went into Joe's room. "How are you doing this morning?" he asked casually, siting on the edge of the bed and starting to do the buttons up.
"Okay, I guess" Joe said, in a voice that didn't even convince himself. He attempted a smile and wiped his eyes with his sleeve. "I'm just a bit fed up with lying here feeling rotten."
"Well, that's not surprising. The doc's coming back tomorrow, isn't he?" Joe nodded carefully. "Well, how about if I ask him if you can come downstairs for an hour or two?" This prospect cheered Joe up considerably and Adam resolved to make sure Paul Martin agreed to his proposal. His surprise, the doctor supported his idea, although Ben worried that the exertions would do more harm than good.
Paul was surprisingly forceful. "Ben, he's young and strong and, despite the seriousness of his injury, Joe is well on the way to a full recovery. My only real concern is that he falls into a depression. Adam is quite right: the boy needs a change of scene and something new to interest him. Bring him downstairs for a couple of hours a day and let him rejoin family life."
A week later, Joe was able to walk slowly downstairs, fully dressed for the first time since the shooting. He had lost weight, so his clothes hung loosely and he still looked pale, but his eyes sparkled with joy when he saw the entire Fraser family waiting for him in the living room. As they reached the bottom step, Ellie stepped forward and hugged Joe carefully, her eyes tender with concern.
"It's good to see you looking so much better Joe. You gave us all quite a shock, you know. You were so brave, but you must promise me never to anything so foolhardy again."
Joe reddened and looked sheepish, making Ellie laugh and hug him again. "Oh how I'll miss you when we leave!"
"Leave? But you can't leave, I mean, I've missed so much of your visit and I won't see you again for ages!"
Ben fixed him with a stern gaze. "Joseph! You can't expect the Frasers to change their travel plans at the last minute."
Joe agreed in an undertone and went to sit by the fire. To his surprise, he realised his legs were shaking.
"She sure looks pretty, don't she?" Hoss asked, settling down comfortably beside him.
"Who?" Joe replied innocently.
"Don't try to kid me, little brother. Oh, I'd better make myself scarce.". Hoss leapt up with alacrity as Allie strolled across to join them.
For a long moment, Allie stood before Joe, studying him carefully, as if she were seeing him for the very first time. Then a smile twitched at the corners of her mouth and she knelt down beside the chair, resting her hand gently on Joe's knee.
"You're looking good, Joe."
"I feel good."
"I was so worried about you. When I saw you rush forward like that and then the gun went off." She stopped and Joe saw the tears sparkling in her eyes. He placed his hand gently on top of hers.
"I couldn't let Vardon shoot you or Pa," Joe explained in a low voice. "I didn't think. Well, there wasn't any time to think. I just knew I had to do something." He looked up and saw she was crying soundlessly. Joe wiped away a tear that rolled slowly down her cheek and continued. "Afterwards, it was your voice I heard. Everyone was shouting and rushing around but all I could hear was your voice."
"You know we're leaving?" Allie asked, and the pain in her voice seemed to tear into his chest as sharply as the bullet.
"I know." Joe tried to smile, but his mouth wouldn't obey him.
"I will come back. I promise you." Allie was trying so hard to be brave and Joe loved her for it.
"I know. And I'll be waiting."
Steven Vardon had no known family and left no will, so his property was sold at auction and the profits given to the Virginia City orphanage. Ben Cartwright bought the ranch and it became part of the Ponderosa, but he was never able to pass Stone Creek without remembering the day when a dispute over a few feet of land had nearly cost him the life of youngest son.
One evening in late summer, Adam finally confronted Joe. "Do you remember when you and the Frasers were working with those horses earlier this year?"
Joe nodded and a small smile appeared on his face. He knew what was coming next.
"You were up to something, weren't you? Another of these mad plans you seem to specialise in? Come on, put me out of my misery, won't you?"
Joe tucked his thumbs into his belt and grinned broadly. "Are you sure you really want to know what we were doing?"
Adam nodded eagerly. "I've been puzzling over it for weeks, but nothing seemed to add up I know it had something to do with training the horses, but I just couldn't work out what it was. I admit it: you were all really clever this time."
"Well, I hate to disappoint you, Adam, but the joke's on you this time! The only plan we had was to keep you guessing. All we were doing was training those horses. However, we knew you'd suspect something was up, so we didn't want to disillusion you!" Joe burst out laughing at the disgusted look on his brother's face and strolled outside, still chuckling with satisfaction. He pushed his hat to the back of his head and looked up at the stars and the thin sliver of new moon.
"Next time, Allie, we'll have to think up something really good for poor old Adam to worry about." He walked a few steps further and then stopped and looked up once more.
"I wish you were here Allie. Come back soon."
The story of Joe and Allie continues in Dancing in the Dark, which was published in the 2007 Bonanza Friendship Convention Anthology. I've lost my electronic copy of that, so I'll have to type it up again!