For the Love of Joe



The view over Lake Tahoe was a lovely one. The light of the sun bounced off the water like a piece of glass and illuminated the sky with colors of red and orange as it began to set. However, the tone was somber as Adam Cartwright sat at the water's edge and stared out toward the horizon.

Adam sat almost motionless, but twirled his hat among his fingers. He then took it and placed it on his head. Staring out over the water, a tear formed in his eye. Soon came another, and then another. Adam put his hands up to his face attempting to wipe them away to no avail.

"Oh, God," he moaned, the tears now streaming down his face. "I killed him."

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EARLIER...

"Ain't you comin' Adam?" Little Joe ran up to his brother who had just exited the house. Adam stretched and rubbed his eyes. The sun had only just begun to rise and already Little Joe was bugging him about something.

"It's still early, Little Joe." Adam said as he noticed the barn doors swing open and Hoss leading the horses out. "We have plenty of time," He said louder this time so that his other brother might hear him also.

"Yeah," Hoss said walking towards them. "But we've gotta get an early start if we're gonna catch anything good."

"What are they all going to disappear after seven o'clock?" Adam said. "I could just imagine that story. 'Gee, we're sorry, Pa. We would have brought home something good, but we left an hour later and the animals were all on their coffee break'." Little Joe let out a loud giggle.

"Oh, quit joshin' me, Adam." Little Joe laughed again. "Don't make me..."

"Umm," Adam interrupted them. "Are we gonna get moving or not?" Little Joe nodded his head excitedly and ran to his horse. Adam smiled weakly and gave Hoss a friendly pat on the back as they slowly followed their baby brother.

"You know, Adam," Hoss said as he and his brother mounted their horses and began to ride. Little Joe rode a few feet ahead of them. "We ain't gonna catch anything draggin' Little Joe along."

"It's either we bring him along or we all stay home," Adam said. "With Pa and Hop Sing out of town, I was left in charge. And if anything happened to Little Joe, Pa would tan my hide." Hoss remained silent. "I know he won't hunt with us. That's why I let him bring his fishing pole. He'll be well out of our way. We'll be home before lunch."

With that settled, the Cartwright boys neared a semi open section of land. They sat high on their horses as Adam spoke. "This is the best place. Carlos and I came here once."

"That the time you brought home those rabbits?" Hoss asked. Adam nodded.

"Golly, Adam," Little Joe said. "Maybe we'll get another rabbit today?"

"Maybe a deer, Little Joe."

"And if I catch some fish, we can have them for lunch and save the deer for when Pa gets back."

"You should get started then," Hoss said. "You leave the huntin' to us."

"And stay down at the lake," Adam added as Little Joe grabbed his fishing pole and ran off. "We'll come get you when we're done." He didn't answer. "Joe!"

"I will, don't worry. And I'll catch somethin' big, you'll see."

Adam and Hoss shook their heads at eachother as Little Joe ran off towards the lake. Hoss motioned towards a small boulder and the boys approached it, using it as cover from the animals.

"Little Joe's gonna catch lunch, we'll bring home dinner. Boy, won't Pa be surprised," Hoss whispered excitedly.

"At least we don't have to eat squirrel again tonight," Adam whispered back. "Shhh," he said pointing his rifle at the rustling bushes. "Rabbit doesn't sound too bad, does it?" Hoss shook his head. Adam took aim and as soon as the bush began to move again, he let his finger pull back the trigger.

The sound of the explosion echoed across the land. Adam and Hoss rose and walked slowly towards the bush.

"I can taste that rabbit already," Hoss said as they reached it.

Adam jokingly pushed Hoss aside and moved in front of him. As he brushed the branches back, the smile on his face turned to fear.

"Oh, no," Adam said. "No." Adam fell to the ground. "It was an accident."

Little Joe lay motionless on the ground, near his hand a small pile of earthworms. His shirt was completely soaked through with blood. Adam tried desperately to keep his wits about him.

"Hoss, I'll stay here with him," Adam said with panic in his voice. "Ride to the Greene's, get help." Hoss stood, motionless from the shock, staring down at his brother's lifeless body. "Hoss, go! Hurry!" The young boy turned and raced back to his horse. "It's gonna be OK, Joe. Hang on. Hoss is going for help. Oh, God. Help is coming."

Hoss could think of nothing else but riding faster. He had never seen his own brother in this much trouble and had hoped that he would never have to. As the Greene ranch came into view, he didn't even wait for his horse to stop to cry out. "Tess! Mrs. Greene!" He brought his horse to a stop in front of the house. "Tess!"

Tess and Margaret appeared from inside. "Hoss," Tess said as she saw the look on his face. "Goodness, what is it?"

Hoss' face was tear stained and partially burnt from the wind. "It's Little Joe, there was an accident, you've gotta come help." Tess' eyes widened. "He's dyin'."

"What!?"

"Adam shot him. Please, help, he's gonna die."

Margaret looked over at her daughter. "Tess, hurry and go get your horse and get to town. The doctor should be coming in on the next stage. You meet him there and tell him we have an emergency. It can't wait bring him back here. I'll go with Hoss. Hurry, Tess." Tess ran off towards the barn and Margaret brought Hoss around the side of the house where the wagon was already hitched. "You show me where he is. We'll help him. He'll be OK."

Margaret pulled the wagon away from the house, following behind Hoss' horse. They retraced Hoss path from his brothers directly back to the spot where Adam sat, cradling Little Joe in his arms. His hand pressed firmly on his brother's chest. The blood still seemed to flow through his fingers.

Adam didn't even look up as Hoss and Margaret arrived. It was as if he were oblivious to all that surrounded him. The tears ran down his face, leaving wet streaks in his dirt covered cheeks, and over and over, he uttered the same words. "It's gonna be alright, Joe. Hang on. Help's coming."

But as Margaret approached, things did not look favorable. Most of the color had run from Little Joe's face, and his white shirt was now almost completely red.

"Is he still alive?" Hoss asked as Margaret walked in front of Adam, bending down to get a closer look. Little Joe's chest rose and fell slightly under Adam's hand.

"We need to get him back to the house," Margaret said. "Tess ought to be back with the doctor by now." She looked back at Hoss. "Help get him onto the wagon."

Adam stood as Hoss lifted Little Joe from his arms and laid him in the back of the wagon. Then Hoss and Margaret got into the wagon and raced off, back to the Greene Ranch. Alone Adam stood with three horses and a handful of blood.

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Tess stood impatiently outside the house as she waited for the Cartwrights and her mother to appear. She had left the doctor sitting inside as she paced back and forth on the stoop.

In the distance, the sound of galloping horses could be heard. The wagon raced towards the house. As it jolted to a stop, Hoss climbed out of the back, Little Joe lying in his arms. He rushed passed Tess and into the house. She stepped aside as her mother approached her.

"Is he..." Tess almost whispered the words.

Margaret breathed in deeply. "He's alive, but," she said, "It doesn't look good, Tess. He's white as a ghost."

"Should I go get Mr. Cartwright?"

Margaret shook her head. "Ben's in Sacramento. He'll be back tonight."

Approaching the entrance of the ranch, Tess and Margaret noticed Adam, leading his brother's horses. Tess stepped down away from the house and closer to Adam. He didn't say a word, but dismounted Beauty and hitched all three horses to the post.

"How is he?" Adam finally said after a long awkward pause.

"Doctor's in there with him now." Tess looked back at Margaret and then again to Adam. "You can put the horses in the barn for now. I'll give ya a hand."

"No," Adam stopped her. "I'll take them." Tess slowly stepped back onto the stoop and watched Adam untie the horses and lead them slowly to the barn.

No sooner had Adam reached the barn than Hoss pushed out of the house. His eyes were red and irritated.

"Adam just got here." Tess looked over at him. "He's in the barn." Without saying a word, Hoss stormed off the stoop and to the barn. "Hoss!" Tess called after him. Margaret put her hand on her daughter's shoulder and stood back as the doctor walked outside.

"Adam!" Hoss called out as he burst into the barn. Adam turned to him, a look of concern on his face. Hoss showed emotions other than concern, however. They were more of anger. He clenched his fists at his sides in attempt to control this anger. But just standing there with his brother in the barn caused him to snap, jerking back his arm and throwing it forward, sending Adam to the ground.

"You knew not to shoot into those bushes," Hoss yelled. Adam put his hand up to his face. "You knew." Adam remained silent and on the ground. "The doctor said he probably ain't gonna live through the night. Way to take charge, Adam."

Hoss turned and stormed out of the barn. Adam managed to pick himself up off the ground and grab a hold of Beauty's reigns. He led her out and mounted.

Tess ran down towards him. "My God, Adam," she said noticing his swollen face. "What happened?"

"Nothing," he said beginning to pull away.

"Where are you going?" He paid her no mind and raced away. "Adam!" Tess called after him. "Adam!" She threw her arms down to her sides and turned back to the house.

Tess slowly walked back, kicking up dirt as she did. She suddenly came to a stop and peered around the corner of the corral. Sitting in the grass with his back leaning up against it was Hoss. She approached and sat down beside him.

Hoss put his arms around her. "We're gonna lose him, Tess."

"No, Hoss." Tess pulled back from him and looked him in the eye. "We can help him, he'll be fine."

"You heard what the doctor said, about him livin' through the night."

"If he makes it through the night, he'll be fine. He will make it. He has Ma and me, and your Pa when he gets back."

"Pa..." Hoss said, his eyes widening. He took a deep breath and exhaled loudly. "Pa is gonna skin us alive."

"It was an accident."

"We shouldn't have been out there, Tess. Adam didn't wanna go, but I talked him into it. Little Joe wouldn't be lyin' there if it weren't for me."

"Hoss..." Tess began but came to a sudden stop at the sound of a familiar voice.

"Maggie." Ben Cartwright said as he knocked on the front door of the house. Margaret Greene appeared. "We just got back. The boys aren't at the house or in town. I was wondering if they might have come here."

"Pa," Hoss said with a slight quiver in his voice as he stood and walked up to his father. From just the look on his son's face, Ben knew that something was wrong. Hoss used care in keeping the proper distance from his father.

"What happened?" Ben asked as Tess appeared and stood behind Hoss. "Hoss." Ben began to get a sharp edge to his voice. "What happened?"

"Little Joe," Hoss began. "was...he was...Adam shot'm."

"What!" Ben became enraged.

"It was an accident, Pa," Hoss said quickly. "We went huntin' and..."

"Where is he?" Ben looked at Margaret.

"Inside," Margaret said. Ben pushed passed her and into the house. She immediately followed him.

Hoss took his hand and rubbed his eyes. He turned and ran to the barn. Tess ran after him. "What are you doing?" she asked. Hoss didn't answer, but approached his horse and began to lead her out of the barn. "Hoss, where are you going?"

"I've gotta find Adam." Hoss said mounting up.

"But you don't know where he is."

"I do. I know, Tess."

"The sun's gonna be goin' down. Hoss, you'll never get back here in the dark."

"I will. For Joe, I will." Hoss cracked his horse's reigns and sped away from the ranch, leaving Tess standing alone.

Inside, Ben sat at his son's bedside. He remained silent as Margaret walked into the room. "The doctor came by to take a look at him," she said. Ben put his head in his hands. "If we can keep him from gettin' a fever, he'll be just fine." He gave no response. "Ben."

"I just buried my wife, Maggie," Ben cried. "I'm not ready to bury my son." Margaret was speechless as she walked up behind him and put her hand on his shoulder.

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Everything was silent. There were no birds singing, no crickets chirping, nothing. Adam kneeled down beside Marie's grave, his hat clenched tightly in his hands. He didn't speak, but just kneeled there, hoping that his presence alone would be enough for a miracle to occur. He stood and walked over to the lake.

The view over Lake Tahoe was a lovely one. The light of the sun bounced off the water like a piece of glass and illuminated the sky with colors of red and orange as it began to set. However, the tone was somber as Adam Cartwright sat at the water's edge and stared out toward the horizon.

Adam sat almost motionless, but twirled his hat among his fingers. He then took it and placed it on his head. Staring out over the water, a tear formed in his eye. Soon came another, and then another. Adam put his hands up to his face attempting to wipe them away to no avail.

"Oh, God," he moaned, the tears now streaming down his face. "I killed him."

Behind Adam came the first sound he had heard while at the lake, the rustling of brush. He quickly turned his head to see Hoss dismounting his horse and walking towards him.

"I knew I'd find you here," Hoss said as he sat down besides Adam. He glanced over at his brother. "How's your face?"

"Why are you here?" Adam asked without looking at Hoss.

Hoss paused a moment. "Pa's back." Adam went unmoved. "Look, I'm sorry I hit ya."

"You don't have to apologize." Adam finally turned to him. "I deserved it." Hoss smiled weakly. There was a short pause. "I really screwed up, Hoss. You were right. I knew not to shoot into those bushes, but I did anyway. He's gonna die because of me."

"No," Hoss said. "If I didn't talk ya into goin' huntin' in the first place..."

"You didn't talk me into anything. I wanted to go. I just let you think you talked me into it. I was getting just as tired of squirrel as you were."

"Listen, Adam. We should get back to the house before it gets dark."

"You go ahead," Adam said. "I can't."

"Oh, no you don't," Hoss said standing up and looking down at his brother. "I told Tess that I would find you, and now I'm bringin' you back to that house if I've gotta tie you to your horse."

"Hoss..."

"Ya know, Adam. I'm not doin' this for me or Tess or even Pa. I'm doin' this for Little Joe. I mean, dadburnit, Adam, think of him for a change, 'stead of sittin' here feelin' sorry for yourself."

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"Do you think they'll be back, Ma?" Tess asked as she sat by the window staring out into the pitch black night sky.

"I'm sure they're coming." Margaret said. Ben Cartwright slept in a chair beside his son's bed. Tess got up and walked over to them.

"How is he?" she asked.

"Still no fever. I think he's gonna be OK, Tess." Tess smiled breathing a sigh of relief.

"Tess." They heard a loud whisper coming from down the hall. Tess jumped up and ran to the bedroom door, peering out. Recognizing the Cartwrights she motioned for them to enter the room.

"Well hi there, stranger," Tess said to Adam. "Didn't think I'd ever see you again."

"Yeah, well, Hoss and I got to talking." Adam began and then Hoss interrupted him.

"And I told him if he didn't come with me, I'd punch him in the other eye." Tess laughed causing Ben to stir and gradually wake.

"Pa?" Adam said slowly and cautiously walking towards him.

"Adam, Hoss. Where have you two been?"

"I, uh," Adam began, "I'm so sorry, Pa. It was an accident, I didn't see him." As much as Ben wanted to raise his voice at his son, he knew that it would do him no good. Ben lifted his hand and gently touched Adam's arm.

"Any fever?" Hoss asked as he approached the bed also.

"No," Tess said. "I told you he'd be fine." Hoss leaned down and embraced her.

The room remained silent for a moment, but then, "Pa," Adam said. Ben looked over at Little Joe. He stirred gently and his eyes fluttered. "He's waking up." The five of them crowded around the bed. "Little Joe?"

"We're at the Greene's, son," Ben said to him as Little Joe looked around the room. "You were shot." There was a pause. "How are you feeling?"

"It hurts a little," Little Joe said in a soft voice.

"Do you remember anything?" Hoss asked him.

"I remember...You told me to stay at the lake. But I didn't have any worms. And then I remember Adam sitting with me. He was telling me how he didn't mean it, and how he promised to bring me fishin' when I got better. He told me that help was comin', that I was gonna be OK, and that Hoss went to get Tess. And then I don't remember anymore."

"I'm so sorry, Little Joe," Adam said. "If you never want to forgive me, I understand."

Little Joe just looked at him. "Did you mean what you said, Adam? 'Bout takin' me fishin' when I got better?"

"Sure, Little Joe," Adam said.

Little Joe was silent for a moment, as if he were in deep thought. "Then I forgive you." Adam bent down and hugged his brother. "Hey, Adam?" Adam sat up once again. "What happened to your eye?"

Hoss let out a burst of laughter. "That, Little Joe," Adam said, "Is a story for another day."

"Yeah, Joe," Ben said. "You need your rest, we can talk more in the morning." Little Joe smiled and closed his eyes. Adam rose and silently walked out of the room. Ben followed him. "Adam."

Adam turned and faced his father a tear in his eye. "I could've killed him, Pa."

"But you didn't."

"But I could've."

"But...you didn't." Adam took a deep breath. "Adam, listen to me. No matter how much you feel responsible for this, you could have been the one who saved him. You kept your head, you sent for help. God only knows what would have happened if you hadn't sent Hoss for Margaret. You acted quickly and calmly, reassuring your brother that everything would be alright. That's responsibility, son, and I'm proud of you." Ben walked up to Adam and put his arm around his shoulder. "Come on. Let's go back in there." Adam nodded and began to walk with his father slowly back towards the bedroom. "Adam, what did happen to your eye?"

Adam just smiled and shook his head. "It's a long story, Pa. Maybe you should ask Hoss to tell you." Ben, with a questioning look on his face, gave an unsure nod as he and Adam walked back into the room and shut the door behind them.