Working Man (by Judy)

Rating:  PG
Word Count:  19,384

Early spring was always a busy time on the Ponderosa and this year was no exception. It brought forth a renewal of the land and animals that kept the ranch growing and prospering. The first roundup was in full swing and calving was almost ready to begin. So the men on the ranch were kept busy from sunup till sundown. Most of the cattle had been brought down from the high summer grazing pastures last fall because it was easier to keep an eye on them in the lower pastures nearer the main house during the long winter.

 Ben Cartwright sat tall in his saddle as he looked over one part of the herd. The sun was shinning brightly with just a few clouds in the sky. The last few days had been cold and cloudy. Most of the snow had disappeared but there was an occasional white patch here and there, waiting for a few warm days to vanish completely. The cattle were scattered across the valley, their brown hides standing out against the dull grass. Many of the cows grazed peacefully waiting for the birth of the calves they had carried through the cold months.

 He pulled up the collar on his coat a little to protect his face from a lingering late winter breeze. His horse Buck stood patiently, as he viewed the horizon watching the men work and scanning the area for his sons. The cattle were being rounded up and put into smaller holding areas so that they could be watched closely during the critical time of birthing. Ben wished he had a cup of hot coffee to warm him as the breeze stirred again. It wasn’t too near time for calving to begin in earnest to be overly concerned about the weather but Ben knew that some of the cattle could start producing the next generation of the herd anytime soon and was anxious to have things in order. Although the Ponderosa had grown to include many business enterprises, cattle, horses and the manpower of faithful ranch hands, some having been with Ben and his family for more than a few years, were still the lifeblood of the ranch.

Continuing to observe the cattle that had been gathered already, Ben was happy with what he saw. The Cartwright’s had spent years crossbreeding stock to have cattle that would be hardy enough to survive the Sierra weather and the long drives to market in the fall, with enough weight on them to make it profitable. The numbers that had made it through the winter were tallying up well and Ben knew that those years of worry and risk were beginning to pay off.

 Looking towards the men working the roundup, Ben focused on his two eldest sons riding towards him together. “They make a good team” he thought, they were willing to work twice as hard as the hired men to make the dream of the Ponderosa come true.

 Adam was his logical, business minded, son, always thinking things through and willing to add muscle to any task when needed. Hoss never had to think about adding muscle to any job. His massive size was equal to any task put before him but his gentle nature and conservative attitude were a blessing because he kept his head in any situation. All of his boys were part of that team, including his third son, Joseph.

 Adam and Hoss were old enough to shoulder a lot of responsibility for the workings on the ranch. But Joseph, the youngest at 16, had just finished with his formal education, and was just beginning to learn about the complexities of running a ranch the size of the Ponderosa. Joe always had done his share of the chores, sometimes more than his share Ben thought ruefully. Countless times Joe had extra chores assigned to him as punishment for the mischief he managed to get into on a regular basis. But his youngest son had never really worked the ranch full time. Since leaving school, Joe had seemed to really dive into becoming a full-fledged member of the team with his two older brothers. With not nearly as much experience, Joe would occasionally find himself embroiled in skirmishes and heated arguments with them over the way things were done. He was not one to keep his opinions to himself. Ben was more concerned with the fact that Little Joe was trying to grow up too fast, too soon, than with the disagreements they had. As a father, he did have a tendency to hold him back a bit which caused his headstrong son to flair his famous temper even at him. That usually didn’t last long, however, for Joe knew that whatever his father’s final word was, that was it — it was final. But, Joseph was working hard and learning all the time. It was beginning to look like it wouldn’t be too long before he would be an equal member of the family team. Ben didn’t think that either he or his son, were ready for that yet, but he knew that the day was coming. “Where does the time go?” he mused to himself.

 Ben was brought out of his reverie by a snort from his horse as he greeted his stable mates coming up beside him.

 “Well Pa,” asked Adam “Looks pretty good so far this year, don’t you think?” Knowing full well that his father had made a thorough survey of the herd he was looking at even before Adam had said anything.

 “Yeah Pa, we ain’t even half way through and I don’t ever ‘member seeing this good a spring roundup” added Hoss pulling his horse, Chub, to a halt next to his father.

 “I must say,” said Ben “that even though this past winter was pretty rough, we seem to have come through fairly well and so far things look good”. As he looked at his sons, he added, “But we still have plenty of work to do before we have the new members of this herd making their appearance”.

“That’s for sure and we didn’t even get all of ‘em brought down from the north meadow at the end of the valley yet,” said Hoss looking in that direction.

“Speaking of which,” questioned Ben, “Did Little Joe and Andy get headed off up that way with the rest of their crew this morning?”

“Yes Sir,” laughed Hoss, “Little Joe was sizzlin’ like bacon in a hot skillet to git goin’! I think Ol’ Andy was ready to tie three of his pony’s legs together to slow him down but I just don’t think he was ready to fight Joe about touchin’ Cochise”.

Ben smiled to himself. Joe sure was impatient this spring. He wanted to get the spring roundup done and start gathering up the horses that had been let loose last fall in other pastures. Ben knew it had to do with the fact that Joe was going to start working the horse operation this year, with guidance from long time hand, Andy Weaver. Andy was a top wrangler and he would be able to give the boy invaluable lessons. Although not a big man, Andy could stick to and gentle a horse faster than anyone. His steady temperament and patience would be a good influence on his youngest. In his younger days, Andy exhibited much the same enthusiasm and spirit as Joseph. They worked well together. Only 10 years younger than Ben himself, Andy had decided that it was time he started to slow down a bit and not ride that many green horses anymore.

 Ben had decided that working with the horses was the job that suited Joe the best. Many of them were trained but would have to be worked with to remember their lessons after a few months of freedom. There were others that had never been broke, and that was where Joe wanted to be. He rode like he was born on a horse and was the best rider on the ranch even at his age. It was amazing, but when he was riding Joe could even manage to fall deeply asleep, Ben chuckled at the times he’d seen him do it. Ben was still very apprehensive at the thought of his 16 year-old, son sitting on the back of a wildly bucking horse. But he was also aware that Joe knew how important the cattle were to the ranch and wasn’t complaining about the work with them. Ben though that was a good sign of what he was learning, even if he was always arguing that horses were better to work with. Joe said they were a whole lot smarter than cows and a lot more challenging.

 “Well Boys” said Ben smiling, ”by the time Little Joe gets done bringing all those strays down from the north meadow and rounds up all the horses, I doubt he’ll be that anxious to get back in the saddle again. Come on, we’ve got our own work to do” Ben laughed and turned his horse and towards the cattle in the valley.

 It was late afternoon when the three eldest Cartwrights pulled their horses up in front of the main house. The bright sunlight had drifted into early evening. They dismounted near the barn and started tending their mounts.

 “Sure is good to be home!” Hoss exclaimed, “I sure hope Hop Sing has cooked up at least a side of beef for supper tonight, I know I could eat one!”

 “Since when would today be any different?” asked Adam, with a smirk on his face.

 “Since I only had three sandwiches for lunch, Older Brother” Hoss retorted.

 “But what about the half a pie and all those cookies?” Adam responded.

 “Well that just ain’t fillin’. I need real food to keep me going”, said Hoss.

 Throwing a stirrup over the saddle horn, Adam looked over his horse, Sport, just as a group of riders trudged into the yard. Most of the horses were mud covered and so were a few of the riders, including Little Joe.

 “Hey Pa, look who’s back!” Adam’s voice choked back a laugh.

 Catching Adam’s amusement, Ben looked up and saw a gloomy group before him. “Well Joseph, Andy, how did things go today?” he inquired, thinking he knew the answer already.

 The look on Joe’s face got longer and Andy decided to answer for him, “Ben, it’s gonna take a week to get them cows down to the main herd; the fence was broke in a couple of spots and the cattle just kinda wandered all over up there”.

 “It’s a good thing you’ve been so raring to go Joseph, with all that energy you have, you should have them rounded up sooner than that” said Ben trying to cover a smile looking at his dejected, mud encrusted son.

 “Pa, you know Andy and I have to get those horses gathered! I can’t spend an extra week looking for a bunch of stupid cows! There’s still some snow melt up in that meadow and the mud is going to slow things down to a crawl!” Joe’s gloomy expression gave way to a look of dismay.

 “Son, you know that the cattle have to come first”, Ben said firmly, not smiling anymore.

 “Yeah, yeah, I know, but those dumb animals are hiding in every nook and cranny from here to Virginia City!” Joe said with a downward glance. He really wanted to start on the horses.

 “Well that should make them easy for you to find Little Brother, don’t you know every nook and cranny between here and Virginia City?” questioned Hoss as he started to laugh.

 “Very funny Big Brother” grunted Joe.

 “Ben,” asked Andy “you reckon you could spare a couple of extra men to give us a hand for the next couple days? Just so we can get the cows rounded up a bit faster? We really should get those horses in soon.”

 Little Joe gave a hopeful glance in his father’s direction. He knew that Andy liked to work with the cattle about as much as he did.

 Ben was thoughtful for a moment, and looked at Andy. He looked worn out to Ben. He knew how the man felt about the cattle but he also knew that Andy had good judgment when it came to the horses on the ranch and he valued his opinion. He had been with Ben since Hoss was a youngster and was considered more of a family member than a ranch hand.

 “Well” Ben said slowly, “I guess I could spare three men for the same amount of days. Would that be enough?”

 Joe was elated. Even though he was filthy and covered with mud, his mood soared because he didn’t think his father would want to spare the extra men. It looked like he would be done with the cattle roundup sooner than expected!

 “Thanks Ben” said Andy “three days ought to do it.”

 “Now Joseph, why don’t you try to put a little of the Territory of Nevada back where it belongs and get cleaned up before dinner?” Ben turned and chuckled as he started towards the house.

***** 

The next three days were slow going but with the added help of the extra men, the job of rounding up the cattle in the north meadow was making headway. The weather continued chilly, but sunny and clear. Some of the lingering snow patches melted off which caused the problem with the mud to remain. Joe did the work without complaining too much. For him not to complain at all would have made his father and brothers think he was coming down with something.

 Late at the end of the third day, Joe and the men he was with once more rode into the yard tired and dirty. He was beat, stiff and sore. He had been working extra hard the last couple of days and it was starting to catch up with him. But he would never let family members know lest they think he couldn’t handle the work like the others. He really wanted to prove to his family that he was man enough to do the work required of the best ranch hand.

 Hoss and Adam saw the men ride into the yard. Both of the brothers found it amusing that their little brother and his normally immaculately groomed pinto had come home covered in mud, again. They were trying not too successfully to hide the smiles they knew would set Joe into a foul temper.

 “Hey there Joe!” Hoss couldn’t resist a little ribbing, “What did ya do? Change horses for the day? Where did you get that nice brown pony?”

 “Oh lay off, Hoss,” scowled Joe “I just spent the entire day pulling those blasted cattle out of mud so deep, if you’d have been standing in it, your hat would be the only thing anybody’d see!”

 “Joseph!” his father exclaimed, walking towards the group “that’s no way to talk to your brother!”

 “Yes, sir” Joe replied trying to look and sound apologetic.

 “Now please get your horse cleaned up and stabled and then do the same for yourself!”

 “Yes, sir” Joe repeated and headed off towards the barn.

 Ben watched him go and felt a small pang of guilt. He knew that Joe and the men were having a tough time. They were all working under bad conditions and were tired. He also knew from the reports from Andy that Joe hadn’t shirked in his responsibilities and was working just as hard as the other men. He was concerned that Joe was overdoing it. Ben looked over at Andy for a summary of the day.

 “Well, how’s it going up there Andy?” Ben questioned.

“Not too bad Boss, a couple more days and we should be finished. Adam should be able to give you a good count tomorrow. The mud has been pretty bad as you can tell by the way we look but we’ll get it done.” he replied “Then we should be able to get started on rounding up those range horses.”

 “That’s good” said Ben then he added after a moment’s pause, “Why don’t you and Joe work with the cattle again tomorrow, then plan on taking a look at the horses the next day and letting me know what you may need in the way of manpower to get them together.”

 “OK Ben,” Andy replied “I was trying to figure out how I was going to keep that youngster’s attention on those cows a couple more days”. He then laughed slightly and said “But I think I’ll let you be the one to give him the good news!”

 Adam gave his father a questioning look “Are you sure you can let those two off the roundup crew yet? We can need all the help we can get.”

 Ben answered “Yes Adam, I know the roundup has taken longer than we expected but we’re almost done and I agree with Andy that we’ll have to get started on the horses soon enough anyway and then with their report, we’ll know for sure how many men will be needed.”

  “I guess you’re right, when they get back tomorrow, I’ll help them organize a crew.” Adam agreed reluctantly.

 Gathered at the dinner table an hour later, Ben frowned slightly when he realized that Joe was not really eating his dinner, he was mainly just pushing the food around the plate. He never really had a big appetite compared to his brothers and nobody had a big appetite compared to one brother in particular, but Ben was concerned about the amount of food not going into his youngest son.

 “Joseph, would you please stop playing with your dinner and eat it.”

 “Sorry Pa, I guess I’m just not that hungry tonight”, said Joe.

 “You’re not coming down with anything are you?” asked Ben.

 “Oh, no Sir, I guess I’m a little tired that’s all”, replied his son still pushing the food around on his plate not wanting to admit that all he wanted to do was crawl into bed. He had a small headache and was sore all over but would never own up to it.

 “Well, I hope you’re not too tired to finish on the cattle tomorrow, because I want you and Andy to take a look at the horses the day after and give me a report.” said Ben.

 “Really, Pa?” Joe asked excitedly, his eyes lit up and a smile came across his face. He momentarily forgot just how tired and sore he was. All he could think was “No more cattle!”

 “Yes son, now why don’t you try to eat some more and then head upstairs, you’ve a got another long day tomorrow.” answered Ben trying not to smile at the sudden renewed vigor Joe had in his face. He was pleased when Joe almost finished his dinner, although his son was just about nodding off by the time Hop Sing brought in a piece of apple pie for each of them. Joseph declined the pie with a shake of his head.

 “Pa” Joe said, “I think I’ll pass on the pie and go on off to bed.” He rose from the table, bid his brothers and father goodnight and went up the stairs to his room for some sleep.

 Hoss watched his younger brother disappear up the stairs and said to his father, “Boy, he sure does look tired.”

 “Yes, I know. I just hope he’s not trying to do too much.” replied Ben worriedly.

 “Well he should be working hard if he wants to be a top hand and a leader on this ranch,” said Adam. “If he didn’t plan on working, he should have stayed in school.” Adam was still disappointed that Joe decided not to further his education. Adam had enjoyed his years at college and felt his youngest brother was letting go of a good opportunity to experience new things, and gain some maturity.

 “Adam,” Ben said heatedly, “Joseph has been working very hard and you know it! I don’t know what point you’re trying to make but you must remember that he’s only 16, just a boy yet, trying to do a man’s work! He’s doing a good job too.”

 Adam looked at his father and apologized, “I’m sorry Pa. I know he is; I guess I’m just tired myself.” He didn’t want anyone to know he still regretted Joe’s decision. “I think I’ll head off to bed too.”

 Hoss had remained quiet during the exchange but now spoke up and said “Well, I’m tuckered out too, but if Little Joe couldn’t eat his pie, then maybe I should do it for him”. He reached over and took the plate still where Hop Sing left it on the table “After all, I need to keep up my strength ya know”.

 Ben looked at his middle son, shook his head, smiled and sipped his coffee.

*****

 Adam rode up to the north meadow late the next morning and was pleased by the number of cattle they had gathered. Half the men escorted them down to join the main herd while the others kept after any missing livestock. The sun had deserted them and there was a fine mist falling from dismal gray clouds. It took awhile but once the cattle had been moved and settled, the men took a break. Adam scouted around for his little brother. He wanted to tell him that he was proud of the work he was doing. He spotted Joe walking up to the group of men leading his horse.

“What happened, Joe?” asked Adam.

 “Cochise threw a shoe and I think she’s got a stone bruise.” Joe said frowning. There was nothing that Little Joe did better than fuss over his pinto. He was concerned about the horse and also a little upset that he wouldn’t probably be able to ride her the next day. In his opinion, Cochise was the best working pony alive and together they made more than a good team.

 Adam looked Cochise over and said to Joe, “Well, hard to tell about the bruise but why don’t you climb up behind me and you can lead her back to the house and Hoss can take a look at her.”

 After reaching the house he had Hoss look the mare over thoroughly. Joe was so anxious about the horse’s care that his brother finally became exasperated and threatened to lock him in a stall. Joe decided to give Cochise the day off anyway although Hoss had insisted that there was no bruising. After making sure-as Hoss put it, “That the horse was read to and tucked in”, Joe went to the corral and picked out a mount for the following day. He chose a young sorrel gelding and brought him into a warm stall for the night. As he closed the barn door for the evening, Joe looked at the dark sky, noticing no stars because of the cloud cover. He shivered and rubbed the back of his neck where his head still ached as it had the day before. He hoped that the sun would be out tomorrow and he walked towards the house looking forward to his own warm bed for the night.

 Dawn came too soon for Little Joe. There was no bright sunshine streaming in his window. The day had come with darker clouds and threatened more than just a misting rain. The morning chore of trying to rouse Little Joe out of bed fell to Hoss that day and the third time Hoss had to rouse his brother he just pulled Joe and the blankets onto the floor with a mighty yank. Little Joe grunted a little but Hoss knew his brother was still not fully awake.

 “Joe, if I have’ta come in here one more time, I’m just gonna pour a bucket of cold water on ya!” Hoss shouted with just more than a hint of annoyance. “Besides that, Pa said if you didn’t git your tail downstairs soon, that maybe you ain’t ready to get them horses, and another day with them cows otta suit ya just fine!”

 With that Joe jolted awake, confused as to why exactly he was on the floor but awake now. He heard the last part of Hoss’ message loud and clear and there was no way he wanted another day with the cattle or to face his father’s angry face that morning. He lowered the blanket from around his head and growled at Hoss “I’m awake already!” Hoss glared at him and left the room muttering, “Maybe I should have just used cold water in the first place!”

A few minutes later Joe came down the stairs quickly, his boots thumping each stair as they hit them. As he said good morning to his father and brothers, he noticed Pa’s dark look. “Joseph,” he said “so nice of you to join us. For a minute there I thought you were bringing the rest of the stray cattle with you down the stairs.”

 “Sorry Pa” Joe mumbled “didn’t want to be late for breakfast.”

 “Well, maybe you could have gotten up the first time your brother tried to wake you” Ben said.

 Hop Sing was grunting his disapproval of Joe being late again for breakfast and was not so quietly lamenting that fact in Chinese. The family ignored him except for Little Joe who was the only one in the family that understood exactly what he was saying. He had learned Hop Sing’s native language long ago, a skill still unknown about him by the rest of his family. Both Adam and Hoss were busy eating in an effort to look like they weren’t paying attention to any part the conversation.

 Joe was saved from making any response by a loud knocking on the door. As he was trying to get back in his father’s good graces, he immediately rose without being asked and went to answer it. He found Andy on the other side and invited him in to join the family for breakfast.

 “Don’t mind if I do Joe” Andy said as he rambled over to the dining room and Hop Sing went to get another plate. “Mornin’ Ben, Adam, Hoss,” he said with a nod. Hoss was already pouring him a cup of coffee as Joe seated himself. He hoped that Andy being at the table would take his father’s focus off of him. His headache still lingered and he wasn’t up to being the center of attention at the table. It seemed to be working as Ben started talking to Andy.

 “Good Morning Andy” said Ben as he sat down, “All ready to go?”

Andy who was already loading the plate he had just received from Hop Sing looked up at Ben and nodded, “Yup, just as soon as Joe’s ready to go we’ll be heading out.”

 Ben glanced at his youngest son, who was nursing a cup of coffee and not eating much of his breakfast. He thought that Joe looked a little pale this morning and he became a bit concerned, his anger at him over being late, evaporating.

 “Joseph” he said sternly “Are you feeling alright? You’ve barely touched your breakfast.”

 “Uh, huh?” Joe responded vaguely “Um, oh no Pa, I’m fine, just not awake yet.” He tried to look more alert as he spoke to his father.

 “Hmph, Short Shanks,” snorted Hoss, “you went to bed right after supper last night and it was like trying to wake the dead and haul you out of it this mornin’. Didn’t ya get enough sleep in all that time?”

 “Course I did” snapped Joe he wasn’t in the mood for this discussion.

 “Well if you did, young man,” said Ben with a frown “then maybe it should have put you in a better frame of mind to carry on a conversation at the table!”

 “Sorry Pa,” said Joe remorsefully “Sorry Hoss” he apologized to his brother.

 Ben was watching Joe’s face carefully, trying to determine if his son was not feeling well. Joe was notorious for not admitting illness. Seeing as his color was a bit better after his outburst, Ben decided that he probably wasn’t ill and went back to his own breakfast.

 “Ben,” said Andy “I’m not too sure about this weather. What do you think if Joe and I pack up some gear? Just in case it gets nasty out. That way we could hole up in the line shack and not have to come all the way back here tonight if it does. It would only take an extra hour to get the gear together and then we’d be on our way.”

 Joe perked up at that. He was sick of being wet and mud covered and staying at the line shack would mean a little less torment from a lot of riding back and forth.

 Ben considered this idea for a moment. He really didn’t want them riding back if the weather was bad but would have preferred his youngest, safe and snug in his own bed tonight. But he knew that both Joe and Andy would fare better spending the night in a line shack than riding all the way back to the ranch house. 

 “I think that’s a good idea Andy” replied Ben “Why don’t you find, Billy Taylor, pack enough for the three of you and just stay up there for the night anyway.”

 “Pa,” exploded Adam, “We can’t spare another hand today! I’m sure Andy and Joe will be just fine by themselves!”

 “Adam,” Ben replied calmly “one less hand isn’t going to make a difference to the work we have to do today and with one more pair of eyes, Joe and Andy can make a better estimate as to the work that’s needed with the horses.”

 Joe tried to hold back a smirk. He thought it was usually overdue when his father rebuked his oldest brother. He felt it should happen more often then maybe Adam wouldn’t be so bossy all the time. Adam noticed Joe’s feeble attempt to cover his emotions and felt himself getting angrier. He felt that his father coddled his youngest brother and took his side too much of the time. If Joe wanted to be an equal member in running the Ponderosa, then Adam thought he should not be given what he thought were special privileges or help. Joe should have to make his own way. The pride he felt a couple of days earlier at the good job Joe had been doing was quickly forgotten. The withering look that Adam gave him caused Joe to focus back on his plate and try to eat a little more of his breakfast, wishing he was packed up and gone already.  

*****

The gray skies hadn’t lifted and the wind was blowing a light cold mist again when the three men had mounted in the yard, packed and ready to go, just waiting for any final instructions from the boss. Joe’s headache from earlier that morning was still there and he groaned inwardly as he swung himself into the saddle. He wasn’t looking forward to another long day being wet again but with the look that he had gotten from his oldest brother at breakfast, there was no way he was going to complain about it.

Ben glanced at the sky and then at Andy, “Do you have enough gear with you? You know winter isn’t that far back that this rain could turn to snow in a minute.”

 “Ben,” chuckled Andy, “stop worryin’ like an old mother hen. We’ve got enough gear and Hop Sing has given us enough food to last a week. Including them cookies he snuck in Joe’s saddlebag when he wasn’t looking! We ain’t goin’ to the end of the world ya know. We’ll be back tomorrow!”

 Now it was Joe’s turn to laugh. Hop Sing lived to feed his ‘family’ and wasn’t surprised about the cookies or the amount of food he’d forced them to take along. He was also amused that Hop Sing had made sure Joe wore his heavy coat and checked to see if he was wearing his long underwear. Joe had outwardly protested but knew he would not be able to argue and succumbed to his demands. He had thought about riding Cochise today, but stayed with his original decision to give her the day off and was mounted on the sorrel. Joe actually felt guilty when he saddled the gelding in her presence. He could tell his mare wasn’t happy with him on another horse and he had tried to placate her with a couple lumps of sugar, which she accepted with a snort.

 “Pa, Andy’s right, we’ll be fine!” scolded Joe with a twinkle in his green eyes and a poorly suppressed grin. He would have never gotten away with calling his father an ‘old mother hen’ but felt like doing it sometimes.

 Ben caught his son’s look and grinned back at him “Alright then, off with you! You’ve got plenty to do and we’ll see you tomorrow.”

 The three riders turned the horses and headed out of the yard. A stiff breeze came up and caused the mist to get a bit heavier. Ben again looked at the sky with concern as he went into the house.

 After riding for about an hour, Joe was happy to see that the sky ahead was getting lighter. The mist had continued since they left the house and the trail was muddy as the horses plodded along. Even though he had his warm jacket on, Joe shivered and could feel the dampness all the way through to his skin. The sorrel he was riding was a bit skittish, wanting to turn around and head back for the warmth of the barn so Joe had his hands full trying to control the animal. He second-guessed his decision about Cochise, one more time, as he fought with the horse to keep him going in a forward direction.

 “Darn fool horse!” Joe muttered, “keep your mind on the job today!” as he again turned him towards the other two riders he was following.

 Andy turned in the saddle, looked back at Little Joe who was cursing and laughed, “Hey, Joe! You want me to put a lead rope on that pony and drag him the rest of the way?”

 “Might not be a bad idea, Andy; this jughead has ideas of his own today. Although heading back to the house doesn’t sound so bad about now!” Joe laughed back. He knew the other men were just as miserable as he was.

 Billy turned and said “Well, we’re just about to the shack, why don’t we stop and unload then have some coffee before taking a look at them horses?”

 “Won’t get any argument from me!” Joe agreed, wanting to warm up and dry off. The men continued onward coming to an open meadow. In the distance they could see some of the horses they would be moving in a fenced off area. The horses in the pasture saw the movement of the men coming closer and they were moving towards the fence. These were some of the tried and true members of the Ponderosa working stock. They knew these men and were glad to see them. They were eager for human contact again. The ranch hand that had spent the winter watching over them had come down to the main house a few weeks earlier to help work the spring roundup. Most of the snow had gone so the horses had plenty to graze on and the creek that supplied fresh water to all the pastures was free of ice so it provided all they cared to drink. For a few weeks, nobody was needed to care for them.

 Joe called ahead to the others “Boy it’d be great if all the horses were that anxious to see us! Make rounding them up a whole lot easier!”

 “Sure would!” Andy replied with a grin “these will have to make up for the ones that won’t be quite so willing to come along.”

 They moved on past the waiting horses, up the trail a little farther and came upon the line shack. The little building was nothing more than basic shelter from the elements. The furnishings were simple but comfortable – a table with a couple of chairs, a well-worn wooden rocker and two bunks. There were some basic supplies that had been left by the ranch hand that had vacated it. They were stacked on a few shelves that surrounded a fireplace that was used for heat and cooking meals. Two small windows with shutters were the only natural light and the only other light came from the oil lamps on the table and hearth of the fireplace.

 No matter how simple the little shack was it looked like a palace to Little Joe. He had continued to shiver from the dampness and was looking forward to warming himself by the fire. Billy and Joe worked quickly taking care of the horses. Joe was sure to tie the sorrel securely in the small lean to in the corral near the shack. He was not going to let him get loose and head back to the ranch. He didn’t want to put himself through the task of getting one of the range horses to settle in after a few months of freedom. It was going to be enough work to just gather them together. As the two of them headed inside he was enveloped in the warmth from the fire and Joe smelled the fresh, hot coffee Andy had waiting for them.

 “Mmmmm, smells good,” said Joe as he walked to the pot and poured himself a cup. After the first sip he went to hang his jacket on the back of a chair near the fire to dry out. He shivered involuntarily as he stood by the fire getting warm. Andy rifled through the packs and supplies and was setting some lunch on the table. Billy had just come back in the door with more wood for the fire and grinned at the food.

 “I’m so hungry I could eat a horse!” he exclaimed as he sat down.

 “Don’t go saying that too loud around here,” laughed Andy “if they hear ya out there, we’ll never get them gathered.”

 Joe laughed too but his laugh was interrupted by a spasm of coughing. Andy looked at him sharply “Joe?”

 “Just some coffee went down the wrong way”, said Joe not exactly truthfully.

 “You sure? I noticed you been shivering on and off and want to make sure you’re not getting sick. Your Pa would shoot me if you were and I didn’t take care of ya.”

 “Andy,” he replied shortly “I’m fine! Was just a little wet before, don’t worry. You know,” he added grinning “I was sure that we left the ‘mother hen’ back at the house!”

 “Hmph, we did, but I’m still supposed to keep an eye on you.” Andy was concerned continuing to look at him carefully. He cared about Joe like a son himself. “Well, let’s have some lunch and then head out and take a look around.” He vowed to keep a close watch on the youngest Cartwright.

 The afternoon passed quickly. The three riders were busy checking over the pastures looking at the stock. The clearing skies that had looked so promising before lunch had returned to a dark, dismal gray with the mist coming down lightly. The breeze had picked up and the men were cold and miserable again. The weather made the work arduous but they were taking a careful count and making sure the stock was in good shape. Late in the afternoon they arrived at the enclosure holding the two and three year olds. This would be challenging, as the horses in there had never been broke. These animals were young, wild and wanted nothing to do with the men who were there to try to bunch them together.

 Each took an area and started driving the horses towards the point of the pasture nearest the line shack. Andy wanted to get a good close up view of these horses to decide which would be brought to the home corral first. The sorrel that Joe was riding was caught up in the excitement of the other youngsters. He had only been broken in the year before and was starting to remember the freedom he’d had. Little Joe had his work cut out for him between trying to keep him in line and move the other horses forward. As they got closer to the others, the sorrel started to forget more and more of his schooling and was reverting back to being a wild pony again. He was prancing and jumping, kicking up his back legs. Joe knew what he was doing and was having no problem staying on the horse but he was not pleased at the way the sorrel was behaving. As he struggled for control, he watched with frustration as the horses he was trying to contain broke away from the main group and scattered in the opposite direction. Suddenly the sorrel reared on his hind legs, momentarily catching Joe off guard. Surprised he felt himself slide over the horse’s rump, landing on the ground on his own. Normally something like that never would have happened as good a rider as he was but fatigue and cold had made his riding skills not quite as sharp. The ground was soft and wet so he wasn’t hurt. He watched in anger as the sorrel headed off to be with the rest of the herd.

 “Joe!” shouted Andy as he rode up to where Little Joe was sitting on the ground “Are you hurt?”

 “I’m Fine!” snapped Joe “But that damn horse isn’t going to be when I get a hold of him!” Joe looked up and saw Billy riding off to catch the rebellious gelding while the others they were gathering bolted in different directions. “Great!” he fumed “Now we’ll have to start all over again.” He was furious and just as angry with himself for being dismounted as the horse. He hoped that his family wouldn’t hear about him falling off. He knew that his brothers wouldn’t let him forget about that for a long time.

 Pulling himself up from the wet ground, Joe shook himself off, reached down for his hat, and slapped it on his head. “Did Billy catch that stupid nag yet?” he snarled as he looked in the direction he last saw them headed. In the distance, he saw that Billy had caught up with and snagged the reins of the running sorrel. Billy pulled the horse to a stop and not so gently started him back to where Little Joe and Andy were waiting.

 Surveying the other horses that Andy and Billy had tried to contain, Joe saw that they were still running off to be as far from the men as they could. Now that they were spooked, it would be all the more difficult to get them back together again. As Billy rode up, the rain that had been holding off all afternoon started to come down in earnest. Joe groaned; he was cold and wet already. Still angry, but getting his temper under control, he grabbed the reins for the young horse roughly, walked up to him and stared at him intently saying “Hey you jughead, that’s NOT going to happen again, is it?”

 The horse was breathing hard from his romp with the others. He looked back at Joe, hung his head seeming to be a bit contrite, almost to say that he had had his fun and was willing to settle down now. Joe almost laughed and turned to the others regretfully and said, “Well fellas, I knew I should have brought Cochise! This one here has been nothing but trouble all day!”

 Andy glanced up at the sky briefly shaking the raindrops off his face as he looked at Joe and Billy, the departing horses and the growing darkness. “Tell ya what boys, let’s call it a day. Them ponies can wait till tomorrow. I’m cold, wet and tired. We can try again in the morning. Right now, all I want is hot coffee and a warm bedroll!”

 The other two looked at each other and grinned. That didn’t sound too bad at all. The horses would still be there in the morning. It might be easier to herd them together after they had some time to settle down. Joe agreed as he swung up on the now docile gelding. “Andy, that may just be the best thing I’ve heard all day!” He grinned. “Now who’s doing the cooking?”

 “Not you!” said Andy “you tried to kill me with your beans and coffee the last time we were up here! I think we should give ‘Ol Billy a chance to show off.”

 “Ok Andy” replied Billy “but you should know that Joe here shared his best recipes with me and I don’t think his beans are all that bad.”

 “Oh no!” moaned Andy as he rolled his eyes, “I sure hope Hop Sing packed more food for me!” 

 The three men headed off back to the line shack for the night.

***** 

Evening found the elder Cartwrights after dinner at their usual places near the fireplace in the main room of the house. Hoss had talked Adam into a game of checkers before turning in. Ben was sitting in his favorite chair smoking his pipe with a book in hand. The fire was blazing brightly, warding off the chill and the dampness felt in the air by the poor weather.

 “I hope the rain stops tomorrow” Ben said reflectively as his eyes were drawn to the flickering flames.

 “Me too Pa,” Hoss said “If it gets any colder and this rain don’t stop, we sure could wind up with an awful mess, snow or ice, that’d be all we need right now.”

 Adam looked over towards his father and knew that the weather wasn’t his only concern.

 “Don’t worry,” he said cutting into Ben’s thoughts “Joe’s warm and dry in the line shack and the weather is going to improve. Besides, Andy’s there to keep an eye on the boy. They’ll be back tomorrow.”

 Ben looked over at Adam and gave him a thin smile. “And just what makes you think I’m worried about Little Joe?”

 Adam smiled back and said, “When do you not worry about any of us when we’re not home?”

 “Ok, guilty as charged then.” he said with a bigger grin. “It is a father’s prerogative to worry, you know.” 

 “Yes,” Adam replied “And you’re one of the best.”

 “Best father or best worrier, Adam?” Hoss questioned.

 “Both!” Adam laughed.

 “Well, Thank You-I think,” Ben laughed back and shook his head. He knew he shouldn’t worry but he did anyway and there was no way anybody was going to stop that. He put his book down and said “It’s been a long day and I can worry just as well upstairs in bed as I can here, see you in the morning boys.”

 When Ben awoke, he rose from his bed and made his way across his bedroom to the window. He drew back the heavy fabric that covered the inside of his window and saw that in fact the weather had not improved at all. It was raining steadily and there were even a few snowflakes mingling with the raindrops. He reached for his robe as he realized the temperature had dropped considerably and the room was chilly. Letting the drapes fall back, he quickly turned and started searching for his clothes.

 Both Adam and Hoss had already seated themselves at the table and Hop Sing had some steaming coffee ready along with a hearty breakfast. Ben came down the stairs and carefully controlled his emotions. He didn’t want his sons to know how upset he really was at the moment. It wasn’t just worry about Little Joe up at the line shack, but also what a late winter storm could do to the cattle that were ready to give birth.

 The brothers had already discussed the weather and their youngest brother before their father made it to the table. They knew from experience just what Ben would be concerned about and how to handle him.

 “Mornin’, Pa,” greeted Hoss who was busy pilling eggs on his plate.

 “Good Morning Pa,” said Adam “Nice weather we’re having today isn’t it?” He thought he’d hit the nail on the head right off the start.

 “Good morning Boys,” Ben frowned as he sat down. “If this rain turns to snow and keeps coming, we could be in real trouble here. Right after we eat Adam and I along with the men will go out and check the herd, and Hoss, I want you to ride up to the line shack and…………” He never got to finish the sentence.

 “Check on Little Joe!” both of his sons said in unison. Ben stopped pouring his coffee in surprise and looked at them.

 “What!” he said with some irritation “I just want to make sure everything is alright and they’re not having any problems.”

 “Pa, if this does turn into a late storm, it’s going to take all of us to take care of the herd. Joe will be ok and probably be waiting for us when we get back today.” Adam said calmly. But inside he felt himself annoyed that his father seemed to be babying Joe again. He knew that his father would not have spared any manpower had it been any of the other hands up at the line shack. “Even if Joe doesn’t use his head, Andy does and will watch out for him.”

 Ben sighed as he looked at his coffee. He didn’t like Adam’s last comment and decided not to let it pass. But he did have a point. There were three of them up at the shack and together they would be able to handle any problems that might arise. And they would need every available hand to help with the cattle.

 “I agree with you Adam,” he said carefully “we’ll need all the hands we he have to help feed the herd if we must. However, I disagree with you because your brother does use his head” he paused “maybe not all the time. But please try to remember his age and inexperience before you speak.” With that he picked up his coffee and added, “Now let’s finish breakfast and get to work.”

***** 

Up at the line shack, Joe did not fair as well as he would have had he been home. After dinner the night before, Andy immediately took one of the two bunks. Billy and Joe decided to flip a coin to see who got the other and who got to sleep on the floor. Unfortunately, Joe lost the toss and spent the night trying to get comfortable on the hard planks. The only good thing was the fact that he got to sleep near the fire. He had continued to be chilled and achy. He was grateful for the warmth, and that the few times he stirred because of coughing fits, he didn’t disturb the two other men in the room. He was finally sleeping soundly when light started to filter through one of the small windows.

 Andy got up first added more wood to the fire and got some coffee going. He then started to rouse the others. He smiled as he looked down at Little Joe. “Poor kid, probably wake up stiff as the boards he’s sleeping on. Between the work and the weather, we’re all gonna be wiped out.” The older cowhand knew that waking Joe Cartwright was a chore for anybody and he grinned as he said loudly “Wake up Joe! Your Pa’s been waitin’ for you to get to work!”

 “Huh?” Joe started awake. He was momentarily bewildered as to where he was but the cold floor quickly reminded him. He felt like he was only asleep for a few minutes. He was brought back to reality when he tried to sit up. His head throbbed, his chest felt tight and he was so achy that he’d swear that even his eyelashes hurt. He was annoyed that he had caught a cold. There seemed to be no fever involved so he thought that he could cover his symptoms well enough so that nobody would know how really rotten he was feeling. If he were at home his father probably would make him stay inside all day and take it easy. But he wanted to make sure he kept working because he knew there was much to do. He remembered Adam’s glare at the table and wasn’t about to quit because he had to show his big brother that he could stand shoulder to shoulder with the rest of them.

 “Up and at ‘em, Little Joe!” said Andy “You too Billy, coffee’s ready. We got work to do.” Andy walked over to the window and looked out. “Just to cheer you boys up a bit I thought I’d let you know it’s starting to snow. I think we should look them horses over as fast as we can and get back to the house.”

 At the word ‘snow’ Joe wanted to pull the blanket back over his head and pretend he was back in his warm bed. He was secretly pleased that Hop Sing had made him wear his long underwear. He gamely got up, not the least bit rested but he wanted to get this job over with and get home. Billy was moving slowly on the other bunk tugging on his boots.

 The hot coffee revived Little Joe somewhat and he felt his headache fading a bit by the second cup. Andy and Billy were eating the cold biscuits from the night before. Andy offered some to Joe but he declined with a shake of his head. “Coffee’s just fine this morning Andy, I ain’t hungry.” He coughed a couple of times and sipped more of the hot liquid.

 “You sure you’re OK boy?” asked Andy looking him over carefully. He didn’t like the color in Joe’s face. And he knew the cough was not a good sign.

 “I’m as good as can be expected after sleeping on that floor all night!” he replied with a grin. “Billy, the next time we toss for the bunk, we’re using my coin.” he turned to the older man “I’m fine so if the two of you are done let’s get to work.”

 “Well, if you’re ready to go to work then you can’t be feeling all that bad!” Andy grinned back. He was pensive, though; if Little Joe was getting sick, he’d just as soon get the job done and get the boy back to the house where his father could watch over him. He knew Ben would be worried about the weather too so the sooner the better. And Andy himself was concerned that the storm would turn worse than it already was.

 They packed the gear, saddled up and were on their way in less than a half hour. The sorrel Joe was riding was none to happy about being out in the elements again but he had a firm hand on the horse. He was not about to have a repeat of the day before. The snow had stopped but the dark clouds threatened to open up again at any time.

 Upon arriving at the pasture that held the young horses they had tried to round up the day before the men pulled up in shock. A part of the fence had come down and it was obvious that some of the horses were gone.

 Grimly, Andy surveyed the scene. Looking at the tracks made by the missing horses, he frowned and said “Looks like they ain’t been gone too long these are pretty fresh.” He knew that they would have to go after them. Glancing at Joe and Billy, he said, “One of you stay here and work on this fence; the other will come with me and we’ll see if we can catch them quick.”

 Joe quickly volunteered to go with Andy, leaving Billy to mend the fence. Andy was about to reverse the decision but decided that he could keep an eye on Joe better if he was with him. He didn’t think it would take too long to catch up with the strays.

 “Ok Joe, let’s ride” he turned his horse and started off following the hoof prints in the mud. Joe followed suit hoping it wouldn’t take too long either. He wasn’t really feeling any better than he had when he woke up and just wanted to be warm and dry. The day was turning out to be more grueling than he thought it would and he wasn’t sure if he was up to it but he was going to try.

 Andy was right in that the horses had not gotten too much of a head start on them. After trailing them for about an hour through some dense woods, they started to hear some whinnies and snorts from a short distance ahead. The two riders urged their horses on as fast as was safe in the muddy conditions. About a quarter mile later, the woods ended and opened onto a narrow meadow. The missing horses had come to a halt there and were gathered on the opposite side from where Joe and Andy were, near another large stand of trees. They were all blowing hard and watching the men warily. In the cold air, steam was rising from their hot, sweaty bodies.

 Joe looked at Andy and said “Well, now what do you want to do?”

 Andy was keenly observing the area and the horses. A shrill whinny rang out and both of them were startled to see a dun-colored stallion coming from the trees behind the others. He was snorting and pawing at the ground, shaking his head and staring at them in anger.

 “What do you know,” Andy said quietly “looks like a renegade has come down to steal himself a herd of his own.”

 This was going to pose serious problems because they knew the stallion was not going to give up what he had taken easily. The sorrel Joe was riding began to move about when he caught the scent of the wild stallion. “Easy now, Jughead,” Joe consoled him as he tightened his reins. The horse calmed a bit but was still nervous.

 “Boy oh boy, Joe we sure got our work cut out for us now” Andy continued to speak softly.

 Both of them realized that the only way to get the Ponderosa horses away from the stallion was to catch him. Andy briefly thought of going back to get Billy but it would be two hours at least before they could get back and he didn’t want to give the stallion the opportunity to move any farther away. He was afraid they would loose them. Between the two of them, they would have to keep the stallion out of the woods and rope him. Andy turned slowly to Joe. He suddenly noticed that the boy was sweating freely and was pale.

 Still speaking in hushed tones Andy said with alarm, “Joe! What’s the matter?”

 With the situation they were facing, there was no way that Little Joe was going to tell him how the last hour of riding had worn him out. Speaking just as quietly Joe replied, “Well, I’ve felt better but I’m alright.” Changing the subject he said, “We’re gonna have a hard time keeping him out of that woods and roping him aren’t we.” It was more of a statement than a question.

“Yup, and keeping you in the saddle the way you look could be just as bad.” Andy shook his head.

 “Don’t worry about me. I may have felt better but I’ve also felt a lot worse!” Joe looked at the older man pointedly and asked again, “What do you want to do?”

 “Hmph!” lamented Andy, “I want to high tail it to California when Ben Cartwright finds out I dragged his sick son on a horse hunt in bad weather!”

 The stallion on the other side of the meadow was getting impatient. He reared up and issued another shrill whinny. He didn’t like the humans that close.

 “What ever we do, it had better be fast. Looks like he’s getting ready to take off again.” Joe knew they were going to have to act rapidly.

 Without many options, Andy made his decision. “OK Joe, we’re gonna have to get behind him and then come at him from both sides. If we can drive him out into the meadow, I’ll be able to try and get a rope on him. Even if the other horses spook, at least they’ll be headed back in the direction of the line shack. Now ride slowly over that way, I’ll go this way and when I give you a shout, come at him and drive him out this way.”

 He gave Joe a long hard look and said firmly “If you’re having any problems, just let him go. No sense in getting hurt. You hear me?”

 “Yup, I hear ya; that goes for you too, you know.” Joe replied, “Let’s go.”

 Both men slowly got their ropes ready. Moving cautiously, they turned their mounts and headed off in different directions and skirted the edge of the meadow. The stallion was watching them with distrust and was circling trying to keep an eye on both riders at the same time. He was snorting and pounding his hooves on the ground. Joe’s gelding was nervous but paying attention to his master. Each of them made the circle around to the other side of the meadow with the stallion becoming angrier as they came closer.

 Joe was watching Andy closely out of the corner of his eye, while watching the stallion at the same time, waiting for his signal. When they were close enough, Andy suddenly started to shout and kicked his horse forward. Joe followed his lead and within seconds, had the herd of horses running across the meadow in the direction of the line shack. The stallion was furious and broke away trying to keep the little band together. Andy came up behind and the stallion suddenly bolted back towards the woods to avoid being caught. Both riders quickly turned and followed. Andy had his rope ready for the throw just as they came to the woods. He let the loop fly and it came to rest around the stallion’s neck. Joe was right behind and ready with his rope but just then the stallion jerked and started to enter the trees. He couldn’t get a clear throw.

 Andy and his horse were pulled into the woods behind the stallion. Joe screamed for Andy to let loose of the rope but he didn’t realize that Andy had become tangled and couldn’t let go. In trying to get the stallion turned so he wouldn’t get too close to the trees, Andy had twisted in his saddle and the rope had looped around his arm. Little Joe didn’t know what exactly happened next but he could see Andy yanked out of the saddle when his horse stumbled with the rope still around his arm. He was dragged a few feet and then slammed into a tree. The rope that held onto the stallion came free from the fallen man and the stallion kept running.

 “Andy!” Joe screamed. It was hard for him to maneuver the sorrel through the trees he pulled up sharply and before the horse had come to a full stop, vaulted off and ran towards where Andy lay.

 Little Joe was quivering from fear as he stooped down near his friend. Andy was groaning and barely conscious, Joe started checking him over immediately. He could tell that an arm was badly broken and it seemed like his shoulder was dislocated. He couldn’t see anything else at the moment. Joe prayed that that there were no internal injuries.

 Glancing around, he saw that Andy’s horse was thrashing around wildly nearby. Joe rose with a sick feeling in his stomach. When he reached the animal, he shuddered when he saw the rear leg bleeding and broken. He grabbed his revolver and put a bullet between the horse’s eyes. He then closed his own eyes trying to keep the nausea at bay. The shot startled the sorrel and he took off running back in the direction of the line shack. Joe opened his eyes just in time to see the horse enter the woods on the other side of the clearing. There was no way that Joe could have stopped him. With a growing sense of panic, he went back to Andy’s side. He was relieved when he saw that his eyes were open.

 “Andy, are you OK?” He asked softly, his voice cracking just a bit.

 Andy grimaced in pain as he tried to move and check the extent of his injuries. He stopped moving immediately. He was having a hard time clearing his head.

 “Wha… what happened?” he spoke slowly trying feebly to rise.

 “The stallion dragged you into the trees after you roped him” Joe answered, “Now don’t move around too much until we check you over.”

 “Doubt if I could even if I wanted too” Andy took in a deep breath as he laid his head back down on the ground. “What did ya find so far?”

 “Well, from what I can tell, your arm’s broke and shoulder’s dislocated,” said Joe. “Can you tell me where else it hurts?” He tried to keep the fear out of his voice when he spoke even though his hands were shaky.

 “Can’t feel my legs very well, pain’s real sharp in the middle of my back.” The older man was trying to hold back the pain in his voice. He gasped as he tried to rise up and all the color drained out of his face before he slumped back and passed out.

 “Andy! Andy, wake up!” Joe cried frantically. He slapped him lightly trying to bring him back around. There was no response. Joe leaned back on his heels and put his head down as a bout of dizziness overtook him. The adrenalin that had been pumping through his system suddenly slowed down. He had to keep calm. What he didn’t realize yet was the fact that part of the dizziness was due to the fever that had come up when they were chasing the stallion and the stolen horses.

 He raised his head carefully as it took a moment for everything to stop spinning. He started to assess their situation. It wasn’t good. He stood up and slowly walked over to the dead horse. He had to get what he could of Andy’s gear off the saddle. With the sorrel gone, it was all they had. He couldn’t pull the saddlebags all the way off as the horse’s body was lying on its side but managed to get a rifle, the bedroll and a canteen off with no problem.

 Joe took his bandana off, doused it with water and wiped off Andy’s face trying to revive him. The injured man remained still. Joe then took apart the bedroll and covered Andy with the blanket. He then took a long swallow of water stopping abruptly when a coughing fit overtook him. After regaining his composure, he went back to see what he could retrieve out of the one saddlebag. He found a badly dented coffee pot and some coffee, wrapped in a shirt. There were also a few pieces of hardtack and jerky, a banged up coffee cup and a small bundle containing cigarette makings and matches. Not much but better than nothing he thought.

 As he stood up again, a chill ran through his body and he knew he had to get a fire started. It hadn’t started to snow again, but the air was damp and they would both need the warmth. He checked Andy again and found him still out. Joe knew he would have to tend to his injuries soon.

 Within a few minutes, he had gathered enough wood and had a small fire burning. He filled the coffee pot with all the water in the canteen and set it on the flames. He turned his attention to Andy’s injuries. As he kneeled down to tend to him, Joe prayed for the strength to get through this and not cause any more pain to the man, grateful that he was still unconscious. Removing part of the jacket carefully, Joe tried to work on the injured shoulder but couldn’t get it back into place. Working as quickly as he could, he tore the shirt into strips and with the branches he found gathering wood, splinted the broken arm. He took the remnants of the shirt and cautiously bound the area tightly so there could be no movement. Gently, he rolled him over a bit to examine his back. An ugly red welt, already starting to bruise ran the width. It was hard to tell if it was broken and Joe wouldn’t be able to do much about it anyway. Before laying him again on his back, he slipped the groundsheet under him and wrapped Andy’s coat back around him. He covered him with the blanket again. He felt helpless and tried to remember if there was anything else his father and brothers had shown him to do when helping someone who was hurt. Joe rose again and went to get some coffee to warm himself. He was shivering and shaking from exertion and fever. He needed to think.

 Bending over the fire to pour his coffee, Little Joe was seized by yet another coughing spell that left him breathless. His chest felt tight and his head was pounding. Again he wished that his father and brothers were there. He didn’t know if he could handle the mess Andy and he were in. But deep down, Joe knew that he would have to, no matter how sick he felt. He prayed that his father and brothers would come. But he knew that the only hope they had for immediate help was Billy, back at the line shack. Joe hoped that he had finished fixing the fence and was headed in their direction. There was little food, no shelter and no way to ride out.

 The hot coffee had revived him a little and he realized he had used the last of the water to make it. He’d have to get more. There was a small stream just ahead and he knew he could fill the canteen. Joe walked over to Andy and checked him again. He was still out cold. Joe was worried that he was still not awake but didn’t know what else to do so he set the tin cup where the injured man could reach it if he awoke while he was gone and made sure the blankets were covering him well.

 Struggling to his feet he started in the direction of the stream. He realized that it had started to snow very lightly and felt the tears start to form as the desperation of their situation set in. He brushed the tears away, set his jaw, and continued walking.

*****

It had taken Billy almost three hours to finish the fence. As soon as he was done and sure that the repair was secure, he mounted up following the now hours old tracks in the mud. He glanced at the sky as a few intermittent snowflakes had started to fall. It was mid afternoon and the young wrangler was hoping to be back at the line shack before dark.

 Billy was riding through a thick stand of trees when he heard a horse approach from the opposite direction. Stopping his horse he saw in astonishment the rider-less sorrel coming at him. The gelding was covered in sweat and lather. He seemed glad to see another horse and rider and came to a stop just before he reached them. Billy reached over and grabbed the reins that were dangling he was surprised that the animal hadn’t tripped on them. He was also somewhat amused at the thought of Little Joe fighting the horse for the last couple days and here it seemed that the horse had won again and Joe was on foot.

 “Well Jughead, I hope you didn’t dump him again!” Billy chuckled, “You’ll be crow bait for sure.” Billy stopped, dismounted and grabbed a small blanket from his pack and rubbed the horse down as best he could. It was too cold to leave him that lathered up. When finished, he mounted back on his own horse, making sure he had a tight hold on the other’s reins and continued in the direction the muddy tracks were heading. He hoped he’d catch up with them soon as the snow was falling heavier and starting to accumulate on the ground.

 Little Joe managed to find his way to the stream. His senses were dulled and he was having a hard time concentrating. He focused on filling the canteen when a snort from directly to his left startled him. Joe froze and looked carefully in that direction. It was the stallion and he was standing less than fifteen feet away. He could see out of the corner of his eye that the rope around the horse’s neck had become entangled in some brush and the horse had pulled the rope tight, trying to get free. The rope was tight and the horse was having a hard time getting air.

 He knew he’d have to try and help the stallion but he was also very wary. He knew the damage the frightened, injured animal could do. But he also knew that without his help, the he would probably die.

 He slowly set the canteen down and began to talk to him. The horse was watching him and still pulling back on the rope. Cautiously, Joe slipped his hand down to his boot and he retrieved the knife that he kept there. Slowly, he arose, his motions fluid as not to startle the stallion any more. Continuing to approach, he continued to speak in hushed tones, trying to reassure and not panic the animal more.

 Joe was almost touching the stallion now. He could see the exhaustion and terror in the animal’s eyes. Joe knew he would have to act quickly. He put his hand on the rope and followed it to the loop around the stallion’s neck, speaking reassuringly the entire time. With one swift motion he slipped the knife between the skin and rope. He sawed the rope rapidly and as gently as he could. The stallion was so paralyzed with fear that he didn’t move a muscle.

 With a few more saws of the knife, the rope broke in two and the stallion was free. Realizing he was no longer trapped he shook his head a few times. He trotted off a few paces still occasionally giving his head a toss. The stallion suddenly halted and turned to look at Joe. The dark brown eyes peered out from under a long fetlock. They no longer held fear. He gave a low whinny as if to say “Thank You”, turned again shook his head another time then cantered off seemingly without a care in the world.

 Little Joe felt his knees grow weak and slumped to the ground, he laughed weakly and said “You’re Welcome!” Joe looked around. He realized he had dropped the canteen next to the stream. His head and chest were pounding and another violent coughing attack enveloped him as finished filling the canteen and headed back to where Andy lay near the fire.

 When he approached the makeshift campsite, he added more wood to the dwindling fire and went to check on his friend. Andy showed signs of consciousness but still was not coherent. Taking his bandana again, Joe began to wipe down Andy’s face and talking to him, hoping to bring him around. After a moment, Andy turned his head and started to moan. Joe prayed he was coming to. Through all his ministrations, he had kept his fears at bay but now was almost at his limit. He needed Andy to wake up. He kept wiping the older man’s face and was relieved when he saw the older man’s eyes open.

 “Joe?” he said quietly, a blank look on his face.

 “Easy now Andy” Joe replied as calmly as he could. He was comforted by the fact that Andy didn’t seem to be in much pain.

 “The stallion?” he questioned.

 “He got away unhurt which is more than I can say for you.” said Joe. He was coughing as he finished the first sentence. “What happened to ‘letting the stallion go’ if you were in trouble?”

 “I couldn’t, the rope was caught. Are you sick?” said Andy, concern etching his weathered face.

 “Yea Andy,” mumbled Joe “I’m sick, you’re hurt and right now we have no way to get back to the line shack unless Billy finds us. Your horse didn’t make it and that nag I was on took off for who knows where.”

 The older man looked around at his surroundings. He saw that the snow was falling. He tried to rise. He grimaced in pain and fell back weakly. “I guess I messed up my back pretty good, my legs are all tingly and I can’t move them.”

 Joe was determined to stay strong for both of them. He didn’t want to give into the despair that kept threatening to overtake him.

 “Don’t worry, Andy, we’ll get out of this OK. Here, try to drink this coffee it’ll warm you up a little. Then I’m going to look for more wood for the fire and see if I can rig us some shelter. Billy will be along soon, you’ll see.”

 “Joe, your coffee could coat the inside of a rain barrel but if it’s hot, I’ll give it a try.” Andy replied gamely.

 Little Joe smiled and helped his friend drink some of the hot liquid then covered him up with the blanket. He shook the snow off his jacket where it had accumulated on his shoulders and went off in search of anything that would help them battle the elements.

 Billy rode along, following the tracks in the mud. It was now late afternoon and he still hadn’t caught up with the others. It was still snowing and he didn’t relish the thought of being out overnight. He came to the meadow where the accident occurred and paused. He couldn’t see any sign of men or horses. He sniffed the air and smelled the faint hint of smoke. He peered ahead and through the trees on the other side of the clearing saw a flickering of flames. He urged the horses forward and was rewarded by the sight of Little Joe walking near a campfire.

 “Joe!” he called out “I found this nice saddle horse a ways back, thought you might need a ride!” He stopped abruptly when he saw the still form wrapped in blankets on the ground. “What happened? Is Andy hurt?”

 Little Joe had never been happier to see anybody. He dropped the wood he had just gathered by the fire. He was coughing as Billy rode up and dismounted. Joe proceeded to tell him what had happened. Andy called to Billy and the younger man walked over to him.

 “Hey Billy, I’m doing alright but you got to check on Joe, he’s sick and there ain’t nobody to look after him. It’s probably too late to head out tonight but you can get me on a horse in the morning and we can head back to the ranch.”

 Billy looked Andy over and knew from the description that Joe had given him there was no way that Andy was going to be able to sit a horse. He glanced at Little Joe and saw that he was sweating and pale, he looked exhausted. Glancing at the fading light it was obvious to Billy that they were going to have to stay the night.

 “Joe, I’ve got a small hatchet in my saddlebag I’ll cut some pine branches and make some kind of lean to. You get these bedrolls off, stay by the fire and keep warm.” In about an hour, Billy had rigged a makeshift lean to with some branches, pine boughs and his own ground sheet. They settled Andy who had drifted off in a restless sleep. He had made the crude shelter facing the flames so some of the heat would be trapped keeping them all a bit warmer. Little Joe had added more wood and the fire was blazing brightly. Billy noticed that as close as Joe was to the fire, he was still shivering.

 “Well, I’ll get the horses settled and some more wood. Looks like we’re going to have to try and keep ourselves cozy tonight then head out in the morning.” Billy was trying to keep his voice positive. “We’ll put together a travois for Andy and we’ll be back at the Ponderosa tomorrow before you know it.”

 Little Joe merely nodded. He was too tired to think about anything but the aching in his head, the burning in his chest and keeping his cough under control. Billy wrapped a blanket around him and put his hand to the boy’s forehead feeling the heat from the fever. He gave Joe’s shoulder a brief squeeze as he headed off. Billy sent a prayer upward when he walked from the warmth of the fire into the quickly growing darkness. The snow was still falling lightly. It was going to be a long night.

*****

Morning light was barely penetrating the main room back at the ranch house. There was subdued activity. Ben Cartwright was moving around quietly. He hadn’t had much sleep the night before. In fact he’d fallen asleep in his favorite chair near the fire waiting up for the three men to return to the house.

 Hoss and Adam had retired early, knowing that if their brother didn’t return that evening they were going to be riding out early to see what was wrong. They had worked long hours the previous day making sure the herd was fed and secure. The cattle had enough food and there were enough of the ranch hands on guard in case of any problems. Ben had barely touched his dinner the night before and spent the evening pretending to read all the while listening for the sounds of his youngest son’s return.

Adam and Hoss stopped at the top of the stairs and watched their father as he moved around gathering his things together.

 The two boys exchanged a look and Adam said lightly “You weren’t planning on leaving without us were you?”

 Ben turned and saw his sons. He replied “Well I didn’t want to wake you this early so I thought I’d just ride out and find out where your brother is. They should have been home yesterday afternoon and I can’t help it but I’m worried. It snowed most of the night and I just want to make sure everything is Ok.”

At that moment, Hop Sing came around the corner out of the kitchen and huffed loudly “Nobody go no place till eat hot food!” He was putting dishes and coffee on the table.

 Even Ben had to smile at that. He knew he wasn’t going to get out of the house with out breakfast. Adam and Hoss joined him at the table. They ate quickly with Hop Sing hovering over them making sure that they had eaten enough. With one accord, they rose from the table, donned their heavy coats and headed out the door.

***** 

Little Joe awoke from another short bout of restless sleep. He was relieved to see the fire still burned brightly. Billy had done a good job of trying to keep both he and Andy warm during the night. He shivered and stretched his hands out towards the flames. Joe was exhausted. He had woken many times during the night coughing. His head and chest ached and he knew his fever was high. Billy had made sure to give him warm water whenever he was awake. Joe knew Billy had gotten little or no sleep at all watching over him and Andy. Andy had managed to sleep soundly for most of the night. He moaned in pain a few times but again Billy was right there for him, offering whatever comfort he could.

 The snow had continued to fall lightly most of the night and there were several inches of accumulation. Joe shivered and started coughing once again. He prayed as he had done each time he came awake during the night that he would have the strength to get home. He knew his father would be worried. As much as he wanted to be treated as a grown up, he would have given anything at that moment to feel the little boy comfort and security in the warm embrace only his Pa could provide.

 Hearing a rustle from the other end of the meager campsite, Joe wearily observed that Billy was saddling the two remaining horses. The sorrel was standing patiently and he could see that Billy had rigged a travois to the saddle. The black that Billy had been riding was quietly waiting for the saddle to be applied to his back. Hearing the coughing behind him, Billy turned around and gave Little Joe a small smile.

“I’m almost ready to get going. Soon as I’m finished, we’ll get Andy on the travois and head out.” Not getting any verbal response from Little Joe he continued, “I’m going to ride old Jughead here and have him pull the travois; I figure that should keep his mind off any mischief.”

Little Joe reached for the coffee pot and poured himself a cup. He thought it would warm him and his throat was dry and scratchy. He swallowed the hot liquid carefully but he lapsed into another spasm of coughing. The cough was now starting to penetrate his lower chest and almost had him doubled over.

 “Good thing that those horses you were chasing came this way, it’s closer to the house than the line shack. We’ll get the Doc to fix up Andy and take a look at you a lot quicker.” Noticing that Joe was watching but not saying anything, he walked over to him and put his hand on his forehead. “Fever’s still up there, think you’ll be able to ride ok?”

 Joe nodded weakly and gasped out “Just get me in the saddle and I’ll stick to it.”

 Billy nodded and went back to work. He knew that they were now in very serious trouble. Andy still had sharp pain in his back with just a tingling feeling in his legs and moving him would be risky. He also knew that Little Joe was now suffering from more than just a cold. The weather was not on their side and he sent up another short prayer that he would be able to get all of them back to the ranch house safely.

 The trio had been moving steadily for about an hour. Very few words were exchanged. Andy stoically was managing the pain in his back and Joe was hanging on to the horse he was riding each step weakening his energy but not his determination. Another long bout of coughing suddenly overcame him and as he pulled his hand away from his mouth he saw faint flecks of red. He was scared. He knew he was coughing up blood. He tried to hide the fact from Billy and Andy knowing that there was nothing they could do.

 “Hang in there Joe”, Billy said trying not to sound upset, he had seen Joe trying to cover up the blood in his hand. “We’ll have you home before you know it.”

 Just then they could hear faint voices in the distance. Looking ahead they could see another trio of riders coming toward them. Billy was relieved when he recognized the three elder Cartwrights. Turning to Joe, he said “We’ll have you home sooner than I figured! Looks like we got some help!”

 Joe looked up at Billy. The last bought of coughing had taken about all the strength he had. He whispered, “I hope so ’cause I ain’t gonna make it.” With that he faded from consciousness and slipped from the saddle into the soft snow.

***** 

Joe knew nothing of the next few hours. He didn’t awaken to know the gentle but firm grasp of his anxious father as he held him, wrapped in blankets, on the saddle in front of him as they rode the rest of the way to the house. He didn’t know his brother, Hoss, had tenderly carried him into the house and up the stairs to his room. That Adam had ridden as soon as was possible for the doctor.

 The first thing he became aware of was the fact that he was warm and dry. As his eyes opened, he realized he was in his room and that his father was seated on a chair next to him, wiping his face with cool water.

 “Pa?” he ventured weakly, his voice cracking with the words.

 “Easy now son, you’re home and the doc will be here shortly,” his father answered as he continued to bathe his face.

 Joe tried to talk again, “Is Andy…?” But that was as far as he got before the pain and tightness in his chest sent him coughing uncontrollably.

 “Don’t talk, Joe,” Ben replied speaking softly. “Andy’s downstairs. Hoss is with him; he’s doing fine. Doc Martin will look in on him first thing. You just have a sip of this water and rest a bit.” Ben carefully tilted his son’s head forward and placed the glass to his lips. He was propped up by many pillows, which Ben had hoped would help him breath easier. Joe managed to drink a small amount before he closed his eyes and fell into a fitful sleep.

 As a father, Ben was consumed with worry for his boy. As a friend, he was also worried about the man downstairs in the guestroom. After they had gotten Joe into bed, Hoss immediately went down and along with Billy and a couple of the other hired men, carefully moved Andy into the house. Andy had protested, saying he would be fine in the bunkhouse but Hoss and the others ignored him. As he prayed for Joe, he also prayed that Andy’s injuries were not too severe and that he would make a full recovery.

 Ben was aware that time seemed to pass slowly. But he continued his ministrations hoping to help lower the burning fever that had overtaken his young son’s body. He was so engrossed in his work that he failed to hear Adam and the doctor come up the stairs and enter the room.

 “Ben?” called Doctor Martin quietly.

 “Paul, Thank You for coming so quickly” answered Ben, relief in his voice, knowing that if there was one person who could help his son it was the man walking into the room. Paul Martin had seen all of his sons, particularly the youngest, through all sorts of crisis.

 “I checked on Andy downstairs, he’s pretty banged up but thankfully his back isn’t broken, just severely bruised”, said the doctor as he set his bag on the dresser. “I’ve given him a sedative for now and he’s out cold. I wanted to check on Joe as soon as I could.”

 The doctor went to work quickly, placing his stethoscope on Joe’s chest, listening intently. The sensation stirred Little Joe awake and he began coughing, trying desperately to rise and get more air in his lungs. The cough was so intense that he again had flecks of blood on his lips when he was finished. His breathing was course and shallow. Again he lost consciousness.

 Ben was horrified to see blood on his son’s lips. As the physician turned to him, he saw the worry and concern written all over the man’s face.

 “Ben, now you know this is bad but I’m going to do everything in my power to help him.” Paul continued to speak in gentle tones, hoping not to upset his patient or his family, for by this time, both of the other boys had entered the room and were witnessing what was happening to their brother.

 “It’s definitely pneumonia,” he continued. “We’ll have to move quickly; his lungs have filled and with coughing up blood, we’re in for a fight.”

 Finding his voice, Ben recovered quickly, “What do we need to do?”

 “We’ll need to rig something so we can start some steam, hopefully that will help with the congestion”, he stated looking at Adam and Hoss.

 “OK Paul, but what about the fever?” asked Adam.

 “That’s going to be the tricky part.” Paul looked thoughtful for a moment. “It’ll have to be something that just goes over his head. We’re going to have to try and keep the rest of him as cool as we can and his head elevated.”

 Hoss answered softly after a moment, but his voice quaked a bit betraying his fear, “I got an idea Doc, I’ll get the supplies and be right back.” He left the room, almost stumbling over Hop Sing who waited in the doorway.

 “What can Hop Sing do?” he questioned softly.

 “I’ll need you to help mix the medicines, and we’ll need some ice, let’s go to the kitchen and get things ready”, replied the doctor.

 Ben sat on the bed, again applying a cool cloth to his son’s forehead. He closed his eyes briefly in prayer. He opened his eyes to the sight of his son shifting restlessly. Joe was pale and beads of sweat trickled down his face. He ran another cloth across Joe’s chest trying to cool him.

 Adam’s voice came quietly from behind him, “We’ll get him through this Pa.”

 Looking over his shoulder, at his oldest son Ben said softly but firmly, “Yes, we will. We have to.”

 Within the half hour, Little Joe’s bedroom took on a new appearance. The boys set up a makeshift steam tent that covered only the pillows on the bed. Hop Sing and Paul Martin had mixed some medicine into the water for the steam. Ben continued to try and cool the fever that ravaged the young man who was fighting for every breath he took. Icy compresses were applied all over Joe’s body. The Doctor and Ben had managed to get him to drink some other medicines and a little water but then he passed out again from all the exertion.

 “Ben, boys, I’m not going to lie to you” Paul said speaking calmly looking at each of them but settling his eyes on Ben. “Joe’s condition is serious, very serious. He’s young and strong and that’s in his favor but the congestion in his lungs has reached a critical point. I’ve done all I can for the moment. I’m going downstairs to take care of Andy; you come get me if there is any change.”

 Time passed slowly from then on. After a long while, the Doctor returned finding the family still surrounding Little Joe tending to him the same as they had when he left. Ben gave him a questioning look.

 “Andy is going to be alright, his back isn’t broken just severely bruised. He’s going to be hurting for awhile but I’ve patched him up and he’s asleep now.” He reached over to check on his patient, finding no change in the fever or harsh breathing.

 After he was finished, there was a slight movement from the bed. Joe’s eyes opened and he tried to focus.

 Through the curtain that made up the steam tent, Ben soothed, “Shhh, Joe, take it easy, it’s going to be alright. The Doc’s here and he’ll have you better in no time.”

 “Pa,” Joe said, fighting for every word, “I’ll get it done…………I promise. You…… and Adam………… don’t have to worry…………, I can do it.”

 Ben was confused, “Joe, you don’t have to get anything done, I just want you to rest.”

 “No Pa,” he wheezed, “I’ll get the horses in”. He started to cough, “No need to spare any more men………… I’ll just rest a little and then………… get back to work.” The coughing overtook him once more and he fell back limply, his breathing raspy and shallow.

 Ben realized that Joe was delirious from the fever and he needed his son to know that he shouldn’t worry. He tried again to comfort him but Joe had lost his battle to stay awake.

 “Paul?”

 The Doctor again checked him over and shook his head slowly. “No change Ben.” Even though he knew it would do no good he added, “Why don’t you all go down and get yourselves some coffee, I’ll stay with Joe. I want to try and loosen up his chest by tapping him lightly on his back”

 “I’m not leaving him Paul” Ben said grimly, again applying cold compresses to his son’s body.

 “Pa?” questioned Adam.

 “I’m said I’m not leaving him Adam.”

 Adam glanced at his other brother, whose eyes mirrored the worry of his own. The worry was not only for their brother but their father as well.

 Doc Martin quietly ushered the boys out of the room. He had never really expected Ben to leave his son.

*****

Two hours later, Adam slowly walked back into the bedroom. His father was still at his brother’s side. The Doctor had just left to rest in one of the guest rooms, promising not to be gone long.

 “How is he?” Adam asked as he placed a cup of coffee for Ben on the table next to the bed.

 “He’s not doing to well at all”, replied Ben sadly. “He’s come to a couple of times and all he tries to do is get up because he wants to get back to work. His fever is so high and he’s still not breathing any better.”

 “Why is he so worried about getting back to work?” Adam wondered aloud.

 “He’s been pushing himself so hard lately, trying to prove himself to us, I think.”

Ben mused and continued “I thought he wasn’t feeling well the other day, I should have known he was sick.”

 “Pa, you know as well as I do that getting Little Joe to admit he’s sick is nearly an impossibility. But what does he think he has to prove?” Adam asked. Even as he said the words though, thoughts started running through his head. Joe had been working so hard lately, really pushing himself. He was regretting the look he had given his brother at the breakfast table a few days previous.

 “Deep down, I think Joseph feels we, well you and I anyway, would have rather had him decide to go further with his education instead of working on the ranch. I don’t think Hoss would have dealt with it well if he had gone on to college.” Ben replied, replacing an icy compress that had gone warm. “He’s going to be taking over the horse operation and he probably thinks he has to be the best right off the start. You know your brother he’s trying so hard to be grown up”

 “How do you really feel Pa? I mean about Joe staying here?” Adam was always right to the point when speaking with his father.

 “Adam,” sighed Ben, “all I ever wanted was for each of you to be happy with the life you chose. It didn’t matter where or what, just the fact that you felt fulfilled in what ever the choice was. When you went off to college, I didn’t know for sure if you would have come back, but it was your dream and your life. It’s just the same for your brothers. I’m definitely glad that you came back, but I would have respected any decision you would have made.” As he changed another compress, he looked at his oldest son and asked the same question, “What about you, Adam?”

He never got an answer, just as he finished asking the question, there was a strangled moan from the bed next to him, followed by Joe’s coughing.

 “Pa?” Joe gasped, unable to catch his breath. He tried to raise himself from the bed but collapsed back. “Pa?” he called again.

 “Joseph, easy now, take it easy.” Ben reached under the curtain and brushed the sweat soaked hair off his son’s forehead. Turning to Adam, he commanded quietly,

“Go get Paul!”

 The doctor was back in the room quickly, followed by Hoss, who had heard the voices out in the hall from his room.

 Frowning as he checked his young patient, Doc Martin looked into the eyes of a very concerned and exhausted father. “Ben,” he spoke to his old friend, “his fever is even higher. I’m afraid if we don’t get it to come down, we’re going to loose him.”

 “Doc!” cried Hoss softly from the end of the bed, “there’s gotta be something you can do!”

 “Hoss, I’m doing all I can. We’re going to need more ice, and lots of it.” He looked pointedly at the two brothers.

 “OK, Doc,” replied Adam as he followed Hoss out the door, “we’ll be right back with it Pa.” He added for the benefit of his father who was seated on the bed. 

 Hop Sing had quietly entered the room just as the boys had left it carrying a small jar. He walked straight to Paul Martin and handed the jar to him. “Hop Sing not doctor but put this in steam water. Help Little Joe.”

 The doctor looked at the contents of the jar. He knew very little about the herbs that Hop Sing kept for medical emergencies but he had seen some of them work before. He also knew that the boy suffering on the bed meant very much to this man who had helped raise him and he would do him no harm.

 “Alright, let’s try it.” Besides, he thought to himself, there doesn’t seem to be anything else I can do at the moment. Joe had reached a very critical stage and time was running out.

  Pausing by the bed, Hop Sing put his hand on Little Joe’s arm and murmured a few Cantonese words to which Joe stirred and mumbled back. Ben was surprised that Joe had stirred and didn’t quite understand what he had said. He looked at both of them strangely.

“Little Joe know he have to fight very hard. He will try. I go get more water.” And Hop Sing left the room just as quietly, not wanting to disturb the boy, struggling on the bed to breathe.

 “Paul,” came a quiet call from the bed. Ben was trying very hard to keep his emotions in check as he continued to try and cool down his son. He turned to look at the doctor with tears threatening, “Paul,” he said again, “is my son going to make it?”

 It was a question that the doctor didn’t know how to answer. He replied carefully, “Ben, I don’t know. He’s young and strong but his fever is very high and his lungs haven’t improved at all. We can keep trying to loosen up his chest by the patting on his back and hopefully the ice will bring the fever down and along with Hop Sing’s herbs we may have a chance. I truly wish I could give you a more positive answer, but I can’t.”

 Just as he had finished speaking, Hoss and Adam came through the door with pans filled with chipped ice. They both stopped momentarily as they caught sight of the two older men’s faces. Ben bowed his head and silently prayed for his youngest.

 “Boys, I was just telling your father that we have a real fight on our hands. I don’t know how much longer Joe can hold out. Let’s get to work.”

 And get to work they did. In a short time, Little Joe lay wrapped in ice packed sheets. Hop Sing had added his herbs to the water and Ben continued to bathe his son’s face through the curtain that held the steam.

 At one point Paul forced the older boys away from the bed. He wanted them to rest. Neither of them would leave the room however but each retreated to a corner and tried to make them selves comfortable. Ben never left his son’s side and Paul knew he wouldn’t. Little Joe continued to toss and turn, the delirium from the fever making his words incoherent.

 As morning light was just beginning to penetrate the room, the doctor awoke from a light doze with a start. The scene in the room was much the same. Adam and Hoss had both managed to fall asleep but Ben continued to tend to Joe. Paul got up from his chair to check on him as he had done so many times during the night. He would also raise him slightly higher and firmly tap him on his back.

 Ben’s eyes were unblinking as he watched Paul recheck Joe’s lungs and stopped and listened to them again. He felt Joe’s forehead, and checked his lungs a third time.

 “Paul?” Ben asked fearfully.

 “Ben,” replied the doctor, “his fever is still high but it’s down a bit and his lungs definitely sound better. We’ll need some more ice.”

 Hoss had watched everything from the time Paul started to check his brother and said quickly, in hushed tones, “You got it Doc, I’ll be right back!”

 Shaking a finger at the eldest Cartwright the doctor spoke again, “Now that the boys have gotten a little sleep, Hoss and I can handle things here for a little while. You must go and rest a bit, and it’s not a request but an order!”

 “I’m fine,” replied Ben.

 “No you’re not,” said a voice from across the room. Adam had been awake since Hoss had left the room. “Pa, you’re not going to do anybody any good if you collapse, so please listen to Paul and rest. I promise to get you if there’s any change.” As he was speaking he had crossed the room and he laid his hand on his father’s arm. “Please.”

 Reluctantly, Ben rose from the spot he had been occupying most of the time since they had brought his youngest son home.

 “Alright,” he answered, exhaustion finally taking over, “but you had better keep your promise, I want to know about any change at all.” With that, he caressed his youngest son’s forehead and retreated from the room.

*****

The rest of the day and most of that evening passed with each of the Cartwrights taking turns caring for Joe. Occasionally, Ben would be forced from the room to rest or eat but he would return quickly, not wanting to be away from his son for long.

It was during one of those times when Adam was alone with his brother, faithfully bathing him with cold water that he began to speak to Joe.

 “Little Buddy, you can beat this fever, I know you can. You’ve been showing us how hard you can work and if you really work at this you’ll be OK.” Remorsefully he went on, “You need to get better because you have so much to show us. I’m sorry I’ve been so hard on you lately. I guess I’ve wanted you to live your life the way I thought you should and I now realize that I haven’t been very fair to you. You’re old enough to start making your own decisions and I should be old enough to except them.”

 Joe stirred a little in his sleep and Adam kept talking. “I know that deep down, you’d be miserable if you stayed in school. And I’m sorry that, I couldn’t accept what you want to do and not what I wanted you to do. I also have to remember that you’re not as old as you’d like to be and you’re trying to grow up so fast. You’ve got plenty of time to learn everything you need to know, and I’ll try to have the patience to help you. Just keep fighting Little Brother, just keep fighting.”

 Ben had just entered the room to hear Adam’s confession, he was happy that Adam had finally resolved his conflict with his brother.

 “Adam,” he spoke quietly as he walked across the room and put his arm around his oldest son. “I don’t know if Joe could hear that but I did and I’m proud of you son.”

 Adam looked at his father, tears threatening to fall. “Pa, I meant it to. All of it.”

 Father and son embraced for a long moment when a weak voice from the bed interrupted them.

 “Pa?” Joe barely whispered. Ben and Adam started at the sound.

 “Joe? Joseph?” Ben pushed back the curtain surrounding his son’s head and was breathless at the sight of Little Joe looking at him. He pushed back the sweat soaked curls on his forehead. “I’m right here son.”

 Joe’s face was pale and his cheeks flushed from the high fever.

 “Don’t feel……so……good,” he gasped.

 “Well, young man, you just take all your medicine and do what the doctor tells you and you’ll be up and around in no time.” Ben forced the conviction in his voice, hoping it did not betray his worry.

 “Hot……so hot………” Joe spoke in barely audible tones.

 “It’s the fever son, it’s very high right now but we’re going to help get it down. You just try and sleep a little” Ben continued to softly caress his young son’s forehead.

 “So tired………” Joe responded and fell back to sleep.

 “Pa?” Adam questioned

 “Rest and what we keep doing are the only chance Joe has. He needs to save his strength” Ben’s eyes never left his son as he answered.

*****

It was another 24 hours before Little Joe’s high fever broke and his breathing became easier. His family and the doctor never totally leaving his side till it went down. It was another 5 days after that that the fever was gone completely leaving Joe very weak, the slightest movements exhausting him. The cough lingered but not as severe and on the seventh day, Doctor Martin finally announced that Joe was out of the woods and on the road to recovery.

Andy had been making progress as well, with the feeling in his legs returning as the swelling went down in his back. The Paul said that he would be up and around soon.

 Ben had awoken from the first good night’s rest he had in over a week. The sun streamed in as he pulled the drapes back across his window, he had slept a lot later than he normally would have.

 Hearing voices down the hall, he hurried into his robe to investigate, finding them coming from Joseph’s bedroom. He paused as he opened the door and listened.

 “Joe,” Hoss was saying, “you know ya gotta eat all this that Hop Sing sent up; he ain’t gonna leave ya alone till ya do.”

 “Hoss,” groaned Joe weakly “I ate all I can. It’ll take me a week to eat this; you gotta help me!” he pleaded.

 “Joe,” came the voice of reason from Adam, “you haven’t eaten hardly a thing in the past week; you must have room for all this.” But as he was saying it he was smiling.

 Ben entered the room and saw the tray that Hop Sing had sent up. He though Joe was right, it would take him a week to eat it. Frowning he said to his son, “Now Joseph, how do you expect to get your strength up if you don’t finish your breakfast?” he sounded stern but the twinkle in his eye gave him away.

 “But Pa!” Joe said irritated, “this breakfast would feed an entire round up crew!”

 Hoss wasn’t about to give up a good opportunity for some teasing. “Well Joe, that’s what you’re gonna need to bring those horses in. That darned stallion came back and took most of the rest of them horses back out with him. Being as you’re now a wrangler, you’re gonna have to get them all in real quick so we can get to work.”

 “Oh no!” Joe moaned and lay back on the pillows and closed his eyes. His face was drawn and pale. Even this brief exchange with his family had tired him out. He kept them closed as he said softly, “I’m sorry I got sick. I really meant to get the job done on time I know how short handed we are. I should be up and around in a couple of days, I’ll get them back in before you know it.”

 Ben sat down on the bed next to his son. With his hand he gently pushed back the curls that had slipped forward.

 “Joseph, I think it’s going to be a little while before you’re up to chasing after any horses. You’ve been very ill and you certainly don’t have to apologize! It’s not your fault you got sick. You will be staying right here until you’re well again, and I don’t want you to worry.”

 “That’s right Short Shanks,” added Hoss as he moved to the other side of the bed. “I was just teasin’; you got plenty to do right here getting yourself better.”

 Joe opened his eyes and looked at his family surrounding him.

 “Besides,” said Ben, “You can’t go out without Andy, he’s madder than the Devil on Sunday at that stallion!”

 Standing at the foot of the bed, Adam spoke. “You’d better listen Joe,” glancing at his father and back at his brother, grinning he said, “or the Boss here might just fire you and we can’t afford to loose somebody who’s been working as hard as you have the last couple of weeks.” He gently patted his brother’s leg. “Plus, I think that you and I have some horse breaking ideas to share, and you’ll need to be in top shape to do it. Who knows? Both of us may learn something.”

 Ben smiled warmly at all three of his sons. “Well, before this young man goes back to sleep, how about we help him with his breakfast, if this tray isn’t cleaned off when Hop Sing gets back, I won’t have to fire him, he’ll quit!”

 “Thanks,” Joe replied beginning to feel drowsy. “I guess a couple of months off sounds pretty good!” He started to burrow down into the pillows.

 “Months!” retorted Hoss, “You ain’t milking out months there little brother!”

 Ben ruffled the curls he had pushed into place a few minutes earlier and rose from the bed. Shaking his head he picked up the tray with the remains of Joe’s breakfast, he handed it off to his middle son who was looking a little perturbed and said, “Well for right now, Joe is going to sleep and Hoss is going to try and finish this before it gets downstairs, we’ll worry about everything else later.”

 He pushed Adam and Hoss out the door and before closing it turned to look at Joseph who was nearly asleep and said, “Months?”

 With his eyes already shut, and a small twitch to his lips, Joe pulled the covers up to his chin and sighed.

*****End*****

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