Summary: Hoss fights his family while they fight for his life. (Characters appear from several episodes including The Scapegoat, The Tax Collector, The Wild Ones, Gift of Water, The Good Samaritan, Half a Rogue, Lothario Larkin, Enter Thomas Bowers, and Once a Doctor.)
Word Count: 15,371
Adam scanned the elegant dining room frantically. It didn’t take long for him to spot a head distinct from the others. He weaved around tables and brushed against several diners in his hurry. He mumbled apologies, but didn’t wait for responses. He felt out of breath when he got to the table even though he’d scarcely exhausted himself. He’d been feeling out of breath for a couple of days now, and it had nothing to do with physical exertion.
Elegant Thomas Bowers looked up at him and nodded, gesturing for him to sit. Across the table was another elegant man, but one that Adam didn’t know. The man extended his hand, “Allow me to introduce myself. I’m Dr. P. A. Mundy.”
“Thanks for joining us, Doctor. I realize that you both must be quite confused as to why I brought the two of you together.”
“Well, it’s certainly pleasure for me,” Dr. Mundy said, “I’ve heard Mr. Bowers here sing several times in London, and feel quite privileged to be in his company.”
“Ah, Doctor, your reputation as a surgeon precedes you as well.” The opera singer said as he gestured for a waiter. “What will you have to drink, Mr. Cartwright?”
Adam swallowed, sweat beading on his brow. “I wish I could say that this is a social call. It is with greatest urgency that I talk with both of you about something you have in common.”
Thomas Bowers nodded and looked at Mundy. “We’ve already discussed our mutual friend. We have no idea what’s going on, but we’re at your service.”
“Good!” Adam almost felt like he should have taken that drink. “I just hope we’re not too late.
Hoss Cartwright pointed the shotgun at his pa’s chest. It was the last thing either man imagined him doing, but it was happening and he didn’t seem to show any inclination to relax his aim.
Ben turned his head to where Doc Martin was standing, a look of shock etched into his face. “Paul, you better leave me alone with my son.”
“I’ll get Joe,” the doctor said as he grabbed his bag.
“No! My son and I just need some time alone. You hear me, Paul?”
“And you get those knives out of here, Doc! I don’t want to see those knives again!”
The old family doctor was startled by Hoss’ outburst, but grabbed the knives, and backed out of the room.
Hoss laid on his side with the gun propped in his father’s direction. The big man was sweating profusely and breathing like a locomotive. “It ain’t no good, Pa; I ain’t going to let it happen.”
Ben let out breath before speaking slowly. “Son, listen to me…”
“No Pa, you listen to me.” The gun started to shake in his arms. “He ain’t touching my leg. I ain’t going to be no one legged man.”
Ben suddenly felt as weak as a colt on its first effort to stand. He backed up until he hit the wall and reached for a chair a few feet away. “I can’t lose you, Hoss.”
“I ain’t trying to die, Pa. I’m gonna’ lick this thing.” He finally let the gun relax in his grip.
“Hoss, the infection is spreading up your leg. It will kill you. Doc says so, and I’ve seen it happen to men more than once. We have to take the leg or this infection’s going to take you.”
The big man slumped a little, and Ben could tell that the fever he was battling was sapping what little energy his son still had. With effort, Hoss kept his head up. “I seen men walk away too. They just needed a little time. Doc’s too happy around those knives. He’d cut me just as soon as look at me.”
“That’s not true. Paul Martin would never hurt you unless there was no other way.”
Hoss relaxed his head into the pillow, and for a minute all Ben could hear was his heavy breathing. Then Hoss pulled himself up again. “He wants to cut too soon, Pa. We gotta’ wait.”
“In a couple of days, it might be too late.”
Hoss’ head sank back into the pillow. For a few minutes, the two of them waited in silence. Then Ben got up, and approached slowly. Hoss lay with his eyes closed, but there was nothing about him that seemed peaceful. Ben grasped the barrel of the gun, and started to pull it away from him. His son’s eyes flew open, but Hoss made no attempt to stop him. Ben looked into his eyes, and there was a sense of helplessness there so profound that his breath caught and he let go of the gun, letting it drop softly onto the bed again. Instead, he sat on Hoss’ bed. “Eric, so many men live happy, productive lives without…a limb. Think of Horace Gunther, Dave Brennan…they have families, they are good, productive men.”
Hoss grunted. “Horace is a banker and Dave lost an arm, and even then good ol’ Dave spends most afternoons on his front porch sucking on a whiskey bottle, the pain’s so bad.”
“You’re not thinking. It’s the fever…and the whiskey. You aren’t being logical, son.”
Hoss’ eyes found the whiskey bottle on his nightstand. “You going to take it away from me?”
Ben shook his head. “I can’t imagine the pain that leg must be giving you right now. Your foot has got to be twice the size it oughta be.”
“I don’t want to be a sorry man, Pa. I don’t want to need whiskey to see myself through the day. I don’t want to be stuck at a desk fumbling with numbers. I can’t do it.”
“You don’t know, Hoss. It won’t be like that. It’s the man that makes his circumstances not his injuries. You can get around on a crutch. You’ll use a buggy. I was thinking — you know there oughta be a way to build a saddle you could balance on.”
Hoss shook his head slowly. “It ain’t no good, Pa. We’re just gonna’ have to wait.”
Ben let out a frustrated sigh. “If it’d help, I’d have Doc take my leg too. Eric, there’s got to be a way; I won’t lose you to this. I can’t…you must think I’m a stronger man than I am…you can’t understand what this…Oh Eric.” Ben looked away as he tried to contain the jagged breaths coming up from his chest.
Hoss closed his eyes against the moisture welling up in them. He reached over and took his father’s hand. “Pa, you’re the one who doesn’t understand. If this was happening to Joe or Adam, it’d be different. All I have is the strength that God gave me. I can’t sit at a desk. I ain’t got the brains for it. The purpose I have in this world is what I can do with these arms and my strong back. I can’t lose that. I can’t be some useless man sitting on the porch with a whiskey bottle, watching his brothers and Pa work themselves into the ground. I ain’t made for that.”
“It wouldn’t be like that.” Ben could manage only a hoarse whisper as he fought the emotion rising in his throat.
Hoss sighed. “Adam would make it work. His brain is his most powerful tool. Joe…well, Joe can be anything he wants, legs or no. I’m of this land. I can’t be shut in. I need the work. I can’t live with being useless.”
Ben looked down at the quilt that covered his son. It was Inger’s work, intricate and colorful. She had been a woman of so many talents. He tried to imagine her in the room with them now. She’d undoubtedly say something plain and true in this moment. There were no secrets for that woman. She was good and kind and hid absolutely nothing. Hoss was his mother’s son, and if she had lived, there would have been a bond between the mother and son that would have surpassed any he could’ve built with the boy. Ben knew this and knew also that she would not be struggling with him like he was. She would have said her piece and then given the boy the space to work it out. She would have done that because she was the strongest of them all, and her faith would have seen her through. But Ben felt none of the strength he remembered in Inger; in his heart, he felt nothing but fear and frustration. He closed his eyes and prayed that she would guide him with their son.
“Pa, I want things. I want a family. I want to build a life. You know what it’s like for a feller who looks like me and doesn’t know how to talk fancy. I can barely catch a gal as it is. Without my leg, I’d be…I’d be…”
The door swung open and Joe came barreling through. He grabbed the shotgun from the bed, and dropped it to the ground. “How dare you point that at Pa! It’s not enough that you’re killing yourself; you gotta take your flesh and blood with you!”
“Joseph!” Ben was on his feet. “He wasn’t going to hurt me!”
Little Joe backed away from his father, but kept his eyes narrowed on Hoss. “I never figured you for a coward.”
“That’s enough! Leave him be!” Ben reached his son and pushed him toward the door.
Hoss raised up on an elbow, the exertion of it etched into his features. “I don’t want to fight with you, Little Joe. If I don’t got time…I don’t want us to end bad.”
Joe pushed his father out of the way and advanced on Hoss. The boy’s eyes were red and blurry. “Then you can’t do this, Brother. You ain’t thinking. You gotta let the doc do his work.”
Hoss closed his eyes before responding. “I can’t see it, Joe. I can’t see it being anything but a misery for all of us if I let him take the leg. You’re not picturing the burden it would be.”
Joe struggled with his emotions. “Hoss, you’re my brother. You would never be a burden. The only burden for me would be losing you.”
“I just need some time to think it through.”
“There ain’t no time. Pretty soon, it won’t matter what you choose. You gotta listen to the doc!”
Ben walked up behind his son and put his hands on his shoulder. “Joe, Hoss’ right. He needs a little time.”
Joe pulled away. “I swear, Hoss, when you fall asleep, I’m coming for that leg. I swear it.”
Hoss turned his head away from them.
Ben closed his eyes and saw his second wife, her blue eyes sparkling. She never faltered no matter how difficult the circumstances; she always weathered it with a hopeful smile. Memories of Inger seemed especially vivid today and he was grateful for this. A sense of peace washed over him, and he walked over to his son’s bed. “I won’t let him, Hoss. As much as I want the same thing, I won’t let anyone, even Joe, take away your right to choose for yourself.”
Hoss didn’t respond.
Ben sighed and herded his youngest son out of the room.
The rapping woke Ben, and he groaned as his neck protested from the angle he’d slept on it. He pulled himself out of the chair he’d slept in by the fire. Joe was sleeping in one corner of the sofa, and Doc Martin was draped over the other end. He stumbled past them and went to the door. He opened it to a smiling Roy Coffee. The sheriff walked in and slapped him on the back. “It looks like a good day, Ben. Sun is shining, the birds are singing.”
Joe and Paul Martin lifted sleepy heads. Coffee nodded at them. “How’s the big boy o’ yours?”
Ben looked down. “He’s very sick, Roy.”
Roy kept his smile. “Well, we’re about to turn that around.”
Paul Martin stood up. “Roy, I don’t think you understand how serious this is.”
“I do. I know you haven’t gotten that stubborn Missouri mule to make the right decision. And I know that we’re about to give that mule a big ol’ push.”
Ben furrowed his brow. “What’s wrong with you, Roy?”
Roy cocked his head. “Your eldest and I have been burning up the wires. I must have had 6 from him in the last three days. I figure, the way he’s traveling, he’d oughta be here by noon.”
Ben breathed a sigh of relief. Adam’s presence would help. He’d been here last week when things started to go bad, and had headed to San Francisco for a specialist even though Doc Martin felt that it was nothing more than pure folly. At first, Ben had been angry, but then he understood that Adam needed the distraction. With him back, maybe the three of them together would have more impact on Hoss.
Through the open door, the sounds of hooves and wheels sounded. Roy whirled toward the door. “Boy, they didn’t take any time at all.”
“Adam?” Joe was on his feet.
Roy shook his head. “Naw. I just arranged a little party is all.”
Ben followed him out the door. Wagons were pulling up in the yard. Kids poured off the back, and men helped their wives down. Ben squinted as he recognized the Gant family, the Tyrees, the Larkins, the Jessups, the Henrys, and the Watsons. Ben turned to Roy. “What are you thinking? We don’t have time for this.”
“Ben, you and the boys can’t shift him, and let me tell you why. He thinks he’ll be a burden to you. He think it’ll be like dying watching everyone else work while he sits. He thinks he won’t be a man no more.”
Ben threw his arms up. “How do you know this?”
“I didn’t, but these folks did. Waldo started talking to some of the families Hoss helped. You know he pulled them through some pretty bad times, and I think they really came to understand some things about him, maybe things you and the boys don’t. You gotta remember he was there for them at their lowest points, and Hoss is at his. They know what he’s feeling.”
“What…I don’t understand.”
Roy looked him firmly in the eye. “Hoss isn’t just a son and a brother. It ain’t just about what he can do around this ranch. He’s changed lives, and it didn’t have nothing to do with him being a big, strong man.”
Waldo Watson climbed onto the porch and shook Ben’s hand. His wife Nancy was doing her best to corral the three younguns of theirs in the yard. Lafe Jessup, Lothario Larkin, Jason Gant, Wade Tyree, and Jock Henry followed. Waldo shuffled his feet a bit as he was still something of a shy man. “We was wondering if maybe we could go up and sit with the big feller for a bit.”
Ben blinked. “Ah, I…we haven’t checked on him this morning.”
Doc Martin stepped out of the house behind him. “I just did. He wants to know what’s going on. If you visit, you gotta keep it short, boys.”
Waldo nodded. “Yes sir, Doc. I don’t figure none of us are long on speeches anyhow.”
The six men piled into the house after the doc. Still shocked, Ben turned to stare at his yard which was crowded with wagons, women, and running children. Only Jason Gant had been a father when Hoss had come into his life, and Hoss had been hugely responsible for bringing these babies into being. He’d brought four of the couples together and birthed two of the children. He stopped and counted fifteen younguns in the yard. For a moment, his breath caught at the impact his boy had on people who’d been little more than strangers before he’d walked into their lives. The women were organizing tables, and three of them had already invaded Hop Sing’s kitchen through the side door. The Chinese cook was herded into the front yard loudly protesting. Abigail Tyree put her hands on her hips and regarded him. “Listen, Hop Sing, we know you haven’t been sleeping any better than the Cartwrights. You talk a good game, but you got real feeling for that big man upstairs. We’re taking over for a bit. Going to give you a chance to catch your breath. Maybe you can spend a few minutes with Hoss.”
“I’m fine, Missy Abigail. Don’t need nothing.” The cook added a few bits of Chinese under his breath.
Prudence Jessup stepped up next to Abigail and pointed a finger at him. “That heathen muttering will do thou no good, Hop Sing. Thee should know better than to stand up to a group of determined women. We’re going to take good care of thee kitchen, I swear it to the good Lord. Now scat. We’ve got work to do.” She walked past him into his kitchen without another word.
Hop Sing shook his head and looked up at Ben Cartwright. Ben nodded and the Chinese cook gave up and climbed the porch to stand with his boss. Ben turned his head to the right and found his son, Joseph, standing there. Joe caught his eye and smiled grimly. “You think maybe that Abigail Tyree could foreman one of our logging crews?”
Ben chuckled a bit in spite of the circumstances. “Somehow I could picture her doing that, and running that growing family of theirs at the same time.”
“She scary,” Hop Sing added, his arms folded across his chest. “Give me a rustler with a big gun any day over another minute of her. She like a tiger with burning eyes. The other one is like Chinese witch who strikes in the dark.”
Roy chortled. “That Mrs. Jessup is something all right. Makes me think I oughta hire her on as a deputy.”
“No, sheriff,” Hop Sing said, shaking his head in emphasis. “Bad idea. She turn Virginia City into ghost town for sure.”
They all laughed. It felt good, having this bit of release in the midst of such desperate circumstances.
Ben smiled at Hop Sing. “Take their advice. Get some sleep. Sit with Hoss. You’ve running non-stop since this whole thing started.”
Hop Sing glared at him. “There is no sleep. The yard is filled with screaming children. The house is filled with nosy women. There is no place for Hop Sing to rest. I like it better when there is only Cartwrights in the house. I go to polish the silver. It’s the only thing left for me.” With that, he turned and marched back into the house.
Ben’s smile disappeared and he looked down. “I sure hope they turn him around.”
Joe put a hand on his father’s shoulder, and the two of them stood there for awhile as the children played and the women worked.
Doc woke Hoss gently. “Son, some folks are here to see you.”
Hoss opened his eyes slowly. He squinted, and it took a moment before he recognized the faces gathered over him. His breathing was uneven, and his face red with fever.
“Hey there, Little Buddy.” Lafe Jessup’s voice was soft, nothing like the roughneck Hoss met a few years ago.
Jock Henry peered around his arm and smiled at Hoss while Lothario Larkin doffed his hat. “It sure is good to see you, boy.”
Wade Tyree and Jason Gant stood back, hats in hand, and Waldo Watson pushed his way past Jock Henry. “Hey Big Fella, sure sorry to see you laid up like this.”
Hoss looked at them all for a moment as if struggling to understand it all. Finally he spoke, “What are you all doing here? You got work on your ranches.”
Wade Tyree advanced, his hands dug deep into his pockets. “We heard you were ailing, and we heard that you was resisting help from the doc.”
Hoss shook his head slowly, too weak to lift it off the pillow. “You don’t understand. I can’t do without my leg. I ain’t much use to anyone.”
Jason Gant leaned over Lothario. “No, it’s not true, Hoss. We understand desperate better than most men. We know what you’re feeling, and ya’ can’t tell us we don’t. You were with us when we were going through desperate times.”
“It’s my leg, fellers.”
Wade chuckled. “Well Hoss, it was my life. Before you showed up, I was nothing but a common drunk.”
“Same here,” Waldo nodded. “Lest you forget, I was going to kill myself when you found me.”
Hoss grunted. “Couldn’t have saved ya’ without a leg.”
“Not true, Hoss. I wasn’t going to jump. You saved me by believing in me, by caring when no one else did.”
Jock wormed his way back through the men. “What would Hoss Jr. say if you kicked the bucket?”
Hoss screwed up his face. “Jock, I done told ya’ a million times that you can’t call him junior unless he’s named after you.”
“I sure can. You’re a member of the family.”
Wade snorted. “Especially if there’s some work that needs doing.”
Jock frowned at him. “Ain’t true.”
“Tax bandit,” Wade muttered under his breath.
Jason Gant pulled Jock back behind him, and took his place. “Hoss, you stayed with me and my family when it was certain I was going to lose my place to drought. It wasn’t your strong back that saved me. It was your determination and faith. Nobody can tell me you’re going to find that in no leg.”
“That’s right, Little Buddy. If you remember correctly, you had faith in me when no one in their right mind would have. I would have lost Prudence for sure if not for you. She’s carrying our third baby now, Hoss.”
Hoss looked at him with blurry eyes. “That’s a real blessing, Lafe.”
“That’s the thing, Hoss. We all got kids, and we all tell them stories about you and what you did for us. I sure hate to have to tell them the story about the time you gave up.” Wade said this and stood silently with his head down.
“Naw, Hoss, we’ll let you talk in a minute.” Waldo was molesting the brim of his hat something fierce. “If any one of us were in this very situation, you’d be right there, urging us to live for our families, and you wouldn’t give up on us ‘til we made the right choice.”
“He’s right, Hoss,” Lothario said. “It’s the pure truth, it is.”
Hoss stirred. “I don’t have a family…”
“Hate to interrupt,” Jason said, “but you got a whole passel of families that claim you. Only reason we even let you stay on this here ranch is ‘cause we’d have to fight off your pa and brothers for ya’ and we ain’t savage enough to try it. Your excuses ain’t no good, Hoss. They just don’t work.”
Wade stepped forward again. “This is the last thing I’m going to say, Hoss. Your leg ain’t got nothing to do with why you’re so important to us. It ain’t got nothing to do with why your pa and brothers need you either. Plain fact is that you’re scared, and I can appreciate that. But we were too. Sometimes, I think it would have just been easier to give up, but you wouldn’t let us, so I figure we ain’t but gotta give you the same choice as you gave us.”
Hoss closed his eyes tightly for a moment. The faces were all too much, the energy of their concern overwhelming.
Jock found a way between Jason Gant and Lothario Larkin. “We’ll come and sit with ya’, Hoss. We’ll take turns when you’re getting better. I know that missing leg’ll hurt, but we’ll be right there for ya’. I don’t care nothing about whether you can ever help me again. I… we just want you better. Ain’t no other reason.”
Ben stepped into the room silently. He had heard much of their conversation from the hallway, and he wasn’t ashamed of the tears in his eyes.
Hoss tried to hoist himself on his elbow, but the exertion was too much. He let his head rest back into his pillow. “You don’t give a feller much of a choice.”
“Does that mean you’ll…Hoss, what does that mean?” Waldo stepped closer.
“You’re right. I guess I’m scared more than anything else. I guess I’m not sure what life’ll hold for a feller like me….”
Lafe reached in and squeezed his arm. “Losing a leg is bad, Little Buddy, but losing your family, losing your land…these things ain’t at all better. We made it. You can too.”
Hoss looked past his friends and saw his pa. “Get Doc, Pa. Tell him to bring up his knives.”
There were sounds of a commotion below, and then pounding as men ran up stairs. Everyone stood back as a big man in a raccoon coat carrying a buffalo gun burst through the door. Jock Henry dived for a space under the bed, and Waldo turned, his fists ready. Joe burst through after the big man and ran straight into Waldo. “It’s okay,” he said breathlessly. “It’s just big Jim Layton. He’s just a little eager. Nothing to worry about.”
Joe heaved a sigh as the men relaxed and Jim ambled over to the bed, his raccoon coat giving off a ripe odor. Joe imagined he would have to find some way to separate that man from his nasty fur.
Jim leaned over Hoss. “I hear you been giving Doc Martin trouble.”
Hoss managed a grin. “I ain’t seen you in a coon’s age. The truth is ya’ smell like a coon too.”
Jim grinned. “Likewise, pardner, but I ain’t here on no social call. I’m giving you about a minute to make the right decision. Otherwise, I’m going after that leg myself and it ain’t going to be pretty.”
Hoss sank back into the pillow. “You’re a little late with your threats, Jim. I already caved. You come at me with that frogsticker you use, and things are going to get a little brisk around here.”
Jim threw back his head and laughed. “You’re still the king of the mountain. It ain’t gonna’ matter if you got a leg or not. You’re always gonna’ be the king to my way of thinking.”
Ben turned and went for Doc Martin.
Even though much of this had been Adam’s idea, nothing prepared him for the spectacle in front of the house. Tables were set up as if for a big party. Children chased each other around the yard while women brought out platters of food. Men were going in and out of the barn, and it was clear that they were working. Waldo Watson was geared out for smithing and others carried pitchforks and shovels. He stopped the carriage and let Dr. Mundy and Thomas Bowers step down. Both men headed straight for the house. He climbed down, and was surprised to find Jock Henry there, ready to lead the team into the barn. The activity suggested that nothing bad had happened, and he prayed that he would go in to find his middle brother laughing and joking with Little Joe.
Heart pounding, he headed into the house. Hop Sing was standing at the table littered with all the silver in the house. He was studiously polishing a candlestick when he saw Adam. With his head, he gestured at the stairs. “You better go up, Mr. Adam.”
Adam shed his coat and hat, and bounded up the staircase. The door to his brother’s room was open, and he could see that Dr. Mundy was already at work with Dr. Martin. The two of them were bent over his brother’s leg. Eyes closed, Hoss lay still, Thomas Bowers at his side speaking softly to him. He felt a hand on his shoulder and turned to find his father and brother standing at the wall.
“It’s good to see you, son. You must have ridden hard.”
Adam searched their eyes. “What’s going on?”
Joe chewed on his lip before speaking. “He…uh, agreed to let Doc take the leg a few hours ago, but, uh…Doc hasn’t. He’s worried Hoss is too weak. He thinks it might be too late. Mundy’s taking a look for himself.”
The two doctors straightened up and Paul Martin turned to the Cartwrights. “Dr. Mundy and I think it’s best if…well, Dr. Mundy has a procedure he would like to try.”
Ben nodded. “Anything.”
“Ben, I don’t want you to get too hopeful. Hoss is a very sick young man. I don’t know that anything can change the outcome.”
Ben’s mouth moved but no words came out. He cleared his throat and tried again, “Please try.”
“Okay, Mundy and I are going to need the room. Please ask Hop Sing to bring us bandages and some boiling water.”
“I got it, Pa.” Joe was out the room before anyone could respond.
“I was a medic in the union army,” Thomas offered.
Mundy nodded. “Then you stay.”
Adam took his father’s arm and gently pulled him from the room.
The Cartwrights sat at one of the tables in the yard, and let women press food on them. More than anyone, Joe didn’t eat well under stress, and Ben tried to remember the last time he’d seen the boy eat an actual meal. He wanted to fuss, but it took energy, and none of them had the strength for it.
Adam pushed his hat back on his head, and regarded the spectacle unfolding up in the barn loft. Jim Layton was hanging out the barn loft window holding a rope that had Jock Henry barely hanging on at the other end. Jock started to squeal, the women started to shriek, and the children stood there with eyes wide open waiting for the little man to fall.
Jason Gant pushed in next to Layton and made him lower the little man to the ground. Wade threw his hat on the ground, and started cursing at both of them. Jim defended himself, saying that Jock Henry wasn’t doing anything up in the loft but watching him work and making comments. Jock responded with his thoughts on the state of Jim’s brain capacity. Lafe Jessup advanced on both of them, and threatened to throw down with whoever was willing, and it started moving in the direction of a free-for-all until Prudence Jessup marched into the middle, eyes blazing. A few minutes of scolding was all that was needed, and Jock and Jim stalked off in different directions while Lafe meekly followed his wife back to the table.
Wade came over, hat in hand. “I sure am sorry about that. Don’t know who thought putting those two jokers together on a job was a good idea. Ah, it won’t happen again.”
Ben smiled. “It’s kind of you all to help out. It’s not necessary, though.”
Wade shook his head and sat down, reaching for a drumstick from a platter of fried chicken. “It sure is necessary. You remember how Hoss was when I was drinking. He never gave up; not for a moment. I’ll admit he got a little over-involved, but he just wanted the best for me and Abigail. Every morning when I wake up, I think about what a lucky man I am. I got three kids running around my place, and there’s laughing and crying and talking everywhere I turn, and the truth is, I love every minute of it. Hoss pushed me toward that, and he didn’t let me walk away, though God knows I tried. I ain’t ever forgetting that.”
Jason Gant sat down beside him. “Wade, you should have seen him at my place during the drought. He wouldn’t give up when it was plain as day I was going to lose the place. And then each of these fellers came, and showed me the true meaning of being a neighbor.”
Adam nodded. “You reap what you sow. Pa; you always taught us that.”
“Yes, but you boys have translated it in ways I never imagined. The men you have become is a blessing to me every day.”
Lafe reached over Joe and grabbed a piece of chicken. “I never figured a word like blessing would ever have a lick of meaning for me. Prudence has taught me a lot, but I wouldn’t be here if Hoss hadn’t taken care of her and foaled our critter…I mean, baby.”
“He birthed mine, too,” Jock Henry said as he squeezed in next to Adam. When Adam looked down at his plate a moment later, he found that his last piece of chicken had disappeared. Jock was looking guilty, but Adam didn’t say anything. There was a good chance he’d never have gotten it down anyhow.
“Hoss has been midwifing, huh? I never knew.” Roy walked up with a pitcher of lemonade. “Boy’s just full of hidden talents, ain’t he?”
Jim came up to the table and Adam felt Jock tense beside him. Roy raised an eyebrow, and set a practiced glare on Jim. The big mountain man growled a bit under his breath, but held his tongue. Lothario brought a chair for himself and Jim, and they pulled up to the table. Jim accepted a glass of lemonade. “I don’t know about you fellers, but I figure I would’ve hung if not for the big ol’ grizzly bear upstairs. You can’t owe a man more than that.”
Lothario nodded. “I imagine you can if you’re dying of a broken heart and taking every gal you see along for the ride.”
Roy looked heavenward and shook his head. “I never thought I’d be sitting within arms reach of Lothario Larkin without a pair of cuffs in my hands.”
They all laughed. Waldo accepted a glass from Jason, and said, “For me, I think it’s all about believing in a man when the rest of the world has written him off. I don’t know another feller who can do that like Hoss can.”
Ben nodded slowly. “You’ve all become our dear friends and we’ll always be grateful for that. You all being here today means the world to all of us, but I don’t know if Hoss is going to make it. Doc doesn’t think it looks good.” He stopped for a moment and swallowed. Around him, men looked down at the table. “I figure the best gift you could give him is to learn from his example and pass on those lessons to your children.”
“I never figured on a man as powerful as Hoss Cartwright would ever die,” Jock murmured softly.
Adam stood up. “I’m not giving up on my brother yet. He’s as stubborn a man as ever lived. He told me before I left for San Francisco that he’d be alright, and I’m holding him to it.”
Joe got up beside him and clapped him on the back, doing his best to put conviction in his voice. “I’m with you, Brother. We’re not going to let him walk out on all the work, are we?”
On their feet, the two brothers didn’t quite seem to know what they were going to do with themselves until Adam put his arm around his young brother’s shoulder and steered him toward the barn. “Joe, how about we go see what Jock and Jim did to our hayloft.”
Neither man had much heart for it, but there are times when the worry will overwhelm a man if he doesn’t move around. Ben watched his two sons go into the barn, and felt grateful that he still had two of the finest men in Nevada territory in his life.
“They sure have a lot of faith in their brother.”
Ben broke his reverie to find Roy sitting across from him. The rest of the men were on their feet getting ready to work again. Ben attempted to change the subject. “So while you’re here, who’s watching the store back in Virginia City?”
“Clem’ll do fine. I figure there’s enough characters out here that need watching. This ain’t no vacation I’ll tell you that.”
Ben looked at the barn again. “I don’t want them to get their hopes up. Losing Hoss will crush them, both of them. Joe is closer to him, but Adam relies on Hoss. He learns from Hoss’ heart. Being around Hoss teaches him how to open up and share his own heart. I worry about what this will do to them.”
“You lost three wives, Ben. I can understand why you’re afraid to hope. I lost one wife, but it was enough to leave me gun-shy about expecting too much my whole life. You’re preparing yourself. It’s natural. These boys are going to have to travel their own path through this, though, and right now, they just ain’t ready to say good-bye.”
“That’ll make it harder.”
Roy looked up and squinted at the sun. “I don’t know. That big boy o’ yours has more grit than just about anybody I know. My guess is that he’s not going ‘til he’s darn good and ready.”
The sun grew deeper and the color of dusk started to show in the sky. The children had long since quieted, and a few were napping in their mama’s laps. The men had finished what work they could find, and everyone just sat silently watching the house, waiting for a sign.
Ben and his sons stayed out there with them. Somehow the house seemed too small to hold all of the feeling they had inside. Ben wanted to tell the families to go home and tend to their own lives. He knew they all had stock that needed tending, but he didn’t want to break the spell. Maybe if enough people wished the same thing at the same time, God would hear them.
Paul Martin opened the front door just as the sunset hit the back of the house. It was as if the man was bathed in light. He walked to the edge of the porch and looked for Ben. Ben stood up and waited, making it clear that any words the doc had was for all of them. Doc cleared his throat. “He made it through the afternoon. Dr. Mundy removed all the dead flesh, and cleaned the wound. He’s going to leave it open, and tend to it every few hours. He has a few other tricks up his sleeve, I’ve never seen before. It was really something.”
Ben frowned. “You didn’t take the leg?”
“Hoss is too fevered. We didn’t think he could survive the trauma.”
“What does this mean?”
Doc sighed deeply. “He’s very ill, but he has the good fortune to have one of the finest medical minds in the world by his side. I honestly can’t tell you what the next hours will bring, but, for right now, he’s holding his own.”
Jim stepped up. “That ain’t telling us nothing!”
Roy walked up to Doc and turned to the crowd. “Simmer down, folks. Docs’ been working all day. We know better than to expect an answer right away. The truth is that you all need to be getting back to your own lives now. You done your part; now it’s up to Hoss. I don’t mind telling you all that I’m feeling mighty good about it too. The big man don’t give up easy, and we all know that firsthand, don’t we? It’s best you all get back to your stock and such. I’ll send a deputy around to your places if there’s any changes.”
Folks stirred and murmured, but seemed unsettled.
Roy waved his arm. “Go on now, folks. Go on now. Hoss wouldn’t want you sitting here stewing like you are.”
Slowly, families started to gather up children, dismantle tables, and load up food. Every one of them stopped and gave Ben their best wishes. Roy took him by the arm and steered him toward the house. “Don’t worry about a thing. An hour from now, you’ll never know they were here. Go sit with your son. I’ll take care of all this.”
They all took turns with Hoss, sitting with him at all hours. Mundy didn’t sleep much as he was checking on Hoss almost every hour. Thomas Bowers was similarly devoted, and it was a wonder to see these two distinguished men act as nurses to a sick cowboy.
At dawn on the third day, Joe opened his eyes and raised his head. It was his shift to sit with Hoss, and he’d fallen asleep in the early morning hours, his head resting against Hoss’ mattress. The sun was beginning to spill into the room. Joe rubbed his neck, and tried to remember the last night he had actually slept in his own bed. He reached over, and put his hand on Hoss’ arm. He was greeted with a grunt, and he sat up, startled.
Sparkling blue eyes looked back at him. Joe gripped his arm. “Hoss! Talk to me, Buddy. How ya’ feeling?”
Hoss stirred a bit. “Feel a little peaked, to be honest. Sure could use something in my belly.”
Joe threw back his head and laughed. “Of course, you could, Big Brother. What else would you be feeling?”
Joe got up, but before he could out the door, Hoss grabbed his hand. “How bad is it, Little Joe? I can feel the aching. Is it below the knee or above?”
Joe frowned at him for a moment. Than he realized what his brother was asking. He came back to the bed and looked down at Hoss. “They didn’t take it, Hoss. Doc Mundy was able to save it.”
Hoss screwed up his face. “I don’t understand.”
“Adam went to San Francisco for Mundy. Thomas Bowers came too. The ranch has been crawling with people you’ve helped at one time or another all week. Keeping you alive has been a real group effort.”
“I have my leg.”
Joe narrowed his green eyes. “You do, Brother, but you almost died for it, and that don’t sit well with your family or all the people you’ve helped over the years. Anything like this ever happens again, and I ain’t going to put up with your fussing about how you’re no use to anyone without a leg. I’m going to knock you over the head and just take it. Hear me now. I’m giving ya’ fair warning on that, Brother.”
“I’m sorry, Joe. I shouldn’t have waited like I did. I should have had more faith in all of you.”
“Hoss, picture me in that same situation. You wouldn’t have stood for it, and that’s the truth.”
“He’s right, Hoss.” Adam was leaning against the doorframe. “You aren’t just a big bundle of muscle to this family or to the people you’ve helped over the years. You’d be who you are, whether you are a big man or a little one…or one without a leg.”
Ben pushed past his eldest and headed for Hoss. He had one hand on his son’s forehead and the other checking his pulse before anyone could get a word out. Hoss knew better than to put up any resistance. The anxiety radiating off his pa told him all he needed to know.
Ben let out a deep breath, and fell into a chair next to the bed. “I never let myself hope for this.”
Hoss turned his head. “I worried ya’, Pa. I’m sorry for that.”
Ben shook his head. “You’re going to fine, Son. That’s all that matters.”
“I should have listened.”
Ben sighed. “Yes, Hoss, you should have. You could have lived without the leg. You would have had hard times, but you would have made it work. That’s the kind of man you are.”
Hop Sing poked his head. “I thought I heard big booming voice. You hungry?”
“Like a grizzly bear on the first day of spring, Hop Sing.”
Good! I get you soup!”
“How about a nice steak?” Hoss smiled hopefully.
“You pushing it, Big Man. You get soup and nothing more ‘til I hear from Doc Mundy. He and Mr. Bowers sleeping hard now. Been up every hour for three days to keep you alive.”
“I can’t believe how Tom and Doc Mundy came all the way from San Francisco for me. And I don’t know if I was dreaming, but there was other folks here too, wasn’t there? I would believe I only dreamed of ol’ Jim, but I remember smelling him too. He was wearing that ol’ flea bitten coat of his, wasn’t he?”
Adam stepped forward. “We had a whole yard full of them: the Jessups, Watsons, Henrys, Gants, Tyrees, and Larkins. Kids were running around, and people were helping with chores…”
“Most of which we had to redo by the way,” Joe added.
“They were here for you, Brother. They just wanted you to get better.”
“I’m a lucky man.” Hoss found it hard to meet anyone’s eyes.
“We’re all lucky, son. If you lose, we all do. It’ll always be that way. That’s why we got to stick together, help each other out.”
Hoss nodded. The sun was full in the window now. He felt a hand on his shoulder and looked up to see Adam. “It’s a beautiful, Hoss. Maybe later, we’ll help you downstairs and you can sit in the sun.”
Joe smiled at him. “We’ll bring out the checkerboard and let you win a few.”
Hoss sank back into his pillow. The day was young and his family was with him. It was hard to figure how life could get any better than this.