Summary: “Circumstances Beyond Our Control” is a missing scene from the aired episode, “A Matter of Circumstance.” A portion of dialogue in this story as spoken by the character of Doctor Paul Martin is taken from the aired episode, “A Matter of Circumstance,” as is one sentence spoken by Hoss. A portion of dialogue as spoken by Joe is taken from the aired episode, “My Brother’s Keeper.”
Word Count: 7850
That’s what I said when I first knelt beside him, the urgency in my voice meant to rouse him. It was followed by, “Joseph?” when I received no response, which was then followed by something I hadn’t called him in several years. Although this time the urgency was missing. Instead, my tone came forth as a soft plea.
“Little Joe. . .Little Joe?”
I reached out a hand, keeping my touch light and gentle against the side of his bloody face. I jerked the hand away, surprised at the scalding heat radiating from my son, then returned it, stroking over his sweat-soaked, tangled curls. Curls that were beginning to turn gray, making me wonder in some sort of abstract way where the years had gone, and when my youngest had grown from boy to man.
“Little Joe?” I placed two fingers at his throat, searching for the beat that would tell me my child was still alive. It was there, though not nearly as strong as I thought it should be. “Joe? Joseph?”
When I’d run through my entire litany and still hadn’t managed to bring him to consciousness, I gingerly rolled him from his stomach to his back. My eyes scanned him from head to toe in the dim light.
Given the circumstances, I think Reverend Andrews will forgive my murmured, “Good God. . .” and consider it a father’s prayer, however brief.
Even if I’d intended for it to be a prayer, I would have been interrupted. Someone barged into the house, and just like I’d done, paused in the foyer. I could imagine Hoss’s eyes sweeping the main floor; seeing the overturned furniture, books yanked from their shelves scattered hither and yon, Joe’s bloody jacket, and towels splayed across the dining room as though they’d been left as trail markers.
“Pa! Pa, where are you? Pa–”
“In the kitchen, Hoss!”
The plates in the china cabinet chattered with Hoss’s running footsteps. As I’d learned long ago, size sixteen boots have a way of making the entire house vibrate.
Hoss tore around the corner. He took the Lord’s name in vain too, when he first saw Joe. Or maybe Reverend Andrews would be willing to consider Hoss’s utterance a brother’s prayer.
“Oh, Lordy. . .”
I moved farther down Joe’s body to make room for Hoss as he crouched beside us.
“The barn, Pa,” Hoss huffed a little breathlessly as he checked his brother for broken bones. “It happened in the barn. Storm musta spooked that new horse. Or leastways, judgin’ by the blood on his hooves and the mess out there somethin’ did.”
I nodded, grateful for the explanation. Up until then I hadn’t been certain if someone accosted Joe in the house – or rather several someones by the look of him – after money or other valuables. It wasn’t that discovering a horse had stomped on my son brought me any great relief, but it did ease my mind a small amount to be assured Joe’s injuries weren’t deliberately caused.
“Pa, get some more light in here, will ya’?”
Again, I nodded. I wiped sweat from my brow as I stood. A kettle bubbled on the stove; the combination of smells wafting upward with the steam was enough to make me turn my head sideways as I reached into a cabinet for matches. Whatever was boiling in that kettle, I didn’t think it was something to eat, and was even more certain when I spotted the wet towels strewn across the table.
I lit two lanterns, grabbing the one from the table and kneeling next to Hoss with it. “Looks like your brother made a poultice for some reason.”
“Shine that lantern over here. His arm, Pa. Take a close look at his left arm.”
I studied the arm swollen like a sausage ready to burst from its casing. I whispered a choked, “Oh, Joe. . .” before looking at my middle son. “It’s bad.”
Hoss gave a tight nod. I knew what he was thinking without him having to say it.
Don’t know if Joe’ll get to keep this arm or not, Pa.
“Looks like his ankle’s busted too.”
“He set it,” I said, in reference to the splints Joe somehow fashioned.
“Appears that way. Doc’ll be the only one who can decide if it needs to be re-broke, or if it’ll heal okay with Joe’s handiwork.”
“I’ve already rolled him from his stomach to his back. Think it’s safe to move him again?”
“Don’t reckon we have much choice. It’s hot and cramped in here. Conditions like that’s only gonna drive Joe’s fever higher. ‘Sides, Doc won’t be able to work on him this way.”
Hoss’s hands traveled Joe’s body again. “Don’t seem to be any broken ribs. His right arm and leg seem fine – don’t feel any broken bones, and don’t see any blood. How ‘bout you?”
I repeated Hoss’s actions, shaking my head when I’d finished. “No. No, I don’t feel anything out of place, either.”
“Then I’m gonna carry him to his room. You go on ahead and turn the bedcovers down. Open the window partway too. We gotta get him cooled off some.”
“All right. But let me help you. I can–”
“Pa, you can help me more by doin’ what I asked. Now go on.”
I’d never heard that tone of voice directed at me from my middle son. Adam and Joe, yes. They’d both tried it on occasion. . .without much success, I might add. But as for Hoss, I couldn’t recall a time when he’d attempted to give me orders as though I was one of the hired hands.
I didn’t rebuke Hoss like I normally would have. I almost smiled when I thought of the way Joseph could do a perfect imitation of me in both stance and voice.
“As long as you live under this roof, young man, I’ll be the one giving the orders around here, not you.”
Of course, Joe was never foolhardy enough to do his imitating in my presence. But a father often overhears things not meant for his ears, and therefore learns to ignore what aggravates him, and stifle any laughter over what he finds amusing.
No rebuke – either my own or one of Joe’s imitations – was necessary this time, because I knew the reasoning behind Hoss’s orders. He wanted to protect me from what no father wants to hear; a son’s agonized cry of pain. Regardless, I’d have had to be all the way at Beaver Flats with Candy and the rest of the crew in order not to hear Joe’s cry as Hoss lifted him from the floor. I’d have also had to be that far away in order not to hear Hoss’s tender apology of, “I’m sorry, Joe, but the worst of it’s over now, I promise. The worst of it’s passed, little brother. You’re gonna be okay. Me and Pa’s gonna take real good care a’ ya’.”
By the time Hoss arrived in Joe’s room, I had the covers turned back and the window open halfway. It was cold outside; the first strong winds of autumn gusting and swirling fallen leaves around the ranch yard. I wanted to bring Joe’s temperature down, but having him catch a chill would be just as detrimental as the fever burning inside him.
Without Hop Sing or anyone else present, I needed Hoss to assist with Joe’s initial care. We took off our winter coats, filled pitchers with cold water, got clean towels and washcloths, stripped Joe’s clothes off of him with help from Hoss’s pocketknife, and washed away the dirt, dust, and dried blood as best we could without causing him further pain. When we were finished, I covered him to the waist with a sheet and then turned to Hoss. “Leave that kettle simmering on the stove. I don’t know what Joe’s got in there, but if nothing else, the hot water might pull some of the infection from this arm.”
“Yeah, it might,” Hoss agreed. “I’ll soak down some more a’ them towels Joe was usin’. I can put ‘em in one of Hop Sing’s mixing bowls and bring it up here.”
I nodded. That would keep me well supplied for a while. “After you’ve done that, head to Virginia City and get Paul.”
Now it was my turn to give orders.
“I’m staying here with your brother, Hoss.”
“Pa, I know ya’ want to, but I’ve done my fair share of doctorin’. I think I should be the one to stay here with Joe while you go for Doc Martin.”
As I wrung out a cloth I’d dipped into cold water, I half turned from my position standing over Joe. “Young man, I haven’t been a father for over forty years not to have learned a thing or two about “doctorin’” as you referred to it. I’m plenty capable of taking care of Joseph until you get back here with Paul. Now go on and get me those hot towels, then ride out as fast as you can.”
I saw the flash of a smile on Hoss’s face. “And just what are you finding so amusing?”
“Just thinkin’ of how well Joe woulda’ imitated what you just said given half a chance.”
“Well let’s hope he has that chance,” I grumbled, while turning away from Hoss and hiding a small smile of my own.
Hoss rushed from the room. Within ten minutes, I had a supply of hot towels that reeked of what smelled like tobacco and tea. I didn’t know how Joe came about brewing this combination – if he knew it would somehow help him, or if his delirium had caused him to grab whatever he could find and dump it into the boiling water. Either way, I didn’t think it would hurt him, and since poultices have many valuable medicinal uses, I was willing to give it a try until Paul told me differently.
Hoss put on his coat and buttoned it up. “I’m gonna head to town, Pa. Be back with Doc just as soon as I can.”
Hoss paused a brief second on his way to the door. He reached out and patted his unconscious brother’s shoulder. “You hang in there for me, Joe. We got a lotta cattle to roundup yet, so if yer thinkin’ this little stunt’ll get ya’ outta helpin’ then you’d better think again.”
I saw Hoss’s big hand lightly squeeze Joe’s shoulder, then he said to me, “I’ll be back soon,” and hurried out of the door.
The pictures hanging on Joe’s walls rattled as Hoss ran down the stairs and across the great room floor. The front door opened and then slammed shut. Joe jumped a little at the sound, as though it startled him. . .or maybe reminded him of the lightning that had undoubtedly spooked the horse I’d already decided we’d sell. Or shoot if my son died.
Joe stirred and moaned.
I grabbed the chair Hoss had pushed beside the bed, pulled it closer, and sat down. I placed the cool cloth I still had in my hands on Joe’s forehead.
“Joe,” I said softly as I leaned close. “Joseph?”
He fought to open his eyes at the sound of my voice. His eyelids raised part way once, twice, and then a third time before he was able to keep them open. His eyes were unfocused, staring blankly at the ceiling a long moment before moving to the end of his bed, and then finally to my face when I repeated his name.
His lips formed a shaky, “Pa,” but no sound came forth.
“Yes, son, it’s Pa,” I acknowledged while running the cloth over his face. I pushed his hair off his forehead with my free hand. Had it been ten years earlier, I would have been thinking that the first thing I’d make him do when he was back on his feet was get a haircut. But it wasn’t ten years earlier, and his twenty-ninth birthday was only two weeks away. I have too much respect for the man Joseph has become to quibble over the length of his hair, even though I don’t approve of it, and have told him he looks like a Texas rawhide on the run from the law.
“And once it’s completely gray,” I’d added, “you’ll look like an old Texas rawhide on the run from the law.”
“Like you do, Pa?” he’d quipped, then darted by me and out the door, that distinct laugh of his that I’d be able to pick out of any crowd seeming to linger in the great room long after he was gone.
I’d have given anything to hear that laugh as I dipped the cloth again, wrung it out, and wiped it over Joe’s face, neck and chest. The heat from his body absorbed into the material, making any relief the wet coolness brought him brief at best.
His eyes tracked my movements as I crossed to his dresser. I used a set of tongs Hoss had grabbed from the utensil drawer to pluck a steaming towel from beneath the lid of Hop Sing’s favorite mixing bowl. We’d all probably be cussed out in Cantonese for this transgression, but that was the least of my worries right then.
I talked to Joe all the while I worked to bring his fever down and draw the infection from his arm. His eyes, though half closed and clouded with confusion, never left my face.
“Hop Sing’ll have our hides if he finds out we used his favorite bowl. But you and I’ll tell him it was Hoss’s doing, not ours, how about that? He might threaten not to cook for a couple of days, but his mood will improve given time. It always does.
“That chuck wagon cook you hired – Griffin – he makes a mighty fine meal. His boy seems nice. A hard little worker. The men will be happy. You did a good job when you signed him on, Joe. We’ll have to find out if we can hire him again for the spring roundup. No doubt one of Hop Sing’s cousins will fall ill right about then, and he’ll have to leave for San Francisco. As you said, Hop Sing always seems to be needed elsewhere whenever there’s a roundup. He sure doesn’t like cooking for the whole crew, does he. Or maybe it’s sleeping out under the stars that he doesn’t like. Never have figured out which it is myself.
“We’ve got to get you back on your feet, young fella,” I said as I wiped his brow. “A man can’t be flat on his back in bed when his birthday rolls around. That’ll never do, now will it.
“That wind’s really starting to pick up out there. Looks like we might be in for an early winter. Later, after we get this fever knocked out of you, I’ll get the fireplaces stoked. There’s nothing like a warm fire on a chilly fall evening to make a man appreciate the comforts of home, is there. We can–”
The movement of Joe’s right arm reaching across his body stopped me in mid-sentence. His hand clutched my shirtsleeve. “Gangrene, Pa,” he said with a whispered urgency. “Gang–”
“You don’t have gangrene, Joe,” I assured, though I knew I might well be lying to him.
“Ye. . .yes. Do. Death. . .death ensues in three. . .three or four days af. . .after the inva. . .invasion of the. . .the disease. Amp. . .amputation necessary. No time to lose, or the gang. . .gang. . .gangrene will spread to the trunk and death. . .” his head dropped to his pillow and he mumbled with exhaustion, “death will soon close the scene.”
At first I didn’t know where Joe had gotten his information. It sounded like he was reciting it from a textbook. That’s when I remembered the books scattered on the floor in my study. I had a copy of “The Doctor’s Home Companion” that Inger brought with her when we headed west all those many years ago now. I’d referred to that book numerous times when raising my boys in order to treat minor wounds, coughs, colds, poison ivy exposure, chickenpox, and other ailments common to children. I’d even referred to it several times since they’d reached adulthood.
“No, Joe,” I soothed in a soft voice. “No. You don’t have gangrene. Hoss’ll be here soon with Doc Martin. We’ll get that arm taken care of, I promise.”
He opened his eyes, his glassy stare boring into me. “Amp. . .amputate, Pa. You’ll have to. . .you’ll have to amputate. Water. . .boil water in clean. . .clean kettle. Then. . .then put a sharp knife in. One. . .one that’s strong and sturdy with. . .with a thick blade. . .and. . . .and. . .and–”
I don’t know if he couldn’t finish because his strength was gone, or because of the tears in his eyes. It was as though the last thing he wanted to do was tell me how to amputate his arm – not for his sake, mind you, but for mine – yet he was certain it had come to this, and therefore was determined to give me the necessary instructions.
Unlike my son, I was far from ready to admit that amputating his arm was the only course of action left us. Yes, it might be a decision I’d have to make if Hoss returned without Paul for some reason, but until that happened, I wasn’t cutting Joe’s arm off. To save my son’s life, I could do it. Or at least I thought I could. But the Lord knew it was the last thing I wanted to do, and I even said a quick prayer then, asking Him to not let it come to that.
“It’s all right, Joe,” I assured. “Paul’s on the way. There’s no need for you to worry about your arm. Paul will tell us what to do to stop the infection. You’ll be good as new in no time.”
He rolled his head back and forth against the pillow. I wasn’t sure if that was his way of telling me no, that he wouldn’t be as good as new, or if he was fighting the discomfort of the fever.
I dipped the towel and wiped him down again, all the while assuring him that he’d be okay. I caught a few mumbled words now and again – amputation, and gangrene, and death – but I ignored them and did my best to draw his attention to a new subject. Any subject provided it didn’t involve Joe losing his arm or dying.
He quieted for a little while, seeming to fall into an exhausted slumber. The room was growing cold, so I stood and lowered the window, leaving it open just a couple of inches now. I got a fresh hot towel and exchanged it for the one I’d applied to Joe’s arm earlier, then sat back down and resumed wiping his face, neck, shoulders and chest with cool, wet cloths.
It startled me when Joe’s eyes snapped open like he’d been frightened from sleep. As though he’d had a bad dream or nightmare. His eyes were wide and unfocused, and somehow I knew his mind wasn’t in the room with me even before he spoke.
“Adam! Adam, I’m shot! Adam? Adam. . .Adam? I’m shot, Adam! I’m shot!”
“Shh, Joe,” I soothed, laying my open palm on his brow and leaning close to his face with the hope that he’d focus on me. “Joe, Adam isn’t here, remember? He’s in Boston, son. Adam lives in Boston now.”
My words couldn’t penetrate the fever clouding Joe’s thinking. His cries continued, his eyes filled with terror. “Wolf! Oh God, Adam, get him off me! Get him. . .get him off me, Adam! Please, please get him off me. Please, Adam!”
Now I knew where my son’s mind was – a time seven years in the past when he and Adam were hunting a wolf that was raiding our cattle. Adam accidentally shot his brother, and in the course of that event, the wolf attacked Joe. I’d been away on business in Placerville when all of this transpired. By the time I’d gotten notification and returned home, Joe was on his way to recovering from the injuries that very nearly killed him.
“It’s okay, Joe. There’s no wolf, son. You’re fine. It’s over. It was over a long time ago.”
“Adam. . .” his eyes finally focused on me. “Pa. . . .Pa. . . .tell Adam. . .please tell him wasn’t. . .it wasn’t his fault. Tell him for me, Pa. Please.”
“I will, son. I’ll tell him.”
“My fault. . .it’s my fault, Pa. Sor. . .sorry, Pa. I’m sorry.”
I used the cloth to wipe away the tears that spilled over his eyes. “Nothing’s your fault, Joe. You rest now. Nothing’s your fault.”
“Yes. . .yes. . .Adam went ‘way. . .went away ‘cause. . .because of me.”
“No, Joe, he didn’t. No. Adam didn’t go away because of you. Not at all. Not at all, Joseph. Never.”
And I was telling my youngest son the truth. Adam had left Nevada because of Laura Dayton, not because of a hunting accident that happened two years prior to Adam’s broken engagement with the woman. “Adam’s leaving had nothing to do with you, Joe. Nothing to do with any of us.”
“Sorry, Pa. . .I’m sorry,” he repeated as though he hadn’t heard anything I’d said. “Adam? Adam?”
High fever and injured arm aside, I don’t think there was anything more difficult for me that afternoon than hearing Joe call for Adam and know I couldn’t produce his oldest brother for him. When word of this accident finally got to Adam, Joe would either be recovering from his injuries, or he’d be dead. That was the trouble with the distance that separated the Ponderosa from Boston. Even if I could get Adam home for Joe, by the time a wire reached him, he made arrangements to leave, and he procured a ticket on the Transcontinental Railway, it would be at least two weeks before he arrived, maybe as long as three, four, or even five weeks, if early snowfalls slowed the train’s progress.
Thankfully, it was another brother of Joe’s who rushed back into the house right about then, leading our doctor up the stairs. Not that Paul didn’t know the way. When a man raises three sons, the local physician makes plenty of visits. Far more than any father wants him to, that’s for certain.
I stood, stepping aside and pulling the chair away from the bed so Paul had room to work.
“Hoss said a horse did this?” Paul questioned as he bent over Joe.
“As far as we know. Joe hasn’t been able to tell me anything yet.”
Paul placed a hand on Joe’s forehead and shook his head. “Given this fever, I don’t imagine so. Or at least not able to tell you anything in a coherent fashion.”
“No,” I murmured, remembering Joe’s cries for Adam. “Not much of anything in a coherent fashion.”
Paul put his bag on Joe’s nightstand and opened it. Hoss and I remained in the room, assisting in any way we could. Afternoon gave way to evening and the early darkness October brings. By now, Candy would be wondering where we were, but neither Hoss nor I were concerned about that. Somehow, we’d get word to Candy in the next day or two. In the meantime, I knew my foreman was more than capable of handling the roundup without us.
It was going on eleven o’clock that night before Joe’s condition took a turn for the better. We were able to catch our breath, and then drink the coffee and eat the sandwiches Hoss brought up.
Dawn was just starting to break on another blustery fall day when Joe finally looked at us with recognition in his eyes and a small smile on his face. Paul stood and stepped away from the bed. I stepped with him, watching as he rolled down his shirtsleeves and then slipped into his suit coat – a sure indication that his work was done here, and he was ready to head home for breakfast and some much-needed sleep.
“That book Joe read was entirely correct, Ben,” Paul said in reference to Joe’s mumblings throughout much of the night about gangrene and amputation, and my explanation of the medical book I suspected he’d gleaned his information from. “Joe’s diagnosis was correct too, even though a bit premature. Amputation’s a harsh remedy. Fortunately, due to the infection, he didn’t have the strength to do it. He’s young and strong. It’ll take a while, but he’ll be fine.”
I blinked back tears of relief while nodding my head. Earlier, Paul had re-splinted Joe’s ankle, saying Joe had done a good job of setting it, and that it didn’t need to be re-broken. Paul planned to replace the splints with a plaster cast in a day or two after the swelling went down some.
The doctor shook his head in disbelief once again. “I still don’t know how he managed to set that ankle all by himself – and do such a fine job of it. He keeps doing his own doctoring with that kind of skill and he may as well hang out a shingle and see patients.”
I chuckled, fairly certain Paul didn’t need to worry about Joe having any desire to give him competition where doctoring was concerned.
“He’s quite a boy, Ben,” Paul said as he packed up his things and headed for the door.
“He is,” I agreed. “Quite a man, actually.”
Paul smiled. “Yes, a man. It’s hard for me to believe that so many of the patients I brought into this world shortly after I first opened my practice are now grown.”
“I’m sure Joe will forgive you,” I smiled, for I, too, had a hard time believing that the baby boy Paul delivered twenty-nine Octobers ago was now the man we’d just spent all night tending too.
“Keep him warm and comfortable, Ben, but be mindful of any signs of his temperature rising again.”
“That arm should be fine until I stop by here again later today. But if it changes in any way – if the swelling gets worse, or if it changes in color, or Joe complains about any increase in pain, you have Hoss come find me.”
“I left a bottle of laudanum on the dresser, but he’s not to have any more until after supper. One teaspoon should be enough – no more than two if the pain won’t allow him to sleep through the night.”
“Otherwise, lots of rest, plenty of liquids, and some nourishing food are what Joe needs. I’ll bring a pair crutches out when I put the cast on. Once the plaster’s dry, we’ll get him up and about. Until then, he should stay put in this bed.”
Paul snorted, as though he knew perfectly well what a challenge it was to keep Joseph “put” much of any place. But given how weak Joe was, and given the state of his ankle, I wasn’t concerned that we’d have a fight on our hands. I was pretty sure Joe wouldn’t feel up to getting out of bed until Paul came with the crutches, and even at that, I suspected Joe wouldn’t have much desire to travel too far on those crutches for at least a week.
Hoss kidded Joe while I saw Paul to the bedroom door. “You’ll do anything to get out of a roundup, won’t ya’.”
Joe didn’t answer Hoss, but I saw him smile slightly at the brotherly teasing.
“You don’t need to see me out, Ben,” Paul said. “I’m more than familiar with the way by now.”
“Yes, I guess you are, aren’t you.”
“You and Hoss have breakfast, and then get some sleep too. I’ll see you late this afternoon, or early this evening.”
“All right.” I held out my hand. “Thank you, Paul.”
“Let me know what I owe you when you have the bill ready.”
“I always do.”
I laughed. “Yes, you do.” Aside from the friendship Paul and I share, I’ve long assumed another reason he likes having the Cartwrights as patients is because I pay in cash, not in eggs from the henhouse, or vegetables from the garden.
By the time I stepped back in Joe’s room, he was sleeping once again. I laid a hand on Hoss’s shoulder. “How about if I rustle up some eggs and bacon for us while you make a fresh pot of coffee.”
“Sounds good, Pa, but hadn’t one of us ought to stay here with Joe?”
“I think he’ll sleep deeply for quite a while now. Besides, we won’t be downstairs long.”
Hoss was reluctant to leave Joe’s side, but his growling stomach finally convinced him that we needed to eat. He got the coffee going, then went out to the barn to do chores. By the time he returned, I had two plates filled with bacon, eggs, and fried potatoes, and I’d cleaned up the remnants of Joe’s doctoring attempts in the kitchen, dining room, and my study.
We ate at the kitchen table. When we were finished, I washed the dishes and Hoss dried them. As I’d predicted, Joe continued to sleep soundly throughout our meal.
We quietly argued for a few seconds when we stopped in his room to check on him, debating over which one of us was going to bed and which one of us would sit with Joe. Hoss won, but only because I let him. I’d placed a hand on Joe’s forehead and found his temperature normal to my touch. He appeared to be sleeping without any discomfort as well, so I decided to give way to youth and allow Hoss to catch a catnap in the chair beside his brother’s bed, while I got several hours of sleep in my own bed.
“Wake me if you need me, or if anything changes with Joe. Otherwise, I’ll get up in a few hours and relieve you.”
“Don’t worry ‘bout it, Pa. I can sleep anywhere.”
I patted his back and smiled. I was pretty sure Hoss was past the age of being able to “sleep anywhere” but I didn’t tell him that. He wanted to be with his brother while giving me the first chance to rest. I thanked Hoss, and not for the first time since he’d reached adulthood, silently acknowledged what a tenderhearted, caring man he is.
I shuffled down the hall to my room, ready to drop to my bed. I did just that, not having the energy to take off anything other than my boots and my vest. I grabbed the extra quilt I’d been keeping folded at the foot of the bed since the weather turned cold, and covered myself with it as I lay back against the pillows. The house moaned and creaked with the wind. Those sounds lulled me to sleep, where the image of a horse attacking Joe danced in my mind’s eye, only to be replaced by a wolf attacking my youngest, until a deeper level of sleep that kept bad dreams away finally claimed me.
I woke disoriented, not sure at first why I was in bed when the daylight outside my windows told me it was past noon. I sat up, throwing the quilt back and seeing I was still fully dressed. That’s when I remembered what condition Hoss and I had found Joe in upon arriving home from Beaver Flats.
I stood, folded the quilt, and then changed into clean clothing. I washed up, ran a comb through my hair, and took a quick glance at myself in the mirror. I’d need to shave, but decided that chore could wait until later. The clock on my nightstand indicated it was ten minutes after one. My “few hours” of sleep had extended far beyond what I’d expected. It was past time for me to relieve Hoss and allow him to sleep in something other than that chair beside Joseph’s bed.
I paused just outside of Joe’s room, hearing the murmur of voices from within. I glanced through the doorway, but neither of the boys saw me. Hoss’s back was to me, and Joe was sitting propped up against three pillows with a tray over his lap that contained a plate of scrambled eggs and a glass of water.
“If ya’ keep those down, I can make ya’ somethin’ more fillin’ come supper time.”
“This is fine for now. Thanks.”
Joe sounded tired and weak, but his color was better than it had when I’d gone to bed, and his eyes were now bright with alertness, as opposed to bright with fever. Hoss had helped him get a nightshirt on, and must have helped him tame his hair with a brush too, since his curls were no longer sticking up in a dozen different directions. He was having a little trouble keeping the eggs on the fork and then getting it to his mouth since he had to use his right hand.
“Need my help?” Hoss asked him. “I can feed ya’ if ya’ want me to.”
Joe’s eyes slid to his brother and he sneered. “You just try to feed me and I’ll put this fork down and punch you in the nose.”
Hoss laughed. “You know somethin’? Even with a busted ankle and only one good arm you’re still an ornery little cuss.”
“Not my fault. You and Adam made me this way.”
“Me and Adam? How?”
“For starters, when I was a little kid and used to follow you two around, you’d tell me Pa was callin’ me, send me back to the house, then run off and hide while I was gone.”
“Only way we could get ridda ya’.”
“Then there were the times you guys would ambush me and dunk me head first into the horse trough, and the time Adam took the ladder away when I was in the hay mow.”
“You was four. Ya’ wasn’t supposed to be up there to begin with. He took the ladder away to teach ya’ a lesson.”
“Maybe so, but next time you call me ornery, you’d better think about who’s to blame for it.”
“Well, little brother, looks to me like this time that ornery streak a’ yours saved yer hide. Yer darn lucky that horse didn’t kill you.”
“He’ll be all right.”
“Yeah. Just needs to be gentled.”
“Joe, that horse needs more than gentling if you ask me. He needs to be sold, just like Pa’s intendin’ to do with him.”
“Yep. Way that horse acted with you, he ain’t no use to us as either breedin’ or ridin’ stock.”
“He doesn’t need to be sold. He just needs to be worked with.”
“Listen, Joe, don’t you go given Pa a hard time about this.”
“It was Pa who taught me that when you fall off a horse you gotta get right back on him.”
“You didn’t fall, you were trampled.”
Joe shrugged his right shoulder. “Same thing.”
“Not in my book it ain’t. And if yer book says differently, then that horse musta’ knocked a few a’ your brains loose too.”
Joe smiled. “Must have.”
Hoss shook his head and sighed. “You go ahead and do what ya’ want ‘cause yer gonna anyway, but like I said, don’t give Pa a hard time about it. If he still wants to sell the horse after you argue yer point with him, then let him. He was real worried about ya’, Joe.”
“I know he was. But don’t you fret none about Pa. I’ll handle him.” Joe held up the little finger on his right hand. “I’ve had him wrapped around this finger for going on twenty-nine years now.”
“Ya’ don’t have to tell me that.”
Joe chuckled. “Nope. Don’t suppose I do, because that fact has gotten both of us out of hot water more than once.”
Joe schooled his face into a deep scowl and boomed forth an imitation of me that I wouldn’t have thought he had the strength for. “What tomfoolery are you two involved in now? Hoss! Joseph! One of you had better start explaining, and if you know what’s good for you I won’t hear anything I don’t like. Not one single word, do you understand?”
Hoss was laughing while at the same time trying to shush Joe. “Joe, hush. Be quiet. He’ll hear you.”
“Nah. Never has yet.”
“There’s always a first time.”
“You know, big brother, you’re gettin’ to be a lot like Adam in your old age.”
“You worry too much.”
I could tell Joe was tiring, and Hoss looked just plain exhausted. It was time to put an end to their fun. I quietly walked back to my room, closed the door loudly enough for the boys to hear it, then turned and retraced my path to Joe’s room, allowing my boot steps to announce my impending arrival.
I paused in the doorway, putting my hands on my hips. “Well, well, well, young man, you look far better than you did earlier this morning.”
“I feel better too, Pa.”
“Glad to hear it.”
I stepped into the room, stopping when I reached Hoss’s side. “I’m sorry I slept so long. You head on to bed.”
“Thought maybe I’d better ride out and fill Candy in on what’s happened.”
“No, not today. If I know Candy, he’s already got someone headed this way to check on us. If I’m wrong, you can ride out first thing in the morning.”
“I’d argue with ya’, Pa, but I’m too tired to give it much of an effort.”
“That’s what I thought. Go on now. To bed with you. I’ll wake you when supper’s ready.”
“Sounds good to me.”
“Never one to miss a meal,” Joe quipped.
Hoss stood and pointed a finger at his brother. “I’d watch that mouth if I was you, Joseph. You ain’t gonna be in that bed forever, ya’ know.”
Joe chuckled at his brother’s idle threat. Hoss would no more than hurt Joe than he’d move to San Francisco and become a banker.
“And remember what I said.”
Joe nodded. “I will.” He held up the little finger on his right hand. “And you remember what I said.”
I looked from one to the other with bewilderment, as though I had no idea what they were talking about. Yes, once again they were two steps ahead of their old Pa. Or so they thought.
“See ya’ later, Pa. Joe.”
“Sleep well, son.”
“Get some rest, big brother.”
Hoss waved a hand at us as he walked out of the room. When I heard his bedroom door shut, I focused my attention on Joe. “Do you want me to get that tray out of your way?”
“Yeah, I’m done. Thanks.”
“Finish the water first.”
Joe rolled his eyes but picked up the glass and drained it. When the glass was empty, I took the tray and placed it on his dresser. Once he fell back to sleep I knew I’d have dishes to do, chores to complete in the barn, and then it would be time to start supper. I was already missing Hop Sing, and decided when Hoss rode out in the morning I’d have him stop in Virginia City and hire Harriet Guthrie to come take care of the cooking and cleaning until Hop Sing returned.
I straightened Joe’s covers, then sat in the chair. “Still looks pretty blustery out there.”
His eyes traveled to the dull, pewter colored sky outside his window. “It does. Looks like a typical fall day.”
“Looks a lot like the day you were born. Cloudy, windy, chilly; yet your mother’s smile when you were placed in her arms seemed to light up the room like July sunshine.”
Joe smiled. “Guess I’ll have to take your word for that.”
“Guess you will.” I changed the subject. “Joe, about that horse–”
“I can gentle him, Pa.”
“But at what cost? The loss of an arm next time? Or a permanently crippled leg?”
“It was just the lightning and wind. He got spooked.”
“That’s not the last time we’ll have lightning and wind, you know.”
“I know. But I’d like to work with him. I’d like to give him a chance to produce some good foals for us. That’s why I bought him in the first place.”
“I realize that, but even the best foals in all of Nevada will mean nothing to me if that horse injures you again. You might not be so lucky next time, Joe. He might kill you.”
“He might, or he might not.”
I shook my head at my youngest son’s stubborn streak. I had a feeling this debate would go on all afternoon if I let it – which I had no intention of doing.
“We’ll allow this discussion to come to an end for now. We’ll talk about it again when you’re a little further down the road to recovery.”
“All right,” Joe agreed, probably thinking about my own stubborn streak and what strategy he’d use to try and change my mind about getting rid of that horse.
“Well, young man, it looks like I’ll have some news to tell Adam when I write him.”
Joe dropped his eyes to the covers. His, “Guess so,” was quiet and subdued. Adam was often a sore subject with my youngest son, and not because Adam had left the Ponderosa five years earlier, but because as time passed, Adam had quit writing his brothers. He still wrote to me, and most of what he said in his letters I read out loud to Hoss and Joe. Hoss seemed to have accepted this change in Adam’s routine, but Joe had grown angry about it. He’d never mentioned anything about his anger to me, but as I said earlier, sometimes a father overhears things he’s not supposed to. Unfortunately where Joe was concerned, when I’d visited Adam in Boston two years ago, I’d made a promise to him about not revealing certain things to his brothers. I’ve kept that promise, but I’m not always sure I should have.
“You were calling for him, you know.”
Joe looked at me. “For who?”
“Adam. When your fever was high, you were calling for him. I think you were dreaming about when you two went hunting for that wolf.”
Joe hesitated a moment, then nodded. “Might have been. But that was a long time ago, and besides, it wasn’t Adam’s fault.”
I smiled with understanding. “I never thought it was. And as you said, it was a long time ago.”
“Joe, about Adam–”
“I’m pretty tired, Pa. I’d like to get some more sleep if you don’t mind.”
I didn’t allow his claim of being tired to close the subject of his eldest brother. “Sometimes things happen, Joseph. Circumstances beyond our control, like what occurred with you and that horse. Keep that in mind whenever you think of Adam, and don’t judge him too harshly, please.”
He was silent for a few seconds, then said again, “I’m tired. I’d like to get some sleep before supper.”
“All right,” I agreed. As much as I thought my youngest needed to talk about Adam, there was no point in me encouraging such a conversation since there was so much I couldn’t tell Joe without being disloyal to my oldest child. “I’ll see if I can put a meal together for the three of us that’ll be at least halfway consumable. Tomorrow I’ll have Hoss hire Mrs. Guthrie to take care of the cooking and cleaning until Hop Sing returns.”
“I won’t argue that.”
“Neither will I,” I said, thinking that by noon the next day I’d be sufficiently sick of my own cooking.
I fiddled with the bedcovers again, and then stood. I rearranged Joe’s pillows so he could recline back against them. “You get some rest now.”
“If you need me for any reason, just call. I’ll be in the house somewhere, other than for the time it takes me to do the chores and carry in some wood.”
I picked up the tray from the dresser and headed for the door, stopping when I reached it. I turned around. “Oh, and by the way, Joseph,” I held up the little finger on my right hand. “You don’t have me wrapped quite as tightly as you think.”
A look of chagrin came over his face, but when he saw my smile he laughed. “Whatever you say, Pa.”
Right before I stepped into the hallway, I said softly, “I miss him too, Joe. I miss him too.”
Joe’s eyes dropped to his covers again. He chewed on his lower lip a moment before finally nodding. He didn’t have to say anything for me to understand this was his way of acknowledging that he missed Adam just as much as Hoss and I did.
I smiled; then walked out of his room and down the stairs to spend the remainder of the day managing all the circumstances that were within my control. When my work both inside and outside was finished, I sat at my desk writing my oldest son a letter while beef stew simmered on the stove, biscuits warmed in the oven, and his brothers slept on undisturbed by the harsh October wind.
October 16, 1871
Your brothers and I miss you, son. I hope this letter finds you well. Speaking of well, you’ll never guess what’s happened to Little Joe now. When he was four, you looked at me with disgust after one of his many escapades and said he couldn’t stay out of trouble for five minutes. Well, not much has changed in that regard since you left the Ponderosa. Although this latest incident certainly wasn’t through any fault of Joseph’s, nonetheless, it scared me more than I’ll ever let on to your youngest brother, and it would have turned my hair gray if Joe’s many other past adventures hadn’t already done that to me years ago. He bought a new stallion a few weeks back and. . . .
Much thanks to Wrenny for serving as my “Bonanza Consultant” whenever needed. Thanks to Wrenny, as well, for the beta read.