Summary: A sequel to “First Snow.” Dedicated to Jennifer, who couldn’t let this one go! Loved your ideas, girl; hope I used them well!
Word Count: 4056
Joe thumped his pillow once, twice, then settled his head back on the lumpy surface. Several long minutes passed before he grabbed the down-filled sack and tossed it to the floor. With a low groan of frustration, Joe swung his legs off the side of the bed, balancing himself frantically as the room dipped and swirled around him. Too fast. He’d moved too fast again. Joe lowered his head into hands, familiar with the position, and waited for the feeling to pass. When he was finally able to see clearly again, Joe turned the lamp up, the single flame infusing the room with light. Remembering the last go around, he moved slower this time, carefully pulling on pants and boots while trying to keep his head as still as possible.
It had been weeks since Adam brought him home through that awful storm, but sometimes Joe felt like it was only yesterday. His head still pounded with headaches daily, the bothersome dizziness an almost hourly occurrence. He’d tried to keep it from his family, especially since they already treated him with kid gloves. The head injury was only part of the problem. An injured shoulder slow to heal also took second seat to a serious cold that bordered on pneumonia. His strong constitution proved worthy of the threat, but it didn’t keep Ben, Adam and Hoss from hovering over him like mother hens. Even though he understood and appreciated the concern, Joe was tired of the constant mothering.
Buttoning up a heavy wool shirt Ben had dug out of a bottom drawer, Joe didn’t bother to tuck it in, but snagged his coat off the chair and headed for the door. He had only one thing in mind. Getting to the barn.
It was still hard to believe, Cochise being alive. During those long days in bed, Joe had forced himself to accept the loss of his beloved horse. Maybe he hadn’t truly accepted it as much as he’d simply pushed the idea from his mind. He couldn’t imagine spending hours in the saddle on a different mount, so he didn’t think about it. When memories of Cochise invaded his thoughts, Joe would force himself to think of something else: a poker game in town, a Saturday night dance with a pretty girl, anything to keep his mind from the painful thoughts. It wasn’t the most mature way to deal with his loss, but it seemed to work. At least, his heart felt like it did. And Joe was willing to keep working at that facade until yesterday afternoon. Just when he thought he was finally getting past the tightening in this throat anytime Cochise’s name was mentioned, there was a knock at the door and he’d opened it to find his beloved horse alive and well.
It still seemed like a dream. Tossing and turning tonight in his bed, Joe was almost sure he’d conjured up the vision. So after several hours of lost sleep, he finally decided he had to see for himself. He needed to feel the silken coat, rub the white and black face, hear the low nicker from his old friend. Slowly but carefully making his way downstairs, Joe was grateful when he finally closed the thick door behind him.
Outside, the sky was clear overhead, stars winking stark white in the dark background. Though the night air was frigid, the icy breeze snatching his breath away, everything was quiet. No keening wind or blowing snow confused his journey, and he could clearly see the outline of the large barn in the moonlight. If not for the persistent headache, Joe would have bounded across the barnyard. Instead, he took slow steady steps, breathing slowly and keeping his gaze focused in front of him. Mounds of snow were visible from the corner of h is eye, the white frozen ridges ringing the yard like a circus ring. It was a strange thought, causing Joe to grin at the incongruous idea. It kept him smiling all the way to the barn door. Hazarding one slow look behind him, Joe was relieved to see that the house was still dark. He’d managed to make his escape without being detected. Now to see if he’d been dreaming or if Cochise really was alive and well.
Firmly closing the door behind him, Joe took time to light the lantern, its thin light throwing shadows across the narrow stalls. It only took a moment for Joe to spot the familiar animal. The lump in his throat was back, but for a different reason. No longer necessary to shove the memories aside, Joe let the warm feelings flood through him as he moved slowly across the barn.
“Cochise. It’s true.”
The welcoming nicker was exactly as Joe would have imagined. Cochise turned his head, large brown eyes watching Joe’s movement into the stall. With one arm draped across his horse’s neck, Joe tipped his head forward until he was leaning against his friend. Then, while carefully rubbing slow circles on Cochise’s coat, Joe started talking. The words didn’t always make sense, mostly just a jumble of thoughts and memories, but the talk felt right, and Joe felt his heart swell with the telling.
Time passed quickly as the night air grew colder. Even in the security of the barn, the temperature dropped until Joe shivered inside his heavy coat. He hadn’t meant to stay long, only a little while and then he’d sneak back up the stairs to the warmth of his bed. So when the cold seemed almost unbearable, Joe patted Cochise one last time and said his goodnights.
It wasn’t until he reached the door that Joe realized there’d been a change in the sound of the wind. Ashamed of his lack of awareness, Joe blew out the light and pulled the door open. Surprised by the sluggish movement, Joe pulled harder, his head swimming with the effort. But the opening, when it did widen, didn’t afford the easy exit he’d expected. Joe was surprised to see a mound of snow drifted in the doorway, and the wind had found the new opening, howling now through the narrow crack. Its icy fingers made Joe shiver even harder.
The pounding in his head increased until the barn door seemed to move eerily in front of him. Dropping to his knees, Joe struggled against the gray edges that circled in ever expanding waves. His stomach lurched and rolled, his mouth clenching against the nauseous feeling. When he was finally able to open his eyes again, it was only to find that his coat was already white with snow driven in through the open door. One quick glance was enough to make Joe push the wooden door closed again.
Reaching up with his good arm, Joe dropped the long wooden latch into place. The door held tight as Joe collapsed onto the floor where he lay, weary from the effort. He didn’t stay there long, though; the icy wind working underneath the door chilled Joe where he lay. When he could once again manage to stand, Joe made his way to the smaller door, carefully pulling it closed behind him. The yard was no longer clear and the house was almost indiscernible from this distance, the wind swirling icy snow in front of him. It reminded Joe of the trip with Adam weeks earlier.
Shivering from the chill, but knowing he needed to get to the house, Joe stepped into the fury. He did his best to move in a straight line, but he made it only a dozen steps before losing his footing, the wind pushing and pulling him, his head spinning from the exertion. Landing hard on one side, Joe vaguely acknowledged that he could add renewed shoulder pain to his list of complaints.
Several long minutes passed as Joe lay on the snow-covered ground. It wasn’t that he was sleepy as much as the dizziness kept him from attempting to rise. For the first time in days, Joe wondered if he’d done the right thing. Maybe he should’ve been more honest with his father about the headaches and dizzy spells. Now wasn’t the time to worry about it, though. The most important thing was to get out of the storm.
Reaching up with one hand, Joe held his head while using the other to push himself up. Once on his knees, Joe forced himself to stand, weaving unsteadily. The house looked even farther away than before and almost without thought, Joe found himself turning back toward the barn.
Once inside, Joe staggered back to the stall, taking time only to fork some extra hay into the front space. Finally settling onto the meager pile, clothes stiff and wet from the snow, Joe pulled his collar up around his ears as he stared up at Cochise.
“Guess you’ve got company for awhile longer, boy.”
Ben wasn’t surprised to hear the wind howling down the chimney the next morning. Hoss had warned of it late the night before, his instincts working overtime since his guilty miss of the early storm.
Settling into his seat at the end of the table, Ben nodded a morning greeting as Hop Sing poured his first cup of coffee.
“You ready for breakfast now, or wait for sons?”
“No. I’ll have something now, Hop Sing. As cold as it is this morning, they might as well stay warm in bed for a few extra minutes.”
HopSing mumbled something about early mornings as he hurried back into the kitchen, and Ben smiled. While waiting for his breakfast, Ben opened one of the papers he kept handy. Of course there was no recent news, as the winter had set in and they only made infrequent trips to town now. But there were several articles he marked for re-reading, and the quiet morning was a good time for savoring the written word.
It was almost an hour later, when finishing his second cup of coffee and his last article that Ben heard a bedroom door close and footsteps on the stairs. Pushing back his empty plate, he reached for the coffee pot, refilling his own cup and pouring one for Adam.
“Been up long?”
“About an hour. Either of your brothers moving yet?”
“I didn’t check. As late as it is, I figured I was the last one up.”
“It’s so cold this morning, I guess everyone’s taking advantage of their warm beds.”
They both laughed as Adam finished filling his plate and tucked into his warm breakfast. Ben enjoyed his last cup of coffee, listening closely as the wind gusted even harder against the windows behind him.
“Sounds like it’s getting stronger.” Adam muttered around a mouthful of ham.
“Yes it does. I think maybe we should get the chores done early in case we’re in for a bad one.”
“Sure, Pa. I’ll get Hoss up as soon as I’m finished.”
Hoss lumbered down the stairs, scratching his head, his eyes still blurry from sleep. “Why didn’t ya wake me earlier?”
“Pa. Sorry I’m up late.”
“No need to be sorry. It’s so cold I thought you’d enjoy a little extra time under the covers.”
“Yeah, I figured Joe would still be there too.” Hoss smirked, as he sat down next to Adam.
Ben’s cup rattled in the saucer while Adam’s fork paused in mid-air.
“What do you mean? Isn’t Joe in bed?”
“No. Why… “
Hoss’ voice trailed off as Ben pushed back his chair. Adam was already up and headed for the stairs, as if he didn’t believe his brother’s pronouncement. By the time he reached Joe’s doorway, Ben and Hoss were right behind him. The three of them stood at the end of the empty bed, staring at the rumpled sheets and pile of blankets.
Almost in unison, the three of them turned and headed out the door and down the stairs. They seemed to have the same single thought, although only Ben uttered it out loud.
Stopping only long enough to don coats and hats, they rushed out the door and headlong into the fierce wind. Last night the yard had been swept clean of all snow, save the ring of white around the edges. Now the same yard was completely covered, the depth building quickly.
The Cartwrights never faltered but rushed across the white expanse, bending low against the swirling wind. The icy snow stung their faces, but none seemed to notice as they all but ran toward the barn. No one noticed the bunkhouse door had opened until a voice called out across the yard.
“Need any help, Hoss?”
“No, Dan. We’ve got it,” Hoss hollered back at the ranch hand.
From long established tradition, the Cartwrights cared for their own animals unless there was a special need. So none of the hands would’ve been in the big barn yet this morning, their own mounts being stabled in another barn behind the bunkhouse. That meant Joe really could be in the barn undetected. Hoss saw Dan close the door as he hurried after his family.
Adam reached the barn first, not surprised when he couldn’t open the large door. The bar was obviously dropped into place inside. Moving quickly to the small walk-through door, Adam pushed it open and hurried into the darkened interior. Ben stepped in behind him, followed closely by Hoss, both of them peering into the shadows while Adam struck a match to light the lantern.
“Here he is.”
Ben rushed past Hoss, but slowed as he moved around Cochise to the front of the stall. Squatting next to his sleeping son, Ben tapped his fingers lightly on Joe’s cheek while calling softly to his youngest. “Come on, son. Wake up, Joe.”
Green eyes opened slowly, the lids fluttering in the dim light. “Pa?”
“Yes, son. Come on, now. We need to get you to the house.”
Ben stood up, carefully pulling a shivering Joe with him. Unsteady on his feet, Joe took only one step before he lurched sideways, slamming into Cochise. The startled horse stepped sideways then back, barely missing Ben caught against the side of the stall. Adam stepped forward, quickly catching hold of the horse’s halter while Hoss helped Ben maneuver Joe past the frightened animal. Seconds later, Joe was seated on a hay bale while Ben leaned over him; Cochise already happily munching on a measure of oats Adam had dumped in his feed bucket.
Hoss stood next to his brother, absently rubbing his head. “Dang, Shortshanks, you sure know how to keep things interestin’ around here.”
Adam grinned weakly at his larger brother, while eyeing his worried father. A few short coughs from Joe, and his own worry blossomed.
“Let’s get him back to the house, boys.” Ben urged.
Hoss leaned down, not bothering to help Joe to his feet, but gathered his brother in his arms instead. “Doesn’t look like he’s too steady on his feet, Pa. This’ll be quicker.”
“I’ve got the door.” Adam offered.
Ben merely nodded at them both and followed his sons across the yard to the house.
Once inside, Hoss barely had Joe settled on the hearth before Ben started unbuttoning his son’s coat. Adam hurried upstairs, returning with a stack of towels, blankets and dry clothes, just as Hop Sing appeared with a basin of warm water.
“Hold still, Joe, quit squirming around. Hoss, put another log on that fire.”
“I’m all right, Pa.” Joe managed weakly.
“Yes you are, young man. But your skin is cold as ice. Adam, hand me that other towel.”
“Good thing there’s no women in this family,” Joe moaned.
“Worried about your modesty, boy?” Hoss quipped.
A faint grin was Joe’s only answer.
The men worked quickly to get Joe warm and dry.
“Easy, Pa. You’re gonna rub my skin off.” Joe’s words were barely discernible between chattering teeth. Ben and Adam exchanged a look of concern over Joe’s head, but it didn’t go unnoticed. “Pa, really, I’m fine.”
Ben didn’t address the statement, but muttered a question of his own. “What were you doing out there anyway?”
“Just needed to check on Cochise. Didn’t mean to stay out there, but the storm came up . . .” Joe swayed a little on the rock hearth and Hoss quickly moved forward to support him.
“Hop Sing, why don’t you fix up the settee with some blankets, and we’ll scoot it a little closer to the fire.”
Without hesitation, Hop Sing hurried to fulfill Ben’s request, and within minutes had prepared a makeshift bed. Hoss left Joe leaning against Adam while he rearranged the furniture. By the time he had finished, Adam was slipping a dry shirt around Joe’s shoulders and Ben was buttoning it up.
Once bundled into blankets on the settee, HopSing brought in a large mug of warm broth, nodding approvingly as Ben stood over Joe until it was finished. Almost immediately, Joe’s eyes drifted closed as he relaxed against the mound of pillows.
Standing near the fireplace, Adam chuckled quietly as things returned to some semblance of order. “You ready for your breakfast now, Hoss?”
A loud pop emanated from the fireplace, but other than the rustling of a page and a soft sigh, no one seemed to notice. Hoss was settled comfortably in a large chair, strands of leather threaded through his fingers as he braided them deftly together. In the tall blue chair pushed near the fire, Adam was caught up in some tale or other, and although Ben had a book in his hands, there didn’t seem to be any pages being turned.
All these things Joe noticed from his comfortable place on the settee. The burst of sound from the fire had startled him awake, but his family thought him still asleep. It afforded him an opportunity to watch his pa and brothers for a moment, grateful that they were here and for the first time in weeks, thankful for their overprotective attitude. For all that it sometimes made him feel like a youngster, it was reassuring to know that he had a loving family to look out for him.
“You’re awake.” Ben’s deep voice was filled with love. “How are you feeling son?”
Hoss’ short guffaw accompanied Adam’s wide grin.
“Well we better do something about that.”
Ben helped Joe into a sitting position as Adam went to the kitchen, returning with another steaming mug of broth.
“Hop Sing said you should start with this and then he’ll get you something more substantial.”
Joe winced at the sight of more broth, but accepted the mug anyway. Truth be told, the warm liquid would probably feel good on his scratchy throat. He wasn’t about to tell his father how bad he really felt, especially after all the trouble he’d already caused. Several sips into the broth, though, his tired body gave him away. A succession of chest rattling coughs had three worried faces focusing on him.
“It’s nothing, Pa, just a…”
“No more.” Ben’s voice boomed. “No more covering up, Joseph.”
At the sight of Joe’s shocked expression, Ben softened his tone. “We’re not going to play this game anymore, young man. We all know about your headaches and the dizzy spells. You haven’t fooled anyone with your ‘I’m fine’ approach. So let’s try being honest for a change. Understand?”
Joe tipped his head to one side, studying his father. It only took a moment to determine that Pa wasn’t nearly as angry as he was concerned. That brought a slight grin to Joe’s face, though it didn’t last long. Another coughing spell took care of that.
“All right.” Ben murmured, when Joe could breath comfortably again. “Let’s try this again. How do you feel, Joseph?”
Eyes down, Joe answered softly. ”Awful. My head hurts, shoulder hurts, throat hurts, chest hurts…”
“All right, all right.” Hoss interrupted teasingly. “You don’t need to completely change your tune.”
“Let’s get you upstairs, Joe. You’ll be more comfortable in your bed.”
“Please, Pa. Can’t I stay down here? I’ve spent so much time in that room this past month.”
Joe hadn’t meant to sound like a small whiny child, but he could tell by Ben’s uplifted eyebrows that was exactly how it came across.
Adam saved the situation, though, with his suggestion. “No reason we can’t keep an eye on him down here, Pa. As long as he’s comfortable where he is, we can keep him covered and warm here by the fire. Sitting up is probably better for him anyway, if he’s developing another cold.”
Ben seemed to be studying Joe, but he did nod in agreement at several of Adam’s comments. In the end, his frown faded to a gentle smile. “All right. But only if you stay where you are, and get some sleep while you’re here.”
Pulling a blanket up around his son’s shoulders, Ben brushed dark curls of Joe’s forehead as he checked for fever. “About those headaches, son. Don’t let that worry you. It’s pretty normal after a bad concussion, and from what Adam told us about your experience on the trail that afternoon, I’m sure you had a severe one. It’s too bad we couldn’t get Doc Martin out here to check on you, but being light-headed and dealing with headaches is to be expected.”
“I know, Pa. I just didn’t want to worry you.”
Ben laid a hand on Joe’s good shoulder, squeezing gently. “No more secrets, son. You’ll only make me worry more. Now why don’t you get some more sleep?”
Joe relaxed into the warmth and comfort of his temporary bed, along with the soothing presence of his family. His eyes were already closing so he didn’t see the worried looks exchanged by them, especially when another series of coughs erupted. Instead, he worked through the tightening in his chest, and when the episode was past, he let sleep claim him.
Sunshine peeked through the heavy drapes, the cheery light a welcome change to the dreary darkness of the past few days. Pulling back the material, Ben was rewarded with the dazzling brightness of sun on snow, the bright light bringing a smile to his face. It was hard not to acknowledge the beauty right there in front of you.
Adam and Hoss found their places, quickly filling plates with eggs, bacon and potatoes.
“How’s Joe this morning?”
“Fever’s still down. I think he sounds better, too.”
“Good. Poor kid’s had a hard time of it.” Adam offered.
“I’m just glad that he didn’t get any worse than he did. Quite a lot for a body to take — getting a chill like that so soon after being sick.”
“He’s a tough one.” Hoss agreed.
“We have a lot to be thankful for this Christmas.”
“I’d be thankful if someone would help me down these stairs.”
The voice was serious, though tinged heavily with humor. Adam beat Hoss out of his chair and up the steps, chastising his young brother on the way down for the worried look Joe had caused on Ben’s face.
“Here, young man, sit down before you fall down.” Their pa instructed.
“Sounds like a good idea. Thanks.”
Joe swayed slightly, but kept his balance as he pulled a napkin from beside his plate and tucked it into place.
“I thought we agreed last night that you should stay in bed at least one more day.”
“No, Pa.” Joe challenged carefully. “You agreed. Besides, you told me that I should be honest. Well, truthfully, if I stayed in that bed one more day, I’d have had to kill someone.”
Hoss’ loud burst of laughter brought a smile to everyone’s face. Ben was the last one to join, but in the end, he was smiling too. “I can’t fight that kind of honesty.”
Turning to their breakfast, there was familiar chatter shared over good food as the family fell back into routine. While at the end of the table, Ben mouthed a silent prayer of thanks . . . again.