Word Count: 8600
On this Saturday morning, Ben was sending the boys out to the east pasture to make fence repairs. Earlier in the week, Adam and Hoss had rode along the fence line, identifying loose or rotting posts. Hoss and Adam got supplies loaded in the wagon Friday afternoon so everything would be ready to go Saturday morning. The only delay that they might have would be Little Joe. Pa wanted them to take eleven-year-old Joe with them, but the boy was notorious for sleeping late on Saturdays.
Adam approached Joe’s bedroom and steeled himself for combat. He rapped on the door and then went in. He was not surprised to see Joe sprawled across the bed, sound asleep. Going over to the pitcher on the nightstand, Adam poured some water into the basin. Then he cupped his hand, submerged it in the basin, and brought it up. He wore a devious grin as he approached his little brother’s sleeping form with the water cupped in his palm. Since Joe was on his stomach, Adam let the cool water drip onto the back of his brother’s neck.
Little Joe sprang from the bed at the feel of cool water on his neck. “Gaaaahhh!” was all he could get out at first. “Why can’t you wake someone up like a normal person?” he finally shouted at Adam.
Adam just crossed his arms over his chest. “Well, you don’t wake up like a normal person. The water worked, though.” With that, Adam left his brother’s room. He could hear Joe sputtering and grumbling from the hallway.
Passing Hoss on the stairs, Adam said, “I got Joe up. We should be ready to go soon.”
“Hop Sing is gettin’ us some lunch together,” answered Hoss.
Adam continued down the stairs while Hoss went up to check on Little Joe. He wished that Adam hadn’t woke the boy up. Whatever he did would probably leave the youngest Cartwright cranky all day.
Hoss tapped on his brother’s door. He looked in to see his brother hopping around on one foot while trying to put on a sock. “Mornin’, Joe. Adam wants ta be ready ta go in a half hour.”
“Why does Adam take such pleasure in pesterin’ me? Why can’t he wake me up with a shake to the shoulder or anything’?” asked Joe.
Hoss didn’t know what had happened, but he knew Little Joe could be really hard to wake on Saturday mornings. School days were hard enough for Pa and Adam to get the boy up and off in time. “Well, I’m sure Adam did what he thought was best,” said Hoss.
Getting his sock on, Joe quit hopping. As he pulled on his pants, he looked at Hoss and said “I wanna work with you today, Hoss. I don’t wanna work with Old Bossy Boots. Please, Hoss, tell Pa to let me work with you.” Joe had a pleading look in his eyes. To increase his plea, Joe added, “Adam’s got somethin’ against me and wants to work me so hard I’ll be old before my time.”
“Adam ain’t got anythin’ against ya, Joe,” answered Hoss. “The two of ya jes have diff’rent personalities is all. But ya do got some things in common.”
“Like what?” asked Joe skeptically.
“Yer both bears in the mornin’,” replied Hoss. With that, he left Joe’s room and headed for the stairs.
For once, Joe was left speechless. How could he and Adam have anything in common? Well, they did have Pa in common, but that was it.
Joe came down the stairs while fastening his belt. Pa was sitting at the table drinking a cup of coffee. Hoss was back at the table, eating more biscuits and bacon. Adam was nowhere to be seen.
“Good morning, Joseph. You’d better get some breakfast before your brother eats it all.” Ben gestured at Hoss with his coffee cup as he said this. “Be quick about it, though, because Adam is getting the horses hitched to the wagon. He’ll be ready to leave soon.”
“Why do we hafta leave so early?” Joe asked as he plopped himself down at the table. He reached for the plate of biscuits at the same moment as Hoss. Ben cleared his throat and Hoss withdrew his hand so Joe could get some food.
“You boys have a long day ahead of you,” Ben replied. “Your brothers noticed quite a number of rotting fence posts earlier in the week. The hands got many new posts put in, but I need them to move the cattle to the north pasture today. You boys will be doing all of the work today on the fence.”
“Hmph,” said Joe with a mouthful of biscuit and eggs.
“Don’t speak with your mouth full, Joseph,” reprimanded Ben.
After swallowing, Joe said, “Why have I gotta work on the fence? Why can’t Adam and Hoss take care of it?”
Hoss’ face started to turn red. He didn’t get angry very often, but he could feel his dander rising at Joe’s comment.
“Joseph, you benefit from living on this ranch. I expect you to help in its running. This means learning how to do various tasks, including fence repairs. I don’t want to hear any complaints. I expect you to work hard today and listen to your brothers. If they tell you to do something, I expect you to do what’s asked of you without complaint. Do you understand me, son?”
“Yes sir,” answered Joe with downcast eyes.
“Look at me, Joseph,” requested Ben.
“Yes sir,” Joe answered again. This time, however, he was looking into his father’s eyes.
Adam entered the house to see Hoss and Joe at the table with Pa. “The wagon’s ready to go,” he announced.
Joe and Hoss got up from the table and went to retrieve their hats. Hoss strapped on his gunbelt after putting on his hat. Adam seemed to be getting impatient with his brothers.
Ben called out to his boys, “Adam, you make sure those repairs get done. Hoss, keep an eye on things and keep your brothers from spending the day arguing.” Both Adam and Joe rolled their eyes at this comment. “Joseph, you mind your brothers. Adam is in charge, so he’ll give the orders. Be careful and I’ll see you this evening.”
As the boys turned to leave, Ben called out for them to wait. He went to his desk, opened a drawer, and pulled out a gunbelt and gun. He then approached Joe. “Joseph, you know I think you’re too young to be wearing a gun. However, you’ll be out working the fence line today. I want you to take this with you. Only use the gun if you are in danger. It’s not a toy. Adam will let me know if you abuse this privilege.”
Joe shot Adam a glare at that remark. He took the gunbelt from his father and strapped it on. In his mind, he seemed a bit taller with the gun strapped to his hip.
The boys finally headed out of the door and to the wagon. Ben followed them outside to see them off. Adam and Joe climbed onto the wagon seat while Hoss mounted Chubb. Riding his own horse would give Hoss greater mobility, especially since he would be working separately from Adam and Joe.
“See ya later, Pa,” Hoss called as they rode out. Adam tipped his hat in farewell while Joe waved good-bye with a pout. Ben watched his sons until they became specks in the distance. He hoped Joe would check his tongue and put in a hard day’s work.
As the wagon rumbled out of the yard, Adam tried to talk to Joe about the day’s chore. Joe was sitting with his arms across his chest, trying to tune out Adam’s voice. Hoss rode alongside the wagon, whistling a tune.
“Are you listening to me?” Adam asked with exasperation.
“How can I not hear ya?” replied Joe. “I’m sittin’ right next to ya.”
“There’s a difference between hearing and listening. I expect you to listen to me so that we can get the work done in a decent amount of time. I don’t want to have to give you directions four or five times.”
“Hmph,” Joe snorted in response.
Hoss could see Adam’s hands tensing on the reins. “Lil Joe, you’d better listen ta Adam. He taught me how ta mend fences. He’s a good teacher.”
“Are you gonna tell Pa on me if I don’t?” asked Joe sarcastically.
“No, Lil Joe, I ain’t,” replied Hoss. “Pa’ll know ya didn’t listen if we get back really late.”
Joe was surprised. He hadn’t thought that dragging his feet could cause them to get home later than planned. He sat up a little straighter and decided he’d better pay attention to Adam.
“You can sleep, Joe,” said Adam, deciding he’d rather ride in silence than talk with a sulky Joe. It’ll be at least another hour before we get there.”
Relieved to have permission to sleep, Joe slumped down in the seat and pulled his hat over his eyes. Even with the jostling of the wagon, he was soon asleep. He dreamed about having wild shootouts with characters that he’d read about in dime novels.
Hoss noticed Joe’s fingers twitching as he slept. “Looks like Lil’ Joe’s dreamin’ ‘bout usin’ that there gun,” he remarked to Adam.
“As long as he just dreams about it, we’ll be okay. Maybe I’ll practice with him if we have time today.”
“He’d sure like that,” said Hoss.
Adam began singing to pass the time. He was soon singing some of the lullabies he had sang to Joe when his brother was a baby. Hoss was surprised that Adam was singing those songs and wondered if Adam realized what he was singing.
As they came within sight of the fence, Adam reached over and gave Joe’s shoulder a shake. Startled, the boy jerked awake. Feeling the weight of the gun on his hip, Joe clumsily pulled the pistol from its holster. “What’s goin’ on?” he asked groggily.
“Put that gun away, Joe,” said Adam in rebuke.
Realizing that he had drawn the gun, Joe turned crimson. He gingerly placed it back in the holster. “Sorry,” he said.
“That gun is not a toy,” said Adam.
“I know that!” Joe replied testily.
“We jes wantcha ta be careful, Lil Joe,” said Hoss, trying to divert his brothers from losing their tempers.
Upon reaching the fence, Adam stopped the wagon. He jumped down while Hoss dismounted from Chubb. The two of them pulled posts, a shovel, a hammer, and nails from the back of the wagon. This was where Hoss would be working for the morning.
“These supplies ought to keep you busy for a while,” said Adam.
“I s’pose,” replied Hoss. “Where’s that packet of food Hop Sing made fer me?”
Adam pulled a small basket of food out from under the wagon seat. He handed it over to Hoss with a smile. “Remember to make that food last, Hoss,” he teased.
“I’ll try ta keep that in mind,” laughed Hoss in reply. “You two be careful and holler if ya need anything’.”
Adam climbed back up onto the wagon and again took up the reins. Joe looked back at Hoss, wishing he could work with him instead of Adam.
“You’re stuck with me today, Joe. You’d better accept the idea now.”
“I’ll try,” answered Joe fliply.
Adam could feel his temper rising and he took a deep breath. He held it for a count of ten and then exhaled. He didn’t want to start out arguing. The day was going to be long enough as it was.
They reached their portion of the fence where they would be working. After dismounting, Adam unhitched the horses and hobbled them. As a precaution, he tethered them to one of the wagon’s wheels with a fifty-foot rope. The horses would have enough leeway to graze but not enough to get too far if they were needed quickly.
“Help me unload the wagon,” Adam told Joe.
Sulkily, Joe clambered into the back of the wagon to help Adam remove the fence posts. Once the last post was on the ground, Joe threw the hammer and nails over where the posts lay.
“Don’t throw things!” Adam yelled. “I don’t want to lose those nails!”
“Sorry,” Joe said grouchily. The day had started off bad and was just getting worse.
“Get down here so we can get to work,” said Adam.
Joe jumped out of the wagon and waited for Adam to tell him what to do. He wished he was working with Hoss.
“We’ll start with here,” Adam said, pointing to a post.
“It looks okay to me,” Joe said, jamming his hands into his pockets.
“The post is rotting down near the ground. If we don’t replace it, this one will fall over and make the fence weaker. Go get the shovel so you can start digging a hole for the new post.”
“Why can’t you do that?” asked Joe, hands still in pockets.
“Because I told you to do it,” responded Adam.
Joe went over to the shovel and picked it up while Adam cut the wire on the old fence post. With the wire gone from both sides of the post, Joe would have room to put the new post in. He tried to dig, but the ground was hard. “Put your back into it,” said Adam. A snort was the only response he got.
Unable to stand Joe’s apparent laziness anymore, Adam took the shovel from him and began digging the new hole. Within five minutes, the hole was excavated.
“Why can’t we just put the new post where the old post is?” asked Joe.
“The new post won’t stand properly in that hole since we won’t be able to pack the soil in tightly. Let’s just get the new post set.”
Adam held the new post while Joe backfilled around the post. “C’mon, Joe, you can get more dirt than that with each shovelful.”
“I’m doin’ the best I can,” answered Joe testily.
“Pa should have you work more often,” said Adam.
“I don’t know why you and Hoss can’t do this,” Joe said grumpily.
“You’ve got to learn, Joe. Besides, it’s about time Pa stopped spoiling you and expected you to pull your weight.”
“Will you lay off?!?” yelled Joe. “I hafta go to school. You were lucky ‘cause at my age you got to stay home.”
“You’re the lucky one,” Adam replied, trying to hold back his temper. “By the time I was your age, I’d walked across most of this country, raised my brother, and helped build the house we live in. My childhood was spent helping Pa realize his dream. You’ve been able to sit back and enjoy the fruits of that dream, spoiled brat.”
“Quit callin’ me spoiled!” Joe yelled.
The sound of hoof beats interrupted what might have become a fist fight. They looked up to see Hoss riding towards them.
“I can hear ya clear back there,” Hoss said, gesturing with his thumb. “Everythin’ okay here?”
“Dandy,” said Joe sarcastically.
“We’re getting the job done,” said Adam.
Satisfied that his brothers weren’t about to kill each other, Hoss rode back to where he had been working.
“See what you did? You made Hoss worry,” said Joe.
“Drop it. Let’s just get back to work.”
Finally finishing the new hole, Adam decided to take his shirt off. The day was getting hot and he was working up quite a sweat, unlike his little brother. Joe sneaked a sideways glance at Adam. Both Adam and Hoss had hair on their chests. Joe wondered if his would ever look like theirs.
“Quit daydreaming and help me with this post,” said Adam.
Adam steadied the post while Joe continued to backfill. When the post started leaning, Adam stepped forward and repositioned it. Once Joe backfilled the hole, Adam tamped the post down with several hits of the hammer.
“Can we take a break now?” Joe asked with a whine.
“No, we’ve got to get the wire strung on this new post.”
“But I’m hot and tired,” whined Joe.
“Maybe we’ll take a break after the next one.”
They got the wire strung from two older posts to the new post. Adam held the nails with his mouth while Joe stretched the wire. His arms were getting tired from all of this work.
They moved to the next post and Adam handed Joe the shovel. Adam watched the boy dig. Joe could feel anger boiling in his chest. Why was he being punished like this? What had he done to make Pa mad? He wished he could work with Hoss.
Standing up, Joe decided to stretch out his back. Adam was taking off his gun belt. “Why aren’t you working?”
“I am working. I just need to rest a second.”
“Well, your second should be up. Why don’t you take that gun belt off so you can move easier?”
“I’d rather keep it on,” answered Joe petulantly.
“I hope you don’t expect me to finish everything for you today,” Adam said sarcastically while nodding towards the shovel.
Instead of replying, Joe started digging again. His back was hurting from the work.
Adam was surprised that Joe was actually working. Without a word, Adam took the shovel from him and handed him a canteen. Finishing the hole, Adam reached for the canteen. “Let’s get the new post in.”
“Why can’t we take a break?” Joe asked irritably.
“What have you got against hard work?” asked Adam, feeling anger rising.
“I’d work harder if I was workin’ with Hoss,” Joe said. He immediately felt a pang of regret for saying that.
“So you’re saying you believe it’s okay to be lazy when working with me?”
“That’s not what I said!” countered Joe.
“This is what I get for encouraging Pa to spoil you,” said Adam as he bent down to pick up a new post.
Hearing the click of the hammer on Joe’s gun, Adam looked up to see the pistol in Joe’s hand and pointed at him.
“Don’t move,” said Joe shakily.
Adam’s mind began racing. Was Joe that sensitive about being called spoiled? Without looking back, Adam stretched for the hammer. He felt a stinging on his arm and then the report of the gunshot. He couldn’t believe that Joe shot him for using the word spoiled.
Looking into Joe’s eyes, Adam saw fear through the cloud of smoke. But he noticed that Joe was looking slightly off to his left (Adam’s right), towards the fence. Adam looked in that direction and saw the tail of a snake as it slithered away through the grass. There were rattles on the snake’s tail. Adam then looked at his arm. Instead of seeing a wound caused by a bullet, Adam saw two punctures.
“Put the gun away, Joe,” Adam said softly.
Joe was still gripping the pistol and his hands were shaking. He’d missed the snake!! Because of him, Adam got bit!
“Joe, listen to me. I’m going to be okay. Just put the gun away.”
Joe’s face was turning pale. He could feel his legs starting to quiver. Before he knew it, everything started to turn black.
Adam rushed forward as he saw his brother faint. He caught Joe gently and lowered himself to his knees. The sound of hoof beats caught Adam’s attention.
Hoss rode up to see Joe unconscious with his head in Adam’s lap. “What happened? I heard a gunshot.” Hoss noticed the pistol lying on the ground near Joe, but he didn’t see gunshot wounds to either of his brothers.
Before Adam could answer, Joe sobbed out, “I missed, Adam! I’m sorry!!”
“Hand me your canteen,” requested Adam as he held his left hand out to Hoss, who was dismounting.
Hoss brought the canteen over and then helped raise Joe up. “What did he mean he missed?” Hoss asked while Joe drank.
“I was reaching for the hammer when Joe shot at a rattlesnake,” said Adam.
Joe pulled away from the canteen and noticed Hoss. The scared boy threw his arms around Hoss’ neck. “I missed and now Adam’s gonna die!”
Hoss looked confused as Adam said, “Don’t be so dramatic, Joe. I’m not going to die.”
“Were ya bit?” Hoss asked Adam with concern in his voice.
“On the arm,” replied Adam. “Not all bites inject venom,” he added.
“We can’t take a chance,” said Hoss. With that, he pulled out a knife made x-like incisions on the puncture wounds and began to try to suck out the venom. Adam only gasped in pain.
“We gotta get ya back home or to Doc Martin’s. It’s a couple hours back ta the house or a couple a hours ta town. Which way do ya think we should go?”
“Flip a coin,” said Adam with some agitation. His lips were beginning to tingle and he could feel his eyelids twitching. Hoss noticed that the puncture wounds were starting to bruise.
Joe was sitting with his arms around his knees and rocking back and forth. Hoss reached for Joe and then wiped away some of the tears on the boy’s face with his thumb. “Look, Lil’ Joe, we gotta help Adam git home. I need ya ta help me get him in the wagon and then hitch up the horses. Can ya do that fer me?” Joe’s only response was a nod.
Hoss went over to Chubb and uncinched the saddle. That would do for a pillow for Adam to lie on. The saddle blanket would have to do as a blanket for now.
As he was bringing the saddle over, Hoss noticed Joe trying to untie the horses from the wagon wheel. The boy’s hands were shaking so bad that he was just fumbling with the knots. “Leave the horses fer a few minutes,” said Hoss. “Let’s just get Adam in the wagon.”
Climbing into the back of the wagon, Hoss got the saddle positioned to his satisfaction. “Bring Adam over here,” he told Joe. The boy helped Adam stand up and protectively put an arm around his oldest brother’s waist. Adam was feeling dizzy as Joe steered him to the wagon. When they reached the back of the wagon, Hoss reached down for Adam’s hands and pulled him into the wagon. Adam grimaced in pain at that, but lay down in the bottom of the wagon.
“Get my shirt!” Adam yelled at Joe.
Joe ran over to the fence and plucked the shirt off of the wire. He heard ripping and turned to see a strip of the fabric fluttering on the fence. Gulping, he ran back to the wagon. Would Adam be mad at him for ripping the shirt? Hoss took the shirt from Joe and laid it over Adam’s torso. Then he draped the saddle blanket over the shirt. He made sure to leave the injured arm exposed so the pressure from the blanket wouldn’t cause Adam more pain.
“This is the best we can do,” Hoss said in way of apology.
“Just get me home,” said Adam through gritted teeth.
Hoss jumped out of the wagon and set about hitching up the team. Joe didn’t know what to do. He wanted to help but worried about being in the way.
As Hoss was hitching the horses, he said, “I wish there was a way to keep Adam from rollin’ around as we move.”
“Why don’t we put some of these posts up against him? I mean, that’ll make it harder for him to roll over. Won’t it?”
“Sounds like a great idea,” said Hoss with a smile for his little brother. Joe ran to the posts and started dragging one over while Hoss finished hitching the team. Hoss quickly ran over and helped Joe with the post. They shoved it into the wagon alongside Adam. Hoss went and picked up two more posts while Joe dragged another over to the wagon.
Once Adam was positioned to his satisfaction, Hoss tied Chubb to the back of the wagon. Then he climbed up on the seat.
“Why don’t you send Chubb on home?” asked Joe. “That way, Pa’ll know something’s wrong.”
“We might need him if Adam gets bad off,” replied Hoss. “You may hafto ride Chubb ta the doc’s while I bring him home.”
Joe just gulped and then climbed onto the seat. He was worried about Adam. Why couldn’t he have hit the darned snake?
The wagon started moving with a lurch. Hoss and Joe heard Adam gasp as the wagon rocked.
Joe kept looking back to Adam, who was becoming more agitated. Climbing into the back of the wagon, Joe took a look at Adam’s arm. The arm was swelling up to the elbow and the puncture wounds were looking ugly. He noticed that the fingers were twitching. As a moan escaped Adam’s lips, Joe noticed that his brother’s cheeks and lips were twitching, too.
“Hoss, we gotta go faster!” Joe pleaded.
“I’m goin’ as fast as we can. If we tire out the horses, we won’t be able to get Adam any help.”
“Please don’t die,” Joe whispered as he leaned over Adam.
Suddenly, Adam’s eyes flew open. He found himself looking into a pair of green eyes. “Why’re you crying, Marie?” Adam asked. Joe’s only response was a gasp. “Little Joe’s gonna be okay. He’s only got a few scrapes and bruises.”
Joe realized that Adam must be remembering some incident from their childhood. He didn’t know how to respond, except to pat Adam’s hand.
“I’ll be more careful next time we go riding,” Adam said. “I promise we won’t jump any fences, even if Little Joe begs.” With that, a groan escaped Adam and his eyes closed.
“Hoss, I’m scared!” Joe said after Adam lost consciousness. “He thinks I’m Mama.”
Too scared to stay in the back with Adam, Joe climbed back onto the seat. “Why would he think I’m Mama?”
“People who’ve been snake bit sometimes git delusions. They imagine all sorts a things,” said Hoss.
“But why would he be thinking about Mama?” Joe persisted.
“I dunno,” said Hoss. “Mebbe he’s thinking ‘bout happier times because of the pain.”
They rode on in silence for a while. The only sounds were the creaks of the wagon, the horses’ hooves, and Adam’s groans.
After a couple of miles, Joe said, “Hoss, I gotta go.”
“No, I gotta go,” Joe said with a tap to Hoss’ arm and a pleading look.
“No. I really gotta go.”
Pulling the horses to a stop, Hoss gestured to some sparse bushes and said, “Make it quick. We can’t afford delays.”
“I can’t go there!” protested Joe.
“You’ll jes hafto. Where were you plannin’ on goin’ if Adam hadn’t got bit?”
“I dunno. But I gotta go now.”
“Well, go in those bushes.”
“There ain’t enough privacy,” Joe whined.
Hoss found himself losing his temper. “You’ll go in those bushes or hold it ‘til we git home.”
Joe grimaced at the thought of using such sparse cover.
“Ya goin’ or not?” asked Hoss.
Instead of responding, Joe jumped down from the wagon and went behind the bushes where he could have some privacy.
Hoss ventured a look in the back of the wagon. Adam’s coloring was getting bad and his face was very sweaty. Hoss didn’t know how much longer Adam would have to suffer.
Seeing Joe emerge from the bushes, Hoss decided the boy should ride for Dr. Martin. “You’ll hafto ride Chubb inta town and git the Doc. Have him come out to the house. We should be there by the time you and the Doc git there.”
“Do ya want me to get the saddle outta the wagon?” Joe asked.
“You’ll hafto ride bareback. Chubb’s a big horse and yer pretty light. You should make good time.”
Hoss noticed how scared Joe looked. “I know ya can do this, Shortshanks. You’ve been ridin’ bareback since you would walk.”
“I’m scared,” was Joe’s only reply. The boy sniffled a little.
“I know, Shortshanks,” said Hoss. “But ya gotta do this fer Adam.”
Joe untied Chubb from the back of the wagon and led the horse over to the front. He handed the reins up to Hoss while he climbed into the back of the wagon. Joe touched Adam’s cheek and said, “I’m goin’ for help. Hang in there, Adam. Please don’t die.” There was no response from Adam. Joe wiped his nose and eyes on his sleeve and then went to the edge of the wagon. He leaped out of the wagon onto Chubb’s broad back. The big horse shied a bit, but the boy’s weight was nothing compared to his usual rider’s. Hoss handed the reins over to Joe and said, “Ride fast, Lil’ Joe. We’re dependin’ on ya.” With that, Hoss flicked the reins on the horses’ rumps and the wagon started rumbling again.
Joe gave Chubb a hard kick in the ribs and the horse sprang into a gallop. He was gripping the reins tightly and had fistfuls of mane, too. Chubb was flying across the landscape, his long strides covering the distance quickly.
All Joe could do was replay the snake bite in his mind. Maybe Adam would’ve seen the rattler if they hadn’t been arguing. If he had shouted a warning instead of drawing the gun, maybe Adam could’ve jumped out of the way. But the snake had blended into the grass so well that the only reason Joe noticed it was because it was moving. He had thought he could shoot the snake and impress his oldest brother.
Tears began flowing down Joe’s cheek, blurring his vision. He knew he had to keep an eye on where they were going so Chubb wouldn’t head for home. If he ended up at home instead of Virginia City, time would be wasted as he got a fresh horse and headed for town again.
After what seemed like days, Joe saw Virginia City’s main street in the distance. Chubb was getting tired, but Joe tried to encourage him to keep up the pace. He was almost there and that much closer to saving Adam.
Thundering into Virginia City, Joe didn’t pay attention to whom or what was in the street. People were yelling and screaming as the big horse barreled though town. Before he knew it, Joe had made it to the other side of Virginia City. He started pulling on the reins, trying to get the sweaty horse stopped.
Joe could hear hoof beats thundering behind him. Before he knew it, Sheriff Coffee was grabbing Chubb’s bridle. Chubb finally started to slow down. Joe found himself relaxing as Chubb slowed to a trot.
“What in tarnation are ya doin’, Little Joe?” asked the sheriff. “That was a mighty dangerous joyride you just took through town. Why are ya ridin’ Chubb? Is Hoss hurt?”
“Please,” begged Joe, “I’ve gotta get Doctor Martin. Adam got bit by a rattler when we were workin’ on the fence this morning. Hoss is taking him home and he told me to ride for the doc. I gotta go get him and then head home.”
Turning the horses back to town, Roy saw Joe shaking. The boy could make up some wild stories to cover his tracks, but this certainly didn’t seem to be one of those times. Joe was very pale and trembling. He probably would be laughing and whooping if he had taken Chubb for a joyride.
As they rode through town, Roy asked, “Why are ya ridin’ bareback?”
Joe sobbed out, “Because Hoss put the saddle in the wagon as a pillow for Adam. The saddle blanket is bein’ used as a regular blanket to keep him warm.”
They finally reached Dr. Martin’s office, where Joe slid off Chubb’s back. While Roy tied up the horses, Joe rushed inside.
Seeing the doctor, the sweaty boy flung himself into the man’s arms.
“Are you hurt Little Joe?” the doctor asked.
Roy walked into the office to see Joe bawling, his arms tightly circling the doctor’s waist. “He said Adam got snake bit while they were workin’ on the fence this mornin’. Hoss is takin’ Adam home and he sent Little Joe to fetch ya.”
“It’s all my fault!” Joe sobbed out.
“What do you mean?” the doctor asked the scared boy.
Joe pulled back from the doctor and looked into his face. “Instead of warnin’ Adam when I saw the rattler, I tried to shoot it. When I missed, it bit him.”
“Where did the snake bite your brother?”
“On the arm,” Joe replied as he indicated on his own arm where the snake bite was located.
“What was Adam doing when the snake bit him?” Dr. Martin asked.
“He was reaching for the hammer,” Joe sniffled.
“Did he see the snake?” Roy asked.
“No sir,” Joe replied. He wiped his runny nose on his sleeve.
“What are his symptoms?” asked Dr. Martin, hoping that little or no venom had been injected with the bite.
“He’s all twitchy and in pain. His arm’s swellin’ and the bite looks bad.” Joe sniffled again.
The doctor went to retrieve his bag, knowing there wasn’t much he could do. He didn’t want to say anything and scare Joe further. Dr. Martin caught Roy’s eye and just raised his eyebrows.
“I’ll go down ta the livery to get your buggy hitched up,” Roy said.
Before he could get out the door, Joe said, “I’ll ride Chubb home and meet ya there.”
“No, Little Joe,” Roy replied. “Chubb is too winded for ya to run him home. You ride in the buggy with the Doc. I’ll bring Chubb out to the house later.”
The doctor tried to ease Joe’s worries while they waited for the buggy. “Adam is young and strong. The snake might not have injected much venom.”
“He’s gonna die. I know it,” Joe wailed.
Dr. Martin heard the sound of his buggy approaching. “Come on, Little Joe. The faster we get out to the Ponderosa the better chance your brother will have.”
The pair got into the buggy and headed for the Ponderosa. Joe was not very talkative. He kept thinking about Adam calling him spoiled. That couldn’t be true. Maybe Adam was jealous because Joe had grown up with his own mother through his babyhood.
“Doc?” Joe finally asked.
“Yes, Little Joe?”
“Do ya think I’m a spoiled brat?”
“Why do you ask that?”
“Adam keeps sayin’ I am. Is he right?”
Dr. Martin decided tact would be the best route to take. “Well, Little Joe, you are your father’s youngest child. It’s only natural to want the youngest child to have everything that couldn’t be provided to the oldest child.”
“But Adam always says I’m spoiled because Pa don’t make me work on the ranch like him and Hoss.”
“You’ve got to remember, Little Joe, that Adam had a very hard childhood and never had the chance to play like you do. He was always on the move with your pa, who didn’t have much money or a settled home, like you do.”
“Hoss never calls me spoiled. Why do ya think so?” Joe was desperate to find out why Adam hated him so much.
“I figure that Hoss has had quite a hand in helping to spoil you, son. Hoss grew up on the Ponderosa for the most part. He had to help your pa and Adam with building and clearing land. The difference, though, was your pa had settled on his own patch of land when Hoss was a very little boy. When you were born, Hoss finally got to be a big brother and help you grow up. He takes his responsibility as your older brother very seriously.”
Joe thought about that for a little bit. After Adam left home, Hoss was Joe’s companion and playmate. They did chores together, played together, and, when Joe had bad dreams, slept together.
“Well, I just won’t be spoiled no more,” Joe announced. He’d show Adam how responsible he could be.
Dr. Martin smiled a bit at that. Maybe Little Joe was now convinced that Adam would live. He certainly hoped so since there wasn’t much he could do medically.
The buggy pulled into the yard at the Ponderosa. Hoss came outside at the sound. Joe leaped out of the buggy and into Hoss’ arms.
“Pa’s upstairs with Adam,” was all Hoss said to the doctor.
Dr. Martin let himself in and went up the stairs to Adam’s room. He caught the smell of whiskey as he entered the room. Adam was laid out on the bed under a number of quilts, his wounded arm on top of the covers. A poultice covered the bite. Ben was sitting on the bed, looking down at his eldest. He looked up as the doctor entered the room.
Ben said, “Hop Sing put a poultice of goldenseal on the bite to try to draw out the poison. Do you think it will help?”
“Can’t hurt,” was all Dr. Martin said as he pulled back the poultice to look at the wound. Adam’s arm was swollen up to the shoulder. His lips, eyelids, cheeks, and fingers were twitching. Placing his hand on Adam’s face, the doctor was surprised at how feverish Adam felt. The bite would itself had turned a deep purple. Knowing he couldn’t do anything, the doctor felt keenly useless. Ben Cartwright would have a couple of agonizing days waiting to see if his oldest son would survive. Even if Adam lived, he might not be able to use the arm again.
Covering the wound with the poultice again, the doctor looked at Ben, one of his dearest friends, with a look of great sadness. “I’m sorry, Ben,” he said, “you and Hop Sing have done more than I can. It’s up to Adam now.”
“God help us!” Ben cried out. He couldn’t bear the thought of life without his oldest child. When Adam left for college, Ben had felt a stab in his heart. He was so worried that Adam would love big city life among educated people as well as being in the land of his ancestors that he would never return to the Ponderosa. That stab wound in his heart had healed the moment Adam returned to his father. Now, that wound might reopen and never heal. Losing his wives had been hell, but losing one of his children? Ben was sure that he would die too if Adam didn’t survive.
Joe couldn’t believe it when he heard Dr. Martin say he couldn’t do anything for Adam. How was that possible? He’s ridden to Virginia City as fast as he could! Adam had to live, he just had to.
Feeling more angry than scared now, Joe burst into Adam’s room and started flailing his fists at the doctor. Hoss rushed in and grabbed the boy, pulling him away from the doctor. “You gotta save him!” Joe yelled. “You went to college. Didn’t they teach ya ‘bout snake bites?!”
“That’s enough, Joseph!” said Ben sternly. “The doctor said he can’t do anything for Adam. If he could, he would be doing it right now.” Looking at the doctor, Ben said, “Thank you for coming, Paul. We’ll let you know how Adam fares.” With that, Ben went back to looking at Adam.
Knowing there was nothing else he could do, Dr. Martin left Adam’s room and went downstairs. He had never felt so dejected leaving the Cartwright’s. In the past, there had always been some medical service he could provide. Along with words of comfort. Now, there was nothing. He shut the door behind him, hoping for the best.
Joe approached Adam’s bedside and knelt down. He clasped his hands together and prayed for Adam to get better. The boy decided to make a bargain with God—he would never argue with Adam again if God would let Adam recover from the snake bite.
Seeing Joe kneeling by the bed, Ben whispered, “Joseph.”
Joe looked up and saw his pa gesture for him to come over.
Ben moved from the edge of the bed to the rocking chair. When Joe came over, he pulled his youngest into his lap. “God knows how much you love your brother. I’m sure He’ll listen to your prayers.”
Joe began to sniffle.
“What’s wrong, son?” Ben asked gently.
“It’s all my fault, Pa,” Joe said, beginning to cry. “If I wasn’t such a spoiled brat, Adam would’ve seen that rattler. He’d be okay instead of dyin’.”
“You’re not a spoiled brat,” answered Ben.
“But everyone says I’m spoiled,” was Joe’s only response.
“Who’s everyone?” Ben asked, assuming Adam was the only one who ever called Joe that.
“Adam, Dr. Martin, all sorts of other people,” Joe replied. “Why do ya hafto spoil me, Pa?”
“Sssshhh,” was Ben’s only response as he stroked Joe’s back. “I’m able to give you the security I was never able to give Adam or Hoss. I’m sorry if that makes people think you’re spoiled.”
Ben wished he’d been able to spoil Adam. If Elizabeth had lived, they still would have traveled west. Adam would still have grown up in a covered wagon and on the move. However, Adam would have had a mother to look after him and to soothe his hurts the way only a mother could. Inger had been a wonderful parent to Adam. Ben was sure that it was love at first sight between the two. The boy was desperate for a mother and Inger was longing to have a family of her own. Inger’s death had left Adam devastated and saddled with even more responsibility since the child had to help raise his baby brother.
After claiming and settling the Ponderosa, Adam had to help clear land, saw timber, and build the cabin that they lived in. By the age of ten, Adam had labored far more than his father at that age. Ben regretted that his oldest never had a proper childhood.
When he married Marie, Ben thought that Adam would be glad to have a mother to spoil him. Instead, Adam had resented a stepmother telling him what to do. After all, the boy had been helping to run the ranch for several years. The birth of Joseph had brought Adam out of his shell, though. Seeing Adam play with the baby made Ben wish that he could have provided a better childhood for his oldest.
Ben was brought out of his reverie by a gasp from Adam. Getting up from the chair, Ben went over to the bed to see Adam thrashing. “Hold him down, Joseph,” Ben said as took one side. Joe took the wounded side and tried to keep his brother still. Hoss came in the room and helped Joe try to keep Adam still.
Adam finally stopped thrashing and lay still. Ben dipped a cloth into a basin of water and dabbed it against Adam’s face. “I’m going to see if Hop Sing has anymore poultices,” Ben said to Hoss. “Keep an eye on your brother.” With that, he handed the cloth to Hoss, who began to wipe the sweat from Adam’s face.
While Hoss was leaning over his brother, Adam opened his eyes. He found himself looking into a pair of blue eyes. They were such a clear blue, like the color of a mountain lake.
“I finded a present for ya, Mama” Adam said in a very soft voice. Joe tensed up as he thought back to when Adam had thought he was Mama. “Does ya like it?” he asked.
“It’s beautiful,” was all Hoss said. Adam’s eyes closed and he seemed to relax. Hoss knew Adam was nowhere near out of the woods yet.
Ben entered the room with another poultice. He removed the old one and was surprised to see the egg-plant color of the wound. Hoping this herb was actually working, Ben placed the new poultice on the bite.
When Ben laid the new poultice on the arm, Adam sat up suddenly. He looked at Ben and then yelled out, “Indians, Pa! We gotta get outta here! Where’s Hoss?! We gotta get home!!”
Ben pushed Adam’s shoulders to force his son back on to the bed. “It’s okay, son. These are friendly Indians. They aren’t going to hurt any of us. Remember them? They said they’d help us hunt for deer so we’ll have enough food.”
“Oh,” was Adam’s only response as he settled back onto the bed. Ben hoped the hallucinations would stop soon. He knew Adam would be on the mend when he could speak coherently.
The clip-clop of hooves could be heard in the yard. Hoss went to the window and saw Sheriff Coffee leading Chubb to the hitching post. “It’s Roy, Pa,” said Hoss.
“Stay with your brother,” Ben said to the boys. He then went downstairs to thank Roy for bringing the horse back. Ben was hoping that Roy might have some advice on snake bites.
Opening the door, Ben gestured for Roy to come in. “Thanks for bringing back the horse,” was all Ben said.
“How’s Adam?” Roy asked.
“Not good,” Ben replied.
“How’s Little Joe?” Roy asked, remembering how scared the boy had been in town.
“He’s praying for Adam to pull through.”
“Was Doc able to do anything fer the bite?”
“No,” replied Ben morosely.
Roy didn’t know what to say. He’d known the Cartwrights since they arrived in the Virginia City area. He had helped Ben out with all the legalities when Ben claimed the Ponderosa land and then later registered his brand. Adam had been such a mature child that Roy wondered if the boy knew how to have fun. Roy discovered that Adam had a very dry sense of humor and could pull some mighty impressive pranks when the mood struck him. He sure hoped that Adam would pull through this. The sheriff hated to think of how despondent Ben would be if Adam didn’t survive.
“Little Joe told me that he and Adam were workin’ when this happened. That poor kid holds himself responsible. Chances are, Adam didn’t even know that snake was there.” Roy knew these words were just conversation and wouldn’t provide any comfort to the worried father.
“Do you think I’ve turned Joseph into a spoiled brat?” Ben asked.
Surprised, Roy asked, “Whaddya mean, Ben?”
“Joseph told me that everyone thinks he’s a spoiled brat. I told him that his childhood’s been easier than Adam’s or Hoss’.”
Trying to be tactful, Roy replied, “Well, everyone can tell Little Joe is the apple of your eye. ‘ Sides, it’s only natural ta want the best for your children.”
“But I love all three of my boys,” Ben said. “I’ve tried to love them all the same. I never wanted them to resent each other.”
“They don’t resent each other,” answered Roy. “Everyone admires how much yer boys love each other. You shoulda seen Little Joe when he got ta town today. His only concern was gettin’ help fer Adam. You should be proud of yer boys, Ben.”
Roy gave Ben’s shoulder a reassuring squeeze and then let himself out. He hoped Adam pulled though all right.
Ben went upstairs and went into Adam’s room. He settled himself into the rocking chair for a long night. He knew he spoiled Joseph because he was a wealthy man. Times had been harder for Adam and Hoss. Maybe Roy was right, the boys loved each other as they should.
During the night, Joe came in and sat on the edge of the bed. The boy turned the lamp up a bit and began reading Robinson Crusoe aloud.
By morning, Adam’s breathing seemed to be shallow, but his coloring was a bit better. His eyelids and lips were still twitching. The boy was young and strong. Maybe his body could overcome the venom.
Joe stopped reading to give his voice a rest. Adam opened one eye and asked, “Why’d ya stop? Are you gonna read the part about the naked native ladies?”
Everyone was so shocked to hear Adam’s voice. Joe dropped the book and flung himself onto Adam’s chest. Hoss, who had come into the room at dawn, pulled Joe off and said, “Be gentle. He ain’t outta the woods yet.” Ben was ecstatic to hear Adam lucid. With a smile, Ben sat down on the bed and then gave his son a kiss on the forehead.
Adam lightly pushed his father away with his good arm and made a face. “I’m not a kid, Pa,” was all he said.
Joe meanwhile had picked the book up off the floor and was flipping through it, hoping he could find the passage Adam had mentioned. A throaty chuckle was heard from Adam, who had relaxed back into the pillows.
Ben pulled back the poultice and noticed the bite wound was still purple, but it didn’t look as ugly. Maybe Hop Sing’s herbs were working.
Joe finally went to bed at his father’s insistence. Ben didn’t mind sitting alone with his oldest child. It wasn’t very often anymore that Ben got to feel in control with Adam.
Joe had settled himself in his bed, happy that Adam was going to recover. Remembering his bargain with God, he vowed that he would never argue with Adam again.
That evening, a dozing Ben awoke to the sound of raised voices. Joe was trying to spoon some gruel into Adam’s mouth. Ben noticed that gruel was all over Adam’s chin and chest. He wondered just how much was making its way into Adam’s mouth.
“Hop Sing says ya gotta eat,” said Joe with a spoonful of gruel poised over his brother’s mouth.
“Then why don’t you try to actually get it in my mouth?” Adam countered.
“I can’t help that it’s runny,” said Joe irritably.
Since Adam’s mouth was open to say something, Joe shoved the spoon into his brother’s mouth. Adam grabbed for the spoon with his good hand and yanked it out.
“Watch what you’re doing, ya brat!” said Adam.
Forgetting his bargain with God, Joe said, “Fine! Starve then. See if I do anything else for ya, ungrateful granite head!!”
“That’s enough, Joseph,” said Ben, taking the bowl and spoon from his youngest. Everything was going to be alright now. Adam and Joe were bickering as usual. He sighed in relief as Joe left the room.
Ben lifted a spoonful of gruel out of the bowl and had it poised over Adam’s mouth. Adam might be scowling, but his father silently thanked God for sparing his son. Ben was only too happy to be in control now. “Open the barn door and let in the wagon,” Ben said as he held the spoon above Adam’s mouth. Figuring he’d better comply, Adam opened his mouth for his father. Now Ben would have a chance to spoil Adam a bit.