Summary: The first 18 lines of this story were given to the author as a writer’s challenge. Everything after those lines is the original work of the author).
Word Count: 4000
“Pa, I’ll be fine.”
It was the last thing Joe had said to him, his voice edged with irritation as he’d hurriedly fastened his gun belt and plucked his hat from the sideboard. He’d been eager to leave; even more so than usual thanks to the hovering attention of a concerned father.
Yet Ben couldn’t shake the nagging feeling in his gut he’d felt from the moment he had awakened that morning. A feeling that something was off, or wrong, or something was going to happen, and that it would surely involve his youngest.
The morning passed without incident, and soon logic reared its head and effectively stifled the nervousness to a mere hum, easily ignored as Ben busied himself with his daily tasks. There was nothing to worry about, after all. Joe was just going into town for the mail; something he’d done a hundred times before. Nothing to worry about.
Yet a father’s instinct is a stubborn thing, and Ben found himself surrendering to the feeling of unease as the day progressed. Adam later came upon him pacing the floor and glancing anxiously at the clock. He didn’t need to be told why his father was so agitated.
“How late is he?” Adam asked quietly.
“Late,” Ben replied. “He should have been back two, three hours ago.”
“Pa, he’ll be fine,” Adam admonished. “Joe’s not a little kid anymore. You’ve got to stop doing this to yourself.”
Ben forced a smile. “I know. Old habits die hard, don’t they?”
Adam sighed. “I think I’ll head out and see if Hoss needs any help in the barn,” he said, clearly in a hurry to rid himself of the company of an over-anxious parent.
Ben picked up the newspaper and tried to concentrate on the words in front of him. Adam was right, of course he was right. It was perfectly fine for a parent to worry, but not so fine to be consumed by it. Ben knew he could go on and on listing the numerous perils that could befall his son – both real and imagined – and he couldn’t help but chuckle at the absurd direction of his thoughts. He’d have to tell Joe later how silly he’d been.
His amusement, however, was abruptly extinguished at the sound of the slamming door, and Adam’s urgent voice on its heels.
“Pa! PA! Come quick!”
As they ran for the barn, Ben couldn’t stop the images flashing behind his eyes – Joe bleeding profusely from a gunshot wound, his youngest badly beaten and battered, an arrow protruding from his son’s back, and countless other terrors to stop a father’s heart. Upon reaching their destination, Ben came to a sudden stop and practically knocked Adam over.
Mercury, the slowest horse in the Cartwrights’ stable had returned home without the buggy – or Joe. Adam had thought it funny to name a horse with two speeds – plodding and plodding slightly faster – for the swift messenger of the Roman gods. The name wasn’t quite as funny now since the horse was lathered in sweat – and still harnessed. Whatever had happened must have been frightening.
Hoss was carefully examining the horse from the light cast by the lantern. “I don’t see any blood. That’s gotta be a good thing, right?”
Ben’s brows furrowed together. No blood on the horse didn’t mean that Joe was in good shape. Several scenarios began to blossom in his mind’s eye. Maybe a tree came down on the shafts and separated the horse from the buggy; Joe could be trapped under the tree, hoping someone would find him. Perhaps Joe had been trying to get away from a would-be thief and crashed into a boulder; he could be lying among the splintered wreckage, unconscious, with a head injury. He could have been shot and Mercury panicked at the sound of gunfire; the terrified horse could have run the buggy into any sort of obstacle.
Adam laid a hand on his father’s shoulder and gently squeezed. “Don’t worry, Pa. We’ll find him.” Looking into Pa’s eyes, Adam could see the fear and the questions of what might have happened. “He’s probably walking home right now, using every colorful word he’s ever heard.”
“I hope you’re right.”
Hoss led Mercury into his stall while Ben and Adam saddled their horses. There was only a half moon but it and a lantern would hopefully provide enough light to trace Mercury’s route home.
Adam and Ben were re-tightening their cinches as Hoss led Chubb out of the barn. The largest Cartwright handed the lantern to Adam while he mounted and then reached out to take it back. He was the best tracker among them and could read more from pressed grass or a broken twig than many people could with an arrow pointing the way their quarry had gone.
The creak of saddle leather was the only noise to be heard as they concentrated on following Mercury’s trail. Fortunately, the shafts from the buggy had been dragging the ground so they only had to track the ruts in the sandy soil. It was lucky that the horse hadn’t seemed to leave the road on his journey home.
Ben regretted allowing Joe to take the buggy into town. One of the axles looked as if it was going to have to be replaced and Ben knew the darned thing would have to be taken to the blacksmith at some point. Joe promised that he’d take the buggy to Abner as soon as he arrived in Virginia City, check in with Roy, pass the time quietly at the sheriff’s office, and then pick up the mail before returning home as soon as the repair job was completed. If he found out that Joe had been racing the buggy… Ben checked that thought; his youngest might be reckless at times and have his mother’s need for speed, but under normal circumstances, Mercury would never have gone fast enough for his son’s hat brim to flutter.
If only Joe had taken Cochise into town. The horse seemed to be his rider’s guardian at times, having a sixth sense about dangers lurking behind rocks or in the darkness. There were instances when the paint seemed to have the same wild desire to arrive at his destination in record time, but the horse always let his owner know when enough was enough. Ben just knew that Joe would have arrived home safe and sound, hours earlier if he’d just saddled up his own horse.
The Cartwrights had been searching for over an hour when a dim shape could be seen up ahead on the side of the road. As they neared it, they saw that it was a wheel. Ben swallowed a lump of fear, worried about the injuries his son might have. Adam and Hoss exchanged nervous glances; the rest of the buggy must be splintered.
“Spread out,” Ben said quietly. “Little Joe must be nearby.”
A low sound caught Hoss’ ear. “You hear that?”
“Hear what?” asked Adam.
“That noise. It sounded like a critter in pain.”
“It probably was just that – an animal. Let’s look for Joe.”
All three men heard a moan and what sounded like a stifled cry from several feet off the road.
“That wasn’t a critter,” said Hoss rather smugly.
Ben shot a glare at his middle son as he dismounted. Adam and Hoss traded uneasy looks as they followed their father.
The light from the lantern revealed the buggy lying with its remaining wheels in the air. All three Cartwrights slowly approached the wreck, looking for a sign of Joe. A soft whimper from under the buggy drew their attention and, in the light cast from the lantern, they saw the green fabric of a jacket and a motionless hand.
Ben lay down in the dirt and grasped the extended hand in his own. He gently squeezed and said, “Joe? We’re here. Everything’s going to be okay.” When there was no response, Ben worriedly asked, “Can you hear me, Joseph?”
A soft sob caught Ben’s ear and he sighed out a breath his lungs had refused to part with until he knew his son was alive. “Get this thing off of him.”
Hoss and Adam slowly lifted the remains of the buggy from their brother, afraid of what might lie beneath. Ben wanted them to fling it away, but he didn’t wish to cause his son additional pain. A sharp hiss encouraged Adam and Hoss as it meant that Joe was conscious.
One side of the seat cushion came loose and smacked Joe. His hand tightened around his father’s as a whimper escaped his lips. “Can’t you be more careful?” he asked between clenched teeth.
“Sorry,” said Hoss as he and Adam concentrated on their task.
When Joe was finally free of the buggy, Ben reached forward with his free hand and gently stroked his son’s tear-stained cheek. “Can you tell us what happened?”
Before Joe could say a word, Hoss let loose a loud guffaw and Adam struggled to keep his laughter from escaping. Ben shot a glare at his sons – couldn’t they see that their brother was lucky to be alive?
“How’d you manage to get turned into a pin cushion?” asked Hoss between whoops of laughter. Adam’s struggle ended as he guffawed.
“It’s not funny!” yelled Joe. He let out a loud moan.
Ben looked his son over and saw what had caused such amusement – quills were protruding from Joe’s backside. His brows furrowed in confusion – Joe had been under the buggy, so how did he manage to incur the wrath of a porcupine? “How did this happen?” he finally asked.
“I was headed home when an owl swooped in front of that stupid horse’s nose and startled him. Before I could get him under control, he was running for home.”
“That don’t explain how you got attacked by a porcupine,” Hoss said. Adam snorted as he tried to hold in a snicker.
Ben shot a glare at Hoss and Adam but was sure they didn’t see it through the tears in their eyes. Turning his attention back to his youngest, he said, “Tell me the truth, Joseph. Did you get that axle fixed?”
“Yes, Sir. You can even check with Abner next time you’re in town.”
“How did the buggy end up like…this?”
“I’m not sure.”
“You weren’t racing someone were you? How many times have I told you that the buggy is not to be used for racing.”
“I wasn’t! Honest!”
Still struggling for control, Hoss asked, “Did that owl try to carry you off?” He hooted as Adam crossed his arms over his chest in a desperate attempt to keep from doubling over.
“You boys stop it right now!” If his sons couldn’t see his glare, they certainly felt it. “Tell me what you remember.”
Joe gripped his father’s hand tightly as another wave of pain washed over him. “The buggy started to wobble when Mercury took off. I was trying to rein him in when we hit something. Then there was a loud crack and I flew through the air.”
“You landed on the porcupine?” asked Hoss.
“No,” Joe hissed between clenched teeth. After a deep breath to cool his temper, he said, “I was thrown clear. When I got up and dusted myself off, I went looking for my hat.”
“And that’s when it got you,” said Adam in a matter-of-fact tone.
Joe shook his head. “After getting my hat, I went to the road to look for what might have been in the way. I saw the wheel and I was gonna lift it up. As soon as I squatted, something hit me in the rear and I felt as if I was on fire.”
Adam started to snicker as he said, “You squatted over a porcupine.”
“In case you haven’t noticed, it’s dark. I didn’t see it!”
“Too bad it wasn’t a skunk. At least you would’ve smelled it,” added Hoss as he tried to hold back his laughter.
“Stop it!” ordered Ben. Joe might see some humor in what had happened in a couple of months, but not right now. His brothers’ teasing was only adding to the embarrassment of the situation.
“At least you were able to get under the buggy so it wouldn’t bother you anymore.” Ben added a gentle squeeze to his son’s shoulder to let him know he empathized. “Let’s get your brother home.”
“What about the buggy?” asked Hoss, wiping tears from his face.
“You and Adam can bring out the wagon tomorrow and pick it up. Then you two can repair it as soon as you get it home.”
“Yes, Sir,” Adam and Hoss mumbled.
After they helped Joe stand, they were faced with the dilemma of how to get him home. They hadn’t brought an extra horse, which wouldn’t matter anyway since Joe couldn’t sit. Figuring he wouldn’t be up to walking, Hoss asked, “How about I sling you across my saddle?”
Assuming that there’d be more teasing if he rode with one of his brothers, Joe crossed his arms across his chest and glared. “You can ride with me,” offered Adam.
“Joseph will ride with me,” Ben announced. “Be careful; he’s already been through enough.”
“Feet or shoulders?” asked Hoss.
“I’ll take his shoulders,” said Adam.
“You would take the easy end,” grumbled Hoss.
After Adam went around to Buck’s other side, Hoss told Joe, “Hold yourself steady on my shoulder.” He then grasped Joe behind the knees and lifted him high enough for him to grab the saddle horn. Adam then guided him across the leather seat until he was as comfortable as possible.
“Think we should hang his hat on him so he won’t lose it?” asked Hoss.
Adam’s snickering was cut short by the sound of throat clearing. “We’d better mount up.”
Slung across Pa’s saddle for the ride home, Joe wished he’d been tossed from the buggy and had a broken leg – at least he’d have been hauled home on a travois and treated with some dignity. His ears were red from a combination of the blood running to his head and the comments his brothers were making about his posterior. If he heard that his backside would do as a hat rack one more time, he’d demand that Pa put him down and his brothers ride on ahead so he could walk back to the house in silence.
Riding behind their father, Adam and Hoss decided to change the direction of their conversation. “Remember when Mr. Garvey’s hound got those quills in his nose? That dog never could smell out a rabbit after that.”
“His eyesight shore wasn’t affected ‘cause that ol’ dog took off like a shot if anyone tried to get close to him with a needle to sew up a tear.”
Joe gritted his teeth as his brothers cackled.
“How about that time that dadburned bull thought he was nudgin’ a tumbleweed with his nose?”
“The Paiutes thought he was the funniest thing on four legs. Remember how they’d come down to the south pasture to see who guessed right at the number of quills left?” Sport tossed his head as Adam bounced with laughter in the saddle. “What’d they call him?”
Hoss started wheezing as he laughed at the memory of the bull practically cross-eyed as it tried to see what was causing its nose to hurt. “Bellowing Cactus.”
Ben felt Joe tensing up and knew his youngest’s pride, already wounded, wouldn’t suffer much more teasing. “You boys ride on ahead. We’ll be home soon.” Instead of accepting the lantern, he told Hoss to keep it; Buck knew the way.
Arriving in the yard, Ben dismounted as Adam and Hoss trotted through the doorway. “Gently, boys.”
Joe stifled his cries as he was helped down from the horse and then supported by his brothers. This was going to be the longest walk he’d ever made to his bedroom. When he tried to take a step, though, the pain was too intense and he nearly fell. Before he could say anything, he found himself upside down again, this time slung over Hoss’ shoulder.
“Adam, go get the pliers.”
Realizing what Pa meant to do, Adam gulped in dread. Joe’s predicament suddenly wasn’t amusing anymore. “Are you sure? Maybe I should go get Dr. Martin. Maybe he . . .”
“Just get the pliers,” ordered Ben.
Adam ran for the barn as Hoss carried Joe upstairs.
Once in Joe’s room, Hoss was faced with a dilemma. Should he set his brother down and let him get into the bed on his own? Should he just keep hold of him? Perhaps he should try to put him on the bed? He was thankful when Pa began barking orders.
“Set him down and we’ll get him onto the bed. Hold him steady while I get him out of his jacket. It’s all right, son; just try to relax. Don’t let him get into the bed on his own. Hold on to me, Joseph; I’ve got you, son.”
Joe thought his teeth might break from the force of clenching his jaw to keep from yelping. At least Hoss wasn’t laughing now. Stupid porcupine; he wished he’d shot it.
Adam barged into the room with the pliers and gloves. His face appeared pale in the lamplight and his eyes no longer sparkled with humor at his brother’s predicament. He tried to hand the pliers over to Hoss, but his brother shoved his hands in pockets in refusal.
Ben didn’t have the patience for this with Joe in so much pain. “Hoss, you pull out the quills. Adam, hold your brother’s legs to keep him steady so there’ll be less of a chance that the quills will break off.” He sat on the mattress near Joe’s head, and took his son’s hand in his own. With his free hand, he gently brushed back the curls from the sweating brow. “Joseph, this is going to hurt, so you go right ahead and yell if you want.” The only response was a sniff as Joe tried to prepare himself.
Hoss looked at Adam and then at the area that required treatment. His Adam’s apple bobbed a few times as he tried to steel himself for the job. It was one thing to pull quills out of a dog’s nose but a different matter altogether to have to remove them from his brother. After taking a deep breath, he placed a hand on Joe’s hip to hold him steady, chose a quill, tightly closed the pliers, stole a quick look at Adam, and then yanked.
Joe’s free hand gripped the corner of the pillow until his knuckles were as white as the fabric. A whimper caught his ear and he wondered why Hoss was making such a noise. He felt strong fingers gently massage his neck and he tried to relax.
Adam couldn’t stand to watch Hoss remove the quills. Joe’s stifled cries made him feel queasy. The sight of his brother’s backside had been funny but his pain wasn’t.
“Just two more,” announced Hoss.
Ben wiped the sweat from Joe’s face and spoke comforting words in his ear as he continued to massage his neck. Seeing any of his sons in pain tore at his heart and made him wish he could bear their hurt for them.
Finally removing the last of the quills, Hoss set the pliers down and flexed his sore hand. His stomach felt unsettled by the sight of blood spotting the seat of Joe’s pants. He’d be sure to apologize for the earlier teasing.
“Adam, go get that salve Hop Sing keeps in his medicine chest,” ordered Ben. “Help me get these off of him,” he told Hoss.
They gently removed Joe’s pants and helped him settle onto the mattress again. Hoss tried hard to swallow the lump in his throat caused by the damage inflicted by removing the barbed quills. An apology just didn’t seem as if it’d be enough.
Adam returned with the small jar of salve and handed it over to Pa. As Ben removed the lid, he said, “You two can go get started on the chores. “
With a quick, “Yes, Sir,” they felt relief to do something that wouldn’t cause their brother any more pain.
Finishing up the application of the salve, Ben tried to tuck Joe under the covers. “Are you comfortable? Do you want anything?”
“Can you sit with me until I fall asleep?” Joe asked, his eyelids already drooping.
“I’ll stay right here,” replied Ben, pulling the chair away from the desk. A small smile played on his lips as he watched Joe doze off. He couldn’t help brushing the damp hair back from his son’s face, a gesture he’d been doing since Joe was a small boy. When he was sure his youngest was sleeping soundly, he dimmed the lamp and headed for his own room.
Shortly after daybreak, Joe slowly opened his eyes as his nose sniffed out the smells of coffee, eggs, bacon, and biscuits. He rolled over onto one hip and stifled a yelp. Biting his lip, he slowly settled back onto his belly, wishing he could forget the humiliation of the night before.
A knock on the door was a welcome distraction from his memories. “What?” he said rather gruffly.
Breakfast smells preceded Hoss into the room. He carefully balanced a tray loaded with plates and a cup of coffee. Adam followed with a small table, which he set near the head of the bed so Joe wouldn’t have to stretch to eat.
As soon as the tray was settled, Hoss began cutting up the flapjacks into bite-sized pieces. Adam made himself useful by loading the biscuits with apple butter.
“Are you gonna feed me?” Joe asked in a tone of voice that bordered on ungrateful.
Hoss looked over and said, “No, we ain’t. We just thought you might appreciate a bit of help is all.”
Joe picked up a slice of bacon and relished the flavor of apple wood smoked into it. Shoving the meat to one side of his mouth, he said, “Thank you.”
Adam took in the blissful look on his youngest brother’s face as he savored a biscuit. He nudged Hoss and jerked his head towards the door. Hoss’ only response was a nod.
“If you need anything, let us know,” offered Adam before leaving the room.
“I’ll be sure to yell real loud,” Joe muttered around a mouthful of eggs. He figured it was probably a good thing that Adam was halfway down the stairs rather than still in the room.
Hoss scuffed a boot and looked at Joe from under raised eyebrows. “We mean it about you lettin’ us know if you need anything.” Pulling a small bell from his pocket, he set it on the tray near the flapjacks. “You just give that a ring or two an’ one of us will be up here in a shake of a lamb’s tail.” The only response was a grunt, so he decided to leave Joe alone with the food. Stopping at the door, he looked over his shoulder to see Joe studying the bell while stabbing a piece of flapjack.
A sly smile crept across Joe’s face as he heard Hoss return to the first floor. “Oh, I’ll let you know if I need anything, brothers.” He swirled his fork in a puddle of syrup and then delighted in the combination of buttery flapjack and maple. As he relished his breakfast, he stroked the side of the bell and began to think up a list of the things Adam and Hoss would need to do while he recovered.