Synopsis: A hunting expedition leads to a fight for life with Mother Nature.
Genre: Western, Drama
Word Count: 18,820
The soft light of dawn gently bathed the three figures sleeping around the campfire. Hoss Cartwright was the first to stir, blinking into the light on his face. He sat up and yawned, stretching his massive arms to relieve the kinks in his muscles. He looked around and saw his brothers were still sleeping peacefully. Scratching his sides, Hoss stood and walked to the campfire. The dying fire still had some red-hot embers burning at its base. Hoss stoked the fire and added some wood from a nearby stack. He took the pot sitting next to the fire, and added water and coffee. Setting the coffee on the fire to boil, he turned back to the sleeping figures.
“Rise and shine, brothers!” he shouted at the top of his voice. The two figures began to stir.
Adam Cartwright sat up and pulled the blanket tighter around him. He peered at his brother through puffy eyes. “I hope you have the coffee ready,” he mumbled, trying to shake the sleep from his head.
“Not yet, older brother, but it’s coming,” answered Hoss cheerfully.
Joe Cartwright also sat up, more slowly than his brother. His thick dark hair was tousled from sleep. He looked much younger than his age of 20. “How can you be so cheerful so early in the morning,” Joe grumbled.
“Because today is the day we are finally going to find that bighorn sheep,” Hoss declared.
Adam walked over to the fire. “How can you be so sure?” he asked. “All we’ve seen for the last week is his tracks. That ram has led us on a merry chance all over these mountains.”
“Because we’ve run out of places to look,” said Hoss with a grin. “When you have no more places to look, you finally find what you’re after.”
Adam shook his head. “I must be still sleepy,” he said. “Because that almost makes sense to me.”
Joe joined his brothers at the fire. He shivered slightly and warmed his hands near the flames. “Boy, it sure got cold last night,” he said. “I nearly froze.”
“It sure did,” Hoss agreed. “Winter should have ended six weeks ago. But it does feel like it could snow again.”
Adam poured himself a cup of coffee from the pot on the fire. “We should probably hunt out the day and head for home,” he said. “We don’t want to get caught in a late storm. Besides, we’re getting low on supplies.”
“Sounds good to me,” said Joe, sipping some coffee from a cup he had poured for himself. “I want to be sure to be home by Saturday anyway. I’m taking Susie Parker to the dance Saturday night.”
“Little brother, is that all you can think about?” asked Hoss mischievously. “Taking pretty girls dancing?”
“Why? Is there something else?” asked Joe innocently. His brothers laughed.
“I’ll start breakfast,” said Adam. “You two get our gear packed up.”
The three Cartwrights hiked through the woods under an overcast sky. Each man carried a rifle, and was toting a knapsack and bedroll on his back. Their heavy coats were pulled up around their necks to ward off the chilly air. Hoss, the best tracker of the three, led the way, stopping occasionally to study the ground for signs. He led his brothers through a dense strand of trees, finally stopping at the bottom of a rocky bluff. Hoss knelt and put his hand on the ground.
“These tracks are fresh,” he said, looking around. “That ol’ bighorn is around here someplace.”
Adam and Joe began searching the bluff with their eyes. Joe spotted a patch of yellow on a ledge high above them.
“There he is!” Joe said pointing to the ledge. He quickly slipped the knapsack and bedroll off his back and laid them under a tree. He cautiously began climbing the rocks toward the ledge, rifle in hand.
“Hoss, you move toward the right in case he decides to climb down,” directed Adam as he slipped off his pack and bedroll. “I’ll try and get above him in case he heads in the other direction.”
Hoss nodded and laid his pack and bedroll next to his brothers’ gear. He began moving slowly to the right, not wanting to startle the ram on the ledge above them. Adam began working his way up the bluff a few yards behind Joe. Joe continued to climb slowly toward his prey, his eyes never leaving the patch of color which stood out against the dull gray of the rocks. He reached the bottom of the sloping ledge. He could see the sheep now. It was watching nervously as Joe slowly advanced toward him.
Joe crept slowly up the ledge, his attention focused on the animal above him. He didn’t see the sharp line in the rocks, sign of a fissure caused by the melting snows of winter. His right foot landed squarely on the break and he put his full weight on his foot as he began to ease forward. Suddenly, there was a sharp crack and the rock beneath his foot crumbled. Thrown off-balance, Joe began to slide down the side of the hill. He barely had time to yell in alarm before he tumbled to the bottom of the bluff and laid still.
Adam and Hoss heard the crack of the rocks and Joe’s shout. Both men turned in time to see Joe land in a heap at the bottom of the hill. Both began to rush to their brother’s aid, the sheep they were pursuing instantly forgotten.
Hoss reached Joe first. A sick feeling knotted Hoss’ stomach as he looked down at his little brother. Joe’s right leg was bent at an awkward angle. Hoss knelt besides Joe’s crumpled body, and he began to gently probe Joe’s neck and collarbones. His big hands had moved to Joe’s shoulders and arms when Adam came running up, panting for breath.
“Is he all right?” Adam asked, his voice betraying his concern.
Hoss ignored Adam’s question as he continued to pass his hands over Joe’s arms. Hoss gently unbuttoned Joe’s coat, and gently felt his brother’s ribs. Nodding with satisfaction, he closed the coat and shifted his position closer to Joe’s legs. He ran his hand over Joe’s left leg, and then, with a feeling of dread, focused his attention on Joe’s right leg. Hoss winced as he felt the splinter of bone in his brother’s leg. Hoss shifted again and this time he moved toward Joe’s head. Joe’s eyes were closed, as if he were asleep. Hoss slowly turned his brother’s head and was relieved to see only a small bruise and some scratches on the side of Joe’s face.
Adam watched anxiously as Hoss examined Joe. When the big man finally sat back on his heels, Adam asked, “How bad is he hurt?”
“Other than his leg, I don’t think anything’s broken,” Hoss said. “It’s a good thing he was wearing his heavy coat. Looks like he hit his head when he fell.”
Adam knelt next to Hoss and ran his hand over Joe’s injured leg. He turned to Hoss, who was watching Adam. Hoss knew Adam would feel the broken bone as he had. “His leg is pretty bad,” Adam said in a voice filled with worry.
Hoss nodded. “Do you think we ought to try to set it?” he asked.
Adam felt Joe’s leg again, and then shook his head. “I don’t think so,” Adam said slowly. “His leg is pretty badly broken. If we try to set it and mess it up, we could cripple him.” Adam looked around, then turned back to Hoss. “Why don’t you see if you can find something we can use as a splint,” Adam said. “We can hold the bones in place temporarily, so they don’t move around any more. The doctor can set his leg when we get him home.”
Hoss nodded and stood. He also looked around and then walked off toward the trees behind Adam. Adam retrieved Joe’s hat from a few feet away. He lifted Joe’s head and slid the hat under his brother’s head. He decided he better not move Joe any further until his broken leg was in a splint. He brushed some dirt from Joe’s face, then simply sat next to Joe. His eyes never left Joe’s face. Hoss returned a few minutes later, carrying two large pieces of hard timber bark. He frowned as he neared his brothers. “Joe’s still out?” Hoss asked with concern.
“I didn’t try to bring him around. I thought it would be easier on him – and us – if we splinted his leg while he was unconscious,” explained Adam.
“You’re probably right,” agreed Hoss.
Adam and Hoss worked quickly to tie the bark around Joe’s left leg, using Adam’s belt to secure the splint and effectively immobilizing the leg. They then untangled and straightened Joe’s body, trying to make their younger brother more comfortable. Joe’s eyes never opened, never flickered.
“You stay with him while I go get the packs and bedrolls,” Adam ordered Hoss.
He jumped to his feet, not bothering to see if Hoss agreed, and began walking rapidly back toward their gear piled under the tree. He grabbed the packs in his arms and hurried back to his brothers. Adam dropped the packs into a pile a yard or two away from Joe. He pulled open the flap of one knapsack and pulled out a small canteen. Pulling a bandanna from his coat pocket, Adam poured water over the cloth until it was soaked. He put the canteen back into the pack and rushed back to Hoss and Joe. Neither had changed their position. Adam knelt again next to Joe and began to gently stroke the bruises and scratches on Joe’s face with the bandanna . He only had to brush Joe’s face a few times before Joe began to react.
A soft moan escaped from Joe’s lips. He turned his head, first to the right and then to the left. His eyes began to flicker open, then were squeezed shut as he gave out another, louder groan. Finally, Joe’s eyes opened and he stared in confusion into Adam’s face.
Adam put his hand on Joe’s shoulder. “Lie still,” Adam ordered.
Joe turned his head and looked at Hoss, his confusion growing. “What happened?” Joe asked in a low voice.
“You took a pretty bad tumble, but you’re going to be all right,” Hoss said in a reassuring voice.
Joe nodded, then closed his eyes and shivered slightly. “My leg hurts,” he said after a moment.
“Your leg’s broken,” confirmed Adam. “That’s why you need to lay still.”
Joe looked up into his brother’s face. “Did you set it?” he asked as he winced in pain again.
Adam glanced at Hoss and then looked at Joe. “No,” Adam said with a shake of his head. “It’s a pretty bad break. We thought it would be better to let Doc Martin set it.”
Joe nodded, then closed his eyes as yet another wave of pain rolled up his leg. He shuddered and grit his teeth against the pain.
Adam looked up again at Hoss. “We’re going to have to make a stretcher,” Adam said in a low voice. Hoss nodded and scrambled to his feet.
“I’ll go get some tree limbs,” Hoss said. He walked over to the knapsacks and began sorting through them. Finding the one he wanted, Hoss pushed up the flap and pulled a small hatchet out of the pack. He glanced over his shoulder at Adam and Joe, then walked rapidly into the woods. Hoss returned about twenty minutes later, carrying two long, thin tree limbs that had been stripped of their branches and leaves. He saw that Adam had wrapped a blanket around Joe and was holding a canteen to their younger brother’s mouth. Without a word, Hoss walked over to the packs and dropped the limbs. He began fashioning a stretcher from the remaining blankets and the straps from the knapsacks. Hoss worked rapidly, occasionally glancing up at a darkening sky. It was only mid-day, but the light was fading. Black clouds were forming in the sky. He felt the temperature dropping as he worked. Hoss worked as fast as he could.
Finally, Hoss stood. “Adam,” he called. “Come over here and help me with this thing.”
Adam walked over to Hoss and bent to pick up the front of the stretcher. Hoss grabbed his arm.
“Adam,” he said in a quiet voice. “Have you taken a look at the sky?”
A startled expression crossed Adam’s face. He had been concentrating on tending to Joe and hadn’t paid attention to the weather. He looked up at the clouds. A frown of worry showed on Adam’s face.
“Snow?” asked Adam, his voice low.
“Looks like it to me,” said Hoss.
Adam looked at the packs on the ground. “Let’s take only what we absolutely need,” he said firmly. “We can move faster if we’re not carrying too much. We’ve got to get off this mountain.”
Hoss nodded and slipped the hatchet through his belt. He opened each of the knapsacks and dumped their contents on to the ground. He quickly sorted through the material on the ground. He grabbed some matches and a box of cartridges, and stuffed them into the pocket of his coat. He put a canteen in the other pocket. Adam considered the goods on the ground. Quickly deciding, he put some tins of food into his coat pocket. He grabbed a large knife from the pile and slipped it through his belt. He also grabbed some matches and a canteen, putting both items in his empty pocket.
“What about the rifles?” asked Hoss.
“Let’s put them on the stretcher with Joe,” Adam said. Hoss nodded in agreement. Adam reached down and grabbed one end of the stretcher; Hoss grabbed the other end. They carried it over to Joe and placed it on the ground next to him.
Joe was laying still, his eyes closed. His face looked pale and he was breathing hard. He turned his head as he heard his brothers approach and looked up. His eyes looked dull and glassy.
“Here you are, little brother,” Hoss said in a too-hearty voice. “You get to ride down this mountain instead of walking.”
“It figures Joe would think of a way for us to do all the work,” added Adam with a forced smile.
A weak smile came across Joe’s face. “You know me,” he said in a soft voice. “Never walk when you can ride.” Joe sat up and started to shift his body onto the stretcher. He stopped as he grunted and winced in pain, then fell back to the ground.
“You lie still, Joe” Hoss ordered. “We’ll get you on.”
Hoss walked around his brother and positioned himself near Joe’s legs. Adam moved toward Joe’s head. Adam looked at Hoss and nodded. Adam reached down and grabbed Joe under the arms as Hoss put his huge arms under Joe’s knees. With a quick movement, they lifted their brother and slid him on to the stretcher. Joe grunted at the pain the movement caused. Hoss began rearranging the blanket around Joe, tucking the sides under Joe’s arms and body. Adam grabbed his brother’s hat and planted it firmly on Joe’s head. He also picked up the rifles that were scattered about and laid them on the stretcher next to Joe.
“Ready?” Adam asked. Hoss nodded and turned his back to Joe. He stood for a moment between the two limbs that formed the bottom of the stretcher, then bent down and grabbed the limbs. Adam stood between the limbs at the top. As Hoss began to lift the bottom of the stretcher, Adam lifted the top, coordinating his movements with Hoss’, to keep the frame as even as possible. When both men had a firm grip on the poles, Adam yelled, “Let’s go.” Adam and Hoss started walking, carrying their injured brother between them.
The two men traveled through the rough mountain trails as quickly as they could, both eyeing the darkening sky. They were aware of the pain Joe must have felt since the litter was jolted as they walked. But there wasn’t anything they could do about it. Joe grunted softly a few times, but for the most part, he was able to grit his teeth and keep silent. Joe knew his brothers were doing their best to help him and didn’t want to add to their distress. After about two hours, Adam called to Hoss to stop. He knew they all needed a rest. Adam and Hoss gently laid the stretcher on the ground. Adam pulled the canteen from his pocket, and took a quick drink. Despite the cold air, he felt hot and sweaty from the exertion of walking and carrying Joe. Adam knelt near Joe’s head. “How are you doing?” he asked his brother as he put the canteen to Joe’s mouth. Joe took a long drink, then looked up at his brother.
“I’m all right,” he said. “Don’t worry about me.” Joe’s face was pale and had a strained look, contrasting the easy tone of his voice. “Sorry you two are having to tote me around.”
“Nothing to it, little brother,” said Hoss, with a smile. “I’ve had dinners that weigh more than you do.
“Just be happy it’s not me and you trying to carry Hoss,” added Adam. “We’d break our backs just trying to lift him!”
“Adam, I’m just a growing boy,” protested Hoss.
“Yeah, you’re growing all right,” said Adam in mock disgust. “Only the direction you’re growing isn’t up.”
Joe smiled at his brothers’ kidding. For just a moment, it distracted him from the discomfort of his leg. But only for a moment. Joe winced as he felt another wave of pain run up his leg. Hoss saw Joe wince and looked at Adam. “We’d better get moving,” said Hoss, trying to keep the urgency he felt out of his voice.
Adam nodded grimly and walked to the top of the stretcher. He waited a minute while Hoss positioned himself, then lifted the stretcher again. The Cartwrights had been walking for less than an hour when the snow began to fall. At first, the flakes floated down gently, but they quickly started falling with greater intensity. The wind began to blow harder, and before long, the Cartwrights were traveling through a driving snowstorm. The snow rapidly piled up on the ground, making walking increasingly difficult. Hoss continued to lead the way, using his massive body to break a trail through the snow. His arms ached from carrying the stretcher, and his face felt wet and cold as the snow buffeted him. Hoss walked on, not daring to stop as the weather continued to worsen. He was determined to get Adam and Joe off the mountain before the snow made travel impossible. The wind started to howl as it blew even harder. The snow pelted the men with a stinging force. Hoss and Adam’s pace began to slow as they struggled through the snow and wind. Finally, Adam yelled for Hoss to stop. Hoss turned and looked over his shoulder at his older brother. Adam’s head and shoulders were covered with snow. Even worse, Joe was covered with snow too, and he could see his younger brother was beginning to shiver. Adam indicated a large boulder with the twist of his head, and Hoss nodded. He headed toward the boulder. The large stone would offer some protection from the wind and snow…not much, but at this point, they would take any relief they could find.
Adam and Hoss moved behind the boulder, protecting themselves and Joe as best they could. They set the stretcher on the ground. Both men sank to the ground. Hoss was tired, and he knew Adam must be equally as weary. And they were less than halfway down the mountain. Joe lay shivering on the stretcher. His hat and the blankets were covered with a thick layer of snow. Drops of melting snow ran down his pale cheeks. His eyes were barely open. After a moment’s rest, Adam turned to Hoss. Hoss was trying to brush the snow off the blankets around Joe. But it was a futile effort. As soon as he brushed off the snow, a new cover of snow covered the blankets.
“We’re not going to make it down until this blizzard lets up,” Adam shouted. He had to yell to be heard over the howl of the wind. Hoss looked at Adam, his face betraying the worry he felt and nodded.
“We’ve got to find a cave or something,” Adam continued at the top of his voice. “We have to get out of the wind and snow.”
Hoss nodded again. He frowned in thought as he surveyed the countryside, trying to think of someplace which would offer them shelter. For a minute, Hoss felt a feeling of despair. He couldn’t think of anyplace in the area which would offer them shelter. Hoss’ frown deepened as he tried desperately to picture some place of refuge nearby. Suddenly, his face cleared.
“The trapper’s cabin!” Hoss boomed in a loud voice.
“What?” yelled Adam, not sure that he heard his brother.
“The trappers cabin,” Hoss repeated. “It’s about a mile east of here. Joe and I found it last fall when we were up here. There’s not much to it except four walls and a roof, but it would get us out of this storm.”
Now it was Adam’s turn to frown. “Are you sure you can find it?” he shouted.
Hoss nodded. “I’m sure!” he yelled back.
Adam looked at Joe, his movement emphasizing the significance of his words.
“If you get lost, we’ll be in real trouble,” Adam said.
For a moment, Hoss hesitated. He knew Adam was putting Joe’s life – and his own – in Hoss’ hands. He closed his eyes and mentally reviewed the route to the cabin. With a confident nod of his head, Hoss opened his eyes. “I’ll get us there,” he boomed over the howling wind.
Adam studied his brother for a moment, then grinned. “Yeah, I know you will,” he shouted. Adam moved over to Joe. Joe was still shivering. Adam pulled his brother’s hat down lower onto Joe’s head. He then tucked the blankets tighter around Joe’s body. “Hang on, Joe,” he shouted. “We’ll be warm and dry soon.” Joe didn’t seem to hear.
Adam turned back to Hoss. “Let’s go!” he yelled.
The two men picked up the stretcher and started trudging through the heavy snow. They traveled slowly; the snow making it difficult to walk. Hoss slipped twice, but both times managed to catch himself before he dropped or tilted the litter. Adam was amazed as his brother’s strength. Hoss was forging a path through the snow, carrying a stretcher, and yet, he looked as if the walk was as easy as a trek from the house to the barn. Adam was able to follow his brother’s footsteps through the snow, and that made his path easier. Hoss confidently led the way through the trees. Adam was concerned because it appeared that they were going deeper into the woods. But he kept his concerns to himself. If Hoss said he knew the way, Adam reasoned, than it was true. Hoss never lied. Adam’s arms were aching, and he wondered how much longer he could carry his end of the stretcher. His hands felt numb, both from the cold and the strain of the litter. He knew they were running out of time, due to the worsening storm as well as his fading stamina. Adam had just about decided they would have to stop again when Hoss led them out of the woods. They entered a large clearing. The ground was covered with snow. On the other side of the clearing, however, stood a small cabin.
Hoss halted. “There it is,” he yelled over his shoulder.
Adam thought it was the most beautiful sight he had ever seen. “Never doubted you,” he yelled back.
Hoss grinned and started walking toward the cabin.
They covered the last few yards to the cabin in a quick walk, eager to get to the safety the structure offered. Adam glanced down at Joe. His brother was covered again by snow and his shivering was even more violent. Hoss kicked open the cabin door with his foot and led the way in. The interior was empty except for a few piece of broken furniture. A single window on the far left wall was shuttered close, the only break in the rough log walls. A cot with a rope mattress was built into the wall across from a stone fireplace. Blacken wood, remnants of a long-forgotten fire, were scattered in the fireplace. A fine layer of dust covered the floor of the cabin.
“Let’s put the stretcher on the cot,” said Adam. Hoss turned and walked a few paces toward the wooden bed. They laid the stretcher across the rope mattress, relieved that it seemed solid and sturdy.
Adam quickly tore the blanket off Joe and flapped it several times to remove the snow. The top was damp but the underside was still dry. Adam quickly wrapped the blanket around Joe again. Except for the shivering, Joe didn’t move. He was exhausted by the pain and the cold. Hoss pulled the hatchet from his belt and grabbed one of the rifles lying next to Joe on the litter. “I’m going to get some wood for a fire,” he declared. “I’ll keep my eye out for some game. We could be here for a while.” Hoss walked quickly to the door and disappeared into the storm, firmly shutting the door behind him.
Adam felt warmer now that he was out of the wind and snow, but the interior of the cabin was still chilly. He walked over to what appeared to be part of an old chair. He pulled the knife from his belt and quickly started slicing the wood, shaving part of the leg into kindling. He carried the shavings and the rest of the chair over to the fireplace, then reached into his pocket for a match. He quickly lit the shavings in the fireplace and then broke the rest of the chair into pieces to feed into the fire. Soon he had a small fire burning in the hearth. Adam held his palms toward the blaze, grateful for the warmth. He continued to feed parts of the chair into the fire. Soon the chilly air of the cabin was replaced by the heat from the fire. Joe moaned softly from the bed. Adam turned and hurried over to his brother. Joe was no longer shivering but his face was still pale. His breathing was ragged, and his jaws were clenched. Adam slipped the hat from Joe’s head and gently felt his brother’s forehead. Adam frowned as he felt the heat of fever. Joe moaned again.
Adam knelt by the side of the bed. “How are you feeling, Joe?” he asked with concern.
Joe opened his eyes. “Not so good,” he admitted in a weak voice. “My leg is really hurting.”
Adam pulled back the covers and peered at Joe’s injured leg. The leg was swollen; the bark was pressed tightly against it. Adam chewed on his lip, trying to decide what to do. He knew setting the leg would probably ease the pain Joe was feeling. But the break was a bad one. He wasn’t sure he could set it properly. Adam covered Joe again.
“Take it easy,” he said, laying his hand on Joe’s shoulder. “We’ll get you out of here as soon as the storm lets up.”
Joe nodded and winced as his leg began to throb with pain again. “I must have really messed up my leg,” he said through clenched teeth.
“It’s a bad break,” Adam said. “But don’t worry. We’ll get you home soon, and Doc Martin will fix you up. You’ll be dancing with Susie Parker again in no time.”
Joe didn’t say anything. He was too tired to respond to Adam. He closed his eyes and tried desperately to go to sleep. He was exhausted but the pain in his leg prevented him from drifting off. Adam gave Joe’s shoulder a reassuring squeeze and returned to the fire. He fed more wood into the blaze, then stared into the flames. He wished he could help Joe, but he was unsure of what to do next. Adam wasn’t sure how long he had been staring hypnotically into the flames when he heard the door behind him crash open. Hoss trudged into the cabin, covered with a layer of snow, his rifle under his arm. In one hand, he held the carcass of a rabbit. He was dragging a huge log with the other hand. Adam rushed to close the door behind Hoss.
“I almost tripped across this critter in the snow,” Hoss said triumphantly as he handed the rabbit to Adam. “He’s nice and fat.”
Adam smiled. “You probably scared him to death,” he said wryly. “You look like a walking polar bear.”
Hoss’ face sobered immediately. “The storm’s getting worse,” he said in a low voice. “We’re not going to be going anywhere for awhile.”
Adam glanced at Joe. His brother’s eyes were closed, but Adam wasn’t sure if he was sleeping or not. He turned back to Hoss. “You get warm by the fire,” he said. “I’ll take care of the rabbit.”
Hoss brushed the snow from his shoulders and blew on his hands. “How is Joe doing,” he asked, keeping his voice low.
“Not so good,” answered Adam grimly. “His leg’s pretty swollen and he’s in a lot of pain. I’m not sure what to do to help him.”
Hoss thought for a minute. “Let’s pack his leg in snow,” he said. “The cold should help the swelling, and maybe numb the pain.”
“Good idea,” replied Adam. “One thing we have plenty of is snow.”
Hoss opened the cabin door and took a step outside. He filled his arms with snow and quickly re-entered the cabin. Adam closed the door behind him again. Hoss stood over his younger brother for a moment, holding the dripping snow. Joe looked flushed, and his breathing was rapid. Hoss could hear soft grunts of pain.
“Joe, I’m going to pack your leg in snow,” Hoss said. “It’s going to be a little uncomfortable, but it should help keep the swelling down.”
Joe nodded slightly, his eyes still closed. Adam pulled the blanket off Joe’s leg. Hoss’ eyes widened when he saw how swollen the leg was and he looked at Adam with concern. Adam nodded and jerked his head toward Joe’s leg. Hoss quickly packed the snow around Joe’s injured leg. He could hear Joe grunting even louder with pain as he worked. He tried to finish the job as quickly as possible. Finally, he stood. Adam covered Joe’s leg again with the blanket.
“That’s the best we can do for now,” Hoss said. Joe laid stiffly on the cot, his jaws clenched.
“Go get warm by the fire,” Adam said. Hoss hesitated a minute, then nodded.
He walked to the fireplace and crouched in front of the small fire, rubbing his hands. Adam knelt next to his brother.
Hoss stole a quick look over his shoulder, then turned to his older brother. “Adam, I think we ought to try to set that leg,” he said quietly. “We’re sure not getting out of here until at least tomorrow, and Joe’s leg is getting worse.”
Adam shook his head. “Hoss, the bone is splintered,” he answered. “I’m not sure I can set it right.”
“But don’t you think you ought to try?” insisted Hoss. “It can’t be any worse than leaving it all busted up like that.”
“The bone isn’t knitting if we leave it like it is,” said Adam. “If I set it, the bone will start to grow together. And if I do it wrong, he’s liable to limp for the rest of his life…or worse.”
“I guess you’re right,” said Hoss doubtfully. He rubbed his hands together a few more times and then stood. “I’ll get started on chopping up that log.”
Two hours later, the wind and the snow were still buffeting the outside of the cabin. Inside, the fire was burning brightly, fed by a new supply of wood. Adam was cooking the rabbit on a spit. The smell of roasting meat filled the cabin. Hoss was cleaning a dented plate he had found in the corner of the cabin. He rubbed away the dirt with a handful of snow.
“This stuff sure is handy,” said Hoss as he cleaned the plate. “I just wish there wasn’t so much of it.”
Adam smiled and pulled the spit from the fire. He tore a piece of meat from the rabbit and tasted it. “Dinner’s ready,” he declared.
Hoss nodded and brought the plate over by the fire. Adam pulled the knife from his belt and sliced a piece of meat onto the plate. He handed the knife to Hoss. Hoss used the knife to chop the meat into small pieces. Then he walked over to the cot. Dark circles of fatigue rimmed Joe’s eyes, and his face was still flushed with fever. Joe’s eyes were still closed, but Hoss could tell he awake. “Time to eat,” said Hoss as he sat on the edge of the cot. Joe opened his eyes. “I’m not hungry,” he said in a weak voice, and turned his head.
“I know Adam’s cooking ain’t the best in the world,” said Hoss with a forced cheerfulness. “But you need something in your stomach.”
“I’m not hungry,” Joe repeated.
“Joe, you have to eat,” said Hoss urgently as he dangled a piece of meat a few inches from Joe’s mouth. “C’mon, just try a few pieces. Do it as a favor to me.”
Joe turned back to look Hoss. He nodded and opened his mouth. Hoss fed a piece a rabbit to Joe, who chewed it slowly. When Joe swallowed, Hoss fed him another piece. After the third piece, Joe turned his head again. “That’s enough,” he mumbled.
Hoss looked at Joe with concern. “All right,” he said. “We’ll try again later.” Hoss stood and walked back to the fireplace.
Adam had been watching from near the fire. “Did you get anything into him?” he asked.
“A little bit,” said Hoss, as he set down the plate. “Maybe it will help.”
Adam nodded. “You’d better eat something too,” he said. “I’m going to need you fit to help me get him out of here.”
Hoss pulled a chunk off the rabbit and started to eat. He eyed Adam. “You’re not eating?” he asked. “I can’t pack both of you out of here, you know.”
Adam gave a wry grin and started nibbling on a piece of meat. He didn’t have much of an appetite. He was sick with worry about Joe. But he knew Hoss was right. They both needed all their strength to get Joe off the mountain. Adam and Hoss finished eating quickly. Neither were very hungry. They ate only because they knew they had to. Hoss returned to the cot and tried to get Joe to eat again. But this time, Joe refused, mumbling he was too tired. Hoss walked back to the fire, his shoulders slumped with worry.
“Now what?” Hoss asked.
Adam just shrugged. “All we can do now is wait,” he said. He listened for a minute to the wind howling outside the cabin. “Wait and hope the storm blows itself out soon.”
The sound of voices woke Adam with a start. He hadn’t meant to doze off, but the warmth of the cabin had made him sleepy. The long trek through the snow had tired him more than he realized. He was sitting against the wall near the fireplace, his knees bent and his arms folded across his body. He had no idea what time it was; the shutter on the window was still closed tight. It must be night, he thought. He listened as wind continued to howl outside the snug cabin. Then he heard the voices again and looked up. Hoss was sitting on the cot next to Joe. His hands were on Joe’s shoulders, trying to restrain his brother. Joe was twisting on the bed.
“Pa? Pa?” Joe cried as he turned. “Pa? Where are you?”
“Pa’s not here,” Hoss said in a soothing voice. “Now you lay still, you here?”
Adam scrambled to his feet and rushed to the cot. Joe looked up at Adam, his eyes unfocused. His face was covered with sweat.
“Pa?” Joe asked. “Pa, help me. My leg hurts. Help me. Make it stop, Pa!”
Hoss held his brother firmly. “Take it easy, Joe,” he said. “You just lay still. All this thrashing around is only making things worse.”
Adam pulled the blanket from Joe’s legs. His pants were wet from the melted snow. His injured leg was even more swollen than before. The tissue below the knee had ballooned to more than twice its usual size. Adam winced as he stared as Joe’s leg.
“He’s out of his head with pain and fever,” Hoss said over his shoulder. “His leg is hurting him something fierce. We’ve got to set it, Adam.”
Adam shook his head. “No,” he said violently. “We have to wait and let the doc set it.”
“Adam, we can’t wait,” Hoss said in an angry voice. “We don’t know how long it’s going to take to get him to a doctor. I don’t think he’s going to be able to stand this much longer.”
“Pa, please help me!” Joe cried again. “Pa, please. It hurts so bad. You have to help me!”
Adam shook his head. “If I do this wrong…” he said.
“Adam, whatever you do can’t make it any worse,” Hoss insisted. “Look at him. If we don’t do something soon, we ain’t going to have to worry about whether his leg sets right or not.”
Joe tried to twist out of Hoss’ grasp, moaning as he turned. “Pa, I can’t stand it,” Joe said in a choked voice. “Pa, help me.”
Adam looked at his brothers, his face showing the doubt he felt. Suddenly, he squared his shoulders. “All right,” he said abruptly. “Let’s get him over by the fire.”
Hoss nodded, his body sagging in relief. He turned back to Joe. “Joe, listen to me,” he said in a demanding voice. “We’re going to fix you up. But you have to stay still. You hear me? You have to stay still.”
Joe sagged against the cot and laid still. Hoss wasn’t sure if his brother heard his command or was simply too exhausted to move any more. Whatever the reason, Joe was still. Hoss quickly stood up and moved to the top of the stretcher. Adam grabbed the bottom poles. He nodded his head, and both men lifted the stretcher off the bed and moved it next to the fireplace.
“Stoke up that fire,” Adam said. “I want as much light as we can get.” Hoss nodded and turned to poke the fire.
Adam grabbed the knife that was laying on the hearth. He unbuckled the belt wrapped around the splint and slipped it off Joe’s leg. The wood fell away from the leg. Adam moved the pieces to the side. He slit Joe’s pants leg to the knee with the knife, and pulled the cloth open. Joe’s leg had turned a deep shade of red, the result of the swollen tissue. Adam could see the splinter of bone pressing against the skin. He put his hands on the leg, trying to feel the bone. As he pressed, Joe screamed in pain. Hoss quickly turned back and grabbed Joe by the shoulders again. He pressed his brother to the floor, holding him firm. Adam sat back on his heels and studied the leg. He unbuttoned his coat, and quickly slipped it off. Then he looked up at Hoss .“You’re going to have hold him,” Adam said in a shaky voice. Hoss nodded. He shifted his body and raised Joe’s head, slipping his thigh underneath it. As Joe’s head fell back against Hoss’ leg, Hoss firmly grasped Joe’s arms, pinning the arms against his brother’s body. “Ready,” said Hoss grimly.
Adam’s mouth was dry, and he could feel the nervous sweat forming on his forehead. He quickly wiped his brow with his arm and took a deep breath. Then he firmly gripped Joe’s leg. Joe screamed in agony as Adam pulled and twisted the leg. Hoss held Joe tight, refusing to let him move. Joe’s free leg thrashed about. Adam pulled and twisted the leg again. Joe screamed once more, then suddenly slumped against Hoss.
“He’s passed out,” said Hoss.
Adam nodded and continued to work on Joe’s leg. He pulled one last time and thought he felt the bone snap back into place. Adam let go and sat back on his heels. He was breathing hard, and rivulets of sweat were running down his face. He lifted his eyes to Hoss. “That’s the best I can do,” he said.
“It’ll be good enough,” Hoss assured him.
“I hope so,” Adam said in a low voice.
Hoss gently laid Joe back on the floor and moved over to Adam. He picked up the bark Adam had set aside and handed it to his brother. “Let’s get the splint back on,” Hoss said. Adam nodded and positioned the wood around Joe’s leg. Hoss wrapped the belt around the wood and pulled it tight, then buckled it again.
“Let’s move him back to the cot,” Adam said as Hoss finished securing the splint. Hoss scrambled back to the top of the stretcher. They lifted the stretcher from the floor and carried Joe back to the cot. Hoss gently wrapped the blankets around his brother.
Adam stood by the bed watching. His legs felt weak and his stomach churned. He felt drained. Adam turned and walked back to the fireplace, his legs shaking. He slipped to a sitting position near the fire and put his head down. He saw a shadow and looked up at Hoss who loomed above him.
“He’s going to be all right, Adam,” Hoss said firmly. “You’ll see. He’s going to be fine.”
Adam nodded weakly and put his head down again. Adam sat with Joe while Hoss slept. Joe stirred once or twice, but never really woke up. The color in his face had faded from the red flush of fever to a pasty white. Adam wasn’t sure that was an improvement.
Joe stirred again on the bed, and Adam quickly grabbed the canteen from his coat pocket. He forced some water into Joe’s mouth and watched with satisfaction as Joe swallowed. Adam put his hand on Joe’s forehead. Joe was still hot, but Adam thought his fever had gone down a bit. Or am I just wishing it has gone down, thought Adam. He shook his head. There was so much he didn’t know. Hoss wasn’t much help. Hoss knew how to take of injured animals, like horses or cows, but his knowledge of tending to injured people was as limited as Adam’s. Adam shook his head again. He hoped he done the right thing by setting Joe’s leg.
The wind howled again outside the cabin, rattling the door. Adam stared at it for a moment, wondering how much longer the storm could last. They had only a little food, and the wood would soon be gone. If the storm continued for several days, the Cartwrights would all find themselves in dire striates.
Hoss yawned and stretched in the corner of the cabin. He had slept for a few hours and felt better for it. He stood and walked over to the bed.
“How’s he doing?” Hoss asked with concern.
“About the same,” said Adam. “I think his fever’s down a bit.”
Hoss put his hand on Joe’s forehead. His massive hand covered the top of his brother’s head as he felt Joe’s brow. “I think you’re right,” Hoss said finally as he removed his hand. “He does feel a bit cooler.”
“But he hasn’t come around yet,” Adam said, his voice filled with worry.
“He’s probably exhausted,” said Hoss in a reassuring tone. “Sleep is the best thing for him right now.” Hoss looked at Adam. Adam’s face was pinched with strain, and dark circles were forming under his eyes. “Speaking of sleep,” continued Hoss, “why don’t you get a few hours of shut-eye. I’ll sit with Joe.”
Adam felt bone-tired, but he wasn’t sure he could sleep. He was still tense and filled with worry about Joe. On the other hand, he knew wasn’t helping his brother much right now. Maybe a little rest would revive him.
“All right,” said Adam reluctantly. He stood and started toward the fire, then stopped and turned abruptly. “Wake me if…if there’s any change,” he said.
“I will,” Hoss promised.
Adam turned back and walked to his now familiar spot by the fireplace. He curled his body, trying to get comfortable. He didn’t think he would be able to sleep, but surprisingly, found himself drifting off almost immediately. Adam was awakened by a large hand shaking him hard. He opened his eyes slowly, trying to remember where he was. He sat up suddenly as his memory of the why they were in the cabin came flooding back. Hoss was standing over him, his hand on firmly clasped on Adam’s shoulder.
“Joe?” Adam asked in alarm.
Hoss shook his head. “No, he’s the same,” Hoss replied. The big man took a step back. “Listen!” he said.
Adam listened but all he heard was the crackling of the fire. “I don’t hear anything,” Adam said with a frown.
“I know,” answered Hoss with a grin. “The storm’s over.”
Adam jumped to his feet and rushed to the door. He pulled the door opened and looked out. The sky was a deep shade of blue and without a cloud. A thick layer of snow sparkled in the bright sunlight. A few birds sang in the trees in the woods. A deer bounded through the snow and disappeared into the thick forest. Adam turned to Hoss. “When did the storm end?” he asked in amazement.
“I don’t know for sure,” Hoss answered. “I just realized it was over a little while ago.”
Adam slammed the door shut and walked back to the cot. Joe was still very pale, but he seemed to be sleeping comfortably. Adam pulled back the blanket to check his brother’s leg. The leg was still red and swollen. Adam covered Joe again.
“Do you think we should try to carry Joe out of here?” Adam asked.
Hoss shook his head. “I’ve been thinking about it, Adam,” he said. “I think the best thing is for you to stay here with Joe and let me go for help.”
“Alone?” said Adam.
“I can move faster alone,” Hoss said in a firm voice. “We’re not too far from the Crenshaw place. Even in this snow, I should be able to get there in a few hours. I can get a wagon or something there, I’m sure.”
Adam considered Hoss’ suggestion for a few minutes. “All right,” he said in a slow voice. “I don’t like the idea of you tramping through those woods alone, but I guess that’s the fastest way to get help for Joe.”
“Don’t worry about me,” Hoss said confidently.
“You ought to eat something before you go,” Adam said firmly. “I brought a few tins of food with us. Let’s open those up. You need something solid in your stomach if you’re going to make that hike.”
“Yes sir,” Hoss said with a twinkle in his eye. “You know, you sound just like Pa.”
Half an hour later, Hoss had finished eating, and was pulling his coat tight around him. He was almost ready to leave when he heard the groan from the cot. He rushed over to the bed, with Adam only a step behind him. Joe’s eyes were half open, and he was moving his head slowly on the blanket. He looked up as Hoss sat on the edge of the bed.
“Welcome back, little brother,” he said cheerfully. “How are you feeling?”
“My leg hurts,” answered Joe. His voice was barely a whisper.
Adam frowned. If Joe’s leg was still hurting, maybe he had set the bone wrong.
“As bad as before?” asked Hoss with concern.
Joe took a deep breath. “No,” he said slowly. “Not as bad as before.”
Hoss nodded and patted him lightly on the shoulder. “Well, the storm is finally over,” he said in a reassuring voice. “I’m going to the Crenshaw place to get a wagon. We’ll have you home in no time.”
Joe nodded and closed his eyes. He drifted off to sleep again.
Hoss stood and turned to Adam. “See if you can get some food into him,” Hoss said. “And make sure he keeps warm.”
“Now who sounds like Pa?” Adam said, his voice tinged with sarcasm.
“Yeah, I guess I do,” Hoss said with a grin. His face suddenly turned solemn. “You take care of Joe, you hear,” Hoss said. He looked back at the bed again, then walked to the door. He pulled the door open, then stopped. “I’ll be back as soon as I can. By tonight, for sure,” he said.
“Be careful,” said Adam.
“Don’t worry,” said Hoss. “I can take care of myself.” He pulled his coat up around his neck, grabbed a rifle, and walked out the door, pulling the door shut firmly behind him. Hoss began tramping through the thick snow. He crossed the clearing and headed into the woods. He walked as fast as he could but his pace was slow. The heavy blanket of snow buffeted his feet and ankles as he walked. He wished he had snowshoes or something that would help him move faster. He had tried to seem optimistic about Joe in the cabin, but the truth was, he was as worried as Adam, maybe even more. He had tended enough broken bones on animals to know Joe’s leg was in bad shape. He knew they needed to get him to a doctor quickly. Hoss continued to plow through the snow, walking deeper into the woods. He was already tired and was distracted by his thoughts of Joe. He never saw the huge black bear lumbering out of the trees to his right. At least, he didn’t see him until the animal growled menacingly. Hoss froze at the sound, knowing instantly the growl meant trouble. He turned slowly and faced the bear. “I won’t bother you if you don’t bother me,” he said softly to the animal.
The bear was in an angry mood. He had just finished his winter hibernation and had emerged from his cave expecting to find an abundance of food. Instead, he found the land covered with snow, and food scarce. The animal was hungry and in no mood to let Hoss trespass on his territory. The bear stood on his hind legs and growled again, his front paws swiping threateningly at Hoss. Hoss slowly raised the rifle. “I guess you ain’t gonna be reasonable about this,” he said softly. He levered a bullet into the chamber. “I hate to do this, but I ain’t got time to fool with you.” Hoss raised the rifle and pulled the trigger. Instead of the expected explosion, however, all he heard was a dull click. Hoss pulled the trigger again, but again he heard nothing but a click. The bear advanced toward him as Hoss tried unsuccessfully to fire the rifle a third time. An angry roar erupted from the animal as it prepared to dispatch the invader in his territory.
Adam spent the time after Hoss left stoking the fire, and feeding new wood into it. The log that Hoss had dragged in had been chopped into smaller pieces, but now those pieces were almost gone. Adam knew he needed to go out and get more wood, but he was reluctant to leave Joe alone. He decided to wait a while longer. Adam opened the last tin of food with his knife. Inside was some dried meat. The meat didn’t look particularly appetizing, but it was all the food that was left. He carried the tin over to the cot. Joe was in a deep sleep, and Adam hated to wake him. But he knew Joe needed to eat something. He shook Joe’s shoulder gently, but got no response. He shook his brother’s shoulder again, a little harder this time. Joe moved his head. Adam shook him again, and this time Joe slowly opened his eyes.
“Breakfast time,” he said, as he pulled a piece of meat from the tin. Joe shook his head and began to close his eyes. Adam shook him once more.
“Come on, Joe,” he said firmly. “You have to eat. Now wake up and open your mouth.”
Joe’s eyes opened again. He looked at Adam with a puzzled expression, as if he was trying to make sense of what Adam had said.
Adam grabbed Joe’s lower jaw and gently pulled his brother’s mouth open. He slipped a piece of meat into Joe’s mouth. “Now chew!” he ordered his brother. Joe slowly obeyed. Adam repeated the process, satisfied that Joe had managed to swallow the first piece. As he chewed the meat, Joe began to close his eyes. “Stay awake!” Adam barked at his brother, surprised at vehemence in own voice. Joe’s eyes opened again. Adam managed to get Joe to eat four pieces of the dried meat, but couldn’t get him to take the fifth piece. When Adam tried to force Joe’s mouth open again, his brother firmly clenched his jaws closed.
“You’re the stubbornest little cuss,” Adam said, in frustration. A ghost of a smile appeared on Joe’s face. Adam laughed when he saw it. “All right,” Adam said softly. “I guess that will have to do for now.”
Joe nodded, barely moving his head, then closed his eyes and went back to sleep. Adam moved back over by the fire and set the tin on the floor. He threw the last piece of wood onto the blaze. He began thinking about their situation. No more food, no more wood, and no telling how long it would be until Hoss got back, Adam thought. He had no choice. He was going to have to leave Joe alone for awhile. He had to get some wood for the fire, and hopefully, find something to eat. Adam sighed. He wished he had some other choice, but he knew he didn’t. Adam returned to the cot and sat on the edge. “Joe,” he said shaking his brother again. “Are you awake? Can you hear me?” Joe’s eyes barely opened.
“Joe, listen to me,” Adam continued. “I have to go out for awhile. I need to get some more wood for the fire and try to find some game. I’ll only be gone for a short time, I promise. I want you to stay still, and don’t try to move, you hear?”
Adam stared hard into Joe’s face. He wasn’t sure if his brother heard – or understood – him. “Joe, I’ll be back soon,” Adam said urgently. “You just lay here and rest.” Joe’s eyes closed. Adam took a deep breath. He hoped Joe understood him. He didn’t want his brother to think he was abandoning him. Adam pulled his coat tightly around him and grabbed one of the rifles stacked by the door. He picked up the hatchet that Hoss had left behind. Adam looked back at the bed one more time and was satisfied that Joe was asleep. He hoped to be back before Joe woke up again. Adam pulled open the door. A blast of cold air rushed in, and he hurriedly shut the door behind him as he left the cabin.
The bear was only a yard or so away from Hoss. Hoss stood still, hoping to confuse the animal. The bear stopped, surprised that this intruder wasn’t running away. He growled menacingly but the figure in front of him never moved. The bear moved closer to his prey. Hoss waited until the bear was almost on top of him. He could feel the warm breath of the animal. Hoss knew he had to time his next movement just right. He wouldn’t get a second chance. The bear came closer, preparing to knock his victim to the ground. Hoss moved so swiftly that the bear never really saw it happening. With a quick move, Hoss grabbed the barrel of his rifle with first one hand and then the other. Using the gun as a club, he smashed the rifle stock against the bear’s nose. The startled bear howled in pain and stopped. Before the animal could move again, Hoss hit the bear across the nose again. The bear roared even louder as he felt the pain from the second blow. Hoss reached down and grabbed a handful of snow and threw it in the bear’s eyes, blinding the animal for a few seconds. The bear roared from the pain in his nose and thrashed around blindly as he tried to throw the snow off from his eyes. Hoss quickly moved backwards, never taking his eyes off the animal. He had the gun ready to use as a club again if necessary.
But it wasn’t necessary. The bear’s nose hurt, and he didn’t like the feel of snow in his eyes. He decided quickly that he had had enough of this. With one last menacing roar, the bear turned and lumbered off into the woods. Hoss sagged against a tree in relief. As well as he got along with most animals, he knew that bear hadn’t been in a friendly mood. He was lucky to have been able to drive him off. If he hadn’t been able to discourage that bear, Joe wouldn’t have been the only one in need of a doctor. Hoss checked the rifle, trying to determine why the gun had misfired. He saw the firing pin was bent. The rifle was the one Joe had been carrying when he fell. Hoss had simply grabbed a rifle when he left the cabin, and had the bad luck to grab a damaged weapon. Hoss berated himself for not checking the rifle before he left. As a gun, the rifle was useless. Hoss smiled. The rifle made a pretty good club, though, he thought. The screech of a hawk caught Hoss’ attention and he looked toward the sky. The sky was still clear, still a deep blue. But Hoss frowned as he realized the sun was high in the sky. It had taken him longer than he had figured to get this far down the mountain, and he still had a long way to go. At this rate, he would be lucky to get back to the cabin by nightfall. He stood and started walking through the snow, trying to get down the mountain as fast as he could.
Adam went deeper into the woods than he had planned, although he still was fairly close to the cabin. He was looking for dry wood, and was having a hard time finding it. The snow had covered all the wood on the ground, soaking it. He was hoping to find wood that wouldn’t take a long time to dry. He need fuel that would burn quickly for the fire. If he had to wait for the wood to dry, the fire would die and the cabin’s temperature would drop. A cold cabin wouldn’t help Joe. Adam spotted a pile of branches a few feet away and hurried over. Putting down the rifle, he began pulling the branches away, hoping to find some dry wood at the bottom of the pile. Suddenly, from the corner of his eye, Adam saw some movement. He turned to see a deer watching him through the trees. The deer was a buck, with a large spread of antlers across its head. Moving slowly, Adam reached down and grabbed his rifle. He slowly pulled the rifle to his shoulder, aimed and fired.
Joe woke from a deep sleep and turned his head to look around the cabin. His leg still hurt, but the pain was more of a dull ache than the sharp pangs he had felt before. Joe shook his head. His head felt fuzzy, and he couldn’t seem to get his thoughts clear. Joe looked around the cabin, surprised to see that it was empty. A fire burned in the fireplace, but the flames were low. Joe shook his head again, trying to remember where Adam and Hoss had gone. He remembered them saying something to him, but couldn’t seem to get their words straight in his mind. Everything that had happened since the accident was a blur. He remembered bits and pieces, like being carried on the stretcher, and having food forced in his mouth. But for the most part, all he remembered was the pain and feeling tired. Joe heard a shot from outside the cabin. He turned his head and listened again. Another shot rang out. The gunfire didn’t sound like it was too far away. He wondered if Adam and Hoss were in trouble. Maybe that’s why the cabin was empty, he thought. Joe pulled the blanket off and slowly moved his legs across the bed. He groaned at the pain the movement caused. His injured leg felt heavy, and he was surprised to see it splinted with rough wood. Joe frowned, trying to remember when the splint had been put on. Once more, he shook his head, trying to clear it. Then he remembered the shots. He had to help Adam and Hoss, he thought. That was the important thing.
Joe rolled his body on the cot, then swung his legs on to the floor. He pushed himself up to a sitting position. He felt lightheaded and he rocked back and forth slowly as he sat on the edge of the bed. Joe tried to put his weight on his good leg and push himself up so he could stand. But he was weaker than he thought, and the leg buckled. Joe was thrown off balance and crashed to the floor. He landed on his left side, and curled his body in pain. Joe clenched his teeth as a wave of pain traveled up his injured leg. He was breathing hard, and sweat was running down the side of his face. He closed his eyes for a minute, waiting for the pain to ease. When the pain finally became bearable, he turned onto his stomach. Using his arms, Joe began to slowly drag himself across the floor.
Joe knew he wasn’t thinking straight, but he felt a desperate need to get to Adam and Hoss. He knew his brothers wouldn’t leave him unless they absolutely had to. They must be in some kind of trouble, he thought. He didn’t have a clear idea about what he was going to do when he found them but he was determined to help them. As Joe neared the door, he saw a rifle laying on the floor. He grabbed the rifle and pulled it toward him. He slowly crawled to the door, dragging the rifle with him. When Joe finally got to the door, he reached up. He stretched to get his hand around the piece of wood that acted as a handle. His fingers closed on the wood. He pulled on the door and opened it. The opening was really just a crack, but it was enough. Joe released the handle and slumped back on the floor. Suddenly, he felt exhausted. Joe rested on the floor for several minutes. For a while, he couldn’t remember where he was going or what he was trying to do. Then he recalled the shots. Adam and Hoss might need him, he thought. He couldn’t just lay here. Joe reached for the door and grabbed the edge. He pulled the door open.
The cold air came rushing into the cabin. At first, the cold felt good to Joe; he was hot and sweaty. But soon he felt the bite of the cold against his face. He shivered slightly as the cold started to seep through his coat. Joe tried to ignore it as he pushed the door and opened it wider. In his mind, the important thing was to go help Adam and Hoss. Joe started to drag himself out the door. The rifle was left behind; Joe’s thinking was so fuzzy that he had already forgotten about it. All he could think about was that he had to get to Adam and Hoss, although he was beginning to have a hard time remembering why. Joe pulled himself until he was about halfway out the door. Suddenly, his arms felt weak and shaky, and his head began to spin. He fell back to the ground and closed his eyes, trying to gather his strength. But instead, he began to feel as if he were drifting and a dark cloud seemed to be engulfing him. His last thought before he blacked out was he wondered where Adam and Hoss were.
Adam was feeling pleased with himself as he emerged from the woods. He had the deer slung around his shoulders. He had brought it down on the second shot. The deer would provide more than enough food to last them until Hoss got back. He held the legs of the deer with his right hand, keeping it balanced around his shoulders. His rifle was tucked under his arm. Adam’s left hand and arm clutched several thick tree limbs against his side. The limbs were fairly dry, protected from the snow by the wood that had fallen on top of them. Adam would be able to keep the fire going for several hours. If Hoss wasn’t back by then, he could quickly return to the pile and get more dry wood. He had left several good sized tree limbs behind, unable to carry more because of the burden of the deer.
As Adam started across the clearing toward the cabin, a frown appeared on his face. The cabin door looked as if it were open, although he couldn’t tell for sure from where he was. He walked faster through the thick snow. As he neared the cabin, he felt his stomach clutch in fear. The cabin door was open. And Joe was lying in the doorway, Adam rushed to the cabin, dumping the wood, deer and rifle in a pile a few feet from the door. He hurried to Joe and knelt beside his brother. Joe was lying face down, the upper half of his body outside of the cabin. His head was pillowed by his hands. Adam grabbed Joe’s shoulders and turned him toward him. He cradled Joe’s head in his arms.
“Joe!” Adam said urgently as he wiped the snow from Joe’s face. There was no response. Joe’s eyes were closed. His skin felt cold. Adam pressed his fingers against Joe’s neck and was relieved to feel a pulse. “Joe!” he said again a bit more louder and gently shook his brother.
Joe’s eyes opened a bit, hardly more than a crack. His mouth moved, as if he were trying to talk, but no words came out. Joe began to shiver. Adam scooped his brother into his arms, then stood and carried him into the cabin. He carried Joe to the bed, and placed him carefully on the blankets. He grabbed the blanket which Joe had pushed aside and wrapped it tightly around his younger brother. Adam turned quickly to the fire, and was dismayed to see no flames. A few pieces of wood glowed as hot embers, but the rest of the wood had been burned to ashes. Adam rush back outside and grabbed the wood he had dropped. He hurried back into the cabin, slamming the door behind him, and knelt by the fireplace. Pulling the hatchet from his belt, he quickly chopped one of the limbs into smaller pieces. Then he stoked the embers and slowly added wood to the fire. He was desperate to get the fire going again to warm the cabin, but knew he had to be careful not to smother the embers. After several frustrating minutes of nursing the fire, he was relieved to see small flicks of flame sprouting around the wood. Confident that the wood was catching, he turned and walked back to the cot.
Joe was shivering more violently and he coughed weakly. Adam began to rub Joe’s shoulders and arms through the blanket, trying to warm his brother. He briskly rubbed Joe’s cold cheeks. Adam stopped and sat back. He was trying to remember how long he had been gone. He didn’t think he had been gone too long, but then he had gone deeper into the woods than he had planned. An hour, he thought, maybe a bit more. He wondered how long Joe had been laying in the doorway. Joe coughed again. Adam looked around quickly and spotted the canteen on the floor near the foot of the bed. He reached down and grabbed it. Pulling the top off, he put the canteen to Joe’s slip and trickled some water into Joe’s mouth. The canteen was almost empty. At least we have plenty of water, Adam thought ironically as Joe drank, even if it is in the form of snow.
Joe’s eyes opened a big wider as he turned his head from the canteen. “Adam?” Joe said in a voice barely a whisper, and then coughed again. “Are you all right?” Joe asked weakly.
“I’m fine,” said Adam. “What do you think you were trying to do, kill yourself?”
“Heard shots,” Joe said softly. “Thought you and Hoss were in trouble.”
“I told you I was going to get some wood,” Adam said. “Don’t you remember?” Joe shook his head, barely moving it. He shivered again. Adam resumed rubbing his brother’s arms and face, hoping to warm him. After a minute, Adam stopped and unbuttoned his coat. He wiggled out of the coat and gently laid it on top of Joe, hoping the extra layer of warmth would help. Adam shivered slightly as he felt the chilly air in the cabin. The temperature in the cabin had dropped, due to the lack of a fire and the door being left open for some time. Adam spent the next ten minutes running back and forth between the cot and the fire. He kept stoking the fire and adding wood to it, trying to turn the small blaze into a roaring fire. Each time, after he added a piece of wood, Adam would return to the bed. He continued to massage Joe’s arms and face, trying to warm his brother. After a few minutes by the bed, he would return to the fire, stoking it and adding wood.
Finally, Adam returned to the bed and just sat. The fire was roaring and he could feel waves of heat from the hearth. Joe had stopped shivering and his face no longer felt cold. Adam knew there was one more thing he had to do, but he was reluctant to do it. Sighing, Adam decided he couldn’t put it off any longer. Adam slid toward the bottom of the bed. He carefully raised the blanket over Joe’s injured leg and pulled it back. Adam blew out his breath in relief. The splint on Joe’s leg had held together. The bone looked straight, or as straight as Adam could make it last night. The leg was still swollen, but Adam couldn’t see any evidence of further injury to it. He had been afraid that Joe had displaced the bone and he would have to try to set his brother’s leg again. Adam wasn’t sure he could have done it, especially without Hoss. At least he didn’t have to go through that again, he thought in relief. Adam covered Joe’s leg again with the blanket, and turned back to the top of the bed. He studied Joe’s face. Joe was pale, even paler than before if that was possible. His eyes were closed, and his breathing shallow and steady. Adam wasn’t sure if Joe was asleep or unconscious. He wasn’t sure it made any difference. There was really very little more he could do for his brother. Adam decided to go retrieve the deer and rifle from outside. He glanced at Joe as he walked to the door, trying to reassure himself that Joe was not awake. He didn’t want a repeat of what had happened earlier. Adam rushed outside and picked up the rifle he had dropped. He grabbed the legs of the deer and started to drag the carcass to the cabin. Before he opened the door, Adam turned back stared across the clearing. He looked for any sign of Hoss, knowing that it was too soon for Hoss to be back. Hurry Hoss, Adam thought to himself.
Hoss struggled down the mountain as fast as his weary legs could move through the thick snow. His path was beginning to zigzag, as he walked around deep drifts. He kept a watchful eye as he tramped through the woods. He didn’t want that old bear to sneak up on him again. Hoss was bone-tired and his legs were beginning to ache. He had thought he would be at the Crenshaw place by now, but the snow was thicker and harder to get through than he had figured. The cold air seemed to sap his strength, also. He had been hiking for hours, and still had several miles to cover. Hoss wanted nothing more than to sit down and rest, but he knew he couldn’t. For one thing, he was liable to fall asleep and freeze to death. But even more importantly, he had to get help for Joe. Hoss was determined to let nothing stop him from that. Hoss trudged on. As his fatigue grew, he forgot about watching for the bear. In fact, he forgot about everything except continuing to walk. He concentrated on putting one foot in front of the other. Everything else was unimportant. Finally, he had to stop. He leaned against a tree, panting hard. His breath formed a fine mist. Hoss closed his eyes for a minute and tried to rest. Just rest a minute, he told himself, then go on.
Hoss thought he imagined the sound he heard. He wanted help for Joe so desperately that he thought the sound of a horse whinnying was only wishful thinking. But then he heard voices. Hoss opened his eyes and looked around. The sounds came from somewhere to his left. Voices called again. Hoss couldn’t make out what they said, but he didn’t care. He only knew that help was close at hand. Hoss hurried in the direction of the sound, afraid that he would miss whoever was calling. He came a small hill and stopped at the edge. Hoss looked down, searching for the source of the sounds. Suddenly, a huge grin split his face. Five riders were working their way slowly up the mountain. The men were shouting as they rode. Three of the riders were leading horses with empty saddles. In the front, leading the men, was a familiar figure on a buckskin horse.
“Pa!” Hoss shouted as loud as he could. He started to hurry down the hill, waving his arms and shouting. He was about three quarters of the way down when he slipped. Hoss landed on his backside, and slid the rest of the way down the hill. He came to an abrupt stop at the bottom of the hill. Hoss laid in the snow, dazed and breathless.
As he tried to catch his breath, Hoss heard the sound of hoofs crunching in the snow. He looked up to see the legs of a buckskin horse looming over him. “Hi, Pa” he said as he gasped for air.
Ben Cartwright hurriedly dismounted from his horse and knelt by Hoss. “Are you all right, son?” he asked in a concerned voice.
Hoss slowly moved his arms, then his legs. “Yeah, I seem to be in one piece,” he said. He turned to Ben and grinned. “You sure are a sight for sore eyes,” said Hoss.
Ben let out of sigh of relief, and patted Hoss on the shoulder. He began looking around, searching the woods above them. “Where are Adam and Joe?” Ben asked.
Hoss’ face turned grim. “There was an accident,” Hoss said. “Joe fell and busted his leg. Adam and I tried to get him home, but the blizzard hit before we could get down the mountain.”
Ben’s face reflected his fear. “Where are they?” he asked again.
“In an old trapper’s cabin a couple of miles from here,” answered Hoss. “Adam stayed with Joe while I went for help. I was trying to get to the Crenshaw place but the snow slowed me down.” Hoss hesitated, then continued. “Pa, Joe’s leg is bad, real bad. He’s going to need a doctor right away.”
Ben nodded. He turned to the men sitting on their horses behind him. “Sam, you head back and get Doc Martin. Tell him to wait for us at the Ponderosa. We’ll get there as soon as we can.” One of the men nodded, turned his horse around and rode off.
Ben turned back to Hoss. “Are you sure you’re all right?” he asked.
“I’m fine, Pa,” Hoss said. He stood and dusted off the snow. A frown crossed his face. “How did you know to come looking for us?” Hoss asked curiously. “Not that I ain’t glad to see you, but how did you know?”
“I ran into Josh Crenshaw last night in Virginia City,” Ben explained. “He told me he decided to come to town and get supplies because it was starting to snow up here. He was afraid he would get snowed in. I knew you boys were up here someplace, and when he told me about the snowstorm, I thought you might be in trouble. It was pure luck I ran into Josh. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have known about the storm.”
Hoss shook his head in amazement. “We’ve had nothing but bad luck on this trip,” he said. “I guess our luck’s changed.”
“I hope so,” said Ben anxiously. “The important thing now is to get to Adam and Joe.”
“I’ll show you the way,” said Hoss, moving toward one of the riderless horses.
Adam sat by the fire, clenching his hands in frustration. He wanted to do something, anything to help his sick and injured brother, but he couldn’t think of anything to do. He had dressed out the deer, and carefully roasted some of the meat. But he couldn’t get Joe to eat. He tried to force the food into his brother, but Joe kept saying he was too tired to eat. Joe slept most of the time, exhausted by pain and sickness. When he did wake, he had a hacking cough which worried Adam. All Adam could do was give Joe some water. Adam fed another piece of wood into the fire, keeping the flames high. The wood was almost gone. Adam wondered what he was going to do when he had no more wood. There was nothing left to burn in the cabin. He knew he had to keep Joe warm. But he hated the thought of leaving Joe alone again. Adam stood and began pacing across the floor of the cabin. Where was Hoss? he wondered angrily. Surely he must have reached the Crenshaw place by now. What was taking him so long? Adam knew he was being unfair. He had seen how thick the snow was in the woods. Hoss must be having a hard time traveling on foot through the snow. He was sure Hoss would return as soon as he could. But knowing Hoss was doing his best was of small comfort to Adam. He was worried about Joe and frustrated because he could do so little to help him. Joe stirred on the bed and Adam hastened to the cot. Joe started coughing. Adam raised his brother’s head and shoulders and patted him briskly on the back, trying to help him clear his lungs. When the coughing subsided, Adam grabbed the canteen from the floor and held it to Joe’s lips. He trickled some water into Joe’s mouth, and felt some satisfaction as he watched Joe eagerly drink the liquid. When Joe was finished drinking, Adam slowly lowered his brother’s head back on to the bed.
“Thanks,” Joe mumbled as he began to close his eyes. Within seconds, he had drifted off to sleep again.
Adam put the canteen on the floor again, then stood. He walked back to the fire and stoked it, not because it needed it but because it gave him something to do. Adam hated the waiting. He was used to taking action, to being in control. It grated on him that all he could do was sit. Adam threw the stick he was using as a poker on the floor in frustration. He walked to the door and pulled it open a bit. He looked across the clearing, searching for some sign of Hoss. But the landscape was as empty as it had been hours ago. Adam started to close the door but stopped suddenly. He froze and listened hard. A faint voice seemed to be echoing across the cold air. Adam pushed the door open again and took a few steps out side the cabin. The air was still and quiet. Then a voice called again.
“Adam!” the voice called from a distant. Adam’s eyes searched the woods in the distance, looking for some movement. He stared at the woods and, after a minute, was rewarded with the sight of horses moving out of the woods. He saw a familiar tall white hat on the lead rider, and a familiar buckskin following the first horse. Hoss cupped his hand to mouth and shouted “Adam!” one more time.
Adam’s body sagged in relief as he watched the small band of riders emerge from the woods. He forced himself to stand by the cabin and wave. What he really wanted to do was sprint across the snow and throw his arms around his brother and father. That group of riders was the prettiest sight he had seen in a long time. Adam waited impatiently as the riders forced their horses through the thick snow to the cabin. He saw the grin on Hoss’ face as the horses neared the cabin. Adam gave him a tired smile.
“What took you so long?” Adam demanded as Hoss pulled his horse to a stop outside the cabin and dismounted.
“It was a nice day for a walk,” Hoss said wryly. “I was admiring the scenery.”
Ben scrambled off his horse and rushed to Adam. “Are you all right?” he asked his oldest son, grabbing him around the upper arms. Ben saw the fatigue and strain on Adam’s face.
“I’m fine now that you’re here,” said Adam, the relief evident in his voice.
“How’s Joe?” Hoss asked with concern.
Adam winced. “Not good,” he said. “C’mon.” Adam turned and led the men into the cabin.
Ben hurried to the cot as soon as he entered the cabin. He sat on the edge of the bed, alarmed at Joe’s appearance. His son’s face was deathly pale, the only color the bright spots of fever on his cheeks. His hair was plastered to his forehead by beads of sweat. His eyes were closed and his breathing, labored. Ben gently stroked Joe’s head, murmuring his son’s name. He turned toward the bottom of the bed and pulled back the blanket covering Joe’s legs. Ben’s eyes narrowed as he saw the red and swollen leg. He looked quickly over his shoulder at Adam and Hoss who were hovering anxiously behind him. Before Ben could say something, Joe stirred on the bed. He turned his head to look at the figure sitting on the bed. A hacking cough erupted from his mouth. Joe gulped for air.
Ben laid a hand on Joe’s shoulder. “Take it easy,” Ben said soothingly.
Joe looked at the figure in confusion. “Pa?” he asked in a weak voice.
“I’m here, son,” Ben said soothingly. “Everything is going to be all right now. You just rest. We’re going to get you home.”
“Pa?” Joe said again, as if he didn’t understand what was being said to him. Joe coughed again. He turned his head and closed his eyes.
Ben turned to Adam. “How long as he been like this?” Ben asked.
“He broke the leg yesterday,” said Adam. “He started coughing a few hours ago.” Adam was reluctant to tell Ben and Hoss how he had found Joe in the doorway. He felt he had done the wrong thing, leaving Joe alone. In fact, he was beginning to think he had done nothing right on this trip.
“Hoss said you set his leg last night,” Ben said. Adam nodded. He didn’t feel good about that, either.
Ben looked at the men standing behind Hoss and Joe. “You men get some wood together for a travois. Joe’s not going to be able to sit a horse.” The men quickly left the cabin.
Ben turned to Adam and Hoss. “Get the bedrolls off the horses,” he ordered them. “I want to pile everything we have on Joe. We have to keep him warm on the trip home.” Adam and Hoss nodded, and rushed out the door. Ben turned back to his youngest son. “You’re going to be all right, son,” Ben said in a soft voice. He only wished he believed what he was saying.
The moon was rising in a dark sky when the wagon pulled into the yard of the house at the Ponderosa. It had taken the Cartwrights and their hands awhile to make the travois and get Joe settled on it. Adam had carefully put out the fire and closed the cabin tight. He was grateful for the protection it had offered them, and wanted it to be around in case someone needed it again. Hoss had dragged the rest of the deer meat into the woods. When he saw Adam watching him with a quizzical expression, Hoss had just shrugged and said, “I know an ol’ bear who will be happy to get this.”
The party of riders had moved slowly down the mountain. The travois had been tied to the horse Ben had brought along for Joe. Ben had led the horse at a walk, trying to make the journey as easy as possible on Joe. Ben was worried that Joe never seemed to wake during the trip. He knew that Joe’s deep sleep was a sign of how sick the boy really was. After what seemed an interminable time, they had finally reached the Crenshaw spread, and transferred Joe to a wagon that Josh Crenshaw had willingly loaned them. Now the tired men were finally home. Hoss was driving the wagon into the yard when the front door opened. Doctor Martin stood in the doorway watching for a moment, then rushed to the wagon as Hoss pulled it to a halt. Ben sat in the back of the wagon with Joe. The doctor took one look at Joe and turned to the men on the horses behind him.
“Get him into the house quickly,” said the doctor. Even without examining him, the doctor could tell Joe was a sick boy.
Six men carefully carried the stretcher which had held Joe for the last two days. They transported Joe into the house, up the stairs and into his room. With infinite care, they transferred Joe from the stretcher to his bed.
“Ben, you can stay. The rest of you, out!” barked Dr. Martin. The three hands left immediately. Adam and Hoss lingered, wanting to help. Dr. Martin saw them standing by the door. “You two get some rest and food,” he said in a gentler tone. “You both look like you’re ready to drop. I’ve got my hands full with Joe. I don’t need any more patients around here.” Hoss and Adam reluctantly left the room.
Adam and Hoss were asleep in the living room when Ben and Dr. Martin came down the stairs two hours later. Adam was in Ben’s favorite chair by the fire. Hoss was sprawled across the sofa. Hop Sing made a hot dinner for Adam and Hoss, and both had eaten like starving men. They had fully intended to wait for the doctor’s verdict before getting some rest. But full bellies, a warm fire and the strain of the last two days had proved too much for them. Adam and Hoss had fallen asleep less than half an hour after finishing off Hop Sing’s meal. The sound of footsteps on the stairs roused Adam. He sat up quickly in the chair and rubbed his hands across his face. He looked at the two grim-faced men descending the stairs. “How’s Joe?” Adam asked with a sinking heart.
Hoss stirred at the sound of voices. He also noted the expression on his father’s and the doctor’s faces. Hoss held his breath waiting for the reply.
“He’s in pretty bad shape,” said the doctor solemnly. “He’s got some fluid in his lungs and he’s got a fever. He was already weak as the result of breaking his leg. He must have caught a chill and didn’t have the strength to fight it off. I’ve given him some medicine and wrapped him in every blanket we could find. Now all we can do is wait.”
“How is his leg?” Adam asked, dreading the answer. “He was in a lot of pain. I’m not sure I did the right thing setting his leg.”
“You did exactly the right thing,” replied Dr. Martin. “In fact, I would have recommended you set it sooner.” Adam looked guiltily at Hoss.
“It looks like the broken bone was pressing up against some muscle and nerves,” the doctor continued. “That’s why he felt so much pain. Despite the splint you put on, the bone moved around some and tore up the muscle and nerves. When you set the bone, you relieved the pressure.”
“Is his leg going to be all right?” Hoss asked.
The doctor glanced at Ben before replying. “I don’t know,” he admitted. “You did a good job in setting the leg. The bone is nice and straight. But I can’t tell how much damage there is, or how serious the damage might be. The muscle and nerves may heal. If so, his leg will be fine. If not…well, there’s a number of doctors who specializing in these types of injuries. They might be able to do something. But we can worry about that later. The important thing now is to get him over the sickness.”
Adam’s shoulders sagged. “It’s all my fault,” he said in a low voice. “Hoss wanted to set the leg right away, but I told him to wait. I should have listened to Hoss.”
“Adam, you can’t blame yourself,” said Hoss. “Neither one of us was sure what to do. You did what you thought was best.”
“Yes, but I left him alone in that cabin,” Adam confessed. “He crawled out of bed, looking for us. I found him half out of the cabin, laying in the snow. It’s my fault he’s so sick.”
“You left him alone?” said Ben with a frown. “Why?”
“We were out of wood and food,” said Adam in an low voice. “I thought he was asleep. I was only gone about an hour, getting some wood and I shot that deer. When I got back, I found him. He was laying in the cold.”
Ben walked over and put a comforting hand on Adam’s shoulder. “Sounds to me like you didn’t have much choice,” he said. “You didn’t know he was going to try to come after you.”
“Pa, I made nothing but wrong decisions,” Adam said in a choked voice. “I should have insisted we come home as soon as I felt the temperature dropping. I thought one more day of hunting wouldn’t hurt. Then Joe broke his leg, and the storm came up, and everything I did after that was wrong!”
“Adam, that’s not true,” insisted Hoss. “We both were there. You didn’t do anything I wouldn’t have done.”
Adam nodded, but he didn’t find Hoss’ words comforting. If Joe died, or if he was lame, he had no one to blame but himself.
Doctor Martin cleared his throat. He felt bad for Adam, but in a way, he couldn’t help agreeing with him. Adam had made some wrong decisions, although there was no way he could have known the consequences at the time. “Let’s not worry about something that may not happen,” the doctor said. “Joe may come out of this fine. He’s young, and strong, and he’s come through worse things than this.”
Ben patted Adam on the shoulder. “Don’t blame yourself, son,” Ben said in a comforting voice. “All any of us can do is what we think is best at the time. You did what you thought was right for Joe. That’s all any of us can expect.” Adam looked at Ben. The anguish on his face told Ben that his words meant little to Adam.
Ben looked at Hoss and Doctor Martin, but neither man knew what to say. Ben sighed. “I’ll tell Hop Sing to make some coffee,” Ben said. “It’s going to be a long night.”
Ben’s words were prophetic. No one at the Ponderosa got much sleep that night, or the next day. Joe’s fever hung on stubbornly, and his cough didn’t seem to ease either. The doctor tried every remedy he knew, from mustard plasters to cold compresses. But Joe didn’t seem to improve. He slept most of the time, and when he did rouse to a state of semi-consciousness, he was quickly exhausted by severe bouts of coughing. When Dr. Martin ran out of new things to try, he tried everything again. Ben managed to get Hoss and Adam to agree to go to bed after they had talked downstairs, but neither of them slept long. Hoss showed up in Joe’s room after a few hours, wanting to help. Adam arrived shortly after Hoss. The doctor finally set a schedule of three hours for each man to help him tend to Joe. Dr. Martin really didn’t need the help; there wasn’t much any of them could do to help Joe. But the set visits kept the room from being constantly crowded. Hoss was sitting with Joe when Adam arrived at the bedroom at midnight for his turn at tending to Joe. He was surprised to see no one else was with Joe. “Where’s the doctor?” Adam asked with a frown.
“He’s getting some rest down the hall,” replied Hoss. “He dosed Joe with some medicine about an hour ago, and said there wasn’t anything else he could do for a while. I finally convinced Pa to get some sleep too.”
Adam walked over to take a closer look at his sick brother. Joe was a sleep, and he seemed no better than when they were in the cabin. Adam shook his head slightly. “He’s not any better,” said Adam, making a statement rather than asking a question.
“His fever hasn’t gone up any, and he’s been sleeping for a couple of hours,” said Hoss in a hopeful voice. “That’s a good sign.”
Adam nodded and continued to stare at Joe, almost willing him to get better. Adam glanced down to the bottom of the bed. Joe’s injured leg was propped up on several pillows. Adam gently pulled back the covers so he could inspect Joe’s leg. He knew it was too soon to see any sign of improvement but he couldn’t seem to help himself. Joe’s leg was splinted and heavily wrapped in white bandages. His toes were visible, and they looked badly swollen. Adam sighed, and carefully covered his brother’s leg again. Hoss watched Adam in silence. He could imagine the worry and guilt Adam felt. Hoss felt the same way. He kept trying to tell himself that they had done the best they could for Joe under very difficult circumstances. But Hoss couldn’t convince himself.
Adam turned back to Hoss. “You get some rest,” he said. “I’ll take over.”
Hoss nodded and pulled himself wearily out of the chair. He looked down at Joe and gave his younger brother a gentle pat on the head. Then he turned and walked out of the room. Adam sat in the chair that Hoss had left. He stared for awhile at Joe, hoping to see some improvement, something that he had missed earlier. But Joe looked the same…sick, pale and exhausted. Adam sat back in the chair and crossed his arms.
The morning sun filtered through the window of the bedroom where Doctor Martin slept fully clothed on the bed. He had slept fitfully, searching his mind for some remedy which he hadn’t yet tried. Twice, he had risen from the bed to give Joe another dose of medicine. He forced himself to rest, knowing that exhausting himself wouldn’t help Joe. He had finally dropped off into a deep sleep near dawn.
A hard shake on his shoulder woke the doctor. He woke instantly, and looked up at Adam standing over his bed. “Joe?” he asked. Adam nodded. Before Adam could say anything further, Dr. Martin sprang from the bed and rushed out of the room, fearing the worst. He raced into Joe’s room but stopped abruptly as he looked at the scene before him. Joe was sitting up in bed, his eyes open. His gaze was steady and clear. Joe coughed lightly a few times, then smiled weakly. Ben and Hoss were standing next to the bed, grinning.
“What’s going on here?” the doctor demanded.
“Joe’s fever broke,” explained Ben. “He woke up a little while ago and asked for some breakfast.”
The doctor walked to the bed and sat on the edge. He put his hand on Joe’s forehead. Then he grabbed the stethoscope from the table next to the bed. Putting the tubes in his ears, he listened for a few minutes to Joe’s breathing. Finally, he pulled the instrument from his ears. “His fever is way down and his lungs are clearing, “ he declared. He looked at Joe. “You Cartwrights are a tough lot.”
“Takes more than a little cold to get one of us,” said Hoss, his voice tinged with relief.
“I told you I was all right,” said Joe in a weak voice.
“You’re not ‘all right’ yet,” said the doctor sternly. “But you’re well on your way. What you need now is plenty of rest and good food, plus regular doses of that medicine.”
Joe made a face when the doctor mentioned the medicine, and everyone laughed. Doctor Martin stood. “I’m heading back to town,” he declared. “I’ve got some sick people to take care of. I’ll come out tomorrow to check on you.”
Doctor Martin walked to the door. As he started to leave the room, Adam grabbed his arm. “What about his leg?” Adam asked in a quiet voice. The doctor glanced over his shoulder. Joe’s attention was on Hoss, who was describing their trip home through the snow. “We’ll just have to wait and see,” answered the doctor softly.
“When will we know?” Adam insisted.
“A couple of weeks, maybe longer,” said the doctor. He put his hand on Adam’s shoulder. “Don’t go buying trouble,” the doctor continued. “Let’s just see what happens.”
Joe slowly regained his strength over the next two weeks. At first, he slept most of the time, but soon he was spending more and more time sitting up in bed. The doctor came every day to check on him, and to examine his leg. At first, Joe didn’t think much about his broken leg. But gradually, he began to realize something was different about this break. Joe had had broken bones before. He knew how it felt when the bone was healing. This time, his leg felt different. It felt strangely numb, almost as if it weren’t there. When Joe asked the doctor and his father about it, they downplayed his concerns. The doctor kept saying it was a bad break and needed time to heal. Joe started to wonder what they might not be telling him. Joe also realized that Adam was spending more time than usual with him. Adam brought him books to read while he recovered, and spent time playing chess with him. His brother’s almost constant presence was beginning to add to Joe’s concerns. Finally, Joe decided he had to find out what was going on. He waited until Adam had the chessboard set up late one afternoon. The board was placed carefully on Joe’s bed, and Adam had pulled his chair close to the bed. Adam moved a white pawn , and then looked up at Joe. He was surprised to see Joe studying him carefully.
“It’s your move,” Adam said.
Joe didn’t answer at first. Then he said, “Adam, what’s going on?”
“What do you mean, what’s going on?” Adam replied, pretending he didn’t know what Joe was asking about. He had been dreading a conversation like this.
“You know what I mean,” said Joe. “What’s really wrong with my leg? Pa and the doc, they won’t tell me anything. They just say it’s got to heal. There’s something different about this break. I know, I can feel it. What’s going on?”
“Pa and Doctor Martin know what’s happening better than I do,” answered Adam lightly. “They never tell Hoss and me anything!”
“Adam, I want to know the truth,” Joe said firmly. “It’s my leg. I should know what’s really wrong with it. Now, tell me.”
Adam hesitated. In his own mind, he felt Joe deserved to know their concerns about his injury. But he also felt that it was his father’s place to talk to Joe. If Pa didn’t want to talk about it, maybe that was best.
“Adam,” Joe said again, his voice even firmer. “I’m not a kid. I can tell something is different. I want to know what’s going on.”
Adam chewed his lower lip, trying to decide what to do.
“Adam….” Joe said one more time.
Finally, Adam squared his shoulders and took a deep breath. “All right, “ he said. “I guess you’re right. You deserve to know. The doctor is concerned that’s there is muscle and nerve damage to your leg. He’s afraid that once the bone heals, you’ll still not be able to walk on it.”
Joe paled and said nothing. Somehow he wasn’t really surprised, but hearing Adam say the actual words scared him more than he thought it would.
“It’s my fault,” Adam continued quickly, his voice tinged with emotion. “I waited too long to set it. Hoss wanted to set your leg right away, but I was afraid I’d mess it up. By the time we did set it, the broken bone had sliced up some muscle and nerves.” Adam looked at Joe with an apologetic expression. “I’m sorry, Joe. I’m sorrier than I can say.”
Joe just nodded. His heart was pounding and he suddenly felt shaky. His mouth was dry. The thought of not being able to walk as before frightened Joe more than anything he could remember. Adam and Joe both looked up as the door opened. Doctor Martin and Ben walked in.
“Joe, what’s wrong?” asked the doctor. “You’re as pale as a ghost.”
Joe tried to answer but couldn’t seem to find his voice. He licked his dry lips nervously.
“I told Joe about his leg,” Adam said. “I told him that we were worried it wasn’t going to heal correctly.”
“I thought we had agreed to wait until we knew for sure,” Ben said in an angry voice.
“Don’t blame Adam, “ Joe said, suddenly finding his voice. “I made him tell me. I wanted to know. It’s not Adam’s fault.” Joe looked straight into his brother’s eyes. “None of it is Adam’s fault.”
Adam nodded gratefully, but he really didn’t feel much better. He still felt guilty about what had happened to Joe.
Joe turned back to the doctor. “When will we know?” he asked.
The doctor shrugged. “That’s hard to say, Joe,” he answered. “Muscles and nerves can take awhile to grow back.”
“How long?” Joe asked insistently. “A month? A year? What?”
The doctor shook his head. “There’s really no way to tell,” he replied.
“But you must have some idea,” Joe pressed. “Some indication that things are getting better…or not.”
Doctor Martin looked at Adam and Ben, then back to Joe. “Well, you should be able to move your toes once the damage nerves begin to heal,” he said reluctantly. “But there’s no telling how long that might take.”
“Joe, there’s doctors that specialize in this type of injury,” Ben added quickly. “They’re discovering new things all the time. It’s too soon to say you won’t be fine.”
Joe nodded distractedly. His mind was reeling.
“Maybe we ought to get a specialist now,” Adam said.
The doctor shook his head. “No, we have to wait until that bone heals,” Doctor Martin said. “Until then, there’s nothing we can do.” He looked at Joe. “I know this is hard, but you’re just going to have to be patient. That’s why we didn’t say anything. We didn’t want to worry you until we knew something for sure.”
Joe nodded once more. “Well, I guess I found out what I wanted to know,” he said softly. He looked at the ceiling, and blinked his eyes several times. His eyes were unnaturally bright. Joe tried not to show the tears he felt forming. Adam patted Joe’s hand. “It’s going to be all right, Joe,” he said in a reassuring voice. “You’ll see, everything is going to be all right.” Adam only wished there was some way to make his words true.
“Yeah, Adam,” Joe said in a choked voice. “Sure.”
Ben said in his favorite leather chair, staring into the fire burning in the hearth in the living room. It had been two weeks since Joe had asked about his leg. Since then, Joe had said nothing more about the injury. That worried Ben more than if Joe had been complaining. His son’s silence on the subject made Ben wonder if Joe had already given up. Ben also was worried about Adam and Hoss. They both felt responsible for the extent of Joe’s injury, especially Adam. He could see the guilt and concern on their faces every time the doctor checked Joe and declared Joe was about the same. Ben desperately wished there was something he could do to help all of his sons.
“Mr. Cartwright, you eat soon,” Hop Sing said from the dining room. “Hop Sing fix special dinner for your birthday. If you don’t eat soon, dinner all ruined.”
“I don’t feel much like celebrating my birthday,” Ben said grimly.
“Hop Sing make chicken and dumplings,” the cook said firmly. “Mr. Adam, he say Hop Sing make all your favorite food. Mr. Hoss tell Hop Sing to make big cake. You eat soon or everything ruined.”
Ben sighed. He knew Adam and Hoss were trying to cheer him up, just as he had been trying to make them feel better. But Ben knew that until Joe was better, none of them would feel good.
“You eat soon,” Hop Sing said again.
“We can’t eat until Adam and Hoss come down,” Ben explained. “They’re up with Joe.”
Ben was interrupted by the sound of voices on the stairs. He looked up and was stunned by what he saw. Adam and Hoss were carrying Joe down the stairs. Joe was fully dressed for the first time in weeks, although he wasn’t wearing boots, and his pant leg was split to make room for the bandages and splint on his leg. Adam and Hoss had made a seat by joining their hands, and Joe was perched on their hands. His arms were flung over his brothers’ shoulders.
“Be careful,” Joe was saying as the trio maneuvered slowly down the stairs. “I don’t want you two to drop me.”
“If you would stop squirming, this would be easier,” Hoss said in a slightly disgusted voice.
“Just get me down the stairs,” Joe said.
“We’re trying, we’re trying,” Adam said, his voice betraying his exasperation. “We should have never let you talk us into this.”
Ben watched as Hoss and Adam carried Joe down the last flight of stairs. He was afraid to say anything, afraid that he might startle Adam and Hoss and they would drop Joe. He watched with his heart in his throat as Adam and Hoss carried Joe to the blue chair near the fire, and carefully deposited him in the chair.
“What’s going on here?” Ben demanded as Joe settled himself in the chair. “What’s Joe doing out of bed?”
“It’s all right, Pa,” said Hoss. “We talked to the doctor and he said as long as Joe didn’t put any weight on his leg, he could get up for a little while.”
Adam brought a stool and pillow over to the chair. He carefully propped Joe’s injured leg on the stool, and slid the pillow under the leg to cushion it.
“I didn’t want to miss your birthday,” Joe said with a smile.
“Joe, there will be other birthdays,” Ben said in a worried voice. “It’s more important that you take care of yourself.”
“I’m fine, Pa, don’t worry,” said Joe. “I was going crazy sitting in bed.”
“It’s all right, Pa, really,” Adam added. “Doctor Martin, Joe, Hoss and I worked this all out yesterday.”
“Besides, Pa, I have a trick I want to show you,” Joe said, grinning.
“Trick? What trick?” Ben asked. He looked at Adam and Hoss, but they just shrugged.
“Don’t know, Pa,” said Hoss. “Joe’s being real secretive about this.”
“Just watch,” said Joe, pointing at his foot.
Joe frowned and pursed his lips. He seemed to be concentrating. Then slowly, very slowly, he bent his toes.
Ben, Adam and Hoss stood in stunned silence.
“I know it’s not much of a trick,” said Joe. “I mean, it’s not like in a circus or anything, but I thought it was pretty good.”
Hoss let out a whoop and slapped his brother on the back. Ben let out a sigh of relief and closed his eyes in a quiet prayer of thanks. Then he grinned. Adam reached over and put his hands on his brother’s toes. He was overwhelmed with feelings of relief and happiness.
“How long have you been able to do this?” Adam said.
“Well, I managed to move them a bit yesterday,” Joe admitted. “I’ve been practicing all day. I wanted to be sure I could really move them.” Joe frowned and slowly moved his toes again. Then, he looked up at his father. “Sorry I didn’t get you a birthday present,” he said. “I’ve been a little tied up.”
“Joe, this is the best present I’ve ever had,” Ben said fervently.
“Amen to that,” added Hoss.
Joe looked up at Adam. “Adam, I never blamed you for what happened,” he said seriously. “You and Hoss saved me out there in that storm. You have nothing to feel guilty about.”
Adam nodded gratefully. He felt like the weight of the world had been lifted off his shoulders. Joe turned back to Ben. “Well, are we going to get this birthday party started?” he asked with a grin. “I’ll have to eat in this chair, but if you talk real loud, I’ll be able to hear you from the dining room.”
Hoss rubbed his hands together. “You bet, little brother,” he said. “I’ll even let you have the first piece of cake.”
“It’s the only way I’ll get a piece,” Joe grumbled.
Ben laughed. “I’ll tell Hop Sing to bring you dinner,” he said. “I have a feeling this is going to be the best birthday I’ve ever had.”