The Steak (by Sherri)

Summary:
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  9900


“Thanks, Marty!” Joe called out as he took the mail from the young man behind the counter. Tossing out a wave to him, Joe walked out to his horse and stuffed the mail into his saddlebag as he stood there trying to remember where he was to go next. Looking down the street, he saw the gleaming sign of the International Hotel and with a slap on his head remembered where he was supposed to be. Meeting up with Hoss for lunch. Shoot, Joe thought to himself, I wonder if he’s already ordered lunch. Securely tying the saddlebag onto his horse, he quickly patted his horse on its rump before he walked down the boardwalk on his way to the hotel. Pushing the doors open to the hotel, Joe quickly walked across the carpeted flooring, sending out a greeting to the desk clerk before rounding the corner into the dining room. Looking across the room, he saw his brother sitting at the table with a pile of empty dishes set in front of him. Groaning, Joe maneuvered his way around the chairs and tables before reaching the table where his brother sat. “Hey Hoss,” Joe greeted as he pulled out a chair. Sitting down in the chair, Joe looked at the empty plates in front of Hoss and realized that the last bite of steak he was putting in his mouth must have come from a second plate. “Aw Hoss, did you eat my lunch?”

“Dang it Joe,” complained Hoss, as he swallowed the last bite. “Them steaks were so good that, with you not being here, I ate yours.” Smiling at his brother, he used his napkin and quickly wiped his mouth.

Tossing his hands up in the air, Joe couldn’t help but complain, “I wasn’t that late. You couldn’t have waited?”

“Joe, the smell of that steak that was sitting across from me just called to me,” Hoss explained,   “’Sides, wouldn’t you rather have a fresh one?” Seeing the waiter across the room, Hoss motioned over to him and waited while he finished pouring water for a customer.

 Muttering under his breath, Joe felt his stomach growl as he watched the waiter approached their table, “What I would have preferred is a steak in front of me now.” Turning to the waiter, Joe watched as the hunched-back man deferred to Hoss for direction.

 “We need another round of steaks here,” Hoss bellowed, while watching the waiter nervously twirl his pencil in his hand.

Incredulously, Joe’s mouth dropped open as he asked, “You’re eating more?”

Chewing on his bottom lip, Hoss leaned back in his chair and re-thought his decision. Seeing that the waiter was still waiting on an answer, he shrugged his shoulders. “Nah, just bring my little brother here the biggest steak you got.”

The waiter thought about what the cook had mentioned earlier about the lack of steaks and was unsure of how to tell these two men. Fidgeting with his pencil, he opted out of saying anything and seeing if by chance the cook could find something, or at least come out and tell the big man himself they were out of steak.

 Scuffling away, the waiter pushed the door open to the kitchen and entered the cook’s domain. Seeing the cook kneading out dough for bread, the waiter swallowed twice as he watched the back of the big man, with his fat rolling around all over his body, while the sweat glistened on the top of his balding black hair. Getting ready for an outburst, the waiter weakly announced, “I got another order for a steak, Mr. Jenkins.”

Whipping around from his position, the large, red-faced man turned around, shooting a scowl at the timid waiter. “I done told you, we’re out of steaks!”

“But Mr. Jenkins,” stammered the waiter, “This is for the Cartwrights.”

“Damn!” Cursing, the cook looked quickly around the room while he muttering to himself. “Why do my biggest paying customers have to come on days when my meat supply is running low?” Turning back around, he saw that the waiter was still standing by the door, fidgeting with his apron while waiting for a reply. Looking towards a table next to the back door, the cook saw a stack of meat that he had forgotten to place back into the cooler last night, and was left sitting out all night. He had been intending to toss them out, but had forgotten to in the rush of this morning’s meal. Scratching his head the cook stared at the meat, wondering what the harm would be in using them. He had done it once before, and no one seemed to notice — why not try it again. If anything, it would save him the money from throwing out what he generally considered perfectly good meat; it was just that old biddy Mrs. Parker, the woman who owned the restaurant, who had insisted on throwing the stuff out. Looking around, he suddenly remembered that she was not coming in that afternoon and that he could do as he darn well pleased. Nodding his head, the cook turned around to the waiter. “You go tell Mr. Cartwright, I’ll bring his order out promptly.”

 “Yes sir, Mr. Jenkins,” nodded the waiter.

 Not paying attention to whether or not the waiter left his presence or not, the cook walked over to the table and grabbed a slab of meat. Poking at it, he didn’t notice any difference in the texture, nor the smell when he brought it up to his nose. Shrugging his shoulders, he threw the piece of meat down on the grill and began cooking. Wondering at the lack of heat his stove was producing, he cursed when he realized that the kitchen boy hadn’t brought in the wood yet, thus his stove fire was dying from the lack of fuel. Throwing in a few pieces of kindling, he decided that the paltry sum of wood would heat up the meat enough to serve it, and he went to work slathering the meat with spices. Hearing a noise behind him, he saw the waiter standing close to where he was working. Growling at him, he asked, “What do you want now?”

“I’m sorry, Mr. Jenkins. But Mr. Porter heard about the steak and he is wanting one also,” said the waiter. Standing there, he had cowered a little with a half-expectant look on his face, as he waited for the cook to yell. Surprised not to hear a sound, he slowly lifted his eyes and looked up at the cook asking hesitantly, “Mr. Jenkins?”

“I heard you, boy; I’m thinking.” Looking over at the platter of meat from where he had pulled Joe’s he counted under his breath the meat left available. One… two… three… Turning around to the waiter, he informed him, “There is enough meat for three more people, not counting Mr. Porter.” Waving to the doorway, he motioned to the waiter. “Find out who out there wants a steak.”

Jumping to attention, the waiter pushed the door open and went out in the dining room to make the announcement. Hearing the laughter and voices at the table where the Cartwright’s sat, he wasn’t sure if he could be loud enough to be heard over them. Finding a fork, he timidly tapped it against a knife trying to get everyone’s attention. “Excuse me everyone, the cook says he has two steaks left, and if you want one now is the time to speak.” An older woman who was sitting next to the door could hear his soft voice make the announcement and raised her hand. Then another man sitting at a table next to the Cartwrights raised his hand after yelling out, “Two steaks left you say? I’ll take the other one!”

At that, Joe and Hoss stopped talking and looked around the room, wondering what they had missed. Seeing the waiter disappear off into the kitchen, they turned their attention to the man who sat next to them, the one who had claimed a steak. “What was that about?” Joe asked.

“The waiter announced that they had two steaks left,” the man replied, as he licked his lips in anticipation. Scratching his gray head of hair, he explained, “This will be the first steak I’ve had in three months.”

Both Hoss and Joe couldn’t help exclaiming, “Three months?”

Laughing slightly, the man turned to them. Standing up he showed off his nearly six-foot frame as he loosened his belt a little and showed them the gap in his pants, at least half an inch worth. “Yes sir, my doc suggested I cut back on the red meat to lose some weight. My missus refused to cook any red meat during that time, so here I am to eat as big and juicy a slab of meat as possible.”

Groaning, Hoss couldn’t imagine what it would be like to eat no steak for a week much less three months, “So what did you eat?”

“My missus decided I’d be better off with chicken and more vegetables,” he explained, “However, do you know that eating chicken time after time after time gets old? I bet she must have come up with a hundred different ways to fix that stuff.”

“Where’s your wife now?”

“Oh, she passed away a week ago, and I’m here celebrating my chance to eat meat again!”

“What?!?”

Roaring out in laughter at the shocked expressions covering Hoss and Joe’s faces, the man shook his head. “Naw, she’s out in St. Louie visiting her sister, and I decided I couldn’t take another day without some good red meat to fill out my bones. By the way, Homer Chaplin’s my name.”

Reaching over, the men shook hands as Joe and Hoss introduced themselves. Realizing that he was sitting at the table by himself, Joe suggested, “Why don’t you join us at our table? Beats eating alone.”

“Why thank you kindly, lad,” Chaplin answered as he pushed his chair back. As he got up, Joe and Hoss could tell that Chaplin was a fairly big man, despite the weight he had apparently lost. Taking a few steps towards their table, Chaplin settled into a chair across from the brothers and had just begun talking with them when they saw the waiter and cook approaching them with plates of food in their hands.

 “Here you go, Mr. Cartwright,” presented Jenkins, “a nice large juicy steak as you ordered.” Then as he grabbed the other plate from the waiter, he handed it to Homer Chaplin before turning from the table and returning to the kitchen. Hovering beside the table, the waiter waited to see if they needed anything else. Seeing Hoss wave him away, the waiter turned and went back towards the kitchen.

 Smacking his lips, Joe rubbed his hands together in anticipation. “Mmmmm, this smells delicious.” Grabbing his fork and knife, he began cutting into the steak. Slicing it through the side, he watched as the blood from the meat came spilling out over the soft pink edge of the meat. A little rawer than he generally ate, Joe went ahead and lifted the thick bite into his mouth, tasting the succulent juices flowing in his mouth as he chewed; Joe could also taste the blend of spices adding a kick to the flavor of the meat. Looking over at Hoss, who seemed to be salivating in front of him, Joe admitted, “This is pretty good, Hoss, almost worth losing my first steak.” Then glancing over at Chaplin to see how he was doing, Joe saw that the man was just sitting there staring at his steak. Puzzled, Joe had to ask, “What’s wrong?”

“The smell of this is so good, I’m not sure if I can eat it.” Taking another whiff of the steak, Chaplin then followed Joe’s example and sliced into the meat. Placing a bite in his mouth, he chewed and couldn’t help but speak around the meat, “Oh yes, this is what I’ve been missing!”

Sitting there watching Joe and Chaplin eat made Hoss hungry once again. “Dang it, now I want a steak.”

 Around his mouthful of meat, Chaplin replied with a smile on his face, “Yeah well, I think I got the last one.”

“Hey Joe,” began Hoss, as he started smacking his lips while looking towards Joe’s steak, “are you sure can eat all that?” Picking up his fork, he inched it over towards Joe’s plate ready to sneak a bite.

Brandishing his fork, Joe used it as a defense, ready to stab Hoss’ hand if it came nearer to his steak. “Oh no, you don’t, brother. You already ate my steak, and you aren’t about to take this one away from me.”

Pulling his hand away from the dangerous utensil, Hoss sat with a dejected look as Joe finished his steak. Savoring the last bite, Joe set his fork down, wiped his mouth, and after throwing the napkin down onto the table, leaned back in his chair and declared, “Now I’m done.”

 Following suit, Chaplin finished off his steak just moments after Joe. Tossing his napkin down, he turned to the men, “That was one durn good steak. Hopefully next time it won’t be a month before I can get to one.” Turning to Joe and Hoss, he tossed some money on the table. “Let this be my treat, boys. Thank you for letting me join you for company and good food.” Then with a pat on his full belly, he pushed his chair out and left the room, with the thanks from Hoss and Joe echoing in his head.

 “Well, little brother, are you ready to go now?” Hoss asked as he looked over at Joe.

Finishing off the rest of his drink, Joe pushed his chair back and began picking out the strains of beef from his teeth. “Yep, let’s get the rest of those supplies ordered and loaded, then we can head over to the saloon for a beer before heading home.”

Hours later, Hoss and Joe finally made their way over to the saloon. It had taken much longer than they had anticipated loading up the supplies once everything had been ordered. Now that they were at the saloon, Joe was leaning against the bar and drinking his beer when he felt a stab of pain developing behind his eyes. Setting his glass down, he began rubbing it, hoping he could massage it away as he looked over at Hoss. Joe grinned as he watched his brother in the midst of an arm-wrestling match with Homer Chaplin, the man they had lunch with earlier. Earlier when they had arrived at the saloon, Chaplin had bumped into Hoss at the bar, and then challenged Hoss to a friendly competition. Down into their third game, Joe could tell that Homer was not feeling too well. His face was flushed, and beads of sweat were popping out all over his face.

As Hoss won the match, Homer reached up and dabbed at the sweat on his forehead. Wiping his hands on his pants, he reached over and shook hands with Hoss. “That was a good game, Hoss; we’ll have to do it again.” He continued, “Two out of three ain’t bad at all.”

Laughing, Hoss nodded his head, “Yes sir, name the time and place and I’ll be there. You gave me a good run for my money.” Waving goodbye to him, Hoss then walked over to where Joe stood against the bar. Slapping him on the shoulder, he asked, “What’s wrong, Joe?”

 “What do you mean?” Joe asked. Lifting his glass to his lips, he squinted slightly in pain as he took a swallow.

“You were standing there rubbing your head looking like you were in pain.” Turning around, Hoss grabbed his beer from the counter and gulped it down, while waiting for an answer.

“My head? Oh yeah,” Joe answered, as he fought the urge to rub it again. Grimacing, he had to admit, “It hurts a little.”

Finishing off his beer, Hoss turned to Joe to ask, “Well, we’re done here; let’s head back for home. Unless you want to stop by the doc’s to get something for your headache.”

“No no, let’s get on home,” Joe answered, as he looked up into Hoss’ grinning face. Realizing that he had been teasing him, he tossed a punch towards Hoss, hitting him on the arm.

 “OWWW!! I gotta go to the doctor now!” Hoss said, as he scrunched up his face, carefully examining the spot where Joe had just hit him.

Pushing Hoss towards the wagon, Joe scoffed, “Get in the buckboard, you big oaf; you’re okay.”

Cuffing Joe on the top of the head, Hoss jumped up onto the seat, and grabbed the reins, waiting for Joe to protest about him driving. Not even paying attention to Hoss’ claim to the reins, Joe climbed up into the seat and realized that he really didn’t feel like driving home. Instead he leaned on the seat and crossed his legs in front of him, resting them on the front of the buckboard. The pain he felt in his head earlier at the bar was nothing compared to the streaks of pain that went shooting through his head now. Feeling a little sick to his stomach, Joe pulled his hat down and tried to close his eyes, hoping to ignore the sick feeling for now. Falling into a troubled sleep, he woke up just as they were pulling close to the ranch house.

 Groaning as he moved in his seat Joe pushed his hat up as he looked around him, trying to place their location. “Where are we?”

“We’re home, sleepy head!” Pulling the horses to a stop, Hoss jumped down then began tying the reins around a post. “Help me get these supplies unloaded.”

Feeling the movement in the buckboard stop, Joe pushed his hat up from his eyes and squinted around the yard as he finally recognized the surroundings. Moving from his seat, he gingerly stepped down from the buckboard, using the wheel spoke as a ladder, and walked to the back of the wagon. Readjusting his hat to shade his eyes from the sun, he could feel that the pain he had experienced earlier in the afternoon hadn’t subsided, plus now he was having alternating feelings of hot and cold. However, Joe was determined not to show Hoss how rotten he really was feeling. Slowly moving around to the back of the wagon, he didn’t even realize that he had one hand pressed to his forehead as he reached up to help unload the supplies.

Hoss watched Joe as he tried unsuccessfully to hide his pain. Concerned about his brother’s health, Hoss began purposely reaching for the larger and more bulky items, leaving Joe the lighter items. From the corner of his eye, Hoss watched as Joe continually wiped sweat from his forehead and seemed to be struggling for breath while at times almost bent over the wagon in pain. Finally having enough of watching Joe struggle, Hoss walked over to Joe and grabbed the bundle of barbed wire he was trying to reach. “Hey, this wagon is almost unloaded. Why don’t you go inside and see if Hop Sing has dinner ready yet?”

 Hesitating, Joe took a moment to think about the offer. He didn’t want to admit how bad he really was feeling, but the longer he stood there thinking, the more he could feel his energy seep away. Not saying a word, he nodded and went across the yard towards the house. As Hoss stood watching Joe open the door and enter into the house, he could hear the sound of horse beats entering the yard. Turning around he saw that Adam and Ben were returning from their work in time for dinner. Holding the barbwire, Hoss nodded and greeted them, “Hi Pa. Adam.”

“Where’s Joe?” Ben asked, as he looked around the yard for his youngest.

Looking towards the house, Hoss answered when he made sure his brother wasn’t around listening, “He ain’t feeling too well. I sent him inside to see about dinner.”

 “He was feeling fine this morning,” Adam answered as he swung off his horse, tying up the reins on the fence. “When did this come on?”

“Honestly, I don’t know. When we met at the hotel for lunch, he was fine,” Hoss answered, “and when we were loading the supplies onto the wagon, he was fine also. It was at the saloon that I caught him rubbing his head. But when I questioned him, he said he was fine.” Setting the barbwire back on the wagon bed, Hoss leaned against the buckboard as he continued, “But as soon as we left town, he fell asleep, and when we got here, I could tell he wasn’t feeling too good as he was unloading the wagon. He was holding his head, and it looked like he was sweating up a storm, more than he should have been.” Frowning, he explained, “I was grabbing all the heavier items, leaving him with the lighter supplies. After watching him lean against the wagon trying to catch his breath, I sent him inside to check on dinner.”

Distractedly listening, Ben watched the house as he nodded his head. “Thanks Hoss; I’m going inside to check on him.” Turning to Adam, he suggested, “Why don’t you help Hoss finish up the supplies. Dinner should be ready by the time you boys finish.”

Walking across the yard, Ben quickly made his way to the front door and pushed it open. Looking over at the table, he saw it was set for dinner, and some food items were already prepared. Not seeing Joe, he went into the kitchen but was quickly escorted out by Hop Sing. “Leetle Joe not here, not been in here. Shoo, Shoo! Dinner ready soon.”

Scratching his head as he left the kitchen, Ben was about to go up the stairs when he saw the top of his son’s head lying on the settee. Frowning, he saw Joe’s dirty boots up on the settee lying on the clean cushions. Prepared to tell him to remove his feet, he came over to the edge of the settee where Joe was stretched out. His eyes closed; Ben could tell that he was fast asleep, with a thin layer of sweat shining on his face. Watching as his chest raised and fell in succession of each breath, Ben lifted up Joe’s hand that had fallen down on the side of the chair. Putting it back on the settee, Ben reached over and gently placed his hand on Joe’s forehead. Surprised at the heat that was radiating from it, he pulled his hand back and looked down at his son in puzzlement. Looking towards the dinner table, Ben stood to his feet and went over to grab a glass of water from the table, before returning to sit down on the edge of the coffee table. Untying the bandana from around his neck, Ben dipped it into the water and began to wipe the sweat from Joe’s face and neck, hoping it would help cool him off. Hearing a noise at the front door, Ben looked up in time to see Hoss and Adam enter.

“Hi Pa, where’s…” Watching as Ben made a silencing motion with his hand, Hoss stopped his sentence. Tossing their hats on the sideboard, Hoss and Adam moved over to the settee and looked down at Joe. “How’s he doing?” asked Hoss.

“He has a fever,” Ben answered, as he dabbed his bandana in the water again. Squeezing the excess water from it, he reached over and draped it over Joe’s forehead. Moving away from his son, he looked up at Hoss. “So he was fine in town?”

“Yes sir,” Hoss answered, as he stared down at Joe. So out of it, Joe never sensed the presence of his family looking down at him, watching as the sweat glistened on his cheeks before sliding off into the fibers of the settee. Looking over at Ben, Hoss continued, “He was Joe, until after lunch. He didn’t seem to act any differently at breakfast this morning, did he?”

Shaking his head, Ben had to admit that he hadn’t noticed anything different. “No, he was his usually self. Adam?”

“Sorry Pa, I didn’t notice anything different.”

Hearing Hop Sing behind them, the Cartwrights turned as the cook announced the arrival of supper — “Dinner ready” — before returning to the inner regions of the kitchen.

Looking down at Joe’s sleeping face, Ben nodded his head and then looked towards the table, “Well, he’s sleeping for now. What do you say we go get something to eat? We’ll be in the same room when he wakes up.”

Migrating over to the table, the men were soon enjoying the feast that Hop Sing had prepared. Talking about their day, they never noticed the movement on the settee. Lying down on the settee, Joe slowly groaned to himself as he tried moving. The headache that he had experienced just after lunch felt like it had subsided, and as he leaned forward on the settee, he had to admit that he was feeling a little bit better, even though the smell of food added to the sick feeling to his stomach. Looking over at his family eating at the table, he made an effort to get up from the settee, weaving as he stood up.

 “Joe?” questioned Ben, as he saw his son’s shaky stance. “Are you okay?”

 “Yeah pa,” Joe answered, as he moved away from his seat. Standing still for a moment, he caught his balance as he slowly made his way over to the table. Pulling his chair back, he sank into the seat and reached over for his glass. Honestly, he wasn’t feeling all that great, but he had to admit that he was feeling much better than earlier in the day. Drinking the water seemed to help his upset stomach somewhat, but when Adam passed the food his direction, he had to wave it away. “No thanks, I’m still full from lunch.”

Questioning him, Adam asked, “Where did you guys meet for lunch?”

“We met at the International Hotel, and had steaks,” Joe answered as he stole a glance at Hoss. “Of course, I had one only after Hoss ate my original steak and his.” Thinking back at lunch, Joe had to laugh when he told them about Homer Chaplin. “We met a guy there who hadn’t had a steak in three months!”

“Three months?” Adam asked, as his forkful of potatoes paused in mid-air.

“Yeah,” Joe explained, “he was there being as his wife was out of town. She’s the one who was following orders to keep him away from the red meat, so he was fed chicken and vegetables. Can you imagine being without steak for that long?” As the discussion moved away from lunch towards ranch business, Joe could tell that his headache had subsided and he was feeling so much better. Pushing away from the table, Joe was relieved to see that he could stand without the shaky feeling from before.

“Joe,” began Ben, as he watched the amazingly transformation of his son. It looked like Joe’s fever was gone, but he couldn’t tell being as Joe was doing a pretty good job in avoiding his hand any time that Ben would place near him. He couldn’t help but ask, “How are you feeling?”

“I’m feeling much better, Pa,” Joe answered as he moved away from the table over to the settee. Settling down into the cushions, he watched as Hoss pulled out the checkerboard.

Setting the board down on the low table, Hoss over to Joe and asked, “Wanna play, Joe?”

Nodding his head, Joe helped Hoss set up the checker pieces as they started the game. Having already moved away from the table, Ben settled down at his desk and began working on some correspondence. After awhile, he glanced up to see that Adam had also joined them in the living room and had already kicked off his boots, while he leaned comfortably in his chair reading a book. Glancing over to the bobbing heads of his middle and younger sons still involved in their checker game, Ben smiled and returned to his paperwork, unaware of the struggle that Joe was currently feeling inside his body.

“You’re move Joe,” Hoss said as he studied the board. Not hearing an answer or seeing any movement from his brother, he looked up and saw that Joe’s face was frigid with pain. “Joe?” Reaching over, he tried to get his brother’s attention.

 Joe could hear Hoss’ question and he could feel him touch his shoulder, but he couldn’t do anything about it. His stomach was cramping up, and it felt as though he was going through the ringer with his stomach. The fever he had developed before dinner had returned, which was apparent with his flushed appearance. Groaning out loud, Joe clinched his stomach and bent over in pain. Hearing Hoss holler, Joe just shook his head and tried to get rid of the pain that had overtaken his body. Panting out his breath in pain, he rolled over onto his side on the settee and curled his legs up trying to withdraw the pain from his insides.

Hearing the alarm in Hoss’ voice, Adam looked up from his reading and saw the curled up figure of his brother on the settee while Ben shoved his chair back from his desk when he saw Joe’s head disappear from view. As Ben and Adam reached the settee, Hoss explained what he saw. “He was fine a minute ago, but suddenly he started clutching his stomach and moaning, and fell over on the settee like that.”

 Reaching over the back of the settee, Ben could feel the heat radiating from Joe’s forehead as he placed his hand on Joe’s head. Moving around to the side of the settee, Ben leaned over and tried to pull Joe’s legs, so that he was stretched out in a more comfortable position. “Joe. Joe, can you hear me?”

“Pa,” Joe cried out, as he gasped for breath. Grasping hold of his stomach, he tried unbending his legs, but another spasm hit his stomach. “My stomach hurts.” Curled up on the couch, Joe again felt the feeling of heat and cold take over his body. Feeling immensely hot, he suddenly wanted his jacket off. “It’s so hot in here,” Joe moaned, as he struggled to get his jacket off. “Help me please!”

 As Ben leaned Joe forward, Hoss and Adam helped remove Joe’s jacket from his body. Pulling it off him, they could see the sweat that had collected on Joe’s back and the back of his neck as Joe pulled away from them to bend over in pain once again. Tossing Joe’s jacket on the chair, Adam went over to the table and grabbed a glass of water, bringing it over to where Ben sat holding desperately onto Joe. Pushing Joe’s hair out of his eyes, Ben accepted the saturated cloth that Adam had dunked into the water for him, and then as he swiped the cool cloth across Joe’s neck, he could feel a shudder of pain travel through Joe’s body. Looking up, he saw the concerned faces of his other sons, hovering, wondering what they should do. Shaking his head towards the stairs, he suggested, “Why don’t you boys go up and prepare Joe’s bed?”

“No!” gasped Joe, as another spasm shot through his body. Grunting, he panted as he requested help to stand up, “I’ve got to go to the outhouse, Pa.” Unwinding his body from the settee, Joe put his feet on the ground, but was hunched over as he tried to stand. Unable to stand upright, he leaned on Ben’s arm as he tried to weather out another wave of pain and to gather the energy to go outside.

As Ben motioned over to Hoss for help, Adam went and opened the front door and then checked to make sure the outhouse was free as Hoss and Ben helped Joe outdoors. Watching as Joe stopped mid-step to drop his head and bend over, Adam took a few steps towards him but stopped when Joe stood up again and began walking. Making it over to the outhouse, Joe leaned against the door hunched over in pain. Pushing himself to a standing position, he grabbed hold of the doorknob and pushed it open, before he went inside and closed the door.

With Joe inside, Ben, Hoss and Adam stood outside of the door unsure of what to do. “Joe?” Ben asked hesitantly.

“Go away, Pa,” Joe panted. Sitting there in pain, all Joe knew was that the contents that were inside his body was like a pressure cooker waiting to explode. An explosion that Joe was ready and willing to let happen as he sat atop the hole, waiting.

 Pointing towards the front porch, Ben suggested, “For now, there’s not much more we can do other than go back to the house.” Taking a glance back at the outhouse, he continued, “One of us can sit on the porch and see if he needs any more help.”

“Sounds good. Pa.” Then with one last glance at the outhouse, Hoss, Ben and Adam headed back towards the house. As they approached the porch, Hoss waved Ben and Adam towards the front door, “If you don’t mind Pa, I’ll stay out here.”

Thinking about it a moment, Ben nodded his head, “You let me know when he comes out. I’m going inside to get his bed ready.”

 Accepting the terms, Hoss turned away and settled himself down on a rocker on the front porch, leaning back to watch the colors from the sunset set in the west. Sitting there rocking, Hoss enjoyed the sight of the gold’s, blues and reds drift across the sky that it made him want to see the display each night. Watching as the night sky darkened and Hoss could feel the night chill beginning to settle down around him. Rubbing his skin briskly, he was feeling a little bit warmer when he saw the door to the outhouse creak open. Watching as his brother emerged from the doorway, a splash of moonlight provided a lighted pathway back to the house, allowing Hoss to watch Joe unobserved. His brother had a dejected look to him as he emerged, with his hair mussed up and his shirttails hanging out. Calling out to him, he watched as Joe jumped at the sound. “How you feeling, little brother?”

 Head still drooping somewhat, Joe answered, “I’m tired, but my stomach feels a little bit better.”

“How’s your headache?”

 “It’s still there,” Joe admitted, as he walked over to where Hoss sat and settled down into a chair next to him. “I don’t know what this is. Felt great this morning, but it wasn’t until after lunch that I started feeling rotten.”

“You want Pa to get the doctor out here?” Hoss asked, as he looked over at Joe. He could tell that Joe had regained some of his color back, although he was still flushed from the fever that raged within him.

“Nah,” Joe answered as he stretched in his chair. “I’m feeling a lot better than I did earlier. The trip to the outhouse helped.” Feeling another wave of weakness pass through his body, Joe decided he had better get inside before he collapsed in front of Hoss on the front porch. Slowly moving from his chair, Joe had to grab onto the post to steady himself. Jumping up from the chair, Hoss grabbed Joe’s waist and helped him to stand. “Thanks, Hoss,” Joe whispered, suddenly wishing this illness that had struck him would leave him alone.

Leading Joe inside, Hoss pushed the door open and saw Ben coming down the stairs. “I think Joe here is ready for bed.”

 Pushing away from Hoss, Joe stumbled over to the settee, begging for a chance to make it up the stairs on his own. “Wait, let me rest a minute.” Feeling fatigued, Joe shook his head slightly as he took a deep breath and looked up at the stairs. Knowing that in his present condition he could never make it up the stairs on his own, he was determined to try nonetheless. Getting up from the settee, he could sense Hoss and Ben’s eyes on him as he walked as straight as he could to the stairs. Taking a step on the first step, Joe had no problem, but as he slowly took another step he realized the energy it took to bring him from his seat to the stairs had exhausted him. Grasping hold of the handrail, his knuckles turned white from the pressure he placed on them as he went up. Suddenly, he felt an arm wrap around his waist and nearly carry him to the next step. Looking down, he recognized the strong arm as belonging to his Pa’s as he leaned against him for support. As they made it to the main landing, Joe saw Adam down the hall, making Joe belatedly comforted knowing that his family was there for him. Approaching his room, Joe saw the covers were pulled away and folded at the end of his bed as Ben led him to the edge of the bed. Feeling Ben let go of him, Joe caught his breath and whispered, “Thanks, Pa,” as he sank down on his bed.

Once he had let go of Joe, Ben helped remove his boots and then after Joe had unbuttoned his shirt, helped him slide it off. “Need some help with your pants, son?”

 Shaking his head no, Joe had little difficulty in unbuttoning his pants, and then reached down and slid his pants down to the floor. Accepting the nightshirt that Ben handed him; he pulled it on with little help and leaned back on his bed. Feeling the softness of his pillow hit his head, he felt contented as he relaxed, relishing the freedom from pain.

“Need anything else, Joe? Anything to drink or eat?”

“No thanks, I’m fine,” Joe answered as he pulled up his sheets and rolled over on his side.

Watching as his son moved into a more comfortable position, Ben resisted the urge to go over and baby him. To just throw him in his arms and kiss away the pain that Joe had felt earlier. But knowing that his twenty-year old son would not appreciate the affection, Ben just went over and squeezed Joe on the shoulder and bid him good night.

Closing the door behind him, he looked up and saw Adam watching him. “How is he, Pa?”

 “He seems to be feeling better,” Ben answered as he looked behind to make sure the door was shut, “but he does still have a slight fever.”

 “Should we get the doctor?”

 “I’ve wondered that myself Adam, but he seems to be feeling much better. I think I’ll wait and see how he feels in the morning.”

Joining Adam as he went downstairs, Ben returned to his desk and his correspondence while Hoss challenged Adam to a game of checkers.

*****

Joe woke up suddenly. Blinking his eyes, he looked around his darkened room and wondered what it was that woke him up. No lights were on and there was not a sound in his room. Rolling over to his side, he decided to go back to sleep when a spasm of the pain that woke him up initially returned. Letting out a long moan, Joe could feel the pain from earlier return and attack his stomach. This time, the nausea that he had experienced earlier in the day had accompanied the pain, as he rolled on his bed seeking a comfortable position. So sleepy, all he wanted to do was sleep, but with this pain running through his body, he felt like crying. Curling up in a ball, he felt a pressure build up in the back of his throat as he could feel acid accumulate. Fighting the urge to vomit, Joe rocked back and forth on his bed clamping his mouth shut, until he knew he couldn’t hold it in any longer. Scrambling off the bed, he fell to the floor and reached under the bed, grabbing his chamber pot. Without warning, the contents from his stomach spewed into it. Leaning over the pot, Joe could taste the foul bile in his mouth, as he panted with exertion. Looking behind him, his eyes focused on his pitcher of water set on the table behind him. Pushing himself up from the floor, he looked down distastefully at the chamber pot and shoved it under the bed, not wanting to look at it again. Grabbing the water pitcher, he didn’t bother with a glass, instead drank directly from the container.

With his body getting nourishment with the cool water, he felt a little bit better, especially since it helped diminish the awful taste in his mouth. Returning to his bed, Joe quickly pulled off the tainted nightshirt as he collapsed back onto his bed, his energy spent from the episode of vomiting. Resting his head on his pillow, it didn’t take long for him to fall back to sleep while the smell of the vomit slowly seeped from its position in the chamber pot into the room.

Several hours later, just as the early morning sunshine was rising, Ben had just awakened and dressed when he pushed open the door into Joe’s room to find his son’s disheveled bed sheets strewn all over the bed. Taking a step into the room, he was suddenly overcome by a horrible smell that overtook him when he entered the room. Stepping back, he ran into Adam who was just coming into the room to check on Joe. “What’s wrong, Pa?”

 “That smell? What is it?” Ben asked, as he covered his nose.

 Taking a quick whiff, Adam turned his head away in disgust and stepped out into the hall to take a deep breath. Turning to Ben, he had to admit, “It smells like vomit.” Covering his mouth and nose, Adam took a step back into the room and checked around for evidence of the event. Not seeing anything, he bent down and pulled out Joe’s chamber spot, locating the object of the offensive smell. “Ugh!” Grabbing a dirty shirt from the floor, Adam grabbed the pot and desperately tried to hold his breath as he carried it out of the room and towards the downstairs.

Watching from a distance as Adam carried the reeking chamber pot of out the room, Ben sidestepped Adam as he re-entered Joe’s room, with one hand pinching his nose, and strode over to the window. Unlatching it, with one massive shove pushed the window open, bringing in with it the cool morning breeze. Fresh air. Breathing in deeply, Ben stuck his head out the window to breathe in deeply as he watched Adam carry the chamber pot into the woods. Hearing a noise behind him, Ben swallowed hard and turned to see Joe moving around restlessly in his bed.

“Hey pa,” greeted Hoss as he entered into the room. Stopping mid-step, his nose picked up the smell of fresh air mixed with a putrid odor. Wrinkling up his nose, Hoss had a terrible look on his face just he was about to ask what the smell was when Ben waved his hands for him to say nothing more.

“Joe got sick during the night, and vomited,” he explained, “and apparently didn’t toss it out before going back to bed.”

 “How’s he doing?” Hoss asked, as he followed Ben over to where Joe slept. Watching as Ben sat on the edge of Joe’s bed and rested his hand on Joe’s forehead, Hoss waited for the prognosis.

“He feels a little bit cooler, not quite so hot.”

 Hearing the voices in his room, Joe struggled to wait up from his sleep as the cool breeze from his open window blew across his bare skin. Pulling up his covers, he repositioned his body as his eyes slid open at the feel of weight sitting on his bed. When he saw the image of his pa sitting there, he let out a sigh. “Morning, Pa.”

 “Good morning, son,” Ben answered as he looked into Joe’s face. “How are you doing?”

Moving around in his bed, Joe propped the pillow up behind him before answering, “Honestly, Pa, a lot better. Felt sick during the night and had to throw up.” Suddenly remembering what had happened, he reached down for the pot.

Grabbing hold of his arm, Ben shook his head. “Adam has already taken care of that,” he explained, pointing over to the window. “That’s why the window is open.”

 With a sudden look of comprehension, Joe answered, “Ohhhh.” Then with a grin, he continued, “Sorry about that.”

 “You’ll get away with it this time,” Ben answered, as he readjusted Joe’s sheets. Reaching over, he felt his forehead again. “How’s your stomach? Do you think you can eat something?”

Thinking a moment, Joe nodded, “I am hungry, but honestly Pa, I’m afraid if I eat anything it will come back up.”

“How about this, we’ll see if Hop Sing can fix you something that is light and not quite so heavy on your stomach?”

Nodding, Joe agreed. “That’s sounds good, Pa.”

 Patting him on the shoulder, Ben insisted that Joe lay down until he brought up his food. “Save your energy for later.”

 “Yes sir,” agreed Joe with a grin, as he slid over to his side and closed his eyes, hearing the sounds of his brother and pa leaving the room.

*****

 “Hoss, could you go answer the door?”

 Hoss looked up from his food with a puzzled look on his face, “The door?”

 Motioning over to the front door, it registered in Hoss’ mind what Ben was asking as he heard another knock on the door. “Oh, sorry about that,” he answered with a sheepish expression. Tossing his napkin down, he grabbed one more leg of chicken and took a bite of it before striding over to the door. “Afternoon, Doc. What brings you out this way?”

 “Good afternoon, Hoss,” As he entered into the living room, the doctor turned around and saw Ben and Adam. “Afternoon, Ben, Adam.”

“Come in, come in, Doc,” greeted Ben as he rose from the table. Walking over, he shook hands with the doctor and motioned for him to have a seat. “What brings you out our way? Did you hear about Joe?”

“Joe? No,” Doc Martin answered with a peculiar look on his face. “What’s wrong with Joe?”

Looking up at the upstairs room, Ben answered with a sigh. “He was running a fever last night, and nearly collapsed on us before we helped him out to the outhouse. Then this morning we found that sometime during the night he vomited.”

 “Oh?” questioned the doctor, as he looked at the men around him. Adam had joined the men in the living room and was sitting on the edge of the fireplace, as Hoss had positioned himself on the edge of the chair. “When did he start feeling sick?”

 Looking over at Hoss, Ben questioned him, “When did you say it was?”

 “Not long after lunch,” Hoss answered. “We had gone over to the saloon to have some beers and he said his head hurt some. Then on the way home, he fell asleep in the wagon, and by the time we arrived home, he was sweating up a storm.”

 Scratching his ear, the doctor grunted when he heard what Hoss shared. “That’s weird. I have four cases in town, and they all have the same symptoms as Joe. But I can’t figure out how they all link.”

“Who else is it?” asked Ben, leaning forward in interest.

“There is an older lady, by the name of Mrs. Milburn. You know, Frank Milburn’s mother. She was staying at the hotel for a few days, and she became deathly ill last evening; in fact, I’m still not sure if she’s going to make it. Then there is Mr. Porter, and another gentleman by the name of Homer Chaplin.”

“Homer Chaplin?” burst out Hoss. Jumping up from the chair, he explained, “He had lunch with Joe and me yesterday at the hotel.”

 Looking over at Hoss with sudden enlightenment, Doctor Martin couldn’t help but ask, “What did you eat?”

 “Well, we all had steaks, although I had mine before Joe arrived. Got tired of waiting for him, so I ate his,” he explained with a sheepish expression. “But I ordered him another one when he got there.”

 Listening intently, the doctor encouraged him to continue, “This is important Hoss. Tell me everything that you remember.”

 “Well,” Hoss answered as he leaned back in the chair and thought, “after Joe ordered his, I heard Mr. Porter order a steak also.” Then with a sudden look of understanding cross over his face, Hoss gasped. “Oh my God! What if it was the steaks?”

Interested in this sudden jump in conversation, Adam could help but ask, “What do you mean, Hoss?”

 “You see,” he explained, “the waiter came out a few minutes later and announced that there were two steaks left. I didn’t hear the announcement, so I didn’t get to lay claim on one, but the fellow at the table next to us heard and told us what was going on. His name was Homer Chaplin!”

Mouth open, Doctor Martin nodded his head. “I think we might have just found out source.” Standing up from his seat, he turned to Ben. “Actually I came out here on a whim, but it looks like it was providence that I came out here at all. How’s Joe feeling?”

“After throwing up last night, he said he is feeling much better,” Ben replied. Leading the doctor up the stairs, Ben continued. “We gave him some oatmeal this morning for breakfast, and he seemed okay.”

 Nodding his head, Doctor Martin approved of the care he had been given. “Good, if he has what I’m thinking it is, you need to get as much liquid in him as possible. He can become dehydrated and more ill than he was,” the doctor explained as they approached Joe’s room. “The oatmeal was the best thing you could have fed him.” Entering into Joe’s room, the doctor saw that Joe was sitting up in his bed, looking around the room in a spirit of boredom. He looked to be doing well, despite a faint flush covering his face. “Good morning, Joseph.”

Turning to the voice at the door, Joe groaned when he saw the doctor. “Aw, Pa, why did you have to bring him?”

 “Joseph!” Ben answered amazed at the rudeness of his son.

 Laughing, Doctor Martin waved away Ben’s sputtering, “That’s okay, Ben. He didn’t know I came out here on a social call and discovered that my favorite patient was ill.”

Crossing his arms in defiance across his chest, Joe grunted out in displeasure at this unwelcome visit as he watched Doctor Martin approach his bed.

 “Looks like as long as I’m here, I may as well check you over,” the doctor stated as he looked down at Joe with a smile on his face.

“Pa!” Joe whined as he desperately sought a way out.

“You go right ahead, Doctor,” Ben answered as he turned towards the door, “I’ll be right outside if you need me.”

 “Thanks Ben,” the doctor answered as he turned his attention to Joe. Laying his medical bag on the table next to the bed, he sat down on the edge and pulled out a stethoscope, “Now what do you say we check you over?”

 “Do I have a choice?” Joe muttered.

 “Nope,” Doctor Martin answered, as he struggled to hide a grin. Lifting up Joe’s shirt, he placed the cold piece of metal against his chest. Listening to his lungs and then to his heart, he leaned Joe forward and did the same to his back before pulling his shirt back down. “Your lungs sound clear, Joe; now let’s check out your temperature.” Reaching into his bag, he replaced the stethoscope with a thermometer and waited for Joe to open his mouth. “You know, Joe, there is a different way I could check your temperature, but being the man that you are, I don’t think you’d appreciate it.”

 Releasing the tension on his mouth, Joe let the thermometer slide into his mouth and under his tongue. Staring up at the ceiling, he waited as the doctor felt his pulse until it was time to pull the piece of glass from his mouth. After reading and shaking it, Doctor Martin put it aside on the table next to him, as he pulled back the covers and began pressing on Joe’s stomach. Watching Joe’s face for any indication of pain, he silently nodded to himself at the lack of response he received.

Watching the doctor, Joe waited for an answer. “Well?”

 “You still have a slight fever, but I think a day in bed with no activity will help that. Also, if you don’t want another episode of vomit or diarrhea, my advice is to eat bland foods for the next couple of days until this poison runs through your body.”

“Poison?” Joe asked. Now his attention was captured. “What poison?”

 Looking down at Joe, the doctor slowly put his utensils back into the bag as he explained, “Well, there are a few others in town with the same symptoms as you. From what Hoss has shared with me, my guess is that you were poisoned by some sort of bacteria in that meat that you ate at the hotel.”

 “The meat poisoned me?” Joe asked incredulously.

 “Well, not the meat directly, more likely the bacteria that was resting in it. Usually it happens when meat that hasn’t been used is left outside for more than a day, and then when it is cooked, if it isn’t cooked thoroughly, the bacteria lives on, going into the body of whoever eats it.”

 With a sudden recognition of what the doctor was talking about, Joe commented, “Ohhhh. I did notice that my meat wasn’t cooked as well as it usually is, plus it wasn’t very hot by the time I ate it.”

 “Was it rare on the inside?”

 “Yes.”

 Nodding his head, the doctor smacked his lips together with finality, “Yep, that’s what happened. What hotel did you go to?”

 “The International Hotel.” Pausing a moment, Joe asked, “Who else got sick?”

 “Mr. Porter, Frank Milburn’s mother Frances and Homer Chaplin.”

 “Are they okay?”

 “The only one I’m concerned about is Mrs. Milburn; she’s a bit older and not quite as strong as the men,” the doctor answered. “But the rest of you, are going to be okay, as long as you follow doctor’s orders. However, I do expect Mrs. Milburn to pull through.” Then with a pat on Joe’s shoulder, he stood up and picked up his bag. “Joe, make sure you drink lots of liquid.”

“Yes sir, and Doc…” Joe replied, “thanks.”

 Smiling at his previously uncooperative patient, Doc Martin nodded. “You’re welcome.” Opening the door, he walked out and shut the door behind him before heading downstairs and joining the rest of the family, watching as they all stood as approached.

 “How is he, Doc?” Hoss asked.

 “He’s fine; he’s doing well. Running a slight temperature, but if you keep him in bed today and feed him lots of liquids, and keep his food bland,” the doctor explained, “he should be back to normal by the end of the week.”

 With a sigh, Ben let out the air he had been holding. “Thanks, Doc.”

 “You know, Ben,” the doctor answered, “I did nothing. You had already taken care of him, and he was well on his way to being healed without my help.” Patting Ben on the shoulder, Doctor turned around to Hoss. “Thanks, Hoss, for your information; this case had me really puzzled as to how it started.”

“What will happen now?” Adam asked, as looked over at the doctor. “Now that you know the source of the illness.”

 Shaking his head, the doctor replied, “I’m going to have to find out who was cooking in the kitchen that day, and let the restaurant owner know what happened.” Swinging his bag into his other hand, he continued, “However, knowing that the restaurant is owned by Mrs. Parker, I’m surprised this happened. A few years ago, before she moved to Virginia City, her youngest daughter died from foul meat. In fact, she has told me before that any meat that is left sitting out for more than a day is thrown away.”

 Looking up, Hoss commented, “I don’t know if it helps any, but it was the cook, Clyde Jenkins, who brought the food out to the tables. Didn’t see anyone else around.”

“Thanks Hoss,” Doc Martin replied. “Now that I know the source, I’m going to have a chat with the rest of my patients before informing Mrs. Parker.” Looking around, he realized he had not brought his hat in as he moved towards the door. “Well, thank you, gentleman. Sorry we didn’t have the chat like I was hoping, but I need to get back into town.”

 Following the doctor to the door, Adam opened it and then followed the doctor out to his buggy. Watching as the doctor and Adam left, Hoss turned to Ben, “You know, Pa, if I hadn’t been so selfish and eaten Joe’s steak, he wouldn’t be sick right now. This is my fault that he’s ill.”

Hearing the tremors in Hoss’ voice, Ben shook his head. “It is not your fault, Hoss. If anyone’s, it’s the one who cooked that meat. Don’t blame yourself, son.”

“I guess, Pa,” Hoss answered with resignation in his voice. Turning to look at the fireplace, an idea flashed across his mind. “I know — when Joe gets better, I’ll take him out for the biggest, juiciest steak he could ever get to make up for it!”

 Laughing, Ben couldn’t help but imagine the answer that Hoss might get if he asked him now. “I would suggest you wait a week or so on that suggestion, son.”

 Taking a quick look at Ben, it seemed to hit Hoss a little late the reason for Joe’s illness. His puzzled look quickly turned into a thunderous roar of laughter as he reached over and grabbed Ben by the arm. As they wiped the tears of laughter from their faces, together they went up the stairs to see if Joe needed anything else before they headed out to work.

***The End***

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