A Score to Settle (by DebbieB)

Summay:  When Joe is found unconscious and in a coma, his family has no idea how the boy was injured.  A storm, a fire and a miracle, turn Ben’s long nights of worry into a happy ending.  The only questions left unanswered are how and why?  Only one person knows the answers, and he’s not telling.

Rating:  G (Part one of three) (10,720 words)

The Score Series:

A Score to Settle
Settling the Score
The Final Score

 

 

                       A Score to Settle

 

Ben pushed back the drapes and opened the window up higher to let more air filter into the room. The room, lit with soft golden light that burned from the lamp, had become overly warm and stuffy. When Ben looked upward, he frowned. The sky, blue just a short time ago, had been covered by a thick layer of dark, ominous thunderclouds that promised a storm was on its way. The air was still; not even a hint of a breeze tickled the tops of the tall pines just outside the window. Ben’s tired, troubled eyes searched the yard below for any signs of life, but it seemed that even the birds had flown away to hide from the impending tempest. In the distance, Ben could hear the soft, gentle rumble of the thunder that had signaled the storm’s birth. Off on the horizon, the lightening flickered; not the violent jagged type, but the soft, heat lightening that illuminated the entire sky when if flashed.

A soft moan from the other side of the room instantly drew Ben’s attention from the outside world to the world within the four walls of the airless room. He hurried to the bed and sitting on the very edge, took the smaller hand into his larger one and kissed the back of the feverish flesh.

“Son…can you open your eyes?” whispered the worried father as he brushed back the damp locks of hair from his son’s brow.

There was no movement. The hazel eyes remained sealed away behind lowered lids and refused to acknowledge that they had heard the muted plea. Ben sighed, tucked the hand back under the blanket, rose from his seat on the bed and dipped the cloth into the cool water and for the hundredth time, wiped the tiny sweat beads from the boy’s face. He followed with another cloth, dipped the corner into the pitcher where the water was cooler and shook the drippings free and then returned to the bed. With the patience of Job, Ben dabbed the chapped and cracked lips with the moistened corner of the cloth until by reflex, the lips parted, allowing Ben to ease the wet end of the cloth between the partially opened mouth.

“Try sucking on the rag, Joe,” Ben instructed, though he knew that the boy’s mind was so far away from him that he might as well have been speaking to the bedpost.

The boy was slowly becoming dehydrated, taking in next to zero amounts of liquids but losing precious body fluid each and every time that he broke into a sweat that left the linens soaked and in need of changing. Ben squeezed the corner of the wet cloth, allowing the cool water to drip into the parched mouth. Joe swallowed, a natural reflex, but it gave the concerned father a measure of hope. He returned the cloth to the pitcher and repeated the process several times before feeling confident enough to believe that his son had taken enough liquid into his system to at least relieve part of the dryness.

Ben watched as Joe’s tongue gently licked at the scabby skin topping the normally soft flesh of his lips. Joe moved his head ever so slightly to the right and then moaned softly. Ben’s hand moved to the boy’s face where his fingers tenderly caressed his son’s cheek and then slipped carefully around to the back of the boy’s head where he could still feel the pump knot at the base of Joe’s skull. The knot was soft and when Ben applied gentle pressure to the bump, it seemed squishy. Joe groaned and moved his head in the opposite direction.

“I’m sorry Joseph, I didn’t mean to hurt you, sweetheart,” Ben whispered as he pressed his lips to Joe’s fevered brow. “Please son, won’t you just try to open your eyes?” pleaded Ben as his lips brushed against his son’s ear. “I need you to try Joe, please try…come back to me, son.”

Ben’s lips stayed pressed gently to Joe’s ear, hoping that somehow his son would hear his voice and fight his way back from the dark domain where his mind had taken him. It had been two days since they had found the young boy lying by the roadside, unconscious, and still, they had no inkling as to how or why that the sixteen-year-old had come to be where he was.

“I love you Joseph…I hope you know that,” whispered Ben, fighting back the tears that had for the last two days, threatened to overflow.

Ben brushed at his eyes to dry the moisture that had suddenly filled the dismal depths and taking a deep breath, stood up from the bed and slowly made his way back to the window. It was hot and muggy and he hoped that the impending rain would cool the hot and humid air outside.

The storm clouds had darkened and the wind had picked up enough that now the tips of the pines had begun to sway lightly. The thunder boomed, louder this time and much closer than before. In the next instant, the lightening lit up the darkening sky in an eerie array of patterns that started at one point in the mist of an ebony cloud and protruded outward in serrated projectiles. Ben shivered, though not from the breeze that had finally found its way to the opened window and brushed softly at his face. He glanced back at the boy in the bed who refused to open his eyes, or speak, or move or respond to his loving touch, and his heart skipped a beat.

What if the boy never woke up? The doctor had said that anything was possible, had explained that with a head injury such as the one Joe had sustained, the boy could lay in a coma for weeks, possibly months or until the body stopped functioning altogether. Ben pinched his eyes tightly closed and swiped his opened hand across the front of his face, shaking his head lightly to chase away his fears. When he opened his eyes again, Adam was standing in the opened doorway, a troubled expression on his face, silently watching his father.

“Are you all right, Pa?” whispered Adam when his father’s eyes met his.

He entered and crossed the room to stand face to face with his father. Adam could see the unshed tears that made his father’s eyes shine in the soft glow of the lamp light. He heard his father swallow sharply and knew that this mountain of a man was struggling to keep from being reduced to tears and giving in to his apprehensions about the boy whom he loved more than life itself. Ben nodded his head, his eyes seeking the face of the youngster’s in the bed.

“Just tired…and worried,” Ben glanced up at Adam, saw the expectancy in his eyes, and added, “and frightened.” Ben moved back to the bed and lowered his weary body into the comforts of the old chair that had been pulled along side the bed.

Adam followed and stood behind his father, placing a comforting hand on his father’s shoulder. Ben looked up, smiled and placed his hand over Adam’s. “Thank you, son,” he whispered.

“For what, Pa?” asked Adam as he moved around the chair and sat next to his brother on the edge of the bed.

“For being here, for me…and for Joe,” explained Ben. “I don’t think I could have made it this far, had it not been for your strength, urging me on, refusing to allow me to give up,” smiled Ben.

“Pa,” Adam glanced at his father, “I’d never leave you…not with my brother in this condition, you know that. Neither would Hoss, our trip can wait, it isn’t important, you and Joe are what matter most to Hoss and I.”

“I know that son, but you boys have planned this special trip for so long. I’m just sorry that you’ve had to change your plans, that’s all,” Ben explained.

Adam shook his head from side to side. “It doesn’t matter Pa, honest. Maybe Joe’s accident was God’s way of keeping us here; perhaps we shouldn’t even go. But please, don’t worry about us, I can see you’re worried enough as it is about Joe.”

“I am worried Adam. I’m afraid that he won’t wake up…and I’m terrified about what happens when he does and things aren’t like they use to be with him. Paul said that the longer that he stays in a coma, the more likely that his mind would be damaged. What then son?” Ben dropped his head and felt his body tremble. When he looked up, Adam could see the tears spilling from the corners of his father’s eyes and knew that this man’s fear was justified.

“Pa, please…don’t think like that. Joe’s going to be fine,” Adam tried to reassure him.

Ben took a deep breath to steady his trembling and tried to smile. “You’re right, of course Adam. I can’t loose faith now, Joe needs to know that we are being positive about this.”

Adam stood to his feet and placed his hand once again, on his father’s shoulder. “Would you like for me to have Hop Sing bring a tray up for you? I have to help Hoss in the barn. That storm’s moving in fast and we need to secure some things. I can have one sent up to you?”

“Maybe some fresh coffee, I just don’t think I could eat anything, thank you.”

“Coffee it is then,” smiled Adam as he moved toward the door. “I’ll be back in a little while, Pa. Pa?”

Ben had hung his head and Adam could see his father’s lips moving, though he could not make out a word that his father was uttering, Adam knew that Ben was praying. Quietly, he closed the door and made his way down the hall, pausing at the top of the stairs and casting his eyes back toward his little brother’s bedroom.

Adam swiped his hand over his own tear filled eyes and took a deep breath, his head held upward. “Please God, Joe isn’t the only one who needs you…we all do.”

Adam descended the stairs with his thoughts on the young boy who lay so near death. He hadn’t wanted his father to know, but he had the same fears about Joe as his father. If the boy died, a part of all of them would die too, and if the boy lived and his mind was damaged, their lives would still be forever changed. How would they cope, should the boy never mature more than what he was now, or worse, become a child in his mind, trapped in a man’s body? Adam’s body shook with the fear that plagued his thoughts. He knew his brother well, and knew that had Joe a choice in the matter, the boy would have chosen death rather than the alternative. And, thought Adam, I can’t say that I blame him, for what man would want to live as such, surely, not I.

Adam related his father’s request to Hop Sing for fresh coffee and then hurried to the barn where Hoss was waiting for him. As he pushed open the barn door, the wind swirled down with a sudden blast and sent his hat flying. Grumbling, he rushed after the hat and once he managed to grab it, ran back to the barn.

“Whew,” he sighed.

“Wind’s getting up,” Adam called out to Hoss who was busy mucking out one of the stalls. “Going to be humdinger of a storm.”

“Yeah, we’d better hurry too, cause I don’t wanna be caught out here when the full force hits. Say, how’s Joe?” Hoss stopped working and turned to Adam.

Adam shook his head, “about the same. No change that I can tell, just laying up there looking like he’s sleeping.”

“And Pa?” questioned Hoss softly.

He knew how much his father was worried, they all were, but Hoss knew that if the boy failed to pull through, it would hit their father harder than either he or Adam. Though Ben loved all of his sons, there was a special bond between himself and his youngest son that only God in his superior wisdom, understood. Joe’s death would take its toll on the entire family, but would ultimately destroy the oldest Cartwright.

“Let’s finish up in here and then get back inside. I don’t think we should stray too far from Pa…He isn’t looking very well right now. Hoss, I’m as much afraid for him as I am for Joe. From what Paul has told Pa, either way, Joe doesn’t stand much of a chance.” Adam had to stop and swallow, for the thickness that had suddenly clutched his throat, made speaking difficult.

“Aw…Adam, do ya really think it’ll come down to that? I mean, ain’t there any hope at all?” mused Hoss.

Adam pushed back his damp hair and pinched his lips tightly together. “Sure there’s hope. As long as there is a breath in a man, there’s hope. But Hoss, Paul says he’s seen these kinds of head injuries before, and has yet to see a man come through without some sort of changes. His prognosis was not very encouraging I’m sad to say.”

Hoss turned his back to his brother, afraid that Adam might see just how much he wanted to break down and cry. He stomped over to the other side of the barn and hung up his rake, wiping his eyes before turning around.

“I ain’t gonna take no for an answer, Adam. Little Joe is gonna get well…he’s just gotta.”

Adam followed Hoss from the barn and secured the latch on the door so that the wind, which was growing stronger, could not blow the door opened. Adam had to almost run to catch up with his middle brother and had just fallen into step with the larger man when the thunder boomed so loud that the windows in the house rattled. In the barn, the two brothers could hear the horses whinnying in fright. The lightening ripped open the sky and just before the final flash of light, the rain commenced to fall in a slow gentle pitter-patter style.

Ben stood by the window; the wind had increased to the point that the tall, slender Ponderosa pines were bending as the blasts swirled through the yard. Their soft whining sounds filled the silent evening hours as it took turns with the thunder and lightening. The temperature had dropped and the air held a new crispness about it as it cooled the earth and refreshed the stale air in the upstairs bedroom overlooking the yard.

Ben paced the floor, casting his eyes around to search the boy’s face for any signs that might tell him that his son had returned from the faraway place where he lingered. A slight movement from the bed caught his attention and Ben immediately turned his attention to his son.

Joe’s head moved slowly from side to side and though his eyes remained glued shut, soft guttural sounds could be heard deep within the boy’s throat. His arm found its way free of the tangle of blankets and probed the empty air for a handhold.

Quickly Ben placed himself on the bed and took the hand into his own and gently squeezed. “Joseph?” he muttered. “Papa’s here baby…open your eyes…please.”

Joe’s head continued to roll from side to side, his eyelids fluttered but refused to open.

“Joe, if you can hear me son…squeeze my fingers,” instructed Ben, using his other hand to brush back the curls that had haphazardly fallen down on Joe’s brow.

“Squeeze my fingers, Joseph,” Ben repeated with a touch of urgency in his deep voice.

Ben watched the slender fingers held securely within his hand and willed his unconscious son to follow his instructions. After several moments, Joe stopped his thrashing and seemed to slip back into his own private world of obscurity. Ben patted the hand, rubbing the back with his thumbs and then gently placed Joe’s hand on the bed, next to his side.

“Maybe next time,” he muttered to himself, and rose to his feet, disheartened and more frightened for his son’s welfare than before. He watched the boy’s face for several moments and then, startled by the booming, rolling thunder, and the howling of the wind, turned back to the window.

Hoss and Adam were running across the yard and Ben heard the door slam when the wind caught it and forced it closed. Minutes later, his two older sons, slipped as quietly as possible into the bedroom.

“Boy, that’s goin’ be a bad storm,” offered Hoss, chancing a glance in Little Joe’s direction. “How’s he adoin’, Pa?”

Ben followed his middle son’s gaze and when Hoss stepped up to the bed, Ben joined him and placed his hand on the massive shoulder.

“He was moving around a minute ago. He was reaching out with his hand, like he was trying to grab something. I held his hand for a bit and told him to squeeze my fingers….”

“Did he?” asked Hoss, hopefully.

Ben saw the spark of hope that had briefly flickered in the sky blue eyes that had focused themselves on his face and Ben hated to be the one to extinguish that spark, but he had to admit the truth. Ben shook his head.

“No…I’m sorry Hoss, I know how you must feel,” added Ben when he saw the spark die.

Hoss scrunched up his face and took the chair that Ben had sat in earlier. His eyes sought his younger brother’s face and he reached out and brushed the boy’s cheeks with his beefy fingers, Hoss felt his throat constrict.

The gentle hearted man leaned over, placing his face inches from his brother’s. “Come on Short Shanks, ya gotta fight harder. Harder punkin, ya hear ole Hoss?”

Hoss ran his arm under his nose, wiping dry the clear moisture that had began to seep and cleared his throat. “Dadburnit little brother, me and Adam’s gettin’ tired of doin’ all your chores and ours too, now ya better listen good…ya need to wake up…and do it pretty quick,” whispered Hoss.

Hoss quickly stood to his feet and turned, walking out of the room so that he could hide his tears from the other members of his family. He felt like screaming out but knew that would not do any of them any good and he realized that his older brother and his father must surely feel as miserable as he himself was feeling. Taking a deep breath to calm himself, Hoss sauntered on down the stairs and went in search of Hop Sing in hopes of finding a bite to eat.

“He’s pretty upset,” Ben mumbled to Adam as he stood before the window, gazing out at the storm that had intensified.

“He’ll be okay, please don’t start worrying about him. You’ve certainly got enough to worry about with just Joe,” Adam stated, giving his father a smidgen of a smile when Ben turned from the window to look in Adam’s direction.

“It’s just that I know how things like this touches that boy’s heart. He might be big and strong, but his heart is soft and tender. And besides Adam, you know that Hoss has always felt as if he were his little brother’s protector,” Ben smiled and glanced at Joe who had not moved or made a sound in the last hour or so.

Ben crossed the room to the bed while Adam followed his father’s steps with his eyes. “Hoss probably has been feeling a little guilty about snapping at the boy the other morning before Joe left for school. I know for a fact it bothered him all that day, and then when we brought Joe home and he was unconscious…well, I think Hoss is upset because he didn’t get to tell his brother that he was sorry for the way he spoke to him.”

“That sounds like Hoss, but he didn’t really mean anything by what he said to Joe. Surely Joe knew that Hoss was only kidding?” questioned Adam.

“I knew, and you knew, but Joe…well, Adam, you know how the boy takes everything to heart. He had the strangest look on his face when he rode out, I’m afraid that he might not have realized that Hoss was joking with him, and worse, I think Hoss knew that as well,” explained Ben.

“The boy seems warm again son, would you mind helping me bathe him down so that we can cool this fever?” asked Ben as he felt Joe’s forehead with his opened hand.

“What’s causing the fever Pa? I didn’t think that a head injury would cause someone to run a fever?” Adam wanted to know.

Ben placed the cool cloth on Joe’s brow and sat down on the bed. “Paul said it could happen sometimes when the body has under gone this type of shock. He said it wasn’t unusual and that the fever shouldn’t get too high, unless perhaps there was something else going on that he was not aware of. Worse thing is, there’s no real way of knowing for sure and all we can do is wait,” Ben said.

“And pray,” added Adam.

Ben glanced up at his oldest son and nodded his head. “And pray.”

The storm continued to build in momentum. The wind outside the house howled furiously as the pines waved and bent against the force. The thunder had reached maximum intensity and the lightening made the nighttime seem like day when she exploded her radiant beams across the heavens. The rain was nothing more than drizzle, for the onslaught of rain had yet to reach them. Inside, Ben continued his vigil at his son’s bedside, moving constantly from the bed to the window. His eyes were always on the lookout for dangers that might surface from the storm’s ferocity and put them all in a situation that might call for them to take cover.

“The rain’s let up, I think I’ll check the barn and make sure that the horses are all right,” whispered Adam, rising from his seat next to the bed. “I’ll be back in a few minutes,” he told his father. “Pa, can I get you anything?”

“No thanks, son. I’ll just sit here with Joe,” mumbled Ben, taking the seat that Adam had just vacated. “When you’re finished in the barn, why don’t you and Hoss go on to bed? I can keep an eye on things for awhile.”

“I could use some sleep. I think Hoss has already turned in, but what about you, Pa? You need some rest as well,” Adam reminded his father.

Ben walked to the door with Adam and shook his head. “I’m staying right here, until he opens his eyes, I don’t care how long it takes. I don’t want him waking up and thinking that he’s all alone.”

“Okay, but please, try to catch a few winks, will you?” Adam almost pleaded.

“I promise, as soon as this storm dies down,” laughed Ben lightly, though his voice held no joy.

Ben sat for the next couple of hours next to his son’s bed listening to the sounds of the storm outside. The thunder’s volume had reached an all time high; the lightening seemed to be a continual array of lights, one jagged streak after another as the bolts of light chased each other across the blackened sky. The howling of the wind sounded much like a hungry pack of wolves on the prowl, and bent the trees so low that Ben was sure that the high tips were touching the ground and he wondered what it was that kept the trunks from snapping in two. And still, the boy in the bed remained locked away in his remote world of oblivion.

Ben, with his son’s hand held within the folds of his own, pressed lovingly against his cheek, sat by the bedside, his head bowed in reverence as he prayed softly for his son’s wholeness. His thoughts backtracked to the day, now just hours from being three, when Joe had been late coming home from school and he and Adam had set out in search of the tardy lad.

Ben’s anger had begun to simmer as he stewed about the house, grumbling as to why this youngest son could never abide by his rules. “I told that boy to come straight home after school,” he ranted to both Adam and Hoss who stood before him, in front of the large oak desk in Ben’s den.

“Why can’t he do just one little thing that I asked him to do?” he fussed.

“Maybe he got kept after school…again,” offered Adam, traces of a smile tugging at his lips as he glanced sideways at his middle brother who was trying to hide his own amusement.

Ben’s keen eyes turned dark as he glared at his two sons. “And I suppose that the two of you find this amusing? Well, the two of you can go right this minute and begin working on that fence that Joe was suppose to repair this afternoon!”

The smiles on the faces of the brothers faded as each stared opened mouth at their father. “Aw…Pa…” began Hoss.

“You heard me, now get, both of you!” ordered Ben.

Adam turned his handsome face into a scowl but said nothing as he turned to do as his father had insisted. Hoss expelled the air from his lungs and joined his brother. When Ben was sure of the closing of the door, he smiled and then laughed lightly.

By supper time when Joe had still not gotten home from school, there were no smiles to be seen around the supper table. Hoss and Adam, their fence repair finished, ate in silence, casting glances at each other on more than one occasion. Ben jabbed with his fork, at the food on his plate, until he could stand it no longer. The fork made a clanking sound when he dropped it onto the China plate.

“Hoss, please go saddle our horses,” he ordered as he wiped his mouth and pushed back his chair.

“Ya goin’ to look for him?” asked Hoss cautiously as he watched the frown on his father’s face as it deepened.

“Yes I am…and when I find that boy…well, let’s just say, he will be sitting easy for several days,” grumbled Ben.

Hoss and Adam swapped knowing looks and then Hoss ambled on out to the barn to get the horses ready. By the time that Ben and Adam joined him, all three horses were saddled and ready to go.

“Hoss,” Ben called and then, taking the reins from around the hitching post faced his middle son. “I want you to stay here, just in case the boy returns while we’re still out. Should the little scalawag get back, tell him to get his chores done, pronto and then go straight to his room. I’ll join him there later.”

Ben finished his little speech and pulled himself up into his saddle. Adam was already mounted and waiting for his father to give the signal to move out.

Adam chanced a glance at Hoss who stood with fingers buried deeply into the pockets of his trousers. His eyebrows raised slightly as he nodded a farewell to his older brother.

Ben and Adam had ridden several miles before Ben held his hand up for Adam to stop.

“What’s wrong, Pa?” the oldest son questioned, watching the frown deepen on his father’s brow.

Ben sat motionless on his horse and then turned to Adam, his eyes filled with unvoiced worry. “It’s nearly dark,” he said, as if Adam could not have figured that out for himself. “It isn’t like Miss Jones to keep a child, even your brother, this late after school.”

Adam agreed. “What then? You don’t think he took off again to the lake with his friends and lost track of time, do you?”

“I’m not sure…but if he has…”

“Pa, look!” Adam called, his voice deep with anxiety, “there’s Cochise!” Adam was pointing to a small rise off in the distance.

“Come on Adam, something must be wrong, Joe’s not with him!” Ben kicked Buck’s sides and the horse broke into a run with Adam and Sport right behind them.

Ben crested the rise and pulled his horse to a stop just a short distance from where his youngest son’s horse stood. Buck reared slightly as Ben slid from the saddle. Adam was close on his heels and he approached his brother’s horse slowly so as not to spook the animal that eyed them with caution.

“Whoa boy,” Adam called in a soft voice.

He was able to grab the reins and steady the horse while Ben quickly ran his hands over the animal’s body searching for any signs that might tell them what had happened to the youngest member of the family.

“Nothing,” groaned Ben, looking at Adam with concern in his eyes. “Let’s look around some.”

Both men took off in different directions, searching the grounds for signs of the missing youth.

“JOSEPH!”

Off to his right, Adam could hear his father calling the boy’s name, yet he could hear no reply. Suddenly, Adam stopped; his heart was in his throat as he spied the crumpled body of his brother lying in a heap and practically out of sight, hidden by the tall grasses.

“PA! OVER HERE!” shouted Adam as he ran the short distance to where his brother lay motionless.

Adam fell to his knees at his brother’s side, placing his hands on the boy’s shoulders, yet not making an effort to turn the boy over until he was certain that there were no broken bones. Almost instantly, Ben was on the ground with Adam, kneeling at Joe’s side.

“Joseph?” Ben cried, his heart pumping with fear. Ben caught a quick glance at his oldest son and saw the same fear reflecting back at him.

With tender care, Ben gently brushed his fingers along the back of Joe’s head, feeling for the first time, the sticky, nearly congealed blood that had accumulated at the base of the hairline.

“He has a knot on his head the size of a goose egg,” Ben groaned with mounting dread.

“I don’t think anything is broken,” Adam added.

“Help me turn him over.”

Using care, and with Adam’s help, they turned Joe over so that Ben could see his son’s face. His hand instantly moved to the boy’s brow to brush away the dirt particles that had gathered.

“Adam, get me some water, please,” commanded Ben as he untied his scarf from around his neck.

Adam quickly did his father’s bidding and returned with the required canteen and handed it to his father. Ben pulled the cork from the top and while Adam held the scarf, Ben poured the cool water onto the cloth.

Adam squeezed the excess water from the cloth and handed it to his father taking the canteen from Ben’s hands. Ben wiped away the dried blood from the scrap on Joe’s face.

“He has another bruise on his temple,” Ben uttered. “Must have gotten this one when he fell from his horse.” Ben wiped the dirt and blood from that area as well as he held his child’s head in his arms.

“Joseph, can you hear me, son?” pleaded Ben.

Joe made no attempt to move or open his eyes. “He’s out cold, Pa. We best get him home.”

“I’ll take him back to the house, you help me get him on the horse with me and then you ride to town and fetch Doc Martin,” Ben said as he lifted Joe up into his arms and carefully stood to his feet.

Adam gathered the horses and when Ben was ready, took his brother’s lifeless body into his arms and waited until his father had mounted his horse. Carefully, Joe was transferred from his brother’s arms to his father’s horse where Joe was placed in front of Ben. Joe’s head slumped back against his father’s shoulder, staining Ben’s shirt with blood from the back of his head where the skin surrounding the goose egg sized knot had seeped blood.

“Get the doctor back to the house as fast as possible son. Joe hasn’t uttered a sound and that worries me,” instructed Ben as he turned Buck back toward the ranch.

“I will Pa,” Adam called as Sport was swung around in the opposite direction.

“HOSS! HOSS! GET OUT HERE, QUICK!” shouted Ben as soon as he entered the yard.

The front door opened wide as Hoss hurried out into the yard. Instantly his eyes took in the scene and he rushed to his father’s side where already, Ben was easing Joe down from his horse.

“Lordy Pa, what happened to’em?” Hoss said in a rush as he accepted his bundle from his father.

Hoss stared opened mouth at his little brother’s face, which was void of color and with a good sized bruise forming on Joe’s temple, the contrast between the pale flesh and the darkened flesh were appalling.

“I don’t know, we found him like this. He’s out cold and only God knows how long he had lain like that. Let’s get him to bed, Adam should be here shortly with the doctor.”

Ben hurried to open the door for Hoss and then followed him up the stairs to Joe’s room where Hoss gently lowered the wounded boy to the bed. Hop Sing appeared out of nowhere with fresh water and the medical supplies so that Joe’s wounds could be cleaned and ready for the doctor when he arrived to make his assessment.

As Ben and Hoss moved to strip away Joe’s clothing and then begin the bathing process, Joe was soundless and unmoving; Joe was lethargic and Ben, knowing what that meant, grew more fearful by the moment.

“I wish Adam would hurry with the doctor,” he whispered while pulling the blankets up around Joe’s chin when the bath was completed.

Hoss picked up the pile of dirty clothes and handed them to Hop Sing as the little servant man prepared to leave the room. “Doctor come soon, make number three son better,” muttered Hop Sing on his way out the door.

“I hope so,” muttered Ben sitting down on the edge of the bed and taking Joe’s hand into his own and bringing it to his lips.

“Joe, can you hear me, son?” Ben said softly and when the boy made no sound, Ben glanced up at Hoss, his eyes slowly beginning to mist.

“Pa…try not to worry, Joe’ll be all right,” Hoss said through clenched teeth. “He’s jist gotta.” Hoss swallow to clear his throat. “I think I’ll wait downstairs for the doctor, ya need anythin’ Pa?”

Ben, his eyes locked onto Joe’s face just shook his head and was unaware when Hoss slipped quietly from the room.

It seemed like hours to the anxious father before Adam returned with Doc Martin in tow. The light rapping at the door told him that the physician had at last arrived and when Paul entered the room, Ben quickly moved from his spot on the bed to allow the man more space.

Paul gave a small smile in Ben’s direction and went straight to the bedside. His hand went first to Joe’s forehead to check for fever and as Paul sat down on the edge, he gently fingered the scrape and the bruise at Joe’s temple. After checking the eyes, and then allowing his fingers to examine the knot on the back of Joe’s head, he turned and quickly ran his hands the length of Joe’s body to determine whether or not there were any broken bones. Paul was silent as he examined his patient; at times he closed his eyes and permitted his hands and fingers to make the accurate decisions for him. After several tense moments, he glanced in Ben’s direction.

“Has he said anything, moaned, cried out, moved, anything at all since you found him?”

The sadness was evident in the dark passionate eyes of the boy’s father as he shook his head from side to side. “Nothing Paul, he hasn’t even wiggled so much as a finger.”

The physician could hear the defeat in his friend’s voice and he hurried to reassure the troubled man and his sons.

“Ben, this could be just a temporary thing. He has a serious concussion and may be out like this for several hours. Right now, all we can do is watch and wait. I think that when some of the swelling goes down, he’ll start coming around and then we’ll see some movement and he might even begin to talk to you. Do you have any idea how he came to have this knot on the back of his head?”

Ben had moved a chair to the side of the bed and sat down, allowing his body to mold into the soft cushion. “No, we don’t even know for sure when it happened, let alone how or why. All I can figure is that Joe started home from school, which would have been around three o’clock. Sometime after that…this happened. Adam and I found him about seven and that’s all we know about it.”

“Adam said that when you found him, he was closer to the school than to home, so that means that this must have happened shortly after school was dismissed.” Paul scrunched up his face in a manner that distorted his features. “Ben, Joe had probably been lying there for about three, maybe even four hours.”

Paul looked down at his patient and re-checked the eyes. His expression was grim; he didn’t like what he was seeing.

“What’s wrong, Paul?” questioned Ben, watching the lines deepen on the physician’s face.

Paul took a deep breath. “I’m not certain Ben, but if Joe was knocked out instantly then it’s possible that over the time period that he laid there with no medical care, I’m thinking that it’s very likely that he’s slipped into a coma.”

“A coma?” said Adam moving to his father’s side. “But that means he could…”

“Let’s hope he comes out of it before anything like that should happen,” Paul butted in to say.

“Ben, let’s just keep him as comfortable as possible, try to force the liquids, hopefully he’ll be receptive of them. We don’t want him to start getting dehydrated. He might spike a fever, but that’s just because of the shock his body is in, unless it gets too high, don’t worry, just keep a cool cloth to his head and if need be, wipe him down with tepid water, not cold, but just cool,” instructed the physician.

“I’ll drop by sometime in the morning to check on him, if you need me before then, send word.”

Ben walked as far as the hallway with the doctor. “Thanks for coming Paul.”

“Anytime, Ben. Remember, keep him quiet, though I don’t think he’s likely to give you any trouble,” smiled Paul, remembering other visits to see the patient in question and having to practically sit on the boy to keep him from jumping up and running off.

“Paul,” said Ben, checking back over his shoulder into the room where he could see Joe lying so deathlike on the bed. “What happens if he doesn’t wake up soon, or if he stays in this coma for more than several hours? I mean, how long can a person live like that?”

Dr. Martin swallowed hard, there would be no skipping around the truth with Ben, he already knew that for certain. “Ben, no one can say for sure how long a man can live in a coma. We’ve only just begun to understand things like this, so we can’t make an accurate medical call on this. There’s just no way that we can be sure. I’ve only seen a few men who have been in a coma…”

“Paul…don’t humor me, I want the truth.” Ben pointed back at Joe who looked as if he were sleeping. “He can’t eat in that condition, he isn’t talking, he isn’t moving, his head is so swollen he doesn’t even look like himself. Just tell me, how do I keep him alive until he comes out of this coma you’re talking about?” demanded Ben, his eyes beginning to mist slightly.

Paul shook his head; there were times, like this, when he hated his job. How could he tell his best friend that the boy whom he loved more than his own life might never break through the thick walls of obscurity that separated him from his loving family?

Paul placed his hand on Ben’s shoulder and studied the weathered face in front of him.

“For now, let him rest. If he hasn’t improved by this time tomorrow evening, we’ll talk about all of that. I promise Ben, I will do all in my power to keep the boy alive for as long as possible. But please understand that I don’t know all there is to know about things such as this. Right now, he doesn’t appear to be in any pain, there’s no hemorrhaging that I can find and that’s good. Joe’s young and strong, he’s healthy Ben, and he has the will power to fight this thing. Stay close to him and talk to him, I don’t think he can hear you, but try, just try. Let him know that you’re close by, that Adam and Hoss are here with him, too. It could make all the difference in the world, Ben.”

Ben sighed and wiped his opened hand across his face. “I’m sorry Paul, it’s just that…that it’s hard for me to see the boy like this…he’s usually so…alive. You know him about as well as we do, so it’s hard to think of him being…”

“I know Ben, I understand. Look, I’ll drop by first thing in the morning and look in on him.”

Ben walked to the top of the stairs with the doctor. “Thanks again Paul.”

The loud rolling thunder jarred Ben from his thoughts and brought him upright in his chair. He glanced at Joe, the boy had not moved again and remained in the same position where he had turned him an hour or so ago. Ben stood, stretched and walked to the window. The rain had still not started to come down any harder than mere drizzle. The lightening was still doing its dance across the skies, flashing almost immediately on the heels of the booming thunder.

Ben retraced his steps to the bed and leaning down, kissed his son’s cheek. “Joe, I’m going to turn you over son. You need to change sides for a little while,” whispered Ben as he worked to move Joe over on his other side.”

It took several tries before Ben was able to situate the boy to his satisfaction. He fluffed the pillows and then tucked one behind his son’s back so that Joe could not roll over onto his back. Ben smiled to himself; it wasn’t as if Joe had been doing any moving, thought Ben. When Ben had finished, he returned to his soft chair, leaned his head back against the headrest and closed his eyes.

Ben was unaware of the length of time that he dozed, only that his solitude was shattered by an ear splitting boom that sounded as if a cannon had been fired. He jumped from his chair and ran to the window just as the lightening ripped opened the heavens. Ben jerked back the curtains, his heart moved to his throat as he watched the jagged bolt of electricity reach out and wrap it’s killing fingers around the roof of his barn. Ben’s eyes widened in horror as the sparks shot upward, igniting the roof into flames.

Ben turned, gave a quick glance at his son and bolted from the room, yelling for Adam and Hoss at the top of his lungs.

“ADAM…HOSS…FIRE!!” he bellowed.

“THE BARN, HURRY!” he screamed as he dashed for the front door.

“WE’RE RIGHT BEHIND YA, PA,” Hoss called out as he hopped down the long hallway trying to cram his feet into his boots.

Adam almost collided with his brother in his haste to get to the stairs. “Hurry, Hoss, we have to get the horses out!” yelled Adam as he pushed past his brother.

Ben was already inside the barn, untying the horses and shooing them out the door. Buck tore from his stall in fear of the hot flames that danced high over his head. Adam rushed in just as Sport bolted passed him and hurried to free Chubb from his stall.

Hoss had ran to the water trough and had begun to fill buckets with water and pass them to the ranch hands who had also been awakened by the thunderous boom and who had joined the family outside in their fury to save the barn.

Chubb was resisting, pulling away from Adam in his fright as the smoke grew heavy and thick within the walls of the aged barn. “Come on Chubby, now’s not the time to be a mule-headed idiot!” cursed Adam as he tugged on the big stallion’s halter.

“Blindfold him!” shouted Ben as he loosened the tethering rope that prevented Cochise from bolting free of the smoke filled barn. “Come on baby, I can’t let anything happen to you. Little Joe would never forgive me if you didn’t get out…now come on,” urged Ben as he tried to calm the young horse.

Cochise bulked and with a jerk of his head, yanked his halter out of Ben’s hands. He whinnied loudly and reared up. When his heavy hooves came down, one hoof grazed Ben’s shoulder, knocking him to the ground and then raced from the barn, nearly crushing the man on the ground.

Adam finally freed Chubb from the barn and when he turned, saw his father trying to get up. Instantly he was beside his father and hauled the dazed man to his feet.

“Come on, Pa…lets get out of here,” shouted Adam so that he might be heard over the deafening thunder. Ben shook his head to chase away the cobwebs and allowed Adam to practically drag him from the barn.

Outside, the ranch hands had formed two lines, passing bucket after bucket to the next man in line to the end, where that man tossed the water onto the burning building. The fire had been contained to the roof and several men stood on ladders where water was passed up to them.

Suddenly another roar of thunder and a bright flash of light froze the men in mid-action. The heavens were split in two as they opened up, allowing the rain to descend down upon their heads. The torrential raindrops where colossal in size, and within minutes had doused the fire that had threatened to destroy the Cartwright’s barn.

The men cheered, caring not that they had been hauled from their warm beds in the middle of the night only to stand in the pouring rain. Ben laughed, slapped the backs of several men and shouted his thanks to all of them. The barn would need a new roof, but everything within its walls had been spared a fiery death.

The storm had blown itself out and all that remained was the rain, which had given up its fierceness and now fell in a soft pitter-patter to the water soaked earth. Ben slipped an arm around Hoss’ shoulder and then Adam’s as the three weary men marched together through the mud back toward the house.

Suddenly Ben stopped, apparently frozen to the spot. Adam and Hoss both looked questioningly at their father and then followed his gaze. Neither could believe their eyes and both were sure that they must have appeared as shocked as their father was.

“Pa?” the plea was weak and the boy, clad only in his nightshirt, staggered as he tried to make his way forward. He stumbled and caught himself on the post at the end of the porch and leaned heavily against the strong pole.

Ben broke free from his sons and ran across the yard. “Joseph,” cried Ben, grasping his son to prevent him from sinking to the ground. “What are you doing out of bed, sweetheart?” he sang.

“The barn…it was on fire…” Joe’s eyes appeared glassy as he searched his father’s face. “Cochise…” he cried, the tears filling his eyes.

“Shh…he’s fine son, we got all the horses out.” Ben had slipped his arms about Joe’s body and had started leading him back indoors.

Joe turned his head to look over his shoulder at the barn. “Cochise!” he cried louder and then his legs gave out and Ben was forced to scoop the boy up in his arms.

“Cochise is safe Joseph, he’s in the corral with the other horses. Please son, don’t cry, don’t cry,” urged Ben as he hurried up the stairs to place Joe back in the bed.

“Are you…sure?” Joe whispered as Ben lowered him onto the bed.   “You gave him to me…my birthday…remember? He was…the best gift…ever.”

“Yes son, I remember and I’m positive he’s safe,” smiled Ben as he sat next to his son.

“Joe, how do you feel?” he asked, smiling up at his other two sons as they filed into the room and gathered around the bed.

“My head, it hurts some…but the noise…it woke me up…and then I couldn’t find you. I called and called, but no one answered me…” cried Joe, his eyes brimming with unshed tears once more.

Ben pulled the boy into his arms and held him closely. “I’m so sorry Precious, but the lightening hit the barn and set the roof on fire. You were still sleeping when I left you, we had to put the fire out, son.”

“I know…but I was sorta…scared. I saw the flames through the window and I didn’t know where any of you were.” Joe clung to his father, his arms wrapped about Ben’s midsection and he pressed his ear against his father’s beating heart. “Have I been out a long time?” he questioned.

“Too long Short Shanks,” laughed Hoss, grinning from ear to ear with happiness.

“It’s about time you woke up little buddy. We were beginning to think that you were going to sleep your life away,” added Adam, a smile causing his dimples to melt into his cheek and turn the handsome face into one that resembled a young boy rather than the man he had become.

Joe giggled and then turned his eyes up at his father. “I’m sorry Pa…about not fixing the fence. I’ll do it tomorrow, I promise.”

Ben burst out in laughter and hugged Joe to him. “Don’t worry about the fence, little boy, your brothers repaired it for you. All you’re going to be doing tomorrow and the next day and the next is resting. You are not allowed out of this bed until Doc Martin says you can, young man.”

“Aw…Pa…”

“Don’t ‘aw Pa’ me. You’ll do as I say!” ordered Ben, his voice thick with emotion as he smiled down into the face of his youngest son. ‘Thank you God,’ Ben’s heart silently offered.

Ben gently pushed Joe back against the pile of pillows and settled him into bed. “Now, no more talking, I want you to rest. It’ll be morning in a couple of hours and then Hop Sing can fix you something to eat. Now, close your eyes, we’ll talk later.”

“Okay, I am sorta tired. Night Hoss, night Adam,” Joe said in a barely audible voice as his brothers filed from the room.

“Night Pa,” smiled Joe as his eyes closed.

Ben leaned down close to Joe’s head. “Good night Joseph, I love you,” he whispered.

Joe’s arms slipped about his father’s neck and briefly he opened his eyes and smiled up at his father. “I love you too, Pa.”

Joe’s arms dropped to his sides, he was sleeping, but this time, Ben was positive that come morning, his baby would wake and then he could take all the time he wanted just to look into the beautiful hazel eyes that he knew would once again dance with mischief.

Ben remained at Joe’s bedside throughout the night, refusing to leave the boy’s side now, since Joe had miraculously awakened and had actually spoken to him. His fears had vanished the minute that he had spotted his son standing on the porch calling out to him. He had known in that instant deep within his heart, that regardless of Joe’s outcome from having been in a coma, Ben would love and cherish his son until the day came that one or the other of them took their last breath.

Ben leaned down and tenderly caressed the face of his sleeping child. Joe moaned softly and turned over onto his side, facing his father. Ben couldn’t keep the smile from his face; his joy was complete, for his son had none of the awful side effects that the physician had warned him about. Joe had known him; he had recognized his brothers and the fact that the barn had been on fire. Joe had even been aware that his beloved pinto’s life had been endangered by the fire and had understood when his father had assured him that the horse was safe.

The relieved father leaned back against the chair, in which he sat and closed his eyes. Sometime later, a sense of being watched snapped him to life. His head remained pressed against the back of the chair as his eyes popped opened. The light within the room shone brightly through the opened window where the early morning rays filtered in through the shears filling the room with a soft, warm glow.

Ben’s eyes rested on the smiling face of his youngest son, who happened to be staring at him. Ben’s lips formed a happy smile. “Well, good morning, young man.”

“Mornin’ Pa,” Joe said, his voice low. “Did ya get much sleep?”

“Enough, how about you? How do you feel this morning?” asked Ben, leaning over and pushing back the stray locks of Joe’s curly hair.

“I’m fine,” Joe admitted. “But a little hungry. What’s a guy gotta do around here to get something to eat?” he teased lightly, pleased to see his father smiling at him.

Ben stood to his feet, grinning from ear to ear, “I’ll be right back, son. I’ll have Hop Sing fix you something,” he said as he started to the door. “Anything special you’re craving?”

“Yeah, a big steak, fried potatoes, and a stack of flapjacks, with that special syrup Hop Sing has,” laughed Little Joe.

Ben couldn’t help but join in his son’s laughter as he paused at the door. “How about some soft cooked eggs and toast, something a little lighter on the stomach?” Ben suggested.

Joe smiled; he had only been teasing his father, he doubted seriously if he would be able to even eat what his father had recommended. “Sure Pa, eggs and toast is fine, thanks. Oh, could I at least have a cup of coffee?”

“How about hot chocolate instead?”

“That’s okay,” smiled Joe.

Ben turned and then stopped at the door, looking back over his shoulder at the boy whose eyes were fixed on him. “Welcome back, son.”

“It’s good to be back, Pa. For a while I didn’t think I would ever find my way back to you. But I heard you talking to me…I heard you…praying for me…” Joe’s throat had begun to thicken and he swallowed several times before he could continue. His bright eyes pooled with unshed tears. His voice dropped to a soft whisper.

“Thanks Pa,” he smiled as the tears made their escape and rolled gently down the front of his face.

Like his son’s, Ben’s eyes filled with tears and he gulped. “You’re welcomed, Joseph.”

With that, Ben pulled the door closed and slowly, with gratitude in his heart to God for sparing his child, Ben made his way to the kitchen.

Later that afternoon, Paul Martin was welcomed at the home of the Cartwrights by three smiling faces. He instantly knew that something good had transpired since his last visit, two nights ago. He himself smiled.

“Let me guess…Joe woke up, right?”

“Right…and he seems fine, already grumbling about having to stay in the bed,” laughed Ben. “I was just taking him his lunch, want to see for yourself?”

“Of course, that’s what I’m here for,” replied the doctor as he followed Ben up the stairs. “Say Ben, what happened to your barn?”

Ben paused and glanced at Adam and Hoss who were trailing behind the doctor. “Let’s just call it a miracle, shall we?” he laughed.

Paul looked back at the two oldest Cartwright brothers who were also laughing and noted the pleased expression on their faces. “Whatever you say, old friend!”

Paul was as pleased as Joe’s family to find the boy sitting up in bed and smiling as he entered the room. “Well, well,” laughed Paul lightly, “it’s about time you woke up and stopped worrying all of us, you little scamp,” Paul said as he sat down on the bed, next to Joe.

“Feeling all right?” he asked pressing his hand against Joe’s forehead as he checked for fever.

Joe giggled. “It’s good to see you too.”

Paul’s eyes danced with merriment as he smiled at the boy. “Somehow, I just don’t think you mean that. I can’t remember a time in my life, or yours for that matter, that I have felt as if you were happy to see me, except maybe the night you were born,” teased the doctor.

Ben laughed, watching the smile widen on his son’s face. “Paul, something tells me that this time, Joe means exactly what he said. Am I right, son?”

Joe’s eyes found his father’s and he nodded his head. “I mean it doc, it’s good to see you, and everyone else,” he added in a low voice. “I’m glad to be back.”

Paul pressed his lips together and placed his hand on Joe’s shoulder. His look had turned serious as he stared into the hazel eyes that threatened to fill with tears.

“Joe, you have had a close call…too close for our liking. I want you to know you had us all scared because we weren’t sure that you would make it. Not too many people, who slip as deeply into a coma as you did, ever wake up. It was a miracle son, plain and simple.”

Paul relaxed then and gave the boy a smile. “Now, since everything seems to check out all right, you can eat your lunch. But, young man, I want you to remain in this bed until I tell you that you can get up.”

“Aw…”

“Joseph,” Ben said, his tone serious enough that Joe said nothing more on the matter, though he did give his father a heartwarming little lopsided smile, that caused Ben’s lips to make a smile of his own.

For several days, Joe did as instructed and with each new day, gained more and more strength in his weakened body. Ben or one of Joe’s brothers was constantly close by, to keep the boy company and to keep him from being bored.

“How’s the new roof on the barn coming along, Pa?” Joe asked one day while he watched Ben at the window, studying the progress.

Ben turned and nodded his head at his son. “They should have it finished in another day, I’d say,” explained Ben as he returned to the bedside and took a seat.

“Joe, I’ve been wondering about something, son” hinted Ben.

Joe placed his water glass on the table next to the bed and faced his father. “What’s that, Pa?”

Ben pinched his lips together tightly and then took a deep breath. “I was wondering if you remembered what happened to you? How did you get hit on the back of the head?”

Joe dropped his head, hiding his eyes from his father. He remembered. He remembered well…the pain that had shot through his head, the fall from his horse, but what he remembered most, were the dusty boots inches from his face and when he had looked up into the face that loomed over him, he remembered the sadistic laughter. But he couldn’t, nor would he tell his father who that person was, or why that person had seen fit to strike out at him. This was a score that he would settle for himself, later, when his body had healed and he was stronger, more like his former self.

“Joseph?” Ben said, his voice soft yet commanding.

Joe turned his eyes up at his father, seeing in the chocolate depth, compassion and love. He knew he was expected to answer his father’s question, but how, without lying? Again, Joe allowed his chin to drop. He hated lying to his father, but how could he get around the subject without revealing the other person’s name?

“All I remember…” he stammered as he slowly lifted his head to watch his father’s expression. “Is the pain in the back of my head, and then falling off Cochise. After that, I blacked out and I don’t recall anything until the thunder woke me up the other night.”

“And nothing more?”

Joe shook his head back and forth. “I’m sorry, Pa…”

Ben quickly moved to the bed where he sat down and took Joe’s hand into his, smiling at his son. “There’s nothing for you to be sorry for Joe. Perhaps later, you’ll be able to remember what happened, don’t trouble yourself with it now. Right now, I want you to rest, Paul should be here in a little while, until then, you try to relax and get some sleep.”

Ben brushed the back of his hand down the side of Joe’s face in a tender caress. His son wasn’t fooling him in the least. Ben knew that Joe was keeping something from him that the boy had not wanted his father to know. He was somewhat discouraged that his son had not seen fit to confide in him, but reasoned that Joe must have his reasons to want to keep to himself, what had actually happened. Ben respected that, he wasn’t please to think that someone might have injured his son on purpose, but could only hope that in the near future, Joe would feel as if he could admit the truth about how and why he had been injured. Until that day came, Ben would have to wait.

Ben repositioned the pillows and when Joe had situated himself in the bed, he pulled the covers up and leaned down, placing a kiss on the top of Joe’s head. “You rest now son, I’ll be back up when the doctor gets here.”

“All right Pa, I will. Say, do you think he might let me get up for awhile? It’s getting pretty stuffy in here, and I’d really like to take a short walk to the barn, you know…to check things out,” asked Joe hopefully.

Ben snickered, “I think maybe Paul might let you up, as far as going to the barn…we’ll have to wait and see about that. Now go to sleep!” laughed Ben as he closed the door.

Joe waited until his father was out of sight and then turned over on his side. His hand rubbed gently at the tender spot where the goose egg sized knot had once been.

“Just wait…you and I will settle this score once and for all, Lucas Tatum!” swore Joe as his eyes closed in slumber.

THE END

April 2003

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