But for the Grace of God (by DebbieB)

Summary:  When mad dogs attack fifteen-year-old Joseph Cartwright, the family struggles with their emotions as they watch the boy, whom they love more than life, battle against the deadly effects of hydrophobia, for which there is no cure.

Rated: G (19,700 words)

 

 

                      But for the Grace of God

 

Clad only in his nightshirt and slippers, the early morning breeze whipped around Joe’s bare legs causing him to shiver slightly as he hurried for the second time this night to the old privy out behind his house. Something that he had eaten had upset his stomach and the gurgling sounds gave him cause to hasten on his way. Joe smiled to himself, he should have listened to his stomach’s protests and stopped with the second helping of the dish of whatever it was that Hop Sing had called the rich new dessert rather than pushing his luck and having the third serving. Now, that extra indulgence was costing him valuable sleeping time and Joe frowned at the thoughts that soon it would be morning and he would be forced to start the new day with barely any sleep at all.

Quickly Joe finished his business and headed back to the house. It was when his night shoe slipped from his foot that he halted his steps. Stooping to pick up the slipper and cursing himself for not wearing his boots instead, he replaced it on his foot. Joe could feel the dampness that had seeped inside caused by the dew that glistened on the grasses that waited to be dried by the morning sun’s warm rays. A sudden uneasy feeling caused him to freeze in his tacks. The hackles on the back of his neck rose as the sound of the low-throated growl reached his ears. Joe had only seconds to react before the large black canine pounced on him from its hiding place knocking him to the ground and nearly forcing the wind from his lungs.

Joe felt the first pangs of pain as the snarling animal’s teeth sank deeply into his upper arm. Twisting and turning, Joe struggled to protect his face and throat from the sharp fangs as the enraged dog continued to force himself on the terrified young boy. From the corner of his eye Joe noticed a second dog preparing to attack and Joe screamed in silent agony as he felt the new intruder’s razor like teeth sink deeply into his lower leg. Using his free foot, Joe kicked repeatedly at the brown mongrel that had attached himself and felt when his foot made contact with the animal’s muzzle. His fight for life continued as he fought for his freedom against the mad dogs that tore away at his flesh.

“Pa!” screamed Joe but his cries were carried off into the breeze as the first dog clamped his strong jaws onto Joe’s left shoulder. For an instant Joe saw stars and fought the blackness that threatened to over take him as he felt his collarbone snap under the vice like grip the dog maintained on his upper body.

“Pa!” he tried to scream again but stopped short as the second animal briefly released his hold. Joe fought to pull away his injured leg but his struggle was in vain as once again he felt the tearing of his flesh as the angry beast chomped down on his upper thigh.

Joe gritted his teeth as the pain became unbearable, all the while using what little strength his good arm could muster, his hand folded into a tight fist to beat at the head of the ugly black dog that bore a long white scare that started on the forehead and ran downward toward the tip of the dog’s nose. When at last the black cur broke it’s hold on Joe’s shoulder, the hazel eyes of the horrified boy and the yellow menacing eyes of the mad dog, locked. Joe saw for the first time the white slimy foam that dripped from the dog’s mouth and knew instantly that his fate had been sealed.

“Pa!” whispered Joe; his body racked with pain as once again he steeled himself against the dogs as they moved in for the kill. “God please, I need my Pa,” cried Joe silently through his tears and agony.

Joe felt the ground moving beneath him and wondered briefly how that could be. Suddenly he realized that he had momentarily blacked out and that the mad slobbering dogs were dragging his body through the dirt and tall weeds toward the underbrush. Joe knew that if the dogs were able to pull him far enough away from the house and he could not remain conscious, he would die instantly. The dogs would kill him and none would be the wiser until a member of his family found his mutilated body, or what was left of it.

Having been forced face down in the dirt, exhausted from his battle, his body racked with pain, and weakened from the blood seeping from the many gashes that covered his body, Joe struggle to grab for anything that his injured hands would allow him to find. Still kicking with what little strength remained, Joe clawed at the moving earth beneath him and felt the fallen branch that scraped at his upper torso as the dogs yanked and pulled him toward the underbrush. Instantly Joe’s free hand grasped the small branch and turning as best he could, began hammering at the head of each dog. After what seemed a lifetime to the terrified boy, though it had only been minutes, Joe was able to apply enough solid blows to the heads of each mongrel until they released their holds. Taking advantage of the turn of events, Joe forced himself to his knees where he struck out repeatedly at the animals until each turned and ran off into the woods that circled his home.

Exhausted and frightened beyond measure, Joe collapsed to the ground where he lay watching the spot of darkness where the dogs had disappeared, praying that they would not return to finish what they had begun.

Alone and desperately in need of help, Joe’s pain stressed body succumbed to the world of unconsciousness that claimed him where there, he was no longer able to feel the pain that hammered at his body or had he any further need to be afraid.

Unaware, upstairs in the warm comforts of their beds, Joe’s father and brothers slept soundly. Ben turned to his side; the far distance sounds of whimpering lost in the deep sleep filled corners of his sub-conscious mind. Hoss snored loudly, totally unaware that his younger brother lay helpless just yards from his bedroom window. Adam was lost to dreams of various context as visions of seafaring ships and warm islands rocked to and fro in front of his eyes, he too unsuspecting that the youngest member of the family had been in dire need of his protecting nature. In his private quarters, Hop Sing was just rousing and sitting on the edge of his bed; the devoted servant rubbed the sleep from his eyes and stretched his body from side to side before slipping out of his kimono and hurrying to dress. As silently as the canines had stalked their victim, Hop Sing moved about his room totally oblivious to the fact that just beyond his kitchen, his favorite number three son lay dying.

Ben and Hoss were already seated at the breakfast table by the time that Adam made his descent down the stairs. Looking up, Ben flashed his eldest son a welcoming smile.

“Adam, would you please call your younger brother, we have a lot to do today, and I need his help,” Ben said watching the expressions change on Adam’s face. The looks caused both Hoss and Ben to laugh out loud. Everyone in the household knew what a chore it was to wake the youngest member each morning and each faced the task with dread when the assignment fell to them.

“JOE,” bellowed Adam at the top of his lungs, as he stood on the landing, mid-way of the staircase. Adam turned to face his family; a smile spreading across his handsome face but the smile quickly disappeared as his father’s voice called out his name.

“Adam, please!” called Ben as he scrunched up his face at the sound of his son’s loud baritone voice ringing within the walls of the great room.

“Won’t you please just go upstairs and wake him the correct way?” pleaded the older Cartwright.

Adam turned to face his brother at the sound of Hoss’ laughter, rolling his eyes upward, which only caused more laughter from the two men who sat enjoying their early morning coffee.

Adam tapped lightly on the door before slowly pushing it open and peeking inside. He was astonished to find his younger brother had already left his bed and smiled at the knowledge that he would not have the unpleasant task of waking the boy. Joe was not a morning person, Adam knew, and he silently offered up a prayer of thanks at being spared the dubious task. Turning, Adam left the room, closing the door behind him and continued to the dining room to join his father and brother for breakfast.

Adam smiled at the confused faces watching him, knowing without asking that they were wondering how they had missed the usual morning ruckus that always transpired when Joe was being forced from a sound sleep and warm bed.

“He’s not in his bed,” smiled Adam, taking his normal place at the end of the table, opposite from his father. “Must have gotten an earlier start than the rest of us.”

Hoss and Ben exchanged stunned looks. “You mean Little Brother ain’t in his bed, or his room?” questioned Hoss.

“That’s what I said,” grinned Adam looking pleased with himself.

“Lucky you,” smirked Hoss to Adam, regretting that he had not chosen this morning to wake Joe. He knew that come tomorrow morning, it would be his turn and he cringed at the thought.

“Well, I’m pleased to hear that Joseph has taken it upon himself to get a head start on us this morning,” supplied Ben. “Though I am surprised that he’s up this early.”

“Yeah, it’s only 6:30,” replied Hoss taking a sip of his coffee and glancing at the stairs as if expecting to see his brother appear at any second.

“Now let’s give the boy some credit. He is putting forth an effort. After that long talk I had with him about pulling his weight around here, he has improved,” Ben stated, being quick to come to the defense of his youngest offspring, though the thought did entered his mind that perhaps his impish young son might have an unsuspecting motive behind his obvious uncharacteristic early morning actions.

Hop Sing placed a large platter of eggs and ham on the table and quickly removed his hand as Hoss grabbed for the plate giving Adam a winning smile that caused the older brother to frown slightly.

“Hop Sing has Joseph already eaten this morning? Adam said he wasn’t in his room,” questioned Ben.

“No see lit’le boy, he need eat, food get cold. He don’t eat, Hop Sing go back to China!” muttered Hop Sing as he turned back toward his kitchen muttering something in his native tongue and waving his arms about in the air.

Ben gave Hoss a despairing look that plainly told his son that he had not understood a word of what Hop Sing had just said. “Hoss would you please check the barn and tell the little scamp that he had better get in here fast before Hop Sing follows through with his promise. That much of what he just said was quite clear,” laughed Ben.

It was Adam’s turn to laugh as he watched Hoss slowly return his fork to his plate and rise from his chair.

“Yes sir,” replied Hoss, giving Adam a menacing look as he headed toward the door.

Once outside, Hoss hurried to the barn, “Joe? Ya in there?” he called out stopping at the door and seeing the bar across the entranceway.

Hoss knew instantly by the barred door that Joe had not been to the barn. Giving the yard the once over before continuing his search, Hoss moved around to the back of the barn, thinking that perhaps Joe might have found some chore there that needed his attention. Again, Hoss found no trace that Joe had been present. Shrugging his heavy shoulders, Hoss made his way back toward the house, his mind clearly on his breakfast that was fast getting cold.

“JOE! Where are you boy? Breakfast is agettin’ cold,” shouted Hoss, stopping and waiting for a reply. A movement from the side of the house caught Hoss’ attention and he moved to investigate.

“Joe? Ya back here?” he called out. Hoss stood silent and scanned the area with concerned eyes. Joe was nowhere to be found and briefly a smidgeon of fear raced through the larger boy’s heart.

Hoss heard a bang and turning, saw the door to the old outhouse swing shut. Laughing to himself, his fear dissipating and thinking that his brother was indisposed, Hoss shouted, “Ya better hurry up in there, Short Shanks. Hop Sing is threatening to quit and go back to China if’n ya don’t git to the table quick like.”

Hoss waited impatiently for his brother’s response and when none was forthcoming, exasperated, Hoss moved to peek into the privy. Bewildered at finding no one inside, he again called out for his misplaced sibling.

“Dadburnit Little Joe, where in thunder are ya hidin’? If’n ya don’t git yourself to the table, Hop Sing is aquiting and ya know what that means, Pa will havta do the cookin’ and I’ll stave to death!” shouted Hoss his impatience with his younger brother coming to the surface. Hoss felt and heard the rumbling sounds that his stomach was making and frowned.

“Goshdangit little brother, I ain’t got all day to look fur ya. My breakfast is gitting cold, where in thunderation are ya?” shouted Hoss.

Hoss tossed his arms upward in despair and marched back toward the main house. Suddenly his eyes fell on what looked to be a shoe lying to the side of the worn pathway and quickly he stopped to retrieve the item. Shocked at recognizing it as his little brother’s house shoe, Hoss turned in all directions seeking to find the boy who seemed to have vanished.

As fear invaded his heart for real this time, he began shouting as he ran through the tall grasses and weeds that surrounded the wooded area behind his home.

“Joseph! Short Shanks!” yelled Hoss, stopping long enough to listen for a reply.

Hoss glanced down at the ground, bent to pick up a large leaf that had caught his attention and felt the rush of air escaping from his lungs as he spied the blood that dotted not only the leaf he held in his hand but also the ground around him. His thumb touched the stain on the leaf and feeling the sticky substance, Hoss concluded that his brother was in grave trouble.

 

Carefully inspecting the area around him, Hoss was quick to catch sight of the numerous tracks he knew to be made by dogs. Knowing that there were not any dogs in the surrounding area, his mind suddenly recalled a conversation that his father recently had with a neighbor in regard to a pack of wild dogs that had been seen in the area and remembered that the neighbor stated that the large canines had been caught killing livestock. Several of the ranchers had band together going out hunting for the animals but the pack of dogs had been too evasive for the hunters and the men had returned empty handed with promises to do whatever was needed to rid the area of the nuisances.

“Joe?” Hoss called again, fear pumping throughout his body. “Can ya hear me, boy?”

“Hoss…help…me” came the muted reply from beneath the underbrush where the dogs had left him to die.

Hoss turned, searching about for the location of the near inaudible plea for help. “Joe, answer me.”

Again Hoss heard the cry. “Please…Pa,” cried Joe too weak to move from the spot where he laid.

Hoss began pushing back the tall grasses and underbrush not caring about the thorns that snagged his clothing, until he at last found what he had been searching for. Terror pumped through his veins at the sight of seeing his baby brother lying defenseless and wounded in a pool of blood, his flesh ripped and torn, tears streaming from his pain filled eyes.

“Lordly Short Shanks, what got a hold of ya?” asked Hoss speaking in soft tones and stooping beside the body of his brother. Hoss fought to keep the fear from showing on his face as Joe struggled to grasp for Hoss’ out stretched hand.

“Hold on precious, let’s get ya into the house,” soothed Hoss as he carefully lifted the mangled body of his brother into his massive arms. Seeing the angle in which Joe’s left arm was positioned and feeling gently at the bone, Hoss exercised extra caution when lifting the broken shoulder.

Joe’s scream of anguish was muffled when he buried his face into his brother’s chest as Hoss ran to the house with his bundle held securely within the folds of his strong arms.

“Pa! Pa! Get over here quick,” shouted Hoss as he shoved open the front door and rushed inside. Quickly and as carefully as he could, Hoss placed Joe’s trembling body onto the settee, his eyes never once leaving his brother’s face until his father approached him.

Adam and Ben rushed from their places at the table at the sound of Hoss’ insistent shouts but stopped short when their eyes took in the bloodied form of the youngest Cartwright. Joe’s body was covered in dirt and blood; his nightshirt ripped and torn was wrapped tightly about his body, his moans sending shivers of fear down the backs of the three men who crowded in around the wounded boy.

“Dear God,” cried Ben kneeling down next to his son, “What in Heaven’s name happened?” he asked, worry causing his voice to quiver as he spoke.

“Pa…” cried Joe, hearing his father’s voice and searching for his father’s face among the small group that had gathered around him.

“Shh…it’s okay now son,” soothed Ben wiping away some of the dirt and blood from his son’s face with the damp cloth that Hop Sing had quickly supplied for him.

Joe’s eyes over flowed with tears leaving white tracks down his cheeks as he fought to keep his moans to a minimum.

“Pa,” he cried weakly, “I called…for…you. But you…didn’t come,” wept Joe closing his eyes tightly which only caused his tears to expand the width of the white tracks.

Ben felt the sting of tears as he swallowed the lump that seemed to have developed in his throat. “Oh Joseph, sweetheart, Papa didn’t hear you calling,” he reassured the boy, using the name that Joe had often referred to him as when a small boy.

“I would have come if I had known,” Ben said, taking Joe’s dirty hand in his where he brought it to his lips and placed kiss after kiss in the opened palm. “Papa, didn’t know, baby. I didn’t know.” Ben lowered his head and covered his face with his other hand to hide his tears from the boy whom he had failed to protect.

“Papa…I don’t wanna…die. Please Pa…don’t let me…die,” cried Joe, his body arching as the pain seemed to consume his entire body.

Ben cast worried glances at his older two sons before speaking. “Shh…you’re not going to die son. You are hurt badly, but you’re going to be alright.”

“Adam,” whispered Ben, “go for Doc Martin, and hurry. Your brother needs immediate attention and something for this pain,” instructed Ben willing himself not to panic. “Hoss and I will get him upstairs and cleaned up. Adam please, ask Paul to hurry.”

Joe stirred about on the settee, panic and misery uniting into one expression and clearly etched into the tiny lines on his young face. “Pa…the dogs…” he began.

“Shh…be quiet, don’t try to talk Joseph, please try to calm down, you need to be still son,” ordered Ben placing a clean cloth over the open wounds on Joe’s left arm.

Adam grabbed for his revolver and strapped it to his thigh. As he reached for his hat, he stopped as the sounds of his brother’s protests reached his ears.

“But…Pa…you don’t…understand…the dogs,” muttered Joe while Ben applied pressure to the spot that still seeped blood.

Adam returned to the couch and paused meeting the dark brooding eyes of his father. Adam nodded his head at his father offering encouragement meant for Ben to question further about the dogs. Adam sensed that something more about the dogs than the attack was troubling his sibling.

“Joseph, what about the dogs?” asked Ben, giving a quick glance upward at Hoss and Adam and noting the frightened expression that each young man wore on their faces.

“I’m gonna…die…Pa. Rabid…the dogs…were…rabid,” Joe whispered as he gave himself over to the world of obscurity once again.

Silence was deafening in the large room where four men stared in shock at one another. Hoss felt his eyes filling with tears and slowly they inched their way down his quivering chin and dropped to the floor. Adam clinched his jaw and unnoticed by the others, his hands folded into tight fists as the sudden realization that his baby brother’s life would be snatched from them. Ben bowed his head, unable to stop the dread that engulfed his heart at facing a future without the rambunctious young boy who had staked claim to his heart and soul just a short fifteen years earlier. Hop Sing moved into the back ground, silent tears coursing down his olive colored skin and quietly he wiped away their dampness using the backs of his hands as he prayed silently to his own God.

“Joseph, are you positive, baby?” asked Ben leaning close to the face that remained motionless and not realizing until after he spoke that Joe could offer no response to his question, thus denying him peace of mind and leaving instead, fear and dread to grow and manifest themselves within the chambers of his heart.

“Maybe he’s wrong,” offered Hoss hopefully seeing his father’s tears.

Ben raised troubled tear filled eyes and slowly shook his head. “He has seen rabid animals before, he knows what happens to them and to those who get bitten by one.”

“Adam, go son, tell Paul what has happened. And try to hurry back, Joe will be needing us now more than ever before,” instructed Ben, rising and taking a deep breath.

“Hoss, help me get the boy upstairs. Hop Sing please bring plenty of fresh water and bandages. Don’t forget the disinfectant.” Ben struggled with the inner turmoil that ripped away at the core of his heart unable to accept the fact that his son would suffer a gruesome death if in fact the animals had been as Joe stated, hydrophobic, for which there was no cure.

It was nearly noon by the time that Adam returned with the doctor. Adam ushered the physician through the door and quickly the two men made their way up the stairs. Pausing briefly at Joe’s bedroom door, Adam and Doctor Paul Martin exchanged anxious looks as the piteous moaning sounds that emitted from the other side of the heavy oak door reached their ears.

Ben was sitting on the edge of the bed gently and with soothing words trying to calm down his son who seemed to be everywhere on the bed at once.

“Shh…son, please, try to be still. You are only making things worse,” Ben attempted to restrain the wounded boy from thrashing about.

At the sound of footsteps behind him, Ben looked up and both Adam and Doc Martin could read the look of anxiety and dread that the older Cartwright wore on his concerned face.

“Thank God, you’re here,” said Ben, rising and making room for the doctor who stepped quickly to the side of the bed.

Paul’s eyes took in the sight of his patient as he pulled back the covers and shook his head sadly. “Ben, this is going to take some time. These cuts and gashes are going to have to be disinfected properly before I can even begin to sew them up,” Paul informed the worried father.

Gently, Paul replaced the blankets and turned to Ben and Adam. “I want the two of you to leave me alone with him. I have lots to do here and I don’t need the two of you standing over my shoulder. Hop Sing can assist me,” ordered the doctor.

“I’m not leaving him Paul. He called for me earlier and I wasn’t there for him. He begged me not to leave him and I promised him I wouldn’t,” Ben informed Paul as he stepped up to the bed and brushed gently at Joe’s wayward locks of dark curly hair that appeared pasted to his brow. Ben knew in his heart that he was not really responsible for his son’s injuries but his brain refused to allow the heart to accept what it was trying to tell him.

“Ben, I understand that, but this isn’t going to pleasant, especially for him. I am going to give him something that will completely knock him out so that I can do what has to be done without fear of hurting him any worse than he already has been. Now please, do as I ask. I promise you, if he calls for you I will send Hop Sing down to get you. Adam, will you please get your father out of here, I can’t start until the two of you go.” Paul was adamant in his instructions as he dug through his medical bag preparing the things he would need to care for Joe’s injuries.

“Paul’s right Pa, let’s go downstairs and let him do his work. Joe will need us when he wakes up more than he does right this minute,” Adam stood behind his father and placed a reassuring hand on Ben’s shoulder.

Ben glanced up at Adam and nodded his head. “I suppose you’re right.”

Turning back, Ben lowered himself to the bed and whispered into Joe’s ear. “I am going to leave you for just a little while son, the doctor is going to make you better. Do you hear me, sweetheart? Papa will be just on the other side of the door and I will be back just as soon as Doc Martin gets finished, I promise Joseph, I won’t be far away.”

Ben leaned down and placed a kiss on his son’s brow and felt his heart break all over again when Joe slowly opened his pain filled eyes and tried to smile at him.

“Promise?” Joe barely whispered.

“I promise son. Now you be good and do as the doctor tells you and I will see you in just a little while,” Ben forced his lips into a smile that he hoped would give the boy reassurance though inside Ben felt as if he himself were dying.

Ben walked slowly down the stairs following Adam as together they entered the great room. Ben cast worried eyes up at the top of the stairs and when he turned to face his oldest son, Adam could plainly see the tears in his father’s eyes that the elder Cartwright fought to control. Adam could also read the agony that Ben wore so plainly etched into the lines of his face and Adam moved to place his arm around his father’s shoulder.

“Pa, try not to worry. The boy will be all right,” Adam tried to encourage his father though in his own mind Adam feared as greatly for the life of his youngest brother as his father.

“The dogs were rabid, Adam. How can you stand there and tell me not to worry? My baby is going to die, no matter what the doctor does for him now, it is only a matter of time,” shouted Ben as he gave himself over to his despair.

Adam stood silently, watching his father and unable to find any words of comfort, for in his heart he knew that Ben spoke the truth.

“Where’s Hoss?” Adam asked suddenly realizing that his brother had not been seen since his return with the physician.

Ben sat wearily down in his favorite chair. “He’s gone hunting for those dogs. I begged him to wait until you got back, but would he listen to me? No. He went anyway,” growled Ben. “It’s not like I don’t have enough to worry about, now I have to worry about Hoss also.”

“Want me to go look for him?” offered Adam already moving to the gun case and grabbing a rifle from the shelf.

Ben watched as Adam opened the drawer and removed a box of ammunition and slipped it into his pocket.

“You’re going to help him aren’t you?” asked Ben with no emotion in his voice.

Adam turned abruptly and stopped, watching his father’s face.

“Yes. Pa, if we can find the dogs that attacked Joe, we can send their bodies to San Francisco to have them tested for hydrophobia. Maybe, just maybe mind you, it was something other than rabies that were causing the dogs to foam at the mouth,” stated Adam, wanting to believe his own words. “But unless we find them, we won’t know until…” Adam stopped there, not wanting to say the word. “Now, did Hoss say which way he was going?”

Ben rose and walked to the door with his son and waited until he put on his revolver and grabbed his hat. “He said something about looking on the east side of the house. He said that the tracks he spotted this morning appeared to be going in that direction. He thought maybe the dogs might have a den up in those old caves where the three of you used to play.”

“Then that’s where I’ll start looking for him,” said Adam reaching for the door but stopping and turning once again to face his father. “Pa, tell Joe something for me if he wakes up before I get back, will you?”

“What’s that son?” questioned Ben.

Adam swallowed willing his voice not to quiver as he spoke. “Tell Joe that I love him, and that I will be back soon.” And with that, Adam walked through the doorway and closed the door behind him, determined to find the animals that had caused his young brother so much misfortune.

Ben stood silently, staring at the closed door when suddenly he remembered something that Joseph had whispered to him earlier. Feeling that it was important for Adam to know he rushed out the door and called out to Adam as man and horse were just going around the barn.

“Adam! Adam! Wait, I just remembered something,” shouted Ben bringing a halt to Adam’s departure.

Adam turned Sport around and stopped when he neared his father. “What?”

Ben stepped close to Adam and as he spoke placed his hand on Adam’s leg. “Joe said that the black dog had a long scar down the middle of his face between his eyes. That should help you at least recognize one of them,” Ben informed his son.

“Good. I’m glad he mentioned that, I have no idea how many dogs are running in that pack. What about the second dog? Did he notice anything about that one?” asked Adam.

“Yes, it was smaller than the black dog. He said it was brown and had only one eye and Joe remembered that the brown one’s tail was a stub. That should narrow down your search, son. Please Adam, you and Hoss use extra precaution and take care of each other, do you understand?” instructed the worried father.

Adam gave his father a reassuring smile, “We will Pa. Try not to worry about us, you just take care of that baby brother of mine and Pa…pray, it’s the only thing that we can do for Joe now.”

“I will Adam. Good luck, son,” nodded Ben as Adam turned Sport around. Ben stood watching Adam’s retreating back until he was out of sight before returning to the house. Ben stopped at the door and paused before entering and bowed his head offering a plea of mercy for his injured son.

Adam found Hoss an hour later sitting on a ridge above the area of the caves where he was watching for any signs that the dogs might have a den in the area.

“Any luck?” asked Adam as he inched his way upward and joined Hoss on his perch.

“Hey Adam. Naw, ain’t seen hide nor hair of any dogs. I don’t think they are here, I haven’t gone near the caves to be sure, I was just hoping that them critters might just show up,” said Hoss in defeat. “How’s Joe?” he questioned with concern but never allowing his eyes to venture from the spot where he was keeping watch lest he miss getting a glimpse of the dogs.

“Doc’s with him now. He was in a lot of pain when I left,” Adam informed his brother.

“Hoss?”

Hoss turned at the sound of Adam’s irresolute voice that suddenly claimed his attention.

“Yeah Adam?” Hoss noted the sad countenance on his older brother’s face and saw the dark eyes fighting to contain unshed tears; Hoss gulped in an effort to keep his own unvoiced fear from resounding in his own voice. “It’s bad, ain’t it?” he asked.

Adam wiped his eyes, unable to stop the overflow and looked long into the misty blue eyes of this mountain of a man brother of his. “I’m afraid so brother. We have to find those two dogs and send their bodies to be examined. I don’t need to tell you what will happen if they are rabid.” Adam’s voice cracked and he placed his hand over his mouth and dropped his head to rest on his chest hoping to prevent himself from screaming out his frustrations.

Neither young man spoke for several minutes, each brother lost in their own thoughts and fears as to the outcome that their youngest brother faced. Impending doom seemed to be the most dominate emotion that weighed heavy within each heart of Ben’s older two sons.

Adam informed Hoss of the information that their father had given in regard to what the two attacking canines looked like. After waiting another half hour or so and seeing nothing that might indicate that the dogs were in the area, both men agreed to move on.

Hoss at last picked up some tracks and quickly dismounted from his horse. “Look Adam, there are tracks all over the place. That pack must have moved through here, don’t look like too long ago either.”

“My question would be, are they the ones we are looking for?” commented Adam.

Hoss shook his head, wishing he knew for sure whether or not they were on the right track. Mounting, he turned Chubb in the direction that the tracks were leading and began to follow them, Adam following closely behind as his eyes kept a close watch for other signs around them.

It was after dark by the time that the brothers returned home empty handed and down hearted. As they entered the yard both young men glanced toward the house, their eyes automatically seeking the window that they knew was the one in Joe’s bedroom. The soft glow from the lamp’s glare shown through the shears that hung from the window and stirred about softly with the warm evening breeze. Adam and Hoss knew even without voicing the thought that their father had remained nearby his wounded son all through the day and evening hours and that nothing would pry him from his son’s side. They knew that Ben carried guilt within his heart for not being present to help his son when Joe had beckoned for him and staying close now was Ben’s way of attempting to make it up to the boy, regardless of the fact that no one had blamed him.

Quickly Adam led his horse into the barn and stabled the big stallion in his stall. Hoss followed behind, moving more slowly as he too began to care for his horse. A short time later they finished their tasks and as the brothers were leaving the barn, Cochise nickered softly to them. Hoss stopped and rubbed the end of the soft nose as Cochise stretched out his neck.

“You miss him don’t cha’ ole boy?” whispered Hoss sadly glancing at Adam who had also stopped to pet the horse before moving on.

Adam secured the barn door for the night and as he and Hoss walked together he slipped his arm about the bigger man’s shoulder. Hoss smiled, just the corner of his lip turned upward as if the effort was too much for his weary body but he raised his arm and laid it about Adam’s shoulder, each brother seeking a small about of comfort in the unspoken gesture.

Adam and Hoss took turns sitting with Joe. Ben as suspected, refused to leave his son’s side but did doze off and on. Paul had given Joe the strongest amount of morphine that he could which left Joe heavily sedated supplying his body with the time needed to begin the healing process. Throughout the night Joe moaned occasionally but never fully woke, much to the relief of his family. By the time morning arrived, the medication had begun to wear off and Joe’s movements along with his cries became more apparent. Ben filled a glass with cool water and mixed in the powder that the doctor had left with him and being careful not to bring any more discomfort to his injured son, lifted Joe’s head gently and allowed him to drink the liquid.

Joe rested his head against the softness of the pillows and gave his father a weak smile. “That stuff tastes terrible,” he complained.

Ben laughed softly and placed the empty glass on the table next to the bed. “I know it does son, but it will help with the pain. How are you feeling this morning?” asked Ben sitting down on the edge of the bed while he placed the back of his hand to Joe’s brow to check for any signs of fever.

“Better than I did yesterday morning,” replied Joe softly. “Pa?” Joe said looking into Ben’s eyes and seeing the worry in the dark depths.

“Yesterday…when Hoss carried me inside…did I say something…I mean…well, I didn’t mean to sound as if I blamed you for not being there to help me. I know that all of you were asleep when I went to the outhouse…I was just scared Pa…when Hoss brought me inside I mean,” sniffed Joe, fighting to maintain control. “I know you would have helped me if you had known I needed it…I’m sorry Pa, really,” continued Joe, “I don’t blame any of you for what happened.”

Ben brushed back the stray curl that had separated its self from the others and clasped Joe’s free hand. “I know you don’t blame me son, I never thought you did. I’m just so very sorry that I wasn’t there to help you. I should have been, I…”

“Pa, you couldn’t have known I was outside, much less known that those dogs were anywhere around. I didn’t know, not until it was too late. Please Pa, don’t blame yourself, promise me you won’t?” begged Joe, his eyes filling with tears.

Ben wiped the tears with his thumbs and cradled Joe’s quivering chin with his large hands. “I promise Joseph, that I will try not to blame myself. That is the best I can do for now.” Ben placed a kiss on Joe’s brow and forced himself to smile.

Just then Hoss and Adam entered the room and smiled at seeing their brother awake. After spending several minutes visiting, Adam explained to Joe that he and Hoss were headed out to hunt for the dogs that had attacked him, promising to do all in their power to find them and kill them. Ben saw the glimmer of hope that sprung into the hazel eyes that watched his brothers and prayed that his older sons were not giving the youngest false hope.

“We’ll be back late Short Shanks, ya try to get some rest and do what Pa here says to do. Ya’ll be up and about before ya know it,” encouraged Hoss as he and Adam bid Joe and their father good-bye.

Ben walked to the door with his older sons, stopping them long enough to instruct them to use caution while out. Adam and Hoss smiled knowingly at one another and after assuring their father that they were old enough to take care of themselves, slipped quickly out the door and on their way.

The sun rose hot for the time of year. By noon both young men were covered in sweat and dust and both were quickly becoming disheartened at their inability to find any signs of the dogs, yet they continued on with their search. By early evening fear had settled in as they agreed that time was of the essence and that time was fast running out. It had been two days now since the attack and both feared that the two dogs might even now be beyond finding alive. The thought caused Adam to shiver slightly though the evening was still quite warm. Hoss caught the action from the corner of his eye and turned to look at Adam.

“Ya okay, big brother?” he asked worriedly.

Adam gave a small smile that look more like a smirk, “Just fine, Hoss, just fine. Don’t have a damn care in the world.”

Realizing that he was taking his frustrations out on his brother, Adam was quick to rectify the situation. “I’m sorry Hoss, I didn’t mean to take it out on you. I’m just angry about all of this, and worried, hell I’m scared for Joe, I’m afraid all of this searching is in vain.”

Hoss pulled his mount to a stop next to Adam’s horse, which had also stopped. “I know Adam, I feel the same way. I sorta feel like I’m alettin’ Joe down, ya know what I mean. It’s like…I have this sick feeling in the pit of my stomach…and I can’t make it go away,” Hoss tried to explain. “I wanna do something to help Joe, but I just cain’t seem to do what’s right. I feel as if’n my hands are tied, I cain’t think straight, all I do think about is his dyin’…and how it’s agonna be when he does.” Hoss dabbed at his eyes and kicked Chubb forward. “Let’s ride, I wanna see Joe.”

Several hours later, two tired men turned their horses toward home. Each silent, each gravely worried and both wanting to hurry home to check on the well being of their youngest brother.

Hoss pushed open the heavy front door; he was tired, discouraged and worried. Adam followed Hoss inside and as both men were removing their hats and coats, they turned at the sound of their father’s footsteps on the wooden stairs.

“Hey Pa,” greeted Hoss solemnly as he moved into the room and noticed the hopeful look that adorned his father’s face.

“Boys,” Ben returned the greeting, “Any luck?” he asked, knowing the answer even before receiving it. He could tell by the unhappy faces of his two older sons that they had had no luck in finding the dogs who had attacked Joe.

Hoss pressed his lips tightly together and shook his head, his spirit broken. He knew that time was running out, if the sick dogs died before they were able to find them, there would be no way to be positive about whether the animals were rabid or not, and just how long the dogs had been foaming at the mouth before their attack on Joe, no one knew for sure. Even now it might be too late and that thought scared the large man whose heart was slowly breaking.

“We’re headin’ out again at first light. Maybe tomorrow we’ll have better luck,” Hoss explained to his father. Ben silently nodded his head and sat wearily down into his chair.

“How’s Joe, Pa?” inquired Adam, anxious to know the condition of his younger brother.

“Scared, no terrified might be a better word. Oh he tries to hide it from me, but I can see it in his eyes. I’ve tried to reassure him but he knows what’s going to happen,” said Ben rising from his chair as he began pacing back and forth in front of the fireplace.

“Damn,” uttered Ben between clinched teeth and struggling to regain control of his swiftly deteriorating emotions. “I should have been there to protect him,” he added as he balled his hand into a fist and slammed it down on the table that stood in front of the fireplace.

Adam quickly moved to place his hand on his father’s trembling shoulder, “Pa, you had no way of knowing that the boy was anywhere other than in his bed. If you had known he was outside, Joe knows you would have been there for him when he called, we all know that. For that matter Pa, all three of us would have been there for him, but we didn’t know. We just simply did not know. You can’t blame yourself for what happened,” stated Adam seeing the tears that welled in his father’s dark eyes.

Ben sighed deeply, “That’s what Joe’s been telling me all day, that he doesn’t blame me, well that’s fine, I’m glad he doesn’t, but I blame myself and I can’t help that.”

Ben took another deep breath and stopping momentarily, he turned to face Adam. “He’s been asking for you Adam, why don’t you go up and sit with him for a while? I need to get some air.” Ben left Adam standing in front of the fireplace as he marched to the door and flung it open causing it to slam into the credenza as he went out.

Hoss stood from where he had been silently sitting on the settee and faced Adam. “This is hard on Pa, Adam, I knew he held himself responsible.”

“I know he does Hoss, but I don’t know what to say to him to convince him otherwise. I’m going to sit with Joe, you coming?” Adam asked as he moved to the stairs.

“You go ahead, I’ll be up shortly. I think I’ll wait here for Pa, maybe I can convince him.” Hoss stuffed his hands into his pockets and with head hung low walked to close the door and then crossed to the window above Ben’s desk and peeked out.

Ben had walked to the corral where he stood with his arms resting on the top railing. Looking up into the darkness he was amazed at the number of stars that shown bright in the night sky. As he watched, a shooting star streamed across the vast expanse of the heavens.

“Oh Marie,” cried Ben, his tears at last breaking free. “I’m about to lose our baby. I’m so sorry my darling; I’ve failed him when he needed me the most. Can you ever forgive me?” wept Ben burying his face within the folds of his arms and allowing his tears to flow freely, unseen by anyone other than his Maker.

“Oh God, please. Help me…help my son,” prayed Ben.

Ben raised his head and looked into the night sky seeking the face of God in the realms above.

“God, everyday for fifteen years I have thanked you sending this boy to me. I knew from the very first that he was special; he has brought such joy and happiness into my life. I can’t conceive what my life would be like without him. God, he has taught me so much of what I needed to learn. He has taught me the real meaning of love, the type of unconditional love that only a father could have for his son; he’s taught me about patience when I thought I had none left to give, he’s taught me how to give freely of my forgiveness and how to do it without restrictions; he has humbled my father heart and he has shown me that even as a father, I can make mistakes. He has asked nothing of me except that I love him and in return for my love, he has given to me respect and loyalty while teaching me to be compassionate, he has also taught me how to trust and believe and he’s done it just by being a part of my life, a part of this family, this family God, that without you would never have been.”

“Please God, please, I have lost so much, Elizabeth, Inger, even Joe’s mother Marie, do I now have to face life with out my baby? I don’t mean to question you Lord, I know it’s not up to me, but to you. God, I understand that our lives are predestined even before we are born, is this Joseph’s destiny, to die a death so gruesome and painful, to be snuffed out before it really begins? Is he to never know what it’s like to be a man, or to marry and see his own child born or to hold that child in his arms? Is he to miss what I have been so blessed to receive? If it is, then Lord, I ask nothing for myself, only that you keep your promise. Your book says that Thy grace is sufficient even until the end. Joseph needs your grace and your mercy God, please; he is just a boy. Please Lord, I beg of you to grant him this and Almighty God, grant grace to Adam and Hoss; they will need you then too, we all will”.

“I’m trying to be strong, I’m trying to be brave for Joe’s sake, but I don’t know if I can do it or not. My heart is being ripped from my chest piece by piece and I feel myself dying already. I need you dear God; I need to feel your love, your strength and I need to know your wisdom. I’m trying to be faithful Lord, but this is the deepest valley that you have ever asked me to walk through and I’m not sure I can make it,” Ben’s shoulders heaved as he poured out his heart to God and wept for his son.

“God, not mine, but Thy will be done,” finished Ben in a whisper. Taking a few more minutes to collect him self and dry his tears, Ben returned to the house; a peace unequal to any he had ever felt filling his heart and soul.

Adam slipped into the room, pleased to see that Joe was sitting up in bed. Joe glanced quickly at his brother as Adam entered and just as quickly wiped the tears from his face in an effort to hide them from his older sibling.

Adam saw his brother’s movement and dropped his head not wanting to embarrass the boy further. It was obvious to Adam that Joe had been crying and his heart went out to the frightened boy.

Sitting down on the bed next to Joe, Adam rested his hand on Joe’s leg. “How are you feeling Little Buddy?” asked Adam watching Joe’s face for any signs of discomfort.

Joe raised his eyes slowly to look at his brother and shrugged his shoulders. “Alright I guess,” he replied dropping his head in order to avoid the dark probing eyes that studied him.

“No pain?” inquired Adam, his eyes never leaving Joe’s face.

Joe shook his head, “A little, but not much,” he responded at last meeting Adam’s eyes. “Every time I flinch, Pa pours that horrible medicine down my throat,” Joe snickered, “I don’t know if I’m hurtin’ or not to be honest,” he joked and then turned serious.

“Adam…I’m scared,” confessed Joe as his eyes filled with tears. Using the backs of his sleeves, he wiped the tears away. “I don’t want Pa to know, he’s worried enough as it is…but I can’t help it, Adam…I know what’s gonna happen to me…and I’m scared,” continued Joe, his chin quivering as his spoke.

“I know you are buddy…so are the rest of us.” Adam moved closer and slipped his arms carefully around his brother and drew him to his chest, holding him tenderly until the younger boy was able to bring his tears under control.

“Adam…you gotta promise me something,” said Joe pulling back from Adam’s embrace.
“Will you promise?” he asked.

“Joe,” said Adam again studying his brother’s face and seeing the seriousness in his expression. “I can’t promise you anything until you tell me what it is you want me to do.”

Joe swallowed hard and met his brother’s gaze. “I want you to promise me that when things get bad…you remember old man Willis, don’t ya?”

“Yes, I remember,” answered Adam recalling that the old man had died of rabies last year and how when he and Joe had found the man, Willis was already delirious and totally out of his mind and engulfed in agony.

“Adam…will I get like that?” asked Joe not waiting for a reply but continued on, “I mean, I saw what he went through just before he died, I don’t want Pa to see me like that…that’s why I want you to promise me that you will take me away, anywhere…before I get that bad. Please Adam, you gotta promise me, please?” cried Joe, unable to hide his fears from Adam as the tears began rolling from his eyes once again.

“Joe…” began Adam.

Joe grabbed Adam’s arm with his good hand, “Please…do this last thing for me Adam…I don’t want Pa to remember me like I remember old man Willis. Adam…I don’t want Pa to see me die…not like that…please, please…Adam promise me you will do this for me.” Joe buried his face in Adam’s chest as Adam fought to control his own tears.

The lump in Adam’s throat momentarily stopped him from speaking. Nodding his head until he was able to find his voice. “Okay Joe…I can’t say that Pa will be pleased with me…but I understand why you want me to do this for you.”

Joe raised his head, the tears slowly making their way down his face as he looked at Adam. “Do you mean it Adam…you will take me away and not tell Pa or Hoss?”

“I mean it Joe. I wouldn’t want any of you to see me like that either. But you have to understand one thing Joe; I will not leave you by yourself. I plan on staying with you until…well; I’ll not leave you alone. Do I make myself clear?” stated Adam.

Joe nodded his head. “I understand…and Adam…thanks,” sniffed Joe. “You promise though, right? No matter what I say or do, you won’t let Pa see me?”

Adam didn’t much like the idea, knowing what his father would say when the end came. He knew he would be hurting his father, denying him the right to be with his son till the end, but he also understood his brother’s desire to spare the others from seeing him suffer, as he knew he would be doing.

“I promise Joe. I’ll take you up to one of the line shacks, just you and me,” agreed Adam.

Joe smiled, “Thanks Adam, you’re the best.” Joe rested his head against the pillows and closed his eyes. Relaxing now that he had succeeded in attaining Adam’s promise to help him, Joe fell into a peaceful sleep for the first time since being attacked.

Adam moved to the over stuffed chair and watched as Joe’s weary body relaxed, amazed at how quickly the tension left his body. Sighing, Adam knew he was doing the right thing, plotting with his younger brother to steal him away from the watchful eyes of their father when the worst came. Adam rose and neared the bed, watching Joe sleep. Adam felt his own heart rate gain in momentum as thoughts of the courage that the boy struggled to maintain filled his being. Adam knew that Joe was frightened, and rightfully so, hell, thought Adam, we are all scared. Brushing at the unshed tears, Adam left the room, determined once again that come first light he aimed to find the dogs that had caused so much chaos in their lives.

Joe tossed and turned throughout the night. His dreams forced him from his sleep more than once and each time that he opened his eyes, his father’s face was the first thing he sought. Ben remained close to his son, feeling within his own heart that he had somehow failed the boy, Ben refused to leave, even when Hoss became adamant about sitting with Joe while Ben rested. Still, Ben refused. Nothing that either Hoss or Adam could say or do would entice Ben to go to bed even if just for a couple of hours. Reluctantly, the younger men carried a cot into Joe’s room and set it up close to Joe’s bed where at last Ben did agree to lie down and when he finally did close his eyes, sleep was almost immediate in coming.

Near morning the moans and cries coming from the larger bed brought Ben out of a sound sleep. Jumping to his feet, he stared at the beads of water that dampened his son’s forehead. Ben placed the back of his hand to Joe’s brow and frowned when he felt the heat that radiated from the flushed face.

“He’s burning up,” commented Ben giving Adam a glaring look. “I thought I told you to wake me if there were any changes,” he snapped grabbing the cloth from Adam’s hand and wetting it in the cool water before returning it to the fevered brow.

“I just got in here myself Pa. I sent Hank into town for Doc Martin and was just fixing to wake you up. I’m sorry, I should have woke you first,” apologized Adam stepping back and making room for Ben.

Ben faced Adam and placed his hand on his son’s shoulder giving it a small squeeze, “I’m sorry son, I shouldn’t have snapped at you like that. It’s just that I am so worried, I’m sorry I took it out on you.”

Adam held his hand over his father’s hand and smiled. “I know Pa, we’re all worried. As soon as Hoss gets the horses saddled, and we finish the chores, he and I are going out after those dogs again. With any luck we will find them this time,” Adam forced his voice to sound more confident than he really felt.

Ben sat next to Joe continuing to place cool cloths on his brow and wiping away the sweat beads that had appeared on both his arms and chest. “Pa…Pa…” whined Joe as he tossed his head about on the pillow.

“Joseph, shh…try to rest son. The doctor will be here soon,” soothed Ben taking Joe’s uninjured hand within his own and holding if firmly. With his thumb, Ben rubbed the back of the hand and with his other fingers Ben could feel the dampness that had gathered within the sweaty palm.

Joe continued struggling, as he pulled free of Ben’s hand, “Pa, help me, Pa. The dogs, get’em off, get’em off,” screamed Joe thrashing about on the bed as he fought the imaginary canines that had the day before, been true to life.

Ben grabbed Joe’s free arm as he flung it about in the air and pulled Joe into a sitting position where he was better able to cradle the boy to his chest. Continually Ben called Joe’s name and assured him that he was safe until at last the sound of Ben’s soothing tones reached into the far corners of Joe’s fevered mind. Gradually Joe calmed enough that Ben was able to return him to his pillow and carefully pulled the soft blanket about the boy’s chin and tucked in the edges.

Looking over his shoulder where Adam and Hoss stood rooted to the spot he shouted at them. “Get those dogs, do you hear me?” Ben’s scowl was causing his face to become distorted. “Please go, I can manage here, I want those dogs!”

Without a word Adam and Hoss turned, leaving their brother in their father’s capable hands and hurried to do his bidding. Once outside they saddled their horses, checked to be sure they had everything they needed and kicking hard at their horses, were off at a run, leaving in their wake a small cloud of dust.

Paul arrived by mid-morning, much to Ben’s relief. He and Hop Sing had struggled all morning with Joe who had repeatedly waged war against their efforts to console him. One minute Joe begged for water, but by the time that they had the water glass to his lips he was fighting against them refusing to drink it. Joe cried with the pains that would suddenly hit his stomach and several times he had complained first of numbness and then tingling sensations throughout his body.

Ben sighed in relief when the bedroom door opened and Paul entered. Moving to allow room for the physician, Ben could read the stunned expression on his friend’s face the minute the doctor’s eyes looked at the sick boy thrashing about on the bed.

“Ben, when did all of this start?” questioned Paul, checking Joe’s fever and other vital signs the instant he neared the bed.

“He woke up with a fever and has been getting worse all morning. Why Paul…” Ben stopped speaking as Paul’s eyes connected with his own.

“The signs are all here Ben,” whispered Paul softly as he rose and faced Ben, not wanting Joe to overhear what he told his father, Paul backed his friend several paces from the bed. “This is the beginning, Ben…I’m so sorry, I was hoping for something else.”

Ben felt the sting of tears as realization of what Paul had just confirmed registered in his mind. Joe had rabies, for which there was no cure. Ben willed his trembling body to stand still, he commanded his heart to slow its rapid beating and he would not permitted himself to cry, not here, not in front of his son.

“How long has he got?” questioned Ben sadly as he looked over the physician’s shoulder and watched the tormented expressions that played themselves out across the young face of his son.

“I can’t be sure Ben considering how fast it seemed to have started. It’s different with each individual, four maybe five days, maybe longer.” Paul placed his hand on Ben’s shoulder causing the distraught father to look him eye to eye. “Ben, it’s going to get worse, not better from here until he…” Paul couldn’t make himself say the word, but his friend knew. Paul felt the tremors that passed through Ben’s body and as the father’s resolve shattered, he slipped both of his arms around the trembling shoulders of his best friend and held him while he cried.

“Pa…PA…”cried out Joe. Ben was drawn back to the present by his son’s pleas and quickly wiped away the traces of his tears before he placed himself on the bed next to his son.

“Shh…Papa’s right here Joseph.”

“My stomach and my head…it’s hurts Pa…please…”wept Joe beginning again to toss from side to side as the pain intensified. Joe moaned loudly, the agony unnerving the three adults who heard the pitiful cries.

Paul removed from his medical bag and prepared what he hoped would be enough medication to allow some relief for his patient. Giving Ben a nod of his head, Paul administered the injection and together, Ben and Paul waited for the morphine to take affect. Soon, Joe was sleeping, though he continued to moan and cry out for his father.

“It’s getting’ hot,” commented Hoss once he and Adam had reined in their horses under the shade of a large oak tree. Hoss soaked his neck scarf with the cool water from his canteen and wiped the sweat from his face.

“Yeah, tell me about it,” answered Adam taking a long drink from his canteen. As he held the container upward, Adam’s eyes saw something that caused him to freeze his actions.

Holding the canteen in his hand, Adam pointed to something in the distance. “Hoss look, buzzards; wonder what they found?” he said wiping the dripping water from his chin with the back of his hand.

“A steer maybe?” replied Hoss watching as the big birds circled the sky. “Wanna check it out?” he said, turning to Adam.

Adam replaced the cork into his canteen and placed the strap around the saddle horn. “Might as well, come on.” With that, Adam nudged Sport forward heading in the direction where the buzzards were circling. Hoss fell in beside of Adam riding as such until they neared the spot in question.

On the ground they found the remains of an animal. The scavengers where busy picking away at what was left and it took several attempts on the part of both young men to shoo away the birds so that they could inspect the carcass.

Hoss scrunched up his nose at the offending odor that emitted from the rotting remains.

“Looks like this critter might’a been dog Adam,” he said as he stepped closer. Holding his nose, Hoss leaned down and using a stick, poked at various parts of what remained of the hide. “Hey Adam, it is a dog, a brown dog. I cain’t tell nuthin’ about the eyes, but it sure ‘nough had a stub tail. Ya reckon this is one of those that got Joe?” Hoss rose and moved away from the near skeleton like remains.

“It probably is Hoss. Too bad we didn’t find it before the buzzards did, there’s nothing left to send off. We best get to hunting that black dog,” stated Adam handing Chubb’s reins to Hoss. Adam felt his spirit plummet knowing that one of the dogs was beyond offering them any help in possibly saving Joe’s life. Silently Adam prayed that they would find the other dog, the black one, in better condition than the one they had just found.

After scouting the area nearby, Hoss was able to pick up dog tracks that led away from the cadaver. Taking extra time to search thoroughly around the underbrush and tall grasses as they moved along, Adam stopped suddenly. His ears had picked up on a strange whining sound. Pulling his rifle from the scarab along side his saddle, Adam raised his hand motioning for Hoss to stop.

Adam turned to face Hoss and placed his fingers over his mouth signaling for Hoss to be silent. “Listen,” Adam whispered to Hoss. “Can you tell where it is coming from?”

Hoss looked about and when the sounds reached his ears, he pointed in the direction from which he believed the sounds were coming. Adam dismounted and tossed Hoss Sport’s reins as he shouldered the rife and inched forward. Hoss readied his own rifle on the chance that Adam might need his help. He remained seated in the saddle and when the large canine emerged from the underbrush, Hoss was the first to spot him crouching in the tall weeds.

“Adam!” hissed Hoss pointing in the dog’s direction. Just then the dog broke into a run and as he leaped at Adam, Adam aimed and fired at the animal. The dog dropped at Adam’s feet, blood oozing from the heart where Adam’s bullet entered.

Quickly Hoss was beside his brother. “Good shot Big Brother,” he said as he slapped Adam’s back.

Adam nodded his head, stooping to inspect the large black dog. As he turned his head to face Hoss, he smiled, “This is the one, Hoss. This is the black dog that Joe told us about. See that scar?” Adam fairly shouted. “Come on brother, let’s get this animal into town. Clem said that as soon as we got either dog, he would take it himself to San Francisco for us,” said Adam grabbing his bedroll from his saddle and unrolling it.

“Help me roll this blanket around the dog. With this heat like it is we can keep the flies off of it this way. When we get to town, we can fix it better so that Clem and take it on tonight.”

As soon as the brothers had finished, they rode straight into town. Clem agreed that with the weather as warm as it had been, his best choice would be to start right away. Adam and Hoss helped him prepare the animal for traveling and by dusk, Clem was on his way with a promise that he would insist that the laboratory rush to examine the dog and a second promise that he would send a wire as soon as possible in regards to the condition of the dog.

It was well passed dark by the time that the two brothers returned home. Just as soon as Adam opened the door, the sounds of anguish could be heard from the room upstairs. Giving Hoss a quick glance, Adam tossed his revolver and hat on the credenza and ran up the stairs. Hoss, a bit slower, followed and as they pushed opened the bedroom door, both boys stopped in their tracks as their eyes took in the scene that was taking place in the room.

The doctor and Ben both were nearly in the bed with Joe trying to hold him still. Joe was screaming for release, fighting against the restraining hands that held him down; his clothing clung to his body from the dampness caused by sweating and tears ran uncontrollably down his face. From his mouth, spittle dripped and the sight caused Adam to cringe as he watched the tortured expressions on his brother’s face.

Ben held Joe’s good arm as Paul administered an injection of morphine into the vein. Joe’s wails were loud and the words slurred but as Adam neared the bed and his eyes locked with those of his brother’s, Adam understood his brother’s desperate pleas.

“Let me hold him Pa,” stated Adam, moving to claim his father’s place as he gently pushed Ben aside. “Paul, let him go, I can handle him,” he ordered as he pried Paul’s fingers from his brother’s arm. Both men moved back startled at the younger man’s sharp voice and watched as Adam wrapped his arms tightly about Joe’s body and held him firmly. Joe buried his face against his brother’s chest as his painful sobs continued to fill the room.

“Get out, leave us alone for now,” shouted Adam over his shoulder as he began whispering softly into Joe’s ear.

“Joe, it’s okay buddy, it’s okay, Adam’s here now.”

Glancing over his shoulder, Adam was relieved to see his father and the doctor exiting the room. Adam felt his resolve weakening as he watched the way his father’s shoulders slumped when he walked. Adam understood that his father was already grieving for what he knew was forth coming and that knowledge caused Adam to tighten his hold about Joe’s body as if the slight gesture might delay the inevitable.

Hoss lingered for several moments until Adam ordered him out as well. “Hoss, go. Tell Pa that we found both dogs and that one is on it’s way to the lab.”

Hoss remained silent as he backed out of the room and shut the door softly behind him. Quickly he hurried down the stairs to pass the news about the dogs on to his father who was pacing nervously in front of the fireplace. Paul sat silently in the blue chair watching and unable to offer any words of encouragement to his distraught friend.

Adam continued to hold Joe for several minutes after the others had emptied the room. All the while Adam spoke calmly to Joe and rubbed his back as he did so. Eventually, the medicine that Paul had administered and the calming sound of Adam’s voice had the desired affect that Adam had been praying for. At long last, Adam lowered Joe’s head on to the pillow and taking the cloth from the basin of cool water, Adam wiped away the sweat and tears from his brother’s face.

Joe had closed his eyes but as the damp cloth touched his fevered skin, he opened his eyes once more and for the first time actually saw that it was Adam that cared for him.

“Adam,” Joe mumbled reaching out for Adam’s hand.

“I’m here buddy,” answered Adam taking Joe’s hand in his.

“You promised…remember?” questioned Joe, his voice low and strained as he tried to speak.

Adam dabbed at the sweat beads that dampened Joe’s brow as he watched his brother’s face. Joe was fighting sleep and he struggled to make himself understood.

“Please…Adam…” Joe forced the words, “don’t…want…them to…see…me…” Joe’s voice faded as his eyes closed. Adam closed his own eyes and swallowed the lump in his throat. When he opened his eyes, Joe had opened his eyes again and was watching his face.

“Please…don’t…cry.” Joe’s hand slowly made it’s way to Adam’s cheek and brushed away the tiny droplets of water that hung precariously in the corners of his dark eyes.

“The promise…you…won’t forget…will you?” The request was so low that Adam barely heard, but he nodded his head.

“I promise Joe. I promise.” Joe’s eyes could no longer fight against the powerful medicine and within minutes he fell into a deep sleep. Adam took advantage of the fact that Joe slept and as he did so, Adam pulled the sweat soaked clothing from his brother and bathed him with the cool water. When he finished, he removed a clean nightshirt from the bureau and slipped it over Joe’s head. Next he went to the door and as Hop Sing was passing in the hall, his arms laden with soiled laundry, Adam asked whether he might have fresh linens so that the bedding could be changed as well. Hop Sing was back in minutes, willing to do all he could for the youngest member of the family. It did not take the two men long to have the bed changed and Joe settled comfortably within the softness of the clean sheets and blankets.

Late that night while Ben slept on the cot next to Joe’s bed, Adam made his way silently to the barn to begin packing the things that he would need when he took Joe away. Earlier that day, while Ben and Hoss had been occupied caring for Joe, Adam had made the excuse that the chores needed tending, but then had slipped back into the house unnoticed by any of the others and had taken extra blankets and linens from the cabinet where they were stored. Deciding to take extra clothing for each, Adam added the smuggled items to the pile of growing supplies. Joe’s clothing was the hardest to acquire and those Adam had slipped from the clean laundry that Hop Sing had done the day before but had yet to take upstairs. From the kitchen, he had managed to sneak out with the staple articles to add to the supply of can goods that were always stocked and on hand at each line shack. By the time that Adam had finished gathering the needed articles, he had enough food and clothing to last them for nearly a week.

Judging from what he had seen earlier, Adam feared that he would need to take Joe to one of the line shacks at the first opportunity. All he had to do was to find some way to distract his father long enough to get Joe out of the house, which, considering that Ben rarely left Joe’s side, would be no easy feat.

Adam knew it would be impossible for his brother to sit a horse by himself and a wagon was out of the question. His only other option thought Adam was that Joe would have to ride double with him. Taking that into consideration, Adam also knew that a packhorse would be needed to transport the necessary supplies. The horses and supplies were readied and Adam took the pack animal behind the barn where he left him until such time as would be needed. Now all Adam had to do was to wait, the timing had to be such that everyone in the house would be sleeping or indisposed in some way or another to enable him to carry Joe down the back stairs and out of the house, unobserved.

Adam returned to the room and checking on Joe, was appalled by the saliva that had begun to gather at the corners of Joe’s mouth. Adam glanced at his father and was relieved to see that he was still sleeping. Taking the cloth he had used earlier he wet it in the water and washed his brother’s face. Adam felt his heart quicken when he gently raised Joe’s head to reposition the pillow and Joe briefly opened his eyes and smiled weakly at him.

“I…love you…Adam,” Joe said ever so softly before closing his eyes to the world around him.

Adam leaned forward and placed his lips against the sleeping boy’s cheek and whispered into Joe’s ear, “I love you too, Little Buddy.”

By the next night, Adam had his plan all worked out and everything in order. Hoss, who had been sitting with Joe while their father napped, relinquished his seat to the older Cartwright when Ben sent him to bed. Joe’s condition had worsened, his fever was on the rise and Ben worried himself into exhaustion by mid-night. Adam had watched his father’s movements with downcast eyes as Ben worked with Joe. Ben’s face looked haggard and Adam knew that Ben suffered from fatigue. Slipping silently from the room, he appeared soon after with a tall mug of steamy hot coffee for his father.

“Here Pa, I thought this might help, you looked beat,” said Adam offering the mug to his father. Sitting on the edge of the bed watching the pained expressions on his brother’s face, Adam sipped at his own mug.

“Thanks son, I appreciate this,” replied Ben tipping his mug at Adam.

The pair sat in companionable silence for several minutes, Adam keeping a close watch on his father while also watching his brother. It was half an hour later that Ben finally closed his eyes while resting his head against the back of the chair. Adam waited another half an hour to be sure that the sleeping medication that he had slipped into his father’s coffee had fully taken affect.

Careful not to jolt the older man awake, Adam moved his father’s sleeping form from the chair to the cot and covered him with a light blanket. “I’m sorry Pa, but I have to do this,” he whispered to the sleeping man.

Quickly Adam grabbed a pencil and piece of paper and hurriedly scribbled a note to his father.

Dear Pa,

I hope when this is over you will be able to forgive me for what I am doing. I know that this will hurt both you and Hoss deeply, but I have to grant Joe his last request, that being that both of you be spared his dying.

I cannot tell you where we are going for I am not sure at this point, only that I must take him as far away as his suffering will permit me too. I promise you that I will care for him with the same love and devotion that you yourself would administer to someone so dear to your heart as Joe is to all of ours and I will assure him of your undying love for him; but please know that I too carry immeasurable amounts of love in my heart for this boy and it is for this reason and this reason only that I cannot refuse him.

I will bring him home only after God calls him from this life into the next. Please try to understand and forgive me for hurting you in such a way; it is not my intention to cause you further grief but only to grant a dying boy his final wish. Ask yourself what would you do if the request had been made to you instead.

Your loving son,
Adam

Adam folded the paper and placed the note on the pillow next to Joe where his father would find it easily. Pulling the blanket around Joe, Adam lifted the boy into his arms and carried him from the room. Adam paused in the doorway to be sure everything was clear before he proceeded down the hall toward the back stairs. As he passed Hoss’ room, the sound of loud snoring could be heard behind the closed door and Adam was satisfied that the powder he had also mixed in Hoss’ nighttime Brandy had sent his brother to an early bed.

Once outside, Adam quickly placed Joe, who had started to groan loudly, up in the saddle and climbed on. Adam had placed the smaller boy backwards in order that Joe could better rest with his head against Adam’s chest. The blanket was carefully wrapped around Joe’s body in an effort to keep him warm, as the early morning air was crisp. Adam slipped his arms around his brother, nudged his mount forward and giving one last glance at his home knew in his heart that when he returned everything about their lives before this night, would be forever changed.

Adam rode for several hours, stopping every so often to rest. Joe had awakened and not knowing where he was or what was happening to him had begun to fight against Adam. It took all of the older boy’s strength and patience to hold the smaller boy firmly and safely on the horse. After several attempts of separating himself from the strong arms that held him in place, Joe gave up his struggle and allowed himself to relax, the steady sound of the beating heart beneath his ear lolling him into an exhausted rest.

It was nearly dawn by the time that the two brothers had reached the mine shack. Weary from being up all night and muscles aching from holding Joe in the saddle, Adam all but fell from his horse as he dismounted. Being careful not to put any strain on his brother’s broken collarbone or other injuries, Adam lifted Joe from the horse and carried him to the line shack. The door refused to open so Adam turned his back to the door and gave a swift kick with his foot that jarred the door enough that by pushing on it with his back was able to open the door enough to allow them to enter. The shack was hot and musty smelling from having been closed up for a long period of time. Just as soon as Adam placed Joe on the small bed, he hurried outside to unload the supplies from the packhorse, seeking to find the medical supplies that he had brought along for his brother’s comfort. When Adam found the pain and sleep powders, he hurried to mix them and give them to Joe. Joe had been moaning since before dawn and Adam knew that his brother was uncomfortable, the riding for so long had reawakened the pain in his shoulder and in the gashes made by the dogs. It did not take the powders long to pull Joe into a deep drug induced sleep, relieving Adam long enough that he was able to care for the horses, store the supplies and catch a couple of hours sleep for himself.

When Adam woke it was well passed the noontime hour and his stomach told him that it was long overdue for a solid meal. Adam’s first concern was his brother and when he checked on Joe, Adam breathed a sigh of relief after placing his hand to his brother’s brow and finding that Joe’s fever had not climbed any higher. Joe stirred slightly at his brother’s touch but failed to open his eyes, turning his body as if trying to find a more comfortable position. Adam grabbed the extra pillow from his own cot and carefully lifted the left arm and placed it on top of the soft cushion, holding the arm more level with the shoulder and hopefully alleviating any pain in the broken collarbone.

When his meal was finished, Adam carried a plate to his brother who had at last opened his eyes. “Hi little buddy, you hungry?” asked Adam sitting down next to Joe.
Joe shook his head no and closed his eyes. Adam remained where he was, setting the plate aside and dipping a cloth in the cool water, placed the cloth across Joe’s brow. Slowly the eyes opened and met the dark eyes off his caregiver.

“Thirsty…” whispered Joe.

Adam poured fresh water in a cup from the shelf and held it to Joe’s lips. Joe’s hand covered his brother’s as Adam held the cup upward and Joe drank. “More,” begged Joe.

Again Adam filled the cup and again Joe drank until there was only a drop left in the bottom. Adam set the cup on the table next to the uneaten food and smiled at his brother.

“You really were thirsty buddy. How do you feel?” inquired the older boy.

Joe closed his eyes tightly and shook his head from side to side. “Where are we? Where’s Pa?” he asked instead.

“We’re at the old line shack west of the house. Do you remember what you asked me?” asked Adam, wondering if Joe had forgotten what he had force him into doing.

“I remember…it won’t be long now will it?” questioned Joe.

Adam could not look his brother in the face, what was he to say? Yes Joe you’re dying? Or, no it won’t be long now…God how could he answer this boy whom he had loved and cared for all of his life as if the boy had been his own son rather than just his kid brother? Didn’t the boy know how hard this was on him, sneaking him away from their father, carrying him off in the middle of the night as if he were a common thief? Adam swallowed and turned to look into the hazel eyes that had not moved from watching him.

“I’m sorry Adam, I shouldn’t have asked you to do this,” Joe apologized, tears gathering in his eyes as he witnessed the change that moved across Adam’s face.

Adam smiled; no way was he going to let Joe see how much his promise was tearing him apart inside. The boy had asked him to do this one last thing for him and Adam had agreed, he would keep his promise, no matter what, no matter that a part of his own heart would die when the boy died and no matter that he would carry with him always the memory of the agony that the boy would suffer. A promise was a promise and he had never broken a promise to Joe before, this one would be no different, regardless of the consequences.

“You don’t have anything to be sorry for squirt. You just rest. Do you want me to read to you? I brought some books?” said Adam pulling the treasured volumes from his saddlebags.

Joe smiled weakly and nodded his head. “Moby Dick?”

“Got it right here,” laughed Adam softly holding the book up for Joe to see. “I know this is your favorite so I packed it on top.”

Adam pulled the most comfortable chair he could find up to the bed and opened the book to the first page. Clearing his throat and smiling at his young brother over the top of the book, the thought that his may very well be the last time that he would ever read to Joe, briefly went through his mind. Sighing deeply he began his brother’s favorite story.

Much later, Joe awoke and saw that Adam had fallen asleep in the chair. Knowing that he had forced his older brother into making a promise that would cause him doubts and uncertainties later, and knowing that once Adam had made that promise he would not go back on his word, Joe’s conscience sought for a way to try to make it up to his brother. Joe’s eyes at last fell on the book that Adam had been reading to him. The book lay open across Adam’s lap, his brother’s hand unknowingly holding on to the edge. Joe scooted to the edge of his bed and using his uninjured arm reached out and carefully removed the book from Adam’s lap, being careful not to wake his brother. The pain in Joe’s body forced the boy to tightly clamp his lips together to avoid crying out as he pushed himself back into bed. Once there, Joe rested his head against his pillow shutting his eyes tightly while allowing the pain to ease off before he snatched the pencil from the table next to the bed and opened the front cover of Adam’s treasured book.

For several moments Joe thought about what he wanted to say to his brother. He knew that it would probably be quite some time before Adam would find the message, long after he had died and was buried thought Joe. Maybe, just maybe, the quickly scribbled note written in the dim glow of the light in a far away line shack by a dying boy, would bring a measure of peace and comfort to his brother’s troubled mind when the note was discovered. Wetting the end of the pencil with his tongue, Joe began to write.

Dear Adam,

Sorry about writin’ in your book, but I couldn’t find any paper. I know that by the time you find this, my death and burial would have been long over. I just wanted ya to know a few things. First I want ya to know how much I loved ya. I always have, I know many times I didn’t show it, but I don’t want ya to have any doubts now as to the fact. You have always been my hero; I have always looked up to ya. You are the kind of man that I have always hoped to one day be. I respect ya and admire ya too, I didn’t let ya know very often that I did, but I did. I don’t know why I felt as if I could never show my true feelin’s to ya, I guess maybe I never thought that I could measure up to the kind of man I knew ya expected me to be one day. Seems silly now, death has a way of makin things look different somehow and openin’ your eyes about the really important things, like family and loyalty and love and being there for each other, those are what matters most to me, now that it is too late for me to really show all of ya how I truly feel. I’m sorry now that I didn’t take the time to tell each of ya that I loved ya or to let all of ya know how I really felt about that, that’s why I want ya to know now.

Thanks Adam, for everything that ya have ever done for me, the times when Pa couldn’t be there for me, I knew I could always count on ya and ya always came through for me. I appreciate it, all of it. I mean it too big brother, honest.

Adam, I know that this last thing I asked ya to do for me was the hardest. I only wish that I could have spared ya havin’ to watch me suffer and die. If I could have gone off alone I would have, but as in the past, ya are here for me. Thank you just doesn’t seem enough somehow for all you’ve done and just sayin’ I’m sorry ain’t enough for all I have put ya through, including this last thing.

Please Adam, take care of Pa and Hoss for me. Tell them how much I love them and that I appreciate what they have done for me, Pa especially. I know this will be hardest on him, please tell him for me that I never blamed him for any of this. Make him understand somehow Adam, that it wasn’t his fault, it wasn’t anyone’s fault, it just happened. Remind him if ya gotta that he is always tellin’ us that ‘what will be, will be’.

Take care of yourself too, big brother, you are the best big brother that a kid could ever have and I love ya, please, please never forget that, never forget me either and Adam, I want ya to know that I ain’t so scared anymore, not with you here with me. Somehow, just your being here makes me not afraid, your presence gives me courage that I didn’t know I had. Thank ya for that; if I gotta die, I wanna die as a man, not a scared little boy. You have given that to me and I love you more for it. Remind Pa to look for me in the stars, just like he does for Ma,
I’ll be there with her.

Love,
Your Little Buddy,
Joseph Francis Cartwright

Joe closed the book, laid it on the table and glancing once more at his brother, Joe closed his eyes, a tiny smile spreading across his face.

Ben woke from a dull sleep at the sound of Hoss’ loud voice ringing in his ear. “Pa, wake up, wake up,” yelled Hoss, reaching down and shaking his father’s shoulder until Ben opened his eyes and looked up at him.

“Hoss, what is it son? Joe, is it Joe?” questioned Ben pulling himself from his bed and standing. Instantly his eyes turned toward the bed.

“It’s Joe, but not what’ca might be thinkin’. He’s gone Pa, Joe and Adam both are gone,” exclaimed Hoss pointing to Joe’s empty bed.

“Gone? What do you mean, gone?” Ben all but shouted seeing that the bed was unoccupied. His eyes fell on the slip of paper lying on the pillow and quickly he grabbed it instantly recognizing Adam’s neat handwriting.

“Damn,” cursed Ben, the angry fire in his eyes giving him a menacing appearance.

“What’s wrong Pa?” asked Hoss as he took the note from his father and quickly scanned the words. “Oh no, how could he?” Hoss watched his father’s face and saw not only anger at Adam’s actions but hurt in knowing that Joe had not wanted his father present during a time when Ben felt he was most needed.

“Saddle some horses son, we’re going to find them whether or not they like it. Have Hop Sing pack plenty of supplies and tell him to pack for himself also, I want him along, too,” ordered Ben taking the note from Hoss’ large hand and reading it again before stuffing it in his vest pocket.

“Yes sir.”

Hoss left Ben standing alone in the bedroom as he hurried downstairs to do what his father had requested. It didn’t take Hoss and Hop Sing long to have the supplies packed and readied to go. As they waited in the yard with the horses, Ben grabbed one of several area maps from his desk drawer and quickly scanned the area, keeping in mind that Adam could not have gone very far with Joe in the condition that he was in. His first thoughts were the caves where Hoss had thought the dogs might have been but quickly ruled that out as being too uncomfortable to Joe. His thoughts then turned to town but again ruled that out as the boys would be too easily known and knowing that word would quickly get back to him as to their whereabouts, town was not a likely place to take a dying boy who wanted to die without his father being with him. Ben scratched his head in thought and decided that Adam would most likely take Joe to one of the line shacks, but which one? There were several. With that thought in mind, Ben joined Hoss outside and shared his thoughts with his son.

“We can start at the closest one and work outward, checking one at a time,” decided Ben.
“It will be time consuming but that’s all I know to do.” Ben folded the map and stuck it in his saddlebag and mounted up. “Let’s ride,” he called over his shoulder to Hop Sing who followed behind Hoss with the packhorse.

The three riders had not traveled far when the distant sound of someone shouting called a halt to their steps. “Whoa.” Ben pulled back on Buck’s reins causing the horse to prance in a circle.

“Ben, hold up…I have news,” shouted the rider as he advanced quickly on the small group of men.

As the rider neared, Ben could plainly see that Roy Coffee was waving a small paper about in the air. “Ben, I’ve been looking everywhere for you. I went to the house and when I couldn’t find any of you there, I dang near had a heart attack. Good thing that the doc got there right after I did. Where in thunder are ya headin’ and where in blazes is Joe?”

“Adam took Joe away. Seems the boy didn’t want me to watch him suffer and die so he somehow connived his older brother into moving him somewhere where I can’t find him. We’re going to search the line shacks,” Ben explained.

“Dang fool kids, what was Adam thinkin’ anyways?” Roy shook his head. “Oh, here Ben, I thought you might want to see this,” smiled Roy holding out the paper he had been waving and waited for Ben to take it.

“What’s this?” questioned Ben slowly removing the paper from the envelope.

“A wire from San Francisco,” smiled Roy.

Ben jerked his head up and studied his friend’s face. Ben quickly turned his attention to the unfolded paper and without looking up read the message. Hoss heard the wind escaped his father’s lungs and when Ben did not look up, fear gripped at Hoss’ heart.

“Pa? What is it?” Hoss’ voice was heavy with emotion and he fought hard to keep from crying.

“The dog was not rabid. It had apparently gotten into some poison, arsenic they said, some that one of the ranchers put out probably.” Ben looked into his son’s face and smiled broadly. “Joe’s not going to die, thank God.”

“Pa, that’s the best news I’ve had in dang near a week. Dangnabit, if’n Adam had of just waited before sneakin’ off with Joe, everything would be all right now,” fussed Hoss.

Paul Martin pulled his mare to a halt in the middle of the road where his friends were stopped. “Ben, I see Roy found you. Did you get the message?”

“Yes, it’s good news. Now all we have to do is to find those two boys of mine and get Joe back home,” said Ben.

“Ben, don’t forget Joseph is a very sick young man. He is still in plenty of danger; I have to treat him for arsenic poisoning, which if left untreated could kill him much in the same way, as the rabies would have. Do you have any idea where they might be?” Paul questioned the men.

“We are figuring on one of the line shacks. Let’s go, the sooner that we find them, the quicker I can get my baby back home where he belongs,” stated Ben starting off in the direction of the first line shack. Little did Ben know at that time that it would be another two days before he and his group would locate the two brothers.

Determined not to loose faith, not to quit and not to let his child die, Ben pushed the men to the extreme. By the morning of the third day, Ben spotted what he had been looking for; in the far distance, smoke was swirling high above the treetops, indicating that someone had a fire, hopefully his sons. Leaving the others to catch up, Ben kicked sharply at Buck’s withers and riding hard, closed the distance to the line shack where his horse slid to a sudden stop.

Adam continued to apply the cool cloths to his brother’s brow as the young boy moaned and groaned. Adam’s body was growing weary after two long days and nights with no sleep but his sense of duty to his brother forced him not to give up. Suddenly Adam jerked his head up as the sound of an approaching horse caught his attention.

“Someone’s coming Joe. I’ll be right back,” Adam whispered to the near unconscious boy, knowing that Joe in his present state had no idea what his brother had just said.

Adam grabbed his rifle and pulled back the old ragged curtain from the window. Using his hand to clean away enough dirt from the pane of glass so that he might see out, Adam silently cursed as the sight of his father sitting tall on his buckskin horse rode up to the porch. Quickly, Adam stepped out onto the porch and closed the door behind him blocking the entrance. Without thinking of his actions, Adam raised the rifle and pointed it at his father.

“Don’t bother to get down, Pa. Just turn around and go home,” ordered Adam, hating himself for what he was doing.

Ben momentarily froze mid-way of his dismount giving his son a questioning look. Choosing to ignore the order, and believing that his son would not actually shoot him, Ben placed both feet firmly on the ground, his eyes never leaving Adam’s face.

“Adam…” started Ben.

“No, Pa. I made a promise and I fully intend to keep it. Now, please go before I have to use this,” demanded Adam waving the gun slightly at his father all the while feeling like scum standing there in front of his father, threatening to shoot him.

“Adam, he is my son, my baby. He needs me,” began Ben once again as he took a step closer to the porch.

Adam straightened his tired body to his full height and positioned the rifle. He wondered briefly what he would do if his father came any closer, Adam knew he couldn’t shoot, but he had promised Joe that he would not allow his father to watch his horrifying death. Adam was torn between his sense of loyalty to his brother and his understanding of his father’s need to be with his dying son.

“Please Pa, don’t make me do something that we will both regret later,” said Adam pleadingly.

Before either man could speak, the loud cries from within the cabin caused each man to turn their attention to the sound. “Pa! Pa! Help…me…Oh God…some…one…please,” came the disturbing supplications.

Adam looked back at his father and saw the anguished expression on the older man’s face and it tore at Adam’s conscience.

“Adam…please,” Ben said softly taking another step forward.

Adam was jolted from his thoughts and raised misty eyes to look into his father’s face, his mind a jumbled mass of confused thoughts, his heart ripped in hundreds of small pieces and his body pleading with his brain for fuel and energy.

“No Pa, he made me promise that no matter what he said, I would not let you see him like this, he begged me,” cried Adam, the long kept tears finally reaching his eyes and the tone of his voice pleading with his father to understand him.

Just at that moment, three more riders rode up and pulled their horses to a halt. Adam looked from Ben to the riders and was surprised to see Hoss, Doc Martin and Hop Sing.

Quickly, Hoss jumped from his horse and seeing that his brother held a rifle pointed at their father, hurried to stand next to Ben. “Adam, what in blazes is goin’ on? Where’s Joe?” he demanded in a loud voice, his anger at his brother’s threatening action forcing him to throw caution to the wind as he advanced toward Adam.

Adam turned the rifle on his brother, “He’s inside, now stay back, you hear me? No one is going inside.”

“Adam,” spoke Paul softly as he joined the group, then turned to Ben, “haven’t you told him, Ben?”

“He hasn’t given me the chance,” Ben informed the doctor. “Adam, Joe does not have rabies…”

Adam stood shocked at his father’s words but his senses dulled from lack of proper sleep and nourishment, refused to accept what his father had just tried to tell him.

“It’s true Adam,” stated the physician stepping up to Adam, “we got word from San Francisco, the dog was not rabid, it had been poisoned. Adam, Joe has arsenic in his system and we have to treat it immediately,” Paul hurried on to explain, “we have to do it now, it’s already been too many days.”

Adam, stunned and relieved, finally lowered his rifle as the words began to register in his brain. Looking quickly into his father’s dark compassionate eyes, his own eyes spilling over with tears, Adam fell into his father’s arms.

“I’m sorry Pa,” he wept, ashamed now for his threat against his father, “I didn’t know, I was just trying to spare you…” he sobbed. “I wanted to help Joe…I didn’t mean to hurt anyone…I’m…sorry.”

Ben closed his arms about Adam’s heaving shoulders and pulled his son’s head down to rest on his shoulder. “I know son, I know,” comforted Ben. “I understand, it’s all right Adam, really. Now, let’s go inside and take care of that brother of yours, shall we?” asked Ben giving Adam a smile as Adam raised his head and nodded.

While Adam stood forcing himself to regain control, Ben and Paul hurried inside where Joe could still be heard moaning loudly and calling out for his father. Hoss stood before his brother and placed a reassuring hand on Adam’s shoulder. Adam glanced into the blue eyes of his younger sibling and instantly saw the understanding and love that emitted from their depths.

“He made me promise,” whispered Adam leaning heavily against his strong brother and feeling drained of all emotions that had kept him going for the last several days.

Hoss slipped a supporting arm about his brother’s shoulders and gently guided him inside the cabin. “He’s gonna be all right now, big brother, ya hear me?” stated Hoss as he led Adam to the nearest chair where he gently lowered the exhausted man.

Hop Sing hurried inside following behind the two brothers and quickly set about gathering the things that the doctor had ordered him to prepare as treatment against the poison that was slowly robbing the youngest Cartwright of his life.

The first thing that Paul wanted to do was to give his patient just enough medication to calm Joe down so that he would not put up much of an argument. This he did in the form of an injection, knowing that later Joe would be forced to vomit, and if given by mouth the needed medicine would serve no useful purpose.

Joe’s fever was elevated but not to the point of being extremely dangerous at this point and Paul was hoping that with cleaning and disinfecting the injuries for a second time the procedure would bring a halt to further infection.

When the injected medication had taken affect, Paul began to remove all the bandages from around Joe’s injuries and though the wounds had begun to heal nicely, he insisted that disinfecting them a second time would be beneficial now that they knew the poison had entered the boy’s system through the wounds inflected by the saliva from the dogs. Using strong soap and warm water, Paul along with the help of Hop Sing, thoroughly cleaned and rinsed the wounds, applied a healing salve and then covered them with clean bandages.

Hoss watched from the side and seeing the painful expressions on his young brother’s face, made the choice to remove himself from the unpleasant activity. Using the excuse that the horses need his attention, Hoss detached himself from the room and stepped out onto the porch where he instantly swallowed several mouths full of the clean fresh air. The action instantly brought a halt to his queasy stomach.

Paul had instructed Ben, in no uncertain terms, to stay out of the way until he had finished caring for the ill boy. Paul had instead diverted the worried father’s attention to his older son, Adam, who also needed care. Paul had mixed a sleeping powder, given it to Ben with instructions that Adam be made to drink it and insisted that Ben put the bone-weary young man to bed in the spare room before he became a patient also, to which Ben complied.

Paul had brought with them several eggs which Hop Sing set about separating and beating the whites. The whites would then be mixed with flour and water to make a solution that Joe would be made to drink. The physician then gave instructions to Hop Sing, Ben who emerged from the room where Adam now slept soundly and to Hoss who had just returned from caring for the horses. Knowing that they would likely have a fight on their hands when it came time for Joe to drink the combination, Paul placed a man on all sides of his uncooperative patient, who even now wore a wary expression on his face as he watched his family circle the bed. Paul had informed the small group that after Joe swallowed the formula, he would begin to be sick, the vomiting would start almost immediately purging his system of the poison that filled his body.

“Pa,” cried Joe weakly searching for his father and watching with frightened eyes the doctor approaching with a tall glass of the frothy mixture.

Ben, who stood at the head of the bed, kneeled down onto the floor and began stroking Joe’s head. “Joseph, listen to me son. The dogs were not rabid they were poisoned. The poison got into your body when they bit you. Your going to be all right, precious, but you have to drink this formula that the doctor has fixed for you,” explained Ben giving Joe an encouraging smile.

“I’m not going to die?” asked Joe, the tears instantly stinging his eyes.

“No baby, you’re not going to die, not for a long, long time. But you have to drink this for me,” replied Ben taking the glass from Paul and bringing it to Joe’s lips as Hoss stooped to help his brother into a sitting position.

“Ick, what is it? It looks awful,” complained Joe moaning loudly as the pains in his stomach intensified causing him to turn his head away from the glass that Ben offered.

“I know it does son, and it won’t taste much better than it looks, but you have to drink it in order to get well. Now please, Joseph, do as I say,” encouraged Ben placing the glass once again to his son’s lips.

Joe clamped his jaws tightly and shook his head back and forth, plainly indicating that he was not about to drink the mixture.

“Joseph, please,” Ben tried again but still Joe refused.

Paul stepped up to the bed and sat down on the edge, “Joseph, you have a choice, you either drink it or you die. We have to purge your system in order for you to get well. You aren’t going to die from rabies, but the poison will kill you in time if you don’t drink this, do I make myself clear?”

Joe looked at his father and Ben nodded his head in agreement to the doctor’s statement. Joe swallowed and closed his eyes briefly before opening them again. Glancing around at the faces of each man, Joe reluctantly opened his mouth and allowed Ben to tip the glass upward. Joe shut his eyes as the awful tasting concoction filled his mouth. He wanted desperately to turn away his head but was too weak to protest and swallowed the entire glassful quickly. When the glass was entirely empty, Joe laid his head against the pillow and shut his eyes tightly causing the tears to seep from beneath his long lashes.

“I’m sorry son, I know it tasted awful,” soothed Ben, brushing away the tears. “It will take affect in a few minutes and when it does, you will start vomiting and…”

Ben never got to finish the sentence for Joe’s stomach took that second to react. Lucky for all of them that Hop Sing had been prepared having seen the look on the boy’s face instantly placed the basin under Joe’s chin. That was the first of several times that Joe was sick that evening. Much later that night Joe was force a second time to drink the egg white potion. By then the ailing boy was so tired and so weak from purging that he made little resistance when the glass was placed against his lips and drank willingly.

Exhausted and powerless by his injuries and from the excessive vomiting, Joe was then heavily medicated causing him to slip into a deep healing sleep. The remainder of the night, Joe tossed and turned about on the bed, sometimes nearly falling into the floor had it not been for the loving arms that cradled him throughout the long night.

By morning, Joe had fallen into a peaceful sleep where he spent the entire day unaware of the activities around him. Adam had awaken, refreshed from his many hours of much needed rest. Quickly he entered the main room where on the small bed in the far corner, his young brother slept soundly not knowing that his older brother sat keeping a watchful eye out lest he wake and need anything.

“Paul’s confident that Joe will be fine, son,” Ben assured Adam coming to stand behind his son and resting his hand on the boy’s shoulder.

Adam rose and faced his father, “Thank God. I was scared, Pa. I thought for sure we were going to loose him.”

Ben cut his eyes to watch the face of his sleeping son, “We all did Adam; even the doctor thought he had rabies. Thank you son, you and Hoss did an excellent job at finding that dog.”

“It had to be done. Pa, about yesterday…” begun Adam.

Ben shook his head no, “It’s in the past Adam. I understand why you did what you did. You made your brother a promise and you intended to keep that promise. I’m proud of you for standing true to your word, even if it meant my not being able to be with Joe. I know Joe asked you to do something that to your way of thinking was not exactly right, but you did it for his sake, for his peace of mind, and I admire you for that. I know how that little brother of yours is and I should have foreseen him doing something like that. I’m sorry that he put you in a position where you felt you had to take a stand against me but I know that under different circumstances you would not have done what you did. So forget it Adam, don’t worry yourself any longer over it.” Ben placed his hand against Adam’s cheek and for just a brief moment, Adam, feeling the need of his father’s touch, leaned against the hand that so lovingly caressed his face and smiled.

“Thanks Pa,” whispered the boy to his father, “for understanding.

Late into the second night, Joe opened his eyes, at once searching for his father. “Pa,” whispered the boy in a weak voice. Instantly, Ben was by his son’s side.

“I’m here son,” he said taking Joe’s hand in his own and caressing Joe’s cheeks with his other hand.

“I saw him Pa, he spoke to me,” mumbled Joe excitedly.

“Who son, who did you see?” questioned Ben softly, not sure if his son was fully coherent or not.

Joe looked squarely into his father’s doubtful penetrating eyes and in a stronger voice, explained, “God, the one they call the great I Am. He spoke to me, honest Pa. He said, ‘I am God, the great I Am. I am a merciful and loving God. Your earthly father is a wise man of knowledge and understanding of myself. Return to him and heed his words of wisdom. Say unto him that the great I Am is also a God of grace’”.

Joe watched his father’s expression suddenly change and continued. “Then he touched my head Pa, and all of the pain went away and I was no longer afraid.” Joe smiled at his father, his eyes clear and sparkling for the first time in days, his body free from pain and fever, and his spirit once again transformed.

Ben gathered Joe into his arms, his left hand around his son’s shoulder and his right hand pressing the boy’s curly head against his rapidly beating heart. There in the light of the lamp’s soft glow, Ben turned his tear stained face heavenward and prayed, “Thank you oh Great I Am, for your mercy and your healing hand. But for the Grace of God, I would not have my son this night.”

THE END
April 2002

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