A Matter of Circumstance Continued (by Susan)

Summary:  A What Happened Next story for the episode “A Matter of Circumstance.”

Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Drama
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  11.891


 

In “A Matter of Circumstances”, Joe is left alone at the ranch to wait for a cook who is a temporary replacement for Hop Sing while his father, brother and ranch hands are moving the herd. Lightning and wind from a storm frightens a mare in the barn, and when Joe tries to calm the horse, he is trampled by the animal. His right leg is broken, his left arm has been lacerated, and his head is cut and bruised. Knowing he is alone, Joe tries to deal with the shock and pain of his injuries, and forces himself to set his broken leg. He spends the first night in the barn, too weak to do more than crawl a few feet. Drugged by some colic medicine he found, the injured young man sleeps through the arrival and departure of the awaited cook. When he finally does wake, Joe manages to make his way from the barn to the house. In the house, he attempts to take care of his damaged arm and struggles to survive while injured and alone. When he realizes his arm is infected with gangrene, Joe becomes alarmed. After consulting a medical book in his father’s study, he desperately tries a poultice to offset the gangrene, without success. Burning with fever and fearful he might die from the infection, Joe prepares to follow the drastic cure outlined in the medical book – amputation.

Concerned when Joe doesn’t show up at the herd and the cook reports no sign of him at the house, Ben and Hoss return to the ranch. They search for Joe, and Ben finds his injured son unconscious on the kitchen floor. Weakened by fever and infection, Joe has collapsed before he could care out his plans to sever his injured arm.

Here’s what might have happened next….

 

Standing in the doorway of the kitchen, Ben froze in shock as he saw the figure sprawled on the floor near the table. “My God! Joe!” he gasped. Then he rushed forward to kneel next to his youngest son.

Slowly, Ben turned Joe over, lifting his son’s head and shoulders into his arms. He could see a large bruise on the side of Joe’s face, and, as his eyes searched for further signs of injury, the splint on his son’s right leg. Hidden by the shadows of the table, Joe’s left arm was only visible enough for Ben to see that the shirt sleeve was torn and streaked with dried blood. Ben didn’t need to see the beads of sweat covering his injured son’s face and chest; he could feel the heat of the fever that was burning through the figure in his arms.

“Joe! Joe! Can you hear me?” Ben said in a desperate voice. When there was no response from his son, he tapped Joe’s face lightly with his hand. “Joe!” he repeated, trying to rouse his son.

From a distant room, Ben heard a voice shouting. “Pa! I checked the barn,” called Hoss as he entered the house. “There’s no sign of Joe.”

“In the kitchen!” Ben yelled in return. He heard the sound of heavy footsteps hurrying toward the room.

Like his father, Hoss stopped in the doorway of the kitchen and stared. “What happened to him?” he asked in a startled voice. Hoss’ face reflected the shock his father had felt.

“I don’t know,” replied Ben in a frantic voice. “I found him on the floor unconscious. He’s been hurt. Get me some water quick.”

Kicking aside some dishes on the floor, Hoss hurried across the room. He stopped briefly in front of a cabinet to grab a tin cup off the shelf, then rushed to fill it from the pump attached to the sink.

“Here,” Hoss said as he walked in long strides toward his father and brother. He thrust the cup at Ben, then crouched down near the pair.

Nodding, Ben trickled a bit of water on Joe’s face, and then into his youngest son’s mouth. At first, the water dribbled out of Joe’s mouth and down his chin. But then the seemingly unconscious man‘s jaw started to move a bit and he began to swallow. Ben put the cup to Joe’s lips and eased a small stream of water into his son’s mouth. Joe swallowed again and then began to drink eagerly.

When Joe turned his head a bit, indicating he had had enough water, Ben placed the cup on the floor. Once again, he began to tap Joe’s face with his hand and to say his son’s name. This time, Ben was rewarded by a flutter of eyelids and a face turning toward his.

At first, all Joe saw was a blurry figure bending over him. He blinked his eyes a few times and the figure came into focus. For a moment, Joe thought he was dreaming. But a stab of pain shooting through his arm convinced him that he was awake. He winced and grunted a bit, then looked up again to make sure the face was still there. “Pa!” whispered Joe in a surprised voice.

“Easy, Joe,” crooned Ben in a soothing tone. “Everything is going to be all right.” Ben swallowed hard, hoping his words were true. “What happened to you?”

“That mare…stormed scared her…trampled me,” Joe explained in a soft voice.

“When did this happen?” asked Ben.

“Right…right after you left,” Joe answered.

“You’ve been like this for two days?” said Ben in a shocked voice.

Nodding a bit, Joe replied, “I waited but no one came.” His voice took on almost a pleading tone. “Why didn’t someone come, Pa? I waited. Nobody came.”

Glancing down at the splint, Ben asked, “Who set your leg?”

“I did,” mumbled Joe.

Ben looked across his youngest son toward Hoss and saw the horror that he felt reflected in Hoss’ face. Both men knew the agonizing pain that Joe must have felt in setting the leg by himself.

“Pa, look at his arm!” exclaimed Hoss, lifting Joe’s left arm a bit.

For the first time, Ben could see how the limb was swollen and streaked with red. The knot of fear in Ben’s stomach grew, and for a moment, the fear took his breath away.

Looking at his arm with an almost detached air, Joe said softly, “Gangrene.”

“Joe, you can’t be sure of that,” countered Ben in a shaky voice.

Turning back to his father, Joe stated, “I read the book.”

“What book?” asked Ben with a frown.

“The medical book,” answered Joe. His eyes glazed a bit and he stared off into the distance. “No one has yet explained why the infection runs its course more severely or much quickly in some cases,” he quoted in a singsong voice. “A poultice of tea and tobacco is sometimes valuable. Amputation is necessary or the patient will surely die.” Joe blinked his eyes and they seemed to focus again. He looked up at Ben. “I tried, Pa,” he added softly. Suddenly, a shudder ran through his body. “I tried,” Joe repeated, this time in a voice choked with tears. “I couldn’t do it…I tried but I couldn’t…” His voice trailed off and a tear trickled down his face.

“Pa, what is he saying?” asked Hoss in a horrified voice. “He wasn’t going to…” Hoss stopped and swallowed hard. He couldn’t bear to finish his sentence.

Looking as shocked as Hoss, Ben pulled his son closer to him. He could feel Joe trembling and see the tears in his eyes. “It’s all right, Joe,” Ben comforted the young man in his arms. He gently stroked Joe’s head with his hand. “It’s all right, son. Shhhh. Don’t worry. I’m here now. It’s all right.” He felt the trembling stop in the body in his arms. Ben looked down and saw Joe’s eyes were closing. “Let’s get him up to bed,” he directed Hoss.

It took a few minutes to ease Joe’s injured arm across his chest and to make sure Hoss was supporting the injured leg with his massive arms. But finally Ben and Hoss were able to lift Joe gently from the floor. The two maneuvered slowly through the kitchen and then across the dining room, carrying the injured young man carefully. They walked a bit faster across the large living room, then slowed again as they climbed the stairs to the bedroom above. Their progress along the upstairs hall and into Joe’s room was equally as measured.

As they approached Joe’s bed, Ben could see the blankets were neatly tucked into the mattress, indicating Joe hadn’t been able to make it to his room. Ben tried not to think about the cold, hard surfaces on which his son must had slept over the past two days. Taking care of Joe now was more important than worrying about what had happened in the past.

Stopping for a moment next to the bed, Ben reached down with one hand and grabbed the edge of the blankets and sheet. With a quick motion, he flung the coverings to the far side of the bed. Then he nodded at Hoss, and the two men eased Joe onto the mattress.

Ben spent a minute making Joe comfortable – positioning his head on the pillows and pulling the sheet and blankets over him – then turned to Hoss. He was a bit startled to see Hoss was still wearing his heavy coat and hat, then realized he hadn’t bothered to shed his own coat and hat. “Hoss, get to town and get the doctor,” ordered Ben as he began to unbutton his coat. “Tell him to get out here fast.”

“Yes sir,” replied Hoss. The big man turned and hurried from the room.

As he shrugged off his coat and pulled off his hat, Ben tried to decide what to do next. Joe was injured and desperately ill, but Ben knew there was little that could be done until the doctor arrived. Dropping the coat and hat onto the desk at the far side of the room, Ben thought the best thing he could do would be to make his son as comfortable as possible. He walked to the bed, rolling up his sleeves as he crossed the room.

After pulling back the covers, Ben quickly tugged off Joe’s left boot and sock. He stared at the splint holding the injured right leg in place and decided not to attempt to remove the boot from that leg. Instead, he unbuckled Joe’s belt and pulled the leather from around his son’s waist.

Ben covered Joe again to the waist, then reached toward his son’s shirt. As he undid the buttons, he could see the cloth was torn and streaked with dirt, sweat and dried blood. Once more, Ben tried not to think about the circumstances which had caused the shirt to become so tattered. After pulling the shirt open, he gently eased Joe’s right arm out of the sleeve. Ben tugged the cloth at the collar until it slid out from under his son’s back. Then, as slowly as possible, he rolled the left sleeve down Joe’s arm.

He thought he was prepared for the sight of the injured arm, but Ben gasped when he saw the extent of the swelling and discoloration. With a sick feeling in his stomach, Ben wondered if Joe had been right and amputation was the only treatment. To lose an arm would be devastating, but for the left-handed Joe to lose his left arm could be almost unbearable. “No, please God, no,” Ben whispered. For a moment, Ben wondered if Joe would be able to stand the loss of his arm, if his son would rather be dead than crippled. Then he remembered the choked words in the kitchen. Joe had been prepared to amputate the arm himself in order to stay alive. His son wanted to live and was willing to do whatever it took to cheat death. Ben resolved that he would make sure his son’s wishes were carried out. He also would do whatever was necessary to ward off the dark specter of death.

After pulling the blankets up to Joe’s chin, Ben laid his hand on his son’s forehead. He could feel the heat of raging fever and the dampness of beading sweat. “Joe,” he said softly, “I’m going downstairs to get some cold water. I’ll only be gone a minute. I’ll be right back.”

Lying in the soft bed under the warm covers, Joe felt comfortable and safe for the first time in days. His arm still throbbed and his leg ached, but somehow the pain was less acute than before. Joe no longer felt frightened that he was going to die alone. He could hear his father’s voice and knew instinctively that, no matter what, his Pa would be by his side and do what was best for him.

Joe wasn’t sure if he nodded his understanding in response to Ben’s voice. He only knew he could drift off to sleep with the confidence of knowing he was no longer helpless and alone.

*****

Hearing the slam of the front door and the clatter of footsteps on the stairs, Ben turned in the chair by Joe’s bed. He had no idea how long it had been since Hoss had left for the doctor; Ben had lost all track of time as he had done what he could to make his son comfortable. For the most part, he simply had continued to bathe Joe’s face and chest with cold water, although he also had done his best to clean the cut and bruise on the side of Joe’s face. Ben had left his son only briefly – once to build up and light the fire that now roared in the fireplace below, and another time to grab the thick quilt from his own bed to add to the blankets that covered the injured man. Ben didn’t quite understand the science behind keeping Joe as warm as possible while at the same time he was trying to cool his son’s brow. He only knew that somehow it seemed to work; Joe seemed to be more comfortable.

Giving a sigh of relief, Ben rose from the chair to greet the tall, white-haired man who entered the bedroom. Dr. Paul Martin walked briskly toward the bed, carrying a black bag in his right hand and two wide slats of wood in his left. Recognizing the slats as leg splints, Ben surmised that Hoss had found the doctor in his office and had given the man a summary of Joe’s injuries.

“Thank you for coming,” said Ben.

Giving his old friend a quick nod and smile of acknowledgment, Dr. Martin continued past Ben toward the bed. He dropped the slats of wood on the floor as he sat down in the chair which Ben had just vacated, and place his black bag on the table next to the bed.

“Hoss will be up in a minute,” stated the doctor as he opened his bag and reached for a stethoscope. “I told him to put the horses in the barn. From what he told me, this is going to take awhile.”

Ben watched anxiously as Dr. Martin peeled back the blankets that covered Joe. The doctor used the stethoscope to listen to Joe’s heart, then put his hand on Joe’s forehead. After feeling his patient’s fever, Dr. Martin moved his hand to gently probe the bruise on the side of the young man’s head. He also lifted Joe’s eyelid a bit and studied his eye. “No sign of a fracture or concussion,” declared the doctor. “The bruising is fairly extensive but the cut isn’t deep enough to require stitching. I’ll put something on it later to help the healing.”

As Ben continued to watch, the doctor pulled the blankets down further to reveal Joe’s arm. Dr. Martin said nothing as he studied the limb for a minute. Then the doctor drew back the blankets to the end of the bed and got up from the chair.

The sound of footsteps behind him caused Ben to glance over his shoulder. He nodded briefly at Hoss, who had entered the bedroom; in the back of his mind, Ben noted his middle son had left his coat and hat downstairs. As Hoss moved to stand next to Ben, his anxious expression mirrored his father’s.

Standing at the end of the bed, the doctor was gently feeling his patient’s injured leg. “Joe did a good job setting the bone,” remarked Dr. Martin, “although it must have hurt like the devil when he did it. The bone is nice and straight. There’s some swelling, but that’s to be expected. I’ll need to put a new splint on it, but that can wait, too.”

The doctor moved back to the side of the bed and pulled the covers up to Joe’s waist. Sitting down in the chair again, Dr. Martin once more studied the swollen arm, this time probing it gently with his fingers.

“Is it gangrene?” asked Ben in a worried voice.

“Yes,” answered the doctor without looking up. “Hoss told me Joe was injured about two days ago, so it’s not surprising that gangrene has set in.”

“Will you…” Ben started, then stopped. He swallowed hard. “Do you have to amputate?”

Dr. Martin turned to look at Ben with a surprised expression on his face. “Amputate? No, that’s not necessary. The infection isn’t that bad. Why would you think I would amputate his arm?”

Ben let out a sigh of relief before answering. “Joe found an old medical book I had. The book indicated that amputation was the only cure for gangrene. Joe tried…” Ben paused, barely able to say the words. “When we found Joe, he said something about trying to do it himself but he couldn’t.”

The look on the doctor’s face turned to one of astonishment. “He was going to amputate his own arm? Thank God he didn’t try to do it. The infection isn’t bad enough to warrant such a radical procedure. And the shock and loss of blood from an amputation probably would have killed him.”

His face suddenly deathly pale, Ben turned to Hoss. Hoss looked back at his father, his face equally ashen. Neither man could find the words to express their sick feeling over what Joe might have done unnecessarily to himself, and their relief that Joe hadn’t gone through with his plan.

Suddenly, Joe stirred on the bed. He turned his head and slowly opened his eyes, staring at the man sitting next to the bed. “Doc?” asked Joe softly.

“Hello, Joe,” replied Dr. Martin with a smile.

Closing his eyes briefly, Joe swallowed a lump in his throat. He opened his eyes again and looked hard at the doctor. “Do it…do it quick, will you?” he commanded in a shaky voice.

Reaching over to put a hand on Joe’s head, the doctor replied in an earnest voice. “Listen to me, Joe. I don’t have to amputate your arm. I can save it. I’ll have to do some cutting and it will take a while to heal, but you won’t lose your arm. Do you understand me?”

“But the book…” argued Joe in a confused voice. “The book said that once the gangrene sets in, amputation is necessary or the patient will die.”

“It’s probably an old medical book,” Dr. Martin answered. “We’ve learned a lot about treating gangrene over the past few years. And the infection isn’t that extensive yet. I can cut out the diseased tissue and put in a drain. Your arm will be as good as new in time.”

“You’re sure?” Joe asked, his voice filled with a mixture of hope and doubt.

“I’m sure,” declared the doctor in a confident voice.

As Joe closed his eyes again, his body sagged with relief.

“I’m going to put you to sleep for a little while, Joe,” continued the doctor. “When you wake up, your arm will be heavily bandaged, but it will be there. I promise you.” Turning to the men standing a few feet away, Dr. Martin instructed, “I’m going to need some clean towels, plenty of hot water and an empty basin.”

“I’ll get them,” offered Hoss.

“There’s a kettle heating on the stove,” Ben called as Hoss turned to leave the room. “I started it when I went down to build the fire. It should be plenty hot by now.”

The doctor watched Hoss leave, then turned to Ben, “I’m going to need your help, if you can stand it. This isn’t going to be a pretty sight.”

Squaring his shoulders, Ben answered. “Tell me what I should do. I can stand it. I’ll do whatever is necessary to help my son.”

*****

The grey of the early autumn evening was beginning to darken the room as the Ben, Hoss and Dr. Martin waited by Joe’s bed. All the evidence of a long afternoon of medical care had been removed from the room, and now the men were waiting for Joe to stir.

As Ben waited, he felt the churning in his stomach finally beginning to subside. The queasiness had started when the doctor had sliced Joe’s arm with the scalpel and Ben watched the combination of tan pus and clear liquid begin to ooze from his son’s arm. Only by sheer will power had Ben been able to swallow his nausea and hold his hands steady around the basin as the doctor directed the foul liquid into the bowl. It had seemed to take hours for Dr. Martin to carefully cut the diseased tissue from Joe’s arm and slip each piece into the basin. When he was finally satisfied that he had removed all the offensive material, the doctor had sprinkled some sulfur power over the wound and put a small tube in it to act as a drain. Then Dr. Martin began to stitch the arm. When the doctor had begun working with the needle and thread, Ben had left the bedroom quickly. He carried the basin down the stairs and out to the back of the house, pausing only long enough to grab a shovel from a shed in yard. Then Ben had dug a hole in the yard. He threw the basin and its foul matter into the hole and buried them deep in the ground.

Standing a few feet from his father in the bedroom, Hoss also felt the knot in his stomach melting away. His role had been to bring fresh pots of hot water, light lamps, and occasionally adjust the ether mask covering Joe’s face. Hoss had tried not to look at what the doctor was doing to his little brother, but he couldn’t keep his eyes from straying to Joe’s arm. Each brief look had turned Hoss’ stomach and he quickly found something else to do. He had been relieved when Dr. Martin had finally finished bandaging Joe’s arm, hiding the ugly wound.

When the doctor had asked him to help him splint Joe’s leg, Hoss was eager to comply. Handling broken bones was something Hoss was familiar with, and he knew he could help without that sickening feeling forming in his gut. Hoss had waited patiently while Dr. Martin sliced the rawhide strips that had held the makeshift splint of broken chair pieces in place. After the doctor had cut Joe’s pant leg from the ankle to the waist, Hoss had slipped the pants off his brother. His large, strong hands held Joe’s leg firmly in place while the doctor had carefully removed the boot and sock. Those strong hands turned gentle as Hoss carefully lifted the injured leg so Dr. Martin could tightly wrap the bandages around the wooden slats, to hold the splint in place.

Now all the men could do was wait. Dr. Martin wanted to be sure his patient woke from the ether without complications before leaving.

As he had done periodically over the past hour, the doctor lightly tapped Joe’s face under each eye. Until now, the tapping had brought no reaction. But this time, Joe stirred a bit.

“He’s coming around,” declared Dr. Martin as he straightened from the bed. The doctor stretched his tired arms and reached for his coat. “He should be awake soon.”

“What should we do now?” asked Ben anxiously.

“He’ll probably be pretty groggy and maybe a bit nauseous from the ether,” answered Dr. Martin. “Best thing to do is just let him sleep. In the morning, see if you can get him to eat. Soft eggs will probably be all he can handle. Other than that, just keep his arm at an angle so the wound will continue to drain.”

Once again, Joe stirred on the bed. His eyes opened slowly, and he licked his lips, trying to rid his mouth of its dry, cottony feeling. Suddenly, Joe looked down at his chest, where his left arm was resting. He moved his arm a fraction of an inch or so. Then a small smile broke out on his face.

“I promised you it would be there,” said Dr. Martin, who had been watching the youngest Cartwright carefully. “I keep my promises.”

Joe looked up at the doctor and, still smiling, nodded.

Reaching to the table, Dr. Martin grabbed a glass of water. He lifted Joe’s head a bit and put the glass to the young man’s lips. After Joe drained the tumbler, the doctor returned it to the table.

Bending over his patient, Dr. Martin checked Joe’s arm one last time. Nodding in satisfaction, the doctor straightened and turned to Ben.

“That book Joe read was entirely correct about the symptoms,” explained Dr. Martin. “Joe’s diagnosis was correct, too, though a bit premature. Amputation is a harsh remedy. But fortunately, due to the infection, he didn’t have the strength to do it. He’s young and he’s strong. It will take a while, but he’ll be just fine.” Ben nodded his understanding to the doctor.

“You know,” the doctor continued, “Making a decision like that takes more courage than just letting go sometimes, Ben.” He shook his head a bit. “He’s quite a boy.” He stuck his hand out to his old friend. Ben shook the hand briefly, his eyes still glued to the figure on the bed. Joe gave his father a weak smile of reassurance.

“I’ll be back to check on him tomorrow,” declared Dr. Martin, picking up his bag from the table next to the bed.

As the doctor left, Hoss walked up to the bed. He tried to hide the tears of relief in his eyes. “He’ll do anything to get out of a round-up,” Hoss joked, trying to lighten the mood.

For his part, Ben didn’t try to hide his tears of relief. He smiled briefly at Hoss’ jibe, but continued to stare at his youngest son.

A crooked grin crossed Joe’s face, acknowledging his brother’s gentle jab at him. Then Joe settled into the pillows and fell asleep.

*****

It was well after midnight when Ben heard a soft knock on the bedroom door. He looked up from his chair next to Joe’s bed, not surprised to see Hoss open the door and walk in.

“How’s he doing?” asked Hoss.

Turning back to look at Joe, Ben watched his son a moment before answering. “His fever is down a bit and he seems to be sleeping easy.” Ben looked back to Hoss. “Did you get something to eat?”

“Yeah,” Hoss answered. “I cleaned up the kitchen, too.” He didn’t elaborate on the evidence of Joe’s attempt to ease his agony – towels stained with some kind of poultice, a half-empty whiskey bottle, a scorched pan, and utensils scattered throughout the kitchen. Hoss knew that his father must have seen the same things when Ben went to the kitchen to heat some water, but he wasn’t sure their significance registered with his Pa. Hoss decided there was no reason to add to his father’s distress.

“You should get some rest,” suggested Ben to his middle son.

“I already had a couple of hours sleep,” Hoss replied. “Now it’s your turn.”

“I’m fine,” Ben said.

“Pa, you need some rest,” Hoss stated firmly. “You’re not going to do Joe any good by tiring yourself out. And I ain’t got the strength to look after both of you.”

Ben smiled briefly. “Really, I’m fine. You’re the one who needs the rest. You need to ride back to the herd tomorrow.”

“Ride back to the herd?” repeated Hoss, frowning. “And leave you here alone with Joe? I’m not sure that’s the best idea, Pa.”

“Somebody has to let Candy know what happened, and make sure the herd gets to winter pasture,” Ben told his middle son. “You’re the best one to do that. I can take care of things here.”

Reluctantly, Hoss saw the sense in what his father was saying. But he wasn’t willing to give in easily. “I can let Candy know what happened and then ride back here,” he suggested. “Candy will get the herd to pasture.”

“There’s no need for both of us to be here,” argued Ben. “The doctor will look in every day and I can take care of Joe. We’d just be in each others way if we were both here. You’d help more by being with the herd.”

“I guess that’s right,” agreed Hoss, but the tone of his voice indicated he was less than sure. “Why don’t you go get some sleep now? I’m all slept out and there’s no sense both of us being awake.”

Turning back to the bed, Ben watched Joe for a moment. “I hate to leave him, Hoss.”

“Pa, you heard the doctor, same as me, Joe’s going to be all right,” declared Hoss.

“I know,” Ben acknowledged. He was silent for a moment, then continued. “I just keep thinking about him during the past two days. Hurt, sick, and alone. He must have been so…so desperate.” Ben shook his head. “I don’t want to leave him alone.”

“Yeah, I know,” said Hoss. He looked at his brother sleeping in the bed. “But Pa, he won’t be alone. I’ll be here. I’ll watch over Joe.”

Something in Hoss’ voice told Ben that Hoss needed to look after Joe. He guessed his middle son was feeling the necessity to be here now with his brother because Hoss hadn’t been around when Joe really needed him. Ben understood that feeling; he had the same one. Sitting by Joe’s bed helped ease Ben’s sense of guilt a bit. He knew it would be selfish to deny Hoss the same bit of comfort.

Getting to his feet, Ben stretched a bit. “All right, I’ll sleep for a little while. Wake me if there’s any change.”

“I will,” Hoss promised.

As Ben started to leave the room, he stopped and turned once more to look at the sleeping figure in the bed. Joe looked so pale, so fragile. He had heard Dr. Martin’s pronouncement that his youngest son would be fine. Ben just wished he could believe it.

*****

The faint light of a dawning sun glowed through the window as Hoss rose from the chair and rolled his shoulders to loosen his stiff muscles. He couldn’t remember a longer night. It wasn’t just the quiet of the house or the haunting thoughts of what Joe might have gone through that had stretched the hours for Hoss. It was the waiting – hours of waiting for some small movement or soft sound from his injured brother. Through the long night, Hoss had waited for something that never happened.

Hoss reached to the lamp on the table by the bed and turned down the low flame to a barely perceptible glow. As he did, Hoss glanced over his shoulder toward the bed. Joe was in exactly the same position as when the doctor left. His heavily bandaged hand and arm rested on his chest, and his head was angled a bit to the right, buried deep against the pillows. Joe’s splintered right leg laid unnaturally straight under the blankets while his left leg, slightly bent at the knee, was faintly outlined by the covers.

For a sick and injured man to sleep deeply through the night wasn’t unusual, Hoss knew. But the fact that Joe hadn’t moved even an inch – hadn’t stirred or shifted to a more comfortable position – worried Hoss. His younger brother was normally a restless sleeper, and for Joe to spend the night so still and unmoving was not a good sign.

As he had done many times during the night, Hoss put a hand on Joe’s forehead, feeling the heat of his brother’s fever and trying to decide if the brow felt any warmer or cooler. Hoss shook his head, unsure if there was any change in temperature. He turned back to the table and reached for a cloth in a small bowl of water. Again, imitating actions that he had done often during the night, Hoss lightly dabbed Joe’s face with the cloth.

Suddenly, the figure on the bed stirred. For a minute, Hoss thought he might be imaging the movement, that he only thought he saw what he was yearning for. But Joe moved his head again, shifted his shoulders on the bed, and let out a couple of soft grunts. Hoss held his breath and waited. Finally, Joe turned his head and opened his eyes.

“Morning, Joe,” announced Hoss cheerfully, hoping the relief he felt wasn’t reflected in his voice.

“Hi, Hoss,” replied Joe weakly. He looked around the room. “Where’s Pa?”

“Getting some sleep,” Hoss explained as he eased himself back down in the chair by the bed. “It was hard to get him to leave you but I finally convinced him that my staying with you for a few hours wouldn’t kill you.”

A small smile crossed Joe’s face. Then he licked his lips. “Can I have some water?”

“Sure,” said Hoss, as he reached for a glass on the table by the bed.

The water wasn’t very cold, but it was wet and that’s all Joe cared about. He drained the glass that Hoss held to his lips.

“How are you feeling?” Hoss asked in a concerned voice after he put the glass back on the table.

“Terrible,” admitted Joe. Then the crooked smile appeared again on his face. “But that’s a lot better than I felt yesterday.”

“Little brother, you sure get yourself into some real messes,” observed Hoss, shaking his head. “How’d you let this happen?”

“That’s what I would like to know,” added a deep voice from the bedroom door. Both Joe and Hoss looked to see their father walking into the room.

“Hi Pa,” Joe greeted Ben in a weak voice.

“Good morning, Joseph,” Ben replied in a gentle tone. “I’m glad you’re awake. How about some breakfast?”

Joe shook his head. “I’m not hungry.”

“I didn’t ask if you were hungry,” Ben said sternly. “Only if you could eat something. When was the last time you had something in your stomach?”

Looking down, Joe tried to remember when he last ate. He recalled starting to cook some meat, but then had passed out. The meat had burned to a charred mess. After that, he had become worried about something a lot more serious than food. “I don’t know,” Joe admitted. “I kind of lost track of things.” Joe shook his head. “I think I passed out a couple of times.”

After exchanging a worried glance with Hoss, Ben said softly, “Joe, you had some bad injuries and a high fever. The wonder is that you stayed on your feet as long as you did.”

Leaning back against the pillows, Joe looked up at the ceiling. “I felt so weak, Pa. I couldn’t even get on Cochise to ride for help. I turned him loose so he’d be okay if I…” Joe swallowed hard. “I didn’t want him to starve in his stall.”

“Cochise is fine,” Ben told his youngest son in a soothing voice. “We found him in the yard.”

“Good,” answered Joe, nodding slightly.

“How did you manage to get from the barn to the house?” Ben asked, understanding for the first time what a Herculean effort by his badly injured son that short walk must have taken.

“After I set my leg, I spent the night in the barn, and some of the next day,” Joe explained. “I found a broom I could use as a crutch. It took awhile, but I finally got to the house.”

“What I don’t understand is why that fellow Griffin didn’t find you,” said Hoss, puzzled. “His boy said he checked the barn.”

“I was huddled in a corner, trying to keep warm,” Joe answered. “I guess he didn’t see me. I didn’t hear him or the wagon. I was probably asleep.”

“And Griffin was very late getting to the house, so he wasn’t surprised you weren’t around,” added Ben. He shook his head. “A series of circumstances that made a bad situation worse.”

Joe simply nodded. He was feeling sleepy again, and his eyes began to close.

Seeing his son was about to drift off, Ben said quickly, “You rest awhile. I’ll make some breakfast for you and bring it up later.”

“All right,” agreed Joe in a drowsy voice.

“Joe, I’m going back to the herd in a little while,” Hoss told his brother. “You take care of yourself while I’m gone. I ain’t gonna be here to watch out for you.”

Managing to rouse himself a bit, Joe smiled at his brother. “Think you and Candy can handle those cows without me?”

“Oh, I think we’ll manage,” Hoss answered with a smile.

“Good, ‘cause I hate roundups,” Joe remarked, his eyes starting to close again.

“You won’t have to worry about roundups for awhile,” observed Hoss softly. “For the next couple of weeks, you get to do your favorite thing – sleeping in bed all day.”

Joe tried to smile but the effort was a poor one. He was already half asleep.

Motioning to Hoss to follow him, Ben turned and left the bedroom. Outside the room, Ben said in a low voice, “I’m going to make Joe some breakfast and then stay with him. Do you want to get some sleep before you leave?”

“I’d rather have breakfast,” Hoss answered firmly. “I can sleep anytime, but eating is something I need to do regular-like.”

“All right,” Ben agreed, giving a small laugh. “Breakfast it is. Then you’d better get on your way. Candy must be wondering where we are.”

*****

As he helped herd the cattle through the narrow pass, Candy was indeed wondering where the Cartwrights might be. He had expected them back with the herd yesterday, or at least to join them in camp last night. Now the day was well begun, and still there was no sign of Ben, Hoss or Joe.

A grizzled cowboy rode his horse up next to Candy. “Where do you think the boss is, Candy?” the man asked. “Mister Cartwright and his boys should have been back here by now. What do you think happened?”

“I don’t know, Charlie,” Candy answered. “When they get here, I’ll ask them.”

“It ain’t like Mister Cartwright to leave his herd so long,” insisted Charlie.

“Maybe it took him and Hoss awhile to find Joe, and they decided to spend the night in a soft bed,” suggested Candy. “That sounds a whole lot better than sleeping on the ground to me.”

“Not the Cartwrights,” stated Charlie firmly. “They ain’t the kind to be sleeping in beds while we’re camping in the cold. Mister Cartwright never asks his men to do something he won’t do himself.”

Silently, Candy had to agree with the cowboy. But he simply couldn’t figure out why Ben and his sons hadn’t rejoined the herd. So Candy said nothing.

“Maybe you oughta go look for them or something,” Charlie suggested.

“Oh yeah, that’s a great idea,” said Candy, his voice dripping with sarcasm. “I go look for the Cartwrights, and then you decide to go look for me. Shorty will probably get worried and go out after you, and then Jim will go after Shorty. Next thing you know, those cattle will be walking to the winter pasture all by themselves.”

“Well, it was just an idea,” offered Charlie defensively.

Immediately, Candy felt contrite. He knew Charlie was only voicing the same worry he felt. “Look, Charlie,” he told the cowboy in a conciliatory tone. “You go back and ride flank on the herd. For some reason, Mister Cartwright got delayed, and he’s counting on us to take care of his cattle while he’s not here. I think we ought to do that for him, don’t you?”

“Yeah, I guess you’re right,” Charlie agreed. The cowboy kicked his horse and rode off.

As Candy whistled and hooted at the cattle to keep them moving over the next few hours, he tried to act unconcerned. However, he couldn’t help from turning in his saddle from time to time to look down the trail behind him.

*****

“I know this hurts, Joe,” said Dr. Martin in a sympathetic voice. “Just hang on. It will be over in a minute.”

From the end of the bed, Ben watched as the doctor fiddled a bit with the small tube in Joe’s arm. He turned his attention to the bed, and saw Joe’s body was tense, his face screwed into a grimace. The few minutes the doctor needed to check the arm wound seemed like a painfully long time to both Joe and his father.

“All done,” Dr. Martin announced, straightening up. Joe’s body went slack, and he gulped in deep breaths of air.

“How’s it look?” asked Joe in a soft voice. He continued to breathe hard.

“As well as can be expected, considering that it’s been less than twenty-four hours since I cleaned up the wound,” the doctor answered cautiously as he began to re-bandage Joe’s arm. “The wound is draining and there’s no sign of any new infection.”

“He’s still running a fever,” Ben advised.

“And he will for several more days,” declared Dr. Martin. “He’s still reacting to the infection and injury. It will take some time for things to return to normal.” The doctor put his hand on Joe’s forehead and felt the fever for himself. Apparently not alarmed by the heat he felt, Dr. Martin turned Joe’s head a bit and looked at the bruise on the side. “No complications with the bruising,” he commented almost to himself. The doctor took a step back from the bed. “How does your leg feel, Joe?”

“It aches a bit,” Joe answered. “Nothing worse that other broken legs I’ve had, though.

“Yes,” Dr. Martin said in a dry voice, “unfortunately, you have plenty of experience with broken bones.” He shook his head a bit, then turned to reach into the black bag sitting on the table. The doctor pulled out a large glass vial with a stopper in the top. “Where’s that spoon I asked for, Ben?” he asked, then quickly answered his own question. “Oh, here it is.” He picked up a spoon from the table, and with practiced ease, uncorked the stopper from the bottle with a quick twist.

From his bed, Joe eyed the bottle and spoon suspiciously. “What’s that?”

“Medicine,” replied the doctor. “You’ll hate it. But if you want to get well quickly, you’ll take a dose of it every four hours.” Dr. Martin poured a small amount of liquid from the bottle onto the spoon and stuck the spoon near Joe’s mouth.

Joe looked at the spoon with distaste, then opened his mouth. As he swallowed the liquid, he made a face.

“I’m glad you like it,” stated the doctor with a small laugh. He put the bottle on the table near his bag, and turned to Ben. “Give him a dose every four hours. If you run out, just send Hoss into town and I’ll give him a refill.”

“Hoss isn’t here,” Ben told the doctor. “I sent him back to the herd, to help get the cattle to winter pasture.”

“Oh?” said Dr. Martin, a small frown appearing on his face. He looked thoughtful for a minute. “Uh, Ben, do you have an extra pillow around someplace? I want to prop up Joe’s arm to make sure it continues to drain properly.”

“I’m sure I do,” replied Ben, turning to leave the room.

“I’ll come with you,” the doctor offered quickly. “I want to make sure it’s the right size.”

Outside the bedroom, Dr. Martin grabbed Ben’s arm to stop him. “Ben, are you telling me you are here by yourself taking care of Joe?”

“I’ve taken care of my sons before when they were sick or injured,” answered Ben with a shrug. “I can take care of Joe.”

“Yes, but you’ve always had Hop Sing or one of the boys around to help you,” the doctor pointed out. “I’m not sure you understand what’s involved here. Joe is virtually helpless. You’re going to have to bathe him, shave him, and take care of his personal needs. You’re going to have to help him to eat. And without any help, that means you also are going to have to cook for him as well as yourself. I haven’t even mentioned the nursing you’re going to have to do.”

“I’ll be fine,” insisted Ben. “Hoss will be back in about a week. I can manage until then.”

“And exhaust yourself in the process,” Dr. Martin stated. “Ben, I’d better see if I can find someone in town to come out to help.”

“No,” declared Ben in a firm voice. “Joe’s my son, and I can take care of him. Now, let me get that pillow.”

As he watched Ben walk down the hall, Dr. Martin shook his head. “And he wonders where Joe gets his stubbornness,” the doctor muttered.

*****

It was mid-afternoon before Candy spotted the big man with the familiar tall white hat riding up the trail toward the herd. He let out a sigh of relief, then yelled over his shoulder to no one in particular, “Hoss is coming!” Candy could hear the sound of men calling in response to his announcement and recognized the relief in some of their acknowledgments.

Pulling his horse to a stop, Candy waited until Hoss rode up to him. “Well, you finally got here,” declared Candy with a grin. “I thought maybe you’d gotten lost.” He looked past Hoss down the trail. “Where’s your Pa and Joe?”

“They ain’t coming, Candy,” answered Hoss in a serious voice. “There’s been an accident and Joe got hurt. Pa’s staying to look after him.”

“An accident?” repeated Candy with alarm. “What happened?”

“That new mare spooked and trampled Joe,” Hoss explained. “He’s hurt pretty bad.”

“How bad is it?” asked Candy anxiously.

Hoss could hear the depth of concern in Candy’s voice. “He’s going to be okay, Candy,” Hoss told the man quickly. “His leg is broken, and he’s badly bruised. The horse cut up his arm pretty bad too, and it got infected. The doc had to work on it for a long time.”

“Where did this happen?” Candy asked.

“At the ranch, right after we left,” answered Hoss.

“At the ranch?” said Candy, frowning. “Then who took care of him? There was nobody but Joe at the ranch.”

“That’s the thing,” Hoss replied grimly. “Nobody was there. Joe had to try and look after himself for a couple of days until Pa and I showed up.”

Candy sat still in the saddle with a shocked expression on his face. His mind raced, trying to imagine a bruised and bloody Joe at the ranch with no one to help him. “My God!” he murmured softly.

“The doctor said he’s going to be all right,” Hoss assured Candy once more. “He’s going to need some time to heal up – a long time – but the doc said he’s going to be fine.”

“You’re sure?”

“I’m sure,” Hoss stated firmly. He looked around and saw the herd moving slowly up the trail. “Candy, I told Pa I’d be back in about week. I figured four days to get the herd to winter pasture and settle them in, then two days or so to get home. Do you think we could push the men and the cattle a little and shave off some of that time?”

“Yeah,” agreed Candy, nodding. “I’ll explain things to the men. I’m sure they won’t mind working a little harder. I think we can save at least a day.”

“Good,” Hoss said. “I want to get home as soon as I can.”

“So do I, Hoss,” declared Candy. “So do I.”

*****

Sinking wearily into his favorite red chair by the fireplace, Ben wondered if he could afford to take a little nap. He felt so tired, so worn out. In the past two days, he had discovered the doctor’s prediction about all the things that he would need to do fell woefully short of reality.

Ben had learned that simply moving Joe to a sitting position entailed not only shifting his son on the bed, but also moving a variety of pillows to support his back, leg and arm. And then everything had to be shifted again when Joe wanted to lie down. Still very weak and feverish, Joe was of little help in these efforts. Ben found that moving his son was like shifting a dead weight.

As the doctor had told him, Ben found Joe could do very little for himself, and Ben needed to take care of his son’s every need. He fed him, dosed him with medicine, and bathed him with cool water. While Joe slept – which he did for long periods – Ben made broth, soft eggs and whatever else he thought Joe could manage to swallow. Ben also needed to make more substantial meals for himself. He knew he couldn’t continue to care for Joe without keeping up his own strength.

In between all these duties, Ben had to handle the ranch chores. There was wood to be chopped, and horses to be tended. He had managed to keep the kitchen reasonably clean, but washing dishes and pans was just one more item on the long list of things to do. This last item was often ignored as he tried to snatch a few hours sleep from time to time.

I must be getting old, Ben thought as he sank deeper into the chair. He couldn’t remember feeling this tired the other times he had looked after one of his injured sons. Perhaps the doctor had been right. Maybe he hadn’t realized the difference having someone else to help could make.

Just as Ben was starting to close his eyes, he heard a sharp rap on the front door. Sitting up in the chair, Ben frowned. He couldn’t imagine who could be coming to the house. Being an old friend, Dr. Martin just let himself in. Almost all of the ranchers in the area were involved in round-up and moving cattle as the men of the Ponderosa were. And those that weren’t involved in a round-up wouldn’t expect any of the Cartwrights to be at the ranch house.

Another sharp rap on the door roused Ben. Slowly, he got to his feet and walked over to the front of the house. Ben pulled open the door, and his jaw dropped a bit.

Standing on the porch was a woman. She was thin and tall – although not as tall as Ben – and her gray hair showed only a few streaks of its original black color. The woman was wearing a woolen shawl over a plain print dress and carried a carpet bag in her hand.

“Lizzie Warren!” exclaimed Ben in astonishment. “What are you doing here?”

Ignoring Ben’s question, Lizzie walked into the house with a confident stride. “Ben Cartwright,” she declared sternly. “I ought to take a horse whip to you. Just what do you think you’re doing?”

“Well, um, I’m not sure…” Ben stammered in confusion as he shut the door.

Lizzie interrupted Ben’s hesitant words. “I saw the doctor in town, and he told me about what happened to Joe. He also told me that you’re working yourself into exhaustion trying to take care of him and the house. Now just what made you think you could do this all by yourself? And why didn’t you send for me?”

“Lizzie, I can manage things,” protested Ben weakly.

“Yeah, right,” snorted Lizzie in a disbelieving tone. “Well, I’m here now. Where do you want me to put my things?”

“What about your hardware store? And your own family?” asked Ben with a frown.

“David and Josh can run the store,” Lizzie stated. “It will do those sons of mine good to learn to manage things without me for a while. And Mary will take care of David; that’s what wives are suppose to do, even if they’re so young they barely know what they’re doing. Josh will eat with David and Mary, or he can survive on his own cooking for awhile.” A sly look crossed Lizzie’s face. “Of course, Susie Peters just might be interested in keeping Josh supplied with dinners. He’s been sparking her for awhile.”

“Lizzie, I appreciate the offer, really I do,” said Ben, still sounding hesitant. “But I’m not sure this is…well, appropriate.”

“Ben, I’ve nursed those boys of mine through colds, measles, and more broken bones than I can count,” Lizzie replied. “I know how to take care of a young man in way that won’t embarrass him.”

“That’s not what I meant,” countered Ben. “I meant it might not be appropriate for you to be out here with only me and Joe in the house.”

“You’re worried about my reputation!” Lizzie practically hooted. “Ben, I’m too old to have a reputation. Besides, the people that know us will understand. And I don’t care two figs about what anyone else says.” Lizzie put her hands on her hips. “Now, any other objections?”

“None that I would dare to bring up,” admitted Ben with a smile.

“Good,” Lizzie said a brisk voice. She looked around the house. “I can use the downstairs bedroom. Why don’t you go put my horse and rig away while I get settled in?”

“Yes ma’am,” agreed Ben almost meekly, but he ginned as he spoke.

When he returned to the house from the barn, Ben decided Lizzie’s version of settling in must have consisted of throwing her bag into the bedroom. He could smell fresh coffee brewing and heard pans clattering in the kitchen. With a smile on his face, Ben strolled into the kitchen.

“Find everything you needed?” Ben asked as he walked into the warm room.

Lizzie was standing at the sink, wiping a wet rag over some plates. “Sure did,” she answered over her shoulder. “The coffee is almost ready. Why don’t you sit down and I’ll pour you a cup.”

“I think I will,” said Ben, sinking gratefully into the chair by the table. “Lizzie, I can’t thank you enough for coming out.”

“I’m still mad at you for not sending for me right away,” declared Lizzie as she wiped her hands on a towel. She picked up a white mug from the sideboard of the sink and walked toward the stove. As she poured coffee from a pot on the stove into the mug, Lizzie added in a softer tone, “Ben, I owe you so much that this is the least I can do.”

“You don’t owe me anything,” Ben protested as he accepted the cup of coffee from Lizzie.

“When my husband was killed in that robbery, you’re the one who convinced me that I had to keep the store going, both for me and the boys,” Lizzie stated. “You guaranteed the loan at the bank when times were tough and I was still trying to figure out how to make the store pay.”

“That wasn’t anything,” Ben told the woman, shrugging his shoulders a bit. “I knew you’d work things out and pay back the loan.”

“Well, I’m glad you did, because I sure didn’t,” Lizzie observed. “I also happen to know that you talked to the other ranchers and some of the folks in town, convincing them to do their business at the hardware store, even though a woman was running it.” She smiled at the startled look on Ben’s face. “Didn’t think I knew that, did you? You ought to know by now that no one in Virginia City can keep a secret for longer than about ten minutes.”

“Are you sure you know what you’re getting yourself into, coming out here?” Ben asked.

“I’m sure,” answered Lizzie in a soft voice. “I had a long talk with the doc. He told me Joe got hurt pretty bad and needs a lot of care. That’s another reason why I’m here; I want to help Joe. Joe had some talks with Josh after his daddy was killed. I don’t know exactly what he said, but I know Josh felt a lot better about things after he talked with Joe.”

“Lizzie, I…well, thank you. Thank you for coming out,” Ben acknowledged gratefully.

Cocking her head a bit, Lizzie studied Ben for a minute. “I remember trying to thank you when you helped me. Remember what you said? Friends don’t need thanks. Friends just help each other. Well, Ben, I figure you and I are friends.”

“Yes,” agreed Ben. “Yes, we are.”

In the distance, a clock bonged the hour. Ben listened, then pushed back his chair. “I’ve got to go up and give Joe another dose of medicine,” he announced. “Do you want to come up with me?”

“I think I’d better,” decided Lizzie. “Joe should know I’m here. I don’t want to surprise him by showing up in his room.”

“He’ll be pleased you’re here,” Ben declared.

Lizzie followed Ben out of the kitchen and across the living room. As she climbed the stairs behind Ben, she looked around and mentally began a list of things that needed to be done.

When the pair reached Joe’s bedroom, Lizzie waited at the doorway while Ben went into the room.

Twisted a bit onto his right side in the bed, Joe was in a deep sleep. His heavily bandaged arm rested cross his body, and his right leg was stretched out to the edge of the mattress. Ben walked quietly to the bed, and slowly stroked Joe’s head. “Joe,” he said softly. “Wake up, Joe. Time for your medicine.” Joe stirred a bit and slowly opened his eyes.

As Lizzie watched from the doorway, she struggled to keep her face impassive. The doctor had described Joe’s injuries to her, but she hadn’t really understood how sick the young man was until now. She was having a hard time reconciling the pale figure in the bed, colored only by the deep circles under his eyes and a purple bruise on his face, with the vibrant Joe Cartwright she knew. She said nothing as she watched Ben lift Joe to a sitting position and began re-positioning pillows. But in her mind, Lizzie was resolving that both Ben and his son would get her full attention and every bit of care she knew how to give.

After giving Joe a spoonful of the medicine, Ben stroked his son’s head lightly again. “Feeling any better?” he asked.

“Yeah,” Joe lied. In truth, his arm ached and he felt uncomfortably warm and dull from the fever. “I’m doing all right.” He looked up at his father. “You look tired. Why don’t you get some sleep? I’m fine.”

“I will soon,” Ben promised his son. “Are you feeling up to a visitor?”

“A visitor?” asked Joe in a puzzled voice.

Taking that as her cue, Lizzie walked into the room. “Hello, Joe,” she announced briskly.

Looking toward the doorway, Joe’s eyes opened in surprise. “Mrs. Warren!”

“I heard how you tried to wrestle a horse and lost,” Lizzie said as she stopped near the bed. “I thought you were smarter than that.”

“Well, I won’t do it again,” admitted Joe with a small smile.

“Good idea,” agreed Lizzie. She paused, then added, “If it’s all right with you, I thought I’d stay around here for awhile and give your Pa a hand. I’ll bet you even money I’m a better cook than he is.”

“Thanks,” said Joe. He glanced up at his father. “Pa could use the help.”

“Oh, so now you think I can’t manage by myself, do you?” Ben complained, but his smile widened a bit as he spoke.

“First thing is to get some food into you,” stated Lizzie. “You’ve got to build up your strength.”

“I’m not very hungry,” said Joe, shaking his head a bit.

“That’s only because you haven’t tasted my custard yet,” Lizzie told the young man in the bed. “Thick, sweet, creamy vanilla custard with cinnamon on top. It’s the best custard in the territory.”

“I bet it is,” acknowledged Joe as a crooked smile crossed his face.

“All right, then,” Lizzie stated in her brisk voice. “I’ll get started on the custard and some dinner for your Pa. You get some rest.” Lizzie turned to Ben. “That goes for you too. Get some sleep.”

“Pa, I think you be losing control of things here,” Joe offered with a grin.

“Joseph, I know I have,” agreed Ben.

*****

As Hoss rode into the yard of the ranch house ahead of Candy and the other drovers, he was surprised to see his father chopping wood. He was surprised not only because this was a chore Ben rarely did, but also because he had expected that his father would be still sticking close to Joe.

Hearing the sound of the horses, Ben stopped his work. He wiped his face with a bandana he pulled from his pocket as he waited for the riders to stop and dismount.

“Welcome home!” Ben greeted Hoss warmly. He included the other men in his welcome with a smile. “I didn’t expect you until at least tomorrow.”

“We figured getting home as soon as possible was a good idea,” replied Hoss in a serious tone. “How’s Joe?”

“He’s doing just fine,” Ben assured his son. “His fever broke yesterday, and he’s starting to feel like his old self.”

“Does that mean he’s complaining?” asked Candy with a grin as he walked up to the other two men.

“Complaining, doesn’t want to take his medicine, and thinks staying in bed for the next few weeks is a silly idea,” Ben listed dryly.

“Sounds like he’s back to being ornery ol’ Joe,” commented Hoss. He laughed at bit but he also couldn’t keep the relief out of his voice. “I bet he’s giving you a hard time.”

“Well, he would if he could get away with it,” admitted Ben. “But Lizzie Warren is here giving us a hand. More like running things around here, I should say. And you know Lizzie. No one gives HER a hard time.”

“Miz Warren’s here?” said Hoss in a delighted voice. “Is she doing the cooking?”

“Yes, she’s doing the cooking,” Ben acknowledged with a laugh. “You won’t have to eat my meals.”

Looking over his shoulder, Candy saw the rest of the hands had been standing and listening carefully. All of them had a look of relief on their face from the news that Joe was recovering. “Charlie, why don’t you take over chopping this wood for the boss?” Candy ordered. “The rest of you, get the horses settled in and stow your gear. I’m sure I can find some things for all of you to do.”

Heads bobbed as men nodded or touched the brim of their hats. Charlie walked over and took the ax from Ben’s hands.

“Thanks, Charlie, I appreciate this,” Ben acknowledged. He turned to Hoss and Candy. “Come on in the house. I’m sure Joe will be happy to see you. He’s getting a little bored with my company.”

With the sound of an ax splitting wood behind them, Ben, Hoss and Candy walked into the ranch house. As they stopped inside the front door so Hoss and Candy could deposit their hats, coats and guns on the bureau, Lizzie walked in to the room, drying her hands on her apron.

“Well, looks like I need to peel some more potatoes,” declared Lizzie. “Welcome home, boys.”

“Howdy, Miz Warren,” Hoss greeted the woman. “I was sure glad to hear you came out to help Pa.”

“Aw, it wasn’t anything,” replied Lizzie, waving her hands. “It’s been nice to be able to look after someone other than those two cantankerous sons of mine.”

“Lizzie, we couldn’t have managed without you,” admitted Ben, his tone implying how heartfelt his words were. “I don’t know what I would have done if you hadn’t shown up.”

“You’d have done fine, Ben; you always do,” answered Lizzie, but she blushed a bit at the compliment.

“You, ah, ain’t planning to leave right away, are you?” asked Hoss. “I mean, Hop Sing isn’t due back for another couple of days and Griffin will cook for the boys in the bunkhouse, but it sure would be nice to have you around.”

“You mean nice to eat her cooking, don’t you, Hoss?” Candy snorted. Then he grinned.

“Well, I might be persuaded to stay for another day or two,” Lizzie said, her eyes narrowing with a sly look. “If I had some help with the chores and only had to cook, well, that would almost be like a vacation.”

“I think we can guarantee you all the help you want,” Ben promised earnestly.

“Then I’ll stay,” agreed Lizzie. “At least for a day or two, until things get sorted out.”

“Thank you, ma’am,” Hoss stated gratefully. “Thank you a lot.” The other two men nodded their thanks also.

“Now you go up and see Joe before he gets so anxious he does something foolish,” Lizzie ordered the men. “I’ve got supper to start. And don’t forget to get washed up before you eat. I don’t allow any dirty hands at my table.” With that, Lizzie turned and walked in long strides back to the kitchen.

“She’s something,” commented Candy.

“That she is,” agreed Ben, with a wry smile on his face. “But she’s right. We’d better get upstairs before Joe starts yelling for us.”

The three men walked briskly across the room and up the stairs. At Joe’s room, Ben stopped to knock softly on the partially opened door and then pushed it wide.

Sitting up in bed with a book propped against his bent, uninjured left leg, Joe smiled as the three men walked into the room. “Well, it’s about time you got back,” he declared.

Each of the three men entering the room had a different reaction to the figure in the bed. To Ben, Joe looked vastly improved. His color was better and he no longer had the dull look of fever in his eyes. Candy, who hadn’t seen Joe since before the accident, tried not to look shocked. He could believe how badly his friend had been injured, despite what Hoss had told him. Candy tried not to stare at the heavy bandage that covered Joe’s left arm and hand, or at the large bruise on the side of the youngest Cartwright’s face.

Blinking, Hoss also tried to hide his reaction, but his was one of relief. While Joe still looked pale to him, he could see the spark in his brother’s eyes again. The bruise on Joe’s face had faded a bit since Hoss had seen him last, and he noted Joe was moving his injured arm without apparent difficulty.

“We weren’t in a lot of hurry to get back,” Hoss lied to his brother, “considering we’re going to have to do all your chores for the next couple of weeks.”

“Yeah,” added Candy, trying to act as unconcerned as possible. “I thought I was going to get out of checking the line shacks this year. Guess I was wrong.”

“Checking those shacks is the most boring job on the ranch. I always try to find a way to avoid that chore,” Joe admitted with a smile.

“Well, you picked a pretty drastic way of getting out it,” Candy replied with a grin.

Hoss’ face grew serious. “I’m glad you’re looking better, Joe,” he told his brother. “You gave me quite a turn when we found you. I don’t mind saying you gave us a scare.”

“Well, I was pretty scared myself,” Joe admitted, looking down a bit. “I don’t think I was ever as scared as I was over those two days.”

“But you’re going to be all right,” Ben stated firmly. “Your arm is healing and so is your leg. You did what you could to take care of yourself and survive. That’s what made the difference. You didn’t give up.”

“No, I didn’t give up,” Joe agreed, nodding. He bit his lip a bit, then looked at Ben, and then Hoss. “But I’m sure glad you two turned up when you did. I’m not sure how much longer I could have held on.”

“You’d have held on as long as necessary,” Ben predicted softly. “You fought to stay alive, Joe. It didn’t matter what it took or how long you had to wait. You weren’t about to give in.” He cleared his voice. “Well, we all had a scare, but it’s over,” continued Ben in a brisk voice. “Now, Hoss and Candy need to let you get some rest. They also need to get cleaned up. Lizzie made it very clear that she doesn’t allow dirty hands at the dinner table.”

“Trust me, fellows,” remarked Joe with a grin. “If Mrs. Warren gives an order, you’d better obey it. I can tell you from experience that trying to resist her is just a waste of time.”

“Off you go,” said Ben, shooing Hoss and Candy out of the room. He turned to Joe. “And you get some rest, young man.”

“I will,” agreed Joe. He closed the book and reached over to put it on the table by the bed. “Pa?” he called as Ben was leaving the room. Ben turned and looked back. “Pa, if I didn’t say it before, I want to say thanks. Thanks for coming to look for me. And, well, thanks for everything.”

“You’re welcome,” said Ben simply. “Now get some rest. Otherwise, I’ll send Lizzie up here.”

“I’m resting, I’m resting,” declared Joe quickly. He slid down under the covers. As he heard the bedroom door closed, Joe smiled. He never appreciated before how good it was to feel safe and cared for, but it was a feeling he wouldn’t forget. He’d never again take for granted that his father and brother watched out for him. Then, sinking deeper into the pillows, Joe drifted off to a dreamless sleep.

***End***

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