Word Count: 8784
Joe rubbed his upper thighs, the stiffness seemed to be getting worse and Joe thought that perhaps the growing discomfort was due from the long days in the saddle and the strenuous work that he had been subjected to. He glanced up and noted that his father and two brothers were still moving on and he wondered why they hadn’t been complaining of growing stiffness as well, for they had surely put in as many hours of riding and working as he had. When he moved and felt the stab of pain, Joe flinched and rubbed his left leg harder. As the twinge melted away, he gently nudged his mount forward.
Adam glanced back over his shoulder to see what was making his youngest brother lag behind. He watched as Joe rubbed his hands up and down his legs and when he looked into Joe’s face, he noted the expression of woe on his young features.
“Hold up, Pa,” Adam called out.
Ben was leading the foursome along the narrow road that twisted and turned throughout the thick grass of the open meadow where just on the other side the dense forest grew wild and thick with foliage.
Ben pulled up sharply on his reins, making his horse to stop suddenly and step to the side of the trail. Hoss, who had been following his father, did the same. Both turned to see why Adam had called for them to stop. Ben edged his horse around Hoss’ and slithered up next to Adam.
“Something wrong, son?” Ben asked and then followed the end of Adam’s finger when he pointed back to Joe who sat abreast his horse about a hundred yards behind them.
“Boy’s worn out, he’s barely able to sit the saddle. Maybe we should stop for the night and let him rest,” suggested Adam.
“He does seem to be pretty tuckered out. I’ll tell you what, there’s a little clearing up ahead, in that small stand of trees, we’ll make camp there for the night,” agreed Ben. “Why don’t you and Hoss ride on ahead and I’ll stay back with Joe.”
“Sure, Pa,” Adam nodded. “Come on Hoss,” he said to his much larger brother who had also been watching the boy who sat alone and acted as if he were somehow suffering. “We’ll set up camp for you,” Ben’s oldest son called as he and Hoss headed on down the path.
Joe, who had caught up at last, pulled Cochise to a halt next to his father. “Where are they off to in such a hurry?” he asked, watching as his brothers disappeared around a grove of trees.
“I sent them up ahead to start setting up camp for the night,” Ben explained as he stretched and moved his back in a way that demonstrated how weary he must feel.
“Why? We’ve still plenty of daylight left?” Joe turned, surprised at his father’s information as he scanned the sky where daylight had begun to melt slowly away. He sighed deeply, he wasn’t sorry to be stopping; his body needed some rest.
“Well, son, I don’t know about you, but I’m bushed. I see nothing wrong with stopping early and eating a bite and then getting a good night’s sleep before starting out again in the morning. As it is, we’re still more than a day’s ride from home,” explained Ben, who, knowing his son so well, knew that if he told Joe the real reason for stopping so early, Joe would put up an argument.
Joe’s eyebrows rose slightly as he studied Ben’s face. Pa did look tired, judged Joe, after all, it had been a hard week, what with all the rain and the flooding and all those people who had been practically washed away. They had been lucky enough to save most of the settlers but the destruction that had befallen their little makeshift village had been catastrophic. Nearly all the buildings, which had been crudely constructed, had been washed away by the high rising waters that overflowed from the Truckee River. Their supplies, food, water, clothing, medical, their wagons, horses, everything had been lost. Had it not been for the volunteers from the nearby homesteads, who had come to the settlers’ aid, the loss would have been more devastating. As it were, only two men, one woman and one child had been claimed by the flash flood that had taken the unsuspecting people totally by surprise.
“All right, Pa. I could use a few hours extra sleep, myself,” smiled Joe, deciding that it best to agree than to disagree with his father and thus avoid an argument.
“Your legs hurting, Joe?” Ben asked, catching Joe off guard and unaware that he had been rubbing his upper thighs again.
Joe gave his father a small smile, “Stiff, guess all this damp weather and humidity is making my bones ache some.” Joe laughed as he gathered his reins, “to many falls from those mavericks, I suppose,” he laughed, turning Cochise around so that he could follow after his father.
“We’ll be home in another day, two at the most, since we really aren’t in a hurry and then you can soak in a nice hot bath; and I’m sure Hop Sing won’t mind mixing in some of that concoction he uses for sore, achy muscles,” laughed Ben.
“Hope I can hold out another two days,” Joe grinned as he smiled at his father who had turned around to check to be sure his son was staying up with him.
“Ain’t ya gonna eat, Joe?” Hoss plopped down next to his brother on the fallen log and stared at Joe’s half eaten dinner.
Joe was pushing his beans around with his fork and glanced up briefly into his brother’s face. “Naw, I guess I don’t have much of an appetite,” he mumbled, standing to his feet.
Joe felt his knees buckle slightly and he nearly dropped his tin plate as he tried to steady himself.
“Hey, ya okay, short shanks?” Hoss stood to his feet as well and grabbed Joe’s arm.
Joe’s face wrinkled up into a frown and he jerked his arm free. “There’s nothing wrong with me other than I must’va gotten up to fast,” Joe snapped and then instantly regretted being so short with his brother.
“Hey Hoss, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to snap at you. I’m just tired, and sore, that’s all. I think I’ll turn in,” Joe said, giving Hoss’ shoulder a gentle squeeze before walking off.
“Yeah, we’re all tired,” muttered Hoss watching his brother’s retreating back. “But that ain’t no call to bite my head off,” he murmured under his breath.
Hoss turned away and returned to the fire where Adam and his father were sitting, eating their supper and making small talk.
Ben smiled when Hoss joined them. “Where’s Joe?” Ben questioned, glancing over his shoulder for his youngest son.
“He dun gave it up and went to bed,” grumbled Hoss as he tossed the last of his beans into the fire and watched them sizzle.
Adam glanced at the unhappy expression on Hoss’ face and then at his father. “Something wrong, little brother?” he smiled.
Hoss tossed his head in Joe’s direction, his face wore a frown and both his father and brother could see that Hoss was fretting about something.
“Aw…it’s just Little Joe; he ain’t actin’ like himself atall today. Why, he’s bit my head off all evenin’ and now he’s dun gone to bed,” fumed Hoss.
He glanced over the back of his shoulder and watched as Joe emerged from the woods and settled into his bedroll.
“Don’t pay the kid any mind, Hoss; you know how Joe is when he works too hard and gets so tuckered out. He’s a bear fit for a fight,” Adam smiled.
He’d noticed Joe’s attitude as well, and though he was used to his kid brother’s mood swings, he’d have to agree with Hoss, the way Joe was acting just didn’t follow the normal pattern. Joe had been aloof all evening, he had hardly said a word and he’d barely touched his supper.
“Adam’s right son, Joe’s just tired, he’ll be fine come morning,” Ben assured his most tenderhearted son and then cut his own dark brooding eyes in Joe’s direction. Joe had snuggled down into his bedroll and appeared to be already sleeping.
Ben had barely gotten to sleep when the rustling of bushes awakened him. He slowly moved his hand to his gun, which lay inches from his bedroll and quietly picked it up, slipping it under the blanket along side of him. With one eye partially opened, and the other closed, he watched as the lone figure of a man crept from the edge of the woods and into the soft glow of the dying embers.
“Joseph?” Ben called when he recognized his son. “What in blazes are you doing wondering around in the dark?” Ben placed his pistol back into the holster and propped himself up on his elbow.
“Sorry, Pa…I didn’t mean to wake you,” whispered Joe, glancing at his brothers to be sure he had not disturbed them as well.
“What’s wrong?” Ben asked in a low whisper.
“Nothing…oh…God,” groaned Joe as he folded his body in half. His arm crossed his mid-section as the pain ripped at his insides.
Ben was quickly on his feet and at his son’s side. Both hands grasped Joe’s shoulders as Ben attempted to keep his son from toppling over on his face.
“Joseph?” Ben said, clinging tightly to Joe. He managed to get his son over to a large rock where he turned the boy around and gently guided him in sitting down.
Joe’s body remained doubled over; his groaning began to grow in volume. “My stomach…aw…”
Joe pushed Ben away and stumbling ran back into the woods.
“Joseph!” Ben shouted, waking Adam from his sleep.
Adam quickly jumped from his bedroll, grabbing his pistol. “What’s wrong, Pa?” he called as he quickly took in the sight of his father standing at the edge of the woods, turning and twisting his head as he stared into the darkness.
Ben turned at the sound of his son’s voice. “Put your gun away, it’s only Joe,” he said, swinging his arm out toward Adam.
“What’s all the ruckus about?” muttered Hoss as he sat up rubbing the sleep from his eyes. He squinted up at Adam trying to focus on his brother’s face. “Adam?”
“I don’t know just yet…Pa…where in blazes are you going?” Adam said as he followed Ben to the edge of the woods.
Ben disappeared into the shadows. Adam could hear his father stomping through the bushes as he searched for his youngest son. “PA?”
“I’ll be right back, son…just as soon as I find your brother,” Ben’s voice rang from the murkiness of the forest and shattered the solitariness around them.
Hoss joined Adam and together they stood in silence, waiting for their father and brother to emerge from the blackness.
Minutes later, Ben appeared, Joe leaning heavily against his father for support. Ben’s arm was wrapped around his son’s trembling body; his fingers dug into the flesh of Joe’s upper arm as Ben aided his son in walking. Joe’s left arm was wrapped about his father’s right shoulder and with his left hand Ben clung tightly to Joe.
“Help me get him back in his bedroll, he’s burning up with fever,” Ben said as both, Adam and Hoss took a hold of their brother, releasing Ben of his burden.
Together they led Joe back to his blankets and carefully lowered him to the ground. Ben grabbed the blanket and hurried to wrap it about Joe’s shivering body.
“Hoss stoke up that fire, Adam, hand me my blanket and the canteen,” ordered Ben as he bent over his moaning son and tenderly brushed back the dampened curls.
“Ohhh…hurts…Pa…hurts,” whined Joe.
Joe had begun tossing his head back and forth, unable to force himself to be still while his father tried to hold the canteen to his lips. Hoss finished building up the fire and knelt down behind his father, looking into the tormented face of his little brother.
“What’s wrong with him, Pa?” he whispered softly.
“I don’t know, son…it could be anything,” Ben replied. The worry shone in his eyes when he turned and the light from the fire lit up the features of his face.
“Adam, hold his head up so that I can get him to take a drink.”
Adam gently guided his hands beneath the dampened curls and carefully lifted his brother’s head and held it firmly while Ben placed the rim of the canteen against Joe’s lips. Once Joe realized that the water was moistening his lips, he opened his mouth, and grabbed at the canteen with his hands. He turned the water receptacle upward taking large gulps to fill his mouth. The water drizzled down his chin and dripped onto his shirt.
Ben placed his hands over Joe’s and gently pulled back on the canteen. “Easy son, easy,” Ben said in a soft voice.
Joe’s eyes found his father’s and the boy seemed to relax against the hands that held his head. “So thirsty,” uttered Joe, his voice laden with distress. “Pa…my legs…they…” Joe paused and sucked in large, deep breaths. “Hurt…really bad…and my…OH GOD! Not again!”
Joe pushed away the hands that tried to hold him down and scampered to his feet. “Joe, stay down!” ordered his father in a commanding voice.
Joe looked on the verge of tears. Ben saw the urgency in his son’s frightened eyes as the boy somehow managed to escape his family’s hands.
“I can’t Pa!” insisted Joe when he was on his feet and backing away from the threesome. He turned toward the woods once more, staggering as he stumbled away. “I have to go…again,” he babbled as he sank to the ground.
Quickly Ben was at his son’s side and helped him to his feet. “I’ll be okay…please Pa…” he cried as he tried to pull free of his father’s fingers, which had tightened around his arm.
Ben noted the tears that filled the hazel eyes and the pleading look that his son gave him and he dropped his hand.
“Alright, son, I’ll be close by if you need me,” Ben relented and then glanced back at Adam and Hoss who stood motionless and watched as Joe scooted away to hide in the darkness and tend to his business.
Ben stepped back into the glow of the campfire and stood with Adam and Hoss, waiting patiently for Joe to come forth from the murkiness. They could hear his moaning and then suddenly it sounded as if someone had been wounded when the piercing scream reached the ears of Joe’s family.
Together as one, Ben, Hoss and Adam raced into the woods. Joe’s moans had ceased and no movements in the brush gave any hints as to where the youngest Cartwright might be. Ben held out his arm preventing Hoss and Adam from moving forward.
“Joseph?” he called to the obscure world of blackness that shrouded the forest.
“Over here, Pa,” Adam called, leading the way. “I can barely hear him.”
Just a few steps and Adam almost tripped over his brother who was lying face down. He had fallen and luckily the natural carpeted floor had prevented him from cracking open his head. Adam dropped to his knees and turned Joe over onto his back.
The boy was pale, with bright red blotches on his cheeks, a sure sign that his body was burning with fever. Joe moaned softly and tried to open his eyes, but they were too clouded to see whom it was that held him.
“Pa?” he whispered weakly.
“No, it’s me, Little Buddy, Adam,” replied his brother. “Let’s get you back to camp.”
“Let me carry’em for ya,” Hoss said as he scooped Joe up in his arms and headed back toward the fire.
Joe lay limp within the folds of his brother’s massive arms. When they reached the fire, he glanced up and tried to smile at Hoss but he was too weak to make the effort and he closed his eyes to stop the build up of tears. With loving care, Hoss lowered Joe back onto the blanket where he had minutes ago been laying and stepped aside as his father covered Joe for the second time. With Ben, Adam and Hoss bending over Joe, they traded worried and anxious glances.
“Hoss, make some coffee, and then you two try to get some sleep, I have a feeling that it’s going to be a long night,” ordered Ben as he soaked his neckscraf with cool water and wiped Joe’s face.
For the remainder of the night, Joe had been relatively quiet. His tossing and turning, moaning and groaning had continued until nearly daybreak when it seemed as if the boy had slipped into a deep sleep. Ben placed his hand to Joe’s brow and sighed deeply, the fever had climbed even higher than the evening before. Ben adjusted the covers around Joe and then slipped silently over to his oldest son.
“Adam,” he whispered as he gently shook Adam’s shoulder. “Wake up, son,” Ben said softly.
Adam groaned and pulled his hat down further covering his eyes. Ben couldn’t help but smile. Carefully he lifted the rim of Adam’s black hat.
“Son, wake up,” Ben said again.
This time Adam’s dark hazel eyes opened and he smiled slightly when he spied his father bending over him.
“I’m sorry to wake you son, but I need you to get up.”
Adam cast anxious eyes over at Joe and then back to his father. “How’s the boy?”
“Not good Adam. That’s why I need you to get up,” whispered Ben. “It’s almost daylight and I need you to ride home.”
“Home? But that’s more than a day’s ride,” Adam said seriously.
“Yes, I’m aware of that, but alone, you could cut the time in half. I want you to go home; there are certain things I need to care for Joe. You tell Hop Sing that I need the bottle of laudanum that he keeps hidden away, and tell him to send the ingredients for several mustard poultices. I’ll need some flaxseed and some linseed-meal, just in case. Oh, and plenty of rounds of cloth to put the poultices in,” Ben took a deep breath. “Adam, I need milk and eggs, sugar and a small decanter of brandy,” Ben added.
Adam saw his chance to butt in and made good his attempt. “Pa…what’s wrong with Joe, why all these herbs and the groceries?” he asked worriedly.
Before Ben had a chance to explain, Joe cried out. When Adam and Ben turned, Joe was raised up on one elbow and had begun to heave violently. Immediately, his father and brother were by his side. Ben stepped over his son and knelt down behind Joe, holding his forehead with his hand to prevent Joe from spewing all over on himself. Adam quickly wet his neckscarf with cool water and when Joe had stopped vomiting, he carefully wiped away the spittle from his brother’s face.
With care Ben and Adam helped Joe lay back down and Adam kicked the soft dirt over the puddle of vomit.
“We’ll move him before you go, son,” Ben told Adam.
Adam motioned for his father to follow him, and while Joe rested, Ben and Adam spent several moments by the fire, talking in soft tones. “Adam, please, I need you to get going…”
“Why Pa? Aren’t you going to tell me what’s wrong with him before I do?” quizzed Adam.
Ben pinched his lips tightly together and nodded his head. “I’m positive that your brother has the cholera.”
“WHAT!” Adam all but shouted. “How…I mean when…”
“He must have contracted it back at the village. With the horrible conditions, the waste, the filth, and the unclean water, Joe must have drunk some, not knowing. He has all the symptoms, son, I’ve seen it before, plenty of times; and Adam, time is of the essence,” explained Ben.
Adam nodded his head. “I understand, I’ll leave right away…what about you and…them,” he asked, tossing his head in the direction of his two brothers.
“Hoss and I will fix a travois so that Joe can be carried and then we’ll meet you late tonight at that grove of spruce pine, down by the lake, we’ll have plenty of water there. Adam,” Ben placed his hand over his son’s arm. “Don’t talk to anyone other than Hop Sing, and don’t get too close to him. When he gives you the things I need, tell him to ride into town and tell Doc Martin to meet us in the grove. Now go.”
“Don’t worry Pa, I’ll avoid people and I’ll tell Hop Sing to explain to Paul privately. I’d hate for this to get out and start rumors of an epidemic.”
“Yes, I’d hate to see that happen as well,” Ben agreed.
Ben pivoted on his heels as Joe pushed himself up and began to vomit again. As Ben rushed to his ailing son’s side, Adam watched horrified at the force that wracked his brother’s body. The sight and sound of his brother’s retching turned his stomach, not because his own was weak but because of the suffering he witnessed on his brother’s face. Snapping out of his stupor, Adam hurried to gather his things and then to saddle his horse.
“I’ll meet you tonight, Pa, I might be late, but I’ll be there…take care of my little buddy!” he called as he spurred Sport into a gallop.
“Where’s he goin’?” Hoss asked, waking at last to find his father bending over Joe. “What’s ailin’ him? He still sick?”
Hoss crawled from his warm bed and sauntered over to his father and brother. The piteous sounds of his brother retching filled his ears and tore at his heart. Hoss dropped to his knees beside his father and took Joe’s trembling body into his hands.
“I’ll hold’em, Pa, you get him some water.”
Ben nodded his head and grabbed the canteen and sloshed water onto the already dampened cloth.
“Take it easy Short Shanks, ya gonna be fine,” cooed Hoss in a soft voice.
When the vomiting stopped, he allowed Joe to lean back against him and rest. Taking the cloth from his father’s hand, Hoss tenderly wiped clean his brother’s face.
“Thanks,” Joe muttered softly.
“Come on, can ya stand up for a minute? I think Pa wants to move your bedroll, ya sorta made a mess of things here,” Hoss explained as he carefully hauled Joe to his feet. “Steady now, just lean on ole Hoss and ya’ll be fine, I won’t let ya fall.”
Joe did as instructed and allowed his weight to be held up by his bigger brother. He turned his head upward and smiled weakly.
“Sorry about the mess,” he apologized.
While Hoss led Joe to the opposite side of the campfire, Ben quickly grabbed the blankets and scattered dirt over the mess where Joe had been sick. Minutes later, he spread the blankets out and motioned for Hoss to let Joe lay back down.
“Hoss, I’ll fix Joe some coffee while you gather some limbs to make a travois. He’ll need to lie down, I think riding will be too hard on him, he’s so weak,” whispered Ben, watching Joe trying to get comfortable. He glanced up at Hoss and saw the worry he felt reflected back at him in his son’s blue eyes.
“We have to hurry, Hoss, do you understand?” muttered Ben.
“Yessir, I heard ya tell Adam, cholera, ain’t it?” Hoss asked, brushing his large beefy hand across his face.
“That’s what I believe it to be, yes.”
“Then let’s get a move on!” Hoss turned and walked off into the woods to begin his search for the needed limbs.
It took Hoss a couple of hours to chop the limbs for the travois and then fit the pieces together in order to make it strong enough to carry his sick brother. In the meantime, Ben had been busy mixing up something that he hoped Joe could eat and keep in his stomach. It had been several hours since Joe had taken any nourishment and Ben knew that already his son was becoming dehydrated from the loss of fluids in his system. With the high fever, the diarrhea and then the onslaught of vomiting, Joe was going down too quickly to suit his father. Joe had become lethargic and had started to complain of his head hurting as well as the constant stomach and leg cramps. Ben worried that his son might not survive long enough to get him proper medical care.
When Ben had finished washing Joe’s face, Joe opened his eyes. “Morning son,” Ben said, willing his own face to smile down at his son.
“Pa?” Joe said, his voice weak.
“Take it easy, son, we’re about ready to leave and then we’ll get you some proper help,” Ben assured the boy. “Here, try to drink some water, Joe; you need all the liquids you can take.” Ben gently helped Joe to raise his head and then tipped the lip of the canteen to Joe’s mouth.
When Joe had satisfied his thirst, Ben gently lowered his head. “Want to try to eat something?”
Joe had his eyes closed and shook his head. “No,” he whispered. “Stomach…hurts,” he cried without opening his eyes.
Ben frowned, Joe needed to eat, but there would be no forcing him decided Ben. For now, he’d have to be satisfied that Joe had at least been able to take a drink, now the question was, could he keep it down?
“Alright, son, you just rest while Hoss and I finish getting our gear packed.” Ben started to rise, but was stopped when Joe covered his father’s hand with his own.
The boy had opened his eyes and Ben could see the fright in the deep wells that had filled with tears. His fingers entwined themselves with his son’s.
“What’s wrong, son?” Ben asked softly, brushing back the wild locks of chestnut hair that had been plastered to his son’s brow during the night.
“I’m…dying…ain’t I, Pa?” Joe asked as the tears began to seep down the sides of his face.
Ben’s heart lurched and he had to swallow. “No, you’re not dying, son,” Ben said with compassion, hoping that the fear that he felt was hidden from his son’s eyes.
Ben saw how Joe’s eyes searched his face. “It’s alright, Pa…I ain’t afraid…much,” muttered Joe.
Ben swallowed again and felt the sting of tears in his own eyes. His son was dying, slowly and painfully, but he couldn’t let Joe know that, he had to keep encouraging his son to fight.
“Joseph, there’s no need to be frightened. You’re not going to die, not if I can help it, do you understand? Now please, don’t think like that. You have to try to hold on just a little longer, until we meet up with Adam, he’ll have everything I need to help you, plus the doctor will be there as well,” Ben told his son.
Joe’s fingers released his father’s; he was too weak to keep clinging to the gentle hand that had always been a soft and tender touch.
“Okay Pa…I’ll try…but…but, please…don’t be mad…if I can’t…and Pa? Don’t grieve for me…please?” sobbed Joe, his voice thick with emotion.
Ben felt as if his mouth had been stuffed with cotton, his tongue was thick and he could not force words to surface. He nodded his head and leaned down, placing a quick kiss to Joe’s brow. When he raised his head, Joe’s eyes were closed.
By the time that Hoss and Ben had made Joe comfortable on the travois, Joe was sleeping soundly. Ben tucked the blankets about Joe and carefully affixed the ropes used to keep Joe from sliding off the makeshift carrier. Once Ben felt sure that Joe was as comfortable and safe as he could be, he motioned for Hoss to mount up.
They made their way slowing along the winding path, following the river as they ambled along. They had been riding for quite sometime when Joe began to moan loudly and tug at the ropes that restrained him.
“Whoa,” Ben jerked back on Buck’s reins, pulling the horse to a sudden stop. Buck had barely stopped when Ben jumped from his horse and rushed to his son’s mount and forced Cochise to stop as well. Ben rushed to his son’s side.
“Pa…Pa…” Joe moaned frantically.
Ben knelt down, his hand gently brushing against Joe’s cheek. “Shh…it’s okay, son, we’re almost there, just…”
“Up…please…I…need to…Ohhhh…” Joe began to weep openly. He thrashed his head from side to side and tried to move his arm upward to cover his face.
Hoss knelt on the opposite side and looked worriedly from his father to his brother. Quickly, to stop Joe from thrashing around his arms, he loosened the knots in the ropes. Joe’s arm went directly to his face, using it to shield his embarrassment from his family.
“Pa,” whispered Hoss.
“I know Hoss…Joe, it’s okay, sweetheart, I’ll get you cleaned up, don’t cry,” Ben tried to soothe his sobbing son.
“Pa…” sobbed Joe, “I…tried to…get up…” Joe’s sobs were deep and heart wrenching and they tore at his father’s heart.
Hoss swiped his hand across his own face and once Joe was freed from the ropes, he tenderly pulled Joe upward and helped him to stand.
“It’s alright now Punkin; just let me and Pa take care of ya,” muttered Hoss.
Joe continued to weep, he leaned his face into his brother’s massive chest, one hand clinging tightly to his brother’s vest and being sure to keep his face covered with his other hand as he hid his face from what he believed to be prying eyes.
Hoss’ beefy hand covered the back of Joe’s head as he kept it pressed against his heart.
“Shh…don’t cry, Joe; it’s okay, ya just sick and couldn’t help it,” whispered the big man with the tender heart.
“Please…” sobbed Joe, “don’t tell…anyone…please, Hoss…please.”
“Aw…shucks, little brother, I ain’t gonna tell nobody, not even ole Adam, I promise Short Shanks, now hush that there cryin’ afore ya make me cry!” assured Hoss.
While Hoss held his brother, Ben stripped away the soiled blankets and dunked them up and down in the creek to wash out the mess. Hoss had finally gotten Joe to calm down and helped him strip and clean himself up.
Hoss shared his brother’s embarrassment and kept his eyes turned so as not to fuel Joe’s humiliation that he was so obviously feeling. Ben finished with the blankets and rolled them up, saving them to dry later. He rummaged through the supplies on the packhorse and found two more blankets that he used to wrap around Joe, who had begun to shiver violently.
“We need to keep moving, Hoss. Joe, you ready to go son?” Ben asked as he squatted down next to Joe who huddled in the blankets, trying to get warm.
Joe, the tears still moist on his face, refused to look at his father. Ben gently patted his son’s back, understanding his son’s self-consciousness.
“Come on, Joe, lets get you settled back down and we’ll be on our way. Shouldn’t take much longer,” he explained as he took Joe’s arm and Hoss took the other.
Joe turned his head when he was settled back onto the travois and closed his eyes. His head was pounding, his legs hurt and felt like rubber, his stomach churned and he feared a repeat of what had just happened. His mouth felt dry and he knew his temperature was still raging. As he felt the travois begin to move, Joe moaned softly.
‘Please God…don’t let me…die.’
Ben gave a sigh of relief when they had at last reached the grove of trees. He was somewhat dismayed that Adam had not yet gotten there, but nonetheless, he felt joyful that Joe had made it this far. Now, other than making his son comfortable, there was nothing more to be done, except wait.
Hoss had built a fire while Ben had taken Joe’s soiled clothes and blankets and a bar of lye soap from their supplies, down to the river and washed them the best he could. Dusk had ascended upon them almost at the same time that they had arrival at the meeting place. The night air had grown cool and Ben hurried to hang the blankets near the fire in hopes that they would dry quickly, lest Joe need more to keep him warm.
Ben returned to the travois where Joe still slept and gazed down into his son’s face. Ben was appalled by what he saw. Joe’s flesh had turned ashen causing the complexion to appear gray. The sensitive area under Joe’s eyes had darkened and formed black circles around his eyes. When Ben pressed his ear to Joe’s chest to listen to his son’s heartbeat, he was frightened at how rapid the organ beat its rhythm.
When he looked up, he saw Hoss watching him and saw the accumulation of tears that shined in his blue eyes. Ben forced himself to smile at Hoss, and rested a heavy hand on the young man’s shoulder.
“Adam should be here soon, Hoss, try not to worry.”
Hoss moved away from the tender touch and walked a short distance away. Ben allowed the boy his time alone, knowing that what Hoss feared most in his young heart, was the same fear that he himself was feeling as well. If Joe didn’t get the proper medical care soon, within the next few hours, his life would end here, in the middle of no man’s land. Ben gritted his teeth, fighting back his desire to break down and cry, for he had to stay strong, his son…sons…needed him.
Less than an hour later, Ben stood quickly to his feet. Hoss had heard the approaching wagon as well and moved to stand beside his father. As Adam guided the team into the light of the fire, Hoss clapped his hand against his father’s back, smiling as relief washed over him.
“Thank the good Lord!” muttered Hoss as he hurried up to the wagon.
“Howdy, Adam,” greeted Hoss, his smile spreading across his face.
Adam jumped from the seat and shook his brother’s hand. He turned to his father, noting the forced smile on Ben’s weary face.
“I tired to hurry, Pa…how’s Joe?” inquired Adam as he began grabbing the needed articles from the back of the wagon and handing some to Hoss.
“I know you did son, and I thank you. Joe’s sleeping for now, he’s had a long hard day, and I’m afraid, he’s not doing too well right now,” Ben said.
Adam glanced over to where he could see Joe lying on the travois. “I brought everything that you asked for, and then some. I brought more blankets, clean clothes and, as you can see, the wagon to get him home quicker.”
Adam had carried several parcels over close to the fire and sat them down. As he turned to go to Joe, he was stopped by his father’s hand on his arm. Adam turned, glanced down at how tightly his father’s fingers were squeezing his arm and then noted the worried expression that bore into his father’s face.
“What’s wrong?” he asked cautiously.
“Where’s the doctor, Adam? Joe needs the doctor…for God’s sake, your brother is dying!” Ben yelled and then realizing that he had voiced aloud his inner fear, he softened his voice.
“He needs more than what I can do for him, Adam! Where is Paul?”
Adam cringed at the urgency he heard in Ben’s voice and tried to avoid looking into the dark eyes that sought his. He was afraid to see the haunted and desperate look in the chocolate eyes.
“He’s on a call, Pa. He’s not expected back until in the morning.” Adam raised his head and peered into his father’s eyes. “I’m sorry, Pa…Mrs. Martin said she would send him immediately, just as soon as he got home.”
Ben took a deep breath and dropped his gaze. His eyes had pooled with tears and he lost what was left of his determination.
“We can do it, Pa…I know we can,” whispered Adam as he placed both hands on his father’s shoulders. “Joe’s depending on us…come on…you start mixing that poultice and I’ll check on the boy.” Adam squeezed the trembling shoulders tightly, forcing his father to look up at him.
He saw the lone tear that slipped over the dam when Ben nodded his head. “Of course, you’re right. Let’s get to work.”
Hoss stayed with Joe while Ben mixed together a concoction of the milk that Adam had brought along, the yoke of an egg, sugar and stirred in a few drops of brandy. Joe needed nourishment quickly and Hop Sing had long ago explained how quickly the mixture could bring new life to an ailing body.
Ben carried the cup carefully over to Joe. “Can you get him to raise his head, son?” he asked Hoss.
“Sure, Pa. Come on short shanks, Pa’s got ya somethin’ good,” Hoss claimed, but seeing the mixture, Hoss scrunched up his nose.
“Open your mouth son and drink this. You’ll feel better with something in your tummy,” Ben issued as he placed the edge of the tin cup to Joe’s lips.
Joe, more unconscious than conscious, obediently opened his mouth. When the first drop of formula touched his tongue, Joe tried to pull his head back, but Hoss held him gently but firmly.
“Oh no ya don’t, ya gotta drink this first,” he calmly ordered his younger brother.
“Yuk,” muttered Joe as he began swallowing the mixture.
It took several tries, but finally Ben had been able to coach his son into taking the entire cupful. Ben smiled and gently pushed back the same stray locks of hair that were forever falling out of place.
“Good boy, Joe,” whispered Ben.
“Here Pa, I finished the porridge poultice,” said Adam joining his father and brother at Joe’s side. “I dusted it good with that ground mustard, just like Hop Sing said to do.”
“Good.” Ben took the poultice pack from his son and turned to Joe, moving away the blanket that covered his upper torso. “Joe, this might get a mite warm, but it will help with the stomach cramps. Try to lay still, son.”
“Hum…” groaned Joe and then flinched slightly when the heat from the poultice began its magic on his flesh.
Adam had moved away and in seconds returned with four more poultices, smaller than the first. “Here, Hop Sing said to be sure to put these on the souls of his feet and the calves, it’s to stop the spasms in his legs.”
Ben helped Adam adjust the poultices as Hop Sing had instructed and then covered Joe with warm blankets.
“Pa, I told Doc’s wife about Joe, and she sent these,” Adam pulled a tiny vile from his vest pocket and placed it in his father’s outstretched hand.
“What are they?” Ben asked, pulling the miniature cork from the top opening and shaking the tiny pills out into the palm of his hand and then looking at Adam.
“They’re cholera pills. She said Paul has had great success using them in the past. She said if the laudanum mixture doesn’t stay down, to use these. It says on the bottle to take two pills at first and one every half hour to relieve the pain in his stomach.”
“I didn’t know Paul had anything like this. But first, I’ll try mixing the laudanum. That at least might help him rest better.”
Ben rose and moved to the supply box and began digging through the contents until he found what he was looking for. Ben unfolded the paper that Hop Sing had sent along with instructions on how to mix the remedy.
“A table-spoonful with sixty drops of laudanum mixed into a glass of cold water,” read Ben. “Whew…sixty drops? That’s what it says…” he mused and grabbed the cup, for there was no glass. He poured the cup to the rim with cool water from his canteen and then carefully stirred in the required amount of laudanum.
“If this fails to give relief, repeat with two spoonfuls with thirty drops of laudanum every half hour,” read Ben aloud. “Surely he meant teaspoonfuls…”
Ben carried the cup and the tablespoon over to Joe. Joe was moaning loudly and both Adam and Hoss were trying to quiet the boy.
Worried, Ben fell to his knees, nearly spilling the precious medication. “What’s wrong?”
“Hot…hot…” whined Joe. “Burns…”
“Take the poultices off; it’s burning his skin,” ordered Ben.
Adam pulled back the blanket and grabbed the poultice from his brother’s stomach while Hoss quickly removed the ones on his brother’s legs and feet.
“There ya go little buddy,” Adam said while caressing his brother’s cheek. “Let me hold your head up just a little, Pa has some more medicine for you.”
Joe began shaking his head from side to side, trying to free himself from Adam’s hand.
“Nooo…” he whined.
“Joseph, listen to papa, you have to take this…it will make you feel better, son,” ordered Ben gently.
Ben placed the tip of the spoon to Joe’s lip, but as Joe struggled, the spoon was knocked from his father’s hand.
“Joe, please, stop fighting me,” Ben stated in a more authoritative voice which instantly brought Joe’s struggling to an end.
“That’s a good boy, now open your mouth for Pa,” Ben said in a less demanding tone.
Joe’s lips parted and this time Ben was able to empty the spoonful of medication into his son’s mouth.
Ben smiled down at his son, whose eyes, though clouded, returned the look. “In a little while, if the cramps and the vomiting doesn’t stop, I’ll have to give you some more. But this should help you feel better son.”
Joe closed his eyes, barely able to nod his head in agreement.
“I’ll fix some fresh poultices, just in case,” Adam said to his father. “Hoss, you keep him bathed off, he’s still burning with fever.”
Twice more, before Joe fell into a deep, drug induced slumber, Ben repeated the laudanum treatments which, for the time being, seemed to stop the ill effects of the cholera.
The night seemed as if it would never end, but at last from centuries of following the exact pattern, designed by the master of the universe, the stars melted away and the sun crept over the highest tips of the mountain peaks. Ben stood at the shoreline of Lake Tahoe, alone and silent as he watched the sun’s rays cast their golden glow onto the water below. The water lapped gently at the shore, the sparkling crystals upon the surface of the water reminded Ben of diamonds as he marveled at the Lord’s handiwork.
His heart, heavy with despair and gloom, pounded deep within his chest. Joe had showed little or no improvement, his breathing over the last few hours had become labored and with each breath that his son struggled to suck in, his body weakened that much more. Ben was unaware of the tears that dampened his face as he stood solemnly, wondering why a God so supreme, which could create such majesty, could do nothing to ease a young man’s suffering. For the first time in his life, Ben Cartwright questioned the Lord and Master of his life.
‘Why Lord? What good would it do, to take him from me? I would not love or serve you any less; my heart would only ache from the emptiness his dying would leave behind. I would have to watch my sons go through life without the brother that you freely appointed to them nineteen years ago and I would have to explain why you chose to take Joseph from us. But how can I do that for them, when I cannot even understand why, myself? Lord, I’ve lived my life the best I’ve known how, I’ve worked hard, and I’ve tried to be fair and honest with my fellow man, and my family. I’m not trying to tell you my virtues, you already know them and I know you are aware of my faults. What I’m trying to say…to ask…only that you take me instead. Joseph is so young and full of life and has the makings of a fine man. The edges are somewhat rough still, but in time and with love and patience, he will one day become, a man that will leave his mark in this world. A man that I think even you would be proud of, I know I am. I’ve never asked you for much, not even when you called my wives home to be with you, only strength to suffer through it. But I find my strength has slowly dwindled, as Joseph’s life is ebbing away now. I’m not sure anymore Lord, just how much more heartache I can stand. I know you promised never to put more upon us than what we are able to bear, but my cross is heavy Lord. I’ve stumbled along the way, and I fear that if you take my child, I shall never rise above it, for I would prefer death to life without my son. I am asking now…if you must, a soul to claim, then take mine…I offer my life for my son’s, willingly, so that he might live.’
Ben brushed away the dampness at last and glanced up once more at the sun. He felt the warmth of the rays as they washed over his body. The sun became so radiant that Ben was forced to shield his eyes from the brilliance. All around him the forest had fallen silent and it was as if he were alone in the world standing in the presence of God. Ben felt his body tremble yet he was far from being cold. The sparrows hushed their singing, a rabbit hid himself from the burning light and Ben dropped to his knees, humbled, his head bowed in reverence, and slowly, he began to pray.
‘Forgive me Lord. Not my will, but Thine be done.’
Ben sensed, rather than felt, the hand that gently touched his head. “Arise Benjamin, for thou has found favor with God. Because of thy unselfish love, this day, thy son shall live.”
Ben slowly stood to his feet, his body quivered as he tilted his head upward. The sun blinded his vision and Ben was forced to drop his head to prevent his eyes from being blinded by the gentle radiance.
Ben blinked and when he raised his head, the sun still shone brightly, but the warmth and soft illumination of light was gone. Ben rubbed his eyes, not sure of what had just transpired, but felt lighter, as if the burden of Joe’s pending death had been lifted from his shoulders.
The sound of his name being shouted drove Ben from his musings as he began running back toward the camp. The worst of his fears lingered within his heart as he crashed through the brush.
‘Joe has died, Joe has died,’ his mind declared.
‘Joseph lives, Joseph lives,’ his heart sang softly.
By the time that Ben broke through to the edge of the clearing where they had set up camp, he was unsure what nemesis awaited him. He stopped, practically stumbling over his own two feet, staring across the fire that separated him from his youngest son.
The care-worn father took another step, and then another until he stood before Adam and Hoss. The pair of brothers blocked him from seeing his youngest son. Adam glanced at Hoss and smiled, Hoss returned the smile and as one, they moved aside, revealing their brother to their father.
“Hi ya, Pa,” Joe muttered in a weak voice.
Ben took one last step and dropped to his knees, gathering the boy into his arms and drawing his son to his heart.
“Joseph…Joseph…oh Joseph,” repeated Ben.
Tears of relief and happiness began to slowly roll down his cheeks to the end of his chin where they dripped unnoticed onto the top of the chestnut curls.
Hoss wiped away his own tears while Adam brushed his hand down the length of his face to give himself time to mask his emotions.
“Looks like I’m not needed here,” a voice from behind them called.
Paul walked slowly to the other side of the camp and smiled at his friends.
Hoss clamped his hand down onto the doctor’s shoulder smiling broadly while Adam stood silently, watching the love that flowed between his father and his youngest brother. His heart sang praises to the angels whom he knew must surely have been standing protectively over his brother throughout the long ordeal.
Ben glanced up and gave the physician a welcoming smile.
“He just woke up,” Ben proclaimed. “It was a miracle…an answer to prayer,” confessed the overjoyed father.
“I’m glad Ben. My wife told me that you suspected cholera…at its worst.” Paul Martin lowered himself and his black satchel to the ground on the other side of Joe.
“Do you think that you could let go of him…for just a minute so that I can check him over?” smiled the doctor.
“I don’t know, I rather like holding on to him,” laughed Ben softly.
He turned Joe’s face up to his, “What do you think son, should I let him look you over?”
Joe grinned mischievously. “I’m not sure…I sorta like you holding me like this.” Joe suddenly became serious. “If I let him do his checking, will you come back and…” his voice faltered and he gulped.
“I’d love too,” whispered Ben.
Paul took only a short time to deem his patient…or rather Ben’s patient, fix to travel. He patted Joe’s shoulder as he rose to his feet.
“Take it slow and easy, young man. You have a long ways to go before you are well, and the minute you get home, I expect you to go straight to bed…and stay there until I tell you otherwise!” glared the doctor.
“I will…I promise,” smiled Joe weakly.
Paul nodded his head and then turned to Ben. “Make sure you get him home today, preferably before dark.” The physician climbed slowly into his buggy. “Make him stay in bed, Ben…or I’ll hold you responsible.” Paul laughed and clicked to his horse.
Ben said his thanks and hurried back to his son. Adam and Hoss began breaking camp and left their father and brother alone with one another.
“I cain’t hardly believe that he’s gonna be alright, big brother,” Hoss said as he began packing their supplies.
Adam glanced over his shoulder and then smiled at Hoss, nodding his head in Joe and Ben’s direction. “Neither can I, Hoss, but look.”
Hoss gazed in the direction of his family members and then smiled broadly. “Ain’t that a purty sight?” he laughed softly.
Ben sat next to Joe, their legs stretched out before them, and his arm draped protectively across Joe’s back. Joe had leaned over, resting his head on his father’s shoulder, Ben’s fingers lightly caressing his son’s face while they talked softly.
“Yeah, Hoss, it’s quite a sight, Papa Cartwright and his baby. Guess some things never change, do they?” Adam said.
When he turned away, his face hidden from his middle brother’s view, Adam quickly dabbed at the tears that had so surprisingly filled his eyes. He wouldn’t cry he scolded…there was no need, the crisis had past and he need not worry about being strong, not until the next time.
Dedicated to the memory of Michael Landon
Though he’s gone, he certainly is not forgotten.