Summary: Ben buys a mine from a friend, but trouble seems to dog it. The worst happens when the mine collapses – with all three sons inside.
Word Count: 11,775
“Run!” Adam thundered, giving both his brothers a hefty shove in the back. “Run!”
Neither of them needed any coaxing and they ran towards the entrance of the mine, knowing that there was no chance of getting out of there before the roof caved in. Yet they ran, hoping against hope that they would make it. But it was too late. There was a dull roar, and the roof came down in chunks around them. The air was filled with choking dust, and the last thing Adam heard before consciousness left him was his brother Joe screaming in agony.
The ground shook, and a cloud of dust exploded from the mine entrance. Whirling, Ben Cartwright stared in horrified disbelief. The mine foreman burst from his office shack and began yelling to the men. He rang the big bell, the signal for a mine disaster. “Mr. Cartwright,” he gasped. “Thank goodness you’re here.” He belatedly became aware of his boss’s unnatural stillness and pallor. “Mr. Cartwright? What’s wrong?”
“The boys,” Ben stuttered. “Little Joe, Hoss and Adam. They were in there.” He sank down onto the wet grass, unable to stand a moment longer. He had seen mine disasters before. He had pulled his boys from them before. But never had he seen an explosion like this. He forced his eyes up to meet those of his foreman. And there he saw the truth he feared to face. His boys had almost certainly died in there.
The miners were all gathered outside the entrance. Each of them carried picks, shovels and ropes. Despite the danger, they were going into the mine to look for the Cartwright boys, as well as the two missing men who had been setting the charges. Ben stood a few feet away, fretting his strength away in small, useless movements. He knew he would be no use in the enclose quarters of the collapsed mine shaft, but that made him feel helpless. He was usually at the forefront of any rescue operation. But the foreman, Jack Douglas, had taken command, and one of the first things he’d done was summon the doctor from Virginia City. Paul Martin had come at once, and had given Ben a mild sedative powder. More than that, he couldn’t do, but he stood close by his old friend, trying to support him through this crisis. Paul feared that the loss of his sons would kill Ben.
“They’re goin’ in,” a voice said, and Ben forced himself to look at these brave men who were risking their lives to retrieve bodies.
“Sit down, Ben,” Paul said, taking his arm gently, and pushing him towards the back of a convenient wagon.
“How can I stand it, Paul?” Ben asked. “How much more can one man take?” His fists clenched. “I lost my wives, and the boys lost their mothers. Must I lose them, too?”
There was no answer that Paul could give, and he blinked back tears. “Sit down,” he said, his voice hoarse. “It’ll be a long night.”
Stirring back to consciousness, Hoss Cartwright, the tall, middle son, wondered what had happened to him. He tried to move, but nothing happened. It was pitch black, and Hoss hated the darkness. With a gargantuan effort, he moved his right hand, and wiped his face. There was something warm and sticky running down his face, and he guessed it was blood. There was no pain, but he couldn’t feel his feet. He was lying on his left side, and couldn’t budge at all, apart from bringing his hand to his face.
Drawing in a deep breath, Hoss immediately inhaled a huge quantity of dust, and began to cough violently. The cough awakened his system, and everything began to hurt. When he finally had the cough under control, Hoss realized that he could feel his feet again, his toes wiggled, and he felt a surge of relief. After experimenting, he decided that he had a few broken ribs, and perhaps a broken leg, but his spine was intact.
More cautiously, he drew in a breath, and began to shout for help. His voice seemed to stop right in front of him, and as he grew light-headed, he realized that his supply of oxygen was limited. He thought he had enough air for several days, but not if he kept shouting. But he had to try one more thing. He had to see if his brothers were alive. “Adam! Little Joe! Can you hear me?”
Straining his ears, Hoss could only hear his own heart beat. Somewhere behind him, another small fall of rocks trickled down. But the one thing he longed to hear was absent – the reassuring voices of his brothers.
“How come the boys were in the mine?” Paul asked. It was pitch dark now, the night lit only by the bobbing lanterns of the men gathered outside the mine.
Rousing himself from the stupor he was in, Ben focused with difficulty on Paul. “I bought the mine from John Harvey about a month ago,” he began. “It’s a rich load, but John’s wife was unhappy here, and he wanted out. He didn’t like the thought of being an absentee owner; too many things can go wrong. So I bought it.”
Looking inward, Ben saw again in his mind’s eye the day that he told the boys he’d bought the Pine Tree Mine……
“Why?” Adam asked. “I thought we agreed that we had enough mining interests.” As was often the case nowadays, Adam’s tone was quite belligerent. Ben knew how frustrated Adam often was, and tended to overlook his tone. But this wasn’t one of those times. He gave Adam a cool look.
“John Harvey was wanting to sell in a hurry. He offered it to me at a price I couldn’t refuse. It’s a good load, and we’ll make money from it.”
“But, Pa, who’s going to oversee it?” Adam demanded. “Neither you nor I have the time, and these two can’t be trusted.”
Unfortunately for Adam, the two in question, Joe and Hoss, didn’t rise to the bait. Joe gave Adam an unfriendly look, but said nothing, remembering his manners for a change, and not speaking with his mouth full. He certainly didn’t want to oversee the mine. He hated the dark, dank mines with a vengeance. His heart lay with the land, and the horses in particular. Hoss said nothing, because he, too, hated the mines. As a child, Hoss had been afraid of the dark, and a lingering unease persisted even yet. Hoss generally liked to think things through before committing himself, but in this case, his mind was already made up.
“That was an unnecessary comment,” Ben said, stiffly. Adam really was unbearable right now. He and Joe were always at the other’s throat. Ben was tired of the constant bickering, and his temper was quite short in consequence. “I hardly think you can say your brothers can’t be trusted, Adam.”
“That wasn’t what I meant,” Adam grouched, the closest he’d come to an apology. “I meant that neither of them are interested in the mine, and so wouldn’t want to spend the necessary time there.”
“Well, you should say what you mean,” Joe snapped. His temper was stretched thin. He and Adam had had a quarrel earlier that afternoon, when Adam found him jumping a new cow pony over a series of bushes and streams. Adam had been irked by the fact Joe was ‘playing’ when he should have been working, and even more irked by the fact that the pony was still a novice. He thought Joe was behaving rashly. Joe, of course, thought the opposite. He was the best horseman of the family, and knew what he was doing on a horse. He had had very few riding accidents. Adam was, even after all those years, reacting to the death of Joe’s mother in a riding accident. Joe was usually more tolerant of his sibling’s foibles, but not that day. There had been a major clash, and Joe had yet to forgive Adam. “Pa knows we aren’t interested in supervising a mine. So do you. But the decision was Pa’s, not yours.”
“Joe,” Ben said, gently, putting his hand on Joe’s arm. The muscle there was corded and taut. He rubbed gently, and the muscle gradually relaxed. But Ben knew Joe was still angry. “Joe is right, Adam. I knew that neither Joe, Hoss nor you would have the time or inclination to spend on the mine. So I hired Jack Douglas to be the foreman. Jack is experienced and trust-worthy, and he’s starting right away. He knows what needs doing in a mine, and it’ll get done, with the reports on our desk every day, if need be! This discussion is closed!”
“Yes, sir,” Adam muttered, but he looked furious. Hoss and Joe looked relieved, although Joe was still throwing black looks in Adam’s direction.
As a distraction, Ben said, “How’s that new pony, Joe? Is he as good at jumping as you thought?”
It was the wrong thing to say. Adam gave Ben a dark look, and excused himself from the table. Joe sent a triumphant look after him, and Ben suddenly knew what they had quarreled about that day. “Sure is, Pa!” Joe exclaimed, enthusiastically. His former bad temper was gone in the blink of an eye. Once again, Ben marveled at the mercurial changes in his youngest son. “I was hearing old Bill Peters is having one of them races over jumps, and there’s a $200 prize. It’s in about a month. I could have the pony trained ready. He’d win for sure.”
“If you think he’ll be ready, by all means, enter him,” Ben encouraged. “Do I gather that you and your brother fought about the pony this afternoon?”
“Yeah, we did,” Joe replied. “He said I was being reckless, and was playing instead of working. I tried to explain, but he wasn’t prepared to listen to me. So I lost my temper, and so did he, and we ended up shouting at each other again. I’m sorry, Pa. I know I said I’d try not to yell at him, but I just lost control.”
“A temper is a hard thing to control,” Ben said, “but you need to keep trying. Think how often it’s got you into trouble.” He smiled, to soften the sting of his words.
“I guess,” Joe admitted, reluctantly. He looked at his father askance, beneath thick sable lashes. A smile broke free, and his dimples showed. “Yeah, I know you’re right, Pa. I’ll try harder, honest.”
“Of course you will, son,” Ben agreed. His heart warmed towards this youngest son, who lived on his nerves, all his emotions close to the surface. It was impossible not to love him, and Ben often had to fight not to be over-protective of him.
Just for once, it wasn’t Joe who was worrying Ben most. It was Adam. His oldest son had led a hard life, until they were settled on the Ponderosa. Yet, Adam never seemed to be truly settled. His 4 years at college had added a polish and sophistication to Adam that were at odds with the rough life he had here. Ben often feared wakening one morning and finding Adam gone for good. Hoss and Joe were both deeply rooted here on the land, but Adam wasn’t. It wasn’t that long ago, after a hunting accident where Adam shot Joe, that Ben had thought he would go for good. But, months later, he was still around. The girl who had helped Adam then – Sheila Reardon – had said she thought Adam would leave with her, until Joe awakened, and called Adam’s name. The power that Joe had always unknowingly had over Adam had exerted itself, and Adam hadn’t left. But Ben knew that one day, Adam would go, and probably never come back.
The evening wore on in its usual fashion, with Joe and Hoss playing checkers, with Joe winning easily. Adam never showed his face, and Ben wondered if he ought to go up and speak to him. In the end, he didn’t. Adam was a man, and would have to come to terms with things along. Ben couldn’t always make the first move. He read his paper in silence, but very little of it made an impression. He was thinking about Adam, and the anger that seemed to burn in him, especially towards Joe. He loved his youngest sibling very much, but wasn’t prepared to treat him like a man. Joe, despite his impulsive nature, was very much a man, and wouldn’t tolerate being treated like a child. Hence the clashes between them. It was an impossible situation.
Things were little better in the morning. Adam was obviously going to cherish his anger, and his presence at the breakfast table flattened the atmosphere totally. Joe had been fairly easy to rouse that morning, and in quite a good humor, for him, but Adam’s dark, brooding presence soon had him scowling.
Just after breakfast, as they were buckling on their gunbelts, Jack Douglas arrived. He looked grim, and the Cartwrights gathered around Ben’s desk to hear his report. “I inspected the mine this morning,” he began. “It needs a lot of work done to it, Mr. Cartwright. It needs twice as many pit props as it’s got. It needs a few more ventilation shafts, too.”
“Well, we’d better get it done,” Ben said. “Adam, leave the herd just now, and go and get the timber crew and get those props cut. We must get them in place before we do anything else in that mine. We don’t want an accident.”
“Right, Pa,” Adam said. Ben was almost surprised that Adam hadn’t said ‘I told you so.’
“The men won’t be happy,” Douglas warned. “When I told them there was work needing done, they just growled.”
“They’ll get paid while I make the improvements,” Ben protested. “Didn’t you tell them that?”
“Yes, sir,” Douglas replied. “But they didn’t believe me. Mr. Harvey used to say the same thing, but he never followed up with it. The men reckon that if they don’t work, they don’t get paid.”
“Hoss,” Ben said, rising to his feet, “you go with Adam and help him. Little Joe, you come with me out to the mine. I have to talk to the men.” He nodded to Douglas, who left.
“Pa, don’t you think it would be better if we all went to the mine?” Adam asked. “The men could get nasty, and Hoss and I are more of a back up than Joe.”
“What does that mean?” Joe flared, his eyes snapping. “Do you think I’ve got the easy job today?”
“That’s enough!” Ben said, angrily. “Adam, I gave you your job. I’m not riding out to the mine to throw my weight around. I don’t want to intimidate those men. I just want to talk to them.”
“Pa, they’re miners,” Adam said. “They can be pretty rough, when they want to be.”
“I’m perfectly well aware of that,” Ben said, stiffly. “Now do as I asked you, so we can get on with providing those props. Every minute you stand here, we’re losing money.”
“Yes, sir,” Adam muttered, and stalked to the door, where he fastened his gun belt and put on his hat before going out and slamming the door resoundingly behind him. Hoss followed, sheepishly. He hated when his family were at odds with each other.
Without saying a word, Joe went to put on his jacket and gun belt. Ben copied him, and they both slipped on their hats before crossing to the barn. As they left the porch, Adam and Hoss rode out of the yard. Hoss waved, but Adam acted as though they weren’t there. Ben sighed. He noticed Joe shooting him a look, but the young man was learning tact, and said nothing.
The atmosphere at the mine was ugly. The men wee milling about aimlessly outside the shaft, muttering to each other. Ben rode up, and eyed Douglas, who had his hand resting conspicuously on his gun butt. “Take it easy, Jack,” Ben said. “We don’t want trouble.” He shot a glance at Joe, whose hand rested on his saddle horn, but still within easy distance of his gun. “You, too, Little Joe.”
“Sure, Pa,” Joe agreed, but his eyes never wavered from the crowd of men.
“Men!” Ben called, sitting taller in his saddle. “I know you’re worried by the news that the mine needs work done to it to make it safer. My sons are out getting the props cut as we speak. Rest assured, you will all get paid, even when you aren’t working below. Your wages are due tomorrow, and will be here tomorrow, in full. No one will be laid off while we do this work. Mr. Douglas will assign a few crews to dig new ventilation shafts, and I hope the rest of you will help in fitting the new props when they come. Please, bear with us. Its your safety I’m thinking of.”
“We’ve heard all this before!” A voice shouted from the safe anonymity of the crowd. “Why should we believe you?”
“You men know who I am,” Ben said. “You know my word is good. Ask anybody around here. They’ll tell you that.”
“I’m not from around here,” said a roughly dressed man at the front. “How do I know that you mean what you say?”
“Ask anyone,” Ben repeated. “I’ll be out here tomorrow with the wages, every cent that’s due to you. I give my word.”
“Well, your word ain’t good enough,” snarled the roughly dressed man, and he lunged at Joe, who was nearest to him. Cochise reared, startled by the sudden movement. Joe tightened the reins, and put one hand on the pinto’s neck. The roughly dressed man grabbed Joe’s arm and pulled him from the saddle.
Between one heartbeat and the next, the crowd had gone from unhappy to being a mob. Ben and Douglas fired a few shots into the air, and some of the men backed away, obviously not wanting any part of the trouble. Unfortunately, the men who had Joe were intent on making trouble. They were new to the mine, having signed up only the previous week. They saw an opportunity to make the new boss do what they wanted, so the mine would be run their way. It was an opportunity they couldn’t resist.
But they hadn’t banked on Joe. Although startled by the sudden assault, he kept his head and fought back. He got in several telling blows on the ringleader, and might well have beaten him in a hand-to-hand contest. But one of the other miners saw how things were going, and hit Joe on the head with his gun butt. Joe went down and out.
But his resistance had been enough, and now the loyal miners were involved, and the scuffle became a full-scale battle. Ben and Douglas fired a few more times, but it soon became clear that the loyal miners were winning. Within a remarkably short time, the fight was over, and the new men were defeated.
His heart in his mouth, Ben ran towards Joe’s prostrate figure on the ground. Gently, he turned him over, noting the blood running down beside his ear. A livid swelling had risen just under his hairline. He groaned, and moved. “Pa?” he muttered.
“I’m here, son,” Ben said, soothingly. He lifted his head and looked at Douglas. “Get the sheriff here to deal with these men,” he said, angrily. He looked round the other men clustered about him. “I promised full wages tomorrow, and until the mine is back working,” he went on, more loudly. “Anyone who doesn’t believe me is free to go.”
“We know you, Mr. Cartwright,” replied one. “We believe we’ll get our wages.”
“Thank you,” Ben said. “Someone give me a hand here.” A couple of men came forward, and Joe was carried carefully into the mine foreman’s office.
It was a couple of hours before Ben and Joe rode slowly home. The sheriff had come from the city and arrested the miners who had caused the scuffle. The others had dispersed – some to their homes, some to work on the new shafts. Ben hoped the unrest was at an end. They would have to work night and day on those props, so the mine could get back into production. For the hundredth time, Ben glanced across at Joe, who rode Cochise as though nothing had happened to him. But his pallor gave him away. The wound on his head had bled stubbornly for quite a while, and Ben wasn’t convinced that it didn’t need stitches. Joe, not surprisingly, had baulked at that, but had finally submitted to having his head bandaged. The white showed beneath the brim of his hat. He caught Ben looking at him, and produced a grimace. “Pa, I’m fine, honest.”
“Of course you are, boy,” Ben agreed, his tone as unconvincing as Joe’s had been. “I was just thinking about the mine.” It was true, he had been. But he had been thinking about what might have happened to Joe at the mine.
When they got back to the ranch, Ben dispatched a hand to find out how Adam and Hoss were getting along, and he sat down to some paperwork. Joe wandered about restlessly for a while, before sitting down abruptly on the settee. Ben, who had been watching him, said, “All right, son?”
“I guess so, Pa,” Joe said, wearily. His fingers strayed to the bandage on his head again. “It just hurts a bit.”
“Why don’t you close your eyes for a minute?” Ben suggested. “Just rest. Lie back there on the settee. Would you like a pillow?”
“That would be great, thanks, Pa,” Joe admitted, and Ben fetched a pillow from the downstairs bedroom. He positioned it carefully behind Joe’s head, and in a short time, noted that his son was sound asleep. He quietly got a blanket, and covered Joe with it.
When Adam and Hoss got back some time later, Joe was still soundly asleep. Ben crossed to the door, and urged his older sons to be quiet. They came in, Hoss looking concerned, Adam looking annoyed, but the bandage shocked them both. A little blood had leaked through after it was put on, and it made the wound look most dramatic. “Is he all right?” Adam demanded, his anger with Joe draining away. His brother looked so vulnerable, lying there.
In a hushed tone, Ben told his older boys what had happened at the mine. Adam’s mouth tightened, but he said nothing. Even he could see that his presence wouldn’t have made any difference to what happened. “We’re making good progress with the props,” he said. “We have two crews going, so they should be down to the mine by the end of the week.”
“That’s great news, son,” Ben said, clapping him on the shoulder. “Thank you.”
The voices had roused Joe, and he blinked sleepily, while pushing the blanket away. “How long have I been asleep?” he asked, sitting up.
The movement was too abrupt, and his head swam alarmingly, and he caught the back of the settee for support. Ben was there in an instant, with Hoss and Adam but a heartbeat behind. Joe was green, and Ben recognized the symptoms of concussion. “Get a basin,” he ordered. “Quickly.” He gently pushed Joe back down. “Take it easy, son,” he said.
“I feel funny,” Joe said, plaintively. He frowned, and a spasm of pain crossed his face. “Oh my head,” he groaned, and lifted his hand to his head. He looked shocked when he touched the bandage, then his brow cleared. “I’d forgotten,” he said, sounding puzzled.
“Don’t worry about it, Joe,” Ben said, soothingly. “You’re concussed, that’s all. Let’s get you up to bed.” He swung Joe’s legs round, and helped him sit up.
“Uh-oh,” Joe said, and grabbed for the basin Adam was holding. He was very sick, and the retching was obviously extremely painful for him. When the sickness had passed, he slumped back on the settee, looking about 16 again. “I’m sorry, Pa,” he breathed.
“Nothing to be sorry about, son,” Ben reassured him. “Hoss, help Joe upstairs, will you?”
“Sure thing, Pa,” Hoss said. “C’mon, Shortshanks.” He slipped an arm under Joe’s shoulders and hoisted him gently upright. He all but carried Joe upstairs.
When Ben came from the kitchen, Adam was waiting for him at the fireplace. “Will Joe be all right?” he asked.
“A few days of rest, and he should be fine,” Ben said.
“We should’ve been with you,” Adam said. “Perhaps this wouldn’t have happened.” He sounded angry again.
“Or it might have been worse,” Ben responded. “Adam, you can’t protect Joe all the time. He’s a man grown, and he takes his risks the same as the rest of us. You don’t like it when you think I’m treating you like a child. So why should Joe like it?”
“Oh, damn it all, Pa, he looks so young!” Adam noticed the frown on his parent’s face at the mild profanity and hastily offered an apology. “Its so difficult to remember that he is an adult.”
“I know,” Ben said, wryly. “As a parent, I’ve had to fight this battle several times, and its not one that I can say I’ve won totally, even yet.” He clapped Adam on the shoulder. “Go and sit down for supper. I’ll join you in a minute, when I’ve got Joe settled.”
Consciousness came trickling back to Adam. He lay for several moments, before he remembered what had happened. Cautiously, he moved all his limbs, and decided that he’d been extremely fortunate, as nothing seemed to be broken. Lifting his head, he winced at the sudden explosion of pain. He battled with nausea for a few moments, as he couldn’t imagine many worse things than being trapped in an enclosed space where he’d been sick.
Getting his stomach under control, for the moment at least, Adam began to explore the confines of his prison by touch. He had a surprising amount space around him, enough to move from his current cramped position on his side. It was pitch black. Adam fumbled through his clothes for a moment, until he found a match. He struck it on the nearest rock, and by its feeble glow, examined his situation. Rocks were piled up all round, but he had quite a bit of space to move around in, and he hoped the air wouldn’t get stale too quickly.
The match guttered and burned at his fingers. He dropped the spent matchstick and the darkness settled back, as oppressive as a blanket. But he could at least visualize where he was, which helped a bit. Tentatively, he called, “Hoss? Joe?”
“Adam? Is that you?” It was Hoss’ voice. He sounded quite close by.
“Yes, are you all right?” Adam eased closer to Hoss’ voice, one arm out in front of him, so he wouldn’t bash his head off unseen projectiles.
“I reckon I’ve got a busted leg and ribs, but I’ll be all right,” Hoss replied. “What about you?”
“I’ll be okay,” Adam answered. “Just got a knock on the head. What about Joe?”
There was no response, and Adam felt a cold hand of fear clutch at his heart. He had no way of knowing if Hoss was telling him the truth. Perhaps he was more badly hurt than he was admitting to, and had passed out from the pain. Or perhaps it was worse, and Joe was dead. Adam gulped in some air. “Hoss?”
“I ain’t seen nor heard Joe,” came the miserable response. “I thought you was both dead, till you called me.”
“Can you move?” Adam asked.
“No,” Hoss said. “Adam, do you think they’ll come in after us?”
“I hope so,” Adam said. “Hoss, we’d better not talk too much. We don’t want to use up more air than we have to. I’ve got quite a bit of space round me, so I’ll keep trying to contact Joe. If you hear him, holler.”
“All right,” Hoss said, and Adam thought he’d never heard his big little brother sound so miserable.
All that week, Joe was confined to bed. He was frequently nauseous the first few days, and slept a great deal of the time. Adam and Hoss continued to supervise the timber operation, and by week’s end, as promised, the first cut timber reached the mine. Ben had been as good as his word and had paid the miners. The unrest had settled a bit, but not gone away entirely. There were still murmurings about the mine being closed temporarily.
The day the first of the new props was carried into the mine, all the Cartwrights were there to see it. Joe and Hoss went only a few feet into the mine, but Ben and Adam went in a little deeper, and saw the new ventilation shafts, and agreed where the props ought to go.
Waiting uneasily outside the mine, Hoss looked at Joe. Aware of his big brother’s scrutiny, Joe gave him a smile. “Hoss, I’m fine, now, honest. Will you stop looking at me like that?”
He did look fine, Hoss admitted to himself. “Dadburnit, Joe,” he said, “I can’t help worryin’ about ya! You’re always in trouble! What’s gonna happen today?”
“Ah, quit worryin’,” Joe responded casually. “Nothin’s gonna happen to me today. Give it a week or two at least.” He threw Hoss a laughing glance, full of mischief, and Hoss couldn’t help but laugh, too.
“Guess you’re right there, Little Joe,” Hoss agreed. “Come on let’s go see how the herd is doin’.”
“I’m with you there,” Joe agreed, and they mounted up and rode out.
Pain was the first thing Joe was aware of. Pain, all down his back and legs. A groan escaped him. For a while, he just lay there and suffered. But gradually, it impinged on his consciousness that something was very wrong. Opening his eyes, all Joe could see was darkness. He caught his breath, and inhaled some dust, which set him to coughing.
The pain was back, hammering at him, as the cough eased. Joe lifted his head from where it was cradled on his folded arms, and strained to see some tiny chink of light in the all-enveloping darkness. There was none. He was lying on his belly, and he felt pulped. He tried to move, to pull himself up to a sitting position, but there was a thousand ton weight on his back, and as he strained, the pain increased. Joe slumped down, exhausted.
For a while, he just lay there, letting everything settle. When the pain was bearable again, he thought about how he came to be in this predicament. It all came back with a flash, and Joe heard again the explosion, and the creaking of the ceiling as it collapsed on top of him, and his brothers. Suddenly frantic with worry, Joe lifted his head and yelled, “Hoss! Adam!”
Silence. Again, he called. “Hoss! Adam!” No response. “Oh, God, please let them be all right,” Joe begged the Almighty. “Please let them be all right.”
For a time, Joe lay wallowing in self-pity. But after a while, his Cartwright common sense reasserted itself, and he lifted his head once more, and felt with his arms, trying to guess how big a space he was in. It wasn’t very big, and Joe knew he would have to keep as still as he could, and not shout too often. Keeping still wasn’t going to be a problem, he reflected, ruefully. He couldn’t move anything below his shoulders, anyway. But not shouting – that was going to prove rather harder.
As always seemed to be the case, when there was a problem with something, everything went wrong. At first the fitting of the new props went well, but then they hit a problem getting the timber from the hills to the mine. There was a huge storm, which flooded several of the creeks, and washed out the road the timber crews were using to get the props to the mine. Work had to be stopped again, while a new road was cut. Some of the lower parts of the mine flooded, and several of the existing pit props were weakened.
With his engineering experience, Adam was spending a lot of time at the mine, supervising the placing of the new struts. His disgust at being ‘lumbered’ with the mine was apparent to all his family, as his temper grew shorter and shorter. He was particularly short with Joe, who seemed to him to be spending an inordinate amount of time training the cow pony for the race. After his experience with a racehorse once before, Adam’s enthusiasm for horse racing had vanished.
However, at last, the timber was once again on the move, and work restarted. It wasn’t just Adam who spent time at the mine. They all did, even Hoss, who became a little less uncomfortable with the darkness. But he and Joe generally tried to keep away. Joe’s distaste for the mine wasn’t entirely to do with the darkness; it also had a basis in the manhandling he had received there.
Resentment was growing among the miners again. The work wasn’t progressing as fast as they wanted it to, and there were murmurings among the men that they would go in and start blasting again, whether the Cartwrights wanted them to or not. Ben was still paying their wages, but that wasn’t enough. They wanted to get the mine moving again. Joe often caught snippets of hastily stopped conversations as he went around by the mine offices, and he passed the news on to Ben and Adam. They were both so busy, they simply shrugged.
Finally, the last of the timber for the struts lay outside the mine, ready to be cut to length and fitted. There had been another hiatus, as the weather had again turned bad, and the deluge of rain that soaked Nevada territory that summer was talked about for years to come. The water lay in stagnant pools on the soaked ground, and footing was treacherous everywhere. There were frequent landslips, and many bridges got washed away. Everyone was wet all the time. It was almost impossible to get clothes dried, and even oiled rain slickers didn’t keep the wet out.
At last, the rain eased, but the water still lay on the land, for the ground was too wet to absorb it all at once. The sun reappeared, and life began to return slowly to normal. “Adam, I want you to get those props moving again today,” Ben said, over breakfast. “We’ll all come out to lend a hand. The sooner we get this going, the better. That mine has cost us a lot of money.”
“All of us?” Joe spluttered, unintentionally covering Adam’s sarcastic comment of “Tell us about it.” Ben cocked an eye at Adam, but he hadn’t heard what he’d said, so let it go.
“Yes, Joseph, all of us,” Ben said, firmly, heading off an argument. “You can work the pony later. This is more important.”
“Yes, sir,” Joe muttered, his eyes downcast.
He was still sulky as they rode towards the mine. Cochise danced eagerly beneath Joe, itching to run, but Joe kept the gelding to a walk. The ground still wasn’t good enough for a flat out run. He had been working the other pony in the corral, where the ground was still quite good, and he hoped the course would have dried out enough for the race the following week.
“I’ll go in and speak to Jack Douglas,” Ben said, as they dismounted and hitched their horses to the rail. “You boys go and see where the men need help. I’ll be over in a minute.” His eye fell on Joe, who was making a face. “Yes, Joseph?” he said, sarcastically, and Joe hastily rearranged his features into their more normal pattern.
“Nothing, Pa,” he lied, giving his father what he hoped was a disarming smile. Ben didn’t look in the least mollified, so Joe ducked his head and followed his brothers into the mine.
“You never learn, do you?” Adam commented.
“Drop dead!” Joe said, venomously. “This has nothing to do with you!”
“Uh-huh,” Adam responded, giving Joe an unfriendly look. His tone was designed to rattle Joe further.
It succeeded. However, Joe had no chance to say anything, as Hoss said, “Adam, look at those men. Are they lightin’ a charge?”
“What?” Adam said, sharply, looking to where Hoss was pointing. Sure enough, two miners knelt there, stuffing dynamite into the wall of the mine. “Stop that!” Adam yelled.
When they had been fitting the pit props, they had worked backwards, and started in the deepest part of the mine, so that work could resume there as soon as possible. The water level had risen with all the rain, and so work hadn’t re-started. But the new props hadn’t yet been fitted to the front of the mine, and the men had chosen the weakest point of the whole structure to begin blasting at.
“Adam,” Joe gasped. “Those men, they’re the ones that Pa sacked, when they tried to start the riot!”
Shooting a glance at Joe, Adam ran towards the men. But they had been seen, and they lit the dynamite. Skidding to a halt, Adam turned round. “Run!” he bellowed, giving both his brothers a hefty shove in the back. “Run!”
Neither of them needed much coaxing, and they ran, knowing that they had no chance of escaping before the charges blew. Moments later, there was a mighty explosion. All three brothers were lifted off their feet. With a mighty roar, the roof caved in on top of them.
It was past midnight now. The men had been working for hours without rest. Somehow, it had come out that the men setting the charges weren’t miners, and Ben looked appalled. Paul found himself keeping a closer eye on his friend as the time ticked by. With each passing minute, he knew the chances of the boys surviving grew less and less.
“They’ve broken through,” came a shout, and Ben was on his feet, swaying dizzily from lack of food and water.
Time passed. That was all Hoss could say. He tried to count the minutes, but was too easily distracted by his fear. Every now and then, he would call, “Adam?” and his brothers deep, reassuring voice would answer. After a time, Hoss found himself crying silently. He had heard no sound from Joe. In fact, he had no idea which direction Joe might be in. He no longer believed, if he had ever believed, that they would be rescued. The pain was wearing him down, and he could feel sweat beading along his forehead. The ground was cold and damp, and his clothes were saturated. He shivered.
“Adam?” he said, once more. “Adam, are you all right?”
“Yes, Hoss, I’m all right,” Adam said, but he didn’t sound all right any more. He sounded sick and tired. Hoss’ anxiety spiraled out of sight. He didn’t think he could bear being here all alone, if Adam passed out or worse – if he died. Hoss took a deep breath, trying to control the panic rising in his breast.
“Adam, I’m scared,” he admitted.
“So am I,” Adam answered. “They’ll come for us, Hoss. I know they will.” But the defeat was there in Adam’s voice, too.
For a time, there was silence again. Hoss dropped into an uneasy doze. He dreamed of the miners coming to rescue him, of seeing daylight again, and of Adam, Pa and Joe being there to greet him. He woke abruptly, suddenly sure he’d heard the chink of metal on rock.
The darkness was still absolute, and Hoss’ heart sank. He bit back another huge sob, which rose in his throat. He had never thought of it ending like this, alone in the dark, not knowing the fate of his brothers. Then the chink of metal on rock came again, and this time, Hoss knew he hadn’t dreamt it.
“Can anyone hear me?” called a voice. It was the most wonderful sound Hoss had ever heard.
“Yes,” he called back, desperately. “I can hear you!”
“Hang on,” said the voice. “We’re pretty near you. Just hang on.”
“They’ve found Hoss,” Douglas reported to Ben. “He’s still alive. They want the doc to go down, ready for when they bring him out.”
“I’m coming, too,” Ben declared, getting unsteadily to his feet. “What of Adam and Joe?”
“Nothing yet,” said Douglas softly.
“If Hoss made it, maybe the others did, too,” Ben said. He took a deep breath. “Let’s go.”
There was no doubt about it, Adam thought, woozily. He had a concussion. He had been sick a few times, and the smell in the enclosed space only made him feel more nauseous. He crouched near the pile of rocks that he thought Hoss was behind, so he could better hear his brother when he spoke. That this ordeal was hard on Hoss, Adam knew only too well. He had often comforted him as a child, when he had woken up, terrified of the dark. If only it was possible to break through the barrier between them, he thought. Then they would at least be together.
He tried. He tried to move the rocks with his bare hands, until his fingers were bleeding and torn, but he only managed to move a few. The bigger rocks would need more people and several levers. Exhausted, he sank back, noticing, almost clinically, that he was panting hard. His exertions had used up some of his precious air. His eye drooped closed and he slept.
Every now and then, Hoss roused him from sleep, asking if he was all right. Each time, they asked if the other had heard anything of Joe, and the answer was always ‘no’. Adam became convinced that his youngest brother was dead, and thought miserably of the heated exchange they had had just seconds before disaster struck.
The silence was oppressive, and Adam found himself recalling details of the accounts books, thinking of the figures he and Ben had gone over so recently. His mind was still foggy, and he knew there was no way he could remember everything. But totting up imaginary columns of figures kept his mind busy, so he didn’t think quite so much about their perilous situation. When the figures began to pall, he recited screeds of poetry that he’d learned by heart. He even sang a hymn or two in his mind.
It was after another period of sleep, that he heard Hoss speaking to someone else. For a moment, he thought he was hallucinating, and shook his head gingerly to be sure he was awake. The stab of pain from his wound assured him he was awake. “Hoss?” he said, suddenly afraid that the ordeal in the darkness had injured Hoss’ mind.
“Adam!” Hoss sounded jubilant. “They’re coming for us! I was talkin’ to them! They’re coming!”
The sudden relief made Adam slide to the ground, unable to sit up any longer. His muscles began to tremble as he relaxed, and he felt tears on his cheeks. After a few minutes, he pulled himself together, and his heart began to ache anew, for he so wished that Joe could be with them.
Although they had been talking to Hoss, it was nearly another 2 hours before there was a sudden flurry of movement, and Paul was summoned to the mine entrance. He refused to allow Ben to go. Although Hoss was alive, they had no idea of his condition, and Paul hoped that the middle Cartwright son would survive being moved.
So it came as a relief to the physician when he saw Hoss awake and alert. The man was filthy, but he had a big smile on his genial face, which broadened as he saw Paul. With a sigh of relief, he knelt by Hoss and examined him. He saw at once that Hoss’ left leg was broken, and badly swollen. In moments he had the pants leg split, and was shouting for water to clean the wound. Not at all to his surprise, he found Ben at his elbow, clasping Hoss’ hand, tears of thankfulness standing in his eyes.
Busying himself with Hoss’ injuries, Paul hoped that Ben wouldn’t ask too many questions. Although Hoss was safe now, there was still the danger of his going into shock. He had a nice little fever going, and Paul shouted for some warm blankets. Working quickly, Paul had Hoss’ leg splinted, his broke ribs bound up, and had given him a dose of laudanum for the pain. Hoss was transferred to a stretcher and put in the back of a wagon, which was standing by to take the boys home, or the bodies to the mortuary.
Fighting against the drug, Hoss kept a determined hold of Ben’s hand. “Pa,” he said, “Adam’s alive. But we ain’t heard a peep from Little Joe.”
Stifling a wince, Paul moved closer. That was just what he’d hoped Hoss wouldn’t manage to say. “That doesn’t mean he’s dead, Ben,” he said, hastily. “The miners were just telling me that it’s an unusual cave-in. There are quite a number of air pockets in it. But because of the amount of loose soil in there, sound isn’t traveling well. Joe might well be still alive.”
“Thank you, Paul,” Ben said, but he clearly didn’t want to hope. He patted Hoss’ hand. “You get on home, boy, and don’t worry. I’ll be back as soon as I can.” From somewhere, Ben found a smile, but his heart was heavy as he watched the wagon lumber away towards home.
The weight of the darkness seemed to be heavier than the weight of the rocks on his back. Joe had tried several more times to free himself, and at last admitted that he might well be doing himself more harm. He couldn’t really feel his legs at all. He found himself gasping for breath, as the weight pressed down on him. The pain was a constant, the only tangible thing he had to hold on to in the darkness.
He had given up trying to shout for help. It cost him too much. He was almost resigned to dying there in the dark. Almost. Joe took the crown as the most stubborn Cartwright, and the love of life was too deeply ingrained in him for him to lay it down so easily. That stubborn spirit kept on hoping that help would come. Just for once, he kept control of his rampant imagination, knowing that if he allowed it full rein, he would go slowly crazy.
For a while, he had, like Adam, recited poetry, but he didn’t have the love of poetry that Adam had, and very few verses came to mind. He quoted off a few hymns, but he could seldom remember more than the first verse. He sang one or two other songs, and hummed some dance tunes that he particularly liked. After a time, he thought about all the girls he’d taken to dances, but the list began to get depressingly long, and he couldn’t always remember all their names.
After that, he thought about the horses. He remembered Satan, the skewbald stallion he had tried, and failed, to tame. Satan had grown warier with every year that passed, and although Joe still rounded up his get, the stallion seldom came close enough for Joe to touch any more. And there was certainly never going to be a repeat of the thrilling ride where Satan had rounded up his mares, with Joe clinging helplessly to his mane. Somewhere in his room, Joe still had the long twist of brown and white hair that had been removed from his clenched fist.
For a while, Joe had managed to forget his dire situation. The warm feeling he’d had while thinking about Satan disappeared as the dampness penetrated his brain again. The pain started up a new chorus. Determinedly, Joe thought about Cochise and the many wonderful times they’d had together. He remembered the time he had first discovered that his pinto liked coffee. He frowned. That was the time they thought Adam had died, and the feelings of loss and helplessness flooded back. Joe shook his head, wincing at the pain, and took charge of his thoughts again.
The new cow pony, unfairly christened Jughead by Hoss, was one of the best jumpers Joe had ever ridden. He knew that they would win the race next week. There was nothing in Virginia City to touch it. A smile touched his lips and was gone. Adam had thought that the time he and Hoss had bought that hayburner, and Joe had beaten them both on the little black cow pony, unimaginatively named Blackie. He had sure had the last laugh that day, he reflected. Adam had threatened to beat the living daylights out of Hoss, after discovering that Hoss had bet against Adam. Joe remembered standing by the stable laughing, with Pa’s warm hand on his shoulder. Yes, it had been a great day, that.
Pa. It was the first time Joe had allowed his thoughts to wander to his parent. He knew that the waiting would be hard on Ben. He had no one to share the burdens with. The boys often hoped their father would re-marry, but somehow, it never came to be. Alone in the dark, Joe admitted that perhaps he might not be so pleased if Pa found someone new to love. It was all very well accepting the idea in the abstract, but when it came to cold reality, Joe had no idea how he would react. He was ashamed of the feelings, but he was honest enough to admit to them, if only to himself. Briefly he wondered if this was how Adam felt when Ben came home from New Orleans with Marie. It must have been quite a shock for both he and Hoss.
It was proving so difficult to control his thoughts. Everything he thought of led back to his family. Tears trickled out of Joe’s eyes, tracking through the dirt on his face. He made no move to wipe them away. He was proud to be able to grieve for his family. Even if he and Adam didn’t always get along, he loved him. The memory of the last words he’d spoke to Adam came to him them, and he gasped with renewed pain. “I didn’t mean it, Adam,” he said.
Dawn had broken before Adam was released from the mine. He was carried out and laid on the stretcher that was waiting. He had a bad head injury, and his hands were torn to ribbons, but he looked fairly well. Like Hoss, he was filthy. Paul examined him, peering closely into his eyes, and feeling round the wound, and being grateful that there were no obvious signs of fracture. Adam would still have to be watched, but his injuries didn’t appear life threatening.
“Have you found Joe?” he asked hoarsely.
They were a stunningly single-minded family, Paul thought wryly. Every single one of them was fixated about Joe’s safety. But then, Joe so often got into serious scrapes, that he felt much the same way himself, and he was only a friend of the family. Yet Joe was entirely capable of taking care of himself, and everyone else, if need be. He wondered, not for the first time, how Joe managed to charm every single person that he met.
“No, Adam,” Ben replied. “We don’t know if he survived or not. The men are going to go on looking for him.”
“We called for him,” Adam said, as though trying to make an excuse. “But he never replied.”
“Drink this,” Paul said, brusquely. He saw tears in Ben’s eyes again, and knew his friend faced an agonizing wait of hours before he discovered his youngest son’s fate, and he didn’t want Ben collapsing. He poured the drug into Adam’s mouth. “We’ll send you home, Adam. Hoss is already there. I’ve arranged for someone to come from town to help out.”
“But Joe,” Adam protested.
“There’s nothing you can do for Joe,” Paul said, bandaging Adam’s hand. “Except pray.”
Time ticked past. Ben could no longer stand. He sat on the edge of a wagon, sunk into deep misery. The second shift of miners had gone in, and the first shift had gone home to sleep. They had worked for over 12 hours, in appalling conditions. They had saved two men, and Ben had spoken gratefully to each one. But the hardest part had come – waiting. Joe had not been heard from since the roof caved in 14 hours ago. On all the faces, Paul could see that they were keeping a death vigil.
A noise roused Joe from a deep sleep. He wondered for a moment what it was, and where he was, then the depressing memory came back, along with the pain. His legs and back were on fire, and Joe wondered if he’d been struggling in his sleep. He was beginning to be panicky, less able to control his thoughts. He was sure the noise was all in his mind. He knew if this went on much longer, he would lose his reason. It was an uncomfortable thought.
Something touched his foot, and Joe let out a startled yell. At once, another voice called back, and it said his name. “Joe? Is that you?”
“Yes,” he shouted. “Yes!”
“Tell us how you’re lying,” said the voice, and Joe obliged. When he was done, the voice said, “All right. We’ll get to you as soon as we can. Are you hurt?”
“I don’t know,” Joe replied, and found, to his astonishment, that he was crying. He buried his head in his arms and wept out his relief.
“He’s alive!” The cry went up from the mine entrance, and Ben slowly, disbelievingly, raised his head. “He’s alive!” The cry was taken up by everyone.
A miner, dirty and bleeding from dozens of small scrapes, was beaming at Ben Cartwright. “I’ve spoken to Joe,” he said. “He’s alive!”
“Where?” Ben gasped. His face was white from shock, and Paul prevented him from standing.
“He’s trapped under quite a bit of debris, but we’re getting there, sir. We’re going as quickly as we can.” With another blinding smile on his dirty face, the man plunged back into the mine.
A tremulous smile broke on Ben’s face, and then he found himself sobbing onto Paul’s shoulder. “Oh, Paul,” he said, but there was no need to say more. Paul understood.
Three hours passed before Joe was brought to the surface. Paul had gone in at the last, to supervise moving him. Details had leaked out about the position Joe was in, and Paul was terrified that he had a broken back. It was impossible in the mine to assess his injuries, but Paul made sure he was handled as carefully as possible, and at long last, nearly 18 hours after the roof collapsed, Joe Cartwright was brought out alive!
That he was badly injured went without saying. Paul gave Joe a shot of morphine at once, and then began to examine him. Like Adam and Hoss, Joe had a head injury, but it wasn’t serious. The most damage appeared to be to his back and legs, and Paul’s face was grim as he catalogued each new injury.
Kneeling by Joe, Ben had his son’s hand clutched in his own. Joe was even dirtier than Adam and Hoss had been, and only his smile and green eyes were recognizable as Joe. His clothes were in ribbons, and he had been bleeding from a dozen different places.
“Let’s get him home,” Paul said. His tone was grim. “I don’t want him in the wagon, I want his stretcher carried by hand. No jolting. Ben, please ride ahead and alert the house. I’m going to need lots of hot water, soap and towels. We’ve got a fight on our hands here.”
Doubtfully, Ben looked at Paul and saw the grimness on his face. With a last caress and loving word to Joe, he mounted his horse and rode home to prepare for Joe’s arrival.
Back at the ranch, he went swiftly into the house, and found Hop Sing there waiting, and was able to pass on the good news. As soon as he had given Paul’s instructions to the cook, he went upstairs to see his sons. Roy Coffee’s wife was sitting with Adam, and the storekeeper’s wife was with Hoss. It was Adam Ben went to first.
His oldest son was sitting up in bed, dozing. He opened his eyes as Ben came in, and knew at once from the look on his father’s face that Joe had been found. “Joe’s alive?” he said, incredulously.
“He’s alive,” Ben confirmed. “But Paul says he’s badly injured. They’re bringing home right now. How are you, son?”
“I’m okay,” Adam said, looking away. Ben looked at him closely, seeing the pain still in the lines around his mouth, but Adam certainly looked a lot better. The fact he was clean made a big difference. Both his hands were bandaged, as was his head, but his eyes were clear, and his chest sounded all right.
“You sleep now, son,” Ben said, rising. “I’m going to see Hoss.”
The middle son was dozing, too, but he was flat on his back. As Ben told him the good news, tears spilled from his eyes, running sideways down his face into his hair. “Dadburnit, Pa, that’s the best news,” Hoss sniffed.
“It is,” Ben agreed. From downstairs, they heard the tramp of feet, and Ben knew that Joe had been brought home. He rose swiftly, realizing how tired he was. “I’ll be back when I can,” he said.
The stretcher party didn’t attempt to take Joe upstairs. They carried him into the downstairs bedroom, and gently laid the stretcher on the bed. Joe was covered with a couple of blankets, and appeared to be sleeping. But as soon as he was laid down, his eyes popped open, and he looked blearily round. “Pa?”
“I’m here, son,” Ben said, pushing his way to Joe’s side. “Just lie still, Joe. Paul will take care of you.”
“I don’t feel too good,” Joe admitted.
“I’m going to give you something to make you sleep, Joe,” Paul said. “You’ll feel a little better when you wake up, I promise.”
“Don’t, please,” Joe said, but Paul was already measuring out the ether for him, and shortly afterwards, Joe was deep in a drugged sleep.
“I won’t lie to you, Ben,” Paul said. “Joe’s in a bad way. He’s broken his right leg in two places, and his left leg in one. His pelvis feels unstable, and I don’t know about his back. I’m going to put him in plaster from his toes to his waist, and we’ll see how he goes. His lungs sound very congested, so we’ll have to watch him for signs of pneumonia. He must have someone with him all the time. He’ll have to be turned regularly. All those cuts are going to need stitches. You go and have something to eat, and sleep if you can. Hop Sing will help me. You’ll need all your strength for the days to come.”
Shaken rigid, Ben allowed himself to be ushered out of the room. There was food on the table, and he forced himself to eat, although it all tasted like sawdust to him. Time ticked slowly by as Paul washed, cleaned, stitched and set Joe’s injuries. Finally he emerged from the room, and sank wearily into a seat at the table. Ben poured him a cup of coffee, while waiting anxiously for him to speak. “Paul?”
“Joe’s back isn’t broken,” he said. “I don’t think his pelvis is, either. His left thigh is broken, and it turned out his knee was dislocated, too. I’ve plastered that leg from toes to hip. On his right leg, his tibia was smashed, and poking through the skin. I’ve reduced the fracture, but the leg is badly swollen. I can’t put plaster on it yet. I’ll have to wait for the swelling to go down. He’s also broken that thigh, too. It’s not as serious a break as the left one, for which we can be thankful. But it’s going to be months before Joe will be walking again.” Paul yawned, and Ben remembered that he had been awake all through the night’s vigil, plus all the previous day. By any reckoning, Paul Martin was long overdue a sleep. “I’m concerned about Joe’s chest, too. He’s wheezing, and running a temperature. All your boys will be. The dampness from the earth will have soaked them thoroughly. We must try and keep his temperature down. Hopefully, tomorrow, I’ll manage to plaster his other leg. Can I sleep here, Ben?”
“Of course,” Ben said. “You say Joe’s pelvis is all right?”
“I can’t be 100% sure, of course,” Paul said, “but it doesn’t appear as unstable as I originally thought. I’ll bandage him up tightly, and we’ll see how it goes.”
“Thank you, Paul, for everything,” Ben said, shaking his friend’s hand. With no more urging, he showed Paul to a room.
Sleep was a scarce and precious commodity at the Ponderosa over the next week. All three sons needed nursing, and Hoss and Joe in particular needed help with their most basic needs. Adam was soon up and about, although coughing vigorously. He sat with Hoss, doing what he could for his brother, despite his injured hands. That left Ben free to sit with Joe.
The youngest Cartwright needed a lot of nursing. Paul was out twice a day, and left medicine for his pneumonia, medicine for the pain, and hope, the most important thing of all. For despite Joe’s high temperature, and bad cough, there were chinks of light at the end of the tunnel. As soon as Paul plastered Joe’s right leg, it became evident that his pelvis was intact, and also that he hadn’t broken his back, or damaged his spinal cord. Right from the start, Joe could wiggle his toes. Once Paul saw that Joe’s back was all right, he allowed his patient to sit up, which helped drain the fluid from his congested lungs. Before long, Joe’s pneumonia was a thing of the past.
But his recovery wasn’t going to be swift this time. Joe had to be turned twice a day, to prevent bedsores, and he became bored and frustrated very quickly. Even the most private of bodily needs had to be attended to by someone else, and it wasn’t long before Joe’s temper was suffering. He wasn’t in a great deal of pain, but the itching under the casts drove him nearly to distraction. One of the townswomen leant Ben a knitting needle, explaining that Joe could slide it down the cast to scratch, but it wasn’t long enough to reach the worst itches. All of the rest of that summer, Joe and Hoss were laid up.
As Joe improved, he was sometimes carried outside to lie on the porch. There, he could watch the hands coming and going, and the horses out in the corral. Sometimes it helped soothe his frustration, sometimes, it just made everything worse. Hoss was soon going around on crutches, but Joe wasn’t allowed to do even that. He became very depressed.
Meanwhile, the mine had finally been cleared. The bodies of the two other men had been recovered the day after Joe was rescued. They had obviously been killed in the blast. Ben had given each man a bonus, and they worked round the clock to get the mine restarted. When the day came, Ben was there to watch the first shift going underground, but the mine had lost its appeal. Ben knew that he would never be able to view it as just another asset, and would probably sell it on. He would never forget the near tragedy associated with it.
However, the mine had the final twist in the story. About three weeks after it re-opened, Jack Douglas, the foreman arrived. They had hit a vein of pure gold, and the first amounts brought up had been the richest seen in the area for a long time, and those alone would pay for the costs of clearing and re-starting the mine. It was good news, but Ben knew that no money could replace the time stolen from his youngest son. He carried on with the arrangements to sell the mine. The fact that he would make a lot of money didn’t sway him at all.
At last, 10 weeks after the accident, Paul came to remove Joe’s plasters. Joe had been on edge all day, and could barely sit still while Paul sawed away. When the plaster came off, Joe looked down at his legs curiously. They were white and shrunken, with tiny red scars zigzagging all over. Paul nodded happily. “They’ve healed well, Joe. Now all we have to do is get you mobile again.”
With a delighted smile, Joe swung his legs over the edge of the bed, and tried to stand. His muscles were in poor condition, and wouldn’t hold him. His look of surprise was almost comical! With Ben on one side, and Paul on the other, Joe was helped to his feet, and shuffled round the room. Exhausted, he dropped back to the bed, and looked at Paul in frustration. “I’ll never be able to walk again!” he said, almost in tears.
“Of course you will, Joe,” Paul said, briskly. “It’ll just take time and a little determination. And you usually have plenty of that!”
But it did seem that Joe was partly right. He managed a few steps leaning on sticks, but that was about it. For weeks, he hobbled around like that, unable to break through the barrier that would allow him to walk normally again. Again, the family bore the brunt of his temper. They made allowances, but there was only so long they could be sympathetic, before losing patience. Adam was the one who lost his temper first, and gave up being nice to Joe, and bullied him mercilessly to do the exercises Paul had prescribed for him.
When the first frosts of the year came, Joe was still on sticks and it seemed that he always would be. On a particularly icy morning, Joe stood by the door, watching as Adam and Hoss saddled up to leave. Ben had already gone into town, and Joe was to be alone with Hop Sing. This was the norm now, but it didn’t make it any easier on Joe. Hoss swung on board Chubb, and waved to Joe as he left. Adam looked across at his brother, and saw the desolation in his posture, and decided to try, one last time, to cheer Joe up. He marched briskly across the yard, not noticing where some water had been spilt, and had frozen solid. His boot heel hit the ice, and his feet went from under him before he could catch his balance. Adam landed with a heavy thud, on his back.
For a minute or two, he was winded, and simply lay there, waiting for breath to return. When it did, with that unpleasant jolt, he found Joe kneeling by his side, a concerned frown on his face. “Are you all right, Adam?” he asked.
“I think so,” Adam replied, allowing Joe to help him sit up. “Nothing broken.” He looked across at the house, and there on the porch lay Joe’s sticks. “Um, buddy, haven’t you forgotten something?”
“Forgotten?” Joe repeated. “What do you mean?”
“Your sticks,” Adam said, with the sarcastic patience he often used with Joe.
Looking down at his empty hands, Joe realized that he didn’t have his sticks. He looked across at the house, following Adam’s gaze, and saw them lying there. “I didn’t need them,” he said, wonderingly. “I got here under my own steam. I don’t need them!” he finished, jubilantly.
“I don’t think you’ll ever need them again,” Adam said, helping Joe to his feet.
When Ben returned that night, Joe was walking around the house without his sticks, and he never used them again. Within a month, he was riding out for short periods of time, and by Christmas, there was no sign of the devastating injury he had suffered. His muscles had become strong again, and Joe had regained the weight he’d lost, and was working a full day in the saddle, although he had been told not to break broncos until the next summer.
Sitting by the Christmas tree that Christmas Eve, Ben read the magical Christmas story from the Bible. “And so it was, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered. And she brought forth her first born son, wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.”
As the reading went on, Ben’s eyes were drawn to his three sons sitting so still listening to the ages old story of the first Christmas, when the world rejoiced. And it came to him that they had a lot to rejoice in, too. He blinked back tears, and carried on reading, but there was a betraying huskiness to his voice. By the end, all of the Cartwrights had tears in their eyes, reminded that God is indeed good, and that, with faith, anyone can triumph over adversity.