Summary: An argument with Hoss spills over to encompass Adam, and is Joe deeply hurt. When tragedy strikes, the brothers rue the harsh words they exchanged. And just when it seems things can’t get any worse, they do.
Word Count: 9,995
“Will you shut up, Hoss?” Joe grated through clenched teeth. “I don’t need you to keep rubbing it in! Drop it!”
“Aw, Shortshanks, you’re makin’ too much of it,” Hoss said, still grinning. “I ain’t mentioned it but a dozen times since we left town. It ain’t every day that you get dropped by a young lady. It’s usually the other way round, ain’t it?”
“Will you please shut up!” Joe snapped. “You’ve talked about it all the way from town, and I’ve had enough.” He led Cochise into the barn as Hoss laughed once more. In silence, Joe began to unsaddle his horse.
“Hey, Shortshanks, you ain’t mad, are ya?” Hoss went on, oblivious to his brother’s growing fury. “After all, you must be useta changin’ girlfriends all the time.”
Dropping his saddle onto its stand, Joe swung round on Hoss. “I’ve had enough,” he said, in deadly tones that really ought to have warned Hoss, but didn’t. “Stop talking about Laurie. I don’t want to hear it.”
“Aw, I’m jist teasin’ ya, Shortshanks,” Hoss responded. “I think its real funny that jist for once, you ain’t the one doin’ the dumpin’.”
“Shut up!” Joe screamed. “It’s none of your business why Laurie and I broke up, and nothing to do with you who ended it! And stop calling me Shortshanks! I have a name, and I’m not Little Joe, or Shortshanks, or little buddy, or kid, or any other diminutive you can think up! I’m not short; you all just happen to be tall, and I’ve had enough! Enough, do you understand?”
Astounded, Hoss just gaped at Joe open-mouthed. The horses shifted uneasily. Joe dragged in a huge breath but was unable to get his anger under control. Hoss had been going on about Joe’s latest break-up all the way back from Virginia City, and Joe couldn’t take any more. The news had come as a blow to him, and he hadn’t appreciated Hoss being present to hear it.
“I didn’t mean anythin’ by it,” Hoss said, trying to make amends, too late. “You know I don’t, Shortshanks.”
“You don’t even hear yourself, do you?” Joe demanded, so angry he could barely breathe. He turned on his heel to stalk out, knowing that if Hoss said one more word, he would lose the last vestiges of control and lash out.
“What?” Hoss asked, genuinely perplexed. He headed after Joe and grabbed his brother by the arm. “Don’t go away till I know what you’re talkin’ about.”
Wrenching his arm from Hoss’ grip, Joe staggered. “Leave me alone!” he hissed. “Didn’t it ever occur to you that I might be hurt by what Laurie said?”
Totally dumfounded, Hoss said, “But you wasn’t in love with her, Joe.”
“Oh, so now you know how I feel, too?” Joe yelled. “And just how do you know that, big brother?”
“What’s all the shouting about?” asked a deep voice, and Joe swung round to confront his oldest brother, Adam.
“Keep out of it, Adam!” Joe warned. “I’m in no mood to be patronized by you, too!”
“Joe was jist dumped by Laurie,” Hoss said, and his tone was jocular again. “He ain’t takin’ too kindly to me teasin’ him a bit. Are ya, Shortshanks?”
With a cry, Joe shoved Hoss out of his way and pushed past Adam as he made a break for freedom, knowing that if he stayed one second longer, blood would be spilt. Adam grabbed him as he shoved past.
“Hold on, kid,” he said, sternly. “This is no time for a tantrum. You haven’t taken care of your horse.”
Luckily for Adam, Joe was so angry, his aim was off, or otherwise the punch that Joe threw might well have knocked his head off. As it was, the blow glanced painfully off Adam’s shoulder. The oldest son let go of Joe, who crashed off the barn door as he almost fell. Too over wrought to do anything else, Joe ran from the barn and into the house.
Looking at one another, Adam finally moved to groom Joe’s horse. “That went well,” he commented.
“I really can’t believe you were as tactless as that,” Ben said, when he had heard the entire story from both sides. He glared at Hoss. “I’m surprised at you, Hoss. You’re usually more sensitive than that. How did you expect Joe to react?” Ben paced along the front of his desk, where Adam and Hoss stood. “And then, after he told you he didn’t like you going on about him being small, you did it again! I’m disgusted!”
“I didn’t mean nothin’ by it, Pa,” Hoss protested, uncomfortably. “I always call him Shortshanks.”
“But today he was feeling bad, and you just made him feel worse,” Ben explained. “I expect you to apologies to Joe. And you, Adam. You’ve denigrated your youngest brother by calling him kid for far too long.”
“Yes, sir,” they both muttered, although Ben could see that it wasn’t going down well.
He could hardly believe how insensitive Hoss had been. It wasn’t like him at all, but everyone was entitled to off days. Ben didn’t approve of Joe throwing a punch at his brother, but he could understand perfectly that he had been provoked beyond bearing. Joe was upstairs sulking, and was likely to stay there for the rest of the day. Ben could understand that, too.
They sat down to supper, with Joe’s chair still empty. Hop Sing put the dishes on the table, muttering under his breath in his native language. It really didn’t need any translation, and as a consequence of that and the empty chair, none of them ate very well.
After supper, Ben went up to talk to Joe, but found his youngest son already asleep. Joe had clearly been crying for his eyes were rimmed in red. Ben knew that Joe must have been very hurt by Laurie telling him in the street, in front of Hoss, that they were finished. He didn’t know if Joe had been serious about the girl or not, but they had been going out for several weeks, and Laurie was quite a looker. Even if it was only Joe’s pride that had been hurt by the rejection, he had still been hurt, and Hoss should’ve known better.
As he closed Joe’s bedroom door gently behind him, Ben could only hope that Joe’s bad temper would have blown over by morning.
Next morning, Joe appeared at the breakfast table before he was called, and greeted Ben pleasantly. For a few minutes, Ben entertained hopes that Joe’s mood had blown over after all, but they were dashed as soon as Adam and Hoss appeared. Joe totally ignored Adam’s friendly “Morning.” Hoss had no better luck with his greeting.
The meal was strained. Joe ate steadily, his eyes on his plate. Ben outlined the plans for the day’s work, and received understanding nods or grunts from each of his sons. Yet it was as though Ben were sitting at two different tables – one with Adam and Hoss and the other with only Joe. Not by a look or movement did Joe acknowledge his brothers’ presence.
“Excuse me, Pa,” Joe said, pushing back his chair. “I’ll go and get started.”
“Ah, Joe,” Hoss said, tentatively. “I jist wanted to apologies for yesterday. I didn’t mean ta upset ya.”
“I’m sorry, too,” Adam said.
Joe paused, but he still didn’t look at his brothers. After a moment, he headed off as though no one had spoken to him at all. Ben was so stunned by Joe’s behavior he didn’t even call him back. Hoss looked distressed and pushed his plate away. Adam looked angry.
“Why, that little…!” Adam didn’t finish, his voice trailing off at the look on his father’s face.
Leaving the table, Ben didn’t feel inclined to speak to his sons either.
“Joe?” Ben said, pausing in the barn door.
Without turning his head, Joe said, “I’m sorry if I was rude, Pa. But I just couldn’t say anything to them. Not yet. I know I ought to forgive them, but I’m just not ready. Sorry if that disappoints you.”
“In a way, I am disappointed,” Ben admitted, coming closer. “But I didn’t think much of the apologies, either, or the reaction as you left. I am shocked at the way your brothers behaved yesterday, and I can understand that you need time to calm down. The only thing I can say in their defense is that they didn’t mean to hurt you. Think on that today, Joe.”
“I will, Pa,” Joe said. “Thanks.” He led his pinto out of the barn and mounted in one smooth leap. He rode out of the yard as Hoss and Adam came out of the house. He didn’t look back.
“I suggest that you two think about your attitude to your younger brother and make up your mind to apologies more thoroughly later on,” Ben said, as they reached him. “He’s been badly hurt.”
“We didn’t mean anything,” Adam began, impatiently. “Joe should know that by now.”
“Maybe he should,” Ben said, put out by Adam’s tone. “But yesterday he was upset, and neither of you gave him any leeway for that, and in fact, Hoss all but told him he shouldn’t be upset. Basically, you told him his feelings didn’t count, then you started denigrating him again, albeit unintentionally. Stop and think, both of you.” Ben gave them both a hard look, and went back into the house.
“I didn’t realize,” Hoss admitted, slowly. “I never thought that Joe might be hurtin’ at what Laurie said.”
“Its not so much what Laurie said as how she said it,” Adam said. “And I didn’t mean to make him feel bad by calling him kid. I’ve always done it.” He shook his head. “But Pa’s right. Joe’s in his twenties now, and I still treat him like a kid who can’t do anything without an adult looking over his shoulder. I guess we’ve got to be more careful about what we say.”
“I guess so,” Hoss said, unhappily. They went into the barn to saddle their mounts for the day’s work.
All that day, as Joe diligently checked the fence line of the west pasture, he thought back to the harsh words he had exchanged with Hoss and Adam the previous day. It was nothing new for Joe and Adam to exchange the odd harsh word, although it happened a good deal less frequently than it had a few years previously. But it was unusual for Joe and Hoss to be at odds, and it troubled Joe.
For as long as he could remember, Hoss had been his stoutest defender and his best friend. He had inveigled Hoss into trouble on more than one occasion, but the older boy never held it against him. Hoss was always there for Joe, and had saved his hide several times. So this instance when Hoss had been less than sympathetic hurt badly.
But Joe was nothing if not honest. He realized that he had over reacted to the teasing, and Hoss genuinely hadn’t meant to hurt him. He shouldn’t have ignored Hoss’ apology that morning. It had been childish of him, and Joe was still young enough to be very conscious of his adult status. He resolved that he would make his peace with Hoss that night, and offer his own apology.
Happy with that decision, Joe turned his thoughts to Adam. This one was harder. Joe knew that Adam didn’t always realize that he was denigrating Joe by calling him ‘kid’, ‘boy’, or ‘buddy’. His use of those nicknames was as unconscious as Hoss calling him ‘Shortshanks’, but Joe didn’t mind it at all from Hoss, as almost everyone was smaller than Hoss! But Adam tended to use those nicknames most when he was annoyed with Joe, and Joe was tired of it. Was Adam ever going to accept him for who he was, or was he always going to look down on Joe for not wanting to go to college? Sighing, Joe knew there was no answer to that question, and he realized that he was going to have to accept Adam’s apology, knowing that there was a fair chance Adam wouldn’t change his behavior. Habits, as Joe knew, were hard to break.
More relaxed, Joe decided that the fence was sound enough for them to turn the herd into the pasture, so turned towards home. It was well into the afternoon, and he didn’t hurry. The day was warm and sunny and Joe knew there was plenty of time before supper. His chores, unfortunately, wouldn’t go away. They would be waiting whatever time he got home.
Dismounting at a stream, Joe allowed Cochise to drink his fill and refilled his own canteen. He slung the strap of the canteen around his saddle horn and was preparing to mount again when he heard the voices. Puzzled, Joe led Cochise along, wondering who was out this way. The only person who should have been there was him.
Pausing while still hidden amongst some trees, Joe peered through the foliage and saw two of the hands standing talking. Their horses grazed nearby and Joe instinctively put his hand on Cochise’s muzzle to stop the horse whinnying. Where he stood, the voices drift over to Joe quite clearly.
“The old man says we’re moving the herd tomorrow, if the fences are all right. We move in tomorrow night, before the animals are properly settled.” The speaker was a young man called Walter Pearson.
“All right. We gonna be on watch or what?” The other man was a thin, scruffy youngster known as Junior Jones. Neither man had been with the ranch very long.
“Nah, we’ll be safely back at the bunkhouse, so no one can tie us in with the rustlers. Don’t worry, Junior. It’ll go like clockwork.”
“I don’t think so,” Joe said, stepping out from his hiding place. “We’re going back to the ranch and I’m going to repeat this entire conversation to my father.” Joe drew his gun. “Now, mount up, and be careful what you do.”
Pearson and Jones looked stunned, then furious. But they both knew how good Joe was with his gun, and neither of them wanted to take any chances. Slowly, they mounted. Joe watched them, then moved Cochise out from under the trees, taking the gelding nearer the other horses so he could mount and still keep an eye on his prisoners.
As Joe stepped into the stirrup, Pearson snatched off his hat and flapped it under Cochise’s nose. The pinto startled, and Joe lost his balance, tumbling to the ground. Instantly, Pearson threw himself on Joe, with Jones only a heartbeat behind.
It was a nasty fight. Joe got in several telling blows on Pearson before Jones grabbed his arm. Joe still held his gun, but he didn’t want to fire at such close range. Now, he fought for control of his own weapon, which meant taking his eyes off his other opponent. He was even more alarmed when Jones managed to cock his gun, and Joe desperately struggled to throw the other man off him before the gun went off.
He was too late. Jones’ finger insinuated itself inside the trigger guard. Joe heard the report and was aware of a searing pain in his foot before something crashed onto his head and he crumpled to the ground, unconscious.
Panting, Jones looked at Pearson, who held a rifle in his hands. “What d’ya do?” he asked.
“Hit him with the stock,” Pearson returned. He bent over Joe, and looked at the blood oozing from his hairline down his face. “Guess he’s alive.” He laughed. “Look, Junior, he done shot hisself in the foot!” They both laughed, but sobered after a moment when they realized that Joe’s horse was nowhere to be seen. Their own mounts had stopped a bit further away, and they soon caught them. “This doesn’t change anything,” Pearson warned Jones as they mounted. “Just keep quiet.”
“All right,” Jones agreed, and they rode off.
Supper was a silent meal. Joe’s empty chair seemed to glare at them reproachfully. Hoss was particularly downcast, and only picked at his food. Hop Sing bustled in and out and said not a word. The whole atmosphere was suffocating, and it wasn’t just Hoss’ appetite that suffered.
Ben had to admit he was surprised that Joe hadn’t returned home. He had expected Joe to turn up and accept his brothers’ apologies and then the quarrel would be over. It wasn’t unheard of for Joe to harbor a grudge for a few days, but Ben could read his son pretty well, and was sure Joe had been on the verge of forgiving them that morning when he left. A pang of unease shot through his gut. Surely Joe hadn’t spent the day stoking up his grievance? He hadn’t gone into Virginia City to drown his sorrows in the saloon?
As they had coffee in front of the fire, they at last heard hoofs in the yard. Ben said nothing, but the look of relief on his face did his talking for him. Casually, he rose and went over to the door. As he gazed out, his casual, relaxed stance changed and Adam came to his feet without being aware of it. “What is it, Pa?” he asked.
Without answering, Ben hurried outside and both his sons followed him. Cochise stood in the yard, his saddle empty and his reins trailing. The horse wasn’t lathered, and he stood to be caught. Worried and puzzled, they checked the horse over, but could find no injuries, and no signs of foul play.
The sky was starting to darken, but they hitched the buckboard, loaded it with blankets and lanterns and to set out to look for Joe. Ben drove the buckboard and Hoss and Adam rode, each scanning the road anxiously for sight of their younger brother.
When it was too dark to see with the naked eye, they lit the lanterns. By now, they had traveled several miles from home and were getting closer to the west pasture where Joe had been working. Periodically, they called for him, but there was never any answer.
At last, at nearly midnight, Hoss found Joe’s body, still lying where he had fallen that afternoon. He had not stirred, and there was a large pool of dried blood on the ground beside him. “Pa!” Hoss cried, and jumped from Chubb to kneel beside Joe.
“Oh dear God!” Ben exclaimed when he saw his son, and the measure of his distress was in his use of the Lord’s name. “Joe? Can you hear me, son?”
There was no response. As Hoss had done, Ben felt for Joe’s pulse and found it, slow and erratic. His son was cold to the touch, and he looked up. “Bring a blanket,” he ordered, and Adam hurriedly complied.
The wound on Joe’s head had bled freely, and the side of his face was caked in dried blood. Ben wet his neckerchief and gently wiped the blood away, hoping that the touch would rouse Joe, but there was no response. Even in the feeble glow of the lanterns, Joe’s head injury looked deep and nasty.
“Help me get him into the buckboard,” Ben said. “Then, Adam, you ride for the doctor. Hurry!”
They worked quickly to get Joe settled, then Adam mounted up and headed for town as fast as he dared go. As he rode, he couldn’t help but recall that the last words he aimed at Joe were anything but loving.
The journey back to the ranch seemed to take forever, but they still made it before Adam arrived back with the doctor. Between them, Hoss and Ben carried Joe up to his room, and Ben began to gently strip Joe’s soiled clothes off. It was only as he pulled off Joe’s boot that he realized that Joe had another injury. Blood splattered from the boot, and Ben looked more closely, seeing that Joe’s sock was stiff with blood. He was reluctant to pull it off, but reasoned that he needed to see the wound. He tugged the offending article off Joe’s foot and gasped as the full extent of the injury was revealed.
The bullet was still in Joe’s foot, and the foot was swelling even as Ben watched. There was extensive bruising around the hole, and a little fresh blood. “Hoss, look at this,” Ben said, and Hoss bent over to look.
“Who coulda done this?” Hoss asked, plaintively.
“I don’t know,” Ben answered. “Is Joe’s gun there?”
“Yes, I picked it up,” Hoss answered. “It were lyin’ on the ground beside him.” He picked up the gun and broke it, checking the chambers. “Its bin fired,” he said. “You reckon that’s Joe’s bullet in there?”
“I don’t know,” Ben repeated. He looked worriedly at Joe, who hadn’t stirred. “I just don’t know, Hoss.”
It was daylight before Adam appeared with Doctor Martin. Ben was exhausted and beside himself with worry. Joe had not moved all night long. He was running a temperature, too, and Ben had spent the night bathing his head gently, trying to bring his fever down. He knew he hadn’t succeeded, but since the bullet was still in Joe’s foot, he knew that there was infection present.
“Ben, I’m sorry,” Paul said, as he came in. He looked exhausted, too, unshaven and his clothes rumpled. “I was operating on the Thompson child. I won’t go into details, but I couldn’t leave. Let me see Joe.”
While Paul examined Joe, Ben told him of how they’d found Joe. He pointed out the bullet wound on his foot and Paul frowned. “Ben, I’m not going to lie to you. Joe is very ill. I’ll have to operate to get that bullet out. He has an infection from it, and I’m afraid it looks like he has a fractured skull. That complicates matters.” Paul rubbed his face. He really needed to sleep, not perform another tricky operation. However, he had no choice. “I’ll need some boiling water, clean towels and bandages.”
While those items were gathered together, Paul had a wash and a cup of strong coffee. Then he prepared Joe for surgery. Hop Song assisted, as Paul’s nerves were stretched far enough simply performing this operation, without Ben hovering anxiously in the background.
Operating on the foot, with its many bones, was a nightmare. He found the bullet quite easily, but it had broken several bones on its way in, and there were some fragments floating around. Paul carefully picked them out, then aligned the bones as best he could. He didn’t want Joe to be lame because the bones in his foot didn’t set properly. Finally, he flushed the wound, then stitched the foot and bandaged it tightly.
There was very little he could do for the skull fracture. The wound was deep, and Paul took a couple of stitches in it, cutting some of Joe’s curly hair so he could get at it. The fracture wasn’t depressed, for which Paul was thankful, but he was concerned by the lack of response from Joe. Finally, he had Joe’s head bandaged up, and he managed to get some water down Joe’s throat, and gave him a shot of morphine to tide him over for a while. It was a good sign that Joe had been able to drink the water, he felt, but he knew that was about the only good news he had right then.
“I’m sorry, Ben, but Joe is in a coma. I don’t know how long it will be before he wakens up; it could be tomorrow; it might be never. I have no way of knowing. I’m afraid you’re in for a long spell of nursing, and I would advise that you hire in nurses, for Joe will need 24 hour care.”
“I can do it,” Ben asserted, his face ashen. “Just tell me what he needs, and I can do it.”
“You can’t do this alone,” Paul said, sternly. “Joe will have to be turned regularly, day and night, to prevent bed sores. He will need to be kept clean, and his arms and legs manipulated regularly to try and keep his muscle tone as good as possible. He will need help for bodily functions, and there will be a huge increase in washing, for we will be unable to stop him soiling himself. Then he’ll have to be fed fluids little and often. At the moment, his swallowing reflex is intact, but there’s no guarantee that this will continue, and if it goes, Joe will starve to death.” Gazing at the pale faces of the Cartwrights, Paul realized that his tongue had run away with him. He hadn’t intended to be so graphic. “I’m sorry; I didn’t mean to say that at this point.”
“But Joe will wake up, won’t he Paul?” Hoss appealed, his genial face troubled.
“I don’t know, Hoss,” Paul admitted, reluctantly.
“Ain’t there any medicine you can give him?” pleaded the big man, tears brimming in his blue eyes.
“I’m sorry,” Paul repeated. He rose wearily. “I’ve got to get back to my office. I can recommend a couple of nurses if you like. You don’t have to decide now. Just send word to me, and I’ll organize everything.” He let himself out.
The family stood by the fireplace, seeking comfort from each other, trying to absorb the shock. It was incredibly hard to believe that someone as vital as Joe could be reduced to this with one blow. None of them could comprehend a life without Joe’s laughter, smiles, tantrums and love. Joe’s body lay upstairs where they could touch it, but his spirit was lost somewhere they couldn’t see.
Sobs shook Hoss’ powerful frame, and Ben reached out to comfort his son, wishing that he could promise him that everything would be all right. But he couldn’t, and the tears streamed down Ben’s face, too. Of them all, only Adam was dry-eyed, and he wished that he was able to find solace in tears, but it was many years too late for that. They stood huddled together, a circle fractured beyond repair.
“We must move the herd as planned,” Ben said. They had all gone to lie down, but none of them had managed to sleep. Now, they were having brunch, and Ben was trying to make life appear normal. “Whatever has happened, we have a responsibility to the herd, and the pasture they are on is done. We must move them. I would like you two to see to that for me.”
“If that’s what you want, Pa,” Adam answered. “It’ll be dark before we’re back, so don’t wait supper.”
There was a knock on the door. By habit, every pair of eyes looked to Joe’s seat. Ben winced. Adam rose slowly and went over to answer the door, schooling his face to impassivity. “Roy!” he exclaimed, surprised.
“Adam,” Roy acknowledged, his eyes searching the young man’s face. “Your Pa in?”
“Come in, Roy,” Ben invited, coming to the door. He gestured to the settee. “Have a seat. What can we do for you?”
The words were exactly what Roy had expected Ben to say, but they were said in a monotone, lacking the life they usually had. “Ben, I won’t beat about the bush,” Roy said. “I come about Little Joe. Paul looked in an’ told me what happened. Any idea who mighta done it an’ why?”
Looking down, Ben shook his head, trying to hang onto his self-control. “No,” he whispered. “We have no idea. Joe was out checking fences in preparation for us moving the herd.” Reminded, he glanced at his older sons. “Better get going, boys. And… be careful?”
Nodding, Adam and Hoss collected their hats and guns, and left. Roy watched them go. Everything about their posture told of their sadness and exhaustion. Roy turned his attention back to Ben. “Paul gave me the slug he dug outa Joe’s foot. It’s a .45. That’s what Joe carries, ain’t it?”
“Yeah,” Ben agreed. “We checked his gun, and there had been a bullet fired. There must have been some kind of struggle, Roy. But I don’t know why, or who with.”
“How is he?” Roy asked, compassionately. He had known the family a long time.
Shaking his head, Ben didn’t know how to answer that. Joe’s temperature had gone down after Paul had removed the bullet, but he was still no nearer to consciousness than he had been when he had been found. “Do you want to see him?”
They mounted the stairs together, and entered Joe’s room silently. Joe lay as though sleeping, his head turned away slightly. Roy found it unbearably poignant. Joe looked so young, and the bandage round his head only reinforced the impression. He expected that any moment, Joe would open his eyes and smile at them. But there was no movement.
Clearing his throat, Roy said, “Well, I’d better get back to town, Ben. If anything turns up, I’ll let you know.”
“Yes, all right,” Ben replied, and Roy would’ve laid odds that his friend hadn’t heard a word. With one last look at the youth on the bed, Roy let himself out.
It had helped to get back to work, Adam found. His mind was on the logistics of moving the herd from one place to another, and he didn’t have a lot of time to allow his thoughts to linger on his youngest brother. However, a few of his thoughts did linger on his middle brother. Hoss’ face was a picture of sheer misery, and Adam knew how he felt. Hoss was punishing himself for having teased Joe, and was now thinking that he would never get the chance to apologies to Joe. Adam knew how Hoss felt. He felt the same way. He had a lot of fence building to do with his little brother – Adam caught himself. Even in his thoughts, he was calling Joe little. He was going to have to re-think his attitude.
It was dusk when they reached the west pasture. Wearily, Adam set about giving out orders to the men, deciding who would stay and see the beasts settled into the new grazing, and who could go back to the bunkhouse. There was a flurry of cold rain coming in with the night, and the men chosen to stay looked disgruntled, but none of them complained. They all knew about Joe. Most of the men had made a point of coming and asking about him, for he was well liked.
“Pearson, you and Jones stay here,” Adam said, having divided up the men as fairly as he knew how. “You’ll be relieved come morning.”
A look of pure panic crossed Jones’ face, and he shot a glance at Pearson, who also looked surprised. Noticing this, Adam said, testily, “Is there a problem here?”
“Ah, no sir,” Jones mumbled.
“If there is a problem, then speak up, let’s hear it,” Adam said, not convinced by Jones’ denial.
“There ain’t, honest,” Jones assured him, sounding quite panicky to Adam’s ears.
“If pushing cows is too hard for you, now is the time to speak up,” Adam said. “You’ll have to get used to being out at night on the cattle drive, later in the season.” Adam didn’t have the patience to spare for whatever was bothering the two young men. He was cold and tired and keen to get home to see how Joe was doing. “Now, what is it?”
“Nothin’, sir; we was jist a little surprised, that’s all,” Pearson said, in an obsequious manner.
“Fine,” Adam responded, and turned Sport towards home. Hoss joined him.
They hadn’t gone more than 200 yards when the first shot was fired. A bullet sang past Adam’s ear and thudded into the ground near by. In a flash, Adam and Hoss were off their horses. “Take cover!” Adam cried, peering through the dim light to try and spot the gunman.
The cattle immediately began to low mournfully, and mill about. “Rustlers!” Adam cursed, thankful that the men were all still there, thanks to the late start they’d got. He looked round to check that everyone had reached cover, and there were no injuries.
“Can you see ‘em, Adam?” Hoss asked.
“No,” Adam replied, tensely. They peered intensely into the darkness, and were rewarded by a muzzle-flash further along the hillside from them. “There!”
“I see ‘em,” Hoss responded, and shot back.
Rising to his feet, Adam began to make his way closer to the rustlers. He shucked his yellow coat, reasoning that his black clothing would render him invisible against the darkness of the ground. He hoped he would be able to get close enough to the rustlers to stop the shooting before someone was killed. It would also nice to get them into custody, and so save themselves a lot of bother.
A figure reared up out of the darkness in front of Adam. “Hold it!” Adam said, sharply, unsure of whom he was facing.
The figure turned and fired. Adam felt a thud on his chest, and fired back even as he fell. The figure collapsed.
“Adam!” Hoss bellowed. “Adam!”
There was no reply, and Hoss leapt to his feet, and began to run towards Adam, his heart in his mouth. Around him, the firing continued, although it seemed to be getting less, and the shots sounded further away. “They’re on the run!” a voice shouted, but Hoss didn’t spare a glance in any direction. He was intent on reaching his older brother.
“Adam!” he said, again, flinging himself down beside Adam. In the dim light it was difficult to see, but then Adam moved, and what little light there was reflected on his eyes, which glistened.
“I’m all… right,” Adam said, but even those few words betrayed to Hoss that Adam was in great pain.
“Get me a light!” Hoss cried, and shortly one of the men arrived bearing a burning branch. The light wasn’t great, but it was enough for Hoss to see that Adam had been shot in the chest. Wordlessly, Hoss ripped the sleeve out of his shirt to wad against the wound.
“He was lucky,” Paul said. “The bullet didn’t hit anything vital, but he’s lost quite a lot of blood. But give him a few weeks, and he won’t know anything had happened.” Paul still looked exhausted, and it was only just 12 hours since he’d left the Ponderosa. “It’s lucky the other man wasn’t a better shot.”
“Yes, lucky,” Ben said. He wasn’t normally a superstitious man, but he couldn’t help wondering what the third disaster would be, and looked upon Hoss with haunted eyes. He smoothed the covers over Adam, who slept deeply thanks to the drugs Paul had given him.
Leaving the room, Paul crossed to take a look at Joe. He spoke to the youth, even though there was no response, and looked deeply into his eyes, listening to his chest and heart carefully. Although there was no real improvement in Joe’s condition, he looked better to Paul’s experienced eyes. His breathing seemed deeper and slower, and his color was good. However, there was nothing to suggest that Joe was nearing consciousness, and he hesitated to give false hope.
“What do you think?” Ben asked, and there was hope in his voice.
“He looks a bit better than when I saw him last,” Paul said, carefully. “But that’s almost certainly due to the fact that the bullet is out of his foot. As to the rest – well, I just can’t say, Ben. The longer he’s unconscious, the less likely it is that he’ll come out of it.”
Ben said nothing, and Paul didn’t push. They both went downstairs, where Roy Coffee waited with Hoss. Walter Pearson was there also, and hovered uncomfortably by the fire. Roy had been kindness itself, seeing that Pearson was upset by the death of his friend, Jones. Roy had already speculated that Jones had thought Adam was a rustler, and had panicked when challenged. As Paul had said, it was fortunate that Jones’ aim hadn’t been any better. The rustlers, however, had got away scot-free.
“Ah, Ben,” Roy said, as he hove into view. “Pearson was jist sayin’ that Jones had no relatives. Ain’t no blame attached to Adam, of course. I’ll be getting’ back to town, and takin’ the body with me.”
“Of course, Roy,” Ben said. He glanced at Pearson, standing there twisting his hat in his hands. “I’ll pay for the burial.”
“That’s mighty good o’ ya, Ben,” Roy said, but he wasn’t surprised by Ben’s generosity. It wasn’t the first time Ben had done something like that.
“Thanks,” Pearson said, ungraciously, and headed towards the door. He was fuming. Jones was dead, their pals had run off, and there wasn’t a single head of beef gone. Pearson knew he would have to tough it out, and bide his time until they could try again. He guessed it wouldn’t be that long a wait, as it would be best to hit while the ranch was still reeling from two accidents in as many days.
The deal that Pearson and Jones had had going would have made them rich with just a few head of cattle. They had contracted to a cattle baron to supply him with one hundred head of beef, no questions asked, at $20 a head. Pearson had no interest in why the man wanted the cattle and was willing to pay such an inflated price. He just wanted the money. There were several members in the gang, but Pearson had decided that there would only be one person collecting the cash – him! The loss of Jones was an irritant, nothing more. Pearson decided he would go into town and contact his partners in crime and arrange for them to attempt to job the next night.
“Them rustlers ain’t gone fer good, are they, Pa?” Hoss said. He had one foot up on the fireplace and was leaning on his knee. It was a pose he often took.
“No,” Ben said, sighing. He glanced at the stairs. “I wonder if that was who Joe met.”
Following his father’s gaze, although there was nothing to see, Hoss said, “Roy was wonderin’ about that, too.” He straightened. “Cain’t think of no one else who it could be.”
“Why did they hit him so hard?” Ben cried. “What if he never wakes up?”
“Don’t say that!” Hoss pleaded. “Don’t Pa! I cain’t bear to think on it.”
“I’m sorry, son,” Ben said, regaining control of himself. “I’m sorry.” But he couldn’t bring himself to say it would be all right, for he was beginning to believe that it would never be all right again.
“Hoss is right, Pa,” Adam said, testily. He shifted gingerly on the bed, trying to find a cooler spot. The weather had warmed dramatically over night, and Adam was feeling the heat. “He’s got to go out and check on the men. You’re tied up here with Joe and me, and this has got to be done.”
There was no way to refute Adam’s words, but Ben was loath to admit it. He feared that allowing Hoss out of his sight would be tantamount to signing his death warrant. Rationally, he knew that Hoss was no more likely to be shot at on that day than on any other, but the irrational part of him was in control at that moment. Two of his sons had been injured, one seriously, and Ben was terrified for the safety of the other.
“I’ll be right careful,” Hoss promised. “Pa, I gotta go, you know that.”
“All right,” Ben capitulated. “But please take care, son.”
“I will,” Hoss said, and left.
Looking at Ben’s tired face, Adam wished he were able to get out of bed to help. “How’s Joe this morning?” he asked.
“The same,” Ben responded, wearily. He was beginning to think that Paul was right. They would have to have someone to help with the nursing. Between them, he, Hop Sing and Hoss had got Joe cleaned and changed that morning, but it hadn’t been pleasant for any of them. Ben knew how humiliated Joe would have been to be handled like a baby, but that was exactly what it had been like. He could do nothing for himself, but mercifully wasn’t aware of the fact. He had been unconscious now for three days. “Is there anything you need, son?” Ben asked, dragging his mind back to Adam.
“I’m fine,” Adam said. “Don’t worry about me.” He knew that it was useless advice. Ben always worried about his sons, and the day he stopped caring, the world would stop turning.
“What do you mean, you want to back out?” Pearson hissed. He kept his voice lowered, so they wouldn’t attract any attention in the saloon. “I’m tellin’ ya, this is the perfect time to hit ‘em!”
“It ain’t worth it,” the other man replied. He was young, thin, dirty and scared. He had nearly been shot the night before, and wanted out. “I ain’t goin’ through with it. They’ll be watchin’ for us!”
“What about you?” Pearson asked, shooting a glance at his other three companions. They all looked much the same and the other patrons of the saloon were avoiding them. With much metaphorical shuffling of feet, they all admitted they wanted out, too. “Fine!” Pearson snapped. “Leave then! I’ll get that money one way or another!” He rose and stalked out.
Outside, Pearson leaned against the hitching rail. Trouble was, he had no real idea how he was going to get any kind of money. He couldn’t rustle cows on his own, and he wasn’t going to attempt to rob the bank alone. What could he do?
Mounting, he headed his horse back to the Ponderosa, still pondering his changed luck. There had to be a way for him to get some money quickly, but the idea eluded him until he reached the ranch again. As he put his horse away, he overheard one of the men saying, “It was good of the Boss to pay for Jones’ funeral. Can’t never fault Mr. Cartwright fer that. An’ he would do anythin’ fer those boys o’ his. D’you mind the stories of Joe an’ that stallion? The big skewbald? Mr. Cartwright was willin’ to pay a big ransom fer Joe that time.”
“I mind,” the other cowboy returned. “The horse saved Joe’s life that time, after nearly killin’ him once afore.”
It was all clear to Pearson now. He would hold one of the sons for ransom, and since two of them were laid up in the house, it surely wouldn’t be difficult to get to one of them. Smiling, Pearson made his way to his bunk and lay down, a smile on his face, while he hatched his plans.
It was day four. Ben no longer knew what day of the week it was, nor what the date was. It was simply the fourth day since Joe had been found. His life revolved around moving Joe so he didn’t develop bedsores, cleaning him up and trying to feed him. Sometimes, Ben would eat and sleep, but it seemed to him that most of his time was spent with Joe. He didn’t begrudge his son a single second, but he knew it was taking its toll on the other members of the family. Hoss was being a pillar of strength, attending to the ranch and Adam’s needs. But Ben knew they couldn’t go on like this much longer. In another day or so, he would be forced to hire a nurse, and he feared that day with all his heart. When he hired a nurse, he would be admitting that Joe wasn’t going to get better, and the thought was breaking his heart.
Returning to Joe’s room after lunch, Ben stopped as he went in. Joe had moved, and Ben knew that there had been nobody in the room since he left about half an hour previously. Joe had made no voluntary movements at all before this.
Unsure what to make of it, Ben crossed to the bed, schooling himself not to hope. However, as he reached it, Joe sighed deeply and moved again. He seemed to be uncomfortable, and Ben quickly checked, to find that his son was wet.
Calling for Hoss, Ben began to change the bed. He lifted Joe from the wet bed and tugged off the soaking nightshirt. Joe shivered as the cooler air hit his skin. He muttered something unintelligible. “Joe?” Ben said, but he didn’t get a response.
Moving quickly, Ben got Joe dressed again, and helped Hoss to change the sheets. Together, they lifted Joe to put him back into bed. “Pa,” Joe said, quite clearly.
Father and son exchanged startled looks. “Did you hear that?” Ben breathed.
“I surely did!” Hoss exclaimed. He bent in closer. “Joe? Can ya hear me?”
Nothing. Disappointed, Ben continued to tuck Joe into bed, but he was so distracted that he wasn’t as careful as usual with Joe’s broken foot. Joe winced. Once more, Ben and Hoss exchanged glances. “Go and get Paul,” Ben ordered. “Hurry! And tell Adam on the way.”
“Sure thing!” Hoss said, and dashed out of the door. He flung open Adam’s door, and his older brother looked up in surprise. “Adam, Joe’s movin’ and said Pa!”
“Really?” Adam said, his eyes widening. “Is he responding to your voice?”
“No, but he winced when Pa touched his bad foot, and he said Pa. I’m goin’ to get Paul.” With that, Hoss dashed off once more. Adam looked longingly at the open door, wishing he could get up and go through, but he was still too shaky.
Across the hallway, Ben sat holding Joe’s hand, talking to him. It seemed to him that every moment, Joe came nearer to the surface. Joe’s habitual restlessness was reasserting itself as his brain neared consciousness. Finally, after a time, Ben thought it might have been an hour, Joe’s eyes fluttered open. After a few seconds, they closed again.
It was clear that he wasn’t fully conscious, but he was definitely responding to Ben’s voice. There was a petulant sigh, as though Joe were impatient with his body’s responses. Then his eyes opened, and he focused on Ben’s face. For a moment, they just looked at once another, then Ben spoke. “Joe?”
“Pa,” Joe responded, and managed a smile.
A thousand questions rushed into Ben’s brain, but he forced himself to remain silent. He didn’t want to pressure Joe until after the doctor had seen him. “You’ve been ill, son,” Ben said, gently.
“Okay,” Joe said, and his eyes closed. After a moment, his grip on Ben’s hand loosened and he slept. But this time it was a real sleep, a healing sleep. Ben rose to tell Adam, and found he had tears in his eyes.
“Adam! Thank God, he’s awake!” Ben burst in, not noticing he’d roused Adam from sleep. But the oldest Cartwright son didn’t mind. For those words, he was willing to sacrifice more than just sleep.
“Has he spoken to you?” Adam wanted to know.
Talking so fast that he stumbled over his words, Ben told Adam the story. As he finished there was a sound from Joe’s room. They exchanged a glance, identical worried frowns creasing their foreheads. “Don’t tell me he’s tried to get up!” Ben exclaimed, and hurried out of the door.
It was harder to say who had the bigger shock – Ben or Pearson. Ben was expecting to find Joe awake and trying to stand, not realizing he had a broken foot. Pearson expected to find Joe alone and in a coma. As he knocked the ewer in the basin by the window, Joe had startled awake, and Pearson froze.
As Ben burst into the room, Pearson regained the use of his limbs and dived across the room to grab Joe. He drew his gun, and pointed it at the bemused man in the bed. “That’s close enough, Cartwright,” Pearson said.
“It’s all right, Joe,” Ben said, keeping a wary eye on the gunman. “What do you want?”
“What do you think I want?” Pearson sneered. “I want money! $20,000 for your son.”
“I haven’t got that much money here in the house,” Ben said. “I’d have to go to town for it and it’s getting late. The bank might be closed before I got there.” Ben was frantically trying to think of a way out of this situation. He knew that he only had about $200 in the safe and there was no way that amount of money would satisfy this man.
Meanwhile, Joe had been trying to make sense of the situation. Pa had said he’d been ill, and Joe believed him, for he felt quite weak. Yet, despite his throbbing foot and slight headache, Joe didn’t feel unwell now. He wondered what had been wrong with him and tried to think back. He remembered his quarrel with Hoss, and riding off, but his memory stopped there.
Frowning, Joe twisted his head slowly to look at the man who was holding him hostage. A picture flashed into his mind, and Joe flinched. He could see this man bearing down on him, and remembered there was another man present, too.
Frantic, even though he wasn’t completely sure why, Joe glanced at Ben, who hadn’t missed his son’s reaction. “Pa, he… he…”The memory suddenly broke through and Joe blanched. “He hit me!”
Panicked as much by the sudden return of his memory as by the situation, Joe lashed out. Pearson was caught by surprise and his gun was knocked away to discharge harmlessly into the ceiling. Ben lunged for the cowboy, who brought his gun round again, determined to settle Joe down again, by whatever means were necessary. Seeing Ben charging down on him, Pearson changed his mind and shoved Ben hard. Ben stumbled and fell.
Memory was still pummeling Joe hard and he was having a hard time of it assessing the information. He fought furiously. “Rustlers!” he cried. “You wanted to bring rustlers!”
“Shut up!” Pearson shrieked. This was all going wrong and he wasn’t sure why. He grabbed Joe’s nightshirt at the shoulder and drove a punch into the youth’s stomach. Joe doubled over, the blow taking a huge toll in his weakened condition.
By now, Ben had regained his feet, and as he rose, furiously, to protect Joe, the bedroom door opened and Hoss came like a bullet shot from a gun. For a big man, he could move fast, and the sight of Hoss charging him down was too much for Pearson. He brought his gun up, too late, for Hoss was on him, bearing him to the floor where he was laid out with a couple of well-placed blows.
“Hoss!” Ben said, tugging on his son’s arm. “Hoss, that’s enough!”
Rising, Hoss glared down on the unconscious man with disgust. Ben gave him one last look, to be sure he had his temper under control, then looked back to Joe. To his surprise, for he hadn’t seen him come in, Paul Martin was already bending over him.
“Joe?” Paul was saying, with admirable calm. “Can you hear me?”
“Yes, doc,” Joe said, but his voice was thin and he was clearly still in some distress.
Looking up, Paul smiled. “Ben, better go and tell that other son of yours that everything is okay here. If you don’t, he’ll no doubt get up and come and see for himself.”
Belatedly, Ben became aware of Adam’s concerned voice calling across the hallway, and went to reassure him. He was back in a few seconds and bending anxiously over Joe. “How is he, Paul?”
“I’m fine, Pa,” Joe said. He knew he wasn’t. His thinking felt slow and he hurt in various places, but he just knew if he said anything else he would be stuck in bed.
“I’ll tell you more in a few minutes if you just go and let me examine him.” Paul took the sting out of his words with a smile and Ben helped Hoss take Pearson downstairs. “Now, young man, I need to ask you some questions, and I need the truth from you, all right?”
“All right,” Joe agreed.
Gently, Paul began to question Joe, and with each answer, his hopes rose that there was no significant brain damage from Joe’s fractured skull. Finally he sat back. “That’s great, Joe. I’d say you were on the mend.”
“What’s wrong with me?” Joe asked. “My head feels like its been stuffed with cotton wool, and I can’t seem to remember things.”
“You were found unconscious with a fractured skull,” Paul said. “That’s why your head feels funny and your thinking is a bit slow. It’ll clear up given time. You got shot in the foot, and a few bones were broken, so you won’t be doing much walking about for a week or two. You’ve been unconscious for 4 days.”
“Four days?” Joe repeated, obviously dumbfounded. He tried to adjust his thinking to having lost four days, but couldn’t do it. “I’ve been here for four days?”
“Four days,” Paul assured him. “Don’t worry about it, Joe. You’re on the mend now.”
The door opened and Ben came in, closely followed by Hoss. Joe smiled at them both, and looked expectantly past them to the door. Ben frowned then realized what Joe was looking for – or rather who Joe was looking for. Adam.
“Adam was hurt the other night, Joe,” Ben said, “but he’s all right. Just too weak to get out of bed. He’ll be through to see you as soon as he can.”
“What happened to him?” Joe asked, but his eyes were shadowed with sleep, and Paul hushed him.
“There’s plenty of time to tell you later,” he said. “You sleep.” He drew Ben and Hoss away from the bed. “Joe’s going to be all right,” he said, softly. “If there is any brain damage, it appears to be confined to his short term memory and I’d say that not remembering this is a good thing.”
“Thank you, Paul,” Ben said, fervently.
Grinning, Paul said, “Much as I’d love to take credit for this one, Ben, it’s nothing to do with me. Just God and your son’s constitution.”
Over the next day or so, Joe’s recovery continued apace. His memory was indeed patchy, but he was able to confirm to Roy that Pearson and Jones had been the ones who’d attacked him. He told Roy that he’d overheard them discussing the rustlers, and Roy had a confession from Pearson anyway. Joe didn’t remember being shot at all, and found it very frustrating to have an injury that he couldn’t remember receiving.
As he recovered, Joe found that Hoss was avoiding him. Finally, Ben ordered Hoss to go and visit with Joe and the younger brother soon discovered the source of the older brother’s discomfort. “I didn’t mean to hurt, ya, Joe,” Hoss said, unhappily. “An’ I didn’t mean anythin’ by callin’ ya Shortshanks.”
“I’m sorry for shouting at you,” Joe said. “And I don’t mind you calling me Shortshanks, honest, Hoss. I was just riled that day.” In truth, although Joe could remember quarrelling with Hoss, he couldn’t remember the details, and thought that was probably best.
“When you was lyin’ there,” Hoss went on, “all I could think in was that the last words we’d had had been harsh words. I couldn’t a borne if’n you’d never woken up, Joe. Let’s never part on bad terms again, huh?”
“Never,” Joe agreed, tears in his eyes.
The reconciliation with Adam wasn’t as simple as that. There was no way it could be. Adam and Joe had never quite shared the same ease as Adam and Hoss or Joe and Hoss. There were 12 discordant years between them, and sometimes it seemed a whole generation wide. This time, the gap was caused by circumstances as well as age. Adam was laid up, too and his wound took more out of him than everyone expected. Joe couldn’t get out of bed, either, and so it was nearly a week before Adam was able to traverse the short distance across the hallway to see his youngest brother.
Pausing in the doorway, Adam looked at Joe. He was leaning back in bed, his eyes closed and a book held loosely in his hand. Even as Adam watched, the book began to slip and Joe jerked awake to catch it. He blinked and glanced round, trying to orient himself again. Since discovering that he’d lost 4 days, Joe was terrified that he would slip into a coma again and always had to check out his room when he woke from a nap.
Spying Adam there, Joe flushed, as though caught in some misdeed. He hadn’t admitted to anyone his sense of disorientation, and felt it was a sign of weakness. “Adam,” he said, and his tone wasn’t welcoming.
Biting his lip, Adam went into the room, knowing he couldn’t put this off any longer. “Joe, I’ve got an apology to make to you,” he said.
“How are you feeling?” Joe asked, trying to postpone the inevitable.
“Well enough,” Adam responded. “And I’ve been getting hourly progress reports on you.” He smiled. “You’re doing well.”
Then the smile ran away from his face, and he glanced down. “Joe, I want to say how sorry I am for treating you like you’re a little kid.” It was hard for Adam to humble his pride like that and Joe was immediately uncomfortable. “I don’t just mean last week. I mean all the time. I didn’t realize how often I thought of you as though you were still a child. I didn’t do it deliberately. I want you to know that I will try to change. I can’t guarantee I’ll always succeed, but I will try. Do you forgive me?”
“Yes, I forgive you,” Joe said, worn out by his brother’s emotions. “I know you didn’t mean it, Adam. Hoss tells me I had reason to be angry that day. You just caught the end of it.” Joe looked at Adam, his eyes very green, and filled with tears. “But I don’t want there to be anything like that between us.”
“Never a harsh word, eh?” Adam said, and they both smiled wryly. They both knew it would take a little time for them to patch the hole in their relationship, but they were both more than willing to try.
“I don’t believe a word of it,” Ben said, from the doorway. “Never a harsh word between you two? It would be wonderful, but who do you think you’re kidding?”
He couldn’t have said anything that was better designed to unite his sons. “Now wait a minute, Pa,” Adam began.
“That’s not fair…” Joe started, and Ben simply grinned.
The family was whole once more.
Thanks to Claire for the idea, which prompted this story. Sis, you’re the best! And thanks to Stephen for a sentence that gave me another idea.