The Smoke in the Sky (by Rona)

Summary: A fire leads to devastating consequences.

Rated: T
Word Count: 10,135 words


 

The sound of rushing water filled the young man’s ears as rough hands plunged him into the fast-flowing river. He struggled helplessly against them, but it was like a butterfly fighting the hail. Pain thumped through his body, and he barely had the strength to take his next breath. “No!” he gasped, but the faint sound was lost in the roar of near-by flames, and a horrible crashing noise. A puff of scalding hot air passed over his skin and was gone.

The pain was subsiding now, and Joe relaxed. He couldn’t fight any more, and he gave himself up to the darkness that beckoned to him. From far away, he thought he heard someone calling his name, but it was too much trouble to listen and he sank into unconsciousness.

*****

“You didn’t tell me Jamie’s sister was so pretty,” Joe Cartwright said accusingly to his older brother Hoss.

“Didn’ I?” Hoss replied, blandly. “Musta slipped my mind, young ‘un.”

Eyeing Hoss suspiciously, Joe continued to peer out of the window of the general store, as Hoss sorted out the last of the supplies they needed. Jamie and Ellen Gordon had bought a farm outside Virginia City in the spring, and Hoss and Jamie had become friends. At first, everyone had assumed that the young couple were newly married, but Hoss had found out they were brother and sister. Jamie was a year younger than Hoss, and Ellen was a year younger than Joe. Their parents had died, and they had decided to relocate to the west. Jamie was a worker, and had already broken the ground he’d need for planting wheat come spring.

More interested in Ellen than in Jamie, Joe persisted, “You ain’t sparkin’ her, are you?”

“What if I am?” Hoss returned. He made sure to keep his face hidden from his quicker younger brother. “You jist said she’s a pretty girl.”

Frowning, Joe turned away from the window and crossed to Hoss’ side. The storekeeper hid a smile behind his ledger. Hoss turned guileless blue eyes upon his younger sibling. “What?” he asked, as though he didn’t know.

“Well, are you?” Joe demanded.

“Am I what?” Hoss returned, revelling in the fact that he had Joe squirming for once.

“Are you sparkin’ her?” Joe squeaked. His voice frequently went up when he was frustrated. His handsome face flushed becomingly, and his greeny/hazel eyes flashed.

“Sparkin’ who?” Hoss asked, as though he had already forgotten.

“You know who!” Joe insisted, his voice still going up. “Ellen Gordon!”

“Ellen Gordon? Am I sparkin’ Ellen Gordon? That whatcha want to know?”

“That’s what I want to know,” Joe repeated, with exaggerated patience.

For a moment, Hoss wondered if he could keep this up a bit longer, but the need to laugh was overwhelming. “No,” he said blandly, and turned away.

“No?” Joe said, his voice going high again. Then it struck him what Hoss had said and done and he began to laugh. Released, Hoss also began to laugh, and the storekeeper joined in.

Wiping tears from his eyes, Hoss heaved his tall, well built body off the sack of meal he had been resting on, and clapped Joe on the shoulder. His more slightly built brother almost went down under the affectionate pat. “Joe, that performance sure was worth it,” he chortled. “I bin dyin’ to get you like that!”

“I love you, too,” Joe said, but he couldn’t keep up the pretence of being angry, especially as Hoss knew that he wasn’t.

They were still smiling about it as they went out of the store to the loaded buckboard. “Beer?” Joe asked.

“Sure,” Hoss agreed. “And you’re buyin’.”

“All right,” Joe acceded. They started to climb up onto the seat of the buckboard when a voice hailed Hoss. Turning, they saw Jamie Gordon.

Smiling, the young man came over to them and started to chat. Joe listened politely. He liked Jamie, but didn’t know him that well. However, as he stood there, he saw Ellen coming down the street. Joe straightened unconsciously, brushed a speck of dust off the sleeve of his blue jacket, and made sure his tan hat was tipped back at a jaunty angle that one of his previous girlfriends had confided drove her wild. Hoss, watching this performance out of the corner of his eye, stifled a sigh. He recognised the signs and didn’t want Joe breaking Ellen Gordon’s heart.

There was no cause for alarm. Ellen was well able to deal with Joe’s ploys. She greeted him shyly, and turned to talk to Hoss almost at once. Joe looked slightly alarmed, wondering if his charm had worn off, but then Jamie introduced them properly, and Joe realised that Ellen was just taking care of her good name. Joe whipped off his hat and kissed her hand. “Could I interest you in something cool to drink, Miss Ellen?” he asked. “Or perhaps an ice?”

Hesitating, Ellen looked at Jamie, and he nodded. “Go on,” he said. “I wanted to chat to Hoss anyway, and you wouldn’t like the saloon.”

“So you keep telling me,” Ellen retorted, and her brother laughed.

“Well, maybe you’d like it too well,” he responded, and was rewarded by his sister’s smile.

Crooking his arm, Joe led Ellen to the café down the street. She decided on an ice, and Joe joined her. He was pleased to see she wasn’t quite as quiet as her initial response had suggested. Joe wasn’t often drawn to quiet, obedient lasses. He liked the ones with a bit of sass to go with their good looks. As they talked, it became quite clear that Ellen had plenty of sass. She and Joe were soon laughing together about some of the people they knew, and about Hoss’ teasing Joe.

An hour flew past without either of them noticing, and then Jamie appeared in the doorway of the café to take his sister home. Joe took her hand. “Ellen, would you go with me to the dance on Saturday night?”

Hesitating for a moment, Ellen looked in Joe’s eyes, wondering if she ought to get involved with him. She knew of Joe’s reputation as a ladies’ man, and she suspected that he would be very easy to fall in love with. But his eyes showed only warmth and friendship, and she smiled. “I’d love to, Joe,” she said.

“I’ll pick you up,” Joe said, and kissed her cheek quite chastely. “Bye, Ellen. Good bye, Jamie.” He followed them out of the café after paying the bill, and wasn’t surprised to find Hoss in the buckboard, waiting for him. He climbed meekly aboard, and glanced one more over his shoulder, hoping for a glimpse of Ellen. However, they were no longer in sight, and with a love-lorn sigh, purely for Hoss’ benefit, Joe faced front once more.

*****

Over supper that night, Hoss didn’t hesitate to tell their father and other brother, Adam, about Joe’s indignation at the thought of Hoss going out with Ellen Gordon. Joe grinned good-naturedly, and Ben and Adam laughed out loud. “I’m taking her to the dance on Saturday,” Joe said.

“Well, that figures,” Adam said. “You’ll take her to a few dances, then decide it’s not love, and drop her.”

“Oh, and you’re Mr Consistency, I presume?” Joe retorted. “I don’t see you going steady with anyone for long, either!”

“Now, boys,” Ben said, mildly, but they both got the message. Ben wondered why Adam felt a need to pass a slightly critical comment about everything Joe did. He was sure Adam wasn’t aware of his tone most of the time, but he always knew the exact thing to say that would rile Joe. On the other hand, it didn’t take much to rile Joe, sometimes.

“Where exactly is the Gordons’ place?” Ben asked Hoss. “I know you’ve told me before, but I’ve forgotten.”

“Old age,” Joe quipped, and ducked prudently.

Treating that remark with the contempt it deserved, Hoss said, “Along the Truckee River, Pa. That big flat valley that runs down to the edge of the forest, the other side of the hills.”

Ben was nodding. “Yes, I remember. Has he done a lot with it?”

“Sure has,” Hoss said, enthusiastically. “Ploughed almost all the land, bar a strip up the middle. He’s left the trees, like I suggested, and it makes a right pretty outlook for the house.”

“Where did they build the house?” asked Adam, looking interested.

“Right plumb against the banks of the river,” Hoss said. “Its right pretty there.”

“Let’s just hope it doesn’t flood too much,” Adam said, wryly, but his family ignored him. Ben was speculating about the fertility of the soil, Joe was wondering about the quickest buggy route from the Ponderosa to there, and Hoss was still in raptures over the amount of work Jamie had managed to get done in such a short time.

*****

Saturday evening found all the Cartwrights washed and brushed up. Joe set off early with the buggy, and the other three rode into town a bit later. They still managed to arrive before Joe and Ellen, who had taken a slow trip in. Joe introduced Ellen to his family, and Ben and Adam could both see why Joe was smitten, as she was a lovely girl. Her hair was somewhere along the colour of mousy brown, but was alive with caramel and bronze highlights, which made it a colour all her own. Her eyes were blue and she had lovely neat figure.

As the evening wore on, and Joe and Ellen danced almost every dance, their laughter could regularly be heard above the music. Hoss looked miserable. “Wish I’d never introduced them two,” he grouched to Adam, as they stood at the punch bowl.

“Why not?” Adam asked. “Did you want to ask her to the dance?”

“Ain’t that,” Hoss denied. “I just hate to think I’ve introduced Little Joe to the love of his life.”

Laughing, Adam said, “The latest love of his life, you mean.”

Hoss grunted, sourly. “That, too.”

Slapping Hoss on the shoulder, Adam said, “Well, I suppose somebody had to do it!” He hid his smile in his glass of punch. Hoss cast Adam a disgusted look, and didn’t deign to reply.

*****

It was the pattern for things to come. Joe and Ellen saw each other as often as possible, allowing for Joe’s work. He never admitted how many afternoons he sneaked away to spend with Ellen at her home. Jamie didn’t let on to Hoss either, although Joe’s big brother didn’t ask him outright if Joe spent a lot of time with Ellen.

Haying and round up caused a hiatus in the relationship at the end of the summer, but it didn’t seem to lessen the affection the young couple had for each other. Ellen had begun a little dressmaking business, and was in town three days a week working in the small shop she had leased. She had confided to Joe that she was worried that she wouldn’t have enough clients, but her friendship with Joe unwittingly helped her. Several people went to her just to find out what was keeping Little Joe Cartwright by her side, and ended up coming away genuinely liking the girl.

On his return from the cattle drive, Joe went round to see Ellen as soon as he was washed and changed. He was tired and sore, but no more than was usual at the end of the roundup. Ellen was delightfully pleased to see him, and they were soon chatting away, exchanging news like they’d been parted for years, not just three short weeks.

After a time, the soft seat began to lull Joe to sleep, and he fought against the drowsiness, knowing he had to ride home. “Ellen, I must go,” he said, sleepily, struggling to his feet. Ellen smiled, having watched him nodding in the chair.

“Come back soon,” she said, and they kissed.

“Will you come to the dance, Saturday?” he asked.

“Can my reputation stand being seen with you in public again?” she countered, gently teasing.

Running his hands gently down her back, Joe swallowed. “I hope so,” he said, huskily, his eyes telling her how desirable he found her.

“Then I’ll come,” Ellen said, and extracted herself from his grip. She couldn’t risk there being any kind of scandal. Her good name was precious to her, especially after an incident in her past, which she hadn’t been able to tell Joe about. “Joe, you’d better go.”

“Right,” Joe said, stepping back. “See you Saturday.” He went outside and mounted his horse, and rode slowly home. Normally, it wouldn’t have mattered if he fell asleep on his horse, but this wasn’t Cochise, who was tired from the cattle drive. To keep himself awake, Joe wondered what dress Ellen would be wearing. She had worn some lovely dresses over the months, which she made herself, of course. This chain of thought kept him awake all the way home, where he tended to the horse and fell thankfully into bed.

*****

Pausing as he walked across the yard, Joe frowned. Adam looked at him, and seeing Joe’s eyes trained on the distance, said, “What’s up?”

“I’m not sure,” Joe admitted. “What’s that? Is it smoke?” He pointed off behind the Sierras.

Peering in the direction Joe indicated, he saw the thin column faintly rising in the air. “Sure looks like it,” he agreed. “But it’s far away from here, Joe. Probably a forest fire. It should burn out before it reaches here.”

“What’s so interesting, boys?” Ben asked, coming out of the house. He, too, looked in the direction they were looking. “A fire,” he said. “Well, it’s far away, and we don’t have land over there!”

“Good thing, too,” Joe commented. “By the time we got away over there, there’d be nothing left to save.”

Ben threw a black look at Joe. “I just hope it doesn’t do too much damage,” he said, reprovingly. “There are a few ranches over in that direction.”

“I didn’t mean anything by that,” Joe apologised. “Sorry. It was a flip remark that came out wrong.”

“I know,” Ben said, tipping his son’s hat over his face. “Off you go, and get started.” He watched his sons ride out, and looked again at the column of smoke in the distance. For some reason, it made him very uncomfortable.

*****

Over the next few days, it seemed to Joe that the column of smoke was always in the corner of his eye. It grew steadily thicker, although it didn’t seem to be coming any nearer. The Territorial Enterprise reported that many miles of forest were burning, and it was thought that the fire had been started by a careless traveller, who hadn’t put his fire out correctly.

The weather was warm and dry, with a hot wind that blew steadily from the direction of the smoke. Sometimes, it seemed to Joe that he could even smell the smoke on the wind. Daily, they hoped for rain, for the fire seemed to be gaining a greater hold, and was burning unchecked.

However, the dance on Saturday night drove all thoughts of the conflagration from Joe’s head. He took an inordinate amount of time to get ready for it. He had a new suit, and it was a lovely blue/green colour, which made his eyes seem greener, and the cut of the pants was very dashing. The jacket was short and square, and Joe looked terrific in it.

“Whoooeeee!” Hoss exclaimed, as he came down the stairs. “Don’t he look just as pretty as a jaybird?”

“Joe,” Adam said, draping one arm on his brother’s shoulder, “the girl is the one who’s supposed to attract all the attention, you know. At this rate, you’ll steal Ellen’s thunder.”

“No danger, big brother,” Joe retorted, shrugging his arm away. “I have to do something to keep up with her.”

“You look very nice, Joe,” Ben said. He’d paid for the suit as a birthday present for Joe. “You’d better go if you’re to pick Ellen up on time.”

Smiling gratefully at Ben for allowing him a quick exit from the teasing, Joe said, “You’re right, Pa. Bye, everyone.” He departed.

“Must be serious,” Adam commented. He folded his arms across his chest.

“I think it’ll be a June weddin’,” Hoss decided. “Apple blossom an’ all.”

“You always think it’ll be a June wedding,” teased Adam. “It hasn’t happened yet.”

“Miracles do happen,” Ben interjected. “If you boys are going to the dance, don’t you think you’d better get ready.”

Taking the hint, Adam and Hoss stopped discussing their absent sibling and went to get dressed.

*****

The evening was balmy as they drove gently to town. Ellen, with a professional’s eye, had admired the cut and colour of Joe’s suit, and thought how much it suited him. She was quite quiet, thinking about a talk she’d had with Jamie earlier in the evening. She wondered if she ought to share it with Joe before or after the dance.

“That is a beautiful dress,” Joe said, breaking into her thoughts, and she decided not to say anything until they were on the way home. “You look stunning, Ellen.”

“Thank you, Joe,” Ellen said. Her dress was of white tulle, with a pink satin under dress, which glimmered through the thin tulle. It had full sleeves of tulle, which showed off her arms delightfully. Joe had never seen anything quite like it before. It looked flimsy, yet she was decently covered. Joe didn’t doubt that there would be talk, but Ellen was as oblivious as he was to gossip. About her clothes, at any rate.

As he helped her from the buggy, Joe could smell the faint scent from the corsage of white lilac he’d given her. He hadn’t known she would be wearing white, but the flowers were pretty and smelt lovely, and Joe was glad he’d picked them. “You’re gonna be the belle of the ball tonight,” he said to her, as he offered her his arm.

The rustle that greeted their entrance proved Joe right. He thoroughly enjoyed the attention as they danced the night away, and he was amused at the number of girls who just had to come and ask Ellen about her dress. He was slightly less amused at the number of young men who came and asked for a dance, but Ellen reassured him each time by refusing to dance with anyone but Joe and his brothers.

Given the teasing he’d endured before he left, Joe was a little hesitant to have Ellen dancing with his brothers, but they were on their best behaviour, even though Ben wasn’t there to keep an eye on them. However, they had been well warned before they left. “Lots of jealous guys in here,” Adam commented, idly to Joe, as Hoss danced with Ellen.

“I guess,” Joe replied, indifferently. His eyes tracked his date’s progress round the floor, anxious in case Hoss should stand on her feet. It was the family joke, but Hoss was actually quite a good dancer, despite his size.

“Is it serious?” Adam asked, again in that idle tone.

Joe, however, wasn’t fooled. “Could be,” he agreed. “Why? You jealous?”

“She’s a beautiful girl,” Adam said, not rising to the jibe. “If she’s not the one, don’t hurt her.”

Flashing his brother an angry look, Joe subsided after a moment. The steady brown gaze that met his told him Adam wasn’t joking, nor trying to annoy Joe. “I won’t,” he said.

*****

The stars were all out as Joe drove Ellen home after the dance. Only the ever-present smoke marred the perfection of the midnight blue velvet above them. On nights like this, Joe could understand why the nursery rhyme spoke of diamonds in the sky. It was a stunning vista, and one that kept the young people silent until they were almost at Ellen’s home.

“Could we stop for a moment?” she asked, and Joe thought she sounded nervous.

“Of course,” Joe said, and pulled the mare to a stop. He set the brake and turned to face her. “What is it?”

“I have to tell you something,” she said, and her hands fluttered nervously in her lap, pleating the edge of her wrap over and over. Joe took her hands in his and was surprised to find them icy cold.

“What’s wrong?” he asked, concerned. “Are you ill?”

“No, its not that,” Ellen said. “Joe, its something you’ve got to know if we’re to go on seeing each other.”

“Tell me,” Joe coaxed, warmly.

Bit by tortured bit, the story came out. When Ellen was 15, a man had come into her life. He was a friend of her father’s, and had flattered the teenager with gentle attention. However, one night, he had come over to the house when her parents were out, and had attempted to rape her. Ellen had fought him off, her screams attracting Jamie to her rescue. The matter had been hushed up, and that had seemed to be the end of it.

However, things are seldom that neat. When her parents had died, the man had reappeared, and had once more attacked her. Grieving for her parents, Ellen hadn’t been able to fight him off, and, although he hadn’t succeeded in raping her, she had been badly hurt. This time, there was no keeping it quiet. Jamie insisted on bringing in the law, and the man had been jailed. Ellen’s reputation had taken a beating in the courtroom, and that was when Jamie had decided to sell up and go west. He wasn’t cut out for a life as a town dandy, and preferred to get his hands dirty in honest work. Ellen had taken up dressmaking as a way of taking her mind off her ordeal.

There was silence as she finished. She was too scared to look up at Joe. She’d had other relationships, and they had faltered each time she had repeated the story. Despite this, she didn’t want to hide it away. She knew that she desired Joe, but she wasn’t sure how she would react when they moved on beyond the chaste kisses and hand holding. Ellen would rather know now, before she gave her heart completely, if the relationship was doomed.

“I’m so sorry,” Joe said, and Ellen’s heart sank. She raised tear-filled eyes to him. “I’m sorry that had to happen to you,” Joe said, and his voice was a warm caress that sent shivers down her spine.

“You mean, you’re not disgusted?” she whispered.

“Yes, I am disgusted,” Joe said, perplexed by the question. He saw her flinch, and realised what she meant. “I’m not disgusted by you, sweetheart,” he went on, quickly. “I’m disgusted by the man who did that to you. If he was here, I’d beat the living daylights out of him.”

Lifting her hand, Ellen put her fingers over Joe’s lips, stopping his angry words. “Hush,” she whispered, and then they were kissing, over and over. She faltered slightly as she felt Joe’s tongue enter her mouth, but he didn’t force her, and after a moment, she opened her mouth, and responded with timid tongue-flickerings of her own.

It was Joe who stopped the kissing. He was becoming very aroused, and knew that if he didn’t stop, he wouldn’t be able to. And Ellen wasn’t ready for more. He slipped the brake off and shook up the horse. It seemed only moments until they were in front of her home, and he could see the glow of the lamp. “I won’t come in,” he said, huskily, knowing that Jamie would see what state he was in. “See you soon,” he added, helping her down. Ellen smiled and slipped inside.

Driving home with aching loins, Joe thought wonderingly of her trust in him.

*****

The smoke in the sky was no longer a column, it was a cloud. It hovered over the mountains like a thunderstorm about to break. It grew ever closer, and now the smell of it was reaching the ranch. Ben kept an anxious eye on his own timber. Although he knew that a fire could be good for the trees, he didn’t want it on his land. He prayed fervently for rain.

In the days after the dance, Joe went about his work in a daze. His mind kept returning to the story Ellen had told him, and to the kisses they’d exchanged. There was little doubt in Joe’s mind that he wanted Ellen. He wanted to marry her, and take away those memories. He wanted to beat the man who’d attacked her to a pulp. He couldn’t do that, so he took out his anger and disgust on the logs he had to chop for the fires. As always, Joe thought that his pre-occupations were invisible to everyone else, but they weren’t. Adam and Hoss were speculating like mad about whether Joe had proposed yet or not, and if Ellen had turned him down, or was just making him wait for an answer. Joe did his work, but he seldom heard anyone talk to him.

He saw Ellen as often as he could, which worked out about once every 2 days. He was gentle with her, although he wanted more than just kisses from her. However, they laughed together and talked nonsense, as lovers do the world over. Ellen relaxed more and more in his company, and Joe could see that telling him had lifted a burden from her shoulders. He was thinking seriously about asking her to marry him, but was afraid to rush things.

Almost a week after the dance, Joe came back from town with the mail and the paper. “That fire is getting closer,” he said, pointing to the headline. “It might even get as far as Virginia City.”

Picking up the paper, Ben scanned the article. Men were going out to cut a firebreak, but it was feared that they were too late. The fire, now moving into a narrower band of forest, was picking up speed as it consumed the timber more quickly. “Let’s start a watch along that edge of the ranch,” Ben said. “If the wind shifts, we could see it coming, and perhaps be ready, if nothing else.”

“I can go, if you like,” Joe offered.

“Not today, son,” Ben said, clapping Joe on the shoulder. “You’re still too busy digesting whatever it was Ellen told you on Saturday.”

The green eyes narrowed, and Joe frowned. “How do you know she told me anything?” Joe cried.

“Calm down,” Ben said. “I know by the way you’re acting. One minute, you’re all dreamy, the next, you’re all fired up. I don’t know what she said to you, but until you come to terms with it, you’re no good on watch. You’re too busy looking inside.”

“I guess,” Joe said, and bit his lip. He glanced round, and Ben understood at once.

“Your brothers aren’t here,” he said, as though he didn’t know that Joe wanted to talk.

That was all the invitation it took. Joe told Ben the story Ellen had told him, and then explained that he wanted desperately to marry her, but was frightened to go too fast, in case he scared her. He explained about the anger he felt towards the man who had hurt her. “Am I doing the right thing, in not going too fast?” he asked.

“Yes, exactly the right thing,” Ben said. “If the girl is worth having, she’s worth waiting for. If you rush her and she becomes frightened, you might lose her forever.”

“That’s what I thought,” Joe said. He squared his shoulders and looked more relaxed. “I feel better now that I’ve told you.”

Smiling, Ben said, “That’s what fathers are for, you know.”

Laughing, Joe gave Ben a quick hug, and headed out to do his barn chores before supper.

*****

As Joe swung himself into the saddle, Hoss said, “Now, don’t go off an’ see that little gal of yourn, Little Joe. You’re goin’ over there to watch a fire, not ride off an’ see Ellen.”

“Go soak your head!” Joe responded, and rode off. He admitted, he had thought briefly if he could ride over and see Ellen, but he knew that fire watch was too important to play hooky on, so he had abandoned the notion. He hadn’t seen her since his talk with Ben a couple of days before. Joe had the night watch, and Hoss would relieve him in the morning.

“Is that Joe away?” Ben asked, as Hoss came back inside.

“Yup,” Hoss replied. “Pa, he’s a changed boy, just overnight. What did you say to him?”

At that, Adam perked up and looked interested. “Yeah, Pa, tell us.”

Sipping composedly at his cup of coffee, Ben hid a smile. “I didn’t say anything that he didn’t already know,” he responded, cryptically.

“What does that mean?” Hoss asked.

“It means, ‘mind your own business’,” Adam said, wryly. “Pa isn’t going to tell us.”

“If Joe had wanted you to be privy to the conversation, he would’ve included you,” Ben said. “Hoss, you’ve got an early start tomorrow, so why don’t you get an early night?”

*****

The smell of smoke was strong on the ridge. As the wind eddied around, Joe could almost swear he felt soft ashes swirling round him. Darkness fell, and it was another clear night – away from the smoke. It seemed to Joe that this smoke had been plaguing his life for months, not just weeks. It was always there in the background, whether it was the smell or the visual evidence.

His eye was drawn down the valley to where he could just see the faint glimmer of light coming from Ellen and Jamie’s cabin. The Truckee River was pure molten silver in the moonlight, and Joe was struck once again by the natural beauty of his home.

It was tough to stay awake. Joe had slept a good bit of the afternoon, but he had nothing in particular to watch, unlike when he had to stand watch over the herd. At least then, the cattle moved about. Here, he was looking for phantoms in the dark. His head nodded once or twice, and Cochise stood drowsing by his shoulder. Joe chewed on the jerky he had brought along, hating the tough, cold strip, but knowing that the effort of chewing would keep him awake.

The sky lightened long before the sun actually peeped over the edge of the Sierras. Joe could smell smoke all the time now, and he was convinced the fire was closer. He saddled Cochise, and decided to take a look further along the ridge, although he had been vigilant all night.

Cochise picked his way delicately along the track, until Joe stood on the softer downward side, which led to the Gordons’ farm. There was nothing to see. The hillside, for all its softer slope, was rock and shale, and there would be no fire on it. Joe rolled his tired shoulders, and thought about how long it would be until Hoss got there to relieve him. Bed seemed like a nice idea at that moment.

Movement caught Joe’s eye, and he peered urgently into the distance. A cold hand gripped his heart as he saw the flicker of fire across the valley. The fire had come through the canyons all right, but not where they had expected it to. It had reached the valley, and was now racing its way along the strip of trees Jamie had left up the middle of the land. At the end of the line of trees stood the cabin.

Instantly, Joe was urging Cochise down the slope, heedless of any danger to his beloved horse. He had to warn the Gordons! Cochise responded valiantly, and all but sat down as he slithered down the rocky hillside. They hit the flat of the valley galloping, and Joe didn’t hear his name called from up on the ridge. He had only one goal in mind – to save Jamie and Ellen from the fire.

*****

“Better save some breakfast for Joe,” Ben said to Hop Sing, as the housekeeper began to clear the table. “He should be back soon.”

The look Hop Sing gave him told Ben all too clearly that he was saying something that didn’t need to be said. Joe would really have to be in Hop Sing’s bad books before the little Chinaman refused to feed him. Smiling, Ben went over to his office to write a couple of letters. Adam was working on some accounts over by the fire, and humming softly as he did so.

Glancing out of the office window before he settled down, Ben frowned as he saw the cloud of smoke in the sky. He still felt uneasy about the fire, although it didn’t seem likely to come to his land now. Joe hadn’t returned yet, and it seemed to Ben that there was a change in the wind direction. Wandering over to the other window, he saw dark clouds building.

“Looks like there might be rain on the way,” he remarked to Adam. “I hope that deals with this fire.”

“I hope so, too,” Adam agreed. “It seems to have been burning forever.”

“I know what you mean,” Ben mused, as he walked over to his desk to get started.

*****

It was a deadly race, but one which Joe was destined to lose. The fire rushed its way along the trees, fanned by the hot wind. Sparks jumped from tree to tree, and as he drew nearer, he saw the first ones land on the roof of the cabin and ignite.

Though still not near enough to be heard, Joe was shouting. He called desperately to Ellen, hoping that somehow, he would be heard, and they would waken. His throat was raw, and the smoke was billowing over him in eddies.

The cabin suddenly burst into flames. They seemed to be coming from everywhere, and Joe was now sobbing. Cochise was lathered, and exhausted, but kept going under his master’s prodding. The horse shied away from the flames, and Joe practically fell off. He slid from the animal’s back, barely noticing when the horse headed for the instinctive safety of the river. Joe was too intent on rescuing Ellen and Jamie.

The noise of the flames was deafening, and Joe knew it was useless trying to pit his voice against it. He dashed to the back door of the cabin, and grasped the handle. The door wasn’t burning, but the handle was red hot. Joe snatched his hand away, and kicked at the door instead. It gave, and he very nearly fell into a wall of flames. At that moment, he knew he was too late, and Ellen and Jamie were already dead. Nobody could survive the thick smoke that billowed through the cabin.

But still, he refused to believe it, and he backed away until the flames died back slightly, and tried once more to go into the burning cabin. He shielded his face with his hands, but the air was so hot, he could feel his skin burning. There was a crash, and something scalding glanced off his arm, and Joe let out a cry of pain.

His throat was full of smoke, and he couldn’t breathe. He looked down as something hot touched his foot, and saw that his boot was on fire. He stamped frantically, and was overcome by a fit of coughing. He collapsed to the floor, too confused by the smoke and the noise to find his way back out. His hair was dancing as though alive, and he vaguely realised that it was on fire, but he was too far gone to care.

Rough hands grabbed his clothes and dragged him outside. Joe let out a cry of pain, and was overcome by coughing. He heard the noise of the river as water rushed around his head. The pain eased slightly, and someone seemed to be calling his name, but Joe couldn’t respond. He sank gratefully into the darkness as there was a loud crash from nearby. The last thing he felt was a puff of hot air on his skin, then he knew no more.

*****

Hoss was never sure how long he crouched in the cold waters of the Truckee River, holding onto Joe, as the fire burned itself out on the small amount of foliage at the river’s edge. When he finally judged it safe to come out, he whistled, and both the horses came to him from the other side of the river. It was difficult getting Joe onto the horse in front of him, but he had no other choice. Joe hadn’t stirred once.

Riding along the edge of the river, Hoss realised that the wind had changed, and was blowing now from the north. There was a cold edge to it. Glancing up, he saw rain clouds forming for the first time in weeks. The clouds raced in on the strong wind, and shortly were dumping their load all over the already soaked men. The rain came too late, Hoss thought, miserably. By the time he made it safely back to the ranch, a couple of hours later, both he and Joe were shivering violently.

As they rode in, Ben was at the door. He had become increasingly concerned about Joe’s failure to come home, and now his worst fears were realised. Between them, he and Adam got Hoss and Joe inside. Adam sent for Paul, while Hoss got changed, and Ben stripped Joe’s wet clothes from him.

It was apparent that Joe had been in the fire. Despite his emersion in the water, he was still streaked with soot. His hair was badly singed, as were his eyebrows. He coughed relentlessly, and little bits of soot were still clearing from his lungs. Joe’s right foot was burned, as was his arm, shoulder and side. The rest of his skin was red, as though sunburned. He was running a fever, and his skin was clammy from shock.

It seemed an age before Paul Martin arrived. Joe had opened fever-glazed eyes at one point, but he was too hoarse to speak. Ben bathed his head with cool water, and spoke soothingly to him. Hoss, changed and dry, had come into the room to see Joe. After a few minutes, Ben drew him out, and asked what had happened. He and Adam listened as Hoss poured out the story of seeing Joe racing down the hillside, and the fire eating its way along the trees to the cabin. When he told of Joe going into the burning building, Ben couldn’t stifle a gasp.

“They was already dead, Pa,” Hoss sobbed. “There weren’t nobody could’ve live through them flames.”

“I know, son, and I’m sorry,” Ben comforted, remembering that Hoss had lost a friend in that fire, too. “There was nothing you could do.” He rubbed Hoss’ shoulder. “Go and get something to eat, and maybe later, you could manage to sleep. You must be worn out.”

“I guess I am tired,” Hoss admitted, but he knew that Ben was wise not to try and make him sleep yet. The images were still too vivid. The misery apparent in every line of his body, Hoss made his way downstairs, where Hop Sing plied him with comforting food.

When Paul arrived, he examined Joe as Ben told him what had happened. “He’s been lucky,” Paul said. “The burns aren’t too bad. His foot is blistering, and so is the palm of his left hand. His arm, shoulder and side, will be very sore for quite some time to come, and it may be weeks before he’s able to walk. We have to deal with this shock, too. Get me some warm water, and I’ll mix up sugar and salt. Once we’ve got that into him, we’ll have to get fluids in him. Clear broth, and water, as much as he’ll take.” Paul set about bandaging his patient. “Ben, you’ll have to keep these dressings wet at all times,” Paul said. “The wetness will help draw the heat out of his body, and he’ll heal more quickly, I hope.”

“What about putting grease on it?” Ben asked, repeating the wisdom of the day.

“No!” Paul all but shouted. “That’s the worst thing you could do. Grease will only cook the flesh underneath! Keep the bandages wet, and he’ll come through.”

Later, Paul roused Joe with smelling salts, and talked to him. Joe wasn’t able to talk, and Paul examined his throat. It was raw and sore. The heat had scalded it. “If you have any ice, ice cream would help,” Paul suggested.

As Paul spoke, Joe moved slightly, and his body set up a chorus of protest. His flesh burned, and Joe couldn’t hold back a whimper. Ben crossed to his side and took his hand, stroking the boy’s forehead. Memory rushed back, and tears welled up in Joe’s eyes. “Ellen,” he mouthed, and Ben shook his head.

“I’m sorry, Joe, but Ellen and Jamie are dead.”

The sound that came from that raw, burned throat would haunt Ben’s dreams for days to come. Joe sobbed out his heartbreak and anguish in silent tears, as Paul prepared an injection of morphine. Joe barely noticed the needle piercing his flesh, but the drug soon did its job; his tears stopped, and he slept deeply. Ben wiped the traces of tears from his face with a damp cloth. “Poor Joe,” he whispered.

Privately, Paul thought that Joe would have more things to worry about than the death of a girlfriend, but he was unaware, as were most people, how deeply Joe felt about Ellen. Paul was more concerned with the amount of morphine Joe would need to get through the next few days. He knew how addictive it was. It was a concern he decided to keep to himself, for the time being.

“Ben,” he said, drawing his friend away from the bed. “Joe is going to need a lot of nursing.”

“I know that,” Ben responded, his gaze on the pale face of his youngest son.

“Yes, I know you do,” Paul said. “But you must get enough rest, Ben. It won’t help Joe if you don’t eat and sleep. Adam and Hoss can sit with him, as can Hop Sing. If I come out and find you haven’t had a break, I’ll give you something to make you sleep, is that clear?”

Smiling slightly, Ben nodded. “Yes, doctor,” he said.

*****

The fire swirled about Joe, and he screamed against its noise, calling desperately for Ellen. He strained his ears, listening, but there was no answering call. Again and again he shouted, throwing open burning doors which hurt his hand, but finding no trace of his love.

“Ellen,” he gasped, hoarsely, and flailed his arm, his hand grasping at the air.

Gently, Adam caught Joe’s arm, and tried to restrain his brother. Joe’s fever had risen, and he was delirious. Paul had left a pain powder, but Adam hadn’t been able to get Joe to drink it. He fought the bitter taste, and eventually knocked it out of Adam’s hand altogether. The morphine was fast wearing off, and Adam knew Joe must be in a lot of pain. “Hush, Joe, you’re safe,” he soothed, knowing that Joe was unlikely to heed him. About the only person Joe responded to was Ben, but Adam wasn’t going to wake him. It had taken a lot of persuasion to get Ben to go to bed in the first place.

“Ellen, marry me,” Joe panted. “I don’t care what he did to you, Ellen. It doesn’t matter to me. I want you. Please marry me.” His voice was cracked and painful. His eyes opened, and he stared at Adam. “Where is she?” he gasped. Then he groaned and winced, and his eyes shut again. “Tell me it’s not true, Adam,” he whispered.

“I’m sorry, Joe,” Adam said, helplessly, and winced as tears seeped out beneath his brother’s singed lashes. He put a cool cloth on Joe’s head, and wet the dressings again. No matter how gentle he was, Joe winced. “Do you want a drink, buddy?” asked Adam, after he had finished.

Nodding, Joe still had his eyes closed, and the muscles of his jaw were clenched with pain. Adam supported Joe’s head as he helped his brother drink, and realised that his fever had broken. Joe was still warm to the touch, but the sweat was cooler than before. It was a relief, and Adam found himself blinking back tears. Joe touched his arm, and Adam opened his eyes to find Joe looking at him.

“I hurt,” he breathed. ”How did I get here?”

“Don’t try to talk any more, Joe,” Adam said. “I’ll tell you everything that we know. Hoss got you out of the cabin, just before the roof caved in. Your foot and left palm are the worst. You’ve burned your side, arm and shoulder, too, on the other side. Your hair is singed, and so are your eyebrows. You breathed in a lot of smoke, and your throat is scalded. You’re going to be in bed for some time to come, kid.”

The misery reflected in Joe’s green eyes caused Adam to catch his breath. He had seldom seen anyone look so dejected. He swallowed. “Joe, I’m sorry about Ellen. I didn’t know you wanted to marry her.” Once more the tears overflowed, running sideways down Joe’s face into his hair. He muttered something indistinct, and Adam realised his voice had given out again. “You talked in your sleep,” Adam said, apologetically.

The tears continued for some time. When his paroxysm of grief had run its course, Joe found himself cradled in his brother’s strong arms, his face resting against Adam’s shoulder. He sighed, utterly exhausted, and the physical pain came back with a vengeance. His flesh still seemed to be burning, and he gritted his teeth to prevent a groan escaping him. Adam laid him down, and re-wet the bandages, and after a time, the water did soothe things enough to let Joe sleep again.

*****

Morning brought an improvement of sorts, for Paul re-appeared with painkillers, and was relieved when the normal pain powders seemed to help Joe. A careful examination of the injuries showed that some of the redness was out of them, and Paul recommended continuing with the treatment for the next several days, at least. Joe’s fever was down, and he had taken some cool soup that morning. His throat was still inflamed, but a lot better. But it was his patient’s mental state that concerned Paul the most that morning. He had never seen Joe so passionless, so docile. All the life was gone from those wonderful eyes. He ate and drank what he was told to, but he gazed at an inner vista that none of them could see.

Downstairs, Paul said, “I’ve never seen Joe so depressed. What’s wrong with him? Surely he doesn’t think he could have saved the Gordons?”

“Joe was in love with Ellen Gordon,” Adam said, wearily from his seat by the fire. The rain still poured down, and the house was chilly. “He wanted to marry her.”

“I didn’t know,” Paul apologised. Ben looked sharply at Adam.

“He spoke in his dreams last night,” Adam explained. “I gather you knew?”

“Yes,” Ben said, heavily. “We talked. Ellen had had a bad experience at the hands of a man back east, and Joe was frightened to rush her, in case he scared her away. But he was crazy about her, and wanted to ask her to marry him. I don’t know if he did or not. So it’ll be doubly hard on Joe, knowing that he couldn’t save her, when he loved her so much.”

With a harsh movement that spoke of suppressed violence and swearing, Adam thrust himself to his feet and paced across the floor. His fists were clenched. Ben watched him impassively, knowing how he felt, but powerless to offer him any comfort. Adam wouldn’t accept what he termed ‘coddling’ in front of Paul. “Hoss feels pretty bad, too,” Ben said, softly, and saw Adam glance at the door.

Watching the undercurrents, Paul decided to let the family be. “I’ll be back later,” he said, rising. “I’ll let myself out.”

“You need to get some rest,” Ben suggested to Adam, going to him, and putting his hand on his son’s shoulder.

“I will,” Adam responded, but his eyes were still fixed on the door. Ben nodded, and went back upstairs. After a moment, Adam went out, and across to the barn, where Hoss pottered aimlessly about, grieving for his friend, and feeling guilty that he hadn’t been able to stop Joe getting hurt. “Are you all right?” Adam asked.

“Guess so,” Hoss muttered, although his blue eyes were rimmed with red.

“Good thing you were there,” Adam went on, pretending that he didn’t see his brother’s grief. “If you hadn’t been, Joe would’ve died.”

Silence. Adam wandered over to Sport, and stroked his nose, idly. “Did you know Joe wanted to marry Ellen?” he asked.

There was a huge sniff, and a smile twitched Adam’s lips. “No,” Hoss said, sounding surprised. “Did you?” He sniffed again, and Adam turned his head to catch Hoss wiping his nose on his sleeve. The big man blushed, but Adam just smiled.

“No, but Pa did.”

“That figgers,” Hoss mused. “He always tells Pa stuff.” He met Adam’s gaze. “How is he?”

“Hurting,” Adam said, graphically. “He’s doing everything he’s told.”

Alarm widened Hoss’ eyes. “Joe? Doin’ what he’s told?” He ran his hand through his thinning hair. “Adam, this is serious!”

“I know,” Adam admitted. “I think you ought to talk to him.”

“Me?” Hoss frowned. “Why me? You’re better at this than me.”

“I didn’t see the fire,” Adam said, gently, putting his hand on Hoss’ shoulder. “You did, and you pulled Joe from it. He needs to believe that there was nothing he could’ve done.” Rubbing gently, he said, “Can you do it?”

“Yeah,” Hoss mumbled. “I c’n do it. But I gotta be ready, Adam. I’ll do it in a while.”

“Don’t leave it too long, “ Adam said, and went inside to go to bed.

*****

As night fell, Paul returned, and not a moment too soon from Joe’s point of view. The pain was worse as he tired, and because of the pain, he couldn’t get to sleep, so he got even more tired. Hoss was still lurking in the barn, unable to bring himself to talk about the fire, but unable to sleep. Ben was exhausted, after trying all day to coax Joe to eat more. Adam had wakened during the afternoon, but he left Hoss alone.

The arrival of the doc’s buggy spurred Hoss into action. He walked slowly to the house, and looked at Adam, who was sitting by the fire with a book in his hands. Adam raised his eyes, and gave Hoss a smile. He said nothing, just went back to his reading. Resolutely, Hoss walked across the room and slowly climbed the stairs.

The door to Joe’s room was ajar, and a warm glow spilled round the edge of the door. Hoss paused in the doorway, shocked at the pain etched on Joe’s face. Paul was preparing a syringe, having agreed with Ben that Joe could get morphine at night, if he could manage on ordinary painkillers through the day.

“Hoss!” Joe grated, looking round. He tried to smile, but the effort was too much. There was a brief flicker of life in his eyes, and Hoss felt another rush of guilt. It hadn’t occurred to him that Joe might be concerned about him.

“Hey, Shortshanks,” he said, blinking the tears away. He crossed the room, and gently took Joe’s uninjured hand. “Its good to see you awake at last.”

The misery in Joe’s eyes smote him to the heart. Without any prompting, he started to tell his story, and wondered why he’d thought it would be difficult. “I came up to the ridge an’ saw you ridin’ down like the devil was on your tail,” he said. “I shouted to ya, but ya didn’t hear me. I saw the fire, eatin’ along those trees that Jamie left, and I knew.” Tears pricked Hoss’ eyes, and Joe squeezed his hand. Returning the pressure, Hoss went on. “I suggested to Jamie that he leave those trees, and they were going to be the cause of his death. It tore me up inside, Joe.” Hoss swiped the tears from his face. “I knew what you was gonna do, Little Joe, an’ I knew I had to stop ya goin’ in.” He drew a deep breath. Joe’s eyes were fixed on Hoss now. Behind him, neither Ben nor Paul dared to move. “I saw ya jump from your pony, and he ran to the river. I saw the flames in the cabin, an’ I knew they was dead. I saw ya go in, and I saw ya fall. I jumped from Chubb an’ I ran to get ya.”

Tears streamed down Joe’s face. “I thought you was dead,” Hoss said, harshly, and burst into rough sobs. “I ran to the river with you in my arms, an’ your hair was on fire, an’ I thought you was dead. Then you cried out, an’ I knew you wasn’t, so I crouched in the river, and the water put the flames out, an’ I held you as the cabin collapsed.” Dragging in a deep breath, Hoss composed himself slightly. “I knew Jamie and Ellen was dead, but I had to get you to safety, Little Joe. I grieved for them folks, but you was alive, and I had to get you back here so’s the doc could look after you.”

“I loved her,” Joe croaked.

“I know that, Shortshanks,” Hoss said. “I’m right sorry she’s dead. But even though I’m sorry she’s dead, I’m glad you’re not! I’d have never forgiven myself if’n I hadn’t a’ got you outa there. It was bad enough I couldn’t get them outa there.”

Frowning, Joe said, “Hoss, there was nothing you could’ve done. The cabin was too far gone before you got to it.”

“I know,” Hoss said, heavily. “An’ there was nothin’ you coulda done, Joe. They were dead afore you got there, too.”

Joe’s mouth hung open, and there was more life in his eyes than there had been all day, as he absorbed what Hoss had just said. He had known, intellectually, that there was nothing he could have done for Ellen and Jamie, but until he gave Hoss absolution, he hadn’t realised in his heart that there was nothing he could’ve done. His body went limp, and once more tears spilled over. Ben wondered that he had any more tears to cry. Paul smoothly stepped forward, and shot the morphine into Joe’s thigh.

A few minutes passed before Joe’s eyes fluttered shut. But it was even longer before Hoss was able to extricate his hand from Joe’s grip, even after he was deeply asleep. Hoss didn’t mind. He felt more at peace than he had, and although he knew he would grieve for his friend in the days and weeks to come, he knew that he would be able to talk about it freely, which was the only way that grief could really heal.

*****

“I want to get up!” Joe declared, his eyes narrow and his mouth tight with anger. “I’ve been lying here for three weeks!”

“And you’ll lie there for three more if that’s the doctor’s decision!” Ben shouted back. “If you walk on that foot too soon, you’ll end up back in bed for even longer! Now, not another word, young man!”

Sighing petulantly, Joe settled back on his pillows. He was sick and tired of bed rest, and being fussed over and having to be fed most of his meals. He wanted to get up and go downstairs, to be with the rest of the family. More than anything, he wanted to be well again. The first week after the fire, Joe had lived on painkilling drugs. Paul had kept the morphine to the bare minimum, although Joe was often begging for it, come evening. However, Paul’s caution had paid off, for he had been able to wean Joe off the morphine without trouble. Joe still had pain, but it was no longer the deep-seated burning that had marked the early days of his illness.

Many people had been killed in the fire. Several men cutting firebreaks had been trapped when the fire had changed direction, or jumped roads, and a few farms, like the Gordon’s, had succumbed to the flames before the families could get out. Joe had been very low, but Hoss’ talk had helped him. The blackest day had been the day of the funerals, when Joe had known he was too ill to get out of bed and attend. He was having a bad day that day anyway, as he was running a slight fever again, to go with the head cold he had developed. In an ungoverned outburst, he had thrown a glass across the room, where it shattered against the wall. Ben had said nothing, because Joe had pulled all the healing skin down his burned side, and was in agony. The next day, Joe had shame-facedly apologised.

They had all taken turns at keeping him amused, but the autumn work had begun, and Joe knew that they could ill afford to be staying at home. So he urged his family to go back to the normal routine, but he suffered agonies of loneliness for the first few days.

But there was an unexpected side effect of being alone. Joe had time to think about Ellen for the first time. He shed many tears for her loss, but gradually came to realise that he was doing her, as well as himself, a disservice, in grieving too much. He wouldn’t forget Ellen, whatever happened. But in brooding over her death, he was causing his family anguish. Paul assured Joe that Jamie and Ellen wouldn’t have suffered. They would simply never have woken up. Joe took some comfort from that, and made an effort to move on. He had succeeded, Ben thought wryly. Even a week before, he wouldn’t have had the necessary energy or life to shout at his father.

“As long as you don’t walk,” Paul said, trying unsuccessfully to hide his grin at this latest battle of wills, “you may go downstairs for an hour or so each day.”

“Thank you for that,” Ben said, as Paul left.

“Its in everyone’s best interests,” Paul said. “The sooner he’s up, the better he’ll feel, and his muscles won’t have as far to go to recover.”

Returning to Joe’s room, Ben wasn’t surprised to see him sitting bolt upright, an eager grin on his face. “Where’s Hoss?” he asked. “Paul said I could go down stairs.”

Shaking his head, Ben sat down on the edge of the bed. “I’ll get him in a minute,” Ben said. “Joe, I never really had the chance to say how sorry I was about Ellen. I didn’t really know her, but I’m sure she would have made a wonderful daughter-in-law. I’m sorry you couldn’t save her, but I’m so grateful that Hoss was able to save you.” His voice broke. “I don’t know what I’d have done if you hadn’t survived.”

Reaching out, Joe wrapped his arms round Ben’s neck. “When I first heard, all I could think was that I wished I was dead too,” he admitted. “I didn’t think how it would be for any of you, until Hoss spoke to me. Grief can be a very selfish emotion. I’m sorry I was so selfish, Pa.”

“Yes,” Ben agreed, “grief can be a selfish emotion. But if you share grief, it’s easier to bear.”

“I know that now,” Joe said. After a moment, his grin reappeared. “Can I go downstairs now?”

“Scamp!” Ben said, fondly, and as he went to get Hoss, he knew that Joe would soon be well again.

*****End*****

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