Contagion (by Rona)

Summary:  Some of the citizens of Virginia City become upset when the Cartwrights let a gypsy family take temporary residence on the Ponderosa.

Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  7508


 

Backing up slowly, away from the angry mob, Ben Cartwright gasped as he bumped solidly into the wall behind him. There was nowhere else to go. Fear gripped at his heart and shortened his breath. He knew these people! He knew them well! Why did they want to hurt him?

A gun shot startled the mob for a moment and suddenly Ben’s youngest son, Joe, was standing there in front of him. Joe holstered his gun, knowing that it was useless against so many. “Hold it!” he cried.

His words were ignored as the crowd surged forward again. Joe tired valiantly to brace himself, but there was no way he could stand against so many.  Hands grabbed for Ben and he fought them off, trying to reach Joe. But he was too late. The mob surged forward again and Joe vanished beneath their feet only moments before the first hands reached for Ben. He fought furiously, but there were too many people pummeling him. The world went dark as he cried for his son. “Joe!”

*****

“I see we’ve got visitors again,” Adam commented, as he stopped his horse on top of a rise. He cast an exasperated glance at his brothers. “I wonder who they are this time.”

“Gypsies, by the looks of them,” Joe commented, as he looked down on the brightly colored wagons below. For a long time, Joe had hoped that Tirza, the gypsy girl he had hoped to marry, would one day return. Now, with the passage of a few years, he fervently hoped that she wouldn’t. With all his youthful fervor, Joe had thought he was in love with the exotic girl, but time and maturity had shown him what an idiot he had been. He just hoped that no one would think to bring up the unfortunate liaison in conversation.

“Better go down an’ say hello,” Hoss suggested. “Make sure they know where they are.”

“Come on,” Adam agreed and put his heel to his horse. He glanced back to see a look of extreme reluctance crossing Joe’s face and for a moment, he was tempted to make a teasing comment. But he restrained himself. Adam wasn’t completely unfeeling and he was aware that his younger brother was embarrassed by thoughts of Tirza. He simply gave Joe a small smile when his brother glanced at him and then rode on.

It was a huge relief to see that the gypsy band was not the same one as had been home to Tirza. Joe relaxed as he sat on Cochise, watching Adam talking to the leader. He looked around at the cooking fires, his stomach rumbling as appetizing smells drifted over to him. “Smells good, don’ it?” Hoss mumbled, grinning at Joe.

“Forget it, big brother,” Joe teased. “They ain’t gonna invite someone as big as you to eat with them! They want some supplies left for the winter.” The agile black and white pinto moved sideways at Joe’s command to avoid the mock blow Hoss threw at his brother.

Heaving a martyred sigh that he didn’t mean, Adam rolled his eyes. Neither of his younger brothers looked in the least repentant. He turned his attention to the camp and the tall, lean, dark haired man that approached them. Adam guessed that the man’s age was close to his own. “I’m Adam Cartwright,” he announced, dismounting and offering his hand. “This is the Ponderosa, my father’s ranch.”

“Greetings,” the other replied. He shook Adam’s hand with a firm grip. “I’m Peter Lovell. I’m glad to know where we are.” He gave Adam a searching look. “We are only stopping for a few days. One of our tribe is about to have a baby and we can’t travel.”

“You’re welcome to stay here as long as you need to,” Adam responded. He glanced over his shoulder to see Joe shooting his heart-stopping grin at a young woman who was smiling coyly back. “These are my brothers, Hoss and Joe.”

“And that is my sister Elena,” Peter replied. His accent suggested that he had European origins. “She spends her life breaking hearts.”

“It seems your sister and my brother have a lot in common,” Adam responded wryly. The two men exchanged a rueful glance.  “We’ll be heading home now, but if you need anything, don’t hesitate to ask,” Adam went on. “The house is about 4 miles that way.”

“Thank you,” Peter smiled. “We appreciate your hospitality and I assure you that we won’t leave a mess behind us when we leave.”

“I hope all goes well,” Adam nodded and remounted. Joe looked rather disappointed that he wasn’t going to be formally introduced to Elena, but he obediently followed Adam, casting a last, long look over his shoulder before he copied his brothers and put his heel to his horse.

*****

“I’ll let the men know that the camp is there, Pa,” Adam concluded. “Just so that there are no problems.”

“Good idea, son,” Ben approved. He looked tired and thin – the results of a recent bout of flu that had decimated the population of the Ponderosa. No one had escaped it, but there had been no deaths. Ben had succumbed last and had had a very bad dose, probably because he fought so long to deny his symptoms so that he could care for his sons. When he did go down, both Adam and Hoss were back on their feet and Joe joined them a day or so later. Hop Sing had been the least ill and somehow, they all managed to keep things running between them. However, Ben’s recovery was slow.

Glancing around, Adam allowed a grin to cross his face. “If you’d seen the look on Joe’s face,” he laughed. “He thought Tirza had come back.”

“Hoped or feared?” Ben enquired. If he never saw Tirza again, Ben would be more than happy.

“Feared, I think,” Adam replied honestly. “It was on the tip of my tongue to say something to him, Pa, but then I decided that wouldn’t be kind.”

“You’ve got that right,” Ben agreed. “I don’t think we’ll mention her name, all right, son? No point in bringing up bad memories.”

“I agree,” Adam nodded. “But you should have seen his face.”

“Adam, that’s not nice,” Ben chided, but he couldn’t hide the smile that crossed his face. He and Adam chuckled quietly together. At that inauspicious moment, Joe came round the corner of the stairs.

“What?” he demanded, as he heard the laughter. He glanced down at himself, but could see no visible cause for the laughter.

“It’s nothing to do with you, son,” Ben told him but didn’t divulge their conversation. “Adam is going to go and tell the men tomorrow about the gypsies.” Ben was pleased to see that although Joe looked tired, he still had color in his cheeks, unlike the pasty color he sported whist ill. “Tomorrow, Joe, I need you to go into town. I’m expecting a wire that needs a quick response.”

“Sure thing, Pa,” Joe agreed. None of them ever turned down a trip to town.

*****

“How’s yer pa, Little Joe?” Roy Coffee asked, as Joe stepped down from his horse in front of the telegraph office.

“He’s a lot better, thanks, Roy,” Joe replied, wrapping his reins around the hitching post. “He’s still pretty tired, but Doc Martin’s letting him ride out now and Hop Sing is stuffing him full of food.”

“Cain’t ask fer more’n that,” Roy agreed, nodding. “Tell him I was askin’ fer him, Joe, an’ I’ll see him real soon.”

“I will do, Roy,” Joe grinned. “Take it easy.” He walked across the boardwalk into the office and then had to cool his heels for over an hour before the expected wire arrived.

Before he had been taken ill, Ben had been negotiating with a company back east to buy some furniture. The order was ready at last and all that was required was for Joe to forward the final payment and the furniture would be on its way. Ben had been waiting for these bookcases for quite some time and felt that the sooner the money was wired, the sooner he would have his new belongings. His chore finally completed, Joe left the telegraph office and headed over to the store.

“Hey, Joe!”

Hearing the hail, Joe turned around and saw one of their neighbors, Jim Johnston waving at him as he crossed the street. Joe obligingly stopped and waited, although Johnston wasn’t his choice of a companion. The older man was very opinionated and out-spoken and downright rude into the bargain. But ignoring him would be a monumental mistake, as Johnston would then lecture Joe interminably about his abysmal manners, then tell everyone on the street before finally making his way out to the ranch and telling Ben that he had no idea how to raise sons that were respectful. “Jim,” he greeted the older man.

“I heard your pa is sick,” Johnston started.

“He’s much better thanks,” Joe replied and shifted his weight away from Johnston, hoping the other man would take the hint. He didn’t.

“That’s a surprise,” Johnston responded. “I’ll be surprised if your pa does pull through this illness.”

“Why is that?” Joe asked, pushing down amorphous fears that Ben was ill; that he had had more than just flu. Joe knew that this fear he had of his father dying was connected to losing his mother all those years ago, but he had never admitted it to anyone, even Ben.

Making an impatient noise, Johnston stuck his face right up to Joe’s. “Are you stupid, boy?” he bellowed and Joe winced. Somehow, his interviews with Johnston never seemed to go very well. “You’ve got those people on your land! What do you expect?”

“What people?” Joe asked, wondering who they had had on the ranch when Ben got sick.

“You mean to tell me you don’t even know what’s going on on your own ranch?” Johnston bellowed. By now, he had attracted a lot of attention, but nobody was willing to risk his ire to save Joe’s hide. “You’ve got squatters, boy! Squatters, I tell you! I saw them yesterday!”

It was as though a light had switched on in Joe’s brain. He took a tiny step backwards and sought to focus his thoughts now that he was breathing fresh air again and not Johnston’s rank breath. “The gypsies are only there for a few days,” Joe explained. “We spoke to them yesterday.”

“They’re gypsies, boy!” Johnston hollered. “They carry disease! They’ll say anything they think you want to hear! They’re planning on staying!”

Fighting back his temper at Johnston’s ignorance, Joe glanced around at the crowd and saw that the word was already being passed from person to person. Gypsies were universally hated and although people would buy pegs and the like from them, it was more in fear of having a curse laid on them if they refused. Joe wondered how on earth he could defuse this situation. It irked him that an intelligent and educated man like Johnston could still harbor such senseless prejudice.

Taking a deep breath, Joe tried his best. “Pa had the flu,” he insisted. “Ask Doc Martin if you don’t believe me. And the gypsies only stopped at the Ponderosa yesterday, because one of their women is having a baby.” Joe knew that wasn’t the kind of thing you were supposed to say aloud, but his anger was pushing him on.

“How dare you say that!” hissed Johnston, pushing Joe hard against the wall of the store. “Hasn’t your father brought you up any better? If you were my son, I’d have laid you out for that!”

Joe knew this last was true, for he had seen Johnston punching his son once. But now, Joe was too angry to care. “I do know how to behave,” he hissed back. “If you hadn’t been implying something that isn’t true, I would never have said anything!”

“You impudent pup!” Johnston couldn’t contain himself any longer and backhanded Joe across the face before turning and stomping off angrily.

Dazed, Joe simply sat where he had fallen, watching the other man leave. He still didn’t know why his meetings with Johnston went so badly wrong each and every time, but this one had the prize as the worst. It was only when he raised a hand to his throbbing face that he found his nose and mouth bleeding. Allowing some of the milling crowd to help him to his feet, Joe reluctantly made his way over to the doctor’s office where he could get cleaned up in relative peace.

*****

“You’ll be getting a visit from Johnston, if you haven’t already had one,” Joe reported sullenly as he went into the house. He stopped by the credenza and doffed his jacket, hat and gun belt, standing side on to his father, who was sitting in his red leather chair by the fire.

“What happened?” Ben asked, sounding resigned. According to Johnston, Joe should never be let out without a keeper. He gasped as Joe turned to walk over to sit on the sofa. “Joe! What happened to your face?”

Sighing, Joe slumped down on the sofa. “Johnston,” he replied. “I really riled him this time, Pa, and he let me have it.”

“What?” Ben’s ire was easily roused by one of his sons being mistreated. “Tell me the whole story.”

As honestly as he could, Joe repeated the conversation. “There were plenty of witnesses, Pa,” he concluded. “I didn’t mean to be rude and say that, but he goaded me.” Joe looked shame-faced. “I let my temper get the better of me.” He shrugged and met Ben’s gaze again. “I don’t see why we have to be so coy about it. Women have babies every day.”

“Those are the rules of polite society, Joe,” Ben chided him gently. “I don’t know why, and who knows? It may all change in the future.” He sighed and looked at his son closely again. Joe’s face was bruised, his nose slightly swollen and his lip split. “But I don’t understand why Johnston hit you.”

“Join the club,” Joe remarked, wryly. “Doc Martin cleaned me up and says my nose isn’t broken. It’s just gonna be sore for a while.”

“I’m glad you weren’t hurt any worse, son,” Ben assured Joe, patting his knee. “I wish you hadn’t got hurt at all. But this business about the gypsies worries me. I just hope he doesn’t go and do anything stupid.”

“I hope not either,” Joe agreed and they shared a worried glance.

*****

It was the following morning before Johnston appeared on Ben’s doorstep. Ben bit back a sigh with great difficulty as he beheld the man standing there, but invited him in nonetheless. “Come in, Jim,” Ben offered in the most cordial voice he could manage. “What can I do for you today?”

“Take a belt to that youngest son of yours,” Jim snarled, his temper seemingly undiminished from the previous afternoon. “I’d beat a temper and a mouth like that right out of him. And if you won’t, I will.”

“You’ll do no such thing!” Ben snapped, his good intentions of placating his neighbor abandoning him at once. “Joe is a man, not a child and even if he was, I don’t believe in beating a child like that.”

“Spoiled, the whole lot of your sons,” Johnston snorted derisively. “Do you know what he said…?”

“Yes, I do,” Ben interrupted. He had his temper under control again. “Joe is nothing if not honest. He admits that he shouldn’t have said what he did, but after all, we all know it’s the truth.”

“Those bloody gypsies!” Johnston swore. “Your boy is hanging around with them far too much, or he wouldn’t be spouting their nonsense. You’d better beware, Ben. He’s liable to run off with them!”

“It’s really none of your business who I allow to camp on my land,” Ben told the other man, his patience quickly running out. “Nor is it your place to discipline my son. I’m giving you a fair warning here, Jim; if you strike one of my sons again, I will have you charged. There were plenty of witnesses, yesterday.”

For a moment, Ben thought the other man was going to have an apoplexy, for he went scarlet in the face and seemed to swell. However, to Ben’s relief, he didn’t. “I can see where your sons get it from,” he blustered. “I’m leaving and I won’t be back.”

“The choice is always yours,” Ben informed him, showing his irate guest to the door. He watched Johnston mount and ride out of the yard before he shut the door firmly and leant on it. “But I won’t be sorry if you decide not to come back,” he mentioned to no one in particular.

*****

“Wow,” Hoss commented thoughtfully. He applied himself to his meal again, waiting to hear the next revelation, glancing up expectantly.

At the other end of the table, Adam laid down his knife and fork and frowned. “You threw him out?” he asked incredulously.

“I didn’t throw him out!” Ben retorted, exasperated. “He took offense when I told him that I’d charge him if he hit one of you again and he left.”

“I can’t imagine why he would take offence at that,” Adam commented dryly and then the smile he couldn’t hide any longer crept across his face. “I wish I’d been here to see that!”

“So do I!” Joe agreed, with some feeling. His cheek was marred with a dark bruise and the split lip still made eating uncomfortable.

“It’s just as well you weren’t here, either of you,” Ben reproved them gently. “It was bad enough that I had to fall out with Jim Johnston without you two being present.” He frowned slightly. “Still, I’d be happier if we just casually wandered down to the gypsy encampment and gave them a warning about Jim. I don’t want to frighten them off, especially with a new baby in the camp, but I don’t want anything to happen to them either.”

“I’ll take care of that tomorrow,” Joe offered.

“Thank you,” Ben replied. “That puts my mind at rest.”

With a wicked twinkle in his eye, Adam reposted, “Aren’t you afraid Joe will run off with the gypsies?”

He ducked as he was showered with napkins.

*****

Next morning, Joe arrived at the gypsy camp in time to wave goodbye to the travelers, who were pulling out, heading for their next stop – wherever that might be. Peter Lovell came out to meet Joe and his lovely sister, Elena, flashed Joe a welcoming smile.

“I just came to see how you were,” Joe explained. “One of our neighbors has been making some noises, and we wanted to warn you to keep your eyes open. We didn’t want any trouble while you were staying on the Ponderosa.”

“I appreciate your kindness,” Peter responded. “Your brother Adam sent us some food yesterday. It was very kind of him and unnecessary.” He smiled. “But very welcome.”

“You don’t have to move on if you aren’t ready,” Joe reminded Peter.

Again came the smile and Joe could see the resemblance between Peter and Elena. “You are very kind, but thank you, no. We must move on.” He gestured to the field where they had been camped. “As you can see, we have tidied up after ourselves.”

“Safe journey, then,” Joe responded. “Oh and by the way – can I ask about the new arrival?”

Once more, Peter smiled and Joe could see the pride in his stance. “My wife delivered a fine, healthy son,” he reported. As if given a cue, there was a loud wail from one of the wagons. “His lungs are very good,” Peter added, a touch wryly.

“My congratulations,” Joe told him, warmly.

“Thank you and goodbye.” Peter shook hands with Joe and then started the wagons rolling. Joe watched for a few minutes, then mounted and rode back home.

*****

For the next several days, the Cartwrights were busy around the ranch, with Ben gradually picking up the reins again as he regained his strength. They thought no more about their nomadic visitors until Joe and Ben went into town with Hop Sing to get supplies.

“It sure is quiet today, ain’t it, Pa?” Joe queried as they rode into town. On the wagon seat, Hop Sing muttered to himself in his native tongue. There was something ominous about the nearly-deserted streets.

“Yes, it is,” Ben agreed, looking around. “I wonder where everyone is.” He guided his horse over to the hitching rail by the store and dismounted. Joe copied him, still looking anxiously over his shoulder. A number of the people who were on the street were giving the Cartwrights very dark looks.

Mounting the steps, Ben was astounded to discover the store was closed. Perplexed, he rattled the door, as though that would make any difference, he reflected wryly. “I wonder what’s wrong?” Ben mused.

Frowning, Joe briskly crossed the road, noticing that a significant number of people he knew didn’t return his greetings. He wasn’t altogether surprised to find the other store closed, too, although this one had a notice on the door. Closed due to illness.

Going back across the street, Joe could see Ben frowning and looking around. “The other store is closed, too,” Joe reported. “Illness, apparently.”

“Well, there’s nothing we can do about it, I guess,” Ben sighed. “Hop Sing, I am sorry to drag you all this way into town for nothing. But until the stores are open again, we’ll just have to make do with the stores we have. Was there anything we desperately needed?”

“Flour low,” Hop Sing replied. “But we manage.” He picked up the reins. “I go home now.”

“Yes, all right,” Ben agreed. “I think I’ll stay for a while, though and try and find out what’s going on.”

“I’ll stay, too,” Joe offered. “I just don’t understand any of this. There are people on the street that we know, but they aren’t talking to us. What do you think has happened?”

“I‘m really not sure, Joe,” Ben replied slowly. “I’ll meet you in the Silver Dollar later on, all right? I’m going to talk to Roy.”

“I’ll come with you to see Roy,” Joe decided, “and then we can split up. After all,” he added, as Ben gave him a quizzical look, “Roy probably knows exactly what’s going on – then we can go and have a drink before we go home.”

Rolling his eyes, Ben agreed and together they walked towards the sheriff’s office, painfully aware of the people on their side of the street crossing to the other as they approached. There was an unease growing in both Cartwrights.

*****

The jail was deserted. This was not an unusual occurrence. Although Roy spent a good part of his time there, he did have a home to go to and he was often to be found prowling the streets, making sure that everything was in order. But somehow, Ben found he couldn’t make himself believe any of these possibilities. His unease grew.

“Joe, I think we should split up,” he suggested. “We need to look for Roy and it wouldn’t hurt to find Doc Martin, either.”

The look Joe gave Ben showed that his son’s concern was as deep as his own. “What do you think has happened, Pa?” Joe asked.

“I simply don’t know, son,” Ben replied, frustrated.

*****

The person Ben found was Doctor Paul Martin. The physician was leaving his office, looking bone weary. His normally cheerful face was careworn and there were dark circles under his eyes. “Paul!” Ben hailed and waved at his friend.

“Ben.” Paul straightened wearily and heaved a big sigh. “What are you doing in town?”

“We came for some supplies,” Ben replied. “But both the stores are shut. What’s going on?”

“There’s been an outbreak of a particularly virulent strain of influenza,” Paul answered. “I think almost everyone in town is sick. If they aren’t sick yet, they most probably will be. There have even been some deaths.”

“Oh no!” Ben gasped. “I was trying to find Roy… Is Roy…?”

“He’s all right,” Paul assured his friend. “Roy only had a mild dose – like the one you had.”

“That was mild?” Ben cried, disbelief in his tones. “You could have fooled me!”

For once, Paul’s sense of humor failed him. “It was mild,” he insisted. “After all, you’re still alive aren’t you?” He saw the shock in Ben’s dark eyes and immediately apologized. “I’m sorry, Ben – I didn’t mean that the way it sounded. I guess I’m tired.”

“Is there anything you can do for the sick people?” Ben asked.

“Nope,” Paul replied. “But that doesn’t stop them sending for me. I don’t know when I last slept.”

“Then I’d say you’d better start making sleep a priority right now!” Ben decided. “This town needs you, Paul.” He steered his friend towards his house. “Meanwhile, Joe and I will see if there’s anything we can do to help. We’ve all had the flu, as you know.”

“Thanks, Ben.” Paul staggered into his house. He couldn’t remember the last time he had eaten, but sleep was more important. His eyes were barely open as he slumped down on his sofa and curled up. He was asleep within moments.

*****

Walking briskly back up the main street, Ben was surprised and pleased to see a crowd of people heading towards him. He would have some help going around and making sure that everyone was all right. He paused to wait for them, but the smile that had been on his face began to fade away as he beheld the angry and frightened countenances that greeted him.

Spotting a familiar face in the crowd, Ben hailed Jim Johnston. “Jim!  Are you looking for another helper?”

“We don’t need your kind o’ help, Cartwright!” snarled a man whose name Ben didn’t know. “You’ve done enough ta help us already!”

“What does that mean?” Ben asked, dropping a hand warily to his gun.

“This is your fault,” Johnston told him. “All your fault! All those deaths on your conscience!” He shook his head. “I don’t know how you can sleep at night.”

By now Ben was totally confused. “Jim, what are you talking about?” He took an involuntary step forward, anxious to find out what was so upsetting his neighbor.

“The gypsies!” Jim spat. “The gypsies you invited onto your land. The gypsies that brought this disease that’s killing us all!” His voice had risen until he was shouting hysterically. Ben was appalled. He glanced at the others in the crowd and saw the same anger on their faces. He started to retreat.

Backing up slowly, away from the angry mob, Ben Cartwright gasped as he bumped solidly into the wall behind him. There was nowhere else to go. Fear gripped at his heart and shortened his breath. He knew these people! He knew them well! Why did they want to hurt him?

A gun shot startled the mob for a moment and suddenly Ben’s youngest son, Joe, was standing there in front of him. Joe holstered his gun, knowing that it was useless against so many. “Hold it!” he cried.

His words were ignored as the crowd surged forward again. Joe tired valiantly to brace himself, but there was no way he could stand against so many.  Hands grabbed for Ben and he fought them off, trying to reach Joe. But he was too late. The mob surged forward again and Joe vanished beneath their feet only moments before the first hands reached for Ben. He fought furiously, but there were too many people pummeling him. The world went dark as he cried for his son. “Joe!”

*****

On his travels through Virginia City, Joe had happened across Roy Coffee, the sheriff, who was just coming from his house. Joe had explained that Ben was going to see if he could help anyone. Roy nodded and told Joe that he would go and find Mrs. Arbuckle, who was keeping track of all the sick folks, and steer her towards Ben, if Joe would find Ben and steer him towards Mrs. Arbuckle. Chuckling, Joe agreed.

He was approaching the main street again when he heard the shouting. Not having a clue what was going on, Joe quickened his step. He saw the mob and realized that someone was in trouble. Drawing his gun, Joe raced into the middle of the street. From the corner of his eye, he saw his father pressed up against the side wall of the store. He fired his gun, but it had no discernable effect. Joe shoved the gun back into his holster and braced himself as best he could. For a few moments, he kept his feet and then he was overwhelmed. The last thing Joe remembered was the feeling of people trampling on him.

Then the world went mercifully dark.

*****

“Joe!” Ben cried despairingly, before he, too, went down under the crush of angry men. He threw up his hands in a futile attempt to defend himself. He could see no outcome of this situation except death for himself and his son and his heart grieved for Joe.

Suddenly, the deafening roar of a shotgun sounded from somewhere close by and Ben found himself on the ground, alone in a space. Slowly, he sat up, shaking uncontrollably. He realized that there was someone familiar standing beside him, but his thoughts were focused elsewhere. He scrambled unsteadily to his knees and began to crawl over to where his son lay in a crumpled heap on the dirt of the street. It didn’t occur to him to wonder where the crowd had gone.

“Joe.” Ben knelt by Joe, afraid to touch him. Joe’s face was pale and smeared with blood and dirt. He reached for Joe, but other hands got there first.

“Don’t move him, Ben,” Paul warned. The physician still looked tired, but the fierce look on his face stilled Ben’s hands. “I need to check him out first.”

As Paul bent over Joe’s ominously still form, Ben sank back onto the ground. He felt rather peculiar, and for a moment thought he might pass out. Clearly, someone else entertained the same thoughts, for a hand gently pushed his head between his knees. When Ben raised his head, he was startled to see that his helper was Hop Sing.

“How…?” Ben stuttered.

“Hop Sing wonder what wrong in town, too,” the Chinaman explained. “I ask cousin.”  He nodded vaguely and Ben saw one of Hop Sing’s innumerable cousins standing near Deputy Clem Foster. “How Lil Joe?”

“I need to get him to my surgery at once,” Paul replied. “I need something flat to carry him on – a door or the like.”

It seemed to be a matter of mere moments before a door was procured from somewhere and Joe was carefully rolled onto it. Ben was shaken by the fact his son didn’t even groan as he was moved. He moved to help carry Joe, but Paul shook his head. “No, Ben. You’ve had a shock. Just follow us.” Paul, Clem, Roy, Hop Sing and the cousin carried Joe to the doctor’s office.

Once they arrived at the doctor’s, Ben was parked in a chair and Hop Sing hovered over him for a minute. “I get sons,” he declared and scurried out of the door. Ben grunted something in acknowledgement, but he doubted if Hop Sing heard him. “How’s Joe?” he asked Paul, who was bending over the young man, listening to his chest and stomach.

“His heart beat is quite strong,” Paul replied. “He seems to have cracked or broken ribs on the left side.” Paul palpated Joe’s abdomen, relieved that, at the moment, it was soft. But that didn’t mean that Joe didn’t have some internal injuries – it just meant that they hadn’t shown up as yet. And in truth, Paul wasn’t sure what he could do if Joe was bleeding internally. Operations on the abdomen tended to be a death sentence. He continued with his examination. “There are broken bones in both hands,” he reported, seeing the concerned look on Ben’s face.

“Bad?” Ben asked. He wanted to rise, but his legs seemed to lack strength.

“Bad enough, since he won’t be able to do much for himself till they heal,” Paul replied. “He’s going to be badly bruised.” Already, there were dark discolorations on Joe’s body. Paul passed the stethoscope over Joe’s abdomen, hearing, to his great relief, the sounds he associated with a normal bowel.

Putting aside his worries about ruptured spleens, or livers or… Paul shook himself. He turned his attention to Joe’s head. He knew there was head trauma, since Joe was deeply unconscious and he wasn’t surprised to feel several lumps under Joe’s luxuriant curls.

There was so much the medical profession didn’t know about the human body, Paul reflected. But it knew least of all about the head. He couldn’t feel any obvious depressed skull fractures, but there was no way to tell for sure. If only there was a way to take a picture of the bones of the skull, he thought in frustration. He probed more deeply a bump that had been bleeding and was mightily relieved when Joe made an incoherent sound and pulled away.

“Joe? Can you hear me?” Paul beckoned to Ben to come over and Ben suddenly found his legs belonged to him again. “Speak to him, Ben. Your voice is the one he is most familiar with.”

“Joe? Can you hear me?” Ben leant over Joe, seeing the growing black eye and grazed cheek only subliminally. “Joe? It’s time to wake up.”

It took more than a few moments for Joe’s eyes to flutter open and they were the longest moments of Ben’s life. He fought to hide his fears and managed to smile as Joe’s slightly glassy green eyes focused on his face. “Pa?” he whispered.

“I’m right here, Joe and you’re safe,” Ben told him.

“What… what happened?” Joe asked and gulped. Paul, experienced doctor that he was, recognized the signs and had Joe on his side in an instant, holding a basin for Joe to puke into. By the time Joe was finished, he looked, if possible, even worse than he had before.

“Concussion,” Paul observed. “Not surprising, really.” He smiled sympathetically at Joe. “I’ll bandage your ribs, Joe. That should make them a little less sore.”

As Paul continued to treat Joe, splinting and bandaging his broken hands, binding the ribs and a nasty gash on Joe’s thigh, Ben was worried by the way his son drifted in and out of consciousness. He knew head injuries were dangerous and it frightened him to see how disoriented Joe was. He hadn’t realized how much time had gone past and therefore was startled when the door opened to admit Adam and Hoss.

“What happened?” Adam demanded. “Hop Sing said Joe got hurt…” His voice trailed off as he beheld his brother. “Joe?”

“He’ll be all right, boys,” Paul assured them. He drew back the blanket and palpated Joe’s abdomen once more, relieved that it was still soft. After this amount of time, he could stop worrying about internal bleeding. But as he started to draw the blanket back up, a hand stopped him.

“Is that really… a boot print?” Adam asked, his tone a mixture of awe and nausea. Unfortunately, there was no mistaking the shape.

“Yes, it is,” Paul replied, softly. He looked at Adam and Hoss. The big man was standing by Ben, a hand resting comfortingly on his father’s shoulder. Paul hadn’t yet had a chance to do anything for Ben, but luckily, the older man seemed to be suffering from nothing worse than cuts and bruises. “Joe got trampled.”

“Trampled?” Hoss echoed. “What happened? Hop Sing said there had been trouble…”

Speaking quietly, Ben sketched in the details. He still found it hard to believe that Johnston had led the mob – he found it hard to believe that a mob had gathered in the first place. “But the epidemic that has them so worried is the flu, isn’t it, Paul? The same flu I had before the gypsies came.”

“That’s right,” Paul agreed. He dropped into a seat by Ben and started to check out the older man. Seconds later, the front window of the office splintered as a bullet sang across the room, narrowly missing Adam before it smacked into the back wall. “Get down!” Paul yelled.

It was unnecessary advice. Both Adam and Hoss were already on the floor, Adam leaning protectively over his injured sibling. Joe was still drifting and hadn’t acknowledged his brothers at all. But he chose that moment to open his eyes. “Hi, Adam,” he murmured drowsily. He squirmed uneasily, eliciting a whimper of pain from his movement. “I hurt,” he complained.

“It’s all right, Joe,” Adam assured him, although he had no idea if it was all right or not. “Just stay still.”

They could hear angry, raised voices in the street. An argument seemed to have broken out, although they didn’t have the least idea who was arguing with whom. Adam eased himself away from Joe and drew his gun. There was another shot outside and Adam almost returned fire until he realized that the shot was not aimed at them. “Who is out there?” he wondered.

“I don’t know,” Ben replied, as another shot sounded. The noise of the crowd died away as the people moved off, seemingly cowed. “But I intend to shake his hand when I do find out.”

“Pa,” Joe cried and his voice seemed somehow strangled.

“Uh-oh,” Paul commented and grabbed for the basin with one hand while he tried to turn Joe onto his side with the other. Luckily, Hoss quickly got the message, and between the two of them, they got Joe turned before he could vomit in earnest.

Gazing at Joe in revolted fascination, Adam almost missed the surgery door opening. He whirled, his gun raising and realized that the person entering was a friend, not a foe. “Roy! What was going on?!”

“The mob thought it would be safe to try an’ get you in here,” the sheriff replied. “Clem an’ me thought they might try somethin’ an’ we was ready an’ waitin’ fer them. I don’ think they’ll try again, but we’ll hang around an’ make sure.” He glanced around. “Everyone all right?”

“Fine, thanks to you,” Adam replied. “I’ll come out and help you.”

“I ain’t deputized ya,” Roy protested, but Adam simply held up his hand and waited. The few necessary words were spoken and Adam was duly made a deputy. He smiled down at Joe before going outside to help protect his family.

*****

It was a long night. The mob – growing fewer and fewer in number – made a few attempts to reach Joe and Ben, but was driven off each time. By dawn, the mob was gone, the killing madness driven away by tiredness and the re-emergence of common sense. The people who had been a part of the mob would regret it for ever more. Some of them would go to prison for a time, for the sheriff, his deputy and temporary deputy recognized almost everyone and by nightfall, the jail was filled to overflowing.

In the surgery, Joe’s level of consciousness continued to improve and he was more and more oriented when he was wakened each time. When the vomiting was finally over, Paul gave Joe something for the pain from his hands and ribs and Joe slept soundly for several hours, barely noticing when he was roused to make sure he hadn’t fallen into a coma. It was only when he wakened naturally that his situation finally struck home. Simply sitting up unassisted was beyond him.

“I need…” Joe started and couldn’t continue, his breath panting away from him as he tried to control the pain in his ribs and head. For a moment, the room wavered, but Hoss’ strong arm supported Joe until the dizzy spell wore off.

“Here,” Paul offered and put down a chamber pot as discreetly as he could. However, Joe’s embarrassment was not over yet. “Don’t worry if there’s some blood in your urine,” he warned Joe.

His face flaming, Joe accepted the necessary help and sighed with relief as he was gently helped to lie back down. Every movement was agony and he couldn’t remember ever having a headache as bad as this one. He groaned unintentionally when Paul pulled back the blanket to check his abdomen once more. It was only then that Joe realized he didn’t have on any clothes and this time, he could feel the blush mounting from his bare toes…

“The good news is that we can now discount the possibility of internal bleeding,” Paul announced. There were sighs of relief all round.

“What’s the bad news?” Joe murmured. His eyes were closing again.

“The bad news is that you’re going to be very sore for quite some time and I’m afraid that this experience will only be the first of many until your hands have healed up some.” Paul manfully bit back a chuckle at the expression that crossed Joe’s face. He patted his patient’s shoulder gently. “Never mind, Joe. You should be able to go home in a few days.”

“A few days?” Joe cried, his drowsiness receding for the moment. “But I want to go home now.”

“Not until I’m sure you’re ready,” Paul declared. He counted it a good sign that Joe was arguing with him. However, he wasn’t giving way on this one, regardless of any ‘puppy dog eyes’ looks Joe might send his way. It was less effective with the black eye anyway. “And there’s no point in wheedling, Joe.”

No wheedling was forthcoming, but the pout on Joe’s face sent the others into hysterics. Ben was forcibly reminded of how a much younger Joe had looked when his wishes were thwarted. “It’s only for a couple of days,” he soothed.

“I know,” Joe sighed. “It’s just…” He didn’t elaborate. Instead, he allowed his eyes to drift closed, his fit of pique already over. His healing body demanded the rest it needed and Joe was powerless to resist that siren call.

*****

“I don’t understand why they were angry,” Joe commented. He was finally home and in his own bed. He was still very sore, his abused body every color under the rainbow. Joe was adapting to the lack of hands and finding his way around needing help for certain matters. It was simply a matter of perseverance, Joe had told Ben and Ben privately thought it was simply a matter of being stubborn. Joe was nothing if not stubborn at times.

“Johnston caught the people in town at a vulnerable moment,” Adam explained. He had helped Roy Coffee for a couple of days. “The flu had started sweeping through the town and it was a particularly nasty flu, Paul says. And Johnston believed that the gypsies had stopped because there was illness amongst them, not for the birth of a baby. And we all know how people feel about gypsies – remember the reaction Paul had when he met Tirza?”

Ben winced. He wished Adam hadn’t brought Tirza’s name up. He glanced at Joe.

“He wasn’t wrong there though, was he?” Joe commented, before anyone else could. “But I still don’t see why that crowd was so angry with Pa.”

Smiling, Ben set his son straight. He knew that Joe was still suffering from headaches, courtesy of his concussion and consequently, his thinking was not as clear as usual. “They thought it was my fault for allowing the gypsies to stay here. Fear is contagious. And when all those frightened people got together, it proved to be as much a contagion as the flu and overtook them, causing them to act in a way they wouldn’t have done alone.”

“So what’s going to happen to them?” Joe asked.

“Well, that’s up to the circuit judge,” Adam replied. “But I imagine some of them will go to prison. Johnston almost certainly will. Roy said the charge against him would be rioting with intent and grievous bodily harm.” He shrugged. “If you break the law, you have to accept the consequences.”

Sighing carefully, Joe tried to find a comfortable position. It was an impossibility, but that didn’t stop him trying. He knew he would never forget seeing the mob charging towards his father – he had seen it in his dreams more than once.

Then Ben’s big, warm hand closed gently on his arm and Joe met his father’s eyes. “The only thing that matters is you’re safe,” Ben told him.

Smiling back, Joe corrected him. “The only thing that matters is we’re all safe.”

***End***

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