Summary: Disaster lies ahead when the hunters become the hunted
Word Count: 9954
With a savage growl, the big cat launched itself through the air at the unsuspecting man below. Hearing the growl, the man whirled, seeing only a tawny blur heading towards him. He had no time to think or act, only react. Instinctively, he brought up the gun he was carrying and used it as a club.
The blow connected, but not with the force the man had hoped. The cat missed its initial grasp, but was not deterred. Still snarling, it turned sinuously and clawed at the man. He dodged back, but not in time. The man felt the claws curl into his leg. He screamed.
Had he been alone, the man quite likely would have died at the hands of the enraged predator. But he wasn’t alone; his brother appeared from the trees and stepped in, kicking the cat hard in the ribs. The cat lost its grip and, thwarted, turned on this new intruder.
The brother’s gun spoke, but it made no discernable impression, just as the first bullet hadn’t. The big cat kept on coming and the brother went down under its weight, feeling the claws tearing into his back and the jaws fastening around the arm he flung up to protect his face and neck.
Suddenly, he realized that the teeth chewing on his arm were weakening and abruptly, the cat collapsed, its weight, all 180lbs of it, pressing the brother to the ground, pinning him there. The cat had breathed its last, the bullets finally working together to rob it of its life.
Bleeding and badly shaken, on the verge of going into shock, the brother knew he didn’t have the strength to get the cat off himself, yet if he didn’t do it now, he would never manage. He pushed futilely against the warm, soft fur, groaning with the effort, but not making much impression.
Then, the cat moved and for a moment, the brother thought that it had not died. But no, as the body of the cat was dragged off him, he saw his brother standing there. Blood ran down one thigh and he was as white as a ghost, but he was alive. That was all that mattered at that moment.
“I wish Hoss was home to go with you,” Ben fretted. “But he’s not due back till tomorrow at the earliest and we can’t afford to lose any more calves to that cat.” Big cats were rare in Nevada, but one had been decimating his new calves and Ben couldn’t afford for the situation to go on any longer.
“We’ll be careful, Pa,” Adam promised.
“Yeah, very careful,” Joe agreed. Hunting cats was tricky. There was always the chance that they could turn on you and you never saw or heard them until they were on top of you. The more men there were around, the better. But with Hoss away, only Joe and Adam were free.
“Well.” Ben couldn’t actually think of anything else to say that wouldn’t mean repeating himself, so he contented himself with just giving his sons a smile. “See you soon, I hope.”
“Bye, Pa.” Both boys touched their heels to their horses and the animals obediently moved out, Joe leading the pack horse on the end of a long lead.
Watching them go, Ben hoped that his discomfort about this trip was only parental paranoia working overtime. Adam and Joe were both more than capable of doing the job required. He shook the melancholy thoughts from his head and went back into the house.
Starting from the last known location of the cat, Joe and Adam followed the tracks it had left, up into the high country. Neither of them was surprised at this; cats liked their solitude and the high, rocky country would provide it with more than adequate cover.
They tracked for several hours before they lost the trail, at which point Joe voted that they stop for lunch. They ate the sandwiches that Hop Sing had made for them before they left the house and drank only water, to save time making a fire. Then, Adam went to replenish the canteens and water the horses and Joe scouted around to see if he could find the trail again. When they met back by the horses, both missions had been accomplished.
“Over that way,” Joe told Adam, pointing. “Looks like he’s going higher up Wild Horse Ridge.” He made a face.
Understanding the reason for the face – Joe didn’t like heights – Adam didn’t comment on it. Nor did he offer to go on alone. That would have been insulting to Joe, never mind foolish. “Let’s go then,” he suggested and mounted Sport.
All the time that they rode, the brothers kept an eye on their horses’ behavior. The animals would know sooner than they if the cat was around. But the three equines showed no undue alarm and after another few hours, they began to wonder if they were following a dead trail.
“We’d better stop and make camp,” Adam declared at last. The daylight was waning. “It’ll be dark by the time we’re settled.”
“I hadn’t noticed how late it was getting,” Joe admitted, glancing up at the cloudless blue sky above him. There was a tell-tale hint of pink along the edges of the mountains. “You’re right. And I’m hungry.” He grinned at Adam.
“Don’t tell me you’re going to eat like Hoss again tonight?” Adam teased. “You ate enough for two at lunch.”
“It’s the fresh air,” Joe responded blandly. “It gives me an appetite.”
“And what’s your excuse the rest of the time?” Adam retorted, grinning, for Joe’s appetite was big enough to rival Hoss’ – unless he was upset, when he picked at his food and the flesh melted from his slender frame.
“It’s not my fault you get fat just looking at food, big brother,” Joe sparked back, patting Adam’s stomach before he made a strategic – and hasty! – retreat.
“Just wait!” Adam threatened. He never made explicit threats, preferring to let Joe’s imagination do the work for him.
They were soon settled for the night, with a comparatively big fire and the horses tethered close by. There was no point in offering the horses as a meal to the lion if they could avoid it. As usual, they had split the camp chores between them and having eaten, were now relaxing.
“You get to do the dishes,” Adam reminded Joe. He sounded sleepy.
“They can wait till morning,” Joe muttered. He was replete and reluctant to move from the warmth of the fire.
“No they can’t,” Adam replied. He sounded slightly more awake and ever so slightly annoyed. “We’ll need them again come morning. Go and do them now.”
Heaving a sigh, Joe got to his feet and collected the dishes, muttering under his breath. It annoyed him that Adam still sometimes talked to him like he was still a little boy needing to be told what to do and it annoyed him even more that he still responded to that tone of voice as though he was a little boy. As he walked down to the creek in the soft darkness, Joe suddenly grinned to himself as his mood shifted. Compared to the other Cartwrights, he was still ‘little’, even if he wasn’t a boy any more.
The water in the creek was cold and Joe shivered as he plunged his hands in. He consoled himself that it would be Adam’s turn to do this the following morning and his thoughts turned inexorably towards bed as he mechanically performed his chore.
It was only as he rose to go back up to camp that some sixth sense alerted Joe to the fact that he wasn’t alone. The hair on the back of his neck suddenly stood up and he paused uncertainly, peering around in the darkness, trying to see what was there. His skin was covered in goose bumps, his breath shortening in response to his anxiety. He fought the urge to say ‘”Hello?”
Everything was still. The breeze rustled in the trees, but apart from that, there was no noise. Joe swallowed dryly. No noise. He knew that wasn’t a good sign. He glanced around once more, but nothing was visible in the deepening shadows.
He didn’t have his gun with him. It was back in camp. What was it they had said? Oh yes, we’ll be careful, Pa. He hadn’t been careful – not at all. Joe clutched the dishes in his arms more tightly and lifted his chin. He couldn’t stand there all night. Resolutely, Joe took a step forward.
A shadow launched itself at him and Joe turned to greet it, dropping the tin plates and frying pan with a resounding crash. Seconds later, he was knocked off his feet and the cat cannoned off him, scared away by the sudden, unexpected noise. Joe landed with a splash in the river.
As he sat up, shaken by his close encounter, Joe heard Adam calling his name. Moments later, his older brother came barreling into sight, carrying a burning torch from the fire, his gun in his other hand. He skidded to a halt and looked all around. “Joe? Are you all right?” he panted.
“Yeah,” Joe replied, suddenly feeling his knees shaking. He pushed himself to his feet and sloshed his way to the shore, where Adam was waiting to help him out.
“What was it?” Adam asked, his gun now in his holster. “The cat?”
“The cat,” Joe agreed, nodding. He started to shiver as the wind hit his wet clothes.
Assessing Joe’s condition quickly, Adam noted that there was no sign of any blood. “Let’s go back to camp and you can get out of those wet clothes,” he suggested.
“G-good thinking,” Joe chattered. He bent over and retrieved the plates, hurrying after Adam. They were both keen to get back to the relative safety of the fire.
The camp was undisturbed, which was a relief to them both. Neither of them had been able to voice their fear that the cat would beat them back there and make a meal of the horses. But the fire, and the proximity of the horses to it, seemed to have kept the cat away.
While Adam threw more wood on the fire, Joe stripped off his wet clothes and wrapped himself in his bedroll. He spread the wet things out to dry by the fire and hunkered down close to it, still shivering. After a moment, Adam’s bedroll dropped over his shoulders. Joe glanced up and smiled at his brother. “Thanks.” He gestured to the coffee pot. “Any more in there?”
“Sure,” Adam responded and poured Joe a cup. They both knew it would be comparatively cool, but Joe needed something warm inside him. He clasped his icy hands around the cup and relished the warmth that seemed to seep into his bones as he sipped.
Seeing the color return to Joe’s face, Adam relaxed. “Feeling better?” he asked.
“Yeah,” Joe replied. “I’m just tired now.”
“Then get some sleep,” Adam suggested. “I’ll stay awake for a bit, but with a fire this size, I don’t think we need to worry about an unexpected visitor.”
“All right.” Joe lay down, snuggling himself deeper into his bedroll. Adam took his own one back, knowing that if he didn’t do it then, he was liable to spend the night without it.
Warm again and feeling safe, Joe slid into sleep.
“I don’t think we should spend another night out in the open,” Adam remarked over breakfast. “We saw what happened last night and we don’t want a repeat performance.”
“What’ve you got in mind?” Joe asked.
“There’s a line shack a couple of miles from here,” Adam reminded him. “It’s got a proper stable, not just a lean-to. The horses would be safe there and we could track on foot. Then, we can get back there again for tonight. That way, we’ll all sleep soundly.”
Joe could think of a few reasons against using the shack as a base, the main one being that there was no guarantee that the big cat would stay in the immediate area. However, after the fright he had had the previous evening, he wasn’t in the mood to quibble. “All right,” he agreed.
Relieved that Joe wasn’t going to argue with him, Adam started clearing away the remains of the meal. Joe went to saddle the horses and after the fire was extinguished, they went together to the creek, taking the horses, and dealt with the dishes. Then they mounted up and headed to the line shack.
It didn’t take long to get the horses settled into the stable and they dumped their saddles in the shack before taking the supplies they would need for the day’s hunt – food, water, rifles and ammunition. For an instant, the brothers hesitated, looking at one another, silently reassuring themselves that they had everything they needed.
They stepped out into the sunshine. The morning was barely half over. They had the whole day in front of them. They would get the cat before the day was out.
The tracks were easy to find, Joe thought, as they resumed their search. He frowned, wondering if they were too easy to find. It was almost as though the lion was taunting them. Joe shook his head. This was a cat, for crying out loud! Why was he imbuing it with human attributes? Joe knew better than that.
“What?” Adam asked, having watched the play of thoughts across his brother’s face.
“Nothing,” Joe replied, but the unease was still there and he decided to voice his thoughts. “Well, I don’t know.” He looked down at the tracks again. “These tracks are fresh, Adam. It’s almost as though the cat wants to be found.”
“Joe, it’s a cat,” Adam responded. “You make it sound like a person.”
“I know,” Joe sighed. “And I know its not. But think about this, big brother. These tracks are on top of the tracks we left getting to the line shack.” He looked up and their gazes locked. Joe didn’t need to say it, but he did anyway.
“It’s been following us.”
They went into cautious mode at once. The tracks petered out again on rocky ground a little further on and the brothers exchanged a glance before they continued on into the wooded area. Both knew that the cat was now in its element, but since it had been tracking them, they couldn’t afford to waste any more time. They had to get that cat!
By unspoken agreement, they didn’t stray from each other’s sight initially. As the trees became denser, occasionally, one or other would lose sight of his brother and hurry through the obstruction until they were once more in sight.
“Look!” The word was barely more than a breath against Joe’s ear. He froze, following Adam’s gaze as his brother raised his rifle. The cat was sitting sunning itself on a rock. Moving slowly, Adam drew a bead on the animal. Just as he pulled the trigger, the breeze shifted and took their scent to the cat. It moved as Adam fired.
The bullet hit, they were pretty sure of that, but it didn’t bring the cat down.
The day grew oppressively warm and still. At noon, the brothers broke for a quick meal, which was consumed in silence. “Let’s go,” Adam suggested, curtly. The tension in the air could have been cut with a knife.
A shiver crept down Joe’s backbone, despite the heat. “All right,” he agreed. “I’ll just get some more water.” His canteen was almost empty and he was sure that Adam’s was the same. All the way through lunch, they had been able to hear a stream nearby.
“Be careful,” Adam advised, tossing Joe his canteen.
“You too,” Joe replied and hurried down the slope. Adam rose to his feet to watch Joe’s departure.
The stream was visible through the trees depending on where you stood and Adam moved slightly when Joe vanished from his sight. For an instant, fear clenched his guy, but then Joe reappeared and Adam watched him fill the canteens. Satisfied that all was well, Adam stepped back as Joe began the return journey.
With a savage growl, the big cat launched itself through the air at the unsuspecting man below. Hearing the growl, Adam whirled, seeing only a tawny blur heading towards him. He had no time to think or act, only react. Instinctively, he brought up the gun he was carrying and used it as a club.
The blow connected, but not with the force he had hoped. The cat missed its initial grasp, but was not deterred. Still snarling, it turned sinuously and clawed at the man. He dodged back, but not in time. Adam felt the claws curl into his leg. He screamed.
Had he been alone, Adam quite likely would have died at the hands of the enraged predator. But he wasn’t alone; Joe appeared from the trees and stepped in, kicking the cat hard in the ribs. The cat lost its grip and, thwarted, turned on this new intruder.
Then Joe’s gun spoke, but it made no discernable impression, just as the first bullet hadn’t. The big cat kept on coming and he went down under its weight, feeling the claws tearing into his back and the jaws fastening around the arm he flung up to protect his face and neck.
Suddenly, he realized that the teeth chewing on his arm were weakening and abruptly, the cat collapsed, its weight, all 180lbs of it, pressing Joe to the ground, pinning him there. The cat had breathed its last, the bullets finally working together to rob it of its life.
Bleeding and badly shaken, on the verge of going into shock, Joe knew he didn’t have the strength to get the cat off himself, yet if he didn’t do it now, he would never manage. He pushed futilely against the warm, soft fur, groaning with the effort, but not making much impression.
Then, the cat moved and for a moment, Joe thought that it had not died. But no, as the body of the cat was dragged off him, he saw his brother standing there. Blood ran down one thigh and he was as white as a ghost, but Adam was alive. That was all that mattered at that moment.
As Joe had scrambled up the slope, he heard the unmistakable growl of a cat followed by the most terrifying sound in the world – his brother’s scream of pain. Joe drew his hand gun, even knowing that it probably wasn’t big enough to kill the cat.
Cresting the slope, he saw the cat on top of Adam and he reacted instantly in the only way he could – he kicked the creature in the ribs. He dropped the canteens as the cat turned on him and he fired at point blank range, seeing the blood spurting, but it made no impression. The cat was on him in a heartbeat.
Joe went down, throwing up his arm to protect his face, feeling the lion chewing on him and he cried out in pain. Claws bit into him, and Joe knew he was doomed. And then the cat’s struggles weakened as its life ebbed away and it suddenly collapsed on top of Joe, dead.
Shaken, injured, Joe pushed futilely at the corpse, knowing that he had to get to Adam, to see how badly injured his brother was. But the body of the cat was too heavy to allow him the necessary leverage to push it off him. Yet Joe knew that if he didn’t manage, he would never get the cat off him. He groaned with the effort.
When the cat moved, Joe thought for one horrible instant that it hadn’t died after all and that his torture wasn’t over. And then the cat was gone and Joe beheld his brother standing there.
He didn’t think he had ever seen a nicer sight.
As the initial euphoria wore off, shock set in. Adam was bleeding profusely from his thigh, but had concluded that his femoral artery was intact, simply from the fact he was still alive. He slumped to the ground next to Joe and looked at his younger brother worriedly.
Joe was covered in blood. It was everywhere – on his face, on his arms, his legs, his back. His clothes were soaked in it and it was difficult to tell where it was coming from. The younger man was visibly trembling and even as Adam helped Joe sit up, the shock and blood loss became too much and he slumped down to the ground, unconscious.
“Joe!” Adam leant over Joe, relieved to see his brother was still breathing. He was alarmed when his own head swam dizzily at the movement. He knew he had to do something, but his thinking was fuzzy and it took him several long moments to realize that he had to stem the bleeding, both his and Joe’s.
Stripping off his shirt, Adam ripped the sleeves out and then bound them, one at a time, over the wound in his thigh. His pants leg was in ribbons and he could see the injury quite clearly. It was deep and long and it burned. He tied the rest of his shirt over the top, hoping the pressure would stop the bleeding.
Satisfied that he had done what he could for himself, Adam grabbed one of the canteens and turned his attention to Joe. Using the bandanna from his pocket, he cleaned the blood from Joe’s face and was highly relieved to discover that it didn’t come from Joe. It must have come from the cat. For a few seconds, Adam allowed himself the notion that all the blood on Joe belonged to the cat, but as he proceeded, he quickly learned that it didn’t. Joe was bleeding from half a dozen bites on his right arm and his back had parallel claw marks just below each shoulder, where the cat had clung to its victim.
All Adam could do was pour water on each wound and then bind it up as best he could, using the bloody remains of Joe’s torn shirt. As he worked, Joe mumbled several times, wincing, reassuring Adam that he was coming out of his faint. But that was the only reassuring sign. The wounds were all starting to swell and Adam didn’t know if this was a natural reaction to the abuse Joe’s body had taken, or if it was a sign of infection.
Infection… the word suddenly hammered in Adam’s brain and he glanced around at the dead cat. What if it had rabies? Fear shortened Adam’s breath, for he knew that rabies was a killer. But the animal appeared to be all right and for a moment, Adam breathed easier. This was all so reminiscent of the time he had accidentally shot Joe while out hunting for a wolf – except this time, Adam was injured too. For a moment, he allowed his despair to over take him. How would they ever get home?
He forced himself to his feet and instantly a blaze of white hot pain shot through his leg. Adam felt dizzy and was no longer aware as he plummeted to the ground to lie beside his brother.
Groaning, Joe came back to consciousness. He felt utterly wretched, with pain radiating throughout his body; a burning pain that seemed to reach deep into his soul. He moaned again and forced his eyes open, slightly surprised to see that he was outside.
But as he turned his head, Joe saw Adam and the cat and memory came back with a rush. He remembered the cat jumping him and knew then what had caused the pain. However, his chief concern was his unconscious brother. Joe rolled over, gritting his teeth against the pain the movement caused him and ignoring the warm trickle that started to ooze down his arms and back. He knew it was blood.
“Adam?” Joe shook his brother, but the only response was a groan. Spying the canteen, Joe reached for it, crying aloud as the movement hurt him.
Panting, Joe maneuvered himself so that he was kneeling and tilted Adam’s head so he could trickle some water into his brother’s mouth. Adam swallowed convulsively and a moment or two later, his eyes flickered open. “Joe?” Adam looked confused, but only for a moment. “What…?”
“We’ve got to… get back… to the… shack,” Joe panted. “We can’t… stay here.”
“You’ve lost too much blood,” Adam mumbled.
“So have… you,” Joe replied. He didn’t want Adam to argue with him about this. Joe knew his thinking was fuzzy but he knew that they couldn’t spend the night outside, not in the condition they were in. The exposure would most likely kill them and the smell of the blood would attract predators. No, there was no way they could stay where they were. “We’ll help… each other.”
“Joe…” Adam tried to protest, but Joe over rode him.
“It’s too dangerous to stay here!” he whispered fiercely. “Come on, Adam, we can do this.”
“All right.” As Adam’s head cleared, he realized that Joe was right. But it was going to be tough – probably the toughest thing they had ever had to do. “Let’s go.”
Stopping and starting, leaning heavily on Joe and his rifle, Adam hopped clumsily through the trees towards the shack. Within a few steps, both brothers were breathing hard and they had to stop to rest more often than either of them cared to admit. If Adam had had enough breath, he would have told Joe they were being foolish. Neither of them had the energy to spare for that kind of exertion and he knew that they were both losing blood. Yet they had no choice. Help wouldn’t come in time for them, if at all. Ben did not know exactly where they were and by the time they were found, they would most likely be only half-eaten corpses. It was not a cheery thought.
Having Adam’s arm around his slender shoulders was not comfortable for Joe, but he didn’t say a word. They had to get back to the shack. It was the only thought Joe would allow himself; his brother’s survival rested on his shoulders, literally, and it was a responsibility that Joe took seriously. Adam was injured and Joe had to take care of him. Yet, for all that he ‘allowed’ himself only one thought, Joe was aware of the fact that his back bled intermittently and the pain was constant.
Neither of them had any way to gauge how long it took them to reach the shack. Time was irrelevant. All that mattered was the next step, the next breath, the knowledge that his brother was relying on him. Each man kept going solely for the other. When they reached the shack, they were beyond exhausted.
Opening the door, Joe helped Adam in and then eased him down onto the bunk. Adam’s eyes were closed, his mouth open and his breath came in tortured gasps. His face was chalk white. Joe slumped to the floor, too tired to make the final effort to take the two steps that separated him from the other bunk. It took no more than seconds for the brothers to fall asleep.
“I reckon I can find ‘em tomorra, Pa,” Hoss replied. He sounded supremely confident and Ben had no reason to doubt him.
“If you’re that sure, I might just come with you,” he smiled. “We’re all finished around here for now and I haven’t been hunting for ages.”
“All right, we’ll set off in the mornin’,” Hoss agreed. He eyed Ben keenly for a moment. “Pa, is there somethin’ botherin’ ya?”
“Bothering me? What do you mean?” Ben asked.
“I dunno,” Hoss admitted. “Ya jist seem…” Hoss paused and tried to find a word for the air that surrounded his father. “Worried,” he concluded.
“I’m not worried!” Ben scoffed, but the very vehemence of the words belied them. “Why would I be worried?”
“I dunno,” Hoss shrugged. He kept his gaze on Ben and saw the older man squirm. “But ya are, ain’t ya?”
Putting down the paper he had been going to read, Ben sighed heavily. “I suppose I am worried,” he admitted. “I don’t know why.” He looked up. “I’m sure your brothers are all right.”
“I’m sure they are,” Hoss agreed, but his words sounded hollow to them both.
Unsure what had wakened him, Joe stirred uneasily. He was uncomfortable and the bed seemed hard and cold, yet he burned with fever. It required a lot of effort to open his eyes and Joe abandoned the attempt before he had even got started and just lay there, hoping that he would fall back to sleep.
But the hardness of the bed, and a cold draught blowing against his legs wouldn’t allow him to fall asleep and so he opened his eyes. Memory came rushing back and Joe realized that he was lying on the floor in the line shack. The draught was blowing in under the ill-hung door. Dusk was falling – in fact, night had fallen and Joe could barely discern the objects inside the shack.
Immediately, his eyes sought his brother, lying on the bunk above him. Joe could see only a dark lump, but he could hear Adam’s labored breathing. It didn’t sound good, but at least Adam was alive. Joe closed his eyes again.
A shiver shook him and a river of pain ran through his back and down his left arm. It was all Joe could do not to cry aloud at the sheer agony. He lay there, almost sobbing to control the pain. But again, the cold draught caressed his aching body and Joe knew he had to get up. If he stayed on the floor, he was going to be in worse shape, come morning, than he already was. The thought of rising made him feel sick, but he concentrated on moving as slowly as he could, until he was finally on his knees, leaning against the bunk that Adam rested in.
Glancing out of the dirty window, Joe could see that the moon was rising. The night was still and clear and it was still early enough in the season for them to have frost. They didn’t have a fire. Gritting his teeth, Joe forced himself to his feet, hanging onto a chair until his spinning head settled.
Luckily for Joe, the fire was already laid in the stove and it was simply a matter of lighting it. But Joe’s hands were shaking so much that it took several attempts to light the match and even then, he feared that the kindling wouldn’t catch. However, it finally burst into a reluctant flame and then the bigger pieces caught and within a few minutes, Joe could feel the warmth in the air.
He was exhausted. Joe sat slumped bonelessly in the chair and felt his eyes start to droop close again. He shook his head to dispel the sleep. There was something he must do first – he had to check Adam.
Stumbling to his feet once more, Joe staggered across the shack to collapse on the bunk. Adam stirred and Joe put his hand on his brother’s forehead, checking for fever. It was difficult to tell if Adam was hot or not, for Joe’s hand was icy cold. Adam flinched from the touch and opened his eyes. “Joe?” he mumbled.
“Yeah.” Joe tried to smile, but couldn’t. “Want a drink?” He didn’t wait for a reply, just tried to tilt Adam’s head.
Desperately thirsty, Adam propped himself on one elbow, all but snatching the canteen from Joe. He drank and drank, and Joe couldn’t stop him, despite knowing that Adam should take it easy with the water. They only had a limited amount, and that would have to do them until someone came to their rescue. When Adam had finished, Joe took several mouthfuls himself, then put the canteen down. The brothers looked at each other.
Adam was deeply concerned for Joe, despite the fact the younger man was up and around. Joe’s face was pale and covered in a sheen of sweat. Dried blood clung to his clothing and Adam could see, through the tears in Joe’s jacket, that his arms were red and inflamed looking. Joe was shivering, too.
Joe was deeply concerned for Adam. His older brother had the whitest face Joe had ever seen on him and his mouth was pinched with pain. The makeshift bandages around his leg were stiff with dried blood and it was clear whenever Adam lifted his head that he was dizzy.
“How’d you feel?” Adam asked.
Resisting the urge to shrug, knowing that it would cause him pain, Joe made a face. He couldn’t lie and tell Adam he was ‘fine’; he was far too tired to make that effort. But nor did he feel he could tell the truth – that he felt dreadful. “I’m cold,” he admitted at last.
“What time is it?” Adam asked. The room was lit only by the faint glow coming from the open door of the stove.
“Dunno,” Joe replied. He forced himself to concentrate. “The moon’s just rising.” It was too much effort to try and find a pocket watch. He swallowed. “Gonna lie down for a spell, Adam,” he advised his brother. “I’m tired.”
“All right.” Adam’s stomach was roiling and he wondered if he was going to be sick. He knew he shouldn’t have drunk the water so fast, but he was so thirsty. “I don’t feel good,” he admitted and Joe looked alarmed.
“Are you gonna throw up?” he asked, and sounded so panicked that Adam almost laughed. Almost.
“Yeah,” he grimaced, realizing that there was no way to stop this.
Frantic, not sure he would be able to control his own stomach, Joe looked round for a suitable receptacle. The only thing he could see was the bucket for water and he reached over for it, crying aloud as the movement ripped open the barely-scabbed places on his back. He dropped the bucket just in time as Adam reached to comfort his brother and the movement caused his head to swim and his stomach to heave violently.
As Adam slumped back, exhausted, Joe forced himself to his feet once more, grabbing the bucket to empty the noisome contents outside. It was a trip that cost him immensely in energy that he didn’t have to spare. Returning inside, he placed the bucket by Adam once more.
“Joe, I’m sorry,” Adam told him. “I could’ve emptied it.”
“You shouldn’t walk on that leg,” Joe told him. “It’s all right.” He gave Adam a wan smile. “I’m gonna lie down now, Adam.”
“Yeah, you need to rest, too,” Adam replied. He watched worriedly as Joe shuffled over to the other bunk and lay down on it very carefully indeed. Adam knew they desperately needed help, but how were they going to get it? Neither of them was in any fit state to go for help.
As a profound silence fell over the small shack, broken only by the crackle of flames in the stove, Adam wracked his brains, trying to think of a way out of their predicament. When he fell asleep, he still had not thought of anything.
Ben felt an inexplicable sense of urgency as he and Hoss packed their horses. He had barely eaten more than a mouthful of breakfast and Hoss had been infected with his father’s worry and had rushed through his food and refused seconds.
They were soon on the way, Hoss taking the lead. The trail was clear to follow and Hoss began to second-guess his brothers and take short cuts. His instincts proved to be right on the ball and by noon, they had found the place Adam and Joe had camped the first night.
Stopping for a quick bite to eat, they were soon back on the trail. By now, it was obvious where they had been going and travel was much quicker. Ben felt himself start to relax. His fears surely were unfounded.
But when they emerged into the clearing where the line shack stood, they all came back with a vengeance.
Cochise was grazing in the sunlight, cropping the grass beside a still figure that Ben recognized at once as Joe. He was off his horse in a flash and kneeling by his son, his breath catching in his throat as he beheld the blood that seemed to be dried onto every part of his youngest son’s upper body. “Dear God!” he breathed.
“Adam’s in here, Pa,” Hoss reported. “He ain’t much better off ‘n Joe is.”
“Help me get Joe inside,” Ben urged and together, they carefully picked up the injured young man and carried him inside the shack. Once Joe was settled, Ben hurried over to lay a hand on Adam’s forehead. He burned with fever, as did Joe.
“I’ll make a travois,” Hoss offered grimly, but Ben put his hand out to stop him.
“There’s no time for that,” he replied. “We’d better take them double on our horses.” Ben glanced around and saw the saddles belonging to his sons’ mounts. “Saddle Cochise and Sport. We can trade off riding them.”
“Right,” Hoss agreed and hurried off to do that.
Left alone, Ben hunted around for a cloth to bathe his sons’ heads. Not finding anything, he stripped off his neckerchief and up-ended the canteen that was lying on the table. Barely a drip came out of it and Ben frowned.
“Pa?” The voice was hoarse and sounded as though it was coming from under the wheels of the death cart, but Ben was relieved to hear it.
“Adam. How do you feel?” Ben leant over him, smiling reassuringly.
“Joe…went for help,” Adam replied. “I tried to…stop him.”
“Shh, it’s all right,” Ben soothed. “Joe’s right here, son. He’s safe.”
“The cat got us,” Adam went on, relief evident in his tone.
“Don’t worry about it, son,” Ben replied. “Just rest. Hoss and I will get you home soon.”
Sighing deeply, Adam’s weary eyes closed once more. Ben sat back and glanced over at Joe. His youngest son hadn’t moved at all since they had found him. He swallowed, hoping against hope that the cat had not been rabid. He shuddered, then rose abruptly. There was no point sitting there and worrying. He could do something constructive for his sons. He went outside and retrieved his canteen from his saddle.
As he bathed Joe’s head with the cool water, Joe groaned and rolled his head around. Ben continued with his ministrations, coaxing Joe to waken in a soothing voice and after a few minutes, his perseverance paid off and Joe’s eyes opened.
“Pa?” Joe whispered, sounding confused. He blinked a few times. “Pa, Adam…”
“It’s all right, Joe,” Ben soothed. “Adam’s just fine. He’s sleeping.”
“I tried… to get help,” Joe persisted. He coughed harshly. Ben instantly offered him a sip of water from the canteen, controlling how much he took. He was alarmed all over again by the heat radiating off his son’s body. Joe looked woebegone. “I… couldn’t,” he admitted.
“It’s all right,” Ben repeated. “Hoss and I are here now and we’re going to get you both home.”
The shack door opened and Hoss stuck his head. “Ready, Pa,” he announced.
“All right, we’ll take Joe first and put him on Buck,” Ben replied. “Then I’ll help you get Adam onto Chub. We’ll need to be careful of his leg.”
It was hard to leave Joe perched on Buck when he was clearly feeling so ill, but it had to be done. He was at least conscious and would be able to stay on. Adam roused as he was carried outside, but getting him onto Chub caused him a great deal of pain and his father and brother a great deal of distress, but it was accomplished at last.
Mounting behind Joe, Ben glanced over at Hoss. “Ready?”
“As I’ll ever be,” Hoss grimaced, one arm tight around Adam’s waist.
Nodding his understanding, Ben tightened his own grip on Joe. He put his heel to his horse and they set off towards home.
It was dark when they arrived back. Twice, they had stopped to rest, giving Adam and Joe some water, urging them to eat with no success, and swapping onto Cochise and Sport. It had been slow going and caused Adam and Joe endless pain and suffering. But it had been necessary. Now they were home and Ben could summon the necessary help.
Pulling Joe gently from Buck’s back into his arms, Ben glanced over at Hoss. “I’ll take Joe inside and come back to help you with Adam,” he said. He knew how exhausted he was, and was aware that Hoss would be even more tired. Adam weighed considerably more than Joe, being taller and broader. He hurried across the yard, and was relieved when the door opened, seemingly by itself.
Of course, Hop Sing had opened it, having heard the hooves in the yard. He looked concerned. “Need doctah, Mister Ben?” he asked, knowing what the answer would be.
“Yes,” Ben panted, not stopping. “Both Adam and Joe were attacked by that cat.”
“I send Charlie,” Hop Sing declared and Ben had no doubts that the diminutive cook would do just that, rousting the foreman from his bunk and sending him speeding towards Virginia City and the doctor. Then he would be back to help wherever he could, boiling up water, providing cloths, offering Chinese remedies.
Laying Joe gently in his bed, Ben caressed his head for a moment before hurrying back outside. Joe had been drifting in and out of consciousness for the last while as the infection raged through his body. Ben was extremely worried.
Before long, both of his sons were safely in bed and he and Hoss attended to ridding them of their bloodied clothing. It was the first real look at his sons’ injuries and Ben was appalled. Adam had a long, deep gash down his thigh. It was red, inflamed and swollen and looked to Ben like it might need stitches. It was clear that Adam had lost a lot of blood from it. Ben gently covered the gash with a clean cloth and a light bandage until the doctor arrived.
Through in Joe’s room, removing his jacket and the shirt Adam had used as bandages had proved more problematical. They were stuck to his body with the blood and in the end, Hoss took scissors to the garments, cutting them off and then soaking the stuck pieces. Even so, it hurt Joe to have them removed and he came to screaming consciousness. Ben held his hand while Hoss worked, offering the only comfort he could – his presence.
As the cloth came away, it brought new bleeding with it. Ben could see the parallel claw marks down Joe’s back and the puncture wounds on his arm. All were infected. Joe’s forearm was swollen to almost twice its usual size. He and Hoss exchanged grim glances. It didn’t look good for either man.
It was questionable who was in worse shape, Paul Martin thought as he examined the Cartwrights. Joe required the most attention, so Adam was seen to first, so that he wouldn’t have to wait for a long time. That meant that Joe had to wait and he needed more attention, so the situation wasn’t ideal by any stretch of the imagination, but since Paul was only one man, there was very little he could do about it. Rolling up his sleeves, he started work.
It was a couple of hours later before he had finished. Sighing, he stood up and eased his aching back. Joe was resting peacefully, thanks to the hefty dose of morphine he had received. But Paul was concerned. Injuries caused by cats were notorious for causing infection and in both the Cartwrights’ cases, those had been compounded by blood loss.
Usually, bleeding meant that the wound was washed clean, but not this time. The cloth used as makeshift bandages had stuck to the wounds, badly in Joe’s case, and the particles in the wounds had helped cause the infection. Not that he was condemning what Adam had done to stop the bleeding, Paul thought. No, quite the opposite. If he hadn’t managed to get something on his leg, Adam would, most likely, have bled to death.
Sighing, Paul prepared himself to go down and face Ben and Hoss. He knew that what he said would not be easy for them to hear, but it would have to be said. Packing his gear into his Gladstone bag, Paul left Joe’s room, closing the door quietly behind him and walked slowly down the stairs.
“How are they?” Ben asked, jumping up from his seat by the fire.
Sitting heavily on the sofa, Paul sighed and rubbed a hand over his face. “Pretty sick,” he replied. “I’ve done everything I can for them, Ben. I’ve left quinine to help fight the fevers and I’ve given them something for the pain. I’ve cleaned the wounds out as best I can.” He met Ben’s eyes. “It’s up to them, Ben. If they can’t fight off the infections…”
The anguish in the other man’s eyes hurt Paul. He wished he had better news for his old friend, but both of them knew that cat’s claws carried all sorts of things and men often succumbed to the infections left behind. “I’m sorry,” Paul added wretchedly. “I wish I could do more.”
“You’ve done everything you can for them, Paul,” Ben replied, mastering his emotions for the moment. “No one could do more.” He made the effort to smile. “Come and have something to eat before you head back into town and you can tell me what we can do to help Joe and Adam.”
“Thank you; that would be great.” Paul followed Ben and Hoss to the table. “I won’t be long in town, Ben. I’m only going in to get some more drugs. I didn’t have much quinine in my bag and we’re going to need it. I’ll be back as soon as I can.” He saw the effect his words had on Ben and Hoss and hurried on to explain. “It’s going to be a long night, Ben and you and Hoss are exhausted. You’re going to need as much help as you can get. I’m sure Hop Sing will do sterling work, but many hands make light work, as they say.” He reached out to put a reassuring hand on Ben’s arm. “I swear, there isn’t an ulterior motive in this, Ben. I just want to help.”
“Thank you, I accept,” Ben responded. “And sorry I thought you were keeping something from me.”
“Quite understandable,” Paul smiled. He looked with delight at the meal placed before him. “Hop Sing, this looks great! My favorite.”
“Doctah always say that,” Hop Sing replied, trying not to look too pleased.
Grinning, Paul picked up his cutlery. “I have many favorite meals, my friend,” he responded. “The main kind being a meal that I get to eat hot and all the way through uninterrupted!”
It was indeed a long night. Although Ben and Hoss did agree to lie down for a while at the start of the night, by midnight, they were both up and helping Paul take care of Joe and Adam. For a time, Ben flitted between both sons, finding it immensely worrying to see Adam thrashing about in his delirium, to hear him calling for Joe.
Yet it was more worrying somehow to see Joe laying so still, his face pale, apart from two hectic patches of color that burned in his cheeks. It was as though Joe’s life was ebbing away from him and he wasn’t putting up any kind of fight. It was this thought that prompted Ben to sit with Joe.
The time was mostly spent bathing Joe’s face and body in the hopes of bringing his fever down that way. Hop Sing kept them supplied with cool well water and Paul didn’t object when he brought a noxious smelling tea up and helped Ben get Joe and Adam to drink some of it. Paul didn’t know what it was and he didn’t ask. Anything that might help tip the balance was welcome as far as he was concerned.
Around about 2 am, Adam suddenly stopped thrashing around and crying out. He became still and quiet and Hoss, panicking, called Ben and Paul through. Ben thought his heart was going to explode from his chest as he hurried to his eldest son’s bedside.
“Well?” he asked anxiously. Adam seemed to him to have no color at all in his face. His eldest son’s head lolled on the pillow, his mouth slightly open. Ben thought he looked ghastly. Surely death hadn’t come calling…
“His temperature’s gone down a whole degree,” Paul reported. He didn’t sound pleased by this, nor did he sound worried. Ben couldn’t decide how he sounded.
“What does that mean?” he asked, fear still clutching his heart.
“I’m not entirely sure right now,” Paul evaded and Ben frowned at him. However, the doctor didn’t elucidate any further and continued to listen to Adam’s heart and lungs, take his pulse and say, “Hmm.”
Later Ben could never even hazard a guess as to how long they stood there. He began to fret about Joe, left alone with only Hop Sing watching him, but he couldn’t leave until he knew about Adam. If there was any change with Joe, Hop Sing would call him. Ben continued to wring his hands and watch Adam and Paul, waiting…waiting.
“His temperature’s gone down another degree,” Paul reported after a time.
“What does that mean?” Ben demanded again.
Smiling, Paul looked up at Ben. “It means, my friend that Adam’s fever has broken. He’s sleeping now and I expect he’ll wake up sometime in the next few hours, very hungry.”
The relief was so overwhelming that Ben actually felt dizzy. “Thank you,” he whispered. “Thank you!”
“All right.” Paul stood up. He looked as though a great weight had gone from his shoulders. “Let’s see if we can’t persuade your other son to copy his oldest brother.”
“I’ll stay wi’ Adam, Pa,” Hoss offered.
“Thank you, son,” Ben replied, putting his hand on the big man’s brawny shoulder. “I know you’d like to be with Joe, too.”
“But there ain’t room fer everyone,” Hoss smiled. “An’ Adam’ll need someone here when he wakes.”
“Thank you,” Ben repeated. Hoss was always willing to sacrifice his own wants and needs for others, especially his family. He patted Hoss once more, touched Adam’s cheek briefly and then hurried back to Joe’s bedside.
However, there was to be no repeat of Adam’s quick recovery. By morning, Joe was still battling the fever. He had grown distressed at one point and his thrashings had led to him breaking open the scabs on his back. Eventually, they had had to pin Joe to the bed to keep him still and Ben had been horribly distressed by the whole proceedings. In an effort to keep Joe from doing himself any more harm, Paul had used a bandage to bind Joe’s arms to his sides to keep him relatively still.
“What do you think?” Ben asked, as he and Paul stood by the window, enjoying a brief respite.
“I honestly don’t know,” Paul replied. “But he can’t go on like this for much longer. I suspect we’re nearing a crisis and then…” He shrugged. “I don’t know what will happen.”
Turning to look at Joe, Ben thought how drawn and gaunt he looked. Joe never had flesh to spare at the best of times and the fever seemed to have picked it from his bones. He looked fragile and vulnerable laying there, his skin almost as pale as the bandages on his body. It broke Ben’s heart.
“Why don’t you get us some coffee?” Paul suggested. He was at a loss to know how to comfort Ben, but he knew his friend needed to get out of that room, even if it was just for a few minutes.
As Ben left the room, Paul went over once more to take his patient’s pulse and temperature. “Come on, Joe,” he muttered, feeling foolish. “You’ve worried your father long enough. Its time to get better now, you hear me?” he shook his head at his own fancies. If words could cure people, then surely he’d be out of a job. “Please, Joe, fight a bit harder.”
There was no response, but he hadn’t expected one. While it would have been nice if Joe had suddenly popped his eyes open and smiled, Paul had known that wasn’t going to happen. But now, with ever hour that passed, the infection spread its insidious fingers further through Joe’s body and Joe did not have the strength to fight on for much longer.
The coffee was strong and bitter, just what Paul needed to waken him up. He went through to see Adam, who was finally awake and although weak, was sitting up and eating. The gash on Adam’s leg was healing cleanly, the infection gone. There was going to be a nasty scar left behind, but that couldn’t be helped.
Leaving Adam to sleep, as Hoss was now doing, Paul wearily returned to Joe’s room. Ben, he saw, had fallen asleep, too, exhaustion catching up with him. His cup of untouched coffee was going cold on the bedside table. It was the best thing, Paul thought. He could do with a few hours rest himself. He sat down to watch Joe and fell asleep without being aware of it.
Quite what woke him, Ben wasn’t sure. He lifted a hand to rub his face and realized that he was stiff from sleeping in a chair. Groaning, he pushed on the arms to get into a more comfortable position and then opened his eyes to look at Joe.
Dull green eyes were looking back at him. For an instant, Ben was frozen in place, stunned. Then he was moving, reaching for Joe’s imprisoned hand and clutching it tightly, all the while drinking in the sight of Joe, awake and aware. “Joe! How do you feel?”
His mouth too dry to allow him to speak, Joe simply shook his head. He felt exhausted and sore, as though he had been in a fight and he was completely confused as to why his arms wouldn’t move. He had tried straining to see and had felt the pull on his sore back, but was still none the wiser.
Roused by the voices, Paul shook the sleep from his mind and smiled at Joe. “Well, nice of you to wakeup at last,” he joked. “Ben, why don’t you get Joe some water while I look at him?”
Nodding, Ben did that, while Joe watched Paul with tired eyes. The examination didn’t take long. Joe’s fever had broken. Paul smiled as he supported Joe’s head and Ben tilted the glass to his son’s mouth. Joe sipped, simply because he didn’t have the strength to gulp.
“Let’s get these bandages off then, shall we?” Paul suggested when Joe indicated he’d had enough. He reached for the scissors.
“Why … did… I… have… those… on?” Joe asked.
“What do you remember?” Ben asked and Joe scowled, for he hated when questions were answered with questions. Nevertheless, he cast his mind back and his eyes opened wide!
“The cat!” he exclaimed. “Adam! Where’s Adam?”
“He’s sleeping right now, across the hall,” Ben replied. “He’s going to be just fine, Joe.”
“The gash… on his leg… was infected,” Joe recalled, still looking worried.
“He’s on the mend,” Paul assured him. “Just like you are. And Adam wasn’t the only one with an infection, Joe. Your injuries were infected, too.”
“My back’s pretty sore,” Joe admitted. He sounded weary.
“It will be,” Paul smiled. “And that was why I had your arms strapped down. You nearly broke open your back while you were ill.” Joe’s eyes slid shut for a moment before he was able to force them open again. Paul’s smile widened. “Joe, why don’t you get some sleep and when you wake up, you can eat something.”
“Hmm, all right,” Joe agreed. He snuggled down into the pillow again. Once more his eyes dipped shut, the long sweep of his lashes caressing his cheek. Then he opened his eyes. “Pa?”
“What is it, son?” Ben asked, leaning over him and brushing the tangled curls off his forehead.
“Tell Adam I’m…” A huge yawn escaped Joe’s control. “I’m glad he’s okay.”
“I’ll tell him,” Ben replied, huskily.
Although it would be many days before Joe and Adam began to get their strength back, the desperate times were over for the Cartwrights. By the time everyone caught up on their sleep, another couple of days had passed, but Charlie had kept the ranch ticking over and Ben was soon back into the swing of things, leaving Joe and Adam in Hop Sing’s capable hands.
Initially, there had been a lingering fear in Ben’s mind that perhaps the cat had been rabid, but as the days passed and there was no sign of the dreaded rabies, he began to relax. Within a week, both Adam and Joe were up during the day, even though they spent their time quietly in front of the fire, reading, talking, playing checkers or chess, or even sleeping. They were young and soon were recovering in leaps and bounds.
Over the period of the first few days, Adam and Joe had told the story of what happened on their trip. Everyone was surprised by the cat’s persistence.
“It wasn’t starving,” Adam asserted. “It weighed enough.”
“You’re not kidding there,” Joe agreed with feeling. “You should’ve tried being underneath it!”
“I’ve heard tales of cats that stalked the hunters,” Ben admitted. “But I never believed them.” He was shaken by how close a call both his sons had had.
“I wish I’d a bin with ya,” Hoss muttered.
“I’m glad you weren’t,” Adam replied. “I wouldn’t wish it on anyone.”
“Me, either,” Joe added.
“It might have bin different if’n I were there,” Hoss objected. “It might not have turned on ya.”
“Or it might have got all three of us,” Joe responded. “Then where would we have been?” He glanced at Ben.
“I wish it hadn’t happed to any of you,” Ben commented. “But since it did, I’m glad you were around to help me, Hoss. I’d have been in really desperate straits if you hadn’t been.” He patted Hoss on the shoulder. “Thanks, son.”
“Yeah, thanks,” Joe and Adam chimed in.
Blushing, Hoss muttered something that no one caught. Ben, although still swamped with relief that Joe and Adam were going to be all right, decided that a change of subject was in order.
“You know, you two are going to be back to work just in time to supervise the branding.” He smiled brightly. “And since Hoss and I have been doing your chores, he and I are going to have a few days off.”
Hoss grinned broadly at Ben as Adam and Joe exchanged a single glance and then began to protest vociferously.